Sunday, December 22, 2013

That's What I Like About the South

It’s not what I’d call a holiday tradition -- it’s more like an end-of-the-year ritual for me -- but it’s definitely something I look forward to doing every December.

That’s when I dig into Oxford American’s Annual Southern Music Issue.

If you’re a music geek or you’re looking for a last-minute gift for the music geek in your life, hustle over to your local newsstand and pick up a copy. Thirteen bucks gets you a lot of great writing and plenty of top-shelf music.

This year’s theme is the “The Music of Tennessee,” and the tie that binds the essays and recordings this time around appears to be the zip codes of recording studios, not the birthplaces of the artists who cut at them. (Folks like B.B. King, Charlie Rich, Al Green, Otis Redding, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Ann Peebles waxed some classic sides in Tennessee, but they weren’t born in the Volunteer State.)

If you’d enjoy pumping quarters into a jukebox that allows you to jump from Isaac Hayes to Connie Smith to Big Maybelle to Big Star, you’ll enjoy the 2-CD set that comes with the magazine.

As for the writing, Oxford American always keeps the bar high. Whether it’s prose penned by music writers like Joe Nick Patoski and Robert Gordon or by music makers like Rosanne Cash and Jim Dickinson, you’ll read and re-read a lot of these pieces. (I keep back issues of OA’s Southern Music Issue on one of my bookshelves, and I regularly return to that musical well.)

Thirteen bucks not only gets you fifty songs, it gets you session bassist Norbert Putnam’s account of playing on a sham 1970 recording session that Elvis Presley set up to fool his wife, Priscilla.

Elvis may be dead, but print isn’t and neither are CDs. Go buy the issue.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

'Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving . . .

For damn near each of the last fifteen years, I've spent the night before Thanksgiving making music with friends in any number of watering holes around town.

This year will be no exception.

On Wednesday, November 27, my buddy Steve Doyle and I will once again set up shop at McKellin's Pub in Chicago's West Rogers Park neighborhood for (at least) three hours of old-time rock-n-roll and honky-tonk classics. We fully expect to be joined by any number of special musical guests.

All the fun starts at 6:30 p.m., parking is a snap, and there's no cover charge. Hope to see you at McKellin's, 2800 W. Touhy, as we kick off the long holiday weekend among friends.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Takin' It to the Streets

It was an easy decision for me.

First, the Bears don't play on Sunday, October 13.

Second, I'm not running the 2013 Chicago Marathon, which also takes place that day. Truth be told, I swore off marathon running at age 8, after watching an impostor steal Frank Shorter's thunder at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

So when a friend recently asked me to play music on October 13 in conjunction with "Art Round Trip," a Sunday afternoon tour of Rogers Park studios, galleries and exhibitions, I signed on.

But I did so only after enlisting an actual artist, my friend Brian Wilkie, to play this "arts" event with me. ("Art Round Trip" is sponsored by the Rogers Park Arts Alliance.)

Brian's one of Chicago's in-demand, A-list guitar players and it's always a treat -- and a learning experience -- for me to play music with him. Over the years, the man's shared stages with musical heavyweights from A (Alison Krauss) to Z (Zoot Sims). In his younger days, he worked professionally in Nashville with folks like Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan.

In any event, Brian and I will set up shop on the street in front of Xoro, a gallery located at 1228 W. Loyola Avenue, near the Loyola El stop. Should the weather look dicey that day, we'll play inside Xoro.

We'll be rockin' and rollin' from noon until 2 p.m. There's no cover charge. We may have some special musical guests, and we certainly hope to see you out and about.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Voice I No Longer Hear

I've got a pretty good ear for voices. Ten seconds into a recording, I can usually tell you that we’re listening to Faron Young or Carla Thomas or Jimmy Witherspoon or Shirley Horn.

In fact, just by typing those names, I can instantly conjure up the sounds of their singing (and, in some cases, speaking) voices.

But I realized today that I'm having a hard time remembering what my dad's voice sounded like.

Carla Thomas? I last heard her voice -- on record, mind you -- probably a month ago. My dad's voice? I haven't heard it since the morning of September 25, 1978.

Unlike Carla, my dad wasn't a recording artist, so I can't pull a CD off my shelf when I want to hear his baritone. And YouTube is no help because my dad died before we became a nation that videotaped everything.

I can't remember what we said to each other on that warm September morning, but I'm sure we had some rushed conversation while he got ready for work and I got ready for school. Had you told me then that it was going to be the last time I got to talk with him, rest assured I'd remember our exchange 35 years later.

I am still able to revisit many of the conversations that we had over the years; it's just the distinct tonal qualities of his voice I'm struggling to recall.

Johnny Hartman? I can hear his voice in my head in a split second. My own dad? That's a different story.

Luckily, though, I still remember tooling around Alsip, Illinois with him on a Saturday morning back in 1972. We were listening to the AM radio in our white 1965 Ford Galaxie 500. I was in the front seat (no seat belt) singing along with Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now." When the song ended, my dad gently told me, "Matt, it's 'I can see all obstacles in my way.' It’s not 'all popsicles in my way.'" That, of course, launched him into an entertaining talk on oft-misunderstood lyrics in pop music.

I remember being 9 or 10 years old and sitting with him on a Saturday morning in a booth at a diner in Burlington, Iowa. He explained the pick-and-roll to me using salt and pepper shakers and a ketchup bottle. Our waitress walked by the table several times and seemed to have no idea what my dad was doing.

I also remember talking to him a year or so later while we drove home from a Hy-Vee grocery store in Burlington. My then-unemployed dad explained to me why he had just paid for our family's groceries using something called "food stamps."

That stuck with me -- the same way I hope a similar conversation I had 7 or 8 years ago with my now 21-year-old daughter sticks with her. She and I were discussing the need for certain government programs that had recently been in the headlines. Until that particular conversation, she'd had no idea that she was a public aid baby. Neither her mother nor I had health insurance -- or even incomes -- when she was born. I wanted to provide my teenage daughter (by then, the child of two practicing lawyers) with some perspective. Did it sink in? Time will tell.

Back to my dad. I remember sitting with him at our kitchen table in Villa Park, Illinois in 1977 or early 1978. We were eating breakfast and somehow we started talking about death. (This was just a random conversation. My dad wasn't sick, and his fatal heart attack months later at age 39 came out of the blue.) During our conversation he mentioned two books that I eventually got around to reading years after his death. One was Evelyn Waugh's "The Loved One"; the other was Jessica Mitford's "The American Way of Death."

What I remember most about that conversation was my dad telling me that the funeral industry was a racket. Salesmen, he said, pushed people into making the third biggest purchase of their lives (behind houses and cars) at a point when buyers were least able to make rational consumer decisions.

He told me he wanted no part of that. "Put me in a pine box," he said.

Fast-forward to September 26 or 27, 1978. While my newly-widowed 37-year-old mom scrambled to find matching white shirts for each of her five boys to wear to the funeral later that week, I babbled to her about Jessica Mitford, pine boxes, and that relatively recent breakfast conversation I'd had with my dad.

I must have been a pain in the ass at 14.

Back when I could still remember the sound of my dad's voice.