By: Jake Adam York
by Jake Adam York
Twelve years ago, as a young writer whose Alabama accent suggested hidden motives to more than a few colleagues in our MFA program at Cornell University, I began to take my comfort in music. First, I turned to jazz, to discs my best friend, a college DJ, had given me, and then to the hard rock and heavy metal I’d played since high school, and finally to the roots music that would swell my shelves—box sets of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and stray cases of Charlie Patton and Son House.
The jazz reminded me both of Sundays spent listening to my friend spin classics into the short radius of the campus airwaves and of the summer trips to New Orleans my family took each year. The rock recalled days water-skiing the Coosa River with high-school friends or punching guitars in someone’s basement. But the roots music dug more deeply, excavating mornings in my grandparents’ kitchen, where ancient country music bore through the crackle of bacon. As the winters set in, the music kept me warm, and as it kept me warm, it kept me comfortable, cocooned me in the sounds of home.
I carried that warmth everywhere I went. On the coldest days, I’d press the earphones hard while Branford Marsalis’s I Heard You Twice the First Time (1992) wound onto a traditional holler, “Berta, Berta,” an a cappella chorus over cycles of crickets and cicadas. Nights, I could pile quilt on quilt, open wide the radiators and sweat to the sound, almost forgetting New York altogether.
The longer I lived there, the larger the library became, swelling to include all the Johnny Shines, Jimmie Rodgers, and Leadbelly I could find. And more and more what I took for the sounds of home became a home. I began listening to music I’d never liked before, either because everybody else liked it or because my father wore it thin. I turned to Hank Williams, Doc Watson, and Bill Monroe. I even began to give new country half a chance.
One afternoon in my second year, I unwrapped the eponymous BR5-49, slid the disc into my player, then checked my speaker wires. The first seconds of the first track, “Even If It’s Wrong,” crackled like a record, dust popping from a turntable’s needle. Sure of all connections, I restarted the disc: static once again.
It was deliberate—the proper conceit for the debut of a band whose allegiances lay not with industry country-western but instead with early string bands and 50’s rockabilly—music that first appeared on acetate or vinyl and that, by and large, had not made it CD yet. It signaled a genealogy whose strongest roots tangle in an analog past oddly trogloditic and technological at once—the country limbo of Hee-Haw, the 70s country-music variety television show on which finger-picked banjos crossed electric telecasters and phone numbers still began with alphabetic exchanges, like BR5-49, the number for the show’s used car lot.
The static was, I think, supposed to trigger my own nostalgia for the show, which I watched each week with my parents and then each night when reruns filled the local schedules, and for the tub-thumpin’, knee-slappin’, pickin’-and-grinnin’ numbers that were, ostensibly, anyway, the show’s main events. These opening seconds, this jewel-case insert featuring a rotary phone, and the name serving to indicate the band and the album and so being quietly repeated, these things were supposed to call like a grandmother to me and my generation and tell us to come back home and sit a spell.
The static recalled a thousand excitements, pregnant moments between the needle’s contact with the smooth edge and its descent into the vibrating hollers of Patsy Cline or the Louvin Brothers or the Carter Family. But this deliberated static, the residue of the analog, didn’t belong to BR5-49.
The very next year, my Oxford American Southern Music Sampler arrived with “St. Louis Cemetery Blues,” a B-side by the Squirrel Nut Zippers, a so-called “hot band” named for an old-fashioned candy bar. There, it would seem, the Zippers, not content with an initial haunting, lay an entire cut’s worth of static over the tune, trumping recherché orchestration—trumpet, trombone, banjo, tom-heavy drums, stand-up bass, violin and mandolin—by adding another instrument, the phonograph record. Though I had no doubt the song had been recorded the year before, it sounded, in so many ways, like the recovered and re-mastered 78 sides of Robert Johnson, the Hot Fives and Sevens, Louise Bogan and other early 20th century musicians then newly available on CD, digital recordings made from analog records, many of them either heavily-chipped acetate platters or the even older aluminum discs that had slowly corroded into silence.
Was the static, I wondered, some kind of homage? As it covered some of the orchestrated sound, was it, in some way, a sacrifice to the ghosts of the past, a voluntary loss to answer the loss of those small flecks of sound that lie under rust or swirl in warehouse and storehouse devils in those long-amputated towns on the edge of nothing? Was it, simply, a kind of kitsch? A new valence of nostalgia?
These recordings—the Zippers’ and BR5-49’s—never had to be pressed on vinyl. They were recorded digitally, mastered digitally, and reproduced digitally. They were burned into emulsions that would never acquire statics of their own through wear and age: scratches, however unlikely, would produce only sound-stopping diffraction. The rainbowed releases would only ever possess this one strangely static static.
On the one hand, this static seemed to record, more than anything else, the listening that went into producing this music in the first place. These musicians, working down toward a past that neither they nor the fans who buy the discs could have known directly, spent a lot of time listening, both to old records and to the digital copies that now circulate, complete with the static that can never be erased. Now, the new compositions, and new recordings the old music has inspired, preserved the pop and hiss of the media through which we have approached the original styles.
But it called us to listen as well. If it recorded any kind of listening, the static came to signal any listening, that of the producer or that of the consumer. That static, even if it only imagined the held-breath waiting for sound to emerge from the dark, asked us to be quiet, to negate as much as we could the rhythms of our respiratory and circulatory systems and tune ourselves toward another world that would emerge through sound from somewhere else. Through that static, we descend into the spiral valley of song.
And if the static kept, then it functioned as an audible membrane that separated the moment and situation of our listening toward that music from the moment of the music itself. The sub-static groove lay somehow beyond our reach, in the end, kept from us by decay or age. And so the music that incorporated the static into itself attempted to cover itself with or embed itself more deeply in time, to distance itself, somehow, from the contemporary. It sought, at least, to acquire the noise of history, or through that noise, the place of history.
The static, however, had to be a signature. The hand must have been occupied elsewhere, performing other offices of recovery without which the static would overlay nothing, would be hollow, and would lead nowhere.
BR5-49’s instrumentation alone performed some recovery. The use of steel guitar, dobro, fiddle, mandolin, and upright bass signaled a return to what might be called “classic country.” But the more substantial salvage was audible in the cover songs. Almost half of the debut album’s tracks—five of the eleven—are covers. Johnny Horton’s “Cherokee Boogie” is the second cut, followed immediately by “Honky Tonk Song,” a Mel Tillis number recorded by George Jones. In the dead center of the list is “Crazy Arms,” a song performed most famously by Ray Price but offered as well by a half-dozen other luminaries, including Patsy Cline and Chuck Berry. This is chased by Mel Tillis and Webb Pierce’s “I Ain’t Never,” with Graham Parsons’ “Hickory Wind” blowing in the penultimate slot.
Covering is common in country music, whether to please an audience or signal one’s roots, to show what one can do or shape the context in which one wishes to be considered—and we might easily understand the presence of these covers on BR5-49 as performing all this work.
“Crazy Arms” is a perennial favorite, surely an audience pleaser, but also a reference of a band’s influences. Taken together, the covers advertise the band’s intention to bracket the last several decades of country music, its desire to be considered a creature of the 50s. The performances themselves are conservative—there’s very little if any variation or update beyond the fact of a different voice. They serve to reactivate the past, not to argue with it, to situate themselves just beneath that opening static so there’s something to find when we begin to listen as the album asks us to.
Much of this, however, is inaudible. On BR5-49, the descent can’t be marked after we’ve moved from the opening seconds into the first track. Throughout the disc, the band’s original material is laid side-by-side with the cover, beneath the static, and so the distance between the 1950s and the 1990s is collapsed, and once one is inside the album, the distance we have to bridge becomes inaudible, almost non-existent. While it seemed the project of the album to enter history and make it audible, in the end, the project is instead the resituation of the present work, using the cover to obscure the temporal circumstance of the band’s own effort.