Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Music from A Perfectly Good Guitar

The South by Southwest music conference and festival (SXSW, as it is now known) kicks off this week here in Austin, TX. The reach of SXSW has gone global and quite a bit corporate, which means well-established music acts like the Avett Brothers, Weezer, and the Wu-Tang Clan can steal thunder from the hundreds of relative unknowns who travel from all over the world to Austin hoping for exposure and whatever one calls a "record deal" these days. It's these hardworking musicians and local artists who prop up the massive event SXSW has become. They slug it out to make a name for themselves, hauling their equipment all over town to get as much stage time as possible. That's the game.
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From Willie Nelson to the bassist in a Sixth Street house band, most guitarists have strong feelings about their primary tool, and some are downright passionate about their axes. When photographer and writer Chuck Holley set out to document guitar players talking about their most prized instruments, he thought he was fairly well-versed in professional guitarists. The playlist he has put together for this blog is all about the lesser-known artists he discovered over the eight years he photographed guitarists with their favorite instruments and listened to their stories. A Perfectly Good Guitar is a beautifully illustrated book presenting these stories in revelatory photographs, featuring Rosanne Cash, Guy Clark, JD Souther, Jorma Kaukonen, Kelly Willis, and more.

Enjoy the selection on Spotify here.

Discovering Good Music

By Chuck Holley

In the Fall of 2007 I began a project interviewing and photographing guitarists. I asked each professional to single out one guitar in their arsenal and explain why it was important to them. The result of that eight-year effort is the book, A Perfectly Good Guitar.

I’m an unabashed music fan and, when I began this project, I considered myself well-versed about music from different genres. I knew about the good stuff—or at least I thought I did.

It didn’t take long to realize how many great working musicians are out there I didn’t know about. Reality set in; it became painfully obvious how much I had to learn. 

As the project picked up steam, artists who came to my attention fell into one of three categories: There were the seasoned professionals whose recordings I already owned. Players like Dave Alvin, Joanna Connor, Alejandro Escovedo and Bill Kirchen come to mind. Sure, I had a Blasters record with Alvin and his brother on it and I had one of his early solo albums. My collection of Joanna Connor music consisted of one early release on Blind Pig Records and I owned three or four Escovedo albums. In the case of Kirchen, I knew all about his days with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. As for his solo work, I didn’t have a clue. In the ensuing years, my interests turned to other artists.

Sonny Landreth
Then there were the artists with whom I was familiar; I’d heard of them, but didn’t own any of their recordings. I knew the music of Sisters Morales but I didn’t own any solo recordings by Lisa Morales. The same was true of Bill Frisell. From reading album credits I knew at one time Sonny Landreth played in John Hiatt’s band, The Goners, but even though I’d heard of Sonny, I didn’t own any of his music.

Finally, there were the artists who were new to me. They weren’t new to the scene, but I wasn’t familiar with their work. Toronzo Cannon, Johnny Nicholas and Jamie Lin Wilson are three such artists.

I enjoy turning my friends on to good music. I’ve told them about some of the terrific musicians and songwriters I’ve discovered. They listen politely until their eyes glaze over. My friends are creatures of habit, but aren’t we all?

I subscribe to the Duke Ellington school of thought: “There are two kinds of music. Good music and the other kind.” If I like it, I’ll listen to music regardless of labels. At the same time, it’s difficult to write about this without resorting to categorization. The artists profiled in A Perfectly Good Guitar represent a variety of genres.

I’ve never understood the guy who claims to just like only country music or classical or jazz. In my opinion, that’s like saying you only like the color blue.

This blog features ten artists from A Perfectly Good Guitar. These ten artists represent personal discovery. Their genres don’t matter. They’re just labels, but do they mean anything?

“All By Myself” – Dave Alvin
Dave Alvin spent his youth sneaking into blues bars with his older brother, Phil, to see and learn from masters like Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, and Lightning Hopkins. In 1979 he and Phil formed the seminal roots rock band, the Blasters. They released four influential albums before Dave left to join the band, X, and later embark on a solo career that produced several critically acclaimed albums, including the Grammy Award-winning Public Domain. He and Phil reunited in 2014 to record Common Ground, their tribute album to Big Bill Broonzy, and later a blues album, Lost Time.

Dave recalls how he purchased a 1934 National resonator guitar. He used that guitar on the Broonzy song “All By Myself,” the first track on Common Ground.

“Walk It Off” – Toronzo Cannon
Toronzo Cannon grew up in his grandfather’s house near Theresa’s Lounge on the South side of Chicago but he didn’t take up guitar until he was twenty-two. His first band gig was playing in a reggae band but after a couple of years, the blues beckoned. Toronzo learned his craft by playing in bands fronted by two of Chicago’s finest, Wayne Baker Brooks and Joanna Connor. In 2001 he struck out on his own. By day, he drives a bus for the Chicago Transit Authority. At night, he’s a bluesman.

As subject matter, infidelity is a mainstay for the blues and Toronzo handles it with style in “Walk It Off,” from The Chicago Way.

Toronzo Cannon

“It’s a Woman’s Way” – Joanna Connor

Joanna Connor moved to Chicago in 1985 from Worces­ter, Massachusetts, to hone her skills in the Chicago blues scene. She landed a spot in the 43rd Street Blues Band at the famed Checkerboard Lounge a few months after her arrival. The 43rd Street Blues Band was the house band playing behind up-and-coming artists as well as legendary figures in blues and soul. In addition to playing at the Checkerboard, part of her education was learning to play slide guitar in regular tuning from Dion Payton. Dion proved to be a demanding teacher for the 20-something Connor.

Her slide skills are on full display on “It’s a Woman’s Way” from her 2016 album, Six String Stories.

Joanna Connor

“Heartbeat Smile” – Alejandro Escovedo

Alejandro Escovedo, a native of San Antonio, Texas, has had a long and varied career. His rock and roll journey began with his first band in the 1970s, the Nuns, a punk band. After the demise of the Nuns came Rank and File and the True Believers. Through his songwriting, Alejandro has become a force in alt country and rock and roll.

His most recent album is Burn Something Beautiful. This album is a calorie burner. Listen to “Heartbeat Smile” and turn it up.

“Pipeline” – Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell has a lengthy discography with music ranging from pop and rock, to bluegrass, roots and jazz. The seasoned Grammy-winning artist is admired by his peers and his skills are in demand by other artists. He has more than thirty albums to his credit.

Twenty five years ago, a friend told me the world would be a better place if everyone listened to the jazz pianist Bill Evans. She was right, of course. Today I would amend that to include Bill Frisell.

Bill recorded “Pipeline,” an instrumental first released by surf rock band, The Chantays in 1962. It’s the opening track on his 2014 album, Guitar in the Space Age.

Bill Frisell

“Rockabilly Funeral” – Bill Kirchen
Bill Kirchen, an alum of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, will forever be associated with the group’s hit song, “Hot Rod Lincoln,” which features his distinctive Telecaster licks. The Commander Cody band was among the pioneers of the country-rock sound in the 1960s and 1970s.

In addition to recording and touring with his band, Too Much Fun, Bill has recorded with, among others, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Arlen Roth, Redd Volkaert, and Sammy Hagar.

Bill plays a mix of rockabilly, country, and blues. He revisits a few of the songs he played in his years with the Cody band on his album, Seeds and Stems, along with songs he regularly performs live including “Rockabilly Funeral.”

Bill Kirchen

“The High Side” – Sonny Landreth
Called the “King of Slydeco,” Sonny Landreth has a bluesy, rock-infused way of playing slide guitar that is all his own. While his right hand picks, slaps, and taps the strings on his Stratocaster, his left hand frets notes while using a slide.

The Louisiana native soaked up the musical influences of zydeco and the Deep South, eventually joining Clifton Chenier and his Red Hot Louisiana Band. His second solo album, Down in Louisiana, led to his work with John Hiatt in the studio and in Hiatt’s band, The Goners. He has also recorded with John Mayall, Johnny Winter, and Buckwheat Zydeco among others. Eric Clapton has called Landreth one of the most advanced, and most under-appreciated, guitar players in the world.

“The High Side” can be found on Sonny’s 2015 album, Bound By the Blues.

“I Am the Weakest” – Lisa Morales
Lisa Morales, with her sister Roberta, formed the Americana band Sisters Morales. For more than 20 years the band toured and released four albums. They served up a mix of Americana, pop and rock, singing some songs in English and others in Spanish. Lisa released her solo debut, Beautiful Mistake, in 2011 and is now completing a follow-up album.

After I discovered Beautiful Mistake, it joined a handful of other albums I play frequently. “I Am the Weakest” is the first track and it’s best played loud.

“Kid Man Blues” – Johnny Nicholas
Johnny Nicholas’s love of blues and American roots music goes back to a childhood surrounded by R&B, blues, country music, and rock music from the ’50s and early ’60s. He has played in and fronted many bands, including Guitar Johnny and the Rhythm Rockers, Asleep at the Wheel and the Texas All-Stars. Johnny now tours with his band Johnny Nicholas and Hellbent.

“Kid Man Blues” is from his 2016 release, Fresh Air.

Johnny Nicholas

“Moving Along” – Jamie Lin Wilson
Jamie Lin Wilson is a singer, songwriter, musician and a veteran of two alternative country-roots bands, first with The Gougers and later with The Trishas.

After leaving the Gougers Jamie recorded a solo EP before joining three friends to form the Trishas, an all-female, alt-country band. The Trishas recorded an EP and toured nationally before releasing a critically acclaimed album, High, Wide and Handsome, in 2012. Her first solo album, Holidays & Wedding Rings, was released in 2015. The album title is taken from her song, “Moving Along,” so listen closely.

Jamie Lin Wilson

Chuck Holley (Maryville, Missouri) has worked as a commercial photographer in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota; a general assignment reporter and photographer for a southwest Iowa newspaper; and a photographer for a university.

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