Back To Skoal: A Tribute

Before cigarettes, there was chew, or “chaw,” as it is known in some parts of the Deep South.

Most of us got our start with chew. It was our archway to the great kingdom of tobacco. In our early pubescence we came to know the wild ecstasies the leaves of North Carolina and Virginia could provide, contained within the perfect circle of a little tin can.

Back then, we all had the same supplier, in the form of Billy Whittaker. Every Monday, Billy walked into the Big B Drug Store on Old Shell Road and stuffed a whole galaxy of chewing tobacco into the front pouch of his red L.L. Bean anorak. He only swiped certain brands. He knew what his customers wanted: Beech Nut Original, Levi-Garrett, Red Man Original, Red Man Golden Blend, and Beech Nut Wintergreen. If you knew the man with the plan he would take care of you. This was back in the early ’90s, mind you, during the glory days of Joe Camel, when stores left tobacco out on the floor so as to encourage stealing among the delinquent. Even so, Whittaker was a very talented thief and never so much as got questioned.

Levi Garrett was the most popular brand for seventh-graders. It was mild, large-leafed, boasted a good, salty flavor, and did not deliver so much nicotine as to make one sick. It also came in a handsome-looking pouch. You felt like a rugged individual when you chewed Levi.

Skoal bandits (either mint or wintergreen flavors) were also popular. They came in little brown pouches and sported the really cool bandit logo on the can. They delivered very little juice so you would really have to work the pouch around in your mouth if you wanted to get the full effect. The more rebellious among us stuffed four or five pouches in at once. It became something of a competition to see how many pouches one could hold. There was also a brand of snuff called Hawken which “tasted like candy” and registered low on the nicotine meter. The logo featured two interlocking pistols and looked pretty cool. But let’s face it, Hawken was for wimps.

As a baseball player, you were around smokeless tobacco constantly. One teammate from Little League (or Dixie Youth League, as it was known in Mobile) used to pack Skoal Wintergreen in a Bubbletape container and bring it to practice. He was the Dixie Youth version of Charlie Sheen’s “Wild Thing” character from the movie Major League. The boy could throw smoke from 46 feet. And everyone knows that a fresh dip on the mound adds roughly five extra mph to an eleven year old’s fastball.

Once you got to JV baseball, the abuse became widespread. Players could get ejected from a game if an ump caught you dipping, though outfielders were usually safe if they wanted to enjoy one in the late innings. And you often needed that dip to get you through a 13-inning game out in the wilds of Bayou La Batre, when it’s 10:30 at night on a Tuesday and the whole town smells like dead fish and you still had that problem set from Algebra 1 to finish.

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During high school, a new locker room was built for the varsity teams. The new pad was nice, a shangri-la of a place that was a major upgrade from the old petri dish we used to dress in.  Bigger lockers, for one. And if a high-school bully wanted to lock a middle schooler into one of the lockers, well, at least the victim could breathe and had room to move around for the 47-minute class period.

The new locker room was so nice that it became a hang-out lounge for the hard-core dippers (not unlike the Hookah bars of the Middle Eastern sort). This band of hardballers indugled in Kodiak Wintergreen, the strongest stuff on the market and rumored to be cut with fiberglass and god knows what else. These rebels were so brazen that they quit using cups as repositories and began spitting on our bright-shining linoleum floor. Smokeless tobacco had obliterated their sense of judgment, as well as their gum-lines. They were soon discovered, and two of the trespassers got sentenced to fifteen years of detention. No word on whether they still dip.

Stuff That Works

For an old Southern town, Nashville surely doesn’t feel old. Unlike other spots in Dixie – New Orleans, Charleston, Richmond – you don’t feel a strong sense of history walking Music City’s streets. But that’s not entirely a bad thing. For one, “Nash Vegas” has an entrepreneurial pulse that other Southern cities lack. Here, the health care sector booms, hi-rise condos sprout on every other corner, and a new convention center squats in the middle of downtown like a spaceship.

But despite all the glitz, there is a real history here that still breathes, in the form of our songwriting heritage. And the best of Nashville’s writers are versed in it.

Many AS readers dream of moving to Nashville and jump-starting their career as a songwriter. I’ve met several who, after spending a little time in Music City, were so moved by the spirit of the place – and that sense of musical history – that they quit their desk jobs back home and put down stakes here, often with spouse and kids in tow. Of course, it’s not easy to make it as a musician; the financial rewards are usually minimal. Leonard Cohen, whose song “Bird On The Wire” we break down in this issue, made his pilgrimage to Nashville in the mid-’60s with hopes of furthering his music career. I guess he did all right.

Guy Clark, who is back with a new album this month, is a crucial part of Nashville’s songwriting history. Since the release of his debut record Old No. 1, he has produced a body of work that remains immune to any trends. It’s “stuff that works,” to borrow one of his phrases. If you haven’t seen it, check out the movie Heartworn Highways, a documentary shot in Nashville in the mid-‘70s, and you’ll see that, even his 30s, Clark was a master craftsman and something of an old soul.

When I visited him in his workshop two years ago, he told me that he has a high yardstick when it comes to writing. But the man who penned “That Old Time Feeling” is not overly sanctimonious about the process. “It’s not brain surgery,” he said. “They’re just songs. They’re supposed to be fun.”

Throughout his life, the Texas native has also been a gracious teacher. In this issue, the novelist Alice Randall recounts the time she spent with Clark in the mid-’80s, when she was hell bent on making it as a songwriter. Randall also tells a great story of a guitar pull she witnessed involving her mentor and Garth Brooks, an event that she describes as a “clash of two very different kinds of titan.”

Co-writing a song with Clark is a rite of passage that a only a few lucky young songwriters in town can lay claim to. A young artist named Drake White played a few songs at our office last month and then gushed about a recent writing session he’d had with the old bard. And Ashley Monroe told us about writing the title track to her new album with Clark. “After everything I played him he would just go, ‘Hmm,’” she said. “I would get real nervous and then I would play something else. And he would go, ‘Hmm’ … [then] I told him my life story … I was telling him every detail of everything I’d been through. And I go, ‘But look at me, I came out like a rose.’ And he goes, ‘Well, why don’t we just write that?’ ‘Good idea, Guy Clark. Why don’t’ we just write the truth.’ And we did.”

So it isn’t brain surgery, after all.

State Of The Union

Country music is not known for courting controversy. It is, for the most part, an apolitical music. But when a popular country artist dips their toe in political waters, the move usually turns heads, if only because the feat’s so rare. Country artists shy away from hot-button issues for commercial reasons, for the most part. Just look at what happened to the Dixie Chicks: the once-popular band signed its own death warrant – at least career-wise – when lead singer Natalie Maines spoke out against President Bush and the U.S.-led Iraqi invasion, back in 2003. Country radio black-balled the next Dixie Chicks album, 2006’s Taking The Long Way, which proved to be their last as a group.

Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muscogee,” released in 1969, is still a song that is up for debate. The speaker in the tune represents Nixon’s “silent majority” and stands up for conservative values in the face of ’60s flower power, preferring not to “take his trips on LSD,” and opting for “manly footwear” over “beads and Roman sandals.” Loretta Lynn’s 1975 song “The Pill,” a tune about birth control, got people talking despite being banned on most of country radio. And Toby Keith’s “Courtesy Of The Red, White and Blue” (which originally was intended to be heard only by a military audience) certainly took a political stand in the wake of September 11th, and remains one of the more polarizing songs of any genre during the last decade.
Brad Paisley’s new tune Accidental Racist” (featuring LL Cool J) has triggered a discussion on race, one that has ricocheted far beyond country music’s usual chat rooms. Some critics have praised Paisley for simply addressing the issue, while others drubbed him for what they deemed to be a clumsy handling of an impossibly complex issue, using symbols like “doo rag and red flag,” “gold chains and iron chains,” to make his point.

Though not an overtly political singer, Kacey Musgraves has made quite a splash in country music with her debut album Same Trailer, Different Park. Musgraves’ songs document the pitfalls and trappings of small-town life, and address topics like drug use and homosexuality. She has garnered some far-flung fans in the process, including gossip blogger Perez Hilton, and yet she’ll be opening for Kenny Chesney this summer, playing to stadium-sized arenas all across the country. In our feature story on Musgraves, songwriter Shane McAnally says that his experience working with Kacey was unique in that her first goal was not commercial success, which tells you everything you need to know about the world of pop country.

Ashley Monroe is another alterna-queen of country whose album Like A Rose is one of the year’s best offerings. A member of the group Pistol Annies, Monroe has written and worked with artists across a variety of genres, including Guy Clark, Trent Dabbs and the band Train. Like A Rose is an honest, fun, stripped-down semi-autobiographical record. Released on Warner Nashville, a mainstream country label, Monroe’s album has yet to see any rotation on country radio, but has been widely embraced by Americana and rock circles.

One of the best type of country songs is the duet, which reached glorious heights with George and Tammy, and Conway and Loretta. Our cover subjects for this issue, Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris, make a nice pairing on Old Yellow Moon, an album that has taken them half a lifetime to make. Rodney, who is one of Nashville’s most respected songwriters, got his start playing in Emmy’s Hot Band back in the ‘70s, when Harris launched a solo career after the death of Gram Parsons, the man responsible for turning the former folk singer on to country music. Their album features four new Rodney-penned tracks as well as some older numbers. You can’t distinguish the old songs from the new ones on this album, which is a good thing. In its purest form, country music, like baseball, can exist outside of time.