Mike Mellor: Last week you mentioned how the seeds of Gram Parsons' groundbreaking mix of country, rock and poetry were planted in his mind while he was a student at Harvard. More or less, he heard Merle Haggard plant one foot in the history of country music and the other in the the emerging camp of anti-establishment popular songwriters. Parsons was duly impressed, but wanted to take it even a step further.
It was like a chain reaction. Haggard was inspired by folks like Jimmie Rogers, Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash and Buck Owens, and his influence did two things; it legitimized the alternative leanings of fellow country acts like Willie, Waylon, Kris and Johnny, and it passed all those folks on to people like Dylan, The Band, The Byrd, and Parsons. Haggard probably represented the far right of the movement and Parsons the far left, and in between those two poles was a big space in which to make American roots music.
Boston formed a pretty decent country scene from all of this, led by acts like Joe Val and the New England Bluegrass Boys, Chuck McDermott & Wheatstraw, The Estes Boys, Tina Welch and my favorite, John Lincoln Wright and the Sour Mash Boys. They played places in Harvard Square like Passim and Jonathan Swift's Pub, and there was even a place in Park Sq. (where the Legal Sea Foods and the parking garage are now) called the Hillbilly Ranch that looked like this:
John Lincoln Wright wrote a song about it:
The thing I love about Wright's music is that he imbues country music with a New England sensibility. In the clip below he talks about his involvement as a young man with the "Bosstown Sound" and how he developed into a country singer, then plays a song about his mixed Yankee and Irish heritage.
Is there anything more Cantabrigian than, "Never call another man a fool. Fools always speak for themselves?"
Brendan Hogan: I feel the same way about Bill Morrissey's music. Although he's not a Bostonian per se, his songs often represent that New England sensibility that Boston is so much a part of. We're just a large fishing and mill town, after all. Or at least the roots of that still stretch through the region.
Personally, I've sometimes struggled with the idea of whether or not Boston can be a legitimate home to or incubator for Southern culture, be it country or blues music, BBQ, whatever. On the artistic sde of things, I've wondered if it's possible to have a healthy scene in a town like Boston that contributes to the culture without fetishizing it. But then I listen to Bill Morrissey, John Lincoln Wright, or Peter Rowan and I realize that we live in an era that blends regionalism and influences. Musically, it goes back to some of the first recording stars of the 1930s, people like Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, or Bob Wills: When you distribute a lot of something over a wide area (in this case recorded music), a cultural feedback loop is created that doubles back on itself and winds up blurring the lines of regionalism and opening channels of influence.
Bill Morrissey clearly listened to Mississippi John Hurt and Robert Johnson records. He was also from a New England mill town and sang about Boston girls. It all makes total sense in our post-modern world.
Mike: That broadcasting and feedback loop is what made Dylan, sitting in
his room as a teenager with a transistor radio taking in the music
from radio signals that travelled up the Mississippi River. It's also
what made you and me to be the people we are, immersed in cultures
foreign to the people who raised us. This question of authenticity you
raise is really important, for understanding history and understanding
the present, but I think the rules have changed. Presently it's more
about knowledge and feeling than it is geographical and familial proximity to the "source".
That being said, we are still emotionally tied here in New England to our fishing and early industrial heritage, not to mention our small family farming heritage. I think this is the major tension between people like us who are multi-generational New England and people who arrived here from other places. They see Boston for what it presently is (academia, health care, biotech, finance) and we see it through the lens of our family's history. The magical thing to understand is that both perspectives have value, and both have a legitimate stake to claim in our cultural present and our cultural future. Sometimes I wish the newcomers would value our side a little bit more, but I'm sure they could say the same thing about our side.
This leads me to Patty Griffin, who is a Mainer but came down here to start her performing career. Unlike many Massholes I think of most of Maine as sharing the same heritage we do, even if we diverged in the end of the 19th Century. In that way I feel that Maine is a close cousin, whereas New Hampshire is that fucked up cousin from that part of the family you only tolerate seeing at weddings and funerals. But, I digress; this is about Patty.
I think of her as the impressionist songwriter of the New England experience. She doesn't deal in narrative or linear, but the way she paints portraits of regular folks and their observations is heartbreakingly yankee. Her song "Making Pies", about an aging spinster who works at the Table Talk Pie factory in Worcester, is devastating in how it lays out a mindset of New England resigned loneliness. Before the song's crescendo the narrator tells us stories about her job at the factory and how close it is to her home, her nephew, and the friendly priest she spends time with. After this we learn about her favorite and least favorite memories:
Did I show you this picture of my sweetheart
Taken of us before the war
Of the Greek and his Italian girl
One Sunday at the shore
We tied our ribbons to the fire escape
They were taken by the birds
Who flew home to the country
As the bombs rained on the world
Never a plea for sympathy. Just a statement of reality. The problems of the socio-economic class that goes to war. The back and forth between the factory in the center of the state and the eastern shore. The tremendous loss of something...love, life, freedom, happiness. Yet never a plea for sympathy. That is tremendous writing of the New Englander psyche.
Brendan: Yes, "heartbreakingly yankee" is a great way to describe that song. Is there anything more New England than a Table Talk apple pie? Patty does a great job of telling a story that is particular to a certain person, or kind of person, in a way that is universal, accessible, and understandable. That's the mark of a good storyteller, and that's why she is an internationally-recognized artist and star who has created great work with Robert Plant, Buddy Miller and others, in addition to her own.
I was just looking into the life of Mark Sandman. (It was so strange to me to see all the news coverage a couple weeks ago down the street from where Sandman set up Hi-n-Dry studios in Cambridge, near Inman Square.) I learned that, among other things, Sandman had been a cab driver before Morphine really started to take off. Is there any better way to become intimately acquainted with your home town than by knowing its streets and neighborhoods, and by ferrying its people around? If so, maybe its by learning to play music in front of and among the same people.
In an interview with French TV he did in the early 90's, Sandman was prodded to talk about what made Boston a unique music city. The interviewer suggests that Boston is an incubator for alternative culture because it is a college town with many universities. This may be true, but Sandman's answer speaks more to the homegrown nature of the city. Boston is small, consisting of many close knit neighborhoods. Each neighborhood has a handful of places where people gather, whether they be bars or whatever, where musicians are welcome to play, so long as they don't piss off the locals or regulars. So long as you don't piss them off, you're free to make music any way you please, without pressure. That is an amazing gift. It allows creativity to happen. As I said before, Boston is a breeding ground. Art is made here for the sake of art. We're not New York, LA, or Nashville, but every now and then a band from Boston breaks through nationally or even internationally. When they do, they are often unique and unto themselves because they were allowed to just be in their formative stages. Creativity comes first because there are no big breaks to catch in Boston; as a musician you're just trying not to piss off the locals.
Mike: Funny you should say that. One of my uncles was a cab driver in Boston in the '70s and '80s. Another was a house and commercial painter. So much of what I've said in our Boston conversations I've learned from them, denizens of the Hillbilly Ranch, Jonathan Swift's, Club 47, Paul's Mall, the Speakeasy, the Blue Sands. You've just made it clear that what we've been doing this whole time is documenting oral/aural history, a people history of our home. Thanks for that persepctive.
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