Tag Archives: Jr

A Word on Words

A Word on Words


In his latest book, author Roy Blount, Jr., puts the English language under the microscope.


November 13, 2008Despite frayed nerves and his fears that flawed voting machines would ruin another presidential contest, author Roy Blount, Jr., was his typical dry, comical self during an Election Day telephone conversation from his Massachusetts home. Having voted at 7:30 a.m., he confessed, “I can’t stand to listen to anybody talk about it anymore. I just want it to be over.” Blount talked about his latest book, Alphabet Juice, which offers amusing ruminations about the origins, meanings, and distinctive sounds of select words. Blount will discuss Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory on November 18, 6:30 p.m., at a charity event hosted by Alabama Booksmith at the Doubletree Hotel.

Black & White: As a Georgian, were you excited when Jimmy Carter was elected president?

Author Roy Blount, Jr., will be signing his new book at a charity event benefitting WBHM. See below for details. (click for larger version)



Roy Blount: Yeah, I was sort of astonished and bemused. I just never expected anybody from Georgia to get elected president. I liked Mo Udall in the primaries. But when Carter got nominated, I was for him. I wrote a book called Crackers, which was largely inspired by my surprise that the leader of the free world was, all of a sudden, a white guy from Georgia. When we were watching the nominating convention, my brother-in-law Gerald, who is from east Texas, jumped up and hollered, “We ain’t trash no more!”

You once compared Democratic presidential candidate and philanderer Gary Hart to former Alabama governor Big Jim Folsom because of Folsom’s habit of kissing women on the campaign trail.

I never met Big Jim Folsom, but I heard a lot of good stories about him. Supposedly, he was at an air show with a bunch of French people. The Alabama National Guard had some kind of trick-flying formation. And all of a sudden a bunch of them ran into each other and exploded. There was an awkward pause and Folsom said, “Well, kiss my ass if that ain’t a show.”

Until I found it in Alphabet Juice, I was not familiar with the word “swive.” [Blount writes: "As early as the beginning of the fourteenth century, this was the most common slang term for 'to do it with someone.' It's a good one, too, smoother—might even say more suave—than the F-word."]

“Swive” is a good word, I think. It has a kind of nice force to it. It’s like “swing.” Most of the “sw” words, like “swing and swag and swagger,” are kind of groovy. A word that starts with “f” is often harsh.

You recount film critic Pauline Kael’s review of Reds, where she wrote that Warren Beatty’s character was “pussy-whipped,” and you told her that the New Yorker would never print such a word.

I suggested she change that to “uxorious,” and she just rolled her eyes. [Kael eventually described Beatty's character as "timid."]

Do you recall any particular arguments with editors regarding words you were defending?

I remember I went down to Mansfield, Louisiana, to interview the mother and the football coach of [Major League pitcher] Vida Blue because I was doing a story about him for Sports Illustrated. And I talked to his mother, and then I went and interviewed his old football coach. The coach said, “Well, Vida’s left-handed but if he got in a tight, he could throw with his right.” The editor wanted to change it to: “If he got in a tight ‘spot,’ he could throw with his right.” I said, “No, no, no! It’s got to rhyme!” I finally talked him into it, but he just didn’t see why. [The editor] thought that would be confusing: “Nobody’s going to understand. They would think that we inadvertently left out a word.”

You once wrote: “Rush Limbaugh is like Dom DeLuise trying to do George Wallace.” Have you ever met Limbaugh?

[Laughing] I’d forgotten that, but I’m glad I said it.

No . . . We don’t travel in the same circles. I haven’t listened to Rush in a long time. He reminds me of all these people of my ethnic background that I have, to some extent, justly scorned. In my formative years, I felt embarrassed by all the white Southern men who were holding forth in various mean-spirited and dismissive ways. I realized that I had some kind of connection to that heritage and I needed to just separate myself from it and explain it to some extent and all that. But suddenly, when people like Rush Limbaugh came along, basically saying the same thing—except a little less crudely, I suppose—that really pissed me off.

Do you think Al Franken would make a good senator?

Well, I haven’t been following his race. I know Franken a little bit. It’s strange for a comedian to aspire to be a senator, of course. But [former Republican House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay was an exterminator, wasn’t he? And, I hear, a good one. &

Admission is $35 and includes a signed copy of Alphabet Juice. The evening’s proceeds will benefit WBHM 90.3 radio. The Doubletree Hotel is located at 808 20th Street South; 933-9000.

Dead Folks 2005, Authors, Inventors, and Astronauts

Dead Folks 2005, Authors, Inventors, and Astronauts

A look back at the notable names and personalities who called it quits last year.

February 24, 2005


Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag (click for larger version)

Once viewers catch on that Woody Allen’s 1983 comedy Zelig is a fake documentary about a man who never actually existed, the joke is in how extensively Allen creates a pastiche of the documentary form. The requisite pauses in the story for comments by observers, analysts, and sundry talking heads are the funniest part of Allen’s method, and the funniest talking head is Susan Sontag. That’s not because she has any funny lines. It’s because she doesn’t. So influential, profound, and brilliant are Sontag’s critical views on all matters cultural, that her very presence in the film signifies the ultimate commentary. The scene is equivalent to Gertrude Stein, Edmund Wilson, or Jean Paul Sartre making a cameo appearance in a Bob Hope comedy.

After entering college at age 16 and fairly blowing away everyone at Berkeley, University of Chicago, Harvard, and the Sorbonne, the groovy brunette with a bride-of-Frankenstein streak in her mane decided to share with the world her innumerable ideas about art and life (for her they were indistinguishable). An article published in Partisan Review in 1964 called “Notes on Camp” was, in literary circles, akin to The Rolling Stones appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” or maybe even the premiere of Citizen Kane. With that essay, and subsequent “assaults” in The Atlantic Monthly, Granta, The New York Review of Books, and various other intellectually inclined periodicals, Sontag provided a brand new way of discussing significant ideas in Western culture and minor ideas in popular culture. The new Bob Dylan album, Godard’s latest film, William James, and Freud were all part of the same story—or critique. Each was crucial to understanding the human creative experience. Yet during her explosion onto the arts and literary scene of the 1960s, what was most exciting for the hipsters, bohemians, and New York intellectuals who embraced/feared her was that Sontag made feasible the notion that one could read everything and know everything that mattered. She simultaneously demonstrated that no one could do it better. In that context, it’s extremely revealing that Sontag once defined the term “polymath” as “a person who is interested in everything, and nothing else.”

The publication of Sontag’s collection of essays titled Against Interpretation (1968) was virtually tectonic in its impact. Here she argues that understanding any work of art starts from intuitive response and not from analysis or intellectual considerations. “A work of art is a thing in the world, not just text or commentary on the world.” Other important works such as On Photography and Illness as Metaphor brought challenging ideas about contemporary culture out of the academy and into popular discourse. Not on Johnny Carson’s show, of course, or in the daily newspapers, but Sontag did to some extent prop open the doors to formerly exclusive salons. That’s mainly because her lucid, confident writing style, which is reinforced by a devastating (and yet somehow celebratory) wealth of intellectual inquiry and research, remains free of academic jargon and postmodern tics.

Such a position as a cultural critic implies a certain amount of controversy, which Sontag always could generate with a few comments. The left-leaning, radical thinker might be famously wrong at times, but one feather in her cap was confronting her lefty pals and stating that “socialism is the human face of fascism.” She was also right about Sarajevo. But regarding her notorious claim that September 11 was the result of U.S. international policies and actions, well, remain on the far left long enough and you’re bound to self-destruct. —David Pelfrey

Daniel Boorstin

The Librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987, Boorstin loved books and couldn’t understand why anyone else might not; he coined the term “aliterate” to describe those who could read but chose not to. During his tenure, appropriations for the Library of Congress rose from $116 million to more than double that figure, the vast holdings were opened to the public, and Boorstin established the Mary Pickford Theater to call attention to (and utilize) the library’s huge archive of motion pictures. He was the nation’s top cheerleader for libraries in general. Boorstin’s deepest interest was in history, although he was fond of pointing out that he was an amateur and not a professionally trained historian. That’s actually not worth pointing out, however, as he taught history at the University of Chicago for 25 years, held a post as director and senior historian at the Smithsonian Museum of History and Technology, and wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning trilogy on American history and a subsequent four-volume history of the world. —D.P.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

“Whoever has seen the horrifying appearance of the postwar European concentration camps would be similarly preoccupied.” That’s Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (78) speaking of her obssession with changing the treatment of dying patients. Kubler-Ross was greatly disturbed by what she witnessed in New York hospitals when she visited the U.S. in 1958. Her interest in death and her intensive study of the behavior of the terminally ill led to the publication of On Death and Dying in 1969. In less than a decade the book was a standard reference text for medical ethics and hospital policy. Her celebrated theory of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) remains a valuable model of human behavior not only for patients, but also for loved ones, medical professionals, and caregivers. —D.P.

Olivia Goldsmith

The film version of The First Wives’ Club was a jaunty celebration of older women getting revenge on the thoughtless husbands who abandoned them for younger women. There were also plenty of jibes at cosmetic surgery, as also found in the source novel by Olivia Goldsmith (54). Too bad the author didn’t take her pro-aging stance more seriously. Instead, Goldsmith died from complications related to anesthesia during cosmetic surgery. —J.R.T.

Norris McWhirter

Along with twin brother Ross, Norris McWhirter (78) founded the Guinness Book of Records. Its first edition was printed in 1955, and among its earliest records was a Russian woman who gave birth to 16 sets of twins, seven sets of triplets, and four sets of quadruplets from 1725 to 1765. According to its own records, the Guinness Book of Records is the world’s best-selling copyrighted book, with more than 100 million sold. The McWhirter twins personally crammed 70 people into a compact car just to set a record. Ross was murdered in 1975 after posting a 50,000-pound reward for information leading to the arrest of Irish Republican Army terrorists. —E.R.

Inventors and Innovators

Estee Lauder attracts a crowd (click for larger version)

Estee Lauder

Growing up in an apartment above her father’s hardware store in Queens, Josephine Esther Mentzer was a nice Jewish girl with an ambitious spirit and an intense fascination with the lotions and potions her chemist uncle prepared in a little shop. She liked them so much that in 1946 she began selling skin creams at beach resorts and hotels. The determined Esther expanded her product line and practically bullied her way onto some counter space at Saks Fifth Avenue two years later, by which time she and her husband Joseph Lauder had created a “nice little company.” The products were fine, but the sales program was outstanding: exquisitely attired staff, sophisticated sales patter, and, by the way, madam . . . here’s a free sample (a.k.a. “the gift”). By 1953 the company was a well-recognized force in the cosmetics industry.

Its success was due to Lauder’s making certain that those free gifts and samples found their way into the handbags of the hottest celebrities, the social elite, and the otherwise well-to-do. If that meant entertaining guests on a lavish scale (plenty of fine wine, fine cuisine, and cartons of free cosmetics), well, that was just part of the sales game; “If I believe in something, I sell it, and I sell it hard,” she was fond of saying. A more famous, and certainly more profit-generating, quote was “There are no ugly women.” It was that attitude, along with Lauder’s sheer force of will, that helped create a $10 billion enterprise with locations in 130 countries and a daunting product line that includes MAC, Aveda, Clinique, Aramis, and Prescriptives, the sum of which currently constitutes a stunning 45 percent share of the cosmetics business in the United States. Estee Lauder is the only woman on Time‘s list of the 20 most influential business figures of the 20th century. She was 97. —D.P.

Al Lapin, Jr.

In 1958, Lapin and his brother Jerry invested $25,000 and founded the International House of Pancakes. “Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity” was an early marketing slogan for ridiculously sweet fruit-topped pancakes and waffles drenched in blueberry, boysenberry, strawberry, or maple syrup. Lapin (76) later owned the Orange Julius chain. His first venture was Coffee Time, carts that delivered urns of hot coffee to offices. Attractive presentation was of utmost importance, both in his personal attire and restaurants. Among his favorite sayings were “People eat with their eyes before they eat with their hands,” and “You have to look like a dollar to borrow a dime.” —Ed Reynolds

Francis Crick

Everyone who ever suffered through sophomore biology classes in high school has sketched (or traced) in their lab notebook the double helix, that famous twisted ladder of deoxyribonucleic acid, more commonly known as DNA. Today the term has made a complete transition from scientific jargon to the popular lexicon. Disparaging remarks about the origin of someone’s DNA or gene pool are common, as are police investigations (in the real world or in television dramas) that rely on DNA evidence. The business of bio-engineering and gene therapy is a huge industry now. Half a century ago, however, the very structure of DNA was a great mystery.

Francis Crick (click for larger version)

It certainly intrigued the British-born biologist Francis Crick (88) and his young American-born colleague James Watson, both of whom were grappling with this puzzle at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England, during the early 1950s. The pair finally concluded with the double helix, although confirmation of their results did not come for years. Crick nonetheless announced to friends at the University that they had “discovered the secret to life.” His approach was more subtle when it came time to publish their results in Nature in 1953, yet one particular understatement may resonate for all time: “It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.” In 1962 Crick and Watson were awarded the Nobel Prize. —David Pelfrey

Sir Godfrey Hounsfield

In the 1960s, British electrical engineer Sir Godfrey Hounsfield created the computerized axial tomography scanner—the CAT scan. The CAT scan used X-rays to create three-dimensional images of the body’s interior, revolutionizing medical care. —E.R.

Dr. William Dobelle

William Dobelle (62) developed an experimental artificial vision system for the sight-impaired that involved transmission of electrical signals to electrodes implanted in the brain by way of a tiny camera attached to the user’s glasses. A portable computer receives images that are then sent to electrodes in the brain’s visual cortex. Four years before his death, his creation restored navigational vision to a blind volunteer. “I’ve always done artificial organs,” Dobelle told the New York Times. “I’ve spent my whole life in the spare-parts business.” —E.R.

Tom Hannon

The “father of the automated teller machine,” Tom Hannon pioneered the use of ATMs in locations other than banks. In the early 1990s he had machines in four Southern states. By the time he sold his U S. operation in 2002 to enter the British market, he had 2,500 machines in 40 states. —E.R.

Samuel M. Rubin

Popcorn was probably reasonably priced when Sam Rubin (85) began selling it in movie theaters during the Depression. He’d already built an empire with assorted New York City locations, but Sam changed the way we enjoy movies when he took his popcorn stands into theater chains such as RKO and Loews. His empire signaled the end of vending machines as the preferred mode of movie snacking. Rubin can also claim credit for inventing those oversized boxes of candy that sell for five times what you’d pay outside a movie theater. —J.R. Taylor

Red Adair

During the Gulf War in 1991, Iraqi troops retreating from Kuwait set fire to oil wells in the high-producing Ahmadi and Magwa fields, creating a potentially monumental economic and environmental disaster. All the task forces and experts, along with the team working for legendary oil well firefighter Paul “Red” Adair (89), agreed that extinguishing these mammoth fires would take three to five years. Thanks to the consultation, logistical support, and special equipment provided by Adair’s organization, the task was accomplished in nine months. This was a stunning feat, but observers familiar with Adair’s history were not really shocked. At the time, Adair already had more than 40 years of experience battling wild wells, blow outs, and other conflagrations in the deserts and on the high seas. (Adair’s amazing story is told in Hellfighters, starring John Wayne.)

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, any time an oil rig exploded Adair’s team was called into action; the media coverage of these events justifiably portrayed Red Adair as an American hero. One of his more spectacular deeds involved the huge oil flame in the Sahara known as “The Devil’s Cigarette.” Today the highly specialized devices designed by Red Adair Service and Marine Company, Inc., are regarded as the Rolls Royces of firefighting equipment. —D.P.

Space is the Place

Gordon Cooper

One of the original seven Mercury astronauts, Gordon Cooper (77) was perhaps the most controversial for his belief that the U.S. government was keeping secrets about UFOs. In 1951, Cooper was part of a squadron scrambled into the air over Germany after metallic objects resembling saucers were spotted flying in formation. Cooper also maintained that he saw a UFO crash at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He filmed the incident, but the film was confiscated by government officials. While orbiting the earth in Gemini 5, Cooper infuriated federal authorities when he inadvertently photographed the top-secret Nevada military base known as Area 51 while shooting outer space photos as part of a Pentagon film experiment.

Cooper was the first American to remain in space for an entire day when he flew the last Mercury mission in 1963. Despite his controversial UFO fascination and associated conspiracy theories, he was the backup commander for the Apollo 10 mission that flew to within 50,000 feet of the moon. On his Mercury mission, the electrical system failed, and Cooper had to pilot the spacecraft manually back to earth to splashdown. Cooper’s belief in UFOs was so strong that he testified about them to the United Nations in 1978 in hope that the U.N. would become a repository for collecting UFO sightings. He also wrote a book urging the government to tell what it knew about UFOs. Most, however, probably remember Cooper through Dennis Quaid’s portrayal of the astronaut in The Right Stuff. —E.R.

Gordon Cooper (click for larger version)

Maxime Faget

While scientists were designing rockets to launch astronauts into outer space, Maxime Faget’s job was to bring space travelers home in one piece. Designer of the Mercury space capsule, which ushered the U.S. into the age of manned space flight, Faget’s dilemma was to protect a spacecraft and its occupants from heat when re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. (Astronauts return at 17,000 miles per hour in a craft that reaches temperatures of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.) Earliest theories called for a needle-nosed spaceship to cut down on air resistance, but Faget (83) scoffed at such Buck Rogers notions and designed a blunt-bodied craft that entered blunt end first to deflect most of the heat away from the craft. —E.R.

Fred Whipple

Originator of the “dirty snowball” concept, comet expert Fred Whipple (97) introduced the idea in 1950 that comets were balls of ice. This broke from the popular notion that comets were wads of sand held together by gravity. Whipple recognized that a comet’s arrival at a particular destination in outer space did not follow the predictability of gravitational pull only. He instead theorized that as a comet approached the sun, sunlight vaporized ice in its nucleus. Jets of particles resulted, functioning as a rocket engine to speed up or slow down the comet. Close-up photos of Halley’s Comet in 1986 proved Whipple to be correct. Whipple was also responsible for coming up with the idea of cutting aluminum foil into thousands of pieces and releasing the fragments from Allied aircraft over Germany. The tiny bits of foil confused the enemy; it appeared that thousands of planes were attacking. Some speculate that this is where the phrase “foiled again” originated. —E.R.

William H. Pickering

Director of Jet Propulsion Laboratories in California from 1954 to 1976, Pickering (93) was in charge of the United States’ first robotic missions to the moon, Venus, and Mars. Three months after Russia put the first satellite, Sputnik, into orbit in 1957, America launched Explorer I, its first orbiting spacecraft. A New Zealand-born electrical engineer, Pickering was a central figure in the Ranger and Surveyor landings on the moon, precursors to the Apollo flights that landed men on the moon. Initially, the Army oversaw Jet Propulsion Lab activity, but turned it over to NASA after the Russians launched Sputnik. —E.R.

The Set List — Hank Williams, Jr., .R.E.M., and others.


The Set List

Hank Williams, Jr.

Hank Williams, Jr.
Though he first appeared on the Grand Ole Opry at age 11, performing his late father’s tunes, Hank Williams, Jr., later chose to rebel against the expectations heaped upon him as the son of the greatest country music singer of all time by cranking up the electric guitars and extolling the virtues of smoking pot while sipping Jim Beam. Never mind that his dad had been shooting up morphine long before Hank, Jr., puffed his first joint. Maybe the real reason he chose to rebel was that his father nicknamed him Bocephus, after a dummy used by a Grand Ole Opry ventriloquist. Regardless, Hank, Sr.’s devout legions didn’t quite know what to make of Junior’s version of a hillbilly, but his undying allegiance to the Confederate flag had them in his corner in no time. Originally viewed as an embarrassment by hardcore country fans, Williams Jr.’s, crass songs were merely caricatures of the plaintive, stark beauty of country music. For the past decade, however, he’s been more or less a saving grace in a world where Shania Twain and Tim McGraw are revered more than Loretta Lynn and George Jones, though he’ll never live down those jingles that promote “Monday Night Football.” (Saturday, September 13, at Oak Mountain Amphitheater, 7:20 p.m.; $10-$39.75. R.S.) —Ed Reynolds

Jay Farrar
It’s been hard times for those who prefer Son Volt to the suddenly-sanctified Wilco. Jay Farrar didn’t even rate a mention in the Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart (despite his long history with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy in Uncle Tupelo), and then Farrar’s first post-Son Volt project got swamped in the wake of Wilco’s lousy Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Fortunately, this bought Farrar the time to record ThirdShiftGrottoSlack, an EP on which he finally ditched Americana and started exploring his avant leanings. Now, all of his visions have come together with Terroir Blues, a 23-track collection of gorgeous, quiet compositions augmented by noisy interludes and assorted reprises. Neil Young couldn’t have come up with a better mix of ambitious indulgence and genuine talent. The critics, naturally, aren’t pleased. Farrar probably couldn’t be happier. (Wednesday, September 17, at WorkPlay, 10 p.m. $20.) —J.R. Taylor

Hayseed Dixie/The Kerosene Brothers
Or Bill Dana opening for Jose Jimenez. Hayseed Dixie has been more successful than they could have hoped by playing bluegrass covers of AC/DC and Kiss. Now it’s time for the Kerosene Brothers to tour on Hayseed’s coattails—and those are mighty short coattails since The Kerosene Brothers are Hayseed Dixie in their purest form, before an indulgent side-project kinda took over their careers. Choose Your Own Title shows the Kerosene Brothers bringing that Hayseed energy to their own fun originals, with no hint of any deep insight having been buried by their successful alter-egos. It’s simply one good joke after another, and it’s not their fault if the joke has become more believable than most acts’ sincerity. (Wednesday, September 24, at The Nick.) —J.R.T.

They should be calling it the “Sorry About the ’90s” Tour since Michael Stipe can no longer tell the executives at his record label that questions about sales performance are “mean-spirited.” There have even been rumors of advance money being handed back, although that remains unconfirmed.


Let’s concede that some people out there are looking forward to buying R.E.M.’s recent best-of compilation, even after hearing the crappy new single. Meanwhile, the vast majority of fans haven’t really cared about anything R.E.M. has recorded since 1992. The fans haven’t missed a thing, either. Pete Buck still drinks and plays too much, Mike Mills remains the only talented member, and none of them know how to produce a rock album. The Michael Stipe co-produced American Movie, however, was a pretty cool film.

Sparklehorse, incidentally, is an R.E.M. tribute band, in that leader Mark Linkous’ rote sound collages—occasionally containing a good melody—are a tribute to how so many lame art-rockers have been able to limp along thanks to R.E.M.’s support over the years. Thankfully, that’s pretty much over, too. (Wednesday, September 24, at Oak Mountain Amphitheatre, 7:30 p.m. $15-$60 R.S.) —J.R.T.

The Polyphonic Spree/Starlight Mints/Corn Mo
Redefining both cult-rock and the cult of Mitch Miller, Tim Delaughter’s (former singer for Tripping Daisy) traveling band of white-robed glee clubbers sounds like an honest big deal on Beginning Stages of the Polyphonic Spree. They also do a fine job of burying the lame Sunshine Pop scene that came skipping out of the 1960s. Unlike their hippie forebears, this 24-piece ensemble plays off orchestral arrangements and fun synth touches to create truly entertaining pop masterpieces.


Corn Mo

There’s also the occasional artistic misfire. But the only real problem is that nobody seems to remember how to actually produce a record by a big choral group nowadays. You have to see the band live to appreciate some of the delicate touches that are wiped away in the album’s traditionalist rock mix.

Starlight Mints are a proudly trippy act in their own right, getting past their dull power-pop roots and now indulging in a lot of privileged quirkiness on Built for Squares. And it’s left to Corn Mo to represent the Great Spirit in his role as the Heavy Metal/Prog-Rockin’ God of the Accordion. (See feature, this issue.) (Thursday, September 25, at WorkPlay, 8 p.m. $15) —J.R.T.

Caitlin Cary/Mimi Holland
College begins, and this former Whiskeytown girl stays on the road, and that’s pretty good news for fans of both country-pop and spoken word. There’s simply no live act that better captures the simple charm of a witty Southern gal—except maybe Rufus Wainwright. And the band plays up the jangle-pop subtext that makes I’m Staying Out such an impressive recovery from Cary’s lousy debut album. (Cary only, Friday, September 12, at Laser’s Edge CDs, 5:30 p.m. Free admission; Cary and Holland, Friday, September 12, at WorkPlay, 9 p.m. $15.) —J.R.T.

Blue Rodeo
Remember how stupid those Brits looked battling it out between Oasis and Blur? Canadians were reduced to taking sides between Blue Rodeo and The Tragically Hip—two interesting, brooding bands that each took their time compiling an album’s worth of decent live material. Blue Rodeo gets some bonus points for being a lot more Canadian, though, slowly compiling an epic farmland rock opera. In the process, they managed a few masterpieces and a lot of pleasant minor tunes. They’re still a big deal back home, but it’s always enjoyable to see Blue Rodeo working small clubs and pulling out greatest hits for an audience that’s never heard of them. (Friday, September 12, at The Nick.) —J.R.T.

Leon Redbone
It’s funny how quickly Leon Redbone has been forgotten in the midst of the continual O’ Brother mania, despite his having a long-standing set list that could’ve passed for a rough version of the film’s soundtrack. He’s certainly contributed to his own low profile, too. A night at the local public library seems like a step up from touring kiddie shows, but at least it’s one less tax dollar being spent on a professional storyteller. And though his Panama Jack routine was thoroughly tired by the ’80s, he’s spent his old age priming himself as a blues guitar god capable of replicating lost artists. Redbone’s death will be like losing Tiny Tim, taking a good section of the Great American Songbook with him. (Friday and Saturday, September 12 and 13, at the Hoover Public Library, 8 p.m. $15.) —J.R.T. &

To Hell with the Grand Ole Opry

To Hell with the Grand Ole Opry

A visit to a Montgomery memorial for Hank Williams, Sr., yields an encounter with the guitarist who backed Williams in the 1940s.


“Well, Hank, we hope you’re gonna be around with us for a long, long time,” quipped singer Red Foley as he introduced Hank Williams at the Grand Ole Opry in 1949. “Well, it looks like I’ll be doing just that, Red,” replied the singer with weary confidence. Three years later the Opry grew tired of Williams’ unpredictable no-shows and drunken performances, so they fired him. Within a year his lifeless, 29-year-old, morphine-addicted body was discovered in the backseat of his baby blue Cadillac by Charles Carr, who was driving Williams to a New Year’s Day show in Canton, Ohio.

Fifty years after Williams’ death, Carr stands beside the singer’s big, gaudy tombstone in a Montgomery, Alabama, cemetery on a cold, windy New Year’s Day. The former chauffeur autographs miniature replicas of the Cadillac, lending an eerie touch of the commercial as a hundred fans gather to commemorate the anniversary of Williams’ passing. Carr recalls that fateful trip, his first driving Williams out of state to a show. “I was home for Christmas holidays. My dad and Hank’s dad were friends-that’s how I got the job. I can’t tell you much about Hank’s life, but I’m an expert on his death ’cause I was the only person there.” He dismisses rumors that Williams died of a drug overdose: “Falstaff and a half-pint of liquor were the only things involved.” Next to Williams’ grave stands the equally ostentatious tomb of first wife Audrey. Red roses adorn Hank’s grave, yellow grace Audrey’s. Between the two lies a small marble slab erected by Williams, Jr., after recent vandalism of the family plot. It reads: Please do not desecrate this sacred site.

A couple of miles from the cemetery the gathering reconvenes at the Hank Williams Museum, a morbid shrine that features Williams’ legendary Cadillac and the clothes he was wearing when he died. The automobile is on loan from Hank Williams, Jr., who drove it around Nashville during his high school years (Dolly Parton reportedly offered Williams, Jr., $100,000 a year to exhibit the automobile in Dollywood, but he lets the museum display it at no charge.) Country Music Television’s new documentary about Williams, portraying him as a drunkard and a junkie, is screened at the museum. Those close to Williams are not pleased with the film. Jimmy Porter, Hank’s original pedal-steel guitarist, registers his disgust. “Why do they have to paint the dark side? Is that where the money is? I never saw Hank ever take a drink.”

Two nights later, one-time Opry star Stonewall Jackson (a direct descendent of the Confederate general) plays the Guest House Hotel in Montgomery to conclude three days of Williams tributes. Only 30 or so fans bother to attend. Jackson spends more time talking than singing as he recalls starting at the Grand Ole Opry in 1955 “when I was too broke to pay attention.” The beefy singer has seen his Opry appearances dwindle to very few, and he doesn’t hesitate to voice displeasure. “If I owned the Opry, I’d start firing people,” he mumbles. He reflects on Williams’ influence in his life. “If it hadn’t been for him, I’d still be in south Georgia somewhere, pickin’ cotton. Hank was more of a poet to me than anything else.” Backing up Jackson is Williams’ main pedal-steel guitarist, Don Helms (1943 to 1953). At one point, Jackson turns to Helms and says, “I wish we had some of those pills with a smiley face on it. I think George Morgan [the Opry star who had a hit with 'Candy Kisses' and father of current Opry member Lorrie Morgan] always had some of those.”

Don Helms’ regular gig for the past decade has been playing pedal-steel guitar for Williams’ long-lost daughter Jett, who had to fight Hank Williams, Jr., for her share of the Williams’ fortune after discovering who her father was in the early 1990s. Helms was asked to play the Opry with Jett on the same Friday night he usually works with Stonewall Jackson. He skipped the Opry to be part of Williams’ 50th anniversary tribute in Montgomery. The 75-year-old Helms sits down on a plush couch in the Guest House lobby late that evening after his set with Jackson to reflect on his decade working with the greatest country music performer of all time.

B&W: So are you going to be in trouble for not playing with Jett tonight at the Grand Ole Opry?

Don Helms: I didn’t know she was going to play until the past week. When I worked with Jett last, which was a couple of weeks ago, we said good-byes and we were off till February. So I told Cecil (Jackson, head of the Hank Williams Museum) I’d come down here. I said, “I’ve celebrated the observance of Hank Williams’ funeral for 49 years in some other city. I’ve always been somewhere else. And this is the 50th anniversary, and I want to come to Montgomery.” I said I’d pay my own expenses and I’d come down there and if you’ve got anything you would like for me to do or be a part of, you have it lined up when I get there.

B&W: Jett does a lot of her dad’s music, doesn’t she?

Helms: Yeah, but she won’t sing “Cold Cold Heart” ’cause that was Hank’s favorite. She, being a woman, I have to play every one of Hank’s songs in a different key than he did-(Suddenly Stonewall Jackson walks by on his way to his hotel room.) Stonewall, I enjoyed it, brother. It was good to see you again. (Helms turns to me and grins.) I always used to call him “Gallstone.”

B&W: I wanted to ask you about a song Hank did called “No, No Joe.”

Helms: He didn’t record that in Nashville, and I didn’t record it with him. But what the song was about was Joseph Stalin, the Russian leader. I don’t even remember what the problem was, but it was some kind of political thing he was trying to do. He was trying to shaft the United States and this song was written about that. I’ve never played it far as I know, ’cause it’s not something he featured on stage. And, too, when the political problem was over, it was out of touch anyway. All those situations. Once the problem’s solved, you ain’t got no need to play it (laughs).”

B&W: Was Hank political at all?

Helms: No, I mean, like we all gripe about elections, and if your man don’t win, you bitch . . . I mean gripe (laughing). . . . An entertainer is a fool to declare in public his preference in religion or his politics. Because the first thing you do, whether you mean to or not, is divide your audience right down the middle, at best.

B&W: Was the Opry a fun place to play in the old days?

Helms: Well, there was always some kind of bull goin’ on, some guy tellin’ jokes, playin’ tricks. It was just a fun place to be. . . . It was a happy place to be. It’s not quite like that anymore. It’s a little more subdued. The camaraderie’s shot to hell. I don’t think anybody has any fun at the Grand Ole Opry anymore. Maybe the audience does. And I don’t work there anymore, so I can say what I please.

B&W: When I watch old Opry clips, I’m always drawn to the interaction between Hank and June Carter. Anything special about their duets that you recall?

Helms: June Carter was that way with everybody. She was just a vibrant, silly little girl that everybody loved. She wasn’t necessarily that way in person, but on the stage she would come across as the lovable little girl with pigtails that could kick her shoes off and make you laugh. There was a certain magnetism . . . Hank was much more attracted to Anita Carter than he was June. So was I. . . . We worked a lot of tours with the Carter Family when they first came to the Opry.

B&W: What did Hank think about people like Tony Bennett making pop versions of his songs?

Helms: He thought that was the greatest thing in the world, for anybody to do his songs. He aspired to be a writer, not a singer. Even up to his death, he would rather listen to somebody else’s record of his song than he would his own record. He aspired to be a writer . . . and I think he made it. &