Ohm! At the Disco!
Shantala's music is the yoga of pure devotion
Kidding. Johnny Knoxville's first cousin Roger Alan Wade sounds even better with age...and beer
by Kevin Crowe
Ohm , the voices of the devotees come together, led by Benjy and Heather Wertheimer, the husband and wife duo known as Shantala. Ohm is the singular building block of the cosmos, according to the Dharmic religions. It's a linguistic bridge between this world and the next. Ohm , in unison, a sense of complete surrender to the Divine.
"One of our practices is pranayana," Benjy says. "One of the most important ways it manifests is the breath. In the process of singing, we're also working with the breath.
"If you look at a literal translation of mantra, it translates as a tool for the mind. It allows the mind to get out of the way of the heart. The mantra really helps to facilitate the clarity of the heart's vision."
Shantala performs Kirtan , a type of devotional and highly meditative music that has its linguistic roots in ancient Sanskrit. Kirtan roughly translates as "celebration," and every performance is equal parts spectacle and workshop, as they invite audiences to sing ancient mantras, the stuff of pure devotion. The idea is to lose yourself in the mantra, to feel the sacred vibrations that have been painstakingly preserved for thousands of years by Vedic holymen. In some respects, when Shantala sings a mantra, it opens a door into the past, to the dawn of civilization. Back to a time when language was in its infancy, when primeval sounds could tap directly into our consciousness--that is, if you're hip to Upanishadic teachings.
"In many respects," Benjy explains, "it's on a more sophisticated level than normal communication."
Shantala's music has been described as pure love, which is a fair assessment. On The Love Window , an album filled with New Age interpretations of the timeless mantras, Heather's voice beckons you to follow, guiding you through each verse. Slowly, if you allow it, she builds each song towards a peaceful state of elevated consciousness, or so it seems. Each song breathes, in and out, searching for that single moment, when the mind finds itself quiet, if only for a second. And her voice is angelic, an otherworldly yowl of pure emotion.
"I wouldn't even necessarily recognize it as Hinduism," Benjy continues. "I'd categorize myself as a Quaker. This practice helps us identify with the inner light, this is one of the more powerful ways to connect with it. I think people are becoming much more comfortable exploring their spirituality."
At a recent show in Birmingham, in front of 50 mantra neophytes, Shantala had the entire room chanting verses in a language many had never heard before. "People don't need to worry about getting the pronunciation right," Benjy goes on. "What's important is what happens in the heart. The music is the vehicle."
Benjy, who has been playing classical Indian music for more than 30 years, met Heather back in 1998, at a songwriting workshop in their hometown of Portland, Ore. Heather has taught Yoga for more than 20 years. "We just started performing together," he says. "People keep telling us how profound this is, even though they don't know why." m
Sounds Pretty Good When He's Sober
"I'm just comin' to. We had a flamin' good time in a little town outside of Charlotte last night," the deep, southern voice says on the other end of the line. You can hear that he's smiling. It's approaching late afternoon, and Roger Alan Wade's just getting up: For most, that'd be a sign of a rough night before and a rougher day ahead, but Wade gives the impression that he's the kind of man who always wakes up happy.
And why shouldn't he? He's got more accomplishments to his name than most musicians could ever hope for, and it seems there're more to come.
And if there is any question if Wade’s commitment to family is limited to famous cousins, a quick conversation about his children will clear things up.
His tone brightens and his speech quickens: “If you knew me, you’d think, ‘That man must have the ugliest kids in the world!’ But I don’t. I have three amazing and beautiful and gorgeous daughters—Jessica, Shandi and Cheyenne—and two grandchildren, and one more comin’.” Wade continues: “And my sons-in-law [Nick Hollimon, Sgt. Richard Dixon and Adam Rust, respectively]—usually they open for me when I play in Knoxville, but they’re not this time; they’re called Nick, Dick and the Man—all my kids are up there around Knoxville.”
In fact, of his numerous musical achievements, Wade’s most proud of one song in particular called “Sometimes I Don’t Know If I’ll Make It,” and not because it’s on the Jackass Number Two soundtrack. “My granddaughter and my sister inspired it and helped me write it,” he beams.
Wade's particular brand of unembellished honky-tonk songwriting has caught the attention of country music's all-time greats. Everyone from Willie Nelson to Barbara Mandrell to Confederate Railroad has recorded a Wade song. Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash sang a duet from Wade's catalogue called "American by Birth and Southern by the Grace of God." Yet another song, "Country State of Mine," recorded by Hank Williams, Jr., went to No. 1 on the charts. (It was originally titled Volunteer State of Mind; the writer's a UT sports fan. It was later renamed "Country State of Mind," then took its current incarnation with Williams' recording.)
But there's another, raunchier side to Wade's music, resulting in a distinct polarization of his songs, from the genuinely touching compositions typical of his classic country ballads to crude satirical commentary on redneck stereotypes. He might've earned critical acclaim for his mainstream hits, but Wade's fanbase most likely grew from songs that would embarrass your mother. They're called "Butt Ugly Slut," "Fryin' Bacon Nekkid" and "Psycho Bitch from Hell," to name a few. It's this kind of writing that you'll hear in TV episodes of Jackass (the popular MTV reality show featuring crazy guys pulling dangerous pranks and stunts) and on the Jackass: The Movie soundtrack, which features a cover of Wade's "If You're Going to be Dumb, You Gotta be Tough."
As with his music, you might expect an equally distinct polarization in the types of people that turn out for Wade's shows, but you'd be wrong. No song is off limits at a live performance, and the performer hopes the audience takes it all with a grain of salt, or better yet, with a shot of whiskey and a sense of humor. "At certain points in the evening, I kinda gotta play it by ear. It depends on what kind of mood I'm in. I really enjoy the things I've worked harder on, the more meaningful things. But there's a time and place for both types of songs. It goes back and forth; you've just gotta come out and put your seatbelt on."
Though Wade's been performing live for many years, it wasn't until Jackass star Johnny Knoxville--better known to Wade as first cousin PJ Clapp (their moms are sisters)--came into the picture that Wade laid down tracks for his own record. All Likkered Up was produced by Johnny's Dickhouse Productions in 2005.
An egregious display of nepotism, you say? Well so does Wade: "Thank God for nepotism! PJ's just so good to me! That was a fun record to make." But that's not the end of it: "[Johnny Knoxville] and I are working on some new music together now. I went out to his house a few weeks ago and put down 60-something new songs. I'm just thrilled with that. He's been really good to me. We have a good time together."
It'd be reasonable to assume that "good time" is Jackass -speak for pulling pranks on each other, but Wade says not so: "PJ says I'm off limits. Actually, I passed out in a closet once a while back at a surprise birthday party, and all they did was take a few pictures. He watches out for me." And Wade has never turned the tables: "Oh no, I got more sense than that! You don't mess with the master!" Although they do share a similar sense of humor, Wade says.
The like-minded cut-ups have already got another collaboration in the works. They've recently completed the pilot for their own Sirius Satellite Radio show, which is expected to air on the "Outlaw Country" station. The title of the show?: Damned Ol' Opry . "We're just gonna be in there whoopin' it up and tellin' jokes and playing our favorite old records." (The start date for the show will be determined as soon as business formalities are taken care of.)
If Wade prefers mainstream or grassroots success, you can't tell it. Mainly, he's just happy to be sleeping in today. "I started writing music when I was about 21 or 22. The dairy business didn't agree with me, with my rest habits. So I wanted to get into something with a little more flexibility where scheduling was concerned," he says, only half-joking, then continues: "It's neat to have your occupation and your passion be the same. I can't do nothing else; I ain't fit for it. But, you know, I don't have any real delusions about my voice or the way I sing or how I play. I like the way the music turned out that PJ and I did together, but I also like to see the big names take my songs to the top of the charts. It's an honor and a privilege really."
Like most stand-up Tennessee boys, Wade humbly attributes his successes--whether mainstream or not--to keeping things simple: "It's just hillbilly street music, I'd say. I try to keep it honest. Just like lumber with its bark still on it. I try to keep it real." m
Who: Roger Alan Wade w/ Owin' Moses