Wednesday, October 29, 2008

NMW Spotlight : Louvin Up Close

I thought I'd break tradition for this post and give you a little glimpse of my alter ego and the adventures of a performing songwriter. For my regular readers : don't worry, we'll be back to the chopping block next week. But for tonight Ninety Mile Wind goes "backstage" in Bethlehem, PA. for a first hand report on my show at Godfrey Daniels with the legendary Charlie Louvin.

The Silver Eagle was parked across the street when Larry Ahearn and I arrived for sound check. Larry is a manager who likes to travel with his acts, so he almost always delivers me to the door of my gig and makes sure sound check comes together on schedule. Charlie Louvin's band had traveled down from Woodstock NY where they'd done Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble show the night before. The bus's engine was still idling when we pulled up, indicating everyone was either sleeping or taking care of other business on board.

We faced some tough competition finding an audience for this show. The fourth game of the World Series was being played only 65 miles away, and The Who were also performing in Philly. But we were relieved to learn that the house was half sold out and walk ups were expected. Still, I'd figured Charlie would draw more people than the number of advance tickets we'd sold. Ramona at Godfrey Daniels gave us the same lament we've been hearing everywhere lately : show attendance is off by 30-40%, and it's the economy stupid.

Louvin's band sound checked first. When everything was set, Charlie got off the bus and came into Godfrey's wearing a gold Pittsburgh Steelers hat that Levon had given him the night before. He took the stage and exchanged a few comments with his eldest boy, Sonny, who plays rhythm guitar in the band. I heard Charlie say, "Where?" and he turned to squint in my direction. Then he stepped off the stage and came over to greet me. I introduced myself, not realizing Louvin is still as sharp as a pistol at age 81. "Yes, I remember you," he said, "we spoke on the phone a while back about your House song. Boy, you didn't leave nothing outta that one, that's a good song!" I should explain that Charlie cut This Old House (written by Thom Schuyler and myself) a few years back on a CD that's unfortunately now out of print.

Louvin and his band finished their sound check and I set up for mine with my percussionist and long time friend Tommy Geddes. Charlie was hanging around in the lobby when I decided to run through This Old House with Tommy. I had my eyes shut, and as I got to the second verse a raspy tenor voice joined me in harmony. I looked over and there was Charlie on stage next to me with a cup of coffee. He followed my phrasing almost perfectly and nailed the second chorus. When the song ended he leaned over and said with a grin, "Boy, you should be killed before you multiply!" I laughed and told him to feel free to join me for the song during the evening's set if he felt up to it. "I've got this head cold, but maybe I will".

After sound check we sat and talked about guitars until Charlie had to do a phone interview with a radio station in Australia. I decided to eavesdrop as he answered the questions that were coming from the interviewer. His eyes twinkled as he spoke about his storied past.

"Yes, that's right, we did a show in Alabama back then and Elvis was the opening act." A pause. "Well, yes, I met Hank a few times, I didn't really know him well, but I knew him." Another pause. "Well we used to harmonize all the time, we learned all the church music, shape note singing and the songs in The Golden Harp [a hymn collection published in 1868]" Then a longer pause and a sigh. "Oh yes, every time I sing I still hear Ira's voice singing his harmony parts." The interviewer asked him about his name. "Well it was Loudermilk. We was cousins of John D's, you know. So we took the L-O-U part, same as Loudermilk, and added the "V-I-N" from the VIN number on a car and came up with Louvin." He looked at me with a grin and winked, then spoke into the phone again, "Well sir, I'm in Bethlehem PA, where Jesus is from."

I went outside to get some air before the show started and found Charlie's bass player Mitchell Brown doing the same. We had a conversation about the bus that was still idling across the street. "That bus is a lease. Charlie's bus got totaled in a head on collision in New Jersey a few weeks ago," he said. Recalling that Ira Louvin died in a car accident, I shuddered and asked, "Was anybody hurt?" Mitchell held out a stiff forearm, "I broke my arm. Charlie was fine. He had an insurance check in his hand the next day and bought something, I don't know what."

The show started at 7pm. I was introduced by Steve, who also does sound at Godfrey Daniels. "Wow, lots of gray heads here tonight," I said. "We like that. Now, if you forget where you are there's a big sign behind me that'll remind you!"
I did my usual 30 minute opening act set.
Here's the song list:

You're The Power

Even A Cowboy Can Dream
The Real Game
Where I Used To Have A Heart
Sugarcane Street
This Old House
If He Came Back Again

Larry was sitting behind Charlie on the benches in the rear of the room. Apparently Charlie slid forward on his seat as if to stand up and come to the stage twice during This Old House, but decided against it. Ah well, I can still say I once harmonized on stage with the great Charlie Louvin. After the show he caught my arm in the lobby and leaned into my ear, "Don't worry, I won't upstage you!" he said chuckling.

Louvin's set kicked off with a rousing version of "Worried Man Blues". He quickly followed with some Carter family and Delmore Brothers tunes.
The band was tight, with lead guitarist Joe Cook stepping out in nearly every song to display a dazzling array of Telecaster tricks and hot licks. Kevin Kathey laid down a solid backbeat, although he was playing somewhat restrained to keep the volume low in the small room. Mitchell and Sonny locked into the groove.

Louvin's voice was weak in the mix at first. The combination of the slightly overpowered sound system and his head cold made his voice seem a bit frail. But the set picked up energy and the sound came together, and by the time he sang "This Damn Pen" (a great ballad he'd cut with Willie Nelson) his weathered tenor took command of the stage. He also gave me another shout out for This Old House, "I don't know how many times I've driven by an old abandoned house and wondered what kinda stories it could tell. He even got the extra key in that song!"

His repartee with the crowd was humorous and unaffected. He ditched political correctness at one point saying, "I'm gonna do this slow song. Normally I'd get down off the stage and go out there to get me some beaver to dance with, but not tonight."

Charlie Louvin has earned his accolades. His influence on country and bluegrass harmony reverberates down to today in the work of younger artists such as Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. It can even be found in the seminal country rock of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. It's a legacy that few artists of his generation can match. One wonders what will happen to country music when the last of these old giants is gone. One thing's for sure, they aren't making any more of 'em.

Thanks to Larry Ahearn and Tom Hampton for the photos.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Song or Sonic Collage

Ansel Adams used to say that before he took a picture he'd already factored every aspect of photography and dark room expertise into the shot. He knew what film ISO he'd need to use to get the proper effect, what Aperture and shutter speed would be required to capture the light and detail, what lens he'd use, what time of day the shot needed to be taken, where he'd probably have to dodge and burn in the dark room to get the light to pop, etc. Nothing was left to chance, even if chance ultimately played a role in the final product-- creative accidents still happened, but their opposite (creative disasters) were minimized. For Ansel Adams, "craft" and "skill" were paramount to the "art" of his pictures. The three were inseparable, and there were no shortcuts.

In today's world of digital photography, it's possible for anyone to achieve certain professional effects with the camera. No longer does the amateur have to study the craft of photography or spend years in the dark room learning about the volatility of chemicals and photo paper because virtually any effect or operation can be applied to a raw digital shot to give the photo some of the same effects it took Adams many hours to create. Because creative disasters have been virtually eliminated with "undo", creative accidents play a much greater role in the final products of amateur photographers. In general, there's more experimentation, but less knowledge of the fundamentals. More haphazard shooting because it's inexpensive, less planning of the shot.

Does this mean anyone can be Ansel Adams? Hardly.

Of course, this is a songwriting blog, so why am I writing about photography? I can think of no better metaphor to explain what has happened to the art of songwriting since "craft" and "skill" have gone the way of the dodging wand.

I was recently asked to coach a songwriting duo who were planning to do a CD. A friend of mine was producing the duo but he felt the songs were not up to par so he asked me to take a listen and make some critical suggestions. Once again I found myself in the position of trying to explain the difference between songwriting and something I call the sonic collage. The songs had some fine moments, but they weren't focused, they were full of lyric contradictions and irrelevant lines. The melodies sometimes had catchy phrases but they weren't repeated or they were in places that distracted from the main melodic themes (if there were any at all) or they didn't draw attention to the hook. The songs were all too long-- not just by commercial standards, but by any standard of human interest (the self indulgent factor). They were obviously written in a stream of conscious method, probably in less than an hour or two, with no re-writing attempted.

I made my comments to the pair in a carefully worded email. My friend said the duo was very interested in what I had to say, they even agreed with some of it, but ultimately they just wanted to get into the studio and cut the CD they'd already written. The money was burning a hole in their pockets and after it all, it was their record label...

Why study songwriting when you can make anything vaguely resembling a song
sound good with Protools and judicious editing? I'm sure my friend will cut a decent CD, but they'll spend more time cutting, pasting and undoing than was spent writing the tunes. In fact it seems that a song is now just the vehicle that gets you to the cutting, pasting and undoing part. It's all about how soon you can get in there and piece it all together into the sonic collage, better known as the modern song. Then you can either go home and learn the song off the record that you've made, or else you just perform to backing tracks. And the best part : almost anyone can do it. All those boring years of study, all those highly educational creative disasters that can't be "undone", the lessons that teach you to do the work before you spend the money, the "skill" and the "craft" that goes into the art of song; unnecessary.

Unnecessary until one day you get on stage next to someone who has spent the time learning the skill and craft behind the art, and put the energy into the song before spending the money on the record. Then you will pull out your sonic collage and sing in earnest, trying to convince the audience they are being communicated to. But your sonic collages won't stand a chance against the real songs. The real songs will hit their mark while you send out lilting melodies and random thoughts like bubbles in the breeze.

Do you think I'm wrong?

Come and sit here on the stage with me...

copyright 2008 by craig bickhardt