Author Topic: Robbie Fulks' article in GQ  (Read 1773 times)

Robbie Fulks' article in GQ
« on: July 11, 2003, 02:01:00 pm »
Granted, most of you youngn's will probably care less about this article...
 
 JULY 2003 GQ
 starting on page 95
 
 AMERICAN SCENE
 
 Sex, Heartbreak and Blue Suede
 
 For more than seven decades, the Grand Ole Opry has been country music's premier
 stage and radio show - a bastion of Nashville respectability where Patsy Cline
 got
 her start and Johnny Cash once kicked out the footlights. A pop punk hillbilly
 crashes its rhinestone gates
 
 by ROBBIE FULKS
 
 Photographs by NORMAN JEAN ROY
 
 
 ONE SATURDAY LAST SUMMER, I Went to Nashville to sing at the Grand Ole Opry. I
 rented a car at the airport, put the windows down and drove the five smoothly
 curving miles up Briley Parkway. The weather was transcendent, and I was
 feeling
 giddy. I switched on WSM 650-the AM radio station that got the Opry going
 seventy-seven years ago and has broadcast it every weekend since-and immediately
 heard a promo with my name amid a cluster of '50s pioneers and a few new Garth
 types. I had to laugh out loud. What was a pop-punk-hillbilly obscurity doing
 sullying country music's premier stage? It seemed like a cosmic error, but the
 mundane fact was that two of the show's regular stars, Gail Davies and Jean
 Shepard,
 liked my music and had gradually worn down the gatekeepers on my behalf. No
 matter
 how I had arrived, it felt too fantastic to be true.
 
 PHOTO CAPTION: Brand New Opry. Country singer songwriter Elizabeth Cook is the
 kind of young talent the Opry is recruiting to secure its future.
 
 The sprawling suburban complex called Gaylord Opryland comprises a hotel,
 convention
 center, theater and mall. It sits in a U by the Cumberland River, northeast of
 downtown Nashville. The Grand Ole Opry House theater is a 147,000-square-foot
 brick-and-tile artifact of '70s high pastoral. Walking across the stone
 courtyard
 among vacationing families and T-shirted seniors, I saw Gail and her band
 setting up
 on an outdoor stage. Gail is a cheerful honkytonk of a 55-year-old with an
 overlay
 of girlpower pizzazz. She wears her hair in a flapper cut and has a personality
 like a small rampage.
 
 She strode over as I laid an arrangement of irises by her mike stand. "Gail,
 how
 can I ever thank you for this?"
 
 "Well, listen. That's what we've got to do if it's going to be about the
 music,"
 she explained, now heating up. "When I had five songs in the Top 10, do you
 think
 those guys running the Opry wanted Gail Davies? They didn't give a shit.
 Politics,
 just good-old-boy politics. Never forget, one artist needs to help another.
 God
 knows, those bastards" - she pointed vaguely to the sky somewhere above the
 Tower
 Records megastore - "never will."
 
 The way she carried on, you'd have thought it was 1950, when the Grand Ole Opry
 was
 at the peak of its power, the top country radio program in America, a
 kingmaker.
 Back then, WSM's transmitter was a 50,000-watt 808-foot wand, transforming
 backwoods
 untouchables into wealthy superstars and primitive folk music into a showy and
 sharp-trimmed industry. Classic country was a peculiar kind of art, a demotic
 expression of savage emotion, deep-grained and bold, written with Flaubertian
 precision and performed with reckless humor and a ticking-clock focus. The
 Opry's
 weekly broadcast forged country's national image and presaged Nashville's
 emergence
 as its capital.
 
 But since then, that city's Music Row - the source of the majority of country
 music
 as commonly and commercially understood - and the Opry have diverged, the one
 growing ever more pop-mimicking and machine-tooled, the Opry pretty much staying
 put. WSM and its flagship show are now Nashville's last sanctuary for hard
 country.
 This is why the Opry still matters very much to us fundamentalists - and should
 matter to anyone not immune to rough beauty nor completely infatuated with the
 present moment.
 
 PHOTO CAPTION: Gentlemen Jims. Little Jimmy Dickens, left, and
 singer-songwriter
 Jim Lauderdale at Tootsie's, where performers cao to drink after the show.
 
 So how is the health of the church? The days when every true believer east of
 the
 Rockies tuned in for Saturday-night services are long gone. The contemporary
 Opry
 is a tourist-driven enterprise and, in recent years, an unsteady one. It offers
 little current-hit fare: The Faiths and Shanias would be loath to give up a
 weekend
 night for the few hundred dollars in union scale an appearance pays-even if
 their
 recycled rock didn't clash too bizarrely with the Porter Wagoners and the
 Charlie
 Walkers. While many of these midcentury figures are still in good form, their
 ranks
 are rapidly thinning, and they have no obvious heirs. When they die, the Opry
 will
 die with them, unless it allies itself with fresh talent and somehow broadens
 its
 appeal without sacrificing its identity.
 
 I WAS A TEENAGER when I first visited Opryland, in 1977. After watching the
 Canadian singer Hank Snow ("I'm Movin' On") play an afternoon matinee, I went
 outside to the back of the building and jumped the low concrete barrier near the
 stage entrance, hoping to get his autograph. When the 63-year-old emerged, he
 was
 with a man-eater blond who sang in his show at the time; neither of them was
 amused
 to see me. Approaching the same door twenty-five years on, I still felt like a
 trespasser.
 
 The Opry House's backstage is a drab grid of light brown tile and fluorescent
 lights, with a U-shaped lockerlined hallway curved around a greenroom. The
 place
 was as clean and charmless as a nursing home, at least until familiar forms
 started
 popping up and bringing it to life: Jumpin' Bill Carlisle, born in 1908, now
 hunched and trembling in a wheelchair, with seven decades of stage leaps,
 yodels and
 dirty novelty records behind him; and Jean Shepard, a protofeminist forerunner
 of
 Patsy Cline, belting a kick-ass "Crying Holy unto the Lord." Down the hall,
 Whispering Bill Anderson, singer of sentimental recitations, former TV-game-show
 host and pitch-perfect lyricist, was whipping his hair into a frizzy T. J.
 Hooker
 splendor. Each of them had been here for more than forty years.
 
 I knocked tentatively on Whispering Bill's door. I had met him before but
 hadn't
 met his band, who were slipping into their lemon yellow sport coats. "Boys,"
 said
 Bill, "this is Robbie. He's the one that wrote that song about Music Row....
 Now,
 what was the title of that?"
 
 "'Fuck This Town,' " I said. They laughed and pumped my hand. New friends!
 Country's iconic zero-for-conduct typesHank Williams, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash
 (who drunkenly smashed the footlights here in 1965) - have tended not to
 prosper at
 the Opry. But the broader rank and file have been served well. For the singers
 elected to membership, the Opry is a sinecure, a fiercely protected institution
 and
 a dependable haven from hellish state-fair PA systems and sleepy casino crowds.
 For
 younger musicians like me, it's a place to commune with our betters: the old
 and
 the dead. Attire is therefore paramount.
 
 PHOTO CAPTION: Ladies of Opry Above. Mandy Barnett at the Opry House. Left.
 Connie Smith, Jan Howard, Jeannie Seely and Jean Shepard at the Ryman
 Auditorium,
 original home of the Opry.
 
 "Some of these younger acts come on here like it's a bar gig," Gail told me.
 "The
 older people take it as disrespectful."
 
 I do, too. For my big night, I had dropped $200 on a blue faux-suede western
 suit,
 which I wore with an Americanflag necktie. Once I had changed and pomaded my
 flattop stiff, I felt lighter. I went to watch the show and wait my turn in the
 stage-right wing. Most of the house's 4,400 seats were full.
 
 The WSM announcer, Hairl Hensley, stepped to the lectern to boom his opening
 lines.
 "Presenting the 3,989th consecutive edition of the world-famous Grand
 ...Ole...Opry!" A fiddler named Hoot Hester kicked off a brisk two-step,
 accompanied by a troupe of cloggers; then Hensley introduced Little Jimmy
 Dickens,
 the host of the first segment. Dickens sang his hit "Sleepin' at the Foot of
 the
 Bed," following it with a few comic remarks about his no-frills upbringing
 ("Fifteen
 kids! Six boys, six girls and three others"). Then he reintroduced Hensley, who
 read some unctuous ad copy from segment sponsor Odom's Tennessee Pride, "The
 Real
 Country Sausage." Hensley then reintroduced Dickens, who introduced another
 act,
 and so on....
 
 As with any long-lived variety show, the format's the thing. The Opry shows -
 one
 on Friday and two on Saturday - are two and a half hours long and split into
 five
 segments, each with a dedicated sponsor and host, typically a veteran like
 Dickens.
 They bring out a few other acts (usually musical, but also some dancers and
 comedians) who hold the stage from four to twelve minutes each, depending on
 their
 market value.
 
 I waited in the wings for a small eternity of subsegments. Finally Gail came
 on.
 Jean Shepard joined her, and the two of them introduced me. I was feeling no
 proper
 fright, but I couldn't stop bouncing on my heels and opening and closing my
 fists.
 The milling civilians eyed me, trying to determine if I was someone
 important-the
 suit was doing its work. Gail hit her final turnaround, and my legs tensed for
 the
 sprint into the lights. Just then a stagehand noticed the string ends jutting
 uncut
 from my tuning pegs. "Want me to cut these off for you?" he asked pointedly.
 
 "No thanks," I said. "It's a look."
 
 He left, then reappeared a moment later with the world's largest pliers and took
 hold of my headstock.
 
 "The Opry has a look, too," he explained. Meanwhile, Jean and Gail were windily
 logrolling. "This woman is a legend!" cried Gail. "This woman ought to be in
 the
 Country Music Hall of Fame!"
 
 Over the cheering, Jean snapped, "Do it before I die, y'all!"
 
 Gail said a few words about me and asked Jean if she wanted to do the
 introduction.
 Jean fell silent for a second, then she simply said my name. I trotted on to
 very
 quiet applause.
 
 When I crossed the line from the wings to the stage, a door closed behind me I
 could
 never again open. After many years of fanhood and close listening, I had come
 to
 feel intimate with Webb Pierce, George Jones, Jean Shepard and the rest. Their
 music had moved and calmed and shaped me. It had helped me through times of
 loneliness and despair. It had brought me to believe that the deepest truths
 dance
 perilously close to cliches like "times of loneliness and despair." In return
 for
 all this wisdom and comfort, I had given the music my unconditional love. But
 of
 course, fanhood is a childish idealization permitted only to observers in the
 wings.
 At that moment, I surrendered all that. I was still an obscurity, but I was in
 the
 club.
 
 FIVE MONTHS LATER, Vince Gill and I were sitting on the back steps of the Ryman
 Auditorium, the restored nineteenthcentury tabernacle that housed the Opry show
 from
 1943 to 1974 and was once again serving as the show's base for its off-peak
 winter
 season. Vince had just finished his segment, which had not gone smoothly. His
 vocal mike had shocked him twice, and the star with the gentlest of public
 personae
 had cursed colorfully and well on the stage of the old church. But now he was
 himself again and in a reflective mood. "When the show went out to Opryland,"
 Vince
 was saying, "it totally lost its alley vibe. And for a long time, downtown
 didn't
 have much going on. Now it's a place to be, havin' the Opry down here, and
 everybody slippin' back and forth and listenin' to music in the alley."
 
 After the show fled to the suburbs in '74, the Ryman fell into disrepair, but
 the
 building was restored in the early'90s and finally outfitted with central air.
 Now
 the show was back, broadcasting during the winter season from the 2,038-seat
 smaller
 venue. The alley Vince had mentioned separated the Ryman's back doors from
 those of
 the honky-tonks on Nashville's lower Broadway, where rednecks played for tips
 into
 the small hours. A man in a ball cap spotted us. "Hey, Vince!" he yelled.
 "There's a great Telepicker over here!" He was motioning toward Tootsie's, the
 bar
 that once served as an after-hours salon for the likes of Hank Williams and
 Roger
 Miller. It was where Willie Nelson wrote "Crazy" for Patsy Cline. "I know,"
 Vince
 replied. "Johnny."
 
 "Johnny!" The stranger nodded solemnly. "He's awesome."
 
 "Amazing," Vince agreed. "I wanna go over and hear him." He turned back to
 me.
 "What I love about this place is, it has never done what pop culture does-find
 the
 next new thing and use it up and discard it."
 
 Another passerby saw us and stopped his cell-phone conversation midsentence.
 "Oh,
 my God!" he said.
 
 "Hi," said Vince.
 
 "You're not going to believe this," the passerby said to the phone. Then, to
 Vince:
 "Can you just say hello? She's your biggest fan. It won't take long."
 
 "You got that right," said the singer, rising to take the phone with weary
 forbearance.
 
 At Opryland, country music dignifies the surroundings. At the Ryman, it
 strives to
 measure up to them. The auditorium is aesthetically and acoustically ravishing
 and
 perfectly embodies the best country music's depth of spirit and insistence on
 getting it right. And the backstage quarters-eight cramped dressing rooms and
 two
 narrow passages-reflect the music's communal humility. Singers and players
 stand
 clustered near the stage, laughing and talking about tractors and drywall,
 occasionally falling silent during a superior performance. The show itself
 seems
 like a bit of unreality that happens to take place between the wings.
 
 In this atmosphere, you can better appreciate George D. Hay's characterization
 of
 his brainchild as a "good-natured riot." Hay came to Nashville in 1925, a
 mild-mannered 30-year-old Hoosier newspaper-and-radio man with a crush on rural
 culture and a backward-leaning imagination. He'd been hired as program
 director by
 the National Life and Accident Insurance Company, which was curious to see
 whether
 its month-old station (whose call letters abbreviated the slogan "We Shield
 Millions") could be useful for selling insurance policies beyond city limits.
 This
 experimental mating of commerce and sentiment was an instant success, and by
 1939
 the Opry had network coverage. By then, the musicians Hay had pulled from the
 Smoky
 Mountains-hard-drinking fiddlers and genteel family bands in overalls and felt
 hats
 - were giving way to canny popularizers in Stetsons and tailored suits with
 earsplitting embroidery.
 
 This is the period, roughly between Pearl Harbor and "Heartbreak Hotel" - the
 period
 of Hank senior's three-minute masterpieces, of raunchy hillbilly boogie and
 primitive pedal-steel pathos, of live analog recording whose elegance and
 dimensionality have yet to be surpassed-that many of us backward-leaners
 especially
 revere. Thus, I was curious to get a better sense of modern country's infancy,
 when
 connecting with fans was not as easy as picking up a cell phone.
 
 To hear Jean Shepard tell it, before the interstate highway system, country
 stardom
 was like an interminable game of bumper cars, with intoxicants. "Three broken
 noses, twice in the same place; one broken kneecap," she said, pointing at the
 spots. I asked Bill Anderson if he could recall his longest drive between
 consecutive bookings. "British Columbia to New York City," he said. "We
 stopped to
 shower in Minneapolis." The itineraries were typically merciless: 2,500 miles
 a
 week in a crowded car, much of it done while tired or drunk or both, with an
 obligatory stop in Nashville to make a Saturdaynight appearance on the Opry.
 
 Sex is remembered with more evident amusement. On WSM one recent afternoon, a
 young
 singer traded tales with Jeannie Seely, the Oprys equivalent of Zsa Zsa Gabor.
 "On
 my last tour, I really learned what you older artists endured," the young singer
 said, "strugglin' to get on my hose before the show in the front seat of my
 car."
 
 Seely shot back: "That's funny. I seem to recall strugglin' to get them
 offafter
 the show, in the backseat"
 
 My dreamy affection for a remote hillbilly Eden was not shared by all its old
 inhabitants. They had worked too hard to get the hell out of it. The wits of
 these
 single-minded people were honed by years of poverty and savage treatment. The
 hillbilly singer Stonewall Jackson told me that his earliest memory was of his
 stepfather pausing in the middle of hacking up a car with an ax to lift him off
 the
 grass and spike him into the dirt "like you do a football." Hank Snow's father
 not
 only delivered brutal beatings to Hank and his baby sister but also sentenced
 his
 children to long shoeless lockouts in the Nova Scotia snow. According to Jean,
 Hank
 (who died in 1999) broke a long estrangement to visit the old man, then in a
 nursing
 home, to grant him forgiveness. The father leaped from his wheelchair and
 snarled,
 "I don't want your goddamned forgiveness, you son of a bitch!"
 
 Jan Howard's history trumps even these Dickensian memories: raped at 8 by a
 family
 acquaintance; married at 15 and a mother of three at 21; beaten by her first
 husband, abandoned by her second and serially betrayed by her third (the
 towering
 songwriter Harlan Howard, coauthor of "I Fall to Pieces"); one son killed in
 Vietnam, another a suicide. The writer V S. Naipaul happened on Jan's bleak
 memoir,
 Sunshine and Shadow, while he was in Nashville doing legwork for A Turn in the
 South. "It was hard to believe that anyone could live through all that and
 come up
 singing," he observed.
 
 Sitting with her at a Cracker Barrel restaurant one afternoon, I asked Jan,
 still
 trim and pretty, wearing a white turtleneck-if music had been a balm during her
 ordeals.
 
 Taking a drag off her Marlboro, she was all cold-eyed composure. "No,"she said
 emphatically. Her music career had begun at the kitchen sink, where husband
 Harlan
 overheard her singing one afternoon. Impressed, he badgered her into a studio
 date,
 and one thing quickly led to another. Jan had no experience performing and
 wasn't
 terribly intersted in it, and she soon discovered that she suffered stage
 fright as
 a physical sickness. But she was nothing if not practical. "I was a bad
 secretary,
 and I made more money on the road in three days than I made in a month as a
 secretary. Well, I couldn't turn that down."
 
 PHOTO CAPTION: Just Plain Fulks. The author grabs a drink at Robert's Western
 World, a boot store that also erves as a bar and performance venue.
 
 When we enetered the haunted places, the rhythm of her speech skipped and
 slowed. I
 wanted to know what she thought could explain to Naipaul and the rest of us how
 she
 could come up singing. "My philosophy on life is a very deep faith," she said.
 "I
 don't go around preaching it, but I do have a deep faith. Everything happens
 for a
 reason, and ...I've gone through that period - yes, I have - of hate and
 bitterness.
 And I realized it was destroying me. It doesn't hurt the one you hate, because
 they don't care. I just try to hold on to the good things and..." Her eyes
 watered. "And put the bad things where they belong."
 
 THE OPRY'S ASCENT, paralleling the country's, was fast and steady into the '50s,
 then halted with the emergence of the ultimate hillbilly celebrity. A framed
 photo
 of the usurper, taken when he made a surprise visit one December night, hangs
 on the
 wall near the back door of the Ryman. "I was in the dressing room," recalls
 Carole
 Lee Cooper, who now leads the Opry's in-house vocal backup quartet, "when word
 filtered in: 'Elvis is in the building, and some woman's already passed out in
 the
 hall!' Of course, being raised in the business, I wasn't as starstruck as
 that."
 
 In 1957, Cooper was a 15-year-old eyeful who sang with her parents, the great
 Wilma
 Lee and Stoney Cooper. "Elvis had come to town to deliver a Christmas gift to
 Colonel Tom Parker, and Gordon Stoker from the Jordanaires suggested that they
 visit
 the Opry. Elvis thought he wasn't dressed for it, so he went out and bought a
 tux.
 I remember Bill Monroe was rehearsing when Elvis walked in and introduced
 himself.
 I remember him grabbing my hand and saying, 'Let's dance,' and the next thing I
 knew
 we were dancing to 'Blue Moon of Kentucky.' He was very polite - he had a lot
 of
 manners. After we danced, he came over to my dad and shook his hand and said,
 'May
 I take her home?"
 
 "What did you dad say to that?" I asked.
 
 "He just smiled and said, 'Not this time.' And then Elvis shook his hand
 again."
 
 White rock 'n' roll decimated country's audience. In the '60x, the Opry
 followed
 Music Row to a softer musical paradigm and a more middle-aged demographic.
 Gradually, the edema set in. By the '90s, the good-natured riot was mroe a
 members-only gerontocracy.
 
 Pete Fisher, the show's 40-year-old general manager, was hired in 1999 to turn
 things around. He quickly undertook essential reforms such as modernizing the
 decades-old set design and supplementing the show's distribution base with
 Sirius
 satellite radio and Internet coverage (opry.com). More controversially, Fisher
 and
 Steve Buchanan, then president of the Grand Ole Opry Group, moved to reverse the
 Opry's artistic sclerosis by aggressively pursuing current hitmakers, booking
 more O
 BROTHER-style acoustic fare and opening the stage to cool, even cultish,
 talents.
 
 The controversy centers on the performers displaced by this agenda. Take
 Elizabeth
 Cook, a beautiful lond with stunning hard-country pipes and a single dud
 major-label
 CD to her credit. Each of the 130-plus times Fisher had booked her is seen by
 the
 show's second-rank veterans as a spot taken from them.
 
 The bitterest of the old-timers is Stonewall Jackson. Formerly a chart-burning
 hunk
 of hillbilly sex drive - "like Garth Brooks," he told me - Stonewall is now a
 stout
 man of 71 with a wide, creased face. I met with him twice, once in his Ryman
 dressing room and once at a Shoney's restaurant; both times he spoke of almost
 nothing but the injustices done him by Fisher and Buchanan. They were eating
 him
 alive. "Buchanan told me a lot of hurtful things, like 'Stonewall, you're too
 old
 and too country, and you don't fit in here anymore. No one wants to see or
 hear you
 anymore.'" Moments after the phone call in which these verbal blows were
 delivered,
 Stonewall said, he suffered a heart attack.
 
 PHOTO CAPTION: Toast of Champaign. Bluegrass vocalist and fiddler Alison
 Krauss,
 who grew up in southern Illinois, backstage at the Opry House.
 
 I spent an hour with Fisher and found him affably low-key and emotionally
 opaque.
 On the question of the displaced verterans, though, he was forthright: The
 model of
 the Opry as a showcase for legends, as a repository of historical value, would
 no
 longer do. He continually stressed that the show's survival was at stake. "You
 don't want to be the guy managing the Opry when the lights went out," he said.
 "So
 I have no shortage of motivation to do what I feel is necessary for the Opry.
 This
 is too important to screw up."
 
 The ambitious young suit sticking it to the faithful old company man is a
 squalid,
 familiar scenario. But there is no questions that Fisher has, on balance, been
 a
 boon to the show. After twenty years, listenership is fianlly rising as word
 spreads that the Opry is again reflecting country's full spectrum and taking
 risks.
 Truly, it is the best show in forty-five years. On a typical night, you might
 hear
 Porter Wagoner into Del McCoury into Alan Jackson into Gillian Welch; and if
 there's
 the occasional bit of cloying mass-appeal garbage, well, sorry, but that's
 country,
 too. The Opry's survival strategy is, finally simple. it is to maintain a
 decent
 balance of big sellers and deep talent: commerce plus sentiment.
 
 All of which still doesn't explain what I was doing singing at Opryland. Maybe
 a
 good slogan for the new Opry is "Big Sellers, Deep Talent and Robbie Fulks".
 While
 I can't admire the club for inviting me in, I'll always remember by eight
 minutes.
 After Jean's introduction, I trotted to center stage and flashed a wide grin at
 the
 flock. They looked politely skeptical. The drummer counted off, and I sang
 for all
 I was worth, concentrating on pitch and trying to secure myself by ignoring the
 scenic details - the screen behind me, grotesquely magnifying my pixelated
 yawping
 head, and the "sacred circle" beneath me, that patch of wood from the Ryman
 stage
 consecrated by the shoes of Roy Acuff and Hank Williams.
 
 But when I was unexpectedly called back for an encore, I lifted anchor. The
 band
 broke into Webb Pierce's 1958 shuffle, "Tupelo County Jail," and Gail and Jean
 joined me in three-part harmony. During the solo, I looked at Jean. She had
 stood
 here long ago, in gingham and marcelled blond hair, cleansed of her dirt-poor
 Okie
 past and looking unblinkingly ahead to all the bright wild days to come,
 fast-flickering and over-shadowed by tawdriness and loss. Now those days were
 done,
 but the soulful music that adorned them still stood, and so did she, tiny and
 smiling and silver-haired, bouncing in strick temp and clapping her left hand
 against the mike in her right. Our voices swelled from the monitor wedges and
 carried through the room, the crowd sang and clapped along, and I drifted off
 somewhere far beyond the human burden, dreaming about dead times. Two minutes
 later, I was headed back to the dressing room to get into my jeans.
 
 
 ---------
 ROBBIE FULKS is an alternative-country musician whose tribute to Michael
 Jackson,
 DEAR MICHAEL, LOVE ROBBIE, will be out later this year.