Sons of the Never Wrong Album Offers Hope (if We See It)

King Fisher King
Waterbug 107
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I admire Sons of the Never Wrong in much the same way that I’ve been a fan of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. Cynics don’t get the Midwestern ecumenical Christian wholesomeness of either Keillor or the Sons, but sometimes I’ve just had it with all the pessimism and want something that lifts the spirit. The latest from SOTNW opens as most of their recordings do–with a catchy little homespun ditty that spotlights Bruce Roper’s dry, reedy voice (which is vaguely reminiscent of Steve Goodman’s). In this case, we get the down-home virtues of “Arkansas,” and its musical pastiche of Americana, folk, and faintly Irish instrumentation. What stands out most, though, are the incredibly tight three-part harmonies between Roper, Sue Demel, and Deborah Lader. It’s an infectious song that exudes giddiness.

Don’t be fooled by the trio’s optimism–it’s not blind faith. The album’s major theme is the fragility of life and is embodied on track eleven, “Compromise,” which addresses the choices we make to uplift, or tear down; to come home, or be lonely on the road. As they remind later on, “... all our best intentions are lost in a net by the Galilee Sea.” The album’s tone is often joyful, but it’s also cautionary: if you want meaning, you have to take the time to see the small things that really matter. “Over There” could be viewed as a slice of folky Utopia with Biblical undertones, or a litany of the things that divide and conquer. It’s all a matter of the choices we make.

The Sons of Never Wrong are hard to classify musically. They are certainly on the folk end of the spectrum, but material such as “Sword and Pen” and “Face on Mars” have a theatrical feel that evokes light musical theater. They also have a penchant for writing off-kilter songs. “The Great Unknown” takes the well-worked theme of contemplating what’s on the other side of death, but how many songs tell this by populating the lyrics with Caesar, Lincoln, and John Lennon? Or how about a song about the importance of remembering that’s actually about forgetting (“Window”)? Or some white people’s soul in which a terrifying “Tornado” becomes a father’s gentle lesson about life cycles. I understand when people tell me that Sons of the Never Wrong are just too weird (or too sunny) for them, but I get them and I’m grateful for the gentle guidance they offer. Check out the new album's songs for yourself at http://www.sons.com/
--Rob Weir


Mindy McCready: Not a Legend, a Tragedy

As it happens, she wasn't very tough.

Legend: (n) nonhistorical or unverifiable story handed down by tradition from earlier times; body of stories of this kind…accepted as historical; the person at the center of such stories. Synonyms: myth, fable

I awoke on February 18 to hear the sad news that country music artist Mindy McCready had taken her own life. Then I toddled off to the gym where one of the TV screens was tuned to Fox News and saw one of its gaudy banners atop the talking heads. I never listen to Fox (or any other network news), but the headline caught my eye: “Legendary Country Singer Mindy McCready Dead at 37.” Legendary? That’s a stretch even by the sloppy (non) standards of contemporary American English. With the exception of the word "hero," it’s hard to imagine a more misused word in our language than “legend.”  (Regarding “heroes,” it would behoove most who use that term to renew their acquaintance with the word “victim.”) In what ways, exactly, was Mindy McCready legendary? Her life was an open book whose pages we endlessly viewed whether we wished to or not. It was all too verifiable and the only “tradition” associated with it is voyeurism.

I’m not here to praise or bury Mindy McCready. I’m more concerned with what Joni Mitchell  labeled the “star-maker machinery” that seeks to transform a moderately talented singer into an epic drama. In fact, I think it may be partly responsible for McCready’s suicide. It is the pop machine that inures us to damaged individuals who should be in therapy rather than on stage.

McCready’s musical legacy was thin. She released five albums between 1996 and 2010, of which only the first, Ten Thousand Angels, made it as high as #4 on the country charts. It did contain a # 1 single, “Guys Do It All the Time,” but things steadily declined from there. She hadn’t been on the charts since 2002, when one of her songs was ranked #49, and it’s hard not to read things into the title of her last album: I’m Still Here (2010). In all, McCready sold about 3 million units–not shabby, but not exactly “White Christmas” territory either. It was enough, however, to keep her in the tabloid column, though her troubled personal life made much better copy than anything she could slap onto a CD.

Her biography reveals far more valleys than peaks. It began with a Pentecostal upbringing one suspects instilled in her a sense of unworthiness, and Nashville by 18, a place known for chewing up even the strongest. By her disputed telling, she began a decade-long affair with baseball’s Roger Clemens when she was 16, and began sleeping with him when she was 18. It didn’t get much better. Her résumé includes several broken engagements, drinking, and enduring domestic abuse at the hands of a man from whom she separated and then reconnected long enough to become pregnant by him. Then came a suicide attempt, drug abuse, a porn tape, a new boyfriend, a second child, more drinking, Oxycontin, a DUI conviction, a charge of identity theft, and a custody battle with her own mother over guardianship of her children. The father of the second child, record producer David Wilson, allegedly committed suicide a month ago. (This case has been reopened.) This isn’t legend; it’s a tragedy of Greek proportions.

Now that her pathetic (as in pathos) life has ended, it’s time for tears, flowers, and teddy bears. Weepy faces appear on the screen sobbing, “We love you, Mindy.” No, you didn’t, and she didn’t love you either. Mindy McCready was a walking basket-case who desperately needed help, but who cares if she’s an OMG moment on Fox News or the Yahoo! Homepage? It’s no accident that her first record was the one that made the splash. It was her turn to be the flavor of the month served up by the star-maker machinery. Then the machine turned. Here’s how it goes. You begin with fame and graduate to celebrity. Both are ephemeral. You either add more fuel to the machine, or the final cycle is notoriety. The strong go to rehab and start the cycle anew. (Don’t we just love rehab stories?) The weak end up like Mindy McCready. There’s nothing legendary about it--it's as common as dust. Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris” is worth quoting in its entirety:

"The way I see it," he said
"You just can't win it...
Everybody's in it for their own gain
You can't please 'em all
There's always somebody calling you down
I do my best
And I do good business
There's a lot of people asking for my time
They're trying to get ahead
They're trying to be a good friend of mine

I was a free man in Paris
I felt unfettered and alive
There was nobody calling me up for favors
And no one's future to decide
You know I'd go back there tomorrow
But for the work I've taken on
Stoking the star maker machinery
Behind the popular song

I deal in dreamers
And telephone screamers
Lately I wonder what I do it for
If l had my way
I'd just walk through those doors
And wander
Down the Champs Elysees
Going cafe to cabaret
Thinking how I'll feel when I find
That very good friend of mine

I was a free man in Paris
I felt unfettered and alive
Nobody was calling me up for favors
No one's future to decide
You know I'd go back there tomorrow
But for the work I've taken on
Stoking the star maker machinery
Behind the popular song."


Not Teaching Cursive Writing a Disservice to Students

I ran across a recent item that cut me to the nib (pun intended). It seems that many schools no longer teach cursive writing. Many states have dropped it from their language arts core, the logic being that our keyboard society has made cursive writing a relic of the past. Many public school students now have no writing skills beyond printing, and some schools don’t even teach lower versus upper case printing–just block letters. (Catholic schools still demand cursive and good for them.)

A lot of my college students think it’s fine to rely on printing. They also think it’s fine to steal music. They’re wrong on both accounts. If you are an elementary school teacher, instruct your classes in cursive; if you’re a parent, don’t ask, demand that it be taught. Some of the things you read online–how ironic!–offer elegiac defenses of cursive writing. (Quite a few also spout the shortsighted party line that cursive is as archaic as vacuum tubes and print publications.) I suppose one could wax rhapsodic about creativity flowing down the barrel of a pen, links to our Western heritage, and developing motor skills, but there’s no need to go down those routes. A far more pragmatic argument is that cursive writing is, simply, a skill one needs to keep up in today’s fast-paced society.

My students swear to me that they can type far faster than they can “write,” by which they mean block-letter printing and that’s probably correct. They also use their electronic devices so frequently that they’ve come to expect there’s never a situation in which they won’t have one. That is, until the first time someone gives them a blue-book exam and tells them “No, you can’t type this on your laptop.” Many of my students cannot fill an eight-page bluebook in an hour, which means that their essays are superficial and they are graded accordingly. “Unfair!” they cry. I am roughly as sympathetic to that plea as math professors that tell their students they must do their own arithmetic rather than using a calculator. Are we being callous? I don’t think so.

In Logic 101 one learns that a syllogism with a flawed major premise yields illogic. In this case, the case against cursive rest on the assumption (major premise) that there are no longer situations in which one needs cursive. That’s simply false. The average accomplished typist does 60-80 words per minute (WPM). I can write faster than that even though I have a hand disability that slows me. Moreover, to hit 60 WPM, you need to know how to touch type, which is another skill that most students never acquire. I have observed students in lectures who simply can’t keep up on their keyboards. Some ask me to put my lecture notes on the Web, which I will not do. I happen to think that: (a) these things are my intellectual property, and (b) that a person with poor listening skills is ill equipped for the job market.   

One reason student are slow is physical. Just as a violin player can play faster than a cello player because they don’t have as much instrument to cover, so too can most people scribble on a piece of paper faster than they can go across a 12-18 inch keyboard (on which many students have to search for letters.)  Another reason is that we relate to screens differently. Put simply, a mind focused on a screen is less actively engaged with a detached speaker. (And this is before other temptations from the World of Wireless pops in one’s head. Try reading just one e-mail and see if you can refocus on a lecture.) Today’s students are very fast at retrieving information, but they are extremely slow when it comes to analyzing it, in part because huge chunks elude them, especially the connective tissue that relates bit of information to another. And heaven help them if their laptops run out of battery life in the middle of a class. You know what most of them do? Nothing! They simply sit there, stunned. The best students will tune in and hope to retain enough to transfer it to their computer once it’s recharged. Try that and tell me how well it works.

There are many circumstances in life where one has to jot down information in a hurry without the aid of an electronic helper–an employer calls someone into the office and gives details of an important assignment, a critic needs to take notes in a no-gadgets environment, verbal directions are given to someone who is lost, one is taking an exam that disallows computers as a potential cheating source (and this includes licensing exams for many professions as well as graduate school entrance exams), a therapist or doctor needs to focus on patients instead of a screen, a person wishes to send a note that is more personalized (sympathy cards, for example). Perhaps most important of all, if you really need to remember something, test subjects that write things cursively retain far more than those that print or type. (Typing surpasses only relying upon aural memory in psychological tests.) And, let’s face it; if you were an employer, would you hire someone who couldn’t write his or her own name?

One doesn’t have to be a Luddite or technophobe to defend cursive writing. Today’s world depends upon flexibility, suppleness, and adaptability. I won’t pretend that learning cursive writing is “fun.” I hated penmanship in grade school and my hand is indeed a poor one. I chuckle at those who defend cursive as an art form; no one will ever confuse my scrawl with art! But can we please can the if-it’s-not-fun-we-can’t-teach-it fluff of modern education? I didn’t like learning multiplication tables, conjugating verbs, or learning about syllables either, but I’m sure glad I swallowed the medicine. Do not let your kids get by without learning cursive; they will hate you now, but they’ll thank you later.