Culture Currents moves to the Grand Tetons

Readers may have noticed the change in the theme image of Culture Currents, to a photograph of the Grand Tetons, taken on March 11, 2012 by Michael Melford of National Geographic. I feel it adds a bit more dimension to my thematics even though the concept of “currents” is here a bit more subtle. However, the full, uncropped photo above includes much more of the Snake River undulating into the foreground. Here it is for your delectation. Of course, the wind is a primary source of aquatic currents, so the wind that helps shape the waves also moves the clouds that engulfed the mighty peaks this day.

This scene recalls my very first experience in the Tetons when, with my friend Frank Stemper, I began a climb of Teewinot Mountain with no experience or equipment,  back in my foolhardy youth. (Teewinot  is the broad-faced snowy mountain above the last bend in the river in the background. The Grand Teton, situated on Teewinot’s left, is invisible in cloud cover here. But I chose Melford’s National Georgraphic photo for its obvious beauty and complexity.)

Below are photos of the day we climbed in late August in the early 70s.

Frank Stemper eyes the summit of Teewinot Mountain before our climb — Photo by Kevin Lynch

Frank and I climbed a ways above Teewinot’s tree line on the left face, and then retreated. But a dense cloud descended on the mountain, and we could hardly see a few feet in front of us — when we reached the edge of a steep cliff. We had no choice but to stop and plop down and wait for the clouds to clear. But night was falling and it began raining and the temperature hovered cruelly just above freezing. So we crawled into our cloth sleeping bags and lay shivering on the edge of the cliff, with our knees up in the air to try to keep our crotches dry. Frank offered me a cigarette for a bit of warmth, or one might say, cold comfort. I appreciated the puffs but it is the last cigarette I’ve ever smoked.

Frank fell asleep at one point and dreamed of our third friend, John Kurzawa, driving up the mountain in my mother’s Ford station wagon, and saving us.

It was only a dream and I don’t recall fallen asleep at all. The clouds finally abated sometime in the morning and were able to traverse along the cliff and find a path to descend. But that experience has certainly shaped my sense of the power of natural currents, thus wind and clouds serve as metaphoric symbols of my blog “Culture Currents” as much as water does.

By the way, I became a fairly enthusiastic climber and returned to the Tetons a number of times, and reached a handful of summits, including the Grand Teton. The Tetons taught me deep humilty, especially after I fell twice on one climb. I also began to sense how nature provides artistic form and texture, and dynamic challenges of energy, which feed perpetually into the human sense of creative possibility. Thus, landscape and seascape are timelessly fecund artistic forms for me.

Kevin Lynch on Teewinot begins to sense how nature provides artistic form and texture and dynamic challenges of energy… Photo by Frank Stemper and Kevin Lynch (double exposure)

Meanwhile, Frank, though a very creative person as a composer, seems to have sworn off heights since then, although he remains a courageous marathoner into middle age.

“And we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality which surrounds us. The universe constantly, and obediently answers to our conceptions; whether we travel fast or slow, the track is laid for us. Let us spend our lives in conceiving that. The poet or artist never yet had so fair and noble a design but some of his posterity at least could accomplish it.”

— Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854)

The human-centric transcendentalist notion that the universe “obediently answers to our conceptions” seems dubious today. However, we can certainly interpret the universe through our creative and scientific conceptions, although never truly possess it. Thoreau seems to acknowledge that, while bullishly articulating an inlet to nature-reality through creative consciousness.

 

Heyyy watermelon man, the whole world hears you playin’ that jazz!

Summer travels have delayed me from commenting on a very important cultural event, the First International Jazz Day, held on April 30 in the General Assembly of the UN in New York City. Despite the event’s extraordinary demonstration of the creative and pan-cultural range that the language of jazz possesses today, this first-of-a-kind event was undercovered by the mainstream press. Even Down Beat caught up with the event in its July issue. One man on the actual beat was Howard Mandel, perhaps the dean of my generation of baby boomer jazz critics.

I’ll refer Culture Currents readers to Mandel’s blog page (below), Jazz Beyond Jazz, with its direct link to his vivid, in-the-pocket review of the huge event with a mind-tripping the lineup of artists.

Herbie Hancock at the first International Jazz Day (courtesy of City Arts, New York’s Review of Culture) 

Herbie Hancock, who has become the Louis Armstrong of his generation as a jazz ambassador to the world, was responsible for pulling this together as an actual event, attracting artists from many nations and musical vernaculars, and orchestrating  a true phenomenon: The simulcast event actually reached 195 nations and improbably had musicians in locations around the world playing together Hancock’s famous jazz boogaloo “Watermelon Man” in tandem with his performance of it at a sunrise concert In Congo Square, New Orleans. What a trip that moment must’ve been.

To repeat: a famous jazz theme played together throughout the world at sunrise at Congo Square, New Orleans. Wrap your head around that — because it resonates like music of the spheres, music of our sphere, I should say. And the symbolism of the italicized phrase is how this all reverberates.

Internationally telecast or film distributed concert films my reach global audiences. But how often do so many musicians around the world played together — as one?

Is there any performance event comparable in this sense? What does it say about how we (the global we) communicate, or fail to? How could any communicative medium transcend the myriad of political, cultural and linguistic barriers that have always stymied other discourse from accomplishing something comparable. Perhaps I can imagine the art of dance doing it, free as it is, in essence, from linguistics. But dance has never attained a common language that has grown as universally as jazz as a global tree-like phenomena, defined by its increasingly diverse sonic vocabulary.

And this development, from its American genesis, has led to instances where the influences that shaped and constantly reshaped it, incorporating elements of many traditions — African, European, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian and Spanish just to name a few.

So there is something truly global about the music we call jazz, because it doesn’t depend on a spoken language. Quiet as it’s kept, it long ago became a universal musical language while remaining the quintessentially American music — in its democratic ways of doing things. That’s a great part of its attraction and it’s profundity, at its best.

It is simultaneously the art of musical motion in the moment, as in improvised swing and the myriad ways that jazz musicians redefine,  personalize, exoticize and essentialize    that ineffable yet always palpable thing called swing. I sure ain’t trying to define swing  in words. We can all just circle around it, feed off of its power, like a living, breathing body pulse that dances in the air among us. You just know when you hear it and feel it.

More on that, when I do a survey of Milwaukee’s impressive new generation of jazz musicians.

But for now, let’s hope that this International Jazz Day — which dignitaries from the UN eloquently celebrated — is an annual event and that it helps the world to understand what playing and working together creatively can mean.

I’ve written a whole book on that subject, titled Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy, which I hope to publish soon. So I won’t belabor the issue further now.

Do youself a favor. Go out an find some live jazz and hear and feel what the global we is talking about. What all those great musicians were talkin’ about: “Heyyyyy, watermel-on man! (Watermelon, watermelon!)”.

 Zre on thatSernational-jazz-day-concert-review-few-elsewhere.html

Another trip, with abundant comic relief from politics and other ugly human doings

the-trip-clip

I couldn’t get enough of the 2010 film The Trip, primarily because of the almost compulsive profusion of comic impressions by the two central characters, British actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, who play versions of themselves in the lovably eccentric (and often lovely) film by Michael Winterbottom. I’m delighted to learn that it’s a distillation of a six-part British TV series and Winterbottom fans will remember these two performers from that director’s Tristam Shandy.

I’ll admit to a somewhat sophomoric glee in watching these two accomplished, mid-40s men competing with each other as if nothing had changed since junior year at the old academy. Those who have long suffered the foolishness of would-be impressionists bear with me; there is much more to the film than mimicking.

Nevertheless, the most overt and constant pleasure is these skilled and bickering hams going at it with repertoires you sense they have been building and honing since they first discovered their common interest and talent decades ago — to the delight, befuddlement and occasional irritation of anyone within earshot.

Brydon — here the unflappable tag-along buddy of Coogan, as a food critic on assignment — appears to be the more versatile impressionist of the two, and utterly compulsive. Between the two of them, they spend probably 70 per cent of the film’s dialogue in impressionist mode, and I’m not talking about Monet (but I will shortly!). For Brydon that probably rises to 85 per cent. I wonder if these percentages are not all-time highs for a feature film that is not simply a concert document of a comic impressionist.

 Rob Brydon (left) and Steve Coogan in Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip” (ECT films)

Here’s a partial list of the notables these two cut-ups mimic: Michael Caine, Hugh Grant, Woody Allen, Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins, Liam Neeson, and Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in their similar star-turn-in-a-restaurant in Michael Mann’s Heat, one of my favorite films. Then there’s Coogan’s minimalist mastery of the sound of a  submarine sonor.

Among all these, the supreme impression for both comics is Michael Caine. Their first scene of fencing Caines is just the two of them at a restaurant, and funny enough.

But they reprise their Caine impressions with a vengeance to impress two women. The women of course don’t have a clue whom they are doing, even though both impersonations are brilliantly spot-on, in their own ways. Brydon’s Caine is more manic, and bursting with choice and evocative lines from the impersonated actor’s films. But Coogan’s version, as he asserts, is more accurate and nuanced, especially as he ventures into Caine’s aging persona and the deeper realms of the actor’s emotional recesses (“She was only sixteen years old. She was awn-lee sixteen years old…”). This Caine can sometimes feel like the only volcano in the British Isles, long dormant and forgotten. Now his large, bleary eyes glimmer and shine, his ruddy face blushes deeper, and the voice sounds like both ancient, cracking rock and lava, rising from a subterranean anguish. I almost hurt myself watching this scene.

Brydon’s Hugh Grant is also devastating, and rises uncontrollably every time he talks to his wife back home, requesting a bit of phone sex, with Grant’s mushy blend of  aristocratic charm and abject awkwardness. It gets Brydon into moderate trouble with his loving but erotically temperate spouse. One begins to sense why he also carries a Woody Allen barb close to the surface: “A man was recently charged with sexually molesting my wife. Knowing her, I’m sure it wasn’t a moving violation.”

Now all this somewhat adolescent indulging in what Coogan calls “silly voices” clearly won’t be some viewers’ cup of tea. But much of the rest of the film’s appeal is actually rather highbrow and aesthetic. In this sense, the combination of broad humor and discerning cultural acumen recalls Alexander Payne’s Sideways. However, that film’s comedy was mainly situational, where here it seems to center on what appears to be largely improvised character muggings by the two main actors. In this sense,  The Trip feels like a somewhat restrained Robert Altman film.

Yet Winterbottom is much more of a traditional aesthete than Altman. And here is where the film slides surprisingly into the art-house category. Coogan carries the more sophisticated sensibility. He’s been hired by the Observer to review six upscale restaurants throughout England. His girlfriend is on the verge of dumping him, so he asks his old chum to accompany him.

The emotional and psychological weight of the film channels mainly through Coogan’s character, and perhaps reflects much of the actor’s own professional longings and frustrations —  still striving for major leading man roles, and striking out romantically as a seemingly compulsive Don Juan, or what he’d prefer to think of as a British Don Quixote.

So Brydon is clearly his Sancho Panza in this slyly literary film. They also recite British poets and the otherwise cynical Coogan falls into a near-religious spell when the pair visits an old inn where Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his brilliant contemporaries spent exalted time together.

And then there’s the English countryside, filmed with Kubrickian care by Winterbottom, and yet this director’s attunement to British mists and moors also suggests an appreciation of Monet, and JMW Turner, as Coogan notes.

And oh, the food!  The two men are indulged at every table by the most exquisite concoctions and presentations that perspiring master chefs can muster.

The amateur appreciator Brydon actually has the more insightful and apt critical comments, another subtle comic undercurrent. Meanwhile foodie Coogan, sniffing and condescending throughout, always seems slightly distracted by his somewhat floundering career and romantic life.

So the film has an undercurrent of deep sadness, again akin to Sideways, which resonates as a brooding backdrop to all the famous characters who rise like uncredited ghosts, with a psychic power and persistence that almost feels Shakespearean.

That makes this also one of my all-time favorite haunted-house stories, and surely the most improbable. Because the house is in the mind of Coogan — the suffering, sensitive narcissist, whom you feel for somewhat, as you acknowledge the justice of his frequent comeuppances.

 

 

 

A very brief photo essay on driving into Appalachia

“A lovely nook of forest scenery, or a grand rock, like a beautiful woman, depends for much of its attractiveness upon the attendant sense of freedom from whatever is low; on the sense of purity and of romance. And it is about as nauseous to find “Bitters” or “Worm Syrup” daubed upon the landscape as it would be upon the lady’s brow.”

— P.T. Barnum, The Humbugs of the World (1866)

Barnum’s romantic analog to womanhood may seem dated, but it also seems to hold up over time, in its essential point.

why-billboards-arent-green

I don’t mean to get uppity but I agree with the author of this well-researched article (link above)

 The humble photos below were all taken from a car traveling at highway speeds. I wasn’t quick enough to capture a number of stunning mountain vistas that suddenly appeared on our flanks as we whizzed by. These Appalachian scenes bring to mind the so-called  “God’s country” of Southwestern Wisconsin, but at a rather magnified scale.

Countryside in the Clinch River Pass seems to have an intimate relationship going on with cloud formations above (Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys hail from this region) — photos by Kevin Lynch (courtesy, Sheila Lynch

Roadside signs like these (below) hardly offended like the billboards stuck in the most scenic Appalachian settingsVine-tressed rock on the highways add an enchanting aura to the Kentucky-into Tennessee drive.

Thoreau on newsworthiness/ Environmental writing anthology

“If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident…or one cow run over  on the Western Railroad — we never need read of another. One is enough…. If we respected only what is inevitable and has a right to be, music and poetry would resound along the streets. When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence…” — Henry David Thoreau, from Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854)

Having already commented on a killing or two, I hope to abide by Thoreau’s dictum, but I won’t do so slavishly — if murder or mayhem sadly serve to illuminate a cultural point. But I sense that neither serves very often. — KL

By the way, I revisited Thoreau via an excellent anthology I recently purchased at Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee.

The volume is titled American Earth: Environmental Writing since Thoreau, edited by the indefatigable environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben. It’s a splendid and gorgeous 1,047 page volume published by the redoubtable Library of America, replete with a ribbon bookmark and a stunning wraparound hard-cover reproduction of Sanford Robinson’s superb landscape painting “A Lake Twilight.” In a bookstore, look for the dust cover, with a handsome graphic image of a bald eagle formed by a montage of living flora and fauna (below, jacket design by Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich).

Inside you will find work by John Muir, Frederick Law Olmsted, Theodore Roosevelt Theatre Dreiser, Robinson Jeffers, John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Aldo Leopold Loren Eisley, Justice William O. Douglas, Rachel Carson, Russell Baker, Lyndon Johnson, Edward Abbey, Philip K. Dick, R. Buckminster Fuller, Gary Snyder, Joni Mitchell & Marvin Gaye, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Lewis Thomas, Leslie Marmon Silko, R. Crumb, Jonathan Schell, Alice Walker, Cesar Chavez,  Mary Oliver, Barry Lopez, Scott Russell Sanders, Al Gore, Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Pollan and others.

This admittedly long lists of authors and artists gives you an idea of the samplings of essential environmental advocates, and some unpredictable but compelling names.

For example, Philip K. Dick is best known as a dystopian science fiction writer and anthology offers a brief section from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? his 1968 novel upon which the famous futuristic film Blade Runner was based.

McKibben aptly comments that Dick’s dystopian bent comes from ” the prediction that human scale and human values may not survive their inevitable collision with new technologies — technologies whose demands and dimensions may come to overwhelm our own.”

And here’s a choice passage from “Androids”: “For a long time he stood gazing at the owl, who dozed on its perch. A thousand thoughts came into his mind,  thoughts about the days when owls had fallen from the sky; he remembered how in his childhood it had been discovered that species plant species and become extinct and how all the ‘papes head reported it each day — boxes one morning, badges the next , until people had stopped reading the perpetual animal obits.

He thought, too, about his need for a real animal; within him an actual hatred was more manifested itself toward his electric sheep, which he had to tend, had to care about as if it lived.”

It’s interesting to speculate through time, whether Thoreau would have continued to read news of the extinction of each species, given his statement quoted above.

I suspect he would’ve read on, in profound dismay, because I think Thoreau judged each species “great and worthy things” of “permanent and absolute existence,” despite their existential vulnerability. He understood each species’ role in the ecological whole far better than most of his contemporary Americans, who were ravenous to pillage and exploit America’s natural bounty as much and as fast as possible.

American Earth also includes 80 pages of stunning, storytelling photos and illustrations, including Carleton Watkins’ wonderfully chiaroscuroed black-and-white photo “Trees and Cabin with Yosemite Falls in Background,” taken in 1861. Watkins’ photographs helped persuade Congress to pass legislation in 1864, protecting Yosemite Valley.

Another photo, Robert Glenn Ketchum’s color “The Chainsaws of Summer” depicts, with graphic elegance, the ravages of clear cutting of the Tongass Rainforest in Alaska in the early 1990s.

Among noted artists contributing images are Ansel Adams and Robert Rauschenberg, and you’ll find iconic photographs of John Muir, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Gary Snyder and Julia Butterfly Hill, among other major environmental figures; several images of Walden Pond including Thoreau’s own manuscript survey; a startling photo of thousands of buffalo skulls piled up at the Michigan Carbon Works, a Detroit charcoal fertilizer factory (c. 1880); and “The Blue Marble,” taken by an Apollo 17 crew member, which was the first clear photograph of an illuminated whole Earth.

American Earth encompasses — and emenates a clear sense of — the deep-rooted, still-growing trunk of environmental writing and art, which have risen higher and more powerful in ensuing years.

It’s a hefty-yet-portable volume that you might be tempted to tuck into your backpak the next time you hike into back country, or enter urban nature refuges. At some points on your hike you must pause, as Thoreau consuls. Then he, and all the rest of these excellent kindred spirits, will be waiting for you.

 

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Guy Clark and Darrell Scott: Country Troubadours for Our Times

 

A Southerly Cultural Travel Journal  Vol. 5

Guy Clark (right) and Verlon Thompson, courtesy Columbus Dispatch. 

A prime motivation for my nearly 800-mile drive from Milwaukee to the Blue Plum Festival in eastern Tennessee was to see the now-venerable Texas singer-songwriter Guy Clark. It was a deeply gratifying experience. Though only 70, Clark is currently walking with a cane (perhaps still suffering from effects of a broken leg in 2008) but when he settled in and warmed up with fellow guitarist and songwriter Verlon Thompson, he quickly offered several fine brand-new songs, proving his creative powers have hardly diminished. “The High Price of Inspiration” addressed how creativity is almost always inextricably entwined with life when he demurrs, “Inspiration without strings, I’d like that once.” Another new one “Coyote” (Spanish for trickster or, as Clark said, “coward”), pointedly conveys the wrenching story of mercenary smugglers who exploit the desperate dreams of illegal aliens along the Mexican-American border: “You took all my money and left me to die in South Texas sun.”

Here you gain a sense of Clark’s distinctive artistry as his dusty, understated singing style assured that the song’s pathos would never be oversold with sentimentality. As always with Clark, the feeling are vivid in his voice but tempered by the sense one is overhearing a man almost singing to himself. He often sounds as if he’s just awoken from a dolorous dream. So hearing him is an utterly human experience.

Lost love, a classic theme of country music, is perfectly recast in his classic “Dublin Blues” — amid a beer-soaked rhythmic sway, the protagonist rues the fading object of his love, across the Atlantic Ocean and half of America:

I wish I was in Austin/ In the Chili Parlor Bar/Drinkin’ Mad Dog Margaritas/
And not carin’ where you are.

The wishful denial expresses the emotional truth, the art of slight indirection.

Although he is also a master craftsman of guitar-making, Clark understands the proper place the material objects have in life. In “Stuff that Works,” he sings about the “kind of stuff you don’t hang on the wall/ the kind of stuff you reach for when you fall.”

His handsome face — weather-worn, craggy and now slightly collapsing – seems a prime candidate for the Great American Roots Singer-songwriter Mount Rushmore.

Just for the sake of argument, I’d also nominate for such a monument Clark’s old compadre, the late Townes Van Zandt (together probably the real-life Pancho and Lefty), Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and maybe Lucinda Williams, assuming room for five faces. Coincidentally the visages of all these people show the weight of their gifts and burdens, often interchangeable in nature. Calling all cultural chiselers.

Clark’s small wave to the crowd at the set’s end conveyed something, perhaps a slightly amazed humility. He has a reputation as an ornery cuss but you get the feeling that — aside from his loving competition with Van Zandt — he never wanted a whole lot more than a workbench at which he could fashion his guitars and dream up stories of desperados and desolatos to sing. Today Clark’s esteem among his contemporaries is underscored by a recent 2-CD recording of his songs by the likes of Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Roseanne Cash and others. “Guy’s songs are literature,” said Lyle Lovett, one of the artists heard on the tribute. “His ability to translate the emotional into the written word is extraordinary.”

Despite all this, I think Darrell Scott deserved the Blue Plum’s closing headliner spot, because he’s a performer in his absolute prime and a songwriter who could arguably crack into the company above. And his style connects more directly with a large crowd.

His voice can take a lyric line and hoist it from an inner feeling to an outer wail with chilling suddenness. And yet he doesn’t lose the sound of intimate probing that gives the feeling emotional honesty. His baritone-tenor range recalls Paul Simon without the tendency to preciousness.

That’s a special singing skill and his lyrics are an easy match in quality. For example, the jazzy-gospel “River Take Me” is about an out-of-work man who wants only “to live within the means of his own two hands.” When Scott sang fervently, “River take me, far from troubled times,” you sensed human desperation in the reach for a mythological metaphor: The troubled imagination must do the work that those under-used hands cannot, while understanding the risk of the dream. “The river can drown you or wash you clean.”

Yet Scott looks beyond one man’s personal situation. One of his most covered songs* is “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” a majestically mournful melody which commemorates the hard coal miner’s life in Harlan County, Kentucky, where “you spend your life digging coal from the bottom of your grave.” It’s the story of his own grandfather — and of many men whose lives are too proverbially close to “nasty, brutish and short.”

Scott performed with the band comprises of all his blood brothers who he said had performed together as a whole ensemble since they were teenagers. You could sense the deep history circulating among these men complex yet gone with understanding and affection.

* Kathy Mattea’s rendition of “Harlan County” is not to be missed on her album Coal.

1 Here’s Scott’s performance of “Never Leave Harlan Alive” in Bristol TN/VA in 2006 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=69BwNVtyCKs&feature=related

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plucking Musical Fruit Deep in Appalachia

 

A Southerly Cultural Journal, Vol. 4

Appalachian Mountains courtesy: http://www.conservapedia.com/Appalachian_Mountains

Having driven to Cincinnati to connect with my sister Sheila, we headed south into Kentucky, destined for the Blue Plum Music and Arts Festival in Johnson City, Tennessee, June 1-3.

The sun rose to greet us, as did the deep valleys and hills leading into the mountains of Appalachia. Cincinnati’s own verdant density had given me a sense of the region’s natural bounty. But once we reached increasingly southern expanses the raw magnificence rose in fullness. The broad-shouldered peaks, serenely exultant in lush greenery, unfolded in marvelously softened geometric variations as our car plunged into the highway depths.

As we descend a paved grade, vast looping angles and loping planes open before us on each side of the highway, revealing massive, undulating forms curving ahead at the fresh curve of each crest.

Turning to follow the blur beside me, I sense how modern pioneers forged roads through such rugged terrain.

The highway is cut into low mountainsides of red rock, which can be as treacherous as it is beautiful. Frequent signs warn of falling rock, and yet but the tremendous compression of fissures, severe angles and gravity create a muscular tapestry of slashed stone — grinding and shifting at the most glacial rates, rippling along in a craggy dance of asymmetric angles, slashed crevices and serrated ridges. Small foliage nestles into many of the cracks and, at times, when the rock angle leans high and back away from the highway, vines take root and cascade down over them.

I felt too emboldened by the speed of our car and the summery joy of our mission to fret over falling rocks, but other signs did dismay me. A motley array of billboards stand not on the highway shoulder — but out on many of the most sumptuous and beautiful vistas along the way. An almost perverse sense of consumer capitalism surely drives advertisers and marketers to climb up these precarious hills hauling equipment and billboards to ruin the most aesthetically pristine spots with loud, brash come-ons.

A more recent product of postmodernity rise more ominously, cell phone towers.  Our society’s compulsive desire to electronically transmit information — while in transit far beyond the actual requirements of necessary communication — has created this aberration. The tripod towers stand with a militia-like sternness of randomly situated sentinels, their vertical receptor panels hovering in all directions, their thick, long cables running their full height and slithering off to power boxes at the side of the fenced-in base.

So there, throughout the rugged beauty of Appalachia — which has long signified a kind of untainted, pre-industrial primitiveness — stood the peculiar paradox of these ugly towers. They are seemingly hidden out in high, lonely hills and yet fully capable of transmitting potentially cancerous radiation into the bodies of wildlife nearby and people far away from them, via the cellphones we compulsively attach to our torsos and heads. 1

Finally arriving in Johnson City somewhat quelled my misgivings about billboard and cell tower blight. The 13th annual Blue Plum Festival proved a sense and sensibility filled delight. The streets of downtown Johnson City are jammed with food and craft vendors who benefited from a weekend of idyllic weather. A popular item was the electrical necklaces and wands that allow fest-goers to express their enjoyment of the experience in psychedelic fashion. My sister, stylish but hardly extravagant in her personal tastes, gave in and bought one of the brightly glimmering neck pieces, with a small electric guitar pendant.

Sheila also went back a second time and took some nice pictures of to the Urban Art Throwdown,  a competition of graffiti artists, working in an outdoor gallery of freestanding panels arranged as folded triptychs.

The winning work included a fanciful highway scene dominated by a painted portrait of the legendary country bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson, a perfectly apropos subject for a music festival comprising many veteran and young American roots-music musicians.

Prize-winning graffiti art at Blue Plum Festival, courtesy Johnson City Press 

The festival headliners were Darrell Scott, Guy Clark & Verlon Thompson and the Goose Creek Symphony. Other notable talent included Malcolm Holcombe, Sol Driven Train, Dangermuffin and guitarist Eric Sommer. The festival included three other outdoor side stages, including a jazz stage (headlined by saxophonist Keith McKelley and pianist Lenore Raphael), and 12 local clubs offered live music. I’d wager that there are few American towns of this size (pop. 63,000 ) that currently have 12 live music venues. The fest also offered a kids-oriented extreme sports area, a roller derby championship and, most distinctive of all side attractions, an animation festival, with competition from filmmakers from all over the country.

Blue Plum may not be as big or as renowned as legendary Merlefest among Appalachian music festivals, but the featured roots music artists did Johnson City proud. The community is nestled in the foothills of Appalachian Mountains here in the far west corner of Tennessee, near the borders of Virginia and South Carolina. Nearby is Bristol, smack dab on the Tennessee-Virginia border, and “the birthplace of country music.”
In July of 1927, folklorist-promoter Ralph Peer recorded trainman-singer- songwriter-yodeler Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family and a group of other old-time musicians in Bristol. 3 The fact that two such great names in American music made seminal recordings at the same time in Bristol earned the city the distinction as country music’s official birthplace.

The Blue Plum main stage was situated at the far end of downtown Johnson City, with Buffalo Mountain standing as a majestic drop, emanating the hoary profile of the great creature for which it is named.

Several groups and performers greatly impressed me for a variety of stylistic and artistic reasons. Sol riven Train was perhaps the biggest surprise of performers unknown to me.

The served up a steaming gumbo of styles with a front line that includes saxophonist Russell Clarke and trombonist guitarist Ward Buckheister. The style is billed as “Southern roots music, New Orleans brass and Afro-Caribbean rhythm,” and it’s surely something I didn’t expect at a festival in Appalachia. But then, that’s a presumption of cultural stereotype because this fest proved remarkably cosmopolitan and eclectic. Sol Driven Train rides a high-spirited yet extremely skilled style, especially with its deft variations on reggae beats especially on an eloquently ardent “Toda la Gente.” Lead singer Joel Timmons has an effortlessly soulful delivery and the group’s exuberance slips into offbeat drollery with songs like “Cat in Half,” a country rock ode about breaking up and dividing up possessions, with the protagonist offering his lover: “We can cut the cat in half,” the type of contemporary song that achieves a disarmingly unsentimental poignancy. The band also had the chutzpah to close their set with five-man percussion jam, with enough rhythmic and theatrical vitality to work in a festival setting.

Goose Creek Symphony remains an excellent progressive bluegrass-country band with strong vocal harmonies. But after having broken up and reformed several times, they seemed a little dated following Sol Driven Train.

I only caught a bit of Eric Sommer’s set, on Saturday afternoon but his searing, deft and incisive guitar playing proved why he’s been such an in-demand session and touring musician for artists as gifted and diverse as Leon Redbone, Chris Smithers, John Hammond, Sarah Watkins (of Nickel Creek), Little Feat and the British new wave band Gang of Four, among others.

The South Carolina trio Dangermuffin followed with more highly accomplished yet unpretentious musicianship. Yes, they do some extended Grateful Deadly jams but rarely succumb to noodling. Not unlike Sol Driven Train, they have a near-perfect feel for the reggae groove, but with more of the Afro-pop guitar flow.

I have coincidentally written recently on my blog about the next artist, another South Carolina talent named Malcolm Holcombe, so I’ll refer you to that: http://kevernacular.com/?p=159

But at this festival, Holcombe made sure that we realized he’s one of the funnier singer-songwriters on tour today with his blend of down-home wise-cracks and eccentric passion, which includes an unnerving head shake that makes you think maybe he didn’t beat the devil, like some of the famous blues musicians his style resembles. One his hellhound-on-my-trail raps is about having “the creeps,” one of the keys to which “is not lettin’ anyone else know you have ‘em.”

“But then, you’re paranoid,” he added, with a slightly fiendish grin.

 

1 “The original establishment of a cell tower grid was convenient for military purposes, and (now due to the undemocratic federal Telecommunications Act of 1996).  Both state and local government are prohibited from adopting emission standards that would be safer for the public than the very inadequate and dangerous levels set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

http://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2010-04-20/article/35079?headline=Cell-Phone-Towers-Should-We-Fear-Them—By-Raymond-Barglow-a-href-mailto-www.berkeleytutors.net-www.berkeleytutors.net-a-

So “telecom companies have carte blanche to do whatever they want without opposition. Although large groups of people are now fighting proposed cell towers all over America, they are not allowed to mention potential health effects to the city planning commissions who must approve these towers, or else the telecom companies threaten to sue the cities. And so all over America large groups of people are opposing cell towers based on any other reason they can find. The scientific evidence from all corners of the world is mounting geometrically regarding the harmful effects of towers.”

http://www.celltowerdangers.org/my-story.html

Despite German and Israeli studies that showed rates of cancer increasing for long time nearby residents, 2 American Cancer Association website currently minimizes concerns about the health risks of cell phone towers themselves. Nevertheless, the towers signify the risk of cancer that still has researchers hard at work regarding cell phones themselves — which are typically used and transported in the closest proximity to human bodies.

3 Bill Malone, Country Music U.S.A. Second Revised Edition, University of Texas Press,

2003, p.65.

 

Guy Clark and Darrell Scott: Country Troubadours for the Ages

A Southerly Cultural Travel Journal  Vol. 5

A prime motivation for my nearly 800-mile drive from Milwaukee to eastern Tennessee was to see the now-venerable Texas singer-songwriter Guy Clark. It was a deeply gratifying experience. Though only 70, Clark is currently walking with a cane (perhaps still suffering from effects of a broken leg in 2008) but when he settled in and warmed up with fellow guitarist and songwriter Vernon Thompson, he quickly offered several fine brand-new songs, proving his creative powers have hardly diminished. “The High Price of Inspiration” addressed how creativity is almost always inextricably entwined with life when he says he’d like “inspiration without strings I like that once.” Another new one Coyote (Spanish for trickster or, as Clark said, “coward”) pointedly conveys the wrenching story of mercenary smugglers who exploit the desperate dreams of illegal aliens along the Mexican American border: “You took all my money and left me to die in South Texas sun.”

Here you gain a sense of Clark’s distinctive artistry as his dusty, understated singing style assured that the song’s pathos would never be oversold with sentimentality. As always with Clark, the feeling are vivid in his voice but tempered by the sense one is overhearing a man singing to himself. He often sounds as if he’s just awoken from a dolorous dream. So hearing him is an utterly human experience.

Lost love, a classic theme of country music, is perfectly recast in his classic “Dublin Blues,” amid a self-assuringly jaunty beat, the protagonist rues the fading object of his love, across the Atlantic Ocean and half of America:

I wish I was in Austin/ In the Chili Parlor Bar/Drinkin’ Mad Dog Margaritas/
And not carin’ where you are.

The wishful denial expresses the emotional truth, the art of slight indirection.

Although he is also a master craftsman of guitar-making, Clark understands the proper place the material objects have in life. In “Stuff that Works,” he sings about the “kind of stuff you don’t hang on the wall/ the kind of stuff you reach for when you fall.”

His handsome face — weather-worn, craggy and now slightly collapsing – seems a prime candidate for the Great American Roots Singer-songwriter Mount Rushmore.

Just for the sake of argument, I’d also nominate Clark’s old compadre, the late Townes Van Zandt (together probably the real-life Pancho and Lefty), Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and maybe Lucinda Williams, as an alternate. Coincidentally the visages of all these people show the weight of their gifts and burdens, often interchangeable in nature. Calling all cultural chiselers.

Clark’s small wave to the crowd at the set’s end conveyed something, perhaps a slightly amazed humility. He has a reputation as an ornery cuss but you get the feeling that — aside from his loving competition with Van Zandt — he never wanted a whole lot more than a workbench at which he could fashion his guitars and dream up stories of desperados and desolatos to sing. Today Clark’s esteem among his contemporaries is underscored by a recent 2-CD recording of his songs by the likes of Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Roseanne Cash and others. “Guy’s songs are literature,” said Lyle Lovett, one of the artists heard on the tribute. “His ability to translate the emotional into the written word is extraordinary.”

Despite all this, I think Darrell Scott deserved the Blue Plum’s closing headliner spot, because he’s a performer in his absolute prime and a songwriter who could arguably crack into the company above. And his style connects more directly with a large crowd.

His voice can take a lyric line and hoist it from an inner feeling to an outer wail with chilling suddenness. And yet he doesn’t lose the sound of intimate probing that gives the feeling emotional honesty. His baritone-tenor range recalls Paul Simon without the tendency to preciousness.

That’s a special singing skill and his lyrics are an easy match in quality. For example, the jazzy-gospel “River Take Me” is about an out-of-work man who wants only “to live within the means of his own two hands.” When Scott sang fervently, “River take me, far from troubled times,” you sense very human desperation in the reach for a mythological metaphor: The troubled imagination must do the work that those underused hands cannot, while understanding the risk of the dream. “The river can drown you or wash you clean.”

Yet Scott looks beyond one man’s personal situation. One of his most covered songs* is “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” a majestically mournful melody which commemorates the hard coal miner’s life in Harlan County, Kentucky, where “you spend your life digging coal from the bottom of your grave.” It’s the story of his own grandfather — and of many men whose lives are too proverbially close to “nasty, brutish and short.”

Scott performed with the band comprises of all his blood brothers who he said had performed together as a whole ensemble since they were teenagers. You could sense the deep history circulating among these men complex yet gone with understanding and affection.

 

 

* Kathy Mattea’s rendition of “Harlan County” is not to be missed on her album Coal.