Perfect Sound Forever

Apocalypse in the American Bush

by Kandia Crazy Horse
(April 2005)

RIP Muscle Shoals Sound, Sheffield, Alabama (2005)

Feels so good inside myself
Don't wanna move
Feels so good inside myself
Don't need to move
–"Luv 'N Haight", Sly & the Family Stone

Y'all, the kid has been guilty of putting the rock 'n' roll boys up on a pedestal: the usual suspects are easily rounded up. Lawzy! Can I get a witness?

Hell yes, in the form of Jon Landau, pondering the acute loss of Texas-born Janis Joplin in October 1970:

"...And the star system, the system of vicariously living these lies through some superhuman images, is the biggest lie of all. For within it we are taught to identify with the superhumans who act out these fantasies and make them believable, attractive, stimulating and erotic. We are taught to believe that the unreal existence they present is not only possible, but that we ourselves are inadequate because we return to our mundane and unexceptional existence once we leave the movie theater or the concert hall." – Jon Landau, "The Death of Janis Joplin"

...And, indeed, after attending the Brian Wilson panel at South by Southwest last week, can I emphasize how much I adore Van Dyke Parks? If ever one could keep a superb raconteur and wordsmith tethered to one's side parlor with a gold filigree chain, it'd be genteel and erudite Mr. Parks (especially for inserting my favorite lyrics on Smile, "Is it hot as hell in here or is it me? It really is a mystery," from "In Blue Hawaii").

Yet as one ages and reckons with one's abject position in the rock biz hierarchy, when one attempts to measure whether her career follows the tenets of either Andrew Sarris' careerists or cultists (guilty), the errors of one's ways become clearer, and the problem of serving as a tiny cog in the "star-maker machinery" chafes. However, you cannot write without inspiration, without being moved. And truly if you do not suffer the electric coup de grace – or is that coup de cœur? – as a spur to scribe then why bother at all? More often than not these days – even caught up in the paralyzing sonic smorgasbord and hullabaloo of SXSW – it feels far better to remain inside oneself than move to go through the hard changes necessary to be true to one's voice.

In rock (as with other arenas), they claim those who can start bands and those who cannot are limp-dicked, pencil-neck critics. Of course, as a Negress, I am arsed out of both classifications (and limitations) since both are supposed to be the sole preserve of white males – and "Blogging while Black" shall not rescue me.

Still, for some idiotic and obscure reason, I heard the siren call of the sound and the scribbling at a very young and impressionable age, and thus to this day consider that the haves (musicians) doth protest too much when it comes to meeting the press. Sure, there's hacks a-plenty today, peddling asinine "entertainment journalism," but the best work by a smart and impassioned critic (as well as their capacity to anoint the worthy) should not be so devalued. In those "halcyon" days of the 1970s – a.k.a. cock rock's heyday – that serve as both holy ghost and succubus, haunting all we rock faithful of a certain age, there was no MTV and, while freeform radio had its function, the countless features and reviews were the primary avenue for rendering rock stars exalted, as something more heroic than even the smoky, dim, mythmaking atmosphere of ballrooms were capable of conveying. It may be spurious apocrypha that a Landau review of Cream catalyzed Eric Clapton to disband his trio but, be honest, a lot of y'all radio babies out there can quote or at least invoke copy (Rolling Stone's, for instance) about your chosen Olympian bands of yore.

I ponder this because I am being called upon to explain and justify what I do for diverse conference audiences (including a "Race & Rock"-themed panel at SXSW) and, in the wake of my previous "southern" rock year-in-review piece, the Grand Daddy of Gonzo & southern gentleman par excellence Hunter S. Thompson blew his mind out in his Colorado compound. Lots of speculation riddles the media and the Blogosphere about just why Thompson commited suicide? A wide swathe of colleagues (and enemies) have put forth the notion that his work's been on a downhill slide for over a decade and that – coupled with demoralization over President Bush's reelection and the limitations of old age – goaded him onto Glory.

I don't have any theories about Thompson's death and I do not summon his name to somehow align myself with his legend and his oeuvre. Having written nothing as yet accorded such status, I don't consider myself on par with the Provocateur Once Known as Raoul Duke. Yet neither am I his follower – as a cultural raconteur or otherwise – for Thompson's exceedingly white and male form of scribe cult-dom and license to go native are scepters of cultural capital denied me.

Still, I have figuratively poured out some Ole Gold in the Kentucky Dandy's memory for I ken the degree to which his example widened a niche for all of us to carry on as we do, especially in legitimizing the use of the subjective mode in journalism. I sincerely hope his remains are blasted out of that cannon as wished.

As Hunter S. Thompson's violent demise marks the passing of an era – acutely so, in a time when the rebels that made the Southland famous are in rather short supply – so did the recent closing of the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound studio in northwest Alabama, and the 2005 Grammy Awards' mostly execrable "tribute" to "southern" rock.

To be sure, three horrendous advertisements in current circulation greatly add to the New South death knell: studio chickens clucking out the tune of "Sweet Home Alabama" (in part a paean to Muscle Shoals and its brilliant denizens) in the latest commercials of Kentucky's other famed export KFC, Gregg Allman crooning "Sweet Melissa" [sic] to score Cingular's saccharine scenario, and Darius "Hootie" Rucker tricked up as the sepia Roy Rogers or Cowboy Troy one, shilling for Burger King. None of this is rock 'n' roll...and the inherent sellouts go far as to make a lie of my one-time hero worship of some of these acts.

The reason why this latter-day hawking of wares in the marketplace comes off so shocking (unlike the natural pairing of Toby Keith and Ford) is that a generation or so ago the Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd really stood for something greater than even repping for the decadent glitter-glam realm of the music industry. Not only did they help get a U.S. President elected (Carter) but their music and lifestyles delivered scores of young white southerners (and, um, morena me) from the oppression of their homeland's racist legacies. Living paycheck-to-paycheck as I do, am well aware that folk gots to eat but it's beyond disappointing that groups of individuals who effected historic change in their youth should now allow (one way or the other) their laurels to be tarnished in such a manner.

The point is that the flagship bands of so-called southern rock once seemed to elude the vice-like grip of the American star system that the rock biz borrowed (however obliquely) from Hollyweird, per the Landau quote I began with. In his refreshing and often brilliant memoir Dixie Lullaby, me mate and colleague Mark Kemp makes clear the extent to which white southerners born and bred in the Civil Rights Era saw themselves, their desires, and yes, guilt, reflected in the part-beatific, part-haunted demeanors of Duane and Gregg Allman and their followers.

This commonality made the Skydog and his music wholly a part of Kemp and his peers, whereas Mick Jagger, the encyclopedic and stratospheric definition of the Rock Star, may've made music they enjoyed but Jagger's self and work remained remote, a mere (often problematic) object of consumption. Of all people – despite his American Outlaw death by chopper crash writ large and being temporarily party to Liberty Records' attempt to mold him into a Dixie Roger McGuinn – Duane Allman never seemed to fall prey to the bullshit, ass smoke, and funhouse mirrors labyrinth Landau goes on to describe in his eulogy for Allman's southern-born peer Janis (also honored at the Grammies by at least one sub-par performance):

"Stars are often people who believe the myths of the star system more intensely than anyone else and therefore become participating members of the myth. It is not something that is forced upon them; it is something they crave. Stars are narcissistic. And they seldom anticipate the problems that achieving their limited goals must inevitably create for them."

Naw, during this the latest installment of the ABB Peakin' at the Beacon in Manhattan for the bulk of March – capped by a benefit for the Big House in Macon – my blood memory of Duane Allman (the recording of Live at Fillmore East and his death both occurred the year I was born) portrays a man and artist who was never divorced from nor denied his humanity. All written accounts, and those indelible remembrances of his family and friends, echo this over thirty years later. Although the Skydog seems to have shared his "countryman" Hunter S. Thompson's peculiarly southern sense of morbidity, I doubt an individual fettered by star trips could've produced such deep and exultant music. Art actually – superb southern folk art to rival Bill Traylor's paintings, quilting by the Grande Dames of Gee's Bend, Alabama, and cobalt blue bottle trees in blackfolks' yards. Above all, the clarion call of Allman's music always reaffirms this, even to those encountering "Whipping Post" or Layla or them smoking solos on Wilson Pickett's version of "Hey Jude" for the first time.

Perhaps you think I'm judging the Grammy's attempt to honor an oft-overlooked segment of the musical fold too harshly. It could be offered that the Skydog's relatively early departure from the icy precincts of the Fame Country permits him to remain inviolate, his legacy untarnished, whereas his friends and successors have had three decades since his passing to fall prey to vice and, worst of all, the head trips of audience and industry demands. Likely, once you've fallen far enough, it's an easy if slippery slope into the clutches of KFC's marketing department and money-men. [*sigh*...remember when "suits" were the enemy and corporate rock a dirty word?]

Still, the Grammy gang's sudden attention to "southern" rock – and darling Janis too, frankly – seemed quite gratuitous and without grounds. I don't remember the Allmans being especially honored until a few instrumental nods during the 1990s revival. And Skynyrd, of course, are generally the (undeserving) butt of myriad jokes in rock. But I guess comely Son of the Lone Star Matthew McConaughey needed to hawk what's already been deemed a turkey (Sahara) and the institution itself wished to further enshrine such big money-makers as Tim McGraw and Keith Urban.

Alas, almost everyone but Urban acquitted themselves badly during the segment – especially (sadly) Elvin Bishop and Skynyrd leader Gary Rossington. You'll never get me to denounce Dickey Betts; indeed, I enjoyed his appearance, although guitarists of my acquaintance had reason to quibble. Worst of all, I'm sorry to say was Gretchen Wilson's overly hard bleating with Johnny VanZant. McGraw, the putative biggest star of the bunch, was just wooden and boring, adding nothing whatsoever to a segment one could still measure he was ecstatic to be participating in. And it's telling and predictable that they could not summon even one colored artist to pay homage to the Demigods of Dixie. Only Keith Urban seemed to summon the right match of giddiness and skill for his pairing with Bishop on "Fooled Around and Fell in Love."

[As for the Joplin tribute: kudos to "next-door" Kansas native Melissa Etheridge for her bald, bravura turn on "Piece of My Heart," a hearty thumbs-down for Joss Stone's immature excesses, and Kris Kristofferson remains my favorite man ever...such humility, such grace...*sigh*]

All of this roundaboutation prefaces shedding a spotlight on two young rocker outfits, Shooter Jennings' & Southern Bitch, whose recent releases did not make the last press time. Neither are overt nor strict followers of HST or Du-Nane, but they are, in their respective ways, carrying on the storied tradition of southern independent spirit.

Southern Bitch's central couple – the aptly named Adam & Wendy Musick of Athens, Georgia – released their latest, Snake in the Grass, on Captiva in November, and have evolved so well as to be burdened with representing the Dirty South as its premier collaborative couple, now that my beloved Joi & Big Gipp as well as Neil Hagerty & Jennifer Herrema have all bitten the dust. For those who have not been paying attention since Ronnie an' 'nem's plane went down back in '77 or at least since the ABB's reformation at the dawn of the '90s, southern rock is indeed flourishing in the Aughties, ever more complex, and expansive enough to include a front man like Adam Musick, whose vocals owe more to Bono than Ronnie, and a group like Southern Bitch that can enshrine the genre's wall o' sound guitars, blazingly led by Wendy, while also possibly making nods to Echo & the Bunnymen's plangent shimmer ("Could It Be") and the Spirit of Dr. Sardonicus (see the disc's best track and centerpiece "Snake in ihe Grass" with its piano coda).

While the rest of the pop planet was paying attention to Steve Earle's Taliban blues and latest provocations, as well as (perhaps deservedly) anointing Green Day's American Idiot come Grammy time, some of that abrupt regard (lest we forget the yawning silence of the bulk of the aesthetic world during this current wartime) for polemical sounds ought to have been spared for Snake in the Grass. The sure rhythm section of Chuck Bradburn (bass) and Chris Ellenburg (drums) lay down solid foundations, abetting the quartet on its move from twangy prehistory to epic rock textures, fitting to hold aloft a scathing indictment of those who would ruin the American Way. As the sister ax-slinger on the scene with the best chops – other than Ruyter Suys and Shelly Prior – Wendy Musick matches her spouse's sure aim at America's corruption lick for fiery lick.

With its telling titles – "True Born Leader," "I Won't Follow," "Cold Blooded," and "Mark of the Beast" – Southern Bitch's hard work demonstrates that the sentient listeners who profess to align themselves with Dr. Thompson in these hours will most definitely have to swerve sharply off the consumer crap highway fed to us by the major labels, to look into the hearts and minds of the perennially maligned Southland sophist for some lucid answers about the Abyss.

If Hunter S. Thompson blew his mind out in his kitchen control room because he had presciently stared into the Nation's abyss as far back as the '72 election trail and seen with clarity our individual and collective doom spelled out, as astute brother-of-a-serial killer Mikal Gilmore opines in the tribute issue of Rolling Stone, then y'all can at least use your ticket to ride on the Mystery Train for the maiden voyage of a loose aggregate of salt-of-the-earth bands like Southern Bitch, in the Drive-By Truckers' wake, who deploy their insight and mama wit along the Proud Highway most weeks of the year. To ken the revelations of these artists' collective works and thence be inspired to move, to act in favor of our convictions may be the sole American tradition we unequivocally have left in our arsenal.

Not only does Southern Bitch call out the President of the USA as the venomous basilisk slithering through the sewers of the pastoral garden this land has never been since many, many moons ago (yet the illusion of same has most faithfully been preserved below the Mason-Dixon) but they provide a Sound of Young America that most seem unwilling to hear, Adam Musick singing at once weary, afraid, resigned, and despairingly on "Snake in the Grass":

Could it be?
Could it be that we're too far gone...
To believe?


...You may feel nothin' at all
You may feel nothin' at all
'Til you bleed

If that ain't sorrowful echoing of Sly Stone and his Riot on the very knife edge, then I don't reckon I know what is. Not only does this Georgia quartet betray their own vulnerability in such turbulent days but, by featuring Josh Jordan's artwork "These Colors Do Run" as their album cover, they effectively use their own score to further illustrate the disintegration of the nation.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, Waylon & Jessi Colter's baby, Shooter Jennings, is kicking up a fuss on the Nash-Hollyweird continuum and brandishing the Outlaw Country banner anew on his solo debut Put the O Back in Country (Universal South). After having experienced his more glammy, Rainbow-an-Whisky defined prior outing with the band Stargunn and the willful career implosion of similarly positioned twang trust heir Hank III, some might be inclined to say that Jennings the Younger is merely posing, playing up some imagined outsider status in the wake of Big & Rich's rather quite successful "Fuck You!" to Music Row, and doth protesting too much in his onstage kiss offs to the Nashvegas Establishment (as reported from his recent Exit show). And ain't lad mag layouts with well-styled vintage Caddys, booze, and facial hair perfectly timed with the in-production Dukes Of Hazzard remake co-starring Outlaw paterfamilias Willie Nelson as "Uncle Jesse" and Bubba superstar/icon Burt Reynolds as "Boss Hogg"?

Well, I don't know. A party record can be useful for balancing out the bleak house the current administration hath built. What I do find interesting is CMT's (opportunistic?) taking-up of Young Shooter while (mainstream) radio virtually ignores him (thus far, and unless, apparently, you reside in Tampa or listen to Little Steven VanZandt's satellite station).

Jennings' sense of rebellion is more personal and, while likely not a marketing tool, its force and message will be become better focused with age and experience. Lest we forget, the lad's barely out of high school and has been living the rock & roll life since then. I only worry about his going to Honkytonk University with Lee Ann Womack and its author, the too overtly siss-boom rah-rah Toby Keith for a string of upcoming summer dates.

Sure, Shooter Jennings has played sold-out shows at the Viper Room and the Roxy, as well as sat-in twice onstage for Axl Rose with Guns N' Roses. Still, latter-day Stargunn performed such covers as Charlie Robison's "Sunset Blvd" and Tony Joe White's "Out of the Rain" while also playing the Viper and Malibu Inn with the similarly veined Cross Canadian Ragweed. And Shooter's admitted to escaping Nashville for the Coast because of a desire to play rock and not be confined by Music City, with its narrow parameters (and of course the inevitable comparisons to/looming mantle of Waylon Jennings).

Yet we all know that tats and mutton chops and weed never went away, not in true twang country; indeed, we've held those looks and attitude dear long after they fell from favor in Coastopia. What's disingenuous about growing up (literally) on the Road thus being spurred to join the Life and having a period of introspection wherein one realizes he is more hillbilly than Beverly (see SoCal smackdown "Southern Comfort")? As Waylon pioneered before him, why is the younger Jennings denied the right to mirror that trajectory from Buddy Holly and the Crickets to striking blows against the Nashville Empire? While "Sweet Savannah" is too clichιd and belabored in its attempts at classic country-rock balladry, Jennings mostly deft appropriation of the past three decades of Cosmic American fusion is welcome. Especially since my man Travis Tritt has largely ceded the badass torch – that boy swinging from the chandelier with Shania is too fresh-faced and dull to embody a movement – and Big & Rich need allies out there in the non-radio sanctioned wilderness.

Really, both fans and detractors ought to be grateful Jennings' album contains hearty Mellencamp-esque rave-ups ("4th of July"), great driving tunes ("Busted in Baylor County"), Bocephus voicemail, and the art includes vinyl in a yellowed sleeve, all indications that – schizophrenia about the value of twang and rawk at various times aside – the boy will continue to improve, step out of the shadow of the past, and hone an aesthetic of good merit in the era to come. And how can one fault a long-player opening with George Jones' drawl?

Are you ready for the country?
Are you ready for me?

Yes, baby. Indeed a sight for sore eyes, not least for making the connections between Neil Young (who once asked a similar question) and Ole Possum. Only time will tell if Shooter Jennings ascends to the mountaintop carved out for outlaws in the '70s, whether he'll only find safe harbor amongst the curatorial alt-country crowd. Let it be enough that he's sporting his Daddy's flying-W earring for now.

Sadly, I missed both Southern Bitch's and Shooter Jennings' sets at SXSW, but until other evidence surfaces, I will surmise that both acts gloriously furthered the trail they're blazing across the surface of roots music apathy.

Dem's my words an' I'ze stickin' to 'em...

Erm, one last: since it's now been revealed that Marc Ford will be a part of the Crowes revival, somebody please send a negro some boots!

Disclaimer: Any dragging, incoherence or opacity in the scribbling above is not due to an apocryphal adrenal gland high but to South-By burnout. Hoss, dese ole bones are much in need of Southern Comfort, stat!

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