Jay Meehan: Keeping Merle, Waylon and Rhiannon in the circle
“Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, by and by?”
~ Traditional gospel hymn
So, a hippie and an ironworker walk into a bar.
It was early during that stretch of time some of us would come to refer to as the shadow ’60s – that peculiar interval between New Years Eve 1969 and Aug. 9, 1974.
We had yet to wrestle our grasp of the concept down to the bank to use as collateral or anything, but later, once cultural pundits took turns claiming that the ’60s didn’t truly end until Nixon resigned, we nodded smugly, as if we had created the notion from whole cloth.
Although the hippie had checked off The Haight and the Morningstar Ranch commune on his resume, it should be noted that, at the time, he found himself more closely affiliated with the People’s Park and Sproul Plaza bunch at Berkeley than with the flower children across the Bay.
He ordered a couple of brews while the ironworker moseyed toward the jukebox. They were stoned but operational, and looking to squeeze a good time out of what was then a much more organic Park City Main Street. What came next, however, proved to be an epiphany for the interloper from the left coast.
The ironworker, a lifelong Utahn, had readily assumed the cultural trappings of the counterculture as soon as it began dipping its toes into the waters of his stomping grounds. But, as his jukebox nickels readily proved with a steady stream of Merle Haggard and his ilk, country music continued to flow in his veins.
Now, it should be noted that this cultural juxtaposition preceded in time the later love affair between longhairs and honkytonks – before buses were chartered to ferry potheads down to the Salt Palace to catch Haggard, Willie and Waylon, and the Southern Rockers.
Suffice to say, the ironworker’s selection shocked the hipster into disbelief. It was like hearing Wagner when you were expecting Mozart. Circumstance had forced him to consider a hybridization of culture that, previously, hadn’t appeared on his radar. Evidently, behavioral changes were afoot and he was well behind the curve.
What brought this memory of a nearly 50-year-ago afternoon back to the present involved the recent small-screen arrival of Ken Burns’ documentary film “Country Music” and the ensuing commentary across both digital and barstool platforms.
It would seem that changes similar to those Park City’s street scene underwent back in the day are now being experienced by others. It’s understandable. Country music can grab even the most diehard jazz, blues, and rock fans and shake them by the lapels before wrapping them in a warm embrace.
The days of becoming fully immersed in the implications of Ralph Peer’s Bristol recording sessions with the Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers were and are special in every sense of the word. In the case of endorphins and dopamine, education is often a “trigger drug.”
Doors were flung open to the likes of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline while welcome mats were put out for Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and others from the String-Band continuum.
The ecstasy involved in coming upon a whole new genre of music plays out as comparable to discovering a new poet or prose slinger. Actually, of course, country music has always been influenced mightily from America’s immigrant populations and the diversity they rode in on. Rather ironic, today’s politics being what they are.
Informed by varied instrumental, vocal, and life experiences from Africa to Europe and from Native America to Latin America, notions evolved in which the cultural sophistication of hillbillies and ex-slaves became manifest.
Of course something in the wiring of the human brain has defaulted over time to nurture and allow hate and blame and exclusion into the mix. America is in a very bad place and I’m not saying music can turn it around but, in a tribal sense, it can introduce dance as a healing ritual. We’ve got that going for us.
Burns did a damn fine job with his film but I’m sure all of us who viewed it could identify missing performing artists we felt should have been featured. In many ways, however, the inclusion of Emmylou Harris and Rhiannon Giddens kept the circle unbroken. (Said the portly, gray dude with his noise canceling headphones cranked.)
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social and political scenes for more than 40 years.
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