Culturespill » Country Music

The Grammies Get it Right! (Wait, say WHAT??!)

4th December

gibson_les_paul_studio_electric_guitar.jpg

Just when you think the Grammies are so full of crap that you can barely stand the stink any longer, they toss some nods in the direction of folks like Arcade Fire, Black Keys, Vampire Weekend, Band of Horses, Neil Young, Richard Thompson, Bela FleckBroken Bells, Florence & The Machine and other groups that can never be mistaken for anything other than actual, you know, recording artists. Even ol’ Willie has something to distract him from his 78th pot bust last week, scoring a nod for his rootsy album Country Music, a stripped-bare dose of country music the way it sounded before Nashville strapped it to a post and paddled it until it agreed to become the foul and unlistenable bastardization of the genre that it is today.

Of course, this is the Grammies, and so the 53rd annual awards show will feature, as usual, one of the most bizarre crossroads the music industry can possibly assemble. Grizzled warhorses like Neil Young will share the same billing as Drake and Jay-Z and the utterly insufferable Jewel will inhabit the same edifice as Win Butler. But that’s how it is at the Grammy Awards, where Lady Gaga lavishes Elton John in a rain of adoration from across her piano, Brittney Spears locks tongues with Madonna, and Soy Bomb gets more pub than Dylan the day after the latter brings home the first Album of the Year award of his life at the tender young age of 56 (an incident remembered fondly in the sublime Eels track, “Whatever Happened to Soy Bomb?”).

Top40-charts.com reports that the Grammies honored no less than 273 indie artists with nominations this year–more than half of all nominations. The story then goes on to completely discredit itself with a quote alleging that Taylor Swift is an indie artist. But given the embarrassing legacy that the Grammies have developed over the years, mere tastelessness is better than the baffling indifference afforded The Strokes and The White Stripes back in 2002, when both White Blood Cells and Is This It? earned a combined total of zero nominations despite their standing as easily the two most interesting and superior rock albums of the year. Instead, the “Best new Artist” category that year gave the Strokes the “talk to the hand” treatment in favor of acts like Michelle Branch. Right, enough said.

The Stripes got the shaft in favor of “artists” such as Avril Lavigne (who? That skater-chick from Canada who did that teeny-bopper anthem for Dawson’s Creek, you mean?) while The Neptunes, The Vines, and The Hives also got hosed. But if getting ignored by the Grammies is a sure way to demonstrate your creative integrity (hint: It is), The Strokes, Stripes and friends are doing just fine for themselves, thank you very much. As for who should win this year and, of course, who will win instead, here are Culturespill’s picks in a handful of the major categories:

Record of the Year:
images.jpgWith a slate of nominees such as Bruno Mars, Eminem, Lady Antebellum, Jay-Z, and something called “Cee Lo Green,” which I think is a kind of environmentally friendly glass cleaner, does anyone really give a shit who wins here? With ten nods going to Eminem in total, this one is almost certain to go to Mr. Shady. The Jay-Z/Alicia Keys “Empire State of Mind,” a song that basically amounts to a musical grocery list of all the neat things that the rich and famous appreciate about NYC, is a possible sleeper here–if for no other reason than to offer Alicia a baby gift in light of the recent birth of her son, Egypt Daoud Dean (Can you say “Apple Blythe Alison Martin“?).

Album of the Year:
index.jpgIt is just as obvious that Arcade Fire is by far the more deserving winner here as it is that the Grammy folks don’t have the balls to go there. The only genuinely daring winner of this category in recent memory was Steely Dan’s horrendous Two Against Nature, and maybe Dylan’s win for the brilliant and career-resurrecting Time out of Mind in 1998. Other than that, this one almost always goes to the pop trash celebrity of the moment, and that distinction, clearly, goes to Katy Perry for Teenage Dream, a sure-fire winner this year. Other nominees: Eminem, Recovery; Lady Antebellum, Need You Now; Lady Gaga, The Fame Monster. A good year for ladies named “Lady.”

Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance:
paul.jpgSurely Apple has paid off the Grammy folks by now to the tune of whatever it takes to ensure that McCartney wins for his delivery of “Helter Skelter” on Good Evening New York City, a live CD released this year on–wait for it–the Starbucks record label Hear Music. Whatever amount of payola the Grammy folks received from Apple to use this as further advertising fodder for their announcement that Beatles music is now available on iTunes will probably be enough to bring it home. It’s a crowded category this year, including used-up former gods such as Robert Plant or Eric Clapton, whose continued laurel-resting inspired perhaps the most notorious exchange in Culturespill history in the comments below our review of Clapton’s Robert Johnson covers album. If there was a true God, though, the good deity would ensure that this year’s award for Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance goes to its rightful winner, and that has to be Neil Young for “Angry World,” easily one of the man’s most inspired rock performances since the night he damn-near burned down the building with his terrifying performance of “Rockin’ in the Free World” on SNL in 1989. Le Noise is the most engaging record Neil has done in at least 15 years and earned him three nominations this year. Other nominees in this category: John Mayer, “Crossroads.” Yes, John Mayer. You are now free to throw up in your own mouth.

Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals:
arcade.jpgIt should come as no surprise that the track nominated in this category from the Black Keys’s brilliant new record Brothers happens to rank among the least interesting moments on the entire album. It is equally unsurprising that “Tighten Up” was also the first single that Nonesuch tagged for promos when the record hit the streets earlier this year. Had the Grammy shills bothered to actually listen to the record before choosing a track to nominate under this category, they might have considered “The Next Girl,” “Howlin’ For You” or “She’s Long Gone.” Since they failed to do so, the winner here has to be Arcade Fire’s “Ready to Start.” Other nominees in this category: Jeff Beck & Joss Stone, “I Put a Spell on You“; Kings of Leon, “Radioactive“; Muse, “Resistance.”

Best Rock Album:
muse.jpgFunny how the more cluttered the scene becomes with young bands vying for a spare slice of the glory pie their forebears baked so long ago, the more those forebears remind us that they know best how to rock. Three of the five nominees in this category have roamed the earth for a combined 180+ years: Neil Young, Jeff Beck, and Tom Petty. Others, the boy-band-as-rock-‘n-rollers concept group Muse and grunge priests Pearl Jam, ought to have no chance whatsoever in winning over any of the other three. Here again, Young’s “Le Noise” is by far the ballsiest record of the five nominees, with Beck’s “Emotion & Commotion” a clear runner-up only because Petty’s Mojo turned out to be running a little lower than he realized (forgettable toss-offs like “Candy” and “No Reason to Cry” cramp the style of rock ‘n roll stunners like “I Should Have Known it” and “Running Man’s Bible“). But, as always, most likely this one will go to the shittiest of the five nominees, namely Muse.

Click here for the full list of nominees for the 53rd annual Grammy Awards. If you prefer the PDF version, go here.

Texas Tornado: The Times and Music of Doug Sahm

30th November

 

ds1-3001.jpg

To open Jan Reid’s book Texas Tornado: The Times and Music of Doug Sahm (U of Texas Press) is to stumble into a time warp where Bobby Womack is more famous for marrying the woman whom Sam Cooke widowed than he is for anything he’s done on record, where Doug Sahm’s name looms far larger in Texas than Willie Nelson’s, and where growing your hair a little longer than most other folks in town is still enough to earn you a mean shiner from a cop in the street.

Reid set out to write a book about an American legend for whom he clearly harbors a great deal of affection, and he begins his tale with a note of modesty that belies his subject, explaining that he hopes not to write a comprehensive biography but merely “to convey some sense of the antic swath that for decades he cut through many communities in many countries, to call up some voices of the people who got to know him well . . . and to demonstrate the sheer knowing of his music.” What he ends up accomplishing instead, though, is much more: a great book about Doug Sahm that also happens to be a great book about American music itself.

Reid breathes life into a moment in American culture that can neither be recaptured nor replicated. The stories he tells–and the unreal cast of characters that move through them–comprise a wildly entertaining romp so vivid that you can hear Doug Sahm chuckling at himself somewhere between the lines. On page after page, you can see the Texas dust that Doug kicks up on his way to thrill yet another town just as clearly as you can smell the several tons of ganja he roasted along the way.

 

There he is in a rare moment of domestic bliss before his insatiable pursuit of the next hit single and the town he’ll play it in wrenched him away from his wife Violet, demanding that his children keep from opening presents on Christmas morning until “he came out with his pipe and big jar of pot.” And there he is on the road with his bandits of the beat–some of them are part-time barbers, some make doughnuts for a living, others have done time “in the sweltering fields of Angola” for pot possession. Augie Meyers, who played the meanest Vox organ anyone on earth has ever heard and brandished a “pickled ear” to perpetuate the myth that his ear was sliced off in a knife fight; Freddie Fender, who did those mean years at Angola only to hit the road with Doug and the boys once again and, with his slick talent on electric guitar and a hairdo that looked like a mushroom cloud, solidify his reputation as “the Mexican Elvis”; Huey Meaux, the “crazy cajun” who did several stints in the clink himself and once earned a full pardon from Jimmy Carter for one of the convictions that put him there.

The sum of all these inimitable parts was a musical stew that ranged from psychedelia to Tex-Mex, from Bob Wills to Jerry Garcia and all points in between. Sahm’s greatest notoriety came with his 1965 hit “She’s About a Mover” with the Sir Douglas Quintet. As Reid likes to note throughout the book, Doug went on to enjoy the rare distinction of a musician who never once had to hold a day job. The creative restlessness that Sahm exhibited from then on resembled that of Neil Young, always finding himself with a different crew of sidemen to back him up in the studio for yet another record, some as inordinately famous as Bob Dylan or Jerry Garcia; others anonymous sidemen he picked up somewhere in Texas. By Reid’s count Sahm laid down no less than “140 records in the United States, Europe and Canada,” bringing Scandanavia to its knees with a gorgeous number called “Meet Me in Stockholm” that earned him eternal superstar status in that country, and firing off other Tex-Mex beauties back home like the chart hit “Mendocino” or the sublime “At the Crossroads.”

Reid’s book is full of forgotten treasures and the kind of rock ‘n roll trivia that you either never knew or had heard from a friend once and forgotten–that Delbert McClinton taught John Lennon how to play harmonica, that Freddie Fender is the reason Austin’s own Roky Erickson graced the world with his brilliant “Starry Eyes” and “Two-Headed Dog” even as he struggled with the ravaged psyche of a traumatic pot bust recounted in detail here, or simply that Michael Martin Murphey’s Geronimo’s Cadillac is one hell of a record.

The book’s generous collection of photos is equally revelatory. Stunningly intimate in a way that makes you feel as though you’ve been invited to the man’s house to thumb through his family albums, the photos tell almost as much of American music’s story as Reid does. Many of them are provided by Sahm’s son Shawn Sahm, who today plays and tours with his father’s old bandmates. There is Doug accompanied by a seemingly teenage Stevie Ray Vaughn on page  80; and there are Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh and Leon Russel backing up Doug in a show at the Armadillo in 1972.

Doug never did quite recapture the stardom he attained with “She’s About a Mover,” but he never stopped recording and he did score a Grammy with the Texas Tornados in 1990, a group comprised of old cohorts Meyers and Fender along with Flaco Jiminez. The now-legendary alt-country group Uncle Tupelo afforded him a little cross-generation love when Sahm contributed “Give me Back the Key to My Heart” for their 1993 album, Anodyne. Today, though, Sahm’s music enjoys more air-time on barroom juke boxes in Europe than it does on radio stations in the Texas he called home for most of his life, where he contributed more to Austin’s emergence as the music mecca it has become than he’s given credit for.

Sahm’s lifelong heart murmur culminated in a heart attack that took him from this world much too soon in 1999 at age 58, but the beautifully sloppy cache of music he left behind is worthy of significant critical reconsideration–records like Honkey Blues, Doug Sahm and Band, or Texas Rock for Country Rollers. And even in death, the legend that was Doug Sahm lived on, as buddies hunched over his body after the funeral service to roll a few last twists of weed and dump them in–just in case he ever felt the urge to light up as he took his final rest. In Texas Tornado, Reid has written a book that essentially amounts to a 200-page-love letter to the younger days that Doug Sahm colored with great music, good times, and, of course, what Reid refers to as “the good herb.” The ride he’ll take you on as he inches toward the end of Sahm’s uniquely American tale will linger with you long after you’ve put the book down.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com