When the Scottish rock band Nazareth sang “Woke up this morning, my dog was dead,” presumably it was just a song. But sometimes, it’s real. In an episode of the podcast In the Dark: Coronavirus in the Delta we meet blues artist Watermelon Slim, a drawling septuagenarian and living, breathing piece of Americana who has suddenly lost his best friend. “He was an emotional genius,” Slim says of his beloved lab mix Pinot. “I really felt like I was coming home when he was here.”
In the Dark won a Peabody Award earlier this month for its second season, The Path Home, a true crime series on a man tried six times for the same crime. With its more recent six-part series Coronavirus in the Delta, the In the Dark producers and reporters follow the lives of Southerners living through the COVID-19 pandemic, among them nurses, athletes, pastors, prison inmates and, in the charismatic fourth episode, Watermelon Slim.
What begins as a phone call catching up on how the usually touring musician is dealing with the live-music lockdown evolves into a surprisingly poignant conversation surrounding his life, his murdered dog and his turnabout romantic aspirations. It’s a slice-of-life story with soul – call it a remedy for the blues.
In the Dark: Coronavirus in the Delta is one of three recommended podcasts that also include the popular This American Life and a new series from the actor Dennis Quaid, who chooses to spend his coronavirus downtime chatting with people like the wacky Gary Busey.
To be honest, I was only drawn to Dennis Quaid’s podcast because I had confused him with his gonzo older brother Randy Quaid. But, as it turns out, Dennis is interesting enough. Actually, The Big Easy actor fancies himself a Renaissance man, which is why he calls his interview series The Dennissance. And although Quaid isn’t as eccentric as his brother, last week’s guest Gary Busey is as nutty as a squirrel’s breakfast. Busey talks about past lives (he believes he fought at the Alamo), music (he once worked as Leon Russell’s drummer) and a motorcycle accident that left him with holes in his head and, he says, a changed brain. Sometimes Busey answers questions with “What?” So will the listener.
Blues songs, says singer-musician Watermelon Slim, are about one of three things: “work, relationships and death.” In a recent episode of In the Dark: Coronavirus in the Delta, Slim, who can out-Renaissance Dennis Quaid and who seems to have lived as many lives as Gary Busey (see above), talks to reporter Madeleine Baran about all of those things. Slim (born William P. Homans III, in 1949) has been a soldier in Vietnam, an anti-war activist, a truck driver and a watermelon farmer. As for death, his dog was shot to death a couple of years ago – he gets emotional when he talks about the senseless loss. As for relationships, he’s looking for a new kind of those. It’s a surprise revelation, and it’ll lift your heart to hear it.
A year ago This American Life told a story about an Amsterdam fire department beset by a macho, racist culture among its hose-holders. Because of the ongoing intensification of the Black Lives Matter movement, the 2019 episode, Burn it Down, was repeated this weekend. The parallels between the Dutch fire department and North American police forces are clear – in fact, it was the Amsterdam police chief who was brought in to change an archaic culture in which “angry white men” ruled fire houses as if their workplaces were their own castles. “All of us are going to act normal,” the incoming chief told his firefighters. Too much to ask for? Unsurprisingly, yes.
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