Monday, March 29, 2010

Hear The Mountains Calling (TOTR 79)

Jack White – Great High Mountain
Ralph Stanley & the Clunch Mountain Boys – Can't You Hear the Mountains Calling
Kristin Mills – Across the Blue Ridge Mountains
Flatt and Scruggs – Foggy Mountain Breakdown
The Holy Modal Rounders – Clinch Mountain Backstep
Kathy Mattea – Green Rolling Hills
Kathy Mattea – Black Lung
Nick Drake – Black Mountain Blues
John Prine – Rocky Mountain Time
John Denver – Rocky Mountain High
Joe Walsh – Rocky Mountain Way
Lucero – The Mountain
The Drive-By Truckers – Lookout Mountain
Led Zeppelin – Misty Mountain Hop
Steve Miller Band – Wild Mountain Honey
Grateful Dead – Fire On The Mountain
Ryan Adams – Magnolia Mountain
Prince – Mountains
Tina Turner – River Deep Mountain High
Eartha Kitt – Mountain High, Valley Low
The Temptations, Diana Ross & The Supremes – Ain't No Mountain High Enough
Martin Luther King Jr – I've Been To The Mountain Top
Patty Griffin – Up To The Mountain (MLK Song)

Climbing Kayford Mountain: Finding God & Facing Ecocide in West Virginia

The floodwaters lapped at the wheels of our Ford Escape as we left West Virginia early in the morning on Saturday, March 13. As meaningful as our experiences had been, we were still glad to be leaving the dramatic rivers & mountains & valleys that had been our home for a week.

Most of our time was spent with our crew, an all-ages collection of willing & well-meaning souls from Cookeville, living inside a beautiful old church in the Kanawha River Valley. We ate together each evening & some read books or played cards at night before an early bedtime, but by day, we worked rehabbing trailers for locals in need.

Standing in the back of one holler on a beautiful early March morning, I instantly watched the last 14 years of my life flash by as I visualized the hollers of Tennessee & the rural life I'd recently left to live in a college town full time. For some work groups, understanding the cultural contexts of rural appalachian poverty requires a kind of tolerant patience & careful orientation. For me, the distance between backwoods Tennessee & backwoods West Virginia proved unnervingly immediate.

My job that morning in a strangely familiar place was pulling rusty staples & nails & rot—the kind of deliberate deconstruction I'd defiantly denied myself at home for most of the last decade. While I felt a strange guilt for never having fully repaired or renovated a rotting cabin on my old communal property, dealing with this gritty labor prompted even more feelings & thoughts of a more personal nature.

In the depth & dirt of a decaying window frame, I faced some rot inside my mind, shame still contaminating my soul. But thanks to the spiritual work I've been doing for the last ten months, I had the mettle to push on, pulling at pieces of the past with each motion of the hammer or flatbar.

In cleaning that window frame from rust & rot, I faced my internal demons of desire & doubt & turned my labors & loves as well as my lusts & losses over to the God of my understanding. In the communities of recovery from addiction, in taking our own inventories, we do for our spiritual lives what this posse of Presbyterians did for the trailers of strangers that had recently become friends.

My attitude about challenges of this nature has changed in the last year. Today, I see that God graces us with grunt work & grants us gratitude in the grime & grunge. Because I had asked to cook a couple of lavish dinners for the work crew & our local host congregation, my daily work did not include so much of the physical rehab as compared to my friends. But my entire trip to West Virginia felt like a pilgrimage, an adventure of spiritual & social rehab.

On Wednesday of our workweek, some of us took the day off to visit firsthand the evidence of Moutain Top Removal (MTR), what Erik Reece calls "radical strip mining" in the subtitle of his book Lost Mountain. Because I know that my community burns MTR coal as its primary source of power, I participate in MTR even as I write this critique, just I implicitly endorse other injustices by simply living in this society. On this trip, I desired discovery—to see with my own eyes the first-hand evidence of what has prompted a response of moral outrage among activists & citizens across the southeast.

In his foreword to Lost Mountain, Wendell Berry writes, "To know about strip mining or mountain top removal is like knowing about the nuclear bomb. It is to know beyond doubt that some human beings have, and are willing to use, the power of absolute destruction. This work is done in violation of all the best things that humans have learned in their long dwelling on the earth: reverance, neighborliness, stewardship, thrift, love."

For much of my late teens, twenties, & thirties (I'm 42 now), I invested considerable time in radical social & political activism. As a pragmatic (as opposed to dogmatic) pacifist with a spiritual inclination, much of my activist work was invested in the anti-war movement & included periods where I was devoted to direct action. Today, I consider myself retired from that movement but still have many contacts from those days, & one of them is now living in the Coal River Valley of West Virginia with the explicit mission of getting arrested to stop MTR. I'm thankful that he invited us to visit.

While I am deeply saddened by what I see as the moral & tactical mistakes of the environmental direct action movement overall, this, for me, does not eliminate the moral necessity for resistance in certain circumstances. At the same time, we see direct action movements being harassed, profiled, targeted, & generally repressed by authorities that appear to want to forever remove the Kingian option of nonviolent resistance from the strategic lexicon of American social movements. I do think some injustices require resistance. Does MTR offend you enough to motivate some kind of social or political action?

Among the Tennessee friends I visited the action camp with, we had interesting discussions about the viability of direct action. Some folks sympathetic to stopping MTR still question the tactics that groups like Mountain Justice choose. While I would not join the direct action faction of such a movement today, I understand & admire it. What bothers me is not the movement's decision to embrace blockades, treesits, & other peaceful disruptions but the spontaneous self-marginalization of anti-MTR activism as an explicitly counterculture endeavor.

As a suddenly more cleancut recent refugee from the counterculture, this is difficult to acknowledge, much less critique. But at the site of the rough-&-tumble, ragtag collective's locus of operations, the utter lack of a remotely professional public persona could overwhelm the casual sympathetic visitor & would likely offend most everyone else. The project's messy & chaotic vibe fulfills the worst stereotypes of the treehugging alternative & effortlessly risks undermining its mission.

Since the Mountain Justice movement models itself on the freedom summers of the 1960s, it seems the mountains might be worth an ethic of etiquette & sacrifice to save. While my formerly dreadlocked head cannot believe what the fingers are typing, perhaps the West Virginia mountains are worth codes of conduct at ground zero. If you are willing to give up jobs & do jail time, perhaps others efforts to improve the functioning of basecamp & provide a modest makeover to the public face of the direct action movement in West Virginia might be worth considering.

Before we departed the Coal River Valley, we took a pilgrimage to the top of Kayford Mountain. At this summit, "keeper of the mountains" Larry Gibson maintains a 50-acre camp that has become a destination to see the damage of MTR. On family land that has been with Gibson's people since the 1700s, his ancestors are buried. Today, his land & folk are attacked & harassed by "drive by shootings, thugs threatening people’s lives during our family reunion, & other forms of violence."

While it took us awhile to get there, climbing Kayford mountain was worth the meandering roads & emotional incline. "Epic" cannont describe the grand contrast that awaited us there. From one summit, we saw saw the beauty & bounty of God's glorious creation unfolding before us in all its dramatic magic. From the same site, we witnessed the grim gravity of unchecked human greed in the grotesque mechanical destruction of divinely created peaks. I could not claim any moral high ground even as I stood at high ground; today, I am using coal to compose this piece & seek an elusive peace in the war raging in appalachia.

When I returned to church to face a fierce debate with one of my local hosts concerning MTR and the "outsiders" committed to stopping it, I had a hard time imagining an end to MTR before every mountain is destroyed & every ounce of coal is burned. The contrast of local sentiments in the Kanawha Valley & the revelations of my truth-seeking side-trip to Kayford Mountain & the Coal River Valley routed my soul with a rude gust of the rhetorical winds blowing through Appalachia today. The rhetorical & moral & poltical divides are as vast & auspicious as the mountains & valleys.

My moral queasiness with both the raped mountaintop & its unwashed defense committee still haunts me. Today, I cannot engage in the false dilemma of pitting one good cause against another, of being expected to choose between serving the poor & saving the planet, especially because I see a deeply spiritual component to economic justice & environmental justice. The intrinsic moral & majestic value of a mountain cannot be defined by a human economy & neither can the value of human labor & ingenuity be flattened by misty platitudes.

Only a cosmic economy of revolutionary spiritual values could bridge this chasm. Only when the defenders of coal mining & the defenders of mountains can meet at the table of humility does our culture & our country have a chance. Only when we see God in the mountains as well as in the man who mines them will we begin the painful work of peace. Until then, we will fight & pray while the machines of might continue to ruin our moutains as prey.

Resolving the crises of the 21st century—if they can be resolved at all—will be like climbing Kayford Mountain: getting lost along the way before the slow going, climbing against steep angles on slippery paths with plenty of mud & music & dirty water. The dirty water of West Virginia cleanses & challenges my muddy spirit as I still insist on singing the songs of hope for an "almost heaven" facing its own forms of a living hell.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Humbling River (TOTR 78)

Allison Krauss – Down to the River to Pray
The Carter Family – River Of Jordan
The Freedom Singers – In the Mississippi River
Woody Guthrie – Roll On Columbia
Utah Phillips – Where the Fraser River Flows
Levon Helm – Wide River to Cross
The Band – Up On Cripple Creek
John Hiatt – The River Knows Your Name
Neil Young – Down by the River
The Black Crowes – Fork In The River
Jethro Tull – Silver River Turning
Steve Winwood – There's A River
Steve Miller Band – Wide River
Talking Heads – Take Me to the River
John Mellencamp – To The River
R.E.M – Find the River
The Killers – This River Is Wild
Bonnie Prince Billy – Ohio River Boat Song
Great Lake Swimmers – River's Edge
Blitzen Trapper – Black River Killer
Akron/Family – River
The Doors – Yes, the River Knows
Puscifer – The Humbling River

Monday, March 15, 2010

In Diva Nation (TOTR 77)

Nellie McKay – Dig It (Normal As Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day)
Barbra Streisand – Evergreen
Julie Andrews – Nobody Does It Better
Eileen Hazel – Seed (My Interesting Condition)
Eileen Hazel – Open Up (Spark)
Michelle Shocked – Liquid Prayer (Soul of My Soul)
Nanci Griffith – Nobody's Angel (Flyer)
Edie Brickell – Hard Times (Picture Perfect Morning)
Ani DiFranco – Angry Anymore (Up Up Up Up Up Up)
Maria McKee – Show Me Heaven
Little Country Giants – Fly (Fists of Foam and Fury)
Megan McCormick -- Honest Words
Annie Lennox – The Gift (Diva)
Anna Nalick – Shine (Shine)
Missy Higgins – Where I Stood (On A Clear Night)
Sade – Morning Bird (Soldier of Love)
Jill Scott – A Long Walk (Who Is Jill Scott: Words and Sounds, Vol 1)
Sinead Oconnor, Mary J Blige, Martha B – This Is To Mother You
Sarah McLachlan – The Path Of Thorns (Terms)
Tori Amos – Smokey Joe (American Doll Posse)
Kate Bush – You're The One (The Red Shoes)
Cocteau Twins – Lazy Calm
This Mortal Coil – Song To The Siren (It'll End In Tears)
Catherine Braslavsky – O Tu Illustrata (Hildegard von Bingen: The Marriage of the Heavens)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Outlaw Music, Outlaw Lives, Outlaw Love

(Photos: Justin Townes Earle at the Mercy Lounge courtesy of; Those Darlins at the Backdoor Playhouse)

When Jeff Bridges collected the Oscar for his role as the grizzled badboy country troubadour Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, I embraced it as a victory for the outlaw country genre of musical culture. More than simply a career-topping moment for Bridges, which of course it is, the movie represents the resilience of both the sound and sensibility of outlaw country.

Since moving to the south more than a decade ago, I've been increasingly obsessed with the social and sonic crevices where rock, folk, and country collide. Despite the musically and culturally homogenous stereotypes associated with the Nashville industry proper, there's always been a gritty alternative to the mainstream that's as indigenous to my region as rattlesnakes, four-wheelers, and moonshine.

Outlaw country comes from folks like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson, but like most genres today, the boundaries tend towards the fluid and vague. Called everything from Americana to alternative country and increasingly becoming a close kin to freaky indie folk, the latest outlaws borrow contradictory ideas and ethos from both punk and pop as well.

As for tracking this uniquely backwoods pathos, it's been a good winter for me: all out immersion in outlaw country records, movies, and shows and further assimilating an outlaw country perspective, developing my own theories of outlaw country. I'm drawing both from the well-lit legends and from the light-bearers bringing the next wave.

In late January, I mixed two hours of outlaw country for the 71st installment of Teacher On The Radio. Lots of folks added to my education as I spent days researching the playlist, collecting requests, discussing the genre with my Facebook friends, and making new discoveries like Ryan Bingham, Hayes Carll, and Robbie Folks.

Then, on the last Wednesday of January, a friend and I took a life-changing field trip to Nashville. First, we saw Kris Kristofferson perform to a sold-out crowd at the Ryman -- just Kris on the naked stage with the mic, his guitar, and a black metal music stand. More than once, he aplogized for his age or implied that he still didn't feel worthy of the venue where he watched his heroes back in the day.

He didn't just talk between the songs; he talked through them, riding the free association of tangents like a surfer rides waves, interrupting his own interruptions without missing a beat, all in a voice as smooth as crushed gravel and broken glass distilled by a life once marred by whisky and cigarettes. From time to time, he'd blow his nose with a hanky he kept on the music stand. And we didn't mind: it all only added to the show complete with all the standards we paid to see from "Bobby McGee" to "Sunday Mornin Coming Down."

While a Kristofferson show would have been enough on its own, we couldn't deny the synchronicity of the night, so we left the Ryman and headed directly for the Mercy Lounge, just in time to see Justin Townes Earle take the stage. Himself the son of some serious outlaw country lineage, Earle tore through his set with an impressively vast store of charm and charisma. Infused with rockabilly wisdom and rootsy passion, many of his smoky and smokin' originals seem subtly out-of-place in the 21st century. While JTE's reputation surely preceded him, this show was my proper introduction to him and the amazing songs from his most recent record Midnight at the Movies, including "They Killled John Henry," "Halfway to Jackson," and the deeply moving "Mama's Eyes."

Just a few days after those shows, Crazy Heart opened in Nashville. Making another special trip an hour westbound, we decided to take in the film. From the first frames to the final credits, Crazy Heart earns its reputation, not just on the emotionally potent performances by Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhal, but because of its universally appealing and compellingly storyline. The movie reinvents a type that focuses on elements of a musician's struggles with love and addiction, recovery and redemption. With such tested themes, the flick shows traces of biopics like Walk The Line, A Star Is Born, Ray, Talk To Me, and Lady Sings the Blues yet with none of the hilarious cyncism of Walk Hard. This honest fiction breathes the badness of Bad Blake and brings the breath of love to save him from himself, thus saving vulnerable viewers from ourselves.

By the end of February, we had to hear the original outlaw country artist himself on his birthday when Rick Rubin released Ain't No Grave, the last posthumous Johnny Cash album and the last installment in the American series. Cash carries this sparse collection of popular gospel-folk hymns with the rugged intimacy of his vocals on the title track as well as on spiritual stunners like "Redemption Day," "I Corinthians 15:55," "Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound," or the epic standard and always truthful "Satisfied Mind." Put this album on the headphones to end the day or greet the dawn and rest assured, you might feel the simultaneously comforting and haunting presence of the deceased icon, his soul bursting from every stanza, the vehicle of his voice invoking the higher power some of us call God.

In early March, Murfreesboro's Those Darlins and Jill Andrews of east Tennessee visited Cookeville for a very special night of music at the Backdoor Playhouse. Both the sweetness Andrews' soaring sound and the gritty cowpunk of the Darlins' down-and-dirty ditties offer different options on the current alternative country continuum. The sheer beauty of Andrews' pipes, especially touching on tender tracks like "Sweetest in the Morning," could put her in league with pop icons like Joni Mitchell or Sarah McLachlan.

The Darlins, on the other hand, bring the noisy clamor of punked-out bar rock to the twangy epiphany of an empowered femininity, a kind of raucous, rowdy, and often drunken romanticism. As downtown as they are downhome, the Darlins deal with the devilish tempations of daily life as no longer the province of masculine protagonists, presenting a positive message that's merely implied by the gutsy nature of sometimes nasty topics.

For decades, I've theorized that the best art dances in the intersection at the delicate and messy collision of sexuality, spirituality, and social issues. Outlaw country deals in all these in surprisingly blunt and beautifullly paradoxical and basically problematic ways. There's nothing close to a consensus that could ever define this genre and too many suggestions to approach a working definition might defy the outlaw nature of the project. Even still, I'll hazard my current working thesis on the music.

To begin, outlaw country comes working class roots and exposes itself with a raw unihibited treatment of scandalous topics too risky for the rigidity of regular radio airplay, such as honest boasts about sins of the flesh involving sex, drugs, and booze. Although addicton runs rampant in the lyrics and most likely the lives of many outlaws, for some, a path of recovery and sobriety often follows the wild living (and songs about it).

While not all outlaw country is necessarily the left-wing alternative on the fringes of the larger genre, it certainly can't be pigeonholed by the conservative trends in the mainstream country demographic. Moreover, outlaw country stretches the narrow gender roles of mainstream music as it grapples with masculinity and femininity in some interesting ways in a post-Brokeback Mountain period. A lot of songs by male musicians show a deep and abiding respect for mothers and maternal vibes as well.

Finally, whether its wild women drinkin' whisky or outlaw men undermining right-wing stereotypes, there's a potent leveling and equalizing sense of humanity and humility throughout outlaw country. For many, this humility stems from or is rooted in a religious sensibility. Years ago, Maria McKee released a record called You Got To Sin To Get Saved, and this may capture the paradoxical outlaw theory perfectly: as outlaws, we don't pretend to be saintly and aren't even necessarily ashamed of our sins, but we do recognize sin as sin and want to know that there's a way out of the outlaw's wordly challenges, at least in a spiritual sense.

I get this notion that country music is no less hedonistic than other popular music genres in general, but the honest lyrics often lead us back to letting go of the outlaw ego and letting God take both the credit and the blame, thus paying homage to the outlaw that overturned old laws and created new ones based on equality and love.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Knockin On The Radio (TOTR 76)

Justin Townes Earle – They Killed John Henry
Justin Townes Earle – Halfway To Jackson
Justin Townes Earle – Mama's Eyes
Robert Earl Keen – Wireless In Heaven
Jeff Bridges – Somebody Else
Johnny Cash – Ain't No Grave
Johnny Cash – Redemption Day.
Johnny Cash – I Corinthians 15_55
Johnny Cash – Satisfied Mind
Those Darlins – Who's That Knockin At My Window
Those Darlins – Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin
Jill Andrews – Sweetest In the Morning
Jill Andrews – A Way Out
Patty Griffin – We Shall All Be Reunited
Neko Case – Magpie To The Morning
Allison Moorer – Easy In The Summertime
Family Of The Year – Down To The River
Mumford & Sons – The Cave
Mumford & Sons – Roll Away Your Stone
Mumford & Sons – Timshel
Mumford & Sons – Thistle & Weeds
Mumford & Sons – Awake My Soul
Local Natives – Airplanes
Shearwater – Landscape At Speed
Yeasayer – I Remember
Yeasayer – ONE
Yeasayer – Red Cave