Archive for March, 2011

Passion

March 21, 2011

Last Friday, while watching GAC’s Top 20 Countdown I caught an interview Susanne Alexander conducted with Sugarland at the South Carolina stop on their Incredible Machine Tour. During the conversation, Kristian and Jennifer said something that thew me for a loop:

Kristian Bush:

“What It feels like to have a passion in your life is like no other thing. I’ve had this conversation with multiple people in the last couple of months. When you feel a calling to do something, no matter what it is, to some people it’s a hobby…someone identified it to me as when you loose time, when you do something and, oh man, how much time has just passed? Did we really just kill an hour? The passion part of it, that’s where your brain bends time and space and says, this matters and your heart is alive.”

Jennifer Nettles:

“It doesn’t have to be music, it can be anything for anyone. But I wish that more people could experience what that is and what that feels like and many people do in different ways. Some people do it with a family, some people do it in their hobbies…whatever it may be that gives you that sense of where you loose time.”

In reality, it’s passion that underscores all we do, the drive pushing us forward. I had never heard someone define it so succinctly before. To hear Bush say, “That’s where your brain bends time and space and says this matters and your heart is alive,” hit me like a brick wall over my head. I went to bed mulling it all and couldn’t wait to blog about it. What I know for sure is finding that passion is one of life’s greatest challenges.

Ironically, Sugarland are discussing passion at a time when critics are responding negatively their latest album’s attempt at creating a rock arena sound. I’ve been coming to their defense for months now – I happen to love their latest music because it dares to be different. It has a texture and a grittiness that helps it stand out from the pack. Their intent was to make sure they didn’t sound like everyone else and they succeed. I understand I’m in the minority here, but this is one example of where I’m glad the critics don’t have the final say. It’s up to the fans and rightfully so.

I had become worried that Jennifer and Kristian had changed, that their hearts were in another place than country music. Their constant covering of non-country material at concerts only added to my concern. Not that singing Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable” or Matt Nathanson’s “Come On Get Higher” was a bad move, they pulled them off brilliantly. But after watching their interview, I could tell I had nothing to worry about. Not only hadn’t they changed, they were the same duo who wowed the world with “Baby Girl” seven years ago. It made me happy to see their hearts, and their passions, lay with the Nashville music community.

Anyway, their quotes on passion got me to thinking about passion in my own life and the common denominator that defines everything I do – country music. It’s what drives my energy and keeps me alive. It’s as intrinsically a part of me as putting on a seatbelt when I ride in a car or eating food when I’m hungry.

I don’t remember when country music overtook me and became more than just noise from the radio, but it’s been the one constant in my life. I love writing about it (here and on various other blogs), discussing it, and debating the merits of it. Country music is my true love. I don’t (really can’t) go through a single day without it crossing my mind. I’m smiling right now as I write this. Country music makes me happy. It doesn’t matter if it’s as old as the hills, or just recorded in Nashville this morning, I love everything about the genre. I might not always agree with every production choice, vocal hysteric, or song lyric, but that doesn’t mean I exude any less passion for the music that built me.

For most people, they’re drawn to a form of music for the lyrical content or the emotional delivery. I’ve always found country music to be a feeling. When I discovered it, through Lorrie Morgan’s “What Part of No,” it felt like home. I don’t remember first hearing that song, or her Watch Me album, but it forever changed my thinking. The twang, fiddle, and steel guitar just felt like me. I can’t explain it any better than that.

It wasn’t until I started writing this blog that I was able to love country music so openly. I’d kept as my closely guarded secret for years not because I was scared of what others would think, but because it gave me a tinge of anxiety to talk about it openly with anyone. Growing up it was never a popular form of music to be a fan of. I remember, once, someone asked me who my favorite band was. I had to cover and say Smashing Pumpkins, because I was too scared to say Alabama. Why? Who the heck knows. Looking back at that memory, the word coward comes to mind. I knew the kid had probably never heard of them and I just wanted to get the conversation over with as quickly as I could. Believe me when I say, I know how this sounds – like something’s wrong with me. There’s no shame in liking (or loving) country music as I do, not then or now. People may make fun of my intense love of country, but I’ve gotten to the point where it only shows their ignorance. I can’t apologize for who I am nor would I want to if I could. See, country music is such a part of me, I’m paraphrasing the message Dixie Chicks were trying to get across in “Not Ready To Make Nice.”

Of course, living in Massachusetts isn’t exactly like living in the mecca of this great music, so I never would bring it up. It’s funny, though, as the years progressed, Massachusetts has become the mecca for country music. I shouldn’t be complaining anymore with my geographical closeness to Gillette Stadium. But, as I’ve beaten to death in the recent past, concerts at that venue haven’t helped uphold the ideals that keep Hank Williams from rolling over in his grave. Plus, you cannot have an intimate concert experience at a venue so vast. It’s impossible.

I live with the notion that everything in life happens for a reason (a cliché, I know) and that there’s no such thing as accidents or coincidences. In every moment of life exists a lesson we’re supposed to learn and adhere to. What was a simple interview conducted to plug both an album and a concert tour became transformative for me. I’ve been on a journey, going on ten months now, of trying to figure out how the rest of my life is going to turn out. I’m not willing to settle just to get by because life is too short. I’ve been exploring many career paths including both radio and journalism. And while I’m very happy at WATD, where I’m volunteering, I haven’t found that drive to push towards researching full-time employment. Not that I’m lazy or anything, I just haven’t found the passion I need behind of the careers currently on the table. I haven’t found that unique or exciting opportunity that’ll get me out of bed at any hour of the day or night.

But it isn’t the journalism aspect that isn’t working. As evidenced by what I’m doing right now, I know I want to write. It’s my preferred way of communicating. I can get all my thoughts out without having to hear what others have to say.  And country music is the most effortless subject for me to write about. While I still have much to learn, I already have a vast knowledge of facts and opinions I know most people around me don’t have a vested interest in hearing. And that’s fine because there are people out there who do. They may not be commenting on my blog, but I’ve written enough comments on other sites (really only Country Universe and The 9513) to know people exist. Heck, you couldn’t conduct two full features on the 100 Greatest Women and 100 Greatest Men in country music without caring even just a little bit. Kevin even admitted how much writing that would entail, not to mention a level of detail beyond the average listener or fan’s want to care.

After surveying all these blogs, I’ve learned that I want to shape mine differently. First of all, I’ve never considered this a country music blog. I do have many interests beyond music – I love television, reading, and watching movies. Heck, I even have thoughts outside of the entertainment industry. I want to keep it open to write about whatever I’m inspired by. It’s funny, and I say this all the time about songwriting, the best material comes from inspiration, not writing simply because it’s, say, Tuesday afternoon. When something hits or strikes you in just the right way, like the segment in the Sugarland interview about passion, I can go to town and the ideas just flow.

It’s funny, this whole entry is stream of conscious. I really have no idea what I’m going to say next. I write thoughts as they come pouring out of me. I’m trying my damnedest to be as honest as I can about what my true passions are because, well, it’s been ten months since I got my college degree and it’s time to get a crack on what I really want to do.

Maybe I have to be like every singer following a dream and relocate to Nashville. As I write that line, a nervousness comes over me. Now, I’m certainly not chasing a career in the music industry. I can’t sing and don’t have an ear for music in that way. But being a music journalist might be fun. Reviewing albums and singles and creating (and leading) discussions about country music. Maybe write for a magazine and cover country music for them? I don’t see myself going the Almost Famous route though. Following acts on tour just to get an interview is an exciting prospect but not what I’m cut out for.

It is ironic what Jennifer Nettles said in her quote, “It doesn’t have to be music.” But for me, it really is music. It’s been my passion my whole life and it hasn’t dwindled. Not even for a second. Like with everything in life, I have wanted to turn off country music for awhile out of tiredness, but every passion isn’t sustainable around the clock, 24 hours of every day/365 days a year. But I love country music just as much at 23 years old as I did when I was five. That’s really saying something. I don’t want to be miserable for the rest of my life in a career that won’t make me happy. In fact, it’s more I won’t let that happen for myself. Everyone has a dream and the least we can do is try and chase it.

What’s weird is, writing posts for this blog is where I’ve gotten that sense of lost time. I can be writing, look at the clock, and see that hours have past when it only feels like mere minutes. It’s the strangest thing when time gets bent like that. It’s a feeling I cannot describe. Now I have the seemly difficult task of turning my greatest passions into a career. It isn’t going to be easy but it’s always worth a shot.

Thank you, Sugarland for unleashing a monster within me. You’ve given me some clarity on the rest of my life.

ROOM makes for a dazzling read

March 15, 2011

© 2010 - Little, Brown and Company; 336 pages

If you’ve read Emma Donahue’s latest novel Room, you can answer the following question – how can you not fall in love with Jack? He’s the center of this powerful story of survival and contentment.

Room details the story of a woman, who at 19, was abducted by a man in a pick-up truck and forced to live as his hostage in an 11 x 11 foot room. The story begins when she’s 26, and her son Jack is about to celebrate his fifth birthday – in the only world he’s ever known. The woman, known only to the readers as Ma, has done her best to raise him as normal a child as possible. Jack is allowed to watch some TV (he loves Dora The Explorer) and was brought up to brush his teeth after every meal. His mother makes him exercise by sprinting around the room and makes him read to her.

Jack knows of only one other human, Old Nick as he’s called, the man holding them there. He comes in nightly to remind them of his stronghold over them, and after attempts to escape, Ma always obeys his orders. As in some small, mighty nice of you, act of kindness, Jack is allowed a weekly “sundaytreat” where he can ask for anything he wants or Ma can ask for anything she needs, such as new underwear. In truth they aren’t acts of kindness at all – sundytreats are his way of making sure nothing happens to them so either Jack or his Ma have to leave the room and blow the whole scheme.

Donahue is smart in writing Room – by making 5 year old Jack the narrator, the story has a childlike lightness and doesn’t get bogged down with the enormity of the situation. Her biggest challenge was to write in the voice of a five year old – something she masters with ease. From the opening paragraph – “Today I’m five. I was four last night, going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, two, then one, then zero. “Was I Minus Numbers?” –  Donahue hooks the reader and doesn’t lets go.

But she also never lets Jack seem naive. He very easily could’ve been brainless, but Donahue makes him smart and very advanced for his age. Ma doesn’t let Jack become a victim of his surroundings, just a prisoner of Old Nick. Luckily Jack has maintained his innocence and Donahue makes sure we never forget that our narrator is just a child. As with most five-year-olds, Jack asks a lot of questions, a fact that sometimes bogs down the story. You almost wish Jack would shut up and not always questioning everything. But it’s his inquisitive personality that enders him to all who read this story.

In a lot of ways, Room is an eyeopener. It puts a personal spin on child abductions and makes them all too real for the reader. To hear Ma talk about being tricked into Nick’s truck by his tale of a missing dog, is the classic scenario – one hard to believe anyone still falls for – yet there are people naive enough who do. No insight is given into why she didn’t run away back then, and Jack’s too young to ask the appropriate questions to help the reader understand.

What truly amazes me about Ma is ability to not only survive but thrive in a situation most people would feel powerless. Donahue never comes out and says it directly, but Jack is Ma’s savior, her vehicle towards pushing through the days. In fact, Room lacks much by way of religion and/or faith based healing. While conversations on the subject are kept to a minimum, we learn early on that Jack’s been taught to view the moon as the face of God. This lack of religion leads the reader to wonder about the role of a higher power in Jack and Ma’s lives. It seems they survive only because they need each other – Jack is an extension of his mother and Ma is an extension of her son.

My only slight criticism of Room is the length of the story. The novel moves along at what feels like a breakneck pace – it doesn’t stay on one subject for too long. It might simply be my habit of reading more drawn out novels, but the book did come off short; especially in the middle. Donahue seemed in a rush to end one conflict and begin another. In a weird sense, this book is a bit happier than the premiss suggests. While there is a fleeting, tense-filled act of terror at the hands of Nick, it’s just that – fleeting. I wish Donahue had slowed down the story and drawn out “Old Nick” a little more. It’s as if she began the novel after all the truly scary moments had ended.

But telling the story though the eyes of Jack gives Room it’s magic. The detriment of all artists is to find their voice, that unique quality separating themselves from everyone else. Donahue has found hers through the life of Jack. One look at the crayon illustration on the cover and you’re drawn to giving Room a second look. While it would’ve been easier to write from multiple voices and perspectives, finding that cohesive angle in Jack helps Room stay rooted in reality without becoming a victim of circumstance. Room is as much about captivity as it is about rebirth. It teaches everyone a valuable lesson about loosing everything you’ve ever known, only to find out exactly what you really need. I wouldn’t be shocked to see this on the short-list of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Music Review: Lori McKenna at the River Club Music Hall

March 7, 2011

Saturday night, March 5, marked Lori McKenna’s inaugural performance at the River Club Music Hall, an intimate 300 seat theatre in Scituate Massachusetts.  The perfect venue to showcase her raw sensibilities, and with its ceiling fans and stone fireplace, the River Club is ski chalet meets country roadhouse (and in the old Golden Rooster location). It’s very rare to have such an accommodating venue on the South Shore and my first visit won’t be the last. Plus, It’s an uncommon delight when someone of Lori McKenna’s stature tours near where you live. While on her website in late January, I browsed her tour dates thinking the closet would be Harvard Square or a folksy Boston club. Imagine my surprise when I found the date in Scituate, just 25 minutes from my home in Hingham. After falling in love with Lorraine, I didn’t hesitate to purchase tickets.

McKenna has a natural ease about her suited to smaller venues. When she opened for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill at the TD Garden in 2007, the enormity of the experience swallowed her whole and poorly showcased her talent. That performance was marred by appalling acoustics that drowned out her vocals. I’m not exaggerating when I say you couldn’t understand a word she was singing. McKenna was loosing herself but smartly found her way back. Her concert Saturday night not only fixed all those problems, but brilliantly showcased one of the best singer/songwriters I’ve heard in quite a long time. When Hill said we were fortunate to have her as a native daughter, she wasn’t kidding.

McKenna often sings about the disillusion of marriage and frequently takes the stance of an unhappy woman. While her songs speak to human experience, the way she spoke of her husband Gene was to see a woman deeply in love with her man. The  stories from her small-town life, like when she admitted to visiting her local Roche Bros supermarket 5-6 times a week, because she can’t seem to remember that Tuesday follows Monday, brought a homegrown authenticity to her performance. She may be a recording artist, but she’s also a wife and mother living as normal a life as you or I.

That homespun wisdom threaded together the whole set. Whether she was singing newer material like “The Luxury of Knowing” and “All I Ever Do” or classics like “Your Next Lover” and “Fireflies,” the audience could feel the emotion pouring out of her. This was never truer than on the heartrending show stopper, “Still Down Here” which also closes her latest album. Backed by only a piano (the one instrument she admitted to not knowing how to play) and Mark Erelli on guitar, she stood at the microphone with clasped hands and gave the song her all, even letting her voice crack as it went up an octave. She prefaced the tune by dedicating it to everyone, making it clear that the most outstanding music really is universal.

The always dazzling “Stealing Kisses,” was the only time in the night McKenna faintly mentioned her connection to Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. (Hill herself took the song to #36 in 2006). She mentioned always loving when the audience applauds at the beginning of songs, and urged everyone to do it as she launched into “Kisses.” We were all happy to oblige. It’s funny, it wasn’t until she sang this song at the TD Garden four years ago that I fully grasped its meaning. For some reason, the line “I was stealing kisses from a boy/now I’m begging affection from a man” went over my head. Now that I get that both the boy and the man are the same person, quiet desperation never sounded so good.

Another highlight came when McKenna spoke of her foray into the belly of the beast. She mentioned how she’s tricked well-known songwriters to visit Stoughton and write with her by making them believe her hometown is just like Boston. To get anyone to travel to Massachusetts to write with you is a marvel in itself. She faced an uphill battle yet won everyone over in the process, singling out songwriter Natalie Hemby, who co-wrote “White Liar” and “Only Prettier” with Miranda Lambert and the aforementioned “All I Ever Do” which appears on Lorraine.

The way McKenna spoke of her fellow songwriters including Hemby but also Andrew Dorff, brought a grounding to the evening. She unknowingly transported the audience to Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe, and made everyone wish they knew Dorff personally. He came off as quite the character, a common visiter in McKenna’s world. She told the story of how he visits her local Panera Bread for a well endowed waitress, and tried to get McKenna to write a song about her entitled, “Cross in the Cleavage.” She said no but urged Dorff to write it himself and get Toby Keith to sing it. After “Get Out of My Car,” Keith will sing anything, so you don’t know how much truth is in that statement.

What I took away from the show wasn’t the authenticity or homespun wisdom, but her natural ease on stage. With her friends and family in the audience, McKenna came off Loretta Lynn-esque – a hard working country gal doing what she loves on a Saturday night. More than a gig, it was a showcase for her wit and charm. Her looseness was quite surprising. After listening to her music I expected McKenna to be serious and almost brooding, yet she was very funny; almost like a very toned down version of Wynonna and Naomi Judd in their early days. McKenna sings about being a witness to your life, yet I felt like I was a witness to a bygone era in music. Nothing about her performance felt rehearsed or forced. Even if she’s been telling the same stories on stage every night, they felt as fresh as if she’d never told them before. McKenna is a treasure and should be treated as such.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about her opening act, Matt Chase, a singer/songwriter based in Boston. While he put in a solid performance, he overstayed his welcome by four songs and let his set get overrun with sameness. Let it be a lesson, and McKenna struggles with this herself from time to time, but singing every song in the same tempo with identical mellow and ease, doesn’t help you form an identity. While he has a distinct tone to his voice, it was all too mellow to make much of an impression. He did have one memorable moment towards the end of his set, though, when he sang a song about divorce entitled “Back My Name.” A country/rocker, I could see Vince Gill recording the tune and working his magic on it.

Another class makes its mark on history

March 5, 2011

The annual announcement of inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame is a cause for celebration. Honorees span the vast historical landscape of the genre and bridge together the generations who’ve kept country music thriving for well over a century. It’s a reminder that the past is still very much alive and the future remains bright.

Every year I go into the announcement with anticipation that someone I love is going to get their rightful place in the hall. This has been a more realistic expectation since the Hall added a “Modern Era” artist category in 2003, where singers I grew up with cement their place in country music history. It makes me very happy to see Alabama, George Strait, Vince Gill, Barbara Mandrell, Emmylou Harris, and others stand along side all the greats. They’ve earned their moment and it’s finally arrived.

Going in this year I had a laundry list of names I hoped would be called. I tend to root for women singers, and since it took 10 years between Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, I never bet they have much of a chance. But this year, all my hopes came to fruition. Not one, but two female artists are going to take their rightful place in the hall along side a gifted and still active songwriter. The class of 2011 is – Bobby Braddock, Jean Shepard, and Reba McEntire.

Braddock is one of the most important songwriters to make his mark in country music. His singular greatest achievement, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” is highly regarded as the greatest country song ever composed.

Written with Curly Putman, “Today” is the story of a man, who in death finally stops loving his ex-wife. When she hears he’s died, she comes to his funeral and “places a wreath upon his door.” By the end we learn that by “coming to see him one last time,” she’s “finally over him for good.”

As the story goes, George Jones, who’s recording made the song legendary, didn’t think “Today” would amount to anything because it was too sad. The song became a one-week number one and went on to win the CMA song of the year award in both 1980 and 1981. Jones was obviously wrong, and the song has become the epitome of a country classic.

The prestige of songwriting is all but gone in modern country, which makes Braddock’s induction both enduring and bittersweet. He’s written some very solid songs (“D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” “Time Marches On,” “I Wanna Talk About Me,” and “People Are Crazy”) and also produced Blake Shelton’s first three albums including his massive hit “Austin.”

Braddock’s songs have contributed to many different eras of country music and he’s become the only songwriter to score a number one hit in five different decades.

Without really knowing it, generations of fans have grown up with him. He was as popular in the 1960s as he remains today. In any field, that kind of success is what dreams are built on.

Braddock’s induction comes in a new category honoring songwriters. This is an important group because songs are the foundation of all music and songwriters make that happen. Without them, there wouldn’t be the music we’ve all grown to love.

Plus, there are many gifted songwriters in country music history that should see their names added to this list in coming years (induction in this category comes every third year). I would love to see Kostas, Gary Burr, Darrell Scott, Dallas Frazier, Dennis Linde, Matraca Berg, Mac McAnally, Bob DiPiero, and others get their rightful place in the Hall in the decades to come.

Shepard is the inductee I know the least about. A “girl singer” from the 50s-60s, she was a trailblazer who paved the way for artists like Loretta Lynn. When emcee Kix Brooks (yes, that Kix Brooks) was reading off her accomplishments and mentioned her signature hit “Dear John Letter,” I knew whom he was talking about. A member of the Grand Ole Opry since 1955, Shepard has been a force in country music for well over half a century. She was the first girl singer to establish herself outside a band and she also recorded Songs of a Love Affair, country music’s first concept album.

What really hit home for me was something she said in her speech at the press conference: “There was no $100,000, $200,000, $500,000 buses to ride in. There was no interstates. We traveled in a station wagon pulling a trailer. … Our reward was when we got to the date and got paid. Boy, that was a chore — getting your money. But we did it for the love of the music.”

Whenever I hear older singers talk about what it took to make it and the conditions of life on the road, I feel a profound sadness towards singers and entertainers of today. Artists like Taylor Swift, Brad Paisley, and Jason Aldean have the life of Riley compared to those who came before them.

The value of hard work is much different today and I would argue much easier. The comforts of today (million dollar tour buses, private jets, etc) have made everyone lazy.

Not that I want to go back to the conditions Shepard is talking about, but if anyone can speak to hard work it’s her. I remember a time, and it wasn’t that long ago, when country music singers weren’t celebrities; a time when you didn’t show up to the CMA or ACM awards in the latest Vivian Westwood or Pamela Roland dress fresh off the runway. Heck, when the Judds won the CMA Horizon Award in 1984 their gowns were homemade.

Country singers used to be authentic to experience because they’d lived. Traveling in station wagons pulled by trailers teaches you about life and dedication to your craft.

Shepard hit the nail on the head when she mentioned the common denominator – love of the music and respect for tradition. What it took to be a country singer in her era was a lot more than what it takes to be a country singer today. I know we live in a different world, but the points she was making are universal. Her greater point was about integrity, and that’s been missing since Nashville went Hollywood about 17 years ago.

The modern era inductee, and most famous of the three to today’s audience, is McEntire. An entertainer for more then thirty years, every project she’s done has been a success. Her masterpiece For My Broken Heart is the first country album by a female artist to be certified double platinum for shipments in excess of 2 million units.

When Brooks called her name, I was overcome with joy because McEntire has been a fixture in my life for as long I can remember. She’s the top female artist of the modern era, and is breaking boundaries by redefining a culture obsessed with youth.

In 2010 she began and ended with number one hits “Consider Me Gone” and “Turn on the Radio” and her concerts with fellow Hall of Famer George Strait and Lee Ann Womack is one of the top grossing tours of the year.

Brooks mentioned that McEntire was at a hospital in Tulsa with her father, who is in a coma following a stroke. Moments like that mark true character. Here is a woman receiving the greatest professional honor of her career, and she’s home with her family. It’s comforting to know that after all these years and unprecedented success, family still comes first. I would hope that McEntire’s absence stands as a lesson to everyone that dedication to your family always comes before devotion to your career. It’s family that’s going to be there once all the hits, platinum albums and industry honors become a thing of the past.

This year’s Hall of Fame inductees are two trailblazing female singers and a tunesmith who knows his way around a lyric. They have earned their place in history, not because of accolades or popularity, but because they embody the true meaning of country music. All three have endured because their contributions to the genre are timeless treasures.

While Shepard isn’t heard on country radio anymore, her presence at the Grand Ole Opry has turned many a fan onto her music. She displays her quick wit and spunk whenever she hits the stage.

McEntire still seems to be everywhere and won’t be slowing down any time soon. In about a month, she’s co-hosting the annual Academy of Country Music Awards with Blake Shelton. Her latest single, a cover of Beyonce’s “If I Were A Boy,” is making its climb up the charts.

And as for Braddock, it won’t be long before another of his songs is making its way to the number one. He may have done the impossible with “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” but he never let the success of that song define him. He’ll never write a song that genre defining again and he seems to understand it. Plus, it’s funny; he didn’t even think it was his time. Success hasn’t gone to Bobby Braddock’s head and he and country music are all the better for it.


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