Nowhere Town is meant to conjure a place in time. It's a place borne of American pop culture archetypes as well as my own fanciful notions of bygone small town life and boundless Western horizons.
The collection is comprised of country and rock 'n' roll 45s from the '50s and '60s, along with a set of guitar-driven instrumentals from the same period. Generally regarded as relatable, gutsy musics, the representatives at Nowhere Town were instead selected for a great intangible: atmosphere. Images and tropes swirl about indiscriminately. A darkly romantic impression of American landscapes and characters is summoned, a vision of deserts and empty borderlands, windswept streets and neon signs, drifters and lost souls consumed by drink and violence, down-on-their-luck insomniacs and haunted lovers.
As with the Lonely Beat and the Exotica Project, Nowhere Town is an entirely personal exercise in revisionist aggregation. There was no articulated name for this sound at mid-century. If it's a unified universe, it's also an artificial one. If the same motifs and phenomena keep popping up, it's because of how the sides are chosen and assembled. In the end, this is simply late-night music for imaginative listeners attuned to mood.
The overall scope of Nowhere Town's one hundred sides is narrower than the genre-spanning Exotica Project and Lonely Beat. The 45s can largely be divided into country and rock 'n' roll vocals, and instrumental rock 'n' roll. They're discussed separately below.
COUNTRY AND ROCK 'N' ROLL
With roots in Anglo-Southern songs and dances (and not inconsiderable influence from co-existing African-American music), country is ostensibly the musical currency of the white South's working and agrarian populations. The country selections were typically recorded by musicians grounded in its generational and regional traditions, and aware of its stylistic trends. They played a loose circuit of halls, honky-tonks, fairs and dances, and made occasional local radio and television appearances.
The subject matter of the country and rock 'n' roll here differs from that of the instrumentals. Overwhelmingly motivated by soured romance and unrequited love, various love-gone-wrong and love-gone-nowhere scenarios prevail. Heartbreak and longing, bad decisions and obsession, infidelity and jealousy and heartache and depression are well-represented.
Rock 'n' roll is country's stepchild, and it is clearly different than its more austere parent, despite oft-similar subject matter. It had its own sound and attitude, and the backgrounds and pedigrees of its musicians differed, as did their ordeals in their nascent teen market.
But it's Nowhere Town's composite atmosphere that's of most interest, and so the handful of rock 'n' roll singers are discussed alongside the country artists, as their effects upon the listener are similar. Sometimes it's an intoxicatingly slow tempo, sometimes it's mournful vocals and steel and slide guitar, sometimes it's a bath of echo and reverb. The sound of this collection's country and rock 'n' roll vocals is uniformly high and lonesome, the melancholic spirit palpable.
Postwar American music's riches included various hopped-up rockers, mainstream Nashville vocals, teen heartbreakers, hillbilly boogies and honky-tonk laments. While there were commercially successful, uniquely moody exercises among these - Patsy Cline's "Walking After Midnight," Elvis Presley's "Blue Moon," Red Foley's "Midnight," Jody Reynolds's "Endless Sleep," Sanford Clark's "The Fool," Lefty Frizzell's "Long Black Veil," Ricky Nelson's "Lonesome Town," etc. - the vocals featured here are essentially isolated examples of their respective forms. Without obvious commercial lineage, they sprang into existence independently of each other.
INSTRUMENTAL ROCK 'N' ROLL
Instrumentals helped sustain a young rock 'n' roll in the interstices of its '50s blossom and the ensuing '60s British Invasion and rock decades, with artists like Johnny & the Hurricanes, Link Wray, the Champs and Duane Eddy filling the teen idol years with vital, electric music.
While the West still excited the American psyche in Space Age America, the commercial demand for cowboy songs like "Cool Water," "I'm an Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande)" and "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" had generally subsided, despite a limited strain of '50s country hits like "El Paso" and "Don't Take Your Guns to Town." In fact, it was instrumental rock 'n' roll that remained most attuned to the spirit of "Ghost Riders in the Sky," "Red River Valley" and the pop-poetic West forever percolating in the national consciousness.
The impact of melodic and occasionally Western-themed or Latin-tinged instrumental hits like Jörgen Ingmann's "Apache," the Fireballs' "Vaquero," Duane Eddy's "40 Miles of Bad Road," the Ramrods' "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky" and Santo & Johnny's "Sleep Walk" is especially appreciable here. Recurring musical devices - compelling riffs and arrangements, guitars driven through tremolo and wide-open echo chambers, crashing drums, sound effects, the nominally Mexican rattle of maracas - mold each recording's sense of geography and mood.
(This serendipitous intersection of amplification and the West would shortly be formalized by Italian composers of Spaghetti Western soundtracks. Opuses like Ennio Morricone's The Good the Bad and The Ugly and Luis Bacalov's Django invoked the same lean guitar riffs and dramatic color of the instrumentals posted at Nowhere Town, and further solidified the pop West's basic musical contours.)
The listening experience changes from vocal to instrumental side, but, cumulatively, this collection is intended to be cohesive and complementary. Taken together, it transmits from some almost-there place, a pastiche of dimlit dives and edge-of-town dramas, endless two-lanes and the sun-baked distances beyond.
Perhaps the most apt metaphor is a cinematographic one, the instrumentals engendering specific backdrops and scenery and the singers as actors there, projecting the same small-town lovers and wayward souls of their songs. Indeed, pop culture tropes pervade Nowhere Town, not the least of which are the motifs and ambience of movie Westerns. Among innumerable others, Yellow Sky, The Shooting, Hud and Johnny Guitar are aesthetic points of reference. So is the Western noir of Touch of Evil and Border Incident and latter-day drama classics like Last Picture Show and Paris, Texas. Even still photographs serve as a guide here, especially everyday scenes shot by photographers like Stephen Shore, Peter Brown and William Eggleston.
Like the Exotica Project and the Lonely Beat, an index of motifs, themes, instruments and effects steers the organization of the selections. In the end, the index is a mechanical reduction - basically just a satisfying exercise in fitting music to a classification system. Still, some noticeable trends emerge.
Love's loneliness, jealousy, obsessive longing and existential despair pervade the country and rock 'n' roll vocals, but, unlike the visually specific instrumentals, these are subjects whose abstraction doesn't immediately lend itself to tidy indexing. Nonetheless, romantic travails here have certain recurring physical materializations and by-products - murder, smoking, drinking, walking, insomnia, suicide, jail - and they're indexed accordingly.
The prominence of slide and pedal steel guitar as well as reverb and echo merits separate categories on the index. In the right hands, and through some magical virtue of their constitution, such instruments and effects heighten a haunting mood and the illusion of three dimensions.
As noted above, phenomena related to the geography, weather, wildlife and culture of America's Southwest are also prevalent, especially amongst the instrumentals. The region's valleys and ranges, vast horizons and moonlit plateaus, ghost towns and cemeteries and trains all figure. Again, this is the austere West of romance rather than reality, and lots of desultory images and motifs get swept up in the fantasia.
Finally, the Mexican and Native American cultures synonymous with the Southwest are each referenced at Nowhere Town, and they merit a few remarks. The vague south-of-the-border tinge of instrumental chart successes like the Fireballs' "Vaquero" or Duane Eddy's "Pepe" is well-represented, as is the spirit of innumerable sentimental country versions of "El Rancho Grande," "My Adobe Hacienda" and "Mexicali Rose." This is another manifestation of exotica's colorful spectrum, and tracks like "Mexican Rock," "Bracero" and "Blue Moon Baby" evoke a Mexican culture that is based more in approximation than it is in the music traditions of the Southwestern borderlands.
American Indian motifs also flicker sporadically throughout. Pop culture has long mirrored society's common mischaracterizations and shameful stereotypes, the indigenous peoples variously as scalp-hungry savages, romantic maidens or preternaturally spiritual elders. I can't abide the hey-ya-ya-ya chants, war whoops and novelty accents occasionally heard in rock 'n' roll and country music. Still, a record that eschews the more onerous cliches while effectively summoning an atmospheric vision of Native America will warrant inclusion, even if it's uninhibited by matters of historical accuracy.
Country's plainspoken reputation isn't inaccurate. Neither is the libidinous excitement of early rock 'n' roll. However, part of their appeal to a sympathetic listener is that, regardless of actual provenance, the right country or rock 'n' roll recording can be a sort of shorthand for a fictional world, eliciting the general conformation and rhythms of its local landmarks, storefronts, spaces and gathering spots, and creating miniatures of the intimate dramas and everybody-knows-everybody personalities there.
Guitar instrumentals, too, are nothing if not direct. In their own modest way, they can also be uniquely impressionistic, manipulating sound to paint vivid tableaux of place, drama and mood, with titles like "Dark Valley," "Other Side of the Moon," "Phantom Freight" and "Angry Desert" further reifying spaces and forms.
Ultimately it's a record's sound and atmosphere that's most crucial to its inclusion in this collection. But much also depends on both the context in which the music is heard and the listener's own imaginative capacity. In other words, it's helpful if you buy into the displaced nostalgia embodied in this collection.
Popular myths of the American West have been around since at least the 19th century. The idealization of the rustic, simple life of a bygone, quirkier small town America is a more recent phenomenon, its currency seemingly in inverse proportion to widening social disparities and cultural atomization. Pointing out the existence of this modern nostalgia or its myth-making mechanisms is not pointing out anything particularly new, however.
In the end, Nowhere Town says more about the music featured. If there's some fresh observation to be drawn, it's that, even if it's inadvertent, a country or rock 'n' roll 45 imbued with some ineffable combination of sound, production values, composition and arrangement can be wholly otherworldly. Country and rock 'n' roll deserve far more credit as ambient, visual music.
:: Dan Shiman / Little Danny :: Office Naps :: 2010-2023 ::