Ray Van Horn, Jr. is a veteran entertainment journalist whose writing and live photography has been featured in Blabbermouth.net, Dee Snider’s House of Hair Online, Fangoria.com, Horror News.net, About.com Heavy Metal, MetalManiacs, New Noise, Music Dish, AMP, Hails & Horns, Unrestrained,Noisecreep, Impose, Pit, The Big Takeover.com, Rough Edge.com, Pitriff and others. His blog The Metal Minute won a “Best Personal Blog” award in 2009 from Metal Hammer magazine and he wrote and produced his own hard rock e-zine, Retaliate.

He has contributed essays to UK author Neil Daniels’ Iron Maiden and ZZ Top biographies. Ray’s fiction has been published in various periodicals and anthologies, including his flash fiction piece “Off the Record” for Akashic Books’ “Mondays Are Murder” noir series. His recent short stories “Before the Ball” and “Widow” were featured in subsequent editions of Alex S. Johnson’s Axes of Evil anthologies. Ray wrote serialized original superhero fiction for Cyber Age Adventures and five of those stories appear in the anthology Playing Solitaire. He was the winner of Quantum Muse’s fiction contest in 1999.

Ray is a former NHL game analyst for The Hockey Nut and one-time host of the forum “Comic Books” at ReadWave. He has done beat reporting, photography and lifestyle articles for Metromix, an affiliate of The Baltimore Sun, Carroll Magazine, The Northern News and The Emmitsburg Dispatch.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Taking a Trip to the Wrecking Ball

If there's one thing about music that haunts me in my adult life, it's having to admit my parents were right about country music. It's hard to tell a testosterone-jazzed male teen he's one day going to find himself in company with music so apposite of crunch chords, shredding riffs, insane bass lines, thrashing beat patterns and a weird range of vocals that both vigorate and challenge. It really is hard. You'd probably get further saying sex without condoms is a near-guarantee you're throwing your life away, although that's not going to influence most teenagers much, either.

Sure enough, though, my parents used to torment me whenever I'd come walking through the living room in my teen years and make pretend ralphing gags whenever they had Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Ricky Scaggs, Grandpa Jones, Conway Twitty, Buck Owens or Hank Williams on the family stereo. "You're going to like country music one day, boy," I'd hear. Mark their words, endpoint.

It echoes in my ears even now, as that slide guitar twang once drove me nuts for much of my life. Only when I was a young child and the country-comedy variety show Hee Haw did I appreciate the genre though it was more being interested in the cute Southern belles and their way-hot cutoff shorts, plus finding out who was going to get clunked in the ass by that prop clapboard from the "wooden" farm fence. Even then I tuned out the music, though I did pay attention when Roy Clark and Buck Owens started their picking duels. Whether you like country music or not, you have to admire the fast-flying-finger skills it takes to move those banjo and guitar strings so effortlessly. Even better in the midst of friendly competition.

Well, sure enough, those parents o' mine were right on with their prediction. You can thank psychobilly, cowpunk, Hank III, Stray Cats, Neil Young and today's alt county/alt folk hybrids for altering my way of thinking. The rough 'n tumble prime time soap Dallas had a good bit to with it, especially while revisiting the series on DVD. A wow moment of mine came when I heard Buddy Holly's early-on country bop and rockabilly recordings, Holly in the Hills. The more recent (though highly retro) country swing of Ray Condo and His Ricochets and The Paladins endeared me almost as much as the Reverend Horton Heat. Of course, a trip to the Rock 'n Hall of Fame a few years back and its astute history lesson which puts you in the heart of Texarkana, the Okie folk movement and the po' boy blues really puts some perspective on it all. I immediately had to get chummy with Phil Ochs, Leadbelly and Hank Snow.

For the past five years or so, I've made cautious steps into actual country music. It began with Hank the Elder and Hank Snow, the acknowledged founding fathers of the style. I soon took a daring ride with Dolly Parton while waiting for a table at Cracker Barrel. Her Backwoods Barbie album from a few years ago caught my attention from an audile promo stand and it landed in my possession. Even though I never got to follow up with my out-of-nowhere interview request to one of her publicists, I was allowing for country music to break my will. I did, however, interview Mike Daly, author of Time Flies When You're In A Coma: The Wisdom Of The Metal Gods and one-time multi-instrumentalist for the country-alt hybrid, Whiskeytown. I got familiar with the band catalog in preparation. The writing, as they say, was the on the wall for me.

Now I've been exploring the genre on a touch and go basis but then I heard Emmylou Harris' enchanting take on Neil Young's "Wrecking Ball" on a local independent radio station and I surrendered. I yielded. I let my parents enjoy a well-deserved rip and I praised the Altar of White Lightning in their presence. Emmylou Harris has an endearing vocal gift that has carried her through four decades of work and if that's not inspiring enough to give her and country music audience, then well, your resolve is stronger than mine.

Photo courtesy of Chris Kuhl and Wikipedia

I realize the country sanction regards Harris as one of its sovereign queens, however, only the truly devout and the alternative sects have continued their support of her work. Harris is still country but she has radically altered the scheme beginning with her impressive Wrecking Ball album from 1995 and it continues on today. Through some gift cards and rollicking through our town library's massive music collection, I've gotten rather familiar with Emmylou Harris' career from her seminal seventies albums with The Hot Band, Pieces of the Sky, Elite Hotel and Luxury Liner to her "roots" albums like Blue Kentucky Girl and Roses in the Snow to her more recent offerings, Wrecking Ball and All I Intended to Be being standouts.

I can't yet offer a deeper analysis of Emmylou's long-standing career since there are gaps to fill in the listening sessions, but I can tell you her voice has already become divine to me, one of the archetype pitches that milks the best of country, folk and soul. Like Hank III, she's an amalgam, the by-product of astute multiple songwriting theories. Music in general drives Emmylou Harris' work, though her mainstay bread and butter vibe is country. It proves to me what my stepfather said about country music, that it's so close to rock 'n roll at its core you can't not like it. Hear, hear, Pop...

Sadly, I still can't get down with modern country. It feels way too mainstream for me, like today's rap and hip hop. All of it is corporate, fabricated and soulless to me. None of it has the juice or the 'shine making Johnny Cash, George Jones, Conway Twitty, Roger Miller and Merle Haggard the legends they are. It's all sodapop and it's far too safe and tidy in my opinion. Plus, those sumbitches stole my metalhead ripped jean culture thanks to Garth Brooks. It takes a bold mix of Ricky Scaggs-minded bluegrass and alt sways ala Mumford and Sons to show there's still pure country outside of the pure bull. Much as it takes a Jurassic 5 to make you believe there's still something left to the rap industry that's been ruined since Bone, Thugs 'n Harmony sold the genre down the convoluted river.

Johnny Cash was a visionary. If you ever saw his music variety show of the seventies, you'll note Cash had guests outside of country music appear, those being of the rock, R&B and pop threads. Pop in the seventies still had cred before disco, keep in mind. Cash did more to cross country music over to a broader audience and I think that supercedes his Man in Black aura. Writers and fans celebrate the rebellious nature of Johnny Cash (as well they should), but he later became a principled man after going through some son of a bitch ruts and it's his music and his love of music that speaks in his absence from this world. I think that's what Emmylou Harris and some of her open-minded contemporaries bring to the table.

You're never going to hear Rascal Flatts or Taylor Swift reach deep inside themselves (and a gorgeously crafted Neil Young tune) to produce a heart-wrenching ply to the soul like Emmylou Harris does, like Derek Trucks does, like Bonnie Raitt has the propensity do when she's not ordered to produce a mega hit. "Wrecking Ball" for me has become a personal instant classic and it speaks loudly of Emmylou Harris as a perfomer and interpretive genius. Unlike Linda Rondstadt, who made a career off of starchy country and pop covers, Harris has the ability to take others' work and craft it into her own. Harris has a collaborative nature, as did Johnny Cash, but moreso, she has a respect for her peers and her own talent. All of it is held in check though she bleeds her very aura into her performances.

Yeah, my parents were right. I grew up to like country music--at least that which was recorded from the mid-eighties on back. I'm actually glad to be the butt end of their well-intended joke. Like they used to holler on Hee-Haw, salllluuuute!

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