NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Kris Kristofferson Carries Country’s Torch

As Do Rosanne Cash, Lynyrd Skynyrd and John Fogerty

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

All music lovers should be heartened by Keith Urban’s announcement that he is committing to country music’s legacy and tradition by supporting the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum with benefit concerts. His welcome contributions — and those of the supporting artists on the shows — are a valuable lesson in generations of artists sharing and passing on music’s legacy and traditions.

As Urban said, you can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been. Music does not exist in a vacuum. All music is built on what came before.

With that in mind, there are several new and upcoming releases from familiar faces and voices that are going to be, I think, treasured as much for their social and historical roles as for the musical enjoyment they will bring immediately.

Kris Kristofferson’s Closer to the Bone and Rosanne Cash’s The List represent both artists at the height of their musical maturity. They also demonstrate each artist’s role as a carrier of cultural values, of musical verities. They’re like the fire carriers and fire starters of old, as it were, the person in each tribe assigned to the precious duty and tending the fire and carrying it to the new camping ground when the tribe needed to move. Or the wise elder who knew how to start a fire. No fire equals no life. No music being passed on equals chaos.

Closer to the Bone, to be released Tuesday (Sept. 29), like its immediate predecessor This Old Road, is stripped-down both musically and lyrically as Kristofferson works closer and closer to the raw, bare elements of songs. By examining his life and his achievements and shortcomings, he manages to project personal observation and emotions as larger universal truths, as he has always done in his best work. Interestingly, besides including Kris’ latest compositions, this album also has, as a hidden track, the first song he ever wrote, at age 11. It’s called “I Hate Your Ugly Face.” Even as a child, Kris was working with the bare essentials.

Rosanne’s CD brings another side to both father Johnny Cash’s legacy and that of all of country music. The songs from The List (due Oct. 6) are from a list of 100 essential country songs he gave her in 1973, when she was 18. The songs span the history of recorded country from its beginnings, but it’s not just her father’s history that she passes on. She also talks, in an upcoming CMT interview, about learning the music from such elders as Maybelle and Helen and Anita Carter while on tour with her father. Maybelle Carter, as one of the original Carter Family, was there at the dawn of recorded country music in 1927 and passed on musical teachings from across the span of many years. Rosanne’s own career and life mirror changes in pop and country music themselves. She became a Nashville country star in the 1980s, on her own musical merits, and later put that aside to move to New York to write prose and record in other music genres. Now she’s home again.

Similarly, the new Lynyrd Skynyrd album God & Guns (releasing Sept. 29) is as important for its historical function as it is for its immediate musical one: It carries on a valuable and storied tradition. Skynyrd goes back to the immense growth and influence of the Southern rock genre in the 1970s. There’s not a great deal remaining from those glory days, except Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers and a few other survivors. Tragedies over the years have robbed Skynyrd itself of all original members save Gary Rossington. But their sound is intact, and  Southern rock’s huge legacy and  influence linger. Besides the new songs on God & Guns, there are live versions of three songs, including “Sweet Home Alabama” to remind you of what they have done before. And of what Southern rock was capable of at its peak.

In the same vein, John Fogerty’s new The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again (released Aug. 31) attaches a new sense of adventure to country-rock’s tradition for rock and country fans and for devotees of Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival. It’s rewarding just hearing Fogerty sing an Everly Brothers song with Bruce Springsteen and re-interpreting a Rick Nelson number with Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmit of the Eagles. And it may raise a few eyebrows that Fogerty pays as much respect to John Denver as he does to Ray Price and Buck Owens. But I think it’s deserved.

In today’s niche market-driven Tower of Babel of new voices clamoring to be heard from every corner, from every club, from every social network and blog and fan club, there are few voices of tradition and consistency carrying the banner and the standards and the message from generation to generation. That’s why the ones who do should be rightly valued.

One thing seems apparent to me in all of these artists. Besides obviously loving the music and its creators, all of them make music for themselves. I don’t mean that in a selfish way. They create what they hear, what is there within them. And what is in them is an amalgam of all they know and sense and have heard. They have not paid attention to corporate direction or focus groups or polls or analysts or consultants or any other self-proclaimed experts. They listen to music. By creating what they sense is good, they create and carry along a like-minded audience. Pretty simple, eh?

Watch Rosanne Cash’s video for “I’m Movin’ On.”