Leo Morris: Indiana, home of good music

When I was a newbie reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer, I started hearing about a young woman named Brenda Webb, just a few years out of high school and beginning to make a name for herself as a country singer.

Since she was the younger sister of superstar Loretta Lynn, it was the consensus that Brenda just might make it.

And so she did. She grew up to become Crystal Gayle, who had more than a few No. 1 country hits.

Later, after I had moved on to the Michigan City News-Dispatch, I began a series of annual pilgrimages to Bill Monroe’s bluegrass festival in Bean Blossom, just outside Nashville in Brown County. Like Gayle, a Kentucky transplant, Monroe had lived in northwest Indiana while perfecting the new form of music called bluegrass.

How many other states can boast of being home to the creator of a whole new genre of music?

In Wabash, I still listened to LPs, along with AM radio my first source of music. My collection grew as my tastes changed.

For example, in my last days in the Army, my crowd (a disreputable bunch at Fort Hood, Texas) listened to a lot Led Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin. Out of the Army and back in Fort Wayne, I ran with a gentler crowd (i.e., including women), so I heard a lot of James Taylor, Carole King and Cat Stevens.

By the time I got to Wabash, I had discovered cassettes, which made hearing a lot of diverse music while driving one of life’s joys — the lack of inventive album covers to turn into wall coverings being a major drawback. My musical tastes expanded to include the big band and jazz, a smattering of salsa, a little country (thank you, Brenda).

At some point in Michigan City, I discovered CDs and I listened to, well, practically all of it. I mostly avoided rap (not musical enough), and a little bit of opera went a long way (much too musical), but I liked some of everything in between. You might find me listening to Muddy Waters’ great “Hard Again” blues album one day, Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” the next.

These days, I praise the virtues of Alexa, the voice of Amazon’s Echo smart speakers. If you are also an Amazon Prime member, you have access to a couple of million songs, and Alexa can call up whatever music you’re in the mood for.

You can say, “Alexa, play the hits of (pick a year),” and suddenly, you will be transported back to high school. You can ask her to shuffle Leonard Cohen songs or even to play a Leonard Cohen station, which will deliver Cohen and also artists like him. You can ask her to play a favorite song, such as Glenn Campbell’s heartbreaking “I’m Not Gonna Miss Her,” then say, “Alexa, play more like this.” The other day, I was thumbing through a book of beat poems and asked Alexa to play a bebop station for my mood music.

Through Alexa, I have lately been happily discovering the range of music from Indiana.

When most people think of musicians from this state, the list probably begins with Michael Jackson and ends with John Mellencamp. But there are so many more.

Wes Montgomery, one of the most influential guitarists of his time, whose improvisational licks influenced everybody from Jimi Hendrix to Pete Townsend. He died much too soon at 45 of a heart attack in 1968.

Hoagy Carmichael, whose songs such as “Stardust,” “Georgia on My Mind” and “Heart and Soul” have become classic standards and whose tunes are featured in so many of those old black and white movies.

Cole Porter, whose witty lyrics reinvented the American songbook for a modern era, often overlooked as a composer of equally sophisticated melodies.

Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses, Mick Mars of Motley Crue and David Lee Roth of Van Halen, who put so much energy into rock that we almost didn’t realize it was a dying form.

Freddie Hubbard, an extraordinary jazz trumpeter; J.J. Johnson, groundbreaking trombone player; Joshua Bell, a child prodigy on violin who made his Carnegie Hall debut at just 17.

And on and on.

Indiana may not have the distinction of representing a specific genre, as Nashville does for country or Mississippi and Chicago do for blues or New Orleans does for Cajun and zydeco. But it has contributed much to this country’s musical landscape and helped crowd out the noise of the universe with much more structured and pleasing sounds.

Maybe not rap, maybe not opera, but a little bit of everything in between. However you choose to listen to it.

Leo Morris, columnist for Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier State Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected] Send comments to [email protected]