Stagecoach To Somewhere – Sweet Dreams Behind Closed Doors

hank williamsHank Williams sang the blues but he meant something other than a musical genre restricted to black musicians.   The term has always covered more than music.  Knocked back British lovers become ‘down’ or sad.  Rejected Americans have the blues but record companies also claim words to narrow the definition of music to appeal to markets.  So the word blues was used to describe black music that in the thirties had more in common with bluegrass than the purists in either camp like to admit.  The recent appearance of the talented Darius Rucker at the Grand Ole Opry produced racist tweets that told the performer to leave country music to the white folks.   These people are a little late.  True, it has been relatively easily for the country corporate giants to shield their industry from black performers.  The black artists who have had hits on the country charts are very few.  Charlie Pride is the exception.  Perhaps not quite as ‘uppity’ as Jack Johnson, Pride, like Johnson, was a trailblazer.  He achieved 39 No. 1 hits on the Billboard Country Chart.  Although it did not happen immediately after the triumph of Johnson, other black athletes followed and soon dominated heavyweight boxing.   The same did not occur in country and western.

But we should not conclude black musicians have avoided country music.  Learning to play an instrument and even sing properly, like Americans for so long did with superior ease, requires the mastery of techniques.  Musicians are curious because they have to be.  Race was never going to keep them apart, and thanks to two European record labels we have evidence of how the apartheid dreams of music executives failed almost from the beginning.

Kent Records in good old Blighty has released two stunning CDs called ‘Sweet Dreams’ and ‘Behind Closed Doors’.  The title for the project is ‘Where Country Meets Soul.’  ‘Meet’ is classic British understatement.   The genres bleed brilliantly into each other, and these irresistible tracks remind listeners of a working class Southern identity that despite the corporate giants and the resistance of the Tea Party is beyond race.  The great American novelist, William Faulkner, failed to predict the arrival of rock and roll but he was no fool.  He argued that it was in the South, where black and white had a shared social experience, that integration would be best achieved.  Despite his genius, Faulkner will not convince everyone about his hopes for the future of Dixie but the music on these CDs should make even the most ardent wonder if he has a point.   Meanwhile, our rival record collectors, the Germans, have also produced two CDs of country music by black performers.  These are called ‘Dirty Laundry’.  None of the tracks on the four CDs overlap.  Unlike the English alternative, the German collection also features stoney edwardsmusicians like Stoney Edwards who steadfastly pursued a musical career as a country artist.  Edwards and Vicki Vann have fabulous pure country voices that will startle listeners who stereotype into genres.  Stoney delivers great versions of ‘Honky Tonk Heaven’ and ‘She’s My Rock’.  Vicki Vann proves her credentials with her country whine on the phrase ‘Swinging Doors’. Dolly Parton should listen and worry.  The beautiful Vicki also moonlights as a lingerie model.   Clearly, there are occasions when we have to settle for worship.  vicki vann

Without wishing to make a sales pitch, it can be said that there is not one duff track on the four CDs.  Indeed, in some instances the different genre appears to inspire some vocalists to exceed their normal achievements.  It helps them get something different out of their system.  This is obvious on the track by Andre Williams, ‘Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone To Kill’, in which the singer is willing to be confused with a psychopath.  Etta James has made plenty of great records but her version of the country classic, ‘Almost Persuaded’, ranks with her finest efforts.  ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ forced this listener to rethink his view of Hank Ballard.  Previously, he could be regarded as a journeyman rhythm and blues singer but here he demonstrates sensitivity and real soul.  Best of all is the never forgotten ‘Wings Upon Your Horns’.  This Loretta imgres-1Lynn song has a spare arrangement that proves less is more and a vocal by Tami Lynn that captures perfectly the unavoidable regret of the vulnerable.  It is tempting to compare the record to ‘Tess Of The D’ubervilles’ but that would flatter Thomas Hardy, and I say that as a Hardy loyalist. Of course, the soul giants are no surprise.  We know Solomon Burke can warble a country tune but his version of ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’, which is not widely available outside this collection, exceeds any other version.  Neither do we need to listen to David Ruffin on the ‘Sweet Dreams’ CD to know his mastery but ‘Statue Of A Fool’ should make anyone yearn for what never happened, a country album by the great one.  And of course, many of the black musicians featured in these two series did make country albums, names such as Bobby Bland, Joe Tex, Esther Phillips and Bobby Womack.  Esther Phillips requires a special mention because not only does the British series include her unsurpassable versions of ‘Sweet Dreams’ and ‘I Saw Me’ but her own album ‘Release Me – Reflections Of Country And Western Greats’ is as good as any country collection by any performer, black or white.  It should be played back to back with ‘From Elvis In Memphis’.  While Elvis always had his own identity and invention that took him elsewhere, it is clear that he had been listening to Esther before he took that short fateful drive to American Sound Studios in 1969.

The influences are complicated because American music was always a two way street.   We have to wonder how many black musicians listened to Elvis add rhythm and blues to ‘I Was The One’ and ‘A Fool Such As I’ and said, ‘Well, if he can jazz country up, so can we.’  The sheer volume of tracks and artists on these four CDs reveal just how many were tempted, if not by him then someone else.

In his history of Soul music, author Peter Guralnick dismissed Tamla Motown and much of what British fans think of as Northern Soul as pop music.  His definition leaves a lot of ex-gospel singers wrenching emotion from ballads about exploitation and betrayal.  That phrase sounds familiar because it also defines country music or at least that from the south east of America.  When Chips Moman asked songwriters to provide anything country for the album he was planning to make with Elvis we feared the worst.  We should have known because notable Atlantic producer, Jerry Wexler, was right.  Soul music, real soul music, is ‘country music with horns’. Detroit Elvisborn Aretha Franklin may not have been persuaded but her male equivalent Ray Charles certainly was, and he does not even feature in these collections.  Ray Charles did more than sing country and western brilliantly.  Like Elvis with black music, he persisted.  His wilfulness produced his own four CD country and western collection.  So there is plenty of country music that has been performed by black musicians, and we also have the music that is hidden in genres but actually denies categorisation because it steals influences.  It can be ‘It’s All Over Now’ by Bobby Womack, John Lee Hooker singing ‘Hometown’, ‘Suspicious Minds’ by Elvis or even swamp rock.   The idiots on Twitter may not agree but nobody should bet against William Faulkner, and many musicians have always contributed to the argument.   So those who hope that Darius Rucker will disappear need to be prepared.  He may surprise them and prevail, and not because the world has changed.  It has but not in the way that the bigots think.

To hear Darius Rucker and see what offends some, here’s a clip:

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Elvis Presley Challenge No. 49 – Delbert McClinton

DelbertPaul Simon told us that he visited Graceland but he was coy about what he had on his feet.   I wore cowboy boots.  Not the black boots that Elvis favoured.  Mine were tan with ornate etchings.   I bought them in Amarillo.  I walked into a shop to buy a belt.  The salesman was all Southern charm and I left with a pair of boots.  I resisted the Stetson.  The cowboy boots were fine.  They made the denims hang well and they closed the gap between me and six feet.   Of course, everybody else wore boots.  All the men were two inches taller.    I drove all around the States wearing those boots, never once thinking that they may not be suitable for driving.   Tan cowboy boots, a pair of denims and a white T shirt is not Elvis but it is what I wore at Graceland and the Sun and American Sound Studios.  Elvis hardly wore denims.  He did not like clothes that made him anonymous.

Amarillo is pronounced aa-mah-rii-yo in Spanish.  ‘Lone Star’ is a fine movie about race relations in Texas.   Imagine left Lone Star posterwing polemic and Little Willie John and Freddie Fender on the soundtrack.  ‘Lone Star’ is not set in Amarillio.   The action takes place on the border between the States and Mexico.    ‘Lone Star’ is sympathetic to the minorities.  It implies that a responsible Texan would make the effort to be fluent in Spanish.

I have no idea whether Delbert McClinton speaks Spanish.  He may even be right wing and vote Republican although his fans would be surprised if he did.  To his British fans, McClinton is an all American working class hero.   He has good hair and he is photogenic.  He looks cool.  Usually, he wears cowboy boots, denims and a T shirt.  Occasionally, presumably if he is going somewhere important or has his lady to impress, he will wear a plain shirt with collar and cuffs.  When I saw him on stage in the Town and Country Club in London he was in T shirt mode.   He also drank a couple of cans of the appalling American Budweiser.  He is a man who appreciates his roots and to him those roots are more important than a continual quest to root out the exotic.  McClinton is a rhythm and blues singer.   His music reflects the world which seduced him.    He lacks Delbert McClintonthe curiosity of some dedicated musicians but this is only because he understands romance.  As the great German writer Hermann Broch wrote in his essential ‘Sleepwalker Trilogy’, the romantic needs limits and boundaries.   The curious like Simon dashing off to South Africa to add fresh rhythms to his records will make discoveries.   But the romantics, those attached to their roots, are also important.  The music of McClinton is like his clothes.  It is ideological.  The musicians on his records are black and white but they are usually from the Southern states.   He is not without invention but what he adds to his music only exists to enrich the genre, something he refines through his own American experience.

Without the waywardness of Elvis he avoids the sentimental.  He began backing blues singers like Howling Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson.  McClinton can deliver a poignant ‘I’ve Got Dreams To Remember’ but he is unable to be tender.  His voice has a rough barroom edge that suits the music he plays, tough rhythm and blues and soul ballads which have just enough country influence to keep everyone in the bar happy.  The songs are realistic.  In his rockers, he either

Howlin' Wolf

Howlin’ Wolf

celebrates or looks at life with wry amusement.  When he slows down he remembers why relationships are important.  He rarely sings about love.  Elvis is the introvert who is determined to understand his feelings and his bruised heart.  McClinton sings about life.  His songs deal with dependency, triumphs, celebration, mistakes and regret.  Inevitably, he has his weak moments.  His albums can sometimes run out of steam and the welcome realism is occasionally spoilt by a sense of overdeveloped male entitlement.  This is demonstrated in the appalling ‘Sending Me Angels’ where McClinton acknowledges the women sent to comfort his flawed masculinity.  But if that is a mistake and his specific identity limits what he can achieve on his albums, he is always listenable.   His output ranges from the irresistible, ‘Shot From The Saddle’ has a compelling groove’, to the merely toe tapping listenable, the music on his ‘Plain From The Heart’ album.    It is a form of consistency.   Within it, though, there have been many moments to make him proud.  ‘Two Bottles Of Wine’ which is about failure and the solace of alcohol is a song that compares with the very best.  Recently, he recorded ‘Down In Mexico’.  This addictive tale of a Vegas robbery mixes splendidly film noir and ‘El Paso’ by Marty Robbins.

Lennon playing the harmonicaDelbert McClinton is based in Fort Worth but he is from Lubbock, Texas, like Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings and Joe Ely.   He is popular in his home state but he never quite made the really big time.  He had one top 40 hit, ‘Giving It Up For Your Love’, and a top ten hit, ‘Tell Me About It’, but that required him to duet with Tanya Tucker.   His life may not have been what he dreamed.  It has not consisted of back to back hits, mansions and limousines.  He may even feel resentful about how the more successful have sometimes taken advantage.  He taught John Lennon how to play the harmonica and Elvis half stole his arrangement of the Johnny Ace hit, ‘Pledging My Love’.

He still sounds positive.  There is no trace in his live performances of the disillusionment that is obvious in the later shows of Elvis.  I always missed McClinton when I was in Texas.  I had to wait for him to visit England.  He was worth the wait.  His fabulous show included a nine piece band as I knew it would.   Okay, I read these things but the cowboy boots made the small band obligatory.

Despite the reading, I doubt if I will ever know whether Delbert learnt to speak Spanish.   (I sometimes call him by his first name because I have all his albums.)   I hope he did.   He should watch a film called ‘El Sueno Derrotado’.  It is a documentary and it mixes archive material and interviews with old timers who remember the Spanish Civil War, the El Sueno DerrotadoFrench Resistance, the Second World War and the concentration camps.   The film captures the horror as it intends but it does more.  It reminds us that there is no exultation in success and achievement.  It exists only in endurance.  McClinton may not have had the hits but he managed to always earn a living as a musician.  He has loyal fans and the respect of critics.  He has done it by staying loyal to what is best about the people of his homeland, their sense of community and their music.  He has preserved not only his talent but the romance.  Delbert McClinton is entitled to his exultation because he earned it and because he has prevailed.  Elvis was talented but he was also exotica.  This was why he triumphed but later perished.   It is what they call success.


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And now for some Delbert: