Sunday, November 16, 2008

Passenger Warren

By the time I arrived at the stop light in Camdenton, the audience at Carnegie Hall and I had heard John Coltrane's incredible accompaniment in Thelonius Monk's Crepuscule with Nellie about four times. Distracted by a recent running injury, I slowly walked out the door 8 hours ago headed for Arkansas' Lake Dardenelle with only 4 cds (which, I guess, I expected to last the whole trip). Over and over again, I listened to Charlie Parker outtakes, Miles Davis: Live from Newport 1958, and the Carnegie Hall concert. Obviously, my head's not right without a run, and it's been over a week since my last one (the one that put me in this pickle). So I found myself tonight in Arkansas' gorgeous Ozark Highlands without a single Carter Family cd. What was I thinking....

I normally don't listen to commercial radio because I don't like commercials or, for that matter, most of the music played. Today I gingerly ejected the bright red jazz cd and scrolled to Columbia's wide-reaching NPR station. I swore off NPR a while ago, just after Bob Edwards was forced to leave and the programmers stopped airing actual news items. This afternoon, Andrea Seabrook introduced her next piece (following a fluffy article pertaining to the Obama family's choice of dog): cute pet stories from listeners. Quickly, quickly, scroll past NPR again.

My colleague once asked me if I had ever heard the preachers who broadcast from who-knows-where in Missouri's Ozark Highlands. The stations that carry hell-fire-damnation preachers don't reach very far, apparently, and they probably cut out in the steep dissections of the Current River Hills. I was headed west of lovely Shannon Co. where he's heard these stations, but I went looking for one anyway. Lots of contemporary Christian music stations, but no one yelling at me about hell, no one who pronounces "God" in two syllables.

Instead, turning onto Lebanon's Rt. 66, I run across a Springfield station, KTXR, 101.3, playing Frank Sinatra's That's Life. On Saturday and Sunday nights, a self-avowed "old record collector" named Warren plays an incredibly diverse set. Tonight he played Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, a really bizarre Roger Miller rendition of Me and Bobby McGee, The Highwaymen's Michael Row your Boat Ashore (wow.), Joan Baez, early Stax recordings, some Mary Wells. Warren clearly has a great record collection -nice, big, diverse- and I think he really seeks out obscure music to share with the citizens of the Ozarks. I wonder if he carries his carefully selected records to the studio in milk crates like all of my deejay friends do?

Warren has a terrific on air presence, talking casually with his listeners about how his audience ranges from 30-80 years old. He was curious how people who didn't grow up with Mel Torme know of Mel Torme albums, and suspected, correctly in many cases, that they learned it from their folks (My sisters and I, however, learned almost every Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mandel tune from our Episcopal summer camp's brown songbook, which, unfortunately, had printed in each cover "thou shalt not steal."). Warren probably recognizes that folks my age grew up in a musical wasteland, one between the cool, methadone clinic-sounds of George Harrison and the interesting musical times of Camper Van Beethoven and Elvis Costello. We grew up with the greatly diminished, once great, Jefferson Starship (whose We Built this City... sends chills up my back it's so bad), after Van Morrison's benchmark Astral Weeks, during the heydey of Michael McDonald and Phil Collins. Blech.

Warren's show reminded me of the King Biscuit Flour Hour in some respects. His commercials were part of his dialogue; his friend, Barry, does something with home repairs in Nixa. Barry, in fact, worked on Warren's house just this week! Great guy, what a friend, and I think he must be an underwriter. Warren talks about how great early Motown recordings are, then plays some. He really cares for the music he plays. He even takes requests.

Just as I was heading off the Springfield Plateau, he tells his listeners that he's stumped. "I just don't know...this really happened...I had two listeners call and ask for the same song! That just never happens! So here goes..." What followed was the jolliest, happiest, most orchestrated version of Dixie I've ever heard in my life. Never suspect that two people in the Springfield area would ask for Dixie? After we elected a black president? Come on, man. It's the Republican stronghold for the state of Missouri!

After the horns died down on Dixie and the soulful singer whistled off the record, Warren played a live recording from the Grand Ol' Opry: Barbara Mandrell busting her lungs in The Battle Hymn of the Republic , complete with fanfare and pomp and flag waving. Totally creeped me out. I slapped the darkened console in search of the scan button.

No angry Baptists hollering on the air in northwestern Arkansas, but I heard a very earnest young man try to explain to me why we needed to continue to detain "terrorists" in Guantanamo. He used language I use a lot to convince people to burn their woods: "...but it's the right thing to do." Scan...Scan...faster!..Scan. Enter the curving roads of Highway 65 where the bluffs and rivers make it imperative to drive at or below the speed limit. The calm, cool voice of Joe enters the car from somewhere else in Missouri.

"All Elvis, All Hour! It's an All-Elvis Hour!" Joe doesn't just play all Elvis, but he plays snippets of records from Elvis' collection from which the King drew inspiration. I heard some incredible Mississippi gospel music followed by E.'s interpretation of the same song. Joe owns a lot of those concert recordings of E. that include interviews with fans: "I have every single-licking-cotton-pickin' article, picture, advertisement, snippet of paper every written about EL-viz," one woman says to the reporter. I sat in with Joe until static moved in. Two stations down, I tuned into a Beatles-specific station out of Little Rock that was playing a song I haven't heard much in a few years, despite the need for it: the original version, complete with all the weird noise at the beginning, of Give Peace a Chance.

I listened to commercial radio for almost 6 straight hours and I don't want to buy any Belly Fat Burner or a used car in Malvern anymore now than I did in Columbia. Of course, I have to return to Columbia on a night when Warren won't be on the air, so I'll have to keep up the search, looking for someone who'll yell at me for not doing the right thing in life.

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