West Coast Report: Lost in Arizona and live in San Diego with Dolly Parton
A weekly feature from Far Out Magazine see’s Timothy Mudd, our man in the States, give a monthly update from the West Coast.
Timothy’s feature will follow his move from place to place and spending his time in San Diego, LA and Seattle, he’ll stopping off at music venues along the way. Here, in his latest episode, we follow him up the coast:
NOTES FROM THE WEST DESK
Crisp Bluegrass music beats through my headphones as the high-altitude metal horse I’m riding careens through darkness; dropping from the stars toward the glistening amber gems that string a perfect grid across the Mohave desert. Phoenix, Arizona—where the West is truly wild. Conservativism runs rampant; small firearms are a fashion accessory; and, there’s a mad tyrant whose actions and reputation set the tone in Maricopa County.
Known for rounding up both legal and illegal migrants from the south—whose journey is a scorching obstacle course of dunes, tunnels, and barbed wire—Sheriff Joe Arpaio has welcomed his hopeful neighbours to America in a similar fashion to how the Viet Cong once greeted prisoners of war to Indochina.* The whole idea begs the question of how bad things must be in Mexico and Central America to inspire such a journey. That the promise of this, far exceeds the reality of that. It’s a global topic and a generational human interest story, but around these parts—for over twenty-three years—it’s simply part of the cultural DNA.
Despite the black abyss of ridiculous into which this nation is currently in free-fall, I imagine the American PR machine still reigns supreme. A promise. A dream. ‘Freedom.’ Further north, around the Phoenix metro area, business, and residential high-rises intersperse, malls, and resorts knit together by vehicular arteries clogged with the staple plaque of American industry: car dealers, fast-food restaurants, and strip clubs.
Across town at Hotel Valley Ho, a Mad Men-inspired hipster retreat, my anonymous bar room company is what could be the Real Housewives of Scottsdale, on a full-sail course to Martini oblivion and adorned by their slick male barnacles. Sitting back I sip a jalapeño margarita, chew on a hot pepper seed, and try to ignore the live-action reality television; I’m thinking about those lost in the desert, who are guided by nothing but the inspired hearsay of the greatest marketing campaign ever executed by one nation. What songs do they sing in their heads? It may not be their first choice, but Country music would seem to sound better here. It blends comfortably with the extreme and unrelenting landscape.Descendant of the Celtic folk influences that accompanied the original wave of European migrants, the tales of social and personal struggle toward more prosperous days and calmer lives kept tested spirits strong and tenacious. With shared work song themes of love, loss and protest, Folk, Blues, Country, Bluegrass, Jazz and Gospel grew side by side in a patchwork quilt as the musical expression of Americana. And if ‘Freedom’ is the movie, country music is the soundtrack.
Sure, there’s a lot of broken trucks, dead dogs, and absent spouses—but that’s just the low-hanging fruit. When you get down to the soul of the song, there is a truth, even where there is no justice. There is passion, even without a happy end. There is an inspiration, even when hope is in doubt.
If Alanis Morissette and Glenn Ballard had Nashville on their minds while writing Jagged Little Pill, their landmark ode to feminism would probably sound similar to Maren Morris’ debut outing Hero. Upbeat and down home, the Texas native spits out pop country anthems that are surely inspiring confidence in a generation of southern belles, and scaring the shit out of their would-be suitors.
While Hero’s hooks run dangerously close to cliché, Morris pulls each song out of the nose dive into one feel-good act of empowerment after another. While I may not be her target demographic, I’m not immune to rolling down the windows and blasting radio hits such as ‘Sugar,’ ‘Rich,’ ‘My Church,’ and, ‘I Could Use A Love Song,’ in short order as I scream through So. Cal’s tangled mess of commuter freeways. Great songs, brilliant execution. Don’t be a prude, just listen, accept that it’s pretty rockin’, and get on with another beautiful day.
Within the first ninety seconds of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, the debut LP from Margo Price, you’d be forgiven for doing a double-take on its release date. Unless I’ve missed something, it’s 2016. This record sounds and feels as if it could have shined in the nineteen-seventies heyday of Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, and Emmylou Harris. Crisp snares, romping bass lines, chicken-picked guitars, and giddy pedal steel roll through ten songs of pure retro-country bliss—each a gem with a unique glistening twinkle. Price waited tables to self-fund it’s recording at Memphis’ famed Sun Studio without any notion it would eventually find a home for release on Jack White’s Third Man Records; and, you can hear each spilled drink, ketchup stain, and shitty tip as authentic as the American dream she’s realizing. Margo Price wrote, recorded, and worked for this LP the right way—the way any artist should be proud of—and, she deserves every bit of available adulation, including yours.
Another fellow traveler on the retro-country revue is Sturgill Simpson whose third solo effort in three years crystallizes the promise of 2013’s High Top Mountain and 2014’s fantastic Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. A Sailor’s Guide To Earth builds and burns with outlaw soul and grooves through the parallel dimension of a Nashville held hostage by the Dap-Kings; and, the cavalry of his long-time touring band. In interviews, Simpson has suggested his latest recorded outing is a letter to his newborn son that will guide on the road to manhood. If that’s the case, it’s one hell of a birthday present. From the opening dock bells of ‘Welcome To Earth;’ the steel lullaby of ’Breakers Roar;’ the freight train funk of ‘Keep It Between The Lines;’ the open sails of ’Sea Stories;’ ‘Brace For Impact;’ and, finally, the satellite burning orbit of ‘Call To Arms;’ this is one monster of an album. There’s not one moment of it’s nine songs spared for redundancy. Arguably, this record will garner most of its populist attention for its cover of Nirvana’s ‘In Bloom.’ While an excellent reinterpretation that only furthers the mythological proportions of Kurt Cobain’s universal songwriting style, this cut should not be the focus. Both genre-defining and genre-declining, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth will crawl under your skin and seep into your bones—a terminal condition you’re going to want to enjoy time and time again.
“A chorus of angels,” was the thought that concluded my first run through The Complete Trio Collection by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris. Originally released in 1987, Trio was the first of two albums showcasing a stunning collaboration between three of the strongest voices of their generation. Twelve years later, that record was followed by Trio II; similarly toned, while also documenting their growth both individually and together. Sadly, there would never be another outing for the group due to Ronstadt’s Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis in 2012, which left her, tragically, unable to sing. For fans both old and new, the closest we can get to a Trio III is this new set which presents both albums in their entirety, remastered, and a bonus side of unreleased material from the sessions. While production quality is almost flawless across the board, audiophiles may find interest in the nuanced production techniques from both periods. Tunes from the Trio I timeframe deliver with an honest acoustic warmth; while, the Trio II sessions search broader atmospheric vistas. But the ability to time-stamp only enhances the work. Rather than distracting, there’s grace in experience that makes this set genuinely compelling as both a songbook and essential addition to any musical time capsule.
After thirty years of trailblazing his Hillbilly brand of Honky Tonk country music, Dwight Yoakam’s Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars… documents the veteran songwriter, actor and film director’s first—and long overdue—foray into Bluegrass. Hand-clapping, foot-stomping, banjo-twanging, mandolin-chiming, Bluegrass. Rather than showcasing a new side of his craft, this latest outing reimagines some of Yoakum’s career highlights in one of broad spectrum Country’s most beloved niche styles. In doing so, the collection provides the perfect introduction to the man, a roadmap of his craft, and a gentle reminder that his contribution to the musical grapevine will always be quite relevant. ‘What I Don’t Know,’ ‘These Arms,’ ‘Listen,’ ‘Guitars, Cadillacs’—classic songs, pristinely produced in the warmth of an all-acoustic prairie. But then there’s one more. Having thoroughly enjoyed the first eleven songs—without warning—a familiar chord progression began. “I never meant to cause you any sorrow/I never meant to cause you any pain…” Whether it was a cover already nestled in Yoakam’s live cannon, or an authentic tribute to the recently departed genius, Yoakum’s tasteful reinterpretation of Prince’s Purple Rain is, on its own, worth the price of admission. Whether you’re herding livestock alone in the foothills, or square-dancing in the town barn on a Saturday night, each of Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars… twelve songs will warm you like a shot of moonshine, and leave you hollering’ for an encore.
Live performances are really where the truck wheels hit the gravel for Country music, and for this, we’re going to look to three women whose hoedowns we recently had the pleasure of witnessing.
At the foot of the Space Needle during the final day of Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival, the sun drifted west as a group of twenty-something session musicians mounted the Starbuck’s Stage, took up instruments, and began to roll a musical locomotive into the autumn gold. Last to join her crew, their front woman strutted into the eye of the storm and donned her acoustic guitar, giving the train it’s final shunt into full-steam speed. Margo Price and her band are the real deal. A revival of Country Music from the height of its authenticity when the girls stepped out on their Daddy’s with stories of strength, sadness, and tenacity that lives to tell the tale. The only disconnect is the expectation that live music this good and seasoned could only come from the wisdom and technique of elderly veterans when Price and crew look as though they’d be just as comfortable taking selfies in a Brooklyn brew pub. But this sound is as genuine as it is relevant. In a time when ’Bro-country’ is as tired as the prejudiced capitalism behind it, it’s refreshing to see the tables are turning and the kids are alright.
The dust had barely settled when the quartet fronted by Maren Morris descended on the Seattle dusk with more punk than her country songwriter roots would suggest. Rattling through her hits with blitzkrieg bop and a wry wink to her more earnest peers; Morris wants you to think but executes with the poise of someone who also believes you should enjoy the process. Every bit as anthemic as her debut Hero, Morris’ live set delivers with the premonition that if this is where the fledgling group is beginning, there’s much more ground shaking to come.
I’ll admit it; trepidation gripped as I approached the San Diego Sports Arena to add another check mark to my musical bucket list: Dolly Parton. Live in concert.
One of the worst-sounding venues in Southern California, the Sports Arena looms over industrialised grime once host to military barracks on the peninsula northwest of downtown; now a commercialized wart on an otherwise perfect tan. This building is where I once witnessed the might from Kings Of Leon all but disappear into its concrete cavern, and the spectacle of U2 fail to match the sound of their visual assault. Not Dolly. She was out to break this lousy track record. She was there for me, and only me. Because that’s the entertainer Dolly Parton is: she’s there for each and every one of us—singularly and collectively.
Arguably one of the most defining musical careers of the last half-century, Dolly Parton is first, foremost and always an entertainer. She has perfected the art of turning these brutalist behemoths of twentieth-century architecture into, “Just sittin’ around tellin’ stories on my back porch.” That’s not a skill—it’s an art form.
Spinning tales of her childhood growing up in the Smokey Mountains of East Tennessee, her search for stardom, success, giving back, and the people with whom she could never have had any of this without; a Dolly Parton concert is one long conversation punctuated by songs woven as if golden thread. And if you momentarily divert your attention from the star in this orbit to survey her audience, you’ll understand something even more incredible: each story lands with an indelible truth applicable to the lives that live between each set of ears. This audience isn’t a bunch of hipsters being “ironic,” it’s not a congregation of country music die-hards worshipping an alter. It’s Moms and Dads, Sons and Daughters, Grandmas and Grandpas, all just taking in a show. No one here is searching ‘cool.’ They’re looking for a little home-spun truth. Something to help escape their worries, something to make their days a little better—something to remember. And there she is. Rhinestone-clad and waltzing: an American heartland Tinkerbell ready to whisk you away from all your troubles. She’s funny too. Genuinely funny. Not one self-inflicted pot shot spared; whether it was her early aspirations for her image to reflect that of a local streetwalker from her childhood, the global reputation of her naturally endowed chest, or her unabashed commitment to plastic surgery, “If it’s baggin’, draggin’, or saggin’, you better believe I’m gonna get it nipped, tucked or sucked!” All delivered with a girl next door giggle that made each disarming blow positively adorable.
Musically, Dolly hit every peak of her musical oeuvre; many hits and a smattering of songs from her latest solo album, Pure and Simple (which incidentally is an excellent offering for her forty-third LP) in a perfect curve of emotional symmetry from happy, to sad, before finishing with redemption. And let’s not forget about musicianship: Dolly’s long-time touring band delivered some of the crispest, cleanest, session work I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing on stage. And, when the quartet sat on stools to present the pitch-perfect acapella gospel of Little Sparrow, this Tuesday night arena concert couldn’t have got closer to heaven than church on Sunday if it had tried. A joy to witness from start to finish, this three-hour tour de force immediately became one of my all-time favorite concerts. If you love music don’t make a Dolly Parton show a maybe—make it must-do.
Both as contrast and complement to the vast openness of the South West, Ugo Rondinone shook the public art world earlier this year with Seven Magic Mountains; a collection of Technicolor neon monoliths towering over the scrub and sand outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. Working at the intersection of art and nature, Rondinone demonstrates a profound reverence for the environment in his sculptures also installed at Rockefeller Center in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others. But not only is Seven Magic Mountains a masterwork; it’s a feat of engineering.
To maintain the vibrancy of its rainbow hues, Rondinone applied aircraft coating to the rocks; then there was the issue of potentially distracting glare thanks to the perpetual sunshine (for both viewers and passing drivers alike)— solved by choosing matte lacquer over high gloss paint. While experiencing Seven Magic Mountains may not warrant it’s own journey from afar, this new world wonder should be a stop on the itinerary for any South West desert road trip.
SITTING IN THE INBOX
Sia, James Blake, The Veils… Oh, and a Presidential Election. Yeah, that little thing. Why not?
Stay thirsty y’all.
*During the writing of this piece, the US Department of Justice filed contempt of court charges against Arpaio for unfairly targeting Latinos through law enforcement efforts.
Lost in America, Englishman Tim Mudd is an artist, musician, and writer who splits his time between Southern California and the Pacific Northwest. He enjoys romantic dinners, long walks on the beach, and brain-caving rock n’ roll.