Music, like everything else, falls in and out of style. Its difficult to listen to sounds that are now at best, ironic and at worst, thrown off as terrible. The chains of irony can be broken, though, if you try, but like all addictions it takes work and you have to want to. I want you to, but you can’t do it for me. You have to do it for you. Beyond the purple valley lies a fresh musicscape filled with pure pleasure. It’s filled with sincerity and genuine expressions of love and grief. Doesn’t that sound nice? You certainly will have friends that won’t follow you, the small minded listeners, blocked by fears of what others would think of them, but don’t look back:
And it came to pass, when they had brought them forth abroad, that he said, Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed…But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.
Genesis, Chapter 19
Charlie Rich suffers. You can hear it in his music. He feels bad all the time. His heart is broken. He drinks too much. His ass looks like a bar stool. Nothing ever quite works out the way it should for him. Fuck you Willie Loman, Charlies got you hands down. There’s something about southern piano players. They weep at the keys. It’s really the perfect southern instrument. Devils are in the fiddles, guitars are trash really, just some wood and string. Pianos though can sit in a parlor or living room with pride. It takes a lot of work to devolve this instrument into sin and lonesomeness. Look at ol’ Jerry Lee and all he’s had to do. That’s it though, the southern piano is like a man wearing a dirty linen suit with sweat rings under the arms. Sure, it’s rumpled and worn, but it’s still a suit. That’s Charlie. That’s his music.
Charlie was an Arkansas boy, born to cotton farmers in December of ’32. After a stint in the military in the 1950’s he moved to Memphis and begin playing in the jazz and r&b clubs around town with his fiance Margaret Ann. He began doing session work around town for Judd Records and then Sun Records and played behind Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Warren Smith and a flock of other early rockabillies, hillbillies and blues shouters before taking his own shot and finally scoring in 1960 with Lonely Weekends.
Sam Phillips and Sun records did so many things right it’s almost odd to see the misses. Roy Orbison was a miss, Charlie was another. The Sun Sound is guttural and scary, all those early Howlin’ Wolf records and Elvis’ high pitched warbling and the Killer pounding his lusts out all over the ivories. There wasn’t a place for someone like Charlie Rich. Sun was earth. Charlie, water. Charlie left in 1963 and went to Smash Records and then to Hi Records and then finally Epic Records in 1967. It wasn’t until the ’70’s though that he would crawl out of the cellar for brief stab at stardom with countrypolitan produce Billy Sherrill. Which brings us back to the beginning.
Charlie Rich suffers. He’s just not cool anymore. Not hard enough for classic country fans who want everyone to sound like Johnny or Hank. Not deified enough, like Patsy, to where people wouldn’t dare criticize him. Not well known enough to become kitschy like Elvis or Neil. It would be wrong to think his music still hasn’t much to offer and doesn’t have life left in it yet. He sounds, well, kind of like Elvis. Husky voiced, deep tremelo. Sweet and elastic like a warm aged brandy. There’s no afectation though, it’s just Charlie looking for a way back. His is a voice that knows you can’t go home again, but it’s that voice that also wishes it didn’t know now what it didn’t know then.
In 1967 Charlie began recording his 2nd album for Epic Records. It would take him two years to finish it. Near the end his now wife, Margaret Ann, would give him a new song she had written and it just may be the greatest country-soul song ever laid down. The best songs never over stay their welcome and at 2:38, Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs, doesn’t even come close. The WSM deejay, Eddie Stubbs, sometimes, after a particularly great song has played, lifts the needle back to the beginning of the record and starts it again. This is one of those records.
It begins with Charlie slip noting into a chord and his church chorus back-up group humming a low moan. Then, almost immediately we hear him:
Don’t know how to tell her
That I didn’t get that raise in pay
This is a song about frustration and the worst kind of heartache. When you can’t give someone you love, not what they want, but what they deserve. It’s a song about pride and a wife’s attempt at understanding it. A husbands attempt at swallowing it.
But I can count on her to take it
With a smile and not a frown
The emotional poinancy here of a man and his wife going through a letdown, one they have seen before, is heard so rarely in music that it’s almost a shock. Never has shame mixed with love been so beautiful. She turns the failure into something small, like a merry-go-round game, where children spin grasping at the brass ring at the center to win a prize. She juxtaposes that with the gold ring on her finger. This is the flip side to Stand By Your Man, here the woman never mentions how hard it is for her, but quietly puts her sorrows away. He knows too, he knows.
But you can bet she’ll just take it with a smile
This song simply smolders. Everything is below the surface in a most southern of ways. But this kind of feeling isn’t regional. Married people don’t get many good songs, but they do have one of the best.
She wears a gold ring on her finger
and she’s mine
Charlie Rich suffers, but
She wears a gold ring on her finger
and she’s mine