Two American Tunes

'Nashville Skyline'. Begs the question why did Bob bother naming an album after it?

Two songs here that will forever remind me of my recent trip to Nashville. The city is variously given the epithet ‘Music City’ or ‘the buckle in the bible belt’; strangely, the two songs that I heard whilst there that stuck with me most prominently perhaps sum up this dual identity.

Even stranger, neither could accurately be termed (exclusively) ‘Country’, nor ‘Western’ (the only two types of music I was told to expect!). That’s not to say I didn’t hear any Country and Western whilst there, and there will be a later post about the best live band I have ever seen: ‘Brazilbilly’ (all will be explained later). But these two tunes captured some quality of my perception of the place, and thus have fused themselves to memory.

1. Darrell Scott – American Tune

A cover of the Paul Simon song. I would (very) tentatively declare that this is one of those rare examples of a cover version being ‘better’ than the original (though I went back to listen to a couple of Paul Simon live versions, and particularly the one with Garfunkle – which could be described as a cover version in itself – are extremely good).

I heard this tune the Sunday morning before I left Nashville. Jared, my ‘Couchsurfing’ host, having just prepared a brunch of omelette and grits, played this live version of Darrell Scott (who I had never heard of before).

It’s the understated virtuosity of the guitar playing, which I’m still unsure of, technique wise. I thought he was using both a plectrum and finger picking, but I think he is just using thumb and forefinger as a plectrum.

But most prominent in this version is what Roland Barthes called the ‘grain of the voice’. Darrell Scott’s voice is almost all grain! There is a stunning disjunct played out throughout this song of the assured gravel of the timbre and the fragility of the melody. The glissandos into the falsetto register (e.g. the line “and certainly misused” in the first verse; made all the more prominent by the (seemingly) lackadaisical (though delivered with astute confidence) ‘blue-note’ of the word “forsaken” preceding it). Lyrically, to have this ‘down-to-earth’ voice ‘dreaming of flying’, of lamenting being ‘far from home’, and ‘not knowing a dream that hasn’t been shattered’, is striking.

Unsurprisingly, it was a lyric that really hooked me in:

“Still, you don’t expect to be bright and bon vivant so far away from home. So far away from home.”

Well, after my week in Nashville – a city I had not really made any expectations of, had no real previous mental images of – I found myself becoming familiar with the place, to feel like I was going to miss it. I was also, after omelette and grits, feeling pretty bon vivant!

It’s strange how one line of a song can stand out and capture you like this. Actually, it’s not strange at all; that is the secret of popular music, its power and its pertinence: to be able to capture a mood you weren’t even sure you were in until you heard it.

2. Mike Snider – Be Thou My Vision 

I was fortunate enough to go to the ‘Grand Ole Opry’ – the mother church of Country Music – whilst in Nashville. I had actually been pretty ambivalent about it (particularly as the headliner was Carrie Underwood – star of American Idol), thinking at best it would be a funny night listening to cheesy country music. I was having that ambivalence confirmed when Mike Snider came to the stage.

Having rattled through an impressive banjo reel, he began to tell a series of jokes (the couple from this video, besides many more). The humour was on a par with ‘the entertainers’ style 70s jokes about ‘the mother-in-law’ – one example “I came home one night to find my wife in the bedroom wearing just her underwear. She said ‘tie me to the bed, and you can do anything you want’, so I tied her to the bed and went fishing” . That’s the sort of humour we’re talking about.

But for some reason, I bought into it. The whole thing. The Southern accent (I can’t work out if it’s an affected stereotype, or real), the dungarees and cap (definitely an affectation, but a good one), the corny jokes; I bought the lot, and found myself – despite myself – creased with laughter. When he came to the final joke about a taxi driver kissing a nun, I was almost literally rolling in the aisle!

Then he played this tune. When I saw him, it was just him on harmonica, and a guy playing violin. He played it much slower, and the violin accompaniment was haunting and delicate. The mood in the whole audience (some 4000 people) abruptly changed. It really was striking the flip from comedic buffoon to sincere musician; I suppose it’s a trope well recognised in comedy, but Mike Snider did it better than anyone I have ever seen.

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