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The Hellbilly Chronicle

Nashville's Music Underbelly

Richie Hayward
When you think of world-class musicians, you don't think of Iowa as a breeding ground. When you think of virtuoso musical instruments, you probably don't think of drums. When you put them together, though, you get Richie Hayward. Richie, from Iowa, Little Feat's drummer, died a couple of days ago. And although I'm almost at a loss of words to describe this loss, I feel I have to put something down. The web articles I've read, that describe Little Feat as "a jam band" and which pitifully attempt to describe Richie's contribution to that amazing group, fail miserably. I'm hard put to do any better, but I have to give it a try.

First, the basics. Richie was living in the Vancouver, B.C. area when he announced last year that he had liver disease. And he had no health insurance. Communities of musicians and fans put together benefits , donated and collected money to help pay for a liver transplant to save Richie's life. Richie was waiting for a transplant when, a few days ago, he was hospitalized with pneumonia. On August 12, 2010, he died.

Copyright Hank Randall www.randallphotography.com

I'm a drummer. I've also experienced life-threatening liver disease. That is enough to make this death personal to me. But that's only a sliver of the reason I feel such sadness and loss.  I'm not an educated musician--I don't read the drum magazines and talk the latest rhythm styles and equipment. Sometimes, when I go into Forks Drum shop here in Nashville, I really feel as if I rode in on the turnip wagon. However, I've got educated ears. I've been listening to an eclectic mix of music with worshipful reverence since I first heard the Beatles, Stones, Vanilla Fudge, and all the other greats of the 60's. My repertoire expanded into 50's rock 'n roll, 40's swing, 30's blues, onward and outward. I had a particular love for funky music, ignited by James Brown (thank you, WVOL radio) and all the music coming out of New Orleans from Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), the Meters (evolving into the Neville Brothers), Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint and others.

Then, in '72 or '73, I heard a band that flat knocked me on my ass: Little Feat.  It seemed as if they had taken the best piece from every sound and style I loved, blended it together and added their own character. I think the song that did it was Dixie Chicken, and my reaction was a violent exclamation, "Who the F-- is That?!" I immediately became one of those Feats fans who are sometimes whispered about as "cultish."  I didn't like everything they did, and I had to grow into some of their albums. But this was a measure of my musical maturity and had nothing to do with their sound.

The heartbeat of that sound, the thing that drove it and wove through it, was Richie's drumming. This is not a reflection on the brilliance of the rest of the band--Lowell, Mr. Vanilla Grits, was a genius and any of the others, Paul, Bill, Kenny, Sam and then Fred Tackett and the others, would stand alone as consummate artists. Richie, however, was on a level somewhere above greatness.  There are some drummers and musicians who I admire, and for whom I have a touch of envy or jealousy, but this is probably because I think I could have a chance to be as good as them, in my own way.  Not Richie. I never envied him or entertained even a dew drop of suspicion that I could play like him.  He was a Master.

I lack the vocabulary to adequately describe Richie's drumming, and I certainly can't explain it in terms an educated musician would use, but perhaps to do so would miss the organic, effortless way he played. Playing drums like Richie did requires a suspension of thought--if you have to think about the patterns and accents, you've missed it.  Yesterday I read a comment eulogizing Richie that said something like: most drummers are basically just time keepers, but Richie played his drums like a musical instrument. This is funny and true. I've heard too many drummers who merely keep time and others who play fills and fancy crap throughout a song without a clue as to the dynamics or tonal structure of the tune. The former are boring and the latter are so distracting, they take away from the overall sound.

Richie certainly kept the driving beat, but at the same time he wove rhythmic patterns and accents around and into the music that were so subtle you almost couldn't hear them.  He could be understated and play simple riffs that were the defining facets of the diamond--the one cut that made it sparkle and throw off rainbows.  Please excuse my syrupy and sugary prose here, but I'm trying to describe something that lies beyond and above language. Who can really write about music, anyway?

There have been times I played when something happened that was almost like a drug. The bass player and I would start feeding off each other, maybe a rhythm guitar would be adding a syncopated counter beat, and we would get into a pocket or groove that was self-sustainable. The sound seemed to come from somewhere else. Everyone in the band would feel it and feed off it. It was magical and it's almost impossible to describe if you haven't felt it, but it's like being a part of a perpetual motion machine that breeds life. To get there you have to turn off conscious thought--thoughts are like middlemen that get in between your playing and the sound. Thoughts distract from it--they want their cut of the money and that stifles the whole thing.  Jimi Hendrix could hit that pocket without even trying. And Richie Hayward lived there. From the moment his drums slid into Fat Man in The Bathtub or kicked into Spanish Moon, he was in the pocket, in the groove, applying a nanosecond of delay on the backbeat, building a rhythm that rolled through the song like a quiet juggernaut.

I've been to many Feats concerts. I've heard them on good nights and not so good ones, and I'd rank them--at their tiredest or with the most screwed up sound system or acoustics--against any band living or past.  Invariably, I've ended up getting as close to the stage as possible to watch Richie play. I've stared so hard from so close that he became aware of me and smiled or seemed a little nervous. And I always saw and heard magic.  I don't have many heroes and I've met or known too many musicians and celebrities to install many people on pedestals. But I make the exception for Richie Hayward. I'm indescribably sad that I'll never hear a new song given life and heartbeat by his innate talent and brilliance. We've lost a great one.
Please take a moment and watch:

Hank Williams, the Grand Ol' Opry, and other musings...
Nashville is a cynical town, and maybe that's why I'm somewhat of a cynic. Of course it could just be my age and natural proclivities, but it seems like I've always had a sensitivity to irony.  And it may have been bred here, in the Music City.  Perhaps that's why I have mixed feelings about reinstating Hank Williams to the Grand Ol' Opry.

When I was growing up, the Opry was still held at the Ryman Auditorium. And even though I usually tuned the AM radio in the Javelin to stations like WKDA (for top 40 "rock") and WVOL (for the latest releases by James Brown), on Saturday nights as we cruised the streets and alleys looking for mild trouble, the tuner would somehow end up on WSM and the Grand Ol' Opry.  There was an infectious excitement in the live broadcast, even to a carload of stoned teenagers. At the same time, the tinny AM signal operated like a time machine and one could imagine dusty, red dirt roads and rolling hills outside the fogged windows.

I'm sure that our path to cynicism was signposted by the murders of JFK, RFK and Dr. King when we were growing up, but it became a highway when the announcement was made that the Opry was relocating to a new theme park named Opryland. A fucking theme park? Are you kidding me? The heart of country music was being encased in a plastic, silly tourist trap with hillbilly-themed rides meant to invoke laughter and derision for the Appalachian home of the Carters!

We all understood that music in Nashville was an industry, presided over by King Atkins, but stripping the Ryman of the Opry was like stomping..., was like ripping..., well, metaphors and analogies just can't capture the heresy of such a move. Everyone knew that the Opry catered to an audience of middle and working class tourists spending their precious few days of annual vacation vainly searching Nashville for scant evidence that this was the country music capital. Remember--these were the days when Lower Broadway was dotted with massage parlors and then-dangerous honky tonks like the Wheel, where one would be advised to carry at least two species of weapons. And Second Avenue consisted of warehouses and abandoned buildings (I have been slightly awed to see this neighborhood turn into a safe, neon-lit haven for country music enthusiasts from Iowa).

Anyway, it was years before I could bring myself to visit Opryland. I must be honest and admit that the rides were fun and I even ended up buying season tickets for my family. Still, more years passed before I could bring myself to attend the Opry in its new haven of mediocrity.  Meanwhile, the Ryman languished and began to decline into senility and brittle decrepitude. It almost died.

During my years of sojourn in Vermont and other areas of the US, Nashville began to reclaim some class. The Ryman was saved and tastefully renovated, maintaining its gospel roots and uncomfortable pew seats while adding air conditioning. In the winter, now, one can even attend the Opry at the Ryman, the "Mother Church" of country music. Country and bluegrass shows are held year round and this (literally and figuratively) hallowed old building is one of the best and dearest music venues in the world. 

So, what the hell does all this have to do with reinstating Hank Williams to the Grand Ol' Opry?  Well, first you might go and get some background here, at the home of the petition to reinstate him: www.reinstatehank.org/index.html. Also, check out this excellent blog for a state-of-art commentary on country music, outlaw country, and outside-the-establishment acts and bands: www.savingcountrymusic.com/

Basically, Hank was stripped of his Opry membership and told to sober up.  Not really a Christian act, and not very family-like for a crew that billed itself as a wonderful clan of music-based relatives. And somewhat mysterious given its tolerance of the alcohol and substance abuse issues plaguing other brethren...cough, cough, georgejones, jrcash, cough.

The reason I am conflicted (I love that pop-psychobabble term) is that I'm not really sure that Hank would want reinstatement. At least, not when the Opry relocated to Opryland.  What would Hank think about the near-death experience of the Ryman? What would he think of top-40 "country" radio in the 21st century, a genre that claims to be founded upon his Alabaman blood? (I am also founded on almost two centuries of pure Alabaman blood and I promise you, it twists my shorts.) Would Hank still be bitter about his ouster and the continued Opry practice of trading upon his name and music to generate revenue, tourist traffic and authenticity?

I have to come down on the side of reinstatement. For this simple reason: it's the right thing to do.  Viewed in the most merciful light, Hank's ouster could have been a tough love attempt to slap him onto the abstinence wagon. At its worst, it could have been a cold-blooded and, yes, cynical move to guard the revenue generating PR image of the Opry, a fantasy of late-40's, 50's wholesome, post-war family fun. But regardless of why it was done, it should be undone.  When I go to the Ryman and listen to icons like Ralph Stanley, I want to know that the board-creaking, stage-wandering ghost of the father of country music, Hank Williams, has been stripped of bastardy.

Fear and Loathing in Music
What happened to the music? That's a question that often visits me. It's not rhetorical. I genuinely want to know: what happened to the genius, authenticity and power of the music I listened to as a child and teenager? I grew up with the harmonies and melodic hooks of the Beatles, the opening-new-doors-of-consciousness of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, the poetry of the Doors, the raw blues power of Janis, and the nitty gritty rock 'n roll of the Stones. When I listen to the music of the 80's, 90's and 2000's, I don't find the same impact or innovation. There are pockets and islands of outstanding music, for sure, but the artists I listed were mainstream, "popular," mass-marketed phenomena. Where in popular music of the last 20 or 30 years does one find such rich soil?
Janis Joplin, photo by me, copyright Dorsey
Copyright Jefferson Dorsey, www.dorseyfoto.com

I know that nostalgia plays a part in my judgment. I read somewhere that the music one hears when young is imprinted forever in one's mind. I thought at the time that this discovery should be listed in the Great School of the Obvious. Music is a touchstone for memory. One's first love, one's first dance, one's first heartbreak, one's first car, can all be recalled by the tunes playing on the radio at the time.

So there is a chance that my reverence for the music of my youth is simply an artifact of my birth date. But I can look at my question analytically, dispassionately, and still conclude that something has sapped the soul and grit from popular music. So what was it? I have a suspicion....

The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side." - Hunter S. Thompson

In 1849, gold was discovered in California and suddenly this most western state was populated and civilized. Today, and for the last 100 years, one cannot find oil or gold in the ground. But the human need to better one's circumstances remains. The impulse reaches fanatical proportions in business. This is a roundabout way of saying: "if there's money in it, they will come."

The gold is gone, so the money machine mines for other products. Radio to records to TV has enabled the mass-marketing of music. The money changers have invaded music and taken over. It's not new, but the ability to market music to millions (sorry for the gross alliterations above) has led to the capture and packaging of this craft or art form by big business.

Today, the music industry is experiencing arterial bleeding through internet swapping and piracy of its product. As a result, A&R decisions are made by financial managers, not creative directors. Risk reduction demands that any venture must appeal to the widest possible market. The philosophy of “Do not take chances!” stifles creativity.  You can only appeal to the masses by avoiding controversy.  This leads to mediocrity.  If you tune in to a pop radio station (in whatever genre), you are going to be force-fed a ten or twelve song rotation of  standards with predictable formulas: a musical hook, a non-controversial lyric, an “Auto Tuned” vocal track and computer-driven rhythm. Typically, it will be delivered by an “artist” with carefully styled clothes, professional makeup and crafted hair. A new Bob Dylan wouldn’t have a chance in this era.

I was reading an internet post recently and came across this comment by "SiouxSayer:"

I manage bands and performers in Nashville, TN. I also write feature articles for an online entertainment 'zine, so I think I know of where I speak.  Every performer on the circuit these days has a particular 'template' they must follow set forth by their label(s). These templates assure a particular ROI. The labels, producers and studios all have a neat little software application that literally digests your sound, style, potential and forecasts through a nifty algorithm whether or not you have a future as a performer. I kid you not. When CA came back into the 'loop' they simply remolded her into the clique du jour. Artists sign contracts to provide viable and salable products to the current, most profitable clientele revenue base. This isn't re-invention, nor is it even particularly clever. This is simply Madonna, GaGa and yawn-inducing visuals regurgitated for the next crop of 13-24yr olds. I wish the system were different, yet sadly selling out is more important these days than growing into your potential as a talented artist.

This is pretty scary stuff, if true.  Computer programs will decide what music we and our children will hear?  Well, I suppose that already happened when human money computers, music industry 'bidnessmen,' decided how to package and market to the widest possible denominator.  However, at least they could sometimes be emotionally influenced, and the occasional new music form could get airplay. The computers don't give a shit.

Two Degrees of Separation
Everyone in Nashville "knows somebody."  No six degrees of separation, here. It's not even worth mentioning if there are more than two degrees. But Nashville is a casual community.  Overt name-dropping isn't cool. It's important to be subtle, to work it into the back door of a conversation.
Emily: "Do you know whether Whole Foods carries Emmental cheese?"
Rich "I think so. When I was at Kenny's [Chesney] for the birthday party a couple of weeks ago, they had fondue. And I think it came from Whole Food."
"Was it any good?"
"The fondue or the party?"

Fawning over celebrities isn't cool. I remember when, as a teenager, I spied Loretta Lynn at the Nashville airport. She was alone--in those days country musicians didn't have entourages--and few people seemed to recognize her. A woman walked up and started talking to her, obviously a fan. I stood a few feet away, agonizing about whether to approach her. Even to my rock 'n roll-sodden mind, Loretta was a star of first magnitude. I couldn't figure out a hip way to say "hi," ("excuse me, Miss Lynn, do you know when the Cincinnati flight leaves?"), so I opted to observe rather than attempt communication. Fortunately she didn't see me spying from the shadows, or she may have felt it necessary to alert airport security.

A few years ago I was with out-of-town friends at the Bluebird Cafe in Green Hills. A "round" of songwriters were performing (the writers sit around a couple of mics, taking turns playing their tunes). Roger (from Baltimore) and I went to the john and as were standing at the urinals, Jim Messina (Poco, Loggins and Messina, etc.) walked in and took the 3rd post. I asked, casually of course, if he had moved to Nashville, too? This was during the great L..A. diaspora, when seemingly thousands of musicians migrated here. Messina said "no," but he had to come to Nashville to be able to visit with most of his old friends. As we chatted, Roger was in shock, wildly pissing on his shoes, the wall, but fortunately not me (or Jim).

Everyone who has spent more than a couple of weeks in Nashville has these stories.  If you've been here over a year, you know how to work them into conversation with the right degree of subtlety. Like I just did.  I didn't even talk about the time I spent 40 minutes in the smoking lounge at the Nashville airport (yes, that place, again) with Kenny Chesney (yes, him again) and his manager. And I'm so cool and subtle, I didn't even know who he was!   I only discovered the truth when we all ended up on the same commuter jet and the flight attendants started getting slightly hysterical. They were obviously not from Nashville.

Yes, I am concerned about national and international events. I am upset by BP's Oil Volcano. I have misgivings about the Gaza flotilla raid. And I worry about the dismal economy and inability of politicians to escape the demands of their lobbyists. But you know what really cranks me? Its the state of "country music" these days. And mass-marketed music, in general.

I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. When I was in elementary school, in the 1960's, Nashville wasn't much more than a decent sized town. Although its major industry was religious publishing, it was (and is) best known as "Music City."  Everyone recorded here, from Jimmy Rodgers to Johnny Cash to Elvis, Chet Atkins to George Jones, Tammy Wynette, on and on.  I was not very aware of country music. My musical awakening, like most in my generation, really happened when I heard the Beatles. The British invasion (which borrowed heavily from the Memphis sound, blues, and early rock 'n roll) had a fundamental, earthquake-shattering effect on music. I didn't know how much the sound owed to Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee, Little Richard, and other American performers.  I also didn't know how the town I lived in--Nashville--contributed to the roots of that sound.  Hell, I still don't know the full extent of its influence. But I'm curious, and that's one of the reasons for this journal.

A more important reason for writing here is to create a record (no pun intended) of Nashville's music scene, today. And not the pop-saccharine, machine-made sounds of the players who dominate radio. Rather, I want to investigate the hopefuls, the musicians who sacrifice everything to come to this city with a guitar case and a dream. I will also include my photographic interpretations of them and the reality of their experience.

I hope you'll find a reason to visit, often, as I write about and post photographs of whatever I discover.  If you know of artists and bands who deserve inclusion here, please let me know.  Welcome!

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