On taking the long windy road to Americana
This morning, Rosanne Cash (@rosannecash) tweeted that she would tell us all what was the first album she ever bought on vinyl, as soon as her Twitter followers numbered 33,333. She wanted us to reciprocate with the first vinyl album we remember buying. I couldn’t help it. I jumped the gun and tweeted my memory – Madonna’s Like a Virgin.
To be honest, I didn’t purchase that album for myself. It was a gift for my eighth birthday. I loved the song “Dress You Up,” because I loved dressing up, and I thought that’s what it was about. I didn’t know what a virgin was, but dressing up, I could relate to.
Around the same time, I remember lounging about with Michael Jackson’s Thriller on vinyl. I had a number of 45s I shared with my sisters – a lot of Billy Joel, some Wham!.
Billy Joel, I’ve mentioned before, was a rather formative force in my upbringing. He was kind of a hand-me-down artist. I listened to him because my sister Katie listened to him. (We shared a room, so it was hard to avoid her listening habits.) Later, I’d cotton to other hand-me-down artists my sisters imposed upon me – the Smiths, Book of Love, REM, Fugazi, Nine Inch Nails. These bands were always jarring from my own musical tastes, which veered more toward singer-songwriters and bubble-gummy, often dancey, pop acts. Madonna and Michael Jackson, of course. I was a child of the ’80s. I developed a healthy superfandom for Debbie Gibson around the time all my friends were veering toward the New Kids on the Block (who I listened to on occasion chiefly so I wouldn’t be caught not liking them; that’s what you do when you’re that age).
I wrote the first review of my life about Mariah Carey’s debut album, for our middle school paper. Fancying myself a writer, having spent a good deal of my childhood studying classical music, I liked Mariah for writing her own songs and coming from an opera singer mother. “Vision of Love” seemed sonically out of left field in 1990. (I was not prepared for the following year’s release of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Holy shit.)
But it all started with Madonna on vinyl. Or maybe it was the Debby Boone 8-tracks my sister and I performed to in our grandparents’ living room. Later, I spent my own money on the Fine Young Cannibals The Raw and the Cooked on cassette, and forged my way into CD purchasing by first buying Harry Connick, Jr.’s Red Light Blue Light. I avoided country music like the plague until Garth Brooks dropped No Fences. Even then, I took that album in secret, listening quietly, lest anyone hear and think I’d been swallowed by the dark side. I was less unabashed about discovering Pam and then Mel Tillis, Brooks & Dunn, Randy Travis. I absorbed all that even as I cranked Pearl Jam and Nirvana, dabbled in the riot grrrl thing.
These were all noted progressions in the formation of my musical interest – a fact I can’t forget when I start to feel compelled to bemoan pop music and the influence of teeny boppers on our teens.
As a songwriter, it’s much easier to own my influences. After all, there’s no walking away from the extent to which I love hearing piano solos (thank you, Billy Joel, Debbie Gibson, Tori Amos). I can’t deny my propensity for torch song vocals which work toward the power note (hat-tip Mariah), the heavy distortion of an electric guitar (here’s to Kurt Cobain and Donita Sparks), a swinging horn section (Harry Connick, Jr.), and a heartstrings-tugging love song (Randy Travis). As a songwriter, it’s easier to showcase how all these things add up to Americana. You just plug all that shit in and start playing with the band.
As a critic, though, not so much.
Yet, when I turn on things I’m listening to now, I hear all that. The other day, on the flight to Seattle, I was listening to AA Bondy When the Devil’s Loose and Grand Hallway’s Promenade. It’s the same swing and swagger which connected me with Uncle Walt’s Band and the Sir Douglas Quintet. The same quiet consideration which augments my experiences of listening to Townes Van Zandt.
I’m not sure what my point is here, so I’ll stop there. But, I’m curious to hear where your musical taste began, and what of your childhood favorites you can hear in the albums which speak to you now.