Friday, March 18, 2005

Buck Owens & Johnny Cash: Gettin' Country Widdit, Yo

Growing up in the South in a family that saw no musical color lines, I listened to a lot of different kinds of shite, among them Country & Pop turned me on to it as he listened to it on the weekends...just in case you start trippin' bear in mind: the banjo is a West African instrument introduced to the American musical lexicon by black slaves but that's another story altogether: "that's another story"...some country is cool....

As I write this I'm listening to Buck Owens' "Act Naturally" (later covered by Ringo Starr, no less) and I'm envisioning how one night, while performing at some seedy honky tonk (old school C&W bar) in the mid to late '50's, Buck took the bold step onto a tiny stage littered with Bud bottles in Tacoma, WA and plugged in a Gibson Stratocaster (or Telecaster, I forget) and this act of innovation would aid in the cutting of a stylistic swath between what would be known among the cognescenti of "traditional," acoustic string-laden country" and what's called "modern." Owens went electric years before Bob Dylan would in Newport in 1965 -- the Bard had to have some inkling of the outrage he would wrought from Patchouli-drenched purists, because in in Owens' case, erstwhile boot scootin' country traditionalists hulked-out like a bunch of British soccer hooligans when the singer began performing what would become known as "The Bakersfield Sound," as in Bakersfield, CA where Owens eventually moved and set up shop once the hits kept on coming and he had the dollars to build a studio and establish a home base -- guess the wisacres on the whisper circuit were wiggin' out for no reason because all of that "weeping and gnashing of teeth" was quickly forgotten, so we can put all of that in the rearview mirror.

Like Ray Charles (who would backtrack into C&W, himself when he left Atlantic for ABC) Owens figured out early on that it was economically disingenuous for an artist to relenquish all publishing rights of songs they'd written to their labels when signing up, so he got the zap on his head and secured the rights to his tunes early, proving that (contrary to how goofy he looked in all those pictures from the early days) he was "Nobody's Fool." Mind you, Owens wasn't the only one to step up to the proverbial plate with innovative ideas in country music but he did contribute immensely to the genre in ways that many people don't know about. The same bears true with Johnny Cash -- the Man in Black who was simultaneously doing "something different" on the other side of the country back East, in Memphis.

When Johnny Cash rose to prominence, he did so like most great talents stuck in clouds of "this-is-how-it-works miasma," he did it slowly. Cash and the Tennessee Two (Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant) went in another direction than Buck Owens did when they dropped the "four on the floor" template (bass, drum, lead guitar and singer) and stripped everything down while recording for Sam Phillips' Sun Records, to which they'd gotten signed in the mid-50s. Practically from the word go, and after getting doors slammed in his face for pitching himself as a gospel artist, Cash eschewed that corn pone 'n collards, "aw shucks ma'am" country persona in his songwriting and took the darker path that Hank Williams had strode down years before him.

One of the things that was so innovative about JC is that he was infusing the swagger of the (then) new-fangled Rock 'n Roll posture which the crew-cuts who overran the country circuit didn't cotton to in the first. You'd be hard pressed now to find a fan of the music who doesn't dig John Boy but if you look back, you'll find that the mainstream (read: white) audiences at the time thought rock was "nigger bop," to quote this horn-rimmed, dyed-in-the-wool cracker I saw on an archival newsreel back in high school -- and who's sickening display of ignorant, blue collar racism has remained lodged in my mind two decades later. Why? Because this budding "musical eugenicist" was being filmed during a '50s-era record burning (ah, the good old days) at which "the good, church going white folks" were protesting this inexplicably popular new performer who, "all the kids loved" and was getting their daughters, wives, sisters and cousins moist on the regular, his name: Elvis. That's right, yo, the Big E.

Johnny Cash's "greaser-at-the-sock-hop" baritone and F-U stance got the gas-face from the folks over at The Grand Ole Opry, in Nashville. I visited the Grand Old Opry House while cutting a record with the band I was in a few years back and it still retained that "a lot of historic shite transpired on this spot" veneer that is present in certain places all over the South like little geysers of context spewing up from the past -- The Opry was essentially the MTV/Clear Channel of its day vis-a-vis country music. Country artists from all over the place vied to get heard on "The Opry" because, ostensibly, if you got to perform a tune or two on its stage then you were made, at least for a minute. Remember, this was before there were TV's in every room of the house; radio programs were still riding tall in the saddle and an artist could make his bones or his career could be broken based on whether he was heard on a popular radio show or not (this process wasn't rendered moot until "video killed the radio star" in the '80s).As far as the taste-makers at the Opry were concerned, Cash was slotted to be in the "not heard" category -- the heroic often eat their breakfasts alone.

John got no dap at The Grand Ole Opry. Dude couldn't get arrested in Nashville initially but once he signed to Sun, the recording dollars started rolling in and his popularity expanded, the Opry Peeps had decisions to make and so, after years of player hatin' on JC they let him kick it live at "The Big Red Barn" (it's actually smaller, in reality, than it appears in pictures). Once he got onstage John did, in fact, kick both figuratively and literally.

First he tore the roof off the joint with his set and secondly by kicking out the footlights on the stage because he thought they were too bright, as press releases have stated since -- or was it a thinly veiled "Bollocks to the lot of you, here's the magic finger" act of defiance directed at the Opry-ites who had seemingly conspired to keep him off of their hallowed stage by boneheaded fiat? I tend to lean towards the latter, it's a juicer angle than a bunch of hayseed ass-clowns lacking the foresight to accept ch-ch-ch changes. In either case, it makes me shriek what BALLS, dawg!!!

The countless small innovations/ acts of rebellion made by the trailblazers of music genres that seem long gone and/or diluted by subgenres that the masses are force fed by the suits these days gets lost in the sauce -- yet another instance where country and hip hop converge in similarity...don't even get me started on Rock 'n Roll (is that Jimi Hendrix on the blower?) besides, I'm a firm believer in the biological definition of entropy* as it applies to life but I digress.

Taking a walk on the wild side is no longer a lifestyle but a flaccid career choice, where your skill set as a publicity slut trumps, experience and experimentation -- oh yeah, and the ability to actually know how to play a fuckin' instrument or carry a note -- how achey Paula Cole once sang: where the fuck have all the cowboys gone?

*Entropy: en·tro·py;Pronunciation: 'en-tr&-pE'
a: the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity
b : a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder

Yippie Kie-Yay MOFO! Needless to say I dig on Cash's tunes from periods early and late big time and although he had a couple of slips during his "I Gotta Return to My Gospel Roots episodes" all of that is forgiveable, Stiffler. What? Got something to say? Think you got the minerals to have four, count 'em, four comebacks?...Just keep "walkin' the line," son and get back to me in 50 years or so...while I wait for your, no doubt successful, reply/ recollection half a century from now, take a few pointers on how it's done and hit the JC trail...How's this for longevity, kid:


1955 >> Sam Phillips at Sun Records releases the single "Cry! Cry! Cry!" which enters at #14 on the country charts and leads to an in-house slot on the Louisiana Hayride, a popular program featuring established and budding country performers.

1956 >> Cash's follow-up recording, "Folsom Prison Blues," cracks the C&W Top 5 (#4). Later in the year, the release of "I Walk The Line" galvanizes the public's attention to the rising star. It goes to #1 C&W and crosses over onto the pop charts, peaking at #17.

1957 >> Cash and the Tennessee Two make their debut at the Grand Ole Opry. Cash also becomes the first Sun artist to record and release a long play album.

1958 >> Still rolling on the success of the previous year's album, Johnny Cash With His Hot And Blue Guitar, and the slew of hit singles it yielded, Cash wants to record a gospel album but Phillips refuses. The label head also says no to the artist's request for a raise in royalties, pushing Cash to sign with Columbia.

1963 >> The Man in Black makes a comeback after years of hard living that had eventually seeped into the creative aspects of his career. In a career slump, the release of "Ring Of Fire" (#1 C&W, #17 pop, 1963) resuscitates his troubled career.

1966 >> After Cash's wife files for divorce, in light of his addiction to the amphetamines he uses to keep up with his rigorous tour schedule and his appetite for drinking, he moves from California to Nashville.

1967 >> Johnny Cash and June Carter win the Grammy for Best Country & Western Performance, Duet Trio or Group for their work on "Jackson."

1968 >> Johnny Cash records and releases the hit album Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison, which yields the crossover single "Folsom Prison Blues" (#1 C&W, #32 pop). He goes on to win two Grammys for the album: Best Country Vocal Performance and Best Album Notes.

1969 >> The follow-up to the critically acclaimed Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison is Johnny Cash At San Quentin, which yields the single "A Boy Named Sue" ( #1 C&W, #2 Pop). Cash also aids Bob Dylan's foray into the country genre on the folk rocker's Nashville Skyline album. His live record wins a Grammy-Best Country Vocal Performance, "A Boy Named Sue"-as does his work with Dylan-Best Album Notes for the liner notes on Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline. Cash also stars in The Johnny Cash Show, which offers viewers an eclectic mixture of artists unheard of at this point in the history of televised music. It runs with much critical praise for two years.

1980 >> Cash is inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame

1982 >> Regrouping with Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, Cash records Survivors Live with old Sun alums.

1985 >> Cash plugs in with C&W vets Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson to create the side project The Highwaymen. They release a successful album, Highwayman. The title track goes to #1 C&W and "Desperados Waiting For A Train" peaks at #15 as well.

1986 >> Along with Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Sam Phillips, Rick Nelson, and Chips Moman, Cash receives a best spoken word or non-musical Grammy for Interviews From The Class Of '55 Recording Sessions. Cash then leaves Columbia for Mercury Nashville.

1990 >> The Highwaymen reunite for Highwayman 2, yielding "Silver Stallion," which peaks at #25 on the Country charts.

1993 >> After a few years of bickering with his label over artistic direction, Cash signs on with Rick Rubin and American Records. His debut, American Recordings, not only introduces him to a new audience but the bare-bones acoustic/vocal formula wins him critical accolades. He also collaborates with the Irish rock band U2 for the concept album Zooropa, adding a solo track, "The Wanderer."

1994 >> Cash wins Best Contemporary Folk Album Grammy for American Recordings.

1996 >> Cash receives the esteemed Kennedy Center Award for his contribution to American culture and releases his sophomore American release Unchained. The album is a collection of songs that his mother sang to him as a child. It features artists like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Marty Stuart.

1997 >> Cash wins the Best Country album Grammy for Unchained, which was produced by Def Jam cofounder Rick Rubin. Cash also announces that he has been diagnosed with a rare strain of Parkinson's disease.

2003 >> Four months after the death of his wife June Carter, Johnny dies of diabetic complications in Nashville, TN at the age of 71.


-After leaving the Air Force, Cash formed a country trio with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant. After playing at local radio stations, they secured an audition at Sun Records in Memphis with the label's founder, Sam Phillips.

-Cash approached Phillips as a gospel singer and was promptly turned away. He was told to come back with a "commercial-friendly" approach. Cash, Perkins, and Grant soon returned with fresher material that caught Phillips' ear, and they were signed.

-An impromptu jam session at Sun Studios in 1956 included Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, and Cash. After the subsequent recordings were made, the freestyling musicians were dubbed "the million dollar quartet." The recording was unceremoniously shelved soon after but rediscovered and released in the late '80s.

-At Cash's Opry debut, he stood out even before he went onstage. While the other artists were decked in the typical gaudy rhinestone 'n fringes style, Cash stepped into "the house that country music built" dressed in black from head to toe.

-In 1959 Cash added drummer W. S. Holland and changed his backup band's name to the Tennessee Three. His performance schedule rose to over 300 shows per year. " "Ring Of Fire" was penned by June Carter, the wife of Carl Smith (one of Cash's drinking partners). Ironically, Cash left California for Tennessee following an arrest for starting a forest fire, and the song itself implicated the direction that the singers' relationship was headed long before Carter divorced Smith. Cash and Carter would soon marry. " In 1965 the Man in Black was living up to the image projected by the protagonists of his tunes. He was arrested at the El Paso/Mexican border for trying to smuggle amphetamines inside his guitar case, and in another instance, the Grand Ole Opry would not let Cash perform because of his alleged incapacity to do so. Cash went off and started destroying light fixtures on the soundstage.

-On The Johnny Cash Show (ABC 1969-'71), Cash sought to shorten the chasm between the generations and cultures in America. He featured artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong, Merle Haggard, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, Charley Pride, and Patti Page. He also spoke out on domestic social issues like prison reform and the foreign policies of the Vietnam War that was still dragging on, all of which seemed light years ahead of the programming of those times.

-Johnny Cash has charted more hit pop singles than Billy Joel, the Supremes, Elton John, Marvin Gaye, Jerry Lee Lewis, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Kenny Rogers, and the combined total of Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon, and Simon & Garfunkel. In 1969, Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison and Johnny Cash At San Quentin outsold The Beatles.

-Cash placed at least two singles on the C&W charts for 38 years consecutively. Additionally, he has recorded over 1500 songs on roughly 500 albums. As of this writing, the only C&W performer who has more crossover hits than Johnny Cash (52) is Elvis (61).

-Carl "Blue Suede Shoes" Perkins was a member of Cash's touring band from 1965 to 1975.

-By the mid-'80s, country radio programming, in efforts to commercialize the genre, stopped airing Johnny Cash's newer releases. The Man in Black complained in an interview he'd been "purged from Nashville and replaced by 'hat' bands." Later he dryly added, "the airplay might have slowed, but the tour bus never did." When he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, he noted that the risk-takers would blaze a trail in the future of country music.

-Déjà vu over and over again: In 1996 after Johnny's daughter (country star Rosanne Cash) sang "I Walk The Line," she noted that her father played that song in nearly every mid-'50s performance.

-Johnny Cash is the only artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame at the same time.

...see you in FITTY...Laters, CeeP


Anonymous Anonymous said...

These are from the CD, Confessions of a Buckaholic:

Four Quarters Gets me 2 Buck Songs
words and music by Dr BLT (c)2007

I'll never forget:

The Last Time I Saw Buck Owens
words and music by Dr BLT (c)2007

11:14 PM, March 08, 2007  

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