Tag: Townes van Zandt

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. 

Featured Musician: Hank Williams Sr.

If you read one of my early posts about my new-found discovery of my enjoyment of country music, then you know that my love of this genre is relatively new to me. 

Like the blues, my passion started with a more contemporary bluesman (Lightnin’ Hopkins), but as I get deeper into the music, I uncover the artists behind them. In this case, I started with Townes Van Zandt and saw Hank Williams behind him.

Hank Williams died at the age of 29, but because of his more contemporary existence, we have MANY high quality recordings, photographs, and videos of him. This accessibility humanizes him in a way the old bluesmen were not, and so he becomes relatable.

Over the years, hundreds of artists have covered his songs and you can hear his music in movies and television shows as well. Hank Williams was a legend, and his influence is still felt today. 

Some of my favorite covers were by Ray Charles; two of the best were his covers of Your Cheating Heart and Take These Chains from my Heart and Set Me Free (which we luckily also have videos of!):

Here are a few curated selections of Hank Williams performing in the 1950s: 

Hank Williams also had a son, also named Hank Williams, who grew up to be a major country and country rock player. He filmed an interesting music video in the 1980s which featured special effects allowing him to play with his deceased father:

I hope you enjoy listening to Hank Williams as much as I do. If you listen to his lyrics you will uncover a truth and beauty not present in a lot of his contemporaries.

He was a real poet in a cowboy hat.  

 

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.

Country Blues Basics Part 10: How to play Delta Momma Blues (Free tab!)

Delta Momma Blues will help you practice your alternating bass technique over melodic chord changes. The song has a relatively simple melody that sounds awesome when combined with the moving bass pattern.

If you can play this song, you can start to tackle more complex songs in the genre.

Here is my version of the guitar arrangement:

The song is in the key of C. There are 3 chords in this song: C, G, and F.

But don’t worry! There is an easier way to play a first-position F chord that all blues players used because it’s much more practical than the barre chord.

When you play the F chord, hook your thumb over the neck to catch the 6th string 1st fret, barre the top two strings at the 1st fret with your pointer finger, and then use your middle and ring finger to fret the remaining. You’ll want to keep your pinky free to play melody notes.

Every finger style blues player utilized this position when playing the F chord. It should look like this:

F chord
F chord

The C chord should look like this:

C Chord
C chord

Hold the G chord as shown below:

G Chord
G chord

This song is an 8-bar blues in the Piedmont style—the chord progression is as follows:

C | C | F | F | G | G7 | C/G | G/C

A lot of tunes in C use this progression. Dave Van Ronk’s version of Cocaine Blues is a good example.

To begin learning Delta Momma Blues, play the alternating bass over the progression so you can practice quickly changing chords.

If you forget which note is next while learning the song, try humming the melody to yourself and see if you can find it. The note is always going to be accessible within the chord shapes you are holding. 

Here is my version of Delta Momma Blues tabbed out:

Intro:

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This may look complicated but if you just play the melody notes you’ll see it’s a very simple melody over a repeating bass figure.

Verse:

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This song is a great one to practice singing over because the melody of the verse matches the vocals

This song was recorded by Townes Van Zandt on his 1970 record Delta Momma Blues:

Another version I like was recorded by Steve Earle on his album Townes:

Notice how the two versions are very similar but also different in what melody notes are hit.

This is a good example of how you can make your own arrangement of a song. You need to retain familiar elements to keep the song recognizable, but you actually have a lot of freedom to experiment and find your voice.

Next, let’s take a look at how we can make the alternating bass pattern more exciting.

 

Journey to the Country

I found out about Townes Van Zandt long after I was into the blues.

But maybe that’s a good thing.

Earlier into my listening days, I may have written him off just because he was described as country music.

We all get older, and we hopefully realize that everything we were so sure about was absolutely wrong.

Due to a country music craze in college, I was exposed to modern country radio hits constantly. For years, I would be that guy that would say ‘I like a lot of music, except country.’

Townes van Zandt’s music came to me after I had been primed by two artists: Scrapper Blackwell and Alvin Youngblood Hart.

Blackwell’s song Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out really stood out to me. For some reason it reminded me of the song You’ve Got a Friend in Me from Toy Story.

This association made me begin to wake up to the possibility that country music was approachable for me.

Alvin Youngblood Hart is a contemporary artist who I discovered by chance while roving on YouTube. When I dug into his music, my favorite tracks were his country inspired tunes.

His song Tallacatcha really stood out to me:

These two artists primed me for Townes van Zandt’s music coming to me in exactly the right place and time.

I was ready for an artist like him and I was holed-up reading about music in a rainy hotel in Salzburg.

Although it was not the first time I had seen Van Zandt’s name, this time I stopped and listened.

Waitin’ Around to Die was the first song I came across:

What Townes taught me, is that I can feel the expression of his art, even though it’s clothed in a country approach. The music permeated the hard shell I had put up against country music touching me.

Thank god it did.

When something we resent becomes something we love, it shows how many little ideals we baselessly hold onto. 

It also shows us the process of letting go. 

I love how we learn lessons through a seemingly disconnected series of events lining up perfectly.

When we see the result, we cannot imagine life having worked any differently.

Everything is easier to see in retrospect though—

—and the journey always continues.