21 August, 2011

A Night at the Osprey

The Osprey was a minor character in a minor issue of Fantastic Four by the Lee and Kirby imitators at Marvel in the early 70's. The FF's arch-enemies had long since banded together as the Frightful Four. In this issue, they had taken over the FF's headquarters and was holding the foursome prisoner despite (or because of?) the villains numbering only three. To protect their branding, the Wizard, the Sandman and the Trapster advertised in the Daily Bugle for a fourth member.

Most of them were cameos to set up for future issues (the Impossible Man) or for reasons of continuity. [I still remember the Texas Twister departing with an editorial note where he would next appear]. Then there was the Osprey.

He had a costume with wings on it, but he couldn't fly, not really. Not at all actually. In fact, if one of the FF (the bad ones) could do something about that, he'd really appreciate it. The Wizard slapped an anti-gravity disc on him and the last we saw of the Osprey, he was sailing out into the wild blue yonder screaming 'heeeeeeeellllpppppp!' Even Wikipedia doesn't have a page on him. They've got one on the Texas Twister!

But the Osprey had his two or three minutes on stage. He gave it a shot.

Last night my Dad and I went to see the Grand Ole Opry. Neither of us are country music fans - I'm certainly not anyway - but he had come to visit and we needed a tourist trap in Nashville. He got tickets for a night nobody I'd heard of was playing (although Vince Gill turned out to be the final host for the night, so I must have missed his name earlier).

I have to say there was something intrinsically Southern about the experience. It seemed like a normal public gathering in a high school auditorium in seats that resembled church pews. Most ages were represented, although I didn't see too many kids who wouldn't have preferred a baby-sitter and video games. Just little ones, and a few on stage.

Notable Virginians aside, the South did not produce the people who founded our nation, they were the people who first moved on, and applied to their new land what the founding Americans had created. Tennessee was one of the first new states to join the US and Nashville as a long history (I assume).

The Opry says it made country music popular, and there's probably a good case for that. They certainly gave it a national forum in 1925 when the weekly radio broadcast went national. Sponsors changed, locations changed, they added a television broadcast. One week Elvis Presley stood at the back of the room along with all the other hopefuls for his chance. They told him he had no future in country music and the following Monday he was back at work as a truck driver.

This was when the modern nationwide media truly came into its own. An illiterate southern redneck like Hank Wiliams could sell records across the country instead of the regional markets as he'd been doing. With the glitter of an Opry appearance, he and other touring musicians could bill themselves as Opry musicians and promote themselves as such. However the Opry had to protect its brand name and charged fees for its use. The musicians were also cut into for touring, simply because they couldn't afford to get too far from Nashville and miss a scheduled appearance. The records could travel, the NBC weekly show could travel, but those who stood in the circle couldn't get too far if they wanted to come back.

Again, this is why the experience seemed so intrisically Southern. The opening act was the most... I don't even know how to describe her. I have no idea how one gets the job of warming up the crowd, much less how the Opry makes the selection. Her act was very calculated to look utterly simple and foolish. Heavy drawling, regular references to likin' the fellers, a sales tag hanging from her hat, an appearance and delivery that was so plain, just so... Almost literally a form of entertainment that could not exist above the Mason-Dixon line (wherever that is), this was delighfully off-putting, like something you know you should turn your nose up at in disdain, but there's something so charming about it.

Some of the performances were quite nice. Standing in the wings, you could see where all the other people on the show that night were milling about. A few other people were present, people who were probably the producer, the director, the sponsor, a girl moving sheet music around. The house singers stayed behind baffles except for their featured spot of the night. The house band was swapped out once for one woman's set. One of the better performers was making his debut appearance and promoting his new single available at Old Country Stores, another regional market that people who aren't from the South would scratch their heads about, but Southerners probably know as a regular part of life. [Or at least it seems that way, who knows how *those people* actually live?]

A group of kids were another act, their main attraction being the smallest and cutest one on the banjo. Quite impressive for what they were, a group of brothers who are doing now what their peers will do in high school, form a band that sounds pretty good. But it's where popular entertainment meets grade school talent show, predating "American Idol" by several generations.

And it still works, those kids will always know they got to stand on that stage with Little Jimmy Dickens, 90 years old with jokes even older. "I take my wife everywhere. She keeps finding her way back" was funny because it was so lame. "I ask my wife if she's cheating on me, she says who else is she going to cheat on" was funnier. His performance included a song from his latest album, released thirty years ago.

The sexy young girls who were really dressed up might have been there for Vince Gill, or because they were going clubbing afterwards and the rest was entirely family-friendly. Just enough off-color innuendo to give the adults a different set of laughs from the kids and enough diversity of entertainment that everybody could find something. The band played professionally, the banjo players did some good pickin', there were a few religious songs, a few love songs. There were regular exhortations of how wonderful the Opry is and interruptions by Hosanna, the Life Insurance company sponsoring this segment, who wanted us to know their name and that they were sponsoring this segment. The other sponsors did the same, whoever they were.

There was a reminder of tradition. The segment's host began moving to commercial at one point, but it had slipped his mind and he had to be reminded that it was Saturday night, which meant it was time for the square-dancers segment. He didn't usually work Saturdays, but the dancers sure did. If you want to know what square-dancing looks like when performed by highly-trained athletes, look no further. Wow. And girls in amazing purple outfits too!

Earlier in the day we had gone to downtown Nashville for the Country Music Hall of Fame. That was fun, although it did help illustrate why museums aren't a good place for music. There's nothing to show. The plaques are nice, with modifications when the honoree becomes posthumous. RCA is heavily represented, Studio B is one of the main exhibits (earning its own tour which we did not go on) and you can at least see the patch of ground where so many people passed over the years to do their turn before the microphone. They had to stay within the circle for maximum audio quality.

Hank Williams Jr. is undoubtedly one of the prime movers of the CMHoF, having found a repository for his father's written legacy as well as his own. And Hank III if the kid straightens up. Hank Sr. was banned from the Opry for drunkenness and a few months later, showed up dead to a concert in West Virginia after a snowstorm in Nashville delayed him. He didn't record at Studio B because it hadn't been built yet, but luckily made a couple of recordings in the period where he could no longer bill himself as an Opry performer. That's probably why he was looking for a few thousand dollar payday in West Virginia, he was getting divorced at the time.

Carrie Underwood, Faith Hill and Taylor Swift are all prominent. It's a good investment from the part of their record companies. Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, the Judds all made good career moves by endorsing the institutions. Amy Grant had hits on the Christian chart and one bonafide pop hit "Baby Baby" in my teenage years. Her song was enjoyable like any other on MTV then, and I still have the issue of "Dr. Strange" that her management threatened Marvel Comics over, because cover artist Jackson Guice copied her image and they didn't want her to be associated with satanism.

[Don't you love the way all this stuff works back into comic books sooner or later?]

Anyway, Amy Grant, past her hit-making years but presumably still a talented singer has an album of Christmas duets with her husband whatsisname coming out. The crossover market works.

THAT'S Southern too. It's something the rest of America doesn't have, the historical memory of foreign soldiers coming in, shooting a few hundred thousand of your people and burning down your homes. Blah blah blah, American Indians, it took the Union four years to tear down the South, for American to kill American.

Lemme tellya, those hills in Nashville are tough. The hills where I live are tough. There's some hardy breeds able to thrive there where us flatlanders are wary.

The South is more than Nashville of course. There's Old Virginia, there's the colonial melting pots of Louisiana and Florida. Texas is eternally Texas (the dumb bastards). Beyond the vastness of Texas, it spreads out into the Southwest which is another region of the country. Above Texas it fades into the farmlands of the midwest and arcs towards St. Louis, bounded by rivers until it reaches our nations' historical spine, the Appalachins. Then the South meets the North in DC, and the ocean becomes the borderline.

There's hillbillies and moonshine, there's church songs and rummage sales, they all have that weird accent, but their money's usually good which is better than some folks I could mention. Except when the people down here congregate in such large numbers, it's done like this, just the same as anybody else.

[As a writer, the potential for story material is amazing, whether it's a sexy Vince Gill groupie or a blue-collar lament to God or motherhood. Or a secret agent on a deadly mission moving through the crowd, there's just so many stories that could be told and I genuinely don't see that reflected in other public crowds, fairs, concerts, bar bands, clubs, etc. Political rallies and churches have their reason for existing and could easily be folded into the mix.

Here's Johnny Cash singing the one song of the night I'd ever heard before, "Lonesome Me".

"My wife looks in the mirror and says she's old and fat and ugly and even the slightest compliment would cheer her up right now, so I say her eyesight is perfect."

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