Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Time It Never Rained Again

How dry is it?
So dry that it was the driest year in Austin in 52 years. Not since the infamous Drought of the 50s has it been so dry. It's the fourth driest year on record in Austin and the swath between Austin and New Braunfels is in the most extreme category (exceptional) that the National Weather Service has for dry spells. (Click on the headline to see the national map that shows Central Texas to be drier than anywhere else.

It's so dry, it's time for those of us living in the Hill Country to embrace the Chihuahuan Desert. Five climate zones converge in the Hill Country including the desert, the woodlands, the plains, the coast, and the brush country. Right now, we're more desert than tropics for sure.

It's so dry that wells around us are no longer producing water - southern Hays County, where I live, and northern Comal County will be some of the first areas of the state to exhaust their groundwater supplies in light of increased use and diminishing rains, according to groundwater computer models for the future. We have rainwater harvesting, but the tank is dry since we've had no appreciable rain since late August, and really, no long term relief since September 2007. At least I can truck in water to fill up the rainwater tank if the well goes dry, and as we all know, you don't miss your water, til your well goes dry.

Predictions for the next six months are for the drought to persist, so I've been thinking alot about what will happen if it doesn't rain in the winter or spring. There's still a little bit of the Blanco River flowing near where I live, but downstream in Wimberley, it is almost gone. It dried up completely in 1956, oldtimers tell me. No rain for six months assures its disappearance altogether, meaning no garden, no crops, no lawn, no watering, less showers, and more tinder for fires, meaning more Red Flag Warning days when dry, hot winds are blowing. Also, no kayaking, no swimming in the river, no nuthin.'

Elmer Kelton's book The Time It Never Rained is in the pile of books next to the bed. I see Mr. Kelton at book events all across state and enjoy visiting with him. But it's time to crack open his best book again, and relive what happened fifty years ago to prepare for what's to come. Happy New Year. I hope it rains on the parade.

One half inch of rain this morning at the house. Hard to tell it rained, other than the gauge and the soil feeling kind of spongy.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Year of Magical Books About Drinking

Sweet words from Peter Joseph, but nuthin' about the great Little Joe Carson classic, "I Gotta Get Drunk," much less "Whiskey River" or Old Whiskey River.

Click on the headline to read the rest of the story.

Best Drinking as Destiny
“Willie Hugh passed a milestone when he got drunk on beer for the first time, at the age of nine. He’d accompanied his father, Ira, to Albert’s Place, a beer joint across the county line toward West. Both sat in with Charlie Brown’s band, and little Willie sang a couple numbers. When nobody was looking, he was also knocking back beer.” We think you can guess what Willie we’re talking about here. Joe Nick Patoski’s biography Willie Nelson: An Epic Life also chronicles an epic degree of beer-swilling. Considering some of the other trouble the Red-Headed Stranger has gotten into, perhaps he should have stuck with the beer, or at least Arkansas’ local moonshine, “White Mule.”

Monday, December 15, 2008

Philly Inky Music Crit Digs WN: Epic Life

What the staff has been reading this year......

Music. Dan DeLuca, music critic, mentions Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, by Joe Nick Patoski (Little, Brown, 576 pp., $27.99), and The Clash, by the Clash (Grand Central, 384 pp., $35). Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death and Country Music, by Dana Jennings (Faber & Faber, 272 pp., $24), is a clever survey of country lyrics.

Thanks, Dan! Keep writing and reading.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Disorder Lives (sorta)

Meg writes on the Satellite radio discussion thread:

"Thanks to all of you who dug Disorder. Yes, i am on The Loft now and as is Johansen including his Sunday noon to 3 airing ET, Scelsa, Lou Reed, Dave Marsh. It is a big job to add in alot of our Disorder music to the Loft library, but every day we are getting more and more of it in with the help of Mike Marrone, who took in all of us disorder orphans. It will only get better and free form will prevail. Have faith. We wouldn't be there if we didn't. xo meg"

We love you and we're hoping for the best. More intelligent craziness, s.v.p.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Calling all accordionists

Hey Kids!
Time to dust off your parents' old squeezeboxes and start practicing. You've got three months to enter, three months after that to prepare for the finals in Big Houston. Winner gets studio time, a trip to Germany, pats on the back, and lots of Polka Love.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Sirius-XM programming mashup

I didn’t immediately jump in and react to the programming mashup the two recently merged satellite radio subscription services, Sirius and XM, engaged in back in early November, combining some channels and eliminating others altogether. Three weeks after the fact, I’m ready to weigh in. The new Sirius XM is a dud.

Satellite, meet terrestrial. New Boss, shake hands with Old Boss. It’s freeform rock becoming AOR all over again. I’m pretty well convinced the ruination of a once viable medium is complete with the implementation of the same old tried-and-trues that have effectively sunk terrestrial radio as a source for music and entertainment: when in doubt (and there profit to be squeezed), just tighten up the format, play less music more frequently, play it safe, don’t offend the mean demographic or risk tune-outs, fire the old pros, and hire new blood for less, then expect increased income and a bigger audience.


Well, if you’ve just tuned in, maybe the new Sirius-XM sounds great to you. But you’re like me and have been subscribing to both services to get the full breadth of programming, the new Sirius-XM merger marks satellite’s devolution into the same ol’ same ol,’ just like old radio.

I subscribed to Sirius first and foremost for the two channels of National Public Radio programs on Sirius (minus Morning Edition and All Things Considered) and a number of music channels. My interest in XM was prompted by XM Public Radio including Bob Edwards, C-SPAN, and the POTUS politics channel, as well as X Country, Willie’s Place classic fiddles-and-steel country, Folktown, the 50s and 60s rock channels, Deep Tracks classic rock, Bluesville, the offbeat Fine Tuning and Audio Visions atmospheric soundscapes, occasionally the rap channels when Mike “5000” Watts and his Screwed Up Clique from H-Town were doing their thing, and XMX 2, home of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Hour on Wednesdays, in which Dylan plays Mr. Disc Jockey, spinning obscure gems dug up by his hep producer, Eddie Godoretsky, and Tom Petty’s show on Thursday (real cool record collector songs, dull announcer)..

Every blue moon, I’d tune a baseball game and check if there was a Dodgers home game and Vin Scully was calling the inning, just to hear the Master. Similarly, I’ve occasionally found myself in the car on Sunday afternoons and checked out the NFL games.

My Sirius music choices were the 50s, 60s channels, Classic Vinyl album rock, the Underground Gararge for trash rock (especially when Kim Fowley and Andrew Loog Oldham were on), Left of Center for new college rock, Outlaw Country when Cowboy Jack Clement was telling stories, Real Jazz, and most of all Sirius Disorder because it was in the spirit of freeform radio of yore – a semi-random, all-over-the-wall Jack Radio with brains - particularly on Friday afternoons and evenings when David Johansen’s totally goofy, wholly riveting Mansion of Fun show aired.

That was before the switch.

After a few weeks of tuning in, here’s what’s transpired since, as far as I can tell.

The 50s and 60s channels merged (as did the 70s, 80s, and 90s outlets) with Sirius’ programming largely taking over, meaning Cousin Brucie, Norm N. Nite, and broadcasts from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That comes at the expense of XM’s wonderful Flashback Fridays on the 60s channel that featured transcriptions of great stations from the sixties such as WLS, KLIF, and KHJ.

There are a few upsides with the merged programming. XM’s Jonathan Schwarz, the World’s Leading Sinatra authority, has been reunited with his hero Frank again every afternoon after Standard Time was merged into Siriusly Sinatra, the channel Nancy Sinatra authorized a year ago, effectively ending the run of Frank’s Place on XM. Sirius rightfully owns the Real Jazz channel with jocks who have deep ties to the New York scene including shows hosted by Gary Burton and Blue Note’s Bruce Lundvall, along with the addition of Wynton Marsalis’ program from XM’s now-defunct jazz channel. Unfortunately, the contemporary jazz channel on XM has gone away altogether and I’ve noticed some semblances of Smooth Jazz creeping into the Real Jazz music mix. Sirius listeners can now hear Bob Dylan’s eclectic once-a-week Theme Time Radio Hour on Deep Tracks, which is now one of Sirius’ album rock channels as well as Tom Petty’s program. Note: rock channels on both Sirius and XM played more variety of classic rock than their over-the-air free radio rivals.

Two changes, though, have me pondering cancellation.

XM’s X Country was eliminated altogether and replaced with Sirius’ Outlaw Country despite the two channels not having much in common. X Country was pure Americana with a folk bent and featured three particularly entertaining weekly programs – Texas Fred’s Zydeco Show, the most honest, best sounding zydeco program anywhere, Robert Earl Keen’s Texas Uprising, and Dave Alvin’s smart Nine Volt Radio folknrootsathon. Outlaw Country, which has its own charm, is less about Texas Country than it is contemporary Southern Rock aimed at the NASCAR crowd, as served up by growly, yahoo jocks such as Mojo Nixon and some ex-rassler dude. X Country and Outlaw Country are oil n’ water.

On the other side of the aisle, the disappearance of my favorite Sirius music channel Disorder, replaced by XM’s The Loft, a folk rock singer-songwriter channel (think Dan Fogelberg), is a total pisser. Disorder mixed it up like free form radio from the late 1960s used to. You never knew what you were going to hear, just that whatever it was would be interesting music. David Johansen and his Mansion of Fun captured that essence bouncing from the Carpenters’ “Close to You,” to the Ronettes to Maria Callas to brokedown blues and the Stooges with lots of Latin son and African high life, interspersed with David Jo’s nuggets of Buddhist wisdom (he never announced what he was playing). Once a Friday afternoon ritual, Johansen is evidently still on, but only at midnight on Wednesdays on the Loft. Unacceptable.

Spanish listeners are similarly ticked. What were once five Latin music channels on each service has dwindled down to one, although there’s Spanish CNN and ESPN.
Truckers, satellite radio’s first adapters, are unhappy with programming changes to the Open Road Channel on XM, once the showcases of the unique power of satellite to cater to a niche audience like terrestrial radio could not. On the other hand, to get licensed to do business in Canada, both services have several French music channels, which is fine for Francophones in North America but effectively shuts out the largest minority in the United States, who happen to be avid radio listeners; Spanish radio stations generate huge ratings in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and other major markets across the country.

Jazz listeners on XM have lost their contemporary jazz channel and the Fine Tuning and Audio Visions channels that mixed New Age, classical, album rock, and jazz..

And I hear they’re jacking with Willie’s Place and Open Road, the truckers channel on XM catering to satellite radio’s earliest adapters. Note to Sirius-XM Dudes, mess with Bill Mack at your own expense.

The watering-down of the programming began as soon as both services were on the air six years ago. Three years ago, Folk and World Music were dropped from Sirius and World Music disappeared from XM Radio. In their place, channels were dedicated to playing one artist exclusively, such as Elvis, Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and the Grateful Dead, or branded with personalities such as Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, Eminem’s Shade 45, BB King’s Bluesville, and Little Steven’s Undergound Garage.

The emphasis has apparently shifted to Howard Stern, the 800 lb Gorilla of Sat Rad, sports (NFL, MLB) and talk – not so much because it is unique content (often as not, it isn’t), but because talk uses less bandwidth, which is why entertainment channels that have mixed music with the talk are being leaned by management to drop the music and focus on talk exclusively (which means no song royalties to pay). No wonder most entertainment channels no longer broadcast in stereo.

As in the case of terrestrial radio, satellite has evidently concluded showcasing music is not the way to rope in an audience. It was bad enough once I figured out most of the music programs were taped in advance or voice-streamed, even though the announcer sounded live in studio. Still, paying to hear music with no commercials, theoretically programmed by humans hip to good sounds (I know now that’s not always the case), was worth the price, despite the steady decline of eclectic music that beyond mainstream.

Increasingly, music announcers have been forced to double-up, doing shows on two and even three channels (is it me or is Pat St. John on five channels now?) in order to save money. Sure, that makes the bean-counters happy. But it will come at the expense of dissatisfied listeners like me.

As mobile WiFi and WiMax Internet get closer to reality and affordability, the one edge Sirius and XM could claim was content you couldn’t find anywhere else. Now that’s not so much the case.

But perhaps the most glaring shortcoming has been lousy customer service. Sirius and XM never made it easier for listeners, requiring them to either buy a new car or rig up their existing vehicle with a radio that was clunky, not easy to use, and rarely meshed with the existing car radio. The way the November programming changes were done overnight, without any warning to customers nor any solicitation what listeners might want to hear indicates management at the top doesn’t care what their customers think. No matter what business one happens to be in, that kind of attitude poisons the business model, no matter how worthy it might seem.

So speaking as one of 20 million subscribers, all I can say to the powers that be is, you screwed the pooch when you screwed up my radio. You deserve what's coming.

Churn, baby, churn.