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2020: A memorial playlist

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2020MusicGRAPHIC 2020 Music

By Chris Edwards

I was going to write something here about the pettiness over the manufactured controversy as to whether or not someone with a degree in letters deserves the title of doctor, but I won’t plow that ground today. Instead, I’ll venture to put out something a bit more enlightening within this space.

But in case you were wondering, yes, those with Ph.D.s are typically referred to as “Doctor.” I’m pretty sure nobody argued the semantics as to Stephen Hawking or Harold Bloom’s doctoral titles, and I’m sure Jill Biden did the work to earn that title as well, but I digress.

If you are reading this, then congratulations, you’ve made it through this maligned misadventure of a year. In retrospect 2020 won’t likely be thought of as a shorthand phrase for great/perfect vision, nor will it be immediately synonymous with award-winning television investigative journalism programs. It will likely become a curse word.

In between all of the waves of legendary figures from the stage, screen and letters taking their last breaths, the swells of unrest on our soil, the threat of “murder hornets” and the exhausting theatrics surrounding the presidential election, it’s been one helluva mess. Those are just a couple of examples to cite from the headlines. There are many more, and the obvious one that has dominated 99% of the front-page stories since March, well, I’m not going to mention it by name here. I’m going to keep this column free of that name, with the mindset that all efforts, advances and awareness will help vanquish it in 2021.

Instead, what I’m going to do here is to make you a playlist to finish up this doozy of a year. I tried to think of a theme to put a fork in this year, in writing, and came up empty. However, out of all the passings we’ve weathered as a species this year, there have been a disturbing number of great musicians who’ve died.

I’m going to craft you a playlist below comprised of many of those great artists. Your assignment is to cue these up on Spotify, Youtube or whatever means you have at your disposal, since most of you probably don’t do physical media nowadays. Plus, with cultural amnesia being what it is, there’s probably a lot of names and songs here you’ve forgotten about. So, relive and breathe a sigh of relief. You’ve made it, and although the artists behind these great songs listed below weren’t so lucky, their gifts live on.

Saluting Late Legends: A 2020 Playlist

John Prine: “Summer’s End” – John Prine was the poet laureate of the blue-collar American, and his unpretentious, masterful country-folk music never waned in quality throughout a long and storied career. This gem from his final album, The Tree of Forgiveness, is a bittersweet masterpiece. Try to get through it without shedding a bit of pain water. I dare thee.

Charlie Daniels: “Long-Haired Country Boy” – What better song is there about living life free and easy? Say what you want about Charlie’s later-day incarnation as a political pundit, but early on, his musicianship and songwriting were unparalleled.

Van Halen: “Everybody Wants Some” – It seems impossible to imagine the world of rock guitar without its virtuoso Eddie as part of it, but here we are. Although EVH recorded spellbinding solos and wrote some of the most iconic songs in the rock lexicon, there’s a feel-good vibe that permeates this tune more than anything else he and his band recorded.

Jerry Jeff Walker: “I Makes Money” – You really can’t go wrong with any Scamp Walker tune. This jaunty acoustic number appeared on his first album, way before he became synonymous with the Austin scene and the freewheelin’ outlaw country sound. “I Makes Money (Money Don’t Make Me)” pretty much sums up JJW’s entire philosophy to life. Even though by the time he recorded his first record he was already a rich man due to the success of his eternal “Mr. Bojangles” song, he never wanted to be anything but a “Gypsy Songman” (as another of his classics is titled.)

Billy Joe Shaver: “When the Word Was Thunderbird” – Over a circular four-chord groove, the greatest honky-tonk poet this state ever knew manages to lament a price markup on rotgut wine and conflate that heartbreaking issue with another kind of heartbreak. Be sure and find the version of this song from the Electric Shaver album, which combines Billy Joe’s ragged-but-right vocals and poetry with his son Eddy’s hard-rock guitar skills. Eddy was a monster talent gone far too young and now he’s jammin’ in heaven with his papa.

Doug Supernaw: “She Never Looks Back” – Sure Doug Supernaw was a hitmaker and a big deal in the ‘90s, but he might have been the most underrated of all those Texans who hit the big time back then. Every song he recorded was a gem, and this number showcases just how cool and catchy he could be. This tune, off his third major label album You Still Got Me wasn’t the chartbuster that that album’s lead-off single “Not Enough Hours in the Night” was but it should have been.

Joe Diffie: “If the Devil Danced in Empty Pockets” – Like his fellow ‘90s hitmaker right above him on this list, Diffie was most at home with traditional-leaning sounds, like this catchy story song from 1991.

Hal Ketchum: “I Know Where Love Lives” – Another ‘90s hitmaker lost to the year that just wouldn’t relent. Armed with a soulful, incredibly expressive set of vocal cords and the mind and heart of a serious songwriter, this tune is one of those timeless classics that sounds like it already existed for centuries before it was released. Also: the way he holds that note at the end is just superhuman.

Charley Pride: “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” – One of the finest vocalists in recorded music, Charley Pride was like a downhome Frank Sinatra, a consummate pro who excelled at interpreting songs, and oh what songs they were. This classic hit, from the pen of Pride’s choice songwriter Ben Peters, uses a great metaphor to demonstrate the duality of keeping a romance alive. I guess Mr. Pride is now kissing the angels good morning, for real.

Justin Townes Earle: “Harlem River Blues” – This choice cut from Steve’s boy off his album of the same name just shows what a gift we lost all too soon.

Bill Withers: “Lean On Me” – This song is one of the 10 or so classic American songs written and recorded in the last hundred years. If you’ve never heard it or you haven’t heard it in a long time, fix that, like yesterday. This song says it best, simply and beautifully, about something we all need. ‘Nuff said.

KT Oslin: “’80s Ladies” – An oft-overlooked legend, KT Oslin had a stellar, but brief run of albums in the decade that this song references. It’s a catchy middle finger to ageism and sexism and should be a karaoke perennial.

 

What do you think? Is this list appropriate for 2020? Discuss it here at the ETxN Forum.

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CMA needs to remember legends

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Country Music Stock Image 111920Stock photo courtesy of Pixabay

By Chris Edwards

There used to be this thing called country music, actually it was an artform.

Under its big umbrella, there existed a long, storied history of great artists and entertainers; everyone from pioneers like The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie to early sensations like the great Hank Williams, Bob Wills and George Jones to Texan iconoclasts like Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Waylon Jennings, have all blazed their own respective trails while remaining true to the sake of the song. They all wrote and sang songs about the common man’s trials and tribulations; the joy and the pain came through clear in great, universal melodies and lyrics.

As with any artform that becomes commercialized, an organization popped up dedicated to its welfare.

Formed in 1958, the Country Music Association formed in a Miami hotel room with a small group of industry folks gathering to start an organization to promote and further the reach of country music.

Last week, the CMA hosted its annual parade of accolades, and although the proceedings were conducted in a different way than they had been in the past, thanks to the pandemic, the level of disrespect was high.

Headlines popped up the next day that spoke to that level of disrespect, and with good reason. Jason Isbell, whose mainstream popularity is a big win for real, heartfelt art, along with his lovely wife Amanda Shires, severed ties with the CMA due to the organization’s refusal to acknowledge the passing of three giants of country music: John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker and Billy Joe Shaver.

There were tributes paid throughout the show to other titans of the genre, such as Charlie Daniels and Joe Diffie, but to slight Prine, Walker and Shaver is unconscionable.

I didn’t watch the broadcast as it aired, save for a little bit of Luke Combs performing a song that sounded to me like a rip-off of Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road,” but I watched many of the tributes and talked-about moments after the fact online. Now I enjoy Joe Diffie as much as the next guy, and his passing from the coronavirus (followed closely by Prine) was tragic and served as a wake-up call to many about the pandemic, but no way is Diffie a more influential artist than those other three.

The endless parade of legends passing grew by another a couple of days following the CMA Awards, when Texas legend (and a man I’m proud to call my friend) Doug Supernaw died. Supe was far more commercially successful in his heyday than Prine, Walker or Shaver, but I doubt that even he would have merited a mention in tribute from the CMA had he passed prior to the broadcast.

It’s a sad state of affairs when an organization that claims it is dedicated to country music cannot even mention Jerry Jeff, the man who wrote “Mr. Bojangles,” one of the most classic, beloved songs in the American songbook. The mentality seems to be “let’s ignore legit legends and focus on Florida Georgia Line and Jason Aldean,” and the ridiculous, artless cliches of what “country music” is through a modern lens.

There’s at least some positivity to be found with Combs, who won a wheelbarrow load of hardware from the CMA. Aside from what sounds to me to be a siren call to Steve Earle’s lawyers, Combs at least sounds real. His lyrics strike me as inane twaddle, but he comes across as one of the few artists on what is called country radio nowadays who could actually convincingly sing a Hank, Lefty or Gary Stewart tune.

So much of what is marketed as country music today seems indicative of a problem our culture has, by and large. So much of the buying power is given to young people, and there seems to be a devaluing of things deemed “obsolete.” It’s all about what is new, sleek and shiny, and marketing what the genre has become as a lifestyle signifier, instead of something rooted in reality.

If recent events have shown me anything, it’s that it is an absolutely wonderful thing to be able to choose one’s own set of facts tailored to one’s preferred reality. There’s some solace in that, and hey, anything is possible in this accursed year.

In my preferred reality, these late, great artists mentioned in this column, along with so many others, are still able to sing for us. Also, in that alternate reality, the public still prefers real, honest expressions. Ah well, as long as vinyl is still being pressed and my turntable needle holds up, they’ll all be alive in my house.

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