Posts Tagged ‘Hank Williams’

Soaking up the rootsy atmosphere at this year’s Byron Bay Bluesfest (often to saturation point), I began thinking on music and the notion of authenticity. To be honest, I began to get a little irked by the relentless barrage of worn leather, road-dusted denim and sweat-ravaged Strats used in the style-language of this music.

Ben Harper, modern roots superstar

Ben Harper, modern roots superstar

There is a division of Fender Guitars, the iconic US manufacturer of the Stratocaster whose job it is to create a patina of age and wear on factory-new instruments. The ‘Road Worn’ range comes complete with distressed paintwork, rusted hardware and, apparently, built-in ‘history’. It really is a bunch of bullshit in anyone’s language, but of course they sell like hotcakes (or maybe out-of-date cheeseburgers).

The unstoppable Buddy Guy, generation-spanning blues guitar master

The unstoppable Buddy Guy, generation-spanning blues guitar master

And I often wonder if the same can be said of the very notion of ‘realness’ in 21st century Roots music.

Roots music – like World Music, a catch-all term invented by marketing/media to weave a saleable genre out of multiple disparate threads – comprises Blues, the less airbrushed forms of Country and the more earthbound elements of Jazz. A prerequisite seems to be that it appeals to everyday people and usually conjures up either elation or deep emotion – ‘good times’ or ‘blues’. Roots also prides itself on its ‘realness’.

I love Roots music deeply and its innovators and artists – both old and new – I hold in the highest regard. But is Roots music any more real than any other form of music? Is it any more real than Punk, or Hip-Hop, or Black Metal?

If a music’s level of ‘realness’ can be measured by the importance it has in a person’s life then the music of Dance-Rave people is easily as important as Roots – they live their musical culture minute by minute. If the question of history comes up – the longevity and historical development of a music in years – then J. S. Bach is the rootsiest muthafucka on da block.

If the idea of authenticity is where ‘realness’ comes from – music woven like veins or DNA helices into the fabric of a culture, inextricably – then I direct you back to the above para about Fender USA’s factory-made ‘soul’. These days, ‘rawness’ and authenticity can be bolted on, as skilfully and easily as a (factory-)‘rusted’ Strat tailpiece.

And it appears to be something Roots fans are all too ready to believe. Maybe because there is so much plastic fakery about, we imbue the lesser fakes with at least some hope of Truth.

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With these cogitations swirling in my mind, I decided to ask some people, way wiser than I, for their thoughts on Roots, ‘road-worn’ and realness. They are Johnny Cass, blues-guitarist and vocalist extraordinaire, DJ/producer Marc Scully, known to Australian dance-music fans as Omegaman and Jim Woff, man-about-town and bass-player with Sydney band Crow.

Titan of the blues, the larger-than-life Howlin' Wolf

Titan of the blues, the larger-than-life Howlin’ Wolf

Here are their responses:

What does the term ‘roots’ music mean to you?

Johnny Cass: A derivative type of music. Just like the roots of a tree, genres of music grow from a base and then branch out into other genres.

Marc Scully: To me its about tradition – blues, country, reggae etc – some acoustic element, a certain heartfelt rawness, echoing back where it all began… back to basics…. at a grass roots level

Jim Woff:  Someone once asked Thelonious Monk what he thought of folk music, he replied “all music is folk music”.  The rural blues of the twenties and thirties sprout country and jazz, while the blues itself mutated countless ways using the same three or less chords. If we’re talking about how “roots” earnt it’s inverted commas, that seemed a 21st century thing. Good when it was Gillian Welch, not so hot when it was hippies with dreads and acoustic guitars and rich parents. The soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou was significant.

Does ‘roots’ music need to have a historical/traditional element to it?

Cass: Yes. The term roots has been overused and has lost its definition.To understand Roots music you must know its history and the struggles of the people of that time.  To keep true to it meaning ‘roots’ music must have strong similarities to the roots genre it claims to be from. Those elements would be chord progressions, tonal qualities of instruments and melody.

Scully: I think so, an element of nostalgia and instrumentation is required, a nod to the past, you would not be playing a certain style if it weren’t for what came before you, something that inspired you to dig deeper, caught your ear in the first place – something styles don’t need re-inventing.

Woff:  I think so. The historic/traditional aspect doesn’t necessarily have to be old, electronic music has a relatively short history for example. The work of the German bands in the seventies is a “roots” music, it’s been incredibly influential.

Can the idea of ‘roots’ be applied to any form of music?

Cass: No. I don’t really think you can say that roots can be applied to Classical music. Roots music was spawned from the urban areas, city streets and small towns and communities. It was a way for the people to express themselves, Roots music was not born from the Aristocracy it was born from the worker, the farmer, the musicians on the street.

Scully: As long as there’s a traditional element, having said that really I can’t see glitch, dubstep or techno being termed ‘Roots’ music.

Woff:  Cave men blowing flutes, wandering minstrels on lutes, spreading the gossip and news from town to town… it’s all free reign, go nuts. I wish more people were as good as Beethoven but you can’t have everything.

Gillian Welch, folk-country artist whose music resonates with older forms

Gillian Welch, folk-country artist whose music resonates with older forms

Does the ‘roots’-iness of musics such as Country and Blues make them any more ‘real’?

Cass: I think the rawness of those musics keep it real. Acoustic forms are the most real. Those instruments don’t lie. The combination of flesh, wood and emotion really take aim at hearts. As the listener or the musician there is no room to hide. There is no wall of sound to get lost in, the message gets through, its more personal.

Scully: To me, yes… some artists can sound quite contrived, be real = be true. Raw, back to basics music played by real musicians – doesn’t have to be flash.

Woff:  Those early recordings… Louis Armstrong… Hank Williams… the Blind men of the blues, Willie Johnson, Lemon Jefferson, WiIllie McTell… Duke Ellington… all rather real. You could appropriate their sound but it wouldn’t be real. You have to make your own sound to be real.

Does the ‘roots’ factor of music such as Blues hold back its future development and evolution?

Cass: Musically, maybe. Lyrically, no. Roots music evolves into new genres as it branches out. The most pure form of the genre will always be respected. What may end up happening is roots music won’t be performed as much. Without the support of mainstream it becomes harder for roots genres to exist. Only purists will hold onto its legacy.

Scully: Not as long as artists still carry a torch in salute of what came before them, you have to acknowledge the past, the birth of a style – without that, there is no future.

Woff:  I’d argue that jazz hit the wall in the eighties but I’m sure there’d be plenty to take issue with that. Blues has never changed but it’s influence is a musical universe. From a young Jagger and Richards listening to Muddy Waters through Tom Waits reeling in Howlin’ Wolf to Nick Cave obsessing over John Lee Hooker, it’s all pervasive. Country hasn’t changed much.

What are your feelings on current ‘roots’ music in particular and the wider art/product of music in general?

Cass: Reality talent shows concern me. Their lack of integrity make music take the back seat. Those shows are not about the music, and they are not about the performer, they are about getting the most viewers and exploiting people’s dreams, disabilities and personal crisis. I understand that it gets some musicians a chance they would not normally get, but it’s fleeting. Viewers that sit at home and don’t experience the live factor of music. That is the real feeling of music. Watching music being made in real time in front of you, is like having your food cooked to order. It tastes better and feels better. That goes for music too.

The Coen Brothers' 2000 movie, O Brother Where Art Thou? invigorated interest in bluegrass music

The Coen Brothers’ 2000 movie, O Brother Where Art Thou? invigorated interest in bluegrass music

Scully: Some of the modern roots artists can sound a little contrived… that goes for all styles. You are either true to your art or you are following musical trends. Way too many producers out there that know how to use a music software program and call themselves artists… Be yourself, learn how to play an instrument, you don’t have to be the best at it, as long as you are passionate about what you do.

Woff:  “Roots” was a Noughties thing, wasn’t it? The good ones will continue to grow while the imposters are already considering another career path.

Sometimes the best things in life (and music) come from wrong turns. The Beatles trying to replicate Motown hits and getting it so gloriously wrong. The Ramones‘ attempt at being a bubblegum band, botched but ultimately birthing a new direction for rock. It is said the ‘blue’ (or flattened) notes in early blues – the basis for so much in the vernacular of popular music – came from slaves’ inaccurate hearing of distantly played Western classical music. Who knows?

Joe Camilleri set out to make a Hank Williams-inspired record in Nashville. Instead, he ended up making a triple-album set, holding 24 new songs, with almost everyone who ever played in his band The Black Sorrows, and housing it in an art book with original paintings by Sydney artist, Victor Rubin. This wrong turn (or series of wrong turns), led to Crooked Little Thoughts. All hail the wrong turn, summed up neatly in Camilleri’s lyric, “The world’s a sea of stories and nothing goes to plan…”

Camilleri says of his beloved Black Sorrows “On a good night we’re a great band… On a bad night, we’re a train wreck. And I reckon that’s the way bands should be… I’d rather fall on my face than be the same every night.” It is this mission statement that not only gives Crooked Little Thoughts its restless ecleticism (covering rock’n’roll, reggae, country, blues, gospel etc), but also its rollicking and blood-pumping live feeling across all 24 tracks.

From horn-and-string-laden funk opener ‘Money Talkin’ – with great blues-guitar from Claude Carranza – the ‘family’ vibe is evident. The lead vocal is shared by Camilleri and Sorrows newcomer (and quite a find!), the wonderfully named Atlanta May Coogan, with big bad backing vocal from the Wolfgramm sisters, Eliza, Kelly and Talei. There are 14 people on this track, yet they are all driving the same bus, all working towards making the song live its own life for 4:36.

This ‘family’ vibe is all over Crooked Little Thoughts – some tunes are sparser of course: the Tex-Mex ‘Our Town’, the Nashville ballad ‘The Spell is Broken’, the Bakersfield boogie ‘Dustbowl Blues’ – but every tune has just what it needs; the gumbo cooked up from the amazingly rich pantry of the Sorrows wonderful instrumentalists: Rockwiz’s James Black, jazz guitarist James Sherlock, tenor man Wilbur Wilde, drummer David Jones.

And they can rock too: ‘Shelley’ cooks with Stonesy guitars, ‘I’m the One’ takes us back to the humid Melbourne days of Camilleri’s hit band, Jo Jo Zep and The Falcons, ‘Waitin for the Hammer’ bristles with Stax soul excitement. Unlike too many double- or triple-album sets (of which it is often said that they would have made one great single album), every song here counts; the riches on Crooked Little Thoughts are many and varied. The moods, colours and stories here are tied together by something as simple as ‘heart’ – all the characters, streets, towns, kisses and sads are real, and very human.

Mention needs to be made of two huge talents, apart from the raggedly glorious Mr Joe Camilleri, that contribute indelibly to the album: that of vocalist Atlanta Coogan and artist Victor Rubin. Atlanta May Coogan (her name could come from a Camilleri tune!) is a great voice; her stamp is all over the music here, whether sharing lead vocal with Joe (‘Its Only Xmas’ is standout), or taking the lead on her own on the torchy blues ‘Lovin You’, one can hear why she made Mr Camilleri’s ears prick up when he first heard her on the Fogg album he produced in 2003.

Lastly, the other creative personality who undoubtedly makes Crooked Little Thoughts really something is painter Victor Rubin. The artworks he has created for each of the 24 tracks – they each face the song’s lyrics on double-page spreads – are timelessly modern, brilliantly original and full of a passionate lunge of feeling in their execution; in this they fit with the Black Sorrows’ music so well: nothing clever-clever, nothing too clean, slick or pointlessly polished. They are just right, and help to elevate this remarkable package of song- stories, story-songs and song-pictures into one of the great artifacts of Australian music.

The Black Sorrows website is here.

Victor Rubin’s website is here.

Crooked Little Thoughts is out on Head Records.

Published April 2012 on theorangepress.net

The best music is often made in the most relaxed circumstances. Away from the production-line pressures of the next big hit, making music for the sake of it, even zillion-selling superstars can come up with some beautiful stuff.

Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield’s Super Session was a surprise hit of 1968 – even more surprising considering it was made over a couple of stoned, late-night jams. Keith Richard’s various jam bands – including the Xpensive Winos and The New Barbarians – take the pressure off and let Keith be the team-player he longs to be, with some kickass results. The side project – such as Jack White’s Raconteurs and Dead Weather, or Nick Cave’s Grinderman – can often take on a life of its own, seducing new fans because their leaders don’t give a fuck about hits (which can make for great rock and roll).

Norah Jones, whose 2002 smash, Come Away With Me sold the aforementioned zillions, reinvigorated Blue Note Records and launched the sensitive, pop-jazz female chanteuse for the modern age (for better or worse) would know the steamhammer pressure of hitmaking more than most. And it never sat well with her (on sweeping the 2003 Grammys for Best Everything, she said “I felt like I went to somebody else’s birthday party and I ate all their cake. Without anybody else getting a piece. That’s how I felt”). So it makes sense that she had a pressure valve of her own – her sweet, clubhouse country band,The Little Willies.

The Little Willies was formed in 2003 with Jones on vocal and piano, Richard Julian on guitar and vocals, Jim Campilongo on guitar, Lee Alexander on bass, andDan Reiser on drums. The band was formed around a love of country classics and their first album, the eponymous 2006 release, contained, among a few originals, standards by Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Hank Williams – on Come Away With Me Jones’ cover of Williams’ ‘Cold, Cold Heart’ had been a standout track, so  country was not a million miles from her brand of jazz.

And as is the easy-going, Jack Daniels’ slow schedule of a side-project it has taken The Little Willies six more years to put out their second – For the Good Times, named for the bittersweet Kris Kristofferson cover that was a 1970 hit for country star Ray Price. And they do the song proud – Jones’ and Julian’s voices smoothly intertwining like vines of sadness around your heart. Other covers fare just as well – Dolly Parton’s wise and knowing ‘Jolene’ (also famously, if more scathingly, covered by The White Stripes), ‘Foul Owl on the Prowl’ (a leftfield cover from jazz maestro Quincy Jones – this one gets the tipsy New Orleans treatment) and Johnny Cash’s two-steppin’ ‘Wide Open Road’.

During 2002-3, when almost every speaker, muzak system or radio in town was playing Come Away With Me and we were all suffering from Norah Jones overkill, her omnipresence caused a backlash which, like most pop music backlashes, was more vicious than needed – and served to obscure her jazzy musicality and very human charm for many. A collection of songs such as For the Good Times shows off her sensitivity and warmth – she really wraps herself in the sentimental blanket of these songs and her joy is infectious. It spreads to her bandmates – though this truly is a group effort – and through them, to us.

Speaking of the laidback vibe of the making of the album, guitarist Jim Campilongo says “The recordings kind of are the rehearsals. Norah will do a song a different way every time. In 2006, when we first recorded, I was kind of taken aback, but I’ve grown to appreciate her jazz approach. It’s actually gotten easier because it really is a band now.”

Jones herself adds “I always want to keep playing with this band,” she says. “And I don’t ever want to have it not be fun and just feel like work.”

And if there is one thing For the Good Times doesn’t sound like, it is Work. In a ProTooled age of almost fiscally-perfect beats and robo-tuned vocals, it is a sweet relief to let music such as this wash over one. Somewhere along the line, Music stopped being Fun and became Work – and a laour of musical love likeFor the Good Times –  very importantly – can remind us of the Good Times.

 

Published January 2012 on theorangepress.net