How Did You Get to This Music?: A Winding Road from Riot Grrl to Townes, Zappa, and Beyond

Great question Kim. For me it was Richard Nixon, Sammy Davis Jr., Jerry Jeff Walker, Joe Ely and the Ramones.  "Mr. Bojangles" was Nixon's favorite song (strike one) and I wasn't a fan of The Candy Man's version (strike two) but those two were the reason I knew the song. And then I heard Jerry Jeff Walker's version of HIS song on the double live  A Man Must Carry On in 1977.  Home run.  I moved to Houston in 1979 and I spent hours in the public library on my days off.  One day I pulled an album (100% vinyl in those days) from the stack and for some reason the charcoal sketch of a guy in a cowboy hat caught my eye and when it hit my turntable it caught my ear. Joe Ely.  In 1982, the conversion not yet quite complete, I bought tickets to see the Ramones.  The opening act? Jason and the Scorchers. Jason in his cowboy hat and worn cheap sneakers (neither really punk nor cowboy) wailed and rocked while Warren Hodges ate a cigarette and shredded his guitar.  And that is why I'm here (wherever here is).

Richard Nixon. You ARE old. I love that the music got you to Texas. Music has gotten me to every city I've ever lived in, except the one where I grew up. But, it could be said it made that one bearable. Good stuff!

Loved Sammy Davis Jr. singing The Candy Man...and Don't It Make My Brown Eye Blue.

Marshall Tucker Band at the end of high school, specifically the Together Forever album.  To this day I love the jam on the first song, I'll Be Loving You, and Change Is Gonna Come is a terrific tune.  The live version of 24 Hours At A Time on Where We Belong is such a great live recording of them at their peak. They were a great mix of blues, jazz, rock and country.  They drew big crowds during their heyday but seem underappreciated now. Had not been into country or country rock until them.

Gordon Lightfoot.  Started with Gord's Gold and then bought almost everything he did before and since.  Shadows may not count among his strongest records with a lot of his fans but it was one of my favorite records during college and I still love it, not just out of nostalgia.

Los Lobos, the cover art on How Will The Wolf Survive caught my eye and I bought it, then saw them live a few months later at Summerfest in Milwaukee. Best live show I'd ever seen to that point. So eclectic. 

The Blasters, my roommate brought home Hardline when it was released, stopped me in my tracks. Couple years later I went to see Los Lobos unaware that Dave Alvin was opening during his first solo tour. Think that was '87, and through him I learned about so many...Kelly Joe Phelps, Tom Russell, X, Chris Smither, Bill Morrissey, the Skeletons and the Morrells, Derailers, and I forget who all else.

I'm engaged in a personal question to hear every artist mentioned in the intro of Kristofferson's Pilgrim Chapter 33.  I still haven't picked up anything by Norman Norbert or Paul Siebel.  The former doesn't seem to have anything in print.

You may be an oldie, Hal, but you're a goodie....


OK....let's first address this Sammy Davis Jr. thing. I'm probably the only person here...scratch probably...who attended Sammy's funeral at Forest Lawn. At the time I was working at Captitol-EMI in Burbank (not in the tower on Vine) and we were doing some sort of Sinatra promotion. Even though it was my dad's music, I got sucked into the whole Rat Pack vortex, especially gravitating to the smoky country music of Deano and the whole 'it's groovy baby' vibe of Sammy. When he died and I knew he was being buried just down the street, me and a couple of co-workers went to pay our respects. 

In order of exposure: The Jive Bombers. Ray Charles. Anthology of American Folk Music. Herman's Hermits. Stones. Beach Boys. Porter Wagoner. Murray The K Live At The Brooklyn Fox Theater. Lovin' Spoonful. Moby Grape. Walter Carlos. Gabor Szabo. Beefheart. Zappa. Buddy Guy. The Paupers. Frummox. Dave Van Ronk. Curved Air. Amon Duul. Harry Partch. Dead/NRPS. Romeo Void. X. Blasters. Steve Earle. Britney Spears. 





In 1965 Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin played the Kiel Opera House in St. Louis. Johnny Carson was subbing for Joey Bishop as MC. It was filmed for close circuit transmission to movie theaters, the footage was forgotten and never shown on TV until the late 90's, which is when I saw it when living in St. Louis.  Not sure how widely it was shown around the country outside of St. Louis but if you haven't seen it, it's well worth tracking down. I believe this video is the last 15 minutes of the show. Watching the film is where I became a big Dean Martin fan. Anyway....

Let's address this Sammy Davis Jr./Mr. Bojangles thing faux pas. Try as I might I could not substitute Easy Ed for Mr. Bojangles but then it came to me.....

"Who can take a sunrise, sprinkle it with dew
Cover it with choc'late and a miracle or two
Easy Ed can, oh Easy Ed can
Easy Ed can 'cause he mixes it with love and makes the world taste good"


Not a dry eye in the house. 

Kim wrote:
"Do you have a Townes-to-Frank scale? "


In my case it's obvious. Thanks for reaching out to me to share it on No Depression . . .



Great piece, Kim - thanks for sharing. For me, it's a classic case of "if I knew then what I know now." It was 1983 and I was 15 when I first saw the video for The Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" from"The Last Waltz" on MTV. It's not only that the song on it's own is outstanding, but the way Levon put every fiber of his being into singing and drumming it had me hooked. Yes, the "Waltz" concert had been long since passed by that time - what can I say?  I was a teenager raised on classic rock and  late to the party. But I ran right out to the video store(yes, video store) to rent a copy of their epic farewell show. I think I have watched it at least once a year ever since(now on DVD, however). It was a year later in 1984 when I first heard Peter Buck's magic in the opening chords  of REM's "Pretty Persuasion" -  it grabbed me by the shirt, pulled me in and taught me how to open my ears and stretch into something fresh and new. While it took me another 25 years before I discovered and  immersed myself into the roots/Americana/alt-country(whatever that is) genre, I think the road to that point was paved by my interests in so many other styles of music along the way. I look back now on that moment when The Band's music first spoke to me and it makes perfect sense. But I'm quite certain most all of us that enjoy ND have similar stories. I think the question and the answer, for almost all of us, can be found in David Byrne's voice: "Well, how did I get here?' "Same as it ever was."

Paul, the Band; so great. I have trouble watching The Last Waltz simply because of the extreme focus on Robbie Robertson by his friend Martin Scorsese, to the exclusion of the other band members. By the time it was recorded, the demise of the group was imminent, which leaves the film with an underlying air of sadness, not unlike the movie Let It Be. The Band is a perfect example of the whole being more than the sum of it's parts. Sure, Levon's subsequent work not withstanding, none of the individual members solo work comes close, in my opinion. I'm sure you've heard all of their albums (that's what they used to be called!). As for me, I think that the brown album, The Band, is a masterpiece; every song wonderful, and I prefer those versions of those songs to the live versions available. By the way, if you haven't already read it, Levon's book "This Wheel's On Fire" provides some interesting, if biased, insights to the Band's inner workings. And, if you're anywhere near Myrtle Beach (Pawleys Island, actually) near the end of October, there's a Band tribute show I participate in each year, lot's of fun.

No one shining moment, but rather an evolution that went like this: Mom singing around the house; late 50s/early 60s AM rock and roll radio;  older siblings 45s  and LPs; learning the guitar from a Kingston Trio instructional LP. Then all the folkies: Baez, P, P&M, Clancy Brothers; FM Radio;  then on to bluegrass, blues, Celtic music. Then via the public library and college radio, tracing each music as far back as I could, ultimately to the field recordings of various ceremonial  music of Native Americans, Pygmies, Eskimos. Keeping an ear on classic country and jazz, too. All the while playing in multiple bands at any one time.  What a long, strange trip it has been thus far.  And it is not over yet.  

I can pick out one epiphany, through the mists of memory,  though. I was about 16, and heard an old blues singer on college FM radio, don't know the artist, but it was solo voice and guitar (not Sonny & Brownie).                It ran like this:

"You don't know, You don't know my mind (2x)                      When you see me laughin', laughin' just to keep from cryin' "    

That hit me like a tsunami, a realization that some must hide their true selves from the world.  That was far beyond my adolescent experience.  


Some great replies to an excellent column/topic by Ms. Kim. As for my own lonesome self, I came to roots music via jazz which, though typically considered a fine art, I also consider roots music. So, although I studied jazz piano and theory and have made a journalistic living largely as a jazz critic and visual art critic (with a BFA, and ultimately covering all the arts for nearly 20 years for a medium-sized Madison newspaper). I always had more than a passing interest in the other American vernaculars, and wrote about them periodically.
But then my wife divorced me, a rough time, and I suddenly had the overwhelming feeling that I needed to listen to music that had something specific to say to me, to my situation, and state of mind and spirit. And there appeared Townes Van Zandt -- I had long ago somewhat filed him away after buying his For the Sake of the Song album which I thought, like many, was overproduced.
But I started to pay close attention to him again, cult legend that he was, almost as if he was Bob Dylan. And to reference Steve Earle, who I had been a big fan of for years, it turns out Townes is just about worth extolling while standing on Dylan's coffee table. I suppose I suddenly responded to the morose pain and tenderness and irony, and the poetry and wit, in his near-monotone performance. I listened to Townes daily for at least 6 months, which I've never done with another artist. I still love jazz very deeply, but these roots music were more direct inlets to meaning for me at that emotionally vulnerable time. That said, I'm hoping to publish a book soon about what I consider much of the meaning and value of jazz. So roots music has expanded my love of American music by leaps and bounds, and perhaps it has put a different set of wings on my ears, ones that fly lower and listen for the down-home beauty in the excellent phrase, of both lyric and music, for the literary life and songful glory of same. I know I look funny now, in your mind's eye, but that's the way it is.

Gateway album...don't know for dad started buying me 45's when I was a little kid, maybe age 5 or 6...there were teenagers manning the record player at Joe's Record I got (and still have) Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry,, like Todd Snider, did not buy that "bullshit" about Rock and Roll being the Devil's music...the first record where the words and music really made the hair on my arms stand up was Jackson Browne's first album (the one that says Saturate Before Using on the cover, which is not the title)...other artists had sung about getting back to the water for rejuvenation, the highway, the complicated nature of relationships, breakups, the death of friends, sex, the pollution of our world, that feeling of excitement, fear, and wave of emotion when you leave your father's house for the first time to go away, whether it is to college or out into the world, the apocalypse...I listened to that record a whole lot of times before what he was singing about really clicked..."For Everyman", almost two years later, cemented it...Jackson Browne was the artist for me...Dylan couldn't sing in my opinion, so it took me a lot longer to get to his music, and I still prefer other artists performing his music...Neil Young and CSNY were probably next...the great thing about music is there are still artists I hear now and then that I get just as excited about as I did the ones that woke me up to the possibilities that exist with words and music...I've heard a number of great albums this year...don't know if it is all the political unrest, but there's some amazing records this year...Mark Erelli, Brandy Clark, Sturgill...and easily the best record I've heard in years, "Willow Springs" byMichael Mc Dermott...that guy is truly musical nerve endings are alive and well...