Wednesday evening I went to a small town fifteen miles from home to attend their Wednesday evening summer concert in the park series. I didn’t find out about the concerts until a week ago. Last week I listened to barbershop music, something I haven’t heard in thirty-five years. A barbershop choral society, a group of about thirty men, performed eight or ten song. After a short intermission, five or six barbershop quartets performed three songs each, interspersed with bad jokes. By bad jokes, I mean the ones that make you groan as much as laugh. For example: “the title of our next song is ‘Don’t Worry, You’ll Get Your Blanket Back’.” “No wait, it is ‘Fear Not, For Thy Comforter Shall Return’.” This week it was Irish and Scots music.
It was another beautiful evening. The concert began at 7 pm, and they begin on time. Last week we got to the parking lot right at 7 pm and they were already singing. So this week we got there ten minutes early. They run a tight ship. We joined the over two hundred folks there sitting on collapsible chairs, placing our lawn chairs about in the middle, about thirty yards from the stage. A week ago with the barbershop music, we were among the few in a crowd of about five hundred who did not have white hair and need a rolling grocery bag cart to haul our lawn chairs. This week, the average age seemed to be just below our age, and a noticeably smaller audience. Last week’s audience was also better dressed, with many more having their hair “done” at a salon. This week, more looked like their hair was “done” at a saloon. We were facing the northwest, the stage and band shell facing the southeast. It was partly cloudy, about 80 degrees. As the music played, I tilted my head back and watched the clouds. One large cloud was
be prepared to be transformed to a different time and place. Let the music help your soul to remember your own past, present, and future.” Perhaps. Perhaps her three band mates wrote that, for when they play their instruments and hear her sing, observing her attractiveness at twenty years or more their junior, they are transformed to a different time and place. Not that anyone would or could reasonably blame them.
They were entertaining. The musicians were skilled and accomplished. I don’t know enough to detect minor mistakes, and I certainly didn’t detect any mistakes. The vocals were pleasant. They also told some bad (groaner) jokes. For example: “Two Irishmen walked out of a bar.” For many people when they think of Irish & Scots folk music, they think of the fun and happy dance songs, the jigs, reels and waltzes. Most of the dance songs are non-vocalized. Some of the sung music tells quite funny stories, some with ironic twists at the end. Much of the vocal music are Caoineadh (pronounced kwee-nah, meaning crying) songs. To me (with my weak musical knowledge), these are played in a minor key, and at a slower pace. Given that many of these songs originate from the mid-nineteenth century, a common theme is exile or emigration, a friend, family member, or lover who is taken away or decides to go away and never returns. They are songs about hopes crushed, desires unmet, wanting left empty. You have to have a pretty hard heart to listen to those songs and not feel the pain. In barbershop music, I doubt that there are any blues, any sad songs; they are all fun and games. I like Irish and Scots folk music better, and the range of emotions in the music might be an important contributing factor to my preference.
Less than a week ago at the same band shell and for a different event, a local festival and not the Wednesday concert in the park series, I listened to a country music band whose subtitle is ”Real American Country Music.” They played 1950s and 1960s style country music. On their Facebook page they describe themselves as “Neo classic Country music band. For fans of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard, Jimmy Rogers, and so on and so forth.” The band was composed of five guys ages 18-32, three of whom, from banter between songs, seemed to have been together for a dozen years, while the newest member, bass player Matt, playing an acoustic bass with an electronic pick-up, looked to be all of eighteen years old. He had blushed-red cheeks, a big cowboy hat pulled down over his ears like the way the bull riders wear them. I guessed he was the newest member because he had a music stand set in front of him with sheet music of the songs. He focused on the sheet music, and between each song flipped the front sheet to the back of the stack. The lead singer is Czech, which has to be rare for country music since few Czechs settled anywhere south of the Mason Dixon Line and the Ohio River or west of the Mississippi. They looked like they were having an awfully good time playing and entertaining. They played a few Johnny Cash and Hank Williams songs (famously, “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)”: “Jambalaya, a-crawfish pie, a fillet gumbo…son of a gun we’ll have big fun on the bayou”), but mostly played their own compositions. These were in a style of Cash and Williams, and Owens, Frizzell, Haggard, Rogers and so on and so forth, and in the vocal range mostly of Cash. To my ears, what they played was not just genuine American country music, it was real. Like Irish and Scots music, their repertoire included dance tunes, funny songs, and sad songs of loss and longing. Perhaps again it is the range of emotions that helps explains my preference for “Real American Country Music.”
Real American Country Music, or RACM, was followed by a “Nashville Recording Artist” from mid-Michigan, whose band plays in the style called “contemporary or new country.” That is a style fusing more traditional country with a pop and rock sound. I am baffled about the “traditional country” part. Maybe it is traditional in two senses: the themes that are expressed in the lyrics are traditional (sorry to stereotype: dogs, horses, beer and whiskey drinking, pick-up trucks, infidelity, no-good men and loose women, and family values), and the vocalists have or affect an American southern accent. See, you can grow up in Michigan or even Liverpool and sing in an American southern accent. The Nashville Recording Artist, or NRA, was entertaining, her vocals were strong and precise, the band was skilled, and there was a slight change in the audience in the transition from the RACM to the NRA. The volume amplified for the NRA was significantly more than for the RACM. And I was getting tired; it was Friday 9 pm after a long week of work. So after about three songs from NRA, I was ready to head home.
Half an hour after sundown, clear sky, low humidity, temperatures in low 70s, windows down, cicadas, crickets, dairy, fresh-cut hay, and I am hungry for jambalaya and cheap beer.