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I am almAir Is a Public Goodost done recording my latest album, Salon de la Guerre’s Air Is a Public Good, which I hope to release in a month or so. The likely surprise to my fans, such as they are, is that this is my first album totally devoted to country music.

Longtime listeners might know that I’ve trodden these paths before on songs like “Alice Ploughshare,” but this is the first time I’ve devoted an entire album to the genre.

Like a lot of rock fans, I was hostile to country music for a long time. I grew up in Oklahoma, where C&W tunes abounded–most of them wretched. I absorbed some of my father’s affection for the Waylon & Willie album, but that’s as far as it went. The Urban Cowboy soundtrack was catchy when I was 10, but eventually I turned 11.

Then I went to college in Texas, however, and I was quickly informed by knowledgeable people that there was great country music everywhere and that I was an uninformed dodo who had simply missed it listening to bad radio (a rookie mistake for a young arts writer). I was instructed by mentors to seek out the good stuff. I figured out Kelly Willis and Mary Chapin Carpenter and that led me to Lucinda Williams and David Allan Coe. I pulled out Willie and Johnny Cash again. I dutifully listened to the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

But honestly, I still listened to country the way a professor studies 40,000-year-old bone flutes. I appreciated the music–started to see the common sources whence folk, blues and country sprang–but never actually craved hearing it the way I did proto-punk, classic rock, jazz, folk, hip-hop, classical, Tejano, salsa … almost anything else.

Then, dear reader, I say shamefacedly that I finally had my eyes opened the same way most people did in the last 20 years: by the fucking O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Yes, it’s really that prosaic an explanation. I cannot tell you how embarrassed I was to suddenly come out of my coma of snobbery with the help of a popular movie soundtrack, but there it was: the omnipresent music of my youth in a Southern state suddenly made sense. Everything snapped into place. Emmylou Harris. Alison Krauss. Gillian Welch. The Stanley Brothers. I finally heard the brilliance of the close harmonies, the structural brilliance of the chord and key changes in the songwriting (at least the good songwriting). More important, I came to understand the simplicity of the communication in this folk medium–that the horrific twanging I associated with this music was an unnecessary, disposable gimmick and that the subject matter was more fluid and nuanced than I had given it credit for. I went back to Lucinda. I found Neko Case. Hank Williams! I figured out Hank Williams!

Worrying I might get sidetracked into somebody else’s idea of tradition and mythology, I eschewed mentors this time and negotiated my own path through the history, focusing mostly on three acts: the original Carter Family, Gene Clark (in his post-Byrds career) and Gram Parsons (both within and outside his famous bands).

I learned about Maybelle Carter’s revolutionary guitar style, in which the melody is thumbed on the bass notes while the fingers tickle the chords, and Sara Carter’s simple, unadorned call, which seems like non-singing to the uninitiated. When you first hear “I Never Will Marry” by the Carters, you feel like you’re hearing a lot of hoarse people from the ’30s singing into a can. You’re not ready for how much the song resonates over time and grows in poignancy. By the time my son was born, I was singing this to him to put him to sleep. (He’s allowed to marry if he wants to.) On the song “Wabash Cannonball,” you can hear the DNA of countless singers in Sara Carter’s delivery (Lucinda Williams comes to mind again).

From Gram Parsons I learned the simplicity of the music could be preserved while the subject matter grew more mature and even incorporated harder electric instruments without compromising the musical values. The close harmony singing and soul accents of the first Flying Burrito Brothers album are a great blueprint for what this music can be when it’s allowed to grow.

Gene Clark, of course, was the first guy to leave the original Byrds. His solo career was sickeningly neglected as he moved away from folk-rock into country, working both on his own and with banjo great Doug Dillard. He eventually had to exploit the Byrds name again to keep eating (before he died in 1991). But Clark’s song “Polly” from Dillard & Clark’s second album, 1969’s Through the Morning, Through the Night, is one of the most perfect songs you’ve never heard. The first time I heard its harmonies, I thought I’d cracked open the Matryoshka doll containing Linda Ronstadt, Fleetwood Mac (the Lindsey Buckingham version), Walter Egan, the Eagles–all the L.A. studio rock of the next decade. All due respect to Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, but their version of “Polly” is horribly stiff and mannered by comparison. Clark’s delivery is simple and pained without using any tricks and so intimate that you almost feel like you’re invading the guy’s privacy just by listening to it.

What the Hell Has This Got To Do With Salon de la Guerre?

OK, I figured out country is great, but why am I making a country album?

Well, for one thing, I’m always writing music, even when I go on walks, keeping a list of chord changes locked in my head (I often have to get an idea recorded onto my phone recorder before I forget it. You’d laugh your ass off hearing me singing these hundred or so musical ideas onto tape, many of which I can barely understand on second listen). In any case, a lot of these bits I culled from the tape I realized just wouldn’t lend themselves to rock songs.

Second, once I figured out what Maybelle Carter was actually doing and how it informed all country music down to the present day, I asked myself a very simple question: I wonder what it would sound like if I tried her style on a guitar tuned the way Sonic Youth tunes it. Many of their strings are tuned identically, giving the notes more harmonic power and even changing the timbre of their instruments. So I sat down one afternoon and retuned my guitar to line up some of those strings. Later, I put the guitar in open C tuning (you can look that up). The thumb went to work. The fingers tickled out the Sonic Youth harmonics. Bang! Three new songs in a couple of hours.

The third motivation came from my intense curiosity about the banjo: Specifically, could I play one? I had never tried, yet the finger-picking style set down by John Fahey is something I’ve been aping since I first picked up the guitar. I was giddy thinking that I might be able to pick up a banjo immediately and make something. So I bought one. And though I’m no Earl Scruggs, I did get five new songs out of the thing the second time I picked it up.

Lastly, I had a simple question about myself: Did I have country music in my veins all along? This stuff was in my background my entire life. I might have hated it, but I wondered if my body had picked up the reflexes anyway and made this stuff somehow second nature to me. Could I do it without parody? Without twang? Without sounding like the feelings were false? I wanted to know.

In case you’re interested in more technical stuff: I played three of the songs on this album with electric guitar, played one song on acoustic guitar and added banjo to five other songs. The rest of the music was synthesized on GarageBand–all the percussion, bass and piano (I do play the tiny one-hand piano on my tiny phone, though. I’m sure it would look ridiculous to an observer).

So here I add one of the first completed songs from the album, “Mirror, Mirror on the Floor” in the open C tuning. Enjoy.

 

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