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 clichéd), 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.