Tag: country

A Note on Quality

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Across time, as musical styles evolve, there is a tendency for them to ossify and solidify in time. For example, when is the last time there was a new era in Jazz or Blues? We play the same type of sounds that were played years ago. 

We look at genres in the same way we look at classical music– frozen in time. This allows us to say “this is country music,” “this sounds like rock and roll,” or “this guy is ripping off Charlie Parker.”

While there is nothing inherently wrong about this, I do notice a specific trend: Technicality of the music becomes the paradigm. For example, many types of modern metal music feature quick and accurate guitar licks. Or, in Blues music, the technicavirtuosic playing of Stevie Ray Vaughn is a far-cry from the slow and vocal-like playing of Muddy Waters. 

As I mentioned, this technicality is not a bad thing, it is a natural aspect of a music evolving within a form. Over time, once what was considered a “bluesy” sound becomes agreed upon, the logical next step is for players to become virtuosos in the style and hone the skills that led to making the great players great. In other words, we focus on the means to the end.

However, this is a quantitate approach. Once speed, accuracy, and vocabulary become the paradigm of what makes a “good player,” it becomes a game of measurable quantifiers. The best player would be the fastest, the most accurate, and the player with the most licks. 

These aspects of music should be looked at as aspects of quality, a means to an end, instead of an end in itself. 

After all, many great players from across genres often did not play fast, or particularly accurately, or have an endless bag of sounds. 

Look no further than Townes Van Zandt to see a  great musician than often played slowly, sometimes ‘sloppily,’ and played with a distinct but specific bag of licks.

While many consider Townes’ music ‘simple,’ keep in mind simplicity does not always equate to quality. Simplicity, like speed, is just a means to an end. 

It’s not what you play, it’s how you play it.

The goal of music should be to express something to the listener, and only a focus on quality will ensure that every note is a piece of the message. 

If you are learning to play an instrument, or just a music fan, look for quality in what you play or what you hear.

Music should represent the player to the world.

The music should be an end in itself. 

Bad songs vs. Good songs vs. Great songs

I remember telling my friend in high school that the reason I loved the Beatles was because all of their recordings were good, there were none that I didn’t like.

Now I would change this statement to:

Some of their recordings weren’t good–

some of their recordings were great–

and some are bad. 

Later, when I started listening seriously to the Grateful Dead and Leonard Cohen, I realized there were quite a few tracks I didn’t like at all. A couple examples is this copy of Stagger Lee by the Dead or this song from Leonard Cohen.

Despite these examples’ clear badness as songs, I thought they were good because I was unable to divorce the artist from their work.

There are a lot of arguments you can make about how art is a representation of the artist.  To critique art is to critique the artist.

However, to truly understand the art you love, you have to realize that an artist can create a lot of duds. These artists we love are just mortals like you and I, no matter how much we deify them. 

Let’s take Robert Johnson as a prime example of this effect.

Johnson had a short career. He died at age 27 in 1938 from being poisoned. If dying from poison isn’t enough proof that Johnson wasn’t a god, I don’t know what is (sorry Clapton fans).

Later rock-and-roll and blues fans claimed Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads and was given incredible musical skills. If you listen to his tunes like Me and the Devil Blues or Crossroads Blues you can see how this myth perpetuated:

In truth, Robert Johnson was just a great musician who played a lot of other styles besides blues. We even have a recording of his hokum tune They’re Red Hot. He lived a hard life, traveled around the south to play music, and then died violently. In his life he recorded 29 different songs, with 13 surviving alternate takes of these songs.

I don’t like the song They’re Red Hot, but I still think Robert Johnson was a great musician. A lot of people, who deify Robert Johnson do not accept that any of his work could possibly be bad.

To really appreciate music, we have to be able to discriminate against certain recordings and understand that they are not good. This outlook is especially important for old recordings because there wasn’t really any post processing, we got an honest view of an artist’s performance at the time. 

At the same time, we can always be grateful we have these recordings to formulate these opinions. 

Blind Boy Fuller is another example of a prolific artist who made some poor recordings. There a lot sociological reasons why these recordings were bad, but the point is that we can separate artists from their work. 

We shouldn’t assume that because we love an artist, everything they produce is gold. Realizing this improved my own musicianship, as I became able to understand that some sounds will appeal to people for a longtime, and some sounds are relics of a time, or simply bad. 

As a final comparison, check out these three songs by 12-string wizard Blind Willie Mctell. I think the first song is bad, the second song is good, and the last is great. 

What songs do you think are bad, good, or great? 

Featured Musician: Townes Van Zandt

If I were to picture the ideal archetype for country music, the answer would always be Townes Van Zandt. 

The first song I heard him play was Waiting Around To Die. Once I heard him, I knew he represented something I always was looking for.

You can read about my journey here.  

As Townes’ released more material, he never really diverged from the simple and understated sound he had perfected. Even as his hard living took a toll on his voice, he never lost his charm.

His recordings from the 1960s-70s are unparalleled art.