TV Documentary: American Masters: Johnny Carson

Over his three decades as host of The Tonight Show, Carson was America’s Toastmaster General, maybe even the Commander in Chief of entertainment. Most everyone in his huge audience felt like he was someone they knew, yet he was a very private man, and this look at his life gets as far inside the enigma as anyone might get. He had the smarts and dignity to not be seduced by the celebrity that fed his show’s success plus the wisdom to bow out while still atop his game. And he is now in retrospect an iconic representation of the American male of his generation and era.

CD: Blaze of Glory by Marshall Chapman

If you’re alienated from the puerile tripe that is largely commercial country music, as I am, yet still enjoy the Southern roots sound, here’s a winner for you. Chapman was the country-rocking ex-debutante wild card of the ‘70s outlaw movement. But like a typical Capricorn – we share the same January birthday – she has really begun to shine in maturity. Hence this album might better be titled as glowing red-hot embers of glory, as it’s a relaxed yet utterly engaging if not seductive collection of superb songs and soulful music that enchants an adult sensibility. Prime examples are a well-rendered track of Afro-Caribbean charm with the Zen tale and title, “Call The Lamas,” followed by a twanging C&W hymn, “Not Afraid To Die,” that sounds in its song construction and performance like its belongs in the upper reaches of the Johnny Cash canon. Smart, stylistically rich and powered by the artistic assurance of a creator in her prime, this subtle yet potent gem is what I’d like to hear far more of out of Nashville.

Book: Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien

My reading kick lately has been consuming anew and I am revisiting books by this truly great contemporary American author. In my second time through the first book of his I read some 30 years ago, this story of a squad of Vietnam grunts who follow a deserter all the way across the world to Paris, interwoven with tales from the war, is as compelling in its American magical realism as ever. And in a re-read, one also gets to savor the superb compositional grace and surety of O’Brien’s writing. It’s a true classic that if I am lucky enough to live another three decades I am likely to read yet again for third time.

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2013


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