Box Full of Letters from Issue #21
Bonnie Palace Whoozit:
Much ado about Oldham
After reading Grant Alden’s March column [“Hello Stranger”, ND #20, March-April ’99], I tracked down Will Oldham’s article [Time Out New York, Dec. 10-17, 1998]. As a published scholar of African-American literature and an alt-country fan, I have one comment: Some ideas are so jackassed as to not merit much attention beyond the first reading. In Aeropagitica, John Milton argues that the strength of a free press lies in providing a stage for idiocy to present itself for well-deserved ridicule. Thank you, Mr. Oldham, for re-demonstrating this point.
— Robert Kendrick
Columbia, South Carolina
I briefly considered conducting an informal poll of my black African-American friends (I consider myself a white African-American) to determine if any were aware of either the existence or music of a certain Will Oldham/Palace Inc., but quickly determined that such a poll would be a complete waste of time since Mr. Oldham’s music has appealed almost exclusively to a market comprised of more “whites only” than you could find at a drinking fountain or a service station restroom in the deep South in the early ’60s.
You’re probably not in a comfortable position to reassess Oldham’s claim to legitimacy as a musician, but I will. Sometimes limited instrumental skills, ludicrous vocal stylings, and obscure, seemingly meaningless lyrics may be just what they appear to be. Let Oldham’s fans (and former fans like myself) who love country/alt.country and your magazine depart his camp and I think you’ll be more likely to find Will busing tables in West Hollywood than plying his musical trade in a respectable bar or concert hall. Let Mr. Oldham return to the privacy of his own personal space with his music since he rightfully rates no more public of a forum than I myself who has fun playing, singing, and writing for my own enjoyment. African-American music can survive without his advocacy/defense and so can fans of one of the best music magazines ever, No Depression.
— Doug Lamkin
Dear Mr. Oldham:
How very fortuitous: the copy of No Depression with Grant Alden’s essay inspired by your gratuitous comment landed in my mailbox as I was in the process of developing a lecture I would deliver in two weeks’ time with the title “Black Music/White Music, the Line That Doesn’t Exist.” If this shot at the University of Delaware goes well, I may try to sell other colleges on the idea of a lecture. Maybe I’ll be at a college near you. If so, I sure hope you come, because you have a lot to learn.
You see, the kernel of the lecture is that although marketing guys and radio strategists would like to draw very clear demarcations in the American cultural fabric, it just ain’t that way, and never has been. Particularly in music, the interchange has been so vast that it would need a book to do justice to it.
Let’s just start with an icon of “white” music, the banjo. Used by every bluegrass band, seen, even, at Klan rallies. But it was developed by black slaves, as was much of its repertoire, as you can hear on the glass-disc recordings made by black Nashville folklorist John Work in the early ’40s. Its ancestor exists today in Sierra Leone, where it’s played very differently.
Think about the Depression years, when the radio achieved its mass popularity. In the South, black families would gather to listen to the best musical entertainment it would offer, which naturally included the Grand Ole Opry, among other country variety shows. True, there was no “black” music, no blues, on the radio at the time. But I doubt these people were grumbling over that.
Nor were white musicians of the time so convinced of their racial superiority that they scorned the black man’s musical achievements or person: Bob Wills learned fiddle from his grandfather and rhythm from his black co-workers in the West Texas oil patch. “Hot” country music was a part of the national landscape from the ’30s through the ’50s, although little of it came from Nashville, and it was all, from Jesse Ashlock’s fiddling through Merle Travis’ boogie guitar, informed by black styles. The Carter Family had a black friend who helped them find songs, Hank Williams learned guitar from a black man, and in his autobiography, Carl Perkins reveals that his relationship with blacks was informed by class, not race. They were all equally poor, equally miserable, and found solace in the same music. And let’s not even mention Elvis.
And blacks? They liked that honky stuff: Listen to Ray Charles’ interpretations of country songs and tell me there’s not enthusiasm and affection there. Or Solomon Burke. Or Bobby Bland, who did an entire country album at one point. They continue to like it, too: As Grant pointed out in his essay, there’s a sizable black country audience.
Thing is, I don’t know about the average No Depression reader, but my guess is that at least a big chunk of them have record collections as diverse as mine. They’re not a tribe, like the Goths or the forlorn punks I see every day. My guess is that if there were an alt.soul movement or something, they’d be subscribing to its magazine, too. If ND’s focus is narrow, that’s because, if the piles of “general-interest” music mags that sit unread in a pile in my living room are any index, narrow focus promotes good writing and intelligent cultural commentary instead of pimping for the Next Big Thing off the record company assembly-line. It’s harder for me to have to keep up with The Wire and Folk Roots and ND and all the others, but that’s my problem, not the culture’s.
In the end, I have to say I prefer rooted music, no matter where its roots are, to the sort of irony-bound, deracinated stuff so many “alternative” bands produce. Yes, like yours: I saw the Palace Brothers in ’93 and hated them, and I’ve heard large chunks of each succeeding album and found them empty. Perhaps my children will put you in the same pantheon I put the Stanley Brothers, Don Covay, Eric Dolphy, Camille Howard, Henry Purcell, Juan Atkins and Ray Davies in, but it won’t be for lack of a context.
— Ed Ward
(Ed. note: Ed Ward is an occasional contributor to No Depression.)
Something to crow about:
A different perspective
The first paragraph of Kevin Hawkins’ review of the latest Black Crowes release [ND #20, March-April ’99] is quite romantic yet very flawed. The Black Crowes evolved from a band called Mr. Crowes Garden. This was not some punk rock outing as [lead singer] Chris [Robinson] told Rolling Stone magazine, but a deliberate attempt to cash in on R.E.M. who was very popular cloning material in the mid to late ’80s. I distinctly remember a conversation I had with Chris in 1987 in which he asked me who I was listening to at the time. I told him I was getting in to some Who and Led Zepplin [sic], trying to connect with my earlier roots. He told me, “Fuck that shit, I’m so glad I’m too young to remember that shit.” When I think of the Black Crowes, I don’t think of a band paying homage to their idols, I think of a cold calculated money machine.
— Will Platt
More bands to find
Where are they now? Several 1970s singer/songwriters and bands in the country-rock, or what was then known as “progressive country,” vein:
Michael Dinner: Great debut (I think it was his debut) album, The Great Pretender, on Fantasy in 1974, and a second album a year or so later. Never heard from him again.
Gary Hill: Heard him on tour with Waylon Jennings circa 1976 or so. Two albums on Capitol (Mountain Man, 1975, and Booga Billy, 1976). Wrote some great songs. Where’d he go?
Heartsfield: Mid-1970s country-rock band. Three albums on Mercury, one on Columbia in 1977.
The Dusty Chaps: Debut album on Capitol (Honky Tonk Music) in 1977. Led by songwriter George Hawke. Never heard anything from them after debut.
— Karl Swartz
Not so dandy Don
Publishing the worst interview in history after Jay Farrar typically floated through space a few months back is one thing, but saying Richard Buckner is Kenny Rogers (while outing Don Williams on the cover as hip when his latest album is half-hearted hot country — listen to it again) is the sort of move that’s going to bring America to its knees one of these days. Williams may personally be the coolest cucumber in the garden, but his marketers and producers at Giant suck. The crack you boys smoking full of iodine? Let this stop before Alabama makes The Long Cut. And, as always, keep doing the good stuff.
— Christopher Zoz
Fort Saskatchewan, Canada
RS or ND:
Take your pick
Just a quick note, I received recently my renewal forms for both No Depression and Rolling Stone magazine, I have been a subscriber for 1 year with you and a whopping 21 years with Rolling Stone. I have decided not to renew my Rolling Stone. I think your magazine is great and wait impatiently every other month to receive it. Just a little pat on the back and thank-you for such a diverse pleasure of musical styles to enjoy.
— David Degeus
The last word:
Shiny happy people
How could it not be the best issue of ND ever (#20, March-April ’99) — it’s sandwiched between photos of Steve Earle and Kelly Willis.
— Mike Sheehan