Jim Nash Notes and Review – August 23, 2009Posted: August 23, 2009
WRITING THE SONG
Songwriting is an anonymous gig. In Nashville, NSAI(Nashville Songwriters Association International)actually honors these people who create in dark and hidden corners. Music publisher Sam Rammage recalled the humble pride that Mary Chapin Carpenter had, after she signed a publishing deal with EMI. She already was a top selling recording artist at Columbia, but being honored as a songwriter was the certification that she needed.
Few people, even those in the music industry and especially in radio knew who Tim Krekel was. The late Jamie Cohen knew him as a great guitar player when he was in the Sluggers, a band honoring that Louisville baseball bat. But people remembered those songs that he had written that were recorded for Van Morrison, Jimmie Buffett and Jason and the Scorchers among others. One song can make a writer financially solvent for life, as was the case for Gary B. White who wrote Long Long Time (Linda Ronstadt ). Writers like Barry Mann, Cynthia Wiel, Gerry Goffin, Neil Sedaka ,Carol King, and Laura Nyro among others made their careers as songwriters, rather than as performers.
John Fogarty, not Dylan, Lennon or McCartney wrote more songs that topped the radio charts then all of the hip writers while a member of Credence Clearwater, a band that was considered unhip in the era of alternative music. Yet CCR was the band that was ultimately credited as the nucleus for Grung. So, who were the great writers? Some are in Nashville, others are in L.A. and New York. Among them is Stephen Stills who wrote For What It’s Worth, about the Sunset Strip riots, when suburban kids fought against the L.A. County Sheriffs. Another was Marvin Gaye, who penned What’s Going On. an anthem for returning Vietnam era vets who were getting hooked and zonked on Angel Dust (PCP) in South Central. Then there is Men Of Good Fortune, an ode to high school football players on Long Island.
Some songs display anger, as when Manitoba rocker Brian Cummings wrote American Woman, probably the most anti-American song to ever get massive American airplay. Mississippian Paul Thorn wrote one of the best songs ever composed about blue collar angst in Burn Down The Trailer Park. Austinite Bruce Robison penned Angry All The Time about the personal tragedy of metaphase. Of course, Dolly Parton wrote an honest account of her own poverty and pride in Coat Of Many Colors, about the hand sewn garment that she wore as a child to a rural school. Her mother made the dress, and she was ridiculed by fellow grade schoolers for wearing an outfit made out of rags. Those hillbillies probably spend good money to attend Dollywood, the theme park that is part of her multitude of corporate holdings.
Roger Alan Wade is considered by many in the know as one of the best tunesmiths to ever grace a Nashville stage. For years, he remained an obscure poet, playing in a Chattanooga bar until his exposure through the cult underground film Jackass. Tom Faulkner is also obscure, but his one released album Last Stop Texico is considered by some as one of the top albums in the world of Americana. His only exposure came in an obscure Sam Shepherd film, Curse Of The Starving Class. Fellow Fort Worth native Tom Douglas is comfortable raising his family in Nashville, writing songs that occasionally border on rap and hip hop. Both Lee Ann Womack and Tim McGraw have reached the top of the charts covering songs that Tom has written. Patti Griffin remains in relative obscurity living in Austin but she too has found success in Nashville. Fellow Austinite Nancy Griffith had to travel to Nashville, because the folks back home paid little attention to her and critics belittled her music. It has taken Steve Earle to actually cover the Townes Van Zandt catalogue. because there was a myriad of songs beyond Poncho and Lefty and Big Freightliner in the Townes songbook.
There are thousands of other great writers who have touched the soul and most remain in obscurity. Still, they continue to carry on. James Taylor probably wrote it best when he penned the line “That’s Me On The Jukebox.”. A Providence Rhode Island composer by the name of David Olney still travels the back roads of obscurity, but along with Guy Clark, remains one of the most prolific voices in Nashville. Songwriting is a craft, rather than an art. So is screenwriting, acting and performing. Most of the people who get up on that stage fail to understand that fact, and think that angst and anarchy is the goal. They refuse to study the form. That is why people like John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen continue to remain icons. They learned how to write.
For all of the pontification about Austin being the Live Music Capitol of the World, Austin is a pretty conservative music place. Performers tend to be conservative, or even retro in their performances. Punk and headbanger still prevail in the clubs. Among the more popular acts are The Bellevue Outfit who seem stuck in 1940’s Swing and Asleep At The Wheel, and Alvin Crow and The Pleasant Valley Boys, who celebrate the Western Swing of The Texas Playboys.
Much of the original music sounds like rewrites of standards.
Then there is Susan Choffel. She is perhaps the most refreshing young female performer on the national scene. During the 2009 SXSW, Ken Irwin, the head of Rounder Records attended just about every one of her performances.. Her music is a mixture of pop, jazz, rock and soul. Her writing skills are on a par with anybody in Hollywood and Nashville. She is young, has a great voice, and most importantly, she has a great and recordable voice.
In a place, where performers try to out shock one another with their attire and appearance, she looks like the anonymous person next in line at the checkout counter. For all of the hype, few national acts have emerged from Austin. It has been several years since the last local act, Spoon broke through, and the hundreds of local performers in Austin seem to be in competition for the next frustration award. Somehow, staying conservative and going through the songbook of recent history seems to be the norm on the scene.
Susan Choffel is not the norm, or the status quo.
THE SECRET DIVA
If ever a performer seemed to have an identity crisis, it is Essra Mohawk, the Philadelphian who has lived in almost total obscurity out in Bellevue Tennessee for more than a decade. When she played with The Mothers of Invention, she was Uncle Meat. She put out a hillbilly record under the alter ego of Essie Mae Hawk, and had songs recorded by Cindi Lauper and Lorrie Morgan among others. Even though she lives in suburbia, her lifestyle still borders between Hippie and Beatnik. She has put out records on major and obscure record labels. She has contributed music to children’s projects and is a devout Buddhist.
Over the past few decades, she has developed a core audience who relish her as this kind of mad musical genius and creative artist. Like so many other performers, she lives in relative obscurity in the Nashville area, rarely playing shows in her own home town. Most people who treasure The Mothers of Invention, do not even know that she still exists, living in that two story Cape Cod style house on a hill, in a suburban sub-division.
Still, whatever she calls herself, she is a mesmerizing performer who occasionally will irritate even her most loyal supporters with her off hand comments. Most of her recorded output is either in recycling bins, or out of availability. Yet, that loyal band of followers know that she is indeed an icon, no matter what she calls herself.