Thursday, August 14, 2008

Notes on the Cate Brothers

Much to my wife's chagrin, I've been listening to the Cate Brothers almost nonstop for the past two weeks. Actually, both she and the daughter let me play a greatest hits compilation that I made from the 70s major label albums almost all the way through dinner the other day. The daughter finally called for "Grover music" just as the record approached 1979's uneven Fire On the Tracks, but until then they both seemed to be enjoying it. The material on these records is a little funkier than the 90s and oughties Cate Brothers Band & that seemed to make a difference.

I do this kind of immersion when I'm writing about something, as it helps stuff float up to the surface that I might otherwise not think of or not remember. In this case it's helped me to find the center or at least an anchor for this dissertation. Earl and Ernie Cate are primary examples of white southern musicians playing a kind of music that came across the southern color line in the 60s, music that, when played by white musicians, generally escapes the notice of both journalistic and academic historiographers. They used this music to build a lingua franca with their audience and established a songbook and a set of performance memories that's lasted for over 40 years. While they are small (but not insiginificant and not unconnected) players on the national stage their music is deeply imbricated in the lived experience of many Ozarks inhabitants, meaning that they function actively on a vernacular, regional level while still articulating to the national popular in many important aspects.

I think that if we want to study how popular music works in people's lives, especially with an eye towards how it balances identities (regional and national, group and individual) then we have to look at everyday musical practice, musicking and audiencing on a day to day participatory level, and the Cates provide an example of this par excellence. Their longstanding relationship to their local audience can be, I think, an ethnographic doorway into that group's experience and construction of historical memory and political and social change in a region where the landscape itself seems to have swallowed up the past. I'm especially interested in: the unwritten hsitory of African American music in Northwest Arkansas; the establishment and dismantling of an Ozark counterculture in the late 60s and early 70s,;and of the role of the blues as a mnemonic leusure genre in the 90s, two topics which the Cates career intersects nicely. I'm less sure of what to do about the 80s, the formative decade of my own musical experience.

So that's the operative anchor. Here's some random notes on the music:

1. I'm alot less sure of the politics expressed in "Union Man" than I was a few weeks ago. Listening to the lyrics more closely, and the way Ernie sings them, it sounds like the narrator is skeptical at first but is convinced by the song's end of the necessity of the strike. Here I'm following the reluctant admisison in the penultimate verse that "I know I need your help to win that raise" and the addition in the last chorus of the apparantly sincere "thank you for the helping hand." The guitar solo in the middle does a nice job of working out the narrators conflict, which is both strategic (he needs the raise, but how's he going to feed his family during the strike?) and moral (how does striking fit into an ethical code that valorizes the act of work itself?) in nature. If this is true (and I can't seem to hear it any differently now) then the closing guitar solo is an expression of unity and resistance, a realignment. anyone out there who knows the song (that's you Jzip!) I'd be glad to hear your thoughts in comments or via email.

2. I hadn't realized that the first two albums (1975 & 1976) were released under the name "the Cate Brothers" and that the last two were "the Cate Brothers Band." It makes a difference. In the first two, produced by Steve Cropper, the uptempo numbers are all very funky, but almost everything that isn't uptempo funky is a ballad. Ron Eoff doesn't play on either of them, and Terry Cagle only adds vocal harmony. Klaus Voorman (!) does play on one song tho. These are good records, but I think that I like the third one, with the full band better. As i've worked through this I've made several greatest hits collections & I keep adding more songs from this record. Fire on the Tracks is a b and record too, but it's also pretty discofied and to my ears they don't sound too comfortable with the arrangements on all of the songs.

3. I'll have more to say about this later, but I'm more impressed with Ernie and Earl's songwriting than ever. there's a coherent set of values, responses, and ways of constructing the world that emerges form these songs. It's not an unproblematic worldview, and one of its primary concerns seems to be a paradoxical insistence on having the freedom to follow impulses that can't be resisted, but it's more mature and nuanced than I've previously thought. It's very much an adaptation of 60s soul music concerns (passion, sincerity, community, freedom) into an updated milieu. Just as one example, the women in these songs are surprisingly three D, especially given the sometimes harsh treatment women received in both male soul music and pop singer-songwriter music during this period, and the very harsh anti-feminist posturing delivered by scene mates (and notoriously unreliable narrators) Zorro and the Blue Footballs. More on this later too.

That's it for now. I'll try to figure out if I can post some audio from these records tonight or tomorrow.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

good lord, sir, it's nice to read a blog that is not only verbose, but obviously educated and (saints preserve us) spellchecked!
i mean, you used "lingua franca"!
i'm sad you're not in nwa raising the linguistic bar, but glad you've been linked.