By Sonny Scott
My family and my employer keep dragging me toward the 21st century. I’m not exactly a Luddite, but the pace of change is too brisk for comfort, and some innovations I could live without – cellular phones, to name one. I came to computers, email, voice mail and GPS at the insistence of my employer, and my sons introduced me to CDs. Now, they and my wife have enlisted me as a satellite radio subscriber – yet another innovation that I didn’t know I needed.
As I relax in my favorite lounging spot having my memories massaged by the tunes of the ’40s to ’80s on “Willie’s Roadhouse,” I realize yet again that there are advantages to living in our time. This is the soundtrack of my youth. I worked, studied and loved with these works of populist poetry blasting from an AM receiver. Now, I can hear them again – in high fidelity, with no commercials. Not bad.
The Carter Family established the ballad tradition in country music. A.P. Carter made a career of reworking traditional ballads from the British Isles into modern format to meet the demands of recording and radio play. Many of these endure, and why not? They’ve been sanctified by time and proven by universal acclaim.
There’s always room for “new blood” in popular entertainment, and each generation has its stars. Some endure; others retreat into well-deserved obscurity, but there is always another people’s poet ready with “three chords and the truth,” in Harlan Howard’s immortal phrase. When I was very young, it was Hank Williams, “America’s first super star.” His grief-stricken laments described life on the emotional edge without false note or wasted word. When I was a young man, the torch had passed to the likes of Bob McDill and Kris Kristofferson. The former’s “ Rednecks, White Socks, and Blue Ribbon Beer,” and “What Are You Gonna Do With Good Ole Boys Like Me?” say more about the sociology of the sons of Ulster than a library of scholarly tomes. The latter’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” evokes the rootlessness and angst of the hillbilly down from the hills with such force that it transcends the medium.
The recording event of the decade is the release of the “Mother’s Best Shows.” Back in ’51, Hank Williams recorded a series of radio shows that were presented as “live performances” to unwary listeners of WSM. These remarkable performances with all their banter and informality illustrate the hundred-proof potency of Hank’s voice with minimal instrumentation. Those too young to remember early morning radio can appreciate both the format and the blend of folksiness and raw emotive power that propelled Hank to stardom.
The informality of the Mother’s Best Shows makes me long for the local radio of my youth. Our kitchen and barn radios came to life each morning when WCPC signed on. We learned who had died, who was preaching a revival at what church, where the ball teams were playing, who was in the hospital (ah, the innocence of those pre-HIPAA days!), and what was on special at each local grocery store. Oh, yeah, we also got the latest pop-country hits from Johnny, Carl, Ray, George, Porter, et al. The station owners were Jimmie Rodgers and Carter Family enthusiasts, so we got occasional retrospectives on the “classics” and live performances from local talent on Sunday afternoons. The Mathis Brothers and their associates became a part of our lives, and “the radio” was part of our communal experience.
The fragmented “on demand” nature of modern entertainment allows each of us to seek his favorite at the time of his choosing, but the old community broadcasts gave us common experience and knowledge, fostered a sense of community, and, yes, made our lives richer. What does satellite radio do for us as a community?
It has become fashionable to yammer on about the “benefits of diversity,” as if it were a good thing. In biology, maybe, but a society’s health and cohesiveness depend on a common culture. Too much diversity can have a centrifugal effect. In the past, mass media provided that common cultural experience which afforded a certain “popular cultural canon,” as it were. Increasingly, there is no “mass media.” We’re all becoming islands, cut off from all but our self-chosen group.
Sirius XM? Yeah, it’s fun, but I’m glad I grew up with WCPC.
Sonny Scott is a Chickasaw County resident and a community columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.