1. Listen to the birds
That’s where all the music comes from. Birds know everything about how it should sound and where that sound should come from. And watch hummingbirds. They fly really fast, but a lot of times they aren’t going anywhere.
2. Your guitar is not really a guitar
Your guitar is a divining rod. Use it to find spirits in the other world and bring them over. A guitar is also a fishing rod. If you’re good, you’ll land a big one.
3. Practice in front of a bush
Wait until the moon is out, then go outside, eat a multi-grained bread and play your guitar to a bush. If the bush doesn’t shake, eat another piece of bread.
4. Walk with the devil
Old Delta blues players referred to guitar amplifiers as the “devil box.” And they were right. You have to be an equal opportunity employer in terms of who you’re brining over from the other side. Electricity attracts devils and demons. Other instruments attract other spirits. An acoustic guitar attracts Casper. A mandolin attracts Wendy. But an electric guitar attracts Beelzebub.
5. If you’re guilty of thinking, you’re out
If your brain is part of the process, you’re missing it. You should play like a drowning man, struggling to reach shore. If you can trap that feeling, then you have something that is fur bearing.
6. Never point your guitar at anyone
Your instrument has more clout than lightning. Just hit a big chord then run outside to hear it. But make sure you are not standing in an open field.
7. Always carry a church key
That’s your key-man clause. Like One String Sam. He’s one. He was a Detroit street musician who played in the fifties on a homemade instrument. His song “I Need a Hundred Dollars” is warm pie. Another key to the church is Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitar player. He just stands there like the Statue of Liberty — making you want to look up her dress the whole time to see how he’s doing it.
8. Don’t wipe the sweat off your instrument
You need that stink on there. Then you have to get that stink onto your music.
9. Keep your guitar in a dark place
When you’re not playing your guitar, cover it and keep it in a dark place. If you don’t play your guitar for more than a day, be sure you put a saucer of water in with it.
10. You gotta have a hood for your engine
Keep that hat on. A hat is a pressure cooker. If you have a roof on your house, the hot air can’t escape. Even a lima bean has to have a piece of wet paper around it to make it grow.
There are musicians whose hearts’ antennae broadcast from dark and beautiful worlds. And then there is Sturgill Simpson, their legendary ronin.
A hundred times I’ve watched this video, an acoustic “Oh Sarah,” the 8th track from Simpson’s 2016 album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. And I’ll probably listen a hundred times more.
The main thing was I learned how to inhabit my song.
Which means what?
Well. Singers can have a wide range of…it can be John Lydon and the Sex Pistols or you can have Dylan’s voice or Neil Young’s voice, all very very unconventional voices. But they were people who simply inhabited their songs, deeply, deeply, and very very well…so that when your audience heard you, you were convincing. What you were singing about was believable and convincing. That’s the key to a great singer. A great singer has to learn how to inhabit a song. You may not be able to hit all the notes, that’s okay. You may not have the clearest tone, may not have the greatest range, but if you can inhabit your song…you can communicate. There’s plenty of people who do the other things well and will never be great singers. In rock music, you have to be able to personify what you’re singing about.
296 words. Pay attention.
There’s a dream I keep having, where my momma comes to me
And kneels down over by the window, and says a prayer for me
Got my own way of praying, but every one’s begun
With a southern accent, where I come from
…Thanks, Mr. Petty.
It’s that bluegrass sound, but with a little bit more edge to it. It’s something I’d want to listen to, sound-wise, growing up in this area. The Appalachian culture and the way the people in this region talk, the sayings they have, it all lends itself to good songs. Everything they say is a song line.
…Kentucky singer-songwriter, Tyler Childers, in this Rolling Stone article, whose new album Purgatory was produced by the mush-mouthed sage Sturgill Simpson, as well as David Ferguson, sound engineer for Johnny Cash‘s iconic American Recordings, and which at times sounds as raw and haunting as Ray LaMontagne singing at a country funeral.
High heel lady spitting at the Nickajacks
Business man with a needle and a spoon
Coyote chewing on a cigarette
Pack o’ young boys going howling at the moon
…text can’t convey how good these lyrics are. “Sleeping On The Blacktop,” by Colter Wall, who even though Canadian possessed the good sense to name his EP “Imaginary Appalachia,” and who looks about ready to hike outta Bold Camp and go pick fights at a Wise County football game.
Strait’s version, the only one that most people will ever hear, is masterfully plain. He occasionally approaches a syllable from above, using a mournful grace note, but he has an easy, conversational way of putting a melody across, as if he were singing to keep from talking.
The first section of this New Yorker article on George Strait contains some of the most enlightened music journalism I’ve ever read.
He’s come to make love on your satin sheets
Wake up on your living room floor
He’s the last of the hard-core troubadours
…decades later, and this song still makes me want to start a band. Hard-Core Troubadour, track 2 from Steve Earle‘s 1996 album, I Feel Alright, which is Lesson #1 in Rock & Roll Songwriting, both for its lyrical content and for containing all five of the Top-5 Greatest Drum Punctuations in history.
At the Grammy’s last year, “Burning House” by Cam lost Best Country Solo Performance to the regrettable “Traveller” by Chris Stapleton, the dull lyrics of which somehow, miraculously, manage to be emotionless and sentimental at the same time (though perfectly crafted for shallow listening), and the title of which is spelled incorrectly (unless you’re British).
“Burning House,” however, is a magically crafted song, and a wonderful example of why mainstream Nashville songwriting teams exist. It’s beautiful, precise, and never says more than it needs to. It’s clearly based on real human experience. Its arrangement is in perfect harmony with the soul of the song. It’s the type of song I wish we only received from Nashville.
Nevertheless, I’ve been racking my brain for the last half hour, trying to determine why songwriter Cam, not to mention her two co-writers, left the final line of the chorus hanging…
I’ve been sleepwalking
Been wondering all night
Trying to take what’s lost and broke and make it right…
I’ve been sleepwalking
Too close to the fire
But it’s the only place that I can hold you tight…
In this burning house…
Tonight? Why not fulfill that rhyme? It’s easy, obvious, and satisfies the circularity extended by “night” in the first line of the chorus. Yeah yeah yeah, silence and longing and desire and all that, but if that’s what you’re going for, why not only leave it hanging at the very end of the song? Why not give the listener that sense of auditory fulfillment in the middle, and then leave them hanging at the end? Would it create too much space before the beginning of the next verse? To me it’s the difference between a sad thread of hope…and utter despair. To me, it leaves the listener staring, instead of crying.
And no, it’s not a valid argument that the song would then be indirectly rhyme-linking “night” and “tonight.” They’d be at opposite ends of the chorus, with a plangent beat of silence before the resolution. Trust me, no one hates more than I when a song rhymes a word with itself. That’s not the case here.
Really, though. I love this song…but why? What drove that decision?
I got the guiltiest conscience
Listening for a savior on a Saturday night
I got my ear to the ground
You got Easter Sunday in your eyes
And I apologize if I seem a little overwhelmed
I’m thirsty, but the holy keep on pissing in my well
I had a purpose and a song that was true
But I ain’t ever had a lick of sense when it comes to you
…from “3:59AM,” track 5 off of John Moreland‘s miraculous 2013 album, In The Throes, which came out the same year as Jason Isbell‘s Southeastern, is lyrically and compositionally similar to Steve Earle at his best, and which was released at the tail end of a flood of songwriting the likes of which America hasn’t seen since Ryan Adams beat music with 29.
Despite all my Sunday learning
Towards the bad I kept on turning
Till Mama couldn’t hold me anymore…
On January 1, 1958, Johnny Cash played his first ever prison concert, at San Quentin State Prison in California. In the audience for that show was a 20-year old on a 2-year stint for burglary, his 4th incarceration since the age of 11, and a stint that began with a daring escape (and eventual recapture), as well as his administration of a gambling racket and an in-prison beer-brewing venture .
A few years earlier, that 20-year old had gone to see Lefty Frizzell in concert, finagled his way backstage, and sang for Lefty in such a way that the country music icon refused to perform without allowing that teenage ex-and-future-convict to sing a few songs.
In the end, however, it was a stint in solitary confinement that inspired that 20-year old to pursue a new life, one which produced 38 #1 hits, helped steward one of the state of California’s greatest cultural-musical products, and became the inspiration for an Oscar-winning film.
Yet none of this matters in the shadow of Merle Haggard’s voice, which even today, on the date of his passing, is still perhaps the greatest in country music history.
I’ve often remarked that music to the United States is as wine is to France. It’s one of those never-ending stories.
…T-Bone Burnett, a man whose musical consciousness is unfathomable, who is among America’s greatest cultural forces in the last half century, describing American Epic to Rolling Stone, and making me so excited it hurts.
Rest in peace, Mr. King…
(Jump to 33:50 if you like magic…)
Gentlemen, he said
I don’t need your organization, I’ve shined your shoes
I’ve moved your mountains and marked your cards
But Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination
Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards
…Changing of the Guards, Track #1 off of Bobby D-Bop‘s 1978 album Street Legal. It’s a pretty miserable song, actually, until you hear Brian Fallon of The Gaslight Anthem sing it on what is likely the greatest compilation album of all time, and then, suddenly, it’s such a great protest song you don’t know what you’re protesting.
Rocking live version:
On the road where the light splits the gatherin’ dark
Like the sound of Paradise falls upon the damned of heart
I have an extremely long and shameless history of discovering songs that mess with my head and heart, then listening to them on repeat eighty or so times before ever playing a new track. In the past year, that’s included songs by guys like Ryan Adams and the Turnpike Troubadours, historically folks like Steve Earle, Jeff Buckley and the Gaslight Anthem, and my iTunes most played list could probably get me institutionalized.
Somewhere around 2003 however, at the age of 19, I heard a song by a painfully honest writer named Doug Burr. It must have come in one of those “up and coming” CD inserts Guitar World and other magazines used to slide in, though that’s no certainty. Either way, it was the first obsessive-repeat song I’d discovered after learning how to play, write and sing songs myself.
Pitifully tone deaf, barely able to tune a guitar, I found this Doug Burr guy’s website and emailed him, describing how his song had worked me over, and begging for the chords. They’re simple chords; any idiot could figure them out, but I didn’t realize that at the time. I was just freaked out by my desperation to learn a song for reasons other than the bribery of female attention in my college bedroom.
So you can imagine how miraculous it was when, a day later, I get a reply from Mr. Burr, giving me the paltry handful of chords that, experience has since taught me, were all I and any other lyrical songwriters have ever needed to know.
I’ve been playing and listening to this song for 12 years now, and music still hasn’t gotten any better.
I mention this, not because I want to thank him for being too cool, but because Doug Burr just released a new album called Pale White Dove, and it’s absolutely awesome.
…Dark As The Night, track no. 3 from The Sickle & The Sheaves, 2002, by Doug Burr.
…White Night – Black Light, track numero uno from Pale White Dove, 2015.
There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who’ve made love while listening to Drive All Night, and those who ain’t. You know which camp Little Stevie is in.
Black candle, fire on the fuse
Shaking in the wind like a lame excuse
Never leave the house, barely leave the room
Got nothing to say, got nothing to prove
Whoa. The party must have ended at Elvis’s house. Ryan Adams is back. Righteous.
…from I Just Might, track #9 from his best-named album in half a decade, Ryan Adams, and the best escalating tension song I’ve heard all year.
Last night I dreamed that I woke up with straps across my chest
And something cold and black pullin’ through my lungs
And even Jesus couldn’t save me though I know he did his best
But he don’t live on Ellis Unit One…
…from Ellis Unit One, by Steve Earle, track #8 on Side Tracks, about a very certain stretch of Death Row and originally written for the film Dead Man Walking, and still one of the most masterfully written songs I’ve ever heard.
I’m not sure which is better – Elvis’s voice, his hair, or that clean, clean, clean, clean suit. Somebody should tell Ann-Margret to quit messing around. Like she’s got any say in the negotiations. Sheesh. Come on.
…from Viva Las Vegas.