A Magical, Musical Gumbo
A Taste of Southern Music
Tell about the South. What's it like there? What do they do there? Why do they live there? Why do they live at all? William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom
The American South is a geographical entity, a historical fact, a place in the imagination, and the homeland of an array of Americans who consider themselves southerners. The region is often shrouded in romance and myth, but its realities are as intriguing, as intricate, as its legends.The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture
For at least a century and a half the South has fired the imagination of musicians and songwriters. As a land of romance and enchantment, and as the home of exotic peopleboth black and whitethe South has inspired a seemingly unending body of songs that speak longingly of Old Virginia or the hills of Caroline, while also singing the praises of the region's towns, counties, hills, rivers, bayous, plains, and people. As a source of songs and musical images, the South has spawned a veritable industry of songwriters, from Stephen Foster, Will Hayes, and Dan Emmett in the nineteenth century, to Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael, Allen Toussaint, Tom T. Hall, Dolly Parton, and Hank Williams, Jr., in our own time. Visions of lonesome pines, lazy rivers, snow-white cotton fields, smoky mountains, and hanging moss have ever ignited the creativity of America's poets and lyricists, while also fulfilling the fantasies of an audience that prefers to believe there's a land where time moves slowly, where life is lived simply and elementally, and whose inhabitants hold clearly defined values and dearly love to make music. Bill C. Malone, The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture
Any essay on Southern music would have to have as its goal an attempt to discover a defining thread that weaves its way through all the various styles and genres of music that emanate from the American South. The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, in its Music section, lists at least eighteen distinct styles of Southern music.
Alphabetically, one might begin with bluegrass, the distinctive music of Appalachia and end with string band music, one of the South's major folk music forms. In between these brackets would exist most of the musical forms we would associate with the Great American Songbookthe music Americans have given to the world.
The turn of the nineteenth century saw the emergence of three highly influential forms coming out of the African-American community: jazz, ragtime, and blues. The people that made this music were of the Civil War generation. Ragtime is considered to be the first truly American musical genre and was popular as dance music before being proliferated as sheet music and made available to the world. Out of ragtime grew the earliest jazz forms. These forms spawned Dixieland, swing, bebop, cool, and all manner of jazz-fusion musical elements.
The blues grew from African-American spirituals, work songs, field hollers, and shouts and chants. Its influence on rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll is well documented and its practitioners from W.C. Handy to Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters are American musical icons. Its uplifting cousin, gospel music, with its dominant vocals and spiritual message, has its roots in the South and has spawned its own genres including urban contemporary, progressive Southern, bluegrass gospel, and Christian country all with the purpose of expressing a personal or communal belief regarding a Christian life.
Country music, with its strong attachment to southern working class culture, has roots running back to gospel, celtic, and the folk music of Appalachia. Its genre has produced the likes of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash as well as the top selling solo artist of all time, Elvis Presley. Country music, country and western, hillbilly, honky tonk, or whatever brand one chooses, utilizes the instruments of guitar, fiddle, dobro, steel guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass, and drums to create a music that has endured and accounts for the majority of album sales in the U.S and the world today.
Southern music is a vast territory. It should come as no surprise that the defining thread of Southern music is in the music itself and the artists who created it. The Oxford American magazine has been producing compilation CDs since 1996 to accompany its annual issue on Southern music. These issues are filled with the stories of the artists that made the music.
Following are excerpts from the stories of just a few of the seminal figures of Southern music, both past and present. These stories give us a taste for the unusual ingredients that make up this magical, musical gumbo known as Southern music.
As Oxford American Founder and Editor Marc Smirnoff relates in his notes from the first Southern Music issue, “there is much to the subject; much to consider; much to return to; much to learn.”
Zora Neale Hurston
A Florida Frenzy
Folklore, the Oral Art, what Zora Neale Hurston called “the boiled-down juice of human living,” was in a wild, primordial phase when the WPA's Federal Writers' Project assigned her to record what she could of it in Depression-era Florida. Tales and songs were being chiseled out among the cultures that made up this motley state. The slippery legend of Daddy Mention, an unruly convict, was evolving among the prison work gangs of Duval County; the “hustling, chanting stevedores and roustabouts” of Jacksonville had their own dark ballads; elders could recount the last “Indian fighters” retreating from the Panhandle; and from Tarpon Springs down through the Keys, you found a hothouse of Greek, African, Latin, and Caribbean cultures, largely unassimilated but coexisting, thriving with the still-fresh, raw material of mother countries. “No other State in the Union has had the history of races blended and contending,” Hurston wrote in her proposal to chase these figures down; in Florida, she insisted, there was still “an opportunity to observe the wombs of folk culture still heavy with life.”
Reading about her research in the rural South, you begin to understand how mythologically thick the region was. How vocally rich. Song rhythm cued the axe and hammer; storytelling interrupted the monotony of crickets. The way Hurston describes it, in one account or other, there was something fantastic about the landscape then. Hardly a day passed without someone at some distance breaking into song. Not a mild, civilized whistle, but loud song.
Collecting, for her, was an impulsive process. She'd overhear a song somewhere, track it down, get the formalities out of the way, and dip herself into the music, absorb it, sing along until she could sing it on her own, take a few notes, and move on. Her senses were tweaked for the next moan or line rising from a yard or from around a corner, from a field or rail. This attunementto voice, to song, to subtleties of expression, physical or tonalwas perhaps her finest skill.
Add to all this singing the risk of violence, rooted in a suspicion of outsiders. “Primitive minds are quick to sunshine and quick to anger,” she wrote. “Some little word, look or gesture can move them either to love or to sticking a knife between your ribs. You just have to sense the delicate balance and maintain it.” Measuring the heads of random passersby in Harlem (her first assignment as an anthropology student at Barnard) must have taught her something about improvisation, about the ten-second window in which you earn or lose a stranger's trust, because much of her song collecting was flat-out dangerous. Among the turpentiners and their murderous foremen, she found grim Conradian scenes where humanity had failed (while surviving, of course). On some nights, she collected songs through duets with men whose jealous women sought to cut her open. She carried a pistol, took no victims, but came awfully close to “old club-footed Death.” Her work was never dull. She ran with a tough woman named Big Sweet, learned hoodoo from a witch doctor named Frizzly Rooster. She boiled black cats. She painted lightning on her back.
In mid-June, 1939, she returned to Jacksonville with folklorist Herbert Halpert for a recording session at the Clara White Mission, where they invited rail workers, musicians, and grandmothers to share as many tales and songs as they could fit on tape. She prodded, choreographed, led a chorus, coached, but finally unleashed her own bright performances.
“Crow Dance” is one of them, which she likely picked up between South Florida and the Bahamas. She'd overheard West Indian migrant workers singing in Miami, late 1920s, and followed her ear to Nassau, where she joined every ceremonial dance she could, learned every move, and left with over a hundred songs, a film (now lost), and the raw material for her folk revue, The Great Day, which played off Broadway for a while in 1932.
“Crow Dance” involves a dancer at the center of a circle, imitating the sacred African buzzard as it stoops, eats, and flies away. Zora knew the buzzard's part cold, and probably showed a step or two that afternoon in Jacksonville. The songs she delivered there make for a catalogue of lost culture you could easily, and pleasantly, lose yourself in (the Library of Congress has at least a dozen that feature Zora in the lead). There's the gambling song, “Let the Deal Go Down Boys,” the jumpy “Halimuhfask” (Halifax), “Shack Rouser,” and the bawdy “jook” song “Uncle Bud” (“Oh little cat, big cat, little bitty kittens/Goin' to work their tails if it don't start fittin'”), at the end of which, the starchy Halpert adds, “I think that was a very valuable contribution to scientific recording.”
Halpert may have blushed, but you can bet Zora didn't, and we can consider ourselves lucky she ramrodded through any prudish hesitation, because the song, like every othershaped by Zora's loud, high-pitched, diva-of-the-shower warblingpreserves a species of joy and rhythm, a paradise regained every time you sing it.
The Bluesman as (Comic) Antihero
When I first listened to Hopkins, in my early imitative, looking-for-the-real-authentic-thing phase, I hadn't fully differentiated his country blues from the country blues of Mance Lipscomb, say, or Robert Johnson, or Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, or others I found on various compilation albums. He was part of a general sound, a mode, rooted in thumping, or sometimes walking, bass lines, and bright punctuating runs and solos high up the neck. That scratchy sound was, for me, the honest blues signature, and I listened indiscriminately and tried to come up with my own approximations. It was only when the singers gradually sorted themselves out in my mind that I was able to identify the distinctive features of their styles and, through that, get closer to the more personal side of their idiom. But it happened.
Over time, Lightnin' Hopkins became one of my mainstays, and I stopped listening to the songs, one by one, as cuts, concentrating on special favorites; instead I entered his musical zone, at last figuring out that while the man himself probably never thought of them in this detached, pattern-seeking way, these songs were all of a piece. They made up, with some projective filling on my part, a world, and this is saying something more than we can say of most singersthough all performers give us a kind of emotional autobiography in the songs they singbecause over and over, literally, Hopkins sings himself, or a version of himself, into his blues, and this self is, at least on one level, consistent: It is Hopkins as comic antihero.
What fascinates me is how, over the large body of his recorded work (at least the bits I've sampled over the years) this figure, this put-upon, cuckolded, hard-luck Lightnin', can live alongside the voice of the darker, more haunted, more traditional blues, like “Death Bells” and “Baby Please Don't Go.” Part of my listening lately has been to try to figure out how this works.
I don't often read the descriptive material included in CD packages, not the way I used to read the liner notes of my albums back in the golden days of vinyl. Not only is the print often painfully minuscule, but I don't have the same interest I did in those kinds of particulars. I did, however, make an exception for Lightnin' Hopkins, and what struck me, straight off, was the obvious: that the material of his songs was more or less the material of his life.
Born in Centerville, Texas, in 1912, Sam Hopkins, like so many of the great blues musicians, started making music on a homemade cigar-box guitar, but if that was a liability, he compensated for it by learning his chops early on from Blind Lemon Jefferson, a family friend. After that, if I may compress an odyssey to the space of an index card, he backed up his cousin “Texas” Alexander, traveling mainly around East Texas, and eventually went off on his own. I feel ridiculous, writing this, pretending any factual knowledge, but the CD notes tell about gambling, sharecropping, recording songs for hundred-dollar flat fees whenever he could, bootlegging, and everywhere and always singing and playing, improvising his life into his music as he improvised his music into his life. As Hopkins told folklorist Mack McCormack:
You see, my songs are practically all true songs. They about something real to my way of knowing. Like all that has happened to me is liable to get into my songs...that time I was out in Arizonasupposed to be pickin' cotton, but I got to gambling and then I got to going over to Mexico and bringing back wine and bootlegging it to them Indians on that government reservation. That's liable to be in a song. Or that time it was trouble up home, or when they got me on the county road gang, or had to say goodbye to some good girl, or be thinking of going to Galveston Beachall that's liable to come up in my songs.
Well, maybe this explains it, how after listening to enough Hopkins, song superimposed upon song, with variations popping up again and again over the decades, you get, if not a strict biography, then the texture of a lifeall the scenarios of bars and late-night gigs and gambling and traveling and falling for, and falling victim to, women. But these scenarios, often as not, aren't distilled, as they might be with many another artist, into suffering bluesthough God knows Hopkins has his suffering blues, toobut they are made over into personalized comic misadventures, with frequent self-referencing, the singer presenting himself as “Ol' Lightnin'” or “Po' Lightnin'” or some such. So in the course of long listening we hear the saga of the “Whiskey Headed Woman” and the “Short Haired Woman,” and the woman who makes off with his new car in “Big Black Cadillac Blues;” we see him randy and cocksure in “Sugar on My Mind” and “Let Me Play With Your Poodle,” and cuckolded in “You Is One Big Black Rat,” and on and on. Mostly the voice is sly, with Hopkins preening himself on being a good-hearted but susceptible man on the prowl, as a man of the streets who hates to work and loves the good life.
This is finally what also allows there to be a natural continuity between Hopkins's picaresque blues and the more traditional bluesy expressions, of which he is likewise a master. We don't hear two different performers, but one, a man for whom comedy and sorrow are both honest responses to his travails. The split does not undercut the authenticity of either voice. If anything, it strengthens it, encouraging us, over time, to know the singer as fully, rambunctiously, painfully human. Hopkins singing of loss or longing is of a piece with the victim squeezing a laugh from his most recent misadventure. We accept these divergences in our great writersin Shakespeare, Dickens, O'Connor, Beckett, Bellowand the same assumption of breadth lets us accept them here.
Listeners may find it difficult to resolve the conflicts inherent in a character rapper who moves from rampant misogyny and ultra-violent behavior to more conflicted themes.Allmusicguide.com review on Mississippi: The Album
He is forced to choose, lady and tiger fashion between being an artist and being a man. William Faulkner, introduction to The Sound and the Fury
The Escalade is lined with Gucci interior. The recognizable black-on-black stitching of two interlocked bold-faced Gs. So subtle. So fresh. So clean. David Banner got the custom design done to match his wallet, which he throws in a cup holder. Then the .45. Then the midget .9mm. Now he's comfortable. It's an eight-hour drive from Atlanta to Jackson, where Banner was born, where he's bringing me along to help him move out of his sprawling Mississippi mansion, with its pool and private manmade lake to a temporary home in a suburb. A few hours in, at a gas station down I-20, we stop. Banner lifts the impossibly heavy butterfly doors up and over his SUV, grabs his wallet, and steps out to refuel. That wallet, fat on cash, is symbolic to Banner. A girl gave it to him years ago before he had anything to put in a wallet, before a reported ten-million-dollar deal with Universal Records. Back when he was living in and selling mix tapes out of the back of a red Chevy Astrothe same van that is still parked in the driveway of his childhood home, and where that black Escalade, with monogrammed headrests and deafening sound system, pulls to a stop shortly after 10 a.m.
This is my second trip to the Magnolia State. I was first in Mississippi in the wake of Trent Lott's remarkable announcement, at Strom Thurmond's one hundredth birthday party, that America would be in a better place had the century-old segregationist been elected president in 1936. After an even more befuddling interview on BET, and resigning from his post as majority leader, the Senator retreated to Pascagoula. Having never been to the South, and even though it was the dead of winter, I thought this was as good a time as any to visit. It was just after Christmas, and I was staked outside the Lott home, hoping to catch a glimpse of the man and the place he supposedly represents. I was reporting for the now-defunct While You Were Sleeping magazine, which I ran at the time. A fun period when I could assign myself any ridiculous story I wanted. Days passed. But he did not appear. New Year's Dayanother year gone, another war lost, the senator is a ghost whose shadow darkens the doors of his constituency.
Emptyhanded in the Gulf, I drove north. Stopping along the way in Clarksdale, still New Year's Day, a minister outside a package store had described the town as a burying ground, just another byway. He'd clearly not heard the bass coming from the community center around the corner, nor bore witness to the sweaty anarchy of a weekly teen dance that, according to Eddie the chaperone, wouldn't get crunk till after nine. Crunk. The word had been around for at least a decade, but was still relatively indigenous. In a year or two, crunk would be added to the Viacom lexicon. It would become an energy drink. But in 2003, it denoted a specific feeling, place, and music that was either wholly unknown or hated in the North. Crunk captured what went down in that community center on that January 1 when the DJ threw on Lil Jon's “I Don't Give a Fuck.” Any kid who'd stayed up in the bleachers for “Time for the (Percolator)”whether tired, shy, or just mean muggingwas now rushing the court. I Don't Give a Fuck. I'd heard the song before, but had not understood. I Don't Give a Fuck. The girls grab their ankles. The guys throw their elbows. I Don't Give a Fuck. The nihilistic celebration. The cathartic violence. I Don't Give a Fuck: the punk politics of crunk.
This is where I heard David Banner's “Like a Pimp” for the first time. A club banger, if there ever was one. A song of such fierce, unabashed sexual aggression, it's scary. But it's crunk as hell. When Banner tells the girls to get down on the floor, to touch their toes, it's a demand. And, from where I sat, above the crowd, they do.
Everyone at that New Year's dance knew that “Like a Pimp” was a hit. It must have been as obvious to Universal, which released it as the first single from Mississippi: The Album. But, possibly to the chagrin of his label, the song is not emblematic of Mississippi as a whole. Banner's ambition exceeds the single-mindedness of a crunk hit. He's writing about Mississippi, a state so confusedtorn between pride and shame, defined by greatness and lossthat it claims both David Banner and Trent Lott as icons.
In name alone, David Bannerborrowed from The Incredible Hulk's alter egoadmits to a certain level of schizophrenia, an uncompromised, possibly unconscious, duality. Uncommitted to an identity or sound, Banner moves wildly between gangster and educator, pimp and activist, rap and rock. Such honesty can be frustrating. To some, it may even make him unlikable.
To be an artist or to be a man? In 1933, William Faulkner, probably drunk and alone, reflected on the pain of being from the South. Faulkner tried both coursesto indict and to escapeand in The Sound and the Fury he did both. Seventy years later, in his own ambivalent work, David Banner confronts the realities of being black in the poorest state in the union while simultaneously retreating into a Romanticized Gangstadom. A song so inherently conflicted as “Cadillac on 22's,” one that uses an idiom of braggadocio and bling to discuss real pain, tragedy, even God, is what make Mississippi: The Album so identifiably Southern. It is why Banner still has that the red Astro Van parked out front, when he's leaving in an Escalade on 24 inch rims, his hand gripping a wood-grain steering wheel. Why he may be packing up his drum machines and Air Jordans, but insists he won't sell his Mississippi home. It is not only a reminder of what makes Banner more than an artist; it is his birthright, his past, which, he knows better than anyone, isn't even past. Lord they hung Andre Jones. Lord they hung Reynold Johnson. In the same breath, Banner will escape. Not into a make-believe region of magnolias, mocking birds, and swords, but into a candy-colored 'Lac with suicide doors. Into the club with a bottle of Grey Goose and five hundred dollars in ones. After all, he's also a man.
Country Music in Black and White
The last time Louis Armstrong came to Nashville was one warm Friday afternoon in early October 1970. His American Airlines Astrojet was a little late, but that didn't discourage the delegation waiting for him, which included the high-stepping, one-hundred-and-forty-piece marching band from Tennessee State (the major black university in the state at the time), a cadre of country session musicians who'd played with Armstrong, representatives from ABC television, and a flock of local reporters who didn't know what to make of what was happening.
The Astrojet rolled to a stop, and a small dapper man in a bow tie and dark suit made his way slowly down the steps. The State band exploded into an ear-bursting version of their fight song, drowning out the smattering of applause from fans and musicians. By Armstrong's side was Lucille, his fourth wife, with him now twenty-nine years. Armstrong himself was approaching his seventies, and was in poor health. His doctors had advised him to stop playing his trumpet and confine his shows to singing; instead, he began secretly practicing in his bathroom at home. (Just a couple of weeks before he came to Nashville, he played a two-week stint in Las Vegas with a version of his All-Stars.) He finally talked his doctors into letting him make the trip to Nashville to plug his newest album and be a guest on the short-lived television pro- gram The Johnny Cash Show, which was taped at Ryman Auditorium. “I ain't never felt better and had less,” he quipped to the crowd.
The Armstrongs were escorted to a room where a press conference had been set up. The first few questions involved Armstrong's health, and whether he was planning on retiring. “I told somebody not long ago that I'm going on one more world tour before I call it quits,” he said. “They said, ‘Okay, we've got you booked somewhere in East Siberia and see how that turns out.’ I said, ‘That's all right, man, I hear they got a lotta babes up there, so go ahead and book me.’ But I'll tell you this: If I do retire, I won't go back to driving a mule.”
When the laughter died down, talk turned to the new album, Armstrong's first to feature country songs and a country back-up band. Produced by Jack Clement, Johnny Cash's longtime friend and producer, the album was due to be released in a few months; instead of the classic Hank Williams/Eddy Arnold repertoire, it included a strange mixture of Nashville products like Claude King's recent hit “Wolverton Mountain,” the David Houston cheatin' song “Almost Persuaded,” and the innocuous “Running Bear” by J.P. Richardson (a.k.a. the Big Bopper). Was Armstrong making a statement by recording white, working-class music? “There's no such thing as black man's music and white man's music, as far as I'm concerned. It's all music, daddy. Now that's putting it in black and white. It's all music. It's all about love.”
Then it was time for Armstrong to go. As he left, he turned to offer a benediction: “The Lord will help the poor, but not the poor and lazy, so get in there and wail.”
Louis Armstrong was not all that unfamiliar with Nashville or country music. In the 1950s and '60s, when he was still barnstorming the country with his All-Starsa combo that by then included figures like trombonist Trummy Young, pianist Billy Kyle, clarinet player Edmond Hall, and drummer Barrett Deemshe often played in Nashville. He was a favorite of the Old South, Vanderbilt crowd, one of whom once described his music as “that happy jazz sound,” and he regularly played a concert in the Vanderbilt auditorium to celebrate the Clinic Bowl, a charitable event sponsored by the city's Chamber of Commerce.
But the first time the All-Stars played Ryman Auditorium, the leading venue in town and home of the Grand Ole Opry, Armstrong was already the center of a disturbing incident. In February 1957, he and his band played a show in Knoxville, Tennessee, at the city-owned Chilhowee Park, for an audience of two thousand whites and a thousand blacks. The show's announcement triggered protest from a local segregationist named John Kasper, leader of the White Citizens Council, who opposed concerts by “racial mixed” bands (as the All-Stars were at the time). The show went on as planned, but midway through an explosion went off near the stage. Incredibly, no one was injured, and Armstrong vowed to continue his Southern tour.
Two weeks later, he was scheduled to play a date at the Ryman. Still nervous over the Knoxville incident, the Nashville police and Ryman's management decided that the seating for the concert would be segregated. Blacks would all be seated on the main floor, while whites would be seated in the huge wraparound balcony, in the old “Confederate Gallery.” Blacks were furious. The local NAACP chapter, as well as the Nashville chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, organized a boycott of the concert. Letters were sent to local black leaders urging them not to buy tickets; they even wrote to Armstrong's agency asking that the seating be integrated or the concert be cancelled.
Though Armstrong went on with the show, the boycott influenced the city's black community; of the two thousand blacks expected to attend, only three hundred showed up, scattered about the cavernous main floor. Upstairs, the balcony was jammed with two thousand foot-stomping, hand-clapping white fans. In a review of the concert, the Nashville Banner wrote: “The nice thing was that ‘Satchmo’ put everybody, like Humpty Dumpty, back together again.” Armstrong's only comment was, characteristically, couched in musical terms: “Boy, this was a real jam session.”
But in its own way, the incident helped galvanize Nashville's fledgling Civil Rights Movement; within months the legendary sit-ins were mounted at segregated downtown stores and lunch counters.
By the time he arrived in Nashville that October day in 1970, Armstrong had been a major star in American music for over thirty-seven years and had performed everything from jazz classics like “West End Blues” to Hawaiian songs to gospel to pop fluff like “Among My Souvenirs.” His career had started at the very dawn of jazz, when he apprenticed with the great King Oliver band in the South Side of Chicago in 1923. Over the years, he constantly redefined his music, moving from the legendary Hot Five sessions that set the standards for what would be called “Dixieland” to his big band of the '30s, in which he showcased his soaring trumpet solos on masterworks like “Chinatown, My Chinatown.” By the late 1940s, he redefined his work again, dropping his big band and forming up a tight touring combo called the All-Stars, which at its peak included white Texas trombone player Jack Teagarden, Ellington alumnus Barney Bigard on clarinet, and pianist Earl Hines.
During the course of all this, Armstrong had amassed a discography of well over a thousand records, though only a handful of them could be called country. Still, the ones he did record, he remembered fondly. “I made a lot of country songs way back,” he told a Nashville reporter who was dubious that Armstrong had any idea of what Nashville was all about. “People today don't know this. I recorded a lot of good ones, like ‘Your Cheatin' Heart’ and ‘Cold, Cold Heart,’ and even appeared a time or two with the late Jimmie Rodgers back in the early '30s. I remember the days when they called country music ‘hillbilly music.’ Then names went to styles of songs like ragtime, Dixieland, bop, or swing. But it all starts way down there in the nitty-gritty.”
The session with America's Blue Yodeler, Jimmie Rodgers, has fascinated romantic scholars who have insisted on seeing it as a symbolic watershed meeting between two genres, and as one of the first integrated sessions in the annals of country. At the time, neither Armstrong nor Rodgers thought much about it. They met in Hollywood on July 16, 1930, at the end of a long session to stockpile Rodgers's records. Rodgers had worked up a version of “Standing on the Corner,” which he was going to call “Blue Yodel No. 9,” and his producer, Ralph Peer, was casting about for a trumpet player to back him up. Armstrong and his wife at the time, the pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong, just happened to be in town on vacation, but Armstrong was always up for a little freelancing.
Armstrong had been creating a cottage industry for himself through back-up gigs with a wide variety of blues singersBessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, Bertha “Chippie” Hill, and others. To him, Rodgers was just another singer who needed back- up. The original Victor session sheets don't even mention Armstrong by name (instead, one reads, “acc. by trumpet and piano”). Nor was his name included on the original releases for the song. For years, the only way to know for sure that Armstrong had been on the session was a handwritten note from Rodgers that mentions him as the trumpet player. One reason for this might well have been that Armstrong was still under exclusive contract to the rival Okeh company (he would soon sign with Victor Records). The fact that Armstrong could remember the session some sixty years later suggests that he, if not his record company, was impressed with the event.
In the 1950s, as Armstrong began to expand his role as an entertainer and singer, he, like almost every other pop singer in New York, tried his hand at some of the new Hank Williams songs that Fred Rose and Mitch Miller were pushing. Armstrong didn't have the chart success with “Cold, Cold Heart” that Tony Bennett had, or that Joni James had with “Your Cheatin' Heart”; but his singles were solid journeyman renditions, and each contained a well-wrought Armstrong trumpet solo. During the next decade, Armstrong the singer, following up on “Hello, Dolly” (1964) and “Mame” (1966), found himself venturing into even stranger territory. He recorded “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” for a Disney album, a single with Guy Lombardo, a duet with Barbra Streisand, a tour de force version of “Saints” with Danny Kaye, a disastrous pairing of “Mack the Knife” with the great Berlin cabaret singer Lotte Lenya, and later a version of John Lennon's “Give Peace a Chance.” Fortunately, there were moments of glory, too: a series of albums produced by Bob Thiele that featured a modern classic reading of “What a Wonderful World.”
So it wasn't really that much of a stretch when, in the spring of 1970, Armstrong was approached by two producersNew Yorker Ivan Mogull and Nashvillian Jack Clementto consider an all-country album. Since the late '40s, Nashville had been an unheralded center for rhythm & blues, and in more recent years major black stars like Ray Charles (1962), the Supremes (1965), and soul singer O.B. McClinton (1971) had made popular country albums. Furthermore, Jack Clement, who spearheaded the project, was Cowboy Jack Clement, who spent his early days playing and producing rockabilly at Sun Studio in Memphis, and who was now a major Nashville producer pushing his hot new discovery, the first modern black country star, Charley Pride. The reporter who asked Armstrong if his coming presaged an interest in blacks to start performing country hadn't done his homework.
The album was put together in August. Clement selected the songs and chose the best session players from various studios. Guitarist Billy Grammer led the group, with Larry Butler on piano, Willie Ackerman on drums, and Stu Basore on steel: a tight, typical Nashville sound. The basic tracks were cut at Clement's studio and then sent to New York for Satchmo's vocals and a little horn section sweetening. Clement later recalled that they had no trouble adjusting the songs or arrangements to Armstrong's style. The result, he said, was “very identifiably Louis Armstrong.”
Rather than saddle Armstrong with a familiar round of Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, and Jim Reeves chestnuts, Clement sought out more current songsones that would appeal to Armstrong's sense of humor and emotion, and not insult his musical intelligence. The most popular songs were Nat King Cole's 1962 hit “Ramblin' Rose,” David Houston's career song from 1966, “Almost Persuaded,” and Claude King's saga song, “Wolverton Mountain” (1962).
Clement added one of his Charley Pride chart-toppers, “The Easy Part's Over” (1968), and Sonny James's tragicomic Native-American song, “Running Bear” (1969). Satchmo seems to have the most fun, and gives his best performance, on Clement's own “Miller's Cave,” a bloodthirsty account of adultery and murder that sends the singer off with a series of evil chuckles as he fades out. Armstrong applies his best ballad style to “Crystal Chandeliers” (from Carl Belew) and a lesser known country blues number called “Black Cloud,” penned by future Nashville mayor Bill Brock.
Louis “Country and Western” Armstrong was released on the Avco-Embassy label, out of New York. It sold modestly and was ignored by all of the Nashville papers. And though nobody knew it at the time, it would be Louis Armstrong's swan song: the last album of a recording career that spanned six decades and redefined American music.
The Monday after the airport press conference, Armstrong shuffled up the ramp to the Grand Ole Opry stage at Ryman Auditorium, over to where they were filming The Johnny Cash Show. He walked unsteadily to his seat on the set and took a few tentative phrases on his trumpet. Then someone came out and presented him with a white, ten-gallon hat the size of a wedding cake, and he broke into his famous smile. Things loosened up. Backed by show regulars Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family, he did a medley of songs from the new album: “Running Bear,” “Ramblin' Rose,” and “Almost Persuaded.” Then Cash himself, cracking a rare grin, moved in and sat and talked with him about Jimmie Rodgers, one of Cash's heroes. Yes, Satchmo remembered backing him on “Blue Yodel No. 9,” and yes, it would be fun to try to recreate it. So with Cash playing Rodgers and Armstrong playingwell, himselfthe pair brought the audience back to 1930. Cash and Armstrong swapped choruses on the old blues standardCash doing a swaggering vocal, Armstrong playing a dynamic, elegant series of trumpet breaks, in spite of the fact that his doctors in New York had told him to stop playing for good.
In a sense, this was one of those unique cultural cusps that seems to occur only in American musicthe kind that gave rise to Western swing, rock & roll, and rhythm & blues, one of the better nights at the Ryman, a place, Lord knows, that has seen its share.
When it was all wrapped-up, Armstrong returned to New York. Within nine months, he would be gone, dying at home in his sleep on July 6, 1971. But one of his great testaments had been left behind in Nashville, committed to film on Cash's show, seemingly forgotten by Armstrong's fans, but creating an indelible memory for Johnny Cash, Ray Edenton, Jack Clement, and those who were lucky enough to have been in the Ryman that night. In a technical sense, it would become a lost chapter in country-music history. But in a broader sense, it remains one of those shining, egalitarian experiments in American roots musicwhich they actually pulled off, like the two great pros they were.