Wednesday, February 16, 2005
TALES FROM THE RED-HEADED STRANGER
FORKSCLOVETOFU SEZ: The Red Headed Stranger is the nom de plume of the Hut's country music scholar.
While off in Dixie, I had opportunity to stop by th' Stranger's shitkicker bar. We had a slab of fatback and a half-dozen Highlifes and talked about beating up women. Two days later, this showed up in the mail, along with a partially melted Goo Goo Cluster.
That boy just ain't right.
The Louvin Brothers - "Knoxville Girl"
Porter Wagoner - "The Cold Hard Facts of Life"
Neither of these songs would stand a chance in hell of becoming country hits today, even though both were just that upon release – "Knoxville Girl" went to #19 on the country chart in 1959, while "Cold Hard Facts of Life" hit #2 eight years later. It isn't their sounds that would disqualify them. The Louvins' bluegrass would have a hard time, but it might get a hearing at CMT; Wagoner's shuffling honky-tonk is downright trendy right now. Nope, the element that would make current radio programmers quickly hit the "open" button on the CD player and dash these tracks to a hundred shiny pieces is the subject: vicious, cold-blooded murder. There's plenty of death on country radio these days – in fact, it's hard to listen for 15 minutes without hearing about someone biting the big one, preferably a child – but today's country passings are always the tragic, blameless (and, of course, inspirational) product of a disease or accident.
Each of these cuts is more blood-chilling for being told through the eyes of unsympathetic narrators. The killer in "Knoxville Girl" doesn't even have a motive, although folklorists have been attempting to ascribe him one practically ever since the song originated in the 18th century. One can presume the girl has done something to make her an unsuitable wife in the murderer's eyes (and that's just inferring from one way of reading "You can never be my bride"); nothing could conceivably justify such a horrific crime, and it's impossible not to wonder what might motivate it.
That mystery is one reason "Knoxville Girl" remains riveting after two centuries, and why so many artists have recorded it (that and the transgressive thrill of adopting such a foul identity for three minutes). But it also carries a kernel of truth about the mindset of the Appalachian settlers who brought it over from England, people so beset by poverty and illness that the pain and cruelty of the world seemed inescapable and inevitable.
The narrator of "Cold Hard Facts of Life" is unlikable not because he has no motive – he catches his wife and her lover in flagrante delicto (a classic case of the husband coming home from a business trip early and … oh, snap!). What erases any tiny morsel of sympathy we may have had for this lug is his sense of satisfaction, even pride, over the particular way he chooses to deal with his wife's indiscretion.
By the way, this psychotic little gem was written by "Whispering" Bill Anderson, alone among his generation of songwriters still making hits: last year's Brad Paisley/Alison Krauss duet "Whiskey Lullaby" was one of his. That one's about an alcoholism-fueled double suicide -- notice a pattern?
Buy Porter Wagoner's RCA Country Legends CD, and check out his website.
Learn why George Jones once grabbed Porter's (reputedly mammoth) manhood and "twisted it with a vengeance."
Buy When I Stop Dreaming: The Best of the Louvin Brothers. Ira Louvin is long gone, but Charlie Louvin is still at it.
You can see both Charlie and Porter regularly at the legendary Grand Ole Opry, held for the next two weeks at the historic Ryman Auditorium. You can also listen to the show online.
Learn which areas of the country where men are more likely to murder women. Here's a hint: it seems to happen an awful lot in those oh-so-morally-upright "red states."
Rock 'n' Roll Fonts
Buy Your Own Katamari Damacy Hat!
Turns out that at least ONE of the guys in the amazing Singin' in the Rain commercial WAS my favorite pop locka, Dave Elsewhere.
Kottke is johnny-on-the-spot with an interview.
I'm looking forward to seeing The Gates this Friday; public opinion here in the City has veered from the frothing to the ecstatic. I expect to be impressed; I'll report back.