Sometimes It’s All in the Delivery
When asked to comment on Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, Truman Capote said “That’s not writing at all. That’s typing”. It’s a deliciously nasty and succinctly poetic condemnation of the Beat’s popular book. As a song junkie, I’m reminded of that critique frequently as I scan the commercial airwaves in search of something to scratch my musical itch. I’ve worn out the decals on the presets of yet another car radio from all my desperate button pushing as I jump from one station to the next. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of not-very-well-written junk out there on mainstream radio. It’s why I spend so much time on WORT (89.9 FM) or WSUM (91.7 FM). They are not driven by “the star maker machinery” and are kind to their listeners by playing a substantial amount of local music.
Two-term US Poet Laureate Ted Kooser once said “If poetry were worth a lot of money, we would spoil it and would be driven by that, I think. Since it’s worth nothing it can be purer.” (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4965544). I wish that were true of songwriting. A simple search of the FM dial says otherwise. For that matter, a simple search of the Internet results in any number of on-line A&R companies, songwriting contests, and how-to sites aimed at helping songwriters develop their craft so they too can sound just like the hit makers. Thankfully, though, a simple search of the local music scene finds songwriters who are putting out good songs regardless of all that million-dollar pressure. Here are a few road trip-themed songs by a few locals that stand out for me.
Song Title: “Miss Marion”
Words and Music by Adrienne Cole
Dear August has been kicking its Alt-Country/Americana sound around Southern Wisconsin for several years. Fronted by Adrienne Cole, the band was originally called Box Elder. In 2005, Box Elder self-produced a CD called Come Visit Soon. The standout piece on this CD is a Cole song called “Miss Marion”, a road trip number that pulls several interesting songcraft elements together. On-line reviewers of Dear August frequently point to Cole’s voice as the driving force behind the band and she puts it to remarkably gritty and convincing use here as she describes the “shoebox” motel room; the tired night clerk, Miss Marion; and the unsettling, noisy neighborhood just outside the door:
Paper sheets and diesel creeps / You hear their engines brakin’ mean / Pray that they’re not stayin’ tonight
She’s drawn a spot-on picture of the vulnerable traveler unnerved by the unknown. But wrapped within all these lovely details is an unforgettable hook that is pure poetry. In near-staccato delivery that pushes the rhythm of the song right to the edge of the knife Cole sings:
Her face is hot. Her eyes are tired / I’m bettin that this place is wired / This city smells like gasoline
I love how she jumps on the phrase ‘smells like gasoline’ like she’s reliving the whole night’s experience in that easy alliteration. It’s a great line and she pays it the respect it deserves. I’ve had this song in iTunes rotation for a while now.
You can find Dear August’s self-described “Country confused folk rock” here: http://www.dearaugust.com.
Song Title: “90 Miles Away”
Words and Music: Tate McClane
Tate McLane has been playing throughout Southern Wisconsin for several years. I first saw him at the now-shuttered Liquid Lyrics Lounge fronting a band called Fluke. In 2004, he and some Fluke members got together with Adam Gregory Pergament currently of Venice Gas House Trolley to form Stonefloat. Stonefloat managed to put together several edgy, loud, and interesting song projects before they split up in 2006.
It was when he was with Fluke that I first saw McLane perform a song called “90 Miles Away”. I’ve seen him do it several times solo, in a trio format, and with the full Stonefloat band. It’s a clever, looping road trip song where the protagonist drives 90 miles to see his girlfriend, finds her with someone else, and turns around and drives the 90 miles back home. This song is all McLane. He delivers it like he lived it – and, as it turns out, he did. “This really happened to me!” he told me one night after a show. It’s personal, gutsy, and framed tightly within a chord structure that drones like the hum of the highway. He and I and several others traded songs once in an effort to cover each other. As a result, I tried to work up an arrangement of this song, but couldn’t quite pull it off.
Somewhere on I-80 I hit a speed trap / The pedal hit the floor as I hid my stash / I blew through MadTown at a quarter past (one)
I wasn’t nearly as convincing as McLane is at recounting flying down the highway smoking pot, ducking under the radar, peering into windows, and tearing off in a jilted huff. He, on the other hand, takes the listener on a daredevil’s ride. Then, with total disregard for the fact that he’s just driven all this way to find out his girlfriend’s cheating on him, he kisses it all off with this:
Soon I’ll be 90 miles away / I’ve got another woman up there anyway
And though I know it’s coming, I always chuckle. He’s that convincing.
You can find Tate McLane here: http://www.myspace.com/tatemclane
Song Title: “Love in Three-Quarter Time”
Words and Music by Bobbie and Bill Malone
Bill Malone hosts the Wednesday morning Back To The Country radio program on Madison’s WORT (89.9 FM). He’s a transplanted southerner who is a renowned historian of country music and married to the delightful Bobbie Malone. I’ve seen them perform a few times and they are as authentic and honest and charming a country/bluegrass duo as you’ll ever see. Bill is tall and square-jawed; broad-shouldered and stoic behind his yellowing, dog-eared Martin guitar. He is a mountain of constancy as he plays solid rhythm beside the diminutive Bobbie’s chirpy mandolin.
Bobbie tells the story of the song’s genesis: “Bill and I were traveling to New Orleans from a visit to Texas, and I was sort of napping when Bill shared his insight about The Tennessee Waltz and a sad Ricky Skaggs song that was on the tape.” Bill, evidently, would often put together compilation tapes for these long drives. His insight that night was that a lot of hearts have been broken in waltz time.
How often mistreated, how soon left behind, / How quickly forgotten / In three-quarter time?
But it’s herself Bobbie sings of as she recalls her own loves and losses over the years.
Remembering false loves / Buried deep in the past, / Recalling those partings, / The pain comes to mind
Then she wraps it up with how lucky she is now that all of that is behind her and she is driving down this road on this night with her sweetheart.
How often he holds me, / And fills heart and mind; / True love’s healing memories— / Those lost in waltz time
I heard the two of them play this at a small gathering of songwriters and players on Madison’s east side one night a couple of months ago. They sucked me right in and it was the highlight of the night.
I remember thinking that this song seemed to have it all. It had the clever country title, the waltz-time hook, the pretty melody, the well-turned harmonies, and a nifty story to boot. But it had the two of them, as well, living the ending of the tale and letting it roll out in three-quarter time. “I started to think of the song as a joke”, Bobbie told me, “But then it turned out to be an original.” Maybe it’s that touch of whimsy coupled with the Malones’ fine delivery that makes this song so memorable. Whatever it is, I wish I had a recording of it.
You can’t find Bobbie and Bill Malone on their own website yet. They’re still working on it. But don’t worry; they are so much a part of the Madison music scene that you’ll run into them eventually.