BOB's article in CMA magazine "CloseUp: July 1999"
I’ve been broadcasting in the UK since 1970, firstly with BBC Radio 1, then with
BBC television as host of the weekly rock music show ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’
from 1972-1979. The programme featured interviews, films (we pre-dated video technology!),
concert footage, location reports (I visited America many times in the 70’s) and
live sessions, and introduced to Britain a range of artists which included Bonnie Raitt,
Jackson Browne, Little Feat, Steely Dan, the Doobie Bros. and the Eagles.
I launched the Radio 1 24-hour service in 1991, broadcasting the Midnight to Morning
show nationally for three and a half years, playing the music I loved and hosting sessions
and interviews with such as Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin, Marc Cohn and Suzy Bogguss.
Now here I am, with the Sony UK station of the year BBC Radio 2, broadcasting my Saturday night
show and additionally now presenting ‘Bob Harris Country’, having taken over in
April this year from acknowledged expert and all-round good man David Allan.
So, I’ve been broadcasting for the best part of thirty years, enjoying every minute of it
and thanking my lucky stars that I do the job I do. And still it gets better. As we
move towards the year 2000, we take with us into the next millennium a new generation of
musicians, creating as diverse and exciting a range of music as I can remember. It’s
happening inside and outside of mainstream.
In the sheer attitude and force of some of the younger bands, in the promise of such as Gomez
and Sunhouse, in the cross-cultural cohesion of Cornershop and Afro Celt Sound System,
in the extraordinary synthesis of Trance and Folk and the massive impact of Celtic music,
Britain continues to be a melting pot of contemporary innovation and international class.
In America, a wonderful new wave of Modern Rock bands have broken through, with Matchbox 20,
Semisonic, the New Radicals and Days Of The New among those most radio friendly. The Blues
is alive and well in the playing of exciting young guitarists like Kenny Wayne Shepherd,
Mike Welch and Jonny Lang and given expression and respect by acoustic performers such as
Eric Bibb, Kelly Joe Phelps and Keb’ Mo’.
Peter Gabriel, Ry Cooder, David Byrne and others have harnessed the power of World music
and through their work have contributed to our knowledge of style and culture from the four
corners of the Globe.
Yet, despite the quality of the coat of many colours above described, I discover that
it’s Country, in it’s widest sense, that’s truly the most relevant, and
potent musical force today. Relevant, because it remains the music of the people. Singers
sing songs about peoples lives. Potent because of the huge amount of innovation taking place
on the fringes, in a plethora of modern and traditional styles.
The song remain central to the strength of the music. But the methods of delivery are changing
now at an ever increasing pace, be it through experimentation with musical expression and
recording methods in the studio, or through new ways to market the finished CD introduced
by the Internet.
Many artists are now adopting a D.I.Y. (do it yourself) approach, funding their own recordings,
pressing up the CD’s and tapes and selling them at gigs and/or on their own web-sites,
with whatever money generated re-invested in future development. Someone was telling me that
at one of the forums at SXSW, a guy was talking about having made and released his own album
just over six months ago and selling 22,000 copies so far. That’s a substantial number.
It shows that it’s possible to by-pass the majors, right up to E-Squared level and an
increasing number of artists are doing things this way. Not that anyone makes huge amounts of
money taking this route, but what you do get is artistic freedom and a living. A chance to
make the music you love, in the way that you want to. If that’s what you want and can
do without a limo…way to go!
It’s all seems to help create an atmosphere that brings out the best creativity.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings home-recording their songs all-live, one take. Ray Benson
putting the finishing touches to the new Bob Wills Tribute album at the Asleep At The Wheel
studio in Austin, with contributions from Reba McEntire and the Squirrel Nut Zippers, who
along with The Hot Club Of Cowtown have given Western Swing a new vitality. The Emmylou
Harris-guided Gram Parsons tribute album, ready this summer, with stunning interpretations
of his songs by Beck, Sheryl Crow and the Cowboy Junkies. (Her second collaboration with
Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt for ‘Trio 2’ is also an absolute triumph).
Steve Earle’s fabulous work, not only in the natural authenticity and charm of the
Earle/McCoury Band ‘The Mountain’ album, but in the marvellous family he and
co-producer Ray Kennedy have assembled in and around their Room and Board studio in Nashville.
They care, and it shows…in the organic quality of albums by such as Cheri Knight,
V-Roys, and Bap Kennedy. Uncle Tupelo were the font that gave us the Jayhawks, Son Volt…
and from there onto Golden Smog. Whiskeytown have been described as the Nirvana of Country
and contain the extraordinary talent of David Ryan Adams. Shania Twain, Sara Evans, Mindy
McCreadie, Martina McBride, Reba, Nanci Griffith, the Dixie Chicks and many others continue
to demonstrate the extraordinary personal strength and resilience of women in Country,
while the club circuit entertains the like of Robert Earl Keen, Greg Trooper, Joe Ely and
my own favourite new band, Reckless Kelly.
Not bad is it. And that’s without including Willie Nelson’s iconic performance
on the 25th anniversary Austin City Limits TV Show and the bravery of his ‘Teatro’
release, listing a plethora of promising new fringe bands, or properly acknowledging the
continuing massive impact of the Nashville production line.
I’m almost surprised that at the age of 53, (‘veteran DJ’ is the way I’m
usually described in the UK!), I’m so driven by the new music I hear. But, nearly 30 years
after I first introduced records on-air, I’m more excited now than ever by what I’m
hearing. And, without ever forgetting it’s traditions, Country music is the cutting