A pastor, a country music artist, & Honky-Tonk Gospel

Some of you know Rev. Eric Andrae, a Lutheran pastor of note in Pittsburgh.  He sent me an e-mail saying, “I have a very good friend who’s a local country musician of some renown,” Slim Forsythe.  “we both just read your book Honky-Tonk Gospel, and we will have a radio appearance together next week [that is, THIS week, tomorrow, Wednesday].” Pastor Andrae adds, “Despite what the Dos Equis commercials claim, Slim Forsythe is actually the most interesting man in the world.”  He’s also a case-study in vocation, someone who gave up a successful law career for a life in music, fronting a Hank Williams tribute band, playing Western swing, rock-a-billy, and gospel, and fulfilling his dream of living over a bar.  Here is the announcement about their radio appearance tomorrow, which can be accessed online:

 Pastor Andrae’s monthly appearance on WORD-FM (Pittsburgh) will be a unique one. . . . Slim Forsythe – well known country/gospel musician, recent inductee to America’s Old Time Music Hall of Fame, and a good friend of First Trinity Lutheran Church – will join him live on the air at approx. 5:10-6:00pm Eastern time on “The Ride Home with John and Kathy.”  Slim will play several songs, including covers of Hank Williams (with Molly Alphabet) and Johnny Cash tunes, as well as an original, with Pastor Andrae offering theological/spiritual commentary.  At 5:10pm on Wednesday, May 7, tune in at 101.5-FM or world-wide at www.WORDFM.com.

That they are going to discuss my notorious book, written with Tom Wilmeth, Honky Tonk Gospel:  The Story of Sin and Salvation in Country Music, makes this interview even more frought with possibilities.   More on Slim Forsythe, including a YouTube performance, after the jump. [Read more...]

Queen Of Country Music dies

Kitty Wells, arguably the first big female star of country music (not counting the women in the Carter Family), died Monday at the age of 92.

Here is her breakthrough song, a response to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life,” in which the singer laments that a “honky tonk angel”–that is, a woman of ill repute–broke up his marriage.  Kitty, irked at that song, wrote a reply using the same tune, in which she makes the musical observation that the MAN is to blame for breaking up his marriage by his unfaithfulness and that MEN are the cause of good girls going wrong!

Kitty Wells, ‘Queen Of Country Music,’ Dead At 92 – Music, Celebrity, Artist News | MTV.com.

UPDATE:  I garbled the account of Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life” to which Kitty Wells was responding.  The man is complaining that his wife who left him turned out to be nothing but a “honky tonk angel” and that he should have known that she would never “make a wife.”

Springsteen on Hank Williams

David Browder quotes from a keynote speech Bruce Springsteen made at the SXSW shindig in Austin in which he gives his reflections on the great Hank Williams and the music of his tradition:

I remember sitting in my little apartment, listening to Hank Williams Greatest Hits over and over. And I was trying to crack his code because at first it just didn’t sound good to me. It just sounded cranky and old-fashioned…with that hard country voice. With that austere instrumentation. But slowly, slowly my ears became accustomed to its beautiful simplicity and its darkness and depth. And Hank Williams went from archival to alive for me before my, before my very eyes. And I lived, I lived on that for awhile in the late ’70s.

One thing it rarely was…it was rarely politically angry, it was rarely politically critical. And I realized that fatalism had a toxic element. If rock ‘n roll was a seven-day weekend, country was Saturday night hell-raising, followed by heavy Sunday coming down. Guilt, guilt, guilt. I [fracked] up, oh my God. But, as the song says, would you take another chance on me? That was country. Country seemed not to question why, it seemed like it was about doing then dying, screwing then crying, boozing then trying. And as Jerry Lee Lewis, the living, breathing personification of both rock and country, said, “I’ve fallen to the bottom and I’m working my way down.”

via Who Put That Hole in My Bucket? The Difference Between Bruce Springsteen and Hank Williams | Mockingbird.

Yes!  Exactly!  Bruce didn’t quite understand it, but Browder does, going on to name what it is about Hank Williams that is so compelling:  The backdrop of Christianity and the agonizing struggle between sin and grace.


Adult culture

Picking up from the music posts last weekend. . . .

Country music draws from the world of adults:  marriage, family, work, church, but also alcoholism, adultery, divorce.  (Country music is not intrinsically more wholesome, though.  It is very frank about sex–premarital, extramarital, but also marital–and is full of bad examples.)

The other popular musical genres–indeed, virtually all of pop culture, including television and the movies–draws from the world of young people:  dating, singleness, play, undefined spirituality, drugs, premarital sex, romantic love, fantasy.  (Notice that on television, virtually everyone even in ostensibly realistic dramas–NCIS, Law & Order, Bones, etc.–is single.)

It was not always this way.  The blues draws on the adult world.  Folk music.  Jazz.  Standards.  The American Songbook.  Classical music back when it was contemporary was made by adults for adults.

It is surely one of the oddest of our current cultural dysfunctions that our popular art and entertainment are largely made for young people.  To be sure, adults own the studios, run the industry, and make most of the money.  But the content and the target audience are largely oriented to adolescent children and single people in their lower 20′s.

One might say that this is just economics, that the entertainment biz caters to whoever will spend money on the product.  But adults, who have far more disposable income than those just starting out, do buy music and other kinds of entertainment.  But they  buy either what the young people are listening to or watching, or the music, styles, and artists they enjoyed when they were adolescents!

Whatever happened to adult culture?

God in country music

Joe Carter conducts a fascinating comparison of how country music talks about God, marriage, children, as opposed to the absence of such topics in pop, hip-hop, R&B, and even adult contemporary.  The post defies excerpt, so read it here  Finding God in the Gaps of Country Music | First Things.

Why do you think that is?  It can’t be just the age of the listeners, since lots of young people listen to country music, and young people can be religious.  African Americans tend to be more religious, we are told, than other demographics, yet that might not be evident in their music.  Is it a class thing?  If so, why should poorer people lower on the socio-economic totem pole be more openly religious than the upper crust?

The savior of country music?

As many of you know, I’m a fan of country music. I’ve even written a now out of print book about it. But lately, I’ve stopped listening to it. What’s on the radio is too painful for me to handle. Maybe I am missing some good songs and artists. If so, let me know, since, as I have said, I have basically stopped following the genre. I’m not alone in lamenting the state of country music. There is a website devoted to the subject entitled Saving Country Music.

But the guy running it, Kyle ‘The Triggerman’ Coroneos, has identified a new savior of country music. And it’s Ruby Jane, the classically-Christian-educated home schooled 15 year old who is one of my daughter’s prize on-line Latin student! (Remember? I blogged about her.) Here is part of the Triggerman’s review of one of her live performances, which he illustrates with videos (including one of her singing by herself):

I’m convinced. Ruby Jane was sent to earth by God to save country music.

All accolades I lapped on the 15-year-old fiddle-playing fenom when I said You Need Ruby Jane In Your Life were validated, if not proved to be too tempered after seeing her live at Dallas’s historic Kessler Theater on Friday.

Really, I don’t know what to say. There are no words to express Ruby Jane’s talent level, because it is nothing like I have ever seen before, in a musician of any age. And I’m not just talking about her fiddle playing, I’m talking about all of it: songwriting, showmanship, singing, even her guitar playing. And overriding all of this effusive talent is a passion for the music second to none.

Ruby Jane is filled with the Holy Ghost of country music my friends. Its the only explanation. This is evidenced by Ruby’s tendency to shout out wildly on stage. Her music mixes jazz elements with country, giving it a very Western Swing feel, and these shouts work similar to the sighs and such you hear on old Bob Wills recordings. I’d seen Ruby do this in videos, but watching her live, you catch on that these shouts are involuntary, not a stage bit to emphasize the music. Something bigger is at play in her when she plays, and her shouting is an ecstatic reflex to her euphoria for the vibrations that create sound to the human ear.

Ruby Jane makes hokey songs cool, like Willie Nelson’s “Valentine.” She makes heady songs accessible, like Django Reinhardt’s “Minor Swing.” Her music is transcendent. Put a 10-year-old girl, or an 80-year-old man, a pop country devotee or a gutter punk in a Ruby Jane show, and they will all be mesmerized.

Recently Ruby has added a new wrinkle to her show, which is just taking the acoustic guitar and singing alone. If her other attributes weren’t enough, she’s added a unique, beautiful, vintage, and heartbreakingly soulful singing style.

Ruby Jane is a fighter. When she slung her guitar behind her back and grabbed her fiddle to take a blazing solo, she looked like a warrior. She’s fearless. Anything she wants to do, she does. I’d hate to be in a position to have to say “no” to her about anything. She’s principled, and refreshingly straightforward and honest. She’s hardworking. What I’m saying is Ruby Jane has character, keeping watch over this ridiculous amount of talent.

I truly am speechless about this girl. I’m tongue tied and vacant for eloquent ways to explain how I feel about her music. But I will say this: And if you’re reading this with one eye or have the TV on in the background, stop whatever else your doing, I need you’re undivided attention.

Ruby Jane needs us, and we need Ruby Jane. I am not asking you, I am not pleading with you. I am ordering you to rise up in support of this young girl. We are the grass roots. The shattered pieces of the heart of country music are sheltered in each one of our souls, waiting for the day when the pieces can be united again as one. It is a long fall from the top of the high-rises on Music Row. But where the grass grows there’s a strong foundation, that weathers the fads of popular culture, and nurtures artists from the bottom up.

This is one of those instances when the situation transcends silly arguments about preference in music style, and it becomes about life, and about the principles we all hold dear. Ruby Jane is 15-years-old, with young fans. As adults, we look our children, our grandchildren, our nieces and nephews straight in the eyes and tell them that they can be whatever they want to be with talent and hard work, and that heartfelt genuineness is rewarded.

But in the music world, mediocrity is rewarded more often than not. Imagine a world where the worst scientists were rewarded just because they were the most physically attractive, or where a middle-of-the-road football team was given the Super Bowl trophy because they were the most popular. This is the world of music these days. But the tide is turning.

But we can’t let this happen to Ruby Jane, and all the other top talents that we are so blessed with. So tell a friend. And then tell another about Ruby Jane. They may have the radio and the record labels, but we have each other.

In the long term, I like our odds.

But really, watch and listen to this video, as well as the others posted at the link. What she is doing is fusing jazz and country music, to the benefit of both. Jazz can be abstract and cerebral; country music can bring it down to earth and keep it melodic. Country music can be simplistic and cornpone; jazz can make it complex and sophisticated. Bringing these two genres together is a strikingly good combination. At any rate, the girl can just play:

HT: Joanna Hensley