Wednesday, September 13, 2017

What Lies Beneath the Surface
Behind the Antarctic Folktronica of Banjo Bones

Spoiler alert! I created a Spotify playlist of the songs listed at the end of this piece, by the artists I mention here.  It may be a good idea to play the playlist while you read this.  I will wait right here while you set that up. 
Ok, ready? Here we go... It is not an easy thing to write objectively about myself.  At times my ego persuades me to overestimate my worth, and other times my insecurities convince me to cut myself short under the guise of modesty.  But for some time I have been thinking about a question I often get, especially in interviews.  The question comes in many forms, such as “what are your influences?” or “what artists do you respect/like?” or “who is on your playlist these days?”  But what I think I am really being asked is: where does the Banjo Bones sound come from?  So putting on my most objective hat I embark on this exploratory essay.
As a matter of background, I was first a guitarist… and I was a rocker.  My early teens influences included Kiss, Peter Frampton, Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy and Black Sabbath (yes I was a child of the 70s!).  I was heavy into Judas Priest before the term Heavy Metal became a household name and a badge of non-conformance, only to be diluted to the hair band tragedy of the 1980s.  So it comes as no surprise that I was not focused on lyrical content or even singing in my teenage years, I was obsessed with crunchy guitars.  Let’s face it, while 1970’s hard rock music is generally alive, energetic and physically moving, for the most part it was not exactly poetry.  But in 1982, just as I was starting my junior year in high school, a friend of my dad gave me as a birthday gift Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska LP (yes, on vinyl!).  I was not a Springsteen fan, so I was slightly underwhelmed when I opened the gift.  But I gave it a shot, and as soon as the needle dropped on the title track I was hypnotized.  Nebraska was recorded on a four-track machine, just Springsteen, a guitar and a harmonica, in the basement of Springsteen’s father’s home, and was originally intended as demos to be formally recorded by the E Street Band.  But the album was released as recorded on the basis of the raw and haunted folk essence of the recording.  I discovered right then and there that music “heaviness” had nothing to do with loud and distorted guitars, chains and leather.  Heaviness could be achieved with just an acoustic guitar and a singer… it is about the mood, the emotional delivery, and the lyrical content, a fact I would confirm years later when I discovered Johnny Cash, one of the heaviest of the heavy.  Nebraska became and to this day remains one of my all-time favorite albums, and perhaps the most influential to the concept of Banjo Bones.  It is dark, real, and crude, and as you can imagine, it never went anywhere on the charts.  To me it is not just Springsteen’s most underrated work, it is his best work as an artist and a songwriter.

Fast forward to my twenties, while living in Washington DC, and shortly after my enlistment in the Marines ended, circa 1988.  There was a magic moment in time where, during a rediscovery period of Led Zeppelin through an unauthorized biography (I believe it was called Hammer of the Gods), I found a quote credited to William S. Burroughs, the patriarch of the Beat Poets of the 1950’s.  The reason I call it a magic moment is that it coincided with a class I was taking in college on creative writing, where I found for the first time that writing came fairly easy to me.  I embraced the Beat Poets, mainly Burroughs and to a lesser extent Kerouac and Ginsberg, because they wrote in a voice that was real to me.  It had no pretentions of being academic or refined.  It was street, dirty, about drugs and adventure and living in a counterculture.  The Beat Poets’ works eventually lead me to Charles Bukowski, who truly had a major impact on my inspiration to write.  Bukowski’s poetry sounded to me like a conversation, not a work of literature.  His obsession with street life, alcoholism, prostitution and the dark side of life in general had a profound effect on me. 
The coincidental nature of this period in time continued when I heard Tom Waits on the radio for the first time.  The song was Going Out West from the Bone Machine album which had just won a Grammy for Best Alternative album of the year in 1992.  That same day I went to a record store (remember those?) and bought the CD.  I obsessed over Bone Machine for the better part of that year and slowly but surely started making my way through the entire Waits catalog up to that point.  Tom Waits did for me musically what Bukowski did for me in literature, and that was the moment I became a song writer.  I married the literature of Charles Bukowski with the musical sensibilities of Tom Waits into a crude and innocent yet energetic song-writing style.  While I love the entire catalog, the Waits albums that really spoke to me from a creative perspective were Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Frank’s Wild Years.  These three records did two important things for me: first, they gave me the confidence to sing because Waits style focused on creating an aesthetic musical landscape rather than on singing virtuosity, and second, they showed me that true creativity lies outside the norm, especially that awful norm we know as pop culture.  I can summarize the latter point like this: Waits approach was "if you need percussion, bang on a hubcap."  You won’t find that on a Kanye West album in spite of his self-proclamation as a visionary.

Although the exact chronological sequence escapes me, it was around this same time that one morning, while driving to work, I heard an interview on NPR with a singer-songwriter named Chris Whitley.  He had an interesting story, I guess, but what really caught my attention were the snippets of his music they played throughout the interview.  I quickly found my way, again, to the record store to pick up the CD.  I devoured the CD, his first major release, titled Living With the Law.  It was an epic sounding album that merged the energy of a young, hungry artist with the aesthetic creativity of young Producer Malcolm Burn.  Musically, two things drew me to Whitley.  First, he was an astonishingly gifted and unique guitarist who defied the artificial limits imposed on the National Steele resophonic guitar, previously reserved for hardcore delta-blues styles.  By amplifying it, distorting it and abusing it on the stage and in the studio, he created a sound that was all his own.  Second, and perhaps even more important, was the character of his voice.  Whitley sang with a howl and a lament that was so introspective and transparently personal I was almost embarrassed to be looking into the window he painted with his songs.  But where Chris Whitley was truly influential to the Banjo Bones concept was in his lyrical sensibilities.  His songs were full of metaphoric references that were surreal and sexy and gritty.  He had no qualms with showing that he was imperfect, flawed, and as humanly real as anyone gets.  He was not the hero; he was the anti-hero of his stories.  As much as I loved Living With the Law, it was 1998’s Dirt Floor that propelled Whitley to the top echelon of my influences.  Dirt Floor was a solo performance, recorded live direct to a two-track analog recorder using a single stereo ribbon microphone at Whitley's father's barn.  It is raw, real, and emotional, and as far as I’m concerned an artistic gem that, other than in the audiophile community, never received the merit it deserved (just like Springsteen’s Nebraska).
I know this will come as a surprise to you, but I have to mention Madonna at this point.  In 2000 she released a song and pretty cool, western-themed video called Don’t Tell Me.  As far as the Madonna catalog goes, this is probably the only song I can say I really enjoyed in both performance and production value.  When I dug deeper into the song, I discovered that it was a cover song, written by her brother in law Joe Henry, and originally titled Stop, released the following year by Henry on his landmark album Scar.  I dove into Joe Henry’s catalog with the typical fervor that drives me when I find a new artist I like.  Henry impressed me as a songwriter and as a singer, but it was the production value of his recordings that impressed me most.  As it turned out, he was the Producer of his records, and he also produced other artists that, although not influential to me, I came to love nonetheless, such as Billy Bragg, Aimee Mann, John Doe, Susan Tedeschi and Ani DiFranco.  If you listen to the albums produced by Henry you will find they all have an organic feeling to them, a sense of real musicians, performing together, live in one room, playing real instruments.  And they all sound exquisite, but without flash, bells and whistles.  In movie terms I would say his productions are more like Bogart’s Cassablanca than the latest summer blockbuster, heavy FX adrenaline fest.  The afore mentioned Scar as well as 2003’s Tiny Voices became permanent fixtures in my CD player, in fact to this day I carry both in my car.  Most recently he released a duo album with Billy Bragg called Shine a Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad, which is a gem in its own right.  So Henry continues to shine bright.

In addition to the artists discussed above, there are some honorable mentions I have to credit as influences.  Although I can’t call myself a dedicated follower of the band Wilco, their albums Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born showed me that being labeled under one genre should not limit creative possibilities.  It gave me the comfort to declare a no-holds-barred approach for Banjo Bones, anything goes when it comes to music styles and vocal performance.  My only commitment is to the song, not its commercial potential, but its artistic realization and impact.  If others are inclined to label it Country, or Hip Hop or Antarctic Folktronica, well that’s just not on me and I don’t care.  Wilco inspired that in Banjo Bones and Beck reinforced it.  Beck dwells freely between modern folk, indie, pop, Hip Hop, and other genres, and has amassed an impressive volume of commercially successful work, including a recent Grammy for Album of the Year, that somehow never seemed diluted of its art by music industry interests and limitations.  Then there are the songwriters Lucinda Williams, Townes Van Zandt, and Mary Gautier.   All three have had a profound influence on me as a songwriter, keeping me honest as editor of my songs by continuously asking the questions is this good enough? Is this as good as it can be?
In the end I can’t tell you what the Banjo Bones sound is or will be to you.  Each listener will arrive at that conclusion on their own, based on their personal preferences and frames of reference.  But I can tell you what I aim for in a Banjo Bones production: The emotional sincerity of Nebraska, the musical creativity of Tom Waits, the rawness in delivery of Chris Whitley, the flexibility of Wilco and Beck, the poetry of Williams, Van Zandt and Gauthier and the production value of Joe Henry.  If that is not a lofty goal and tall musical order I don’t know what is.

As I mentioned in the opening of this blog, I created a playlist of some of my favorite songs by the artists mentioned in this piece.  You can access it on Spotify via this link, or search manually on your favorite streaming tool.  Enjoy!

Banjo Bones Influences Playlist
  1. Nebraska – Bruce Springsteen (album: Nebraska)
  2. Gun Street Girl – Tom waits (album: Rain Dogs)
  3. Ball Peen Hammer – Chris Whitley (album: Dirt Floor)
  4. Stop – Joe Henry (album: Scar)
  5. I am Trying to Break Your Heart – Wilco (album: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)
  6. Farewell Ride – Beck (album: Guero)
  7. Righteously – Lucinda Williams (album: World Without Tears)
  8. Pancho and Lefty – Townes Van Zandt (album: The Late Great Townes Van Zandt)
  9.  Last of the Hobo Kings – Mary Gauthier (album: Between Daylight and Dark)