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Looking Backward

Chris Cooper, Lone Star

A love for classic country has been sneaking up on me for years, despite my youthful protestations that I’d listen to anything but country. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I credit the Cowboy Junkies’ Black-Eyed Man, Chris Cooper’s Lone Star performance, and the slide guitar with the laying the foundation for my steadily growing obsession with tempered sound, drawl, romance, and melancholy of classic country. And I must credit, of course, the jukebox in my favorite Madison establishment, Le Tigre, where Waylon and Willie both make appearances.

This past week, in an end-of-week Lala slump, I finally took the time to listen to Waylon Jennings. For two days, I listened to Waylon Jennings, who has quite a fascinating story. From what I’ve read, it appears that he rejected mainstream country in order to formulate an “outlaw” sound building on musicians such as Hank Williams, a classic country figure with a tragic history (Williams died young, and his wild fame was based on only a few years of songwriting. He was a superstar at 25 and died of drug abuse at 29). Jennings himself had an early brush with death–he was supposed to be on the plane ride that killed Buddy Holly, but switched his seat at the last minute.

Waylon Jennings

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of what it is like to experience a new sound in the time that it is first uttered. It’s hard to have a sense of that in our own time, because we hear new sounds so incrementally, while at the same time, living in our technologically driven contemporary world, I think it is hard to shake us.┬áSome music hits me and gives me a sense of how progressive it must have sounded in its time. I often think of this when listening to and seeing videos of Elvis, understanding that most people just didn’t have a register or framework for what they were seeing and hearing. For some reason, when I hear the Police and the Cars, I respond similarly–I think of how arresting their sound must have been when people first turned the dial and heard Sting’s voice piping analogically through a contained space. (Although now that I think about it, I can still recall the place I was in, people I was with, and tape that was playing when I first “got” house music, a transition that has shaped my listening habits since that day, although looking backward, I’d call house more referential to the disco, pop, and sampling-based forms that preceded it than revolutionary). I must confess that I have a hard time distinguishing the “outlaw” in Jennings’ sound, perhaps because his music is so similar to much of the country I’m familiar with and particular to. I wish I could hear the rebelliousness that made crowds go crazy for him. I have also never quite heard in the Beatles what sent so many teenagers over the edge.

This is not the case when I hear Louis Armstrong, a musician my father introduced me to and whose music I listened to this morning following a Lala trail. In his music, as with most of his jazz vocalist contemporaries, I hear feeling, suffering, get a sense of the racial and cultural politics of the time. Perhaps this is just because I know a touch more about jazz, Satchmo’s era, and the Cotton Club he played in.

Every time I hear Summer Time, I am reminded of the way that music–done right–can make you feel the thing it is signifying. This song crawls like the dead heat of southern summers and makes you feel sultry, languorous, sweetly sad, but full of a quiet unease that is also reflected in the song’s lyrics:

Summertime and the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high
Yo’ daddy’s rich and yo’ mama’s good lookin’
So hush little baby, don’t you cry

One of these mornins you gonna rise up singin’
You gonna spread your little wings and you’ll take to the sky
But ’till that mornin’ there ain’t nothin’ gonna harm you
With yo mama and daddy standin’ bye

So, looking backwards, here are two for you, a perhaps odd pairing, Waylon and Satchmo.

Waylon Jennings: Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line

Louis Armstrong with Ella Fitzgerald: Summer Time

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