If I Can Dream: Elvis Presley’s Golden Comeback

Fifty years ago today — December 3, 1968 — NBC aired Singer Presents … Elvis.  

At that point, Elvis Presley was generally considered a joke, a has-been.  His pioneering rock and roll days were long behind him, his singing and acting career and earning potential shriveled by a stultifying run of half-baked movies (Girl Happy, Harum Scarum, Clambake) and equally awful soundtracks (featuring horrid novelty songs like “There’s No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car” and “He’s Your Uncle, Not Your Dad”).  Presley’s manager “Colonel” Tom Parker was pushing for a holiday special where Elvis would cavort with nominally famous guest stars and sing … wait for it … twenty Christmas carols.

But Singer’s execs had something else in mind: a show centered entirely on Presley, reminding the audience of his initial, explosive impact on pop music and propelling him forward, into a fresh phase of his career.  Elvis bought in, the Colonel signed off, and Steve Binder (director of the spectacular 1964 concert movie The T.A.M.I Show, featuring The Supremes, The Beach Boys, James Brown and The Rolling Stones in thrilling live performances) signed on.   Which is why, on that night fifty years ago, as 42 percent of the US television audience tuned in, they locked eyes with a man on a mission:

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soundstreamsunday: “Angel from Montgomery” by John Prine

prine-on-couch-fca50a192d324d600e6f76c149c8061fdfeec145-s800-c85Successful Americana music hews a particularly demanding line.  It’s a “post” genre, looking to blues and oldtime musics as a starting point rather than an end, as a shared story for the getting-on-with of the next chapter.  To say the least, there’s a large margin for failure.  The masters of the form, like Randy Newman and Joe Henry and Leyla McCalla, offer an unaffected, plain spoken drive to the heart of an America that is in its essence a crossroads.  In such hands it goes far beyond a romance of sepia-tinged dustbowl-era hardscrabble, the sharecropper’s plow and his wife’s gingham print dress.  It is the common song and in it is America.

John Prine didn’t set out to do it, since as a genre it wasn’t really acknowledged until relatively recently, but he put flesh and bone to Americana songwriting.  Equal parts humor, sadness, and frank talk as broad as its landscape, the pictures in his songs are drawn, I think, from the same kind of middle-of-the-country upbringing that so imprinted itself on Mark Twain.  One of those songs, “Paradise,” from Prine’s 1971 debut, made its way to me as a tune John Denver covered on his 1972 album Rocky Mountain High.  Which was the first album I ever owned, so that when I was six I knew that John Prine, credited on the sleeve, had written one of my favorite songs.  Paradise was “where the air smelled like snakes, and we’d shoot with our pistols, but empty pop bottles was all we would kill.”  How the air smells like snakes I don’t know but I know what he’s getting at somehow — it’s the kind of thing a guy from Missouri or Kentucky who grew up when Prine did would say.

“Angel from Montgomery” is Prine’s loveliest melody, but not necessarily as it’s sung by him.  It’s been covered countless times, but it seems to be at its tuneful best if the singer is a woman, perhaps because its narrator is female.  So Bonnie Raitt’s version is the go-to, and Susan Tedeschi is its current champion (following Raitt’s interpretation).  But in these remarkable and wonderful tributes to Prine and his songwriting, what is absent is the charming gruffness Prine brings to the role play, and as recorded on that first record, an approach that is more gospel soul than sweet country ode.  On an album absolutely loaded with outstanding songs, Prine goes with the piano and organ and the churchy atmospherics because this is a song about a tested faith, where things could’ve turned out differently, and would have, “if dreams were lightning, and thunder was desire.”

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday: “Drowning in the River Half Laughing” by Joe Henry

joehenry2 - EditedJoe Henry always tells it like it is.  What this “it” is depends on his song or object of the moment, but if artistry is about honesty then here’s a man who can be a W. Eugene Smith one minute and a Romare Bearden the next.  His is an Americana in context, wrought with a realism that has to, must, consider the world beyond the borders of his song.  And yet his skill at creating a complexity of life within the three- or four-minute lengths typical of his work belies this, so that his portraits are breathtaking and you are standing next to him, watching and hearing him compose a complete picture.

1990’s Shuffletown recalls both the chamber folk-pop of Cat Stevens and the improvisational glow of Astral Weeks, T-Bone Burnett’s restrained production going live to two-track and allowing a breathing space that played against the channel-filling fashion of its time.  I remember, then, marveling that an album like this could even get made anymore, much less thought of.  A modern record with a backroads feel that doesn’t get lost in bucolic moods or sentiment, it is more defining in its sound and in its genre than it gets credit for.  At its core — and the same could be said of Morrison’s and Stevens’ records — is an immediately recognizable voice, for Henry’s finesse with language is honored by a vocal delivery that is hip to its own thing, knows it limits and its power and its text.  It’s also full of hooks, patient in its timing, finding and following melody in Shuffletown‘s deep dusks and twilight.

“The moon is losing ground, drowning in the river…”

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section above.

soundstreamsunday: “Jogue Au Plombeau” by Leyla McCalla

leylamccalla3 - EditedFree and blue and beautiful, those moorings Leyla McCalla holds to in her music sway and pitch like the gulf waters from Hispaniola to Lousiana, rolling through her cello and voice and coursing through her songs, lifeblood to an American music heart.  In the weaving lines of the music she plays — a snaking, sliding creole so suited to, and perhaps partly a consequence of, the playing of fretless instruments — is the sound of an America taking shape as its many diasporas meet and mix and move, intersecting lines on a map that triangulate on New Orleans.  Like the best Americana musicians, McCalla achieves something at once utterly contemporary but steeped in an authenticity of sound that says so much about the heart that makes the music.  There’s no affected vocal, no hokum on the one hand or academic archness on the other.  And there could have been, so easily.  McCalla’s classically trained; she jumped from a New Jersey upbringing to a New Orleans residency; she’s an American born to Haitian rights activists in the thick of a struggle for democracy; she was an important member of the last incarnation of the much-loved Carolina Chocolate Drops.  Her road was ripe for opportunity to leave the music behind in bringing a message that might not have resonated as strongly as it does.  But instead she chose on her first solo record, Vari-Colored Songs (2014), to artfully adapt poetry by Langston Hughes and punctuate it with Haitian folk songs.  Her second record, A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey, is also cloaked in a music-first approach that makes the underlying messages — because they are indeed there, as they were in her curation of Hughes’s work — so much more compelling.

Like all achieving musicians, Leyla McCalla makes great records and is better in concert, her performances enlivened by the physicality of her musicianship and the communication among her band.  In this 2016 performance of “Jogue Au Plombeau,” the band is killing it, in a droning country blues jug-on-pommel trance that I could listen to for hours should they ever decide that that could make sense.  Accompanied by violist Free Feral and McCalla’s husband Daniel Tremblay on triangle (who also happens to be one of the more light-touch guitar players I’ve ever seen play live), Leyla McCalla convinces me that all the blues I’ve ever listened to begins here.

Leyla McCalla on bandcamp

Leyla McCalla on Amazon

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section above.

soundstreamsunday: “High Water (for Charley Patton)” by Bob Dylan

bob-dylan-plays-first-show-of-2016-in-japan-639x400Bob Dylan is the rare artist who, at 75, retains the power, energy, and restlessness that distinguished his early work.  As both a recording and performing artist, his electricity is unabated, and he continues to make vibrant contributions to the post-folk culture he virtually created.  That he has achieved this is astounding; for those of us who have followed his career and know something of its roots and evolution, it is not surprising.  He constantly recasts his song catalogue, the depth of which by 1965 (let alone 2016) was unrivaled in the rock/folk/singer-songwriter genre he invented, to match his current sound, and commands a fluidity of vision in his writing that sees beyond the trees and perhaps the forest as well.  Witness “High Water,” a tribute to Charley Patton (whose “High Water Everywhere” is a stone cold delta blues barking, howling, classic), from 2001’s Love and Theft. This is a blues about love and the water that rises, that has picked up some oldtime, some drone, shaking and breaking and name-checking muscle cars and evolutionary philosophers.  The thing is that it works because when Dylan sings “the cuckoo is a pretty bird” that’s a kind of referenced code that he’s hollering back to Patton.  He’s writing a blank check to freely associate (find and listen to a version of “The Cuckoo” and you’ll get what I mean), to make the rhyme work and throw meaning to the wind and to the listener.  Harder than it sounds because it’s about the sound, what music is, what makes its power inexplicable.  To make that warble on the 5th day of July, and trace your absurd and beautiful melody: it takes courage and a resolution that comes at a price only Dylan, and maybe Patton, knows.

soundstreamsunday playlist and archive

soundstreamsunday: “Living the Dream” by Sturgill Simpson

Sturgill-Simpson-700“Outlaw country” is an ironic descriptor at best, applied to a music that, without the modifier, began as a lucrative embarrassment to the phonograph salesmen of the 1920s, their newly-minted “hillbilly” record catalogs doing surprisingly well next to the more respectable stacks of whatever maudlin tenor was the operatic toast of the day. Country music’s cornpone reputation grew as its burgeoning industry began to trade on an image based in white southern poverty; but if the marketing suggested the music was as impoverished as its people (a patent falsehood), this achieved for the proponents of such thinking a comfortable outsider-ism, a romantic us-versus-them rewind and replay of Reconstruction that survives in other place in the South as well, through for instance a protracted and continuing — and, unfortunately, necessary — civil rights movement, to this day.  So then, what’s this Outlaw business? The term attached to Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and a handful of other country writers and singers who, starting in the late 1960s, were drawn away from the industrial strength, smooth country music produced by “Nashville,” that Tennessee town’s small oligarchy of producers and record labels who held sway over any music distributed under the category of country, and pointedly avoided shifting their audience’s gaze towards the rockier issues or musical themes of the times.  Jennings, like Nelson, bucked at this, knew what it meant for their art, and went back to Texas; he turned up the rock’n’roll rhythms he’d played with Buddy Holly, sang what he wanted, and called Nashville out on its phony conservatism.  In so doing, Waylon and the country outlaws — and the new southern bands like the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd — found a younger, national country audience, and also reminded rockers that their favorite music was as much country as blues.

Fast forward a half century and the same tension exists in country music, with a handful of artists living outside the airbrush Nashville continues to apply to its version of bro’ country American culture. Trying to live real. Living the dream, as Sturgill Simpson might say, though the song he wrote by this name is nothing if not double-edged, and carries a lot more weight in its few words than most anthems I can think of. Forced to defend the song’s lyrics at one point, he wrote:

Ironically, the song is actually a metaphor comparing the soothing yet completely addictive and damaging effects of hard narcotic opiates to the negative sociological impact of organized religion and blind faith when forced upon society and used as a political tool by self-righteous, thinly-veiled bigots to control and manipulate the masses and enhance the suffering of impoverished, lower class citizens. Also, since I’m self-funding/self-releasing my art instead of shooting for ACM [Academy of Country Music] awards and taking it up the ass from the music row man, I have the right to write and sing and say whatever I choose just as you have the right to not buy or listen to my music and stay away from my page if you don’t like it.

That Simpson had to write this at all is a farce, but that he did is valuable, and continues the tradition of outlaw country and what country music was at its roots. Like the other songs on 2014’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, “Living the Dream” is a primer in the lean, rock and roll approach to country, its guitars drawing from the full history of its pioneering players while marking out its own ground.  From its languid beginning to its keening wail of a finish, this song is from the wellspring itself.

Sturgill Simpson on the web

soundstreamsunday playlist

*Photo above by David McClister.