Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Debts, Musical and Otherwise

Crossposted at HickoryWind.

We're fortunate at the moment a couple of veteran country/roots rockers are enjoying a particularly rich patch. I'm thinking particularly of Tom Russell, Rodney Crowell and Marty Stuart who have all released CDs this year that make my personal top five or ten. In Marty's case, he's released two. One was the gospel Soul's Chapel, the second is Badlands, Ballads of the Lakota. I've looked forward to it not just because a new Marty Stuart is pretty special but also because its also an explicit follow up to one of my favourite albums, one of the most underrated ever : Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears.

Let's take a step back. Johnny Cash was always as much a folk singer as a country one, and the case of Bitter Tears is just one example of the spirit that makes him a revered figure like no other. A rare (indeed) popular music name who was also political but appeals equally to evangelicals and atheists, hawks, doves, you name it. It's only the indifferent who miss the train, I guess. Enraged by radio reluctance to play "The Ballad of Ira Hayes", Cash famously took out a full page ad in Billboard (as he would 30 years later, addressed to much the same people ....):

DJs, station managers, owners, etc., where are your guts? I'm not afraid to sing the hard bitter lines that the song of Oliver La Farge wrote ... Classify me, categorize me -- STIFLE me, but it won't work ... I am fighting no particular cause. If I did it would soon make me a sluggard. For as time changes, I change. You're right! Teenage girls and Beatle-record buyers don't want to hear the sad story of Ira Hayes -- but who cries more easily, and who always goes to sad movies to cry??? Teenage girls. Some of you "Top 40" DJs went all out for this at first. Thanks anyway. Maybe the program director or station manager will reconsider. This ad (go ahead and call it that) costs like hell. Would you, or those pulling the strings for you, go to the mike with a new approach? That is, listen to the record again?

Regardless of the trade charts -- the categorising, classifying and restrictions of airplay, this is not a country song, not as it is being sold. It is a fine reason for the gutless to give it the thumbs down. 'Ballad of Ira Hayes' is strong medicine. So is Rochester -- Harlem -- Birmingham and Vietnam ... I've blown my horn now; just this once, then no more. Since I've said these things now, I find myself not caring if the record is programmed or not. I won't ask you to cram it down their throats. But ... I had to fight back when I realised that so many stations are afraid of "The Ballad of Ira Hayes." Just one question: WHY????

(labouriously copied out from the recent Cash bio by Stephen Miller)

As it turned out Ira Hayes made number three on the country chart and the album too was a reasonable commercial success. Ira Hayes was written by Peter LaFarge whom I was glad to see get a namecheck as in No Direction Home, he's a whole post of his own for another day.

Forty one years later, we're pretty jaded about this stuff -- Live Aid/8, fugly white wristbands, forty odd years of social and musical revolution yadda yadda -- but Bitter Tears still hits home with its thematic starkness, uncompromising vision and, most unexpectedly, venom. Really, there's a lot of anger here. And that it was all done by a mainstream star in 1964 ... well, that still impresses me.

Bitter Tears retained the Cash signature boom chika beat in parts, and Badlands thankfully still has that rich Fabulous Superlatives' "hillbilly rock" sound. It's not just a homage by Marty Stuart to his mentor Cash. His interest in native American issues goes back a long way, he and Connie Smith were married on a reservation and he has studied at an Ogala college. I find the album mercifully free of stifling earnestness and airbrushing, the songs stack up by themselves and of course Marty's haunting velvety voice is in spine chilling form. Particularly on something like "Listen to the Children", where he goes all low and slow ... aiiiiiyyeeeeee.

On a few listenings the stand out tracks are the fierce rocking "Broken Promise Land" which certainly recalls Bitter Tears; the Presidents have changed, but the story remains the same. The trenchant "So You Want To Be an Indian" hits its mark against those who would idealise the lifestyle as a touchy feely new age paradise. "Casino" is like a reworked "Ballad of Ira Hayes," although the protagonist is a sadder one even than the Iwo Jima hero.

But as a concept album, the strength of Badlands is not really in individual songs (a brave move of itself in Era iPod) but the overall world created and reflected. I still place it a rung or so below the great Bitter Tears, but it's a fine successor and an adornment to the rapidly ending country music year.

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