Songwriters Hall of Fame announces 2017 nominees

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The Songwriters Hall of Fame [SHOF] announced this morning its nominees for induction at its Annual Induction & Awards Gala, to be held June 15, 2017, in New York.

The nominations are in two categories, non-performing songwriters and performing songwriters.

The non-performing songwriter nominees are Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Randy Goodrum, the team of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Tony Macaulay, Max Martin, Kenny Nolan, the team of Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham, Paul Overstreet, the team of P.F. Sloan & Steve Barri, William “Mickey” Stevenson, Allee Willis and Maury Yeston.

The performing songwriter nominees are Bryan Adams, Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, the band Chicago’s Peter Cetera, Robert Lamm and James Pankow; Gloria Estefan, David Gates, Vince Gill, Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam), Kool & The Gang’s Robert “Kool” Bell, Ronald Bell and George Brown; Jeff Lynne, Madonna, George Michael and Sylvester “Sly Stone” Stewart.

Voting SHOF members have until December 16 to vote for three nominees in the non-performing category and two in the performing category. Information on the nominees—and how to become a voting SHOF member—is available at the SHOF website.

The Songwriters Hall of Fame is dedicated to recognizing the work and lives of those composers and lyricists who create music around the world. It celebrates songwriters, educates the public with regard to their achievements, and produces a spectrum of professional programs devoted to the development of new songwriting talent through workshops, showcases and scholarships.

Concert Highlights: Eric Burdon at City Winery, 10/10/2016

I’m glad Eric Burdon wasn’t invited to Desert Trip/Oldchella, because we were lucky enough to have him at City Winery for two sold-out nights this week in between the two big weekends at the Coachella festival site in Indio, Calif. I’m not saying he’d overshadow his fellow septuagenarians—Eric’s 75—but he’d have placed second to none of them.

The Monday night set—the first of the two nights–wasn’t that much different than the outstanding one he and the same band of relative youngsters did at the venue back in August, though instead of “Spill the Wine” he opened with “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” the Randy Newman song that he recorded before Three Dog Night hit big with it. The other major difference was a novel blend of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” with the chorus of his and The Animals’ “Sky Pilot,” for which he lead the SRO room in singing along to its rising “you’ll never—ever—ever—reach the sky.”

It’s what I call a “power chorus,” so powerful that you really need no prompt in thrusting your fist in the air and singing along. So many of Eric Burdon and The Animals’ immortal hits are marked by such a power chorus, like “Don’t Bring Me Down,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and the two 1960s generational anthems “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “It’s My Life,” all of which Burdon performed at City Winery. He also did The Animals’ 1967 hit “Monterey,” in which he invoked Ravi Shankar, The Who, Hugh Masakela, the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix in evoking the historic Monterey Pop Festival, at which all these artists performed, which Eric attended.

Here he repeated a wonderful story he told in August, about how a girl had given him a flower while Otis Redding was singing—and he ate it. Yet today, almost 50 years later and at 75, Eric Burdon remains a flower child in the best sense.

“Let’s have a Trump-free night,” he said, affirming the Summer of Love values at the start of the show, and through the rest of it he remained true to his great line in “Monterey”: “You want to find the truth in life? Don’t pass music by…and you know I would not lie!”

Again, I’m not saying he’d overshadow his fellow septuagenarians at Oldchella. But I can say that none of them will be in better musical shape, nor will any of them have a stronger commitment to all that they and their peers represented “down in Monterey.”

8/29/2013 Music business veteran Tom Vickers hunts for tacos as well as hits

(Re-posting this examiner.com piece thanks to the current Trump-induced “taco trucks on every corner” Mexican immigrant hysteria.)

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Tom Vickers, left, and Bob Merlis at Leos Tacos Truck

“The Taco Revolution has exploded to such a degree that you have to go out of your comfort zone,” said Tom Vickers.

It was the day after the music business veteran showcased R&B vocal great Billy Valentine at Cafe Cordiale in Sherman Oaks. He was taking a visitor from New York, who was very much impressed by Valentine’s gig, on what has become known as the Saturday Taco Hunt.

The two were joined by legendary music publicist Bob Merlis as they walked into Mondo Taco, a small shop on the corner of La Brea and San Vicente unknowingly passed by many times on the way to LAX.
Entering, they were immediately welcomed and thanked by the owner.

“It was my fourth time there,” said Vickers, “but at any given point in time, there’s a list in my wallet, probably with eight to 10 places I want to go but haven’t yet.”

He pulled out the list, then cited three that he’d been to, and sure enough, eight he hadn’t–yet.

“I’ve been to 13 so far, and have four favorites,” Vickers added.

Mondo Taco was one of them.

“A relatively new spot, it has many of your traditional favorites but also mash-ups of various other cuisines built into a taco,” Vickers informed. His favorites, from the Crawls list include “French Kiss” (“slow-cooked pork with mushroom Dijon sauce”) and “Angry Chicken (“white meat chicken with buffalo sauce and creamy blue cheese dressing”).

“They also have over eight vegetarian options,” he added, here naming “Garlic Bomb,” consisting of mushrooms and garlic, “slow-cooked into a delicious concoction that just tastes great on a taco,” as his top Grows category pick.

Mondo Taco also has a Swims set of tacos, and Vickers likes to choose one from each of the three headings per sitting.

“Like many of the establishments I’ve located, they also serve agua fresca, a Mexican fruit drink utilizing various melons and fruits. Their watermelon agua fresca is truly refreshing!”

Merlis praised the Mondo Taco menu for its “artisinal tacos.”

“They’re not mass-produced, but very unexpected,” he said. “There’s the French one, and a Moroccan/Argentine hybrid, so it was not the ordinary, predictable taco, though they still have the regular ethnic bill-of-fare–but it transcends that and is very high quality.”

Merlis also noted that the Mondo Taco employees are “hip—but not hipsters. They’re not arch, but earnest.” The Taco Hunt itself, he said, “catalyzes the kind of exploration you wouldn’t otherwise do: We used to go to the same place every Saturday and broke out of it, and as a result, have visited parts of the city we’ve never been to before: the City of Bell, Sylmar and other places in South and East L.A.”

The Taco Hunt is “not just random,” stated Vickers. Rather, “I try to research where we’re going: You can discuss favorite tacos like favorite records!”
Echoing Merlis, Vickers concedes. that he patronized Yuca’s taco stand near Los Feliz for “too long without venturing out.”

“For over 30 years my Saturday ritual was to go to Yuca’s on Hillhurst Ave.,” he said. “It’s renowned for the carne asada burrito, and they even won a James Beard award for dishing up some of the best street Mexican food in L.A. But a little over three years ago I decided to lessen my intake of red meat. Hence, Yuca’s carne asada suddenly became a dietary no-no.”
In an effort to eat more fish, Vickers “switched [taco] allegiances” to Ricky’s Fish Taco stand just down the street from Yuca’s. “However, when my good friend Bob Merlis noted that I was trading in red meat for deep fat fried-in-lard fish, the dietary tradeoff was negligible,” he soon realized.

Then, some three months ago, the esteemed Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold wrote an article about the 14 best Mexican food locations in Southern California.

“I had tried four of them,” computed Vickers. “This lit a fire under me to explore more of this fine cuisine!”

Every Saturday from that point on Vickers enlisted various friends to join him everywhere from taco stands to sit-down restaurants and trucks scattered throughout the Los Angeles region.
“Many incredible spots were discovered,” he said, “some through good articles, some through Web searches and sites such as L.A. Taco, Chowhound and Yelp. Through them I discovered a whole ‘nother level of taco experience that has captivated my–how do I say?–love of Mexican cuisine and culture.”

And besides Mondo Taco, what are Vickers’ other three current taco faves?

“Chichen Itza–located in the Mexican Cultural Center near USC, has incredibly delicious food in a great setting, and is one of my new favorite go-to spots,” he reported. “La Casita Mexicana, in the City of Bell, is beyond great: not a sit-down taco stand but a full-fledged restaurant with an incredible gift shop attached. It serves up traditional Mexican regional recipes, both veg- and meat-centric–all delicious. Their moles are absolutely fantastic as is their signature dish, the Chile en Nogada.”

As for Mariscos Jalisco, a taco truck located in Boyle Heights, their specialty, related Vickers, is a crispy tortilla stuffed with shrimp, deepfried and covered with ceviche and avocado. Also noteworthy, “a lone mariachi singer regales you with guitar and songs while you eat your crispy shrimp taco on a sidewalk bench.”

But Vickers stresses that there are “hundreds, if not thousands” of taco places to choose from in Southern California, and Melenie Caldwell, Merlis’s longtime assistant, noted that “obviously, they haven’t gone to Highland Park”–clearly a hotbed of taco activity.

Perhaps next week Vickers will explore Highland Park, as he admitted “I have only begun my Taco Quest.”

But he did come back to his table at Mondo Taco, refill of his watermelon agua fresca in hand, with “the big news”: a new Mondo Taco “on Sunset Strip near the Whisky” is in the offing.
He was obviously satisfied at the original store, as he was overheard murmuring “mondo” as he walked out.

Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 15

It’s been five years now, since Nick died. August 22, 2011.

It was while I was flying back from L.A. I knew he was going in the morning, and when I landed in New York, Liz had left a message to come straight to the house. I did, with shorts on, some dumb but clean t-shirt, ball cap, laptop bag and carry-on.

Nick would have loved it.

I recounted this story to J.B. Carmicle over breakfast last week at the Red Flame. He comes to New York from L.A. for a few days every year this time, meeting up with his brother Donnie, who still lives in their Louisville hometown. We talked a bit about Muhammad Ali’s funeral–Ali being right up there with Ashford in personal significance and public greatness.

J.B. hired me at Cash Box when I came to New York in 1982, when he ran the East Coast office. He got us tickets to Ashford & Simpson at Radio City shortly after I started there. The experience was life-changing.

There were four of us altogether, but I don’t remember the other two. I do remember the seats were about two-thirds the way back on the floor, center aisle. I also remember that there might have been four other white people there, it being the High-Rise album and R&B hit single tour, which places it in 1983–ahead of Nick and Val’s pop breakthrough with solid the following year.

Someone had a joint. We smoked it in our seats before the band started and the curtain went up to expose a tall stage prop in the shape of a skyscraper, if not the Empire State Building. The band struck up,and the top half of the building unfolded down into a staircase, much like a small commuter prop plane’s door. There at the top of the stairs, in all their splendor, were Nick and Val. I don’t know if the reefer had anything to do with it, but it had the effect on me of witnessing live one of those Renaissance paintings of the Ascension–no matter that Nick and Val then descended the steps to entertain their worshipful throngs.

Did I say “life-changing”?

At Nick’s funeral, among the many names mentioned in reference and reverence, was Jesus. Nick, the speaker said, was “the black Jesus.” Made me think of the many times Liz Rosenberg and I would sit stoned, if not at his feet, in front of him, seemingly looking up, eyes open wide, mouths agape, hanging on every word he spoke to us upstairs at the Sugar Bar like we were disciples listening to the Sermon on the Mount.

Nick was so deep.

The day after Radio City I called Elliot Hubbard, an Epic Records publicist who was one of the few press contacts I’d made in my short time then in NYC. I was so blown away by A&S that I had to talk to someone. He was close to Liz and said I should call her, since she was such a huge fan of Nick and Val, having worked publicity for them at Warner Bros. Records when they were signed to the label. So I called her cold, having no idea who she was, and when I mentioned Nick and Val we became instant forever best friends, who saw their shows so many times together over the next three decades that when the two-disc A&S compilation The Warner Bros. Years: Hits, Remixes & Rarities came out in 2008, it had an essay by Val in which she thanked us and said we should just do their show for them, since we knew it better than they did–which was not untrue.

As I write this I’m back in L.A., where I saw Nick and Val a couple times, at the Sunset Junction Street Fair. It was always great to see them outside of New York, and see how loved they were away as they were at home.

I’ll still be out here Monday, August 22, when I’ll think back on the five years since Nick’s been gone–though it never really feels that way. In fact, it’s very hard for me to think, speak, or write about Nick in the past tense.

I’m thinking now of a year ago last April, at the funeral of Andre Smith, who had hosted Nick and Val’s Sugar Bar’s legendary Thursday night Open Mic Show for 15 hears. The service was at the Macedonia Baptist Church in Harlem, and was attended by the same close-knit Sugar Bar family that made up so much of Nick’s funeral audience at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Of course I couldn’t help but think about Nick at Andre’s funeral, what with Andre being, next to Nick and Val, the face of the Sugar Bar as its famous Open Mic host. As I walked to the church from the 145th Street A-Train stop I also thought of Val’s Aunt Bea’s funeral, which I didn’t know then was the last time I would ever see Nick. He hadn’t been to the Sugar Bar on Thursday night for probably a couple months at least then, and he entered the room just as the service started and immediately left just as it ended.

So the last time I saw Nick I didn’t even get the chance to say hi. I remember I got a ride back to the Sugar Bar afterward with Val and Tee and Nicole and Asia, and telling Asia that I was mad at her for getting the big
tattoo on her back of her parents before I did.

I thought of all this again as I walked back to the subway after Adre’s service, trying to figure out how to get from the A to the 1, 2, or 3 to 72nd & Broadway and the Sugar Bar–again for a post-funeral celebration. Luckily
I heard my name called out from an RV with an extra seat next to fellow Sugar Bar regular Anita Parker Brown. Shinuh, a singer who plays and works at the Sugar Bar, was in the front, and I didn’t know the driver–but we
all shared exactly the same thought of Nick that we expressed on the drive to the Sugar Bar: That it’s impossible to accept the fact that Nick is gone.

Yes, it’s been five years now. But I still say stuff like, “I’m friends with Nick and Val,” or, “Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar.” Depending on the awareness of whom I’m talking to, maybe, I’ll then add that Nick is no longer living. But I never start out a reference to him or to Nick and Val in any way that recognizes that he’s gone.

It’s like how George Faison, the Tony-winning choreographer who was close to Nick and Val and created their classic dance routines, said to me one Thursday night after Open Mic, shortly after Nick died.

“Who would ever imagine that Nick Ashford could be gone?” George said to me as we walked out of the Sugar Bar, probably in the neighborhood of 2 a.m.

“No one ever could,” I replied. Nor should anyone, now or ever. Like I tweet every August 22, Nick Ashford lives.

Concert Highlights: Dwight Yoakam and Cactus Blossoms at Damrosch Park, 8/7/2016

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(Photo: Jim Bessman)

I hadn’t seen Dwight Yoakam in concert in a long time, but at his Americanafest NYC show August 7 at Damrosch Park/Lincoln Center Out of Doors, he hadn’t changed much from when I first saw him here in the early 1980s. He looked to have on the same hat, and it’s not impossible he had the same jean jacket, jeans, shirt and guitar.

And he sounded the same, with that trademark hiccup at the end of his traditional country phrasing on classics like “Honky Tonk Man,” “Guitars, Cadillacs,” “Little Sister,” “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music),” “Little Ways,” “Ain’t That Lonely Yet” and Buck Owens’ 1973 hit “Streets of Bakersfield,” which became Dwight’s first country chart-topper in 1988 after he cut it with Buck as a duet.

But as big an influence as Buck was on Dwight, Dwight’s current tour pays tribute to “someone who played Americana before there was the name”: the other Bakersfield great—also now deceased—Merle Haggard.

“I learned a lot about songwriting listening to Merle songs,” Dwight said, noting that this applied to his entire generation of songwriters—and “not just country” ones. Among the Hagg hits he performed were “Silver Wings,” “Mama Tried,” “Swinging Doors,” and “Okie from Muskogee,” which he followed with the other side of “the same coin”: Little Feat’s “Willin’.”

Dwight encored with a couple other tributes to recently departed greats in Glenn Frey (The Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling”) and George Martin (The Beatles’ “I Feel Fine,” complete with a Beatles bow by Dwight and the band at the end).

Opening band Cactus Blossoms need be noted for an excellent set, kind of a cross between Everly Brothers and cowboy songs. And Dwight, by the way, has a bluegrass album coming out Sept. 23 on Sugar Hill Records, Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars, featuring bluegrass takes on choice compositions from his catalog.

Concert Highlights–Bobby Rydell featuring City Rhythm Orchestra at Damrosch Park, 7/6/2016

Bobby Rydell at Lincoln Center Midsummer Nights Swing, July 6, 2016
Bobby Rydell at Lincoln Center Midsummer Nights Swing, July 6, 2016 (photo: Russ Titelman)

Not sure who was more excited to meet Bobby Rydell backstage at Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing series at Damrosch Park on July 6, me or Russ Titelman.

A few years older than me, Russ was no less starstruck in the presence of early 1960s teen idol Rydell after a great, mostly pop standards set with Philadelphia’s City Rhythm Orchestra, songs including several Sinatra staples and a Bobby Darin tribute, the only Rydell hits being “Wild One” and “Volare.”

“It goes back to my childhood!” Russ marveled, except that Rydell’s set had contemporary relevance for him as well, as he also sang “Teach Me Tonight,” the 1950s Sammy Cahn-Gene De Paul standard that Russ just recorded with Holly Cole.

After the show–and our meeting with Rydell–Russ, who’s famously produced the likes of Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood, recalled the impetus for the Cole cut, within both Sinatra and Darin contexts. Turns out he was a guest of Quincy Jones at the 1984 sessions in New York at A&R studio for Sinatra’s L.A. is My Lady album, which Jones was producing. Michael Jackson was there, so was late Broadway musical luminary Michael Bennett (A Chorus Line), and among the stellar musicians in the band was George Benson.

“Mr. S sang ‘Teach Me Tonight’ and ‘Mack the Knife,’” Russ recalled. “On a break I suggested to George that we do ‘Beyond the Sea’–one of my very favorite songs and the B-side of Darin’s ‘Mack the Knife.’ He said he already had an arrangement. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ and he answered that Frank Foster, who had written the ‘Mack the Knife’ arrangement for Sinatra, had written him a big band arrangement of ‘Beyond the Sea.’ When I heard that, I said, ‘We’re doing it!’ Mr. Foster said it was one of his favorites of all his arrangements!”

Russ still considers the version of “Beyond the Sea” that he produced for Benson’s 1984 album 20/20 the best ever.

Rydell, meanwhile, sang both “Beyond the Sea” and “Mack the Knife” outdoors at Lincoln Center, not to mention Sinatra’s “The Lady is a Tramp” and “I’ve Got the World on a String.” He was equally at ease singing Darrin and Sinatra.

Concert Highlights–Loudon Wainwright III with Friends and Family, 6/29/2016

The extended Family Wainwright must be the biggest and most talented clan in contemporary music. Headed by Loudon Wainwright III, it includes sister Sloan, son Rufus, daughters Martha and Lucy Wainwright Roche and now Alexandra, and numerous other relatives and players associated with Loudon and his exes Kate McGarrigle (late mother of Martha and Rufus) and Suzzy Roche (mother of Lucy).

At City Winery June 29 (the second of two consecutive Wednesday night Loudon appearances there), he brought along Rufus, Martha and Alexandra (Lucy was on tour with the Indigo Girls), Sloan, Suzzy and frequent and versatile accompanists Chaim Tannenbaum and David Mansfield. Billed as Loudon Wainwright III with Friends and Family, it was definitely a family affair, albeit one that reflected an uncommonly accomplished family that nonetheless has never been wholly functional.

He hinted at this after the the nostalgic summer opener “The Swimming Song” (sung with the full family) with “Bein’ a Dad,” a song expressing both the joys and sorrows of fatherhood (“Bein’ a dad can make you feel sad/Like you’re the insignificant other/Yeah right from the start, they break your heart/In the end every kid wants his mother”). He sang this one solo, and then the set broke into various solo, duet and trio vocal combinations starting with Loudon and Suzzy—with Mansfield on fiddle—singing Marty Robbins’ classic “At the End of a Long Lonely Day.”

Nervously noting that she rarely sings by herself, the ever wonderful Suzzy Roche followed with a confident take on Connie Converse’s “Talkin’ Like You (Two Tall Mountains),” crediting Loudon for her being aware of the tragically mysterious Converse–the New York singer-songwriter of the 1950s who wrote sad and simple songs, and when her dream of a career didn’t pan out, disappeared without a trace in 1974, to be recently rediscovered with the release of rare recordings over the last decade or so. Sloan Wainwright capped her solo segment with a duet with her brother on the Everly Brothers classic “Love Hurts” (Mansfield on mandolin).

Tannenbaum took a fine turn, playing harmonica opposite Mansfield’s accordion on “I Had a Dream,” playing banjo on Kate McGarrigle’s “Talk to Me of Mendocino” (Martha Wainwright singing backup), and guitar on “Brooklyn 1955,” a poignant song of summer and baseball from his new self-titled debut album. A major part of the Wainwright-McGarrigles universe for decades, he also performed country bluesman Peg Leg Howell’s “Coal Man Blues,” whistling along solidly while Mansfield fiddled.

Loudon then returned to offer a taste of his Surviving Twin show, in which he “posthumously collaborates” with his late father Loudon Wainwright Jr. (the esteemed Life Magazine columnist with whom he had a typically complicated relationship) by juxtaposing his music with his father’s words. But youngest child Alexandra Kelly Wainwright nearly stole the show when she came out, complained how she’d had to watch her entire family perform on stage with instruments her entire life, and for this one time only, would throw her almost 70-year-old dad a bone by singing “No Time at All” from Pippin, which was written by his college classmate Stephen Schwartz. This she did with endearing off-the-wall aplomb, a girl friend holding up cue cards for the audience to sing along while Suzzy supported on guitar.

“Why did I spend all that money to send her to college?” wondered the proud papa. “That’s a gold mine right there!” Lexie really was that good, but older sister Martha, after duetting with their father on the guilt-slinging “You Never Phone,” picked up the gauntlet and ran with it on her own terrific “Traveler,” which she performed solo with acoustic guitar. Rufus then joined her on piano and vocals for the 1930s pop song “Moon Over Miami,” which they sang in French, they said, at their father’s surprise request—Rufus explaining that Loudon (and the kids called him “Loudon” as often as “Dad”) used to complain when they sang in French, having grown up with their mother in Montreal. Rufus followed solo with his angry and vindictive “Dinner at Eight,” though he noted the obvious in that while he and his father had indeed fought hard, “in the end, it’s a love story.”

“Isn’t this the greatest family?” the ever upbeat paterfamilias asked at one point. “It’s always a great contest getting the family on stage!” Then again, he added, “it’s all about what happens in the dressing room after!”

At least Loudon, Rufus and Martha were all good on “One Man Guy,” after which Loudon ended with “All in a Family,” having earlier sung his new Trump Funny or Die video nightmare “I Had a Dream.” He brought everyone back for the wacky encore, “Meet the Wainwrights,” which he wrote last year for The Wainwright Family Adventure in Alaska, in which the family did five shows in five different cities in Alaska, with the audience traveling with them through the entire tour.

Maybe now they might consider a family TV show a la The King Family Show, or even Lawrence Welk.

Concert highlights: Ralph Stanley, 8/10/2015

I wish I could remember the name of the girl who took me to see Ralph Stanley the first time. Sue Something, I’m thinking. I definitely owe her as it was a pivotal music experience for me back in 1971 or so. Definitely at the University of Wisconsin Student Union, in an upstairs ballroom.

Sue turned me on to bluegrass, as well as Cajun music–which five years later became my entry into music journalism and the music business. But that first time I saw Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain boys, little did I now then that Ralph Stanley and Keith Whitley were the youngsters in his band. I would get to know Ricky very well throughout my career, and I knew Keith good, too, and his wife Lorrie Morgan, before he drank himself to death in 1989.

I think they did my favorite Ralph Stanley song, “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem, that long ago night in Madison. I’ve never forgotten hearing it around 3 a.m. driving back from Milwaukee on some clear-channel country station, then switching over and hearing a live version of The Carpenters “We’ve Only Just Begun,” recorded, I think, in concert in Japan. Somehow both recordings had the same power.

This time, at City Winery in New York last night, I returned Sue’s favor indirectly, taking Emily Kenison, my friend Beefy’s daughter. Beefy’s better known as Troy Charmell, multi-instrumentalist for legendary Madison-based ‘70s band Dr. Bop & The Headliners, and current half of Those Weasels, a fun duo also starring Dr. Bop’s frontman Al Craven, The White Raven. Like me some 44 years ago, Emily, just out of law school, had no idea who Ralph was, or what bluegrass is.

She does now.

Ralph’s set started with the current version of his Clinch Mountain Boys band, including his son Ralph 2 on lead guitar and grandson Nathan Stanley on rhythm—also the main vocalist, who did most of the talking. He sang a wonderful, heartfelt tribute to his grandfather, “Papaw I Love You,” from his recently re-released album The Legacy Continues; in it he refers to his “father figure” Ralph, on whose boots he fell asleep on stage as a two-year-old, as “my hero” and “best friend.”

When Ralph came out after a substantial opening segment from the band, he looked every bit his 88 years, dour and stone-faced in the manner of Jackie Mason (84), not at all robust like Tony Bennett (89). He seemed to have shrunk a foot or two since the first and last times I saw him, too frail now to play banjo, let alone hold one. Yet when he steadied himself at the mic and began singing his classic “Man of Constant Sorrow,” his voice was surprisingly strong, same with “O Death,” delivered so famously in O Brother, Where Art Thou?—the dirge here a tour de force full of unintended but undeniable meaning in his a cappella plea, “Won’t you spare me over ‘til another year?”

When the band ended with “Orange Blossom Special,” Ralph appeared disoriented, but clearly didn’t want to leave the stage. If nothing else, it was muscle memory if not sheer force of will, and they closed with the bluegrass staple “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.”

Nathan promised that Ralph and the band would be out to sign merchandise, and I waited 10 minutes or so for Ralph. I hadn’t spoken to him since 2009, when we talked about his support of Obama in his dressing room at B.B. King’s. I ran into someone I hadn’t seen in a long time while waiting, which was nice, but didn’t want to risk a second time, and besides, Ralph looked tired and there was no guarantee he’d even remember.

But I did round the corner thinking of trying the bus, and ran into a young fan hoping for a Ralph autograph, who said Ralph wasn’t feeling well so they took him on the bus to rest. No point in knocking, but I did take a photo of the bus, which was Ralph 2’s, but carried a huge ad for a local law firm representing, among other things, black lung cases.

Ralph1

I didn’t tell the kid, but I did hope that Ralph 1 would be spared over for another year, at the very least.

Tales of Bessman: Steve Popovich and the Dream of the Fan Fair Gherm

Today’s the last day of CMA Music Festival in Nashville, which used to be called Fan Fair for many years before the Country Music Association completely co-opted it. I used to go there every year, starting from when it was held at the downtown Municipal Auditorium in the 1970s to the many years it was at the dusty Tennessee State Fairgrounds in the ’80s and ’90s.

Unable to afford much of anything anymore, I haven’t gone in years. But I have recurring nightmares over missing it. Last night’s was a doozy.

Actually, they’re all pretty much the same: I’ve been in Nashville a few days and it’s either my last day or I’m heading back tomorrow. Yet somehow I haven’t seen anyone I need to see–particularly the people I always stay with, have lunch with, hang out with, etc. So I’m completely freaking out.

Making it all worse last night was that I remember parking my car, but don’t remember where I parked it. In fact, I don’t even remember what kind of car it is, color, model, identifying characteristics. I’m frantically searching all over for it when I wake up.

So two days ago I thought I’d take a rare “selfie”–God, I hate that word!–and put it up on Instagram and Twitter, as a tribute to Fan Fairs of old. I tried to look like the biggest Fan Fair gherm–something that still comes natural.

“Gherm,” if you don’t know, is a dismissive label used by Nashville music business folk for the fans who flood the city for Fan Fair, er, CMA Music Festival–or any other time of year, really–and meet and greet their heroes, which is pretty much what Fan Fair was originally set up to do. They’d wear their favorite artists’ t-shirts and badges and caps, much as I did in my selfie (there, I said it again).

But no one was ever a bigger gherm than me, and I say that with great pride. Yes, I had business being with the stars, but I never kidded myself: I was just a big kid from Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland, meeting and greeting my country music heroes, just like everyone else.

So even though I couldn’t make it again this year, I decided to put on my best gherm t-shirt and cap and take a Fan Fair tribute selfie (I still hate the word). I put on my Ronnie Milsap cap–in honor of Ronnie’s finally getting into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and a lasting friendship that began back at the Dane Country Coliseum in Madison back in the late ’80s–and my orange Cleveland International Records t-shirt, with the caricature of the accordion player who looks kind of like Steve Popovich.

Steve was the founder of Cleveland International Records. He was the sort of guy who’d give you the shirt off his back. He gave me the Cleveland International shirt. One Fan Fair he made up these hysterical “Your brain on Country Music!” t-shirts and gave me one of those, too. I wish I could find it if I still have it. Either way, I wish I could remember it, like I wish I could remember where I parked my car.

It played on those stupid “This is your brain on drugs” TV commercials, where they cut to the eggs frying in a pan. Being on drugs they only made me hungry.

I think it had a cartoon of the eggs in the pan wearing cowboy boots and hats and having a big old time, or something like that. It was really great, I remember, for sure.

And I remember Steve, of course, who died three years ago tomorrow.

No one cared more about music than Steve, who had a huge hand in the careers of Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson, and put out the Meat Loaf record on Cleveland International and then spent the rest of his life trying to get fairly paid for it.

No one cared more about the little guy, either, or the little guy’s music. He showed me what polka really is, for which I’m eternally grateful.

He had the biggest heart of anyone I knew, and after years of working hard and eating bad, his big heart finally gave out.

I forgot a lot of things, but I can never forget Steve Popovich. No one can.

BessmanMilsap

The Bessman Sideshow

So I needed a new category for commentary-type thought pieces, and a name to go with it. You know, something suitably self-important.

The Bessman Factor came to mind, but I didn’t want to tempt being confused with O’Reilly. The Bessman View didn’t work, as I’m no Barbara Walters, not to mention Jenny McCarthy.

The Bessman Perspective was too ponderous, and then The Bessman Circus popped into my head—kind of the way Cancer Funnies did. Close, but no exploding cigar.

So please make welcome herewith, The Bessman Sideshow, premiere post to follow shortly.