Wednesday, August 13, 2008

This Summer's CD

In Nicholas Dawidoff’s excellent 1997 book on country music, In the Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music, a chapter deals with country songwriters, specifically that of one of the best, Harlan Howard. Mr. Howard’s operating procedures consist mainly of having a napkin, a pen or pencil, and an incredibly well-tuned and cleared-of-earwax set of ears. Mr. Howard is overly modest of his skills, as many country music practitioners tend to be. He does set pride, though, on his ability to catch phrases thrown out by others and then curl words around them into a song. At an L.A. bar a few decades back he overheard a couple talking, well, mainly squacking. The gal got up to leave, for good it seemed, and the fellow, about to be left behind but wanting to let her know he wouldn't be pining too long, bid her adieu with, "Well, why don’t you pick me up on your way down." Mr. Howard took that line and concocted "Pick Me Up On Your Way Down", which became a huge hit for him and for the Charlie Walker and Patsy Cline.

On Ry Cooder’s latest CD, I, Flathead, he borrows that song’s title and inserts it comfortably, like a slice of capicola (pronounced Gab a gool) in an Italian hoagie, into song #2, "Waitin' For Some Girl". Mr. Cooder, a sly and long-termed borrower of phrase and tune, gets away with this kind of stuff because he has the history, the talent, the chops, and the respect of his fellow songwriters and musicians. The line fits so perfectly in the song, that it rattled around in my head seeking purchase on memories of songs of long ago. There was a familiarity, but a shade removed. That's how "I, Flathead" is. A sound of long ago, of well spent mis-spent Summers of Youth when gas was cheap, cars were not computerized, and yesterday's mistakes were today's prideful tales. It's not that Mr. Cooder has processed old songs into highly produced new versions. All of the songs on the album are branded in his style, with spoken word and sung words intermixing. There is more of his unique guitar-playing here than in any album since Bop 'Til you Drop, IMHO. He's not a speed demon of a guitar-player but rather a deliverer of notes punctuated with sass and humor.
"5,000 Country Songs" and "Johnny Cash" would fit quite well with Mr. Dawidoff’s In the Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music while "Fernando Sez", "Filipino Dance Hall Girl", and "My Dwarf is Getting Tired" continue the spirit of his Chavez Ravine, the first of the Angeleno trio of CD's he's now completed.
All three of the trilogy are excellent albums. My preference is I, Flathead, but that may be only because it's still summer and this is an album to play in your car with the windows rolled down. And Hey! Gas is down to $3.54, so driving around with no particular place to go is a cheap thrill. One to be savored before the pump tries another hold-up on your lifestyle.

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