Fine Country Music and a Finer Blizzard at Whoa-o-rama Farms

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:52

    Farm Report Glen Rock, PA ? Eleven a.m. and it's already been quite a day here at Whoa-o-rama Farms. We woke before dawn to an unforecast blizzard. The young 'uns were thrilled, and we foregathered around the tube to confirm school closings. But what we saw instead was Tim Russert talking about Alan Keyes. Actually, I like Keyes, because, as I've testified before, I am a Christian farmer. For me, his frank homophobia is refreshing.

    So anyway, now we're all trapped here at the end of a mile-long driveway. It's been months since the last "Farm Report," but no one has sent me any CDs lately. Maybe it's just a production lull after the burst of Christmas releases, or maybe it's something more nefarious, something deeper, something more like a mind-numbing, hyperclimactic episode of The X-Files. Maybe the record company publicity departments have tired of me and my incisive evaluations of their discs. The straw that broke the p.r. departments' backs might have been when I called Sammy Kershaw a "flaccid moron," or when I said that Reba McEntire deserved to be "spit-roasted by Satan." But anyway, now I got no discs to write about.

    Then it struck me, the way lightning strikes a golfer: I could review a whole bunch of classics no one remembers anymore! I could dig out boxes of LPs from the tractor shed and play semi-obscure country music all day! It would be a blast and a public service. Farm Report: The Classic Edition.

    But wait. What would be Wanda's response? What price the Kendalls? If I played classic semi-obscure country music all day as Wanda tried to deal with stir-crazy boys who fancy themselves Cartman, she would end up biting my balls off.

    But then I reached down into my own stock of homophobia and remembered that I was a man, baby. Surely I could listen to what I wanted in my own tractor shed. I had spent too many years placating this chick. I was whipped, henpecked, shrewed out of my own biological status as the alpha muthafucka. Today I would gesticulate at Wanda with my whip hand, dismissing her agenda as mere girlish hysteria. Finally I would subdue the irritating little bint to my masterful will.

    So I put on John Conlee's Greatest Hits (MCA LP, 1983; don't bother with WEA's Best of JC, which does not have the right songs; MCA had an excellent 20 Greatest Hits out in the late 80s, but it's out of print). This little dude was once the biggest voice in country, and had a slew of classic hits to his credit before his star faded in the late 1980s. I was wallowing in "Rose Colored Glasses," one satisfied heterosexual. And then we got to the last song, "I Don't Remember Loving You":

    I don't remember loving you And I don't recall the things you say you put me through You say I quit my job and then I drank myself insane You say that I ran down the highway screaming out your name Now that's not the kind of thing that I would do. I don't remember loving you. . . You might talk to my doctor He comes by each day at two. Everyone I meet here in this place is very strange If you hand me my crayons I'll be glad to take your name In case I run into the guy you knew But I don't remember loving you. And then a surreal thing happened. Wanda said, "That rocks." She thought it was funny and she dug the stripped-down 1981 production and she started getting on this thing about how country was so much better way back when and pretty soon she was looking through my LPs and asking me to put this or that on the table?and as you can imagine I was so like damaged in my self-esteem as a man that I didn't know what to do.

    So I retreated to my shed with a copy of the farmer's friend: Epictetus' Enchiridion. I was seeking that solace only ancient stoicism can provide. I'm still pussy-whipped, I told myself, but maybe it'll be a little more pleasant to the strains of "Teach Me to Cheat," one of the best cuts on one of the best albums ever made, the Kendalls' Letting You in on a Feeling (Mercury LP, 1981; or maybe their best is Heaven's Just a Sin Away, Kingfisher 1996; all their early albums were cut out and can still be found at vinyl stores cheap; but any of the several greatest hits packages are good). I reemerged from the shed, a eunuch reconciled to my fate.

    The Kendalls were a father-and-daughter team who had a few minor hits in the 70s and 80s; one of their only top-five hits was an insanely lovely remake of the Louvin Brothers' "My Baby's Gone." They specialized in cheating songs, and the weirdest moments came when the two of them were cheating on or with each other. They invented whole genres of country, like the football cheating song ("Pittsburgh Stealers," "Just a Dallas Cowboy (and a New Orleans Saint)" and the cheating gospel song ("Heaven's Just a Sin Away," "You'd Make an Angel Want to Cheat"). Jeannie's voice is not mighty, just perfect: nasal as the day is long and capable of definitive interpretations. This may be their best single LP (it contains the unrequited anthem "If You're Waiting on Me (You're Backing Up)"), though I'm happy to own about eight. Someone needs to find these folks and throw money at them.

    Y'all remember the Whites? There was a brief window in the mid-80s when you could almost actually do bluegrass on the country charts?Emmylou and Ricky Skaggs were the instigation. Anyway, one of the best results of this was the trio of daddy Buck, and daughters Cheryl and Sharon (Skaggs' wife). Their debut was called Old Familiar Feeling (Warner Bros./Curb, 1983; the WEA/Elektra/Curb Greatest Hits CD is fine) and consisted of simple semi-bluegrass songs that were a joy to hear coming outcher radio. I especially love "You Put the Blue in Me," the kind of traditional song that could never appear on the country charts now. As a matter of fact, after a couple more dips, the Whites never appeared on the radio again and settled down to a permanent gig at the Opry.

    Chart banishment has also been the fate of the biggest country star of the 80s: Hank Williams Jr. Hank was never quite taken seriously by us critics and connoisseurs, because he liked to launch novelty songs, because he wasn't as good as his pappy and because he had an extreme reactionary hillbilly persona, viz., "A Country Boy Can Survive." However, no one has ever been as good as Hank Jr.'s pappy, and the persona made him an Elvis-like legend in the rural South. And Junior wrote and performed some truly great songs.

    Hank has been through a number of incarnations in his career, from a childhood Hank Sr. imitator (how weird is that?) to the hillbilly hero "Bocephus" to characters named "Rockin' Randall" and "Wham Bam Sam." He was doing Randall when he made his best LP: Five-0 (Warner Bros./Curb LP 1985; available on CD), which features some of the best country songs of the 80s, in particular "I'm For Love" and "This Ain't Dallas" (the soap opera, not the city), which combined highly hilarious lyrics with rocking good tunes. Now we've got Hank Williams III to deal with, but let's not neglect the middle child.

    In the mid-70s, Asleep at the Wheel were one of the greatest country bands that ever existed. The choice between killer albums such as Wheelin' & Dealin', The Wheel and Comin' Right at Ya is more or less arbitrary, but I'm going with Texas Gold (Capitol/EMI LP, 1975; the best coverage of this period of their career is the Capitol/EMI disc Best Of). I sort of associated Asleep at the Wheel with the headshop-swing band Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen (who'll make a later Classic Edition): they both had amazing players, but were too hippie for Nashville. They brought Wills-style Texas swing through the dark era until it arrived safely at this year's Grammys.

    The Wheel's lineup in the 1970s included leader Ray Benson, with the deep voice, the amazing guitar; Leroy Preston, who wrote and sang many of their best songs; singer Chris O'Connell, not that far from Jeannie Kendall; great instrumentalists Floyd Domino on piano and Lucky Oceans on pedal steel. On Texas Gold Ray sings "The Letter that Johnny Walker Read"; Leroy sings "Let Me Go Home, Whiskey"; Chris sings "Bump Bounce Boogie," and it's all a stone gas, baby. By the time I finished with this one I felt good.

    So now it's 2. The kids are happily watching American Pie. Wanda's listening to Janie Fricke. And I'm sitting here typing this sentence while the blizzard rages. Tomorrow we'll be stuck, hungry, out of tp, ready to kill each other. But right at this moment life is just damn sweet.