September 24, 2009

Gigs, More Music Writing

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Wood-burnt portrait of Gram Parsons by Michael James [Burnt to Last, Waycross GA]

Wood-burnt portrait of Gram Parsons by Michael James for Burnt to Last

Gram Parsons is the third most famous person to grow up in Waycross, Georgia, after the actors Burt Reynolds (no introduction needed) and Pernell Roberts (Adam Cartwright on TV’s “Bonanza,” 1959-1965). Parsons’ sad and untimely death at age 26 (heroin overdose, 9/19/1973) cut short a life of both inspirational achievement and unfulfilled promise: Like James Dean and Sam Cooke, Gram left us wondering “what if…”

Gram Parsons never had anything close to a hit single and not one of the albums on which he was featured made the Billboard Top 75. But in the decades since his passing, he’s exerted an incalculable influence on American music through his work on the ByrdsSweetheart of the Rodeo; on the first two albums by the Flying Burrito Brothers, the group Gram co-founded with ex-Byrd Chris Hillman; and on his two solo albums, especially 1973’s Grievous Angel.

Parsons is widely recognized as the progenitor of country rock  — a term he detested, according to his close friend and former harmony singer Emmylou Harris — and has been the subject of five full-length biographies (with a sixth book forthcoming!). I won’t claim that the music of (for example) the great R&B singer and songwriter Hank Ballard has proven as influential over the long term as that of Gram Parsons. But I note without malice that Ballard — who placed fourteen singles in the R&B Top 20, who performed vigorously until a few years before his death at age 75 in 2003, and whose life must have been at least as interesting — has yet to be memorialized in either hard or soft cover.

The first Gram Parsons Guitar Pull (GP/GP) was held Thanksgiving 1998 at the home of Waycross resident and GP fan Dave Griffin. Eventually, the event outgrew Griffin’s backyard and moved to the town fairgrounds. This year’s two-day GP/GP featured headliners Leon Russell and Charlie Louvin, along with a great many local acts, and my friend Josh Rosenthal planned to record Charlie’s set for future release on his Tompkins Square label.

On Friday morning (9/18), we flew from LaGuardia to Savannah GA, rented a car, and drove into town for lunch at Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room. This sumptuous all-you-could-eat array of Southern cooking proved well worth the 45-minute wait to be seated at a large table of strangers and served family style. For the all-in price of $16.00, I sampled eight or nine different dishes including fried chicken, baked ham in gravy, Brunswick stew, succotash, mashed potatoes, green beans, and corn “dressing” (stuffing to us Yankees), chased with copious amounts of sweet iced tea and topped by a small but delicious portion of fresh blueberry cobbler for dessert.

A Taste of Heaven: Lunch at Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room [Savannah GA]

Taste of Heaven: Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room, Savannah GA

We drove south and west to Waycross and checked into our room at the Jameson Inn — a chain motel situated at one of those just-off-the-interstate commercial intersections, the unrelieved ugliness of which is enough to make you weep for the forests and fields, even the earlier 20th century buildings, that were sacrificed for its construction. Next stop was the Waycross City Auditorium where GP’s latest biographer, the Emmy Award-winning Florida journalist Bob Kealing, was interviewing Charlie Louvin, just arrived from his home near Nashville. (Also on the scene: Bob Buchanan, credited as GP’s co-writer on the classic “Hickory Wind.”)

On the night of February 22, 1956, this building was the site of a concert featuring the Louvin Brothers and Elvis Presley, attended by nine-year-old Gram Parsons and his friends, the 14-year-old twins Daphne and Diane Delano. (Gram got Elvis’ autograph that night and often spoke of this life-changing event in later years.)

Constructed in 1937 under the auspices of the WPA, City Auditorium hosted countless country, R&B, and gospel performances for at least three decades before being converted into a youth basketball facilty. The original stage remains in place but backstage is littered with debris and the entire building is rather decrepit, with broken window panes and ceiling tiles torn loose. The surrounding neighborhood is largely African-American and looked poor even for Waycross, an immense, centuries-old live oak among its few hopeful signs of life. Led by the vivacious Mary Beth Kennedy, a small but dedicated preservationist group is campaigning to restore this building to its former glory, with $1 million raised thus far — let’s hope they succeed. On to the fairgrounds and the music…

A.S. under the live oak opposite City Auditorium [Waycross GA]

A.S. under the live oak tree opposite Waycross City Auditorium.

Eleven years after its inception, GP/GP is still very much a laid-back, down-home affair. The locals brought their own folding chairs and beer coolers, and people wandered freely from out front to back stage; I didn’t see a single uniformed cop. We missed nearly all the supporting bands.

In 1970, Leon Russell played piano on the Gram Parsons-sung version of “Wild Horses,” the Jagger/Richards ballad recorded by the Flying Burrito Brothers about a year before the Stones cut it for Sticky Fingers. Russell’s personal reminiscence of GP in his spoken introduction to the song was the most personable moment of his set. The rest was devoted to a briskly energetic but superficial run-through of everything from his own best-known songs (“Dixie Lullaby,” “Stranger in a Strange Land”) to “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (for two verses), “Paint It Black” (an instrumental interpolation), and Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me To Do.” Even “Wild Horses” was performed at a jaunty mid-tempo, with none of the pathos of the Burritos’ version.

I liked Leon’s young Alabaman guitarist Chris Simmons, a gutsy and versatile blues-rocker in the Duane Allman/Ry Cooder lineage. Russell’s piano playing sounded fine but he was impassive and unreadable behind his flowing white beard, white mane of hair, and ever-present shades. To the best of my recollection, Leon Russell has never even been nominated for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame even though he played keyboards on and/or arranged “River Deep, Mountain High” by Ike & Tina Turner, the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Gary Lewis & the Playboys’ “This Diamond Ring,” and Herb Alpert’s “A Taste of Honey” (among countless other Sixties recordings) and placed nine solo albums in the Billboard Top 40 of which six are certified gold according to the RIAA database.

Fast forward to Saturday night, when 82-year-old Charlie Louvin was as good, maybe better than I’d heard him sound on previous occasions in Austin and NYC. The venerable singer performed for two hours (!) and sang all but two songs. The set list ranged from Louvin Brothers classics (“Knoxville Girl,” “Why Must You Throw Dirt In My Face”) to folk standards (“It Takes a Worried Man”) to white-boy blues (Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues”) to a poignant “Hickory Wind” offered in tribute to Gram Parsons.

A.S. and Charlie Louvin, backstage at GP/GP.

A.S. and Charlie Louvin, backstage at GP/GP.

Charlie’s voice isn’t what it was in 1964 but he remains an engaged and engaging performer and a committed interpreter of classic material. He cares about the songs, he talks about the songs, and he delivers the songs with real feeling. The current Charlie Louvin band features the brilliant finger-picking guitarist Ben Hall (age 21), who calmly blew me away with his featured number — Johnny Bond’s “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)” — and who will be recording his own album for Tompkins Square in the next few months.

GP/GP also featured a number of south Georgia crafts people selling clothing, jewelry, artwork, CDs, and specialty food items. The one that caught my eye was Michael James of Waycross, who combines the use of computer program with his handiwork to burn photographic images into pieces of wood — at least I think that’s what he tried to explain to this computer-age cave dweller. I bought three pieces including the GP image displayed above; an intricate reproduction in wood of this Fillmore Auditorium poster, and a smaller piece that uses a mid-Sixties photograph of Bob Dylan taken by my good friend, the late David Gahr. Michael’s company Burnt To Last doesn’t have a dedicated Web site but you can email him: BurntToLast@hotmail.com