Was I Ready for the Country?
In the early fall of 1975 I was listening to my favorite radio station, WZZK-FM, in Birmingham. Formerly a soul station, ‘ZZK had been playing “Free Form” (non-playlist regimented) rock and roll for the past several years. Long versions of Neil Young’s “Cowgirl in the Sand,” the acid-drip sounds of Manfred Man’s Earth Band, unruly meanderings of something called The Michael Quatro Jam Band.
The disc jockeys — “Brother” Bill Levy and “Your friend,” Bob Gilmore — introduced me to the Marshall Tucker Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, King Crimson, and would play entire album sides like Yes’s Close to the Edge. Scarcely a hit found its way on their airwaves (I think they were 104.9, but have lost that thread now), though one night I called Bob and he agreed to play “White Rabbit” for me. I think that had been a hit, though maybe not at the top of AM charts.
I loved ‘ZZK. It shaped my harder musical life. And so I thought the world had ended on that fall night in ’75 when my friend Bob announced that this would be his last show — that indeed WZZK as we knew it was leaving and dying in something less or equal to 3/4 time. He didn’t say why, so I called in again.
“Yep, brother, the station is changing formats.
It’s going country.”
You could hear me screaming from Bessemer to Birmingham (or was that “From Boulder to Birmingham?”) though I doubt anyone did, or cared.
Of course, country music was the rage back in the mid-1970’s in southern towns like Birmingham. WZZK became the number one station in the area, blasting away even the corporate rock stations that rose in the old ‘ZZK’s whimpering demise. I was proud to say back then that I replaced my preset dial with something else (Kicks-106?), and I never, NEVER, listened in to whomever was DJ-ing the dulcet sounds of artists I couldn’t have named, though I imagined Kenny Rogers and Alabama.
You know, redneck schmaltz, or as the station and its brethren and sistren liked to call it, “Countrypolitan” music.
No way would I listen to anyone identified or associated with this “sound.”
I felt in solidarity with Brother Bill and Friend Bob in our outraged scorn. Country Music?
And then two nights ago my wife and I tuned in the sixth episode of Ken Burns’ extraordinary documentary series, Country Music. This episode was heavy on Waylon Jennings and Willie and their rebellion against the smooth Nashville Sound. Nothing “countrypolitan” about these men. After the episode, I immediately downloaded even more Waylon and he’s been on constant play ever since. If you haven’t listened to his Dreamin’ My Dreams in a while, let me urge you in that direction.
And then you’ll see the fade-in image of what a fool I am.
For not only did I breathe country music during my childhood and try to abandon it during my teens and early twenties, I believed I had successfully done so.
And then, on Burns’ sixth episode, I saw Emmylou Harris’s gorgeous face, and heard that voice. My wife and I saw Emmylou live back in the 90’s when she was produced by Daniel Lanois. The Wrecking Ball tour. Not everyone loved her non-Bluegrass sound, but we did. And even then, it didn’t occur to me that I also loved the Bluegrass Emmylou from way back when.
Way back when I first heard her on WZZK, when it was still “Free Form” rock.
“From Boulder to Birmingham” they played.
Oh my god.
Oh my country.
And then I remembered: they played Charlie Daniels, too (“Uneasy Rider”); they played the Burritos, The New Riders of the Purple Sage, of course the Dead.
Gram Parsons, the Byrds” Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Neil Young’s Harvest. Anything by Dylan, but especially Nashville Skyline.
Maybe you wouldn’t have wanted to drop acid to these sounds, but believe me, you could easily get high while singing “Out on the Weekend,” “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” or Emmylou’s rendition of “Here, There, and Everywhere,” which WZZK played the hell out of.
Yep, everywhere, but after the change, not in my house.
Sometimes I think it’s the ironies of life that make all this worthwhile. In the past two years, we’ve seen Eric Church, Roseanne Cash, Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam, Chatham County Line, Rhiannon Giddens, Jim Lauderdale, and The Mavericks, live. I’d love to see Tanya Tucker, Sturgill Simpson, Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, Kris K., Rodney Crowell, too, and if I could get the chance, I’d drive a thousand miles to nowhere to hear Loretta Lynn.
Is Jack White country? Him, too.
And it really kills my soul that Waylon, and George Jones, and Tammy Wynette, and Merle Haggard died before I could be saved by them.
I still love my rock and roll, and have seen Bruce Springsteen live more times than I have any other artist. But it’s the Johnny Cash and Ray Charles shows I saw that sustain me.
What I’m saying is that while I’m an idiot, I’m willing to learn and to ask forgiveness and to have my soul redeemed and “rocked in the bosom of Abraham.”
I’m with Waylon: “Let’s Turn Back the Years.”
Or at least revel in the sounds we’ll always have.
If you like this, give me a shout, too, at firstname.lastname@example.org, where I’ll add you to my mailing list.