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!
One 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.