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Saturday, June 11, 2005


“Sweet music makes the same old story new again”
-- Harry Warren and Al Dubin, “Sweet Music”

I’ve been re-reading this wonderful book from 1969 by a man named Paul Hemphill, “The Nashville Sound.” I can’t recommend it too highly to anybody interested in good writing about popular music. Hemphill was a reporter; this was his first book. He’s a white guy from the south; his dad was a long-distance trucker. The book is a survey of the country music scene, starting off at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, a popular Nashville hang-out for country musicians, and encompassing profiles of songwriters, promoters, producers, DJs, singers, and back-country country people who build their own fiddles and don’t have electricity. Describing Glen Campbell’s ascent to stardom and sudden wealth, he puts in a quick allusion to “The Whiffenpoof Song,” a Yale University singing club song from 95 years ago or so. Hemphill says, “It’s a long way from the tables down at Tootsie’s to the place where Campbell dwells.” The song starts, “To the tables down at Morey’s / To the place where Louie dwells.” (It’s not so odd that a book on country music would make a quick nod to this bit of upper-class northeastern whiffenpoofery, because the Statler Brothers had recently recorded an upbeat version of it that, I gather from the Statler Brothers' collections, became a hit.) (And it occurs to me now, Richard Berry may have named rock and roll’s most famous bartender after this song.)

So I put on my one Rudy Vallee CD, thinking about the tables down at Morey’s and the place where Glen Campbell dwells, and came across that great line about Sweet Music, quoted above.

Carl Wilson has been discussing what makes Coldplay bad, (I kinda like Coldplay, in the small, random doses I’ve gotten). Deep in the comments he says something about the originality and depth of the Mountain Goats’ new album “The Sunset Tree.” In rockcrit contexts, “depth” usually implies “depth of thought or insight,” but what makes the great songs on “The Sunset Tree” work is the depth of songwriting smarts and of feeling -- songwriting including the sharply observed and evocative words as well as the “Sweet Music.” Darnielle tells his tale with a verbal vividness that makes it something other than “the same old story,” but what takes his words -- excellent as they are -- to another emotional and perceptual plane is the Sweet Music. As I am quite sure that Carl would agree.

P.S. This has nothing to do with Coldplay or the Mountain Goats, except that it seems very rock and roll -- old school. My Rudy Vallee CD is a 1998 reissue of an album from 1956, long past Vallee’s heyday. The booklet notes are from pre-rock pop historian Ian Whitcomb, who, when he met Vallee, asked him what it was about his voice that made his fans so devoted. Vallee answered, “Deep in my throat is a phallic symbol.” And since we're on the subject of phalluses deep in throats, I do want to say that this movie presents a much more plausible, unified theory of Watergate than anything Mark Felt or Bob Woodward or convicts like Gordon Liddy say.
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