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.