An Old Friend I Happened to See
We tend to think of country music as a product of the South and the West, but really, the name tells you where it’s from. It’s the music of small towns and no towns, lightless state routes and endless rail lines. It’s the soundtrack for the long ride between where you’ve been and where you’re bound.
There’s a space like those hollow miles in my emotional interior. It feels like open landscape, cold wind, bright stars and a lonesome voice backed by pedal steel on the car radio. This region is something like home to the inner me. I frequently seek its outside analogs — in a bottle, on a train, on a record, or with guitar in hand performing with Day for Night.
The Fashion Jungle, the band I was in that came closest to fame, was born in the flight from country and died in the return to it — well, that’s one version. History is too complicated and involves too many people to simplify into a turn of phrase that suits one’s transient narrative needs. Some of you reading this will have your own narratives and your own turns of phrase to serve them (send ’em in!).
However, in any event, the ole high and lonesome was among the kickees as the Mirrors drop-kicked much of our baggage to become the FJ, in 1981. And country was where we turned eight years later as the FJ’s arty romantic edge started to dull.
August 1988 was something of a pinnacle for the late FJ, drummer Ken Reynolds, bassist Steve Chapman and me. It was our second year after Steve rejoined the band. Our performance at the Maine Festival, in Portland’s Deering Oaks Park on the 13th, was one that I recall as a rare occurrence of an ideal: It was a prestigious gig, we played well, dancers filled the tent under the nighttime trees, there was that sense of us all, everyone under the tent, being in the game together.
We learned four original songs in 1988: my “Don’t Sell the Condo” and the collaborative efforts “Dance,” “Rubber Hammer” and “Complaint,” the last of which went unperformed. All respectable, but only “Condo” seems to transcend its particulars the way the best FJ numbers do. Maybe it attained the FJ’s own version of the ole high and lonesome.
One of Ken’s siblings was planning a big family celebration in April 1989 and invited us to play. We understood that virtually none of our regular material would go over well with this older, largely rural crowd. Needed were songs that we could learn quickly and that the Reynolds clan would enjoy, and, of course, us too.
So we decided to learn several ’60s hits and, crucially, a bunch of country songs. It seemed like a lighthearted and frivolous choice at the time, to the extent that we developed this idea of playing country music as the opening act for ourselves, for the FJ. We toyed with names like the Prairie Oysters and the Cowpokers, ultimately and more tastefully settling on the Cowlix.
But despite how lightly we turned in this new direction, it turned out to be momentous for at least two reasons.
As written above, returning to country was a sort of repudiation of the very founding of the FJ. (This has occurred to me only in the writing of this piece, as opposed to most of the heavy thoughts in Notes, which are the result of decades of stewing.) Ken, Mike Piscopo, Jim Sullivan and I had embraced original New Wavy rock in part as a reaction against all of the roots music we had performed as the Mirrors, including a heavy dose of often-dreary country.
In those days, to quote the slogan of the hallowed Downtown Lounge, the goal was faster-louder-more fun! But eight years into the FJ’s career, as we dragged through songs four or more years old and struggled to come up with new ones, all the while burdened by our sacred oath to high concept and danceable romanticism, and with carefree youth buried down deep in the pile of outstanding bills, country seemed — to me anyway — like much more fun.
The other, much more consequential outcome of the FJ’s stylistic detour was that we added a new member: rhythm guitarist Gretchen Schaefer, then my significant other and now my wife, too.
Gretchen had played folk music back in college. She knew Hank Williams from her father’s repertoire and inherited his old Gibson archtop. And she was central to the FJ organization long before she started playing with us. She worked as hard as anybody hauling equipment, she tended the admission table at Geno’s (in the words of Iggy Stooge, no fun), and, in a contribution more in line with her specific gifts, made a lot of graphic art for the band.
When we asked her to join us on guitar in the spring of 1989, it was because we needed rhythm guitar and because it seemed like it would be fun. But it turned out to be the beginning of a musical partnership between the two of us, largely devoted to country music, that’s still going strong.
- You Know How It Is (Hubley) Dating from 1978, this lament about the working life is drawn from my experiences as a sensitive young artiste having my soul destroyed as a “materials handler” (stockboy) at the South Portland branch of the Jordan Marsh department store. Jordan Marsh is gone, and I am still here.
- I Remember (Just as Fast as I Forget) (Hubley) The iffy lyrical premise didn’t deter me from pitching it to the Fashion Jungle as we developed our “opening act,” the country-flavored Prairie Oysters. But this is more “countrypolitan” than country, down to the cha-cha rhythm and Slim Whitman falsetto.
“You Know How It Is” and “I Remember Just as Fast as I Forget” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.