Nora Jane Struthers Takes Us Back to Old Country

Country Carnival Pack
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Are you sick of Country music that sounds like that slick 1980s pop-rock genre called “New Country?” Are you ready for some Old Country? The kind where pedal steel wails, voices keen, and fiddles fly during the breakouts? Check out the latest EP from the angelic Nora Jane Struthers, who might just have the most gorgeous voice since Lori McKenna broke through. Country Pack is a sampler from her 2013 release Carnival with a few other tracks thrown in; including her killer cover of “Till I Kissed You,” an Everly Brothers classic. It’s typical of Struthers’ approach­--a vintage piece or rockabilly, complete with strong walking bass lines from Brian Duncan and gorgeous close harmony singing with Joe Overton. The latter also plays banjo, as we hear on "Party Line," the song for which the band is named. Overton also hews more to tradition than to innovation. Not that there’s anything wrong with Bela Fleck-like artistic improv, but if you want to induce the feeling of coal dust Appalachia, Overton’s is the better musical frame.

I have read that Ms. Struthers is a fan of vintage clothing as well as retro music. It is, of course, a risk to turn back the clock, but Struthers and her band are not a Country version of Sha Na Na. Quite the opposite. Her Appalachian-style tunes sound stump-water genuine, her bluegrass selections evoke backwoods creeks, and her honky-tonk conjures the smell of stale beer rather than overpriced Chardonnay. On "Carnival" we rekindle the sense of wonderment from a country fair and that whirl of energy we associate with simpler times. This is Country-folk music that’s about love gone wrong, hope, hard times, simple things, the road, and the cabin. "Must Have Been Out of Mind" feels like what you'd get if you crossed heartbreak Country with gospel music.  Each track manages to be complex musically without overwhelming Struthers’ voice or resorting to studio chicanery. Loved it! –Rob Weir

Check this track on YouTube.


Another Conjob Conflab over Con-flag

I waited to comment on a Washington Post story from August concerning a band of Virginia rednecks causing still another conflab over one of the biggest con jobs of all time: the so-called Confederate flag–though it's actually no such thing. The Virginia Flaggers hoisted a 30' by 22' Confederate battle flag along a busy Virginia highway. They call themselves "activists," though a different word beginning with "a" comes to mind.

Did I wait because I was too angry? Because the issue is too delicate? Because I didn't wanted to offend people from the South? Nope. I waited because this is what journalists call an "evergreen" story–one you can run any old time because it's always ripe. There's never a shortage of racists who wave the Stars and Bars and claim it's about Southern pride and has nothing to do with race. They know damn well they're being provocative, so they hide behind an artificial heritage hedge, and play wounded when anyone calls them out.  

I'll give the Virginia Flaggers grudging credit for riding the Zeitgeist Hogwash Loader. One of their spokesmen, with a Visine-aided tear in his eye, spoke of a broken heart as he considered that unknown, unburied soldiers might be lying on the very site upon which the flag is raised. One might note that's an appropriate fate for traitors, but I'd rather address historical ignorance.  

I sometimes see Con-flag T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan: "If this shirt offends you you need a history lesson." Sorry, but if you wear such a shirt, you're the one in need of a history lesson. (You also need a grammar lesson to brush up on comma usage.) The first Confederate flag was a single white star against a field of blue, known in parlance and song as the "Bonnie Blue Flag." The one called the "Stars and Bars" wasn't adopted until May of 1863 and it wasn't the one "heritage" abusers call the "Stars and Bars." The first Confederate States of America bannerol looked like the U.S. flag, albeit with fewer stars and just three broad stripes of red, white, and red. The design today's good old boys love was actually the battle flag of the Army of Tennessee or, in square form, the Army of Northern Virginia. In 1863, it made its way onto the official flag on one of the uglier designs in flag history: an undersized perversion of Scotland's St. Andrew's Cross on a white background. It looked like an envelop stamped on the wrong side.  

Once the Civil War war ended–a struggle to preserve the Union and end slavery, by the way, not malarkey over state's rights, the tariff, or Northern aggression–all the flags were closeted away. Occasionally they came out for Civil War reunions, but they didn't fly over state capitols until later. They came out again when Southerners fought and (eventually) lost another war–the one against civil rights. Defenders can cry "heritage" until the kudzu comes home, but that shameful blue and red rag is indeed  a racist symbol.  

As with most heritage claims, it's important to ask when a symbol becomes "heritage" and who is pushing that agenda. The second part is easy: white groups such as the Sons of the Confederacy and the United Daughters of the Confederacy pedaled a load of ideological hooey known as the Lost Cause during Reconstruction (1866-1876) that sought to transform treason into a noble quest. Alas, they were somewhat successful. Once Reconstruction ended and the Jim Crow era began, it was okay to be racist again. In 1894, Mississippi added the battle flag to its state flag because the white folks in the blackest state in the Union didn't want black folks doing radical stuff like voting, holding political office, or thinking they might be first-class citizens. Not to be outdone, Alabama modified its state banner to allude to the battle flag in 1895–just in time for the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 that shamefully gave the stamp of constitutionality to segregation. Florida altered its flag in 1900.

2003 in GA
Lest you think this was just the times, consider what happened when the times they were a changing. Southern Dixiecrats throughout the South dusted off the battle flag during the 1950s for the sole purpose of symbolizing their opposition to civil rights. Georgia put the starry cross on its flag in 1956! Think Brown v. the Board of Education or the rising civil rights movement may have had anything to do with that? When Governor Zell Miller tried to alter the design in 1993, the legislature voted him down. When those white peachy Georgians finally altered their flag in 2003, they sewed the controversy right back into it.

Most egregious of all, South Carolina waited until 1962 to start flying the self-proclaimed Rebel flag from its capitol dome. I'm sure that decision had nothing to do with the sit-down movement or the Freedom Rides, right? Know when it came down? In 2000, and only then because a four-year boycott knocked the wind out of the tourist industry. It still flies beside a monument to the Confederate war dead on the capitol grounds in Columbia. Austin has three monuments to the Confederacy outside its state capitol.

Everywhere the Stars and Bars flies it causes uproar, whether it's in a dorm room at Harvard (1991) or if you color it yellow and wave it a LSU football games every other autumn Saturday. Each time decent people get upset, cowards cry "heritage" because they lack the guts to proclaim their racism. Does this flag offend me? Yes it does. And those who fly it need a life and a history lesson. I'd settle for a one-way ticket to Syria.


Gallagher's Farewell to Comedy?

I Am Who I Pretend to Be
Uproar Entertainment 3937
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Remember Gallagher? The long-haired guy who dressed like a cross between a mime and an audition for "Where's Waldo?" The dude who used to smash watermelons with a sledgehammer? Gallagher was ubiquitous in the 1980s and early 1990s, including on Showtime and Comedy Central. Then his star faded when he his act took turns some deemed racist, homophobic, and nationalistic. For the record, some of his jokes could be viewed as sexist, crude, irreligious, and mean to people with disabilities. Gallagher might be the Southern rightwing-redneck-cracker his critics make him out to be for all I know, but I've never felt that that Political Correctness had any place in comedy. Let's face it, if nobody is insulted–even if a joke is self-deprecating–there is no comedy. If your nose goes easily out of joint, stay out of comedy clubs. Tell me that Richard Pryor wasn't also racist. Did you ever hear the recently departed Joan Rivers light into a person who heckled her for being insensitive?  Comedians are supposed to make us uncomfortable. The real question is whether or not the shtick is funny.  

Funny or not? The jury has always been out on Leo Gallagher, 68, and now we're going to have some time to assess him. I Am Who I Pretend to Be looks like to be Gallagher's swan song. It's a May 2014 live performance recorded at Sacramento's Ice House Comedy Club. He has subsequently suffered his third heart attack and has announced that his health won't allow him to tour any more. His latest (last?) album is a mishmash of new routines, selected classic jokes, musings on life's absurdities, and some poking around in the audience in search of cheap laughs. That is to say, it's similar to what he's been doing for decades. One also suspects that the title is also a backhanded slap at his brother Ron, who appropriated a lot of older brother's act.

Gallagher's shtick can best be described as uneven. Like a lot of comics, he is at his best when he takes logic and stretches it to its social extremes. Why, he ponders, do new socks come with little plastic hangers when no one hangs up their socks? If there is extraterrestrial life, why haven't they contacted us? Gallagher suggests it's because "they can smell stupid" and fly right on by. Don't get him started on sporks, the presence of French in the English language, or people who refuse to look at evidence. Other bits are simply dated. There are gems hiding amidst dross in his observations of the battle of the sexes, the dross mostly being social views about 30m years out of date. He has a routine about using handicapped bathrooms that isn't as offensive as it is sophomoric. Throughout the concert he plays the crank, sometimes with hilarious results and sometimes in the ways that make you want to leave him to wallow in his own irritability.   

Gallagher was reportedly very upset when Comedy Central rated him just the 100th greatest stand-up comic of all-time. On all such lists there are weird choices. Does anyone find Bobcat Goldthwait (#61) Bernie Mac (#72), or Andrew Dice Clay (#95) funny? But let's be honest– Leo Gallagher was always a second-tier guy, as the recent deaths of Rivers and Robin Williams so poignantly remind us. I don't think it was Gallagher's bad boy antics that pushed him down the ranks so much as the fact that his initial rise was a zeitgeist thing. Smashing things appealed to a generation that used to say, "tear down the walls" and mean it. His anarchic high-octane energy resonated with Baby Boomers when they were still in their 30s and 40s. When Gallagher's energy flagged, the zeitgeist shifted, and running across the stage yielded to stand-up, some people were offended by what they heard and others simply grew tired of same old/same old.

Is Gallagher's swan song worth caring about? I'll give it a gentleman's B-. It has some very sharp and funny moments, but overall it does not sparkle with transcendent wit, cleverness, or brilliance. Alas, it's also more rant than frenetic anarchy.—Rob Weir