Die Dreaming, from Revenge of the Doberman

Here's another free stream. This one's from Volume 2. (Again, the 53 songs are semi-arbitrarily sequenced, and entirely arbitrarily divided into volumes.) The lyrics on this one are the kind that are enjoyable to sing 20 or 30 times, but tend to pall at 150. Beyonce shows up, and Chez Panisse, and tits are mentioned. You get the picture. I recorded it one afternoon at Vance Powell's place in the Berry Hill area of Nashville. Vance is a terrific engineer, and comes from the Springfield, Missouri scene of which Lou Whitney was a figurehead and where I have a couple roots of my own. I saw him at Lou's memorial in Springfield, and it occurred to me then that I should really do a song with him at the board, if he would consent, and he did.

Chris Scruggs plays most of the things: string bass, straight steel (he's the best living player on this instrument as far as I know), and L5 guitar. Buddy Spicher fiddled, Chris Brown drummed, and I just sang. I had Jesse Winchester on the brain, since he had recently died, and that's why I sang softer than usual. Working with Buddy was a dream come true, and I sure hope I get to do it again sometime! I told him how much I liked his playing on "Love In The Hot Afternoon" among other tunes; he told me a couple things that were so flattering that I can't repeat them. He didn't like the way his fiddle solo concluded ("so square!"), and I promised him I'd edit out the last two bars and put in something from an earlier pass, which I didn't do...so maybe I never will get to work with him again...

The only other thing I recall about this song is that I wrote it in a Holiday Inn in Evanston while trying to get away from a more serious composition that was hurting my brain. Whatever that was eventually hit the garbage can, while this featherier one survives, for now at least. Not an unusual outcome.

Revenge of the Doberman

My 53-song Revenge of the Doberman is (at last!) up on bandcamp. It's split into 4 arbitrary album-length albums, priced at $10 each; or you can buy the whole thing for $40. This mouthwatering digital bounty is in addition to Doberman's already-available format via the merchandise page of this site as a USB flash drive. If you're antsy about sticking a thing in your laptop port, as though you're Stormy Daniels and I the unsheathed president, pray lay your concerns to rest and go click on this shit:

 https://fanlink.to/RevengeoftheDoberman

In a brief while I will have some complete songs from the package up for streaming, so you can get a taste of what you're in for.

I was planning to present some context about the package since it may appear an unusual product (not so unusual if you recall its 50-song precursor, 50-vc. Doberman, back around the turn of the decade) -- and when I saw the phrase "leftovers" appear in a Facebook comment, I thought I'd better hurry. These are not leftovers! Good grief. The big majority are songs I wrote between June 2014 and February 2018, then recorded, and that's the sum of it, wrote and recorded. In that time span, I recorded three other albums and released one, Upland Stories. Four songs from the Upland sessions, the four that seemed least suited to the mood of that record, are included; a couple I wrote for the Linda Gail Lewis collab that's out in 2 weeks are also included in earlier, variant arrangements and with different players. There are a half-dozen I wrote for Mark Roberts's play The Last Night of the Jabez Opry -- these are in the vein of hard country music circa 1978. There's one from my scuttled James Agee thing and one from my also-scuttled Flannery O'Connor thing, and though these all have a theatrical provenance they can be enjoyed without any particular explanation. There are a couple covers, which reflect my love for Stan Kenton among others. (I'm always having to explain how I love Stan Kenton, among others.) 

The other 33 or 34 songs are plain old songs, songs I tried my best to shepherd with care from spark-conception to sculpted track, and if you like my thing generally then I think you'll surely like these songs. If you wonder how they compare to a normal release of mine in terms of sound, performance, and composition quality, my guess is that they compare well. I didn't cut any notable corners production-wise. Most of the tracks come from Kingsize in Chicago and were engineered by John Abbey, and it and he are real good. I didn't fly in players expressly for these Kingsize sessions, but I did much more remixing than usual...anyway, in terms of per-song expense, it's really neck-and-neck with a release with a physical format and an outside label and a publicist...so there!

On the earlier Doberman I took advantage of the under-the-radar status to experiment with styles and sounds far from country and bluegrass. On this one, I didn't, so much, and I don't know why. There's a definite uptick in the number of melancholy ballads: the Reaper looms! There's more steel-driven C&W, and a bit more swampy kinda groove music. (Again with the Reaper?) Some of the higher-profile players include Buddy Spicher, Chris Scruggs, Jenny Scheinman, Duke Levine, Wayne Horvitz, Fats Kaplin, and Missy Raines. There are the guys that you know if you've been on my train long, since they've been playing with me for 10+ years: Nora O'Connor, Robbie Gjersoe, Kelly Hogan, Gerald Dowd, Scott Stevenson, Brian Wilkie, Grant Tye, Steve Dawson, Todd Phillips, Shad Cobb, John Rice, Scott Ligon, K.C. McDonough, Paul Carestia. Now I see I'm creating a false and rather invidious line between the prominent and the beloved. But onward with the spurious categorization. Some of my more recently-acquired but no less highly-valued Chicago friends who stopped by the studio to make my songs sound better include Eric Schneider, Paul Mutzabaugh, Larry Kohut, Liam Davis, Scott Tipping, Jason Narducy, Steve Frisbie, Anna Jacobson, and Beau Sample. That leaves about a dozen more people, and if I don't continue with the naming of names, it's only because I loathe those dozen people.

A little verbiage comes with the music. To repeat a sentiment from that: if you buy the package, you're totally helping me out in my effort to create and release more music in my remaining span of years. I don't do crowd-sourcing or other pleas for contributions; my recordings aren't cut-rate home-studio deals; and my audience size and consequent average performance guarantees are modest. I put out occasional radar-evading projects like this with the twin goals of upping my productivity and giving listeners who are most solidly in my corner a chance to put something directly in my kitty (while offering them value in return, I trust). Disclosure: as with the other Doberman, I'll likely mine this one for some good songs to anchor my next "official" record, which makes for the possibility that you might, somewhere down the line, pay for a few songs twice, in different versions. But you won't mind that, oh no, not at all.

 

a new one nears the finish line

Today I've been listening to the reference discs that the masterer, John Golden, sent me of my forthcoming cover album of Street-Legal. It's been an exciting day! It's true that the near-completion, shiny-mastered-mix, too-late-to-do-much, bask-in-the-memories phase of any project brings on a glow, and true that it fades quickly. Nevertheless.

The soft lacquer on a vinyl master bears playing only a few times, so you pick a couple promising environments and listen as hard as you can. I asked Gerald Dowd and Robbie Gjersoe, who both play on the record, to use their turntables, and, as for mine, I went to the audio shop for a new needle and a tone-arm recalibration. I noted the locations of a handful of soft pops and other surface noises, so I can see if they appear on the second listening at Gerald's or Robbie's place. I was happy to hear no s-distortion or other indications of groove-cramming or careless craftsmanship (and with side lengths of 14:27, 13:58, 13:09, and 10:22, there'd be no excuse for that stuff).

I was disappointed with the vinyl representation of my last two albums, which were the first and so far the only two albums in my career to appear in that format. In fact, one of my main motivations in doing this current record -- a semi-experimental reversioning of a 1978 Bob Dylan record that echoes approximately arrangements and approaches I used at my Monday-night residency a couple years back -- was to have one release I could point to in my life that had no audiophilic compromises. I don't view my catalog as a big hot mess of compromise (and if it were, I'd be loath to admit it after blowing a small fortune through the years on boxes of Quantegy tape, fancy-pants studios, and hoity-toity masterers), but, along with a number of tracks across several releases that were recorded on weird formats (one track on Very Best is from a cassette, and I defy you to tell me which one!), most of the catalog was released on CDs and MP3s, and the fraction that's on vinyl is suboptimal. I had a strong desire to create something that, as a listening experience of depth and seductiveness, would ring the bells. This translated to three on-the-ground guidelines. I'd remix or retrack as much as I felt necessary, to the point of practical unimprovability or mental exhaustion. There would be some analog component pre-mastering. And the finished thing would be available only as an LP, denying many potential listeners their preferred medium but assuring me that my efforts and expenditures wouldn't end at earbuds and laptops.

One and three are self-explanatory, so let me give some of my opinions about analog (such a nauseatingly sacred term anymore) in record-making. They're opinions I've arrived at slowly over my time in the game about how and whether to use tape, cost vs benefit, that kind of thing. Since I'm no specialist or audio engineer, rather the kind of person to whom audio engineers dispense information in the tone registered nurses use with late-stage Alzheimers patients, I'll gladly concede at the outset that my opinions aren't privileged, scientifically subtle, or highly fine-tuned. If you have different opinions -- based, I hardly need add, on knowledge, experience, and reasoning -- I'd be delighted to hear them, since I'm almost always delighted to have my opinions challenged and refined.

I started making little recordings of myself, at home and in the occasional "studio," in the 1970s, but it wasn't until 1986, when I came into Steve Albini's orbit, that these issues first entered my purview. I put the word "studio" in quotes because, then as now, some of the places I went to record were in people's houses, and some of the people were more hobbyists than men of the guild. Steve's tracking area was in his basement and his desk was two floors above, so there was an aerobic benefit to recording there; and if you liked unemployable freaks and exotic pornography, you could often feast your eyes on the one consuming the other while passing the first floor. In 1986 computers were coming into use at recording sessions (though I didn't know about it), and sound signals had been encoded in storage devices as numbers since World War II. To guys like me, making modest-budget music in urban hipster studios, digital was still pretty far to the edges of the picture, but lurking ominously there, like the oboe theme in Peter and the Wolf

Steve was, and remains, the fiercest and most eloquent partisan of analog recording in my acquaintance. Working with a small array of other badass audio engineers over the next dozen or so years, I learned that they firmly and monolithically opposed the aesthetics of digital. (With Steve it only began at the aesthetics.) The resolution was poor, and though bound to improve, would never reach infinitude. The absence of noise was a little unearthly. The gear was ugly and the recording platforms quickly obsolesced -- and when they did, what would become of the music stored in those DATs and discs-of-the-day? That music hit the ear in a way that was hard-to-define but harsh, and, at best, you might react as I did after seeing Unsane last week: intriguing, but it doesn't exactly top Vertigo. The pool of people transmitting these biases to me was, to be sure, small and unrepresentative; the guys that were orgasming into their lab coats experimenting with onsite classical recording, I did not intersect with. And so it was that I came to accept the doctrine of analog superiority, for much the same reason that I accept that the earth's temperature is warming, or that c is the maximum speed of matter -- it was the consensus of learned experts.

Lending credence to the learned experts was the fact that they could blindly and unerringly discern from which medium a given recording had originated. A happy memory of mine is playing a track from my Johnny Paycheck tribute for the first time for Steve Fishell of Sugar Hill. The playback was on CD; the recording, though it had begun its life on a RADAR (random access digital audio recorder) machine, had gone to tape for mix. The song I played Steve was an exciting dramatization of drunkenness and debauchery by Neko Case, but none of that seemed to register. "Tape," he sighed, entering a gentle ecstasy; "there's just nothing like tape." Boy, that's the A&R man you want!

I, however, couldn't always tell when costly tape (it's currently $320 for a reel of multitrack) was or wasn't used, on my records or others'. And I wasn't at all certain that the number of my listeners who could tell -- most definitely including the snobbiest and loudest audiophiles among them -- couldn't easily round to zero. Listening very critically, I guess I could tell 70-75% of the time; but is "very critically" necessarily the way you envision or prefer anyone be listening? Those $320 boxes, along with those other boxes of 1/2-inch, sum up to about $1500 in a typical recording budget of mine -- in the neighborhood of 10% of the whole budget. That added cost, not always prohibitive but certainly large, is one point against tape, and another is the sound and implicit standards of the marketplace these last couple decades -- that is, listeners' ears are increasingly adjusted to digital sounds, and evidently contentedly. 

It's really interesting, thinking about it now, how little has changed since 1986. Digital software is still reconfiguring and updating constantly, vinyl is still here and unevolving and pretty popular, the best engineers (as far as I know) still adore analog, and most of the best studios are still keeping their Stuters around and in shape. In audio recording nothing has come along that quite compares to wide magnetic tape and polyvinyl acetate for rocking the house and soothing the ear. As you read this, United in Nashville is pounding out platters as they did in the 1950s, on giant earthshaking pressing machines made in New Jersey in the 1920s. If a Bell Labs nerd from 1945 landed magically in Blackbird or Third Man or Electrical today he could get right to work and no questions asked. Analog sits serenely atop its perch, unimpressed by Moore's law.

Not that computers are going anywhere. The first time I came into contact with them in a recording session, I quickly came to hate them with all my heart. It was an extreme position, based on working with an engineer who monitored his work visually not aurally, which the flaming screen tends to demand. I thought this doltish -- certainly the musical outcome of this John von Neumann-ish way of recording a band, with amplifier heads taken from their cabinets and placed 30 feet down the hall, was limpdick -- and considered the assumptions underlying his methods a grave danger to all artistry. My records following that session (Let's Kill Saturday Night13 Hillbilly Giants and Couples In Trouble) were, by purposeful design, all-tape-and-no-bits affairs. (No buyers bit, either, ha, ha!) But as time went by, I found myself working alongside non-music engineers more, in commercial studios, and here my own assumptions were pushed into the limelight. These fellows were doing wondrous things with a mouse and keyboard that could be done with razor blade and tape only very time-consumingly if at all. The fact that ProTools didn't sound good had kept me from appreciating its radical resources. In the new era you could multitrack infinitely, store and recall mixes at your pleasure, edit more wantonly and complexly and seamlessly than ever before, experiment by move and reverse-move, change pitch and time and location of individual events and waveforms, and so on. The previously laborious or impossible was suddenly cheap and easy and, if you didn't let yourself get beguiled by possibility and choice, fast. All of this was of course a big "duh" to anyone who'd been keeping up, but eye-opening to one who had resisted computerization and so was several years late to the game.

My position, then, arrived at 15 years ago and held since, is that analog is for sound and digital is for tools, and that -- although I've done decently using just one or the other over the years -- the ideal in contemporary recording is to wed tape and software. I love to comp and, when necessary, to tinker with what I consider the DNA of the music (pitch and time) via digital. The mixing platform is whatever the engineer likes, and, while I love Albini's no-automation all-hands mix sessions for the principled care they encourage and for taking the stress off the eyes, I'm entirely at ease with in-the-box mixing at this point. So where does analog enter the process? My opinion, which may outrage the cognoscenti, is that it doesn't much matter, so long as it enters somewhere. It's the exact opposite of the axiom that one drop of honey does nothing for a barrel of tar: going to tape anywhere in the chain will have an improving effect. For Gone Away Backward and Upland Stories we recorded and edited on a computer then dumped onto multitrack tape for mixing. For the Street-Legal cover record we did everything onscreen but submitted files to the masterer that had been printed on tape. I've not done it, but friends who have tell me that recording onto tape then digitizing to mix works nicely, and I believe it. A confused metaphor: digital is glass, analog is butter. One offers transparent functionality, the other a singularly beautiful taste that, while you can cook good meals without it, there's no exact substitute for and perhaps never will be.

As for vinyl, I've always felt that it's the best-sounding format, and that to get very worked-up over it is silly. CDs sound just fine. Anybody that can't bear CD sound quality is a big baby or a crazy person. However, CDs are either fast-disappearing or gone (I have so much trouble keeping up; the line between "disappearing" and "gone" is very thick for an old person), and so we're left with sound files and vinyl -- an efficient medium and a quality medium. These last two vinyl adventures of mine have been educational. The realm in which acetates are made, molded, and pressed is ablaze with quirks and interest. Much of the interestingness is economically based. Most of the people making LPs are small-order boutique sellers like me, but it's the same plants handling our orders and those of the big-money players alike, so that our deadlines are apt to be distant and indeterminate. The market for vinyl as a whole isn't big enough that the record-issuer has very many competitors to choose from. Until it grows significantly there will surely be, as indicated above, a lot of aging machines in play.

Cultural factors add some small coloration to the manufacture of LPs. The people that turn the digital files into lacquer masters are epicurean, white-robed, science-besotted savants. They answer to a master -- excuse me, a masterer -- who, like Charles Laughton in Mutiny on the Bounty, is pleased to personify royal standards in a setting ever-sliding into brainless lassitude. The people at the pressing plants, to stick doggedly with the analogy, are like Bligh's merry crew of shirtless savages. If you take issue with some feature of the lacquer reference, you may receive from the mastering lab a patient explanation, spiked with hard-to-avoid jargon, of why it is you're not really hearing what you think you hear; the equivalent conversation with the pressing-plant denizens will get you a meaty middle-finger salute. Okay then, I exaggerate; but my advice is to choose a vinyl masterer with great care and to bone up on the subject before getting into the ring with him. Choose the pressing plant with like care (though there's not much choice), and forget about having much say after that. From the hour the plant receives the acetate, your chief remaining resource is prayer.

One of the surprising bits of knowledge I got on my first foray into vinyl manufacture was side length. 15 minutes is nice, 20 is starting to ask for trouble, and 24 is the outer edge of the possible. The narrower the grooves need to be, the worse the record sounds. When I learned this, my mind went straight away to Abbey Road, each of whose sides is well over 20 minutes. "Those old records don't sound as good as you think they do," one masterer friend told me. "These masterers are full of crap," was the judgment of another friend, who works as an artist but dabbles heavily in sound engineering; "they don't have the knowledge of the previous generation, and they hide the gap with theoretical assertions such as 'sides can't exceed 20 minutes'." I can't be sure how much credence to give either of these, and they might both be true. Listening to lower-weight records from the 1970s I can see the masterer's point -- while there's a lot of conditioning that makes it hard to dislodge the idea that it's great-sounding music, an unbiased and fresh listen might say otherwise. But in support of the other point, I'm going to go out on a limb and say it: "Her Majesty" sounds just fine.

I cite that one specifically because it's a quiet song at the close of an over-twenty-minute side. Sound quality is harder to maintain as the circumference of the disc tightens ("quality" as determined by things like lack of distortion and maximum low and high frequencies). The masterers suggest that you avoid closing a side with a quiet song. They also suggest you not end a side with a very loud song. How do you like that? It would make a nice experiment to empty your shelves so that only the records you thought sounded best remained, then to separate out all the records that had soft ballads or clangorous epics as side-closers (come to think of it, Abbey Road's second side essentially had both, with "Her Majesty" as brief as it was), as well as all the records with sides longer than, say, 17 minutes. Would you have any records left?

Such a rabbit-hole. After finishing the last mix on my present record, I thought that I might avoid this particular heartache of side-lengths and loud-and-soft. The cost of making a two-record package was tough for me to consider, since it practically ensured that I'd lose money on the release. But...I'll add up the times and see, I thought. If the total time is longer than 48 minutes, or 24 minutes per side, I'll think about editing 4 minutes off -- or losing the money and making the extra LP. If it's 48 minutes, or a little under, I'll gird myself for some back-and-forth with the mastering man, and get out my little prayer-book. As it happened, the running time was 54 minutes, and I didn't have the heart to chop off 4 minutes of music -- that's so much! I committed to the extra LP and the expenditure. My kingdom for 4 minutes.

Well, today's sweet pill took some edge off that bitter one. My record has a lot of quiet on it. I love quiet as an element in music more and more, by which I mean not only soft playing and low signal but no signal: silence. Side one opens with a contemplative improvisation between me and Robbie Gjersoe. Side two starts with a long song on which my Collings is the only non-vocal instrument, and along with that austerity, there are brief silences here and there in it, where I stop the strings and things just hover. The grooves are wide, the circumference too, and I can't tell you how happy it made me to hear the absence of sound in my headphones, midsong at a pretty loud volume. The last song, on side 4, is decidedly clangorous. I detect no volume loss or quality reduction. We'll see what the other turntables say.

 

 

2017, a fan's notes

At the close of years past I’d occasionally adumbrate some high points and post them to my website. Meant in a spirit of reflective gratitude, surely it came off as so much bragging. Yet, as Martin Mull said of mobs chorusing “We Shall Overcome” in joyous unity -- if they undercame, they wouldn’t be singing. Ill-advised though I may be to sing my own praises, 2017 was such a terrific year for me, probably the best year of my life if I count the blessings in full and if the arbitrary January-to-December container isn’t too flimsy to hold heavy reflections, that I’m driven once again to the keyboard to hymn the gods who have granted me so much, perhaps subconsciously motivated by the silly superstition that my public declarations will encourage them to treat me just as gently in 2018, and definitely nagged by the thought that at my present age most of life’s rewards should, by biological logic and historical example, be waning, and that in every previous era a moldy troubadour such as I would not be stomping around like a lusty monarch but following the path of the sere and yellow leaves of early winter. (In that sentence -- its involutional length if not its emotional tone -- I salute Thomas Bernhard, whose Gathering Prizes helped make last August a lot funnier.)

The books, as long as I’ve brought them up, didn’t quite pull their weight this year. Way too much fluffy contemporary reading. I bought Letterman impulsively in a Seattle bookshop, along with Richard Russo’s Trajectory, to ease a longish flight, and I ended up gobbling both like a ravenous moron. But Rudy Rucker’s stemwinding The Lifebox, The Seashell, and The Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, The Meaning of Life, and How To Be Happy, offered more than ample nourishment. It’s a long, digressive, scrupulous teasing-out of the hypothesis that everything in the universe -- the laws of physics, the chemistry of life, the products of the mind -- is a computation. It has fictional stories, dense graphs, handmade illustrations, offhand autobiographical anecdote, and pages of equations and computer-science minutiae that I had to struggle with or skip altogether. It’s more like going through a bulging box of papers from your grandfather’s closet than enjoying a professionally edited book, but it allows the sort of acquaintance with a brilliant mind that the now-fading, pre-Internet age of high-powered editorial gatekeepers would have likely denied us.

On the lighter side, as Dave Berg would say, I checked in with two old favorite comic masters, Peter DeVries (Comfort Me With Apples) and Max Shulman (Rally Round The Flag). Peter the epigrammatical elitist and carpenter of durable phrases stained by a dark Calvinism, Max the wisecracking Jewish populist and master of streamlined ready-for-TV sentences. Close in age (Shulman was born 9 years later than DeVries in 1919 and died 5 years sooner), both were permanently amused by sex, American middle-class mores, and adolescence. It seems to me that I’m so fond of comedy in every form -- I’ve already namechecked Mad magazine, Peter & Max (an excellent cross-denominational deli), and Letterman and Mull, and might add examples as farflung as LaWanda Page, Bennett Cerf, Marcel Pagnol, Michael O’Donoghue, I Love Lucy, Martin Short, Jeeves and Wooster, Sandy Baron, James Thurber, Second City, and the Three Stooges -- that I can’t be said to have any actual taste in it.

Three books, Dreamland, Strangers In Their Own Land, and The Mandibles, clarified and deepened my concerns about America’s near future. Opiates, bizarrely unfit leaders, and reckless borrowing. If you’re trying to break [fill in the blank] you don’t have very far to go, USA.

On a professional plane, my year was studded with more braggable moments than any previous -- the Met in NYC, the Grammys, the Steppenwolf showcase of a musical-in-progress, my return to the Grand Ole Opry, and the Town Hall show in December with various SNL-ers, for example. If these things had happened to me 20 years ago I’d be so giddy with excitement that only pharmaceuticals could level me off. Being in one’s fifties is empowering and slightly sad: the level of excitement appropriate to outstanding personal landmarks such as the Opry and the Met is just metabolically inaccessible. If I was transported back in time to provide musical interludes at a live show between appearances by Gilda Radner and John Belushi, and to mill with them in the stage-left wing and upstairs dressing room at one of America’s greatest venues...don’t wait up for me to teleport back to now. Yet here I was, sharing a bill with their latter-day counterparts, brilliant and funny people, and most of what occupied my mind was, so to speak, points of order. How long till my next spot? Was the tuning doing okay amid the offstage temperature shifts? What time was it? How much sleep would I be able to fit in before tomorrow morning’s flight? And so on and et cetera. Although I occasionally get flustered by performance environments that are outside my comfort zone, this represents my mental state at most performances: practical, problem-gnawing, and composed. Being both 54 and nervous doesn’t make any sense at all. I’m a finished work, pretty much. Keeping form, from here on out, is the focus, not making strides. The difference between the moods I’m in after aceing a show and whiffing one (more on which below) is hardly ever drastic; nor is the difference between the after-show highs from facing 4,000 people or 40. Likewise, chatting amiably with Vanessa Bayer was a pleasure, but dishing with the Uber driver en route back to Brooklyn was fun too.

The aspect of the year that heated up my emotions the most was the musicians I had access to. On mandolin alone -- Scott Simontacchi, Jesse Cobb, Don Stiernberg, Matt Flinner -- holy Christ. In 2017 I also got to work live with Matt Munisteri, Noam Pikelny, Dennis Crouch, Anat Cohen, Patrick McAvinue, Yvonne Gage, Eric Schneider, and Duke Levine, to say nothing of years-long accompanists -- okay, basically, friends -- such as Shad Cobb, Robbie Gjersoe, Missy Raines, Redd Volkaert, Fats Kaplin, and Jenny Scheinman. That’s a partial list, and it reflects a satisfying variety of projects on my calendar, a conscious methodology of changing it up from trip to trip, and, again, being 54, since none of these people would have returned my 30-year-old self’s phone call. Singing a verse of a song I made up and then throwing Matt Flinner a solo is a dream with which, as Wm F. Buckley said anent Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency, I would never in my most unhinged moments have wafted my way to Nirvana. And here we are. 

I count 104 dates on my 2017 routing sheet. It sure felt like more -- maybe it was the added travel days. I also did a handful of Hideout Monday night shows, a couple sit-in-with-friends dates, a charity fundraiser or two, and a little radio on non-performance days. Hawaii, which has been my #1 dream destination for years, was probably my favorite work outing. It wasn’t all work: I arrived three days early, checked into the seaside resort generously provided by Chuck Gessert, the promoter, and rose at the next day’s dawn to go on a 6-man outrigger canoe race with Chuck’s private club. We were short a person on our canoe, but even with two of the five of us total novices -- me and a pretty young woman who shed progressively more clothing as the 90 minutes of aerobic labor wore on -- we won against 3 other more experienced boats. Between strokes, we watched the sun coming up over the island. At the halfway stop, at the edge of a Tom Sawyer-like island, the men and the woman stood waist-deep in the water alongside their boats and chatted, some of them dropping broad hints about how much money they had earned on the mainland before retiring. Later, I snorkeled, swam, hiked a long road with a gradient of as much as 37%, ate like a pig, hiked in the mountains, fooled around with wild ponies, and checked out four of the island’s nine climate zones. I did a music presentation for a public middle-school class, most of them natives. Our single point of intersection was Michael Jackson. 

During my week in Australia and New Zealand (also my first visit) I didn’t have much unscheduled time to myself, except for an afternoon in Melbourne, which I spent wandering rather aimlessly. The town is unlike any I’ve seen. Its population is almost 4 million but it has a non-corporate service economy that seemed to me like it would be unsustainable in a city four times as big. It takes 15 minutes to walk 5th Avenue in Brooklyn from 7th Street till it dead-ends on Flatbush. By contrast, I spent 90 minutes walking through and beyond the Fitzroy section of Melbourne, and another 90 walking back along different streets, and the Park Slope hipster-commercial terrain stretched on and on, ramen dives and bookstores and rock clubs and coffeehouses and jeans and shoe stores. The next day, in a neighborhood 40 minutes distant, Shad and I walked for a half-hour after soundcheck, and it was the same thing. There were graffiti, sidewalk vendors, pretty 100-year-old buildings, and happy young people on bikes (racially homogeneous young people) everywhere. One was left puzzled as to where the hipsters were stealing money from to buy their body oils and other uplifting non-essentials. We played at a theater, a dance hall, and a festival situated on the bay, and were left with the impression that Melbourne has it all.

In Auckland I landed a little before 6AM and had nothing scheduled until a 3PM soundcheck. I had left my phone at the gate at Vancouver, and so I really felt unattached. After napping, I walked around, ending up at an Israeli/Mediterranean restaurant called Ima and run by a kind lady called Yael Shochat. My meal was sabich, a chickpea and potato dish, with a mixed mezze-plate appetizer. I had a lot of questions for Yael about the prep, the ingredients, and the history of the food, and I forget all of the answers. I returned to Ima the next morning for breakfast before the flight to Sydney and brought Shad with me. By the time we left, I had the restaurant’s $50 cookbook under my arm, and when I’d got home I tried out its recipes for vegetarian couscous, Tunisian sandwich, and hamusta soup, then promptly ordered two more copies for Christmas presents. Part of the fun of working from a book unavailable in the west is decoding the list of ingredients. I already had silverbeet and capsicums in my refrigerator, to my surprise.

Visiting Sisters, Oregon for their annual folk festival and instructional camp will prove hard to forget. The town is cute -- a little too cute, if you ask me, more like a replica of a Western town, a la Rock Ridge in Blazing Saddles. (“Now all we got to do is make perfect copies of ourselves...you men start workin’ on the dummies!”) Smoke from the not-so-far-off fires that were imperilling much of the west coast last summer was prevalent for the first two days of camp. On the third day, the promoter called off the rest of the event on the advice of certain lily-livered local health authorities. I spent the remainder of the cancelled event in a motor lodge, trying to work on lyric assignments from Logan Ledger, a dynamic young country singer, and Anat Cohen, the eminent clarinetist. Neither of them was in any way breathing down my neck, but I wanted to get something done, if only to please them. To no avail. I did get plenty of whiskey drinking and phone talking done, and, as the weekend rolled around, I rambled over to Bend to have an incredible meal at Ariana with my dear friends Frank and Sheri Cole. Sheri’s sister Kathy and brother-in-law Randall, from Kansas, were also along. With each new installment in the wine flight over the 3-hour dinner, Kathy got a little more red-state. “I just don’t want them taking away our guns,” she declared, after the fifth glass. “Who’s going to take away your guns?” I said, my own tongue loosened by the grape. “You don’t have a gun,” Sheri told Kathy, getting more to the point, perhaps. “But if I wanted to get one,” said Kathy, good-naturedly, “I don’t want them taking it away.”

These seven days in September seemed never to end. On Sunday night, I checked out an intermittently engaging movie called Wind River in a cute theater on the edge of town. On Monday I washed my clothes in a laundromat and read a book about the Warner brothers of Hollywood. It was September 11, 2017, but it felt a little like September 12, 2001, when I was also in Oregon and cut off from loved ones. Despite occasional contact with people, my feeling was of isolation and loneliness, which continued as I drove up to Portland to play a solo show. I went up to my little room above the bar after playing, poured a slug of whiskey, and sank into an intermittently engaging Philip Roth novel and an Edward G. Robinson movie.

Now, about the whiffing. Anat Cohen had invited me to appear as her special guest and collaborator at the Logan Center on the south side of Chicago, where she and her ten-piece band were to unveil music from her style-straddling new record, Happy Song. I first met her at a wedding in 2003, where she was playing in one room and I in another. On break, I heard a pretty sound sailing on the air. Upon finding the source and listening a while longer, I thought, “This is about the best playing clarinet playing I’ve heard.” We jammed briefly at that affair, and played together impromptu years later at the Hideout and Fitzgeralds, but this official date of hers, with me advertised on the bill, was a sharp ratcheting-up. Her arranger, Oded, threw me a couple tunes to try to put words to, at which I pretty much failed. To the extent that this didn’t reflect on me, I concluded that there are strong melodies that are well-suited to the human voice and to literal meanings, and strong melodies that aren’t, and these were the latter. Arriving at the gig, we had a pretty long soundcheck and I had a good time hanging with the NYC hotshots in Anat’s band. Conservatory-generated jazz youngsters are intelligent, argumentatively resourceful (I don’t think the cellist appreciated my dig at Ron Carter, to which he responded quickly and firmly), reverently history-minded, and altogether sober. Not much like the cool-encrusted, slangy, half-drunk, hamfisted loafers of the Americana scene! At Anat’s show, I was achingly disappointed with my performance, especially of “Beaumont Rag,” which after all was me on my own turf, fiddle tunes, playing the Watson version that I had provided and Oded had meticulously transcribed. The sound was imperfect, and I was probably a little fatigued from some early-morning travel, but mostly I think I was ill-at-ease in the venue and intimidated by Anat’s fantastic playing. I evaded obloquy in the next day’s Tribune review, but I was mad at myself for falling into such an elementary mental trap. Apparently I forgot I was 54.

But that was nothing as compared to six weeks earlier, where I had the lowest performance point of my year, in a little town in the middle of New York state. At a private party in a barn, with a few hundred middle-aged lollygagging in the dark and setting bonfires and gyrating savagely, nothing was clicking for me. For once the players I’d assembled weren’t jelling. And the sound was miserable, making us even worse than we were. It was like hearing yourself back through your Wisconsin grandmother’s kitchen radio. The buyer was a great guy, full of cheer and hospitality, and he told me an inspiring tale about how his simple business idea had revitalized his struggling community, there two hours from Utica. Also I have to admit that the payout was good. But all I could think of, as the golf cart carried us across his acreage back to our rental van, was the distance I had come to sound so terrible. When you degrade yourself in public and have only the consolation of a check, you can feel exactly as low as a whore.

Wasn’t this supposed to be a positive essay? When I wasn’t traveling and playing, I was recording and writing. I brought three record projects to 90% completion last year; all three will be released this year. One is a large collection of new compositions that I’ll put out as downloads via my site, like my 2009 package 50-vc. Doberman. It might be another 50, or maybe a few more, I’m not sure yet, but my engineer friend John Abbey and I have about 50 tracked and mixed as of now. The second record is my next Bloodshot release, a duo record with Linda Gail Lewis. It’s completely different from my last couple of records, since it’s designed to reflect and enhance Linda’s personality and strengths, which are like happy hands around your throat. Finally, the third is a reimagined version of Bob Dylan’s Street-Legal, which has played around the edges of my mind since its release back in 1978. Orchestrally this was a record (Bob’s I mean) grand and ambitious in conception -- three lady singers, a highly focused eight-piece band backing Bob plus trumpet on one song, abstract lyrics about tarot and apocalypse and personal troubles we can only guess at -- but, like Bob’s other work of the period, a bit patchily and hastily executed. It’s hard to figure out why they didn’t bother with another pass or two at the songs so that the players could settle better into the arrangements, but they didn’t, and as a result, you can hear how masters like Jerry Scheff handle themselves in a tight spot. The patchiness invites you to fill in the holes in your imagination, or spin off into your own alternate arrangements, which is what I did.

Those first two projects kept me writing at a strong clip throughout the year. I also wrote for Logan and for Mark Roberts’s play The Last Night of the Jabez Country Opry; and I recorded a version of “My Brain” for an upcoming Mose Allison tribute that his girl Amy is putting together. (“Girl.”) I bought a new Martin guitar, one of the “sinkers” at George Gruhn’s shop, in the strange “quad” size. Some modest but real strides were made on the clawhammer banjo, as I toiled at the standards “Snowdrop” and “Cumberland Gap” and became obsessed with a wild youtube song in a weird tuning by Walt Koken, “That Gal With The Run Down Shoe.” I vacationed in Utah and Colorado. My youngest son totaled the family car, got a 30 on his ACT, maintained a C- average at school, socialized heavily, and may or may not end up at one the west coast colleges we visited in the fall, leaving Donna and me free to sell this 2200-square-foot prison and move on into the next chapter of our lives. My 2018 summary may be written from a luxurious loft in the sparkling city, or, who knows, a padded chamber provided free by the county.

December cameos

While I'll be absent from the hustings for most of the winter and into spring, just puttering around the house, shoveling snow, and fixing elegant lunches, I will have some limited exposure later this month for you, the public, to relish and savor.

On the 11th I'll sit in with the Flat 5, another of their Monday nights at the Hideout in Chicago, Ill.

On the 18th you can see me in New York City at the Town Hall where, once again, I'll join with SNL cast members and other hilarious humans in a benefit for the ACLU. If you don't like wearing pussy-hats, supporting the ACLU is a practical gesture and a way of saying, in this polarized time, "I'm right here on this side." Also it says to the progressives: "You will never build a bubble so strong that country music will not penetrate it somehow." I'll be accompanied for this show by the masterful Matt Munisteri, and I couldn't be more thrilled by the prospect.

On the 22nd I'll be at SPACE in Evanston, Ill. to perform a couple songs with Steve Dawson and Diane Christiansen amid Dolly Varden's gala show. The three of us are fondly remembered by pious locals as The Jesus Christ Trio, under which moniker we delivered classic hymns at the Hideout in years gone by.

On the 28th through 30th I'll be a small but shining cog in Cathy Fink's annual Hank Williams Tribute. This year she and Marcy have lined up Robin and Linda Williams, Patrick McAvinue, Mark Schatz, and me to have at the Hillbilly Shakespeare. On the 28th we'll be in Harrisonburg, Virginia, at the Court Square Theater. On the 29th it's off to Chambersburg, Penn., where we'll be at the Capitol Theatre Center. (Why not "Centre," or "Theater"? Let's rub this lack of consistent adherence to huffy Anglophilic orthography right in management's faces!) And we finish on the 30th at that bastion of Washington, D.C. Americana, the Birchmere, with a final blast of the twangy klaxon.

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.