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

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