“Out On a Western Plain” (Rory Gallagher version)

As the title suggests, this blog entry is about the song, “Out On a Western Plain”. In particular, Rory Gallagher’s (1948-1995) version recorded in 1975. It became a concert favorite as a mid-show acoustic guitar feature. It gave Rory a chance to slow down the beat and break up the full-bore electric songs that he was perhaps best known for. I find this version of the song to be the most intriguing and haunting that I’ve heard. Rory based his on perhaps the best-known version by Folk music legend, Lead Belly (born Huddle Leadbetter 1888-1949). He has cited him as one of his biggest early musical influences. His ‘sound’: booming bass runs, stomping beat and wry storytelling – came through in may of his own songs. Yet here we find Rory put his own unique twist on it (as Lead Belly himself did).

Firstly, his version employs a non-standard guitar tuning called DADGAD (referring to the notes the guitar string are tuned to). This gives the sound a suspenseful feeling that occasionally Rory resolves and/or goes major and minor thus altering the mood from slightly rowdy to foreboding. I call it ‘mystical Blues’. This guitar tuning was being used in Traditional Folk music circles in Britain and Ireland starting in the 1960s, particularly by guitarist Davey Graham (sometimes dubbed ‘Baroque Folk’). The idea was based on American guitarist Doc Watson, who in the 1950s made a name for himself playing traditional Appalachian fiddle music on the guitar. Re-interpreting Irish, Scottish and English songs that were traditionally played on fiddles, flutes and bagpipes to the guitar became more common. Techniques such hammer-ons, pull-off and string bending combined with the open chord tuning reproduced the ‘crans’, slurs and ‘trills’ of the other instruments very well. Also, the harp is prominent in Celtic music and plucking, and the strings ringing open gives a ‘drone’ note to play melodies over. In this manner, Rory fingerpicks a steady pattern rather than emphasizing a plodding sound on the ‘1’ and ‘3’ beat (as in Country music). Since Rory was Irish, this gives rise to the notion he ‘is reaching back’ to his own personal roots (as a Bard?) while re-interpreting an American Folk song that itself was re-imagined by Lead Belly.

Lead Belly’s best-known version was recorded in 1943 on Folkways records. He had been singing it for well over fifteen years at that point. His is loosely based on an old Cowboy song called, “The Old Chisholm Trail” (recorded by many a famous ‘singing cowboy’: Rory Rogers, Gene Autry, et al.) It it believed to have been written sometime in the early 1870s. It featured the “Come a cow-cow yucky / Come a cow-cow yicky, yicky yeah” line. Another more recent song, “The Sporting Cowboy” included the phrase “When I was a cowboy…”. The fact that the lyrics are not historically correct doesn’t seem to matter. It’s the mood that counts. Perhaps it was as a parody of exaggerated cowboy themes  of  ‘The Wild West’. Either way, Rory’s version lends itself to a more timeless, slightly surreal telling of the story. The tuning also allows Rory to add a few different chords not normally used in traditional Folk music during the instrumental part. The added percussion, while not specifically indentified, sounds like tom-toms being played with mallets like Native American Pow-Wow music. What sounds like small Tibetan hand cymbals occasionally chime in. Rory adds a delicate electric slide guitar doubling the melody, which is a nice contrast to how slide guitar can/is generally used (crashing tones, edgy notes) and then, eventually, a droning organ comes creeping over the musical horizon and the song simply fades away.

 

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Willie Nelson!

Today’s blog is about Willie Nelson. Certainly one of my all-time favorite musicians! Below are just two short selections from his long out-of-print first autobiography, Willie. It was written with his long-time friend, Bud Shrake back in 1988. Since one of his most famous songs is, “On The Road Again”, he naturally kicks off the book right away with:

Willie

“A long time ago when I walked onto stage to do a show, I would search the room with my eyes. I was looking for somebody who was looking at me, who appeared interested in learning what I was doing in front of a microphone with a guitar in my hands. Once I found that friendly face, I would sing to that person all night long. I would zero in and make heavy contact with their spirit. And it would grow. The flash of energy between me and the one friendly face would reflect into others, and it would keep growing – these bolts of energy ping-ponged from one table to the next, or from one pair of dancers to the couple dancing nearby – and before long I would have the whole crowd caught up in my music and me. But it all had to start with one friendly face.”

I often think of this quote when I’m performing on stage in front of people. When I was first starting to share my music with people, this is one of things I did – I’d find a friendly face in the audience and sing to them. And Willie was right – this warm feeling would spread, and people would come up to me and compliment me on my stage presence. I try to share this with my students when they are on stage feeling nervous during a recital. My wife had stage fright when we first started singing and playing together. When she started tuning into the vibe of Willie Nelson and imagining that he was with her, she began to feel more comfortable. She wears a braid in her hair occasionally while we’re on stage to remind her of his spiritual approach to being seen in front of an audience.

Here’s another quote from Willie that really embodies his spirituality:

“Intuition is just an attunement of your inner self with the universal mind. The average person ignores these higher vibes if they seem to oppose the distinct and familiar impressions transmitted by the physical sense organs – such as your eyes and ears. To develop intuition, the moment you ask yourself a question you must give credit to the answer. You must not permit reasoning or argument to take place and change the answer your intuition gives. As soon as you can abandon your willpower and anxiousness and tune your mind to the inner self, you will gain a wonderful bullshit detector.”

Enjoy the Willie vibes!

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Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance

Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance: I was 13 when I first heard this name for a group in a book about music and musicians. I didn’t fully appreciate all of life’s ups and downs just yet, so the title seemed pretty funny to me. They must actually be good, I thought. I didn’t get around to hearing Ronnie Lane’s solo work for quite some time due to a lack of availability of his music in the U.S. Of course, I did know the Faces, the British Boozy n’ Bluesy group famous for hits like “Stay With Me” featuring Rod Stewart as lead vocalist. Sure did like that bass line though! And that was Ronnie Lane laying it down. I finally acquired the Faces album,  A Nod’s as Good as a Wink…to a Blind Horse (which I thought was certainly an odd title –  although perhaps no odder than Weasels Ripped my Flesh by Frank Zappa!)

The first couple of songs on the album were written by Rod Stewart and guitarist Ronnie Wood. But then! I didn’t recognize the voice on the fourth song, which clearly wasn’t Rod Stewart. I liked it, to be sure, but I was confused. Who was this? I deduced by the song credits that it must be Ronnie Lane. As history played out, Rod Stewart became increasingly famous and the Faces rode that wave as well. But Ronnie Lane was dissatisfied with his secondary role in the band and wanted more opportunities to sing his compositions. Thus, in 1973 he quit the band at the height of their popularity. This is when he put together Slim Chance. He wrote, recorded and performed the music of his heart and his choosing. A splendid mix of British Folk, Rock n’ Roll and elements of The Band all came together using mandolins, accordions, violins, penny whistles and a more ‘traditional’ Rock line-up: electric guitars, bass and drums. I find it to be a most unique sound while at the same comforting and familiar.

My favorite Ronnie Lane album is One For The Road. To be sure, when it was released in 1976, it was well against the musical grain of popular music. For a variety reasons in and out of Ronnie’s control, it turns out his band was aptly named. While Rod Stewart went on to superstar status as a solo artist expertly blending his Rock ‘n Soul sound while still remaining current and fresh sounding, Ronnie’s music career stalled into the doldrums. Nevertheless, I love his earnest, Dylan-esque singing and the way it conveys a yearning and longing. It also has a certain anger and cheekiness that keeps his songs on the ground, without floating away in musings.

I thoroughly recommend bringing one of music’s unsung heroes, Ronnie Lane, into your world.

Here is a video of Ronnie singing his best-known song, “Ooh La La” with the great sing-a-long Chorus,

I wish that I knew what I know now / When I was younger

 

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Chicken Skin Music!

When I am teaching music to my students I am always curious as to how they come across the songs they’d like to learn. It makes me think back to when I was starting out as a musician and being on the lookout for new and exciting music. I like to compare the differences of the times. For me there was, of course, the radio. I was aware of the latest Pop hits but never much cared for most of them. When a song was rising up the charts that I did like I would root for it like it was a sports team yelling at the radio, “C’mon! Only number 22? Who doesn’t like this tune?” I was more drawn to the dial that played ‘The Classics’ as it were.

I would also hear about different kinds of music from fellow schoolmates. “Hey man, ever heard of Hendrix?” and then a ceremonial listening party would ensue. When I was a teenager, MTV was new and exciting so you also ‘saw’ the music. It’s how I first heard of ZZ Top (“Sharp Dressed Man”) – who I thought were brandy-new at the time (as I explained to my friend’s older brother who simply chuckled and led me to the basement/listening room to show me the rest of the previous ten year’s worth of ZZ Top albums!)

I also felt blessed to have a great record store in my town. The lady who ran it was very knowledgable about music (naturally). She could always suggest another group/artist based on what you bought before or just from describing the music to her. She’d even play some music on her turntable for a preview. But perhaps, oddly enough, one of my favorite ways to learn about music was by reading. I read whatever I found – magazine articles, discographies, biographies and even encyclopedias!

Chicken Skin MusicOne such encyclopedia had ‘Ry Cooder’ listed. The writing made him and his music sound interesting. I was already a fan of The Rolling Stones and the article mentioned his recording with them on a song or two. That was good enough for me! The article described his album Chicken Skin Music as his best. Hawaiian music, gospel singing, Tex-Mex accordion were some of the styles featured on the songs while he played the slide guitar and mandolin. The idea of blending different music together was very exciting to me as a thirteen-year old. The title was meant to describe the goosebumps you get while listening to good music. I marched on down to my local record store and there it was in the ‘Ry Cooder’ bin: Chicken Skin Music. I definitely didn’t know what to make of the cover but I was down for the adventure. All the way home I just stared at the cover trying to imagine what the music sounded like.

 

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