I just spent four days at the Portland Waterfront Blues Festival (officially it starts with the name of a grocery chain, but that's their problem). I had a wonderful time, and it's a great event that does a lot to fight hunger in Oregon,and I'll go next year. But it does raise question--what counts as blues? In some sense, all American music is in the blues tradition--without blues, there'd be no jazz, no rock, no country even--at least not as we know them now. But is Lucinda Williams really blues? I love her, but seriously.... And last year Commander Cody (I bought a CD and got his autograph, talked about old times in Ann Arbor, but blues... the Lost Planet Airmen would never have played the Ann Arbor Blues Festival).
Fiona Boyes did a workshop on songwriting in the blues tradition, and the question I wish I had asked her, but didn't, was "When do you cross the line and say 'I'm no longer in the blues tradition?'" I struggle with that as a songwriter. Not that I would drop a good song because it wasn't blues, or try to force it into a blues mold if it didn't want to go there, but I do ask myself whether this is a song I would play at a show where I billed myself as a blues singer (which is where I feel most comfortable these days).
The thing that bothered me the most was that traditional acoustic blues are getting less and less space every year. Lauren Sheehan and Mary Flower got relegated to the workshop stage where they had to compete with the overamped sound from the big stages, which made it hard for intricate fingerpicking to make an impression. There are days when I think the electric guitar was just a mistake....
I miss liner notes. Sometimes they were lame, but even the lame ones told you something about the music. Of course the music speaks for itself, but it also raises questions, if you're paying attention. I couldn't afford to put liner notes in Blues Between the Lines, but I decided to write them anyway, in case anybody wanted to read them.... (Some of the songs are here on Reverbnation, but the whole album is available on CD Baby.)
Dominique When I lived in Zambia as a kid, guys would walk down the street playing mbiras (sometimes called thumb pianos by ignorant non-Africans). There were these rolling cascades of notes, going around in polyrhythmic circles.... I've tried to imitate that with the guitar part.
Blues Between the Lines Sometimes people know better, but they still can't find a way to break a destructive pattern because there's some other need that keeps them in it. The music is really just an eight-bar blues with some substitute chords, inspired by the way Harold Arlen played around with blues progressions.
Ishmael Moby Dick gets funky. Somehow we left out the whale, Ahab, Starbuck, and almost everything else in the book, but you knew that because of course you've read Moby Dick.... Right?
Norfolk Southern Blues I wanted to do one really basic traditional blues, so I wrote one.
Like A Fallen Star It took me ten years to write this, and I threw out three sets of lyrics on the way. It's about falling in love with an alien, which could happen to anyone. I'm pretty sure it's happened to me a couple of times, and probably to you too. That would explain a lot, wouldn't it?
Hard Times Stephen Foster invented American popular music, had the first mega-hit (“Oh Susanna”) and died broke. Songwriters have been following his example ever since. This is a lovely song that will never be out of date—but especially now.
A Bigger Fool I used to have a job reading magazines. I learned about the “bigger fool” strategy in high finance, which is basically the idea that no matter what dumb investment you make, somewhere out there is a bigger fool who will take it off your hands and save you from your folly. This song is about a guy applying that kind of thinking to love. It has nothing to do with me. Really. Nothing to do with you either.
Serpent Blue Not that long ago I spent nearly five years in the Upper Snake River Valley of eastern Idaho. I wrote this song when I thought I was never going to escape.
Do You Talk That Way About Me? Sometimes you wonder.
Delia On Christmas Eve 1900, Cooney Houston shot Delia Green at a party. They were both 14. The song that came out of it doesn't do justice to either of them, but it's a classic anyway.
Lovers in Disguise If for some reason you wanted to be real, would you know how? Would you dare? This was written in the waning years of the Cold War, after a Le Carre binge. I was in a band called 66 Spy, and wanted to write something that would fit the name.
Is This What I Think It Is? When you don't know what's on her mind and you're not sure you dare to find out....
Thieves Sometimes you can't tell who's whose. This started out many years ago as a kind of punk-salsa tune that I played with rock bands 66 Spy and Luna Park. Then one day I heard the lead guitar line in my head as a banjo. I'm a lousy banjo player, so I had to invent a new tuning to play it.