Tuesday, January 23, 2007

More Thoughts On Area Code 615

Thinking back to the post a few weeks back about Charlie McCoy and the Area Code 615 loop at the heart of Bubba Sparxxx's song "Jimmy Mathis," I have discovered a good interview with Area Code 615's late and much missed pedal steel player Weldon Myrick that sheds a great deal of light on the group's origins and creative process:

"In the late '60s there was an influx of artists from New York and LA who were digging country sounds... Some of the guys in the companies thought that some of the Nashville studio folks should get together and do an album. Elliot Mazer got us together, and Wayne Moss had a little studio out in Madison. There was nine of us , and we would go in and work on ideas and songs. A good majority of the ideas came from Charlie McCoy and Wayne. We would work all day on one song, changing this and that. It took us 17 sessions to get that first album together." This work process represents a remarkable change from the usual production routine in Nashville-- a level of creative freedom and mutual input that is audible, I think, in the music that the group created. For working musicians who still struggled to get by on studio wages, the sacrifice of time and money that the collective creation process represented is pretty amazing, too.

According to Myrick, the group shopped the demo around, and ultimately sold it to Polydor, who paid retroactively for studio costs and agreed to finance another album. The William Morris Agency signed up the group and apparently had "big plans" for them. Myrick recalled that none of the group's members wanted to give up the seniority they had gained in the Nashville studio system, and so the touring and other commitments that being a full-time concern would have entailed.

I have also been trying to further explore the meaning of Charlie McCoy's harmonica within the symbolic matrix of Bubba Sparxxx's music. Two new ideas have come to mind. First, when musing on why I felt the urge to include the example of DeFord Bailey, the Grand Ole Opry's harmonica player (and sole African American performer)of the 1930s, I did a little more legwork, and recalled that Bailey had been unceremoniously fired by Opry boss George D. Hay in the early 1940s. The details behid Bailey's firing are murky, and they are at least partially related to internecine fights over BMI and ASCAP affiliation during ASCAP's wartime recording ban. Even Stephen Hawking would have a hard time figuring out the intricacies of that conflict. That is, if he studied antiquarian pop music history instead of astrophysics. Given that he does study astrophysics, I guess I shouldn't be surprising that he would have a hard time figuring out the BMI and ASCAP war. But I am still disappointed.

But another element of the story is that the wildly popular DeFord Bailey never spoke on air nor was ever identified by the Opry's announcer as black. The harmonica playing thus embodied a kind of racial slippage or indeterminacy, related to but different from the racial indeterminacy at the heart of the Opry's blackface duo Jamup and Honey.

As Louis Kyriakoudes notes, "DeFord Bailey's presence on the early Opry stood as an unintended acknowledgement of the biracial elements of old-time music. Bailey was central to the Opry—his harmonica performances were among the most popular on the program—and the radio did not directly indicate his race. But Hay refused to accept him as an equal member of the opry, referring to Bailey as 'a little crippled boy... [who] was our mascot.' He typically required Bailey to play alone and restricted him to a limited repertoire until he was fired, ironically, for not learning new tunes."

I also forgot to properly contextualize the harmonica and Charlie McCoy as part of the late 1960s construction of a defiantly southern country music in Nashville. Bluegrass music and honky tonk country had maintained an uneasy coexistence in the late 1950s and early 1960s, faced with the challenges of rock and roll on the one hand and countrypolitan on the other. Nevertheless, while both honky tonk and bluegrass enjoyed a "hard shell" status in contrast to the "soft" sounds coming out of Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley's studios, they were very different forms. Not only was bluegrass acoustic and honky tonk electric, but bluegrass maintained a rigid sense of moral self-discipline, while honky tonk explored the nether regions of modern anxiety. It was in the context of the electricification of bluegrass in the late 1960s, best represented by Jim and Jesse and the Osborne Brothers that the harmonica became firmly ensconced in "Nashville country music" as we now know it. The bleed-over into the construction of Nixon-era whiteness and George Wallace-ite southern conservativism is unmistakable. Between the Osborne's "Rocky Top" and Jim and Jesse's paeans to the organic community of southern textile mill towns, it is not hard to see how the "new" sounds of late 1960s country would map on to new values and politics. Or perhaps, sometimes a harmonica is just a harmonica?

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