William Least Heat Moon ... turned a broken heart into a fortune

William Least Heat Moon ... turned a broken heart into a fortune

Back in the early 1980s I read a fascinating book called Blue Highways by a writer named William Least Heat Moon. It seems this pretentiously named gent’s wife had dumped him, and he’d done the only thing a person can do under those most trying circumstances. He’d hit the road in a lovelorn state in a Ford cargo van with a name as ostentatious as his own — Ghost Dancing. Blue Highways was a lovely tribute to the small towns and byways of America, but it was also a powerful and moving study of the human spirit. And it validated with the written word what music had been telling me since I was old enough to listen.

There’s no real cure that I know of for an utterly devastated heart. It’s almost as crushing as the death of a loved one, and only time can really take the edge off its misery. But I can imagine no better treatment for the pain than an extended, unplanned and meandering road trip. And based on the music I listen to, I’d say I’m not the only one who thinks that way. Over the past four or so decades there have been several tunes wrapped around this theme. I love Delaney Bramlett’s “Living On the Open Road,” … not just because Duane Allman does the guitar work on it. It’s an upbeat and compelling tribute to spiritual and physical freedom, and it retains a place of honor on my IPOD playlist. Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobbie McGee” is a touching and poignant ballad, certainly one of the best of the genre. Janis Joplin set the bar … and she was fortunate indeed that the subject name in the song worked equally well for a male or female singer. But there are three road songs that move me more than all the others … and they will always and forever occupy a special corner of my heart.

John Hartford ... banjo player extraordinaire

John Hartford ... banjo player extraordinaire

There’s something about a lost love that seems to inspire beautiful music and haunting, heartfelt, and visually powerful lyrics. Such is the case with John Hartford’s gorgeous tune “Gentle On My Mind,” most popularly delivered by Glen Campbell in 1967. The lost soul speaks to the woman he loves almost apologetically, because he can’t seem to abandon his drifting existence long enough to commit …

“It’s knowing that your door is always open

And your path is free to walk

That makes me tend to leave my sleeping bag

Rolled up and stashed behind your couch

And it’s knowing I’m not shackled

By forgotten words and bonds

And the ink stains that have dried upon some line

That keeps you in the backroads

By the rivers of my memory

That keeps you ever gentle on my mind”

As with so many road songs, the visuals are overwhelming. The listener can almost feel the scorching sun and feel the blowing grass along the highway.

“Though the wheat fields and the clothes lines

And the junkyards and the highways come between us

And some other woman crying to her mother

‘Cause she turned and I was gone

I still might run in silence, tears of joy might stain my face

And the summer sun might burn me ’til I’m blind

But not to where I cannot see you walkin’ on the backroads

By the rivers flowing gentle on my mind”

And taking time the time in a trainyard (Chicago in my mind’s eye) to feel the wrenching consequences of choosing a life without strings:

“I dip my cup of soup back from a gurglin’

Cracklin’ cauldron in some train yard

My beard a roughening coal pile and

A dirty hat pulled low across my face

Through cupped hands ’round a tin can

I pretend I hold you to my breast and find

That you’re waving from the backroads

By the rivers of my mem’ry

Ever smilin’ ever gentle on my mind”

Gentle On My Mind is an up tempo song, with a beat and chord progression that would logically form in the mind of a banjo player, which its creator, John Hartford, was and is. It is lovely, with the minor chords placed perfectly for full impact. It is a bittersweet tune, simultaneously a toe-tapper and tear jerker.

Gregg Allman ... a teenager no more

Gregg Allman ... a teenager no more

One of the Allman Brothers Band’s most popular tunes, Melissa, was written by Gregg Allman while he was still in his teens. The story in this song closely parallels the plot in Gentle On My Mind, with the wandering singer basking in the full glory of itinerant freedom.

“Freight trains … each car looks the same

And no one knows the gypsy’s name

No one hears his lonely sigh

There are no blankets where he lies”

But there is again a deep and pained regret, elegantly understated with a heartfelt wisdom and world-weary voice that one would not normally associate with a teen-aged songwriter:

“Crossroads … will you ever let him go?

Or will you hide the dead man’s ghost?

Or will he lie beneath the clay?

And will his spirit float away?

But I know that he won’t stay …

Without Melissa”

Melissa is a classic tune that still rates frequent airtime on the oldies stations. This is entirely appropriate. Both music and message are timeless. My deep regret is that brother Duane didn’t live long enough to do the guitar work on the Eat a Peach album version. Melissa was Duane’s favorite of all his brother’s musical creations, and I can’t help but think he would have delivered a typically beautiful and majestic backing lead on it.

Tony Joe White ... one of the better songwriters of the last 40 years.  Looking suspiciously like Elvis in this photo.

Tony Joe White ... one of the better songwriters of the last 40 years. Looking suspiciously like Elvis in this photo.

Tony Joe White’s Rainy Night In Georgia has been sung by a number of artists, and I’ve never heard it done poorly. That’s because it’s a perfect blend of haunting melody and brooding lyrics. The standard, of course, is Brook Benton’s rendition from 1970. This ballad, which is delivered in a downpour from a rail car in an unnamed Georgia town (in my mind it’s Macon), fills the head of the listener with street scenes, raindrops and loneliness.

“Neon lights flashing

Taxi cabs and buses passing through the night

A distant moaning of a train

Seems to play a sad refrain

To the night”

In the closing verse, in lines similar to those in Gentle on My Mind, Benton’s voice breaks as he remembers his love …

“Late at night

When it’s hard to rest

I hold your picture to my chest

And I feel fine”

Of all the music discussed in this essay, this version of this song is my favorite. It is in every way impeccable. The musicianship is extraordinary, the unknown guitarist simulates the descending raindrops without interfering with the soul and emotion of this incomparable singer. And Tony Joe White has penned many extraordinary tunes, but this one must surely be his finest.

For me, these songs beautifully capture heartache, loss and the eternal conflict between love and freedom of the human spirit … and they deliver an unforgettable message from the depths of the tortured soul. And they gracefully illustrate the natural, painful and undeniable connection between the heart and the highway.

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John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn

John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn

“The wicked flee when none pursueth.” Proverbs 28:1

Unlike most Americans of my gender, I never learned to love John Wayne as an actor. His movements always seemed clumsy and exaggerated to me, and his delivery was consistently over the top. That un-subtle style was probably appropriate for the majority of the roles in which he was cast, but it only worked for me once … and that was in the 1969 film True Grit. Wayne won his only Academy Award for his performance as the one-eyed U. S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn in that movie … and even though it was probably his best work ever, I’ve always suspected that the Oscar was to some extent a “sympathy” award. Wayne was a beloved figure to moviegoers, and True Grit surely represented the Academy’s last best opportunity to honor the aging icon.

The original True Grit is loosely based on a novel by Charles Portis. The story line is straightforward, perfectly suited for a movie adaptation. It goes something like this:

a) Bad guy kills good guy

b) Good guy’s daughter hires U. S. Marshal to lead her in pursuit of bad guy

c) U. S. Marshal and good guy’s daughter form an uneasy alliance with Texas Ranger

d) The trio locates bad guy and the situation is resolved through excessive and gratuitous violence

The 1969 iteration of True Grit was a success not so much because of the story, but because of the strength of the characters the author generated to bring it to life. Some credit, of course, must also be assigned to the actors who played the critical roles.

John Wayne was John Wayne through most of the picture, but there were flashes of brilliance and humanity in his performance that would be impossible to find elsewhere in his work. A young, fresh-faced Kim Darby was superb as Mattie Ross. She was the embodiment of the relentless but principled businesswoman, with just enough feminine vulnerability to give the males in the picture legitimate grounds for defending her. Glen Campbell played Labeouf, the Texas Ranger who joined them to pursue the outlaw. Campbell was the heartthrob du jour back in ’69, so I think it’s safe to assume he was cast solely for box office purposes. He was horrifying, to be sure, but at times he delivered just enough country boy charm to be almost passable in the role.

There were several scenes in the movie that bordered on the magnificent. One of the most effective was young Mattie’s horse trading with the auctioneer, Colonel Stonehill, who was in possession of horses purchased by her father prior to his murder. Only fourteen years old, she brutally intimidated and threatened Stonehill until he gave her every penny she wanted, and then returned later in the day to browbeat him into another absurdly one-sided trade. As she left the Colonel’s company, she casually asked him if he was acquainted with Marshal Cogburn. He answered affirmatively, noting that Cogburn was a “notorious thumper” and a man who richly deserved his terrible reputation. He then remarked pointedly to Mattie, “I would not be surprised to learn that he is a relative of yours.”

In what may have been Wayne’s finest scene, he and Mattie sat on a darkened hilltop waiting in ambush for a band of outlaws. They took the time to work past business disagreements and the hardships of the trail to get to know each other. Cogburn related the memory of his brief sentence as a husband and father and his days as the proprietor of “an eatin’ place” in Cairo, Illinois. He seemed to have no regrets that his wife and son had eventually abandoned him but he was genuinely wistful at the memory of the billiard table in his old restaurant. The scene is played with uncharacteristic delicacy.  I once read that Wayne believed it to be the best work he’d ever done … I think his instincts may have been accurate in this assessment.

The cinematically gorgeous True Grit of 1969 was filmed in the autumn in what appears to be Colorado. The scenery was spectacular and the colors were glorious, and after many tribulations and several dozen rounds fired, it ends on a poignant and touching note … a decidedly positive ending. The Coen brothers’ 2010 remake is a horse of a different color. The underlying story is essentially the same and some of the dialogue is identical … but the movies are more dissimilar than they are alike.

Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld as Cogburn and Mattie Ross

Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld as Cogburn and Mattie Ross

The story line in the Coen brothers’ 2010 remake is truer to Charles Portis’ novel than the original version … and the tone and mood of it is much more somber. Fort Smith, Arkansas, the point of departure for the pursuers, is not the colorful and lively burg it was in the first picture. It is a drab and desolate place that relies on the occasional hanging as a source of entertainment for citizens of all ages. The trail scenes are set in a stark, bare-treed, late winter landscape that seems appropriate to the darker mood rendered by the Coens. There are no golden aspen leaves fluttering in the late afternoon sunshine. In fact, a gentle snow falls during many of the Coen brothers’ most critical transitional scenes.

The music in the 1969 picture was almost overwhelming … not always in a good way. Chase scenes were overdubbed with a frantic, high volume orchestra score that tended to bludgeon the viewer … it annoys today even more than it did in 1969, when this technique was the norm rather than the exception. The music in the remake was elegant and understated. It took a few seconds to recognize the phrases … but as the measures progressed my memory returned me to my very early days as a southern Baptist and the song finally registered – it was the lovely old hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

The new version of True Grit offers the viewer a much more accurate depiction of dress and appearance in 1878 Arkansas. The characters in the television and movie westerns of the 1960s sported a few too many leather vests, string ties, narrow-brimmed cowboy hats, and clean shaven faces … it was a sartorial approach that never matched any photographs I’ve seen from that era in our history. The courtroom scene in the Coen Brothers film features characters that could have been extracted from a Matthew Brady compendium. They are impeccably dressed in period clothing and exquisitely bewhiskered with muttonchops and long mustaches.

The performances in the Coen Brothers’ version certainly equal or surpass those in the original. John Wayne, despite his shortcomings as an actor, was a powerful screen presence. Physically imposing, with a rugged voice to match his impressive appearance, he seemed to dominate virtually every scene. The new Rooster Cogburn, Jeff Bridges, has none of those qualities. But his consummate skill as an actor more than compensates. His performance is nuanced … he is a much more plausible drunk and he manifests the appropriate level of “true grit” when the situation demands it. Matt Damon, who is not an actor of the first rank in my opinion, is entirely credible as the Texas Ranger. His character is far more complex than the one portrayed in the original … he is dedicated to the Rangers and his pursuit of the outlaw, but he is loquacious in the extreme and often plagued by deep self-doubt. His character has noticeably more depth and mystery than Glen Campbell’s. The new Mattie Ross is brilliantly played by Hailee Steinfeld. Although young for the part, she is hard-edged and every bit as plausible as Kim Darby was in the original role. True to the novel, she is pragmatic in life and implacable in business. In one of her first speaking scenes, she stares down at her father’s remains in a casket with the undertaker looking on … she does not cry or wring her hands, but asks simply and directly “why is it so much?” After silently listening to the undertaker’s summary of the expenses, she is offered the opportunity to kiss her dead father’s cheek. She peremptorily declines, stating that “the spirit has flown.” Her performance as Mattie is certainly one of the highlights of this film.

I’ve always been attracted to simple stories about the pursuit of justice and right regardless of inconvenience, physical hardship or personal expense. Many of my favorite pictures – “The Winslow Boy” and “A Man For All Seasons” to name just two – revolve around this theme. True Grit is certainly the best western film representation of this idea. The original will always hold a special place in my heart … but it’s now superseded by the extraordinary Coen Brothers rendition. I’ve seen it in the theater twice now and may try it one last time on the big screen that will best do it justice.

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