How Do You Define…. and why does it matter?

…singer-songwriter

puzzled emotoconYou ever stop and think about how you perceive and personally define styles or genres of music?  What does AAA mean?  Americana?  Rock?  Pop?  Can you articulate the difference between Rhythm & Blues and contemporary R&B?  Neither can most people – even those we’d think might or should know …such as event talent buyers.

So, I’m on the phone this week – doing what I do – consulting on matters related to music in Colorado, and I get asked “how do you define singer-songwriter?”  My immediate off the cuff answer was “everyone in music is a singer songwriter if they sing songs they write.”  That’s true.  If you sing songs you write you are in fact a singer-songwriter.  But the definition goes well beyond that.

The question came about because the person I was consulting had gotten push back from event buyers for being a singer-songwriter.  For many people in the scene – event buyers especially – the term brings a less than likable meaning – that of solo (or duo) act that sings soft wimpy ballady acoustic “folk” type songs – the type you hear in coffee shops and many brew pubs regionally today.

folk singerAccording to Allmusic.com,  “…the term Singer/Songwriter refers to the legions of performers that followed Bob Dylan in the late 60s and early 70s. Most of the original singer/songwriters performed alone with an acoustic guitar or a piano but some had small groups for backing. Their lyrics were personal, although they were often veiled by layers of metaphors and obscure imagery. Singer/songwriters drew primarily from folk and country, although certain writers like Randy Newman and Carole King incorporated the song-craft of Tin Pan Alley pop. The main concern for any singer/songwriter was the song itself, not necessarily the performance.”

Examples of singer songwriters also include:  Simon & Garfunkle, Billy Joel, Elton John, John Lennon, Van Morrison, and James Taylor from the 70’s and from the more contemporary listings, Elvis Costello, Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow, and Sara Bareilles to name a few.

This point is worth repeating; The main concern for any singer/songwriter was the song itself, not necessarily the performance.”

So why does it matter?  It is the performance issue that drives many buyers away from so called singer-songwriters.  Many buyers don’t see the singer-songwriter as a performer – as an ENTERTAINER (despite the Billy Joels and Elton Johns, who few think of as singer-songwriters, but rather pop and/or rock acts).

I made a few calls to verify that my thinking was in line with realities on the ground.  I wondered why “singer-songwriters” need not apply in most cases.  The answer was “energy.”  What I took from that was not “energy” but FAMILIARITY.  Bring an Elton John or Bob Dylan tribute band to the party and you’re in.  Bring in Bob Dylan performing solo songs on an acoustic guitar that no one has yet become familiar with and he’s out.  Why?  FAMILIARITY = ENERGY and ENERGY = FAMILIARITY.

It’s not that folks expect to hire cover bands …and tribute bands fall into a different role in the scene – accepted as something more than a cover band.  It’s that folks who put on events desire music that the average attendee can “move along to” (read:  “sing along to”) even if they’ve never heard the song before.

If you avoid using the term singer-songwriter, as an artist what do you say you do musically?  Americana?  What’s that?  What’s different between pop and rock?  Is country “country” if it doesn’t sound like what’s on commercial country radio – or is that even country to begin with and when is it “too country?”  How bout the differences between Rhythm & Blues (R&B) in the classic context, and R&B in the contemporary context?

One event buyer/planner this week asked me to find them “Colorado sounding” acts.  When pressed, I came away with an answer that what was meant was acts in the bluegrass, jam-grass, jamband, reggae. jamband oriented funk and hip-hop, and “Americana” (read: non Nashville sounding country) styles of music.  At no time was I asked for singer-songwriter, folk, rock, pop, blues, soul, jazz, or country.

My best advice?  Leave the genres to those who care (uh … hello?)  and define based on comparatives, on “if you like so and so you’ll like _____________”  … choose “__________ compliments so and so in a mix,”  NOT “_________ sounds like so and so.

And even if you are, don’t call yourself a singer-songwriter … most singer songwriters I know can do solo, duo, trio, quartet, or even orchestra shows – and are not simply a gal or guy with a guitar …or Bob Dylan without a band …a “folk” singer.

When we think of great Colorado singer-songwriters, here are a few I think are definitely worth mentioning …we do love singer-songwriters in Colorado.  Turns out they’re among our most revered treasures.

 

#coloradorocks #coloradovideos #colordaosingersongwriters #leaderofthepack #localmusicmatters

 

The Colorado Sound – V4 EP41 2012 + Pepper Tree (review) + Alchemy (video)

I guess it was a week or so ago when I mentioned to my wife I had not heard anything in years from John William Davis, and I wondered how he’d been since I last saw him round about 2005 or maybe 06.  His debut album, Dreams of the Lost Tribe, has remained a vibrant part of my music consciousness for fully a decade now, a wonderful still frame of deep Southern mysticism and mythology …of swamp moss, diamond backs, hurricanes, bull gators, floods and deep spiritualism.  So, it was with considerable joy that I caught a post by John on Facebook this week – announcing a new recording; this one a stripped down guitar and vocal release, no less a work in lyrical imagery or in his incredibly adroit guitar style.  On the first single, Pepper Tree, he begins by telling us he’s been staring at a crack in the wall indeterminately, waiting for it to blink, before enjoining us to be aware of the chimpanzee in the tree who he imagines looks a “whole lot like you and me.”  In the telling, a baboon wants to kick the chimp’s ass and a crocodile wants to “gobble you up with that pepper seasonin’.”  Cocaine contrails and perfume bombshells, an angel with bent wings and a tail on fire…. and in all of it a lesson for living … “if you ever get stuck up in the pepper tree, you’d better hang on tight if you happen to sneeze.”

We’re blessed here in Colorado to have a couple of fellas who know how to use words to paint stories with details that lesser songwriters can only imagine and then attempt to conjure with vapid cliches.   As John William Davis is just releasing his new work, Jeff Finlin is preparing one – a kickstarter project in place, and a new video accomplished with the help once again of award winning steel guitarist and up and coming filmmaker Sally Van Meter.  Enjoy.

PLAYLIST

(D) = debut of new album, ep or single release.  (N) = a new track from previously debuted album or ep.  (D) and (N) => linked to artist/band.

The Samples “Tom Joad” from Return to Earth (2001)
Acoustic Junction “Strange Days” from Strange Days (2000)
(D) Ten Pound Elephant “Talk to Me” from Ten Pound Elephant (2012)
Petals of Spain “Working 9 to 5” from Late Night Visitor (2011)
FaceMan “Feeding Time” from Feeding Time (2012)
(N) I’m With Her “Hang Among the Stars” from I’m With Her (2011)
Firefall “Cinderella” from Firefall (1976)
Chris Thompson & the Coral Creek String Band “Catfish John” from Forty Years (2012)
Ash Ganley and Lyons Rock Council “Elysian Fields” from Dark Fuel (2006)
(D) John William Davis “Pepper Tree” from Dead Simple, Vol. 1: You Talk Funny (2013)
Cary Morin “Sing It Louder” from Sing It Louder (2011)
(D) Jill Brzezicki “The Horizon” from The Horizon (2012)
After Midnight Jazz Band “A Smooth One” from Midnight in Madison (2010)
Dan Fogelberg “Part of the Plan” from Souvenirs (1974)
Big Head Todd & The Monsters “Broken Hearted Savior” from Sister Sweetly (1993)
(N) Jeff Brinkman “Face” from Strange (2012)
(N) Bop Skizzum “Known It All Along” from Coloradical (2012)
Places “Honesty” from No More Wasted Days (2012)
(N) Beats Noir! “Going Nowhere (feat. Venus Cruz)” from Where the Sun Goes Down (2013)
The Blender Cats “Somethin’s Gotta Give” from Just Like This (2012)
Megan Burtt “Walls Come Down” from Megan Burtt (2008)
Halden Wofford & the Hi Beams “Hippie In My House” from Midnight Rodeo (2006)
Palmer Divide “Knockin’ At Your Door” from Shenandoah Train (2009)
Esme Patterson “My Young Man” from All Princes, I (2012)
Lumineers “Ho Hey” from The Lumineers (2012)
Strange Americans “Roses On Ice” from A Royal Battle (2012)
Shirley “4th of July” from From A Bright Clearing (2012)