Country Hop

(Pictured: Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley of Florida Georgia Line. Not your mama’s country singers.)

Country music has always been a battleground of styles. The following badly oversimplifies the history, but here we go: Country fans of the 50s had little use for the softer “countrypolitan” sound that dominated the 60s and early 70s, and many rejoiced when the outlaw movement of the mid-70s brought more traditional sounds back. But outlaw country didn’t transform anything for good, and a good deal of country music remained heavily pop-oriented until late in the 80s, when new traditionalists like Randy Travis and Lyle Lovett gained popularity. But in the 90s, first Garth Brooks and later Shania Twain (and her producer/husband Mutt Lange, who had guided the careers of Foreigner and Def Leppard) redefined what mainstream country meant. In the early oughts, pop-oriented guys like Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley charted alongside throwbacks like Alan Jackson. No matter the level of creative tension, however, you were always able to draw a line from the contemporary stars back to the people on whose shoulders they stood, whether that was Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Reba McEntire, or stars from even earlier days.

But in recent years there’s come a remarkable break in the history of country music. In 2011, Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” became the first major hit to incorporate rhythmically spoken verses, a style incongruously imported from hip-hop and rap music. It wasn’t long before Aldean released a version on which he collaborated with Ludacris, and it started a flood of country songs with hip-hop elements. This has resulted in some pretty odd music, and it’s not just younger stars making it. In 2013, Tim McGraw, who began as a thoroughly mainstream country singer in the mid 90s, released “Southern Girl,” on which he slathered himself in levels of auto-tune generally heard only on rap records.

Break number two: the 2012 single “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line. Apart from the vocal—an exaggerated drawl—and an ostentatious banjo, there’s nothing country about “Cruise.” It’s a loud, riff-heavy record aimed at young listeners—and aggressively putting off older ones. “Cruise” arrived at the precise moment Billboard modified its chart rules to give extra credit to records that cross over. The change seems nutty, boosting a record higher up the country chart based on how well it does on other, non-country charts—but the net result was to make “Cruise” the longest-running #1 song in the history of country music.

The success of “Dirt Road Anthem” and “Cruise” had the effect of freeing country singers, songwriters, and record labels from stylistic limitations—and from country’s history. Blake Shelton famously claimed this was natural evolution that only “old farts” would resist, but it represents much more than that. Country music has become whatever country labels release and country radio stations will play, no matter what it sounds like. This trend began in the oughts with Carrie Underwood (even though the most country thing about her was that she dated the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys) and continued with Taylor Swift. But it’s only within the last two years that the trend has become the norm. Sam Hunt’s current hit “Leave the Night On” might have been released to adult contemporary radio five years ago without changing one thing about it. It’s on country radio in 2014 because country is the mass-appeal pop format of the moment.

As a sometime-country DJ and a card-carrying old fart, I like some of what I’m hearing right now. Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, Eric Church, and the Zac Brown Band are remarkably good. Shelton and Toby Keith can be, when they choose good songs, but they don’t always. Gary Allan would have been a star in any decade. Despite what I’ve said about it here, I even like “Dirt Road Anthem.” But I often find myself wishing country would stop chasing fads and ignoring its history. And maybe also pick up a damn fiddle now and then.

Great on the Radio

(Pictured: Rick Dees, which rhymes with cheese.)

I was driving the other morning, golden September light all around me, listening to an American Top 40 show from September 1976. I was not really paying attention, I have to say—there are other things on my mind this September, with more than enough weight in the here and now to make it less attractive to deliberately take on the weight of the past. I was distracted enough so that only a few bits of the show were able to break through.

—On that September weekend, eight new stations had joined the AT40 family, including WINO in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. WINO, of course, was the call sign in George Carlin’s famous Top 40 parody, “Wonderful WINO,” such an indelible performance that it seems strange for any real-world radio station to have those call letters. It turns out that Casey’s new affiliate was a student station at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, but I have learned nothing else about it.

—The Rick Dees novelty “Disco Duck” was on its way to #1 in September 1976. A couple of years ago at Popdose, I described it like this: “It’s just a guy singing about turning into a duck and then, another guy who can do a duck voice speaks in a duck voice.” But the first 10 seconds sound insanely great on the radio, and the record is rich with Memphis connections. Dees worked for a Memphis radio station when he recorded it; it was produced by Bobby Manuel, who had been a studio musician at Stax and became a business partner of Stax co-founder Jim Stewart after Stax went broke. Before it was picked up by RSO Records, it was released on the local Fretone label, owned by the other Stax co-founder, Estelle Axton. So dim as it is, there are several reasons it sounds as good as it does.

—There are different schools of thought on how DJs should handle their levels. My preference is to run the music hot and my microphone hotter, so that the music is always very, very present. If a record is mastered to be really loud—as many records are nowadays—I drop the level of the music a little, but only a little. Other jocks will start with the music up, turn it way down when they talk, then quickly crank it back up to 100 percent. Casey’s producers liked to mix him with his voice at 100 percent and the music barely audible behind him. Only when he’s done talking does the music zoom up to 100 percent. This is fine if you’re listening in a quiet place, but not in the car. Unless you make an effort, you often can’t tell what he’s playing until he stops talking. It sounds somewhat better on the radio, where audio is processed to smooth out the dynamics, but on a CD in the noisy audio environment of the car, not so much.

—Also on the radio in September ’76 was the group Silver. It featured a future Grateful Dead member, Brent Mydland, on keyboards; singer/guitarist John Batdorf had been one-half of Batdorf and Rodney, known primarily to denizens of the cutout racks; bassist Tom Leadon was the brother of founding Eagle Bernie Leadon; the other dudes in the band were known only to their friends and family. The most famous person associated with the group turned out to be future comic actor Phil Hartman, who designed the cover of the band’s lone album during his days as a freelance graphic designer. The band’s lone hit, “Wham Bam (Shang-a-Lang,)” riding the chart in September 1976, is one of the most splendiferously 70s records there is, from the opening drum pickup and the big fat lead guitar to the sunny 70s harmonies and the singalong refrain. And it has one other distinctly 70s thing:

Now that it’s said and we both understand
Let’s say our goodbyes before it gets out of hand

It’s about keeping a one-night wham-bam from becoming more than that.

The Man Who Took an Interest

The old lions of broadcasting are passing in the way old lions do, but the inevitability of losing them doesn’t make the losses any easier to take: Larry Lujack, Roy Leonard, George Lipper—and now, another one is gone. Don Davenport died earlier this month at the age of 78.

I first heard Don on WEKZ, my hometown radio station, probably before I had a radio of my own, but he spent most of the 1970s at WIBA in Madison. I can’t say I knew him well apart from the radio. His son was one of my brother’s close friends. As a result, I knew the younger Davenport well and his mother, Don’s first wife, a little—enough to recognize her when she and I found ourselves in the same summer-school class at Platteville years later. But once Don found out I was interested in radio, he took an interest in me.

I still vividly remember a day during Christmas vacation as 1977 turned to 1978. Don was doing a mid-morning shift on WIBA then, and he invited me up to watch him do his show. I found my way to the station, then located in the country south of Madison (in an area now completely urbanized). He explained what he was doing and patiently answered my questions, even putting headphones on me so I could hear what was happening when the microphone was on. I remember being deeply impressed that he played artists like Billy Joel and Fleetwood Mac at a time when WIBA was more likely to play Frank Sinatra and Doris Day.

(Don had one of those deep, resonant, impossible voices you rarely hear on the radio anymore. The story was told that he once got a check cashed with no identification apart from that voice.)

At the time of my visit, I was just as interested in WIBA-FM, which was then a free-form progressive rock station. That morning, I looked with fascination into the adjacent FM studio, lit by strategically placed spotlights even at 10AM. Don told me some scandalous tales involving WIBA-FM, one of which I can repeat: during the early 70s, if he found himself on WIBA against his will on a Saturday afternoon, he’d sometimes put on NBC Radio’s Monitor program service and go next door to get stoned with the FM jocks.

When I say that Don “took an interest” in me, I don’t mean he encouraged me. He did not fill me with illusions about radio, and was very honest about how difficult it could be to make a living at it. It occurs to me now that as 1977 turned to 1978, he was probably getting close to burnout and ready to make a change. Fortunately for him, he did. He became a successful freelance writer and photographer, specializing in travel pieces.

The last time I saw Don was at our wedding, way back in 1983. That he was kind enough to come meant a great deal to me. As he was leaving the reception, the last thing he said to me was, “If you have any sense at all, you’ll get back to the farm.”

He wasn’t wrong. Mentors and inspirations are good like that.

The Good Stuff

(Pictured: Jeff Lynne played his first show in 28 years last weekend. If you followed the author of this blog on Twitter, you’d have the bootleg already.)

My typically half-assed research efforts indicate that a relatively small percentage of you use Twitter, which is too bad, because I tweet a lot of stuff that I know will interest you. I show my Twitter feed in the right-hand column of this blog in the hope that you’ll see it. But the feed turns over quickly sometimes, and things disappear. So here’s a brief rundown of some of the better things I’ve tweeted within the last couple of weeks.

The Guardian has a feature called “The Music That Changed My Life.” Last week, I tweeted a piece that pretty much blows the doors off any other example of the music-as-memoir genre: “Phil Collins saved me from suicide.”

—I am on the radio all the damn time, and it never really occurred to me that the fade-out, once a common way for records to end, has just about vanished. Somebody at Slate noticed, however, and wrote a fascinating article about the reasons why.

—Grace Potter and the Nocturnals are a band we have loved around here since always. One of the cool things about them is their eclectic selection of covers. Last weekend at their annual Grand Point North Festival in Vermont, they did Elton John’s “Rocket Man” with help from singer/songwriter Rayland Baxter, and it’s definitely worth four minutes of your time.

—Saving Country Music is one of my favorite sites on the Internet. It’s where you can learn about Billboard‘s new “consumption” chart, which seems likely to replace the Billboard 200 album chart in coming years. (That name, “consumption chart,” makes its own commentary on the music business in 2014: we don’t listen or experience art as much as we suck it down, and that’s not a compliment.)

—Saving Country Music also wrote recently about the unlikely friendship between Muhammad Ali and Waylon Jennings.

—On September 16, 1964, Shindig! premiered on ABC. Ultimate Classic Rock presented an interesting oral history of the show that brought straight-up rock music to American TV for the first time.

—When the first season of WKRP in Cincinnati came out on DVD several years ago, there was widespread disappointment over the fact that much of the original music was missing. Now, Shout! Factory is giving WKRP a complete-series DVD issue with most of the original music intact. It will be out on October 28th.

—Last weekend, Jeff Lynne did his first live show since 1986 in London’s Hyde Park. You can get the whole show from ROIO, and if you dig ELO, you’ll want to.

—Listen to 100 of pop, rock, and soul’s most famous bass lines played in a single 17-minute take, be gobsmacked long thereafter.

—Watch the trailer for I Am What I Play, a forthcoming documentary profiling four legendary album-rock DJs and their 40-plus years in the biz.

—Fifty years ago this month, the Beatles were on their second tour of the States. I tweeted a story about the DJ who introduced their Milwaukee show as well as a great piece about their show in Pittsburgh 10 days later.

—The Beatles cartoon series, which premiered in September 1965, is now up in its entirety at YouTube.

—Neither music nor radio-related, but interesting anyhow: way back in the pre-Internet days, a filmmaker did a mashup of Winnie the Pooh with Apocalypse Now, and it’s pretty great.

That’s plenty. If you want the rest of the good stuff in real time, you know what to do.

The Transformation

We know that memory is not history. If you’ve ever discussed the good old days with a friend and discovered that they don’t remember what you do—or that their memories of a particular event contradict what you “know” to be true—you understand memory’s unreliability. A spate of recent news articles has suggested that memories change all the time, for reasons both physical and psychological. It’s enough to make a person wonder if he can trust any of them.

So we can never know how it really was.

As heirs of the Enlightenment, we hold to the creed that anything worth believing must be founded on evidence—empirical truths that are apparent to everyone. So it follows that the question of whether our memories are true matters a great deal. (People are sent to prison all the time because of someone’s false memories.)

But not everything in which we believe is founded on such truths. Religion isn’t. There’s more hard, empirical evidence for the existence of Bigfoot and aliens than there is for the personal God of the Christian Bible, or Allah, or Zeus, or Odin. But the “truths” of religion are strong enough to live in the hearts of millions of people who order their lives by them. If you believe your god is real and you live your life as if it were, it doesn’t matter whether it’s real or not. Your belief is real, and that’s the fact that matters.

When I write about the fall of 1970, three-and-a-half transformative months that began with a remarkable act of kindness by a neighbor girl in early September and ended with the most significant Christmas gift I would ever receive, I understand that the vivid details may not be real. Things may not have happened as I remember them, and may not have happened at all. That I was being transformed almost certainly never occurred to me. (Recognizing oneself mid-transformation isn’t guaranteed to happen to a guy in his 50s, let alone a boy of 10.)

But the belief that I was transformed? That belief is real. No matter how many years it took to recognize it, no matter how the shape of the transformation might have been affected by events that have happened since, the belief that I was transformed has nothing to do with empirical reality, and it doesn’t have to. My “memories” from the fall of 1970 have the power of myth. Myths are the stories we tell ourselves to explain the world. The ancients told them to explain the weather; today, religion tells them to give meaning to life in the face of certain death.

And I retell the myths of 1970 to explain how I got this way.

We take as our text today the WLS Hit Parade, September 14, 1970:

1. “Looking Out My Back Door”/Creedence Clearwater Revival. “Wondrous apparition / Provided by a magician”

2. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”/Diana Ross. “Remember life holds for you one guarantee / You’ll always have me”

3. “War”/Edwin Starr. “Who wants to die?”

4. “Julie Do Ya Love Me”/Bobby Sherman. “Are you thinking of me / Will you still be there?”

5. “Candida”/Dawn. “The future looks bright / The gypsy told me so last night”

Inscrutable mysteries. The yawning abyss of doubt and fear.

Abiding hope. Everlasting love.

When you’ve got a radio, you don’t need a church.

The First Chapter of Genesis

(Pictured: the marquee for Elvis Presley’s 1969 Las Vegas debut. A future radio icon was in the audience.)

Over Labor Day weekend, the American Top 40 repeat on stations around the country was from August 29, 1970. It was a rarity in that most of the time, when Premiere Radio Networks offers shows from 1970, 1971, or 1972 to affiliates, it also offers an alternate show for those stations who’d rather not air something quite so ancient. Not this time.

The show was the eighth one in AT40 history. Technically, this one is pretty sketchy, like the engineer was having trouble balancing Casey’s audio level with the music, jingles, and sounders. The timing is occasionally off—a record fades before Casey comes on, or a jingle or record starts a split-second sooner than it should. And the beeping synthesizer sounder so frequently heard on the early shows is everywhere on this edition, as if Casey doesn’t want to talk without some kind of sound behind him, even for a couple of seconds. Casey himself doesn’t seem particularly well-scripted—a song will play for three or four seconds before he comes on mike, hurriedly says something that sounds like he just thought it up, and barely gets out of the way of the vocal. He’ll give a title without the artist’s name, or fail to mention the chart position of a song—which is kinda bad on a countdown show.

This show contains a couple of random oldies. I missed Casey’s intro of the first one, due to a combination of bad levels and his tendency to hurry unnecessarily. All I heard was that it was from 1966, and I didn’t recognize it at all—some female R&B singer from Memphis, I guessed. But it turned out to be this. The other featured oldie was “Chances Are” by Johnny Mathis, a vivid example of why many program directors today aren’t wild about the shows from the early 70s.

I can only think of a couple of instances in which Casey mentioned his personal life on American Top 40—and one of them was on the August 29, 1970, show. He told the story of seeing Elvis in Las Vegas in 1969, and how Elvis came down to his ringside table to sing to his date and ended the song by kissing her. “It was the only thing she talked about for weeks,” Casey remarked. Then he told how he’d seen Elvis again a few weeks ago with a different date, and how he was careful to sit several tables away from the stage this time. The only similar instance I can recall was on a 1976 show, when Casey told about being a high-school classmate of future jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd and playing in a band with him.

(Listen to most radio shows for several years and you’ll eventually learn something about the person or people behind the microphone. But little of Casey Kasem the man, as opposed to the radio icon, ever leaked over into AT40. He was politically active, a vegan, a baseball fan, and an actor who appeared on Hawaii Five-O, Emergency, and Charlie’s Angels in addition to dozens of voiceover gigs during AT40‘s heyday, but he never betrayed a hint of it on the show.)

A person of scientific mind might find themselves in speechless awe when contemplating the Big Bang. A religious person might get a similar sense of wonder when reading the first chapter of Genesis. In my world, the ur-text is the Hot 100 from the fall of 1970. It’s where the things that have mattered the most throughout my life began to begin. And although I’ve written about that subject many times before, I intend to go to the well again in the next post.

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