Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Cats in the Crib

The progress on my wife's album continues. Today was spent fixing a bass part by the talented Steve Mackey (Wynonna, Trisha Yearwood). I had recorded his original bass line too hot and there was a bit of clipping (distortion) on a few notes that I could not massage away with the many digital gizmos at my disposal. This time around he brought "Clyde", a choice Fender P-bass so named because the original Funky Drummer, Clyde Stubblefield, had autographed it years ago. Steve played another tasty part, I got the levels right and the mix is coming together. Thanks for the mulligan, Daddy Mack.

We tracked guitar genius Bob Britt (Dylan, Fogerty,etc.) a few days ago on a different song from the album. He played several brilliant parts, we comped the best sections of each, added a simpler, lower-pitched second track to fill out the sound a bit, and that was that. Watching Bob play guitar humbles me greatly. I used a complete take from earlier on in the morning as a "ghost track". What that means - to me at least - is a track mixed far in the background where just snippets and echoes can be heard during the quieter sections of the song. I slathered on plenty of reverb and delay. The end result is a sense of depth and space, where the main guitar part might play a line and the "echo" you would expect to hear after it is in fact a different melody compliments of the ghost track. Cool.

Hammond B3 expert Steve Cox (he's the guy playing all of the fab synth parts on The Dazz Band's "Let It Whip", btw) laid down some spicy organ via the internet. I did a rough mix with the drums up and the vocals down to give him a strong reference point, sent it over the Internet via ", a file storage/transfer site, and he tracked his parts at home, using a real live Hammond. He then sent the files back to me, I downloaded them into the project, and hey presto - I have an organ track. Then he cranked up the vintage Moog and added a slick reso-bass synth part during the bridge that builds up to coincide with the climax of the section. Oh yes.

I had thought that this particular song, "After Dark", would be difficult to get a handle on. Not so, once I got the cats involved.When we cut the basic tracks, it was more acoustic guitar based, now it's a vibey seduction piece with swirly electrics and swooping Hammond. Thanks, fellas!

Monday, March 27, 2006

Want A Hit Record, Yeah

I've been following the career arc of Elizabeth Cook for a few years now. We met when I was delivering guitars and amps (aka "cartage") for Kenny Vaughan, a brilliant guitar player who was hired to play on her Warner Brothers debut. She had put out a record of "super demos" earlier, and was re-doing a few of those tunes along with several new ones. Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty alumnus Richard Dodd was engineering and producing. The first sessions were tracked at Javelina Studios, with all of the players in one big room, tracking simultaneously. Very old school.

That album, "Hey, Y'all" eventually was released and a single "Stupid Things" was selected and the push was on. Unfortunately, WB decided they had better things to do (like try to convince Radio that Faith Hill's latest abomination of an album was still "country"), so they pulled the promo team from Elizabeth's record and tried to rescue the more famous but extremely marginally talented Hill. I guess it's easier to sell Pop as Country than Country as Country. Of course, they are a major label, they know not what they do...ever. Elizabeth jumped off the sinking USS Major Label, knowing full well the potential consequences.

I ended up playing guitar with Elizabeth several times, including gigs in Japan and France. Her music is straight-up honest traditional Country, without sounding retro or forced. This is the music she grew up on, including the Rock and Pop influences that some of the "museum music" retro bands suppress or deny.

Elizabeth put out another "super demo" album, "This Side Of The Moon", and again the critics raved, with the New York Times magazine thinking enough of it to put it on their "2005's Ten Best Albums You Might Have Missed" list. Not bad for a self-produced, largely self-promoted home grown record.

I had the pleasure of adding a few guitar parts to the new demos, and was thrilled to find out that Elizabeth has written yet another batch of moving and interesting songs. Her husband, roots guitar ace and singer/songwriter Tim Carroll has a visible hand in the pre-production and a couple of his tunes may end up on the finished record.

My hope is that people like Elizabeth get a chance to share their talents with the world and make a living doing it. No unwarranted hype. No need for semi-trucks full of gym equipment, or 48 pre-recorded tracks blasting through the P.A. trying to convince the live audience you can actually carry a tune. No ridiculous haircuts or labored-over paens to Redneckville. No attempt to find the least of the least of the least common denominator lyrics so that every drooling idiot locked in an attic can sing along to your proud tributes to ignorance. Nope, just enough album sales and tour dates to pay the bills and make a living. It's not too much to ask.

I encourage all of you regular readers to catch up with Elizabeth's career by buying the first three records. Support the type of artist who refuses to be the major label's requisite "blonde". Visit Cook's MySpace site and follow her "friends" links to like-minded artists all over the world. There IS a wide variety of Country music that Radio and Music Row have forgotten about.

It's my belief that if more people heard about these artists, they would buy their music. Well, dear reader, you have been put on notice. Please check out the music and see if it is something you like. If it is, buy it. Thanks.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Buck Stops

Buck Owens died today. A master of Country music's classic Honky Tonk sound, Buck influenced everybody after him, especially modern honky tonkers Dwight Yoakam, The Derailers and his contemporary Capitol lablemates, The Beatles. The Beatles are alleged to have a standing request for copies of all new Buck Owens records. They covered his Johnny Russell-penned hit "Act Naturally".

Buck's band, The Buckaroos, were unrivalled in their ability to play anything from weepy ballads to Rock and Roll to dirt-kickin' shuffles. The late Don Rich started on fiddle with Buck playing most of the lead guitar. He soon switched to a Telecaster, plugged into a Bassman and defined the sound of Country guitar - the original Titan of Twang. His matchless harmonies sound like Buck was doubled tracked. A listen to the seminal "Live at Carnegie Hall" concert reveals a tight, polished, versatile band lead by a man very comfortable in his own skin. He knows his music, he trusts his band, he tells knowingly corny jokes and treats the audience to a master class in live Country music.

Few musicians have made such an impact or created such an individual style that the very sub-genre they explored is named after them. You can go into any dive bar in Nashville and hear the ad hoc players describe a certain "feel" as a "Ray Price Shuffle", 'Johnny Cash beat", "Waylon beat", and of course simply "Buck Owens". It's a sound that cuts through the clank of beer bottles and loud conversations. A pair of bright, jangly Fender Telecasters, a tasteful steel guitar and a swinging rhythm section.

Buck Owens was one of the few names I heard growing up in an non-Country music household. I knew who he was because his songs were so popular, you heard them on every radio station. He was also savvy enough to convince Capitol to sell him his masters, meaning all Buck Owens records were controlled by Buck. Sundazed, a specialty label, did a series of superb reissues of all of the Capitol classics, and a boxed set spanning his entire career.

He went on to purchase several radio stations and built the Crystal Palace, a night club in Bakersfield, California were he continued to perform regularly. His career was revitalized by a duet with Buck apprentice Dwight Yoakam on the #1 song "The Streets of Bakersfield".

So long Buck, you will be missed.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Mom and Dad's Waltz

I got an e-mail from my father, who reads this blog to keep up with my various comings and goings. He mentioned that the last few posts were "esoteric" and he is absolutely correct. I re-read them and they are indeed full of jargon and buzz words and technical terms, so much so that the average reader is excused from bothering. Sorry for that.

But it did give me another thought - my parents are in their mid-seventies and they e-mailed me that my blog was a bit obscure. E-mail hasn't been around much more that a couple of decades, and blogs less than half of that. My Dad bought his music on 78rpm discs. They sound horrible nowadays, but they were state of the art. Extremely fragile, brittle and of limited fidelity after multiple plays, they were cherished items. Entire allowances were spent on a single disc. "Albums" were sold that were unlabelled, bound cardboard and paper sleeves for storing 78s.

Multiple discs (one song per side, despite the large platter) came packaged in "albums", collections of songs by an artist. I suppose that is why in the LP age, collections of songs by an artist on a single discs were also called albums. I still use the term to describe all music collections. I never have called albums "tapes' or "CDs". The medium is not the message, McLuhanites excepted.

The advances in recording technology are amazing, a theme I keep returning to. I guess having grown up in a household with 78s, albums, 45s and a "record player", actually owning the gear I do is still a thrill. I devoured liner notes and Circus, Creem and Hit Parader magazines as a youth in search of more info about recording studios, and what engineers and producers do. As they say, now I are one.

Any way, sorry Dad. I don't thank you often enough for the love of music that I inherited and have been able to turn into an amalgam of careers. I remember your embracing "Chicago" and "Chase" and "Blood, Sweat and Tears" as good music since they carried over some of sounds of the brass and reed sections that you love so much in the music of Stan Kenton and the Swing Era bands.

I remember getting to use the Sony reel-to-reel and figuring out how to doubletrack two guitar parts. I remember not being denied too often when I reached a point in my guitar playing that required a newer/better instrument. I remember your criteria for getting a new electric guitar at Ward-Brodt (when I was in a heavy Peter Frampton phase) was "What would Jose Feliciano play?". I'm sure I tried to explain how un-cool Jose was to a 15 year old kid in 1978, but even if gave out a few exasperated sighs at your un-hipness, I ended up with a pretty cool Hondo II Les Paul copy, and started a High school band. And you were right, Jose is cool.

That band, "Emerald" (yeah, I know) was constantly (and to my teenaged mind, maddeningly) referred to as "The Emeralds" by my Mom, who allowed us to rehearse in the basement and always had pizza and soda around afterwards. She also bought - on a whim I suppose - a Peter Frampton book that revealed his musical inspirations and his love for Django. Very influential. Thanks, Mom for the love and support.

From there I went on to bigger and better guitars and amps, but maybe never any more important ones. If I had not moved up in gear quality, I doubt I would have stayed interested. Thanks, Dad.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Control With It, Baby

The M-Audio ProjectMix I/O is here and it is working flawlessly. I ran the driver CD, pushed a couple of buttons, and I'm up and running. The MOTU interface has found a nice home with a local sax player, and I still have the expansion unit for any format conversions. The ProjectMix has 8 built in mic pres, an 8-channel ADAT in/out, a pair of S/PDIF i/o and a software mixer/router to allow for two discrete headphone mixes. My mic pre count has gone from two to ten - which means I can track a drum kit and bass and maybe a scratch guitar. Very useful.

It's great to have faders again, and once I get deeper into it, I expect that using the mouse to navigate around Cubase will be rare instead of the norm.

I decided to try to sequence some drums and bass for a demo of a song (City of Devils) that may go on the album. It actually worked! I built up a kick and tom tom groove on the virtual drum kit, added a gurgling bass synth (ala Lanois), and used Amplitube to get a Vox AC30 sound, with a wah wah pedal and fuzz box. Pretty convincing results. Maybe a bit OTT for this record, but I am toying with the idea of keeping the rhythm track approach and using acoutic guitars instead of the raunchy electrics. We don't want to be too stylistically diverse. Stay tuned.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Roots Music

I've been thinking about that term lately. Several discussions have come up about "first movers" in various genres of music. Players or singers that seem to have no discernable influences other than the love of music.

Django Rheinhardt is a shining example. I can't seem to find anyone doing anything remotely as well as he did it before him in the Jazz Guitar realm. Total roots music - he learned the songs, he played them as he heard them.

Hank Williams, Sr. Sure there were others before him, but nobody codified the art of Country songwriting like he did. His band lineup was top notch and set the standard for all that followed, much as Muddy Waters did to Chicago Blues.

I have studied the guitar for many years now - 30, to be exact - and I have dabbled in different styles over time. The older I get, the more I am drawn to the simplest part, the catchiest melody, the tastiest fill, the most appropriate chord voicing. I try to add subtlety to the whole instead of dominate it, as I strived to do in my younger days.

I still have some decent chops - many hours listening to Al DiMeola will get your hand coordination together. I still play scales and arpeggios every morning to keep limber. But on the record I am working on now, there is no room for pyro and I'm old enough and wise enough not to force it.

I try to play "rootsy"...something that speaks to the core emotion of the moment and the song as a whole. Not to say I don't like ripping off a few 16th note Tele licks when called upon - I do. But I find I am saying more with less, and I can listen to the parts over and over again, and because they are stripped to the essentials, they do not distract me or bore me.

I've grown enough as a player to not try to impress anyone, but to make a musical impression on their soul...flowery prose, I admit, but it's nice to hear maturity in my guitar playing that wasn't always there.

A recent steady diet of listening to masters like Bob Britt and Billy Burnette has obviously had an effect. When the self administered pressure to amaze people is gone, true music comes out.

Roots music.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Desk Hid Errata

Go flaccidly among the noise and waste indeed. I am writing this entry atop the newly re-located computer/studio desk. I was getting weird anomalies with the monitors placed where they were, so I moved my entire rig and now I am using the room the "long" way, as I should have from the start.

The bad acoustics of where I had been sitting were hiding - or "masking" - certain frequencies that made the mixes sound bass-light up close, but bass-heavy when you moved 3 feet back. Much better now, but I still need more treatments on the walls.

Got two good song ideas from my wife tonight. One is telling about the destruction from Lot's point of view in a tune I'm calling "The Mayor of Gomorrah". It's coming along. I have a few lines I really like, so I am trying to match them in quality and that's a bad tail to chase.Better to just let it flow out than try to focus it on quality too least for me.