I have to admit it from the get-go -- I ain't been doin' much rootin' over the past two months. In fact, I've been downright rootless.
In the past two-and-a-half years, I've moved five times to four different cities in two time zones. I've had seven addresses, five phone numbers, seven voicemail boxes, eight e-mail addresses, five jobs and seven different health care plans. Since I graduated from college in 1986, I have never lived out the term of an apartment lease.
My aunt says it's because I'm a Sagittarian and was born under a Gemini moon. My grandmother just tells people, "Just hang him up on a nail any old place and he'll be happy." When she says this, I just nod my head, scratching it when she's not looking.
But like every red-blooded American male, the first thing I unpack upon arrival at a new abode is my stereo. The CDs have to wait a few weeks.
After all, I have over 1,200 of them -- the result of generous record company PR mailouts and the resultant trade-in bounties realized in my earlier, acquisitive years. I also shelled out some cash for a few of them, but that's not something we unpaid critics relish sharing with complete strangers.
When I finally get up the courage to rip open the boxes containing the family jewel boxes and begin the tortuous task of re-alphabetizing them, shelf by tedious shelf, I am always immediately struck by how little of my collection would be of interest to most any other human or member of the rodentia family.
Unless, of course, they get all hot and bothered at the mere mention of Peetie Wheatstraw and Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers or find themselves trying to tree a raccoon when Grandpa Jones yelps at Old Rattler.
Despite the warm, familial feeling engendered by clawhammer banjo and Morris-dancing internet newsgroups, die-hard roots music fans are a pretty isolated, obsessive lot -- myself included. After all, what kind of 10-year-old drags his mom to the Arlington Park racetrack for a mid-'70s Chubby Checker performance at a van show, and then scours CD bins years later for the orignal Parkway recording of "The Hucklebuck?"
For years, roots music and my pursuit of the lost, out-of-print Delmore Brothers, Wynonie Harris, Jerry Lee Lewis or Al Green recording has imbued each new move with a cloying sense of urgency and historical importance.
Scouring a new town's used CD, record and book stores and scanning the alternative weeklies, zines and left-of-the-dial college and public radio stations quickly sheds light on the local roots music scene and gives me an illusory sense of community and rootedness.
The store with the cool, hip-to-the-Stanley Brothers guy behind the counter and the out-of-the-way restaurant with that obscure George Jones Musicor cut drifting over the stereo or jukebox begin to take on almost iconic, spiritual status.
When I look through my boxes of LPs, 45s, 78s, tapes and CDs, I can recall exactly where I bought each and every one of them and what I was doing the first, second, third and last time I played a particular song.
Each picture sleeve, thumbworn spine or faded price sticker sends my mind spinning through a Rolodex of memories, searching through jumbled faces, maps, shows, apartments, streetscapes and conversations dredged up from some placed I briefly visited or someplace I not-so-briefly lived, like Virginia, Atlanta, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Chicago or St. Louis (my most recent pitstop).
It's easy to see how tiring all of this can get. And how tiring it is to read about it, as well.
So, last week, as I pushed and shoved one month's of survival gear into my hatchback for the drive to my new home of Kansas City, I was faced, yet again, with the need to edit my entire musical collection down to a few essentials to tide me over til the "big move" reunites me and my boxes of road-weary vinyl and plastic.
I always put this off as long as possible, recalling the stress of that icy October night in 1994 when, on the eve of my three-month Toyota-trek across the Great Plains, I agonized for hours over which 200 "Great American Desert" discs would make Case Logic CD organizer cut. I ended up listening to every single CD that made that long trip.
But I must confess that Rod Stewart's Never a Dull Moment (PolyGram) and Luna's Bewitched (Elektra) racked up some serious repeat-play mileage at the expense of my roots touchstones such as Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and Hank Snow.
Long drives alone give me a lot of time to think and drink in the landscape. And on that trip, I learned that I didn't necessarily need to program my every move like a preconceived movie soundtrack. That Earl Scruggs's banjo didn't need to start a-ringin' the moment I careened over a rocky ridge in Tennessee or rural Missouri, or that the Flying Burrito Bros. didn't always paint the perfect backdrop for a frigid, frighteningly empty Joshua Tree sunset.
Two years, countless CDs, and several apartments have come and gone since that realization hit me like a soggy ice cream sandwich. All this movement and editing of my personal clutter has caused me (make that, allowed me) to focus on a few good things at a time.
I'm still a nomadic job-hopper and a high-risk rental candidate, but I find myself re-reading old books, playing the same CD day after day and actually enjoying a wonderful long-term relationship for the first time in my life.
Yikes! Could this mean I'm getting older, wiser, neither or both? The answers might lie in the contents of the black, 24-CD organizer I tucked into my backpack before embarking on my mini-move.
The slippery, comfortable drone of Luna and Rod the Mod's aural apex are front and center, alongside Sinatra's breezy Songs for Swingin' Lovers (Capitol), The Complete Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington Sessions (Capitol), Nat King Cole's Jumpin' at Capitol (Rhino), Louis Prima & Keely Smith and that old Bohemian hepcat, Antonin Dvorak, and his String Quartet No. 12 in F Major.
Don't worry. It gets worse. Or better. Depending on your proximity to my apartment.
Billie Holiday's Love Songs (Columbia) and Stephane Grappelli's Shades of Django (MPS) have been fighting New Jersey acoustic guitarist El McMeen and his Of Soul and Spirit (Shanachie) for top billing on the low-key morning or late evening time-alone circuit, with osbscurities like Tanika Takirim and Fairground Attraction slipping in for some autumnal wistaria now and then.
An all-too-short Hank Williams collection and the now truly late, great Townes Van Zandt's stunningly sparse, Roadsongs (Sugar Hill), provide the raw, burning base for Dylan's Bootleg Series (Columbia) and Highway 61 Revisted (Columbia) and the Stones' Exile on Main Street (Virgin) -- an album I only truly learned to love while almost running out of gas in front of a suspicious, xenophobic crowd of leather-skinned farmers in Livingston, Montana.
What's left? A few hastily grabbed selections,including the budget-priced Columbia Classics retrospective, The Nashville Sound (Charlie Rich's achingly honest, "Behind Closed Doors," The Man in Black's "I Still Miss Someone" and Ray Price's bluesy "Night Life"), Willie's still-magical Red-Headed Stranger (Columbia) and Mississippi John Hurt's supple 1928 Sessions (Yazoo).
Let's not forget Sam Cooke's The Man and His Music (RCA), The Best of Maggie Ingram (Nashboro/AVI), a transcendently subtle slice of '60s southern black gospel, Van Morrison's surging Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast (PolyGram) and A Rose of Swych Virtu (Dorian), the Musica Antigua de Albuquerque's ghostly take on religious music from the Middle Ages and Renaisssance.
It's been three days and I've only listened to two or three of the two dozen eagerly awaiting their chance to live up to the adjectives just heaped upon them by yours truly. Maybe it's because I've been too busy just getting situated, reading up on the new town or just enjoying a little peace and quiet with my oh-so-significant other before plunging into yet another new job.
But it's comforting to know that, when I lose the crackling mono-only signal from the Sunday night bluegrass show I'm barely picking up across the frozen prairie to the West, I'll still have 24 slices of meandering musical memories to tide me over in the event of a real emergency. Like the cancellation of this week's "X-Files" or a sudden movement from within the spongy confines of my rental Futon...
Most of the releases reviewed in Rootin' Around can be found at your local roots-friendly record/CD store, in the ever-expanding CD section of our very own Rootin' Bookstore or online at Miles of Music, Roots 'n' Rhythm Mail Order, Rockhouse Music and Village Records.
- By Kevin RoeKevin Roe