Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Hot off the Presses

Tim O'Brien's latest song, which chronicles a wacky story I hadn't known about. Sing to the tune of "Pretty Boy Floyd" or hear Tim sing it on his website (with Jerry Douglas on Dobro).

The Ballad Of Christopher Daniel Gay © 2007 Tim O’Brien
(date of creation Jan 28, 2007)

Come all you good time people and a story I will tell
Of Christopher Daniel Gay, you bloggers know him well
His mama said his heart was as big as his head
And he became a car thief to keep his family fed

The cops stopped him in Texas where he was on the lamb
They found out from headquarters that he was wanted in Alabam
The Prisoner Transport Service was takin him back to pay
It was at a road side pit stop he made his get away

Stole a pickup in Carolina, then a Wal-Mart truck with eighteen wheels
He drove toward his dyin mama in the Cheatham county hills
And it’s down those lanes and back roads the police made their chase
And he almost made her trailer, he almost saw her face

A witness said it sounded like a barn a fallin hard
When he ran that semi off the road into the neighbor’s yard
He ran off through the woods to a Whites Creek tour bus lot
He picked a silver and blue one and ran that diesel hot

His mama told the papers, “What he done was wrong
But” she said “he also knows his mama don’t have long
The county sheriff said that if he turned himself in
They’d take him to his dyin mama before they took him to the pen

It was down in Lakeland, Florida he stopped at a NASCAR track
They wrote down his license number and they finally brought him back
Now the chase it started Sunday, and when Saturday evening fell
They caught him in a tour bus that belonged to belonged to Crystal Gayle

As I tell you all this story, I wouldn’t be surprised
If the color of that stage coach matched his mama’s eyes
It’s through this world I’ve rambled and through this world I’ve roamed
But I never knew an outlaw with a tour bus for his home

If anybody wanted these lyrics for to get
Just type and click your browser on Tim O’Brien dot net

Monday, January 29, 2007

Nordic Music Videos

Before there was YouTube there was TVFolk.net A great collection of commercially made and "recorded in the field" videos of northern European folk music. I mostly go to the Sweden section. Lots of great stuff from Swap, Frifot, Vasen, etc., but my favorite may be guitarist Ole Lindvall. Flatpicking polskas on a nylon-string guitar! My new guitar hero.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Pedal and Steer

Check out this very cool multimedia "Soundslide" that Anne has put together about our son, Josef, and his bike racing. OK, I'm in there, too, a little too much probably, but the photos are, of course, exquisite.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Bluegrass Songs: The Good, the Bad, and the All Too Ugly

I recently received two new releases from Sugar Hill Records: Martha Scanlan’s "The West Was Burning" and the Infamous Stringdusters "Fork in the Road," which illustrate the opposite extremes of songwriting quality found in old-time and bluegrass today. Both are excellent records—the Stringdusters are each among the hottest young practitioners of their chosen instruments and their band sound will endear them to fans of the Lonesome River Band, Blue Highway, and Alison Krauss. But, unfortunately, like a lot of bluegrass bands these days, the songs they choose to sing . . . suck! Big time.

“Love, love, love / Is my destination.” What? Are you kidding me? Now, someone like Del McCoury could possibly get away with singing a song that banal (too execrable to be simply clich├ęd), not only because Del’s voice transforms anything he sings, but also because he’d sing it with a bit of a twinkle in his voice, a sly acknowledgment that “this is kind of silly, isn’t it?—but fun.” Most of today’s bluegrass singers don’t get this, delivering horrid songs like “My Destination” (or “Starry Night” which repeats “At night, I dream about you / In my dreams, I hold you [dramatic pause] tight”) in all seriousness, making you almost wonder if they’d listened to the words at all or whether they’d simply strung together a series of nonsensical syllables that by chance had formed themselves into this Neanderthal-speak. Now what flummoxes me is: at what point does anyone think to themselves (certainly not aloud) “Here’s a song we should record?” As opposed to covering some great song like “Little Georgia Rose” or some other bluegrass standard.

Seriously, something has to be done about this. Bluegrass cannot possibly survive the increasing inanity of its material, which, if it gets much worse will decline to the level of MySpace “comments.” I don’t mean to pick on the Stringdusters. The lyric writing in these songs is really no worse than most of the bluegrass recordings I’ve heard lately, which is one reason I have such a hard time listening to “contemporary bluegrass,” but for some reason I expected them to know better—or try harder. Maybe next time.

Unfortunately, Martha Scanlan’s lyrics may not be much of a guide for bluegrass musicians looking for good songwriting models, as they approach a level of poetry that will scarcely be recognizable as song to people struggling to escape from the tortured syntax of “My Destination.” At first listen Scanlan’s songs would seem to be modeled on those of Gillian Welch or perhaps the Be Good Tanyas. This impression comes in part from her musical backdrop of old-time music and simple honky-tonk grooves (an inspired pairing of producer Dirk Powell’s backwoods instrumental virtuosity and Levon Helm’s roadhouse pulse). But Scanlan’s verse is more cinematic and visual, with inspired descriptive touches that leave you longing for places you’ve never been.

Contrast “At night, I dream about you / In my dreams, I hold you tight” with

I only want to dream about you / The dollar I could spend but I should save
Just to see my fingers in your hair / The golden wheat around us
And beneath us where we lay

This isn’t particularly the most striking or memorable of Scanlan’s verse, just an obvious comparison. This, of course, points up the essence of good songwriting (and most good writing). We should be able to see the people and places you’re talking about in your songs. (And I’m sorry, a “blue-eyed girl from Virginia,” if that’s all the information I’ve got to go on, shows me nothing.)

Gillian Welch is probably a better model for aspiring bluegrass songwriters, since she keeps her songs narrowly focused and concrete enough for her favorite singers (Ralph Stanley, Norman Blake) to sing, but projects clear images onto your mind’s screen.

So if you’re curious about the latest roots poet (and you like minimalist, earthy grooves), check out Martha; if you want to hear the best pickers around (and you don’t really listen to the words anyway), go for the Stringdusters.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Cedar Rapids Coffee Company

It occurred to me that another good use for this blog is to document good places to find coffee on the road. So, here I am in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and across the street from our downtown hotel (on Ist Ave NE) is the Cedar Rapids Coffee Company, a homey little place with good coffee, excellent strudel, quirky background music, and very friendly folks. Highly recommended if you find yourself in Cedar Rapids and you're looking for coffee (and pastries).

Friday, January 19, 2007

Worst Hotel Ever

OK, I’ve probably stayed in worse hotels than the Shreveport Downtown Holiday Inn, but I can’t recall them at the moment. Approximately 15 feet behind the hotel is a railroad track, along which freight trains run all night (and day), every hour or so. My room was at the back of the hotel, on the fourth floor. If it had been on the ground floor, I would have literally been 15 feet from the tracks. The arrival of each train was preceeded by long blasts from its horn, presumably because there was some sort of crossing nearby. Then the rumbling and screeching (the tracks curved around the back of the hotel, increasing the duration of the train’s passage as well as the high-pitched sounds of steel wheels straining against steel tracks) would commence, eventually reaching a peak that would have seemed artificially loud in a theater. If I hadn’t been woken by the horn blasts and had momentarily forgotten I was on the fourth floor, I would have been convinced that the train was about to slam into my room. I should have changed rooms, I suppose, but I guess I’m cursed with the sort of implacable optimism that leads me to believe that there can’t possibly be any more trains at this hour, that each sleep-shattering passage is the last.

Last night, eight or nine trains passed by my room.

At least the food was, if not great, a slightly welcome change from my diet of turkey sandwiches and chicken caesar salads. The only option in the restaurant for lunch (I usually try not to miss breakfast, but I forced myself to sleep, or at least lie in bed, until 11) was the buffet—no individual orders possible. Once I’d remembered that I was really in the South, I quite enjoyed the barbecued ribs, mashed potatoes, ham, turnip greens (I stupidly called them spinach and was disdainfully corrected by the server), salad and coffee—all for the price of a couple double lattes.

The day before it took us almost six hours to complete the one-hour flight from Dallas to Shreveport, and on the plane I met a young actress who was on her way to Shreveport for the filming of her first starring role—an independent feature. We met again in the lobby of the hotel, where she told me she’d be staying for a month.

Ah, the glamorous lives of movie stars and touring musicians.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

New Year's Day on Mt. San Bruno

Road bike racing season starts early in Northern California with the Mt. San Bruno Hill Climb. The base of the mountain being about 5 miles from our house, and Joey being a climber, it's become a favorite. Last year, we dropped Anne off about midway up the mountain, so she would be near the finish, could cheer Joey on, take pics, etc. I went down to the start with Joey to get him registered and ready for the race, and after the mass start, thinking "Now what? Am I just going to hang around this parking lot for an hour till they get back?" I ran over to my car, got my bike down, put on lots of warm stuff, and took off up the mountain, about 10 minutes after everyone else.

So this year, I decided to "race"--register and ride up the mountain at the back of the group. My one fear was that I would be last, although I don't know why that bothered me. I know I'm no racer.

It was a beautiful day--cold and foggy at the start, but it was sunny where we'd dropped Anne off halfway up the mountain so we knew it would warm up as we climbed. Joey was feeling good, and got in line with the Juniors--including Marcus Smith, one of his main competitors in his age group locally and nationally (Marcus podiumed twice at Nationals last summer). The Masters 45+ group (my category) lined up a fair ways back, so I never saw Joey until the finish. I had a nice climb, mostly riding by myself, and was not last.

Joey had an amazing day, beating his best time by more than two minutes (20:49, as opposed to his previous 22:58). He didn't beat Marcus but he finished 133rd overall, beating 80 other people. He finished 14th in the juniors (out of 20) but this included the entire juniors age range. I beat my best time by a minute (28:08, as opposed to 29:00). I might have beaten 28 minutes, but it didn't seem cool to try to outsprint the 10-year-old I was riding with at the finish line. Unfortunately, I did finish last in my category, and Cyclingnews.com saw fit to publish the results (a slow cycling news day, I guess). That last name at the bottom of the 45+ list did kind of stand out. Oh well. There's always next year.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

MySpace, No Mine

Click above for an article I wrote for Acoustic Guitar on why/how musicians should create a MySpace page. Of course, I didn't comment on the whole ridiculous, time-wasting, adolescent-prattle aspect of it, but maybe that's obvious.