Sunday, June 26, 2005
The Perfect Record, Part One
So it was sometime in 1988, and my wife and I went to stay at her parent's house while they were out of town. While looking for something, I came across a rusty 78 holder/carrier. I would have been intrigued by a box full of records under any circumstances, but given that my in-laws had never given me the slightest impression that they had any particular strong musical tastes, I was particularly interested.
My interest both grew and diminished when my wife mentioned that her parents had been into square dancing in their younger years, and that her father had been a caller. More interested, because this image in no way fit what I knew of them, but less interested because I'd heard a LOT of square dance records over the years, and had yet to be interested in any of them.
What I wasn't counting on was the quality of the square dance records made in the 1940's. First, there was no "version with calls" on one side, and "version without calls" on the other. And second, there were real, greatly talented musicians on several of these records, playing a whole bunch of emotion-filled numbers, without a pedal steel guitar or picked fender bass in earshot.
NO - these folks were playing their hearts out, on fiddle, double bass, acoustic guitar and piano, just as if they were backing up some backwoods country and western star on the next hit record.
There were half a dozen records in that box which might eventually make an appearance here, but the standout, not only of that batch of records, but among my favorites among all the records I heard for the first time that year, was "Spanish Cavalier" by an outfit called "Harley Luse and the Blue Ridge Mountain Boys.
Have a listen, or a download: it's at the "Bashleo" site linked to the left.
I suppose someone could listen to this record and say "well, they're just playing the same durn thing over and over again", and in a way, they are. But it's so much more than that. For one thing, there are subtle differences between the choruses, like the way the pianist plays a descending figure to lead into the first chord change of the chorus at the 1:24 mark, the fact that the second chord (as played on the piano) is usually A minor but sometimes is C major, and the way the bass player suddenly starts playing more of a walking bassline near the end of the piece.
I also love the very presence of the pianist, sort of unusual in this style of music, doubling the melody, and I particularly like the varying styles with which the violinist plays during the song, leading to a different feel for each verse. Even the pianist's little stumbles at a couple of points (such as at the 0:58 mark) endear this record to me (as certain friends of mine are aware, this sort of little imperfection often endears records to me....).
So who was Harley Luse? I'd have to assume, based on his records, that he was the violinist on these records. A websearch turns up a couple of references to someone by that name, reporting him variously to be a drummer, an accordianist and an actor, as well as a few mentions of this group, with no specification beyond what I already know. I've managed to find a handful more records by Mr. Luse, including a killer find of five of his records all at once in a box of square dance records. That particular batch of records were promptly broken, before I had a chance to hear them, when one of my then-toddlers put down something large, knocking something else into those five records. I've yet to find any more Harley Luse records.
There is no one "perfect" record. My life is, among other things, a search for the next in a series of "perfect" records. Clearly this is one of them. "How about those piano mistakes?", I hear someone asking. Well, perfection in performance has little, if anything to do with the perfect record, otherwise my search would end with such things as Mariah Carey and Yes albums, none of which reside in my house.
A perfect record, to me, expresses a mood, captures an emotion, and maybe even tells the listener something about the performers, even when it has no words. I can listen to "Spanish Cavalier" by Harley and the boys a dozen times in a row without stopping, and have a pretty clear idea what it must have felt like to be in that room, playing or listening to this music, the sort of place where the people who invented this music lived and maybe even the sort of lives people in that area lived.
Surely, I recognize that I could be wrong, but the beauty of this record is partly in that it convinces me so completely that I do know all those things, and when a record has that effect on me, it might be around that moment that I start thinking that I've found another "perfect" record.