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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 song 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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Sorry for the sparse posting of late. Like many of you, I was enjoying a holiday out of town (going to see an old friend in D.C. for Thanksgiving) and I’ve becoming a bit wary of telling people, perhaps burglars, when I leave the house by blogging about my travels. I have also tried to get a handle on a new writing regime. As much as I love my readers, blogging every day as I used to, even when it’s just stupid, puerile jokes and top 10 lists, has been sapping the strength I should be putting into my fiction. Furthermore, I was also going through something akin to post-coital depression after the election last month. I felt like I had summed up a lot of my feelings on America’s misguided self-mutilation in electing Tea Party members, and I felt I’d succinctly explained my economic point of view. I was a bit spent and didn’t feel the need to hash it all out again.

I’m currently working on a 2011 economic outlook for the magazine I write for.  The news there is pretty dismal–our unemployment problem could continue for years, not because Republicans or Democrats can do anything about it, but because we have years to pay off our debts, both personal and institutional. Americans in saving mode don’t goose GDP forward, and with stagnant growth, unemployment continues. What might help is more government fiscal stimulus. But that’s now become politically impossible because of the national mood and anti-government backlash. In other words, America–your misery is largely your own fault. So make sure and go to the mirror tonight and ask yourself, “Why am I personally hurting the economy? Am I a bad person?” If you feel comforted watching non-financial expert Ralph Reed on CNN telling you what’s really happening, then that’s a perfect place to start looking for your problem.

But I didn’t come here to bitch. I came here to share more music (perhaps you’d prefer it if I bitched). I was digging through some old music files last night and came up with something I recorded in 2007 that I never shared–a guitar piece inspired by John Fahey with lyrics inspired by Huck Finn (which I re-read that year). I had planned on flushing this song down the toilet, but was surprised at how much I still liked it, long and dour as it is. It finds me still trying to negotiate a strange path of Americana, threading a route from folk artists like Fahey to noise artists like LaMonte Young and Sonic Youth. The result seemed to be perfect for a melancholy lyric I’d written about death and the frontier.

So for better or worse, I’m sharing it with you now. It’s called “Where You Dream Tonight.” As always, all the work belongs to yours truly, as if somebody else would claim it.

Where You Dream Tonight
copyright 2007, Eric R. Rasmussen

Where you dream tonight

Is where your heart belongs

Steamer through the mist

Ferry hits the logs

Cannon raise the dead

Stuck two fathoms down

Halo round her head

Waterlogged and drowned

Everything you know

Everything you see

Paddle boats and hacks

None of this is real

Looking through the trees

Tarred and feathered thieves

Is that you and me

Longing to be free?

Carnival in town

Fireworks display

Midgets monkey men

Wonders of the day

Bring your children round

To the river town

Halo round their heads

Thank God that you’re not dead

Image: prozac1 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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One of the things you might not know about ER Salo Deguierre is that he’s not just interested in ripping off Sonic Youth and the Velvet Underground all the time. No, ol’ Salo has a soft side, too. In fact, he quite loves folk music.

It was 1992 when I first saw a brilliant movie I highly recommend called Dogfight (starring the late, great River Phoenix in one of his best performances, working alongside the equally phenomenal Lili Taylor). As the credits rolled at the end for this devastating tale of lost innocence in the 1960s, I heard for the first time the dulcet tones of a maestro guitarist named John Fahey and my life has never been the same. I spent the next 17 years not only trying (and failing) to play the way he does but also to reconcile how an instrumental guitarist with nobody backing him could sound like a symphony. I wondered for a long time, after listening closely, if his symphonic sound had any relation to the type dreamed up by Sonic Youth troubadours Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo. I was pleasantly surprised later to find that my intuition of a musical connection was not superficial; Sonic Youth acknowledged at some point that they had indeed used a lot of John Fahey’s alternative tuning approaches to create their own totally original sound. Their debt to him turned out to be so great that they even played shows with him in his waning years (one of which I got to see on my 27th birthday, the best present ever).

John Fahey never sang (he didn’t need to), but until I come up with a guitar sound as fulfilling as his, I have to unfortunately do some croaking on my own material, thinking that if I combine some halfway decent picking skills with a halfway decent vocal, I’ll have something better than both. My results in this pursuit have mostly been a mishmash in the past, but in the last few months I’ve come up with something I don’t mind sharing.

I wrote this song about 10 or 11 years ago but left it unrecorded until this year. It’s about pain, poverty, class resentment. American history, basically. Just click to play.

Kansas 1921
By Eric Rasmussen
Copyright 1999

Go inside the house and get our best wooden chair
Before he comes up our porch
And takes off his bowler hat
And sits down and tells us tales of distant Washington
We’ll feed him corn and watch his face

Seems so long
Since dad’s been dead
But how happy he’d be
To have known a president
On a whistle-stop campaign
In this brave new year of 1921
Just to see our land and give us blessing

Oh ho, high wind, high wall
Won’t you take my hand and pull me down
There’ll be warm spring wind comin’ round

Punch another hole inside your old leather belt
You’re as thin as a bean
And your pants are fallin’ down
And you might run into rich folk in town
Don’t you ever stop to think of who you are?

Try to think that you was raised better than
You was raised
Tie that dog up in the wood
Kick him if he ain’t been good
Lick your fingers, push your hair behind your ears
Don’t smile when they look you in the eye

Oh ho, high wind, high wall
Won’t you take my hand and pull me down
There’ll be warm spring wind
Comin’ round

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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