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Michael Sigman

Michael Sigman

Posted: February 19, 2011 05:13 PM

My Eight-track's pumpin' out a country song/
About a girl that's done me wrong/
My Eight-track's playing all your favorite songs/
So come on honey sing along

Brian Setzer

In the world according to the late George Albert -- owner of the record industry trade magazine Cashbox back when there was a record industry to have a trade magazine about -- the whole CD thing was "a hype."

Why? Because, George reasoned, truckers in the Deep South would raise hell from Baton Rouge to Charleston and back before they'd let their 8-track players be pried from the cold, dead consoles of their 18-wheelers. As for the so-called "CD revolution," that, George opined, was no more than a record company conspiracy to jettison a red-blooded American format in favor of a bunch of prettified digital discs invented by an unholy alliance of the Dutch and the Japanese.

George maintained his skeptical view of CDs long after they cornered the market. Was he, therefore, delusional? Perhaps. But when it came to the significance of 8-tracks, George may have been on to something.

Bucks Burnett certainly thinks so. A music fanatic (especially of all things Beatle) and a child of the '70s, the 8-track's halcyon honeymoon with car culture, Burnett, a Dallas boy, didn't participate at all in the fun. "I was raised 8-track free," he laments, "because my dad preferred cassettes."

Making up for lost time and to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the 8-track, Burnett debuted the world's one and only Eight Track Museum on Valentine's Day. Housed in an office building in Dallas's artsy Deep Ellum district, the museum is, at present, a bit of a fixer-upper. Custom-built shelves on freshly painted white museum-quality walls overflow with thousands of tapes, including the entire Beatles 8-track catalogue. Revolving exhibits of still more tapes populate an adjoining room. Other formats, including the primordial wax cylinder from the 19th Century, are also represented. For those who can't make the trip, Burnett provides a virtual guided tour.

Burnett says he'll add documentation of the rich history of 8-tracks, including stories of such colorful pioneers as Earl "Madman" Muntz -- who married seven times, named his daughter Tee Vee and invented the 8-track's predecessor, the Muntz Stereo-Pak 4-track tape cartridge; and 8-track inventor Edward Lear, founder of the Lear Jet corporation, where he expressed the importance of leanness in aviation by saying, "I'd sell my grandmother to save one pound."

Burnett's 8-track obsession can't be contained in one building, however. He owns a small record store and a record label, both called Cloud 8 and both 8-track-oriented. Then there's the irreverent, almost-completed documentary on the 8-track that he's been working on for nearly 20 years, which features interviews -- some ironic, others more serious -- with such rock stars as Jimmy Page and Ronnie Lane. Spinal Tap's Harry Shearer, he says, has given his band's blessing to the doc's title, Spinal Tape.

All this reminds those of us who were music freaks in the late '60s and '70s of the first time we could choose, for our road trips, tunes that not only brought us great pleasure but also helped us define who we were and who we wanted to become.

When a friend reminded me of the Ian Hunter track "Listen to the 8-track" -- with its refrain, "Sitting in the car park/In my old Buick Skylark/Getting high, Getting high, Getting high on the 8-track" -- I teared up as I imagined myself in the front seat of my parents' red and white Skylark, where I first heard the brilliantly cheesy "Reflections of My Life" by one-hit wonders Marmalade and Al Kooper's manifesto "I Stand Alone," among other tunes crucial to my unrealistic self-image. (I may have been, as Hunter suggests, getting high, so I can't guarantee it wasn't Creedence's "Who'll Stop the Rain" in the less synchronous green Pontiac Firebird, which preceded the Skylark.)

For Generation iPod-ers, who might think "8-track" refers to a railroad complex, Burnett's ventures can supply an essential chapter in the story of how listeners have experienced recorded music over the past 120 years.

Pete Freedman, in a recent cover story in the Dallas Observer that affectionately details Burnett's relevance to his hometown's music scene, notes that one Bob Hiemenz, a retired newspaper publisher from Flora, Illinois, is planning his own 8-track museum. With some 69,000 tapes to his name, it would be formidable. But Hiemenz isn't worried that Burnett got there first: "I think there should be an 8-track museum in every state in the United States," he told the Observer.

On the deepest level, maybe George Albert was right, at least metaphorically. Perhaps the ghosts of a million Mississippi truckers still career through the South, Red Sovine, Jerry Reed and Cash McCall classics mysteriously reverberating through music's timeless realm. In the meantime, Burnett, who describes himself as an "unemployed museum curator," will continue to spin the saga of the 8-track.

 

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