First of all, I apologize for being late with this post. We had a disruption in our internet service over the last few days. The problem is fixed now, so it should be clear sailing from here on. After this, there will one more post to finish my Americana festival, and also to finish the week. Normal posting will resume next week.
As I put together the first part of my Americana festival, I thought about how I would characterize modern country music, and why the music I’m presenting here would not qualify. After all, many different sounds are accepted as country music these days. So why do these artists fail the test?
One reason is production. Country fans seek out their music for comfort. They want to know what to expect. So, in a mainstream country song these days, there will be a relatively quiet arrangement on the verses, and the music will swell on the chorus. This may be achieved with strings or electric guitars, but you know you’re going to hear it.
Another factor that disqualifies an artist is complex lyrics. Again, country fans seek simplicity and predictability. They want the story laid out for them; they don’t want implications, and they don’t want their songs cluttered with descriptive passages. They also want their protagonists to be people like them; they’re not looking to meet someone different.
I don’t mean to diss country music. It isn’t easy to write simple songs well. It takes a special talent to work effectively within such limitations. And the talent needed to put these songs over and make them fresh should not be underestimated. But, that said, I generally prefer music with more meat on its bones. Americana gives me that.
Craig Bancoff: St Anthony
Craig Bancoff plays acoustic guitar, and his band includes drums, electric bass, sometimes pedal steel or banjo at other times, and sometimes there is a fiddle. But this is not country music. Surely, country is an element here, more clearly heard on some tracks than on others. But, in the vocal lines, I hear turns of musical phrase that remind me of Neil Young. Folk music is certainly an element that comes up in the guitar parts. There is even a jazzy tinge to some of the bass lines. All of this adds up to a consistent sound throughout.
Bancoff sings in a range similar to Neil Young’s, but with none of the abrasive quality that Young has. This is Bancoff’s natural range, and he never has to force it to hit a note. But Bancoff is certainly an emotional singer. That is fortunate, because his writing is indirect. His meaning is often carried by how he sings a song. But the most remarkable thing about Bancoff is his imagery. He is a very visual writer, and he can bring a picture to life with just a line or two. The images are often of nature, and he places these images perfectly within each song. A sequence of images, plus the emotion of Bancoff’s voice, tell a story where the rest of the words might not.
I had a hard time choosing just one song from Eden for this post. In the end, I found the image of a statue of St Anthony half-buried in the sand was the picture that most stayed in my mind.
Grant Peeples: The Saddest Thing
Almost all of the songs on Pawnshop by Grant Peeples are, musically, country music. Leaving Her Was Easy could even fly on country radio, with its break-up lyrics and smooth delivery. There is even a radio-friendly version of the song as one of two hidden tracks at the end of the album. But Pawnshop is not a country album. The lyrics and the vocal delivery on the rest of the album disqualify it. Instead, what we have here is an idea of what it might sound like if Tom Waits did a country album.
Now, before I heard this album, I would have said that the idea was absurd. But Grant Peeples usually sings here with a gravelly tone that reminds me of Waits. And like Waits, Peeples excels at tales of downtrodden people. Peeples understands these people and sympathizes with them when no one else will. There is one important difference though. It’s subtle, and I never felt preached at on this album. But the tales Peeples tells of the downtrodden are morality tales. He wants to move us to reach out and try to help.
Peeples also sings relationship songs, and here the Tom Waits comparison really doesn’t hold up. These songs stand up quite well, without comparison to anyone. Most of them wouldn’t fly on mainstream country radio because of the lyrics. Peeples implies rather than explicitly stating how his narrators are feeling. To give you an idea of where he’s coming from, one song is dedicated to the poet Charles Bukowski.
I thoroughly enjoyed Pawnshop as a whole, but the songs I keep coming back to are those morality tales. The Saddest Thing tells of a couple who have come to a pawnshop to sell their wedding rings. The song is powerful, not mawkish, and has as its subtext the divide between rich and poor. If I hadn’t posted this one, my next choice would have been The Hanging. I believe the female voice on this one is Lis Williamson. The song is a duet, and it asks who we should weep for at a hanging.
Altogether, Pawnshop is an album that displays sensitivity and subtlety. The musicianship is fine indeed. This isn’t country by today’s standards, but maybe it should be.
Matt Harlan: Walter
I started listening to Tips and Compliments by Matt Harlan, and I settled in for a nice mellow rock album. Then there was a side trip into country. Harlan’s acoustic guitar playing shows a fine appreciation of folk. And I could even have made a case for including one song, Warm November, in my jazz singers set. But Americana covers all the bases. This album shows a variety of influences, but it makes sense taken as a whole. Drums, bass, and acoustic guitar are heard on each song. Then add electric guitar or pedal steel. There are also banjo, mandolin, and some very tasty fiddle work on some tracks. Listening to Harlan’s voice, I imagine him taking a few tokes on a cigarette between songs. He sings in a clear baritone with a bit of smoke in it.
Matt Harlan is a story teller. He lets his tales unfold at their own pace, which means there are a lot of words, but none of them are wasted. You get to know his characters well, and see them change.
Walter is one of several songs I was tempted to post. Musically, it falls on the country-to-folk side of things. I love the description of the uncertainty of memory in this song. Walter is a dog, but this song is more about a life he touched than the dog himself. It is a fine example of Matt Harlan’s gift for presenting characters who are real because Harlan provides just the right amount of detail to bring them to life.