Richard Currey’s Lost Highway Soundtrack
I first heard this wonderful album years ago (1973), and, to some degree, by accident. I was a fan of Russell the rocker, and when a new Russell album came along, I bought it. With the record on the turntable I found myself in the world of another Leon Russell—a bona fide country musician. Leon Russell knows country, and his vocal rasp, always filled with a rough combination of yearning and caution, was point—perfect for country music and its messages. But aside from being a great album on its own terms, Hank Wilson’s Back is a veritable museum, a tour of benchmark songs, from Bill Monroe’s trademark “Uncle Pen” to Jimmie Driftwood’s “Battle of New Orleans,” Lester Flatt’s “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” two from Hank Williams—and an achingly beautiful version of Leon Payne’s “Lost Highway.”
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s extraordinary Will The Circle Be Unbroken presaged the success (and national taste for) country and roots music by 30 years. Aside from making genuine musical history, the album was an innovation of the first degree: it was performed by a collection of musicians who were legends of rural music (including Mother Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis, Earl Scruggs, Vassar Clements, Junior Huskey, and the venerable Roy Acuff) along with the Dirt Band, at that time young California musicians more associated with folk-rock than down-home C&W. The Circlesessions were magic, the musical chemistry undeniable, and the integrity of the music was sweeping. Some of these songs (like “The End of the World” with dobro master Pete “Oswald” Kirby and Randy Scruggs’s solo guitar version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”) are so ardently beautiful you can barely breathe by the time the last notes sound. Dirt Bander Jimmy Ibbotson does one of the greatest renditions of “Lost Highway” ever recorded (and is the version that inspired my novel’s title and mood). “Soldier’s Joy,” a traditional banjo tune brilliantly interpreted here by the Dirt Band’s John McEuen along with Earl Scruggs, is an utterly inspired headlong spin played with fervor and blade-sharp picking—and it let me “hear” the dexterity of my fictional Sapper Reeves. There have since been two more installments of Circle, and, as a collected document of American music, it is a masterwork. A must-have for every believer in our original music.
A refined touchstone for country music, Gilmore’s Spinning Around the Sun is a collection of poetic anthems that celebrate all the traditional venues of country, from broken hearts and sad solitude to the wonders of love and nature—but here the listener is treated to a musicality that steps the genre forward with subtle compositions layered with often surprising harmonics and refreshingly unexpected turns in both lyric and melody. I remember clearly the first time I listened to this record, and realized that every turn of melody went somewhere unexpected: these were not same—old country tunes. Some of the songs, in fact, are authentically spiritual and spirit—lifting, even Zen—like in their messages of persistence and transcendence. “Santa Fe Thief,” “Just a Wave, Not the Water,” “Nothing of the Kind,” and “Thinking About You” are, simply put, magical works. And Jimmie Dale’s cover of Hank’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” will not only make you cry, but demonstrates what a cover is meant to do: offer a fully original take on a classic—while reminding us why it’s a classic to begin with.
This album was a musical revelation for me. I can’t recall how it made its way into our house in 1962, but there it was, an album originally released primarily to feature the theme song for the hit television show “The Beverly Hillbillies.” No doubt that cut spurred sales at the time, but it is the rest of the collection that startled me into an awareness of country music’s birthright and ancestry in folk, balladry, blues and laments, and the hard-rolling jazzed-up bluegrass form known as “breakdowns.” Packed in all around “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” are eleven other songs, two by Woody Guthrie, three by A. P. Carter, several mountain traditionals, all of them interpreted in a musical style that struck me then and now as simultaneously stark and emotionally rich, cut down to precise, essentially perfect musicianship while the lyrics are delivered with poignant Tennessee longing. The title song is a Guthrie, about homelessness, and from there we are carried through train wrecks, a drowning, sad farewells, poverty, a coal miner’s blues, and, finally, incarceration. An unreconstructed roots music classic. (This album is now available as part of a double CD that includes another later Flatt & Scruggs collection called Final Fling, with good covers of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Mel Tillis songs. For me, though, it’s the vintage pearls of Hard Travelin’ that carry the day.)
Cash the master. The plain and simple man in black with all that big sorrow in his rumbling baritone. Is that a singing voice? I remember, even as a boy, wondering if Johnny Cash was singing or talking, or chanting. Of course, it’s all of that. Doing whatever it takes to put a song across. The Cash ouvre is huge, his albums many, and a listener might choose any of the several “greatest hits” collections and not go wrong—but American Recordings slipped into play in the mid—1990s, garnered some cross-over time on alternative rock radio, and led a fresh generation (my daughter among them) to discover the lonely cool of John Cash. The songs here are really folk songs, done as such: Cash and his guitar, performing without artifice, sentimentality, or excess. And the emotion pounds through in this display of elemental artistry. When Cash covers Leonard Cohen’s classic “Bird On A Wire” the signature opening lyric seems to sum up much of Cash’s music and career, and Johnny sings it that way, a heartfelt but plainspoken declaration: “I have tried, in my way, to be free…”
dwightyoakamacoustic.net is a very fine collection that keys to musical purity and—even in the more sentimental tunes—a largely unsentimental view of life, love, and other possibilities. This is Dwight alone with guitar, doing nearly 80 minutes of direct and sharply defined complaints, confessions, country blues, vintage rockers recast as one—man dance tunes, and lovely ballads. Yoakam’s voice embodies the uneasy poetry of high lonesome, fine—tuned by a lonely desire that quivers just beneath his voice in every song he sings, no matter the subject. He sounds to me like a man about to jump—from a cliff, a roof, into or out of a love affair, off a barstool, or just down the road a piece. His tongue is sometimes in his cheek (about the heart on his sleeve), conferring a pointed intelligence about these songs that transcends “mainstream” country. (In “Things Change,” for example, it’s easy to imagine the tune done by a salsa band.) Try “It Won’t Hurt” for an updated taste of Ernest Tubb and Buck Owens; the heartful “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere” and “Lonesome Roads,” or “Little Ways” if you’d like to pick up the beat and try dancing like Dwight. And in the last song on the disc, Dwight—a capella—says that it’s “guitars, Cadillacs, and hillbilly music that keeps me hanging on.”
This was not an easy selection to include, not because I have doubts about this wonderful record, but because every Lucinda Williams album stands among my favorites. Lucinda Williams is what I think of as a roots music original—a revolutionary of the heart, a natural poet of the road, an astute observer of the many ways we succeed and fail (usually managing, of course, to do both simultaneously and landing, by a song’s end, somewhere in between), a feminist, and, in the same sweet breath, a sexy honky—tonker. In any given song you’ll swear you hear Woody Guthrie, or Kitty Wells, or Johnny Cash, or Loretta Lynn—but then Lucinda strikes out for her own personal territories, with every song giving multiple emotions room to move and speak in the same few minutes. These songs find ways to be both tough and gentle, angry and sympathetic, patient but always ready to move out at a moment’s notice. An artist for our time.
Steve Earle has always been something of a troublemaker, no less so with his politicized new recordings. Then again, country music has always been a vessel for ideas that are essentially radical. The conventional wisdom of mainstream radio country might argue differently, but the tradition stands. (Just read Nick Tosches’s fine book Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll for a fully—essayed journey through the vagaries of a musical form invented to confront death, crime, alcoholism, and all manner of loss—and, yes, also to dance to.) This album collects a lucky 13 of Steve Earle’s signature songs, all pivotal pieces of music that cast light on some of the defining issues of rural life over the last 60 years, including the unemployment-forced hillbilly migrations to the cities of the midwest, the over—the—cliff decline of small towns, and the tension between traditionally patriotic beliefs and a nation’s capacity to take more than it gives. But if that all sounds more ambitious than you think entertainment should be, not to worry: Steve Earle’s music is squarely rooted in magnetic melodies, move—your—feet—and—body drive, and soaring anthemic choruses.
I first heard The Stanley Brothers as a boy, on the radio in those days, out of little stations broadcasting in the hills, but I knew the quality and sophistication in the music the minute I heard it. High lonesome, hard country, and deep bluegrass, for sure, but the complexities in this music are, at times, Mozartian, with syncopations working a half-beat ahead of or behind the song, elaborate trills out of nowhere, and counterpoints that sound like fugues—but played briskly, with a solid dance beat. During the writing of Lost Highway I often imagined that the singing voice of the book’s struggling hero, Sapper Reeves, might sound a lot like Ralph Stanley. To some degree, as well, Ralph Stanley’s life and long, steady, resilient road to the superstardom he now enjoys formed a basis for the character of Sapper Reeves. In the years since Ralph Stanley first began performing, music journalists have overused the adjectives (for example, “seductive,” or “infectious”) that describe music like this—but the adjectives hold. There is a pure, native genius at work here. (The Ralph Stanley discography is voluminous, with many reissues, but this CD captures 10 of the finest songs in the canon, all of them recorded prior to 1960 when brother Carter was still alive.)
The newest release on this list is one that joins the group with the fully established credentials of the lonesome road. I listened to Tift Merritt the first time, fittingly, on a book tour in West Virginia. I heard the title cut on a giveaway CD that came with a music magazine, and was struck by the possibility of a classic voice and what sounded like crystalline songcraft. The complete CD does not disappoint. Driving from town to town in a rain—misted Appalachian October, I kept the CD playing inside the car, and gathered close a series of songs so heartfelt they seemed to be whispered directly into my ear. Tift Merritt is easing into that Big Country inhabited by the inestimable spirits of Kitty and Patsy and Tammy, standing next to Emmy Lou. And while it’s “new country” from time to time as some of the songs storm through electric thrills and clean rock hooks, this music is never simple, obvious, or easy. Country as it was meant to be, and going where it should be going.
Right—Bruce Springsteen is not a country artist. Well…yes and no. Echoes of a country sound can be heard in Springsteen’s music, as far back as his double—album The River with a song called “Factory” that I thought would be covered by a traditional country performer. (Maybe it has been.) Springsteen’s voice often inflects toward rural America, and his artistic concerns and recurring subjects are as “country” as one can ask for. But in The Ghost of Tom Joad, he went to a new place—the American Southwest. (Country rules there, too: in Albuquerque, where I lived for more than 20 years, the country—western bars and dancehalls overflow every weekend, reflecting and celebrating all the same problems and viewpoints of Appalachia or the deep south.) Another step down the map and we’re on The Border (capitals intended), a spiritual no—fly zone where the slavery of coal mining has been replaced by the hothouse horrors of another punishing industry: the drug trade. Bruce Springsteen looks the place, people, and problems in the eye in this American masterpiece. Twelve stunning songs about a still—overlooked region that is, of course, both country and western. Lyrical, immediate, and heart-rending, and, to my mind and ear, country music of the first order.