On North Chester Avenue in Oildale, California, an 83-year-old honky-tonk named Trout’s stands down the block from a saloon with an aged western facade, and across the street from a liquor store that sells booze and Mexican candy.
Trout’s opened in 1931 to give hard-working locals a place to dance and drink and unwind to live music. During the 1950s and ’60s, local country music legends Buck Owens and Merle Haggard played Trout’s, in their own bands and others, and kept people dancing while helping popularize the raw, propulsive style known as the Bakersfield Sound. Read more…
We believe automatically that Chris Knight is not — could never actually be — that homeless man with a gun.
Put the same lyric in Killer Mike’s mouth, though, and you think something different, don’t you? You do not assume instantly that Mike is merely inhabiting a character. No, in your mind, he is the man with the gun in his hand.
Think for a second about the history of Southern music. Our Appalachian musical heritage has a long and grand tradition of what the academics call “murder ballads” and what the musicians just call “killin’ songs.” The archetype, perhaps, is “Knoxville Girl,” in which the protagonist beats a girl with a stick “until the ground around her within her blood did flow,” then drags her by her hair into the river to drown.
Southerners have written and still sing hundreds of ballads about killings. We sing them at festivals and around campfires. Academic musicologists study them as cultural artifacts. Though they are dark indeed, no one finds them too objectionable. Johnny Cash “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” and we’re not scared. We just love Johnny more.
But when the gun in the song is in the hand of a black man, things get weird. The song becomes less cultural artifact and more an object of fear. We reflexively object. We worry about what the children will hear.
You think we have a little double-standard problem here? Yeah, me too.
Unlike fellow giants like Williams, Merle Haggard or Dolly Parton, who have plenty of obvious imitators, no one sounds like Nelson. He’s an uncanny vocal phraser: “The three masters of rubato in our age are Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and Willie Nelson,” said the late producer Jerry Wexler. “The art of gliding over the meter and extending it until you think they’re going to miss the next actual musical demarcation – but they always arrive there, at bar one. It’s some kind of musical miracle.”
In a time when America is more divided than ever, Nelson could be the one thing that everybody agrees on. “The Hells Angels love him, and so do grandmothers,” says Raphael. But in private, he can seem introverted and given to long silences. He will often describe his life in brief, purely factual terms, saying things like, “Oh, why does a guy write? I don’t know. You get an idea, and you sit down, and you write it.” Over the course of 30 interviews with his friends, family and band members, a lot of the same words come up – generous, charismatic, loyal and, as Keith Richards has said, “a bit of a mystery.” “He’s really good at throwing out a one-liner that will get you off of what you’re talking about,” says Shooter Jennings, who has known Nelson since he was a kid tagging along on the Highwaymen tours with his father, Waylon. “You’re like, ‘Fuck, Willie, answer the question!’ There’s a lot of exterior there. That’s why you’ll never quite fully get that picture.”
“You never get to know him like you should, but you know there’s more there than what you’re seeing,” says Loretta Lynn. “I know there’s more there because of how he writes. He can’t fool me!”
“He’s a hard man to know,” Johnny Cash wrote in 1997. “He keeps his inner thoughts for himself and his songs. He just doesn’t talk much at all, in fact. When he does, what he says is usually very perceptive and precise. . . . He has a beautiful sense of irony and a true appreciation for the absurd. I really like him.”