Field Reportings from Issue #71
LONG LIVE LOUVIN: Country icon Charlie Louvin celebrated his 80th birthday July 7 with a set of energetic, entertaining, funny and moving Nashville shows — at the new Louvin Brothers Museum near the Grand Ole Opry House, on the Saturday night Opry, and, in a sign of his growing connection to a younger, edgier audiences, at Nashville’s rock-oriented Mercy Lounge the night before. “Any time you do a show,” Charlie noted after the Mercy Lounge appearance, “you’re going to see some youngsters who came there against their will, with papa and mama, but that’s not the case here. They come on their own, and that’s very pleasant. It might even mean that the Louvin Brothers song catalogue will last another 50 years!” Onstage, Charlie dug down for those “gulp moments” in the songs, with his characteristic knee bend and rising head tilt as he nailed them, exactly as he did when he and brother Ira were charting a half-century and more ago. The Mercy Lounge show included ballads, blues, and a smattering of gospel tunes, many taken from his recent self-titled album on Tompkins Square Records (with guest contributions from the likes of Elvis Costello, Tom T. Hall, Joy Lynn White and Jeff Tweedy). Charlie also engaged in old-school patter and easy interaction with the crowd, prompting Bobby Bare Jr., one of the evening’s guest duet artists, to observe, “Charlie comes from an era where you had to talk to the audience, entertain them, tell jokes — endear yourself to them somehow. And honestly, it makes me really proud to be more exposed to it like this.” For his part, Charlie noted as he recalled some of his favorite departed Opry contemporaries, from Minnie Pearl to Grandpa Jones to Roy Acuff, that “those people you enjoyed in a different way. There’s just no replacement for originality….To me, today’s music is too generic.” Also joining Louvin onstage at the Mercy were Teddy Thompson (on Charlie’s “You Finally Said Something Good”, which appears on Thompson’s new country-centric CD), Laura Cantrell, and Paul Burch for the rousing “My Long Journey Home”, which closes out Charlie’s CD and brought home this celebration.
SURVEYING AMERICAN MUSIC: Ten years ago, singer and songwriter Ed Pettersen became interested in the fate of the North American cowboy, and wrote a song about how barbed wire and trains spelled the end of an era in American history. The Long Island-born performer was proud of his effort, and played it for his wife’s aunt, Janet Reno, who served as U.S. Attorney General during Bill Clinton’s administration. She liked the song, but had a vision of history that went beyond its particular time and place.
What Reno did, then and there, was to suggest that Pettersen record a collection of songs that would represent American history. As Reno recounts it, “I said, ‘Ed, let me make you a list of the eras and problems and issues that affected the country.'” She gave him the list, and thus was born Song of America, a three-disc, 50-track, multi-artist overview of the country’s tumultuous history. Due September 18 on 31 Tigers/Split Rock, Song of America stands as a quintessentially American example of cooperation, so it’s fitting that the impetus came from such a fortuitous meeting of the minds.
“You just don’t say no to Janet Reno,” Pettersen chuckles, and adds that he still has Reno’s original handwritten take on America’s evolution. (Reno is credited as the project’s executive producer.) The project lay dormant for a time, and Pettersen began working on it in earnest after he moved to Nashville six years ago. He had led a pop band, the Strangelys, in New York before relocating to Music City to further his songwriting and producing careers. He ended up living around the corner from former Motown engineer Bob Ohlsson, whose credits include work with Stevie Wonder.
“Bob Ohlsson was involved from the git-go of the first recording,” Pettersen says. Ohlsson receives a producer’s credit on Song of America alongside Pettersen and David Macias, the president of 30 Tigers, the Nashville-based marketing, distribution and management company whose record-label arm is 31 Tigers. “[Ohlsson’s] level of expertise in high fidelity is far beyond anybody’s I know about,” Pettersen says. “Nobody is as picky and as watchful as he is.”
Although Reno supplied the outline and Pettersen helped find material, Song of America also owes a debt to the work of Professor Deane L. Root, the director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for American Music. As Macias explains, “Deane had put together an incredible teaching tool, called Voices Across Time: American History Through Music, where he had done a lot of the work in terms of identifying songs. He was kind enough to let us use his materials to help us get ideas.”
Enlisted when Reno visited Nashville in 2004 to speak on behalf of presidential candidate John Kerry, Macias lined up artists for the project. Although some tracks, such as John Mellencamp’s “This Land Is Your Land,” were recorded at home studios, most performances were cut at Java Jive in Joelton, Tennessee, or at famed Franklin, Tennessee, studio the Castle. The core band on many tracks comprises bassist Bob Babbitt, drummer Ed Greene, guitarists Reggie Young and David Hungate, and keyboardist Cathine Marx.
A wide range of artists contributed to Song of America, including John Wesley Harding, Martha Wainwright, Andrew Bird, and Bettye LaVette. Some performers proved elusive. “Bruce Springsteen I was disappointed about,” Pettersen says. “I would’ve thought it was right up his alley.”
Macias and Pettersen also weren’t able to bring any mainstream country artists aboard. “I don’t know if they were so much reluctant as they were apathetic,” Macias muses. Pettersen says the producers approached some very high-level country stars, none of whom ended up participating. Still, Song of America benefits from the presence of Suzy Bogguss (on “Rosie the Riveter”) and Elizabeth Cook (who teams with the Grascals on the Louvin Brothers’ “The Great Atomic Power”).
Covering 500 years of American history in 50 songs isn’t easy, but you get a sense of encroaching complexity from the juxtaposition of, sy, “Seven Cent Cotton and Forty Cent Meat” (recorded by Jim Lauderdale) with Woody Guthrie & Martin Hoffman’s “Deportee” (rendered by Old Crow Medicine Show). For Reno, the Great Depression proves the most compelling era. “I’m moved by the stories of what people did to come through that — the Dust Bowl, for example,” she says.
As Pettersen views it, the story is, or should be, eye-opening. “What people are going to learn from this collection is that we’ve had a very heavy history,” he says. “It’s down, man, it’s not up.”
BEARING FRUIT: Another compilation that takes a hard look at America is APPLESEED RECORDINGS’ 10th-anniversary sampler, Sowing The Seeds. Its September 11 release date is appropriate given the inclusion of Tom Paxton’s “The Bravest”, a dramatic song about firefighters who entered the burning World Trade Center.
The two-disc, 37-track collection includes many previously unreleased tracks, most notably a collaboration between Bruce Springsteen and his recent tribute subject, Pete Seeger. The two perform an intriguingly reworked version of Springsteen’s “The Ghost Of Tom Joad”.
Other fresh tracks include Ani DiFranco’s cover of Seeger’s “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy”, Donovan’s take on Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier”, and “The Ross Perot (George Bush) Guide To Answering Embarrassing Questions”, a song Seeger wrote with Calvin Trillin that he performs with his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger of the Mammals.
It’s not surprising that Sowing The Seeds has a decidedly political tone, given that label founder Jim Musselman spent many years as an attorney for Ralph Nader before launching Appleseed in 1996.
WOODY COMES ALIVE: For more than a half-century, countless musicians have performed the songs of Woody Guthrie in concert. Forty years after his death at age 55, it will be possible to hear Guthrie do the same.
The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie In Performance 1949, the first commercially released recording of Guthrie in concert, features the legendary folk singer playing to an audience of 25 people at Fuld Hall in Newark, New Jersey. Clocking in at just under 75 minutes, the CD and a 72-page booklet will be released on September 6 through the Woody Guthrie Foundation at www.woodyguthrie.org, rather than being sold in stores.
Nora Guthrie, director of the Woody Guthrie Archives, was captivated when she heard her father’s performance. “I was absolutely stunned,” she said in an e-mail interview. “It was like hearing ghosts that had come to life…or like being in a time machine going back to a moment that I never knew existed.”
The recording was made by Paul Braverman, a Rutgers University student, on a wire recorder. He donated the recording to the archives in 2001. The sound quality has been upgraded for CD release.
Guthrie performed such songs as “Tom Joad” and “Pastures Of Plenty”. He’s also heard telling stories and bantering with his wife, Marjorie.
For Nora, the recording puts her father in a new light. “My father had Huntington’s Disease for my whole life, so for seventeen years I only knew him as a sick man,” she said. “I never heard him sing in performance. I was completely struck with so many new impressions of him. Particularly, how sociable he was. And how funny he was, really enjoying making people laugh.”