November 26, 2007

Confessions of a Once Upon a Time Hater

There will be no unkind words from me in regards to growing up in New Jersey during the 70’s and 80’s but I am willing to admit there were certain cultural aspects that I was never exposed to. I had no idea the rest of the world pumped their own gas at service stations. There was not a Taco Bell in a 30 mile radius from the home I grew up in so I didn’t taste my first 7 layer burrito until I was in my early 20’s. I can’t blame this fully on NJ as my parents were not card carrying country music fans but I have zero recollection of hearing even one full country music song in all of my youth.

My family lived about a half hour outside of NYC so were more city folk than country folk. In fact it wasn’t until I was in my late teens working in a record store that I was even exposed to a semi consistent flow of Country music. I was never inclined to play any of them out curiosity and to this day I can’t really explain why. With my head bowed - my best guess is while no adult figure in my life has ever flat out stated people from the South were stupid or lesser ... it was loosely implied. I cringe typing something so harsh and clearly wrong but this is how I was indirectly raised. County music = product of the South = kryptonite to those living North of the Mason-Dixon line.

I have no idea if there was a country music radio station growing up but if there was – it was never played in our house, my parent’s car, or in any other environment I can think of while living in Northern NJ. As a child I couldn’t hum you a bar of any Country song nor did I have any true conception as to what one might sound like.

I clearly recall a grade school carpool ride with a neighbor boy who told me as I sung to some top 40 tune on the radio that I sounded like a Country singer. It was not meant to be a compliment and he was making a face like he was changing a baby’s dirty diaper. Without anyone telling me as much there was a childhood code that Country music sucked and to sound like a Country artist was a punch from the backseat. It was an insult so grand that my cheeks flushed with horror. I spat back from the front seat that I did not sound like that (even though I really have no idea what “that” was) and I refrained from speaking to him for a week. I dared not sing in front of him ever again.

There are two heroes to acknowledge in my eventual discovery and later passion for Country music and the first of them was my boss at Flipside Records in Pompton Lakes, NJ. Nearly every day he took the time to introduce me to a classic LP from every possible genre. My country lesson was scattered over three or four years of working for him but I best recall him pulling out a Porter Wagoner record and placing the needle on the groove of a song called “Rubber Room”. I had never heard a more far out, fucked up, bleak but amazing song in my life. I was shocked to discover that this was an example of what this mysterious genre of music could sound like. While I was still grossly ignorant of Country music this one record blasted my distaste and distrust for Country. I was on my way to falling in love with Western Swing, Honky Tonk and traditional Nashville Sound music.

My second tutor came in the form of a roommate I had in Seattle who was from Montana by way of Wyoming and lovingly called “Fuckin’ Bill”. He worked for a wine distributor and on the nights where neither one of us had band practice or any place to go, he would pull out a few bottles of good wine from his not so secret stash under his bed and play me his favorite country LPs. Hours were spent listening to greats like Hank Snow, Ferlin Husky, Hank Thompson, and Loretta Lynn to name a few. Too much wine and too many years between then and now help to blur all the glorious details but I was left with one important impression. Country Music wasn’t so bad after all.

A decade later I now find myself living in the South no less in the heart of the Confederate Capital for six years and counting. Every shameful association and bias I had against the South has long since evaporated but I still can’t say I have many friends who are Country music fans no less are avid collectors of it. (I should place a note here that I still not familiar with new County music and my addiction to the genre is strictly for the stuff from the 30s to the late 60s.) Loving these records doesn’t quite feel like a dirty secret but I do feel relatively alone in my quest to explore the genre. I don’t have friends clamoring to hear my most recent scores from digging in used LP bins and I don’t have any resources recommending records I don’t have but are a must to own. Sure the internet is a fine source of information but I prefer a more organic process of seeking out “the classics”; undeniably the feeling of the hunt before the kill when searching for old records is what I truly love and computers sterilize the whole hunting experience for me.

In a weird way my lack of education and inconsistent exposure to old Country music has kept my hungry to continue learning about it on my own in an innocent manner. I have no idea what I am supposed to like or own, I just happily explore it as I stumble across records in record stores and thrift stores. I blindly pick out records with cover art that appeal to me or carry song titles that sound intriguing. “Satan’s Place”? I need to hear that. Johnny Bond holding a gun to his head next to a table of booze under a headline that screams “Three Sheets in The Wind”? I can’t pass that up.

Not feeling jaded and repulsively over educated and socially tapped into a style of music is an enormous source of pleasure for me.

I recently made an epic record buying journey to a secret spot in Southern Virginia and purchased a good 15 or 20 used Country records. I finally have my very own copy of Porter Wagoner singing Rubber Room and can’t wait for my turntable to introduce me to a few more soon to be favorites.

I love me some Country and if there was a closet for me to crawl out of, this would be it. I am out and wearing spurs to prove it.

Del Reeves is among my newest discoveries and here is a clip of him performing “Girl on the Billboard”.