(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
If you haven’t seen and listened to Bruce Springsteen‘s keynote address at SXSW, I strongly suggest you go to the NPR website and experience it for yourself . It’s that good.
It is one of the most eloquent and illuminating monologues on popular music and life and growing up in America I’ve ever experienced. And it’s delivered by someone who has truly lived that life and deeply loves the music he has experienced.
Simply stated, it’s Bruce’s account of his personal journey in music from his childhood until now. But it is much more than that. Along the way, it becomes a textbook lesson in music history and folk music and rock ‘n’ roll and social history. It’s not so much a historical overview, as it is a ground-level view from an active participant. This is not an academic lecture from a professor. It’s a rant from a music star who also remains a fan and who deeply cares about the music.
Nonetheless, it’s a sweeping look at pop music ever since the days when Bruce first experienced Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show on TV. Elvis was, Bruce says, “the first white man who could make magic.”
He went on to trace his major influences, citing artists ranging from the Animals to Phil Spector and Curtis Mayfield and James Brown and the Sex Pistols and on and on.
And he cited Roy Orbison as a master influence.
“Roy Orbison was the coolest uncool loser you ever saw. He was the true master of the romantic apocalypse,” he said. “He knew what was coming after the first night you whispered ‘I love you’ to your new girlfriend. You were going down. … But he also sang that he’d be risen to the heights of near unexpressable bliss by these same very things that tortured him. Oh, cruel irony.”
Bruce’s spoken acknowledgment that country music played a huge role in his musical development and education was eye-opening to hear.
“I grew up through country music,” he said. “Its fatalism attracted me. … It was workingmen’s blues. … It’s truth emanating out of your sweat,” adding that he listened for hours to “the beautiful simplicity” and the “darkness and death of Hank Williams‘ greatest hits and tried and tried to ‘crack its code.’”
From Williams, he said, he learned about the “adult blues” country addressed and about its eternal message of Saturday night hell-raising followed by a heavy “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
He referred to the late, great, forgotten country star Charlie Rich and his “working man blues”, and sang part of Rich’s “Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs.” This is the first time I have heard the name “Charlie Rich” uttered in public in many a year, and I was very glad to hear it.
Charlie Rich, for those who don’t know and appreciate him, was one of the most soulful country songwriters and singers ever. But he and his sound were so unique that he has not been widely covered. Or, sadly, remembered.
Bruce has always been a folkie at heart, in the best sense of the term. He reminded his listeners that John Hammond originally signed him to Columbia Records as an acoustic singer-songwriter to be “the next Dylan. I don’t know why they need a new Dylan. The old one was only [bleeping] 30.” So he appreciates folk music’s heritage and has long championed Woody Guthrie as the troubadour who captured the American experience.
“Woody’s world was a world where fatalism was tempered by a practical idealism,” Springsteen said. “It was a world where speaking truth to power wasn’t futile, whatever its outcome. Why do we continue to talk about Woody so many years on? He never had a hit, never went platinum, never played in an arena, never was on the cover of Rolling Stone. … But he’s a big ghost in the machine. I believe it’s because Woody’s songs … tried to answer Hank Williams’ question [about] why your bucket has a hole in it. That’s a question that’s eaten at me for a long time.”
In the end, he said he came to realize that a main lesson of studying musical and social history is that “things that come from the outside make their way into the beating heart of the nation.”
And as he exited the stage and raised his hand to say goodbye, you could see the sweat stains on his shirt. The man is still working hard.