Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"What Will Become of the Hard Working Man?"

That question, which could also be a statement, is the title of a track from Marty Stuart's latest release, "Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions."  Recorded at RCA's famed Studio B, this album is the latest in a long line of quality, down-to-earth country music at its roots that Marty Stuart has become famous for.  I reviewed this album in a previous post, but I wanted to focus specifically on this track for today's piece.  

I was driving home after working at my day job (the one that pays the bills and helps fund this new love that I have for the Americana genre), when I popped this CD in the player and had a listen.  It's funny how you can listen to a new disc and analyze it with all its newness, yet when you hear it again after a long break, only then do you realize how profound a couple of the tracks can be.  "What Will Become of the Hard Working Man?" is such a track.

As I've mentioned before, and highlighted in the "Art of Social Relevance" piece, country music (and by extension Americana) has enjoyed a long, lengthy history of capturing the social fabric of the lower and middle classes around the world.  Certain songs become part of the social conscience, no matter how large a commercial success that particular song may be.  In this case, "What Will Become of the Hard Working Man?" will not appear on any mainstream charts, but it could appear on the Americana chart.  Wherever it may or may not end up this song, like Ronnie Dunn's "Cost of Livin'" strikes at the very core of society as it exists today.  Where Dunn's "Cost of Livin'"  shares a story of a job applicant near the end of his rope, "What Will Become of the Hard Working Man?" is a scathing indictment of the powers that be that allowed such a catastrophic recession to happen in the first place.  It's a scathing indictment of those that have and will contract jobs to other nations while watching their fellow countrymen and women starve -- all in the name of profits.  It's a scathing indictment of all the executives that begged Washington for money and once they got their bailout, made damn sure they lined their own pockets with buyouts and bonuses first before they took care of their staff ... only by then most of the money was gone.  Gone to the said buyouts and bonuses.  

Marty Stuart has a long and storied history in the music business.  I believe this particular song is his crowning achievement, far more important and far bigger than his charted commercial success.  He has successfully captured this moment in time and framed it for future generations to listen and understand how desperate the situation was and is for people and families in 2011.  It also captures one stark fact: while the song asks the point-blank question, "What Will Become of the Hard Working Man?", there are no answers forthcoming.  Which is exactly where we are today.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Tragic Legacy: Hank Williams, Sr.

For the last few weeks I've been reading Paul Hemphill's biography of Hank Williams Sr. "Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams."  Published in 2005 by Penguin Books, Hemphill takes a unique approach in his analysis of the elder Williams in that he speaks to the special bond he had with his father through his early exposure to Hank Williams Sr.  The approach makes for a very interesting read, as it's clear from the outset that Hemphill has more than just a monetary interest in the quality of this project.  This is a project from the heart, as much a tribute to his father as it is to the legacy of Hank Williams.  This is not a bad thing.

I picked up this book when I was at the local library.   The covering artwork caught my eye at first and then I realized, I had never read a book on Hank Williams, Sr.  I'm a huge fan of Hank Williams, Jr, and I like some of Hank III's stuff, but I had never seemed to take the time to read a proper biography on the first superstar in all of music.  It struck me that it was time to correct this error, and so I set out to read Hemphill's take on Hank's life.  

I do like how Hemphilll starts the book off by relating personal childhood memories of being introduced to Hank Williams, Sr.'s music from his truck-driving father in 1949.  This was long before the days of satellite radio and truck cabs with luxury sleepers in the back.  The road was long and lonesome, with all-night radio a truckers only company.  Hank Sr. sure gave them something to listen to, and Paul Hemphill and his father listened up in a hurry.  

Hemphill had a lot of valued assistance in writing his book from Hank's right-hand of the Drifting Cowboys, Don Helms, as well as Marty Stuart and a host of other Nashville historians.  This allows Hemphill to paint a vivid picture of the tragic life that was Hank William's Sr.'s existence for virtually his entire all-to-short life.   Growing up in a home with a controlling and (one could argue) unloving mother, Hank spent his whole life trying to find the love that he never really received at a young age.  Following an accident, his father had been pushed out of the picture by his mother.  Never receiving a proper education, somehow he managed to channel his creativity into singing and songwriting.  Along with this natural talent however, came an early and lifelong addiction to alcohol.  It's well known that this addiction would ultimately cost him his life in the early morning hours of New Year's Day in his Cadillac en route to Canton, Ohio.  But what is not as well known, at least to my generation, is how crippling this addiction really was.  

Hemphill's book paint's a picture that is at times beautiful, yet so tragic at the same time.  He speaks in detail of the times where Hank would stay sober for an extended period, then he would fall completely off the rails to the point where his career would suffer immeasurably.  Hemphill is quite critical of the women in Hank's life, specifically his mother Lillie and his first wife Audrey (the mother of Hank Williams, Jr.), however, Hemphill portrays the elder Hank's second wife Billie Jean in a rather sympathetic role.  From Hemphill's account, Billie Jean really does seem like the only woman who truly loved and supported Hank Williams, Sr. during his lifetime.

At the time of his death, Hank Sr. was arguably the first real superstar in all of music.  What may not have been known at that time is what a mess his personal life and career had become.  It did seem like he could have turned his life around when he met and married Billie Jean.  I found myself really pulling for him to get it together, almost willing a different outcome that the world has known for almost 60 years.  Sadly, like the story goes when most stars fade at the height of their prime, Hank's popularity would soar higher than it had ever been.  It remains strong to this day, 58 years after his death.  Truly, an amazing legacy that may or may not loom as large as it does had he survived.   

Paul Hemphill does a great job putting together this story, which makes for a nice read.  This book is a great start for anyone who is looking to begin their journey in learning about arguably the greatest singer-songwriter in history.  Check out "Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams" at your local bookstore or library.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Misunderstanding Shooter Jennings

Recently, while listening to Outlaw Country on my Sirius/XM radio, I heard the new Shooter Jennings tune that is creating all kinds of controversy in many music circles.  The tune, "Outlaw You", speaks to a recent spate of newer mainstream country artists who are finding success in Nashville, while claiming to be "outlaws" in the same vein of Waylon Jennings.  Of course, if these alleged comments have actually been said, those comments are rather ill-advised to say the least, and border on the absurd at the worst.

Since this songs release, Shooter has taken some heat from some fans as they speculate over the target of his well-intended message.  I have my opinion on who it could be, but it would only be speculation as well, and I'd rather not get into that.  The question I have for those who are railing against Shooter is, "What do you expect the guy to do?"  For anyone to allegedly come out and say they are anything like Waylon Jennings, in my mind, hasn't done their proper research.  I make no claims about being an expert on Waylon, but his trials and tribulations against the well-controlled recording establishment in Nashville to wrest creative control are well documented.  One need only read Waylon's autobiography from the mid-1990's to see how tough it really was for Waylon, and how big a gamble this move was.  It was a gamble that could have cost him his career, his livelihood.  Had Waylon lost the battle, it wouldn't have been just his loss.  It would have been a resounding defeat to all recording artists in every genre of music at that time as well as all of those that followed.  Creative control rarely existed, if it all, until Waylon Jennings came to town, took on the Nashville establishment, and won.

So how, really, can any of today's artists come to Nashville for a country music career (or otherwise) and claim to be another Waylon Jennings, at least as far as the "outlaw/rebel" tag is concerned?  I don't really think anyone can.  I think they can say they are paying homage to the man that made creative freedom in the music industry a reality.  But to claim that you're Waylon in a lot of ways, disrespects the sacrifice and the tremendous effort that Waylon Jennings exerted to make creative control for recording artists across North America a real possibility.  Indeed, many artists of all genres today owe a great debt to the battle fought, and won, by Waylon Jennings.

With this in mind, I don't blame Shooter Jennings, Waylon and Jessi's only son, for taking hombrage to anyone who claims they are another Waylon.  He would have seen the sacrifice first-hand and lived it along with his parents.  Comments from fans who are not as supportive of Shooter border on the ridiculous.  People are entitled to their opinion, which is something everyone can express.  But if you're going to comment on Shooter's thoughts, feelings, and music, perhaps you should listen to his music.  Shooter, much like his dad, isn't in the business to sell a bunch of records.  He's there for the music, and creating the music he feels that is relevant to him.  He is a stylist, a true artist.  Above all, he is a son who is honoring his father's life, legacy, music and above all, his father's sacrifice to an industry that allows performers to create music for their own creative purposes, not necessarily for commercial gain.