Judge's great creation

“Tales From The Tour Bus” is necessary viewing for any halfway serious C&W aficionado. It presents wild anecdotes, told mainly by eyewitnesses, about the lives and misbehavior of classic country artists, in animated sequences that dramatize both the stories and the talkers. What might someone outside the fold make of it? I was swept away upon viewing the first episode, which focused on Johnny PayCheck (whose voice  does tend to sweep me away all on its own, I admit). Not since the early writings of Nick Tosches has such a skilled and sympathetic artist captured and communicated the peculiar attraction of hardcore country, its humility and humor, its heart-wrenching plain-spoken expressiveness, and above all, its usually hilarious and sometimes disturbing excesses. Like Tosches, Mike Judge unabashedly inserts his own voice (literally) into his work, amid the voices of the legends and loonies he’s documenting, although his persona is mellower than Nick’s and his portrayals are less acid-tipped.

 

I imagine the average consumer is welcome here. To find out better, I tested the Billy Joe Shaver episode on my 18-year-old, Tennessee. He seemed charmed and highly amused. Not that he would ever use such fey terms as “charmed” or “amused,” but his demeanor and non-verbal expostulations were those of a jungle savage enraptured by the tales of a colorful evangelist travelled from afar.  

 

To stand by that metaphor, the incredible content of the stories and the talent of the teller -- I mean Mr. Judge -- are what makes this show fly. Since I’ve never put together an animated show, I’m in no position to analyze closely how this one achieves its effects so well, but I’m going to take a couple stabs anyway:

 

Brevity/timing: When Billy Joe describes Hank Williams looking at him from the stage and his (10-year-old Billy Joe’s) intense feeling that Hank is singing right to him, the cartoon Billy Joe clicks into a sweet trance, which we see in close-up for about 1.5 seconds. Such a short cutaway effectively sacralizes the moment but avoids making one of those routine, unearned epiphanies in which TV comedies specialize.

 

Sources: The writer Jimmy McDonough, flanked by a creepy black cat on a desk, tells some stories on Tammy Wynette, and Billy Joe Shaver tells some on himself (which is fitting since he’s world champion at that). But most of the talking is done by close friends of the stars, by their hairdressers, by sidemen and road managers and cowriters and and codependents. In fact, the sidemen predominate, and this is a canny move, because these are the people who see the wildest shenanigans the closest-up and who can balance their suffering in the situations they describe with a deep appreciation of the inborn musical abilities of the people causing them to suffer. Also, musicians as a breed have an advantage over prose writers and maybe even hairdressers: they’re smart, worldly, salted-in-the-shell, and funny as hell. They’ve got the clearest from-the-trenches perspective. It’s frustrating that so much of the information we’re able to get on music artists we admire, and on the inner experience of creating and performing music, is filtered through corporate propagandists and dreamy deskbound pencil-pushers. And when the subject is alive, which is often when the interest is highest, protecting feelings and personal earnings is a priority. We’re living in a lucky sliver of time, in the sense that George Jones’s best friend, though aged, can talk candidly and completely on TV about being shot at by Jones at very close range, or his guitarist about Jones hurling a whiskey bottle hard at his head -- not to put too fine a point on it, but Jones’s aim was terrible.

 

Dramatization: I love watching stuff like “Country’s Family Reunion” (of whose existence we’re lucky, since, for among other reasons, “TFTTB” gets use of its footage), but animations are more animal-brain entertaining. The pace is brisker, and the stories are shaped and supervised by a first-rate dramatist. Scene recreations, such as PayCheck’s 1986 trial and sentencing for aggravated assault, lift the stories away from their narrators and thus let us bask in the amazingness of the incidents without worrying over the quirks and possible untrustworthiness of the tellers. Either Judge encourages his interviewees to do voice impressions or that’s the standard redneck way; whichever, it adds another layer of interest and wit.  Tastefully deployed props (McDonough’s cat, Linda Gail Lewis’s crucifix necklace), suspense-film tropes (Jones’s showpants-clad leg ominously padding through the dark on a drunken path through wet grass to beat up one of his players after a show), and a bevy of comic sound-effects (that same player creaming Jones with a metal door and Jones’s body hitting the grass) add to the fun.

 

Intercutting between storytellers: As we know from listening to nutty old war veterans, tales grow ever more danger-laden and bullshit-packed with the passage of years. Common sense says (and Jerry Lee Lewis, in a surprising moment, explicitly confirms) that there’s no way a lot of these events could have happened just as described. The participants would have been dumped into jail with no second thought, or maimed by Mother Nature, or shot by firing squad, rather than have gone on into old age enjoying esteemed careers as entertainers. But the intercutting, in which sentences within anecdotes are passed between separate interviewees, and details of anecdotes laid out by party A and commented on by a wholly-removed party B, does plant an insane seed of credence: maybe this shit is true!

 

Hyperbole eschewed: though the stories are exaggerated, the talents of the stars aren’t. Watching the show I’m reminded of how much empty folderol we have to wade through in trying to learn about the performers we love -- claims about who allegedly ranks where, and unconvincing efforts to pump up inert figures with gassy poetry. Actually, Mr. Judge slips once here, making a “best ever” sort of claim on Waylon Jennings that shines a little too hard a light on the showrunner’s own tastes -- and, after all, when the others on the shelf are Jones, PayCheck, Shaver, and Lewis, making merit-based comparisons is very silly. Besides that, though, no silly boasts mar the series at all. I finished the PayCheck episode thinking, “But they didn’t say anything about the main point and the reason anyone cares about the guy, which is how well he sang!” before remembering -- they showed him singing! They didn’t need to do more! Splendid.

 

Wiping from animated to non-animated footage at key moments: this is a powerful technique. Why, I’m not sure. Some of the press around the show has divulged the following incident, otherwise I’d feel I was spoiling it. PayCheck’s long-suffering manager, after disgorging a Decameron of bad behavior committed by his client, gets onto the subject of “Old Violin,” the post-prison composition in which Johnny goes head to head with The Distinguished Thing. The song is a masterwork, a privileged trip back behind the eyes of a man looking full on into the abyss that is surely devouring us all, and it’s made more powerful yet by the lack of artistic polish in the lyric -- on paper, it would be a pretty crude scrawl, but animated by the breath of the author, it springs into being with a pathos that is almost dreadful. Talking about it, the cartoon face of the manager emits a tear, at which point the animation gives way to the filmed face of the crying man. The power of this moment is as vivid as it is indefinable. If you’ll forgive an absurdly disproportionate comparison, I was reminded of the end of Schindler’s List, the old survivors in Israel at their families’ graveside, where the film quality goes to home-movie color -- the mask of art dropped to reveal humanity in its piteous, never-changing fragility.

 

Anyway: watch “Tales From The Tour Bus.”

mistah williams, he dead

Another day and another great passed into the darkness. This one's from my corner of the world, so, Steely Dan people, here's your chance to have at me!

Bill Friskics-Warren did the usual bang-up job in his obituary on Don Williams this morning, but he strikes a false note here:

"Singing in a warm, undulating baritone, he made marital fidelity not just appealing but sexy — as exciting, in its way, as the themes of cheating and running around that defined the classic honky-tonk music of the 1950s and ’60s."

Cheating was a subject in some 1950s C&W but, for a time in the 1970s, it was the subject; thus Don found his highly individualized niche. His brand, which was startlingly developed with his first solo record ("Come Early Morning," "Endless Sleep," "No Use Running," "Amanda," what a roster) stood apart not only because of its soothing moral wholesomeness. Where other country music of its era was, at one end, showily and densely orchestrated in the Atkins or Sherrill manner, or, at the other, apt to nod opportunistically at the guitar tones, kick drum weight, and machismo of contemporary rock a la Waylon or Paycheck, the sound Allen Reynolds and Garth Fundis achieved for Don was spare and as maximally reserved as commercial music can get. It turned the heat way down on the emotions, the image enhancements, the hot licks, the volume, and even the narrative drama. "Exciting, in its way" -- I guess; but I doubt many popular music listeners would find this music exciting in any way. It's so bold in its unexcitingness as to create a new category of fascination.

Lloyd Green said that when he arrived at the studio to work on that first record, Reynolds and Fundis worked with the players to take away more and more from the playing. They kept at it for two weeks. "Just when it seemed the architecture would collapse of its own insubstantiality, that's when we said: 'stop there -- that's our sound,'" Lloyd recalled, if I remember his words very closely. The story may seem slightly too pat to credit, but no one could doubt listening to Don's music that his settings were fashioned with tremendous care, that they sounded like nothing else out there, and that these guys were bucking the trend.

One of my favorites is "I Believe In You," written by Roger Cook and Sam Hogin. The rhythm section groove is positively wild in its lack of pizazz. It's hard to find a more descriptive word than "white" for it. I suggested to some songwriters the other day (they were all white, of course) that they should consider aping the slang and cultural eccentricities of their own tribes, whatever they may be, rather than taking the easy and common path of mimicking black language and vocalizing. No one's likely to take that advice, since it means turning away from so much verbal invention and, really, so much of the best that American musical history offers. "I Believe In You" runs at whiteness full-force and without apology or equivocation. It cuddles up in its pajamas, settles back in its Barcalounger, pats its little paunch, raises aloft its cutely stencilled ceramic cup of hot cocoa, and smiles serenely, "I believe in Mom and Dad, and I believe in you."

Two more of my faves are "It Only Rains On Me" and, as I slyly mentioned in the liner notes to Georgia Hard, "Good Old Boys Like Me," both from Portrait. Songs like these established Bob McDill's writerly voice in country. McDill's breakout, "Come Early Morning," made a good complement to Don's minimalistic aesthetic, because its lyric held back any sparkling details. The narrator was running down a back road and feeling kinda lonesome; other than calling his girl "honeydew" he risked no fancy, or even specific, disclosures -- the scene in this song could be Maine or Cuba or the inside of your head. ("Some Broken Hearts Never Mend" and "It Must Be Love" were just two subsequent DW hits to follow this austere template. One adjective less and the building collapses.) I'd guess this was a conscious application of songwriter diction to production and vocal style, because old Bob had a lot more methods up his sleeve. "Good Old Boys" has as much exquisitely chosen detail (Tennessee Williams, the upwardly-mobile sloughing-off of the Southern accent, John R., the type of tree and the type of whiskey) as any country song ever has had, and it marshals these details in the service of an artistic effect as total and profound as any has attained.

Among the what-a-grumpy--old-man-am-I propositions that I audaciously offered my songwriting group the other day was: "Popular music emphasizes bragging more than ever before; I miss humility as a dominant shade." The bragging of course goes way back, but how many contemporary analogues to "I'll Be True While You're Gone," "Are You Tired Of Me," "Blue-Eyed Elaine," "Till The Best Comes Along," "Before The Next Teardrop Falls," "Let's Say Goodbye Like We Said Hello," or "Walk Through This World With Me" can be drummed up? To this roll any number of Don's forty-five top-10 hit songs can be added. "Amanda" expresses tender and genuine regret that the lady was robbed by Fate of finding a more gentlemanly beau than the singer. "Lord I Hope This Day Is Good" finds him apologizing to God for feeling a touch blue. 

Not that self-crafted humility can't ever get cloying, or that the Don Williams show wasn't an "act," but given that it was presented so skillfully, and seemed so in tune with the natural personality of the singer, this music made itself globally felt, expressing some of the finest attributes and governed emotions to which all of us -- especially we men -- can aspire. My friend Don Lewis was in a remote Ethiopian village when he happened to overhear two men arguing almost violently over whether a voice on a boombox was Don Williams's. "I have all his CASS-ettes," said one, fists clenched on the table, "and that is NOT Don Williams!" It seems Don made a big noise in Ethiopia, and possibly other African countries, by presumably the same means as Jim Reeves in Nigeria -- a smooth slow singing voice and a record label that had too much product on its hands. But the connection goes wide and deep; I had a cab driver in Denver a few years ago who was Ethiopian and also so crazily fond of DW that he exulted for 15 minutes nonstop. 

Like Fitzgerald's Jazz Age short stories, or Horton Foote's plays about Texas, this music, I believe, will long retain its quality of somberly and photographically capturing a particular time and place (the 1970s in white middle-aged middle-class America) while, by mysterious contrast, seeming timeless.

my little town

I was walking the dog a couple weeks ago when the title popped into my head for some reason. It's been a while since 1975, and so I decided to see how much I could remember of "My Little Town." I'm sure I must have heard it now and then since the 1970s, but it wasn't a big hit and I haven't spun the Still Crazy After All These Years LP since at least the early 1980s. "If this is a masterfully-wrought song," I thought, "I'll be able to bring back most or all of it," and so I did -- but only the words. The words, because of their inherent emotionalism as well as, I suppose, some random and distant memories they evoked, brought a chill to my neck. It's a beautiful and exquisitely sensitive American landscape, a picture of every boy's life in every small town, drawn by Norman Rockwell with Charles Whitman lurking behind the trees. 

For all that, though, parts of the melody escaped me. The contours I pretty much retained, but without a guiding instrument, I was led into some dead ends where I had clearly aimed too high or too low. Once home I picked up a guitar and tried to tamp down the bumpy spots -- "And he used to lean upon me" and "Flying my bike," for instance. Couldn't nail it down, put the guitar away and forgot about it for awhile.

Sometimes when I'm working on a song and hit a wall I sneak away from the notebook and do other things that are related to music and so in some way justified activities, but are really just time-killers delaying my return to the dreaded page. In fact that's why I'm writing on my blog now! Last month I was stuck while songwriting in a hotel room and I suddenly decided to chart "My Little Town" off of youtube. The results are very interesting. The Nashville number system wasn't made for songs like this but I'll include it (omitting compounds and altered bass roots for simplicity) with the chord names below just to buttress a point. Here's the first 1:42 of the song:

E (II)                

In my little town...

Em (ii)        Asus A (V)          

I grew up believing

D (I)                 Bm (vi)    Am (v)

God keeps His eye on us all

F (bIII)               C (bVII)         C+                  E7  (II)                  A (V)

And He used to lean upon me as I pledged allegiance to the wall

Bm (vi)   E (II)                A (V)

Lord I recall, in my little town

                        A/G#  F#m (iii)          

Coming home after school

Am (v)     D (I)                                  G (IV)       E (II)      F (III)

Flying my bike past the gates of the factory

Bb (#V)                   F (III)  F+                 A7 (V)                   D (I)

My mom doing the laundry, hangin' our shirts in the dirty breeze

                   G (IV)                                                                    D (I)

And after it rains there's a rainbow, and all of the colors are black

      A/E (V/II)                         D (I)

It's not that the colors aren't there

                  G (IV) Dmaj7 (I) E (II)

It's just imagination they lack

                           Em (ii)      A (V)            D (I)

Everything's the same back in my little town.

Hello, Berklee School of Fucking Music! First off, look at the numbers. The system presupposes a stable key center but nothing stays stable for more than several seconds here; calling C flat-7 when it's really -- briefly! -- the new I or at least quasi-tonic, et cetera, makes an absurd hash of the numbers. People (like me) who lean on numbers or at least have them somewhere in mind at all times while composing are thus at a disadvantage in some styles of writing; the system, too ingrained, can be a roadblock. I've always tended to think of popular-music compositions that baffle the number system as veering away from the guitar, as likely having been composed at the piano, but that's not obviously true here; in fact my strong suspicion is that the song was written on a guitar, using two nice tricks that facilitate all this modulating. And by the way, just how much modulating? The key center in "My Little Town" changes 6 times in its first 1:14!  Since Barry Beckett's intro takes a little time, that sums to 7 key centers in 49 seconds. (Specifically: E to D ("God keeps"), to C ("lean"), to A ("wall"), to G ("factory"), to F ("laundry"), back to D ("breeze").) It has to be a record. $20 to any intrepid reader who finds a song with as many or more in a shorter span.

One of the tricks I'm referring to is easy -- changing a major I to a minor that becomes the supertonic or ii of the new key (formerly bVII, now I). That's exemplified in the first mod: piano chord on E; vocal "in my little town; piano chord E-minor; we're off to the new key of D. The other trick is extremely fantastic and not nearly as often used. ($9 to any reader who....) This is modulating I to VI via the augmented-fifth over the first of the keys. We're in C at the "lean upon me" lyric. Now the G# is added to the C to augment the 5th. At this point the chord is composed of three tones: E, G#, and C. Do you see the genius here? We are a hair's breadth away -- a half-step, which in western music is a hair -- from an E triad (E, G#, B). E serves as the V to the A, and voila, we're now in A. (Making the E an E7 is only slightly less subtle, and the whole-step and half-step parallel shift are crazy-beautiful.)

The above is less than half the song in length but is the section that delivers the point, and the point is -- where is the popular music of similar complexity and harmonic ambition these days? I resist these old-man outbursts and try to recognize them as a perspectival limitation, almost a neurological flaw...but in the case of elaborate harmony invention I think a lot has been lost in the sphere of -- let me stress -- commercial popular music. As the above illustrates, the era from Revolver to punk music might have been if anything more harmonically adventurous than the Great American Songbook era. With Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, and Brian Wilson at the wheel, a lot of radio music in the late 1960s started sounding less like rhythm changes and the blues and more like symphonies. Then it stopped. 

I really should get back to my writing now. More on "My Little Town" in a day or two. As usual any terminological clunkers or blind-spots in my reaches for a technically precise language are attributable to my complete lack of formal education, and I welcome corrections.

 

opry

Thanks to all who listened to the show tonight on the radio, and to all who suggested songs to play via Facebook and Twitter. I truly did not expect that volume of titles. The number of people who pulled for "I Just Want To Meet The Man," "Needed," and "Katy K" got me thinking hard on those three as alternates to the two I had in mind, "The Buck Starts Here" and "Long I Ride"; and Katy won out due to: vocal harmony, tempo, overt goofiness, recent-album promotion.

I'm in bed now, post-show, thinking about the people I should have hobnobbed with and didn't: Jeannie Seely (who deadpanned a fascinating and spiritually depressing number, nominally satirical, about old people, namechecking Mylanta and pretending to almost say the word "fart"), Eddie Stubbs, Bobby Osborne, Connie Smith, and the blonde members of a visually intriguing group called "Post Monroe." On the other hand, I did get around to some brief but qualitative time with Darrin Vincent and Jamie Dailey (real good guys), George Gruhn (who tried superhard to get me to buy a new Martin dreadnought made of Adirondack spruce and some weirdly rare Central American mahogany), Mark Wills, and King Williams.

Tomorrow I'm writing songs with Logan Ledger and David Grier, and either writing the sequel to "Cocktails" with, or simply having cocktails with, Bill Anderson, it remains to be seen and I will fill you in shortly, keep tuned....

southbound

A quick reminder, as I'm on my way out the front door, that I'm off on my more-or-less annual southeast jaunt this week. Joining me will be Scott Simontacchi on mandolin, Dennis Crouch on bass, and Shad Cobb on the 4-string fiddle. We'll hit Greer SC tomorrow, then Durham, Charlotte, and Decatur, and wind up on Saturday at the Opry; further microdetails on bandsintown and Facebook and et cetera. Since the southeast US is the historical wellspring of my music these occasional trips pull a little heavier on my heart -- and, ahem, a good turnout is especially heartening for those same sentimental reasons.

After that, a little writing in Nashville, including a session with one of my favorite guitarists on the planet, David Grier. David's writing vocal numbers for his next record and I couldn't be more thrilled to lend a hand, or see if I can at least. Then I'll be back home in about a week and in touch about whatever subject comes up next....

riding with the kings

As I mentioned at the City Winery show in Chicago, people kept dropping me lines last week, the week of my Flinner/Pikelny/Crouch/Cobb dates. My brother was the first one, texting me the day before I left home, "Have fun with that sick band!" He's a concert violinist, which puts him at a decided distance from the F/P/C/C idiom and language, but prodigy playing translates easily across idioms. I took him to SPACE in Evanston a couple years ago to see Noam play bluegrass with Barry Bales, Ronnie McCoury, Luke Bulla, and Bryan Sutton, and his jaw was knocked off by Noam's soloing. "I didn't know that could even be done," I think was his remark. Those were my thoughts exactly on hearing Doc and Merle Watson's sped-up version of "Black Mountain Rag" on their 1971 live record, or Tony Rice's solo on "Dawg's Bull" seven years later, or any of the four members of the reconstituted New Grass Revival in 1981 at the Bottom Line... 

That was as clean and fast and thrillingly fresh as playing could be, back then. Now, thirty-some years on, I had players of like prowess at my service, challenging my hands and mind and enacting my scripts. Along with our good-looking soundman, Pierce, we were: Shad Cobb, Robbie Fulks, Matt Flinner, Dennis Crouch, Noam Pikelny. If you write songs (I thought this to myself in the form of universal advice one day at the wheel of the van) you should imagine that one day they'll be played by the most amazing players living, just to goad your creative powers and sense of quality control to the nth. As the changes in my songs went past during performance, especially on the older songs, I perceived them from the minds of those around me and thought, "Hmm."

The Hegelian idea of the self-aware consciousness among others, each calling itself by the same letter, "I," recurred during the week. On Friday my friend Kevin in North Carolina Facebook-messaged, asking how the shows were going. I replied that from my personal POV, it was like making love to both Naomi Watts and Myrna Loy. "What a crude and perfectly unilluminating response," I thought the moment after sending. But later I reflected that the comparison contained an offshoot which was a little illuminating. The awkward fact of having to appear naked before a hotly desired stranger is a contingency that is usually overlooked in the heat of pursuit. My keen anticipation of the performances obscured the inescapable fact that I would be a member of the quintet myself. In that role, standing there at the helm, I would be hearing myself play with them -- crucially, hearing myself not only through my ears but theirs. Away from the stage I would also be seeing things through their eyes: scheduling and quotidian administrative matters, interactions with venue personnel, my parallel parking skills, green rooms.

No one complained about this stuff. Nor am I bad at parking or planning. (Nor, I hasten to add, and implore you to remember as I continue these tales, is prodigy playing the worthiest sort of playing!) I'm a conscious being, however, sometimes cripplingly so. When you add the observing minds of fellows you admire onto a hitherto thoughtless routine, you may feel ice forming in your veins. It's Myrna Loy in your arms -- deliver the goods, meathead! Personally, I had mainly onstage ice. My soloing throughout the week was much more inhibited and clumsy than I had counted on from having exercised pretty rigorously for two weeks leading up to the dates. My hands had adequately limbered but my head threw me a little. Of the useful lessons to derive from this, "Be more secure in your own abilities" is probably least implementable, since I've been insecure for 54 years now -- and to some degree it's helped me to be that way. "Get more comfortable with those exact people by playing with them more" is a better way to go. That aside, I like to remember that creating intentional discomfort or challenge for yourself is a piece of the puzzle too. I'm always on the lookout for stimulating new people to play with!

When you're young, that goal is pretty cheap and easy. No more. An outing like last week's -- six men with established careers, 3 wives and 5 mortgages among us, traveling hundreds of miles and sleeping in places where rodents don't lurk -- I couldn't afford to do too often, even if the players' schedules allowed, which they wouldn't. But I was more than happy to consider the cost not only a payment for a delightful experience but a kind of educational camp for myself, or weeklong lesson. I hadn't had a lesson in some time, and I knew I'd gain all sorts of invaluable nuggets: practice techniques, recording strategies, names of artists to seek out, philosophical chew-toys.

The first time I met and worked with Dennis was in 2003, on the Johnny Paycheck tribute record, Touch My Heart. At the end of the four days of tracking, as he was packing up his bass to leave, I thanked him for what I'd learned from him. For instance: be more attentive to the marriage of the bass pattern and the left hand of the pianist on a country shuffle. The simple things can get away from you. When they do, or even when they don't, it's good to hear them stated aloud from the mouth of a wise musician. In that vein, Dennis told a story in the van about a producer sitting alongside Allen Reynolds, the distinguished producer of Don Williams's and Garth Brooks's innovative recordings among hundreds of others. The man asked Allen, "Do you prefer that a song fade out or have a formal ending?" Allen answered, "I like music that feels good."

Not to overexplain, but the point of that story is that most of the nerdy questions you can ask in working on music -- and they are beyond number -- are reducible to much simpler questions, and the ultimate arbiter being the subjective mind or heart, none of these questions is answerable with technical precision.

Already my week's expenses are being recouped.

On Monday, after meeting one another at Matt's place in Nashville and rehearsing for a couple hours, we tracked a song at Sound Emporium.  Amy Allison, my dear friend and the daughter of the late great Mose, had asked me to do a song for a tribute record to her dad. After weeks of waffling, I went with "My Brain." It probably wouldn't make my top 5 list of Mose Allison favorites, but it's a delightful tune with a transparent 8-bar structure that I thought would lend itself to the situation: an ad hoc ensemble blowing at a quick tempo and getting decent unforced-sounding results in an hour. (Despite that reasoning, I did end up altering the chords slightly in the direction of complexity.)

I had asked for a close-circle set-up sans headphones, which is always my presumptively favored set-up with acoustic string instruments. When I wasn't paying attention, Dennis plugged in, augmenting his miking with a direct line. I noticed on the first playback that we weren't as locked in as we could be, and Dennis remarked that the sound in the room had been hitting him a little late. All of this proved to be related, and Dennis and I talked about it briefly the next morning. I said I was surprised he'd admit a direct input into the situation. (In fact, I would have argued with it if I'd known, but the main reason I didn't know was that so little of it was used in the mix, not nearly enough to sully the listening experience.) Dennis said that the room's set-up (close-circle, a dozen or so mikes) called for two courses of action, both of which were to me strange and outside my thinking. First he needed to use more than just his ears and time-sense to play accurately in the room, since without headphones the information was getting to him late in the time it took to travel across the room. Second, he needed the pickup to help give his notes a "point," given that the many other mikes were registering his sound at different times and effectively scattering his attack. "So going without the headphones..." I said. "That's kind of a myth," he replied, "because in the classic era they tended to use headphones. People tend to think they didn't, but they usually did."

All of this is very easy to understand. It's understood, for instance, by terrible players and terrible engineers! And it's knowledge that, if used very dogmatically or without reference to how things sound in the moment, perpetuates a lot of mediocre music. If a lesser player had used these ideas to make the case for a direct line to me, I'd have quashed them with little consideration. There are reasons, I believe, beyond bass tone subtleties to perform without headphones, and they're good reasons (comfort of most of the players, creating a normalized playing space recognizably related to real life outside a tracking room). There are also good reasons not to have some players on headphones and others off. But I always feel it's foolish not to defer to master musicians on points like these, because there's a good chance they're right. Also, I always have the solid insurance that anything played by a Dennis Crouch, regardless of the fine points of instrument or room or gear or miking, is going to sound better than the same thing played by almost any other string bassist.

The experience gave me a few more small ideas to chew on. Dennis knew without my saying that our shared mental reference point was the excellence of small-group acoustic records from the 1950s through the 1970s. Something about the clarity of his point and the speed with which he delivered it made me think he had delivered it many times before. I'm very curious to know how fully true it is. Was Hartford's Morning Bugle recorded with phones? Skaggs's Bluegrass Rules? Doc Watson's Two Days In November? What about the classic records by Jimmy Martin, Jim and Jesse, et al? Probably Dennis has the answer to all these questions, but if readers do, please let me know.

On Tuesday morning, after our session, Shad texted me that he was suffering greatly from toothache and had scheduled a last-minute root canal for the following morning which would probably make him a little late for practice. I was sitting in a squalid resort hotel near Opryland and had minor aches of my own, having had too much cheap beer the night before at a dinner with a recently-fired member of Dwight Yoakam's road band. I had gotten back to my room a little after hours and was having trouble getting out of that cocooned zone where you disdain physical exercise and guitar practice in favor of meaningless emails and Isabelle Huppert movies on Amazon. Some of my emails were more artful and involving than the lousy Isabelle Huppert movie, which put aside plot or character or ideas in order to flatter non-French people with portrayals of French life as dull-witted non-French people might conceive it. 

In the event, Shad did show up on time for rehearsal. His endodontist had advised that instead of root canal, the molar, which was cracked in half, needed pulling. Shad was quietly in pain through that night's show, and he hadn't slept much in several nights. In the green room afterward, he said he might miss the drive to Cincinnati next day if he couldn't schedule the extraction first thing next morning. This precipitated a small lapse in my bandleader skills, for I replied (after an appropriate expression of concern): OK, then I'll arrange the rental car and I'll see you, fingers crossed, after soundcheck tomorrow but in time for our set. What I should have said was, Who among us can drive a fellow human being who has just had his tooth pulled to Cincinnati? Luckily Noam piped up: "I'd better drive him to Cincinnati, because he'll just have had his tooth pulled." And he deftly made the rental arrangements with a few simple strokes. 

One result of that was that the Thursday drive, Cincinnati to Columbus, was the first one with all six of us together. It was then that the mesh of personae assumed focus. Shad kept his own counsel. Matt was laid-back and soft-spoken. Noam laid if anything even farther back and, when he wasn't doing private listening on his laptop, spoke with the almost comically relaxed yet sharply logical authority of a commercial airline pilot. Dennis was the dominant personality, and he did his talking largely in the mode of wide-rambling, earnestly rendered, Arkansan anecdote. The anecdotes featured singers and players behaving in memorable ways and were in no hurry to get to the end. It was lucky he was there because without him the rides might have gotten a little sepulchral.

People who read books by people like Keith Richards to get an insider glimpse of the machinery and minutiae of popular music would be better advised to read books, if they wrote them, by guys like Dennis and Noam. Marquee figures have seen music only from one very particular angle; their personalized and protected aesthetic, and their often limited knowledge of musicmaking as a craft, hobbles their judgments and opinions. A prodigious player who works a variety of sessions and road gigs, in support of the marquee names, has a more Olympian view of the game, having ventured deep into disparate musical mindsets; and s/he has a much more concrete and nuanced understanding of everything from leading tones to standing waves. If I'd had Elton John in the van I'd have gotten a deep look into the mind of Elton John, but with Dennis in the van you can get passing looks into the minds of Elton John, Jerry Reed, Ralph Stanley, Sting, Hoot Hester, Tom Petty, Bobby Bare, David Mansfield, Diana Krall, Don Henley, Stuart Duncan, just on and on. That's a better -- more educational and entertaining -- bargain, and with some of those names, I mean the rockstar ones, a passing glimpse is all I want, if that.

Dennis and Noam were the two of us who had spent the most time in the stratosphere of wealth and acclaim and abundant on-the-job amenities, and I thought that it showed in their imperturbable relationship to the world of sensation, their stolidity against people who threw meaningless complications in their paths, their easeful talent for concentrating on unsexy essentials. If you make it to a certain stratum in the business, and have mastered your instrument, and have strong raw intelligence, things are a lot less likely to get to you. The line of Bob Dylan's, "I've dined with kings, I've been offered wings/And I've never been too impressed," has stayed with me through the years both because it sounds starkly true and because the shrugging non-poetry of the second line is daring in its way. The thought came unbidden to me, after the first day with my quintet, that nothing I could conceivably say would impress anyone in the van. It was a healthy reminder not to try to impress people generally, or rather, to impress them only by virtue of your simple clear language and your polite refusal to be drawn into anyone's bullshit.

Then the thought came to me that success in the arts might come at the cost of never again being credibly able to say things like "Oh my God!" and "Wow!" But that's a small price to pay. Most grown-ups who say those things are probably insincere, and definitely annoying.

As I wrote in another post, I'd never met or played with Matt, had played with Noam only three times at shows across several years, and played on two records with Dennis about 15 years back. So these three were my wild cards. I had various musical impressions of them through the week. I think that Dennis might take the prize for sheer attentiveness. He seemed to have listening skills that were closer to a lower animal than a civilized human. After the first show, one of the quintet (I'd better not say who because he works with other bassists) said to me, with what passes for awe in a man who abjures "Oh my God": "I think Dennis has to be the best bassist I've ever played with."

On the one hand, the bassist enjoyed and employed space. He'd ground a chord with a pillowy fat note, then lay back and let the note die as the rest of the measure ambled by. On the other, it gave him clear and consistent pleasure to do the grounding in mediants and dominants, and to make cocky, lightly surprising moves that let you know he was alert and unworried.

Matt proved to be one of the best I've heard at on-the-spot composing. Give him 16 bars and he'd respond with a story, one so thoughtfully structured that it sounded impossible to have done on the fly. He may have had the most ingrained melody-love of any of us as soloists; and his light right hand, I supposed, had the effect of masking any effortfulness of thought.

About Noam, I can hardly add much to the record, but I could repeat an earlier proposition I put out about his frequent collaborator Chris Thile, that he sounds like he strives to tax his own ingenuity, to paint himself deliberately into tough corners -- via bright tempos, journeys to the nether-reaches of the fretboard, displaced 32nd-note filigrees from which an ordinary man could hardly recover. He also has a way of reflecting and honoring the recent American history of his instrument (Scruggs, Reno, Keith, Trischka, Fleck), showing equal love of, for instance melody and roll, old-school drive and mellow impressionism, diatonic and chromatic, and -- I'd say "speed and space" but, fuck man, ain't no equal there, he likes to go at it fast.

There was a small moment in a bar Wednesday night with Noam that interested me. We were hungry just before midnight, but it was Cincinnati and local authorities had put provisions under lock. We ended up at a filthy joint that served five kinds of "steamed sandwiches," which were prepared by an angry person to the beat of a modern song titled, if memory serves, "Bitch Suck My Fuckin' Dick Or I Kill U." People in the iron grip of whiskey and black tar heroin were passed out along the sidewalk, and Noam and I felt that a nightcap was fitting. Our bartender was a stout bald beady-eyed man with bad knees who was still agitated over the whole Ronald Reagan thing. He left us alone for minutes on end, then would catch some stray word in our conversation, such as "Trump" or "music," and, as though he were an improv comic and we an audience providing prompts, begin a long rant. I had just said "Beautiful" to Noam, in lieu of "Wow," in response to something or other he'd said.

"Beautiful!" the bartender bellowed, materializing suddenly. "Everyone goes to Beautiful! Not me. It starts at 7, I'm working at 7." Then he zoomed away on those knees of his.

"I do want to see that," I said to Noam, "because I'm crazy about Carole King." But, guess what -- he hadn't heard about Carole King. "She's a songwriter, just a great fabulous songwriter," I said, forgetting for a moment that nothing was impressive. Noam waved his hand near his head to show that much of popular culture flowed around his person like water and there was no sense trying to dam it all just to examine a few shiny fragments -- I think that's what the wave meant. A tuned-in musician, alert to a hundred styles and historically aware, who only now heard about Carole King! I felt some excitement on behalf of my friend, for there are certain music experiences I've delayed for years, like Don Byron's tribute to Mickey Katz, in the certain knowledge of future pleasure. No one can keep up with everything, probably in previous times and certainly in these times; and where musicians' blind spots are is at least as interesting as what they're deep into. Anthony Wilson and Gregory Porter were two of my blind spots, by the way. During the week there was excited talk about them, and I made sure to note the names. Also Matt strongly recommended Butch Robins's record, The Fifth Child

We were soundchecking at the bar in Indianapolis when Noam mentioned that the noise from the refrigeration unit sounded untenable. It was making a weird vibratory clash with the Bb notes off our instruments. "Would it be OK not to do this show at 440?" he asked. The notion was sufficiently foreign to me that he had to show me how to reset my Snark clip-on tuner to another pitch standard. We tried 441 but the clash was still there. 442, not much better. Meanwhile, I couldn't even hear the noise in the room that was so offensive to the others! Songwriter deafness. (And actual deafness, as my ears have dulled over time, regrettably.) At 443 we were in the clear, and so we all tuned to that. Stepping off the stage, I finally heard the hum that was bothering everyone else. Once I heard it, I couldn't stop hearing it. "Now I'm really in Indiana," I thought, "because if I don't either leave or play some real loud music, I'm gonna go bonkers." Anyway, we did our show in 443, one more unique feature of the week. I thought my throat would detect the difference, but that's really bonkers. There are no doubt people out there who record in pitch centers that are off-standard a couple cents, in the blatant hope that it will arrest the public's unconscious ear. Screw them.

After our Chicago show I noticed a kid, about 15, with long shaggy hair, hanging around Noam. You got the feeling some inside stuff was going on. I saw my fiddler friend Matt Brown and asked who the teenager was. "That's the next Noam Pikelny," said Matt. What a thought. Evidently the kid had learned "Waveland," the first tune off Noam's latest record, by heart and had performed it in public flawlessly. This is the thing about Chicago, for the acoustic/country-ish devotees, and it's the same thing as in Wheeling W.Va. or almost anywhere else. You learn the ropes the only way you can, by transcribing records, reading books, practicing alone, going to see whoever passes through town. Then you have to move somewhere else to get into the business of music and to shake off your bondage to other people's styles. If you don't move where the other musicians are, it's really tough to progress, to shake off the chains.

I want to close these rambling thoughts with two points, based on my observations of these high priests. They're more or less addressed to an imaginary young person who's attracted to this scene. They're both simple obvious points, but again, it's good to say them aloud.

Get used to the idea that the real-world economic hierarchy that exists in the arts isn't your "real world." When one of the guys in my van told a story about a famous rock star he'd worked with, the story might center on the character's acting like an ignorant jerk, or on his turning out to be a swell smart guy. But then the next story would be about an obscure hillbilly picker with one of the same two attributes, and would be related with the same intensity. The interest wasn't based on the flimsy status of star but the honorable status of musician -- and, those categories aside, good playing is always good playing and asshole is always asshole. The terms in the above series, running from Elton John to Stuart Duncan, are of equal potential weight and interest -- right up to the point where one of them plays something stupid or throws a talkback mike at your head. You need to live in an imaginary land where you can't read the pricetags on the names, where your immersion in music that almost no one else values doesn't cause you a moment's perturbation. Once you create that land it can actually exist, sort of. It did for us all last week.

You should maximize your daily engagement with music. Performing and learning songs don't make a complete day of work. Shad and Noam wake up in the morning and start playing. Then in the van they listen to, talk about, and think about music. (The thinking is a crucial part of the regimen.) Arriving at the venue, they play music some more, up to soundcheck and, after dinner, up to showtime. Then, for all I know, back at the hotel, instead of zoning out to the charms of Isabelle Huppert, they play some more goddamned music. If you're playing 6 or 7 hours a day, then the hour or two you're on stage won't loom quite as large, and as a result you'll play better in the gaze of an audience. Honestly, the time commitment is a factor that impedes my own development, because my work hours are divided between writing and playing, and each one really demands that 6 hours.

"Practice constantly" and "Free your mind of economic valuations" are attractive dicta that blithely overlook the practical necessities of living among others and making money, needless to say. But no one said making a living off of music, or off of religious devotion, which the practice of music resembles, was easy. Another thing I just realized about these dicta is that they're superseded, like the fade-out versus natural ending question, by a simpler, three-word precept: It never ends. Music's like any other deep discipline -- say poetry or math -- in that there's no finish line, never a place where you can smile, eat cheeseburgers, coast happily, jingling your honorary pendants, sharing your complete wisdom with those clamoring on the ground below. Well, all right, that's worked for a few people. But they have ended up, by and large, seriously unhappy people, and on some level I think they're aware that they are the pathetic figures in comic stories told by happier people riding around in vans.

early may shows

So I'm a little hazy on what a meme is, at least I know what a dream is. A dream band, that is. That's what I get to hear behind me more often than not these past few years, and it's a constantly shifting bunch of yokels. Back in my late-1990s-early-and-mid-00's incarnation it was a steady cast, which I believe is what is usually meant by "band," though, like "meme," it's possible the new generation has taken a once-stable word and given it reassignment surgery. I wish the word would just go away, "band." It's a very juvenile word, smacking of suburban garages and posed photos with deadpan expressions and vows sealed in blood and never any money. When promoters say, "Are you bringing a band?" I think I know what they're getting at, but I'm never totally sure. Are people I've never met a band? Is a group of players without a bassist or drummer a band? What about three people, is that a band?

Switching it up constantly is an enjoyable and energizing MO for me at this time, which is why you often see me with different personnel, show to show. Since I'm old and pretty established, I have entree to some astounding players, some of the best in acoustic music, most of whom I could never have worked with 15 years ago. Bassists alone: Mike Bub, Missy Raines, Todd Phillips -- holy Eucharist! You just can't do any better than people like that.

In a week I'm going out with a fresh bunch and don't blink or you'll miss it. Dennis Crouch I've known casually for years and recorded with, but never travelled with or played a note in front of an audience with. I wonder what that'll sound like? Noam Pikelny, same as far as friendship, and I've gigged exactly three times with him; never have I sat in a stinking minivan for hours on end with him. There goes the friendship. Matt Flinner I've never met. Just a fan. Me of him, that is. And Shad Cobb...well, he's the odd man out in the group, we've actually had sex with each other. Great, great sex.

I wonder if the newness of this quintet will show, especially the first time we get on stage together? If you're reading this now and are there on the 9th, let me know what you think. Back when I might be doing my 400th show with the same 3 accompanists, with whom I crisscrossed the country year in and out, I'd sense strongly that our longevity allowed us to offer a positive good to an audience. They were aware and appreciative of the fast easy communication between us. On the other hand, though, I often encounter genuine disbelief when, after someone asks post-show how long I've been playing with so-and-so, I say truthfully, "We met for the first time just yesterday morning!" So I don't know how audiences consciously perceive that stuff, I only know it's a very different experience for me in those two performance scenarios. With the old-timers I relax and bask, with relative strangers all neurons are at attention. When you're old, an increased attentiveness is quite valuable.

These are the 5 -- and probably only 5 -- shows I'll be playing with Noam et al:

May 9 City Winery Nashville

May 10 Memorial Hall Cincinnati

May 11 Refectory Columbus

May 12 Birdy's Indianapolis

May 13 City Winery Chicago 

30-day movie challenge

The missus and I plunged into this irresistible meme...

Your favorite movie:

Me: Sullivan’s Travels (Sturges)

Wife: It's A Wonderful Life (Capra)


The last movie you watched:

Me: The Swindle (Chabrol)

Wife: Forbidden Room (Maddin)


Your favorite action/adventure movie:

Me: North by Northwest (Hitchcock)

Wife: Brazil (Gilliam)


Your favorite horror movie:

Me: Night of the Living Dead (Romero)

Wife: Rosemary's Baby (Polanski)


Your favorite drama movie:

Me: Tokyo Story (Ozu)

Wife: Late Spring (Ozu)


Your favorite comedy movie:

me: too many ties, but let’s go with Bringing Up Baby (Hawks)

Wife: The Lady Eve (Sturges)


A movie that makes you happy:

Me: My Father’s Glory (Robert)

Wife: My Father's Glory


A movie that makes you sad:

Me: My Mother’s Castle (Robert)

Wife: The 400 Blows (Truffaut)


A movie that you know practically the whole script of:

Me: Blazing Saddles (Brooks)

Wife: It's A Wonderful Life


Your favorite director:

Me: Preston Sturges

Wife: Alfred Hitchcock


Your favorite movie from your childhood:

Me: Paper Moon (Bogdanovich)

Wife: Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Stuart) 


Your favorite animated movie:

Me; Beavis and Butthead Do America (Judge)

Wife: Spirited Away (Miyazaki)


A movie that you used to love but now hate:

Me: Killing Kind (Harrington)

Wife: Manhattan (Allen)


Your favorite quote from any movie:

Me: “We gotta get outta here!” - any movie

Wife: "Why don't you kiss her instead of talking her to death?"


The first movie you saw in theaters:

Me: The Love Bug (Stevenson)

Wife: The Aristocats (Reitherman)


The last movie you saw in theaters:

Me: Get Out (Peele)

Wife: The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Zeman)


The best movie you saw during the last year:

Me: Talk To Her (Almodovar)

Wife: The Fabulous Baron Munchausen


A movie that disappointed you the most:

Me: Love and Friendship (Stillman)

Wife: Author! Author! (Hiller)


Your favorite actor:

Me: Chishu Ryu

Wife: Jack Nicholson


Your favorite actress:

Me: Ginger Rogers

Wife: Katharine Hepburn


The most overrated movie:

Me: Last Tango In Paris (Bertolucci)

Wife: La La Land (Chazelle)


The most underrated movie:

Me: Firehouse Dog (Holland)

Wife: Walking and Talking (Holofcener)


Your favorite character from any movie:

Me: Edith Massey as Cuddles Kovinsky in Polyester

Wife: Melissa McCarthy as Megan in Bridesmaids


Favorite documentary:

Me: The Last Waltz (Scorsese)

Wife: The Jinx (Jarecki)


A movie that no one would expect you to love:

Me: Tougher Than Leather (Rubin)

Wife: Midnight Run (Brest)


A movie that is a guilty pleasure:

Me: Mr. Deeds (Brill)

Wife: Bridesmaids (Feig)


Favorite classic movie:

Me: Night of the Hunter (Laughton)

Wife: Citizen Kane (Welles)


Movie with the best soundtrack:

Me: Elevator to the Gallows (Malle/Miles)

Wife: Vertigo (Hitchcock/Herrmann)


A movie that changed your opinion about something:

Me: National Lampoon’s Class Reunion (Miller)

Wife: Static (Romanek)


Your least favorite movie:

Me: Whiplash (Chazelle)

Wife: Forrest Gump (Zemeckis)

It's a tribute to either our innate compatibility or the levelling hands of time that I'd gladly change my choice out for hers in almost any category. I haven't seen Author! Author! and can hardly believe it's so insulting to the intelligence of a 13-year-old that she would leave the theater in disgust after the first reel, as Donna says she did. So there might lie a difference of sensibility, but I can't see us coming to blows over it. And speaking of blows, the 400 don't make me sad. Any movie that well-made and deeply felt, regardless of its content, makes me happy that someone took the trouble, got the money, and carried through, despite all odds.

Needless to say some of these categories are kind of stupid -- guilt, why guilt? Under- or overrated by whom? What kind of dummy lets a movie change his mind about something? Well, I began changing my mind about the sacredness of the National Lampoon trademark upon attending its second filmic release (after Animal House, which I also didn't like too much, but didn't get around to seeing until later), Class Reunion, starring Gerrit Graham with a special assist from Mr. Chuck Berry. I was dismayed to such an extreme that I wrote an offended letter to the magazine, which was at that time edited by Fred Graver. Fred graciously wrote back, admitting the film was a grievous embarrassment (!), apologizing (!!), and refunding my $5 (!!!!!!!). Try that with Grown Ups 2. Grievous embarrassments are now just another day at the office in LaLa Land.  

April begins

The month just past was one I'd hotly anticipated, since I'd be serving Jenny Scheinman's musical project for the first three weeks and Mark Roberts's play the last week. From time to time I wish I got a little more sideman work on the calendar, so that I could step away from the center and stare at my fretboard awhile. And set my mind to absorbing musical ideas coming from other brains, with different quirks and vocabularies. And have a stronger excuse to sit and practice playing. And not meet/greet after, or settle with the promoter; and get into the back of the van and sit quietly while someone takes me to the hotel they've bought for me, and so on. While we were out with Jenny, every time some little issue came up, like where to eat or which road to take, I whispered obnoxiously to Robbie Gjersoe, "I'm a sideman! I don't care!" 

That wasn't, strictly speaking, "blessing the leader," which is how one friend of mine who does a lot of sideman work speaks of the job. (He's a Christian.) Still, I was keeping the mood light, enjoying the ride, and -- a minimal expectation -- resisting any urge to complain aloud about anything whatsoever. Celebrating someone you appreciate is an easier and maybe more pleasurable pastime than organizing and pulling the caravan. When you add in the obligation of promoting your own work via performance and salesmanship, the role starts showing its heaviness. Also there's the gloomy fact that the money can be better, off to the side.

You can never not play like yourself, and it's good to have a leader who understands that and values it too -- anything less makes for second-rate music and a boring time onstage. So, given a smart leader and a context that allows a primary focus on music quality, the variance in expressive freedom between him/her and the supporting players is narrower than many onlookers probably suppose. On projects like Jenny's and Mark's I enjoy the freedoms, for instance, of using my own microphones, offering arrangement suggestions, influencing timefeel, and letting some impulsiveness loose on the music as it rolls by. That the material wasn't created by me or that my name's not on the marquee drops the intensity only a few percentage points, and not being the consistent center of attention and the dude-in-charge is a real relief.

But I'm guessing, after a month of sidemanship, that those percentage points gradually accumulate for the guys that do this work all the time. That little drop in intensity is a short-term gain in comfort but ultimately it reduces the payoff too. I'm about as eager now to return to the spotlight as I was to cede it a couple weeks back. The longer you live the more elaborate and (regrettably) rigid grows your set of values, and, childishly demanding though it may seem, curtailing as little as 5% of your impulses while you're on stage chafes -- ever so slightly but more insistently as one date follows another.  A full performance isn't only a display of skills you've learned but of values you hold. Those values are of course embedded in the composition or layout of the music and in the lyrical storytelling, and are reinforced by the common effort to lift and love the central personality and the blueprint he/she brings in. It might be too shiny a gloss to put on a human activity with both ego-enhancing and money-making aspects, but I think the desire to move for a little while from side to center comes less from tiring of all the lifting and loving than itching to show in full what you yourself feel is beautiful and right.

I'll be leading my dates, me me me, all of them, from now through the summer, by which time I'll no doubt be ready to shift to the lift. Right now though, I'm excited to play my songs once again with my handpicked people, which I'll be doing in the coming week in Texas and Louisiana. A little more activity later in the month in the midwest, and in May things really get underway and stay underway till October at least, maybe through year's end. Upland Stories has been out a year as of yesterday, and as far as I'm concerned, I'm not playing in 2017 to move copies of it, but to play across my records, work on some new tunes, and experience a variety of players. There's a couple guys on upcoming dates that I've long dreamed of travelling and working with -- okay, that sounds smarmy, and I didn't actually dream about it, not even once, but I can honestly say that thinking about working with people you admire a lot and know only a little raises your pulse. It's probably the main reason I stay happy on the job year in and out. More specifics later, meanwhile come see me if you can. 

 

end of the residency

This Monday wraps up the (until now) open-ended series of shows at the Hideout that I started just over 7 years ago. I'll be duo-ing with Robbie Gjersoe, as I did on the first show. I'll resist the temptation to bloviate, as if it's the Mary Tyler Moore show ending rather than a sort of stemwinding experiment at a little Chicago club. But it has been front-and-center in my weekly doings for a long time, and I'm touched to hear (and read) sentimental words from some folks who feel a connection to it. Thank you for that.

I started it because I wanted a place to try out new ideas, some of which were offbeat and none of which I could see coming much in advance, at a place that was laidback and non-prominent enough that a loose and not always highly performative approach could be accepted. This was a direct outcome of my shows with Jenny Scheinman at Barbes in Park Slope, where we worked the little PA ourselves, squeezed in 50 people, and passed a cup for our dinner money. This was more fun than I ever expected. The Hideout wasn't ideal to extend that, in that its capacity is more than twice Barbes's, the PA is pretty tricked-out, the stage is a real stage, and the club's profile is a little bigger, proportionate to its home base and probably nationally as well. We tried passing the cup early on but didn't raise nearly as much as by charging $10 at the door. So it didn't end up being a very close approximation of the other experience, but, with the exception that a turnout of 20 people looked pretty limp compared to that number at Barbes, the environment fit the concept and the shows were able to sound good without, I believe, projecting much self-consciousness or bombast. 

Here are some things I was able to do under the circumstances, things I hadn't done before: play Prokofiev; sit quietly for a minute between songs, tuning and thinking; play Charlie Parker; tell 10-minute off-the-cuff stories; try out tunes on clawhammer banjo, ukulele, bass, mandolin, fiddle, and other instruments not native to me; play a 15-minute noise-drone improvisation; reharmonize songs by Bob Dylan, Wayne Shorter, and the Monkees, among many others; listen hard for the first time to people like Leonard Cohen, Danny Elfman, Stephen Sondheim, Blake Babies, Sonny Boy Williamson, Arthur Russell, Ty Segall, and Donna Summer; transcribe Doc Watson's version of "Beaumont Rag"; collaborate with Michael Shannon; jam with Jason Adasciewicz; take off my pants in front of a paying audience; back up Liz Carroll in time signatures such as 9/8; use guitar pedals like Plimsoul overdrive and something called "Freeze sound retainer" which is truly wonderful and flummoxes both accompanists and house sound people; improvise country underscoring beneath country storytelling; play Jimi Hendrix. Some of this I do regret. However, I see now that I deeply regretted aspirational actions like playing the bass guitar on "Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass," or trying to comp an unknown Gershwin piece at high tempo, in the moments I was doing it, then let it go immediately afterward. This marks clear progress for me from the days when I'd forget a lyric or do something stupid in public and then experience burning blood to the face when the memory arose months or years after. The little humiliations were so ongoing for me during this series that I normalized them and was able to get over myself, at last, here at age 53.

In early 2010, when we were first getting underway, I wanted to learn some Monk heads and do a night of them, but when I mentioned it to Gjersoe, he said, "How about Thelonious Monk meets the Monkees?" Thus was born a dumb yet intriguing series of mashups that included Leonard Cohen vs. Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jerry and Lou Reed, and Fountains of Wayne Hancock. Once past the idiotic pun-conceit, the idea was to play both sides of each equation earnestly and in their natural habitat, as well as to blend them creatively (what if the Monkees' theme were accompanied by Thelonious-like piano and somehow merged with "Straight, No Chaser"? if "Satellite of Love" were fingerpicked instrumentally by Jerry Reed?) in a way that might go past an easy laugh into surprising places -- hidden musical links between cultural or chronological unlikes are reliably thrilling to discover or suggest.

So I learned a couple new tricks, which is especially valuable in middle or old age; and the other side of that coin is the expression of deeply buried skills and enthusiasms from childhood. After Jesse Winchester died, for example, I sat around for a few days thinking about how much I owed to that strange voice (bodily and writerly) of his, from back in the 1970s. A few days later I was on the laptop lining up a few friends to play his songs, laying out a set of them, relistening to the catalog and catching up with parts I'd missed, and writing a few paragraphs on him that allowed me to try anatomizing his approach and appeal. Around the same time, I was emailing with Peter Margasak about something or other, and Peter happened to mention that he was a fan of Bob Dylan's 1978 record "Street-Legal." I hadn't thought about it for some time, but boy, I was too. I think the indifference to that record of even some of Bob's most rabid aficionados had influenced me, unfortunately, but when the record came out I really wore the thing out, and I found that I still had about 80% of the lyrics internalized. Refamiliarizing myself with it (especially the late 1990s Don DeVito remix, holy cow), casting it (thanks to that audience capacity, I could hire 8 other people and pay everyone a little something), and reversioning it amounted to an insanely pleasurable couple of months for me. I'm midway through recording these new versions, and whenever I get it out into the world, probably within the year, I'll consider it a physical, replayable version of what I tried to do in the 7-year residency.

Other than the near-instant enactment of passing fancies, the Mondays let me play with friends, both Chicago-area people and pickers or writers passing through on tour, that I otherwise wouldn't have gotten to. In the Chicago category, getting to hang and make music on a semi-regular basis with Nora O'Connor, Don Stiernberg, Eric Noden, Steve Frisbie, Steve Dawson, the Hoyle Brothers, Jon Langford, Beau Sample, K.C. McDonough, Alex Hall, Greg Cahill, Gerald Dowd, Justin Roberts, Kelly Hogan, and many many others was a true privilege. Being either inspired or compelled to stretch beyond my social confines was a prime benefit of the gig too; I think about Anna Jacobson, Pat Williams, Bethany Thomas, Anna Steinhoff, Larry Kohut, Scott Tipping, Jason Adasciewicz, Freda L. Smith, Rita Ruby, and a few dozen others (pardon the singling out!) who live near where I live but travel in different circles. In the non-local box, I got to throw together fun shows with Rosie Flores, Jenny Scheinman, Eliza Gilkyson, Brennen Leigh, Greg Trooper, Phil Lee, Josh Williams, Shad Cobb, Ron Spears, Redd Volkaert -- all these people who otherwise I'd have had to caught up with, if at all, by coming to their shows and greeting cursorily with a slap on the back on the way out the door. Getting to make something on the fly with players and singers like this is without a doubt what I'll miss most.

Which reminds me to say, in case anyone's interested, that the reason I'm ending is that it just seems like the right time to. I had something to accomplish in starting the Mondays; I'm not sure I could have defined it precisely and not sure I did accomplish it after all, but whether I did or didn't, it's certainly past time to proceed to the next fuzzily defined idea or goal. If feeling more comfortable in performance was a goal, I can say without much self-love that I'm there! If it was to learn new songs made by other people, I suppose I've learned about 1,500 since 2010, and forgotten all but maybe 200. Not much achieved there, but a little. If it was to augment my guitar skills...hmm. Maybe. Probably not.

Oddly, a major focus of the series, from my point of view, turned out to be: how do you rehearse? For a one-time-only show, with material ranging from super-easy and event-free to pretty challenging and event-rich, it's an interesting question. For the first year or so, I tried to get folks who were playing shows on the more complex end to meet for a couple hours a few days in advance of Monday, and then again directly pre-show. I let that idea go pretty fast, because it's a lot to ask of people who you're paying $100, but also because I wasn't noticing much difference in two-rehearsal shows versus thrown-together-day-of shows. This line of thought led me to experiment with the opposite approach: let's meet up for soundcheck and hit some sections of some of the music to nail down anything ambiguous, but try not to play more than necessary in advance. Closer to the Paul Motian idea that a show works best if you don't hear anything beforehand! I never tried anything quite that radical, but got within striking distance. After trying various degrees of "preparedness" for these 7 years, my conclusion is: no conclusion. A lot of times songs that felt fresh and fine to play at 4 in the afternoon lost their luster a couple hours later, playing them a second time. Other times we prepared as diligently as I thought possible or necessary, only to have the most spectacular trainwrecks -- the treatment of Shania Twain's "Home Ain't Where His Heart Is," otherwise known as "The Horrific Bridge Collapse of 2015," comes to mind. All in all, I think the best way would be, if it were affordable, a single comprehensive rehearsal two days in advance, and not one advance note played the day of. Then it would be more like improvised soloing: free floating buttressed by solid advance labor.

Sometimes I read stuff in the press about the Hideout Mondays that bore little relation to the nature of the series as I've just written about it. Time Out: "a local roots singer who has spent much of his career recording obscure country covers...frequently digs into the catalogs of artists like Hank Williams and Gram Parsons...usually joined by a rotating cast of local guest performers—you never know who will drop by." Pretty wide of the mark! I heard more than once the notion that no two shows had the same repertoire, which is closer to the mark, but also a big exaggeration -- I'd say 3 out of 4 shows had at least a few songs that I had played before, some other Monday. But I really shouldn't complain, because, as I've learned repeatedly, a musician who's both solidly country at heart and very open to experiment in mind is difficult to describe, although there, I just did it. The Mondays were a laboratory for me, it's that simple. Sometimes people in the audience would tell me they'd travelled from New Zealand or Mercer Island or somewhere like that, and I'd think "Oh shit, they thought they'd hear something from my records, and instead I'm doing a night of ambient Stevie Wonder on the banjo...." In that sense, it'll be a relief to returning 100% to what I need most to be doing -- performing practiced versions of songs I made up and (mostly) have put on my records. That seems to be what most people do, and what is understood by an audience. Having the laboratory concept misapprehended from time to time has been a little frustrating, but I feel sure that people who were there more than once or twice got what I was going after, and I thank them, and Tim and Katie Tuten, most sincerely for allowing me the freedom and flexibility I've enjoyed.

 

RIP Bobby Lloyd Hicks

I found out about about Bobby last Sunday, sitting in a car outside of a running trail in Champaign, Illinois, and as I huffed down the path in the abnormally pacific weather, my dear dead friend's figure at the kit (hunched, lanky, electric with determination, working like an athlete) flashed hot in my brain. People who aren't inside music must weary of people who are prattling on about the primary and all-important role of timefeel in performance, but there you go. Bobby's timefeel was his own, which is either a backhanded compliment or the highest thing you can say about a good drummer, and in this case it's the second. Beatwise, he wasn't a guy who played on it or a little behind it. He pushed you along, in a good-natured and dynamically assured but insistent manner. He was also a drummer who sang well, who loved and thought deeply about lyrics and song structure, all of which raised his game and wove his mind more thoroughly into the team's.

In some situations his relentless push didn't integrate altogether. But with the Skeletons/Morells his timefeel magnified powerfully, as the other three or four men (depending which configuration and year) playing along with him adjusted their sense of time to his, then stopped thinking about it and rode the groove as if by magic or ESP. I'm guessing at this, but it's more or less the storyline with every group that plays together constantly for more than a month or two. When the drummer is highly skilled and unique in his approach (no one was more unique than BLH, as any opening act's drummer who tried sitting at his kit quickly learned) you can get beautiful results indeed. "Riverine" is perhaps a pretentious word but it's one that best describes the Skeletons' forward motion -- at once rocky and fluid. Bobby could and would hit wildly hard, but the flow kept flowing. Other players who hit that hard in a rock band -- or sometimes elsewhere, as with the dreaded Buddy Rich -- tend to sound like jerky dudes with giant erections. Bobby sounded like a grinning 14-year-old getting away with something. I know those characterizations aren't mutually exclusive. 

Away from the kit, he had gentle body language and spoke quietly and not overmuch. He had his private demons. He loved women and drink, definitely overmuch. He lost his beloved son to prison. There was religion in his family and, as I understand from Dave Hoekstra's richly detailed posthumous portrait, his parents despised the music he loved -- loved so much he slept alongside his favorite records as a child. I suspect he spent his 69 years without making the acquaintance of financial stability. Join the club, it's called Music Club.

I spent a little time on the road with him, before he began, as he did in his last decade or so, gaining the upper hand against the demons. Early in the morning he would disappear into the back bench of the van with a discreet brown bag. Late in the day he would emerge, wordless and smiling. Then he'd rock hard, from 10 till 1, and, finally, disappear somewhere. This wasn't a picture of looming human tragedy, as far as any of us could see. When he wasn't off in his own head he was either amiable and focused, or working at a very high level of competency and stamina.

One night in Orlando he left his stick bag at the hotel, and didn't realize it till a few minutes before stage time. I have a permanent memory of his no-fuss solution to this mistake, which, had I made it, would have stressed me out like a motherfucker -- how do you drum a rock show without sticks or brushes? Looking from the stage to the door that led from the bar to the kitchen, I beheld Bobby popping out triumphantly, with several long metal spoons in his hand. And away we went. It sounded clattery, and didn't relate to any previously known sound or method, but it grooved pretty decently.

He proved a solid partner for any post-show adventure: karaoke, conversation, carousing, swimming, flirting. Drinking heavily throughout all of the above, naturally. I shared a few of Bobby's bad habits and enjoyed being with him, although for some reason I rarely found myself in a one-on-one scene with him. When we were alone I do recall that it was intense, in the way that consciousness can intensify when you're alone with someone who has a penetrating mind and chooses words carefully and sparingly. There was an hourlong van ride with him to retrieve his wallet from a hotel safe where he'd left it. A walk down the staircase of the Outland after one of my recent Springfield gigs. A couple of minutes at Lou's memorial.

We sat for fifteen minutes in his car one evening after working on Dallas Wayne's record. We listened to a cassette of the session, digging what we'd done, and talked about the giant objects of his adoration, Brian Wilson and NRBQ. Those two summed up what Bobby revered in music: harmonic invention, conciseness, humor, timefeel, light-spiritedness. He lived to celebrate and on occasion disinter unappreciated things, and the genre of song-poems could have been invented just for him. The night we brought Jamie Meltzer and Gary Forney to the Hideout he was there, playing on "Green Fingernails" and other marvelously terrible inventions from that strange land where Rodd Eskelin is king. He was one of about 4 people in the midwest who wouldn't have let 400 miles, common sense, and a lack of personal resources interfere with a chance to see a show like that!

Odd: I can't recall word for word nearly anything he said to me, while he lived, as much as the humble tone in which he spoke, and the thrust of his statements. Close to the opposite of his right-hand man Lou Whitney, he didn't speak in brash maxims, didn't behave as though cameras were running. I'm grateful that Dave's piece preserves some quoted matter. Though it's trite to say, Bobby was the kind of man who spoke through his playing. Luckily for me, one of my favorite quotations of his, in that adjusted sense, is his intro to "That Bangle Girl." As I said in the liner notes, he played 6 or 7 of them, each a showstopper and each markedly different from the last. When someone in the group (most of our tracking sessions were my guys from Chicago interpolated with the Skeleton cast of Springfield, Mo.) was slow to understand something -- in the chart, or in the stack of harmony voices -- Bobby wouldn't jump in and explain immediately. He'd wait a little. Even though he was the one guy who usually understood everything, he let slower minds do their thing, until they threatened to waste everyone's time, at which point he spoke up -- and not very loudly.

Over time his young-man vices made a dent. This is after the period in the mid-1990s where I saw him with some regularity, touring and recording with him. He split with his wife, who was and is a fantastic and grounded person. His drinking started reverberating beyond the back bench seat, and his playing power faded a bit. But he pulled it together for the home stretch, forsaking the bottle and the carousing for a settled, semi-retiree's life, back home with his girlfriend, and for some local gigging with some old country stalwarts, also chronicled nicely by Hoekstra. For a little while in recent years he took over the drum chair in NRBQ -- surely a dream he never thought he'd live. I bring up the dark and the sunny aspects of his life with the hope that I don't add to Bayley's or Patty's grief or anyone else's. Honesty, hemmed if necessary with a little good taste, is honorable.

Now that he's left the earth there's no point in resisting the acceptance of a complicated man exactly as he was. For us, the musicians that played with him and benefitted from his attitude and intelligence, Bobby was in many ways a model, showing us by example how to feel and project natural pulse, how to assume leadership with grace, how to do a demanding job well, and how to treat others considerately. His considerateness meant that a lot of us around him had to guess at whatever troubles might have been weighing on his mind. Probably the exact same troubles that everyone has and that most people are all too happy to harangue us about. I'm grateful to Bobby for a few very sound life lessons. And -- I almost forgot -- for the swingin' country shuffle: man, he owned that! 

february update

No Hideout show this Monday, February 13. I see the last item here dates from December -- what the dickens has been going on? For one thing, it's hard to accomplish much long-form essay-writing while there are still Rockford Files episodes on Hulu to catch up with. And Red Oaks. But if only to keep the blood properly boiling, let's give at least a minimum of attention to the present moment. I'll be at the Folk Alliance in Kansas City next week, networking with the Anglo-Saxons there, and playing about a dozen shows in fetid boudoir-like chambers and conference rooms normally given over to panel discussions on "Whither The Laffer Curve?" Also I'll be performing a few shows with my friend (though, thank God, we've never had a single intimate discussion), Sahib Cobb. Sahib and I will be bringing the dour strains of my 2016 effort Upland Stories to Kansas City (north of downtown and by the hobo jungle), Columbia MO, and -- don't laugh -- Effingham, Ill.

And speaking of the Grammys, this weekend in L.A. bids fair to be an all-guns-blazing charivari of merriment and unpopular music! On Saturday, after receiving the Légion d'honneur medal (the coveted "candidat improbable" citation) from NARAS, it's off to the Cabaret Troubadour to render some laudatory yé-yés to grande dame Loretta Lynn on the occasion of her birthday (quatre vingt cinquiéme, because gentlemen don't say "85"). I'll be dusting off Miss L's ode to unmediated orgasm, "The Pill," and duetting on a Conway/Loretta tune with my dreaded competitor for Folk Emperor of Last Year, Lori McKenna! Sparks!

Meanwhile, sweat issues from my pores by the cupful as I pound away at the music for Last Night of the Jabez Opry, a fine play for which auditions will begin toward the end of the month, just after I lose at the Grammys. Staged reading with music at the Steppenwolf in March, and please be on the lookout.

And not a word about regular old songwriting and music recording? Yes, these go on, but is a personal website really the forum for crowing about that? I wouldn't want to accidentally promote anything. Or misrepresent my daily focus, which is on a regimen of physical health (emphatically not exemplified by the binge-watching of Red Oaks). By the time you on the coasts see me next, this late spring and summer, you are going to behold a sinewy and chiseled RF, more like a model for an Outward Bound flyer than the oyster-like lump you have come to admire and vainly cheer on. Songwriting may be good for almost winning little trophies now and then, but for the sternocleidomastoid -- sheer hell! Speaking of which, what am I doing slouched over the laptop? See you at the gym, suckas.

this monday at the hideout

This Monday it's me and Eric Noden, playing a bucketful of blues.

In the wake of my Grammy nominations I've received an avalanche (by my standards) of Facebook messages. Feeling cheerful and celebratory, I resolved to answer each note of congratulations individually ("Congratulations, long overdue, don't give up!" "Thanks, I won't!") but after the first couple hundred I've given up. I take egoistic pleasure in the avalanche though, and each expression of support, no matter how plainspoken or brief, is most appreciated.

There's been some interest and speculation regarding Sturgill Simpson's and my being included this year. I read the piece in the NY Times and a couple country-music blogs, and, beyond the fact that our inclusions are a little eye-catching, and the content of our albums speaks (whether defiantly or subtly) to our confidence in our personal strangenesses and concerns, I don't think that there's nearly as much to say as has (already) been said. Granted, I have a thought of that sort on a daily basis: "Aah, shaddup already."  The industrialization of music, the ever-increasing efficiencies in creating and marketing all of it but particularly the commercial subset of it -- call it a sameing-down -- this is a decades-long and continuing phenomenon, with multiple causes but with computer technology, in my view, heading the list. So an individualistic work of quality -- one in which, for instance, each item in the mix doesn't impress a listener as having been elaborately and expensively compressed, a known and long-identified genre doesn't leap out of any random needle drop, the lyrics don't seem to be at pains to express garden-variety emotions of every living human in each couplet -- stands apart from the herd more than ever. There's just too much that everyone knows at this point, and getting to an aural result that reflects the knowledge is easy and not that expensive. Making a piece of art that sounds distinctive means, nowadays, forgoing some widely available tools, which requires a rare stubbornness of mind. Also, as Danny Barnes has put it, quoting John Hartford: in the 1970s there were one thousand bands in the US. Now, there are one thousand in every state. And since Hartford's "now" was in the 1990s, maybe the number's closer to 10,000. Standing out is a taller task just mathematically.

Leaving aside the wave of popularity and publicity he's been riding lately, Mr. Simpson made a record that sounds not only accomplished but vividly unlike the other 500,000 out there last year. In that respect I don't think it's really very surprising, or worthy of intense multisyllabic reflection, that Grammy voters noticed and honored it. More newsworthy that the thing was done than that it was noticed! For the eggheads of NARAS the challenge wasn't noticing it but guiding a square peg into one of a small number of plainly labeled and historically defined round holes. Once the record cleared the (very high) hurdle of "this really needs to land somewhere," the exact location of landing wasn't as meaningful as some are making it out to be. His nominations, or mine, aren't a long-overdue validation of this or that scene; nor do they mean that shitty country music or any other brand of commercially induced boredom is on the decline. Shit's here to stay! Instead, I take Sturgill's record to be a personal achievement in the field of music -- not only rare but highly resistant to analysis.

this monday at the hideout

It's me and Buddy Mondlock, a dear old friend who sings and writes so, so well. Buddy's aesthetic is on the surface quite different from mine, soft and gentle and pretty, if that doesn't sound unintentionally damning. All that reflects the fact that his social network includes guys like Pierce Pettis and that he's been in a band with Art Garfunkel. Art Garfunkel! But -- as I sit here going over the songs of his we're planning to do Monday, I'm struck by how much harshness and sorrow there is in them. Also, much delicacy of metaphor and a light touch with firm meanings -- the songs can lead you to where you might feel like being led the day you happen to be listening. I'm blown away by that particular skill! Buddy, I might mention, has some personal history with Garth Brooks, and we're going to play a tune they wrote together on Monday. I think it's the first and last Garth Brooks tune of my residency, if not my life. Anyway, it's been terrific and intense woodshedding Buddy's music, and I hope you'll come out.

dino and andy's podcast

We arrived in the Big Apple -- me, my wife, and my son, the youngest son that is, the one who is either an incipient Gary Cooper kind of man or an averagely non-communicative kind of teenager -- on the morning of Dino and Andy's podcast. People with bursting calendars were meeting up in New York not for money or personal advancement (OK, I alone was possibly advancing myself) but only for that will-o-the-wisp called love. We loved Dino. Dino is hard to describe concisely. If you were to describe him by some of his most vivid traits, he might come across as, in Lionel Barrymore's immortal words, "a warped, frustrated old man." But far from it: he's the very best person in all of show business! Funniest, smartest, and in a sneaky way one of the most decent, most committed to personal and philosophical truth-telling.

No, that's not quite right. Tina Fey is those things.

No -- it's a tie! Dino and Tina tie for Best All Of Those Things. I've loved them both for decades. And this evening presented an unprecedented occasion where the three of us would actually be together, in a shared sort of enterprise. Us, plus 6 or 7 other hilarious no-accounts. You see, Dino had written, with Stephen Colbert, a pilot for a backstage-SNL sitcom back in the late 1990s. The writers, actors, and based-on characters from the pilot script were coming together for a live read at the City Winery, to be replayed later on Dino and Andy's podcast, and that's the four-word phrase that brings us back to the top of the story and out of the weeds of preliminary exposition.

The first stop was a pizzeria where we met Dino, Jeff B. Davis, and Andy Dick's assistant for lunch. Andy Dick's assistant was young, muscular, and frankly not very funny compared to the rest of us except for my teenage son, who compared to the assistant in youth and muscularity but might have been a tad funnier, had he opened his mouth to speak. The talk was freewheeling and mostly avoided the work, or "work," ahead, but it did emerge that Dino had refamiliarized himself with the script only that morning. This was a theme that was to be replayed through the day and night. No one but, it seemed, me had bothered to spend any quality time with the document in question. I was the sole non-comedy guy in the group and was not at ease with the idea of popping up on stage and just being loose.

On reading the script that he hadn't seen for 20-some years, Dino was surprised to see that Louis C.K. had a role, though a small one, in the show. He texted Louis to see if he could come down to the club that night, but the great stand-up replied that he was away and couldn't make it.  Talk turned to who could conceivably cover the role, which was that of the warm-up comic for the audience at the live SNL-style broadcast.

"Gilbert Gottfried?" said my wife. We were both big fans of him and indeed religious adherents of his twice-weekly podcast.

"Could Gilbert do the job, stick to the script and all?" said either Dino or Jeff B. Davis.

"Would it matter?" said the other.

Jeff recounted the story of Gilbert doing standup right after the Jonestown massacre, the ultimate tragedy-minus-time standup story, better even than Gilbert's post-9/11 Hugh Hefner roast with the Empire State Building joke. I'll tell you some other time. Then we talked a little about Gilbert's version of the Aristocrats joke, and then the bill came, which Dino swept up.

Our hotel was called the Standard and the view, featuring the Village Voice building with the paper's title looming across from us, giving us entree to the golden days of Andrew Sarris and Stan Mack and Nat Hentoff, was unbelievable. My wife was assigning guest list spots last minute. We had this idea that my performing at an event with Colbert and Fey and the others was somehow, uh, exploitable. We just couldn't think of how to do it, and the music business people we had contacted were for some reason not leaping at the guest offer -- the event, with its podcast and pilot and live-read and celeb dimensions, was a little hard to describe or to understand, I guess. We had a morning news show producer as a possibility. He said he might come but couldn't help my career, and that if he did come he'd like to bring his brother, who was a comedy fan. There was a well-known artist manager -- hey, it might be nice, having a manager! -- who also couldn't come but who could send an assistant around. There were a couple writers from Colbert's Late Show, who were extremely nice people and who clearly wanted to come, but we thought we might come up with someone more powerful to give the tix to. And then there was Frank Santopadre, the comedy writer and co-host of the Gilbert Gottfried podcast, who was on the line with my wife. We really wanted to meet the guy, and now that it looked like we could locate no truly powerful show-business people in Manhattan who were interested in seeing the show, he was in! We were ecstatic.

In the taxi on the way to the club I wrote a fake theme for the pilot on a piece of scratch paper. The show-within-the-show was called SomeTimes Live, or STL, and my song went like this:

It's SomeTimes Live! America's favorite pilot! The show that didn't even last one episode

SomeTimes Live, a comedy-writer backstage comedy, just like...The Dick Van Dyke Show

[During the ellipsis I thought I would look meaningfully at Tina, whose 30 Rock bore some resemblance to Dino's pilot.]

We rounded up the hottest talent we were able

Scott Adsit, because Kevin Dorff was unavailable

[Scott, who was in the line-up, is always linked in my mind with Kevin, who wasn't, because they were in a memorably fine Second City mainstage production together, and also they were similar types, the dry, handsome, deadpan, brainy white-guy figure that Second City generously offers up once every season since 1959.)

Colbert, before anyone knew he was funny

Tina Fey, before she was sitting on giant stacks of money

It's SomeTimes Live! It's funny, it's original, all rumors to the contrary are a crock

No, it's nothing like 30 Rock!

The melody was aimless and ridiculous, and I wasn't sure how to pull off the looking-at-Tina thing, but I felt confident about the stacks of money and I loved "crock" as a dumb word and an inept rhyme choice.

Besides the theme, Dino had asked me to play some of my tunes at the top of the show, and then to sit with the others in a line of stools while the script was read, to offer occasional underscoring or comic interjections, "like Paul Shaffer." He kept saying "like Paul Shaffer."

At the club no one was in the dressing room but Tina. She had on a sweater and jeans and was quietly reading through the script at a table.

"Are you just reading this now?" asked my wife.

"Yeah," she said, then added, "I had my assistant read it earlier in the week just to make sure I wasn't giving anyone a blow-job, or speaking in Spanish."

"Don't worry," my wife said, popping some cheese from the snack tray into her mouth. "You don't have many lines at all. A bunch of guys wrote it."

Tina and I sang through about 2/3rds of the song we were planning to sing, Loretta Lynn's classic "Success." Just by comparison to my own doggerel above:

We used to go out walking hand in hand

You told me all the big things you had planned

It wasn't long 'til all your dreams came true

Success put me in second place with you.

You have no time to love me anymore

Since fame and fortune knocked upon our door

Now I spend all my evenings all alone

Success has made a failure of our home.

Ouch, people! Ouch not just to that payoff, ouch to the "episode/show" non-rhyme in my theme, which bothered me for the whole night, and ouch to my crappy scansion. Loretta's song is beyond reproach in meaning, rhyme quality, and scansion -- to wit, iambic fucking pentameter!

I was looking over my list of possible underscore moments. When Dino came in I showed the list to him and started talking about my ideas.

"Yes, yes," he said patiently. "That's fine. But if you just think of yourself as being like Paul --"

"I don't see myself freely wisecracking with this bunch. I shouldn't actually be here. I might just play the guitar."

"Look," he said, with his shoulders slumping gently inside his mangy, off-the-rack sports coat. Actually Dino doesn't start sentences by declaring "look," but since he operates in a way that tends to clarify things while putting you at ease, "look" seems to set the tone here. "Don't worry about planning things out too much. The point is to have fun. If everyone has fun then it's a good night. Who knows, we might not even read the script. Ha ha." With that he drifted away.

The room started filling with performers. Mike Stoyanov and his old lady were on a couch at a 90-degree angle to me and "Gary Cooper." Stephen Colbert walked in, still in his monkey suit  (loudly not off the rack) from the taping of his show, unescorted and smiling. More little trays of cheese were appearing. Copies of "Bossypants," Tina's memoir, were appearing too. Andy Dick had one he wanted her to sign. Gary Cooper had his face deep in a pile of homework on the glass coffee table, and I was killing time on my iphone. Tina came over with hers and we looked at pictures of each other's kids. She had a remarkably cute video of her girls singing "Tonight You Belong To Me," as made famous by Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters in The Jerk.

Louis C.K. came in, in loose jeans and sexy black-rimmed glasses. Turned out he could jam in the appearance at City Winery after all, between landing in NYC and going home to his kids. "Shit," said Tina, "now I'm not the headliner." Now the dressing room was fairly hopping. The talent, the producers, some wives, the venue people, and no Andy Dick's assistant. Louis and Stephen were standing and chatting casually in the center of the room. I was on the couch fucking around with my phone and thinking, "Don't look at or bother Louis or Stephen," the two people in the room I didn't know. If they hadn't been so famous I certainly would have introduced myself, but past a certain level of fame, it's hopeless. No matter what you say -- and God forbid it would be something as inane as "I love your work" -- it will not distinguish you from someone who is desperate to make a moronic quasi-religious connection with a celebrity. And a dressing room is no place to be uncool.

At this point my wife popped in the room and ran up to the two comics yelling moronically, "Oh my God! Louis C.K. and Stephen Colbert! I love you! Oh my God!" They stopped talking and looked at her until she stopped talking. Then she talked some more, and they muttered something polite, and she moved on. "What a moron my wife is!" I thought, and I vowed freshly to myself to speak to neither of the two men. I went out into the hallway with my guitar and played fiddle tunes for a while facing the wall.

Toward showtime, Dino approached me. I was still messing around on the fretboard, and getting ready to play some songs to open the show. "Don't worry about doing funny songs," he advised me softly. "Do 'That's Where I'm From'."

"I don't think I will," I said. But it was good advice, and appreciated. In the event I played not the lugubrious country song he suggested but "Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals," a long involved hard-to-classify shaggy-dog narrative.  After my segment, he and Andy came onstage and riffed, and then everyone came out and did the script.

At the end, we walked offstage in single file. This is when I found myself alone in the City Winery stairwell with Louis C.K. He was ahead of me, head down, going down the stairs, and at this point I realized that it was aggressively stupid for someone alone in a stairwell for 20 seconds with Louis C.K. to say nothing at all to Louis C.K. out of some half-baked sort of moral conviction that the famed should not be accosted. So I tapped his shoulder.

"Louis?" I said. It was then that he turned, and I saw his head was not looking down at the next step but buried in his iphone screen. And I understood in an empathetic flash that he was trying to text his girls, those not-fully-formed humans whose lives he was intermittently superintending, whose lives he really ought to have been tending to for the last three hours instead of hobnobbing and kicking up clouds of wonderful hilarity at a downtown wine seller's. What would I say, now that I had interrupted his paternal sacrament? How about --

"I just wanted to say, I...love your work!"

Reader, I said that. He turned back to his phone with a grimace I couldn't see but could achingly feel. "Thanks," he said, arching the "a" in the word up to a cruelly sarcastic pitch. We descended the rest of the stairs in grim silence. Back in the dressing room, Robert Smigel and Jeff B. Davis were talking "Match Game," how odd it was that Brett Somers had a permanent chair on the panel, until you remembered that she was, of all things, Jack Klugman's wife. The room was feeling crowded for the first time all night. My middle son had driven down from college upstate and he was there, David Cromer was there, Brian Stack and Cullen Crawford were there, at least a half-dozen copies of Bossypants were there, producers and writers and hangers-on were there, no cheese was there. A sexed-up doll of a woman at least a generation younger than the rest of us was there: Andy Dick's new assistant! Godspeed to the old one.

"I have to poop so bad," I said to Jeff B. Davis, and that was true, I did have to poop. I had been holding it in at great personal cost for the final hour of the show. Jeff B. Davis laughed at my simple statement, and it reminded me of the easygoing humanity of a lot of people in comedy. On stage, you have to dress up a concept like "I have to poop" in all sorts of imaginative finery (e.g. size of anus, varieties of turd, social awkwardness, our common biological frailty) to earn a laugh and the approval of peers, but backstage or in other forms of real non-perfomative life, a fellow can say he has to poop and a comedian will chuckle, pat you on the back, and say, "Have a poop then, boy." Throughout this night of comedy stars I was thinking about green rooms I had shared with many hundreds of musical non-stars, including this very City Winery dressing room. Non-stars who stare at you coldly upon meeting, who demand a certain sort of bourbon or complain about the cheeses offered, who sit on the couches in weird black eyeliner prattling about old rock stars they've hung out with or old records they feel everyone should have memorized or the stupid old Rolling Stones or whatever. Low, boring people. Many of them don't even play music very well! And yet here are these smart decent comedians, many of them one hundred times higher in the economic firmament than some musician yokel, and they walk into the City Winery without assistants or fuss, study the job quietly, converse amiably, dress simply, issue no imperious demands, and try to text their families at home while some idiot taps them on the shoulder and makes a thoughtless comment on their so-called work. Gee whiz! I love being a music guy, but this night made me think I should have been a comedy guy. Or just really, really successful.

http://www.feralaudio.com/show/dino-and-andy-skull-juice/

 

 

 

 

 

 

coming up at SPACE...

I'll be visiting the already-venerable Evanston club on October 15, with a one-of-a-kind show that I'm very excited about. One reason it's a little out of the ordinary is that I'll be doing my own songs, and, crazy as this is, it's gotten so that I mainly perform my album material out of town anymore, only focusing hard on it when I'm promoting a new release at Old Town School or Fitzgeralds. The weekly lab at Hideout, the end-of-year revues at Fitzgeralds, the SPACE collaborations with Jenny Scheinman and Redd Volkaert -- it's been a blast, but the pendulum has swung too far, folks. Its overdue that I'm ending the Hideout residency and the Fitzgeralds series, because I need to be presenting my own work. It's the thing that I'm supposed to be doing! The rest is a fun distraction -- okay, tons of fun.

So at SPACE I'll be playing, in near-equal proportion, stuff from Upland Stories, music from my old records, and new/unrecorded songs. But that's only the half of it; why I'm especially keen on the SPACE play is the players. Duke Levine has long been a friend and an object of admiration for me; but because he lives in Boston, I seldom get to play with him, and never in my hometown. On the 15th we'll fix that. If you've never experienced him through his records -- his grace and fluidity, his majestic tone, and his speed -- then get ready to be dazzled. (And if you've seen him only at his longtime gig with Peter Wolf, you still probably don't know his scope.)

And check out the rest of the roster: Nora O'Connor, Scott Ligon (you don't get to see Scotty play B3 enough!), Todd Phillips, and Alex Hall. Here's a fantastic, heavy-thinking sextet that's never played together before and in all likelihood never shall afterward, and I'm fairly delirious to see what shape my songs will take in their hands. It's 2/3rds sold out at this point so I wanted to do the town crier thing.

this monday at the hideout

I met Linda Gail Lewis when we were working for the same promoter in Sweden some years back. The promoter was a good guy but the work was grueling. His artists were housed in a large warehouse on the industrial outskirts of a little paper-mill town, a barbed-wire-enclosed metal shed that also housed a couple acres of music gear, tour buses of various sizes, and some mice. The best aspect of staying there was meeting the people in the adjoining rooms. You'd stumble in at 2AM and bump into some ghostly figure from the 1970s on your way to the whiskey cabinet. The hallways were heavy with physical fatigue, thwarted ambition, and musical skill in genres that were perpetually marginal or simply outmoded. Boogie-woogie shouters, decrepit pub rock reptiles, Texas bluesmen, English guitarists, myself.

The most magnetic person I connected with there was Linda. I'm a fan of her and her amazing family and I felt at home instantly, hanging with her and her daughter Annie. Linda invited me to sing and play on a record she was making at a nifty little studio down the road from the shed. The song was a simple country duet, and the players were working one at a time with headphones, over the rhythm track. Linda sat at a digital keyboard in the control room just behind the console. I was sitting on a couch with Billy Bremner and Annie, watching her overdub her solo. Her playing put you in mind of a cottonfield with a candelabra in it. It was rooted in a strange and soul-bruising and bygone place -- 1940s Louisiana -- and it wasn't very fancy, but it was spruced up with the sort of timefeel and intuitive touches that could only come from a happy, good-humored heart. To use an overused word: authentic. She closed her solo with an aggressively Lewisian glissando which swung her whole frame, as her hand moved from right to left across the keyboard, around on the bench and facing Billy and me. With the record button still lit, she laughed at us and her and her solo. I was hooked!

I played a guitar break on that tune and put on a vocal, I think it was a baritone. The lyrics were handwritten by Linda in blue pen, in neat cursive, on Best Western stationery. I think she wrote it the night before. Leaving the session, I put it in my guitar case, where it sits still, although my dog chewed it up a little one time back when she was a puppy. In the few years to follow I got a couple more chances to record and to work live with Linda Gail, and her cheery temperament and Southern courtesies elevated the circumstances each time. On my last swing through Sweden, which was two years ago and three years into my friendship with LGL, I started to get the idea of producing a record on her, and I pitched it initially through Annie. I was so happy when Linda accepted, and I got to work putting the pieces into place at once. Tomorrow is the first session on our record, and when we're done, we're all (Linda, Annie, Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough, and Alex Hall) popping over to the Hideout to blast out some rock-and-roll.

One thing I like about Linda's shows and that I think you should know is that they're unscripted. She shouts a title, you watch where her left hand hits the root of the opening chord, and away you go. It's not wizardry, but it's really fun (when everyone knows the same repertoire and how to work off the cuff).

fake facebook

We think we fixed the imposter account that was sending out the weird messages. If you get a weird message from this point on please let me know, and if you got a weird message, then I'm sorry -- but you're still beautiful, and I still need money...

this monday at the hideout

I Heart Cheap Trick! I'm no expert on rock music. I don't even really like most of it all that much, though I guess I could say the same about country. Anyway, for my money, the boys from Rockford IL are the shit. I'd rather listen to them than the Rolling Stones or the Who or Bruce Springsteen or et cetera et cetera, and though that's an opinion, I'll back it up. This group offers consistent rewards in its balance of interesting oppositions. The writing (specifically: hooks, melodies, and progressions) and arranging display cleverness, aspirational diligence, and clear formal skill, whereas the presentation of keyboardless ear-splitting guitar quartet -- or much of the time, essentially power trio -- brings it off of the page with minimalist animal vigor. Within each song there's equal affection for sweet major and natural-minor scales; I can't bring to mind a single one of their songs that doesn't deliberately offset both somewhere in its progressions. It means, in a rough emotional translation, that nothing in their catalog sounds 100% hard or soft. Another thing I can't bring to mind is another group that so consistently offsets cock-and-balls with comedy. Even the stylized look of the quartet stresses this weird juxtaposition, with the two you want to go to bed with and the two you want to go to lunch with.

Robin Zander is something else as a singer. His stratospheric range, his easeful sounding control, his ability at all levels of intensity from croon to shredding scream, and his interpretive imagination rank him with Roger Daltrey, Robert Plant, and I can't think of who else. You tell me, I'm no rock expert like I told you. I do know hardly anybody can sing like that, even fewer past the age of about 35.

As for Rick's guitar playing, what makes it stand out for me, in a very crowded field of electric guitar badasses, is clarity. His riffs and most of his solos are mini-compositions embedded in and complementary to the main one going on. Not a ton of noodling.

In most of these songs, there are four distinct sections. For instance, in "Downed," there's the I/VII/b6/VII bassline figure (alternated, a little gratuitously in my opinion, with I/VII/VI/b6) over the chorus ("Downed....over my head"). That's one. The second is the verse where the chords change twice as fast, the third is a post-verse figure ("Oooh you think you're Jesus Christ") that starts on the V chord, and the fourth section is the power-rock guitar figure that pops up in the middle. In "I Want You To Want Me," the four sections aren't as dissimilar. There's the chorus, the verse (the changes happening 4x as quickly, once a bar), the "Didn't I didn't I" section -- I don't know what this might be called but it's like an alternate chorus, and definitely as catchy as the song's proper chorus -- with changes every 2 bars, and the intro/outro guitar riff, which is four bars of I, a split bar of VII and IV and capping with two more bars of A or I. This is the least-memorable and most tacked-on-feeling part of the song but it allows the VII -- the cock/balls -- a higher profile in the tune than its fairly brief appearance in the verse -- and it satisfies the rule of four.

The goal of the writing, in these two examples and in general, is to balance the soft/hard of the two scales, to balance the lengths with which chords are sustained, to have sections that play off against each other with contrast and an acceptable amount of unpredictability, to frame the song in an arrangement that proceeds linearly to subtly complexify and, again, to set up and gently tweak expectations, and to hit the listener with the usual stuff as well -- singability, hooks, emotional drama. If you listen critically to "Downed" and "I Want You To Want Me" side by side, you may agree with me that the latter achieves, by a method that goes to the minimal edge of complexity by this group's standards, resounding success, while "Downed" falls a little short, in large part because the one-time-only power riff, which takes the song into both another flavor and key, sounds imported from a different composition. Both killer songs in smart arrangements, though. 

In rock music, commercial muscle matters, and so a factor that often comes up in discussing this group, and one that I'll admit endears them to me, is what appears as an imbalance between their sales and their wild talent and seeming accessibility. For some reason they didn't rock the charts like Abba, or drive the chattering rockist peabrains into ejaculatory raptures such as Led Zeppelin did and does. Oh well. I think it's safe to say that their confidence in indulging a predilection for goofiness and comic irony must have had the usual effect -- inviting the large plurality of the humor-impaired to deem them unserious and turn away. Another way they seem to have made both themselves and myself happy is to have ventured musically wherever they could and wanted to venture within their instrumental confines: sweet Beatle-y pop, AC/DC snarl, prog, something close to traditional rock-and-roll, and whatever category "Dream Police" might fall into. In the 1970s, when Bob Dylan and Neil Young were annually moulting, this wasn't such a crazy way to go; but then as now, it's not a strategy for the risk-averse or the capitalistically canny. Ultimately and always, reasons aren't needed to explain where an act falls on the spectrum of financial or reputational attainment -- for always, dumb luck, in concert with economically motivated actions and events obscure to us outside the circle of actors, plays the leading role.

I got Heaven Tonight when it came out in 1978 from the public library, attracted by the cover art and the attractive appearance of two of the cover figures -- I mean the two I'd like to lunch with. Some of the songs landed solidly enough in my skull that I had no need to hear them again after the three-week loan had expired. "Surrender" and "On Top of The World" I can sing by heart and play almost 40 years later without returning to the record because they're so splendidly written (and performed in-studio). I'm inviting catastrophic embarrassment by claiming that on the eve of a cover performance, of course, but we'll see. One thing about "Surrender" I think may have registered with my 15-year-old self is the rhyming and non-rhyming. The first verse and chorus have zero rhymes. That's over the course of 27 bars -- a lot of lyric not to be cozily chiming together. The effect is attention-getting ("you never know what you'll catch") but the means are subtle, and I'm not really sure why it works so well. The second verse has a near-rhyme (things/Philippines) and another non-rhyme (war/years), and the third lapses into what passes in rock music for plain old rhymes (year/disappear, couch/out). So the song develops toward a sort of normalcy as it goes, an unusual journey. I don't believe words are Cheap Trick's strongest suit, but audacity served them well.

I can't resist adding a personal footnote: I played in a little room in Rockford last year with Don Stiernberg, and Bun E. Carlos was in the crowd. Afterward, he bought all of my titles at the merchandise table. All of them. (And insisted on paying, over my strong objections.) I was humbled. I hope he liked something he bought, and hope I might run into him again when I return to the same place next month! And who knows, maybe lunch.

this monday at the hideout

Durned if it isn't this-Monday-at-the-Hideout time again. This time, with a team of sax/guitar (Jake Crowe), drumkit (G Dowd), string bass (Pat Williams), keys (Scott Stevenson, who else), trumpet/violin (Anna Jacobson), and, with any luck, a little guest trombone (Evan Jacobson, no relation), we'll delicately explore the classic theme of Miles Davis vs. Merle Travis. Sixteen tons...of heroin!!