Monday, June 21, 2010

Oh, the Pain of Listening to You

Well, there's another cherished illusion down the crapper....

We drove this Friday from our usual Northern Virginia haunts to Greensboro, in the Piedmont of North Carolina. Betty will be starting at Greensboro College in the fall, and Freshman Orientation called her down to choose courses, meet other frosh, and what have you.

The trip is drop-dead gorgeous. Down Interstate 81: Winchester, New Market, Harrisonburg, Staunton, and on down to Roanoke, the gentle rolling hills of the Shenandoah Valley giving way to the high, wild Appalachians as you approach the North Carolina and Tennessee state lines. We broke off 81 at Roanoke to follow 220 south to the Piedmont country.

The three-finger banjo style made famous by Earl Scruggs originated in the Piedmont. Charlie Poole came from there, as did an huge litany of enormously influential musicians. It was from a North Carolina mountain resort in August 1927 that an already consumptive Jimmie Rodgers, desperate to break into the music industry before he died, showed up at Ralph Peer's Bristol Sessions and cut "The Soldier's Sweetheart" and "Sleep, Baby, Sleep"; at the same session the Carter Family, from Maces Springs not far away, cut "Single Girl, Married Girl" and pretty much kicked off the entire country-music recording industry.

So this music permeates this countryside. We are smack-dab in the cradle of country music, the music of the people, and the people of the music, and it permeates all in the same way that jazz permeates New Orleans and the waltz does Vienna. The twang of the banjo and the wail of the fiddle is a constant whisper in the wind, and the people who live here proudly claim ownership and uphold the old traditions....

Right? I mean, right?

We stopped for gas in Boones Mill, south of Roanoke. Completely randomly chose a gas station that also had a Bojangles chicken joint attached to it. A desultory Friday evening crowd ate their chicken in the sultry air -- and there, as if placed there by God for the delectation of Suburban Goober Jingo, was an amateur country band! Playing real, authentic country music!

They were ancient. The rhythm guitarist had to have been 85 if he was a day, sunken cheeks telling of lousy Appalachian dentistry. He played in the unusual Lester Flatt picking style: thumb on the downstroke, index finger on the upstroke. The lead guitar-flogger was a bit younger, but not by much. The bassist was probably the baby of the band at 60 or so. The female lead singer, perhaps 70, had hard, angular facial features that sprang straight from a Walker Percy Evans [thanks, Kim! Reminder to self: look shit up!!!] Depression photograph.

They swung into "The Pain of Loving You," an old Dolly Parton/Porter Waggoner number that Parton brought to the Trio project with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt:

Oh, the pain of loving you
Oh, the misery I go through
Never knowing what to do
Oh, the pain of loving you

As I stood in rapturous anticipation of the countrylicious authenticity of it all, something slightly appalling began to make itself clear...




In the first verse, the rhythm guitar looked over at the bass with a look of concern: Why are you playing a C right now? Both lost the count so badly that it became impossible for the listener to tell where the one was in the measure. The singer floundered, trying to complete a phrase at the spot she thought the measure was going to end, and wound up biting off the whole phrase.

Train wreck.

Parton, Harris and Ronstadt's singing in the chorus of their version is a master class in three-part harmony singing -- gorgeous interior movement, dissonance resolving to assonance: church harmony meeting the tight close harmony of Thirties and Forties jazz.

Let it just be said that the harmony singing on display here was really quite... Not good.

This stuff ain't exactly "The Be-Bop Tango," if you know what I mean. They call it "folk music" because it's so simple that "folk" can play it in their parlors. All you need is to be able to count to four while playing simple changes. Sing a third above the melody. Not rocket-science music.

I dropped a buck into the collection bucket anyway. At least they were trying.


zombie rotten mcdonald said...

jeez, I hope I CAN play a C when I'm 80....

Lex said...

At their age, hearing could've been a factor. But I'm just speculating.

Totally unrelatedly, we welcome Betty to Greensboro College!

Lex Alexander
Director of External Relations

Neddie said...

Well! From my keyboard to Google's ears, eh?

Thanks for stopping in, Lex. I'm sure Betty will be very happy there. Lovely campus. Nice folks.