My Pop Life #83 : Country Boy – Ricky Skaggs

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Country Boy   –   Ricky Skaggs

I may look like a city slicker

shinin’ up through the shoes

underneath I’m just a cotton picker

pickin’ out a mess of blues

show me where I start

find a horse and cart

I’m just a country boy, country boy at heart…

I didn’t know what was going on.  Late ’88.  I seemed to have stopped being an actor for a while and become a writer – again.  My play Sanctuary had won the Samuel Beckett Award and been picked up by an American theatre company from Washington D.C. called The No-Neck Monsters.  I’d re-written it for the nation’s capital after a short but intense workshop period (My Pop Life #137) and a six-week writing period when I lived in Adams Morgan next door to a beautiful black/cherokee mix woman called Debbie who worked at the Pentagon.  A gang of us went to a Baltimore Orioles game, and Debbie and I started to have an affair.  I noticed that one of my actors – Paul – got annoyed about this – but – hey – that’s life.   But once I’d delivered the play to director Gwen Wynne it was time to go back to England, London, and my single man status – although I was seeing someone there too…

A few weeks of rehearsal passed to which I was not invited (!) – and I came back for the thrilling opening night of Sanctuary D.C. as the play was now called – it was still a rap musical with beats, but now some of them had music too thanks to brilliant MD Scott Richards – and the final song had me in floods of tears.  It was a spectacular experience watching the play again, and a kick in the teeth and guts to find that Debbie and Paul had become an item in my absence.   Not only that but half the company had turned on me too, no doubt to bolster Paul’s righteous behaviour. Shocked, I slept with her one last time in my fury then cut and run for it.   I went west.   In a car.

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Auto-Driveaway is a company which delivers cars for people, all over the US and Canada.  They need drivers.  I went to the office in D.C., showed my licence, gave them a $200 deposit and took a car for delivery.  There was a vast choice – I chose Dallas, Texas.  I had five days to get there and a full tank.  After that ran out it was up to me, and I could deliver it empty.  I quickly calcuated that if I drove like the clappers (what are they?) on the first two days, then I could stay in Nashville, Tennessee for two nights and one whole day.  I should give this trip a name because it became epic and legendary for all the wrong reasons – but not this section.  Driving over the Appalachians through West Virginia then looking down at the map to see your progress makes you realise how vast America is.  I went to Dollywood – a brief detour (see My Pop Life #46) but it was closed.  Back in the car and carry on.  Radio stations come and go as you pass through towns on the Interstate Highway.  No hitch-hikers anywhere, unlike 23 years earlier when Simon Korner and I had gone coast to coast and beyond with the mighty thumbs of yore.  (See My Pop Life #30 for the early part of this trip on the same road).  Just me and the road, hour after hour after hour.   On the outskirts of Nashville I pick up a gospel radio station.  Then a country station.  Then there’s an ad (a commercial spot in the local vernacular) for The Grand Ole Opry.  I immediately drive there and buy a ticket for that very night, check into my motel 6 and put on my best cowboy boots.

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Grand Ole Opry is a nightly live radio show that goes out across the Nashville area, and beyond thanks to the internet.  It takes place in a large auditorium which showcases country music, bluegrass, folk and has it’s own hall of fame.  It started in 1928 as a barn dance and it is the longest-running radio show in America.  Elvis Presley (My Pop Life #80) only played here once in 1954 and was told to go back to driving trucks.  The Byrds played in 1968 when Gram Parsons was producing Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and got cat-called by the conservative redneck audience as “longhairs”.   It’s an American Institution.  The night I went (December 17th 1988) I was lucky enough to see the great bluegrass legend Bill Monroe hosting a segment of the 9.30pm show which also included country hall-of-fame members Porter Wagoner, Boxcar Willie, Roy Acuff, Hank Snow, Charlie Louvin and Ricky Skaggs.   I was in country heaven.

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Is it weird that at the same exact time that I was buying all the hip hop singles and LPs that were released, I was also busy discovering and digging on country music? Thanks to new releases by k.d.lang, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakum and Patty Loveless.  Kenneth Cranham had fed my country fever with a C90, I was buying Dolly & Willie, NWA & Public Enemy, Hank and Reba.  I was a schizo muso mentalist.  Down to the record store, come home with EPMD and Nanci Griffith, Big Daddy Kane and The Judds (see My Pop Life #6).   I didn’t see any contradiction there at all.

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I didn’t care about Ricky’s image, he’s a genius

Ricky Skaggs blew my mind that night, among all those legendary performers, names who had been playing for decades – he was one of the youngest performers there.   He played a song called Country Boy which still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end – his band nailing an impossibly fast bluegrass instrumental section that is quite literally Instru-Mental.   When I listen to the song I inevitably think that the drummer must be playing too fast.  He appears to be hurrying them along – the effect is quite odd.  Very exciting music.  Skaggs was at the forefront of a generation of younger musicians at the time who were taking music back to its roots, away from pop-country and the Nashville mainstream.    Bluegrass was born in the United States from musical folk roots in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, with jazz influences from the South.  Ricky Skaggs is a master of the genre.  He has won multiple Grammys and is a demon on the mandolin and guitar.  Featured image

Featured imageI went out to Ernest Tubbs Music Store in Nashville the next morning and bought the seven-inch single of Country Boy.    A treasured possession.    I am a country boy after all, Cambridge -born and Sussex bred, strong in the arm and thick in the head, despite my education, I am pretty thick in the head.   A young soul, picking things up along the way – oh ! is that how it works?  Right…. very little natural wisdom.   Almost a naïf at times.   I love the country, the seasons changing, the leaves, the insects, particularly the butterflies, the birds, the streams, the mud, the flowers, the hedgerows, the farms, the wind, the sky.   It’s my natural habitat.   I am a country boy at heart!    Take it away Ricky.

This is how I first experienced ‘Country Boy’ – live :

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My Pop Life #80 : Heartbreak Hotel – Elvis Presley

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Heartbreak Hotel   –   Elvis Presley

the bell-hop’s tears keep flowing and the desk clerk’s dressed in black

They been so long on lonely street they never can go back

and they’ve been, they been so lonely baby, they been so lonely

they been so lonely they could die…

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By the time I was 16 I had learnt the rudimentals of the saxophone, I could play a tune, I could ‘tongue’ the notes, bend the notes and more or less join in with a jam.  I could only play in a handful of keys though.  And better jokes were to come.  When I joined school band Rough Justice – my friend’s band which starred Conrad Ryle, Andrew ‘Tat’ Taylor, Andy Shand and Tigger on the drums – it was as a saxophone player.   I arrived at Waterlilies in Kingston village, sax in hand, having hitch-hiked from Hailsham, sat down, had a cup of tea, perhaps a joint was smoked,  knelt down and opened my sax case, red-velvet-lined, the horn came in various parts which had to be slotted together, then a reed selected and placed onto the mouthpiece (Selmer C) and tightened, a sling around my neck and we were off.  Give us an E said Tat.  I blew a nice clear bell-like E.   Wow that’s high.  All the guitarists tightened their strings to the right pitch.  Saxophones cannot be tuned (much*) so the more flexible instruments – the guitars, including the bass, must be.   I can’t remember how many rehearsals this went on for, but at every rehearsal someone – often two people – broke strings.   Then one day, weeks later, possibly months later, someone – who knows – maybe it was me, perhaps Andy played an E on the piano out of curiosity.  Clearly none of us had perfect pitch !     It was lower than my E.  Way lower.  It was my C# in fact.  I consulted my book “How To Play The Saxophone”.    I had an Eb Boosey & Hawkes alto.   I don’t actually know what this means even today, but I think it means that it is pitched 3 semitones above middle C – ie Eb.   What this meant for my bandmate’s guitar strings, not to mention their fingers, was that when they asked me for an E, I was giving them a G !!!  No wonder strings broke – three semitones higher than concert pitch, I got blisters on ma fingers !   I felt stupid, humiliated even, but they were all relieved.   Next time someone asked me for an E, I blew a C# and we were all sweet. *

*Muso’s note – to tune a saxophone you must move the mouthpiece up & down the cork.

– After a few more rehearsals it became evident that no one wanted to sing.   No one.   So guess who volunteered.   I’ll give it a go.   Someone who would become an actor one day.  Now, this meant learning the words to the songs which Tat and Conrad – or Crod as we all called him in those days – had written, among which were Tat’s song Muster Muster Monsters which required a kind of Vincent Price delivery, and Crod’s song about Mevagissey in Cornwall where he’d been on holiday camping with Spark and Fore and possibly Martin Elkins (“wake up with the sun run down to the sea…”), which was a basic pop vocal.  More tricky though were the choice of covers – basic 12-bar rock songs which the nascent guitar players could play with confidence – and which included THREE Status Quo songs and THREE Elvis Presley songs and Birthday by the Beatles from the White Album.  I’ll discuss the Quo in greater depth another time, for I ended up meeting them years later, (see My Pop Life #172) but this seems like a great opportunity to put Elvis into my pop life.  Aged 16/17 I sang 3 Elvis songs, kind of unaware of his legendary status, he was just a good rockin’ boy to us East Sussex lads.   I wasn’t overawed like I would be now if I sang an Elvis song.   It was just rock’n’roll.   But the songs were 15 years old even then in 1973.

Most of the Rough Justice set were rockers, so true to form I’ve picked the ballad to represent.  It was the hardest song to sing with the exception of “Birthday” which is a scream-fest.  Two of us sang that I think.  We would perform at Kingston Village Hall, Grange Gardens for some private party, Lewes Priory school dance, not that many actual gigs.  The gigs were good, but my main memory is Crod’s bedroom, amps and speakers, fags, instruments including Crod’s homemade lemon-yellow electric guitar, carved from some tree and wired up by hand.  In my recall it went out of tune on a regular basis, but Crod didn’t seem to mind.  In fact Conrad didn’t seem to mind about much it seemed to me.  He had a gentle giant atmosphere around him, smiled a lot, was very forgiving and understanding, had a good left foot on the football pitch, came to the Albion with his brother Martin or with us, enjoyed a pint of cider and a smoke of weed, is a committed socialist even now and still lives in Lewes with his wife Gaynor Hartnell.  Lovely people whom I see all too infrequently.  Along with Simon Korner I would say he was my best friend at Lewes, since I had spent so much time with both of those families as my own family slowly disintegrated amid dysfunction and doctors and drugs.  They’d both reached out a hand and invited me into their homes.  They’d saved my sanity and my future probably.  I cannot really measure it, but I will always acknowledge it.

We had fun with Crod one day – me, Spark, Fore, Martin, Tat.  Crod fell asleep early one night.  Too early.  Wankered on cider.  Someone wondered aloud whether we should lift his entire bed with him in it outside and place it carefully in the garden, without waking him up.  Much laughter.  I think we tried it.   Of course the bed wouldn’t fit through the door.  So we settled for completely re-arranging his bedroom, moved the bed to the opposite wall, moved the bookcase and wardrobe and amps and speakers.  Then we fell asleep too.   Hadn’t worked that out – that we’d have to stay awake all night to get the juicy climax to our prank.  Then someone woke Crod up to get the joke.  He looked blearily around, said “oh you’ve moved the room around” then fell asleep again.

Matthew Wimbourne would turn up to Rough Justice rehearsals too.   He was younger than us and smaller too.   Wispy beard-hairs and glasses, hippy scarves.   Carried a set of bongos.  Sat on the floor and played along without ever really being heard.   I hope he had fun.   Tigger the drummer didn’t go to our school.  He looked a bit like a kid from fame, mullet and all.   We made a logo for his bass drum.  It said Rough Justice round the rim and had a hangman’s noose in the centre.  We wore whatever we wanted on stage which was mainly denim, although Crod had some interesting shapeless clothes, and I had my Mum’s pink blouse (glamrock!!) and a pair of stripéd pants (see MacArthur’s Park! My Pop Life #216) that were red, blue and yellow and a pair of wedge-sole AND wedge-heel shoes.  I thought I was in The Sweet !!  Singing Elvis and Quo !!!  hahahahahahahaaaaaaa…

Featured imageAs for Heartbreak Hotel, it’s quite a song.  I think people used to dance even when we played it.   It was Elvis Presley‘s first million-selling single.   Not the first thing he recorded, by any means – he walked into Sun Records in Memphis aged 18 and recorded That’s All Right Mama for producer Sam Phillips which is totally fantastic, as are all the sides he cut for Sun Records.  But once he got signed by RCA Records who bought out his Sun contract thanks to new manager “Colonel” Tom Parker, the sky was the limit.  In essence they tried to bottle the lightning of those first magical two years.  And, sadly, they did.  Bottled it, labelled it, mass-produced it, gave it a haircut and sent it to the army.  They couldn’t quite smooth out all of the rough edges but near as dammit that’s exactly what happened to Elvis.  The famous episodes of him being shot on TV only from the waist up were a real threat, not a joke – a white man dancing and singing like a negro, mixing black and white music with ease, conquering both with charm, rockabilly and sex.

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He was a powerful dangerous young man in the mid-fifties, and those first two years at Sun Records are the best of Elvis.  Not to say that the other stuff is bad – hardly that – and I have favourite Elvis songs from every period of his life.  In The Ghetto.  Are You Lonesome Tonight?   I Just Can’t Help Believin’.  Lawdy Miss Clawdy from the comeback gig.  There are two wonderful books that have all the details, all the gossip and all of the stuff you need.  Peter Guralnick wrote both – Last Train To Memphis goes up to the army, Careless Love takes it from there.  Highly recommended.

I visited Graceland in Memphis in 1989 on my way out to Dallas delivering a car for Auto-Driveaway.  Really that’s for another post, but Graceland is everything you want it to be.

In other news Kenneth Cranham (see My Pop Life #6 and My Pop Life #46) or Uncle Ken had thrust a pair of C90s into my grubby little paws one night entirely made up of original material covered by Elvis, followed by Elvis’ version.  In pretty much every respect the Elvis versions are better.  And of course they were huge hits too.  Parker and Elvis demanded half of the publishing for any song they covered, and most writers (though not Dolly Parton) agreed.

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I knew very very little of this in 1974.   Just as well I think.   I was an innocent singing rock songs for kids to dance to.    I didn’t want to be stepping into a legend’s shoes.

Featured imageAnd yes, the legend of Elvis would flourish and bloom in later years and become a kind of religious touchstone and a musical crossroads too.    There’s so much myth and bullshit written and spoken about Elvis.   I’ve heard tons of it.   Make up your own mind.   Did you know, for instance, that Elvis used to wear eye make-up in the early 50s?   There’s some amazing photos of him back then, on the cusp of his power, under arrest for an assault.   He was a tornado.    I’ve spoken about my conversation with Bristol trip-hop pioneer Tricky (My Pop Life #61) regarding the Public Enemy “Elvis was a hero to most…” lines on Fight The Power.   But whatever, he was one of the original rebels.   A white working class kid in Memphis singing black music in 1953.   He was it.    There’s two clips below, the original single from 1956, the young man aged 21 making his first million dollars, below that the ’68 comeback gig in Las Vegas where he appears to be taking the mickey out of himself and his schtick.  He was a complex man in some ways, a very simple man in others.  I’ve got a lot of time for Elvis.

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and live at the comeback gig in Vegas ’68 :

My Pop Life #46 : Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) – Dolly Parton

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Deportee  (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)   –   Dolly Parton

The airplane caught fire over los gatos canyon
A fireball of lightning that shook all our hills
Who are these dear friends all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio said they were just deportees

A song that was passed to me by fellow actor Kenneth Cranham when we were working together on the 1st of three shows we would make together in the space of two years in the late 80s.  He’d caught me listening to a cassette which came free with the NME that week containing what it called “New Country” – k.d. lang, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakum, Nanci Griffith.   Ken is a huge country fan, in fact he’s a huge music fan and we exchanged tapes for a while, although I had to work hard to find a song that he didn’t already know about (I eventually did ; Oleta Adams version of Everything Must Change – My Pop Life #20).  But mainly it was one-way traffic from the older guy to the younger fella – Elvis tapes, country, and more recently a songwriter’s selection from Harold Arlen and Hoagy Carmichael – brilliant).

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Kenneth Cranham

The first C90 Ken gave me was called simply “Country”.  I was living in Archway Road with my girlfriend Rita Wolf at that point in late 1987.  I’d just shot “The Black & Blue Lamp” at the BBC, a satirical and savage lampoon of TV policemen which took particular aim at Dixon of Dock Green and was written by the slightly touched and rather brilliant Arthur Ellis, who was to crop up again later in my career.  Karl Johnson and Kenneth Cranham took me up to the BBC Canteen at North Acton where we bumped into Patrick Malahide, of their generation, a legend to me for his appearances in Minder as DS Chisholm.  “Hello Patrick” said Ken, “what are you doing here?”  Patrick looked morose : “Oh, just some television” he said without enthusiasm.  It was an early taste of cynicism for me, still young and fresh, in in my first decade in the business, still thrilled to be in the BBC Canteen and actually acting for a living.

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Deportee was written by Woody Guthrie in 1948 detailing the true story of a plane crash in Los Gatos Canyon, Fresno County California, which resulted in the deaths of 32 people, 28 of whom were Mexican migrant workers being taken back to Mexico.  The music was scored some ten years later by Martin Hoffman.  The song is a lament for the shoddy racist treatment of the foreigners, the deportees treated as outlaws and thieves by the American Press and public, named in the song as Juan, Rosalita, Jesus and Maria.

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Dolly Parton was born into a large family in Tennessee whom she describes as ‘dirt poor’, moved to Nashville the day after she graduated aged 18 and rose to become the most-decorated female country singer of all time.  She has always presented a healthy sense of self-parody (eg 2008 LP Backwoods Barbie) alongside her own songwriting talent.

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Elvis Presley wanted to sing her song “I Will Always Love You” but insisted on half of the publishing, as he (and manager Tom Parker) did with every song he covered.   Dolly refused and some years later Whitney Houston famously took the song to the top of the charts and into the film “The Bodyguard”.    Dolly Parton’s best selling pop-country single was, in fact, “9 to 5” which she wrote, followed by 1983’s duet with Kenny RogersIslands In The Stream” which was written by The Bee Gees.    The fact that she was at the peak of her popularity when she recorded “Deportee” in 1980 is a tribute to her humanity and her well-documented philanthropical side.   It appears on the soundtrack LP for the film ‘9 To 5′ which she also starred in with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, and also on Dolly’s 1981 LP “9 to 5 and Odd Jobs“.

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Although the song has been covered by many artists, including Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Christy Moore and Bruce Springsteen, this is my favourite version – the haunting piano phrases, the emotional singing from Dolly herself, and the production, all make this a classic protest song, a classic country song,  quite simply a classic song.

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I’ll dedicate the song today to all those poor souls drowned in the Mediterranean Sea after attempting the crossing from North Africa to Italy.   Dangerous overcrowded boats run by people-traffickers take hundreds of people every single day, and thousands have drowned.    The news reports refer to them as refugees.  Migrants.  Child migrants.  Or, as I prefer to call them, people.