“To the place I belong, West Virginia, mountain mama…” sang John Denver, the song that appeared in his 1971 breakout album. (#1)I first got a whiff of this ‘Country Road’ as a kid living in Singapore; Denver wrote fantastical lyrics that espoused all-American living with a tinge of the hippie culture; Woodstock was birthed in the year 1969.
As the power of marketing grew exponentially along with mass media, popular culture took the fast lane down the worldwide multimedia freeway with a grin on its cherubic face!
In my rear view mirror I watch as ‘Country Road’ overtook me to stop at Akasaka’s Bob Lounge where Tokyo’s Cowboy Bob sings soulfully with a twang.
A note for us living in America; the rest of the world gets a delayed effect on our syndicated programs and often live in a pop culture time warp.
OK, now those of you who learnt geography (Route 66), culture (Bye Bye Miss American Pie), history (Blowin in the Wind), language and food through popular songs raise your hands?
Though TV has become the primary form of entertainment for vegging out, or as a means to vicariously visit faraway lands dishing out foods with exotic names like crawfish pie and gumbo, live shows still play a major part of what constitutes a night out.
I sauntered over to the Grapevine Opry just the other day to, as they say in Texas, visit with old friend and music veteran, Rock Gribble. Rocky is the owner of Yellow Rose Productions and producer of the Grapevine Opry shows (country music revue) for almost 22 years now at the Palace Theatre in Grapevine, the wine growing and historic region in Dallas-Fort Worth.
At the Opry, country singing hopefuls (of all ages, colours and creeds) start performing at an itty bitty age to hone their vocal skills and stage presence with the hopes that a record producer is in the audience with a contract in hand. On a particular talent showcase night, I survey the performers fixin to give their best. The oldest ‘hopeful’, Jennifer Elliott tells me she just turned 31 and started singing late in her life, at the delicate age of 18. 11 year-old Chandler Bennett, an Opry regular of a year now, has been singing for 3-4 years. When I ask them why they chose country music, they tell me it is because it has real down to earth stories to tell.(#2)
Some of these young and professionally strong singers; mostly girls, learn all about the trade and the harsh world of entertainment by the time they leave middle school. As an Opry regular, you are in contention for the annual awards. Categories include female and male vocalist of the year, instrumentalist and entertainer of the year and more. Grapevine Opry Association staff, Alan Pavik, who “is in charge of staging, tech support and stuff” tells me that one needs to appear three times a year to be in the running for the ballot. That magic number ‘3’ is the same number of awards one would need to have won to be entered into the Grapevine country music hall of fame.
At this particular talent night, recipient of an Entertainer of the Year award, Marcus Leary sings the Texan version (there is also the North American version) of “I’ve Been Everywhere”, a song written by Geoff Mack in 1959 which lists names of towns in Australia.
The business of entertainment is hard work for an adult, let alone a teeny bopper. Leanne Rimes, Miranda Lambert, were products of the Opry circuit, like Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline before them.
I have attended many a Grapevine Opry, thanks to John, my Xenovibes partner-in-crime and a regular member of the Opry band who set out to prove that a well read musician can play any music and play it with a vengeance.
Rocky provided me with the challenge to appear in the Opry’s 21st anniversary show in 2008 with my theremin, tin whistle and voice. Before you could utter the words “Howdy cowpoke” I was dressed and ready to do a Xenovibes original “Sweet Talker”, Floyd Cramer’s “Last Date” on the theremin (both which appear on our latest CD Xing Paths), then take the stage with my trusty ol tin whistle to join Jamie Goff on Fiddle and Rocky on Banjo playing Bluegrass tunes “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “Soldier’s Joy”.
Since that appearance I am known as Rocky’s Aussiental friend and Wocky calls himself my Texamerican pal.
Wocky puts much effort into making sure each and every show entertains the audience. Beneath that quick wit and dry humour is an educated musician and top-notch professional. Rocky began musical training in his youth with dad using the method known as aural tradition. Like in most folk music no formal notation exists. His dad imparted the three to four chords he knew before the curious Rocky went in search of book knowledge to expand his horizons.(#5)
This college trained musician who almost became a college professor, puts together the musical arrangements to 30 odd songs each Opry night in a short-hand style known candidly as “Gribble Scribble”. The “Gribble Scribble” is a version of the Nashville Notation, similar to the Cypher notation of Chinese folk music and the figured bass in western classical music, which I will cover in another article.
As an Opry band member, one has to be on one’s toes to have at least 30 songs thrown at one each night. The band goes through only one rehearsal that afternoon before the curtains are drawn to mass applause. (#3)
Rocky banters with M.C. Clint White as part of the show to include theme nights which honour the greats of classic country music such as Patsy Cline; a recent Cline theme night I did attend.
“(The Opry) in its rawest form is meant to entertain people. Our goal is also to present people who are beginning to or think they are trying to get started in the music business,” reveals Rocky. (#4)
He narrates the story of this unique concept in country music. Spawned off the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, an amateur talent show, the Grapevine version puts as much polish and professionalism in their shows to entertain the hoards of people who travel from far and wide and nearby cities; many by tour bus to the Palace Theatre just to inhale some Opry magic.
If you were to pay careful attention as you travel across America, the country music revue that is quaintly associated with this genre of music could be considered the main preoccupation of the residents of Texas. Rocky tells me that these types of shows are the product of the population of the area. In the twin cities of Dallas-Fort Worth, a good percentage of people are entertainers and singers. He notes that it is indigenous to country music that this type of show exists.
A lone didjeridoo player and his circular breathing suddenly makes an appearance in my imagination, together with the country singers. The word ‘indigenous’ takes me back to my days in Adelaide (Australia) and the study of Pitjantjara music. I snap out of it. Cowboy boots somehow seem incongruous with people bearing colorful skin markings. But I do fathom Rocky’s narration.
Australia does have a huge appetite for classic country music as well as Down Under’s own exports, but that’s another story.
Rocky, John and I turn our attention briefly to the ‘true folk song’ known as Bluegrass, which evolved from the mountains and coalfields of the Appalachians and is, as Rocky reminds me, quite unlike 21st Century Country music, which has somehow lost its Folk roots to become more Rock and if I may dare say, even Pop. (#6)
I explain to Rocky the twangy misconception people have about Country Music. To which he replies, “We take the song and we detwang it. We bring (songs that sound corny by today’s standards) up to date!”. An example he gives of this ‘method’ is George Strait’s 2006 cover of a George Jones song from the late ‘60s called “Lovebug”. Rocky laments, “some people (still) can’t listen beyond the musical setting to what the song says.”
Country music is usually characterised by its instrumentation (at least a steel guitar and a fiddle), style of singing and its lyrics. Bluegrass has its distinct instrumentation such as the upright bass, banjo, mandolin, dobro and fiddle. I describe Bluegrass as the country music version of Speed Metal and Wocky guffaws.
As I leave that subject of traditional music behind, I observe in my side mirror that Bluegrass is headed for the Chinese Red Chamber ensemble in Canada!
Woah ya’ll! What this trip needs is an all terrain vehicle. All aboard the country music wagon!
(#1) John Denver aka Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. was one of the most popular american country/folk rock music singers in the seventies with approximately 32.5 million records sold. (figures from RIAA).
(#2) The interview with Rocky Gribble is video 1 of 2. Talent showcase and the Patsy Cline tribute night recordings appear in video 2 of 2.
(#3) The current Grapevine Opry band is led by Rocky Gribble (guitar, banjo, mandolin). On keys David Walker. Bass/vocals Curtis Jones. Fiddle/violin Grammy Award winner Jim Baker. Steel guitar Jeff Agnew. Drums John A Martinez. Backing vocals Janice Belt. Production crew, Alan Pavik (lights), Larry Robinson (stage) and Larry Ossier (sound).
(#4) Big-time stars, say Rocky Gribble, who have appeared under his operation include, “Keith Anderson (a regular who began performing here in 1994), LeAnn Rimes (performed here several times beginning in 1989), and Miranda Lambert.
(#5) Rocky Gribble has played with such Grammy award-winning artists as Ronnie Milsap, Engelbert Humperdinck, the Judds.
(#6) John A Martinez recommends the book “Rough Mix” by Jimmy Bowen for a little insight into the business of country music.
Video Clips from the meeting, talent showcase and tribute nights :
Photos & videos (c) 2009 Shueh-li Ong (unless specified, all articles written by Shueh-li Ong bear the photography, videography and digital work of its author.)