Rock’s Backpages Rewind: Philip Norman, “The Cold, Cold Heart of Country Music,” The Sunday Times, 1972

by justindburton on October 24, 2012

Once a month, IASPM-US brings you an exclusive piece from the vaults of Rock’s Backpages, the online library of music journalism and pop writing – as used by teachers and students at institutions from Harvard to Berklee College of Music. For info on group subscriptions and free trials, go tohttp://www.rocksbackpages.com/group.html or emailsubscriptions@rocksbackpages.com

FOR ALL that Country and Western hopes nothing will change, its heroes die horribly fast.

Jimmie Rodgers died of tuberculosis only hours after he had turned railway brakemen’s songs to art; and Hank Williams, coddled in the rear of a Cadillac, managed to die of the cold. Immortality is counted in relics at the Nashville Country Music Hall of Fame – Jim Reeves’ red shoes, Patsy Cline’s orange wig. These died in aeroplanes: many more do on the roads. Or they sink to drugs by the agency of diet-pills named Great Speckled Birds, or simply have nervous breakdowns.

How, then, has Ernest Tubb the Texas Troubador endured? A grandfather in a lime-colored bolero suit, he is still, to his worshippers, a dream made flesh. The flesh may be pickled and tanned somewhat against flashing rhinestone but – he smiles. That is what has never changed. A million miles of travelling cannot wear it away. Under the Stetson brim, his eyes turn down like tadpole tails; the corners of his mouth turn up to meet them, giving the Texas Troubadour the look of a cathedral gargoyle as he exclaims, “Why – bless y’r hearts!”

The smile must be fastened on with pins. Past midnight on the Strip, the rain tumbles in pink snow through its magical illuminations. Buddy, Jody and Jimmie Bee, who live in Nashville on hopes of stardom and weak beer, have gone back to the final humiliation the city can offer – their apartment. Luckier cowboy kings are asleep in ranch-style mausoleums. But for the Troubadour this is the second show this evening: he came back today from three weeks on the road and is leaving again shortly for Adaca, Ohio. No matter how long the reputation of a Country giant, it still depends on remorseless caravanning between state fairs across the continent.

Already his band, who in their velvet somewhat resemble cowboys from Faust, are re-packing the bus, pushing through the crowd to the pink-lit rain, never neglecting to say “Excuse me”. But how can they watch him go? To see him they have driven from the pale cities of the North, bringing with them an even deeper kind of American Conservative: their children. They have waited hours for him, stale and packed behind the window of a record-store; the song which the Texas Troubadour sings through his nose contains all the fresh air they desire.

He goes among them, brilliant bird-green under a ten-gallon hat, with a “Thank y’, thank y’, Ah prishiate it, so much.” A fat woman’s camera misfires. Fat women love Country music. So do men with bare, pale arms, with sunglasses in their pockets and Spiro T. Agnew in their hearts: so do all the homely folks that bought a million copies of ‘Battle Hymn of Lieutenant Calley’. A Conservative’s only demand of his idol is the opportunity to shake hands. It takes the Texas Troubadour half-an-hour to reach the street. He smiles at the fat woman. “Y’need a new flash there, Hon’.” Before leaving, to drive through the night instead of going home to his grandchildren, he picks up his guitar and turns it round to show a reverse side lettered “THANKS”.

Any music-making city ought to be loved; which is why some even love Detroit. Had Nashville given birth to her product instead of annexing it, even she might have inspired affection; then perhaps kinder songs would have been written of her. But the music came raw from the South all around, fiddled and beaten against jugs through every state where people own front-porches. Nashville merely amplified the violins. Elvis Presley is Country and Western’s most famous foundling, and he got his feeling over in Memphis. They brought him to Nashville to fix the contracts.

Buddy Harris is from Arkansas – Johnny Cash country. He came into Nashville, like Johnny Cash, with a guitar over his back. There the resemblance ends. Buddy’s hair falls down from his old black hat in oily ropes; his eyes, from incomprehension or perhaps from weeping, are permanently half-shut. His mouth was made not to speak but to yodel, and at the age of 27 he has reached the limits of genius available to yodeling. Down on the Strip, in Music City Lounge, he stands up against the lights of the pinball game. He howls his soul empty to just a line of drunks twisted on bar-stools. He can carry every note in ‘Mule-Skinner Blues’, every impossible scroll of notes. His reward is what the drunks toss him in small coin.

Buddy is lucky. He hasn’t pawned his guitar yet. At least he isn’t a tourist, endlessly climbing the hillside of tenement hotels in the belief that Country heroes exist behind their effigies outside cafeterias. He is young enough – just – to believe he will be as great as Presley, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams – and will one day follow them in playing on the stage of the Grand Ol’ Opry theatre. He has a girl named Jody… “Uh, uh,” she giggles. “Really it’s Jo-Anne.” From her tiny child’s neck and ears arises an immense, pointed, yellow pompadour. She seems to live in the hollow of Buddy’s slack body, covering it constantly with kisses.

Jimmie Bee has none of this, however, and not even youth on his side. Jimmie Bee admits to 30. Poverty has already laid belts of middle-age around him, imparting to his movements that painful formality which comes from wearing, for months on end, the same pair of trousers. In Music City Lounge, while Buddy sings, Jody collects the dimes in a cigar-box and Jimmie Bee waits in the booth for stardom to descend, without warning, upon himself. Already he has waited two years. He does not even so far sing for tips. Yet his body, spirit, impossible hopes and dirty cuffs are bound miraculously together by a homespun and wise manner, borrowed from his idol, the late Jim Reeves.

The contents of his wallet, too, give Jimmie Bee happiness and release. “Did you ever meet anyone that had designed their own house?” He begins to sketch it – the mansion he will build when he is a Country and Western star. “The structure alone will cost a minimum of 150,000 dollars. These units, like flying-saucers, they make out of aluminium for people at the lake resorts. I plan,” Jimmie Bee says, “to have 12 of ’em all joined up by passages. You watch on closed-circuit TV. If you don’t want the fans, you tell ’em to go away. The house – and my clothes – will be all one colour scheme. Blue. That was Jim’s favourite colour. And grey. And out back,” Jimmie Bee says, tranquilly folding his hands, “I plan to have a perfect replica of Le Mans for me to play in.”

If only he and Buddy, and all the faces at the windows of excursion-buses, had consulted a street-plan first. It would reveal to them that the part of Nashville they all haunt is contiguous, in the manner of a dream, to absolutely nothing. The Strip is no more than a hundred yards of light, spreading, wheeling, withdrawing. The Grand Ol’ Opry at least is nearby, at the foot of the hill. If Buddy cannot reach the stage, he can see and hear it, and Jody keeps a piece of the brickwork for a talisman. The true, cool beauties of Nashville, however, are somewhere else.

They are physically higher; a dozen blocks nearer the stars, on Music Row. Set upon the trim grass befitting stern and self-centred industry, this is the Nashville they all dream of but cannot touch. It is walled off from them by palisades of sun in the glass.

All the record companies are here, and their ancillary activities; a sizeable portion of Nashville’s 500 millionaires occupying themselves in the lullaby of air conditioning. RCA’s building, where Chet Atkins has his office, seems delicately carved of wedding-cake icing. Opposite, in an affectedly simple shanty, a tailor sews coloured glass into cowboy suits, the lowest price of which would feed Buddy and Jody for a month. Here, the cash rolling into Nashville with the road shows and rodeos accumulates with a soft, golden click.

Music Row history dates not from the birth of Country music but from that of Rock and Roll. At his death in 1953, Hank Williams had already recorded ‘Move It On Over’, which is ‘Rock Around the Clock’ almost note for note. It was left for Presley to ascend in his place, to astonish the world with pink coats such as old Country musicians had been wearing on the stage of the Grand Ol’ Opry for years. And homely boys like the Everly Brothers found themselves turned to figures in a revolution: the quiet Carl Perkins, playing in the open air, suddenly saw his audience obscured by dust – they had started to jive.

Nashville is ruled by a brotherhood of session-musicians, as close and exclusive as Japanese Samurai, carving the studio work between them with the sharp sides of their guitars. One of them, the Spider, begins his day at 7 a.m. on the Country music television spectacular and, on the Opry, plays into the succeeding dawn with not so much as a grin of fatigue. It is the session-men, not single stars, who diffuse the Nashville “sound”, steely and exquisite, a sort of barrel-organ of banjo and strings, proceeding not from the heart but from ferocious dexterity and lasting not one second longer than it has been booked.

To grow rich, however, your heart need not beat in tune. On Music Row the biggest figure in every respect is Buddy Lee, a gigantically fat man with violet-encircled eyes. Buddy Lee’s original occupation was wrestling, and encouraging midgets to do so. Arriving a year or so back, he seized the opportunity to direct the career of the immortal Hank Williams’s son. That pugnacious-looking youth at the time seemed to promise little of his father’s waif-like brilliance. Today he pugnaciously smiles down from the billboard of the restaurant outside the Opry theatre itself, and Buddy Lee is about to build a skyscraper.

Outside Buddy Lee’s office the “Mourners’ Bench” is full – the queue of young men, and some not so young, entreating a similar transformation for themselves. Beyond the office is an apartment furnished in hacienda-style. Here Buddy Lee himself sits, in his new world of tailored buckskin and sentimental melodies, silent but for the stertorousness of his breathing.

Tiny against the pleated bulk of Buddy Lee, his assistant Oscar Davies outlines the achievement of the corporation. Since his most recent stroke Oscar can do little beyond fetching the beers from the icebox to the bar. But what history there is in his dry bark and harnessed frame: an Odyssey not of music so much as the endless ways man will devise to make his fellows pay gate-money.

It was Oscar who first discovered Elvis Presley, singing in an airport lounge. At different times he has managed Eddy Arnold, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran. It was because Oscar was called to the other side of the room that Jerry Lee Lewis so far forgot himself as to confess to having married his 14-year-old cousin. Oscar, in the 1920s, wrote the publicity of Tom Mix, the cowboy hero. In the 1930s, he promoted dance-marathons. He was, they say, the first man to make a million dollars in Country music. Then, they add, he lost a million-and-a-half. He brings out another beer, gasps for breath, then tells you that Buddy Lee is a remarkable, remarkable man.

The money up here is sometimes ridiculous. Mel Kilgore, composer of ‘Wolverton Mountain’, has a gold-plated telephone. Hank Williams Junior’s Cadillac is hung with firearms that fire; his house with wrought iron musical notes. Loretta Lynn owns an entire town, Hurricane Mills, including the ghosts of a troop of Confederate soldiers. The city divides into those rich in Country music and those broken by it, or about to be broken; with a Greyhound bus gliding uncomfortably between.

But the application of those millions is apt to take on the wildness of the fiddler’s arm. A star is, of course, obliged to build himself a palace, like Hank Snow’s Rainbow Ranch in which the odours of cakemix and polar-bear rugs curiously commingle, but what then? The safest is to put it into catering; since those who are drawn by a dream do not care what they eat, into horrible catering. There has been Minnie Pearl’s Chicken, and Tennessee Ernie’s Steak ‘n’ Biscuits, and the Conway Twitty Twittyburger, and Hank Williams Junior’s Barbecue Pits, and Tex Ritter’s Chuck Wagons. I have an enduring memory of him: America’s Most Beloved Cowboy. He is saying, “Now, jest you take a look inside that Superburger.” I could not.

No “Mourners’ Bench” is busier than outside Chet Atkins’s office in the RCA building. As well as being the most famous of all Country guitarists, Atkins is RCA’s chief talent spotter. As well as touring and recording, he also designs guitars for the Gretch company. “My face got so tired today, I thought I wouldn’t shave,” he says apologetically. “Last night I fell asleep playing guitar.”

He is so dapper and laconic, it is difficult to credit what personal insecurities he had to overcome to attain his reputation, such as sweating at the palms. And asthma, and a stomach ulcer caused by his dealings with the lugubrious RCA star Jim Reeves. Years after his death, Reeves still sells in millions, and he is Jimmie Bee’s great idol and model. Jimmie Bee cannot know what a vexation “Gentleman Jim” was to those about him – “Poor Jim” as Chet Atkins calls him. “He tried so hard to be great that in the end he was.”

Buddy’s apartment is only a few streets away, at the top of a broken, grey wood house where the sun comes through the window mesh like yellow point lace and an old-fashioned propeller fan roars from the linoleum. Buddy and Jody have the bed and Jimmie Bee occupies a space on the floor. His manner intimates “I’ve slept rough out on the range many times”. His dignity is unassailable, even as Jody hands to him the bundle of freshly-washed rags that is his underwear.

Country music did not originate in the Grand Ol’ Opry any more than on Music Row. When the first Opry show was played in 1923, Vernon Dahart had already won a gold disc for ‘The Wreck of the Old ’97’. Nor has the spectacular always been in its present hillside theatre, somewhat like a small Albert Hall. Originally, it was just a barn-dance on the radio, executed by a single fiddler. Subsequently he was joined by a zither-player named Mrs Cline. A half-crazy steamboat captain increased it to concert proportions and brought it to where it now is. Though Jody with her talisman from the brickwork does not know yet, the hygienic forces behind the Hall of Fame are planning to abandon the old dark, poky theatre in favour of a new, air-conditioned “Opryland”.

While the old Opry lasts, it has a heart. It must, if even Jimmie Bee could get backstage. Or perhaps the Opry atmosphere comes from conscience, an atonement for those silver-coated cars and guitar-shaped swimming pools; for the greatest star who appears on it receives, as Buddy would get for his first show, a flat rate of 29 dollars. From this altruism, only the session-musicians are exempt. Their rate is even less, but they are paid for each appearance they make. They are onstage all night, accompanying every act.

It is still a radio show, promoted by the National Life and Accident Corporation over its station WSM – We Shield Millions. Smaller manufacturers sponsor parts of the programme – wild fiddles and choirs of pedal-steel by courtesy of pile-ointment or bacon guaranteed not to shrivel in the pan. The audience sits in encircling wood pews, cooled only by souvenir paper fans, obedient to every signal for applause. The compere is the same, supernaturally-wrinkled old gentleman who officiated at the Texas Troubador’s midnight jamboree. At his lighted lectern, the old gentleman grips one ear and, in tones of sternest realism, praises Goo Goo Almond Clusters. “Goodness gracious, they’re good!”

Jimmie Bee moves about the wings unchallenged: it is an Opry tradition to welcome all visitors. Friends and relations may wander through from the stage door, and even out in front of the audience: there is a constant shuffle at the edge of the music, a popping in and out of the pantomime backdrop for Martha White’s Self Rize Flour, and through the door leading through to Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Free coffee is provided backstage, and lemonade and cola. Old men tune fiddles. Children play games. Every man’s suit, when it left the tailor, seems to have had a guitar attached. As Queens of Country and Western walk through, their blonde hair crackles. Patterns of instrument cases lie underfoot, spilling forth silks of blood and burnt orange.

Here are Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, solemn and quiet. Here, chubby with wealth, powdered with benevolence, is Roger Miller, in town to overlook the running of his King of the Road Motel. Here is Marty Robbins, who sang ‘Devil Woman’ and ‘El Paso’. He is unrecognisable, his hair dyed yellow after a stock-car racing mishap, but they recognise him. He is willing to shake hands with a whole audience.

Here is Hank Snow with a toupee like a moustache on his tiny skull, who carries himself as one irresistibly handsome. He will pass into legend, not for ‘I’m Movin’ On’ but for letting Elvis Presley depart from his payroll. The kid, according to Oscar Davies, was upstaging him. Here are fat girls and gingham boys with bells on their knees, dancing – to the angriest Conservative, nothing in Country music is suspect. Here, with his winged eyes, is Ernest Tubb, the Texas Troubador and his cowboys from Hell. Here, briefly reclaimed from the world of the superburger, is Tex Ritter, America’s Most Beloved Cowboy.

He is like a bullfrog with a headband, 49 years of hats having pinched a line about his skull. He is dressed in cream frogged with green, the beauty of the composition threatened by ash piling off his cigarette as he says to his drummer, a boy named “the Squirrel”:

“Gimme a number.”

“‘Just Beyond the Moon’,” the Squirrel suggests.

“Nope.”

“‘The Boll Weevil’.”

“Okay.”

The cigarette-ash falls to scatter down America’s Most Beloved Cowboy’s cream and green coat-lapel.

“Now,” the Squirrel cautions, “you ain’t goin’ to stop in the middle of it are you?”

The Beloved Cowboy is another very old man; but the cardboard Wild West he represents has proved to be imperishable. In the confluence of the stage lights, his legs unsteadily ride their high heeled boots. He does ‘High Noon’. They love him for singing it. Not well, for it sounds like a phonograph running down, but the way he always sings it. He is the soul of Country and Western, of white America, whose Soul music this is. He is a happy ending. The applause and flickering fans spread out to form a continent in the darkness.

Down on The Strip, Buddy is playing to the drunks in the Music City Lounge. When Jimmie Bee can make his single beer last no longer, he walks along to another bar called The Wheel. It is the same as Music City Lounge – the same empty barn whose muted jukebox has little to do with the scrawl of violins released out on the street. A hag in white topboots dances with the solitary customer, pumping his arm conscientiously. But in here, occasionally, Jimmie Bee’s great hour approaches.

With tremendous flourishes he jumps up to the stage, looping the flex of the hand microphone around. He tries to sing like Jim Reeves, like Johnny Cash. When he tries to sing like Elvis Presley, a piece of hair falls from his lengthening forehead to droop beside his face.

Jimmie Bee sits down again and produces his wallet. He has copied out advice from a radio disc-jockey which he thinks may help him:

“Save ten per cent of income. Let the imagination soar. Act the part of the person you would like to be. Knock and the door will be opened. My ambition. To be number one entertainer in Music City.”

– but late that night, as he sits at the restaurant counter, his shoulders are shaking.

Another bus comes in. Another boy with another guitar gets off and walks across, towards the lights.

© Philip Norman, 1972

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