Rock of Ages
Still Rocking, Rolling, and Singing Praises
By Michael McCall
OCTOBER 27, 1997: With The Rolling Stones once again manipulating cash registers and media machinery, expect to be besieged by puffed-up soundbites about how ageless the old devils are, no matter how pampered and pompous they may be. Just as predictably, there will be the counter-stories about how much attention is wasted on a bunch of uninspired, aging millionaires while so many younger bands struggle outside of the spotlight.
The truth is, the Stones' age has little to do with the question of whether they're still making interesting music. After all, 1997 has seen plenty of inspired music from performers much older than Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Recent albums by Mississippi juke-joint vets The Jelly Roll Kings, Memphis rocker Paul Burlison, and Texas bluesman Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown rank among the year's most enjoyable collections. The same can be said of the last album by jazz great Doc Cheatham, who passed away several months ago, just months in front of his 92nd birthday.
Closer to home, several well-seasoned Nashville residents have issued their own worthwhile contributions this year. The Fairfield Four's I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray and Scotty Moore's and D.J. Fontana's All the King's Men won't get a fraction of the attention showered on Bridges to Babylon, but they're both immensely more satisfying experiences. For less money than the Stones probably spent on refreshments and personal assistants, these grandfatherly, Nashville-based musicians have created music that will resonate for years to come. The records are that good. That's more than can be said of Bridges to Babylon, which, despite its expected millions in sales, will probably be one of the last albums fans will listen to when they feel like hearing the Stones' genius at work.
Being a city that loves events, Nashville recently threw a couple of well-deserved parties for The Fairfield Four and for Moore and Fontana. Both were small affairs, but for those who attended, they were meaningful and special; the memories will endure for a lifetime. While neither the gospel group nor the pioneering rockers carry the massive fame or media cache of the Stones, the music they've created is just as integral and important to music history--and just as vital.
Moore, Fontana, and the family of Bill Black all received belated gold and platinum albums from RCA Records for their work on Elvis Presley's initial recordings. John Fogerty and Sun Records founder Sam Phillips attended the Hard Rock Cafe celebration, and both men gave heartfelt speeches about the trio's talents and the contributions they made. Plenty was said about how Moore, Black, and Fontana never received the rightful credit they deserved for helping to create the music that made Presley so renowned. The gold-record presentation was a move in the right direction, as Phillips put it, "to recognizing how important these men were to the music we love."
Moore and Black, along with producer Phillips, have been credited with helping Presley come up with a fresh, energetic sound that combined blues, country, and bluegrass into something that fully expressed the young singer's unusual talents. Phillips has often cited Moore's quick-fingered playing and his broad knowledge of styles as an integral part of The King's groundbreaking first recording session; the same can be said for Black's aggressive rhythm playing on the standup bass. Fontana, Presley's first drummer, joined the band after The King started recording for RCA Records. All three left the band shortly after Col. Tom Parker started managing Presley's career.
Fogerty, who often has cited the influence of the Sun recordings on his own music, called the opportunity to present the gold records to his heroes as "the high point of my life, except for my marriage.... It's an awesome thing to say they were at ground zero" when rock 'n' roll was being invented. Fogerty went on to explain that it took him years to figure out how Moore created certain guitar licks. He also smilingly apologized to the guitarist for lifting one of his licks for the primary riff in "Bad Moon Rising."
This recognition comes hand-in-hand with the release of All the King's Men, which features Moore and Fontana backing a variety of all-star talent. Unlike most albums of this ilk, it's a consistently solid affair, perhaps because the two musicians perform on every song. The contributing musicians include Keith Richards and Ron Wood of the Stones, Jeff Beck, The Band, Cheap Trick, The Mavericks, Steve Earle, Joe Ely, Tracy Nelson, Joe Louis Walker, the Bodeans, and Ronnie McDowell; in a smart move, they all perform original material rather than trying to recapture the magic of Presley's early recordings. To hear Cheap Trick's Robin Zander rip through his "Bad Little Girl" personifies the excitement of '50s rock 'n' roll--and it's much more interesting than hearing a warmed-over version of a previously recorded classic. Fontana's and Moore's handprints are evident throughout in the simple, propulsive rhythms and the spare, smart guitar chords.
The Fairfield Four's I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray also makes up for lost time by honoring great musicians in the best of ways--by giving them a chance to show their talents in the most flattering of circumstances. The Nashville-based quartet can trace its history to 1921 and its first recordings to 1941. The current lineup includes James Hill and Isaac Freeman, who have been with the group since 1949 and can remember when The Fairfield Four were among the most celebrated of black gospel vocal groups in the '40s and '50s. Wilson Waters and Robert Hamlett, both longtime gospel singers, joined in the early 1980s, after a reunion performance proved there was still a lot of interest in the group's powerhouse harmonies. Newest member Joseph Rice came aboard after lead singer Walter Settles suffered a stroke in 1995. (Settles' stout vocal style can be heard on one of the new album's strongest songs, "These Bones.") The group lost longtime member W.L. Richardson to a heart attack after recording its 1992 comeback album, the fine Standing in the Safety Zone.
If anything, Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray is an even stronger effort than the quintet's previous Warner Bros. album. Steady concert work, which has taken the group literally across the world, has richened its power and special vocal blend. Producers Lee Olsen and Mark Prentice have helped sharpen the vocal arrangements, allowing the singers to explore various elements of their rare talents. Guest contributions are kept to a minimum, but they prove massively fulfilling. Pam Tillis raises the roof with a going-to-glory version of "Get Away Jordan"; Elvis Costello, meanwhile, performs a particularly resonant and well-chosen original, "That Day Is Done," which he cowrote with Paul McCartney.
Costello performed an unforgettable version of "That Day Is Done" during a recent guest-filled concert in honor of The Fairfield Four, which was taped for the syndicated radio program Mountain Stage and for possible future release as a television special. The remarkable Caffé Milano concert also featured performances by Steve Earle, Kathy Mattea, Lee Roy Parnell, Kevin Welch, and The Nashville Bluegrass Band, all of whom seemed inspired by the setting. Everyone rose to the occasion by putting forth songs that largely featured a positive, spiritual theme. The reverent tone fit the occasion, but the performances also vibrated with energy and excitement as well--making it a truly fitting tribute to the The Fairfield Four.
It was left to Costello to comment on the worshipful mood of the evening. "This would not be the place for someone with a crisis of faith," he quipped after expressing how thrilled he was to participate. His segment included a knockout cover of The Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," a choice that proved as appropriate as it was surprising. "I'm just a man whose intentions are good," Costello sang in the chorus, "Oh Lord! Please don't let me be misunderstood."
For the most part, the guests on both the Moore/Fontana album and The Fairfield Four collection are there for the musical experience. The fact that their names will bring wider recognition to deserving talents is simply an extra benefit.
With the Rolling Stones' appearance this Sunday at Vanderbilt University, Nashville will hop on the media bandwagon with endless stories concerning the Stones' legend; many of the articles will likely focus on whether or not the old fogies can still rock. But those looking for good music surrounded by a minimum of hype will want to check out All The King's Men and I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray. Both albums, by seasoned vets, offer ageless music that will stand the test of time.
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