James McMurtry’s synchronistic guitar playing is the yin to his songwriting yang

James McMurtry. Courtesy Texas Monthly

James McMurtry has embarked on his first tour in several years. He will perform solo in dates running through April, then continue with his band in May, on a tour running through the end of July.

Upper Midwest McMurtry dates include April 22 at Old Town School of Music, in Chicago, June 11 at the SPACE, in Evanston, June 12 at Shank Hall in Milwaukee (https://shankhall.com/), and June 14 at The Ark in Ann Arbor.

Here’s the full tour list: https://www.highroadtouring.com/artists/james-mcmurtry/itinerary/

 Imagining James McMurtry in his element: He squints hard, and sees humanity and the world with laser vision, in the cruel Texas-glare sun, amid imperious cactuses. Flies buzz like hungry little devils. James coughs in the dust, but a man knows what he’s gotta do. Especially if he’s as driven as he is. He could drive a cattle herd across that behemoth state, and beyond, like the one his father Larry McMurtry famously depicted in his famous novel Lonesome Dove.

But such epic drives are rare now, as cattle growing and marketing are bad for the planet. James knows this, even as he commemorates, partially in Spanish, a deceased cowboy friend and his tradition in his recent song “Vaquero.” So, he turns off his vintage Ford Falcon convertible, peers at the horizon, the hot wind rippling his long gray hair. He lifts his cowboy hat, wipes sweat off his grimy brow, then plops the hot hat right back on. Part of him wishes he has a horse raring to go, instead of a smelly old car. So, he reaches over to the passenger seat, unbuckles his 12-string Gibson acoustic guitar, climbs out, leans against the car, and starts up a big sky-type chordal pattern.

He sings, “No more buffalo…” This thought he seems to care about greatly, as metaphor and as reality. Why and how? The guitar has plenty to do with it.

James McMurtry at home: He ended another Livestream pandemic solo home concert recently with that song, set his guitar down and said “thank you” to the silent audience that can applaud only with Facebook comments. I think “No More Buffalo” is something of a signature song, and I think he feels that way, too. You could make an obvious case for “We Can’t Make It Here,” too, or perhaps “Just Us Kids,” or “Choctaw Bingo.” The majestically big-picture “Long Island Sound” and one troubled man’s stunningly confessional “Decent Man” are more recent candidates.

(As far as I know, McMurtry’s “Live with Restream” home solo concerts are only available on his Facebook page, which you can follow: https://www.facebook.com/watch/JamesMcMurtry/

But those songs are mostly anthemic, and clear hallmarks, whereas James is also an expert in understatement, of tracing the shadows of the underserved. Among his more indelible intimate American portraits is the stoic loser of “Rachel’s Song,” who might be quite typical of many contemporary divorced people, stumbling along spiritually on a deserted street. It’s telling that Jason Isbell, a younger talent of superlative songwriting skills, has covered this song, with tender insight.

As an American troubadour McMurtry rivals any we know today. But he’s also only the peculiar kind he’s capable of being. That happens to involve an atypical genius which has been insufficiently addressed to date, in its artistic fullness.

Indeed, the often-surly glory of his artistry is piling up just a bit: Not only have I not yet written about his latest album The Horses and the Hounds, but I’ve also come to realize that his fullest artistry doesn’t just lie squarely on his most salient talent, the lyric-endowed song.

McMurtry started playing guitar at age seven (first taught him by his mother, an English professor) but didn’t start writing songs until he was 18, he has said.

The stereotype is the gifted singer-songwriter as a type of literary whiz. We don’t associate their guitar-playing and songwriting skills as part of a shared prism of expression and narrative, especially coming out of the folk tradition, where a songwriter is expected to do little more than simply strum through simple chord changes.

James McMurtry performing “Down Across the Delaware.” Courtesy YouTube.

Today McMurtry seems, song after song, compelled to self-accompaniment as integral to his storytelling technique, like a sonic cinematographer, or musical dramatist. He’s never showy, yet the guitar can pull you into his distinctive musical world with a magnetic force and, when he’s playing 12-string, his rhythmic patterns and pulses sparkle with harmonic auras that can be stunning. His guitar blends rhythm playing, rich chording, and finger-style adornments. His digits tell their own story yet boost and entwine his songs, which explore a variety of cadences and moods, in well-observed and psychologically resonant narratives.

He admits he takes his sweet time writing songs. But performing his songs, with glimmering and chiaroscuroed backdrops, seems a weekly task of this troubadour, with his well-oiled work ethic. Witnessing that online has been a precious upshot of the COVID pandemic’s forced social distancing.

So, the realm of that interactive song-guitar dynamic is where we must assess McMurtry. He may be the greatest songwriter now working in his prime – one video-watcher, himself a songwriter, called him “The Dustbowl Dylan … and the best everyman songwriter alive.”

Yet McMurtry might also be our greatest singer-songwriter/self-accompanist, capable of extraordinary yins to his yangs. That’s why his assessment as an artist must be recalibrated. A comparable songwriter and more gifted singer, Willie Nelson, also is an extraordinary guitarist, but sort of when he wants to be – periodic fluent solos between verses on his battered old guitar named Trigger.

Another artist who comes to mind in comparison is Leo Kottke, but Kottke is known primarily as a virtuoso fingerstyle guitarist. If McMurtry set his mind to it, I think he could do a guitar-oriented set like Kottke does.

This has much to do with the virtuosity and artistry he has refined, especially over the last year and a half at his home. He has performed Livestream with skilled diligence each Wednesday and Sunday. This is a logical extension of his weekly, self-imposed Wednesday night gigs at Austin’s Continental Club, whenever he’s not touring. 1

This recalls somewhat our greatest living songwriter, Bob Dylan, because they both seem driven to constantly work or tour, Dylan especially at an advancing age. We should remember what Thomas Edison famously said: “Genius is two-percent inspiration and ninety-eight per cent perspiration.”

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I first became aware of the synchronicity of McMurtry’s guitar playing and song-craft when I got a 10-feet-away seat for a solo acoustic recital at Milwaukee’s Shank Hall in 2014. Here was my immediate response:

“Friends, it was Thursday at Shank Hall in Brew Town and James McMurtry was dealin’, alone, with nothin’ but a 12-string guitar. That surprisingly stacked the deck for a show that rated four aces, period. He’s so skilled – playing bass accompaniment to his typically deft figurations – that I never missed his band. At times, the 12-string’s shining harmonic resonances at a fast-chugging tempo sounded like a chrome-plated locomotive at full speed. Best 12-string playing this side of Leo Kottke.”

I’ve seen only brief video-response comments on McMurtry’s solo acoustic performances during the pandemic; we are more aware of his electric playing with his band. A singer-songwriter named Sean, the same person quoted about the “Dustbowl Dylan,” also comments: “Sometimes you can tell the road has worn him down a bit, but his guitar playing is always the driving force of his band. His electric sound is effortless, full, and he can create an amazing sustain.”

So, attention must be paid: McMurtry’s self-accompaniment has become even more deft, fluent, and effective as the driving force of his songs. It’s as if he insists on sustaining a strong or at least simpatico heartbeat for even his most diminished characters, like the nameless, quietly desperate person in “Cutter,” bereft yet clinging to better memories. The song – which also poignantly reflects the too-common gulf of understanding between even close friends – closes Complicated Game with stunning power.

I hope McMurtry considers shepherding and curating a dozen of the best solo acoustic songs he has Livestreamed in recent times for an album. Now that would be something, quiet but deeply resonant.

You see, I’m shifting gears: To fully contextualize my focus on his guitar-to-song-singing synchronicity, I need to delve properly into the depths of his song-writing prowess.

So, as I said, “No More Buffalo” (from the fatefully titled 1997 album It Had to Happen) is, too me, one of the great environmental protest songs we have. 2 It’s so good because it starts with a chest-filling chordal statement that portends something, in a G-D-A-G progression. The song sustains or suspends on that major key sequence until a few anguished B-flats, most tellingly on the phrase “I swear” on the late-in-the-song lyric: But man, they were here, they were here I swear. Yet, McMurtry sort of sidles up to that point, by telling a story of a group of graying guys who probably haven’t changed their ways in just about forever. But at least one of them remembers and feels something and sees how things have changed. So, the song’s narrator finally tunes into the problem. But see how the revelation sneaks up on him:

We headed South across those Colorado plains
Just as empty as the day
We looked around at all we saw

Remembered all we’d hoped to see
Looking out through the bugs on the windshield
Somebody said to me

(chorus) No more buffalo, blue skies or open road
No more rodeo, no more noise
Take this Cadillac, park it out in back
Mama’s calling, put away the toys

The narrator now remembers and believes, too – just maybe the noble, hulking giants are still out there. He continues until this interchange of voices:

I never thought they’d ever doubt my words
I guess they were just too tired to care
I’d point to the horizon, to the dust of the herds
Still hovering in the air
Somebody said it ain’t any such
Man you wish so hard you’re scaring me

‘Cause those are combines kicking up that dust
But you can see what you want to see
And go on chasing after what used to be there
Top that rise and face the pain

But man, they were here, they were here I swear
Not just these bleaching bones, stretching across the plain

Those anonymous “somebody saids” make the rhetoric work, persuasive without haranguing, or preaching. “Somebody” could be anyone, or his own subconscious and memory reflecting each other. So, we feel the loss, as if the hoary bison embodied something invaluable in life. Even the rodeo, the celebration of Wild West conquerors who helped desecrate the land and its creatures, and committed genocide of Native Americans – even the mano contra toro — has become passe.

And by the end, the title refrain, one more time, has gained momentum, a power you feel in your own bones. It’s like their car is speeding up, hurtling towards a horizon falling to the abyss of irrevocable passage. Since I heard it and it sunk in, I’ve never been able to think about the buffalo or the travesties and waste of The West without McMurtry’s song ringing in the back of my head.

This is a band performance of “No More Buffalo” but McMurtry, as usual on this song, plays acoustic guitar. Along with those chords, Daren Hess’s bass drum and tom toms open the song, resounding like cracks of revelation in a gorge of environmental ignorance. Then, listen to those drums, a brilliant stroke, rumble through the song, just like the tromping thunder of the great vanquished herds. This piece slays me every time, earning its emotional impact every step of the way. 2

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Courtesy New West Records

This brings me to his latest album. The titular phrase, “the horses and the hounds,” recurs as several meanings. Ostensibly it seems to tell – as the wonderfully blue-tinged noir album cover does – of a working stiff who drives a horse-truck trailer. What other meaning? “The singer finally admits, “Still, I’m running from the horses and the hounds.” He’s running from horses?  These magnificent, larger-than-life creatures, often with very close relationships with humans – can occur in dreams, a phenomenon artistically acknowledged as early as in Henry Fuseli’s famous 1871 painting “The Nightmare.”

Henry Fuseli’s famous 1871 painting “The Nightmare.” Courtesy fineartamerica.com

As for the hounds: There’s always the mythical hellhounds that bluesman Robert Johnson endured, and maybe helped chase him to his early grave. They sure haunt his legacy and the blues tradition. It’s an enduring metaphor for psychological affliction or terror.

Hellhounds on the trail of blues legend Robert Johnson. Art print by Elena Barbieri. Courtesy INPRINT

McMurtry also often trades in the interface of hard-grit reality and troubled dreams or memories. He talks about one of the new album’s most substantial songs, “Decent Man,” a story that might give any man in this situation nightmares.

McMurtry reimagines a Wendell Berry short story, which derived from Woody Guthrie’s song “Tom Joad,” itself a musical portrait of the protagonist of novelist John Steinbeck’s Dustbowl tragedy The Grapes of Wrath.

The “decent man” is the guy the narrator kills with a .38 pistol. No less than his best friend. It’s unclear why he shot him, but he circles semi-coherently around his mental state:

If the truth be known, I wasn’t doing that well/ I wasn’t paying attention, I brought it on myself/and I blamed it on the gods that seem to smile on everybody else/I got so inside out, I didn’t know what was real.”

That sounds like what? Maybe like too-many men in tough life situations where a conflagration of circumstances put them in a paranoid or aggrieved state, and a gun is too easy to reach for, and to irrationally think it will solve a complicated problem. It usually makes thing worse, much worse. It’s an all-too American dilemma and tragedy, repeated with shocking, even numbing, frequency.

Listen: My fields are empty now/my ground won’t take the plow. / It’s washed down to gravel and stones. / It’s only good for buryin’ bones. That is the song’s actual chorus, one of the most devastated choruses you’ll ever hear. It’s a murder ballad of uncommon ingenuity, yet understanding of common human foibles, and suffering. And loss. Most of all.

In McMurtry’s version of the story, the killer’s daughter, named Lola, visits him in jail. She still loves her dad, despite the horror of his deed, and that bothers the prisoner as much as the crime itself. His own daughter’s love throws this man off balance so that he must reconsider his still-fresh self-loathing. “I don’t know how she even stands to look on her daddy’s face,” McMurtry sings. There’s no better way to comment on this story than the songwriter’s summation: He was more than just a decent man/ best friend I ever had. / When you’re shooting at a coffee can/ a thirty-eight don’t kick that bad. / But it kicks right through my bones every second of every day/ clacking by like cobblestones under broken wheels.”

Even if he’s profoundly affected, in shock, he still doesn’t seem to know why he did it. Because life is too confusing or abject? Does that disquieting possibility offer any hope for absolution or healing?

It’s powerful stuff. How does Lola really feel? And the victim’s family? And “poor dad?” – The song strives for some empathy for him.

Laurence Fishburne played Socrates Fortlow in an HBO adaptation of a Walter Mosley novel. IMDb

The killer recalls Socrates Fortlow (pictured above), a fascinating murder/rape ex-convict created by novelist Walter Mosley who never understands the reasons for his crimes, yet becomes a street philosopher of redemptive power, while always remaining “at risk.”

McMurtry credits Horses producer Ross Hogarth who “probably got the best vocal performances I’ve ever done.” On “Blackberry Winter,” in his upper singing register, McMurtry is his most emotionally engaged.

A man looks back at the seeming end of his primary relationship, and having to refuse his woman, who apparently still has feelings for him, “to tell her no, to tell her no.” It’s a tough task to do at once, emotionally at least. And does he really need to? “Blackberry winter” is a Southern term for damaging early spring freezes, after blackberries have blossomed. Couldn’t he see if some berries – from the original branch their relationship grew upon – are still salvageable?

McMurtry is expert at painting pictures of troubled, just-barely-getting-by common folk, in the era of American democracy in peril. Or so it seems, with working folk still struggling while the rest of “the economy” – investors, Wall Street, big business, etc. – seems to flourish. Many of these working folk are now Trumpsters, sadly, because they had nowhere else to turn, feeling their dreams are threatened. So, they hang onto common biases of white fear or “supremacy,” as a psychological crutch holding up a nominal ideology.

rump – a successful faux television demagogue to whom the Electoral College handed the keys to The Bully Pulpit – understood, voiced, and “validated” their grievances. The Democratic Party had forgotten about them a long time ago, as Thomas Frank argues cogently in “Listen, Liberal: Whatever Happened to the Party of The People?” So, the song’s emotional impact radiates like an extended electric shock, about a characteristic state of American being. It poses the implicit question: Do you know someone like this? Might one of these people be you?

What are we gonna do for these people? Will politicians ever address their concerns and suffering honestly, instead of only as an election ploy? Frank argues you won’t get it from the contemporary professional upscale liberal (think of Silicon Valley culture and comparable ones) where funding and values go to support entrepreneurship and “innovation” that does little for the plight or incomes of ordinary folk.

These may even be “innovative” ways to exploit them. Of the working class, these elevated folks think that, if you don’t have a college degree, it’s your fault, Frank explains. Even teachers, by their thinking, are suspect professionals, beneath their value system. The current Democratic party has shifted closer to addressing the huge lower end of the equality gap since Frank’s 2016 appraisal, but in 2022 President Biden hasn’t yet substantially addressed racial justice and other issues crucial to inequality, to bridge the political gap Democrats helped create for Trump to exploit and widen. Inflation and high gas prices don’t help, even if the latter helps the effort to protect Ukraine from Russian invasion.

The narrator of “Blackberry Winter” might be telling her “no” because he can’t afford to support her, or some other circumstance of a tough life, devalued and forsaken. McMurtry’s characters often live close to the edge, like so many Americans. “And tell you no,” isn’t delivered in a way suggesting any disdain, based on a contaminated relationship. In this vocal register he sounds a bit like Jackson Browne. 3 So there’s a plaintive weariness beneath his straightforward talk, which also conveys something palpable and spiritual, and common to humanity, like “everybody has holes to fill, and you know those holes are all that’s real,” as Townes Van Zandt. once sang.

McMurtry is akin to fellow Texas troubadour Van Zandt whom he’s covered him from time to time – he does covers very occasionally — including Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues” on his 1998 album Walk Between the Raindrops and on his live 2004 album Live in Aught Three. 4

In a 2019 interview, McMurtry commented on America’s current tribalism: “Everybody wants to feel a part of something. They are in a group thing. They don’t want to think individually. It’s easy to make money off of that. It’s not just American, it’s human. It’s always been like that…

“It’s hard-wired caveman stuff. We have to learn how to think our way around that. Basically, our minds will have to evolve faster than (our) simian brains are able to evolve on a cellular level. That hard wiring is going to stay in there unless we learn to short-circuit it in some way, or we are just going to perish.” 5

In solo renditions of his newest songs, his guitar-playing’s fluent sense of rhythmic propulsion and drama, and his quirkily apt harmonic changes – which sometimes recall those of Joni Mitchell – cast just the right tone, emotional grist, and gravitas. The Horses and the Hounds has plenty more character-packed scenarios, no more poignant than truck-driving “Jackie,” whose fate ambushes the listener with McMurtry’s matter-of-fact tone. And yet, there’s also the self-deprecating comic relief of “Ft. Walton Wake-Up Call.” After doing “Decent Man” and “Jackie” consecutively on a Livestream, he peered at his setlist and muttered, “Well, I got a bunch a’ real downers in here this time. Break out the Prozac.” His speaking delivery is as dry as tumbleweed too old to tumble.

The Horses album, with old drumming mate Darren Hess and a bunch of studio aces, is a continuation of a major artist at the peak of his powers, who seems philosophically bittersweet, slyly heartfelt, and still cranky enough, and still comparatively obscure, given his talents. He’s capable of very catchy songs, but his ordinary-Joe voice always earns its emotional truths, and he’s no attention-seeking self-promoter, so he never compromises his art. In that way, he may be keeping himself close to the real people reflected in his characters.

His music is a vivid way to refocus reality to where our social responsibilities might best align. With “the people.” McMurtry’s seemingly forgotten folk dwell low in societal shadows, with some, in effect, face-down in American dirt, because you can’t get lower, without being buried alive.

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(Author’s note: This essay was submitted to nodepression.com, which didn’t accept it because, they said, “We don’t publish essays on individual artists.” Ironically, the first article they ever published of mine was also an essay of comparable length. Their editors have since changed.)

  1. I’m not a guitarist, so I won’t get gear-geeky here. But I’ll report that, on his Livestreams, McMurtry regularly alternates among four (or five) acoustic guitars: a 12-String Ovation, a 12-string Fender, a red 6-string Guild, and, I believe, a 6-string Fender. Sometimes he pulls out a big, dark brown 8-string baritone guitar, which he refers to as “The Beast.” In November, he used it to play the title song from The Horses and the Hounds. He seems to have slight preference for the 12-strings.
  2. Buffalo appear to be making a comeback. I’d like to think McMurtry’s song, released in 2007 made some difference in consciousness and action.
  3. “No More Buffalo” is also on the 2007 collection, James McMurtry, The Best of the Sugar Hill Years.
  4. Perhaps not coincidentally there’s an influence. McMurtry recorded most of the album at Jackson Browne’s Groovemasters Studio in Los Angeles.
  5. Caleb Horton, in a James McMurtry Primer blog, vividly explains the connection in the kinds of emotional impacts of their music:

“The easiest way to explain it is that James McMurtry and Townes Van Zandt exist along a ten-beer continuum. McMurtry plays to that fourth beer, right before you decide to have six more, where you’re sitting down, and sadness somehow feels like the world’s only honest emotion. Van Zandt plays to beer number ten, where pharmacy vodka with a wolf on the label is in the cards and tomorrow doesn’t even exist because the sun’s down.” Horton continues. “Point is, I can only listen to Townes Van Zandt two or three times a year. The man’s music should come with a warning label…like they do with European cigarettes. James McMurtry is in the same tradition, but he opens the blinds in the morning. I can listen to him. And that’s how I recommend him to people.”  Caleb Horton, A James McMurtry Primer http://bitterempire.com/james-mcmurtry-primer/

  1. Mary Andrews, “McMurtry Remains the Harbinger of American Truth,” Glide Magazine https://glidemagazine.com/228503/james-mcmurtry-remains-the-harbinger-of-american-truth-interview/

 

 

 

 

 

 

The day the Rolling Stones nailed a country song (their own) to the wall

Album cover for “Some Girls.” Amazon.com

The Rolling Stones song “Far Away Eyes,” has been described as a country satire, which it certainly seems like, given the comic exaggeration in the lyrics and Mick Jagger’s swaggering delivery. But I think it also reflects the Stones longtime love of the country music vernacular.

So, if a satire, it’s a deeply affectionate one, as I hear it. Watching them, you can see they’re having a good old time. And listening to the band, it sounds as authentic traditional country (Bakersfield style) as many of the acts you might see these days at the Grand Ol’ Opry. The gently sashaying tempo embraces the song like a romancer sweeping a girl (with faraway eyes) off her feet in semi-slow motion.

And here. the Stones nailed the country style to the wall, in 1978 — with a song they wrote — though you might guess they were covering country songwriting legend Harlan Howard. For a bunch of Brits, you gotta hand it to them — oh, maybe a ten-gallon hat and a bolo tie. The song helps underscore their long-professed love of country music.

I decided to post this after I did a simple Facebook post and got no response. So I decided to to to post it again, and again, got crickets.

I did get some appreciative comments and responses from some of my rock ‘n’ roll friends, with whom I directly shared the post.

The lack of response otherwise might suggest I don’t have many country music friends, which is probably true. When I got deeply into American vernacular roots music somewhat belatedly in the late 2000’s, I did not really cultivate many friends who were into these American genres. I always had an appreciation for roots music styles, but after my divorce I almost involuntarily made an emotional investment in Texas outlaw style country, primarily courtesy of Townes Van Zandt.

I started writing for nodepression.com, and was even putting together material for a prospective dissertation on American roots music as a literary form, while I was pursuing a doctorate degree in English at Marquette University. However, I only got halfway through the course work, so my roots music material has either languished or been cherry-picked for publication in some form.

But I enjoyed this video so much I wanted to share it more. So I’m giving it another shot as a blog post.

By the way, here’s my Facebook comment on the song:

This shore is tasty, showin’ how well The Stones handle full-blown country in 1978, from the “Some Girls” album. I admit I never knew Mick could handle the piano like a honky-tonker, while delivering a typically stylish vernacular vocal. And Ron Wood plays a mournfully bittersweet pedal steel solo. The harmony refrain goes down like a shot of 90-proof Jim Beam.

The relative indifference to the posting may have to do with the song’s relative obscurity, despite its quality. It did make it onto a single but only as the B Side to “Some Girls.” It’s also on the 1978 album titled Some Girls.

The Rolling Stones – Far Away Eyes (1978, Vinyl) - Discogs

discogs.com

Finally here’s a Facebook exchange about “Far Away Eyes” between myself and Cal Roach, my next door neighbor, who also happens to be a music critic (no kidding).

  •  

    Close enough! I’m pretty sure that was on my mom’s tape as well. I think whether or not Mick realized it he was always bridging the gap between country and blues the way he sang. Which is kind of the most legitimate way a white guy from England should be getting away with doing Bo DiddleYour cheating hearty and Willie Dixon covers, eh?

    Reply

    2h

  • Kevin Lynch

    Yep that sounds about right. We might throw in Hank Williams, for the hell of it. If he’s never done it, I can hear Mick nailing “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” or” Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
    _____

 

Jim Glynn, Restless Seeker, Part 2

 

Ed. note, This “Jim Glynn Part 2,” was accidentally posted a few days ago, even though obviously unfinished. I discovered that belately, after being out of town. Thanks for the generous “likes,” but here is the finished post. 

It was gratifying, but no great surprise, that many people responded to my last Culture Currents posting, with a vast array of comments and stories and appreciation of the late Jim Glynn. I now realize I can’t leave this subject at that. I need to add more to this man’s story and legacy, in my small way. Thus, this follow-up blog post.

What dawned on me today was about what Jim signified and how he functioned in our lives, meaning those who knew and were truly touched by him. In retrospect, it seems that for me, and I suspect a number of our other people, that this extraordinary Irishman may have been his own sort of “guru.” I believe he came to his wisdom the hard way, as perhaps most wisdom arrives, through the extraordinary trials, suffering and indignities that his paraplegia visited upon him over the course of most of his adult life.

I never really thought of him that way when he was alive, and I realize the “guru” notion may prompt a few eye rolls, but I doubt much among those who knew the man. Thinking back, I always felt somewhat blessed by his presence, and inspired, and perhaps, if I was lucky, even enlightened a bit by the restless seeker in him, in all its manifestations, towards what I recently called “enlightened serenity.”

This got me to thinking about a book I own and cherish, written by perhaps the most brilliant teacher I have ever had: Professor Ihab Hassan, an acclaimed literary critic, whom I had the privilege to study with in a graduate English lit seminar at UW-Milwaukee in the mid-1980s. And the notion of Jim’s seeking, or his quest in life — quiet as it may have seemed — led me back to Hassan’s superb book Selves at Risk: Patterns of Quest in Contemporary American Letters.

I also thought part of Hassan’s rather poetic rigor (no oxymoron with him) and perspective came from being an Egyptian, emigrated to America at age 20, then specializing in American literature (His 1961 book Radical Innocence: The Contemporary American Novel, made his name in the literary world). Jim responded to the culture and wisdoms of the East, and Egypt is perhaps the most mystical (as in Eastern, more than Arabic) of Middle Eastern cultures.

In his introduction, Hassan characterizes “the seeker” he is trying to illuminate in his book, and, the more I recall Jim and his spirit, the more I feel that he was something of the kind of seeker Hassan contemplates and investigates in his book. I will quote from it:

“The seeker, as I hope to show, has many faces. But he is not characterless or faceless. He is certainly self-reliant, tolerant of risk. He is mobile. He seeks a meaning, even if danger must attend his pursuit; he intuits that individuals need and consume meanings far more than products. And he suspects that the sacred…camouflages itself in that pursuit…he disdains vicarious jeopardy, pseudo-risks, packaged by prurient media or proffered by amusement parks. He knows unreal America. He knows, therefore that in venturous quests he may recover reality, constitute significance, maintain his vigor, all in those privileged moments of being when life vouchsafes its most secret rewards (my italics). Is this not the whole sense of Emersonian experience?” 1

This photo illustrates how Jim Glynn could transform risk into reward with quick, deft wit and charm. I believe he had double-parked in Chicago’s Loop with some friends and, sure enough, the cops pulled up. Jim swiftly disarmed them (not literally) and, before we knew it, he’d “borrowed” their squad car for this crazy scene! Jim’s in the car at right, in his psychedelic shirt, wearing a Chicago cop’s hat, with our bemused friend Mitch (Mitar) Covic, to Jim’s left. The woman below was Jim’s current girlfriend (name escapes me) and the two to the far left were Jim’s friends who I didn’t really know. Photo by Kevin Lynch

Hassan’s characterization of an American archetype (especially that which I italicize), seems to fit Jim Glynn perfectly. As my first post indicated, he was amazingly mobile, despite his paraplegia and, man, did he seek meaning more than products (musical recordings aside), even despite danger.

His questing was largely manifest culturally, beyond good friends and acquaintances (“brothers and “sisters”) through his long-time radio show’s expansively “out there” musical variety: Not simply esoteric, but capable of gracefully bringing back in the general listener by integrating popular, or at least vernacular music, of many sorts. Few disk jockeys I’ve heard did this as well. Not even the great Milwaukee DJ Ron Cuzner, to compare another jazz-oriented programmer, who really “limited” himself to jazz. WMSE today still does have some arguably comparable like “Tom Wanderer” or Paul Cebar, and to a degree “Dr. Sushi,” for those with strong jazz tastes. WUWM’s Bob Reitman remains great, but with largely a ’60s-’70s throwback show.

Clearly Jim’s questing, and ability, to swim across mile-wide and unpredictable Elkhart Lake with arms, signifies that quest. This swim was beyond my ability, by contrast to a few more-capable swimmer/amigos, like Harvey Taylor, Tom Truel, Heiko Eggers, and perhaps Tim Reichart, at a genuine level of physical danger and risk. Truel admits he needed professional scuba fins to “pull this off” with Jim, and just barely.

Truel’s generous and detailed e-mail response to me, a remembrance/tribute of it’s own, underscores what I’m driving at here.

Time, as Tom notes, was a profoundly relative term in Jim’s seemingly timeless quest” Tom writes:.

“I call it ‘Jimmy Glynn Time’. You might get together with Jim for a swim day and to truly enjoy it, one needed to clear the calendar for the day. ‘We will leave at 10AM from my house.’, would become 11 or 11:30. Time was never wasted. Many preparations. Plenty of yuks (eg. see photo above) and endless chat of music, great women and sacred herb. Not a boring delay to say the least, as long as one made no plans for the day and if you knew what you were getting into — no plans were made. With Jim –‘The Journey Was The Adventure’.”
(I’ll add that Jim wasn’t above transgression. I know that he drove his car many times under the influence of herb. Illegal yes, but, as with most comparative aspects of herb consumption, I consider that far less dangerous than drunken driving. Also, in his early radio years at WUWM, Jim would invite friends to the studio during his late night show, and everyone would partake of the “sacred herb,” whether toking or “indirectly,” amid the celestial cloud-offering to the bodiless goddess Mary Jane, suffusing the studio on high.)
Then, Tom Truel recalls: “(Jim, the DJ, is getting ready to play Dylan’s “Time Out Of Mind” in its entirety, one of his favorites, to set the mood and leave a clue in regard to shadow elements as well.)”

So I’m trying to work my way out of the “shadow elements” before they recede too far into the mists of time, or transcendence?

Another even more dramatic example of Jim’s seeking, regardless of danger, may have led directly to the accident that disabled him. I’m going to speculate here a bit, as Jim never told me the full details of the accident in any self-dramatizing or aggrandizing way. But consider the very fact that he was driving a Jeep (still infamously unsafe vehicles in the 1960s) through the Alps on a trip from Germany to France. Perhaps it was a personal trip but more likely military duty which, as a soldier, he would probably have volunteered for — given the risk and isolated, extended nature of it.

There was GI Jim Glynn, in the process attaining the sort of ultimate natural high he would strive to later simulate, or somewhat achieve, through exploratory creative music, simpatico friendship and marijuana. And then, in a sudden fated instant, he was tumbling, but also flying, through the air, in the mountains. This recalls a great Herman Melville notion of “a Catskill eagle in some souls” 3

Or, less exaltedly, Townes Van Zandt’s simpler image of “to live’s to fly, both low and high,” in his masterful song, “To Live’s to Fly.”

The last two-part chapter of Jim Glynn’s life-mission, finally was to leave Milwaukee — the city where many people loved him to varying degrees and to which he’d given so much — and embark on a late-life quest, by himself. He said he felt this city had grown stale for him. To the shock of many friends, he moved to Portland, Oregon, while a paraplegic in his early 60s.

It all soon fell apart. A “friend” who helped Jim move in, then ripped off a couple of boxes of “personal papers,” Jim said, which really had little value except to Jim himself.

He did some radio shows for the local Portland community station and the NPR outlet. Then one day he fell, probably on a rainy Portland street, and broke his leg, and found himself laid up with a large cast for quite a while.

Then he was diagnosed with bladder cancer, possibly the result of his constant need for a catheter, and being out there without a girlfriend/caretaker his hygiene likely suffered. .To say the least, Jim never really found his mojo in Portland.

Another person who addressed his quest was writer Doug Hissom, in his excellent 2004 Shepherd Express feature on Jim when he returned home. Hissom opens simply and directly, “Jim Glynn has come home to die.” He’d found the Portland jazz scene amazingly similar to Milwaukee,  “I found that jazz has a precarious toehold these days. To my horror. The extensive music scene (in Portland) Is aimed at people under 25.”

Yet, amid loneliness in the Northwest, his painful seeking earned wisdom and serenity. “I suddenly found myself a man without a country. I just realized one day, that yeah, it’s time to come back for my people. Where my roots are. It’s just time to come back to Milwaukee.

“They say you can’t come home again and some of that is right. But my rhythm’s gotten back. I’ve got back into a natural rhythm

“It’s the Zen feeling and Zen quality in Milwaukee where you can move at what I thought was a slow pace before, but now it’s about right.” Hissom writes that Jim was going to try to get back on the radio and spend some time in the clubs. “It’s like a whole world opened up to me when I came back,” Jim continued.

Then he told Hissom the same thing he said to me. “I really don’t know how much time I have. They say I’m really sick, but I don’t act sick. They told me today it’s a short time, maybe. But I’ve no idea.”

Hissom’s article ran in the Shepherd Express September 30-October 6, 2004 edition. Now, please note the photograph of Jim (at the top) from his memorial brochure. The photo was taken October 2, and there he is, with his rhythm back, paradiddling his conga drum, at a jam in a club.

On October 18, Jim took his restless quest for enlightened serenity out, to the greatest unknown of all.

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  1. Ihab Hassan, Selves at Risk: Patterns of Quest in Contemporary American Letters, University of Wisconsin Press, 1990, 13
  2. ““There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he forever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than the other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.” — Herman Melville, Chapter 96, “The Try-Works,” Moby-Dick.

 

 

Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer venture deep into darkness past and coming

Sister singer-songwriters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer have recorded their first duo album, mostly brilliantly realized covers. Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff

Album cover courtesy rollingstone.com

Album Review

Shelby Lynne/Allison Moorer Not Dark Yet (Silver Cross)

The lateness of this first, yet seemingly natural, collaboration of sister singer-songwriters carries old, heavy freight. Both witnessed their father kill their mother, then himself, in the backwoods of Alabama. Decades past, finally realized, Not Dark Yet reveals both as artists mature enough to transmute tragedy into a deep array of poignant expression. The album cover does depict three figures wholly shrouded in shadow, a teenager and an adolescent frolicking while a third person plays guitar.

Lynne is a fairly straight country artist and younger sister Allison (the ex-spouse of Steve Earle) is decidedly alt-country. And yet, they avoid the sentimental pitfalls common to country autobiographical song with a brilliant array of covers of other singer-songwriters, save one song by Lynne. The title song, one of Dylan’s best late period creations, clearly encounters trauma’s impact: “Feels like my soul has turned into steel/I’ve still got the scars the sun didn’t heal.” Yet it has graceful depth, an offhanded philosophic recognition of darkness’s inevitability in life. Here and elsewhere, their voices’ blood-matched closeness plumbs their souls and touches the listener.

Their oblique approach to their parental loss dwells in their rendering of  Townes Van Zandt’s chilling “Lungs,” uttered from the strangely-elevated viewpoint of a person dying of lung cancer: “Jesus was an only son and love his only concept/strangers cry in foreign tongues and dirty up the doorstep.”

Or perhaps they’re searching for their martyred mother in Jessi Coulter’s “I’m Looking for Blue Eyes.” Here their vocal harmonies are soul-straining but wrenchingly radiant, entwining each other like tendrils of a crown of thorns. Or hear the yearning of Jason Isbell’s “The Color of a Cloudy Day”: “I can never find you in my dreams,” an obsessively repeated refrain. Nirvana’s “Lithium” activates a chemistry that seems to reach into the sisters’ shared historical essence. A forlorn, layered spirituality dwells in this album, an acceptance of the larger mysteries.

And yet, such fathomless beauty and tenderness carries through their lovely, life-worn voices that one feels them, not merely as orphans, but as women artists who have lived, lost and learned. This is among the year’s most indelible roots music albums.

And it’s an activist statement: They list the contact information for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence  beneath the inside-cover song titles and credits.

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A shorter version of this review was first published in The Shepherd Express

Steve Earle: The Hard-Core Troubadour Carries Wounds in his Outlaw Heart

Steve rocks

Steve Earle (right) and two of the Dukes rock out at a recent concert at the Minneapolis Zoo.  Dukes’ fiddle player Eleanor Whitmore and guitarist Chris Masterson also played a short opening set in their duo incarnation, The Mastersons. All photos by Kevin Lynch 

Apple Valley, MN – Steve Earle continues to amaze, for the depth of his musical and songwriting talent, his passion, righteousness and intellect.  He often manages to weave all these aspects through any given song.

He’s also a rare bird for his self-described working-class redneck cultural background. Our overheated stereotyping today might peg him as one of the anti-intellectual, blind-faith types that walk the Donald Trump lockstep. But Earle’s a patriotic lefty and an author with so much to give in mind and heart, and this was abundantly clear when he performed Sunday night at the Weesner Amphitheatre in the Minneapolis Zoo.

His extremely generous set displayed the range of style and attitude he’s cherished for.

A key moment arrived when he recounted his experience of beloved singer-songwriter Guy Clark’s death, which began with a story about high school teachers who showed Earle the way. Fellow Texan Clark had battled cancer for a decade, and lost his soul mate spouse Susanna Clark a few years earlier. Earle recounted waking up in Nashville, and joining other mourners to sing Clark’s songs. In his new album’s liner notes, Earle explains how he packs grief in his back pocket: “It’s no secret that loss comes naturally to those of us who wander the outer edges of the wide world. We’ve not only come to expect that, most of us have made it our stock and trade to embrace it, savor it, set it to the melody that the North wind whistles and the rhythm of a broken heart.”

When he got home, Earle wrote his song for Clark, “Goodbye Michelangelo.” It shows his well-honed tender side. Plucking a plaintive electric mandolin, he sang: “So long, my Captain adios/ Sail upon the sea of ghosts/ Chase the white whale to the end/ Bring the story back again…You taught me everything I know/ Goodbye Michelangelo.”

Why “Michelangelo”? Clark was an artist-craftsman, a guitar-maker – a sculptor of guitars – as well as a musical poet like his best friend, and Earle’s first great influence, Townes Van Zandt. (Guy’s ashes are accordingly waiting to be incorporated into a sculptor’s bronze statue. For a great example of that three-songwriter connection, hear the album Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark: Together at the Bluebird Café.)

“Michelangelo” graces Earle’s new album So You Wannabe an Outlaw, which is inspired by an original “outlaw musician,” Waylon Jennings. His classic album Honky Tonk Heroes grabbed Earle’s wayward heart again, not long ago when he was searching for an album theme. Jennings’ album was another timeless collaboration of dust-covered compatriots, Billy Joe Shaver and Tompall Glaser. 1

Earle’s a man of brotherhood and sisterhood, and both tendencies brim with romanticism, he admitted Sunday, toward the end. He openly recounted circumstances that surround his current situation, not-long divorced from his former musical mate and spouse Allison Moorer. He’s hopelessly star-crossed, it seems, having been married seven times, including twice to the same woman. Despite it all, Earle still believes in romance, not only between lovers, but in the idea that there’s a person out there for everyone. He even helped Moorer finish a song not long ago, “News from Colorado,” which he then recorded and performed.  And even if his belief is riddled with holes, he now cherishes the provisional freedom of “watching all the baseball games I want to.”

These reflections led to the new album’s “The Girl on the Mountain,” which echoes Townes Van Zandt’s “Colorado Girl,” speaking pointedly of a love he can’t let go. Earle could always soften his boot heel-tough voice, and here it drags its feet like a hobo: “Sometimes late at night I pray/She’ll come down to me someday/But the girl up on the mountain never knew.” The ambiguity of that last clause pricks the heart. Did she ever really know how he loved her? Did he ever really have a chance? Would he always lose her to a mountain?

Steve E

Steve Earle, performing here in Minneapolis, is a self described “romantic” who’s unafraid to bare his soul in concert.

The new album bears various riches, including two hard-life songs “If Mama Could See Me” and the harrowing “Fixin’ to Die.” The former one walks the fine line between shame and regret: “If mama could see me in this prison she’d a cried but she cain’t,” another canny line about tough realities. What mother can really accept an imprisoned child?

“Fixin’ to Die” recounts a crime of passion: “Fixin’ to die and I reckon that I’m going to hell. Shot my baby in the Heaven-on-the-Highway hotel!” Earle followed it up with the thematically conjoined “Hey Joe,” best known as a cover by Jimi Hendrix. It’s another murder ballad that he and his ace band The Dukes lent great power and even majesty, on the broad-shoulders of tragedy. It also included a razor-edged political ad lib: “I’m goin’ down south before that a–hole builds that wall/ So a man can be free!”

Earle mixed in just enough of his superb catalog for variety, including the heavy-metal grinder “Copperhead Road,” the pealing mysticism of the minor-key vamp “Transcendental Blues,” the stirring call-and-response of “City of Immigrants” and, in encore, one of his most exhilarating songs, “Johnny Come Lately.”

In the World War II tradition, “Johnny” celebrates returning veterans, even though this tale tells of a Purple Heart Vietnam vet who’s plenty worse for wear. Yet the irony of his troubles make hardly a dent in the hometown hoopla. Wait until he tries to find a job.

Finally, I can’t overlook Earle’s power-packed new song “The Firebreak Line,” which, he said, might be the first song dedicated to wildfire fighters. Wildfires, especially in California, continue to ravage drought-ridden areas and threaten property and human health and life. Talk about a new breed of unsung heroes. Until now. “Gotta pray that the wind’ll die/ and it rains down from on high/ raise a glass/ for the hotshots past/ in hotshot heaven up above the sky.”

Even if his personal life – including serious prison time for drug convictions – often plays like a B disaster movie, Earle is a hard-core hero in my book, the sort we need as many as possible of in our blighted culture and politics. I wonder how many working-class voters, especially fellow Southerners, pay attention to his word, compassion and insight.

He also displayed his superb musical taste in his choice of opening acts. The first group, the duo called The Mastersons, are actually members of the current edition of the Dukes, and include the excellent guitarist-vocalist Chris Masterson and violinist-mandolinist-vocalist Eleanor Whitmore. Together the couple dealt out piquant harmonies and snap-dragon rhythms.

cactus

The Cactus Blossoms add very original dimensions to their Everly Brothers-esque vocal harmony style.

Harmonies were also the calling card of the second opening group, The Cactus Blossoms, and if you only glanced at the card you’d swear it read “The Everly Brothers.” I’ve never heard a group more perfectly and pointedly capture the gleaming fraternal resonances of that famous duo. And yet, for all that, you found not a single Everly cover in the set of this St. Paul-based group. Their lone cover was an old Kinks song, “Who’ll Be the Next in Line?” And they burn a very personal trademark into their style. For all their soul, the Everly Brothers almost sounded slick compared to this group. Which doesn’t mean The Cactus Blossoms lack for high musical skills. The vocal harmonies are achingly plangent and precise. From their mirror voices and looks you’d swear they’re blood brothers but nope, the singers are Page Burkum and Jack Torrey. And tellingly, they make no mention of the Everly brothers’ style on their website bio page.

What’s different is that the Blossoms slather a thick, hazy glaze of knotty-pine country on their Everly-ish pipes, often delivered at a sleepy shuffle, but with a band fully capable of cranking up for a bluegrass style hoe-down, or personalized Honky Tonk with a hint of burnished class. The overall effect, at its best, is down-home, infectious and quietly thrilling.

zoo amphThe Weezner Amphitheater at the Minneapolis Zoo is a stunningly picturesque concert setting.

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1 Earle historically is a brilliant collaborator, among his highlights have been full album-collaboration with the Del McCoury band, The Mountain, which includes his superb duet of “I’m Still in Love with You,” with Iris Dement, reminiscent of his joyous “You’re Still Standing There,” with Lucinda Williams. The Mountain also includes Earle, DeMent and a star-studded gaggle of roots-music singers doing his slowly stirring “Pilgrim,” which director Kenneth Lonergan used to close his breakthrough film about a feckless drifter, You Can Count on Me. Earle recorded “Johnny Come Lately” with the ultimate rabble-rousing Irish bar band, The Pogues. Then there’s his duet with Allison Moorer “After The Fire Is Gone” from Coal Miner’s Daughter: A Tribute To Loretta Lynn, and several duets with Emmylou Harris and one with his sister Stacey Earle.