“I was country when country wasn’t cool.”
So sang that country sweetheart Loretta Lynn, the coalminer’s daughter, star behind the movie of the same name, sister to Crystal Gayle, she of the dulcet voice and the bum-length hair.
I wasn’t nearly as enamoured of Loretta as I was of her sister, but I recognized her talent and the truth of what she was saying.
When she began her career, country wasn’t considered to be exactly a sophisticated taste in music. It was “low brow,” a term right up there with “around the Bay” in Newfoundland. Country music aficionados included the female summer school students one saw on St. John’s streets in July wearing bandannas and walking hand-in-hand. Those were the girls.
The outport boys, of whom I was proud to be one, had their hands jammed into their jean pockets to look tough in case we ran across the bunch from Casey Street. We used to meet down by the fountain in front of the Colonial Building. Had my first kiss in front of the multicoloured sprays that used to fly skyward from that thing.
Girl from Moreton’s Harbour. Don’t worry, love, I won’t say your name. Do I remember her name? Absolutely, Christian and surname. I met her and her husband several times in later years but I don’t think she recognized me. The kiss lasted about a second and a half. There have been single hiccups that lasted longer. Sorry, my dear, but I was only 14, you know, and tall for my age.
Anyone of us could be expected to name Hank Williams or Kitty Wells as the world's top singers rather than Enrico Caruso or Beverly Sills. Personally, I think I may have heard the name Caruso, probably from my father, but was unfamiliar with his “greatest hits.” However, I could rhyme off “Your Cheatin’ Heart: and “Makin’ Believe” word for word. Still can.
Just as an aside comment on Ms. Sills, she was certainly a wonderful soprano in the ’60s and ’70s, and remained an active part of the New York music scene into the 2000s. Her knowledge of her next-door neighbours across the border, however, was rather scant.
I saw her as a guest contestant on “Jeopardy” one night when she quickly “rang in” on the answer, “— is the capital of Canada.” Then she momentarily froze, as many do.
“Just — just a moment,” she sputtered. “I know that. I’ve performed many times in that city. It’s … it’s … oh my. OK, I have it! This isn’t the way I’m supposed to say it, but the capital of Canada is — Saskatchewan!” she finished triumphantly.
Alex Trebek looked as though he couldn’t believe his ears. I know I couldn’t believe mine.
Opera stars in general, and Beverly Sills in particular, sank mightily in my estimation.
Back to Ms. Loretta and her admission that she was country all along.
When only the low-brows and the summer school crowd with their hands clasped in each other’s or jammed firmly in their pockets would ever admit to having heard of Doc Williams and Chickie, and “My Old Brown Coat and Me” — Yep, I can still sing it in its entirety. Here are the last two lines.
Remember that an old brown coat though not so very grand
Can cover up as warm a heart as any in the land.
Ah, the tragic tales of love and betrayal, and the life lessons learned in the process. If you’re going to tie up your old hound dog in the pan of your pickup truck, make sure that the leash isn’t so long as to allow him to jump out over the tailgate when you’re doing 70 mph on the freeway in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Ouch.
And who can forget Stuart Hamblen’s “I Won’t Go Huntin’ with You, Jake/But I’ll go Chasin’ Women.” And so help me, by all that’s good and holy, I did not remember the rest of what I think was the chorus until after I had written that title. Here it is with, as near as I can remember it, Stuart’s original pronunciation:
So put them hounds back in the pen.
And quit yo’ silly grinnin’.
The moon is bright and I'm half tight,
My life is just beginnin’,
I won't go huntin’ wi’ you Jake,
But I'll go chasin’ wimmin.
They don’t write songs like that anymore, Songs that helped us grow up with the right values and attitudes. No serial killers and crazed axe murderers among us, let me tell you. Those of you who were raised on Sinatra and Tony Bennett didn’t know what you were missing.
It’s different since the Golden Age of country, or as it was known then, country and western. Kids have been raised on acid rock and rap instead of the great country and soft rock that Conway Twitty (“I Can Tell You’ve Never Been This Far Before”) and The Big Bopper (“Come on Baby, You Know What I like”) brought to the airwaves.
Good old country is still there with the likes of “I Been Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart” and even gospel country with “Drop Kick Me, Jesus, Through the Goalposts of Life” (so help me!).
This column is an excellent example of how everything evolves from its creation on towards its inevitable end. I began with the idea of pointing out how, as Loretta Lynn suggested, country music has become an acceptable genre to almost all music lovers.
So has open-line radio progressed from the ubiquitous “Is that you, Beel?” to what is now largely informative and intelligent programming, and continues to provide a platform for people who have no other voice.
But I was a fan even in its humble beginnings. Thus, I was supposed to carry on from there and end with, “I was Open Line When Open Line Wasn’t Cool.”
Still am. But as happens so often with this column, I got sidetracked.
Author’s note: This column had already been submitted when I heard of Bas Jamieson’s death. I’d like to record my gratitude for the part he played in my life as host of Open Line, and also express my condolences to his family.
Ed Smith lives in Springdale.