|I was going to begin this by blasting American Idol, but after sitting for nearly 20 minutes in front of a computer screen with nothing on it but a blinking cursor, I’ve decided to admit defeat. Is Idol the O’Doul’s beer of American music? Sure, it is. But American pop has never been very spicy—I can remember listening to Perry Como warble “Hot Diggity” while still in knee pants—and beating up on the latest crop of youngsters with hopeful smiles and boring repertoires would be like assaulting a cream puff. A joke occurs to me in this regard: Wynton Marsalis gets off an elevator with a big smile on his face. “Man,” he says. “This place rocks!”
The place that used to rock (when you could get away from Karen Carpenter and the Cowsills, anyway) was the radio. Then the hit-making machinery kind of got lost in a welter of bad rap, dull boy bands, and vocalists—both male and female—who all sounded like Michael Jackson. If you wanted rock, you had to find a so-called classic-rock station… and I should know; I own one. The trouble with classic rock is that you can only listen to Aerosmith sing “Walk This Way” so many times without wanting to run the other way. (But it still beats Kelly Clarkson.)
There’s a happy ending to this story. Someone gave me an XM satellite radio. As a local radio station owner ( Bangor , Maine ), I suppose I should hate satellite radio, but with over a hundred channels and commercial-free multiformat capability, it’s almost certainly the future of radio (assuming radio has one, which is open to question). After maybe 12 years of listening to the radio less and less, I find myself suddenly listening to it all the time again. And I’ve found the place where rock & roll has gone to have its final party: XM’s X Country. Here, disc jockey/country rocker Webb Wilder seems to be on not just some of the time but almost all of the time, and the motto is “We’re turning country on its X.” What X Country has turned over is that tough country-rock crossbreed called rockabilly, alive and well and kicking hard.
The job of music radio from the mid-‘30s on has been twofold: first, to get you listening; second, to get you into the record store. If I’m a representative reason why the music industry has fallen on hard times lately (probably less than 40 CDs purchased in the last four years, most of them compilations), then Wilder and his occasional cohorts at X Country (Zydeco Satellite Cowboy may be the most memorable) are probably extremely good news for those distressed A&R departments, especially at the small labels. Here’s what I’m listening to these days as an antidote to American Idol. Every one of these CDs knocked me out and got me up on my feet. A couple of them gave me goose bumps all the way down to my toes, and I don’t think a single one is on a major label. I know you won’t hear much of this stuff on conventional radio:
Wheels of Fortune, by the Flatlanders (New West): Probably the most unabashed “shit-kickin’” record of the bunch, but these guys—Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore—have been around a long time, and they play great (if sentimental) licks.
26 Days on the Road, by the Twangbangers (Hightone): The country stuff here is really country, so beware, but the rockabilly—culminating with a blistering eight-minute take on Charlie Ryan’s “Hot Rod Lincoln”—is straight bebop. Pretty damn funny, too.
Wishbones, by Slaid Cleaves (Philo): Cleaves tells gorgeously compact stories in a voice packed with Texas trail dust. There’s a month’s worth of AA meetings in “Drinkin’ Days” and a whole Annie Proulx novel in the four-minute ballad “Quick as Dreams.”
Tangled in the Pines, by BR549 (Dualtone): I have no idea what BR549 means, and it’s hard as hell to remember, but this is one brash and happy record. From the opening licks of the pumping “That’s What I Get” to their homage to Elvis (“No Train to Memphis ”), there’s just nothing here not to like.
Your Country, by Graham Parker (Bloodshot): I vaguely remember Parker from his punk days, but this is a sweetly rocking, country-tinted album of heartland anthems. Parker wrote most of the material, but there’s a bonus: the best damn version of the Grateful Dead’s “Sugaree” you’ll ever hear.
Live in Aught-Three, by James McMurtry and the Heartless Bastards (Compadre Records): I saved the best for last. If anyone on this short list is apt to “happen” in a wider cultural sense, it’s probably this guy. That Live in Aught-Three is probably the best live album in five years is a start; that it provides the listener new to McMurtry’s work with an introduction to his studio albums (Saint Mary of the Woods, for instance, on Sugar Hill) is better, but not the end. The simple fact is that James McMurtry may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation, and if you don’t believe me, get this album and listen to “Levelland.” Better yet, check out the psycho southland breakdown called “Choctaw Bingo.” There hasn’t been anything quite like it since Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited album. And nothing like it on American Idol. Probably a good thing.
Simon’s head would explode.