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Frizzi: An American music lesson

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A few nights ago, Heddy (wife) and I got to see Crosby Stills and Nash in concert at Peoria's Civic Theater. They were in good voice and played almost four hours. Newer songs mixed well with the old classics. We were smiling, happy, heading out the door when I heard somebody say:

"I sure wish Neil Young was with them!"

We're told we're not supposed to have regrets in life. No Regrets! You see it on tattoos and in commercials for cell phones, power drinks and extreme body sprays.

But I do have a regret. Just one. I turned down a free ticket to see Neil Young in concert.

It gets worse.

Neil Young is a classic rocker. In 1966, he and Stephen Stills formed the band, Buffalo Springfield. Three years later, Young joined Stills' new group that was formed with Graham Nash of The Hollies and Crosby's band with Roger McGuinn, The Byrds. Young also recorded with the band, Crazy Horse, which included the hits "Cinnamon Girl" and "Down By The River." With CSN&Y, Young wrote and performed the controversial anti-war song, "Ohio."

In the fall of 1985 I was living in Terre Haute, Ind. I had graduated from Indiana State University right at the time the recession hit. I was lucky to be working full-time with benefits. I worked with a guy called "TMcD." He was a good natured guy, thin, wore a mullet, loved to play basketball like most Hoosiers and had pretty good taste in music. His favorite music was country.

The fall of 1985 in Terre Haute was like living in 1976, when music went south along with culture and good taste. The fashion was to dress like either cowboys or lumberjacks. In central Indiana, there were very few real cowboys and lumberjacks. I went through my cowboy phase when I was 5, with a cap gun and rocking horse. I wasn't a good old boy. I didn't wave the "stars and bars." I did not want to listen to their music.

No Waylon. No Willie. No Charlie Daniels. No Conway Twitty, No Tammy Wynette, No Crystal Gayle, No Mandrell Sisters. No .38 Special. No Lynyrd Skynyrd. No Alabama. No outlaw rock. No country radio. No truck drivin' CB Radio big rig tunes. I'd have none of it. The music made my brown eyes bleed.

To me, good music died in 1975. Even the great ones fell. The Rolling Stones music had a disco beat Mick could dance to with Bowie. Paul McCartney was playing silly love songs. Elton John and Eric Clapton had fallen into light rock limbo. Peter Gabriel left Genesis. The soul music of Mavis Staples became the disco music of Donna Summer.

Music at that time was as ugly as the polyester leisure suit, the orange recliner and the Ford Pinto. I thought Foreigner and Journey sounded like the same band. I wasn't a bang-your-head metal boy although I did listen to Scorpion and Motorhead. And I had enough of that funky stuff.

So, when my friends and I got together, TMcD included, out came the standards like Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd and Bob Seger. Sometimes, we'd even diversify. Someone would bring over Spirit or Ten Years After. Someone else would play Gentle Giant or Yes. Another would bring over Peter Tosh or Black Uhuru, if we were in a reggae mood.

Oddly enough, nobody in Terre Haute liked Bruce Springsteen then. This was before he "played to the masses" with his 1984 album, "Born In The USA." I even had a college pal whose roommate was from New Jersey. He said, and I quote, "They don't even like Springsteen in Jersey."

My hand to the heavens, he said that. If Chris Christie heard that, he wouldn't be allowed over the bridge!

Everyone had their sub genres. I liked punk rock. TMcD loved classic country music and country rock and he would try to get me to listen to it.

"Just get past the twang and really listen to the music" he'd say. "Listen to the words!"

I tried. But when I did I'd see nothing but hillbillies, clodhoppers and rednecks. I'd have visions of "Smokey and the Bandit," "Urban Cowboy" and "The Dukes of Hazard" dancing in my brain. I simply couldn't separate the wheat from the chaff.

Maybe it was because of country overload. It was everywhere. The fad took over radio, TV and movies. There were too many good ol' boys with their women wearing straw cowboy hats with pink feathers riding around in pick-up trucks.

It was like the bar scene in The Blues Brothers, where the joint had "both kinds of music, country AND western!"

There was a time I did like some cowboy music. When I was a kid, I liked Gene Autry. I watched The Porter Waggoner Show. Porter would come out and sing, his jacket festooned with sequined wagon wheels. Dolly Parton launched her career on the show. You couldn't not like Dolly! And there was this great silly cornpone comedian named Speck Rhodes.

I got my first taste of Hank Williams from the 1964 movie "Your Cheatin' Heart." It starred a pre-tanned George Hamilton lip-syncing to Hank's songs, which were sung by son Hank Williams, Jr.

I was glued to The Johnny Cash Show, which had Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger as guests. I loved Pete Drake's steel guitar that Dylan used on "Lay Lady Lay" and "Tonight, I'll Be Staying Here With You." Both songs were on Dylan's album "Nashville Skyline," which featured Johnny Cash with Charlie Daniels on bass.

I'd watch "Hee Haw" to see Roy Clark play guitar. Buck Owens sang his signature song "Act Naturally," which The Beatles covered. And there was only one Minnie Pearl. For that matter, there was only one Junior Samples!

There was The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour where he played Jimmy Webb classics like "Galveston" and "Wichita Lineman." Glen could pick a guitar as well.

TMcD had heard of this outdoor concert benefit for farmers in Champaign, Ill., and did I want to go? I immediately told him no. I couldn't sit outside and listen to country music all day. Because, what else would farmers listen to?

But TMcD was insistent. "Listen, if I BUY your ticket, will you go?"

I still said no.

I couldn't even look past the fact it was a benefit for struggling farmers.

It was official; I had become a music snob. And I was too stupid to know it.

In the meantime, I had another friend who lived in Evansville, Ind. He also was a huge music fan. He had a room with nothing but album racks (like the ones you'd see in record stores) chock-full of discs. Some of our pals were getting together and did I want to go? I said sure! It was the same weekend as the outdoor concert and I hadn't seen many of those folks in a while.

The Wednesday before, TMcD came up to me and handed me a ticket. "I have an extra ticket. It's free. It's yours if you want it."

I told him I had made other plans.

It is almost 30 years since this happened and I am still kicking myself for my prejudice and stupidity. Because, as you may have already guessed, the event TcMcD so graciously and generously invited me to was the very first Farm-Aid.

Here's who I missed seeing (in alphabetical order):

Alabama, Hoyt Axton, The Beach Boys, The Blasters, Bon Jovi, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, David Allen Coe, John Conlee, The Charlie Daniels Band, John Denver, Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, Foreigner, Vince Gill, Arlo Guthrie, Sammy Hagar, Merle Haggard, Daryl Hall, Emmylou Harris, Don Henley, Waylon Jennings, Billy Joel, Randy Newman, George Jones, Rickie Lee Jones, B.B. King, Carole King, Kris Kristofferson, Huey Lewis, Loretta Lynn, John Mellencamp, Roger Miller, Joni Mitchell, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Charley Pride, Bonnie Raitt, Lou Reed, Kenny Rogers, Brian Setzer, Sissy Spacek, Tanya Tucker, Eddie Van Halen, Debra Winger, Neil Young, Dave Milsap, Joe Ely, Judy Rodman, X.

I should say here's who I missed seeing in person. I spent the whole weekend in Evansville with my friends watching the concert on TV.

I told my friend I turned town a free ticket to Farm-Aid. His eyebrows raised for just a moment. Then he squinted, laughed and said: "You, sir, are an idiot!"

I couldn't disagree.

TMcD came by my house when he got back to town. "I have something for you," he said. It was a Farm-Aid T-Shirt with all the acts I missed. I still have it.

Some of these acts I made a point to see later on. Some, such as Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Lou Reed and George Jones, I will never see.

Excuse me while I kick myself again.

From there on, I took TMcD's advice. I started to listen to country music and realized good music is good music. I started listening to the old masters like Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Faron Young. I fell in love with Cline. A friend's father played her songs all the time and we didn't appreciate what we were listening to. I learned Willie Nelson wrote Cline's best known song, "Crazy." So, I started listening to Willie Nelson with a passion. Willie got me interested in Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt.

Later, I moved to Dallas. I'd heard about Willie's Fourth of July concerts, which were in a tiny rural town called Carl's Corner. This town of 173 was founded by Willie's friend, Carl Cornelius. It's not much more than Carl's truck stop. Wanting to sell liquor in a dry area, Carl had his truck stop incorporated into a town.

This concert I went to. And it did not disappoint. I made my way to the front row and stayed there. My favorite memory was Roger Miller singing "King Of The Road" and "Dang Me."

When Willie came to Peoria with Bob Dylan in 2004 to play outdoors at O'Brien Field (now Dozer Park), I took Heddy (wife). She's not a big C&W gal but likes Willie. We'd already seen Dylan but she had never seen Nelson. Besides, when the "Red-Headed Stranger" comes to call in your town, you go see him.

Willie played in a thunderstorm. I remember after one particularly nasty lightning bolt got the crowd cheering, he looked out and worriedly asked, "Y'all doing alright out there?"

Heddy and I first danced to "Crazy" at a Terre Haute wedding. And that was the first song we danced to at our wedding, much to the amusement and astonishment of our guests.

What TMcD taught me about country music allowed me to appreciate other types. This includes polka. This includes avant-garde. This includes show tunes. This includes gospel. This includes rap, which has a bad reputation (or "bad rap" for those who like bad puns) mainly because some songs have violent lyrics. It wasn't "my baby done left me and my dog done died" like some country songs but again, you have to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Many rap songs have a positive message. Like TMcD said, "You've gotta listen to the words!"

I even grew to enjoy my parents' music. You know, the songs we kids used to think were "square!"

While in Texas, I taught myself to play guitar. Maybe play AT guitar is more accurate. I can strum, but my fingers are too small, chubby and clunky. But when I watched Dallasites like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Miller and Stephen Stills play, I could understand what they're doing. One way I learned open guitar chords was by buying a book of Dan Fogelberg songs. I wasn't necessarily a fan of his but he wrote some good songs. Apparently, he had listened to his music teacher.

A good song is a good song is a good song, no matter what so-called genre experts try to pigeon-hole it in. Even if it's not a good song, there's always something like a good keyboard run or good guitar lick you can take away from it. Thanks to the Internet, I'm catching up on all aspects of the magic we call music.

You could use this as a metaphor for politics. Maybe you don't like the twang or the beat. Maybe you don't like the words. Maybe you don't like the singer. But if you listen closely and objectively, maybe there is something in the "song" that you can appreciate and maybe agree with it.

Leaving the Civic Center, Heddy and I walked past CS&N's buses. Outside were fans with albums waiting for autographs. "I think they're already in the bus," said Heddy. "You're probably right," I replied. But if they weren't, I would've liked to have waited for them. I would've liked to have been able to ask them if, the next time they see Neil Young, if they could please talk him into playing in Peoria.

After all, I've been waiting 30 years.

Which I wouldn't have had to do if I had just listened to TMcD's words.

About the Author
Donn Frizzi is a well-traveled man, if you consider Pennsylvania to southern Indiana to Texas and finally Peoria to be the definition of well traveled. But in each of his stops he gained certain insights that make him who he is — including a Pirates and Rangers fan who must travel to St. Louis to watch quality baseball without buying a plane ticket. Poetic justice, perhaps? A talented writer, Donn also can make a good point by putting pencil to paper and drawing with satirical splendor. We’re hoping to persuade him to grace our website with an occasional toon, as well.