Tuesday, January 29, 2008


I am an unashamed nostalgic.

People tell me all the time that I was born in the wrong era. And, as much as I like TiVO and modern medicine, I suspect they're probably right.

Course, that might also mean the multiple kidney stones I've had would have killed me back then. Minor details, friends, minor details.

There wasn't too much on the tube last night after I got home from work. So I went surfing on the Web and came across this great site, live365.com. It boasts all kinds of radio stations, most of them free, all loaded with different programming.

I was delighted to discover that several stations are devoted to classic old-time radio. Even better, the shows, at least on the station I tuned into last night, appear to have been digitally remastered.

What's fun about this site as opposed to an on-demand OTR site is you're at the mercy of the disc jockey rather than you're own inclinations. So I dialed in a "catch all" station and eased back in the recliner for a few minutes before bedtime.

Jack Benny came on first, followed by "Duffy's Tavern" and "George Burns and Gracie Allen." "The Life of Reilly" popped up as I was heading to bed.

Later, I had trouble sleeping, so I went to the couch and caught another Jack Benny before finally drifting off to sleep.

Most of these shows are a bit silly. The plots, shall we say, aren't exactly the most witty. But, it's fun and you get a kick out of the special effects and anachronisms like cigarette commercials.

The site isn't relegated to old-time radio, though. Live365 have channels filled with any kind of music you could want. I'll definitely be surfing back again on nights before baseball, or when I happen to be home and our wonderful slate of broadcast and TV channels don't offer anything -- which seems to happen with more and more regularity.

I swear there was more good stuff on back when we only got three or four stations...

Info: www.live365.com

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Finding the harmony

Remember those childhood dreams? Can you recall what you used to think you wanted to be when you grew up?

You'll laugh at mine. I didn't want to be a writer -- at least, not until later. I didn't want to be a firefighter. Police officer? Only if I could be a private investigator, like Magnum p.i.

No, friends, what I wanted to be, more than anything in the world, was a member of the Oak Ridge Boys.

Quartet music was the first kind of music I ever heard. I'd spend hours as a young pup listening to the Inspirations, J.D. Sumner and the Stamps, the Kingsmen, the Statler Brothers, and of course, the Oaks. My mom took me to see them at Stokely Athletic Center when I was about 6. Part of me ain't been the same since.

I had it all picked out. I wanted to be William Lee Golden -- sans the beard. They'd call me up, say, "Jake, we're coming through Halls, get ready to jump on the bus." And in my 5-year-old glory I'd sing lead on "Ozark Mountain Jubilee" and stay with the group until time to retire.

Dreams die. But love of good music never does.

There's something about that good, old-fashioned four part harmony. It works best if the guys are wearing matching suits and ties. I thought about that, and those long ago dreams, when I went with pals John Hitt and Fred Russell to hear the Triumphant Quartet in South Knoxville tonight.

Oh, they're modern and can't quite match up with the Oaks, or the Statesmen or the Blackwood Brothers. But they're pretty darn close, and definitely the best in their field today.

Perhaps the best singer of the bunch is big Scott Inman, 25 years young, but with a voice like you wouldn't believe. Yes, Triumphant still wears those classic matching suits, too. And, every now and then, they'll pull out one of those classics from yesteryear. They've got a great sound, I know that.

The boys gave up their regular Sunday night show at the old Louise Mandrell Theater in Pigeon Forge. Now, they travel around, singing in churches and at other quartet events, finally able to keep longstanding requests.

I sat in the back and tapped my foot. John was nodding his head. Freddie clapped a whole lot.

Part of me, that little boy from years ago, kept hoping Eric Bennett would call me up on the stage to sing one with the quartet. I'm glad he didn't -- I'm nowhere near in the same ballpark with these guys -- but, oh, how I love the music.

It reminds me of something simple, something a bit more real than all this modern jazz, something I once dreamed about and probably still do on nights with the adult inside me doesn't get in the way.

Thanks for the harmony, fellas. For one cold January night, anyway, the dream was still alive.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Where the good guys always win

I often like to relax during a free winter evening by watching a good, old fashioned black-and-white western.

Oaters went out of style several years ago -- or so we keep being told. Funny, though, how virtually every time one airs on TV it garners huge ratings. But, anyway, that's another story for another day. I've never been too concerned with what's popular -- mainly because more often than not passing fads are a bunch of crap. I watch what I enjoy, and westerns tend to top the list.

Tonight I popped in an episode of the classic CBS TV series "Gunsmoke." During the early part of its run, "Gunsmoke" was a half-hour show. The drama played quickly; the script by necessity had to be lean and tight.

It's a little hokey, sure. But it's also an appealing fantasy.

Times weren't simpler back in the Old West. If anything, they were extremely violent, full of upheaval and uncertainty.

But the Hollywood version is the exact opposite. Good wears white. Bad dons black. Evil is always punished and the whole thing is usually wrapped up rather nicely in about 30 minutes or an hour. The black and white clarity -- literally and figuratively -- makes for a nice contrast to the blurred colors of the real world.

My good friend Doug Harned and I get together every now and again to screen one of our favorite classics. We're tough critics.

I liked "Comanche Moon," the recent CBS miniseries based on Larry McMurtry's last installment in the "Lonesome Dove" saga, better than Doug did. I know one thing. I'd love to find a woman like Linda Cardellini's Clara Forsythe. Sigh, sigh, sigh.

But I digress.

CBS has brought "Gunsmoke" to DVD in season sets. At the rate they're going ("Gunsmoke" ran for 20 years during its original run; they've chosen to release the episodes a half season at a time), I'll be in my 50s when every show is available.

Some nights I'll even surf over to OTR.net and listen to an episode or two of the 1950s radio version of "Gunsmoke." (I'm a little sad I missed out on radio shows. It's fun, and you get to use your own imagination to visualize the characters.)

As someone who was trained to be a historian, I know I should prefer the actuality to the myth. But, in this case, I guess my heart will always be on the side of the legend -- that wonderful place where the crook is always punished, the girl always comes back and the good guys always win.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

'Bring It On Home To Me'

iTunes is a one dangerous animal.

Music is available literally at your fingertips. I browsed awhile last night and swear I could have dropped a C note without batting an eye.

Plus you learn disturbing things about your musical habits. For example, I have apparently listened to RobinElla's "Teardrops" more than 100 times over the past couple of years.

The next "most played" track is also courtesy Ms. Contreras -- "Morning Dove," at about 85 spins, followed closely by Floyd Cramer's "Last Date" and Joe Cocker's "I Shall Be Released."

God, I was born too late.

Anyway, last night I took a stroll down Soul Street and came away with a real gem -- Sam Cooke's "One Night Stand: Live at the Harlem Square Club."

Some albums just feel so alive, full of energy and sweet rhythm. This one blows everything you thought you knew about any of that way off the charts.

My friend Amanda Mohney, a former Shopper-News contributor and a music critic I respect, once said that Sam Cooke was smooth as silk, the kind of guy that never had to slide up into a note in order to hit it. All you need for evidence is this live album. He shines so well here, easily shifting from sweet pop syrup to rhythm and blues, classic soul and back again.

Highlights? Well, dang near every track. Faithful renditions of hits like "Chain Gang" and "Cupid" are here, but these live tracks swing along to some kind of wonderful beat that couldn't be captured in a studio.

Cooke has the audience join in on a medley of "It's All Right" and "For Sentimental Reasons." In anybody else's hands this could have been the sleeper portion of the show -- the moment you skip out for a drink or to find the john. But Sam turns it into a showstopper, one of those musical moments you hope lasts forever, wouldn't miss for the world.

"Twistin' the Night Away" holds its own with Cooke's other great live version, recorded at the Copa; both of them simply demolish the studio cut. But the best track has to be "Bring It On Home To Me," the kind of song that tends to define a career. Sam sings from way down deep inside somewhere; you manage to both feel his pain and develop a strong urge to grab a girl and dance your ass off.

I finally turned the iPod off about 1, figuring I needed to at least try to get some sleep. But as my thoughts gave way to slumber, I was still sitting in that Harlem club, adrift somewhere in the early '60s, listening to this phenomenal talent swing that sweet soul better than nearly anybody else.

Everybody was having a party, swinging and dancing to the music. And, me and my baby? Well, were out there on the floor, begging that DJ to keep those records playing...

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Kurt's big night

I used to think I was an eccentric baseball fan. I figured my passion was such that it made me stand out from the crowd, call unnecessary attention to myself.

Well, guess what? Leave it to a friend to put me to shame.

Kurt Pickering e-mailed back in December. He was being honored at a banquet in Nashville and wondered if any of his friends wanted to attend. I found out it was about baseball and said, "Sure." Then I got the details.

Kurt used to work and live in the Music City. That meant he owned season tickets -- one gold seat, in fact -- to the Nashville Sounds games. Kurt is a longtime baseball fan who turned his back on the big leagues after the 1994 strike canceled the World Series. He then discovered the joy of minor league baseball and never looked back.

Kurt's job took him to a suburb of Atlanta early last year. To most people, this would mean the end of the baseball tickets.

Not Kurt, though. He kept them.

He worked it out with his boss to take leave on the Fridays the Sounds were playing in Nashville. And, thanks to those weekend homestands, Kurt Pickering drove 4 hours (each way!) and made it to exactly half of the games.

Geez. Half the time I'm daunted by traveling a mere 20 minutes up to Kodak for the Smokies games. Here Kurt thinks nothing of 4 hour jaunts back to Music City.

So flash forward to last Friday night. A group of Nashville baseball enthusiasts hold a banquet every year. The Old Timers, as they call themselves, have been meeting for 70 years. They award scholarships to local high school baseball players and invite a baseball-related speaker.

They also give away a Fan of the Year award. Who better than the Sounds' biggest fan?

I was able to work it out to drive down for Kurt's big night. It was fun.

What better way to warm up these cold winter nights than with thoughts of endless summer afternoons, double plays, the 2-1 pitch and all things baseball. That it served as an excuse to get caught up with old friends made it even better.

Congrats, Kurt. You're the best fan I know.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Bury my heart at Lonesome Dove

From time to time you're often asked in a survey or some such thing that irritating question, "What is your favorite book?"

Like songs and movies, I can't ever name just one. But my stock answer, if I'm forced to name just one, is usually Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove."

Oh, yes, I could go for a more literary choice ("The Sun Also Rises"), or a sentimental favorite ("Shoeless Joe"), but there's something special about McMurtry's 1985 Pulitzer-winning tale about the epic cattle drive to Montana.

At its heart, "Lonesome Dove" is the story of the great friendship between Texas Rangers Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call. It's peppered with all the usual suspects -- violence, action, romance, tragedy.

McMurtry never quite equaled what he did in its pages, although "The Last Picture Show" comes mighty close. It's special; these characters stay in your thoughts long after you turn the final page.

Which is why I remained weary of the book's various sequels and prequels for so many years. I didn't want to return to the characters' lives, fearful that the warm feeling would dim if McMurtry went in a direction I didn't want to follow.

He did exactly that in "Streets of Laredo," but I ended up enjoying the ride anyway. "Dead Man's Walk" and "Comanche Moon" were more successful, although none captured the magic of that first (and best) book.

And now CBS has brought "Comanche Moon" to television as a three-part mini-series. I'll save my review of it until after tonight's final broadcast.

But I must say that it got me thinkin' about Gus and Call, Clara and Maggie, Jake Spoon and Pea Eye Parker, all those beloved characters we first met 20 years ago. Funny, isn't it, how such figments of an author's imagination can hang around all this time, as real as the guy that lives down the street.

No, that's not quite true. In some ways, the one's that really count, Gus and Call and company are old friends.

Through their words and actions I learned something about life and human behavior. And maybe, truth be told, a little about myself too.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Restless thoughts

Spring training tickets go on sale this weekend! The UT baseball season ticket renewal form came in the mail yesterday!

Soon, my children, soon...

Meantime, I'll make do. Went to the UT basketball game last night. Vols blew a 12 point lead, but it all worked out in the end. Exciting stuff.

It's raining here tonight. Bad storms all over the South, they say. I'm home, alternating between TV, music and a crossword puzzle. Do I suck or what?

So Hillary and McCain won in New Hampshire. We have a presidential race again. Why am I resisting a yawn? Guess it 'cause for the first time ever --- ever --- I don't know for whom I'll cast my vote come November.

Wonder if I can write in Teddy Roosevelt?

I'm re-reading Stephen Ambrose's second volume of his three part biography on Nixon. We've come a long way since then, not all of it good.

May ride with a buddy down to Nashville this weekend. I need a break. Wonder if that great little restaurant is still open at the far end of Broadway? It's been awhile.

Whaddya say we run away somewhere? I'll drive and bring the music. You pick the direction and buy the first tank of gas, OK?

Sunday, January 06, 2008

A natural high...

Going to hear RobinElla is the perfect way to end the weekend.

It's laid back, it comes on easy, but more importantly it makes you forget all about the real world for a couple more hours before that dreaded Monday morning alarm sounds. You lose yourself in the music, enjoy the company of friends, chat about everything and nothing at all.

Time stops. Life is good.

Music has a way of doing that to you, though. Especially good, toe-tappin' music that you love way down deep in your soul.

I thought about it this morning, too, as I was getting ready to the strains of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (and friends) on "Will the Circle Be Unbroken Vol. 2." In some ways I like the sequel better than the famous early '70s original.

For one thing, it contains a fantastic version of Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Going Nowhere," as well as a mighty fine little ditty called "Turn of the Century" that is threatening to become one of my all-time favorite songs. That disc is alive. They left in the little moments, when the musicians talk to each other, and it feels like an album, rather than a package deal.

I think that's probably why I enjoy RobinElla's tunes so much. Her stuff, too, feels honest, something meaningful, rather than just the same old tunes fighting vainly for the 4/4 hook and a catchy way to make a buck.

I don't know. Whatever the reasons, I just love to hear good music on a lazy Sunday night. Maybe the answer can be found in RobinElla's cover of an old Merle Haggard hit:

You put me on a natural high/And I can fly, I can fly...

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

Two-Minute Warning

I've always gotten a kick, for some reason or another, out of those so-called "disaster films" of the '70s.

You know -- all-star casts, big calamity, mass chaos, run for your life kind of thing. The best one, hands down, is Irwin Allen's "The Poseidon Adventure."

But I had seen that one a hundred times, so when I got the urge to watch one, I thought about "Two-Minute Warning," a 1976 Charlton Heston film I'd seen advertised on TBS as a kid. Sure enough, Netflix had it.

"Two-Minute Warning" is set on "Championship Sunday" (aka the Super Bowl) at the Los Angeles Coliseum. A sniper climbs up to the big scoreboard and waits. He's eventually spotted by a guy in the crowd (Beau Bridges) and by the TV cameras mounted on the Goodyear blimp.

Capt. Peter Holly (Heston) is dispatched to the scene. After conferring with Sam McKeever (Martin Balsam), who's in charge of security, Holly calls in the SWAT team. He tells the team's leader (John Cassavetes) that "they do it his way" until the two-minute warning.

Meanwhile the film introduces us to a series of characters peppered throughout the stadium for the big game. Mike Ramsey (Bridges) is here with this family. Stu Sandman (Jack Klugman) has a high stakes bet on the game; he shares his troubles with a priest (Mitchell Ryan). Steve and Janet (David Janssen and Gena Rowlands) are a troubled couple from Baltimore in town for the championship. Walter Pidgeon is a roving pickpocket.

And so it goes. The film isn't much into character development -- well, beyond the usual cliches. The characters are here to serve a purpose. We learn just enough about them to be shocked when a couple of them meet their fate.

Anyway, the SWAT team gets into place, the president of the United States decides to cancel his visit when news of the shooter is leaked, all the VIPs ("potential targets," Holly says) are escorted from the game -- and then all hell breaks loose at the two-minute warning.

Growing up in the '70s must have been a confusing time. The post-Watergate, post-Vietnam era led to some bleak cinema -- apocalyptic, tense, brooding visions of the world, gritty crime dramas, subversive comedies. Other films of the era jumped in the opposite direction, toward fantasy and escapism, carrying with them a "we just want to forget this mess" mentality.

"Two-Minute Warning" is not a classic, but the "panic" scenes at the end of the film are a powerful "what-if." I can't tell you how many times I've wondered what might happen if disaster struck Neyland Stadium when filled to capacity one fall Saturday afternoon. This film gave me an eerily realistic answer, one I didn't much like seeing.

The filmmakers get serious points for filming his at the Coliseum and digging up Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford -- real life sports announcers very popular at the time -- to call the action here. It feels real, even if the football scenes go on a bit too long.

I hate to say this because I've liked him for years, but Charlton Heston isn't much of an actor. Course, he isn't given much to do here but look tough and take charge. And you know how these movies go. The actors aren't in them to win Oscars.

Still, I stayed in my seat for nearly two hours and I can promise you I didn't go anywhere once the shooting started. But if you really want to see a disaster flick at its finest, go rent the original "Poseidon Adventure." That film is wonderful in all of its glorious cheese and contains a certain charm that "Two-Minute Warning" decidedly lacks.

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Friday, January 04, 2008

Lessons from Iowa

Pundits throughout the country are scrambling to make sense of last night's Iowa caucuses, the traditional kickoff of the presidential primary season.

I'm no expert, merely a political junkie, but for my money the biggest lesson from Iowa is a simple one -- America is one great country.

Where else could guys like Mike Huckabee (if you're immediate response is Mike who? you aren't alone) and Barack Obama defeat the well-funded establishment candidates of their respective parties? And underdog fans everywhere rejoiced. What could be more American than that?

In the grand scheme of things, Iowa may not matter all that much. Hillary Clinton could rebound in a big way for the Democrats next Tuesday in New Hampshire; Mike Huckabee may never be heard from again. (Tom Harkin once won the Iowa Caucus, and who even remembers him?)

The big loser in Iowa is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Romney outspent Huckabee something like 10-1 in the Hawkeye State and was beaten like a drum. If he loses big in New Hampshire, Mitt is toast.

Democrat John Edwards held his own against Clinton in Iowa, but he still has a long row to hoe. If he comes in third on Tuesday, Smilin' Johnny can head on back to that big house in North Carolina. But if he wins or finishes second, look out. He could do quite well in South Carolina.

Clearly, though, Obama and Clinton are the favorites. Clinton is well-organized in New Hampshire and has a ton of money. Plus, hubby Bubba is well-loved among New Hampshire Democrats. If she wins Tuesday, nobody will even remember Iowa.

But Americans love a winner, particularly someone who appears to be on a roll. If Obama wins big in New Hampshire, look out, y'all. This could get real interesting.

Who knows what to say about the Republicans. A John McCain win in New Hampshire would be big for his floundering campaign. Fred Thompson needs a solid showing next week to have any kind of chance to extend his bumbling effort.

My guess is the Republican race will come down to Mayor Rudy (who didn't even bother in Iowa) and McCain -- with either Thompson or Romney the wild card, depending on how New Hampshire falls. Don't count out a Huckabee surge, though, once the campaign moves south.

The most amazing thing about this presidential election is that we'll know who the two nominees will be in the wee hours of Feb. 5-6. Super Tuesday is insanely early this year, with a ton of states holding early primaries to get in on the action. Compare this to the old days, when candidates wouldn't sew up the nomination until the summer conventions.

It's a boring thought, really, and almost begs for an overhaul in our system. Still, hold on to your seats, folks. If you love politics, the next month or so could be mighty entertaining.

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Taking a big bite out of '08

Can you believe that it's really 2008?

At the risk of starting to sound like somebody concerned with the passing of time, just seeing '08 on the calendar is quite mind boggling in a way. I remember watching "2001: A Space Odyssey" as a kid and wondering if we'd be that advanced by then.

(Answer: Not even close)

The New Year usually brings with it resolutions to keep or forsake. I don't have anything grand, but I do have a few.

First and foremost, I hope to continue becoming more physically fit and continue to set aside time for daily exercise and workouts. You can feel much better with just a few simple activities. I'm also hoping to ward off another bout of kidney stones. (Shudder)

I'm tempted to bring up my yearly resolution to finally make it through "War and Peace" but I just don't know. Heck, I can't even hardly lift the darn book. The thought of wading through all of it is akin to hiking Everest. So, let's just say I'm going to try to read it again this year. (Crossing fingers.)

Finally, I hope to get out and catch more live music during the coming weeks and months. Going to hear some sweet sounds always improves my mental health and makes me enjoy life a bit more.

We have so much fun at Barley's the Sunday nights we make it out there; I'm hoping to expand those moments as well as explore other musical directions.

Knoxville has a plethora of such opportunities -- amazing, really, for a city its size. I hope to make a special effort to take it in this year and encourage those of you audiophiles out there to do the same.

What strikes me most as this new year dawns is the fortunate hand I've been dealt in this life. Man, I get to write for a living, pitch in and help the community when I can, hang out with the best pals anyone could ever hope to have and in general have one heck of a good time.

So bring it on, 2008. I'm ready to take a big bite out of ya and see what the next turn in the road has to offer.

Happy New Year!