Box Full of Letters from Issue #34
A little iconoclasm is no bad thing, but I hope No Depression isn’t going down the road of so many inferior music magazines by seeking to trash its former heroes for merely sensational reasons. First there was the frankly inadequate response to the Byrds’ late reissues [ND #25, Jan.-Feb. 2000], then the mean-spirited review of Emmylou Harris’ bold and moving Red Dirt Girl [ND #29, Sept.-Oct. 2000], and now we have John Morthland’s revisionist assault on Gram Parsons [ND #33, May-June 2001].
Morthland is entitled to his taste, but much of what he says is puzzling, to say the least. If he really can’t find a Gram Parsons fan who knows the melody to “Hickory Wind” then I suggest he’s talking to the wrong people — as it happens, it’s not my favorite Parsons tune, but I don’t know anyone with even a glancing acquaintance with his body of work who doesn’t know it intimately. As to what it’s about, well, frankly who cares? I’m ignorant of the meaning of a lot of Dylan and Neil Young tunes, but it doesn’t stop me enjoying many of their songs at various levels. As to “Luxury Liner” or “Older Guys” sounding like the Monkees, well, there are some of us who wouldn’t think that such a bad thing, even if it were true.
More importantly, Morthland basically accuses Parsons of being a “self-absorbed folkie singer-songwriter” somehow smuggling his (by implication worthless) preoccupations into another form of music. Apart from being utterly bewildering (can anyone seriously find any musical evidence on either GP or Grievous Angel to support that charge?), this smacks of a rigid form of musical puritanism which suggests that only “authentic” roots-based music (whatever that may be) is of any value. I thought the whole point of Parsons’ work was that he mixed together a whole string of different musical sensibilities into his songs to make something that felt new and exciting.
Back in 1971 I was a rock ‘n’ roller with no interest in country of any description — yet within one listen of GP I was hooked forever on what I’m still comfortable with calling country rock (and later alt.country). Parsons, among others, distilled the pain, heartbreak and authenticity of country music into a rock-based contemporary form that I could feel comfortable with, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. And frankly if there is folk music in the mix it doesn’t bother me one bit.
There’s no point arguing about Parsons’ voice — either it moves you or it doesn’t. For me the imperfection is simply part of the magic, just as it is with Dylan, Robert Johnson, Ryan Adams and countless other innovators. That Morthland can only find it pathetic is his loss, just as my failure to get, say, Ray Price or Lee Ann Womack is probably mine.
What is less subjective is Parsons’ important place in the creation of a dynamic and living form of music. Without him it’s arguable that much of the music your magazine covers simply wouldn’t exist in the same form — and who knows, No Depression itself might not even be around either. Parsons’ legacy is a vital one, and in my opinion it deserves far better than such a cursory and perversely argued dismissal.
— Adrian Hodges
Not god, just good
John Morthland’s barbs against the late Gram Parsons are typical of the kind of flippant cattiness that passes for music criticism these days. Dismissing Parsons as “a privileged, artsy folkie who confuse[d] his own James-Taylor-like misery with the hard working-class truths of country music” is a particularly cheap shot, given that the subject is no longer around to defend himself. Parsons was not the first musician to have more money than was good for him, and I doubt he gave any more of a damn about it than I do. His demons — the suicide of his father, his mother’s drinking herself to death, and his own drug addiction — were as real as those of Hank Williams and George Jones, and they’re right there in his music for anyone to hear. Even at his worst (“Train Song”, “Lazy Days”), he had more soul than certain of today’s alt-country poseurs (e.g., Ryan Adams).
Morthland charges that Parsons “institutionalized some of the worst attributes of bands that followed in his wake and were accused of betraying him with those very traits.” A few specific examples might have helped support his case. Blaming Gram Parsons for the Eagles is a little like holding Joni Mitchell responsible for Jewel. I fail to see the relationship.
Parsons was not a god. Nor do I believe that he was the self-absorbed hippie and trust-fund brat that Morthland makes him out to be — at least, that’s not all he was. If it were, would any of us still be talking about him today?
Whether Parsons was a true “country-rock” pioneer is beside the point. Like the music of The Band and Emmylou Harris, his work transcends genres and labels. He was what he was, and that’s good enough for those of us who have come to appreciate his legacy.
“Gram was the person who brought me to life musically,” Harris once said of her mentor. “I never heard things in music, the things I can hear now, until I worked with him.”
If nothing else, we are indebted to the man for that.
— Shawn Cote
Fort Fairfield, Maine
Blind lemon Morthland?
Considering that most of your readers consider Gram Parsons to be something of a deity (myself included), it seems rather perverse to have John Morthland review the new Parsons release. I like John’s writing, but he has always had a blind spot towards Parsons and his work. Seems like a strange choice
Otherwise, the new issue is excellent.
— Ron Frankl
On crap and criticism
I’m responding to the disrespectful article on Gram Parsons written by John Morthland.
He refers to Gram as a “self-absorbed folkie” and a “privileged, artsy folkie.” He also states that he only liked Parsons for a short while in the early 1980s when he “put a clothespin on his crap detector.”
Well, one obvious sign of a crappy journalist is a person who writes harsh or inflammatory articles just to hopefully become noticed. This is certainly the case here with Morthland, as he mounts his high horse in order to hurl condescendsions at the memory of a flawed but charismatic innovator in the realm of country rock.
The rambling, bitingly critical article is chock-full of cranky, judgmental comments. Morthland describes Parsons’ vocals as “pathetic” and “flat,” and elsewhere as “out of tune” and “rhythmically bereft.” Again, concerning Gram’s vocals, Morthland says he hears “little beyond narcissism.” There are further whines and moans about Parsons as the article continues with much emphasis aimed at trying to point out over and over that Parsons was not perfect.
About 75% into the article, Morthland decides that he likes a few of Gram’s songs. Then, to conclude, he spends the last paragraph pandering to the memory of Billie Holiday and, somehow uses this moment to throw one last jab at the memory of Parsons.
First of all, nobody that I know has ever told me that they thought Gram Parsons was perfect. His many fans realize that he played music that he loved, that he was friendly, charismatic, reckless, persistent and possessed other qualities for the better and for the worse. He didn’t become famous during his lifetime. He just did what he enjoyed, and he had a vision of bringing the country world and rock world together. Nobody that I know thought that his vocals were perfect, either. But many were and are touched by the emotion he conveyed in his singing. This could be examined even more closely. Emmylou Harris, who has gone on to fame, sang duets with Gram and was a close friend of his. Many times through the years Emmylou has spoken with praise and respect concerning Parsons the person and Parsons the performer.
Certainly everyone has a right to his or her own opinion. But Morthland is over the top in this article concerning disrespectful comments toward the late Gram Parsons. It reeks of a personal attack, in fact. Without wasting much more ink let me say that my crap detector is working just fine, and this putrid article by John Morthland is sending the needle off the graph.
— Chris Roschbach
Staten Island, NY
Blowin’ in the Hickory Wind
In response to John Morthland’s review of Sacred Hearts And Fallen Angels: it may be true that Gram Parsons has been unjustifiably deified; but much of this hostile, goofy review seems so deliberately provocative that I suspect it of being little more than an attention-seeking ploy. I am sure Morthland is eagerly awaiting the inevitable deluge of outraged Gram-fanatic hate mail.
This review betrays a remarkable lack of insight. To illustrate with one particularly glaring example: Morthland tersely dismisses “Hickory Wind” as meaningless artsiness. This is just misinformed. The lyrics to this song retell with simple elegance the Bible story told by Jesus of the Prodigal Son, who leaves behind the old family homestead and squanders his wealth, his youth and his soul in a faraway city. He comes to his senses in the gutter, his innocence lost, and longs for the sound of the wind in the trees in the simpler days of childhood, full of regret for his folly and the hardness of the world.
The imagery is simple, the references obvious to anyone who knows their Bible, and quite relevant to almost anyone — especially anyone with a rural background rooted in traditional morality and religion who finds themselves far from their geographic and spiritual roots. (I grew up listening to this song on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, and even as a child its message and melody stirred me.) Even from a purely technical viewpoint, this is an example of nearly perfect songwriting, minimal, profound, accessible, memorable, and personal. No wonder Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, and Gillian Welch have all recorded it.
Equally baffling is Morthland’s sneering at Gram’s singing, which he call “braying” and “out of tune.” Has Morthland heard much country music? Early records by George Jones, Ray Price, Conway Twitty? The Carter Family? All gifted vocalists; and the flaws in their voices and performances, the margin of error in those recordings, is part of what makes them great. (Incidentally, it is true that Gram is occasionally out of tune on his solo albums — but in fact Emmylou is usually much more out of tune. Check her out on “Hearts On Fire” and “$1,000 Wedding”. Still, the beauty and truth in both their voices shines through.)
It all makes me wonder what perspective — what high horse — Morthland is writing from. To use his phrase, how much does he really know about “the hard working-class truths of country music”? I was raised by a single mother on a working farm in Virginia. Both my parents came from troubled but deeply traditional, religious Southern families. Both my parents had turned their backs on this heritage, and immersed themselves in the world of rock ‘n’ roll and the 1960s counterculture. By the time I was born (1971), they had split, and were reaping the results of that era’s hedonism, and trying to find a way to reconcile the old and the new, the traditions of rural family life and Christian religion with all the revelations and revolutions of the ’60s.
This is also the backdrop to Parsons’ work. Finding yourself rootless is a very painful experience, and it is one our whole nation continues to confront. By deliberately and self-consciously choosing the idiom of country music, Parsons was trying to throw down roots again, to bridge the past and the future, the cosmic and the colloquial. His life and death show that in the end, he was unable to do this. But to reject his efforts, his music, seems to me to be rejecting all that is most important about music and life. He had faith, and he had believing, he led all the people together in singing. Hallelujah.
— Shilough Hopwood
Lone Star songwriters:
O Texas, where art thou?
Thank you Rob Patterson for having the intestinal fortitude to take on an escaping, yet prouder than ever, tradition of Texas music [ND #33, May-June 2001]. I too have had the misfortune of seeing acts like Robert Earl Keen and Charlie Robison and Pat Green in the Greek-laden comforts of my own Oxford, Mississippi, and the results have been much the same, beer, whoops, vulgarities, and “Hook ’em Horns” or “Gig ’em Aggies” signs all spewing at the most opportune times. I love the Texas music tradition, Guy, Townes, Alejandro, Rodney, et al., but the recent lack of creativity and the growing disdain for audiences for the lyrics, as Patterson points out via Pat Green and Corry Morrow, are causing at least one outsider to think twice about going to Texas music shows — anywhere. The article was made complete by the misplacing of Pat Green’s and Corry Morrow’s names under their pictures. Classic. [Ed. note: Our fault there, not Patterson’s.]
Thanks Rob for saying what a lot of us have thought.
— Chase Farmer
Thanks so much for your review of the Blood Oranges [ND #31, Jan.-Feb. 2001]. I had never heard of them until then.
Just one week ago I found their last album The Crying Tree, used. How could anyone in their right mind have ever gotten rid of this CD?
I really had no idea how good it would be, or the impact this band would have on me. I’ve played it every day since and let me tell everyone: It just doesn’t get any better than this. I haven’t been this excited in quite some time. When I heard the first cut, “Halfway Around The World”, I wasn’t quite sure what to think of the latest addition to my CD collection. But after that it was uphill all the way. A rollercoaster ride (if you will) of all that I’ve heard throughout my entire life and even more! What a truly wonderful band!
The thing that separates the Blood Oranges from the majority is that they don’t sound like they are trying to be different. What they are doing differently is definitely coming to them naturally. Everyone should most definitely grab ahold of this band. They really are that good. I’ll say it one more time: I haven’t been this excited about a band since NRBQ, and let me tell you all that’s been a mighty long time! Thanks ND for the review, as well as for your fine, fine magazine.
— Paul R. Jancsik
There are two artists I consider the most criminally underappreciated in any genre of music I listen to: Alejandro Escovedo and Jimmy LaFave. So it was extremely disappointing to read Steven Rosen’s review of LaFave’s newest release Texoma [ND #33, May-June 2001], and to see LaFave inexplicably left out of both Rob Patterson’s article about contemporary Texas troubadours as well as Peter Blackstock’s ode to subscribers [“Hello Stranger”] discussing possible breakout artists in the genre of alt-whatever-that-is country.
LaFave is, in my not at all humble opinion and that of many friends, the foremost singer-songwriter working today, from Austin or anywhere else. A good friend of mine is the programmer on the most highly rated show on Minneapolis community radio KFAI. He claims he’s never yet played LaFave that a listener hasn’t called in to ask who the artist was. He was recently stopped in the street and thanked for turning a listener on to LaFave.
While Rosen’s review was not uncomplimentary, it shortchanged LaFave as a songwriter and was way off the mark in its description of LaFave’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Emotionally Yours” as ‘icky’. Ah, well, one person’s icky is another’s sublime. I’ve described LaFave’s cover of “Emotionally Yours” as so beautifully done it’s almost painful to listen to. Which reminds me, Rosen failed to point out that LaFave is the greatest ballad singer alive. If he, or anyone else at No Depression, has an argument with that I’d like to hear it.
Patterson is harder to figure out. His article is a wonderful snapshot of a number of Texas artists, all of them deserving. I mean, I like Michael Fracasso — a lot — but he’s no Jimmy LaFave, and he would be the first to agree. So why the snub?
As for No Depression — LaFave may not have the same cachet of cool as Lucinda Williams or Ryan Adams, but when all is said and done he may yet leave a greater musical legacy. As many homes as have Car Wheels On A Gravel Road should surely have at least one record by Jimmy LaFave.
My fantasy is for No Depression to do in the future what I hoped they’d do on the release of Texoma: a feature article. Tell people what essential records to their collections Trail and Austin Skyline are; tell them how much they’ll love Highway Trance and Buffalo Return To The Plains. And tell them to buy Texoma in spite of what they might have read in their favorite alt-country rag.
Jimmy LaFave is a national, though undiscovered, treasure. Do the right thing by him.
— Mark Perron
For old-timey’s sake
I am writing about the article on Hazel Dickens in the January-February issue of this year [ND #31]. I am a big fan of Hazel Dickens but I don’t like the way they compare her to the Lonesome River Band or IIIrd Tyme Out as if they were pop bands. They are very good traditional bluegrass bands. I don’t think Hazel Dickens would approve of being compared to them in that manner. Her music definitely has an edge, and that is because it tends to be toward “old-timey.” I do not think that Geoffrey Himes is actually a bluegrass fan. Anyhow if he likes Hazel Dickens, he should listen to Dry Branch Fire Squad. They too tend toward “old-timey,” and I have heard their lead singer, Ron Thomasen, sing Hazel Dickens “Black Lung” and he did a superb job.
— Nancy Preston