Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Ben's Best of 2010

Papa speaks:

In his famous essay, Isaiah Berlin compared "The Hedgehog and the Fox."  Borrowing from another older writer, a well-worn tradition, he quotes Archilochus who said, "The Fox knows many little things. The hedgehog knows one big thing."  In his essay, he went on to compare that Russian literary titan Tolstoy, the "fox," to Dostoevsky, the "hedgehog.  As explained by a commentator, Berlin was dealing with two diffeent ways of approaching reality:  the way of the far-ranging generalist and/or the way of the concentrated specialist.

Berlin could have referenced this blog and its two contributors for something of the same comparison. Instead, he chose Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.  Nick and I cannot fault Berlin since he wrote his essay and passed on long before this blog was launched (in the spring of 2010).  Nicholas is the fox of this blog. I would not say he knows many little things, but his knowledge of music in terms of genres, current musicians, techniques, history, trivia, and other details is quite impressive.  What he doesn't know, he asks his cousin, named Google.  I am the hedgehog.  My knowledge of music is much more limited, much more tied to a few specfic variations of country music, and more tied to my past experiences listening, not as a critic, but as a fan.

So, it will be interesting to compare our "Best of 2010" selections.  I thought through mine last night, mainly because I couldn't sleep.  A full moon and perhaps a caffeine overdose left me wide awake.  I kept thinking back over favorite musical experiences of the year.  Nick and I are both limited in our ability to pick up the latest CDs and run home to critique the hottest music.  We are generally broke, the Texarkana area has been without a decent music store for nearly 3 years, and we both have too much school homework (or household chores).  So, we rummage through the bargain bins of a few local outlets, search the internet for cheap CDs, or listen for the thousandth time to both CDs and record albums (those antique vinyl things that folks used in the early through middle 1900s). 

Nick's range of interests and artists continually feeds into the narrow channels of my mind.  Thanks to Nick, I have come to enjoy such hot artists as Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Yes, I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s.  However, future biographers will be doubtful of that fact since I was so out of touch with the music of that time.  During the 60s and 70s, I learned to love Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, and Glenn Miller.  I wish I could blame that on peer pressure, but I had no friends with the same interests and inclinations.

Here goes:

1.  American VI: Ain't No Grave by Johnny Cash.  Nick and I have numbers 3, 4, 5, and 6 of Cash's American series.  We hope to add 1 and 2 to our collection.  Nick and I are agreed as to the worth and wealth of this CD.  The title song is haunting and soul wrenching.  It has the effect of when Marley visits Ebenezer Scrooge.  Except in this case, the darkness of the grave and the chains we forged in life are both overcome by the resurrection a believer experiences.  That title cut alone carries the album along.

2.  VH1 Storytellers: Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson.  Nick and I are in total agreement on this and the previous album.  This was a find.  We discovered it one day in Benton, Arkansas at a Hastings Records.  You feel like you are sitting in a front row seat with Johnny and Willie just a few feet away. Cash jokes about his lack of guitar playing skills and both discuss the stories behind the songs.  This CD is a powerful experience.

3.  Still by Nathan Clark George, Mark Stoffel, and Ross Sermons.  In the last month, Nathan Clark George and I have corresponded on a few occasions.  I first fell for his advent music after getting his previous CD Midwinter Eve.  All too much of the standard Christmas music wore me down, but George's gentle guitar and voice, with the addition of his companions on the mandolin and bass, provide me with soul comfort in the mornings.  I will soon start listening to one of George's CDs that is not for Advent.

4.  The Stanley Brothers.  Oh, I am supposed to name a CD.  Okay, how about The Stanley Brothers: Twenty Bluegrass Originals or The Stanley Brothers: 16 Greatest Gospel Hits?  There are dozens of collections of the Stanley Brothers work.  None of this is meant to lessen the value of Ralph Stanley's many recordings since Carter's death in the mid-1960s.  My revived interest grew out of reading Ralph Stanley's autobiography.  While reading about his and Carter's music, I would find myself going back and listening more closely to the songs I have heard for years.  One incredible performance is "It's Raining Here This Morning."  Ralph plays the banjo on this heart-break and prison song  in a manner that sounds like rain hitting the roof of a building.  Carter could tear your heart out when he carried the melody of a sad song.  He loved singing songs about "Mother."  Strangely enough, his mother outlived him, but he did many a song remembering a mother who has died.  When Carter sang a sad song, his voice would break with the emotion. Those two boys had better be put in the Country Music Hall of Fame or else.

5.  Cowboy Copas.  In this case, I don't have a CD.  All I have is a much cherished record, titled Alabam.  That song was Copas' come back hit in 1963.  It was climbing the charts when he was killed in a plane crash with Patsy Cline and Hawkshaw Hawkins.  The words to that song are funny, "Some folks say that a tramp won't still, but I caught two in my corn field, I'm on my way, I'm going back, to Alabam."  It was the guitar rhythms that drove the song.  It is, as the saying goes, a toe-tapper.  Copas was the among the last of a breed that included Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, and Carl Smith.  These were the guys who could belt out a honky-tonk song and follow it up with an old Gospel number.  Both kinds of songs came from the heart and experiences of those boys.

6.  Hearing Voices by Will Ackerman.  Nick and I are in agreement here.  This artist and CD were discovered in a Salvation Army bin.  We both wondered if the $2.00 bet was a winner or not.  But we listened and listened again and read the liner notes and listened again.  Will Ackerman doesn't have the Calvinist orthodoxy of Nathan Clark George.  (I figure he is nowhere on the horizon of orthodoxy.)  He doesn't have the country roots and feel of the Stanleys or Cowboy Copas.  And he is not like Johnny Cash.  But his music is good background music.  It is more mountaintop than elevator.

7.  Riders in the Sky: Cowboy Songs. Another bargain find:  50 cents! Riders in the Sky are a popular singing group who are members of the Grand Ole Opry and may be even better known for some songs they did for one of the Toy Story movies. These boys, Ranger Doug, Too Slim, and Woody Paul, perform true Western Music (the other end of the Country and Western tradition)in the tradition of the Sons of the Pioneers, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry and many others. This delightful recording includes such songs as "Cattle Call," "Back in the Saddle Again," and that great favorite from boyhood, "Rawhide." It also includes a strangely cheerful and upbeat version of "Ghost Riders in the Sky." (When Johnny Cash sings that song, it not only sends a bolt of fear through the lone cowboy, but through me as well. It has a powerful gospel message: Repent! Makes me questions the Riders in the Sky interpretation.) I should add that this CD includes some of the finest of that lost art of yodeling.

8. Livin', Lovin', Losin': Songs of the Louvin Brothers.  Back in their heyday, people like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash worked as opening acts to a brother team of Ira and Charlie Louvin.  Charlie, by the way, is still living and singing.  The songs of this brother team were incredible. Some of their great songs were "My Baby's Gone," "When I Stop Dreaming," and "How's the World Treating You?"  They also sang lots of Gospel songs, and being brothers, their sibling harmony was unbelievable.  In this tribute, folks like Vince Gill, Merle Haggard, Dierks Bentley, and Dolly Parton sing the unforgettable songs of this almost forgotten duo.

9.  Bluegrass Christmas Collection: Christmas Times a Comin'.  I don't know whether this fine collection made the cut because we are just now concluding the Christmas season, or if it is because of the outstanding performances of Bluegrass greats, like Monroe, Stanley, Del Coury, and others.

10.  All the CDs that I keep pulling out and playing again and again over the years.  This includes music by Ricky Skaggs, Hank Williams, Caedmon's Call, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Bob Dylan, Lefty Frizzell, The two George's of Texas--George Jones (whose song "He Stopped Loving Her Today" is unsurpassed) and  "The other George," George Strait, Vern Gosdin (whose song, "Set Em Up, Joe" ranks right up there among the best songs ever), Dolly Parton, Ray Charles (who was a great friend of country music and a superb stylist), Alison Kraus and Union Station, Alison Kraus and anyone else, Stonewall Jackson, the incomparable Ernest Tubb and Friends 3 CD collection (with more than five years of repeated playing, still a favorite with me and the kids), Music Inspired by the Passion of the Christ, Ray Price (I cannot believe I missed the concert 3 years back), Charlie Daniels (even now, America is gonna do it again), Patsy Cline (the greatest female singer ever), Percy Sledge, Eddy Arnold, Bob Dylan, Jack Johnson, Bach, Vivaldi, Shirley Caesar, Faron Young, the Carter Family, Randy Travis, Nat King Cole, the Wilburn Brothers, Jimmy Martin, Handel, Glenn Miller, Bing Crosby, Wagner (Richard), Waggoner (Porter), Brad Paisley, Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys, and both Marty's--Robbins and Stuart.

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