Music Director’s Message, March 10, 2018
Country music just wasn’t a “thing” where I grew up. My town was mostly first to third-generation Italians, Poles, Norwegians, Swedes or Czechs. For the first-generation, “country” meant “Old Country”. For the rest of us, it meant nothing because we had our Rock and Roll. Our parents’ musical tastes were definitely Lawrence Welk, not the Grand Old Opry.
WGN radio was my family’s exclusive source of popular music. On any given day you could hear an eclectic mix of everything from the Beatles to Sinatra to silly novelty songs and the occasional mainstream Country hit. I liked songs by Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Ray Price, Hank Williams and Merle Haggard. These songs “crossed over” to the mainstream, leaving their figurative rhinestone-bejeweled blouses, fringed shirts and oversized belt buckles at the door. But peruse a juke box in a southern diner and you’d find a world of Country music we never heard on the radio; songs with titles like “Get Your Biscuits In The Oven And Your Buns In The Bed” and “How Can I Miss You If You Won't Go Away?”. The lyrics were clever and funny, those twangy guitars, drawled lyrics and oh-God-the-yodeling drove me crazy. I used to say I liked most all kinds of music — except Country and Western.
This all changed one day in 1980. I needed to drive non-stop from Chicago to Florida in less than 24 hours (stupid thing to do, I know, but I was young and invincible). My eyelids drooped as I drove in darkness through Kentucky and Tennessee, and I needed a strategy for staying awake. The dreaded Country Music! Scanning the AM band of my car radio, I hunted for the twangiest, manure-on-the-boots, gol-durned hillbilly music I could find, hoping to stimulate an adrenalin rush of loathing that would keep my eyes open. It worked, but with unintended consequences. Before long I was happily singing along, slapping the steering wheel to keep time as the sun rose over Georgia. My musical horizons had been happily broadened, and I am the better for it.
Two years ago, I went to hear “Country Legends” with another orchestra. I was a bit skeptical; besides ‘C’ Country and Classical don’t have much in common. But as I remembered from those WGN radio hits of my youth, the heartfelt Country ballads on the Top 40 were often burnished with string orchestras. The skilled arrangements I heard that day used the sound of the steel guitar and fiddle to blend the genres into a natural union. The two singers were, of course, from Nashville, which is to Country as New York is to Classical as Los Angeles is to Cinema. And, boy, did they deliver!
Country music is storytelling; a great singer can bring a tear to your eye and a smile on your lips in the same song. I hope you enjoy “Country Legends” as much as I did.