Advertisements

The Beat Goes On in the Heartland

Wichita is a surprising city, and even after more than half a century here we have recently been surprised to discover that the local music scene is better than ever and suddenly as good as you’ll find in far bigger cities.
Kirby’s Beer Store held its annual “Meat Fest” on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and you should have been there. The notorious little ghetto dive bar has been holding the event in the dead of winter for the past couple of decades are so, and it always features plenty of free meat grilled on the patio, a non-stop lineup of local bands, and a massive crowd of young and old hipsters, but this year’s edition was the best we can recall. The hot dogs and sausages and burgers and pulled barbecue barbecue were delicious, and the music even more so. We didn’t get to hang around long enough to hear all of the 38 — count ’em, 38 — local acts, but we heard enough to confirm that Wichita at the moment is one of America’s most musical cities.
Aside from the quality and quantity of the output, we were also struck by its diversity. On Thursday we heard an intriguing jazz-rock-hip-hop quarter called the Lewelheads, the next night was a hard-rocking but straight-up country-and-western outfit called Sunshine Trucking, and Saturday’s highlight was a rough-edged punk band with a slightly country woman singing called Herd of the Huntress. Sunday brought an assortment of small group and solo acts, including a sleepy-eyed six-foot-six or so fellow of approximately 280 pounds who bills himself Tired Giant and had some heartbreaking songs about his alcoholic dad, a dreadlocked young white woman named Juliet Celedor, and a hard-to-define trio of bass and cello and guitar called Sombre Sangre. Local hard rock legends Black Flag also performed, as did the popular blues chanteuse Jenny Wood and the venerable jazz guitarist Sterling Gray, and the always excellent guitarist and singer Tom Page did a set, and we’re told we missed a whole lot of other good stuff.
Somehow some of the city’s best missed the lineup, too. The top-notch folk-country-jazz-blues Haymakers couldn’t be there, Folk rocker and standards singer Nikki Moddelmog and her crack brand were unavailable, and although the lovely rock chanteuse Lalanea Chastain was in the audience she never took the stage, and there’s a very hot young trumpet-playing jazzbo named Nathan williams who didn’t appear with either of his two very good outfits. Not to mention all the great show tune singers and gospel shouters in town who didn’t get an invitation.
Not bad for a mid-sized city in the middle of the country, but Wichita does have its advantages. Folks have been playing music all along around here, and the city has produced such notable performers as rockabilly legend Marvin Rainwater and hippie heroes The Serfs and the all-time great punk band The Embarrassment, as well the punk-bluegrass Split Lip Rayfield with its small but fervent internal cult following, and a surprising number of globally acclaimed opera singers. Here in the middle of the country Wichita was a regular stop for all the great jazz bands of Kansas City’s heyday, as well as northern stop for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and all the great western swing outfits, the southern bluesman also played here on a regular basis, and Wichita always welcomed all the hard-rocking bands from the industrial midwest during the ’60s and ’70s. The music departments at Wichita State University and Friends University supply the city with well-trained classical and jazz players, too, and the city’s churches provide plenty more thoroughly educated musicians, not to mention all the autodidacts that Wichita seems to spawn.
Wichita’s big enough to have talented people from each of America’s many rich musical traditions, but it’s small enough that they all wind up meeting one another and playing together and creating some intriguing combinations of styles you won’t find elsewhere. The city is racially diverse, as well, and lately several of its best bands feature talented white and black and Latino and Native American and Asian players, and the teenagers and the twenty-somethings and even the players we fondly remember from our long-ago youth on the Wichita music scene also get together.There’s a variety of venues of various sizes that offer them a place to play, and the city government has even started a free bus service along the stretch of Douglas where you’ll find most of them. Lacey Cruse, another talented singer, was recently elected to the Sedgwick County Commission, and music retains a powerful influence in Wichita.
Throughout America’s rich musical history such cities as New Orleans and Chicago and Memphis and Nashville and New York and Los Angeles have always played an outsized role, and at times such locals as Akron, Ohio, and Athens, Georgia, and Minneapolis and Oklahoma City have their eras of prominence, but American music lovers shouldn’t overlook Wichita, especially now.
If you’re out of town and can’t make here for a night at Kirby’s or Barleycorns or the Shamrock or the Artichoke or the Cotillion or that new Wave place over in rocking Old Town, we suggest you venture out in your own hometown to see what’s cooking in the local dives. What’s on the radio and television these days is mostly awful, and the best American music has always popped in the most unusual places, so there’s a good chance you’ll find something better.

— Bud Norman

Advertisements

An Early Start on Thanksgiving

A dear old friend treated us to a Coors and some chicken tenders at one of the rough and tumble Delano district’s swankest joints on Tuesday, which led to a chance encounter with an entire family of old and dear friends, which led to one of the family’s talented musicians participating in a fine jazz concert at a cigar bar over in the Old Town district, where we had another Coors, and with Thanksgiving coming up we arrived home in too good a mood to give the day’s news more than a cursory glance at the news.
There was plenty of it, of course, and as usual much of the news provided plenty of opportunity for grumpy old Never-Trumpers such as ourselves to bash President Donald Trump. The stock markets had another dreadful day, and although that’s not necessarily Trump’s fault it leaves him with nothing to brag about. There was yet another embarrassing story about the apparent con man Trump has at least temporarily appointed to run the Justice Department, apparently to stymy the special counsel investigation into the “Russia thing.” According to a report in The Washington Post senior White House advisor and First Daughter Ivanka Trump has reportedly used a private e-mail server to conduct government business, which is at least somewhat similar to what led to all those “lock her up” chants about Democratic presidential nominee at Trump’s still-ongoing campaign rallies. According to another report in The New York Times, Trump did try his best to have Clinton locked up, which strikes us as a pretty damned banana republic kind of thing to do. He also once again dismissed the conclusions of the nation’s intelligence communities and accepted the assurances of a friendly dictator, n this case making it clear that America would let the Saudi Arabian dictator get away with the murder of a legal American resident.
As tempting as it was to pile on, we decided to give it all just that brief sneering mention. Better for now to warm ourselves in the soothing flames of family and friends, and embrace the holiday spirit of thanksgiving and glad tidings to all men and the dawn a brand new and unsullied year that make the cold and darkness grayness almost tolerable. Besides, those damned Democrats will have a majority in the House of Representatives installed in early January, and we expect that all of their nosy investigative committees will eventually make sufficient hay out of all the scandals.
We’ll even go so far as to acknowledge that Trump handled the nation’s endearingly weird longstanding tradition of the annual “turkey pardon” ceremony quite well, and note that even The Washington Post agreed, despite the snarky headline. This year’s updated “turkey pardon” decided which of two turkeys would be spared the Thanksgiving dinner ax by an internet vote on the White House web site, and Trump couldn’t resist a couple of jokes about the loser demanding endless recounts, and obvious allusion to the Florida and Georgia midterms, but everyone agreed it was it uncharacteristically good natured. Should Trump decide to go with the folksy nice-guy shtick instead of his usual “lock her up” tough-guy persona we expect his poll numbers would improve, no matter what direction the stock market indices might go, but no amount of holiday cheer can make us hopeful about that.
Even so, we’ll try to pay less attention to the news today and tomorrow, and be thankful to God for family and friends and an abiding faith in the endearingly weird traditions and institutions that have made and thus far kept America great. Friday’s forecast calls for another cold and dark and possibly snowy day in this atypically cold and snowy autumn we’re having around here, and by then we’ll be recovering from a Thanksgiving Day’s L-triptothan hangover and get back to brooding about the latest news, but until then we’ll wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving for all the good stuff.

— Bud Norman

<

Scotty Moore, RIP and Good Rockin’ Tonight

During our daily efforts to find something in the news to write about other Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump or the rest of all that dreary business we happened upon an obituary for Scotty Moore, who died Wednesday at the age of 84, which only accentuated the decline of western civilization to our rockabilly-loving sensibilities.
Only the true rock ‘n’ roll aficionados will recognize the name, but they’ll all gladly explain to you that Moore was somehow one of those rare guitarists who made on a real mark on American culture. He grew up picking cotton and playing guitar with his musical family in rural Tennessee, then quit school after the ninth grade and lied about his age to join the Navy at age 16, then wound up in Memphis working in a tire factory and a dry cleaning shop during the day and at night trying to make a mark on the city’s world-class music scene. He was an acolyte of country virtuoso Chet Atkins, as is obvious on any listening to his playing, but he mostly liked to play jazz in a Les Paul style, and was more obviously familiar with the hard-edged blues sound of his adopted city, so of course he wound up in a very nasal and twangy and hillbilly band called Doug Poindexter and his Starlight Wranglers, which cut a couple of not-bad sides for the fledging Sun Records Company over on Union Avenue. Which wound up changing the course of American musical history in the late 20th century.
The guy who started and pretty much single-handedly ran Sun Records was a cotton-picking white boy from rural Tennessee, too, but he’d heard enough black folks singing the blues in those cotton patches that it was his greatest musical passion, and although he was also a some-time country fan and would occasionally release singles by the likes of Doug Poindexter and his Starlight Wranglers his business was mostly in such all-time great blues acts as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and James Cotton and Junior Parker and Pat Hare and the rest of Memphis’ top-notch blues talent. Those guys eventually headed north in the great black migration, though, and wound up signing with the Chess Records label in Chicago that had previously paid for the rights to the master recordings done in the Sun studios, so Sun Records boss Sam C. Phillips started looking around for some white guy or another who might be able to approximate that black sound he loved so much.
Sun Records had already released a record by “Harmonica Frank,” a ruggedly fine piece of folk art primitivism by some wrinkled white rural Tennessee sharecropper that even the most Afro-Centric ears would assume to be some wrinkled old black guy, and white honky-tonkers such as Roy Hall and Smokey Woods had already been playing a black-hillbilly miscegenation style of music for so long they were already old and ugly, but Phillips was looking for something more marketable to mid-’50s America. Sun Studios also made much-needed money by pressing vanity records for a reasonable fee for anyone who dropped in, and one of those customers wanted to make a hokey record for his mother on her birthday was such a good-looking guy that the the Sun Records secretary made a note of him, and she insisted that he listen to the hunk’s recording of “My Happiness,” and thus Elvis Presley wound up making his debut recordings over on Union Avenue. With his stripped-down primitivist philosophy of music, Phillips shrewdly decided to have Presley accompanied only by the reliably on-the-beat bassist Bill Black, and that guitar-pickin’ guy from the Starlight Wranglers who provided the best of their not-bad recordings.

By all accounts the recording session started horribly, with some desultory run-throughs of such corny fare of “My Happiness,” but after so many hours and so many cigarettes and so many sips of moonshine whisky and indulgences of whatever other vices you might have encountered at Sun Studios over on Union Avenue after midnight they started messing around in their hillbilly way with a 10-year-old and not well-known but definitively-black blues song by otherwise long-forgotten Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup called “That’s Alright, Mama,” and it sounded pretty damned good. They also came up with a blackened by rhythm-and-blues version of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys’ definitively hillbilly “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” which also sounded pretty damned good and wound up on the B-side of a single that was a regional hit in both the black and white record stores of the segregated south, and set in motion the Presley phenomenon. That was followed by such hot wax as “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and “Trying to Get to You,” and with every white and black girl in the south hot for Elvis he was soon sold for a relative song to to the major label RCA records and its multi-media reach, and suddenly the bizarre miscegenation musical style of poor white trash and ghetto blacks called “rock ‘n’ roll” was an undeniable influence on American culture.
We hate to overstate anything, and abhor our cultural tendency to do so on almost every occasion, so we’ll admit that that rock ‘n’ roll might well have happened without Elvis, and that Elvis might have well happened without Scotty Moore, but we’ll still insist that seems the way it’s turned out.
The interracial music of Elvis and Scotty and Bill, as they were billed on that initial release, exemplified a cross-cultural tradition that had already been going in America from the beginning and through the note-reading masterpieces of African-American culture and the the suddenly polyrhythmic and intuitive styles of European-American had already been going on for decades, from the jazz age through western swing and those old and ugly rhythm and blues honky-tonkers, and the western civilization classical aspirations of Duke Ellington and the rest of the best of the black talent, so there are no essential people in a true republic.
Elvis Presley was undeniably good-looking and could surely shake those hips as well as any black man, and he could sure as hell sing, too, so there’s always a chance he would have made his mark without Scotty Moore playing the lead guitar, but we doubt it. Those first Sun Records releases were credited to “Elvis, Scotty, and Bill,” and although we liked the “Elvis the Original Hillbilly Cat” signature on the later releases we always thought the original credits summed the band up best. The lead electric guitar-playing on those original Sun sessions still strikes us as extraordinary, and the bass-playing by the the formidable Bill Back is still exactly on beat, and our favorite part of the masterpiece “Tryin’ to Get to You” is still that soulful solo by the not at all good-looking cotton-picken’ white boy playing that mean guitar. Scotty and Bill stayed will Elvis through the early RCA hits, and wound up in some of those embarrassing movies Elvis did, but they both eventually dropped out of he shadows of his good-looking spotlight.
Bill Black’s always on-beat “Bill Black Combo” had some minor rock ‘n’ roll hits, and Scotty Moore had some minor success doing studio work, but he mostly lived off his family’s various business, and both were memorably in on that epic Elvis “comeback special” on network television, but they were mostly confined to anonymity until Moore’s death. The Washington Post and The New York Times and all the polite media have taken notice of Moore’s passing, even if it’s left to such rockabilly-loving and impolite media as ourselves to truly fret about it, or the cultural decline that his little-noticed passing heralds. These days the ideas of fusing hillbilly and black music is derided as a politically incorrect “cultural appropriation,” and even ┬áthe most anti-politically correct types probably have no idea who Scotty Moore was, and we’re left with only the heartening licks of a cotton-pickin’Tennesse farm boy’s prototypical rock ‘n’ roll.

— Bud Norman

Two Hot Fiddlers, RIP

One of the many crises America faces in this period of cultural decline is a severe shortage of first-rate fiddle players, and the problem was greatly worsened over the past few weeks by the deaths of Benjamin “Tex” Logan on April 24 and and then Johnny Gimble on Saturday. One can hope that we’ll hear their likes again, and that the quintessentially American traditions they came from will be revived, but the way things are going we can’t help but worry that it will be a long while.
Gimble’s name is the more familiar of the two, at least to those music lovers fortunate enough have to lived on the plains for a sufficient number of years to be familiar with the ineffable wonders of western swing. Born in 1926 to a ┬ámusically gifted family in sparsely populated west Texas, Gimble was reared in the Scots-Irish tradition of fiddling but also absorbed the blues of his black neighbors and fellow cotton-patch pickers, the sophisticated jazz music that was making its way through the radio waves to even the remote regions of the country, from such far-away sources as the New York City Onyx Club where Stuff Smith was fiddlin’ hokum and even from as far away as Sweden’s unaccountably jazzy Svend Asmussen, and especially the strange hybrid of those three styles that The Light Crust Doughboys and Milton Brown and his Brownies and other bands were gradually developing in the southwestern states. By his early teens Gimble was making such a professional splash that he was playing with and learning from the likes of the great J.R. Chatwell of Adolph Hofner’s Texans, which was understandably re-dubbed “Tex” Hoffner’s Texans around the time of America’s entry into World War II, the great Cliff Bruner of Texas Wanderer’s fame, and the great Huggins Williams of Prince Albert Hunt and his East Texas Serenaders, who had started the western swing ball rolling with its stone age recordings of rural white string-based ragtime. By his late teens Gimble had so successfully melded these disparate styles, and with such an astounding degree of virtuosity, that he landed a gig at the very top of the western swing heap with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.
By that time the Playboys had been dominating the music scene in the southwest quadrant of the United States for two decades, and had featured such formidable fiddlers as Jesse Ashlock, who laid down some sizzling jazz, and Wills himself, who as good as anybody in the old-fashioned Scots-Irish style, but Gimble’s few years with the band were among its very best. In the mid-’50s rockabilly and the rest of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution at last overwhelmed western swing even in its native region, and Gimble was forced to retreat to Nashville and earn a good living and a stellar reputation playing more straitlaced country music in Nashville’s still-lucrative studios. You can hear his perfectly appropriate playing on a number of hits by the most popular country musicians of the era, including George Jones and Roy Clark, but Gimble inevitably grew bored and returned to his beloved plains to play for the aging aficionados who still flocked to the dance halls of Texas and Oklahoma and Kansas and the western swinging region for the real deal prairie stuff, although he still continued to make classic recordings.
When Merle Haggard went to cut his epic rendition of “Brain Cloudy Blues” he insisted on Gimble providing the fiddle, and the result is a masterpiece of American music. A few notes into Gimble’s solo Haggard urges him to “get it low, man, get it low,” and Gimble gets right down into that loamy dirt from whence America’s best music has always come. He showed the same knack with a younger generation of talented performers such as Mark O’Connor and Asleep at the Wheel who were eager to learn what he had gleamed from Chatwell and Bruner and Wills and Asmussen and all the rest of that great line of fiddling. Our hope is that they picked something up, and will somehow be able to pass it along.
There’s also a lot to be learned from both Benjamin F. Logan Jr. and his alter-ego, “Tex” Logan, but the former will probably more influential than the latter. “Tex” Logan was an awe-inspiring bluegrass fiddler, who mastered the technically demanding style with such virtuosity that he was frequently invited to play along with none other than Bill Monroe, the acknowledged original master of the genre, and although his fame never spread far beyond the elite circles of bluegrass musicians he was highly regarded within them. Emmylou Harris and Jerry Garcia and Bob Dylan and the “newgrass” generation of players that kept the style alive frequently recorded his tunes and employed his playing, but he always took the stage with the same corny cowboy-hatted persona that he had learned in his tiny Texas hometown of Coahoma. The music was always rural and rough-edged, too, with a high-lonesome hillbilly sound so many city-slickers associate with that oddly-shaped banjo player in “Deliverance,” but a more careful listening to “Tex” Logan and the other virtuosos of this ancient and intricate music will reveal a remarkable level of intellectual sophistication.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Benjamin F. Logan Jr. was also one of the most remarkable scientific thinkers of his generation. A graduate of the electrical engineering school at Texas Tech, with a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a doctorate from Columbia University, Logan became well-known within engineering circles as a research mathematician at Bell Laboratories from 1956 to 1993. He wrote a dissertation on high-pass signals in the mid-’60s, did groundbreaking work in computer-generated reverberation of sound, which unfortunately led to all those kids downloading his songs off the internet instead of buying them on records, and along the way he threw in such innovations as colorless artificial reverb and an echo canceller for satellite communications and some big thoughts about the “Shepp-Logan Phantom” which helped doctors to render potentially life-saving images in cranial scans. We’re confident that a lot of bright young men and women are following up on all these ideas, this being a very high-tech age, but we’d like to thank that some of “Tex” Logan’s low-down fiddlin’ will also echo through the internet and the ages.
In Tom Wolfe’s intriguing history of the technological revolution of the past decades, “Robert Noyce and His Congregation,” he notes how many of the era’s greatest scientific minds seemed to come from tiny little towns on the windswept plains and deserts. He attributes this partly to the egalitarian-by-default nature of the educational systems that provided learning to both the rich and poor seated together in those hardscrabble places, and to the strange snobbishness about engineering and other technical professionals among the educated upper-classes of the east, but we believe that the freedom of that time and place also played a role. The bright young men and women of that time and place were free to let their imaginations soar over the vast landscape, rooted in the traditions of their upbringing but open to the intuitive brilliance of their supposedly unsophisticated neighbors and fellow cotton-pickers, inspired by the sounds pouring through the modern age of radio, ready to encode those sounds on to something so far-fetched as internet, unrestrained by the prejudices of the past or the fads of the moment, well educated by home-grown, human-to-human cultural institutions safely outside the official academy, and always able to take it low, man, low with the highest level of soulful craftsmanship, which is pretty much America at its best. You can still hear an inspiring few notes of that freedom and excellence in the recordings of Gimble and Logan, and we hope that a few generations from now they’ll still be able to hear live in some low-down beer joint and not just on whatever newfangled gizmos they’ve come up with to play the old stuff.

— Bud Norman