FROM TOP TO bottom, the Shower of Stars last Saturday night was really fine. The sound system was much improved and the sound it carried was consistently good. Even the local band warm-them-uppers, Bobby Johnson and the Swinging Gentlemen, were excellent — particularly on the 6 o’clock show when Jerry Hall sang ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’.
Tom T. Hall, author of ‘Harper Valley P.T.A.’ and ‘Homecoming’, was the evening’s first star. He sings only his own material and sings it well. Like Sue says, his songs are haunting they’re so real. He didn’t sing these two Saturday night but ‘I Wanta See the Parade’ deals with racism and ‘Mama Bake a Pie’ is a chilling song about a soldier returning from Nam with no legs.
Lester Maddox arrived in the audience during Hall’s set and the task of acknowledging his presence fell to Hall. O.K., but “I think you’re one hell of a guy” made his joking about long hair all the much worse. But then he’s the only Nashville act I’ve seen with a long haired lead guitarist. We were able to interview Hall and Bobby Bare, so watch future Birds. Bare was late for the early show but he made up for it on the second show. If Hall’s songs are haunting then Bare’s singing (often Hall songs) is just plain eerie. His voice is really beautiful and on those lonesome songs like ‘500 Miles’ or his latest, ‘Come Sundown’, he gets all inside you. Take a good listen to one of his albums sometime.
After intermission. Artist of the Year time — Conway Twitty, who came down from Nashville to accept. Lester presented it, then went home after pictures. Twitty only sang ‘Hello Darlin” but it was nice of him to come.
Bill Anderson was the show’s headliner. Jan Howard came first in his show. She’s very impressive, very together and very professional belting out her hits. She really had the audience with her as she went into ‘I Just Can’t Seem to Make It, Baby, Without You’. Applause then silence during her version of ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’.
Anderson sang most of his hits — ‘But You Know I Love You’, ‘Still’, ‘Poor Folks’. His show is good country. Halfway through Jimmy Gaitley fiddles ‘Orange Blossom Special’, then everybody gets into ‘Rocky Top’.
Then Bill introduced the song he says more people have talked about than any other he’s written — ‘Where Have All the Heroes Gone?’. He said that folks have had different reactions to it, some didn’t agree but that was what made America great — the right to disagree. Of course since no left of right field country song (and there are many) ever gets on the air you might wonder what kind of right to disagree that is. But Bill is sincere in his song, he means what he says.
But as I watched him get all choked up as he finished telling how he “got sick to his stomach” seeing youngsters idolizing rioters and longhairs, I thought about the testimonial of the choir director at the large Baptist church I grew up in. It was during a Wednesday night prayer meeting. The choir director had been moved by the service and stood and asked for forgiveness because often he found himself caught up making a show out of the music, figuring ways to pull at people’s hearts, forgetting about the purpose of the whole thing. I don’t know — I just can’t believe that Anderson is really choked up when he sings ‘Heroes’ maybe 250 times a year.
As we were leaving the City Auditorium I pulled out a cigarette but didn’t have a match. A man about 35 and his family were walking toward us. He had a cigarette and I asked if I could get a light from it. He thrust the cigarette at me. I took it, looked up and he was walking away. I walked beside him and said, “Here go.” “I don’t want it,” he said. I couldn’t figure out what he was doing till a companion said, “He doesn’t like you.” That was it. That’s what Bill Anderson’s ‘Where Have All the Heroes Gone?’ does to people. Despite all Anderson’s “sincerity” and nice-guyness, his song made someone I don’t know hate me on sight.
If you ask country songwriters and singers about the message of their music, a lot say country music’s just entertainment. It’s just not so. It either opens us up, helps us understand other people, or it closes us up, reinforcing all our fears and weaknesses. It moves people — one way or the other.
© Gene Guerrero, The Great Speckled Bird, 15 March 1971