Moby Grape: Americana Lost and Found

God only knows how many ways I’ve tried to avoid using the term “Americana” in describing the music I love. My go-to response has at times been “it’s a radio format, not a genre,” but I’m aware it’s deeper than that. I just don’t like the word, and it’s an itch I can’t seem to scratch. And when even the Americana Music Association can’t exactly understand or articulate it — handing out lifetime achievement awards to folks like Richard Thompson, Robert Plant, and this year’s recipient, Van Morrison — a singular music blogger would be best served by just falling in line. So I have, at least for this moment, chosen to bend in the blowing wind and accept the inevitable. Go pitch your enormous tent, throw it all under the canvas, and call it whatever you want. I surrender.

 

It was actually something that Jason Isbell said while on the Charlie Rose Show that tipped me over. Wish I could remember exactly what he said, and I’m too lazy to hunt it down. But it was much more convincing than AMA’s honcho Jed Hilly’s description: “If you can taste the dirt through your ears, that is Americana. It is music that is derived or inspired by American roots traditions. I think that’s pretty solid.”

I think it’s pretty lame, but Jed’s heart is in the right place so he gets a pass and I get off my horse. Go forth Americana … and to quote No Depression co-founder Peter Blackstock from when O Brother, Where Art Thou? broke out into the mainstream, “This is the next medium-sized thing.”

 

Y’all probably remember Moby Grape, but if not let me give you the thumbnail version. Three guitars, a bass, and drums. Everybody sang, everybody wrote. Infinitely talented. They wore cowboy costumes: boots, buckskin fringe jackets, and other similar Western wear. Their incubation occurred 50 years ago in San Francisco during the infamous Summer of Love, and they were victims of poor management, record label ineptness, marketing plans that undermined their music, and at least one member suffering from mental illness. In later years, another ended up homeless.

 

Rolling Stone, prior to it becoming a fashion magazine with occasional music marketing fluff, called the band’s debut album “a stunning artifact of San Francisco rock at its ’67 peak. Jerry Miller, Peter Lewis, Don Stevenson, Bob Mosley, and Skip Spence all sang like demons and wrote crisp pop songs packed with lysergic country-blues excitement. And the band’s three guitarists – Miller, Spence, and Lewis – created a network of lightning that made songs like ‘Omaha,’ ‘Changes’ and ‘Hey Grandma’ shine and sizzle.”

 

While those three songs are probably their best known, I’ve often preferred the more acoustic ballads and straight country blues they offered. And in addition to the debut album, all of their work still stands the test of time, with songs that sparkle and shine and are ripe for rediscovery.

 

I was fortunate to have seen the band several times in the late ’60s, and each set remains etched in my brain. They are a touchstone and tentacle to my youth, and although I often enjoy reminding people of their existence, I imagine that they’ll never get the institutional recognition from the Americana cartel. Without a label to promote them, a new product or tour to promote (Hi Van … hope to see you on the road later this year), a rabid publicist, or tragic demise, they are destined to remain in the dustbin of time. ’Tis a shame.

 

 

Postscript: Skip Spence died of lung cancer two days before his 53rd birthday on April 16,1999. He was survived by his four children, 11 grandchildren, a half-brother, and his sister. Oar was his only solo album, recorded in Nashville over seven days in 1999. Originally meant to be simply a group of demos, his manager convinced Columbia Records to release it and it holds the distinction as being the lowest-selling album in the label’s history.

Ross Bennett from Mojo magazine:

“Combining the ramblings of a man on the brink of mental collapse with some real moments of flippancy and laughter, Oar is a genuinely strange record. Unsurprisingly, the journey from “Little Hands”‘ Grape-esque guitar grooves to “Grey/Afro”‘s terrifying nine minutes of mantric drone isn’t an easy one. Even when Spence builds his songs around a familiar sound (primarily minimalist country-folk), unsettling oddities and ominous modulations creep in.”

More Oar: A Tribute To the Skip Spence Album, an album featuring contributions from Robert Plant, Tom Waits, Jay Farrar, and Beck, among others, was released a few weeks after his death. Prior to its release, the CD was played for Spence at the hospital, in his final stages before death. Spence is interred at Soquel Cemetery in Santa Cruz County, California.

 

This article was originally published as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column over at No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music.

Together Again: A Buck Owens’ Classic With A Bad Hombre Picture

There are probably many people who don’t remember that OJ Simpson was found liable for murder back in 1997. With all the Hollywood weirdness of the earlier criminal trial in which he was declared innocent, there was another civil trial by jury that determined he was liable for the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. One juror claimed after hearing Simpson’s testimony that “he was not credible,” and another said that “finding OJ Simpson liable of the murders and acting with oppression and malice was one of the easiest decisions I have ever had to make.”

When The Juice made headlines recently with the news that he would be released from prison after serving nine years for armed robbery, I pulled up this old photo of him with the man who currently lives in the White House and immediately thought of this song.

 

That there is Tom Brumley playing pedal steel guitar, and he was in the Buckaroos throughout much of the ’60s and then eventually joined Ricky Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band. If you know the song “Garden Party,” that also was Tom doing the tasty licks. His dad was Albert E. Brumley, the gospel songwriter who penned “I’ll Fly Away,” and, if you can believe Wikipedia, Tom’s solo in “Together Again” was the inspiration for Jerry Garcia to learn the instrument.

I was originally going to share a personal story regarding OJ, me, and the record store I used to manage back in the ’80s in Santa Monica. Might have mentioned that my first apartment in West LA was less than a football field away from Nicole’s condo, too. And then I planned to discuss my well developed theory about how that infamous televised ride in the white Ford Bronco triggered the death of the music industry and eventual rise of social media. Really. Every damn picture on Instagram, your Uncle Alfred’s cat on Facebook, $250 scalped tickets for a Gillian Welch concert, Bono’s sunglasses, and Jack White … I can trace it all back to OJ.

But the song … it took me away.

 

The only time I ever saw George Jones was in an empty restaurant at a suburban Nashville  shopping center during the “early bird” special they served on weekdays. Met Tanya Tucker twice, and she was like spit and hellfire. Short, too. Did you like it when she says “Glen … “ at the beginning of the duet? She’s talkin’ to Campbell, of course, who also recorded it for his Burning Bridges album.

Buck Owens had a number one hit with “My Heart Skips a Beat”’in 1966, and the B-side … do I really need to explain that … was “Together Again.” Ray Charles covered it right away, and it reached #19 on the Billboard pop chart. And in 1976 Emmylou Harris released it as a single and was able to take it to the top of the country chart. This is from a Dutch television show called TopPop.

 

After that there was a duet by Kenny Rogers and Dottie West in 1983, Dwight Yoakam covered it (of course) because he covers all of Buck’s songs, there was a Filipino version from Guy and Pip, an electronic dance abomination, Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan, Vince Gill, and one from Swedish singer Jill Johnson.

Most interesting, at least to me, was that in 1981 a Norwegian singer named Elisabeth Andreassen put out an album titled Angel In The Morning, which includes not only “Together Again” but also Kirsty MacColl’s “There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis.” And while much of her career is tied to the Eurovision Song Contest, which is a big deal in that part of the world, in 2004 she released A Couple of Days in Larsville, which included a Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman song.

And with OJ and Trump soon to be “together again,” I’m going to let Elisabeth sing us out:

This old town is filled with sin
It’ll swallow you in
If you’ve got some money to burn
Take it home right away
You’ve got three years to pay
And Satan is waiting his turn

 

This article originally was published as Easy Ed’s Broadside column over at No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music.