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Even Cowgirls Like Me Get the Blues

November 9, 2018

Country by Cactus BlossomsI’ve made no secret of the fact that since moving to rural Virginia, I’ve become a major  country music fan. While I’m not one of those people who loves anything written about a pick up truck and a pair of cowboy boots, I’m also not one of those purists who won’t listen to anyone after Hee Haw ended either. I love Zac Brown and think Carrie Underwood’s a lot of fun.

But that’s neither here nor there.

Because for once, we’re not going to be talking about this music-lover’s seemingly radical conversion to honky-tonk. Not much anyway. We’re going back to my roots in sweet home Chicago, where the blues still manage to find an authentic home, and aren’t treated as a cute nostalgia act.

Howlin' Wolf Portrait Session

The blues are to my home town, Chicago, what the movies are to Hollywood. Hollywood has glamor and the onus of excess, plus a healthy splash of nihilism. Chicago lacks the luxuriance of its slick cousin, but makes up for it with a style that’s built of grit, the faith of Job and cool. Violence and corruption are in that city’s bones, but so is resilience. Chicagoans are above all survivors, which is why I believe the Blues continue to thrive there, packing festivals and venues with tourists and locals alike, even though this genre of music has long gone out of fashion in the actual music industry.

Maybe it’s because the Blues have managed to transcend their genre.

Many who go to hear Melvin Taylor or Buddy Guy would never dream of putting them on their iPod. They go because when you step into a Blues show, you step into another world. One of old school heroes and villains, rain-slicked alleys, and a sense of the vogue that gives dignity to even the most down and out cast of characters.

chicago blues white

The Blues have a distinctive sense of place and time. You won’t find them in Bali or in California’s wine country.  The Blues belong on the streets of big cities with mafias, crooked politicians and vibrant African-American communities.

And even its most modern artists and aficionados seem somehow to have stepped out of the past. Or more accurately, they were simply left behind. Forgotten, forlorn, foregone. Because unlike the glitz of the California movie set, the Blues belong to regular people. The ones who didn’t make it and never will.

It’s for that very reason why I prefer listening to the Blues live, rather than putting them on at home – which is exactly the opposite of how I feel about most of my music. Going to hear a Blues show is like going to the theater for me. One that combines my favorite literary genre – Noir – with the razz-ma-tazz hang-over of Big Band Jazz. The Blues have the energy of Big Band, the technique, but is no celebration of living. No, the Blues is more akin to a bender than a night out on the town. The kind of self-abusive leisure that cements camaraderie among losers.

Blues Brothers

Blues and Noir inhabit the same universe, stalking the same joints and living through the same long nights. Sometimes barely. They go together like whisky and cigarettes.

How many contemporary genres of music and literature can you say that about?

I mean, really.

Though born roughly of the same time, the psychedelic youthalopolis of the Beatles and the old school world of James Bond have little in common, seeming to exist in separate universes altogether. Just try to imagine someone on LSD and wearing bell-bottoms stepping into the same joint as a slick spy who drinks top shelf martinis and sports a tux. Or Snoop Dogg trying to belong in the world of Harry Potter? Or Kardi B in Outlander (although Kardi is a national treasure, dammit, and I’d take her anywhere)?

The blues and noir walk hand in hand through yesterday and today, seeing the same events in roughly the same way. They eat the same foods, drink the same rot-gut liquor and would vote for same political candidates, if they thought voting would change a damn thing in their lives.

So, tonight, instead of the usual Lyle Lovett soundtrack that I like to play while I’m fixing dinner, I’m going to put on some Miles Davis. Because I’m feeling kind of blue, but in a good way.

Coming soon…more snippets of Savage Island!!!

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