I am in traffic, riding through Birmingham, listening to an oldies AM radio station. Extreme oldies. The music coming through my speakers takes me to an antique world of hi-fis, beehive hairdos, and weird congealed salads.
The radio DJ says, “…And that was a song from Benny Goodman, now let’s hear one from the Les Baxter Orchestra…”
I remember my granny listening to Les Baxter albums. One such album was called “The Primitive and the Passionate,” ala 1962. On the cover was a photo of a woman who could’ve passed for Sophia Loren, dancing in a sultry way, beckoning to all who looked upon her. Even little Baptist boys.
I remember the record playing on a turntable. It was lush and tranquilizing. When you hear music like that, you are immediately transported to an earlier time, sitting on a plastic-covered sofa, watching someone’s dad—usually named Gary, Frank, or Dennis—use a cocktail shaker to make a Manhattan.
I remember another Les Baxter record. “Space Escapade” (1958). On the cover was Les Baxter dressed in a spaceman suit with spacegirls falling all over him. Keep in mind, Les Baxter looked a lot like your grandfather’s dentist.
But the record was great. An hour’s worth of exotic orchestral music that sounds exactly like being trapped in a department store with your mother while she’s trying on dresses.
“Attention shoppers,” the department store intercom says. “Special on aisle twelve, make your own julienne fries with the new Fry-O-Matic! Fourteen ninety-nine with rebate. Also, ask your sales associate about our sale on boy’s athletic supporters.”
The radio station is now playing selections from the country music vein. Conway Twitty. Hank Snow. Followed by Buck Owens, singing “Together Again.” I turn it up.
If I close my eyes, I’m sitting in front of a Zenith console TV with my father. On the screen: Roy Clark and Buck Owens are surrounded by their “Hee Haw” gals in cutoff denim shorts. And childhood is grand. Roy is picking banjo. The Reverend Grady Nut is telling jokes about Baptists.
Next, the radio spins some Willie Nelson. I turn my stereo as loud as it will go. The tune is “Stardust.”
Geez, Louise. I used to have this album. I almost wore it out. Willie’s rendition of “Stardust” is mournful, just the way the song was meant to be. The lyrics go:
“And now the purple dusk of twilight time,
“Steals across the meadows of my heart…”
This isn’t simply music. It’s American poetry written by Hoagy Carmichael, who penned a thousand flawless tunes like “Georgia on My Mind.” Willie sings this song in a relaxed way—maybe a little too relaxed, if you catch my drift.
And it makes me remember a time during childhood when I thought life was going to be easy, like all children do. Before I learned that nothing is easy, not even julienne fries.
Back when “Little House on the Prairie” was still on the air. When “Love Boat” was still considered racy because sometimes the actresses wore culottes, and according to the fundamentalists who raised me, culottes were a one-way ticket to Hell.
Nat Cole comes on next. And I’m officially an emotional basket case. Nat sings “The Very Thought of You.” Hot water builds behind my eyes. But it doesn’t drip. Not yet. Not until the next song, which is:
Jimmy Durante’s “I’ll Be Seeing You.” His raggedy voice comes through the speakers with the quintessential hoarse tone of an old man.
“I’ll find you in the morning sun,
“And when the night is new,
“I’ll be looking at the moon,
“But I’ll be seeing you.”
Music does this to me. In my earliest years I played guitar and accordion. I was godawful. But on my ninth birthday my father gave me a piano. I practiced like a maniac and after years of struggling, I finally managed to get worse.
As a kid, I fell in with no-good musicians who were older than I was. I’ve done a lot of playing throughout my life. My first beer joint gig was before I was old enough to shave. I worked menial jobs by day and raced across town to play music each evening.
I learned to sing Hoagy Carmichael, Merle Haggard, Ray Charles, Buck Owens, and Willie. And I came to appreciate songs that meant something to me.
I turn off the radio. I wipe my eyes.
Beside me is a vehicle of teenagers. They’re listening to music so loud that it sounds like a nuclear explosion—only less interesting. They are gyrating inside the cab like rabid squirrels in heat.
The light turns green. Our mass of vehicles surges forward. The light turns red.
Now I am beside a young man in a Chevy truck. He is listening to loud modern country pop music with his windows down. A song with lyrics that go—these are actual lyrics:
“She’s got it goin’ on like Donkey Kong,
“And (WHOO-WEE!) shut my mouth,
“Slap your grandma, there oughta be a law…
“How’d she get them britches on…?”
The guy glances at me before revving his engine for effect. His motor rumbles louder than a Central Asian land war, vibrating my windshield. He speeds away and I am left alone in a purple cloud of exhaust.
I’ll bet the kid has never heard of Les Baxter. Let alone julienne fries. Or culottes. And I hope he doesn’t lay a finger on Grandma.
I turn on the radio on again and listen for more Willie. Because even though it’s old music, to me it never gets old.