As it approaches midnight, my thoughtful column on one-hit wonders and signature songs just took a hard left turn — my finger slid across the track pad and landed on a website that spoke of such things as two-chord songs, partial capos, and Liberty tuning. I seriously don’t have time to transgress from the storyline I’ve worked out in my head for the past five days, especially as a deadline looms and the image of an anxious editor refreshing her inbox is imprinted behind my blue eyes. Actually, hazel. And just an hour ago everything was so perfectly clear and linear, from point A to point B.
So as to not throw the baby out with the bath water, my original premise was more a question pondered and posed about whether if, within this big tent of roots music, we had songs that were either bigger than the musician(s) who wrote or performed them, or were so defining that they overshadowed everything else in their repertoire. I researched and studied, read and listened. I considered some examples mostly from the mid-1950s that included Big Mama Thornton, Johnny Bond, Hankshaw Hawkins, The Weavers, Johnny Lee Wills, and Ferlin Husky before I advanced the Wayback Machine and settled on Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road.” I wanted to juxtapose it with Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart.” Do not thank me for sparing you the anguish.
Have you ever been to the Minnesota State Fair? Earlier this week, I flirted with the idea of flying in for a couple of days to visit an old friend and search for deep fried pannekoeken on a stick. Thoughts of quilts, seeds, cows, hogs, and Princess Kay of The Milky Way’s butter sculptures clouded and obscured rational processing as I prepared to hit the buy button on a thousand dollar air-hotel-car package. When in doubt, I pause and play guitar.
Looking into my guitar case, I saw an old partial capo and it reminded me that I needed to get a new one. Amazon Prime whispered my name but I wanted to go one step beyond. The old “one click-two click” took me to the doorstep of Harvey Reid.
It is with fear of public embarrassment that I admit to not having come across this man before tonight, although I have since learned that he performed on a stage at Newport Folk Festival last year with his wife and fiddler Joyce Andersen, and I missed their set by mere minutes. Residing in York, Maine, Reid is master guitarist, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, music educator, inventor, and innovator. He has released 32 albums on his Woodpecker Multimedia label, published dozens of instructional music books, and co-wrote the college textbook Modern Folk Guitar. He designed a new type of partial capo (if you don’t know what the heck I’m talking about, just go with it), and came up with a unique method for playing and tuning a six-string guitar.
One project that caught my attention as I surfed through what seems like an endless sea of Reid-Andersen websites was The Song Train: 56 Great Two-Chord Songs Anyone Can Play. An 80 page hardbound coffee table book that accompanies a four-CD set. It includes a wide range of music from songwriters such as Dylan, Guthrie, Lucinda Williams, J.J. Cale, Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, Merle Haggard, and Gillian Welch. Released in 2009, Acoustic Guitar magazine interviewed Reid and he shared about this concept that he and Joyce created together as a husband-wife project:
“We sensed a groundswell of interest from people wanting to play music, and we have children now, which really got us thinking about how musical knowledge gets transmitted. We wanted to help pass the torch, and realized that The Song Train was a valuable and unique missing piece in the puzzle of learning that suited our talents as performers and that really would help people get going. If you think really long and hard about it, the idea of The Song Train becomes obvious, though not everybody sees its value instantly. Boomer generation people don’t realize how many of the simple songs that enabled them to start playing music were present in schools and in mass culture, something that is no longer the case. We think it all starts with songs in people’s heads.
We wanted songs that we liked, that were alive and in circulation, and that covered a lot of styles and tastes. We probably could have made a whole bluegrass or gospel Song Train, but we wanted a cross-section, and tried to balance the country, folk, gospel, blues, rock, gospel, folk, etc. We wanted some famous songs, but wanted songs that had some durability, so we skipped topical things like ‘Okie From Muskogee’ and ‘The Beat Goes On.’ Our model was a single person with an acoustic guitar driving the song, so we did that with each song ourselves. Some rhythms are too complex, and we left out a lot of 1 and 2-chord songs that just are not one-guitar songs. ‘Sex Machine’ by James Brown and ‘Heroin’ by Lou Reed are 2-chord songs that did not make the cut, for example.”
Can’t tell you how happy I am that I abandoned that one-hit wonder theme and ended up finding this incredible tool for learning, teaching, and passing down music. Harvey and Joyce will likely be the beneficiaries of some hard-earned money from my wallet that would have otherwise ended up being spent on a day at the Mighty Midway. As far as Steve Earle and “Copperhead Road” goes … did you know it’s a song with only three chords and a capo used on just five of the six strings? Didn’t think so.