Sunday, September 11, 2005

Carolina in My Mind 3: On the beach

Quick quiz: Which city between Buffalo, NY and Tarboro, NC is pictured here:

Answer: Every damn one of 'em.

Well, that particular picture was actually taken somewhere in Pennsylvania, but Don and I could have taken a similar one every 30 miles along our journey into the New New South. These days, the term "blue highway" refers to the blue Wal-Mart sign at either end of town. Of course, that's unfair to the rainbow of colors in the Starbucks, Target, Circuit City, Best Buy, and Applebees logos, and we wouldn't want to omit any of them from the picture, would we?

This probably shouldn't have come as a shock to us, but it's been a while since we've taken a multi-state road trip, and the situation is way worse than ever. One thing I do remember from a mid-eighties driving trip to Seattle was the death of local radio. Even two decades ago, it was no longer possible to note much difference between the stations from one area to the next: AM was all (stupid) talk, commercial FM all the same hits. I hate to say it, but even the college stations on the low end of the dial all pretty much follow the same formula. (At least there, DJs actually open their mouths every now and then, and acknowledge what's going on around town.)

So it came as a real jolt when we left the college towns of North Carolina and headed east to Tarboro in the more rural middle of the state to visit transplanted Buffalonian friends. Fiddling around with the radio dial on the way into town, I happened upon FM 107.9, an oldies station apparently out of Goldsboro, NC.

From almost the very first song, it was clear this was no generic oldies station; the selections were too obscure, the sound too idiosyncratic. And when DJ Jerry Wayne (aka Big Daddy) announced we were listening to "Sundays on the Beach," I knew I'd hit pay dirt.

I said in my last entry that I have long associated North Carolina with No Depression and alt country. One of the other things I think about in terms of the Carolinas is that strange phenomenon known as "Beach Music." I've heard dribs and drabs of information about the genre over the years and never quite understood exactly what it was all about, even after picking up a fun little 99 cent compilation a year or two ago.

But after an hour or so with Big Daddy, and another couple with "Steve Hardy's Beach Party" on the way out of Tarboro, I think I've got the basic idea by now (and if I"m wrong, please, please correct or further enlighten me, because this has been one of the longest lasting musical mysteries of my life). Compared to other regional genres I can think of (polka and cajun come to mind), this one is pretty eclectic, embracing a lot of R&B and soul, a little blues, a little country, even a little disco. Most of the acts are names I don't know, other than the Chairmen of the Board (whose mid70s greatest hits album in my collection is fantastic). In the mainstream oldies universe, these guys are mainly known for "Gimme Just a Little More Time" (a sentiment that hits deep for a master procrastinator such as I)--but on the beach music planet, they're superstars. I got to hear two of their beach classics, "Gone Fishin'" and "Bless Your Heart," and several more references to them throughout the evening. I wish I'd caught the name of and artist behind the extremely catchy novelty song with nonsense lyrics that is evidently a more recent smash, but I missed it. I did make out the title "I Ain't Drunk, I've Just Been Drinkin'," but the smutty country song by that name on iTunes doesn't sound like the bluesier one I heard on 107.9.

Guess my biggest misconception was that beach music mainly dates from the sixties and is thus a dead genre. Untrue: judging from the DJs' patter, there seem to be a mighty large number of bands cranking it out nowadays (after a lull sometime in the eighties or so). And I can't overstress how broad the aesthetic is; at one point I heard some obscure disco-era BeeGees song, and the "Blues Groove Salute" of the night was Van Morrison's "Goin' Down Geneva," of all things.

Do I need to point out just how bizarre it is to hear a Van deep cut (or anything of his recorded after "Brown Eyed Girl," for that matter) on a commercial station? And this was a completely mainstream, right-end-of-the-dial station, not some college station (which is where most cajun and polka music seems to reside nowadays, even in their native lands). Between every song the DJ plugged somebody's farm supply store or local business, along with lots of barbecue talk--the kind of downhome chitchat that used to be the lifeblood of AM in my misbegotten youth. It annoyed me then, but as Joni says, you don't know what you got till it's gone. Give me a motormouth DJ with some personality and an accent over mass-produced commercials (or Howard/Rush/etc) any day.

In a trip paved with interchangeable shopping plazas, this side journey into a parallel universe was the one sign that regional differences still exist, that crossing a state line still means something. (Well, there's Christian Exodus, but let's not go there. Literally.)

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