Dylan’s Nobel

Short version: lyrics are poetry, and I’m with Rolling Stone on this one.

The official Nobel press release says The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2016 is awarded to Bob Dylan for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.

Do they not have the right to award it to whomever they please? Is there supposed to be some internal logic we don’t expect from Grammys or Oscars?

This is an organization that gives the world’s most famous peace prize and it’s named after the guy who invented dynamite. I, for one, think Mr. Zimmerman would find that amusing, though to this point, he has yet to comment on the award.

Americana: A Few Opinions

Like the difference between a redneck and a hillbilly, scissoring Americana out of the pages of country pop, folk-rock, and alternative music is an ethereal thing. It’s been on my mind the past 12 hours, since I went to see an “Americana” band last night, and except for Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road it was an evening of country-pop and, I kid you not, 70s and 80s metal.

Hint: if the band is singing about pouring sugar on a deaf leopard or whatever that was, it ain’t Americana.

I’m not here to set the record straight. This is just the opinion of an aging hillbilly who writes and performs Americana.

Oh, that’s it. Joel is feeling misunderstood. Again.

I’ll come in through the back door with examples first, explanations later.

Some artists I consider Americana through and through:

(Their name links to their website, and I’ve included a link to their stuff at Amazon. Yes, it’s an affiliate link. If you use it I might make some money. Americana doesn’t care. Neither do hillbillies.)

And some who spend a lot of time there, but whose main body of work might tend toward straight country or rock:

  • Johnny Cash
  • Bob Dylan
  • Loretta Lynn
  • Woody Guthrie
  • Neil Young
  • The Band
  • Willie Nelson
  • Bonnie Raitt
  • Alison Krauss
  • Emmylou Harris

Here’s my attempt to identify the musical elements that make me think “Americana”:

  • It must twang. If there is no twang, it might be rock, it might be country, might even be bluegrass, but it ain’t Americana. Twang it must. Twang it will. No twang, no Americana. Have I made myself clear?
  • If there is not a dobro or other slide guitar, you, at the very least, expect one, knowing it is lurking around the next bridge. Fiddle is optional.
  • The singer’s voice is more notable for its expressiveness and power than silken smooth beauty. (Emmylou Harris gets a pass here, because she’s Emmylou Harris fer cryin’ out loud.)
  • The lyrics are thin slices of truth from the sandwich of life, subtle commentary on the wider world through the lens of a moment in time as told by a weary wanderer. It may put you in mind of cowboys and sunsets. Might could, anyway.
  • Acoustic, electric, fast, slow, drums: all immaterial. Both Neko Case’s Mood to Burn Bridges, a whip-fast rocker with drums and electricity, and Patty Griffin’s Long Ride Home, a melancholy acoustic number (and, lyrically, perhaps the best song ever written about regret) both qualify, unequivocally.
  • Vocal harmonies show up. A lot.
  • You won’t hear distortion on the guitar. Maybe it’s there, I don’t know, but it ain’t no grinding crunch.
  • It has nothing to do with politics. The word America (or is it American?) is, in this case, geographical, historical.
  • Sorry. Stumbled upon a video of case/lang/viers performing their album live and went into a trance. I sorta like the way Neko tosses that red mane. Where was I? Huh. That’s all I got.

Who’s driving this life, anyway?

Lyrics should amplify the emotional impact of the music. Or is it the other way round?

As I’m gearing up for a major life change (leaving a home I love in northern Wisconsin to move to Phoenix, Arizona for the sake of my family) some music on a long trip reminded me that I’m not always doing my best. I skated through school. Straight As, but still, I skated. I could have done so much more with my time and resources, but being just a little above whoever was in 2nd place was good enough — because all I cared about was being 1st, not about being best.

Most people think I’m wildly productive, writing book after book, managing 3 family businesses, and still having time for friends and family.

What I see most days is a person who won’t do the work to lose weight and eat healthier, turns in about 1/4 of the art he could be producing, and is a little too quick to call it a day and watch TV.

In Mark Knopfler’s Speedway At Nazareth from Sailing to Philadelphia he sounds like a man who blames everyone but himself, losing race after race for an entire season because, for instance, “She went around without a warning” and as anyone knows “the Brickyard’s there to crucify anyone”. He points out that “we were robbed at Belle Isle” and lost another because “my motor let go”.

Near the end, one last excuse about how “we burned up at the lake” and then, the last line puts it all in perspective:

But at the Speedway At Nazareth I made no mistake

Not a whiner making excuses, but a guy who knows whose job it is to win the race, and who sometimes can’t look that truth in the face.

Until one single win gives him the courage to admit who’s driving this life.

On the same stretch of road I revisted John Cougar Mellencamp’s Scarecrow. I’d forgotten what a great album it is.

Minutes To Memories is the rambling commentary on life of an old man on the bus, as recorded by the young man singing. The last lines of the chorus sound at first like a curmudgeon’s denigration of a younger generation:

You are the future
So suck it up and tough it out
And be the best you can

It may sound like Don Henley singing “get over it!” but, really, is there another way to live? What we do today, what we do every day, is our future, ours and that of everyone our life touches.

Is there another option when things go sideways but to suck it up and tough it out?

Is there ever a time, a place, a circumstance to not “be the best you can”?

I Know Why He Acts This Way

Found some old notes I’d written about my favorite Jude Cole album. Twelve years ago, actually. Much has changed. Like, now I’m happy. Also, I’ve seen Madison.

  • Speed of Life — only one I’ve heard on the radio. Great tune, fascinating mental imagery. I have a live version recorded in some radio studio, too.
  • Believe In Me — “I may not make a million dollars, but a million dollars won’t make me.” He sure knows how to write. Simple tune with wonderful lyrics.
  • Move if You’re Going — not my favorite music, but it’s about getting on with your life after tragedy. I listen for the lyrics.
  • Lowlife — not what it sounds like. He writes lots of musical prayers. I sing ’em real loud.
  • Joe — oh so scary song about a perfectly normal guy; except he’s having an affair with his neighbor’s wife while he beats his own; wishes his kids would just leave him alone, and ends with him sitting in the basement holding a Purple Heart and a loaded gun. I’m almost crying writing this; at my lowest times, this song really really helped me not to end it all, and I don’t know how or why. Kiefer Sutherland, who loaned Jude his guitar to record his very first album with, does some of the vocals. Listen with headphones in a dark room. It’s a deeply moving song for me.
  • Sheila Don’t Remember — he really doesn’t understand why this girl he had a one-night-stand with doesn’t even remember him. I’ve looked for something deeper, but I haven’t found it.
  • Take The Reins — when you let others control your life, your heart, your mind, you’re in trouble. Take it back, ’cause no matter how hard it is, it can’t hurt the way it does right now
  • Madison — I have no idea what this is about, but it sounds like a ‘never going back’ tune. I was born in Wisconsin, but I’ve never even seen Madison.
  • Hole at the top of the World — another sad song about a dead marriage. For a happily married guy, he sure nails the feelings.
  • Heaven’s Last Attempt — a gentle but powerful song about how the right kind of love might save your life. Or, might not.

Why does Dylan’s commercial affect my car-buying beliefs?

A testament to the power of musical connections indeed.

I’m a die-hard Nissan fan, and fairly dismissive of American cars (too many Pintos and Vegas in my past.)

And yet, after watching Dylan’s Chrysler commercial last night, I feel an overwhelming desire to buy a Chrysler product.

My Little One, who’s not yet 10, watched the whole thing, and at the end when the snippet of lyrics comes in, she squealed “I KNEW it was that song” and made that the first song on her bedtime playlist.

The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine is toying with my head, and it’s all because of music.

This machine kills anything you want killed. Use your power for good instead of evil.

Do NOT Miss Leftover Cuties

Best Beloved took me to see Leftover Cuties Wednesday night at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. Actually, we saw the cutest cutie three times, not just once.

Stopped at the light at 10th and Nicollet, I watched Shirli cross the street, a pair of high (really high) heels in one hand.

As she stepped to the curb on the northwest side of the intersection I thought, Shirli . . . Shirli. Wait. I just watched Shirli McAllen cross the street.

I felt like I should run after her and apologize for not saying hello. (She later told me “You should have!”) As we were seated at our table near the stage, there she was again, scooting between the tables toward the backstage rooms. I started to stand and apologize for my earlier rudeness, but she was just too quick.

Leftover Cuties are the kind of band which feels like you really ought to run after them and say hello.
Continue reading “Do NOT Miss Leftover Cuties”

Makes No Difference from Evin Wolverton’s Woodland Sessions

Some years ago I almost met Evin Wolverton. We both participated in FAWM more than once, and when I heard he’d moved to the San Francisco area, I invited him to perform at the Northern California Artistic Achievement Awards (The Grassies.) Evin was too sick to make it, and we asked Philip Flathead to fill in, which worked out. Except I didn’t get to meet Evin and tell him in person what his music has done for me.

When I found out Evin had a Kickstarter project for his new album, I chipped in. I had exactly a dollar to my name, and I put it in. Didn’t get me anything; anything less than a ten-spot doesn’t even get a copy of the album when it’s finished. That’s okay; Evin’s art is worth supporting and it’s about time I started giving back to the artists that fill my life.

Except, I did get something. Pretty much won the lottery.

Continue reading “Makes No Difference from Evin Wolverton’s Woodland Sessions”

Badlands = Good Listen

Finding new music that hits me viscerally is sublime. Recently, No Depression introduced me to Eric Tingstad and his take on Americana instrumentals.

Eric Tingstad, BadlandsWhen my copy of Badlands arrived, it stayed in the CD player in the car for over two weeks, playing over and over again. Nearly every track is on my all-night music list (I never sleep without music playing. I’ve heard some people do. Seems odd to me.)

Instrumentals are hard to write. Continue reading “Badlands = Good Listen”

Beyond Bagpipes – A Beginner’s Guide to Gaelic Folk (Guest Post by Nick Lewis)

You know I love Celtic music so I was delighted when Nick approached me about writing a guest piece with some basic background on it. If you like it, say so in the comments and we’ll bring Nick back for more.

Licence To CeilidhGaelic folk refers to the folk music of old gaelic societies, primarily Irish and Scottish. Naturally there are significant differences between Scottish and Irish folk, and many regional variations within, but the traditions are similar enough to merit their own catch-all term. Continue reading “Beyond Bagpipes – A Beginner’s Guide to Gaelic Folk (Guest Post by Nick Lewis)”

40 Years in My Ear-y Canal

I‘ve been plagued by a particular earworm for over 40 years.

I’ve got a mule, her name is . . .

If her name popped unbidden into your mind, you’re either a fan of American folk music or you went to elementary school in California in the 60s.

The song was originally entitled Low Bridge, Everybody Down when Thomas Allen wrote it in 1905. Now it’s called The Erie Canal Song, 15 Miles on the Erie Canal, and any number of other names. It’s about the years, decades really, when boats on the Erie Canal were towed by mules. By 1905 the era of the mules was just about over.

I wish the era of this earworm were over.

Oh; the mule’s name? Sal. I’ve got a mule her name is Sal. Enjoy your earworm.

To Know Someone is Listening: Guest Post by Ross Durand

One of the many singer/songwriters I’ve met during February Album Writing Month, Ross is part of a smaller group I’ve collaborated with. I’ll rummage up Man in the Mirror to show you what a great singer does with my lyrics. For now, Ross shares something every songwriter loves. Continue reading “To Know Someone is Listening: Guest Post by Ross Durand”