Thursday, April 9, 2009

Roy Acuff: Greatest Hits

“Praise the Lord, I saw the light.” Nancy is singing along. Her voice is high; she’s had some choir in her history. “No more darkness, no more night.”

“You know this song?”

“Of course, don’t you?”

“Not until I got this CD.”

She laughs. “Your childhood was deprived.”

Our typical conversation about some of the music I play. She grew up in North Carolina, listened to Grand Ole Opry on the radio with her beloved grandmother, knows a lot of these old country and country gospel tunes. Her grandmother had Roy Acuff 78s, the same songs on this CD. I grew up in Paramus, New Jersey. I didn’t know these songs, never understood Hee Haw. I can’t get enough of them these days. I’ve always been guilty of preferring old music. What’s old may be familiar but it is still new to me.

The best thing about the digital age is how well it presents the world before the digital age. One of the first CDs I purchased was the two-disc set of Robert Johnson, a must have for any student of rock and roll and blues. What struck me was Johnson the artist, regardless of the legacy, the picking, the voice, the poetry of the lyrics. Great lyrics, great musicianship, isn’t that what you listen for anyway? In the analog era, I picked up an LP of Johnson and the sound was horrible. Johnson was lost, in the digital age, he’s found. Reissues have always been part of the record business. Digital enriches the present with a crystal clear rendition.

When it comes to rock and roll (and blues) the scholar in me gets indulged. You want to discuss history and influences, let’s go grab a beer. But when it comes to country and jazz, I just know what I like and am not as interested in the time lines. You want to know or hear about what a landmark of a performer Roy Acuff was in the history of Country Music—he’s still called the King of Country Music, thank God it isn’t Garth Brooks!—there are places you can go to find out. There are more comprehensive collections of Acuff—I have a Columbia best of release with the sublime “This World Can’t Stand Long,” and another release of gospel tunes. But the selection on Roy Acuff: Greatest Hits makes it my go to Acuff. It’s a world of love, hard knocks, praising God and trains.

“Good Morning Captain….Do you need another skinner on that new mud line.”So starts Mule Skinner Blues, a Jimmy Rodgers tune (yes, Acuff yodels), a great. much-covered song. Tough work, mule skinning—skinners require so much water that they need their own water boy. I don’t really know what mule skinning is, if it is literal—who uses a mule skin?—or a nick name for another type of job. It doesn’t pay well: “... a dollar and a dime a day,” and this skinner has some marital troubles: “my little girl is in town each Saturday night to draw my little pay.” She does care: “Going downtown honey, what do you want to bring you back,” He replies “a walking cane and a brand new Stetson hat.” Acuff’s reedy tenor (it’s similar to Jerry Garcia’s, although more robust and versatile) warbles, multiplying syllables and yodeling. We’re all muleskinners, all working all the time, trouble with the gal, desiring a nice hat.

Some really fine picking and strumming, you hear a lot of slide steel guitars, fiddles, accordion, harmonica. Unvarnished hillbilly. The music is genuine and transporting and as seriously intense as anything on Sweet Hearts of The Rodeo or after. Lonesome River, mournful ode—the melody is the same as Sitting On Top Of The World—about a man, “blue and so down hearted,” about a woman to whom pleads, “if you don’t love me, stay out of my mind.” It ends with him considering drowning in that lonesome river, “where it’s cold and deep.” A palatable sorrow, but because Acuff sings and plays smoothly, that sorrow is not initially obvious—hearing this stuff in passing, or compared to other rough and gruff stuff of the era (like Robert Johnson), you might say it’s hokey. It is anything but. Lonesome River, with his guitar picking and quiet wails of fiddle riffs has a potent tragedy. The singer is lonesome, the sound is lonesome. The listener empathizes, and by acknowledging and sharing the loneliness, the listener’s loneliness abates

I can never get enough train songs and this CD has the best of them, like Wabash Cannonball, apparently his signature tune. We all know it, this anthem to Daddy Claxton and this great train, which traveled from, from the Atlantic to pacific from Minnesota to Alabama. Hard to tell the actual route, the song is a travelogue of America, and a celebration of our land. But one refrain, which isn’t about how great Claxton was, how great the train is, or the wonders of the New World it travels through, but a passenger. “There’s a girl from Tennessee, she’s long and she’s tall, she came down to Birmingham on the Wabash Cannon Ball.” We never see her again, know nothing about her—did she know Claxton? Did Claxton have to choose between her and his responsibilities running the train? We never solve this riddle and every time I hear it, I have to speculate, who is that girl and what exactly does “long and tall” mean. Then again, what did Long Tall Sally mean?

Devil Train bemoans sinners who are on the devil train, imploring them at the end to get on the glory train. The religious train, a symbol for salvation, perdition, even the apocalypse has been touched on by Dylan with Slow Train and Percy Mayfield with People Get Ready. It’s not without precedent, but Acuff’s song set that precedent.

Freight Train Blues can be mistaken as some happy go lucky ditty about a rambler. In his infant years, “freight train whistle taught me how to cry,” and he grew up in a shanty home just “a half-mile from the railroad track.” Family life is riddled with poverty and his father abandons the family and the mother’s no prize either—“it’s a shame the way she kept a good man broke.” He runs away and lives his life, but every time he hears a freight train whistle, he abandons whatever place he is in, to. you know, ramble. Rambling is a popular activity in the country and folk music world. This ditty isn’t that simple though. The guy is unable to break the destructive pattern of his past. The whistle reminds him of his ruined childhood and anytime he has something worth keeping he hears the whistle and rambles, compulsively causing the same kind of ruin he suffered. “Every time I find a place I want to stay, I hear the freight train whistles and I’m on my way... oh Lordy, guess I’m never going to lose the freight train blues.” And now, neither will anybody he knows.

Train songs. Acuff is singing about something more than iron horses. That more has only gotten deeper over the decades.

Then, there’s God and there are some great country gospel classics on the CD. Not simple either. For instance, Great Speckled bird – apparently from Jeremiah (12:9 look it up yourself) although I could never make the connection with the bible passage. This image becomes a vehicle for mystical contemplation.

“When He cometh descending from heaven

On the cloud that He writes in His Word

I'll be joyfully carried to meet Him

On the wings of that great speckled bird."

“You never heard Great speckled bird before,” Nancy asks, incredulous.

The answer would be no. Part of my sound track now though. Incredible song, one I do know, Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord). I first heard it in 92 on the Johnny Cash retrospective box set, word is it might be older. This version keeps moving—you know that part, right before it causes me to Tremble, Tremble, Tremble. Most versions, the song stops for the oohs. Acuff pauses not—there is brisk instrumentation underlying the oohs, then right into the trio of Trembles.

Hear my mother, Pray Again.” Mom’s dead, and all the singer wants is to pray with her again, but also, it’s what he remembers best about her. Mainly her prayers where that he would walk the gospel way, “Southern Boys love their mommas,” Nancy sneers. Who doesn’t, I want to reply but somehow this breaking down barriers defining grief and faith might actually be specific to Southern Culture.

Acuff’s Tennessee Waltz –this one I knew, David Bromberg had a version—is a nice take on a hoary old chestnut, then you realize, this was likely the first (or one of the first) take. Strange stuff is going on here. The guy’s best friend dances with his girlfriend to the Tennessee Waltz and they run away together leaving him alone to hear the waltz. Love and friendship lost in a few minutes. It also is a song about a song. Tennessee Waltz is about remembering the night they heard the Tennessee Waltz—when love was realized then lost—Tennessee Waltz is not the actual waltz. Weird but also avante garde, although God forbid anybody sees a connection between Andre Breton and Roy Acuff.

Roy Acuff conveys a world so vividly, without being showy or obvious, you immediately inhabit that world. Old timey music. Roots & Americana are the terms of choice right now and contemporary practitioners of the form are certainly worthwhile. Roy Acuff was old timey when it was still timey, at least he was the earliest to record them and have a hit. A lack of clarity to each individual instrument—bleeding they call it—due to the recording technology of the era creates a musical texture that might turn off some, but will entrance others. An old timey wall of sound if you will. The lack of distinction makes you listen more closely and then, the riffs on the fiddles, the licks of the steel guitar amazes. This music is so transporting not just because of the songs, but because Acuff is of that rural world, sings to that rural world. Work. God. Love. Trains. Not just arcane symbols to convey an image or idea; they were the only symbols around. We’re in that terrain of the mind charted by William Carlos Williams—no ideas but in things.

We need history to learn from it, to form a connection with the previous to our own individual existence because we need to make sense of our own life in this swirl of civilization and society. Museums, history books, documentary films, they certainly have a role to play in helping us form that connection. With Acuff, and other works from the actual artist of the actual time makes you see the past as it was being experienced, in real time. That’s the timelessness part of it, The authenticity of these recordings enables them to transcends their time.

He sings about work, God, love, trains because that was what mattered then and in our heart of hearts, that is still what matters most. It’s our life, our country, our invisible republic. Acuff isn’t just some souvenir of a bygone era, he’s a troubadour of truths then, now and forever—that is, if you care about love, redemption, salvation, a better day.

It’s astounding to realize that the 15 songs on this disc, so filled with dark poetry and startling truths, were hits—in Acuff’s time or any era.

"Oh, little water boy, Bring that water round. If you don't like your job, You can throw your bucket down. Yodel aye, hee hee, hee who”

“Turn that off,” Nancy shouts as she steps out of the shower. “No yodeling before noon!”

No comments:

Post a Comment