Thursday, December 1, 2011

John Hartford

December, 2011: I played with Oh Willie Dear at the Town & Country in St Peters, a pub "immortalised by Slim Dusty" in one of his inane beer songs.  I sang Henry Lawson instead of Slim Dusty.  Naturally I stayed on to hear Oh WIllie Dear, who are Daniele and Daniel from the Maladies (a duo slowly accruing more players: Jenny Shimmin on banjo, a double-basser, and now a fiddler, too) playing bluegrass classics.  When I first saw the Maladies, although sometimes too rock-'n'-rolly for me, I was arrested by Daniele's voice and his way of singing.  He lets a song completely possess him - his whole body goes into producing the note.  Lots of singers aim for this, but can't get there; maybe they're trying too hard.  I was impressed when I heard that the two Dans had started a bluegrass duo; it seemed like a creative, robust response to the woeful bands-in-pubs-in-Sydney situation; also, it was an exciting prospect: Daniele's voice, Daniel's picking, applied to bluegrass!
I don't love bluegrass as much as I used to.  Sometimes a whole set of bluegrass start to feel like someone tapping a spoon rapidly on my head.  And maybe I've seen too much bad bluegrass; what springs to mind is a session I strayed through at the Illawarra Folk Festival in January, where about twenty-five people clutching auto-harps, mainly the same brand-new model, were sitting in a circle of plastic chairs playing 'Will The Circle Be Unbroken'.  I watched the song out, completely divided over whether it was good for my soul, or bad for it.  It was similar to the feeling I get when I'm in Target, on a mission for undies, super-glue and a plug, and I end up at the back in the garden section - it's good for my soul to see something leafy, alive (ish), and from the natural world, and yet it's ghastly and wrong to find it at the back of Target in plastic pots.
Seeing Oh Willie Dear, it was the unbluegrass songs I liked best.  Patsy Cline's 'If You've Got Leaving On Your Mind' was just beautiful: unfurling note-by-note in Daniele's voice, conveying emotion, not aspiring to perfection.  At the end of the set, I asked about 'Almost Persuaded', which somehow I'd never heard before, and "the one about the business man going to work in tall buildings".  I went home and looked up John Hartford's 'TALL BUILDINGS'.  I've never been a fan of his other hit, 'Gentle On My Mind' (I'm offended by that ideal of the undemanding woman who waits patiently at home while her man has untold adventures in the wide world) but I fell in love with 'TALL BUILDINGS'.  
It's a remarkably simple song - a descending chord pattern is repeated without variation over two short verses and a chorus, with a lyric consisting of language a six-year-old might use: "Goodbye to the sunshine, goodbye to the dew/ Goodbye to flowers and goodbye to you," and, "Someday, my baby, when I am a man/ And other have taught me the best they can."  Yet it manages to span a man's whole life, and to be heart-breaking without saying anything particularly sad.  It's a great example of understatement.  All the complexity occurs in what is left unsaid: for example, in the first verse, he's anticipating going off to work in the city, and by the second verse, he is already about to retire, and vaguely wondering what happened "betwixt and between".  There's sadness in the man's life being over and done with in just two verses, the bulk of his life spent off-screen in that consuming, distracting, ultimately meaningless fug of work.  In the last chorus, I suppose he's an old man farewelling the sunshine and dew for the last time.  But to sing (rather than pore over) it's sweet and pretty, a bit wistful - then it makes me want to go outside and look at the clouds.  Maybe I should revisit 'Gentle On My Mind'.

The film clip is pretty sweet.  I miss the hippie days.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Loretta Lynn via Jean Stafford

September, 2011:  I was browsing the classifieds in the Cowra Guardian when I saw a small ad in the 'FOR SALE' column: "1000s LPs EPs singles $5-$1 Country R&B and more".  I thought, "I bet Mr. Colemane of Colemane's Country Music Museum has decided to sell off his records!"
My hunch was right.  I walked down the road that goes by the river and the overgrown, grassy railway until I got to Colemane's Country Corner, with the wishing well in the garden, and the hand-painted sign, "Don't be shy!  Come inside!  Surprise yourself!"  Athol Colemane sat me down with his ledger, in which his entire collection (circa twenty-thousand) of country records is catalogued in his elegant hand-writing.  I wrote a sub-list of records I'd like to look at - Kitty Wells, Tex Morton, Steve Earle (of course), Steve Young, Johnny Darrell, Jean Stafford, I mean, Jean Shepard, oh, what the hell, how about both of them?  A large proportion of Athol's collection is Australian country music - singers I've never heard of, let alone heard.  It's a bit daunting, and some of my stabs in the dark have been unrewarding - I don't think I'll listen twice to Mary Schneider's yodelling record (I love yodelling, but this was yodelling to be played as background music in a shopping mall; oh, maybe I am being unkind, maybe I should give it a second go), nor Arthur Blanch, with his tight jeans and generic American-style songs.
I ended up liking Jean Stafford, who is innocent and Australian (the record I bought is named Flowers For Mama), distinct from Jean Shepard, who is American and more worldly.  I was happily listening to Stafford when a line caught my ear: "What kind of a girl do you think I am?"  Then: "What kind of a girl would do those things you're asking me to without wedding rings?"  I couldn't tell if the tone of the song was suggestively smutty or virtuously outraged; it really could have been either.  I went into the living-room and moved the needle back so I could listen again.  "Is that what you have to do to prove you're a man?"  and "What kind of a girl do you want for a wife?  Do you want a girl who knows that much about life?"  Jean Stafford was definitely singing it virtuously; but I couldn't help but suspect that the songwriter had managed to slip in some smut right under the noses of her puritanical audience.  I went to the record-player again to check the songwriter credit.  It all became clear.  It was Lynn/Wilburn.  That is, it was written by Loretta Lynn, with a chunk of its royalties unjustly snatched away from her by Teddy Wilburn.  The equivocal tone was now accounted for - there's no one who can tangle up smut and humour and virtue the way Loretta Lynn does (Dolly Parton comes close - such as her song 'If I Lose My Mind' where the young wife runs back to Mama, crying that her swinger husband "...made me watch him love another woman, and he tried to make me love another man").  I even looked the song up on You Tube (I don't, very often), and saw Loretta sitting on a haybale (oh, I might have made up that detail - aren't they all sitting on haybales in those black-and-white tv clips?) singing 'WHAT KIND OF A GIRL DO YOU THINK I AM' with a fierce and virtuously-outraged frown.  But she wasn't fooling me!  

On looking up the clip a few months later, I see she is not sitting on a haybale, but in front of a fake tree in a fake garden:

Friday, July 1, 2011

Gillian Welch

July, 2011: Towards the end of July, I was feeling on'ry.  I used to think that word meant 'horny', but now I think it means "grr".  I don't know whether to blame my on'ritude on a certain long-cherished man-dream that fell flat on its face about that time (Mumma, if you ever read this, that's a reference to the ostriches, or was it the alpacas?), or, a more likely cause, my novel - after eight years of writing and rewriting it, I was feeling like a prisoner doing a sentence of an indefinite number of years, and for a crime I knew not what.  During the week, as I wrote, I fantasised about having a weekend of unfettered freedom, unfettered solitude.  On Friday night, I cooked four sausages and an extra lot of tofu-and-vegies, and gathered together some bottles of water, a sleeping bag and my tucker-bag, threw in some matches, and a bit of toilet paper for a taste of luxury.  Helen dropped me and my bike (Debbie's bike) at my grandparents' old place.  "I should move out there, where the sky is open wide, and my grandmother's buried on a lonely hillside."  I didn't bring my guitar, as I didn't trust myself to concurrently ride bicycle and carry guitar.  This was the only night in about eight years when I haven't had a guitar at hand.  
I had prepared myself for this deprivation by cram-learning the new Gillian Welch song that had just begun to obsess me - HARD TIMES, from her new album 'The Harrow And The Harvest'.  Being on'ry, or perhaps the true description of my state of mind would be "fragile, with depression threatening", I clung to this song as if it were a torch (the torch that I had decided not to bring).  I sang it over and over, as I rootled through my grandparents' house in search of the least rat-pooey-pissy bedding and cooking utensils, and I sang it as I loaded myself up and walked over the hill, across the paddock, across the first creek.  I made a little camp for myself, choosing a spot least likely to be a thoroughfare for the wild horses or the kangaroos, as I didn't want to be trampled on while in my sleeping bag.  I went for a walk in the bush.  I sat in the limb of a tree, near where my grandmother had been buried (but no longer), watching the little birds and the last of the sunlight, and singing: "When the day got long, as it does about now, I'd hear him singing to his mule as he ploughed."  I think the actual lyric is "singing to his mule-cow", but as that animal is unknown to me, I had to alter it.  I sang, "Singing, 'Hard times ain't gonna rule my mind no more!'"  
It was a strangely scary, exhilarating experience, sleeping by myself in that bush I've known all my life.  I felt myself "fall through layers of fear" - that's how it felt.  It was an experience that was either going to kill or cure me.  The light faded.  I thought, "Night's coming!"  I wanted it to hurry up and come, to get it over with, but of course it came in its own sweet time.  Somehow, it was like life ending.  I still (a month later) don't understand.  I lit a fire, and spent the evening moving away from the smoke, putting on another branch, staring, listening, uneasy, restless, excited, despairing, but starting to feel calmer.  I heard the screaming woman bird (AKA the barking owl), which I was rather dreading.  But, for a woman with her throat cut, she was moving very fast.  And in the distance, another woman with her throat cut returned her ghastly call.  I also heard a couple of those great subterranean "booms"; the next day, my uncle told me these are known as 'desert noises', and were heard long before industrialisation.  I lay in my sleeping-bag within a sleeping-bag - it is cold in mid-winter in the central-west - and watched the stars slowly slide over the world.  I'd never quite realised how friendly stars are.
I sang HARD TIMES as I cycled along the dirt roads the next day, my thirty-seventh birthday.  I'm connected to that country by little threads of blood and of passed-down recollections.  "But that Camptown man, he doesn't plough no more.  I see him walking down to the cigarette store.  Guess he lost that knack, he forgot that song, woke up one morning and that mule was gone."  I don't want to forget that song! - that simple happiness, that simple way of easing a heavy heart.  And I want to develop that knack - of fending for myself - while there are still people alive who can teach it to me.  "See, it's a mean old world, heavy and mean.  That big machine is just picking up steam [she sings "speed"].  We're supping on tears, supping on wine [well, not teetotaller me], I'll get to heaven in my own sweet time."  It took Gillian Welch eight years to make a new album, due to, according to her, "Quality control."  It makes me love her all the more that she didn't play along with the 'two-to-three years between albums' schedule.  Quality-of-life control, perhaps.

Here's a live track of Gillian and David Rawlings singing HARD TIMES:

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Kasey Chambers

June, 2011: I bought Kasey Chambers' new album Little Bird while I was in Cowra and needed something to listen to. For the first few listens, I thought it was a bit noisy. I knew I'd end up loving it, but I was happy to take it slowly - there are so few pleasures that you can safely anticipate! Most end up being far less pleasurable than you'd hoped. So I left Little Bird in Cowra, came back to Sydney, went back to Cowra again. Then the love hit. I kneaded some bread dough for the entire album, singing along at top volume. This resulted in an excellent loaf.
As I listen to the album now, I can't decide which song is my song-of-the-moment. 'Beautiful Mess' is great, 'Little Bird' masterful (it's the same character from 'Am I Not Pretty Enough', wavering between insecure and self-respectful). Every song is melodious and interesting. There's a certain directness to Kasey's songwriting; on first listen, every song is recognisable, the mood and emotion loud and clear. I suppose this is what makes her a country singer; this is what it means to work within a genre, and within sub-genres. But as I get to know the songs, their innate Kasey-ness is revealed. Although she makes use of multiple characters and fictional scenarios, there is a driving sincerity through every song. Maybe NULLABOR (THE BIGGEST BACKYARD) is the Kasey-est of all the songs. I've seen her perform it live, with a long intro about her unusual childhood on the Nullabor (her father, Bill Chambers, took up fox-hunting for a living). It's only her voice and the banjo - with imagery like this, no ornamentation is needed. I like the rhyming structure - the first line of every verse is "When I was a little girl, I had the biggest backyard in the world", and then there are three rhyming lines, then, at the end of the verse, a non-rhyme hanging off the end all by itself. Here's the last verse: "When I was a little girl, I had the biggest backyard in the world - sitting round the campfire that started from a spark, rolling down the Gunbarrel Highway in the dark, making sure I had all the room here in my heart, for...the Nullabor".

A slightly wobbly live version:

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Catherine Britt and Joey + Rory

May, 2011: Sophie and I had gone out to Rooty Hill RSL to see Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, but Shane had been sick, so we went along to Notes in Newtown a few weeks later to see him solo. Catherine Britt supported him. I always look forward to seeing supports at country gigs - there's always the slim chance that I'll discover a new singer to love, but failing that, at least I know that the support act won't be too loud, will introduce his or her songs, and won't play for long. That's the formula, and it works for me. Catherine Britt had a great voice, but her lyrics were dull and predictable, and the songs hardly seemed to have any point, or just a shred of a point, carelessly conveyed. Why Shane Nicholson said in his set that she was one of his favourite Australian singer-songwriters, is beyond me. If he was just being polite, he compromised his integrity.
Then suddenly, halfway through her set, Catherine Britt was singing a real song. My attention was caught by the first line, and as each line unfurled, I was impressed with its simple ingenuity (a quality I hold in highest esteem, when it comes to songwriting). "Sweet Emmylou, I blew the dust off you, you're the only one who knows what I'm going through..." Just one listen was all I needed to remember several chunks of the song - this is a sign that a song makes sense. I said to Sophie, "She can't have written that song - it's worlds apart from the rest of her songs." Thanks to Sophie's phone, we discovered that it was a co-write with an American named Rory Feek. A few days later, I downloaded Joey + Rory's album 'The Life Of A Song' with the last of my Telstra Road To Tamworth voucher.
Joey + Rory and I have very different values. I concede that there is some finely-crafted songwriting going on there, but I just can't warm to this sort of hardcore Americanism. Such as the song called 'Cheater Cheater': "Now I'm not one to judge someone that I ain't never met, but to lay your hands on a married man is about as low as a gal can get, and I wish her well as she rots in Hell" is having sex with a married man worse than murdering someone? Is it worse than punching someone in the face? Or is it just the worst thing a gal can do, because gals' actions are so pathetically circumscribed - limited to looking nice (but not slutty) as they wait patiently for their man to return from the rodeo, or the paddock, or wait for him to give up boozing and start coming to church (yes, one of Joey + Rory's women patiently, or perhaps doggedly, "loved the Hell out of" her man)? So they irritate the Hell into me, but listening to this album was certainly the answer to the mystery of how such a top-class song as SWEET EMMYLOU found its way into Catherine Britt's oeuvre.

Catherine Britt's recording:

Two young men doing a sweet, poppy version:

Friday, April 1, 2011

Johnny Horton

April, 2011: I look forward to sing-sings with my cousin Brooke the same way I used to look forward to the Christmas holidays. Other members of our family are also essential to the sing-sing, but often, alas, their voices won't rise above a sotto voce murmur. We had a sing-sing a few weeks ago at my aunt and uncle's house. Brooke sang her newly-composed song 'Virgil', which I think of as the last words that go through a woman's head before she gets out her pistol and shoots dead her husband, Virgil, and perhaps also the girl in the red dress whom he's dancing with. The last lines are the sinister: "You're not much, you're not much, you're not much, Virgil, but you're mine.". Then I sang my newie, which is heavily indebted to 'Virgil': a murder ballad, my one and only, about a woman who sets fire to the hut where her ex-boyfriend and his new girl are lying in each other's arms. Brooke and I both disapprove of murder ballads. I tried to start a genre called 'rape ballads' (e.g. my 'Beneath The Bridge', and also Gillian Welch's 'Caleb Meyer'). Evening up the score with a few more murder ballads where the women do the murdering is hypocritical...but sometimes songs just come out, and that's that.
Once we were onto murder ballads, Brooke and my uncle sang Jimmie Rodgers's 'T. For Texas', which I hadn't heard before - first Jimmie sings "gonna shoot poor Thelma, just to see her jump and fall", then a couple of verses later, decides he'll also shoot "the rounder who stole away my ga-a-a-a-l". A double murder seemed a bit shocking, until Brooke and Peter sang us Johnny Horton's MISS MARCY. It's not a murder ballad - it's a massacre ballad! When I was back in Sydney once again, I checked out these two songs on the Google (Jimmy Little's graceful construction), and set about learning them. I don't really like singing T. For Texas, a typical swaggering cock (rooster) murder ballad, except that the yodels are so beautiful, and good to practise on. But for some reason, I don't mind the blood-bath MISS MARCY. I sang it while my nieces and their friend Thea was at my house, but first warned them about all the body-counts. My eldest niece is one of those innocent children who seek to protect their own innocence; I was watching a bit of the movie Disgrace when she and my sister came in the room, and I said, "It's a good story - but there's a lot of adult content." At this, my niece promptly skittered out of the room. But not even she minds all the blood spilling in Miss Marcy. I'm not going to give the story away. Check it out for yourself on the Google.

Here it is:

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Billy Bragg

March, 2011: Bob Ellis and Rhys Muldoon organised a fundraising night for the orphans of the refugees drowned off Christmas Island, and they asked Darren and me to sing a few songs. It was a Labor Party gathering, so Darren and I racked our brains trying to think of any of our songs that could possibly be construed as having a political or social theme. "All my songs are about girls," says Darren, and all my songs are about men. In the end, we scraped up my Dalton/Lehmann co-write 'Six Hours West', Darren's new duet 'Where Will We Live?' and then boosted our political content by the power of ten by learning Billy Bragg's BETWEEN THE WARS.
I had three days to learn it. It's four chords (1,4,5, with a minor 2 chucked in), but as Andy says, sometimes it's those three- (or four-) chord songs that really get you into trouble. I wonder what it is with those simple songs: it's as though the melody can go all over the place, and a particular note isn't connected to a particular chord. And yet, you must get it right, or else you'll turn it into a different song. BETWEEN THE WARS has three verses, each made up of sixteen lines - four blocks of four lines ever so slightly different in melody and chords. So it was a puzzle at first; now that I've got it, I can hardly remember finding it tricky.
It is a beautiful song. Cramming a song into my head (foie gras style) could have caused me to hate it, but instead my respect for it only increased. Every word, when you're cramming, exacts a whole lot of brain power, and if the word is sloppily chosen, then it is resented. I once learnt The Strokes 'Is This It' for a party, and the lyrics were eighty percent garbage, and as soon as the party was over I duly threw the eighty percent back out of my brain (N.B. I actually really like that song, but it's a shame about the lyrics). Sometimes I think, "Well, I don't write political songs because we live in prosperous, moderate, peaceful times, and there's nothing extreme enough to penetrate my walls and provoke a song." I know that's a weak excuse. BETWEEN THE WARS is a reminder that times like the one we're living in shouldn't be taken for granted. Peace, prosperity and moderation aren't the default settings - they are fragile constructions that need to be protected. The last lines bring tears to my eyes:
"Sweet moderation, heart of this nation - desert us not, we are between the wars." I should try to get my mind off men for a moment and write a song about the world. And after the recent State election, I've decided to join the ALP.

Billy performing on a tv show:

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Andy Baylor

February, 2011: I had too much fun in the first four days of this year's Tamworth Country Music Festival; when I said that to Adam, he wondered what I meant - exactly how does a near-teetotaller have too much fun? What are the consequences of having too much non-alcohol-or-drugs-fuelled fun? The other day, I read a little interview in the Sun Herald with Julian Assange's mother, who denied he had Asberger's; she said that sometimes very intelligent people find intellectual and creative pursuits more stimulating than social interaction. Well, I find social interaction very stimulating - my too-much-fun was meeting too many new people, having too many interesting conversations with my new friends, not getting enough sleep, and finding the world altogether too wonderful. I needed to go off by myself somewhere and mull over it.
The day I started to come down from my high-on-life-high, on Mara's recommendation, I took my shredded nerves and growing misanthropy to Andy Baylor at Southgate. He and his Cajun Combo played impeccable covers of songs written for another time and place. Couples waltzed. I thought of Errol's phrase "museum piece", and wondered whether this band was another example of how people are eschewing the values of the '60s-to-now (self-expression, originality, re-invention) for earlier times, when music was more about craft and tradition. For the first few songs, I found Andy Baylor very pleasant and soothing. A man beside me said, "I wish he'd put himself out there a bit more!" - he is a reserved and reticent performer. Sometimes reserved performers are the best: they don't grab you by your shirt collar and yell, "Listen to me!", but they stand there and wait for you to come to them. It requires confidence (in your intrinsic worth) to be a reserved performer. Andy Baylor doesn't try hard because he knows he has a gift. Suddenly, as I watched the Combo, I was drawn in. I'd almost forgotten how mesmerising it is to see someone who can really play. Thoughts - words - are silenced, as there is no adequate way to describe music when it gets going.
I tried to see Andy Baylor and his Cajun Combo one more time before I left Tamworth, but misguidedly went to the Bill Chambers's session instead; though I walked as fast as I could from the Pub to Southgate, as I walked in, I heard the Combo finishing their last song. When I eventually came home, I found Andy Baylor's website and took my pick of his CDs - I went with The Bush Is Full Of Ghosts because it had a nice title and a rustic photograph on the cover. The title comes from a co-write with Nicholas Langton, the lyricist for five of the twelve songs. I like the album as a whole; I'm resistant to singling out a single song and scrutinising it. Maybe the songs are vehicles for the playing, rather than little discrete works of art. I used to listen to J. J. Cale a lot, and ended up with about six of his records; now, and possibly even at the time, I could hardly tell you a single J. J. Cale song. It is music.

Here's a little sample of Andy and his Cajun Combo:

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Mary Gautier

January, 2011: One of the upside of finding myself at home on Saturday night is that, at ten o' clock, Felicity Urquhart's 'Saturday Night Country' show starts up on Radio National. It is a revelation to listen to the radio and to hear songs I actually like! I lie in bed, reading and listening. When Felicity played Mary Gautier's (google-challengingly pronounced "Go-Shay") song I DRINK, it was one of those listening experiences where all my concentration hung on each line as it unfurled, making me gasp with admiration: each perfectly-chosen word paints a picture, tells a story, evokes an emotion, with simplicity and dark depths. Who would have thought you could give profound significance to the lines: "Chicken TV dinner, six minutes on defrost, three on high, beer to wash it down with then another little whiskey on the side"? Or "I know what I am, but I don't give a damn"? I suppose I have a vested interest in what it's like to be an alcoholic, having gone out with so many of them. So it was a song that kind of answered questions...kind of.
It's a feat to write a simple song about a big subject close to your heart. I end up writing novels about the big subjects close to my heart. But Mary Gautier has the restraint, and the turn of mind, that can distill the big subject into two verses, a chorus and a one-line middle-8. It's awe-striking. In almost equal parts, it both inspires me to greater songwriting heights, and also makes me want to throw in the towel. The 'inspire' part is slightly greater, so I keep going, consoling myself with, "Oh, well, being second-rate isn't so bad."

P.S. I saw Bill Chambers supporting Kasey last night at Rooty Hill RSL. I think Bill has his good points, but I'm not sure that he's a frontman, and I haven't yet heard a song of his that impresses me. And last night he said, "Here's a drinking song," and sang I DRINK, ripping the heart right out of it. He didn't even credit Mary Gautier. He made the lines, "I know what I am, and I don't give a damn" sound swaggering and boastful. The last line of the chorus - "I drink" - had none of Mary's fatalism, or wretched matter-of-factness. He made it sound like a Slim Dusty song. He should be prohibited from singing it. I said to Sophie, who was taking the opportunity to check the weather on her Iphone, "He ripped the heart out of that song." She replied, "Are you surprised?" But I don't mean to hoe into Bill, I like him. He just missed the point of I DRINK.

A beautiful live performance by Mary, with arty violin.  It's so restrained!  I teared up all over again, watching it:

And here's Bill.  Is my criticism fair?