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Sangamon Valley Roots Revival
Robbie Fulks on the passing of midwest roots rock legend Lou Whitney of Springfield, Mo's The Skeletons, The Morrells and many others.
By Robbie on October 7, 2014
Dave Hoekstra's and Mark Guarino's obituaries are good starting places if you're unfamiliar with Springfield, Missouri's tall man of the bass guitar and recording console. However, it's inevitably a violation of tone to write a somberly respectful past-tense summation of a man who was so gregariously present-tense, so attuned to comic absurdity, so at odds with social pretense of any kind. Lou's wish not to be memorialized, expressed in the midst of his yearlong bout with cancer, was an example of his distaste for pomp. His positive influence on so many of us, through the force of his charming personality and his recording skills, as well as the fact that he's now dead and we're still here, are good reasons for dishonoring his wish. The list of terrific, unfussily presented, skillfully played, cosmically hip and rocking records that came out of his studio down in Springfield includes projects by Boxcar Willie, Syd Straw, Jonathan Richman, Bill Dees, Scott Kempner, Rudy Grayzell, Big Smith, Wilco, Eric Ambel, Mary McBride, Dallas Wayne, myself, and his own uniquely excellent band the Skeletons, a latter-day incarnation of an older uniquely excellent band, the Morells. I hope some of these guys can get together soon and make some music in Lou's memory.
Here in full is what I sent Mark Guarino, some of which was quoted in his Sun-Times piece today:
Lou was a killer, near-side-of-the-beat bassist, and, after the death of Jack Clement, was the last of the deeply funny recording engineer/philosophers of the Old World. His intelligence sparked and guided no fewer than three great American bands: the Symptoms, the Morells, and the Skeletons. He had a vast repertoire of funny, folksy-yet-slightly-surreal sayings: "I'm 52, but I read at a 54 level." Or: "I'm 52. I would have been 53 but I was sick a year." His being older than most of those who he played with and recorded, yet younger in spirit, gave him a sort of indomitability. He walked and worked and thought like a man in his 20s, almost to the end. I approached him to help me record some songs in 1995, and I never felt more instantly comfortable with any of my music heroes. During many recording sessions that followed, at his studio in Springfield, he kept me laughing and relaxed while working intensely late into the night. Nothing seemed to faze him, sickness or misfortune or possibly death itself. When I heard from Syd Straw last April that he was ill I sent him an email, and he replied: "Yup, I'm fighting the big fight. Americana vs. roots rock."
About his way of walking -- oddly, one of my most vivid memories of him -- I remember following behind Lou down the sidewalk with Dan Massey, who drummed for me in the Nineties, all of us strolling down Springfield's Main Street. "Look at the way he walks!" Dan urged. It was like a cocky athlete, or a celebrity too new to fame to have butted into its downside, or the "pimp roll" of young urban criminals described by Tom Wolfe in Bonfire of the Vanities. But Lou was more the opposite of any of these types -- a middle-aged, bald, intellectual (much as he would have disdained the word, he engaged joyfully and dextrously with ideas, and valued verbal wit above almost anything else), pot-smoking music nerd. (Still, he was in prime physical shape.) I remember trying to keep up with him on Lincoln Avenue, in 2003 when he kindly came to Chicago for my 40th birthday. Likewise, I remember his rangy, swivelling movements on stage, in Skeleton shows at the Elbo Room in the summer of 1991, at Lounge Ax with Jonathan Richman in...I think it was early that same year, because Lou announced "Incoming Scuds!" as the band stormed the stage and struck the first chord...
Lou was a strong champion of American ordinariness. Cheeseburgers, neat cars, wives in pants, honorable local merchants selling things you can touch with your hands, unionized labor, 4/4 time and blues-based changes, root for the underdog, nobody's better than anybody else. Music for dancing. Words for arguing, words for breaking everyone's self-seriousness. Sometimes he would regurgitate words that silly people used as status markers: "Check out my Lexus!" he'd announce over a break in a blues instrumental. Once I brought in a bouzouki to use on a track, and he couldn't stop mocking me for days on end, as though it was the equivalent of a Prada suit. "Oh, what is that marvelous sound on your track -- a bouzouki?" he'd say. Or, "Where is that mandol -- oh! I'm sorry -- I meant to say -- Bouzouki." "Lou," I protested, "it's not a snobbish fiction, it's a valid instrument." "Yes, of course," he'd agree. "I'd never stoop to ridicule anyone's...bouzouki."
And if you went into a thoughtful discourse on what goals you were striving for in your final mix, as I made the error of doing in 1997, working with him on South Mouth, he'd sigh and respond, in a patient professorial manner: "Here at the Studio, we have a saying. Mixing is a factor." Seventeen years of mix sessions later, I think the best lessons you can extrapolate from that statement -- that mixing is a subordinate art form, that a mix may sharpen or improve but not redeem a performance, that it's unwise to have too dogmatic or exact a mental picture of a mix at its outset, that singers lacking studio experience should sit at mixdown and observe quietly more than they should expound and direct -- are valuable and true.
Lou introduced me to Tom Brumley in 1995. Of course I knew Tom had played on Jonathan Goes Country and that he lived in Branson nearby, and I asked Lou to recommend a pedal steel guy for some tracks, hoping he'd say the thing he did say. "When it comes to pedal steel, there's one guy. Tom Brumley. Then there's nobody. Then there's every other pedal steel player. Do you want me to see if Tom's available?" I was over the moon. In all, we worked with Tom on three separate occasions, and the sessions all ended the same way. We sat in Lou's lobby, and let Tom talk to us. Which he did, for close to an hour. When he left, we'd talk quietly, Lou and I, about the fact that Tom Brumley had just sat in the room talking to us. No degree of personal acquaintance and no passing of years could dim the luster, it was always like Babe Ruth and the sick kid. Lou would begin to reminisce about Buck Owens shows he'd seen in the 1960s in Arizona, and he'd get misty. "That band had a formula they never deviated from. Shuffle, straight-8 rocker, ballad. It was a formula, and it worked." Bands that transmitted uncomplicated happiness and made the dancing happen, acts like the Buckaroos and Bo Diddley and Bill Deal & the Rhondels, were sacred to Lou, and bands like Led Zeppelin or Radiohead, bands with messages to deliver and mixes to obsess over, I don't think he could have cared any less about. He was passionate about a gamut that ran from the ordinary to the transcendental ordinary. If your music included Greek folk instruments or your lyrics referred to Herman Hesse, he was out.
In 1982, Rolling Stone, then the most powerful print tastemaker in the popular music world, led its record review section with a 4-star review of Shake and Push by the Morells. It sent me straight to the record store, and thereby introduced me to Lou's idealized midwestern planet of drive-ins and girlfriends and surf instrumentals and equal-opportunity mockery of both hillbillies and the urban haute bourgeoisie. I was hooked! As immune as Lou was to smart-set approval, I believe the review and the success that followed were a high watermark in Lou's life. Lou and the band went national at this point, and people who were at the Morells shows of that era (sadly, not me) still speak in awe of the wild rightness of the quartet. Music writers compare the Morells to NRBQ with boring frequency; the stock descriptions of NRBQ ("best bar band in the world") that omit to mention that band's avant-garde passions and 1950s black jazz inputs are much more descriptive of the Morells than NRBQ.
From this time forward, Lou was a made man, the sage of Springfield, the grand old man of no-frills roots-rock recording. ("A bucketful of E notes," he hilariously said to me of one record he produced.) All of us in America and beyond who loved the tradition that went from Chuck Berry (to take a sort-of-random starting point) onto to Arthur Alexander, Carole King, Otis Redding, the 'Q, John Sebastian, Bruce Springsteen, Joey Ramone, Tom Petty...you know, the guys who were good at putting catchy witty words about modern living in grungy old America to rocking R&B music forms ...all of us knew that Lou occupied a solid niche in that legacy, and that we could drive anytime to Springfield and get a good rate at the Best Western on Route 66 and make a nice affordable record with him at the helm, backed perhaps by the omnitalented Skeletons. This you could not do with the Beatles or Otis Redding. Lou stayed local. Springfield was in his blood. In L.A. the drive-ins and wives with pants were in some way conceptual; in Springfield, they were just a grim part of nature.
"Conceptual" was in fact anathema to Lou. When I was being treated roughly by my big corporate label, I called Lou to vent. (I often did.) "You have to explain to them that you're an act," he said, hotly. "Do they understand that, do you think? You're an act -- not a concept." A little later, when that record was released, my own Rolling Stone review was less than four-star. It was a disembowelment, ending with a stern sentence referring to the producer of my previous record: "Bring back Lou Whitney!" He called me the week it appeared. "I just want you to know," he said with great emotion, "that even in some hidden chamber of my heart, I do not take pleasure in this. It shriveled me, to read this. It took pride away from me, rather than giving it." Tears are springing to my eyes, writing what he said, these many years later. The whiskey, maybe. Finally, I was given my walking papers by the company, and once again found myself on the phone with Lou. "Do you realize," he said, "that in 20 years, you'll still be out there making music, while they --" the staff of Interscope, he meant -- "will have KFC franchises?"
Music is one more foul shithole of an industry, all in all, no better, no more ethical, and certainly no more glamorous than shoe repair, public accounting, or pornography. You are treated in precise accordance with your perceived value as an economic unit, and your past contributions are not esteemed. I didn't mean to end my appreciation of my friend's life on such a sour note, but that's where I leave him, standing against the foul tides there in his small shop on Main Street in Springfield, doing his best for band after band day after day for a modest rate, honoring the high performers in his field regardless of how their stock in the greater world might rise or fall, lifting your spirits on the phone.