"Goodbye Granny, we’ll miss you,” read the sign outside the Nashville Palace last week. It marked the passing of Anna May “Granny” Johnson, who died April 1 of breast cancer at the age of 72. Granny Johnson never had a record deal; she never played Starwood or hosted a special on TNN. But for thousands of tourists, Granny Johnson was nonetheless a bona fide country star.
Boxcar Willie and Palace owner John Hobbs were in the Nashville Palace one night more than a decade ago when the woman singing onstage halted their conversation. At the time, Anna May Johnson was more than 60 years old, but she belted out songs and worked the room with professional aplomb. After the show, Boxcar Willie drew her aside. “What you need is a gimmick,” the Singing Hobo is said to have told Anna May. “I picture you in some kind of granny outfit.”
From that day forth, Anna May was Granny Johnson. Friends and family say the role suited her. She had started her music career in 1940 at the age of 14, appearing as the “Sunbonnet Girl” on WMRN-AM in Marion, Ohio. At 24, she married fiddler Hank Johnson, and the two went on tour together playing barn dances and radio shows on the weekends. As their family grew, so did the band. Daughter Janet played drums; son Billy sat in on guitar. It wasn’t just a hobby. The family needed the money.
“Those were very lean times, and music kept food on the table,” remembered Billy Johnson from his home in Madison. “She always did the best she could with what she had.”
By 1977, however, her children had grown and moved away, and Anna May grew tired of the music business. Oddly enough, that’s when she decided to relocate to Nashville, where Billy had moved. She got a job in the Opryland gift shop and abandoned her hopes for a singing career. Then one night she was at Stage Door Lounge when the performers onstage recognized her in the audience and asked her to sing. The appearance led to a regular gig, and by 1980 she was singing weekly at the Nashville Palace.
Even in the midst of the Urban Cowboy years, Anna May championed traditional country music, singing the songs of Jean Shepherd, Jeannie Seely, and other Opry stars. And in the early 1990s Granny Johnson continued to warble “Crazy” and “You Are My Sunshine” for anyone who wanted to say they’d heard the sounds of honky-tonk heaven in a real Music City club.
Visitors loved her. Even though she played three or four shows a week, Billy Johnson recalls, she was never too tired after the last encore to welcome personally some Norwegian country fans, or to greet a family from Dayton, Ohio. “She was just like your grandmavisiting all the tables, giving out hugs,” he says.
Her admirers weren’t limited to tourists, either. Opry stars like Billy Walker and Jeannie Seely stopped in occasionally to say hello or sing a number, and the late Bill Monroe even joined her once onstage. “She was a very charming person, very well loved,” remarks Opry announcer and WSM-AM deejay Eddie Stubbs.
Most of the musicians who perform regular weeknight gigs in the city’s lounges and tourist spots receive little glory. The thrill of seeing live country music in Nashville is the main attraction, and the performers take a backseat to the whole of the experience. But Granny Johnson’s friends and family say the singer added something unique: a generosity of spirit that brought people back to the Nashville Palace not just for the music, not just for the atmosphere, but for the warmth of her personality.
Five years ago, House O’Pain Records issued a broadside of a compilation EP under the modest title Our Scene Sucks. The music was snotty, sloppy, and louda ragged artifact of underground Nashville in the early 1990s, when House O’Pain and the appearance of Lucy’s Record Shop triggered a burst of local activity. Back then, the EP’s title might as well have been the mantra of the city’s disenfranchised teenage punk audience. Has anything changed in the years since?
Here’s yer answer: Our Scene Still Sucks, a brand-new House O’Pain EP arriving Saturday. The record gathers tracks from several local bands, ranging from the pop-punk thrash of Situation No Win to the grinding hardcore of Process Is Dead. This time, however, the music actually shows signs of health in the local scene, according to House O’Pain’s Donnie Kendall.
“What it’s intended to say is that the Nashville scene doesn’t suck,” says Kendall, co-owner and cofounder of the pioneering local punk label. For the first EP, Kendall notes, House O’Pain had to work to scrape up decent tracks. This time around, he had a wish list of 15 bands, and of those he said maybe 10 submitted quality tapes.
Does the scene still have problems? Sure. Press coverage of punk and indie rock in Nashville is usually minimal, Kendall says, and a brief flurry of outside interest in the local scene seems to have abated. “Last year, and the year before, the kind of music we make started to come out a little,”he explains. “But it’s slipped back underground, which is fine with us.”
For a glimpse into the underground, sojourn to Lucy’s 8 p.m. Saturday night for the Our Scene Still Sucks record-release party, which features Brown Towel, The Vibes, Process Is Dead, Situation No Win, and Junkie War Stories. EPs will be on sale at the door, and the cover charge is $5. And if you really want to keep the local scene from sucking, go to a show and make some noiseor pick up a guitar and form your own band. As Donnie Kendall says, “If more people get into it, it’ll only get better.”
Coast to Coast
More than one locality, Nashville included, has vied for the title of “Third Coast” in the world of pop music. But despite the presence of esteemed musical establishments in St. Louis, Chicago, and Atlanta, American classical music remains a bi-coastal affair. The East weighs in with the Boston, New York, Baltimore, and National Symphonies as well as with such institutional incubators as the Juilliard School and the Eastman School of Music. The West Coast, ever more hip and eclectic, boasts a Bay Area music megaplex of ensembles and schools, as well as the mosaic of musical groups still stuck on the shoulders of the San Bernardino Freeway, waiting to “get into” Los Angeles. Last week, concert-goers in Nashville got their chance to sample these divergent musical cuisines, and the results were sometimes tasty.
Thursday night, the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet served up a Pacific Rim musical collation at Langford Auditorium. Their rijsttafel of composers included such West Coast favorites as Ken Benshoof, Harry Partch, and John Adams; Vietnam-born P.Q. Phan; and Lettish composer Peteris Vasks. Also on the program were a John Cage dance piece arranged by Eric Salzman, a rare taste of Hildegard of Bingen, dodecaphonic dim sum by Alban Berg, and a dessert of encores by Michael Daugherty and Alfred Schnittke.
The most unforgettable piece of the evening was the String Quartet No. 3 by Peteris Vasks. The first-movement spiccato string figures, the motor-rhythmic ostinati of the second movement, and the finale’s juxtaposition of dry scurrying figures with passages of Purcellian richness were all notable elements, but the Mahlerian third movement was exquisite. Here’s hoping that the Kronos will record this in the near future.
John Cage’s Totem Ancestor was skillfully transcribed and performed, but the Kronoids’ way with Harry Partch’s Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales was remarkable. The second piece in the set was a study in microtonality, and, for one of the few times in my concert-going career, the sweetness of this harmonic system was fully realized.
The encore of Alfred Schnittke’s “Collected Songs Where Every Verse Is Filled With Grief” was the funniest piece of the evening, but I don’t think many in the audience saw through to the humor beneath. Unless I’m terribly mistaken, this is Schnittke’s jab at one of the most phenomenally popular classical works in the last two decades, Henryk Górecki’s hour-long catalog of dolor, “Symphony of Sorrowful Psalms.” Schnittke’s work is so thoroughly deadpan a parody that the only giveaway comes from the occasional inclusion, usually buried deep in the music’s texture, of a bit that might have come from Lerner and Loewe’s Gigi.
P.Q. Phan’s Tragedy at the Opera and Ken Benshoof’s “St. Francis Climbs Mt. Diablo” were colorful and trendy. The Benshoof was the most multicultural work on the program, taking its materials through a variety of world-music styles, including Asian, Celtic, and American blues before disappearing like the Cheshire cat. The Phan piece rather smacked of music by Hovhanesslots of modality dressed in special string effects. Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite was colorful, substantial, and superbly performedand it had the charm of working a cube root algorithm.
That the Kronos sounds very much in person as it does in its recordings can largely be attributed to the fact that the group uses sound processing at its concerts. In some of the pieces, this is necessary. The John Adams and Michael Daugherty works both had prerecorded parts, and the Hildegard was made to sound as if it emanated from a gigantic New Age cathedral. But there were problems with the processing: I heard the sound system buzzing and sputtering from my seat, while friends who sat stage left complained that the hum was frequently deafening. The ring-modulator sound in the Hildegard sometimes obscured the music, and the Daugherty work, Elvis Everywhere, was a one-joke affair that went on four times too long. The Adams was the best dish in this course of preprocessed musical food, but his Three Selections From John’s Book of Alleged Dances was too rap-meets-neo-classicism.
If much of the Kronos feast had the taste of Pacific synthesis, Friday night’s musical banquet from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra was strictly a European affair, with courses from Rossini, Britten, and Schubert. To be frank, the Orpheus folks never managed the precision of the Kronos Quartet, but I liked their choice of offerings.
The evening started with a piece of frothy juvenilia by Gioacchino Rossini, his String Sonata No. 5 in E-Flat Major. This music has an airiness, even a sparkle, that the Orpheus did not seem to manage well. The mirthful double bass ostinati were plodding. The cellos were frequently out of tune with each otherespecially when they attempted their sloppy trills. Worst of the lot was the body of violins at the end of the Allegro vivace opening movement. They had a series of ascending notes with a stress on the last note of each phrase, but no one seemed to be able to agree on what note was to be played. The second and third movements were somewhat better, but by the end, it was clear that this soufflé had collapsed.
The program closed with Mahler’s string-orchestra arrangement of the String Quartet, D. 810, the “Death and the Maiden” quartet by Franz Schubert. Perhaps the comparison is unfair, but my mind kept going back to the Blair String Quartet’s recent performance of the Schubert work, and it was not to the benefit of the Orpheus aggregation. To be sure, there was not much wanting in the Orpheus reading; I just thought that the excitement and extreme accuracy of the Blair quartet’s performance counted for more than the Orpheus’ thicker sound.
The Orpheus folks did have much to say about this music that was worth listening to, however. If I had problems with numerous technical bobbles, I had no demur about their general approach. Their concept was marked by a remarkable sweetness, especially in the first and second movements. In addition to this sweetness, a scrupulous attention to phrasing and dynamics was also notable in the finale, and the third-movement contrasts between the gutsier “ländler” sections and the more suave “waltz” portions were particularly telling.
Tenor Carl Halvorson turned in the finest performance of the evening in Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. His superb diction and operatic approach were best realized in a truly creepy rendition of the work’s “Dirge” section. I have never heard the terror of this Scottish ghost song so well projected, not even by the work’s creator, Peter Pears. Other high points of Halvorson’s performance were the serene projection of Keats’ text for the “Sonnet” section and his remarkable foray into the countertenor range during the “Pastoral.” There were some moments at the last when Halvorson tired, but his is one of the most remarkable voices I’ve ever heard. Look for his name.
As to horn soloist David Jolley, he had a bad night from first to last. Even in the opening “Prologue,” it sounded as if he were plagued by condensation in his instrument, and during every soft passage, he continued to deliver strange and ugly buzzing sounds. Nor did he come close to realizing the full range of horn color that Britten called for in this score. Mostly, he played very loud with unsupported tone at the end of long legato passages. Only when Jolley performed the “Epilogue” from backstage did his performance match the mood of the piece.
This was likewise the work that the body of the orchestra performed best. There were ensemble problems at first, but coordination soon returned, and especially in the “Pastoral,” “Elegy,” and “Hymn” movements, the whole body of strings had the richest of glossy sounds. Especial praise goes to the cellos for their playing in the “Sonnet” section. Their playing was warmth itself.
East or west, the musical feast was well set on both nights. If I had problems with some of the dishes, the meals were still satisfying.
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