Please join me in welcoming our newest staff writer, Mr. Larry Rogowin. Welcome aboard, Larry! – KJC
I can’t say I grew up listening to country music. Actually, I can’t say I had a very meaningful musical youth. My parents played a lot of Beatles, Motown and Sinatra but I was more interested in what the cool kids played. The first album I begged my parents to buy was Poison’s 1988 magnum opus Open Up and Say…Ahh! (They obliged despite…well, obvious reasons – not the least of which was that original album cover.)
So there you go. I fell hard and fast for “Every Rose Has its Thorn,” the greatest and twangiest ’80s glam metal ballad. And that sent me on a path directly to Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.
Only kidding. Though I don’t want to discount that this could’ve happened to me and has happened to others. Nonetheless, my hair metal phase was quickly replaced by a love affair with the movies – an affair that would intensify through high school, college and into my professional life as a journalist and film critic.
The movies gave me my first serious music collection. If I fell for a movie – or simply liked the score – I would often beeline from the theater to the nearest music store and buy the soundtrack. Composers became just as relevant as my favorite directors – composers like John Williams, Danny Elfman, Ennio Morricone, James Horner, Alexandre Desplat, Bernard Herrmann, Nino Rota, Kitaro, Hans Zimmer and more. Woody Allen’s staggering output introduced me to Jazz, Ragtime and classical music.
These were the albums I put on while writing. They also got the in bed, eyes closed, headphones treatment.
So how did I get here? How did I get to the point where my mind literally craves some sort of country music every day? Well to start, a career change out of journalism and film criticism meant a lot less movie watching. Second, I married a musical girl, we had kids and decided we wanted a home filled with music. The natural choices to start were Broadway (my wife’s forte) and the Beatles (thanks, mom and dad). Somewhere along the line, a George Harrison guitar riff led me to one of his biggest influences, Carl Perkins. And once you get to Sun Records it doesn’t take long to get to Johnny Cash and return trips to Folsom and San Quentin.
I became obsessed with exploring country music and all its tributaries – past, present and future. Throwing myself into the hyperlink storm that is the Internet quickly landed me on the pages of Country Universe. Here, I discovered Patty Loveless and her seminal album Mountain Soul. It was a watershed moment – the first time the experience of listening to an album took me to another place and time, connecting me to lives unfolding even if these lives were very different from my own.
Mountain Soul casts this kind of spell every time I listen. In fact I deliberately avoid playing the album for long stretches of time, afraid that I’ll overplay my way out of this spell. I don’t need to stare at that beautiful album cover to feel transported to the Appalachia of Patty’s youth…to the middle of town, where all the girls gather round the old playground and dance because “The Boys are Back in Town”… to the “deep, dark hills of Eastern Kentucky” with the doomed coal miner of “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”… to the easy chair occupied by the broken man of “Cheap Whiskey.”
It’s safe to say that I never quite understood the power of a voice until I heard Patty sing. I never knew that a singer can sound so divine, so delightful – and even sexy – while still capturing the frailties of the human condition. Mountain Soul was also my introduction to Travis Tritt. The way his sandy tenor blends with Patty’s mournful soprano almost always stops me in my tracks.
There’s much more to the album – the interplay between the vocals and the crack band of musicians, the way this coal miner’s daughter sings “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” and the way her band turns the intimate family saga into an epic. Mountain Soul is a lifelong companion.
I’ve met many lifelong companions: More Patty, Emmylou, the gumbo tenor and gutsy songwriting of Rodney Crowell, the charm and unpredictability of Brad Paisley, the multi-pronged mastery of Darrell Scott, the golden drawl of Kelly Willis and on and on.
It’s an exciting time to be a country music fan. Sure, the big labels and mainstream radio seem as adamant as ever on diluting the genre’s diversity and marginalizing so many great singers, songwriters and musicians. But that’s proving to be a fading business model in this age of YouTube, streaming services, social media, indie Internet radio and Kickstarter campaigns (all available on our phone). If you can sing and write, you may not need Music Row or iHeartMedia. This democratization of the industry has created new avenues of exposure for an onslaught of talent.
It’s exhilarating to think that so many artists are out there – artists from different backgrounds with different sensibilities ready to take country music in unique directions. All they need are listeners and listeners talking about them on the many platforms we have at our fingertips.
As much as I boast, “Bring ’em on,” I know that keeping up with this onslaught can be overwhelming. Country Universe has been a guidepost through this wonderful mess. I hope to return the favor.