Zephaniah OHora is a fixture of the Brooklyn Country Music scene. His fantastic, self-released debut album This Highway is a nod to Merle Haggard, Marty Robbins, and Red Simpson with a decidedly New York bent.
He stopped by the Tennessee Border Show to talk about his record, his influences, and some of his favorite country tunes. Listen below and find the full July 30th edition of the Tennessee Border Show here.
Nat Hentoff's blurb on the back of Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians sums up Peter Guralnick's work in 20 words or so, "Indispensable...The chapter on Merle Haggard is as if Chekhov had filed a report from Harrah's in Lake Tahoe."
The Chekovian Haggard chapter to which he refers took place in 1978 in Merle's suite at the Lake Tahoe casino. Haggard's marriage to Bonnie Owens was dissolving. He needed her signature on some divorce papers so he could marry his other back-up singer, Leona Williams. Hentoff's connection between Guralnick's fly-on-the-wall style and Chekhov's aptitude for perception and subtext is on the mark.
The late Hentoff called Guralnick a "national resource." He's a GRAMMY-winner, an acclaimed author, and a genuine Merle Haggard fan. We spoke earlier this month for WKCR's Merle Haggard Memorial Broadcast & Birthday Celebration. The interview originally aired April 6, 2017.
The story goes that Will Oldham's first performance some 25 years ago included a cover of Merle Haggard's "It's Not Love (But it's Not Bad.)" Merle Haggard's music figures prominently in Oldham's work as Bonnie 'Prince' Billy. His 2007 take on "The Way I Am" introduced Merle to a new audience of music-lovers, including yours truly. Next month will see the release of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's full-fledged Merle Haggard tribute album, Best Troubador. (Check out the video for bonus track "Mama Tried" here.)
Will Oldham spoke with me last week about Hag and the new album for WKCR's Merle Haggard Memorial Broadcast & Birthday Celebration. Our conversation originally aired April 6, 2017.
It's unfair to dismiss 1980s country as the over-produced precursor to the mostly-terrible Nashville pop of the 1990s. The country & pop dalliance began long before Connie Francis & Hank Williams, Jr. It goes at least as far back as Fred Rose, who, after writing hits for Sophie Tucker and others, left Tin Pan Alley for Nashville to join forces with Roy Acuff in 1942. Acuff-Rose Music dominated country music publishing as the first Nashville-based company of its kind. Hank Williams, Felice & Boudleaux Bryant, The Louvin Brothers, and Mickey Newbury all owe their success to Acuff-Rose. And Acuff-Rose owes its success, in part, to the popularity of country music in middle of the last century. It follows then that the country music industry bent towards pop to remain relevant and profitable in the 80s and 90s.
Only a handful of country greats evolved with the genre's pop mutation. Of those, none are as enduring as Dolly Parton. Dolly kicked off the 80s with the colossal success of "9 to 5." A #1 hit on both country and pop charts, the song earned her her first Oscar nomination and two Grammys. It signaled her and the industry's mainstream shift.
Over the decade, Dolly would release eight studio albums to mixed reviews. All but one peaked in Country Album top ten.
Dolly, Dolly, Dolly, from 1980, opens with a Donna Summer ballad and finds her vocally adventurous (like in this song where she does the most delightful thing with her voice around 1:45).
1983's "Potential New Boyfriend" from Burlap and Satin peaked higher on the dance chart than country chart. (The original video was directed by the same guy who did "Money for Nothing.")
This gem from Real Love sounds exactly like 1985. Jeff Silbar co-wrote "Tie Our Love in a Double Knot." (He went on to win a Grammy for "Wind Beneath My Wings.") The song reached #17 on the country chart.
After Real Love, RCA released her from her contract after nearly 20 years. She signed with Columbia in 1987 for Rainbow, her lowest performing release of the decade. By '89 she was back at #1 with "Why You'd Come in Here Lookin' Like That."
Dolly's 80s output proved her staying power. That her pop explorations sometimes met chilly critical response had little impact on her popularity. She bookended the decade with a pair of gold records — 1980's 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs and White Limozeen from 1989. By the end of 90s she'd add two platinum album notches to her belt. Her 2014 release, Blue Smoke, hit #2 on the country chart and a career-high #6 on the Billboard 200.
In the 1960s, two geo-sonic philosophies dominated country music: the smooth Countrypolitan productions pouring fourth from Nashville, and the jagged twang of the Bakersfield sound charging out of California. Billy Sherrill and Buck Owens sat at either end of the Country Music Spectrum. And somewhere on a whole 'nother level perched Jack Blanchard & Misty Morgan, the pioneering duo behind the perfectly weird 1970 hit "Tennessee Bird Walk."
The Jack & Misty Sound grew out of the South Florida bar and club scene of the mid-60s. Their first regional hit was the loungy, spacy instrumental "Gemini." Though removed from the Nashville Establishment in almost every way, Jack & Misty were hired as independent producers for now-forgotten-up-and-comers like Hank Malcolm. Once in Nashville, they signed a recording contract of their own, and it wasn't long before "Tennessee Bird Walk" earned them a Grammy nomination and a #1 country single.
Jack & Misty toured extensively in the 1970s and 80s hitting honky tonks in every state but Hawaii. Now making their home in central Florida, they continue to record, remaster, and rerelease their growing 40-plus year catalog.