Archive for July, 2011

A little old-time religion courtesy of Bloodkin’s Daniel Hutchens

Posted in Video with tags , , , on July 27, 2011 by Todd


Voices: Bob Dylan at 70

Posted in Bent Notes Column with tags , , , , on July 12, 2011 by Todd

I don’t remember the first time I heard Bob Dylan’s voice, but I remember the first time I listened.

I must have been 16 or 17, and the world inside my head and outside my door was changing, quickly. The album was “Bringing it all Back Home,” Dylan’s first foray into electric rock music and his first step outside the insular world of the early ‘60s folk scene, with its strict adherence to the past and its acolytes who had all but proclaimed him as their savior.

At the time, the music on that album was over 20-years-old, incomprehensibly ancient to most teenagers, myself included. But sitting in my parents living room that mid-summers night listening to the scarred vinyl disc spin out a series of strange, sad, funny and ominous songs, I was struck by something unfathomably ancient and utterly modern, by a voice speaking from the graveyard of history about the fate of the entire human endeavor. That voice was hypnotic, rude and angry; filled with joy and resigned to the ultimate sorrows of this world.

I was hooked.

In the months and years ahead I would track down every album, song, book, and reference to Dylan that I could find. Though his music would continue to change throughout his career—from harsh garage rock, to mellow country, to what I can only describe as gypsy-carnival folk—the one constant that remained through the years of musical and lyrical shape-shifting was the voice, that rarest of instruments that has been described as both masterful and tuneless, by turns grating and deeply moving.

It’s a voice as old as the first American settlers and as current as last week’s news of yet another politician caught in a snake pit of deception. In that voice I hear: boxcars, atomic bombs, coal mines, germ warfare, the silence of winter wind through bare western limbs, empathy, good humor, corrosive and irrational rage. In that voice I hear the weight of history and the abhorrence of being tied to the past.

For all the emphasis placed on his lyrics, I would argue that Dylan’s voice is the true core of his art. For someone who wrought such a revolutionary shift in popular music, his command of intonation and phrasing harks back to a much earlier era, when singers understood that the slightest shift of emphasis, the slurring of a vowel or pitch of a certain syllable, was crucial to the meaning of the song

On his early recordings, Dylan seemed to be channeling the spirits of Appalachian miners, Mississippi Delta sharecroppers, and Depression-era wanderers, reaching for a depth of experience and knowledge well beyond someone in his early 20’s. His phrasing was startling because it dispensed with the veneer of sophistication cultivated by most popular singers, and instead found inspiration in the regional dialects and intonations of the rural south and mid-west. It’s a remarkable contrast to the popular singers of today, who seem to be joined in a competition to sound increasingly juvenile and devoid of character.

Which isn’t to say that Dylan’s music lacks humor. On the contrary, a handful of the man’s songs contain some of the finest, laugh-out-loud moment in rock history. Songs such as “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues” in which Dylan wakes up bald, naked, and senseless following a boat wreck, and later, “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” which relates the fantasy saga of Melville’s Captain Ahab discovering America, are among the finest comedic songs in the English language. On both these songs Dylan can be heard laughing at his own words, a jokester doubled over at his own pranks. It’s a vein of humor that runs from Lenny Bruce to Mad Magazine; that recognizes and seeks to come to terms with the absolute absurdity of modern life.

Some of my favorite Dylan performances are also some of his most seemingly off-handed. On “Wedding Song,” from the sadly overlooked album Planet Waves, he sounds like a man who just wandered in after a hard night of drinking and sat down with his guitar, stringing together an incantation of bitterness and commitment as the first rays of dawn creep over the carpet. “What’s lost is lost, we can’t regain what went down in the flood, but happiness to me is you and I love you more than blood,” he sings in a ragged, Jewish hillbilly drawl.

That same spirit of informal abandon can be found in an earlier song, “Day of the Locusts,” from one of Dylan’s earliest “comeback” albums, the strange, wildly uneven New Morning. As the titular insects invade the campus of Princeton University, Dylan describes his combined jubilation and horror as he waits to pick up an honorary diploma with a drug-addled friend.

“Outside the gates the trucks were unloading,

The weather was hot, nearly 90 degrees,

The man standing next to me, his head was exploding,

Well, I was praying the pieces wouldn’t fall on me.”

When he finally escapes the surreal scene, headed for the Black Hills of Dakota with his lover, he does so with the voice of a man who’s made it out by the narrowest of margins, with his life, and more importantly dignity, in tact.  

Listening to Dylan’s finest albums, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks, you can hear how his voice has inspired and guided the musicians he’s been lucky enough to work with, from guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Charlie McCoy, to members of the Band, who stuck by Dylan’s side through the bitterness of his first post-electric tour. In turn, you can hear Dylan give himself over to the pure sound of that inspiration, summoning the courage to let the music grow wild, to nearly get away from him; to follow that music and then command it to follow him, his words, his voice, and then to let it all go again, raging in glorious bursts of the here and now that mark his best work as rightfully among the best ever.

While I gloried in Dylan’s classic period stretching from the early 1960s to the mid- ‘70s, I joined most critics in dismissing much of his later work. After a long fallow period in the 1980s, I had virtually written Dylan off as a burned out casualty of the Me Decade. His music, lyrics and voice had grown thin, unpersuasive, without purpose.

But while Dylan’s muse has not always been faithful to his talent, his reemergence in the late ’90s as a scarred sage of love and doom has proven among the more inspirational musical resurrections of the last century.

Dylan’s voice has changed significantly over the years, culminating in an instrument ground down to its essence, constricted yet increasingly nuanced. Like jazz legend Billy Holiday, he’s managed to find new vocal crevices and shadows to explore even as he leaves behind some of the more elaborate tricks of his younger incarnation.

Echoes of the profound changes Dylan wrought in popular music are inescapable: Without his lyrical innovations the radio would still be awash in” moon-in June,” “I want to hold your hand” drivel. Locating his vocal influence, however, can be more challenging. You can hear echoes of it in the paranoid warbling of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke; in the hobo-blues of Tom Waits, and the angry, searching artistry of P.J. Harvey and the late Chris Whitley. While each of these artists are sonically dissimilar, they each share with Dylan the ability to inhabit a song to its core, to move beyond mere playacting and touch something in the listener that, were one so inclined, might be called the soul.

While it’s hard for me to imagine what Dylan, who turned 70 in May, could possibly mean to a teenager of today, my older, hopefully wiser self still feels that connection from several decades past. Instead of the young punk challenging the world and all its stale hypocrisies, what I now hear when I listen to Dylan is the perfect voice for these confused, end-of-days obsessed, dark ages.

In the end I believe the power of that voice is beyond talent, or training, or technique. I believe it’s a skill that’s more than a skill, unexplainable even to Dylan himself. Like the greatest American art it contains a mystery at its core that simply cannot be explained.

I, for one, will keep listening for as long as he cares to share that mystery.

Southern Rock veteran looks back over 40-year career

Posted in Interview with tags , , on July 9, 2011 by Todd

When The Marshall Tucker Band roared out of Spartanburg, SC forty years ago, guitarist/vocalist Doug Gray could never have predicted that the band would go on to headline packed stadiums and be proclaimed as one of the progenitors of Southern Rock, a blues, jazz, and country infused style that came to dominate the sound of mid-70’s radio and helped launch the careers of countless gifted musicians south of the Mason Dixon line.

Gray could also never have predicted the sudden disintegration of the original band following the death of bassist Tommy Caldwell, who, along with his brother Toy, played a key role in the musical direction of the tight-knot group.

After the original band split in 1981, Gray soldiered on, recruiting new members and touring compulsively, carrying on the legacy of the band that is still a staple of classic rock stations across the country.

Last week, Gray took time out from his busy schedule to talk to Junkyard Opera about the band’s history, its future, and their upcoming performance at the Freedom Fest event at the Duplin County Events Center.

Junkyard Opera: How did the band first come together?

Doug Gray: “We just wanted beer for the weekend. We were all in high school together in Spartanburg and we just started playing together. Our principal thought we were so good he would let us out early to do shows. All our friends and family understood. We were very lucky in that respect, because that’s a rare thing.

“Me and Toy ended up going to Vietnam and when we got back, we decided to put the band back together. We got the name off a keychain somebody had with the name Marshall Tucker on it. It turned out he was a local piano player. I just recently found out he’s been living in Columbia, SC and just retired from working as choir director of a church.”

J.O.: Who were some of your earliest musical influences?

Gray: “Really just what the people around me and my family were listening to: Hank Williams, Sr.; Bill Haley, who I saw when I was seven-years-old; Elvis was a big influence on everybody. Later on I got into B.B. King and Sam Cooke.

“Toy and I used to go see the Pabst Blue Ribbon Jazz Festival in Greensboro, N.C. when we were in high school. We’d see Dionne Warwick, Thelonious Monk, all kinds of people. That was back in the days when you just got up there and played what you felt, and it wasn’t so organized or written out.

“There were a lot of different influences in the band. Toy was the real country person in the band; Tommy was into R&B. I believe one of the most important parts of everybody’s life is to listen to music and be able to choose different styles to listen to.”

J.O.: Tell me about some of your experiences from the band’s early days.

Gray: “We traveled all up and down playing the strip joints in South Carolina, opening for the Allman Brothers Band and other people. When we finally got a gig in New York, we ended up playing in a club for 42 people. Some of those places were pretty rough, but we were young and it just seemed like a big adventure to all of us.

“I remember one time we were coming from Albuquerque headed to San Antonio, and we stopped at a red light and all the beer and liquor bottles went rolling to the front of the van. By the time we got about halfway through that tour that van really stunk. We ended up leaving it in L.A. and getting our own bus in 1974.

“Later on, we had this band opening for us that wore wings on their back. We didn’t know what to make of that. I kept thinking if they jumped around too much they were going to kill themselves. We just looked at each other and were like, ‘Do we really want to follow this.’’

J.O.: What was it like going from playing the club circuit to headlining arenas?

Gray: “This is when I realized we’d finally made it: We went to play a club in New York, and we were just these redneck guys pulling up in a dodge van. We played the show, and it was just a few people in this place, so we played, got drunk, had a good time and went back home. Three months later, we’re opening for the Allman Brothers Band at Madison Square Garden in front of 20,000 people. That’s pretty freaky stuff; it plays with your mind. Nobody knows they’re going to be a star. We just got together and said ‘Let’s give this one shot. Let’s see if we make any money.’

“When you’re on the road you lose connection with reality. You make a sacrifice to be away from your family. For the first five years, we were touring 300 days a year. We still do 220 days, even now.

“When the money started rolling in, it got scary. Suddenly, all these entertainers that we had grown up watching were coming to see us play; we didn’t know what to do. But I can honestly say, no one changed. No one got too far out.

“Over the years, a lot of people have opened for us who’ve gone on to be big in their own right: Charlie Daniels, Hank Williams, Jr., Alabama. We’re still friends with all these people. I was just talking to Charlie Daniels recently about some of our old friends and what’s been going on with everyone.”

J.O.: Did you feel like the band was part of a Southern Rock scene or was that more of a media creation?

Gray: We never really thought about it; we just played the music we played. But a lot of people got weirded out about it, like it was limiting their success. It never bothered us being seen as a southern band, because when you think about it there were people doing it before us, like Gladys Knight and Otis Redding—they were southern rock.

“When everyone started trying to get away from it, I never did. I’d just as soon be regional and keep that flavor to my music. It’s something you don’t hear much anymore.”

J.O.: What was the songwriting process like?

Gray: “Toy was the main songwriter in the beginning, then Tommy started writing songs, also, and then everybody kind of got into it. There was never any competition; either you had a song or you didn’t. We would use sound checks to run through the new stuff we’d written; we never played any stuff from the show, it was always new stuff.”

J.O.: How did the death of Tommy Caldwell in 1980 affect everyone in the band?

Gray: “What a lot of people don’t know is that Toy and Tommy’s younger brother had also passed away, so for Tommy to die was kind of like double indemnity.

“It did change things. We took out another guy, but every time you’d close your eyes, you’d be like ‘That’s not Tommy.’ It just didn’t feel right.

“We took a couple of months for Toy to decide what he wanted to do. Toy and most of the others reached the point where they didn’t want to continue. I wasn’t ready to let it go, so we worked it out with the lawyers so me and Jerry Eubanks could continue on with the name. Luckily, I was friends with some of the biggest promoters in the world, so it made it easier.”

J.O.: How did the solo album you cut around this time come about?

Gray: “I got offered to sign a solo deal in 1981, to do more of a pop or soul type style. I’ve always been an R&B fan: I used to sneak in to see James Brown when I was 10. So I put out the word that I was looking for songs in that vein, in the soul style.

“I tried to choose songs that would have different feelings and emotions that I’ve gone through over the years. All the original band ended up playing on it, except Tommy, of course. Then I took it around and had a lot of other people add their parts to it, like some Nashville session guys and The Memphis Horns.

“It was really like the stuff I was doing before I joined The Marshall Tucker Band. I really felt good about the results but ended up putting the tapes away because it was time to do another Marshall Tucker Band album and that’s where my loyalty was.

“It had been nearly 10 years since I had listened to it. I was going through some stuff in the warehouse recently and the cassette just fell out, I sent it to Sony and they decided to put it out. It’s made it to number 31 in the Americana charts.”

J.O.: What’s kept you going all these years?

Gray: “When everybody wanted to give up on The Marshall Tucker Band, I’d walk into my study and look at the gold records on the wall, and I’d think about everybody who’d bought one of our albums to make that possible, and everyone I’ve ever played for, and I just couldn’t quiet, even when everybody else wanted to.

“This band has always been considered the fans best friend. Most people don’t realize it, but we sign autographs for an hour and a half after every show. When you’ve been around as long as we have you don’t consider them fans any more, they’re friends.

“We’re still around because we care about our people and our friends. There’s an honesty and a reality about this band that still shows. We’ve never been much for being fake.

“Another thing is, we’re very self-contained. The trucks come rolling in with everything we need; we have the website where the fans can order everything and get all the information about the band. It’s kind of like we’re the biggest faceless band ever, which is kind of nice because I don’t have to put on makeup to look good.

“I live in the woods and the locals are very loyal, a lot of them don’t even know what I do. They just know I’m a guy who’s into music and who doesn’t have a bunch of wrecked cars in his front yard and keeps his grass mowed.

J.O.: Tell me about the band’s current line-up.

Gray: “We’ve got B.B. Borden, who used to play with the Outlaws and Mothers Finest, on the drums; Pat Elwood plays bass for us; Marcus Henderson is on flute and sax; Rick Willis, who’s played with a lot of North Carolina groups including Jackson Crossing, is on guitar; and then we’ve got Stuart Swanlund, who’s been with me 25 years, on guitar and pedal steel.

“Most of these guys are from Spartanburg and they’re all guys who want to be here and love getting out and playing.”

J.O.: What are some of the recent projects the bands been involved with?

Gray: “About a year ago, we filmed a part for a movie called “Angel Camouflaged.” In the movie we show up to play a show on the wrong day and have to try to come up with something the crowd will like. We decide to do a version of the Run-DMC song “It’s Tricky.” I’d never heard the song, but I think it actually came out pretty good. It was fun; it was probably one of the most different things we’ve ever done.

“We’re also cutting a record next year. We’re looking for southern rock and roll songs. We’ve got five songs but we’re looking for seven or eight more.

“We’ll be releasing all our early albums on vinyl over the next two years. They just sent me the artwork for the first releases and I was knocked out, they look great.”

J.O.: What can fans expect at the Freedom Fest performance?

Gray: “Be prepared to move back a little in time. Bring the kids out and just have fun, enjoy the music. I think a lot of people are going to be uniquely surprised, because there are a lot of people who don’t remember us from years ago, so this will be a brand new thing to them.”

One of the finest Dylan covers ever recorded

Posted in Uncategorized on July 2, 2011 by Todd