The Quest For Real Country Music

Archive for November, 2016

43. Tyler Childers and The Food Stamps

November 15th 2016 7:49 am

“You lucky son of a bitch, I’d kill to see Tyler Childers again for the first time.”

I move back to my previous position between Thomas and Stanley. It’s been occupied by a man, dark-skinned and twice my size, handler of yet another flavour of the ever-flowing local liquor. His grand status is less intimidating as it enchanting and, he too, has been possessed for the endorsement of Childers, envious of what I’m told I’m about to experience. Stanley’s wife, Emily, is at my ten o’clock, having replaced the Bud Light Balancer, front and centred for the headlining set. She flashes me a smile, eyes wide in anticipation for my reaction. Countless Kentuckians have sung high praise for the native, confidently. Being beyond his years, a confounding presence, and innate musicianship are descriptions marking the man as some type of godhead. My personal interaction with Childers was no more extraordinary than wonted, simple and pleasant. He comes off as genuine, personable, but there is evidently a connection I oversee. He assumes his position to a brief introduction by Roberts, an element of respect directed from the crowd, a hush that has moved in. He associates himself with his predecessors, opens with a tranquil cut of “Rock, Salt & Nails” – Utah Phillips’ weary lyric and Childers somber delivery. He opens his throat and his chords distort, without amplification the notes would soar to the hill’s reaches. Two women watch him from the tops of their eyes, brows raised and faces angled towards the dirt. For every man shaking his head up and down, out of rhythm to the performance but in accordance with their own flow, another is moving his side to side – as one responds to a lofty sermon. Agreement with the word. The solo waltz like gospel. Childers ends on a single chord and a moment of silence separates his completion and the audience’s approval. There is a fixation between the two parts, Childers and not Childers. One watching the other as intensely as being returned. How a collection so outwardly expressive minutes ago is now completely centred in their higher selves like a calming universal energy rested itself upon the collective consciousness. Childers brings peace.

He inflicts a vocal break prior to phrases customized to his own style but reminiscent of Hank. This distinction bends into the words ‘Charleston Girl in a darkened room’ and once fans in reverence are popped like a shaken bottle of Ale 8. Line by line, communal vocals – the educated, singing in harmony. Emily has her eyes closed with an arm accenting the syllables, releasing her pep like carbonation. With the set’s third piece I’m drawn closer to the devotion, Childers sings of West Virginia and Kentucky, the hills, their austerities. He wears the hardships on his arm and is vulnerable, representing the collective through his own experiences. ‘Harlan Road’ is another group effort, complete with reference to pines, cotton, clover, and tobacco fields. Childers is a regional voice.

As a writer I pick up in his word usage. Subtleties in options, choosing a lyric ‘I used to ride a mustang’ in reference to a car, breathing life into the subject. He ran that thing on high hopes, till they raised the price of dreams so high he couldn’t pay. His words, a pallet, colours specific to the region. He’s a student of a greater english language beyond local slangs and dialect but stubborn to the territory. Rhyming patterns tampered, expecting a closing word and receiving another, strong practice. I rob him blind. Childers is a poet.

photo by Melissa Stilwell

photo by Melissa Stilwell

A Shel Silverstein cover and he calls The Wooks back to the stage, his band, The Food Stamps, step off. A tag. Childers writing translates and his songwriter-honkytonk is now embedded with bluegrass. His comrades lending a capacity for interpretation further evolving their distinct sound, not to mention their collaborator. A thirsty and married man, Childers’ wife delivers the drink and as he partakes encouragement eventuates, all onlookers reaching for the nearest mason jar to emulate their darling. Once again, I challenge my temperance and am convinced – the moment is one to be engaged in. It would be more rewarding to drink the ‘shine with my newfound community than to be able to say I’ve been three months sober. I strain my eyes and neck into the dark searching for the hooch, at peace with my decision. A hundred jars rampant, no longer. A jug sits empty, desperate thoughts of sucking the bottom dry to get a hit. I resist. I want a pull, a good pull, two with a breather. I look to Stanley, he stands without. Thomas, without. As I can see, Childers drinks the last of the communal bond and then averts my hankering. A meditative guide in real-time speaking my story. Lyric: ‘My mind’s a mile a minute, my mind it barks like hounds, I’m focused on my breathing and the Universal Sound. I think about my darling girl sleeping all alone, I pray the stars’ll shoot’er all the wishes she can hold, on the day that I return I aim to lay her down but right now I’m focused on the Universal Sound. I think about tobacco juice and mason jars of shine, I think about the vices I let take me over time, I recall when I’s a baby I didn’t need nothin’ around but a little-bitty rattler and the Universal Sound. I close my eyes, it was all so clear, it was all right then, it was all right here. I been up on the mountain, and I seen his wondrous grace, I sat there on a barstool and I looked him in the face, he seemed a little haggard but it did not slow him down, he was humming to the neon of the Universal Sound. I focus on my breathing and the Universal Sound, I let it take me over from the toenails to the crown, the body that I’m in ’till they put me in the ground, and I return to the chorus of the Universal Sound.’

Childers is a Sage.

Unattended campfires and cookpits smoulder, flickers of light burn in and out along the treeline. Rising embers against the dark backdrop are eyes, the interdimensional, crossing planes to watch the wonder of our own. The malevolent mollified by the muse, an alternative crowd hidden just enough. Cryptid Cats sitting high in the bows of the oaks having crossed the balds of the meadowlands. The White Things of West Virginia with their sheep-like wool, ram horns and saber-teeth. The Yayho, its reek, the bipedal humanoid crouching on a slope with its relatives the Wood Booger and Wildman – in from Tennessee, their brotherly Sasquatch unable to attend. Monstrosities with mice at their feet. Squirrel, rabbit, weasel, and ‘munk. Beaver, bear, ‘possom, and skunk. Sapsuckers, flycatchers, ‘peckers and hawks. Copperheads, salamanders, turtles and frogs.

This rarity of The Food Stamps line up is due to a guitarist, stage right, twice Childers’ age. And as introduced, he foresaw the talent as an early enabler. David “Chico” Prince, a Lawrence Country teacher fostered the vision of Childers and joins him tonight loaning licks and providing leads. In classic country fashion his partner, Teresa, intervals a harmony. The collaboration is class. Childers beams as he creates with mentors. The Prince’s mirror. Teresa leaves the stage, and myself with an affection for my teachers. A trio, I’m indebted.

Barbara Bruce, Jeanette Cross and Lynette Kaminski.

42. Wook Out America

November 8th 2016 8:00 am

Where the barks and bellows for Angela Perley and The Howlin’ Moons end in round vowels, The Wooks have the crowd stretching hard ‘Es’ through yips and yaps. What seems a much more regional tone to appreciation. If there’s been a doubling of filled mason jars, there’s been a tripling. Personalized gallon jugs of moonshine have been included in each bands compensation, one per member, and are all being opened simultaneously, shared among the collective, as well. A dedication to sobriety is weakening as the cherry and grape fragrances taunt my decision. A bottle of the clear elixir sat as a forgotten gift in the freezer at the family ranch rediscovered in the early stages of my alcohol usage. I remember taking a pull of the homemade booze as a primer resulting in a night of haze. Recalling a taste of fossil fuel, the current fruity redolence in smell could only salvage the memory and replace the experience with the real thing. The adage of Rome couldn’t ring truer to the moment and I’m seeing the importance of sharing it with my new brethren – passing on my abstinence to bond and celebrate with drink. I give the possibility a Catholic perception as one would share in a chalice of the blood of Christ, passing it onward in the communion. Nathan Thomas takes another pull from The Horse Traders gifted gallon jug, passes it to me. And with Catholic guilt, decline.

Arthur Hancock wears Muck boots on stage. Ideal for feeding cattle in the softening spring-time combination of manure, frost, straw and dirt, walking winter distances through the Canadian prairies, and apparently, playing the banjo. I kept Muck’s Arctic Pros in the old diesel band van for winter touring, a broken heater system sent the engines temperature to the floor vents in the front passenger seat only creating ‘the hell seat’, the rest of the vehicles occupants would freeze. My Mucks became part of the touring identity, not without ridicule from techs during load-in and sound-check. My personal connection to Hancock’s attire makes me love his approach that much more. The Wooks are trucker hats and flannel. Galen Green, mandolin, flannel. Roddy Puckett, doghouse bass, flannel.

Wookies Unite – The Kentucky Flag Bearer, The Duck Strangler, Ash Punk, Neck-tat Irishman. New characters emerge including the Bud Light Balancer. Shirtless, front row engaged in a full-body bluegrass thrust all while intricately balancing full cans of beer on Hancock’s monitor, releasing his hand from the alcohol once it’s placed to stay – this seems to not bother the banjo vocalist. The Balancer grabs both sexes, dancing ferociously, breaking to reach for his beverage that defies the laws of gravity – now lighter, he sets its contents back on the top ridge of the monitor wedge and rejoins the movements of his fellow Wookies.

Roberts is among us, we make eye contact and in true fashion checks in on my experience. ‘Incredible, isn’t it?’

“…I read it in the paper fifteen years ago. We’re all driving rocket ships and talking with our minds and wearing turquoise jewelry and standing in soup lines.” The Wooks on Prine.

Winners of the 2016 Rockygrass Competition outside of Boulder, Colorado, They defend the award with a stage presence that is unparalleled. It’s a kitchen stomp that goes instrumental – originals as strong as the material interpreted. Hancock expresses worry for remuneration from Cousin Byron if they don’t play any Grateful Dead and start into a groovy southern delivery of “Franklin’s Tower”.  This explains the skull on the festival signage en route through the hills, The Grateful Dead image appearing on their “Steal Your Face” album in the mid-seventies doubling as a logo for the Appalachian festival – minus the lightning bolt. With one rendition comes another, a crowd erupting with the opening lines from Springsteen’s “Atlantic City”. As the festival sings along to the anthem of organized crime I leave my post and make my back to the van for another quick fix of pork rinds. The Wooks have taken Angela Perley’s elevated crowd and furthered it into its euphoria.

Photo by Tim Benko - www.benkophoto.com
(photo taken by Tim Benko at 2016 RockyGrass Band Competition)

I reconnect with an early welcomer, by chance, at the back of the grounds, a dim luminance from the peripheral of campfires light the face of Zack Walker. Without hesitance we throw our arms around each other’s shoulders and continue in stride. I feel safe in my reasoning that he’s had his share of the moonshine being passed so freely, and as it does all of us, the indulgence of alcohol brings out a philosophical tone to Walker’s response when asking how I found myself in his neck of the woods. He declares it the work of God. I refrain from the pretentious correction that in the Book of John the crowd asks Jesus what they must do to do the works God requires – Jesus bluntly states that ‘the work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent’…but I feel what Walker is saying – I’d argue it’s a little more Blues Brothers than Biblical, but a mission developing into a spiritual quest. A freeness, open to signs, constantly rewarded through synchronicity, thoughts manifesting into realities instantaneously – Walker pushes the concept as if he needs to convince me, so I agree. Yes, the work of God.

It is in this moment I’m struck. My journey is a pilgrimage. My experience in December has left me in an upheaval of beliefs and until now do I realize I truly am doing the work of God as stated by Christ…or more like working towards the work of God, working at believing in the one he has sent. I cannot be told otherwise that I experienced his wonder first-hand last winter, as real as the day is long – and yet I continue to search. After preaching in Galilee, Jesus was approached by a royal official with a sick son. The father begged Christ to perform a healing, Jesus responded: “Unless you people see signs and wonders you will never believe.” Do I need more proof or was my experience enough? Then again, proofs only give way for more questions.

Under what’s become a clear Appalachian sky, deeper questions attack like a mob. I’m feeling forced to look at myself with a rational mind. I stand in disbelief that I simply told my loved ones I was leaving, length undetermined. No push-back. Maybe they saw the underlying truth clearer than I did myself – is it the Spirit of Country Music I am on the hunt for or a sense of the Spirit within myself? Country Music considered, how was this sacral outlook on the genre even instilled in me? Why does its perversion find its way under my ribs to a point that I am so infuriated with the lack of respect to a sound that I’m willing to drive half way across the country to prove its purity still exists? Why do I care? Maybe it’s been foolish to not be more willing to play the game, write to accommodate to a larger listenership and once a foot is in the door then ‘make the album I always wanted to make’. The industry is good if one is willing to dumb down the lyric and formulate the writing, follow the conceptual fads and have touchstones throughout a song – checking them off the list: whiskey, party, booty-call, more alcohol, truck…fuck me, truck – like, since when did that honky-ass cliché reintroduce itself as stereotypical fodder? Part of me feels defeated as an artist fighting for mainstream appeal but refusing to compromise. I wonder if that old mentality of ‘doing in on my terms’ is still a possibility.

And the inner search comes to surface. Fellow worldly Spirit hunters have criss-crossed the globe destined for Bodh Gaya in India where Siddhartha Guatama sat beneath the fig tree meditating for seven days towards enlightenment; Lourdes, France, where the Holy Virgin appeared to three children at the Massabielle grotto; Stonehendge to watch the sunrise above the rocks on the summer solstice; Machu Picchu, the centre to the Andean vision of the cosmos.

And Irvine, Kentucky, where a sold out crowd awaits the appearance of Tyler Childers.

41. Angela Perley & the Howlin’ Moons

November 7th 2016 7:46 am

Where dusk would be an hour away outside the holler, the sun drops for a shadow cast. It’s remnants falling behind the mountain top give the festival vibe no transitional period. Where Angela Perley and The Howlin’ Moons would be a band at dusk in any other geography, here, they are the first act of the night. Fittingly so, the coincidence of her band’s namesake is shared by Luna’s full glow appearing opposite Sol’s decent, her white light arguing the satellite is luminescent in itself. A rain that teased the day away has committed. Pop-up canopies have neighbours squeezing underneath escaping the chills. Stay dry and stay high, icy pelts are sobering through clothes. I saved my outfit change in anticipation of the temperature drop, enhanced by the precipitation. I wait it out, uncovered, while Byron rouses his congregation. ‘Love God’ and ‘Kentucky Proud Y’all’. He continues his appreciation, again, honouring veterans in attendance.

The brim of Perley’s hat flops in waves and long brown hair hangs below. Ankle length dress. An acoustic guitar would assume folk, it’s a Joni Mitchell meets Stevie Nicks vibe given, but her orange Fender Thinline says heavy. Chris Connor plays a red 335 directly in-front of himself, outwards, arms stretched like one would place an instrument in that of a zombie form. Trucker hat covered face. His guitar returns to a more rhythmic and comfortable positioning, low. Ed Davis is the metronome, a Sun Studios t-shirt. William Zehnal dunks, his p-bass is beat and his stance is wide. If The Horse Traders, The Strange Constellations and The Jenkins Twins had their influences, individually, Perley has all styles honed in collectively. She’s a Loretta Lynn fronting a David Gilmour side project, a Janis Joplin that chose Robby Krieger over Jim Morrison, a spun-out Stevie Nicks wrangled by The Dirt Band – She brought the moon to the party, its craters more prevalent, begging for a ritual. The conservative front rowers have ditched their lawn chairs, dripping wet, in crucifixion pose allowing Perley psych to pass through them to me at the back of the site.

photo by Chris Casella

photo by Chris Casella

The downpour has ceased and I swap out clothes, boots and hat. My liberties of walking in and out of the backstage entrance are honoured and I choose side-stage to remain for the duration of the Howlin’ Moons set. An extended jam is successfully decreasing volume and increasing intensity, delays saturate Connor’s tone and he’s manipulating his pedalboard while Perley opts for an instrument change. She crouches with the wooden handle of a saw locked between her kneecaps, holding the tip and forcing the blade into an ‘S’ – bow in her left hand. Pulling the horse-hair across the edge opposite teeth, she swoons pitches to float around a melody. It’s ethereal. Theremin-esque. Her vibrato matches the strobe of the laser show that kicked in on the tree-line minutes ago. Sacred geometry spinning, adding to the psychedelic tone of Perley’s ritual. I’m reacquainted with Patrick Stanley, as wide-eyed as myself in the witnessing of mastery. Under Perley’s guise, her band simply plays well together. Each lost in their execution with the onlookers. A true performance. I reassure Stanley that we can share my first Childers performance as The Howlin’ Moons bring themselves to a close. Their lunar counterpart beams brighter.

Wook Lives Matter. Insensitive at the very least given today’s political climate, but homemade merchandise for upcoming bluegrass entities, The Wooks, fill the crowd. Signs: Wook Country, Wookie, Wookie, Wookie, In Wooks We Trust. A cheer is bleeding over from the desire for Angela Perley to continue playing and The Wooks first appearance to set-up their stage. A local stature gives celebrity status around these parts – where usually the opposite is the effect. There’s a purgatory that an artist can sit in within his community where their successes outside a home region doesn’t translate over to local attendance, never a star in your own backyard mentality. The welling, grand from afar and then everybody at home ‘knew them when’. I have a feeling The Wooks annihilated this concept and were propelled to their Billboard charting status as a result of their local support. A rally song begins their set’s stomp – ‘…all you Wookies’. The crowd knows their vocal role.

Call it presumptuous to a stereotype but The Wooks combination of flat-picking, fiddle-sawing, mando-chunking and bass-slapping has me reaching for an unopened pack of Red Man I jammed into my hind pocket when changing into my jeans. I’ve been substance free for three months and that’s about to come to an abrupt end. A vice to assist with continuing to pass the mason jars and jugs of Kentucky Wine by me every time they circle through. Nathan Thomas takes a pull of a brown jug labeled ‘Apple Pie’ and releases it on its journey among the twenty-odd side-stagers. Never once a mouth piece wiped clean as it’s undoubtedly sterilized by the white lightning. I replace the smell of cinnamon in the air with that of raisins, tearing the foil and dipping into a cheekful of tobacco. A repulsive alternative to a high both for reasons of hygiene and cultural appropriation. But like memories of the catholic church, purest at its lowest rung of the ladder. I’m ambushed with memories as my tongue goes slightly numb and I orally fumble my way through finding a comfort zone, a stream of juice down my throat. Goddamn, odious and appeasing. A rush like I rubbed a leaf into my mind’s eye – directly in the center of my forehead. My first spit and the roof of my head tingles as if my crown is opening, my second is combined with the attempt to expectorate. Throat’s cleared and the familiar wooziness cascades like an uncomfortable body high. My focus shifted between remembering hauling round bales with my brother, sitting in baseball dugouts, rodeo cabarets and beholding one of the coolest fucking bluegrass bands I’ve ever seen. I’m two songs in and my ignorance to the genre is confronted. I’ve been turned off by its bastardization, I share this confession with Stanley along with the option of a dip. He blames my past dislike on what he calls ‘newgrass’ and declines a pinch. A mason jar comes his way and he indulges. An understatement.

Since my departure, there’s been a desire to define country music. I gave the recognition of it a relative stance saying that I’ll know it when I see it, which, for the most part, is its truest ally but considering the longevity of its core proponents, a key factor is evolution. The genre will undoubtedly transform through its conduits, artists with tools so sharp that their talent is a tool in itself to the Spirit. This evolution and sharpened craft is a priority of The Wooks.