Archive for March 2014 | Monthly archive page
I recently saw a Facebook post that a friend made referring to Townes Van Zandt as the greatest songwriter to ever live. Since last weeks post dealt with the subjectivity of music and it’s listener, I feel that Townes is a great subject in the attempt to objectively define what “greatness” is. While I assume that most people reading this already know Townes Van Zandt’s music, I would bet that those not familiar with him are at least familiar with “Pancho and Lefty”, popularized by Willie Nelson. For the musician, songwriter, or music enthusiast, though, it seems a shame that there are many people unfamiliar with the rest of his body of work, not only for the songs themselves, but also for his influence on so many other songwriters.
To my generation of songwriters who were unfamiliar with him prior to his death on January 1, 1997, he is a sort of mythical legend. Diagnosed with manic depression in college and treated with shock therapy, as well as suffering a lifelong battle with heroin and alcohol addiction, he embodies the “troubled, but brilliant songwriter”. And there is no denying his brilliance. He had an unparalleled ability to paint a beautiful picture of sorrow. The songs sing as though Townes was constantly finding a happy place in a sad world, and was so caught in that world that he had become unaware of the sadness. You don’t have to search too long in Nashville for a story about someone seeing him perform when he was too drunk or high to remember his lyrics or play his guitar. Whether the stories are told accurately or not, the legend persists, a legend that leads many to wonder what impact his troubles had on his brilliance, and what impact they had on his career.
Still, there often exists a great gap between what is beautiful art and what is useful in our economy. We all have that pop song that we think is void of artistic value, yet it’s creators are given awards and trophies for it’s economic success. This creates a sort of binary distinction between the “artist” songwriter and the “craftsman” songwriter that crafts music used to promote consumerism, wether directly tied to a product, or advertising a lifestyle in which consumption of goods is a necessary and inevitable byproduct. While I do claim a binary distinction exists, there is undoubtedly a grey area, a narrow line that welds the two together that few songwriters have consistently walked. While it is hard to argue that those few are worthy of being considered the “greatest” songwriters, there are still the Townes Van Zandt’s of the world, the ones who create something that is beautiful, but has little value to those who place songs into the public mainstream that convince us to buy a certain type of food, go on a certain vacation, or to join a certain group. There is a loneliness to his songs that leave the listener in a sort of unsettled wonder at the human condition.
The song I have chosen is “Loretta”, a song that was recommended by a commenting reader last week, and a song that has long been one of my favorites. I am interested in what you find to be “great” music, and also the principles by which you judge that greatness. While musical tastes differ so vastly, there seems to exist a common, though undefined, recognition of artistic value, regardless of our limited exposure to so much art.
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Blog time again, which means I have sat around for the last couple of days with my palms sweating and wondering “what do I tell people about?” I never really had an idea of what a blog was until a few months ago (honestly), and although I enjoy the creative aspects of writing, it is something I struggle to do day in and day out for an informative purpose. Mostly I wonder “which part of this is interesting,” and my reaction to worrying about whether or not something is interesting is just to not post, or in many cases, not finish writing at all. Consistent inspiration is always the hardest part for me about writing. Writing records is a better suit for my attention span, as I can allow myself to go through all the “cycles” of writing, and pick and choose the best times to write. Blogs are not as suited to me though, as I’m supposed to be constantly thinking of the next clever entry (Maybe I’m not that clever?).
But alas, I have chosen to take on this blog writing, and so in an effort to not let you down, I will persevere. I was reading a study the other day about music taste and personality, and how when forming new relationships, music is one of the first topics of conversation to come up, and one of the most thoroughly discussed. While it seems superficial on the surface, I suppose that there is a lot that can be read into a persons personality by the music they like. Many times that personality stigma can sort of take over the music itself, at least from the outsider (meaning one who doesn’t listen to that music regularly) perspective. I always think of Dave Matthews being immediately associated with the “frat crowd” when i was growing up. To admit to listening to Dave Matthews was sort of like a curse word, or an instant fraternal bond, depending on who you were talking to.
With that example, it leads me to wonder about the balance between being attached to the music itself, and being attached to the “image” of the music as it is packaged and sold to us. Personally, I often let my nostalgia influence my attachment to new music that I’m introduced to. For example, it is much easier for me to attach myself emotionally to music that was made in the 40’s-70’s than it is for me to attach myself to something new on the market. It is difficult to put into words why exactly this is. I could argue that music made in that technological era “sounds” better to me, but the subjective nature of music is such that it is easy for me to justify liking or not liking pretty much anything within a given context. I’ve probably spent an embarrassing amount of time in conversations with friends, debating a certain musician, trying to objectively define the music as “good” or “bad”. I have probably done this to the point that the parameters for defining “good” and “bad” music are blurred. Still, discretion is inevitable, and it is still easy, upon hearing something “new”, for me to lump it into one of those two categories almost immediately. I have found ways to be more mindful of this behavior, and remind myself to keep listening, and even make a conscious effort to connect myself to it beyond just the surface level of sensory perception.
Knowing this about myself and assuming I’m not alone, to me as a new and independent artist, it poses an intriguing challenge. When independent artists come to your town to play a show, we are constantly battling the listeners initial reaction to it. I doubt that there exists a performer in the world who has not thought to himself while on stage “is anyone listening?” As we are all seeking most any venue that will have us, there are certainly times that we have all landed in front of a crowd that may not be interested in listening. The most recurring post show compliment I will get is “Good job man, you really remind me of….” In most cases, the reasons for this association are legitimate, if not intentional on my part (which is certainly the other half of this discussion), but it is still interesting to me that people’s attachment to music seems to come from an association with other music they know and have already attached themselves to, or at least that is the way many people choose to communicate it.
With all that said, I have gone another week without posting a new song. I struggle with much of the same questions when choosing a song that I do when choosing a blog topic. Part of me says, “just do something and post it” while the other part of me over thinks it, wondering if it’s the right song to post. I would be happy to get some feedback from you, the audience, about which songwriters you think I would represent well. In the meantime, I hope that you may share something about your favorite music, and why you relate to it. Music is, to most of us, so important in accompanying our presentation of ourselves. It serves in many aspects as a window into our perception of ourselves beyond a surface level. It can be a soundtrack to the story our lives tell, or at least how we want them to be told to others. I will have a new song next week.
As we prepare to “spring forward” this weekend, it seems fitting that this winter of all winters give us one last (hopefully) blast of ice and snow this past week. Lauren and Will managed to get out of town before it hit, leaving me stranded in Nashville by myself for several days longer than anticipated. I was supposed to see a Willie Nelson concert at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville on Tuesday, but instead was holed up in a Nashville condo, infected by the cabin fever. One would think that this would lend itself to some productivity time, and had this been a normal winter it might have. Instead, I renounced productivity and gave into the slothful symptoms of a late winter cabin fever, the one where you watch movies in sweat pants and eat chips. Classy, I know (next photo shoot?).
A bright spot in this is that I managed to catch a Robert Ellis show at The Basement that I wouldn’t have gotten to otherwise. I bought Robert’s newest album “The Lights From The Chemical Plant” the week before and was intrigued by it. I expected the show to be good, but good doesn’t begin to describe it. The band was great, the songs were great, and Robert Ellis can play the guitar as fluently as any songwriter I have seen. He is relatively new on the scene, and in the middle of a long tour through the south right now promoting the record. Check out his website, and if you can, I recommend buying the record and catching a show if he’s stopping by your area. You won’t be disappointed.
In other news, I have gotten the EP, “Songs of Home, pt. 1” mastered and ready for production. I’m waiting on some album art and am inching closer to release. I am also gearing up for more live performances and hope that I will be playing somewhere close to each of you that read. In the meantime, I will be practicing, writing, and juggling the final stages of getting the EP ready for release, and then practicing some more. Nashville is a funny town. There are few places that you can spend all day practicing and think to yourself “I’m getting pretty good at this…” and then walk into any music store in town and hear five people playing that make you think “maybe I should go home and practice some more.” The Lovin’ Spoonful song “Nashville Cats” comes to mind. The city is a great reminder that no matter how talented you are, or how proficient you are, you can always be better. I’m hopeful for improvement, especially if mother nature is done blowing ice storms at us for a while. Have a great weekend.