Saturday, January 21, 2006

Popcorn Country

One of the great innovations Nashville borrowed from Hollywood was the massive studio orchestra as cinematic prop. It's akin to the Technicolor soundstages used in the movie adaptation of Oklahoma! -- yes, the sky is clearly fake and doesn't really extend forever and a day, only about 20 feet and it's made of wood and paint. But then here comes the star, an earnest country guy or gal whose casual grace and charisma soars, nearly popping a button on the sequined Western shirt as the rhinestoned lungs send a triumphant note beyond the skies (They're real, those skies! Real!), or curl into a heart-piercing quiver that can't be faked any more than you can fake sobriety after a case of Lone Star. It's that old-fashioned Nashville combo of cornpone tragedy and never-ending faith in the song that suspends disbelief entirely, such that a 16-piece string section augmenting a song about a lonely lineman isn't entirely ridiculous.

Patsy Cline was an early adopter, but Glen Campbell perfected the form, with the help of Jimmy Webb's lyrics, which were really imagistic movie scripts draped over jazz chords that approximated country songs. "Houston (I'm Comin' to See You)" isn't one you come across as often. It was actually penned by David Paich, founding member of Toto, who was an LA studio guy at the time (1974). The narrator imagines Houston glittering from an airplane at night, flying in from San Fran after a year away from his woman following some untold dispute. Think I'll send her a postcard, so she can meet my plane. When those strings start up, the whole thing pops in 36-millimeter widescreen.

Another fave is "Turn Around, Look At Me," a song of quivering, tear-stained triumphalism that seems, as far as I can tell, to be about stalking. It's almost an attempt at telepathy through wrenching internal melodrama.

As the cinema aspect evolved, George Jones pushed the creepy possibilities to the limit with "Radio Lover." It plays like a 3:26-minute Alfred Hitcock film, setting up a plot about a radio DJ who spins songs of heartache and cheatin' while thinking of his lovely new wife who listens from home. The power to pre-tape leads to a devastating ending with an inferred violence that is intensely vivid. Listen to how the meaning of the love lyrics turns to cold menace. Goodnight, angel, sleep tight, darling, close your pretty brown eyes.

There's an aspect of it that's very told-'round-the-fire-at-night that connects this to old-school folklore, a kind of countri-urban myth torn from the headlines. It's basically an episode of CSI as conceived by The Possum.

Postscript: After examing the lyrics to "Houston" more closely, Dewey and I noticed an interesting problem in the lyrics. It seems the narrator is thinking of writing a postcard to an estranged lady friend so she'll meet him at the airport in Houston. But he also speaks on the telephone with the lady. I'm just calling to tell you I'm leaving today. So why doesn't he just ask her to pick him up at the airport while he's got her on the horn? There's no way a postcard can make it in just a few hours!

Alternate interpretations welcome.


Anonymous said...

I love this photo of Glenn as hayseed Apollo. So much bronzed skin! At first I thought I had gone to Dennis Cooper's blog by mistake and had dialed up one of his "Great Moments in Gay Porn" postings. Alas, no: just more cornpone orch-pop country doodling. Anyway, I'll print this and post it on my locker at the squash club.

Alternative interpretation: the narrator is addressing two women, one on the phone and one by postcard. The woman on the phone is his "safe bet" -- she's a she he keeps in his back pocket for emergencies. Of course, he really (unconsciously) would rather get "picked up" by the phone call lady. That's why he addresses his true love by postcard, which will never arrive on time; the timing, conveniently, is out of his hands. Glenn peered deep into the heart of man (that's male man, in this case) for this lyric.

Dingo Eldritch

Don-n-ABQ said...

FYI: In the song "Houston (I'm Comin' To See You)", Paich is writing about a girl named Houston (who lived in Los Angeles). It has nothing to do with the city in southeast Texas. Hope this helps.