Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The death of the country music author, circa 1971

Last night I watched a DVD of the Johnny Cash show, which ran on ABC from 1969 to 1971. By that time, I was not watching much TV; I stopped in the summer of 1968, because the police riot at the Chicago convention scared me so much. But I think I might have watched a few episodes of the Johnny Cash show. It was a big deal for Nashville; it was filmed at the Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of country music, and the home of the Grand Ole Opry. Johnny Cash envisioned the show as a way of bringing together musicians from many genres: country music, jazz and blues, folk, and rock. Last night I saw Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Louis Armstrong, Linda Ronstadt, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Tammy Wynette, James Taylor, Neil Young, and Credence Clearwater Revival.

It was amazing to see some of these powerful singers and songwriters when they were very young, at the beginning of their careers. But the most striking thing about the Johnny Cash Show was the fact that it looked completely different from the way TV music shows look now. When singers perform on television now, they dance, gyrate, throw their hands in the air, grab their crotches, etc. But in the late sixties and early seventies, they stood ramrod straight and barely moved as they sang. Some of the folk rockers made expressive faces--James Taylor closed his eyes to sing--but the country music people looked like deer caught in the headlights. Tammy did not move at all the whole time she sang "Stand By Your Man." When she was talking to Cash, she looked down at the ground, afraid to look into the camera. George Jones looked more like a possum than ever, about to play dead. Marty Robbins sort of tried to move around a bit, but he had trouble. Only the Man in Black seemed truly comfortable in front of the TV cameras.

I have seen these people perform since, and they are passionate, powerful performers in person. Why were they so damped down? It was as if somebody had turned down the volume on everything: the voice, the body, the passion. Suddenly it occurred to me that country music people were not used to being on television! They were comfortable on the stage of the Ryman when it was full of Shriners and middle-aged people on vacation in Music City, and on the stages of county fairs and small-town auditoriums around the country; but the lights and cameras of television, even on that familiar stage, made them very nervous.

These performances were interspersed with recent interviews with Kris Kristofferson and Hank Williams, Jr, about the show and its effects on country music especially. Somebody, I think Kristofferson, said that there wasn't much music on TV in the late sixties, and there was almost no country music at all on television. It was a huge thing for country music, to be broadcast on a network TV station into the homes of people all over the country. It was so huge that it scared the shit out of them, and their fear showed.

Still, the performances were great, although wooden by today's standards. What made them great? The songs. The song lyrics were really, really great back then. Think of "Sunday Morning Coming Down":

Well I woke up Sunday morning,
With no way to hold my head that didn't hurt.
And the beer I had for breakfast wasn't bad,
So I had one more for dessert.
Then I fumbled through my closet for my clothes,
And found my cleanest dirty shirt.
An' I shaved my face and combed my hair,
An' stumbled down the stairs to meet the day.

I'd smoked my brain the night before,
On cigarettes and songs I'd been pickin'.
But I lit my first and watched a small kid,
Cussin' at a can that he was kicking.
Then I crossed the empty street,
'n caught the Sunday smell of someone fryin' chicken.
And it took me back to somethin',
That I'd lost somehow, somewhere along the way.

On the Sunday morning sidewalk,
Wishing, Lord, that I was stoned.
'Cos there's something in a Sunday,
Makes a body feel alone.
And there's nothin' short of dyin',
Half as lonesome as the sound,
On the sleepin' city sidewalks:
Sunday mornin' comin' down.

In the park I saw a daddy,
With a laughin' little girl who he was swingin'.
And I stopped beside a Sunday school,
And listened to the song they were singin'.
Then I headed back for home,
And somewhere far away a lonely bell was ringin'.
And it echoed through the canyons,
Like the disappearing dreams of yesterday.

On the Sunday morning sidewalk,
Wishing, Lord, that I was stoned.
'Cos there's something in a Sunday,
Makes a body feel alone.
And there's nothin' short of dyin',
Half as lonesome as the sound,
On the sleepin' city sidewalks:
Sunday mornin' comin' down."

The imagery in this song is so vivid. The persona wakes up dirty and drunk, and probably under the influence of some other substances than just beer. His kitchen has no food; he has to have a beer for breakfast. There's nobody taking care of this man, cooking him eggs and bacon, or cleaning his clothes; he's alone, and he doesn't take care of himself. He lives in a gritty walk-up downtown somewhere. All around him are signs of normal family life: children playing, somebody frying chicken, people singing in a church. These are things that he has lost "somehow," but like anybody hung over, he can't remember exactly how he lost the normal comforts of family life. The listener is left to imagine the events that caused this kind of wreckage and loneliness, and it's not too hard to imagine them. But the persona's understanding of his loss seems like a small ray of hope, that he might yet pull himself out of this lonely, dissipated life.

Johnny Cash sang this song on the show, and apparently the fact that he actually sang, "Wishing, Lord, that I was stoned," was an amazing TV moment, because the network execs wanted him to change the lyrics to something less gritty.

Kris Kristofferson himself sang, "Lovin' Her Was Easier Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again," another poem set to music:

I have seen the morning burning golden on the mountains in the skies.
Achin' with the feelin' of the freedom of an eagle when she flies.
Turnin' on the world the way she smiled upon my soul as I lay dying.
Healin' as the colours in the sunshine and the shadows of her eyes.

Wakin' in the mornin' to the feelin' of her fingers on my skin.
Wipin' out the traces of the people and the places that I've been.
Teachin' me that yesterday was something that I never thought of trying.
Talkin' of tomorrow and the money, love and time we had to spend.

Lovin' her was easier than anything I'll ever do again.

Comin' close together with a feelin' that I've never known before, in my time.
She ain't ashamed to be a woman, or afraid to be a friend.
I don't know the answer to the easy way she opened every door in my mind.
But dreamin' was as easy as believin' it was never gonna end.

And lovin' her was easier than anything I'll ever do again.

Again, this is better than average love song writing. In the first stanza there's some ambiguity about whether it's the speaker or the sun that's aching, turning, and healing; so the sun's movement becomes a metaphor for changes in the speaker, under the influence of this warming, golden woman, who herself, if she is the sun, is also aching, turning, and healing.

The next stanza repeats the series of verbs ending in "-ing" or rather "-in'": waking, wiping, teaching, talking. You also have some alliteration going on in the repeated w's and t's. And this wonderful phrase, "Teaching me that yesterday was something that I never thought of trying." What could that mean? Many things: that the past wasn't as bad as he thought; that things could have been different if he'd done things differently; that memory itself is possible and good. And that these yesterdays, rather than being just a blight on memory, are the seeds for better "tomorrows," of money, love, and time. Kristofferson seems to be making an oblique allusion to another famous love poem, "To His Coy Mistress," which also wonders about how much love and time there is to spend; but whereas the poet Marvell was urging his mistress that there was not much time left for love, in this poem it's the lady that's telling the poet how it is, and her view is that there is plenty of time in the future for love (and money). Rather than scarcity, she preaches abundance, like the sun that gives off limitless energy to everything that can soak it up.

Of course at the end of the song there's a sense of tragic loss, of this abundance and ease. Country music used to be tragic. It used to be about loss, mainly. This is hard to remember when you listen to the radio now. At some point in the seventies, the decision was made by people on Music Row to make country music more appealing to more upscale, younger, and more urban listeners, and country music lost its roots in Great Depression hardship, poverty, and loss. The Johnny Cash Show was canceled for the same reason by ABC in 1971 during the "rural purge," when they canceled everything that had a tree in it, as somebody quipped: Mayberry, the Beverly Hillbillies, Hee Haw, and the Johnny Cash Show. Again, they were trying to appeal to younger, more urban, more hip audiences.

The Johnny Cash Show stood at the cusp of a new era in music entertainment. In the future, music would be more spectacle and less meaning, as Baudrillard would say. Less text, more dancing, color, and lights. It would be about the simulation of reality, not the actual gritty reality of the Great Depression that people of Johnny Cash's age could remember. No more songs like Merle Haggard's about working class resentment and anger: "I'm tired of this dirty old sidewalk...You can keep your retirement and your so-called social security...Think I'll walk off my steady job today." Instead, the country music of the radio morphed into the country music of CMT, a world of fast-cut, surrealistic editing, elaborate costumes and sets, lip synching, and "stars" who look more like models than like hard-scrabble survivors of rural working class life.

As "wooden" as George Jones was on the TV set, he still looked like a possum, which is something that you could never say about Tim McGraw.

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