Field Reportings from Issue #75
FLATT’S TOP GUITAR: Husband-and-wife country greats Marty Stuart and Connie Smith were joined by Earl Scruggs, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Eddie Stubbs and Harry Stinson in mid-February to help welcome Lester Flatt’s historic Martin guitar into the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee. Stuart and Smith, longtime country music artifact collectors, announced that they were presenting the Hall with a long list of donations. In addition to Flatt’s guitar, the items included an acetate from Connie’s first recording session, the dobro Roy Nichols used to lead off Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried”, and Hank Williams’ song-carrying briefcase and the suitcase he had with him when he died. The latter two are already in display at the Hall as part of an extraordinary new exhibit on the careers of three generations of Hank’s performing clan, “Family Tradition: The Williams Family Legacy,” which will run into next year.
EMMYLOU AND TOM T. TOO: It seems fitting that among this last set of news reports we’ll bring you in print is the announcement of this year’s inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame, which include two outside-yet-inside, country-yet-Americana icons: EMMYLOU HARRIS and TOM T. HALL.
The announcement of Emmylou’s selection by the 300-plus-member panel of electors of the Country Music Association was made by producer and executive Tony Brown, just one in a long list of Nashville luminaries who served apprenticeships in Harris’ invariably incendiary country bands. (Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell, Hank DeVito, Sam Bush, Jon Randall and Emory Gordy Jr. are among the others). Harris pushed at the walls of the commercial country music she found on arrival in the 1970s in ways that opened the doors for sounds both more traditional and more experimental.
“This is such an amazing day for me,” Emmylou responded to the announcement, which came in a news conference at the Hall of Fame’s Ford Theater in Nashville in mid-February. And she added this: “Since I got the news, I’ve been thinking of the incredible journey I’ve had….It wasn’t until I met a fellow named Gram Parsons that I really got enthralled with country music — where I found my voice.”
The coming induction of singular storytelling singer and songwriter Tom T. Hall, announced by his longtime friend, the legendary DJ Ralph Emery, yielded a typical, sweetly twisted response from the artist. “The amazing thing about being a member of the Hall of Fame,” Tom T. remarked, “is that you don’t have to be nice to anybody anymore. What can they do to me now?…I really have a lot of good stuff to say, but I’ll save it for the Medallion Ceremony.”
That formal ceremony and performance evening, which occurs at the Hall in May, will also mark the induction of one of the earliest country music giants, Ernest K. Stoneman (his jubilant veteran performing daughters Patsy, Roni and Donna Stoneman were on hand at the announcement); and of the Statler Brothers, the onetime Johnny Cash backing-vocal group who became the first gospel harmony act successfully to move into mainstream country music — and pop.
— BARRY MAZOR
THE CRAZY WORLD OF JOSEPH ARTHUR: “I remember this thing I heard Andy Warhol say, that he didn’t understand why songwriters didn’t write ten songs a day, and that always struck me as funny and true,” says singer-songwriter JOSEPH ARTHUR — who, now that you mention it, may actually write ten songs a day. “I mean, obviously ten is a lot. But the idea that people who write songs should write ten songs a year is kind of absurd.”
Already known as one of the most prolific artists this side of Ryan Adams, Arthur released two EPs, Could We Survive and Crazy Rain, in a monthlong span between mid-March and mid-April. They’re the first of five planned releases this year. Yes, five.
Arthur will issue two more EPs (one will likely be titled Vagabond Skies; he’s not sure about the other) before this summer’s full-length album with his new-ish band, the Lonely Astronauts (probable title: All You Need Is Nothing), all on his own label (also named Lonely Astronaut). Arthur says he likes the constraints of a shortened format, and that an EP lasts just long enough to make a point and not long enough to belabor it. “I guess I’m trying to save [the EP] from the ghetto of being one track remixed four times and then a B-side, which it seems as if it’s become,” he says.
Arthur previously released four EPs in one year (Junkyard Hearts, Vols. 1-4) in 2002. Back then, no one paid much attention, but this time around, Arthur is vaguely more famous (thanks in part to a Michael Stipe/Chris Martin benefit recording of his beloved ballad “In The Sun”). Interviewers now tend to ask variations on the same question: Are you crazy?
“I feel like I’m defending myself,” he says. “But it’s work that’s accumulated over time….All it takes now is, if you have a laptop, you can record music. It builds up after a while.”
Arthur figures the discs are roughly divided between songs that were just kind of laying around (by some reckonings, he has hundreds of unreleased songs, with titles documented exhaustively on his Wikipedia page) and songs recorded specifically for the EPs. “I had been working on a bunch of solo material, but I decided that instead of trying to edit it into one overly long record, I would edit it into a few concise EPs,” he explains. “It’s in keeping with the times, I think, with the fact that attention spans seem to be shrinking and avenues of distribution are more widely open. I think you’re going to see all kinds of innovative ways of people releasing music.”
Arthur says each disc has its own distinct sensibility, though none of the already-released discs stray too far from his usual guitars-effects-machines-and-gauzy-folk-pop inclinations. It helps to think of the EPs “like episodes of an HBO TV series or something,” suggests Arthur, who claims he isn’t concerned that the discs, set to be released in rapid succession, might cannibalize each other, like Starbucks stores opening on the same street, or that they’ll detract from the upcoming full-length band disc. “I think EPs are their own thing, and the solo material has a different energy than the band thing, so I don’t think that’ll happen. But of course, who knows?”
Arthur plans to launch a solo acoustic tour this summer, followed by a band tour next fall. He also owns an art gallery, the Museum of Modern Arthur, in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn. And this is to say nothing of his poetry collections. “It’s weird, because I have an idea about how things are supposed to be, but the truth is, it’s harder work than I imagine when I take things on,” he says. “I guess I do like to keep busy.”
— ALLISON STEWART
DOS LOBOS: In terms of songwriting partnerships, LOUIE PEREZ and DAVID HIDALGO of Los Lobos are in it for the long haul. This year marks the 25th anniversary of their first recorded collaboration — three songs on the …And A Time To Dance EP in 1983.
But their songwriting efforts together stretch back to before the formation of the band. Perez dates the partnership to 1971, when he was a senior and Hidalgo was a sophomore in high school. “We recorded on a Sony reel-to-reel that was hooked up to another machine, making up songs,” Perez recalled. “The sound got worse with each overdub.”
From that modest start, their songbook has grown to about 150 compositions, some of which have been covered by the likes of Waylon Jennings (“Will The Wolf Survive”), Pops Staples (“The Neighborhood”) and Bonnie Raitt (“Cure For Love”). To celebrate their partnership, the duo has issued Unreleased Songs And Rare Recordings through the website www.latinplayboys.org.
The disc includes six previously unreleased songs, including “What Good Is Love” and “Empty Words”, that date from the late ’80s and early ’90s. Also featured are early versions of songs later done by Los Lobos (a stripped-down “Take My Hand” and the Tex-Mex-flavored “Til The Hands Fall Off The Clock”) and the Hidalgo/Perez side-project Latin Playboys (“If” and “Chinese Surprize”).
Perez and Hidalgo also recently played a series of shows as a duo where they explore their back catalogue, performing such rarely heard tunes as “Little John Of God” and “Tony Y Maria”. Capping off each show was a question-and-answer session between the songwriters and the audience. “We thought we would try it out to see if there was any interest,” Perez said. “We were terrified at first, but it was great.”
Their method of collaboration has undergone changes. “Over the course of the years, the ideal situation for David and me was always to sit down with a pencil and a pad of paper and a guitar and write a song,” Perez said, but he noted that the process evolved to swapping ideas on cassette tapes, and now to delivering music files electronically.
The next Los Lobos CD won’t involve new songs: The band is wrapping up work on a collection of songs from animated Walt Disney movies. “We’ve recut ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ from The Jungle Book,'” Perez said of the song the band first recorded for producer Hal Willner’s Stay Awake Disney-movie tribute album in 1987.
Other songs recorded for the project include Roger Miller’s “Not In Nottingham” from Robin Hood, “Cruella De Vil” from 101 Dalmatians, and Randy Newman’s “I Will Go Sailing No More” from Toy Story. The disc, tentatively set for release later this year, is just a respite from songwriting, Perez said.
“It’s a communication we started nearly 40 years ago,” Perez said of his collaboration with Hidalgo. “We’ll stop writing songs when we run out of things to say.”
— TOM WILK