The intricacies of simple musical tastes
In the days of far too many dead notes based on far too few callouses while playing my Dad’s 20+ year old Eterna, Townes Van Zandt was my main inspiration, as I’m sure he was for most acoustic musicians who felt a draw more toward finger-pickin’, gritty singer-songwriters. While I could not hide my love for almost everything in at least the first half of Bob Dylan’s career, I still was drawn more to that simple acoustic style with great lyrics.
From watching “Be Here to Love Me” I picked up on some Lightnin’ Hopkins and the old Delta Blues men: Son House, Robert Johnson, Rev. Gary Davis… and just got immersed in that deep, wanna break your own arm to feel that pain if you could write/play that way kinda stuff. It didn’t bother me that there were 2 or 3 chords in the whole of maybe even an entire catalogue of one of these writers; it was the guitar voicings, the ragged vocals, and not to sound cliche, but the pure soul that came out of these recordings and the compositions themselves that kept me coming back for more.
After learning about pentatonic scales on guitar I bought Stefan Grossman’s Texas Blues book, while my partner in crime at the time bought the Delta Blues book and we just learned the hell out of those songs and that style; I didn’t need anything else.
Then things changed… I’d always been a big fan of a band from Austin, Texas called the South Austin Jug Band, and even bought a mandolin soon after I started playing guitar and harmonica, but it didn’t get at much use or if it did, it was to play blues solos. I pulled out those old albums, and bought their third and final album… I wanted to play that stuff. It was bluegrass, but with a gypsy-jazz twist at times.
It was amazing to me that that much music, that many notes, could fit in the amount of time that they did. Not only that but the scales that were being used, the accidentals and blue notes, gave me such joy because they seemed so perfectly placed, but seeing SAJB in concert (as I had seen them maybe ten times by that point) I knew it wasn’t just playing notes on a page that someone composed, there was a lot of improvisation going on… and I wanted to be able to do that. Along those same lines I became aware of David Grisman, mainly the David Grisman Quintet of the 70’s (when it was all strings and less latin inspired)
From then on I’ve wanted more and more complexity in my music, being both listened to and played by me. I had to start learning about music theory; I could no longer ignore modes or altered chords or even the actual notes in each chord I was playing, which seemed like a waste of memorization to me during the blues/Townes days. I knew chords by the number system, chords are the 1-3-5(-7) of the scale for that particular chord, why do I need to learn more?? But I started to, to be able to play the new stuff I’d taken a liking to… and it helped tremendously, even with those old blues songs that I seldom played anymore.
Further down the line South Austin Jug Band broke up and turned into MilkDrive, a band that has the sounds that SAJB had but less bluegrass and more… ?jazz? maybe not, but I have no other way to describe it. In that time I found Chris Thile’s “Not All Who Wander Are Lost” album which is entirely instrumental and a feat of improvisational composition. I also bought the album “How to Grow a Woman From the Ground” which is right there with “Not All…” but only a few songs were written by Thile.
After buying those albums I learned about the Punch Brothers and the rest is history. “Antifogmatic” and “Punch” are, simply put, musical perfection. I cannot get enough of the complexity in the compositions and the heart behind a large portion of the songs. Hearing about “Goat Rodeo Sessions”, I almost had a heart attack I was so excited…
Two days have passed since I purchased that album, it is everything I wanted and more (literally because there are videos and a digital booklet too) and then I sat down and thought to myself, while listening to the Townes Van Zandt album “Buckskin Stallion,” and loving every second of it, that my musical tastes have either evolved in an almost obscene way or I’m just confused about what I actually like… or maybe something else, I’m not sure.
I just started writing this when I had the realization that Yo-yo Ma, Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer, and Stuart Duncan collaborating on Punch Borthers style music but with a little more of a classical leaning is FAR removed from Son House’s “John the Revelator” or “Grinnin’ in Your Face,” or even Townes Van Zandt’s “Waitin’ ‘Round to Die” But I still get just as much joy listening to ANY of the stuff I’ve mentioned in this post.
What is it about the almost absurd simplicity of the music I started learning on, and the just-as-absurd complexity of something like “Goat Rodeo Sessions” that makes them equal in my mind?
I cannot listen to most popular vocalists nowadays because there’s nothing behind the voice. I remember even not liking Chris Thile to begin with because I didn’t like his voice; at that point I needed some “grit,” an easily forgettable acquaintance once called it, in my vocals in order to know that the singer actually meant what they were singing. That grit that Townes had, that ALL those blues men had, and even that Bob Dylan had for most of his life told me that these songs being sung were like reading the inner monologue of the writer…
Thinking about it now, I guess that is also what comes across in the complex instrumental arrangements that I frequently listen to now. It is still the inner monologue of the writer, only the instruments take the place of vocals… it’s that heart-hurting soul that Son House was singing with, but in a… different language, for lack of a better analogy… and now that I’ve learned that language, may not be fluent but I know it, I understand more musical moods and feelings; I GET that Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is my favorite jazz album not because it’s complex, but because of the feelings that emanate from the compositions on that album.
While this may be an abrupt place to end after a long-winded, selfish description of my musical evolution, thank you no depression for allowing me to come to this realization. Hope everyone enjoyed the videos that accompanied this blog.