Someone Called Lil Nas X, Some Familiar but Dangerous Old Town Roads, and the Crossroads of America on a Sleepless Weekend

After a long and mostly sleepless and stomach flu-afflicted weekend, which entailed an early-morning trip down to Oklahoma for the funeral of a beloved family member and a caffeine-fueled late afternoon drive back up I-35, and a near-wreck with some idiot who blew past a stop sign at ten miles an hour over the speed limit on the way home from the worship service we’d somehow made it to at the West Douglas Church of Christ, and then a much-needed nap and a couple of much-needed beers at Kirby’s Beer Store, we tried to catch up with the rest of the news. There was some cold comfort, at least, in finding that the rest of the world seems to have its own troubles.
One story that caught our eye was about some some rapper called Lil Nas X being removed from Billboard Magazine’s list of top-100 country-and-western top-sellers, where it had debuted in the 19th spot a few weeks ago and begun climbing up the chart. We’d previously never heard of Lil Nas X nor his his country-and-western song “Old Town Road,” but for various reasons we found it interesting nonetheless.
For the past half-century or so Billboard Magazine has been the definitive source of the weekly top 100 charts for American music and all its various branches, with all the authority of the Dow Industrial Average or the Bureau of Economic Analysis on the state of the broader economy, and for many years of our life we paid even more rapt attention to Billboard’s findings. The magazine has apparently dropped “Old Town Road” from its country-and-western charts because it’s insufficiently country-and-western, too, and as lifelong fans of country-and-western and all the other branches of the glorious tree of America’s music that all grabbed our attention. These days the debate about the culture is as dreary as the one about the economy, with the left talking all sorts of “cultural appropriation” nonsense about the interracial and cross-cultural pollinations that have made American culture in general and American music in particular so rich, and the right seemingly suddenly intent on making American great again with its own racialist agenda, and somehow some rapper called Lil Nas X and his “Old Town Road” is caught up in that.
We’re old and grew up in Kansas with all the kinfolk down in Oklahoma, so we also grew up with Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams and Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys and Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys and Buck Owens’ Buckaroos and Merle Haggard and his Strangers playing on the 8-track or AM radio, and thus have some pretty fixed ideas about what constitutes country-and-western music. We followed the internet links to hear (and watch) Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” and although it doesn’t meet our strict standards we wouldn’t kick it off the country-and-western charts. The recording has some bucolic lyrics and some banjo licks “sampled” from previous recording, the video features some old west imagery from some violent cowboy shoot-’em-up video game, and it’s as least as country-and-western as anything we find on the radio on two drives between Wichita and Oklahoma City on Saturday, or any of the godawful bumper music that New York City-born-and-bred Sean Hannity uses on the right-wing talk radio show where he’s constantly apologizing to his heartland audience for the New York-City-born and bred President Donald Trump.
“Country-and-western” is a vague enough term to encompass everything from Jimmie Rodgers’ primitivism to the string-laden elegance of Patsy Cline, “rock ‘n’ roll” ranges from the soft rock of Simon and Garfunkel to the hard rock of The Ramones, “jazz” stretches from Louis Armstrong to John Coltrane and beyond, and even the best of “it’s a black thing” “rhythm and blues” and “soul” and “hip hop” involve some talented white boys and European instruments and musical techniques who complicate the leftist racial narratives about that great stuff. Country-and-western is considered a white boy thing, but Rodgers and Williams and Wills and Monroe and Owens and Haggard always freely acknowledged everything they learned from their black friends, and we’ve found that if you want to fully enjoy the best of America’s great music you should set all of the left’s and right’s racial politics aside.
The definitions of “country-and-western” and “rock ‘n’ roll” and “jazz” and “hip hop” and the rest of American music gloriously diverse genres have mostly been defined by whatever the self-identified fans of those of genres have liked, and until recently they’ve done a pretty good job of it. Lil Nas X “Old Town” isn’t a great a recording by any of American music’s historic standards, but we’ve heard worse, and we hate to see it kicked off this week’s Billboard “country-and-western” charts, even if it’s still faring well on the “rhythm and blues” chart, which these days is the magazines old-fashioned way of saying “hip hop.” Billboard has always judged sales of “country-and-western” and “rhythm and blues” based on what the self-indentified “country and western” and “rhythm and blues” stores were selling, and although that’s harder to gauge in a time when all the kids are downloading their music off the internet it does seem that Lil Nas X was fairly popular with the country-and-western audience.
We rather like it that these young whippersnapper country-and-western fans are willing to embrace someone so obviously black he’s called Lil Nas X, and that black urban culture is culturally appropriating banjo licks and cowboy imagery, but we hope they all learn there’s better cross-cultural stuff on both sides of that divide, and start learning from that.
Meanwhile we notice that former Vice President and current Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden once again stands credibly accused of touchy creepiness toward women, and given the Democratic party’s currently strict standards that should be a problem for the him and the Democrats. We also notice that the leader of the erstwhile family values Republican party is President Donald “Grab ’em by the pussy” Trump, and that it doesn’t seem to be a problem for him or the Republicans. There’s also talk of Trump shutting down the border with Mexico, his ongoing trade wars and growing trade deficits with almost everyone else, most of the rest of the Democratic presidential field is so far to the crazy left that Biden’s creepiness toward women doesn’t seem so bad, and the economic and political news is almost as bad as what else is on the radio.
Even so, we’ll try to get a good night’s sleep and face another April Fools’ Day with help from the music and history of better times.

— Bud Norman

Tommy, Clif, and Tommy, RIP

All of the original Ramones are now dead, two of the best rockers in our prairie city have recently passed away, and what’s left of rock ‘n’ roll music suddenly isn’t at all satisfying.
You probably had to be a troubled youth in the late ’70s and early ’80s to fully appreciate The Ramones, but we were there and you can trust us when we say they were one of America’s greatest musical creations. At a time when rock ‘n’ roll stars were absurdly overpaid prima donnas striking ridiculous poses in even more ridiculous clothes, pretending that a musical style derived from greasy-haired poor white trash in the hills and prairies and bayous in an unholy alliance with the no-account negroes on the street corners of the roughest slums was now some sort of effete art form, The Ramones came out of the garages in some nondescript New York suburb wearing leather jackets and torn jeans and cheap sneakers with shaggy hair in their eyes to pound out a fast and furious and funny reminder of what the real deal sounded liked. No synthesizers or drum machines or fancy production techniques or any pretense of redeeming social value, just an insistent man-made beat and a thudding bass line and three chords screeching from an electric guitar while a gloriously ugly lead singer wailed “I”m a Teenage Lobotomy,”  “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” “I Wanna Be Sedated,” “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” “Gabba Gabba Hey,” or similarly understandable and socially irrelevant rock ‘n’ roll sentiments. The Ramones’ formula distilled rock ‘n’ roll to its intoxicatingly stupid quintessence, and even now when we slap the old sides on the turntable we still tremble at its all-American brilliance.
That basic idea of The Ramones became known as punk rock, and was eagerly embraced by a smattering of oddball kids here in Wichita. With the band’s music blaring on record players at parties and in the afternoons at the apartments of unemployed friends we’d share the half-baked ideas that had been inspired by the demonstration that rock ‘n’ roll or any other cultural expression was something to be created at ground level by ordinary Americans such as ourselves rather than a commodity to be purchased from the established manufacturers. The more musically inclined among us formed bands such as The Agaarns and The Dream Dates and The Inevitable and that classic international cult band The Embarrassment, others painted pictures, some took photographs, and a few of us were compelled to write breathless accounts about with a few pieces that were somehow sneaked into the pages of the local newspaper. It was great fun, the sort of giddy entertainment that can only be enjoyed at a young age and with plenty of rock ‘n’ roll, and seems to have had some lasting value.
Some of those troubled and creative kids we knew on the scene have died early deaths from various causes, one is locked away in a federal prison on some very embarrassing charges, others have drifted away to unknown fates, but many are still coming up with something worthwhile to contribute to the local culture, or at least offering some much needed friendship. The art shows that still draw a crowd on the “Final Fridays” of every month by collusion of the painterly part of town aren’t so interesting these days, but they’re still there and so long as they are it provides hope that another John Noble or William Dickerson or one of the other truly great Wichita painter will some day arrive. The band scene is in one of its periodic slow points around here, so far as well gather from our admittedly infrequent forays into the bars where live music is still heard, but there’s still enough of the real deal rock ‘n’ roll to germinate another generation.
The young punks will have to do it without Clif Major and Tommy Crabb, though, and that’s going to be tough. Major was a local guitar star going back to the mid’-’60s, when his screeching solos for the oh-so-southside band The Outcasts transformed the local scene. Most of the well-scrubbed Wichita youth back then preferred the bouncy rock ‘n’ roll of such uniformed midwestern horn bands as The Fabulous Flippers, while the more sophisticated college hippies went for the slightly jazzy psychedelics of the great Mike Finnegan and his Serfs or the San Francisco-connected Jerry Hahn Brotherhood, but The Outcasts introduced the bluesy working class that was being exploited by British bands such as The Yardbirds and The Rolling Stones and wound up winning all the battles of the bands. The feat almost killed Major a couple of times, and we got to know him well enough that he laughingly recalled for us how a subsequent stint in a bluegrass gospel band saved his life by keeping him off the prodigious diet of drugs that had fueled those screeching guitar solos, but he lasted long enough to enliven the ’80s rock scene with some gritty sax-driven ’50s rock ‘n’ roll and offer guitar-playing advice to the 21st Century’s local rockers at his ultra-cool instrument shop and to raise a son who slaps a pretty mean rockabilly upright bass in the local bands. Major was a good musician and a good guy, right up to the point that he lost his long battle with cancer, and Wichita and the world can ill-afford to lose either of those.
Crabb was a longtime musical collaborator of Major’s, and his death in his early ’60s about a week after Major’s passing was an unexpected blow. Every local music lover we ran into had the same stunned reaction, that they’d just run into him a few days before and thought he looked great. He’d been drumming for local bands as long as anyone could remember, and it was widely expected to last forever. We remember with particular fondness a night that he and Major had a gig backing up the great Bo Diddley at a sleazy little strip mall on the near west side, and how their natural affinity for the good time music with the Bo Diddle beat had propelled the jaded old pioneers to new frontiers of the real deal rock ‘n’ roll. His last gig was The Tom Page Band, a rootsy outfit that jumps from old-time country to down-home blues to long-haired rock with an effortless knack and is about as good as it gets around here, and its sad to be dreading their next performance. Crabb was a good drummer and another good guy, and a friend of ours who used his bills-paying services laying tile in a renovated kitchen assures us he was quite good at that job, and we’ll miss a drummer a who could answer a cell phone call in the middle of a show without missing a beat.
Tommy Ramone and his fellow Ramones and Clif Major and Tommy Crabb all died younger than people are supposed to in this day of medical miracles, none of them reaching that three score and ten that the Bible described as the age of man, and we lament the work they each left undone. There was never going to be a Ramones reunion, as there’s no sense in sixty-something gray hairs banging out three chords about sniffing glue, and when replacement Marky Ramone tried to revive the old punk spirit at the Wichita River Festival last spring one of our original punk scene friends complained that some idiot was trying to start a “wave,” but we understand that Tommy Ramone was still performing some interesting acoustic folk music, going back to an even more democratic era of American music, and we would loved to have heard it. One of the guys from The Embarrassment is back in town to take care of his aging father, who was once a prominent player on the local big band swing scene, and the most famous local act is Split Lip Rayfield with their punk-meets-bluegrass blend, which can be quite exhilarating when the boys are on their game, and we hold out hope that Wichita will once again realize the glorious possibilities of that unholy alliance of greasy poor white trash and the no-account negroes on the street corners and the very heart and soul of working class America..
Maybe it’s already out there, and we’re just too inclined to stay home to have heard it. We’re always asking the young folks we run into about it, though, and they always glumly assure us that we’re not missing anything special. Nobody we run into eagerly debates who’s the best guitar players out there, the way that Major’s fans did back in the ’60s, and they certainly don’t argue about who’s the best clarinet player, the way our old fogey friends did even into our early youth, and these days the best drum players are all computer programs. America’s popular culture is now just another commodity bought from the established manufacturers, not something that ordinary Americans create spontaneously and joyously and rebelliously and dangerously, and we mourn that passing most of all.

— Bud Norman