It’s weird how some people don’t seem to particularly care about music. For every one of your friends who obsessively collects every release by their favorite band on vinyl, there’s another guy (or two, or three, or ten) who owns about 5 CDs that they never put on. I’m not making a value judgment here – these people can be brilliant, or funny, or wonderful humans, it’s just that, for whatever reason, they don’t seem to especially care about music.
I have precisely two memories about my grandparents and music. One was when I asked my grandfather what his favorite song was and he pulled the only record he seemed to own out of a side-table that up until then I hadn’t realized was actually a record player. It was the 1980 Joe Dolce novelty song “Shaddap You Face” (you know the one: “Whatsamatta you? / Whadda you got to say? / You got-a no respect. / Shaddap-a you face,” etc…). He put it on, he and my grandmother laughed uproariously, and I think it was the only time I’d ever heard in that house up until then.
The second time my grandfather ever talked to me about music (and I think this was again prompted by me), it was to rave about Zamfir, “The Master of the Pan Flute.” He put on the cassette (again, I think the only cassette he owned), we listened, and that was that – the last time I ever listened to music with my grandfather or heard him talk about music. I pretty much assumed he and my grandmother had no special feelings about music other than thinking Joe Dolce was funny and Zamfir was soothing.
On Christmas 2011 at my parents’ house, I was sitting around with my grandmother and my aunt and uncle and I decided to put on a mix of classic country music I had. We sat there and talked about this and that, with my grandmother mostly sitting there in silence. Suddenly, during a lag in the conversation, my grandmother piped up and said, “I really like this music! I’ve always loved country music.”
I was mildly shocked to hear my grandmother say this. A second-generation Italian immigrant, she’s about as far as you can get from Southern, and anyway she’s not the kind of enthusiastic person who gushes about “loving” anything (besides us, really). And I had, up until that point, never heard her say anything about music. But she went on for quite some time about how much she liked the music, and then she started talking about a specific country singer she always thought was great – “Really handsome! Tall guy, with black hair.” Again, this was the first time I’d ever heard her refer to anyone (besides me and my brother – thanks Nonna) as “handsome.”*
My grandfather, Josef Szewczuk (he later shortened it and phonetically changed it to Sheff because people had such a hard time pronouncing it) – sent for my grandmother from an Air Force base in Deming, New Mexico in the Spring of 1943. They had a small wedding ceremony attended only by a few fellow cadets and their wives, after which, in his words: “We ate bologna sandwiches and had some cold drinks and did some dancing at the USO. That was it.” As my grandfather kept getting reassigned, they moved from Deming to Kearney, Nebraska, then St. Peterburg, Florida, then Tampa, then back to Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, where they raised my father and my uncle. I’d known all this already from my grandfather’s stories – he was a great storyteller and had an incredible memory. The detail I hadn’t known was that, on the radio, country music followed them everywhere they went. At every base and in every town, it was in the air. If I’d thought about it, I could have guessed that, but it’s the kind of detail that never occurs to you. Listening to all this old country music on Christmas day 2011 reminded my grandmother of that time, being newlyweds, being young parents, drifting across America.
My grandmother didn’t remember the name of the singer she liked so much, and her description wasn’t ringing a bell for me. I kept asking for details, but they’re weren’t a lot more that she could remember. Finally, piecing together what she said and cross-referencing the internet, I figured out who she meant – Ray Price.
It’s funny how selective music fans in my generation can be about country music. Of course, we mostly only remember the biggest stars, but even then we tend to concentrate on certain figures to the exclusion of others. We lionize Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson. George Jones and Brenda Lee are more for people who delve slightly deeper. Hank Williams is the songwriter’s songwriter, but less likely to be played in a restaurant. But there’s a whole score of very popular country musicians that younger listeners of today (those who aren’t strictly country fans, I mean) seem to have totally glossed over, and Ray Price is one of them. I can sing you even some of the crappier songs by Johnny Cash, but I’d never even listened to Ray Price. It turns out that he’s great (and after Joe Dolce and Zamfir I was maybe holding my breath a little). An incredible singer with a classic yearning country voice, manly in the way that singers are scared to be these days, with wonderful songs and that gorgeous country production style they had going in the 50s and 60s, recordings that give you a hug, recordings with all the warmth and coziness of a kitchen where a meal is cooking.
In the early part of 2012, after that Christmas with my grandmother, I listened to Ray Price over and over again. I loved the music on its own terms, but I also loved it because I knew it had kept my grandfather and grandmother company when they were scared and excited newlywed kids younger than I am now, drifting through strange new places that couldn’t have been more different than the little Massachussetts town they grew up in. It’s a distant time I can never go to and can only picture, and then inaccurately, but I know for a fact that these exact soundwaves found my way into the ears of my grandfather and my grandmother and all their friends, young and full of life and fear and energy back then, before I ever existed and with their whole lives ahead of them. I can’t go there, but Ray Price can take me there a little, like the ghost of Christmas past or something, letting you peep in a frosty window, just long enough to see some shapes and colors, before zipping on. It’s a wonderful thing that music can do that.
Ray Price: “Release Me.”
Bonus! “Shaddap You Face” by Joe Dolce:
*Whereas Beth told me she remembers her grandmother telling her Mick Jagger was “the sexiest man in the world.”