A few years ago I was in a store to buy a radio for my car. For some reason I was becoming more and more irritated and impatient as I looked thru their merchandise. Then I suddenly realized why. They had rap music playing throughout the store. It was piercing into my sub-conscience. I don’t like to deal in excesses so I’ll just say, that stuff is pretty bad.
It reminded me of a time back in 1948 when I left California for the first time, going to Air Force basic training in San Antonio. Our ‘flight’ of 62 youths was predominantly southern, but almost all of America was represented. It was there I was introduced to country music. We Californians call it “hill billy” or “shit kickin’” music.
The leading exponent of that discipline was a chap called Hank Williams. I had never heard such caterwauling in all my life. Nasal screeching was a reasonable description. It was sung as off-key as the law allowed, and the law allowed a lot. I had heard worse sounds before: Brakes squealing, fingernails on a blackboard, a woman’s scream. But they ended quickly. His “singing” just went on and on. To make matters worse, every would-be country singer imitated him.
That awful sound would come at you from amateurs in some unexpected places. In places where there was little defense and no escape.
As Marlon Brando once said, “Horrible, horrible.”
Flash ahead 11 years. I was working and socializing (read: drinking) with some English engineers in a construction camp in northwest Iran. I was amazed that almost all of them seemed to have had some voice training. They, in turn, were amazed that one American had some voice training.
In one of our sessions I did an impression of Hank Williams, meaning for it to be an exaggeration. Have you ever tried to exaggerate Hank Williams? Probably not. He is almost impossible to parody.
Anyway, they loved the impression. Not as comedy but as straight singing. They kept asking me for more and more.
I have never figured that out.
My attitude towards country music changed in 1963. I was in Viet Nam. There was an interview on Armed Forces Radio Service. Willie Nelson was being interviewed at length. In between talk segments they played his music. Country music. But country music like I had never heard before.
His phrasing, his sincerity, his simplicity, were all Frank Sinatra. Frank Sinatra with a nasal, country twang. It made me a fan for life.
The name of the album they were talking about and playing selections from was, “And Then I Wrote.”
Yeah. Willie Nelson had written everything on it. Wow! I’m thinking, ‘This guy has made himself a store,’ to put it in the country vernacular.
Then, early in ’64. I’m back in the States in a record store. What do I see in the discount bin? Hundreds of that Willie Nelson album. The great, landmark, groundbreaking, country album had bombed. I bought one for 50 cents.
Take a look at what was on that album:
1 Touch Me
2 Wake Me When It's Over
3 Hello Walls
4 Funny How Time Slips Away
6 Part Where I Cry, The
7 Mr. Record Man
8 Three Days
9 One Step Beyond
10 Undo The Right
11 Darkness On The Face Of The Earth
12 Where My House Lives
That has to be one of the great country albums of all time, and it bombed. He was ahead of his time.
Fortunately for everyone, Nelson went on and reshaped country music. He, and others like him, brought it into the mainstream. That would have been impossible as long as Hank Williams was the voice of country music.
Good for Willie Nelson.
Now, can someone do the same for rap? Don’t hold your breath.