For the Good Times

Ray Price died on Monday, George Jones died last April, and it’s been a bad year for the American culture.
Our more sophisticated readers might not recognize either Price or Jones, as their fame was limited to the working class folks in flyover land who comprise the core audience for country and western music, but they gave voice to an American age whose passing leaves us all poorer. The decline of the American economy can be measured in worker participation rates and per capita income, and our declining international influence is more subjectively measured by the alliances our erstwhile allies are making for a post-American epoch, but the diminution of the American spirit is perhaps best exemplified by the sad comparison between the days of Price and Jones and what’s playing out there now.
After a war-time stint with the United States Marine Corps, Price got his first taste of musical stardom singing on a small town radio station in his native Texas, then went big city with a regular gig on Dallas’ “Big D Jamboree.” After a full decade of honing his craft in the rough honky-tonks of Texas he enjoyed a string of country hits through the ‘50s with such rough honky-tonk standards such as “Release Me,” “Crazy Arms,” and “Heartaches by the Number.” With his crack Cherokee Cowboys band, which at various times included such future stars as Johnny Paycheck, Johnny Bush, Buddy Emmons, Willie Nelson, and Roger Miller, who wrote Price’s hit “Invitation to the Blues,” Price defiantly resisted the smoother “countrypolitan” style and remained popular with his fiddle-and-steel-and-nasality style well into the ‘60s. When he finally relented and went countrypolitan he did so with a vengeance, producing the lushest and smoothest and most string-laden records in Nashville, and he did it well, producing such fine fare as the Kris Kristofferson-penned “For the Good Times” that he even found favor with the old-fashioned pop fans back east. His masterpiece recording was a lush but gritty rendition of “Night Life,” written by his protégé Willie Nelson, which expresses the broken dreams of a honky-tonk denizen so well it requires several beers to be fully appreciated.
George Jones loomed even larger in country music, with his first hits coming in the mid-‘50s and his last playing in the mid-‘90s and hardly a week going by in between with something on the country play lists, but he never came close to a cross-over hit and was largely unknown to anyone who wasn’t a hard-core country fan. His first hits had a raucous rockabilly sound, with the billy overwhelming the rock, and “Why, Baby, Why,” “White Lighnin’,” “The Race Is On,” and other Jones tunes remain standards for any country band wanting to enliven a dance floor. For most of his career he specialized in slower and sadder fare, however, yielding such gems of manic depression as “She Thinks I Still Care,” “The Window Up Above,” “The Grand Tour,” “A Good Year for the Roses,” and the saddest song ever written, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” There were occasionally the syrupy Nashville string arrangements, but always a heartfelt workingman’s anguish in the vocals, and an unmistakably genuine connection to his downtrodden audience best heard in his duet with sometime-wife Tammy Wynette on “(We’re Not) The Jet Set.”
Both men were just prominent members of a remarkably rich musical community in their heydays, but both stuck around even as it all gave way to a younger, better-looking generation of performers with more elaborate stagecraft and more effective marketing techniques. Our hometown of Wichita has always been kind to those great performers that the rest of the country tends to forget, and would pack the Cotillion or the Coyote Club or some other mid-sized venue for western swing stars such as The Texas Playboys or Hank Thompson and his Brazos Valley Boys, or a Kansas City jazzbo such as “Fiddlin” Claude Williams or Jay McShann, or a seminal rocker such as Sleepy LaBeef or Marvin Rainwater, until they all died off or went into retirement, and Price and Jones were always welcome here. Price was still filling the seats here until old age finally got him off the road, and he never failed to give a show that featured both the honky-tonk and countrypolitan hits despite the strain on his voice. Jones played a show at the venerable Orpheum Theater just months before his death, and although he was fresh out of the hospital and still suffering a respiratory ailment and hoarse throat he gave a memorable performance by using his impending frailty and impending mortality to imbue those drinkin’ and cheatin’ songs with an extra measure of hard-earned melancholy.
Those shows were one of the great things about living in a town like Wichita, and offered an satisfying assurance that our hard-working little city had an authentic artistic sensibility that those snooty cities back east could not duplicate or even comprehend, but they don’t happen so often these days. Country music is still a draw here, and the local paper even had a story recently explaining how only country acts seem to do well at the fancy new downtown that was built on one of those fishy public-private partnerships, but none of it justifies the exorbitant ticket prices or provides the same sense of working class authenticity. There might be good country music out there, but we no longer dredge through all the artificial studio concoctions and video marketing to get to it. The decline is not just in country music but across the American musical spectrum, with everything from Broadway musicals to black inner-city music to suburban garage rock in a similarly sorry state, but the loss of a Price and Jones is especially felt in a town like ours.
We still have the old records, though, and they’ve been getting a lot of play on the turntable today. They might even inspire another age of American greatness, and the good times can linger on.

— Bud Norman

The Unfriendly Skies

This is being written in an affluent suburban community somewhere within the endless of sprawl of the Philadelphia metropolitan area, rather than at our usual humble heartland location, and this radical change of venue was accomplished through the miracle of modern aviation. Air travel is one of our least favorite modern miracles, and we don’t recommend it to anyone, but sometimes it cannot be avoided.
Our aversion to flying is partly a simple old-fashioned phobia – we are strictly terra firma people, and as the old joke goes the firma the ground the less terra we feel – but modernity has also done much to make the experience ever more unpleasant. There are all the annoyances of that have been diligently added by the Transportation Safety Administration, of course, but also a number of indignities resulting from the democratization of airline travel.
At this late date there is no use complaining about the politically correct but logically indefensible policies of the TSA, but the right to do is included in the high cost of a ticket and we will therefore avail ourselves of the opportunity. Just before the security checkpoint we noticed a large display of items that are not allowed on board an airliner, which ranged from a hand grenade to a normal-sized can of shaving cream, and although the prohibition on hand grenades seemed sensible enough we could not fathom what threat our container of Barbasol Beardbuster might pose to our fellow passengers. Nor could we see any reason why we should be required to remove our shoes before being allowed on the plane, as they are ordinary footwear of little destructive force. We recall that several years ago somebody had weaponized a pair of sneakers he wore onto a plane, quite ineffectively as it turned out, but we also recall from the grainy press photos that he was conspicuously deranged-looking and of one of the more terrorism-inclined ethnicities, so we see no reason that TSA agents shouldn’t be allowed some discretion in deciding whose sneakers warrant further investigation.
The passenger arbitrarily singled out for more intensive scrutiny was a petite 50-something woman who looked to be of Native American ancestry, so she could hardly be accused of being a damn foreigner, and there was nothing about her demeanor that aroused our suspicions. She endured the groping and fondling and untoward wand-wavings of the TSA agents with the same resigned stoicism that her fellow passengers displayed when partly disrobing at the checkpoint, and although this is the pragmatic response to such nonsense we hope that the traveling public will eventually grow more restive. Not on our flight, of course, as that would cause insufferable delays, but at some point when we are happily ensconced at home.
Those TSA agents have become more efficient in harassing the people they are charged to protect, at least, and in short course we were on board the plane and heading towards Denver. Even the most casual students of American geography will immediately note that the quickest route from Wichita, Kansas, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, does not go through Denver, Colorado, but such detours are the burden of flyers from mid-sized cities with few direct flights to anywhere. The itinerary required a long hike through the immense Denver airport to another boarding gate some 50 or 60 miles away, or so it seemed, and took us through what looked to be an upscale shopping mall teeming with downscale customers. Our idealized notions of airline travel were formed back when George Jones and Tammy Wynette were proudly singing “We’re Not the Jet Set” as proof of their proletarian bona fides, but these days the jet set apparently includes even George’s and Tammy’s most beer-bellied and under-dressed fans. Everyone was talking on cell phones and hauling the latest in wheeled luggage, with that very self-important look that people have when engaging in such formerly elite behaviors, but clearly the glamour has gone from air travel. The inside of our plane to Philadelphia could have easily been mistaken for a Greyhound bus to Tucumcari, New Mexico, during the Dust Bowl, and we think we might have even spotted a carry-on goat or two, so it should not be surprising that airplane have largely disappeared from popular song ever since Merle Haggard sang “Silver Wings” all those years ago.
Having taken the precaution of staying up very late prior to our early morning departure from Wichita, which was made all the earlier by the irrational demands of the TSA, we managed to snooze through most of the flying. After an even longer hike through the even larger Philadelphia airport we were greeted by our Okie parents who have somehow turned into big-city Pennsylvanians. We have since commenced a week of family reunion and thanksgiving, and expect it will be well worth the trouble. It might even yield a few interesting posts on this strange and vexing part of the world, but if not we’ll try to think of something else to say.

— Bud Norman