published Friday, April 27th, 2012

Phillips: On the season the music died

Ask most people how they feel about Don McLean's sprawling pop epic "American Pie," and you're almost guaranteed to get a lengthy response.

Whether they are full of glowing praise for the song's merits or rail about being pushed to the edge of violence by hearing it too often is entirely dependent on whom you ask.

Regardless, it's an incredibly divisive song, right up there with Toby Keith's "Red Solo Cup," any concept album by Green Day, either version of Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" and ... well, pretty much anything by Jimmy Buffet or Nirvana.

However you feel about the song, it is its subject that is relevant to today's topic.

"American Pie" was a musical recounting of the 1959 airplane crash that killed rock 'n' roll icons Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Jiles Perry "The Big Bopper" Richardson Jr.

While the crash is the best-remembered of such events, there have been other times when musicians have passed away in quick succession.

In 1977, a chartered Convair CV-300 carrying the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd crashed while en route from Greenville, S.C. to Baton Rouge, La. Six were killed, including lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist/backing vocalist Steve Gaines and Gaines' sister, backing vocalist Cassie Gaines.

And while it wasn't in a single event, rock fans suffered a double blow in 1970 when Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died within three weeks of each other.

Recently, it seems, the music world is yet again losing artists at a pace that has been hard to stomach.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the March 28 death of bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs, who passed away due to natural causes at age 88.

Scruggs' passing followed about six weeks after R&B/soul icon Whitney Houston was found dead on Feb. 11 in the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills. Two weeks later, The Monkees' vocalist Davy Jones died on Feb. 29 at age 66 due to a heart attack.

While he might be less-recognizable to many Americans, banjo fans suffered a second major loss when The Dubliners' Barney McKenna passed away unexpectedly on April 5. Some fans of Irish music, myself included, consider his contributions to the genre on par with Scruggs' bluegrass legacy.

Most recently, Levon Helm, a multiple Grammy Award-winning solo artist and founding member of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees The Band, succumbed to cancer on April 18. He was 72.

I'm hardly suggesting there's anything tangibly linking these musicians' deaths together, but this has been a rough couple of months.

I can't remember ever experiencing so many morning commutes when National Public Radio tributes have left me feeling so empty by the time I get to the office. I hope I never do again.

Now, my fervent hope is that A) no more artists pass away for a while and B) that if someone writes a song about this season of tragedy, they can keep it to under eight minutes.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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