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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2006/10/23
by Mike Gruenberg

Van Zant

In My Life
Music, in the form of a song is much like a novel or short story that is presented to us in many different ways. We are musically introduced to a situation and in about three to four minutes, more or less the dilemma is resolved in one way or another. Too often, simplistic lyrics tell a bland story. Usually, those types of songs describe a love gone wrong and then right. We hear of great trial and tribulation that mercifully ends up with the guy getting the girl or the girl getting the guy or the guy getting the guy or the girl getting the girl. Whatever!
For me, a musical album, much like a good book or a comedians story or a movie should tell a story, have a central theme and at the very least, have an ending or a theme that makes sense. It seems that many of the songs in albums on the market today are a collection of disparate tunes that do not adequately represent the band. It doesnt often appear that a central theme has even been considered. Now I will admit that I am a fan of congruous parts that fit together nicely. I am also a sucker for a good story that ends up on a positive chord for all concerned. I therefore wonder why more albums dont have a more of a neat story to tell.
Prior to Sgt. Pepper, most albums contained a variety of songs on a variety of topics with no real tie-in to each other. Sgt. Pepper did change that to some degree, but theme related albums seem to have been forgotten. In my quest to buy unique and meaningful music, I have always tried to find albums that seemingly have been crafted with a sense of a theme. I am usually unsuccessful in my search and many times I am probably looking for something that does not exist, but its fun to do and rewarding when I find that elusive album.
Earlier this year, I was in a record store in Memphis. The album du jour that was playing throughout the store sounded familiar. Upon further inspection, I found that the artists were Donnie Van Zant from 38 Special and Johnny Van Zant from the legendary Lynyrd Skynyrd band. The song that was playing was Help Somebody which was described on the album cover as the hit single. The title of the album was Get Right With The Man and on the strength of the one or two songs I heard over the record store speakers, I bought it.
Now I didnt expect a theme or even a good love story from this album. I remembered the music of 38 Special as being a great southern rock n roll bar band. Add to that my reverence for Lynyrd Skynyrd and the buying decision was an easy one. I was pleasantly surprised when I listened to the album only to find that many of the songs were quite personal in nature. I dont know if Donnie and Johnny were singing about their own lives and families, but the theme throughout this album always kept coming back to home, family and family values.
For example, Takin Up Space talks about how an underdog can be successful with the right amount of drive and determination. The song says If youre gonna go go all the way * If youre gonna stay, stand your ground * If ya cant run with the big dogs * Big dog, let me walk you out * If ya cant lead, let me by you * If ya wont follow get out the way * Youre takin up space.
On the tune, Sweet Mama co-written by Donnie Van Zant, homage is paid to someones mother. Here they talk about the fact that mama didnt raise no fool. The song recounts all the life lessons learned at moms knee. Continuing the love of family theme, the tune Help Somebody gives us a glimpse of their grandparents teachings. This song contains the name of the album Get Right With the Man as a line in the song. Actually some pretty sage advice when they say that granny advised her grandkids to Stick to your guns if you believe in somethin no matter what * Cause its better to be hated for what you are than be loved for what youre not. Grandma also said Fight your fights, find the grace in all things you cant change * And help somebody if you can * And get right with the Man. They end the song with the now famous line And if you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.
The album, tastefully produced by Mark Wright and Joe Sciafe continually brings up the love of family and home. In Things I Miss the Most co-written by the Van Zants, the description of the grueling life on the road of a performer is made more palatable every time they come home to the wife and kids who are happy to see their dad return. The song talks about the dogs barking in the yard, the tractor in the field, the oak tree on the hill and the kids on the porch yelling to mom that daddys coming home. Sounds corny, but its great Americana.
There are songs that talk about getting sober. There is a song that talks about all the simple things that can make you happy. In all, its a real good listening album. If you read between the lines and piece together the songs, you will find a theme. Maybe that wasnt the intent, but its there. That common thread of lifes lessons, home and family make for a real good album.
P.S. In writing this column, I did some basic research and found that when this album was released, the record company embedded a program on the disc that does not allow it to be copied. If a person were to copy the album, then that person would run the risk of damaging their equipment. Apparently, when the record company decided to add this feature, they neglected to post this fact anywhere on the album which has since caused quire a bit of controversy. At one point, the album was taken off the shelves. Since I have not copied the album, nor do I intend to, I have listened to it many times and have enjoyed it every time without any damage to my many CD players.

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