Monday, August 25, 2008

Adventures in the Skin Trade

The Road. Econo Lodges. Thin sheets. Thin soup. New songs. Forget the "road blog" deal. The road journey is worthwhile 'cause it centers around "The Song." The Minstrel trail; gone back to Homer and his autoharp. The Song! People whine about the demise of the album - the cd - the record store - the music biz - and, finally, downloading wiping out records.. Let me lay it on you: I told an executive at Capitol Records that digital downloading was perfect for young kids 'cause there are no young writers capable of writing 12 great songs for a full cd. I expected him to blanch. He looked me in the eye and said: "That's true." We are in the age when it's all about "form"and "concept" and not about content and great writing. (Ditto the art and literature worlds.) There are wonderful new "folk sounds" out there, and great cross pollinations of world music, and 20,000 celtic girl bands who are cute. There are no songs at the core of it all that give you "The Chill." We have lost our creative core. I'm speaking as a American music fan; not as a songwriter who should shut up and deliver. I'll keep trying to carve out a great song. Promise. We have created hundreds of bullshit magazines in the last thirty years that pretend to cater to songwriters and guitar players; we have folk alliances and SXSW conferences up the ass, and yet all this stuff has just led the young writer AWAY from the true journey of finding out who He or She is; as an artist. Doing the homework and learning fifty Hank Williams songs and 1000 year old folk songs, and building an individualistic-artist core; as Dylan and Van Morrison and Lucinda Williams did. The industry just wants to sell guitar tuners and tattoos to 10,000 core-less kids trying to establish a fake "edge." Tattooed kids are the new Middle Class. There is no "edge." All the digital paraphenalia in the word hasn't created the next Beatles. It's about heart and soul, and we're lost - wandering around folk alliances like zombies with cd's in our paws….praying for gigs and instant credibility. But I wax on….nothing more to whine about….everyone is whining….it's back to the pen and paint brush, the buck stops here; and somewhere in Hibbing or St. Louis or El Paso, a giant Sphyinx-like creature bats it's eye in the desert and moves toward Bethlehem, or the Newport Folk Festival, with a batch of songs that wipes out boredom, bullshit, songwriter magazines, conferences, rock and roll museums, and the booing that will certainly ensue from the Old Guard that tried to stuff wax into the mouth of Bob Dylan. It ain't about "looking back" at the '60's…it's about looking down into your heart and seeing if you have a soul that rings with a little truth, and then praying for the guts and the duende to make it rhyme and resonate, and finally, work as a song that might move The Tribe. Song!
Me? "I'm just on the road, heading for another joint…." Walking down those tracks with blood on them.


mateo said...

Look at me Tom, Im a black leather- clad rugged individualist with blue wing titto, just like the other 5000 biker types at rally in nowherville, USA. A nation of leisure, incapable of an unhomogenized original thought where everything is referenced awsome and amazing. It scarcely leaves an adjective leftover to describe creation or the Maker.
We dont fit in cause we arent buying what they're selling

What makes Nelson's "Red Headed Stranger" Springsteen's "Nebraska" and TRussell's "Man from God Knows Where" great? I dont know, but it sails close to reality and I know it when I hear it. The creative well you draw from must be deep. Be advised it does not go unnoticed or unappreciated.

Keeping the city safe on Ladder Truck Co 5 in Somewhereville, TX. A place where love abides. Aint that IRIS a dandy. Darkness may be out and about but it dont prevail.

Saddle Tramp said...

Whew ! ! No mas palabras to add to that Tomas.

-Saddle Tramp

Via: Winona, Minnesota birthplace of James Earle Fraser
(sculptor and teacher) who gave birth to The End of The Trail, The Buffalo Head Nickel, The Navy Cross Medal and so many, many more great sculptures. That mold has been broken as well. I zig-zag towards The Mississippi River and Wisconsin and whatever else I can find. Maybe a lost Dylan song floating on Huck Finn's ghost raft. If I could be so lucky. No whining here. Just respect and eyes wide open.

Tom said...

My hope is this: that all art is outsider art. It's the job of commerce to make (most of) us insiders, and so it's the effect of commerce to create a few outsiders, always only a few, looking in, telling us what they see.

GermantownonFifth said...

Absolutely brilliant and undeniably true. The hard work is the hard work, and it never changes. Head down, nose to the grindstone. Write. Repeat.

RedWhiteAndBlues said...

Amen my brother.

ScreamingPirhana said...

This is all completely true, and it's something that I try to stress to the people that I co-write with and produce.. and basically mentor.

But there's another side to all of this. A lot of the blame for all of this lies at the foot of the record execs. How many times have we heard that "the record company wouldn't let us put more than one good song on this record." Corporate bottom-line bottom dwellers have taken over, and the fact is that most of the music we are still exposed to is fed to us through the mainstream (Grammy winning!!!!) media. And the record industry is to blame for the blandness and sameness that is out there. Yes, the young artists are ultimately responsible for their own songs and career... but I think most of them think it's out of their hands, and it's true that we are in an era of instant gratification, the NOW generation. Nobody wants to do the work, they just want the recognition. But if someone did come out who had the goods, would they even have a chance? Maybe now they would, but in the last few years, if they didn't fit the mould, they would have probably been brushed off.

Another major problem is that the artist has to deal with the perception of the audience. People's perception is screwed up because of the messages they are conked on the heads with by the media, "be somebody," etc. They aren't told to "work hard and do something worthwhile, then be somebody." They want it now, or not at all. But the trouble is, with the karaoke mentality, there are no boundaries anymore, everyone is a star. People are so self-absorbed now that I don't think they have time for art. It's sad. I've seen people hassling major stars on big stages, wanting to get up there and show off!

We have a big job at hand to try to turn things around, and I agree with TR wholeheartedly, but the problem is bigger than just the song. People need to turn off their TVs and learn to use their brains again. Maybe they would learn to listen to subtlety and depth and meaning instead of just harsh ear-blasting badly mastered volume. No wonder no one has an attention span anymore.


editor said...

The key in that rant is the lack of a sense of roots and a work ethic. The only way to learn to write good prose is to read good prose, take it apart and learn how it works.

Then make your own.

Same with songs. Imbibe the great stuff, the stuff that gives you "The Chill," until it's part of who you are. Then write to stand up next to that standard.

It's a lot of fucking work and it requires more honesty than most people are willing to accept.

After years of working with a folk festival and its songwriting contest, the thing I would like to get across to aspiring artists is that not everyone has it in them to be a songwriter.

There's no shame in being great singer and a great player and interpreting others' work. It's a hell of a lot better than diminishing your true talents with bad material.

Saddle Tramp said...

( A Rebuttal )

Editor's comments always hit the spot for me. Just minutes ago I was waitng in line at a Starbucks and a well heeled gentleman behind me with a Dali mustache was waiting to get his coffee " special ground " as it turns out, to suit the coffee maker on a G5 Citation Jet. The barista commented on his Dali like mustache. The gentleman then reveals that he actually has eight original Dali paintings along with a Chagall and an Alice Neal signed lithograph just to mention a few. This cat is dressed to the nines and I am in Carhartt overalls, but go ahead anyway and broach the subject of Chagall as he is a favorite of mine. A once in a thousand year talent in my view. This guy, I discovered after a few minutes discussion was only a poseur with money but no real appreciation for what he had. " Wax" he answered the barista's question as to how he kept the mustache that way. I bid him a good flight. Appearance without substance.

Starbucks is about cleaned out of cd's after their half price summer clearance. Still saw some Dylan in their Artist's Choice series. Never a disappointment with any of the many I have bought over the last 4 or 5 years. In Joni Mitchell's version she echoes Tom's music executive story with her own in her introduction blurb. She says that the "muse" is gone and only the "ick" has been left in music these days. The music exec told her in effect that we are selling cars these days. Fast ones or something like that. Don't quote me on it, go out and get one if you can. As for me, I keep falling for the baristas and rely on the 4 shot espressos to keep up the miles. It ain't the cup, it's the content. How else can one really appreciate Dylan, Waits or Cohen? We that appreciate Tom Russell already know the answer to that. It's what keeps me going along with that other stuff. At least they have good taste in music.
The " Song " goes without saying.

-ST Just out there . . .

Saddle Tramp said...

" Correction "

That would be Alice " Neel " not Neal. A distinction that makes quite a difference. Slippery auto spell and haste.

Lab Cat said...

My response to both this blog post and when you said something similar at World Cafe on Friday was that you should check out Michael Merenda of the Mammals and Mike & Ruthy. He is an superb songwriter and has several CD worth of good solid songs - many of which give me the shivers.


Great show on Friday - Thanks.