Friday, March 23, 2007

MP3 of the Week #7

Red Sovine messed me up. The past two weeks, I've been hooked on nothing but older 60s/70s country songs, preferably about ghost truck drivers, crippled children using CB radios and smokies. I've been thinking a lot about Korean war vets circa 1974, Evil Knievel, Sparkomatic eight-track tape players, bass fishing supplies, hippie Jesus freaks in camper vans, green polyester prom gowns in combination with Farah Fawcett perms, nylon mesh baseball hats from the 70s (i.e., back when we hated wearing them because they were so god-damned cheap), Playboy bunny car air fresheners, glee clubs performing songs from Godspell, Elephant Butts chewing tobacco and Mac Davis' afro.

Steel guitars, too. Today, I'll have two offerings, one with a story. The one without a story is by Joe Goldmark. It's a cover. See if you can guess what it's a cover of, and if you know what it is, marvel at the inventiveness of him doing this. (Not going to name the band or the song -- seems like every time I see a song by that band on a blog, even a cover, it gets removed ASAP. Hoping to avoid that here. If not, I'll get rid of it!)

The one with a story is "America the Beautiful" by Bill Stafford of Gulport, Mississippi. A few years ago, after watching a VHS copy of Gus Van Sant's movie My Own Private Idaho, I remembered how much I loved the steel-guitar soundtrack to that movie. So, I got on my horse and went looking, only to find there had never been an official soundtrack released -- or if so, it had long since been deleted. Some more poking around found that the "musical director" for this movie was someone named Bill Stafford.

So, I googled off in that direction. Via a website called The Steel Guitar Forum, I came across reference to Bill Stafford, and then actually saw Bill himself posting on the forum. Believe it or not, there is a fairly sizable audience for steel guitarists. You wouldn't know it to judge by our larger musical culture, or might be inclined to picture steel-guitar players as lonesome sidemen who do nothing but session work in Nashville. But there are dozens of highly-accomplished steel guitarists who do play sessions, and manage to do nicely for themselves playing conventions, fairs and their own shows. In that circle of people, Bill is considered a great player (for his touch and tone) and a stand-up guy.

So, I emailed him, asking him about the Private Idaho soundtrack. He told me that while there was no soundtrack, he'd be more than glad to sell me a few CDs, one of them having versions of all the tracks he did for the movie. I was struck by how kind Bill was -- you could just tell he was a good person, a Korean War vet who simply went about his working-class life (still not quite sure what Bill does for a living) and doing music in his free time. He met Van Sant purely by chance while living in the northwest and got hooked into doing a few tracks for the movie.

I bought a few CDs from Bill, thanked him, and was glad I could actually make a personal connection with a recording artist who had affected me. A few years later, disaster struck, the hurricane obliterating Gulfport, so I emailed Bill a few weeks later asking if there was anything I could do to help out. He immediately wrote back saying no, don't worry about me, I'm living in one of the few brick houses in Gulfport and managed to get through all right. He was a lot more upset with the devastation to the rest of his town and was clearly caught up in helping his friends and neighbors get back on their feet. Haven't heard from him since, but I suspect he's doing fine.

It took me awhile to come around to country music and steel guitars. Back at Penn State, my first year at the main campus, I lived in a house a few miles off-campus -- a duplex with the owner living on the top half, with a roommate and me on the lower level. I didn't know my roommate -- an older guy named Mike who looked like a Vietnam Vet, although he was in his mid-20s at the time. He was always sitting around the living room, either watching M*A*S*H reruns or listening to the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young album Four Way Street. I hid in my bedroom. Especially when the landlord, who put out definite Norman Bates vibes, started playing steel guitar in his living room. The sound would drive me nuts. I'd picture him up there naked, save for a hockey mask, whining through "Your Cheating Heart" on his lap steel.

But I've since come around. Like celtic music, something about the sound of a steel guitar being played right goes way beyond any emotion pop/rock music can ever touch.

A disclaimer: if the artist, record company or any other entity associated with a song has a legal issue with any MP3 appearing on this site, I will remove the link immediately. Not looking to pirate music here – just looking to spread the word.

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