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.
Jim Nash is an gifted writer and we welcome him for what we hope will be a weekly column. Take it away, Jim!
REMEMBERING LES PAUL
Les Paul, born Lester William Polfus, was the man who created the nucleus for modern recorded music. Along with his wife, Mary Ford, he developed the concept of echo and musical overdub. He also put together the concept of electrifying the hollow body guitar. Think about the importance of his innovations. Chuck Berry, Bo Diddly, Dick Dale, Duane Eddy, Link Wray and thousands of others took Paul’s creativity to the next level. Along with Jim Marshall and Leo Fender, they laid down the bedrock for modern recording and playback through multi-track overdubbing and playback, and the ability to create a world on a six-string instrument.
For most of his 93 years, he remained an obscure icon. He played in an obscure and unheralded pickup jazz trio at Iridium in mid-Manhattan, and guitar heroes from around the world would come, listen to him and pay homage. Without his initial creativity, one has to wonder what the music would have sounded like.
John McLaughlin, Wes Montgomery, B.B. King, George Benson, Gabor Szabo, Eric Clapton, Chet Atkins are among the millions in every genre. Overdubbing helped create things like the legendary harmonies of Jan and Dean, The Four Seasons, Delaney and Bonnie. It gave rise to the multi-track studio and remote recording, editing and overdub.
Rock and roll was the baby that Paul, along with Marshall (and those early cumbersome amps) and Leo Fender brought to commercial music. It helped create the blues on Chicago’s Marshall Street and the country soul in Muscle Shoals Alabama. The wonderful overdubbing that Jim Guercio brought to those early Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears sessions in that small Gramercy Park studio in Manhattan.
There would be no modern rock heroes like Rick Derringer, Jimi Hendryx and Stevie Ray Vaughan, no Phil Spector Wall of Sound, no heavy metal without these early innovators. Rest in peace Les Paul – 1905 2009
THE NEXT NASHVILLE INVASION
In London, New York and Hollywood, everybody seems to be bemoaning the death of commercial pop music. Sub-categories like jazz, gospel, and classical, as well as ethnic music still has a limited market, but pop music and the behemoths (namely corporate record labels) have mostly fallen to the wayside.
In the era of commercial rock (late 1960’s, early 70’s) the gold record, and then the platinum and multi-platinum record was the measure of success. At Black Rock (Columbia) any group or artist who did not sell 50,000 units was dropped. The major record corporations (Columbia, RCA, MCA and WEA) not only owned the airplay share, but they owned the distribution networks as well. The smaller independent record companies had to scramble for the crumbs.
Numerous factors played a part in the demise of the commercial record companies. The first came with the introduction of the cassette tape. A consumer could re-record over an existing tape, and with the advent of more sophisticated home equipment, could actually duplicate a commercial recording.
Around 1990, the record companies began moving into corporate mergers. Columbia bought out Sony, WEA became part of Time Warner. MCA, Capitol and RCA all were submerged into corporate conglomeration. Then, the internet came along and the consumer could download music, legal, and illegal on a home computer.
Further, rock and pop were becoming boring. Nashville, never a creative center, began releasing music that was watered down folk and rock, and an audience, tired of a mixture of pabulum began buying records that were neither urban grunt or industrial noise. Though never an innovator, Nashville moved from tape and vinyl to compact disc. They also began to incorporate Soundscan, a computer system that could track via barcode.
The music was watered down, but acts like Brooks and Dunn, Garth Brooks, and Shania Twain could incorporate rock showmanship and Vegas hype into the act. By 1991, there were over twenty major record labels in Nashville, and while the rest of the industry was downsizing, the place was a boomtown. It was the last house on the block.
Like much of the industry, Nashville faced the ultimate industry downsize; Columbia and RCA merged, while the remnants of Arista, Atlantic, Mercury, Elektra, were gobbled up by the corporate owners. Yet, it might well have been the backwoods, conservative nature of the beast that saved Nashville.
Unlike the other bastions of commercialism, Nashville’s bread and butter was always publishing. The music pitching business kept the city alive for the better part of a century. It is an industry within an industry. There are few poetic bards on the scene. Just journeymen who get together five days a week and write clichés. Song pluggers pitch these ditties to producers, advertising agencies and television. The writer could barely give a damn about a record deal. Often, they are under contract to create on an assembly line. The writer spends the day jetting from session to session, often in small offices, meeting with others and throwing around ideas. The idea is not a hit single, but a hold on a song.
Over the past two decades, thousands of dreamers have moved to Nashville, not as concerned with the record deal, as a publishing one. Demo studios flourish to knock out writer publishing tapes. Because of the conservative nature of the audience, product coming out of Nashville is less likely to be swapped or downloaded on the Internet. There are still record companies in this Tennessee city. The most successful are the Christian and Gospel ones. Archival records from a catalogue can be sold to an audience that remembers. Nashville sells product through discounters like Target and Wal-Mart. They sell those trite songs to any buyer for commercials, film or television.
Lately, there has been a pilgrimage to Nashville. Dissatisfied punk rockers from everywhere, boring angst composers, illiterate songwriters all see Nashville as the last frontier. There are still record labels in this place. There are actually booking agencies and music publishers. Yes, while the music industry has become a has-been in other places, the place that they call Music City is thriving.
But the reality is that for all of the hype going on, there are problems. These newcomers might not be willing to face the demands that Nashville imposes. Songwriting is not an art, but rather a craft. Are these people willing to spend sixty hours a week sitting in close quarters, writing with others? The reality is that Nashville songwriters create for markets, not for art. The record labels in Nashville are not looking for artistes. They have a specific audience. Nashville is into image, not creativity. The same holds true for the booking agencies.
Still, the hopefuls are flocking to Music City. What they discover beyond the veneer of hipness on Demonbrian Street, Five Points and Hillsboro Village is a conservative money orientated music industry. The performers are dancing puppets, created for markets. The tourist spots like Lower Broadway demand human performing jukeboxes who play for the crowds. That is the reason that Nashville has survived. It plays to the market and resists trends, and fads. So, the pilgrims go to the new Mecca, but they better leave their creativity back home.
There is this character on Fox News Channel by the name of Glenn Beck. He is a righteous character, who always seems on the verge of having a stroke. He is also a divorced member of the Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints (Mormons), and a recovering alcoholic. There is also a recovering drug addict on syndicated radio who seems to have daily cardiac arrest while on the air. He seems as paranoid as Beck. His name is Rush Limbaugh. He loves his paranoia. Thousands of loyal listeners share this fear of the world, and his conspiracy theories. . What Rush fears most is the reality of why he was fired as a disc jockey on KSHE radio in Saint Louis two decades ago. Like Beck, he has secrets in the closet. A third addict in recovery is Alex Jones, the man behind the Inside Job paranoia in regard to 911. Jones insists that Bush and Cheney were somehow involved in the bombings.
All three believe in the conspiracy theories. All three are in drug recovery. These three have a massive army of true believers. A basic tenet of 12 Step recovery is admitting guilt. So, millions of listeners share their paranoia about Big Brother. They all fuel this fear of a militia style government that will take away the freedoms that they never had. Jones, Limbaugh and Beck are crazies who have become the new truth dispensers. This is on air tabloid journalism. The reality is that these three men have a massive army of followers. A further reality is that they spread paranoia and innuendo to others who elaborate this madness. They exist, because their rights are protected by the constitution and their freedom to speak. They have gained a public trust. They have become the talking heads of the underground.