A Lesson from John Prine

I’ve been thinking of John Prine these past couple of days. I suspect many of you have as well.

I grew up in a house full of music. I had significantly-older siblings who listened to great music. My mother listened to folk music. My father listened to classical and opera. Sometimes he played it on the piano, mostly when it was time to go somewhere and he was waiting for us to finish getting ready (instead of sitting in the driveway honking the horn and shouting, “Let’s go, people!”).

I was twelve when somebody brought home Bonnie Raitt’s “Sweet Forgiveness” album and I heard “Angel From Montgomery” for the first time. It was magical. I can’t say when I realized it was written by John Prine, a man. “But,” I thought, “it says right at the beginning that ‘I am an old woman.’ How did he…?” I had the same trouble with James Taylor’s “Millworker” (‘and I, his only daughter’) when I was fourteen. And I remember the moment I realized that as songwriters, these guys (and likely others) weren’t restricted to writing from their own first-person perspective. They could be other people. That’s a lesson I think of every time I sing “Angel From Montgomery.”

Sure, they say: “write what you know.” Well, I’m certain that John Prine knows that old woman’s life.

What’s A Song Worth?

So, the nice folks over at Disc Makers sent me an email today with the subject line “What’s a song worth if no one hears it?” I didn’t really read the rest of it. It seems to me they do have a point, though.

There have been some rumblings of the musical kind here in my basement (maybe you saw a photo or two over on the facebooks a while back). Okay, it was months ago, but still…

I have plans. Big plans. Involving getting you to hear some new recordings. Because they’re right: what are these songs worth if you don’t hear them?

Stay tuned.

Rhymes: Blessing or Curse?

So, here’s a ramble about writing. I’ve been listening to songwriters for the past couple of years or so. Okay, my whole life, but this is different. “Songwriters.” People who write songs. They work on their craft. They don’t wait for the lightning to strike (did we already talk about waiting for the lightning?).

I think it started with a public television show or series about songwriters. They had a couple of legends playing and talking about writing. Then, for the tag at the end they showed an “up and coming” writer guy. And he absolutely blew me away. I spent hours looking for him on the interwebs, because he was so good I assumed he must be all over it. Finally found a myspace page. Myspace. That was it. Finding the famous country guy who took his song and made it a hit (of sorts) was easy. But finding the writer was much more difficult.

Then I went off in search of the writer of a song somebody won American Idol with. Again, finding the famous hit was easy. But figuring out who wrote the song and then finding her version of the song was tough.

There was a third song that sent me off in search of the writer and his version (and vision) of the song. As opposed to the American Idol version (again, with the American Idol). I like his better.

I’ve also found some great music in the closing credits of tv shows sometimes. Again, hard to find and eventually I find a Myspace page with no or out-of-date info, kinda like mine.

During these searches, YouTube was a big help. And I would spend hours clicking on the “if you like this, you might also like these” things on the right. So I found stuff that would never have come across my radar. More writers. Behind the scenes. Or simply not yet famous. But they’re writing beautiful songs and not enough people know about them.

So now we get to the heart of the title of this post. Many of these beautiful, wonderful songs by writers who are “craftspeople” don’t always rhyme as much as you’d think. Some of these people get called “modern-day poets” and “speaking for the new generation” and stuff like that. It must be incredibly freeing to not be compelled to rhyme. I do not for one second mean to imply that these modern-day poets have it easy or anything. They are incredibly talented people who have a gift and they are kind enough to share it with the rest of us.

I must rhyme. I simply must. And I’ll paint myself into a corner by writing a verse with weird rhymes in the middle of a line, not just at the end, so now I hafta write the next verse with the same internal rhyme. It limits the number of words at my disposal. Then I come up with a good line, but it fails the rhyme-test, so I don’t use it. There are times I’ve let it go and kept the line. But every time I get to that line, a little piece of me cringes. Which then begs the question: “Am I trying to say something or am I writing a song?” And what if I tried doing both? Huh.

Songs Are Like Children

Songs are like children. Sometimes they’re like twins. When I’m on a spree, writing a bunch of songs all at the same time, I notice that perhaps two of them are (in my head) the same damn song. It’s completely accidental, but for instance, right now I have two 12/8 waltzes going. No, they’re not in the same key. No, they’re not even the same tempo. But I was shaving and humming one of them and then when I wasn’t paying attention, I had switched and I noticed I was humming the other one. I’d never thought of them as even remotely similar until then.

Now, the twin thing is interesting. Sometimes one of the songs will eat the other one and there’s only one song left (two songs enter; one song leaves). The stronger one consumes the weaker sibling, uses it for parts, and maybe grabs a couple of lyrics from the weaker one, maybe a bridge or something too.

Other times, I end up with two songs. And maybe I’m the only one who thinks they’re the same, maybe not. But then I play them very far apart during a show so (in my head) nobody will notice that they’re the same damn song. When I was preparing songs for TABLE 10, I played a bunch for my producer Jon Nolan and I told him I was going to play two songs that are the same damn song. He didn’t hear it. He did not hear them as the same song at all. They didn’t both end up on the CD (actually, did either of them end up on the CD?) and I do play them both live. And, based on his ear, I no longer think of them as the same damn song. He wouldn’t lie to me or be wrong.

This leads me to a confession. “Broken Wheels” is an example of a stronger twin. The two memorable hooks in that song came from another song that I now can’t bother to finish because I’ve already used those two memorable hooks in “Broken Wheels.” So, “Average Love Song” will remain on the scrapheap. It’s kinda too bad. I had higher hopes for that one than “Broken Wheels.” Oh well.

Upper Valley Music Festival

So, I’ve tricked the powers that be into getting me in on this. This is an all-day fest all over town in Turners Falls, MA. Saturday, July 21. All day.

Lots of great music to see and hear. Me? I’m looking forward to seeing Heather Maloney, if we’re not playing at the same time. Addison Rice will be hosting and wrangling us at the Burrito Rojo Emerging Artists’ Stage. According to the schedule below, I’m on at 4:30. I know some of these folks, and they’re all worth a listen. I’ll probably hang out and listen and learn about the folks I don’t know.

Upper Valley Music Fest Emerging Artists’ Stage Schedule
12:00-1:00) Addison Rice
1:00-1:30) James McSheffrey
1:30-2:00) Alec Hutson
2:00-2:30) Hannah Hoffman
2:30-3:00) Cyndi Cain Fitzgerald
3:00-3:30) Larry Allen Brown
3:30-4:00) Zachary Wallenius-Duda
4:00-4:30) Emma Murray
4:30-5:00) Tom Woodbury
5:00-5:30) Bill Baer
5:30-6:00) Paula Marie
6:00-7:30) John Salzman
7:30-8:00) Alexa Renaud-Clark
8:00-8:30) Addison Rice
8:30-9:00) Mariam Massaro and the Gaea Star Band
9:00-10:00) Open Mic!

No Diggity

Okay, so who besides me cannot believe that we played No Diggity not once, but twice…? I mean, seriously. How much fun was that? Anita FTW!

This is from the Double Hockey Sticks show at Metropolis with Anita Kinney last Saturday night. Great fun. I do, however weep for the future. If I can manage this, what’s next? Shoop? Seriously?

No Diggity v1The first time through, early that night.

No Diggity v2The second time through, later that same night.

The Tom & Anita (SLAKFAC) Show: Guitars & Ukes!

Anita Kinney and I are gonna be on the radio at 4:30pm Friday, May 4. Jim Maxwell has kindly offered to spend some time with us on his afternoon WVEW 107.7 FM show.

Anita and I are gonna rock the double hockey sticks out of Metropolis on Monday, May 7 from 8pm – Midnight. Some Anita time, some Tom time, some double-barreled Anita & Tom time. You’ll hear familiar Anita stuff and familiar Tom stuff. And you’ll hear new stuff from both of us. The real treat will be hearing us together. We tried some stuff out at that open mic last month (such a treat) and we’ve worked on some more stuff since then.

I’ll probably have a longer post pretty soon about what I’ve learned from playing and singing with Anita. This isn’t it.

Anita will bring her lovely voice and a guitar and some ukes. She’ll make you laugh and make you cry, all at the same time with her wonderful original songs as well as beautiful renditions of some classics. Think Patsy Cline meets Nancy Sinatra, but with more sass.

Best. Open Mic. Ever.

Best. Open Mic. Ever. Try out shiny new tune capoed correctly: check. Get to sing and play with Nita: check. Not suck while singing and playing with Nita: check. Get pretty much the whole place singing along to the sing-along: check. Did I mention sing and play with Nita? Best. Open Mic. Ever.

Metropolis Open Mic with Addison Rice!

C’mon by and see me grab some 15 minutes of open-mic fame at Metropolis on Monday, February 27 after 8:00. What the heck? I suspect there’s gonna be some great players there. You don’t wanna miss this. Plus, Addison’s hosting and he’s terrific! It being an open mic and all, I’ll bring my newest stuff. ‘kay? If properly motivated, I might even do a request…!