‘West’

Today, finally, we go west, sorting through the digital shelves for four tracks that use the word “west” in their titles.

Sorting in the RealPlayer for the word, we get 613 tracks, but as I suspected, we have some winnowing to do. Numerous tracks have been labeled “West Coast” in the genre slot, and they fall by the wayside, Jackson Browne’s For Everyman, the City’s Now That Everything’s Been Said, and Walter Eagan’s Not Shy among them. Anything titled or tagged as having been recorded at the Fillmore West will be ignored, as will numerous blues joints that came out of West Helena, Arkansas (many of them by Howlin’ Wolf).

Most of Alfred Newman’s soundtrack to the 1962 movie How The West Was Won is lost, as are Ray Charles’ two volumes from 1962 of Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music. The same holds for anything by Cashman & West (with and without Pistilli), and for a group called West, which gets double-docked for its 1968 self-titled album.

We also throw out the fight song from Western Illinois University, and numerous singles, starting with those on the Westbound and EastWest labels. Among the lost singles are “Linda’s Gone” by the West Coast Branch, “Fairchild” by Willie West, “Rave On” by Sonny West, “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)” by Tex Williams & His Western Caravan, “Tennessee Toddy” by Billy Gray & His Western Okies, “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While)” by Kim Weston, “500 Miles” by Hedy West, “Take What You Want” by West Point, and “The Ballad Of Paladin” by Johnny Western.

Still, we have enough to work with.

Trying to tap into the spirit of the music they’d made a decade earlier, the Allman Brothers Band offered “From The Madness Of The West” on its 1980 album Reach For The Sky. In its six-plus minutes, the jam gave the listener the expected: parallel guitar lines playing arching melodies, a percussion solo, modal progressions and a technically precise guitar solo. What it could not offer, of course, were those people and things the Allman Brothers Band lost along the way: the departed Duane Allman and Berry Oakley, the bypassed Jaimoe, and the ability to do things no other band could. “From The Madness Of The West” is decent listening but no more than that. If you let it roll by in the background without thinking about it, it’s pleasant music, but when you stop to think about the arc of the Allman Brothers Band, the track – and in fact all of Reach For The Sky – feels like the part in a novel where you pause and wonder if in fact there can be any revival.

In 1987, when the Grateful Dead released the album In The Dark and pulled from the album the single “Touch Of Grey,” I wonder if Jerry Garcia and the rest of the band were baffled by the result. The album went to No. 6 on the Billboard 200, and the single went to No. 9 on the Hot 100. The group had reached the Top 20 of the album chart a few times before – Blues For Allah had done the best, going to No. 12 in 1975 – but never before had a Dead single hit the Top 40, much less the Top Ten. The group’s highest charting single before “Touch Of Grey” had been 1971’s “Truckin’,” which topped off at No. 64. As it happened, the Dead’s burst of popularity coincided with the rebirth of my interest in buying tunes, and In The Dark became the first Grateful Dead album on my shelves. And one of my favorite tracks from the album – “West L.A. Fadeaway” – qualifies for today’s exercise, bringing along a blues verse that more often than not makes me chuckle: “I met an old mistake walkin’ down the street today/I didn’t wanna be mean about it, but I didn’t have one good word to say.”

With a spare accompaniment – guitars and few strings – Nanci Griffith sings:

Wash away the tears
All the angry times we shared
All the feelings and the sorrows come and gone
We have let them slip away
Because I’m standing here today
And I’m smiling at your old West Texas sun

I remember times
When you’d weathered out my mind
But you always had a peaceful word to say
And you could always bring a smile
With the mischief in your eyes
Still, I’m glad the miles keep me separate from your games

You know you’re still as wild
As those old west Texas plains
Standing by the highway do you still call my name?
Lord, I can’t believe it’s been such a long, long time
Since I’ve seen that Texas boy smile

Well, I’ll be heading out of town
I may stop by next time around
Hell, it’s raining, but at least that’s something real
I came shackled down with fears
About our dreams and wasted years
And now I know exactly how to feel

Wash away the tears
All the angry times we shared
All the feelings and the sorrows come and gone
We have let them slip away
Because I’m standing here today
And I’m smiling at your old West Texas sun

The track is “West Texas Sun” from Griffith’s first album, the 1978 release There’s A Light Beyond These Woods. As one might expect for a first album, it’s a little tentative; the confident story-teller that I discovered in the early 1990s has yet to show up. (I think of “Love at the Five & Dime” from The Last of the True Believers in 1986 and “Trouble In The Fields” from Lone Star State Of Mind a year later, just to highlight two great songs that came along very soon.) But even early Griffith is worth a stop this morning.

And we close this morning with a recent version of a song that’s been around for nearly ninety years: “West End Blues.” Written by Clarence Williams and King Oliver and first recorded in 1928 by King Oliver & His Dixie Syncopators, “West End Blues” was one of the tunes that New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint selected for his 2009 album The Bright Mississippi. In his review of the album at AllMusic, Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote that “although straight-out jazz is uncommon in Toussaint’s work, this neither feels unfamiliar or like a stretch,” adding, “Upon the first listen, The Bright Mississippi merely seems like a joyous good time, but subsequent spins focus attention on just how rich and multi-layered this wonderful music is.” As I listened to the most recent cover of “West End Blues,” I noted that the digital shelves also hold a copy of one of the earliest covers of the song: A 1928 release by Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five.

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