Monday, August 6, 2018

"Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain"

When asked to list my favorite guitarists, I often receive a few baffled looks from those expecting a list of Axe-Slinging Super Shredders. Sure, usual suspects like Dickey Betts, Duane Allman, Derek Trucks are at the top, along with the legendary blues powerhouse Albert King, but right up there is the Red Headed Stranger himself: Willie Nelson. But how can I possibly prefer Willie Nelson as a guitarist over the likes of Clapton or Hendrix? Well, it's not all about guitar pyrotechnics and I can listen to Willie pick his famous busted up nylon-stringed Trigger all day.

After years of writing country music standards like "Crazy" and "Hello Walls" for other artists, Nelson became a country music hero in the 1970s by stripping the strings and slick arrangements that dominated sequined Nashville tunes of the day. Nelson's rustic approach (and rugged appearance) gave his country music an authenticity that was missing from the Charlie Riches and Conway Twittys of the mid-1970s. Along with fellow industry rebels like Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, Nelson helped created a sub-genre of its own: Outlaw Country. People who couldn't stomach Tammy Wynette and George Jones singing about domestic discord could totally get on board Willie Nelson's fresh, rootsy approach to country music.

But even among his Outlaw brethren, Willie Nelson's music was tonally different. Nelson's music was often somber, compared to the sweaty, coke-fueled vamping of Jennings' barrel house shows, or even the Hollywood-produced music of fellow "Outlaw" Johnny Cash at the time (he had his own TV show). 1975's Red Headed Stranger was a melancholy concept album that put Nelson's creaky, pained voice that was never slick enough to break into the Nashville mainstream on full naked display. Along with a delicate jazz guitar approach, far removed from the telecasters of James Burton and the Gibson Doves of Hee-Haw, made this music universal by crossing genres (Nelson released an album of jazz standard covers, Stardust, shortly after Stranger). Red Headed Stranger was as lonesome as a Hank Williams tune, with the rawness of Jimmy Rodgers or the Carter Family, minus the twang and yodeling that had become a Nashville cliche.

Gregg Allman with Willie & Trigger, Farm Aid, NYC
So I picked "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain", a song written in 1947 by Fred Rose and covered by a number of artists such as Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, and Charlie Pride. You'd be forgiven for thinking Willie Nelson himself wrote it, the song has all of his hallmarks and was heavily featured in the movie adaptation of Red Headed Stranger a decade later. The arrangement is bare, and although Nelson's voice relates the despair truthfully, it's Trigger that caries the tune. It's often more difficult to perform a song with less, a stripped down tune is on full display. That's why the simple dobro part I included took me a while to arrange. It's a song that deserves to breath, and tough to approach when Willie did it so perfectly.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

"Uh Oh Love Comes to Town"

The first Talking Heads album I picked up was Stop Making Sense, an album I bought blindly knowing nothing about, other than I wanted some Talking Heads in my rotation. Often times record companies will fool a buyer by designing a live album to appear as a "Greatest Hits" album, disappointing the customer expecting to hear familiar radio hits. That wasn't the case with me and Stop Making Sense. As an Allman Brothers fan, I was into live music, and the Talking Heads were an excellent, energetic live band. Also, Stop Making Sense isn't your typical live album. It's one of the greatest concert films ever put together, artfully designed for stage by David Byrne, and expertly filmed by Jonathan Demme, who understood that the spectacle on stage was the attraction, not the LA crowd. Once I owned the film on disc, I watched it constantly (as my roommates will attest to). But there was still a lot of Talking Heads to explore. I picked up a bunch of their studio albums, including their first one, 77, which hits the ground running with the catchy and upbeat, "Uh Oh Love Comes to Town".

As one of my favorite bands, I'm surprised it took me this long to cover a Talking Heads song. But I go in and out of love with them, listening to them in heavy doses and just as quickly turning them off for months. But not all music I enjoy listening to is music I can perform. David Byrne has a specific style and delivery that is difficult to adapt - his unique voice isn't always pitch perfect, but it's always honest and vulnerable. It's a similar issue I had when I covered a Lou Reed song. I tried to forget Byrne's delivery and sing it as if I'd never heard it before, which doesn't mean it's good, but it's less worse. I decided to adapt the steel drum to dobro and add a little mandolin to give the song the same fun, light step that attracted me to the original.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Custom Daddy Mojo Rosetta

Once I went down the cigar box guitar rabbit hole a few years ago, I stumbled upon the 6-string biscuit cone cigar box guitar made by Daddy Mojo Instruments. Based in Montreal, Lenny makes a number of amazing instruments from more traditional cigar box guitars to art deco diner table-themed guitars. I've used the 6-string biscuit cigar box repeatedly, but just last week I received a custom-made Rosetta biscuit cone guitar. I've always been a fan of the old Gibson archtop guitars, so Daddy Mojo's Rosetta models immediately caught my eye. But Lenny created a whole new model, and I encouraged him to create what came to him as an artist - I felt like I would just request paint jobs and designs that I already had. What he went with turned out amazing, and the pick-up sounds like something between a Telecaster and a National, which I love. Lenny refers to the finish as creme brulee, but being from Wisconsin, it looks more smoked gouda to me. The disc pattern is similar to old Collegeian Nationals, or the phases of the Florida sun which never goes away.

Monday, March 12, 2018

"Down By The Seaside"

Acoustic Zep Set, late 1970s
When you grow up with 2 older brothers in the 1980s, you are going to hear a lot of Led Zeppelin. Regardless, Zep was always on the radio even when the Classic Rock station wasn't getting "THE LED OUT". Even those who don't listen to a lot of 1970s rock 'n roll are still going to hear a fair share of Led Zeppelin in their lifetime - Zep's music is still everywhere. That's probably why I only listen to them in spurts these days. There are some great bands that I just have to take an extended break from - even favorites like The Beatles and David Byrne have to stay on the shelf for periods so I can appreciate them on a future fresh listen. Led Zeppelin is in that category - I probably haven't heard "Stairway to Heaven" in over a decade.

One song I never tire of is Physical Graffiti's "Down By The Seaside". It was written by Robert Plant & Jimmy Page and recorded during the IV sessions, however, there wasn't enough room on the LP for it so it sat on the shelf for a few years. Some bands have such creative peaks that they can't fit everything on their next record due to the constraints of an LP side. Led Zeppelin released their first four albums over a 3 year period (1969-71), and aside from "Hey Hey What Can I Do?" as an exclusive B-side single, the popularity of the album format meant extra songs stayed on the shelf. When recording sessions for 1975's Physical Graffiti were so successful it meant the band would exceed the maximum run time for 2 sides of an LP, it afforded them the opportunity to include previous songs that hadn't made the cut to fill the second LP. "Down By The Seaside" was never performed live by Led Zeppelin, but it did make a bit of a comeback in the mid-1990s when it was rearranged with a more ethereal vibe by Robert Plant and Tori Amos for a Zeppelin tribute album.

It's easy to see why "Down By The Seaside" didn't make the cut for previous albums - on the surface it's fairly unremarkable except for the novelty of Robert Plant singing about "little fishes". Considering Zeppelin's penchant for hard blues rock and acoustic folk, "Seaside" might have fit better on Houses of the Holy alongside lighter songs like "The Ocean", "Over the Hills & Far Away", and "Dy'maker" - then again, it might have seemed redundant next to those tunes. John Paul Jones' breezy keyboards are what drew me to to the song. It's a deceptively tough vibe to get without those keys, which I tried to adapt to dobro. You never want "laid back" to become slow and muddy, and sometimes less is more difficult to pull of than more.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Acoustic Guitar-to-Bass Conversion Test Drive: "Into the Mystic" redux

After years of heavy gauge strings and high action on my 1985 Sovereign acoustic guitar, the guitar finally became unplayable. A luthier I took it to practically gave it last rights, so I spent the past year searching for a replacement. After flirting with low-end Martins and "high-end" used Sigmas, I found an 8 year-old Blueridge. It's pretty solid and sounds pirty, but after years of playing the old Sovereign, it will take some playing to get the newer wood of the Blueridge to have the same depth I'm used. But being able to play at the 2nd fret is awfully nice.

Sovereign Acoustic Bass | Blueridge Dread
Once the Blueridge arrived I wondered what to do with the Sovereign. For a while I kept it tuned to G, but the bridge is pretty wrecked - I didn't feel like wasting another set of guitar strings on it and further stressing it. While I was searching for a new guitar I did a brief stint in a great local acoustic band, and the bass player and friend, Bob, had converted an old acoustic guitar into a short-scale acoustic bass. I have always kind of wanted an acoustic bass - they are easier to mic than a bass amp, and the woody sound is a better fit alongside resonators and acoustics instruments. I was never going to spend any serious money on one anytime soon, yet here I was with a resonant acoustic body. After some quick research online I bought a 4-string trapeze tailpiece, some new tuners, a fresh saddle, and something I never thought I'd own - a drill. In about an hour I had a brand new acoustic bass. The tailpiece kept the stressed bridge safe from further damage, but the short-scale strings caused uneven tension and thus laid at an angle from nut to tailpiece. I thought I had installed the tailpiece incorrectly. But after a quick adjustment, the strings came into alignment (and better intonation at the frets). It's not perfect, but it should have a nice second life.

I decided to test it out on one of my favorite bass lines, "Into the Mystic". I was never happy with the first recording I did, which was a massive wall of sound captured by an inferior mic. This new take is pretty much the same arrangement as before, but slowed down and minus about 7 instruments.

Friday, January 26, 2018

"Plastic Jesus"

After a busy end to 2017, I finally got around to recording a new tune. Well, not only was 2017 busy, the high action on my acoustic guitar finally became unplayable after years of heavy gauge strings pulling on the neck. It's a shame, it had a nice woody, deep tone, which is why I am going to try to convert it to a short scale bass. After nearly a year of researching acoustics, I settled on a Blueridge, which has a great full sound. To test her out I decided to take a stab at "Plastic Jesus", a popular novelty song written in 1957. It is best known as the song Lucas Jackson sings after hearing of his mother's passing in Cool Hand Luke, but it has been covered by everyone from The Flaming Lips to Billy Idol to Widespread Panic. I was probably most inspired by The Wandering Endorphins' expanded acoustic version which is a lot of fun. I thought about adding bass and harmony vocals, but didn't want to overload a 90 second tune.