One of many great songs by the band Wet Willie was a tune called “Country Side of Life.” The song reverberated in my head — okay, it was actually playing on my MP3 player at the time — as I was cycling around the countryside outside of Nyaungshwe in Shan State one day last month.
“You can have your buildings and your heavy arithmetic
I don’t need no crowded streets or city slicker tricks
I just need to be someplace where I can move around
Look down at my toes and I can still see the ground
Gimme that country side of life … “
I had budgeted a full week in Nyaungshwe, but between teaching classes at Tat Ein village, taking the students on a field trip to Pindaya, cycling over to Shwe Yan Pyay monastery several times, and visiting my friends Htein Linn and Ma Pu Su, I came to the realization that I didn’t have a whole lot of free time at my leisure. But during one of those rare free afternoons, one when it wasn’t raining, I cycled over the little bridge west of the big canal and just meandered around the countryside for a couple of hours.
Some other cyclists and a few pedestrians were on the same dirt road, but thankfully I didn’t encounter many motorized vehicles; certainly no clunky trucks or gaudy SUVs. A few children were walking back home after school, one young man was dribbling a soccer ball down a narrow path cut between rice fields, a couple of monks were chatting outside their monastery, and a herd of cattle was making the dusty journey home. Lush green fields framed by craggy green mountains, intersected by little canals and creeks. A quiet, scenic, rain-free, and altogether blissful afternoon.
And I can’t let that initial reference to Wet Willie slide on by without rambling a bit more about how wonderful a band they were. They had a huge hit single with “Keep On Smilin’’ back in 1974, and enjoyed moderate success with other singles and albums during the rest of that decade, but to my mind they never really received the proper acclaim that they so justly deserved. Wet Willie was much more than a country-rock band or some sort of one-hit wonder. Perhaps their main “problem” was that they were musically diverse and their sound was too hard to pigeonhole. They fused elements of country, soul, rock, and blues to create an intoxicating brand of music. When the keyboards, guitars, drums and bass converged, the musical stew got steaming hot, and came close to boiling over when lead singer Jimmy Hall started wailing on his saxophone or harmonica. Shout Bamalama!
I was lucky to see Wet Willie in concert at the Great Southern Music Hall in Orlando back in the late 70s, where they played two spectacular shows. Jimmy Hall was one of those naturally gifted lead singers, capable of keeping the audience spellbound throughout his energetic performance. One of their “hits” compilations will turn you on to a representative selection of their best songs, as would one of their steamy live albums, Left Coast Live (the CD contains a bunch of bonus material that wasn’t on the original vinyl release) and Drippin’ Wet. The wetter the better indeed!