Monday, April 12, 2010

Country music, a working stiff's art

Here's a feature column on country music--you could also call (the best of) it working class music--from a recent trip to Nashville. Hope you enjoy it.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Street musician Mike Slusser knows his name may never appear on the marquee at the Grand Ole Opry. He even wrote a song about it—“For me, that aisle (to the Ryman Auditorium) stage is already ten years wide.”

Still, this 46-year-old, mandolin-playing, self-described “Nashville cat” is doing his part preserving the legacy of the “giants who walked” Broadway, Music City’s famous Honky Tonk thoroughfare where dreams have been made and destroyed ever since Uncle Dave Macon first sang at the WSM Barn Dance in 1925.

“There are two kinds of people who come to Nashville,” says the Stetson-wearing Pennsylvania native, a wonderful stylist who has been playing on Broadway since 1998. “Those who want to be rich, and those who have a passion for the music. I play here six hours a day, six days a week … more than 13,000 hours and a million sweet notes … . It’s a living if you’re willing to scrap.”

I listen as he plays one of his own tunes, The Ballad of “Mandolin” Mike, a dark, self-reflective tale about a dreamer and his weather-worn instrument struggling in a town where “it’s more important what you look like than what you are,” where “if you ain’t young and pretty … it’s going to get rough.”

Country music, one of the South’s great gifts to the world, is like the blues. It’s a music that came to the city out of rural backwaters and lonely crossroads, humble as the pricetag on Minnie Pearl’s straw hat, maudlin as Roy Acuff’s tears on stage, dark like that “high, lonesome sound” that Bill Monroe carried down from the Kentucky hills.

When I came home from my recent weekend trip to Nashville, I crossed the Mississippi state line and saw the sign that says: “Welcome to Mississippi: Birthplace of America’s Music”. It’s referring to the blues, of course, but also country music. In fact, the state Development Authority and others are planning a 30-marker “Mississippi Country Music Trail” that, like its blues counterpart, will celebrate the state’s many contributions.

They’re impressive. On Nashville’s Broadway, I counted at least three manikins and statues of Elvis Presley. Remember: when Elvis started his rock ‘n’ roll revolution in 1954 with That’s All Right, Mama, the flip side of that hit was his rendition of Bill Monroe’s Blue Moon of Kentucky.

Let me talk a bit about Mississippi, where this blog is based. The state gave country music its first star, Jimmie Rodgers, the “Singing Brakeman” from Meridian. Both Presley and Rodgers will get their markers. So will other stars like Charley Pride, Tammy Wynette, Conway Twitty, Jerry Clower, and Marty Stuart.

Mississippi, like the rest of the South, has always been fertile soil for good music. Its poverty and isolation provided a natural breeding ground, not only for dreams of a better life but also for an art to express the feelings and emotions of that experience. Just as uneducated sharecroppers like Son House and Robert Johnson wrestled with their demons and created art as a result, so did poor whites like Rodgers, who at four lost his mother to tuberculosis and who would himself die of the disease at 35 in 1933.

Among the rewards of a long career in journalism are the opportunities to meet and interview some of the people who’ve enriched the nation’s cultural heritage. I’ll never forget interviewing Rodgers’ sister-in-law, fellow Meridian native Elsie McWilliams, in 1986. She wrote many of Rodgers’ best-known hits, such as Daddy and Home, The Sailor’s Plea, and My Old Pal. “Jimmie asked me to write some songs for him, and I ended up writing 40,” she told me. “I never asked a penny for them and told him not to put my name down on any of them.”

But, she said, “I made a few pennies from them. I’ve been living on the coattails of Jimmie for a long time.”

I also had the chance to interview Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, in 1980. A dignified, larger-than-life man, Monroe was very proud of bluegrass. “It is the purest music in the world. There’s no sex, no filth in it, and it’s got a good dancin’ time, a driving time.”

The silver-haired, blue-suited gentleman met me between sets at a bluegrass festival in North Carolina. We sat in the bus he called the “Bluegrass Special”. I sensed that part of his pride was a reaction to all the names and sneers that have been directed at bluegrass and country music over the years. He was an artist committed to his art, much like Mike Slusser in Nashville. It’s a connection that has nothing to do with money or the limelight, something only an artist would understand.

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