We are blessed to have so much amazing recorded material instantly available to us. On our smart phones and tablets we can listen to music recorded anywhere in the world since that dog first looked down the trumpet speaker of the first record player. As songwriters we stand within and on the shoulders of this astonishing heritage. How do we approach this best?
I love music of the southern states of the USA. We’re talking of a great cauldron into which African music, Native American Music, the distinctive voices of central Europe, English ballads, the soaring bravado and pathos of Scottish and Irish music, Latin rhythms all the music of the whole damn world got poured into a song. And the songs were: RnB, country, bluegrass, jazz, honky tonk, rock’n’roll and more and more.
To me, as someone who writes songs the question how to I relate to this incredible richness is a great one. Do I revisit the songs of those who have gone before - mirroring their chord structures, melodies and subjects? Or so I try and take the gifts of these songs and try and reinvent them – even to the point of creating a new genre as others such as Bill Monroe (Bluegrass)?
The first - revisting – is an honourable and well-trodden approach. Staying in with the tight structures ( the 3 or 4 chords of country music for instance ) and remaining creative and fresh is a real challenge to be relished. I am not so good at that. As I keep telling myself ‘this is hard – there are so many great songs written already !
Reinventing is for musical genius. Not me. Perhaps only a few of us can redefine music this way.
I have been exploring the idea of reimagining in my songwriting. Re-imagining is a very personal thing. It’s about connecting your own emotional reaction to direct experience and seeing where it leads you through the vocabulary of the music that surrounds you. Direct experience like walking through the Appalachian Forests. As spiders fell onto my face; it was so humid I felt I couldn’t breathe; looking our for bears and rattlesnakes and sleeping surrounded by the mysterious noises of the night; I couldn’t help me think about the Native Americans and the settlers who once were hear and trying to imagine their world and their lives. The stories that wove themselves around me as I travelled came out as songs as I walked. And the music and form came from all of the sounds I ever heard in that marvelous musical place. Nothing I write is in one sense new, it is ignorant of the rules that is all. SO in a sense with me - the experience / the story comes first, not the lyrics, the story.
Of course - you don't have to walk through the wilderness to write great songs. But surely the heartbeat of a great song is pure experience - like when a newly-romantically dumped Percy Sledge stood on stage and hollered 'When A Man Loves A Woman'. And reimagining that song into existence is to unconsciously tune-in to the sounds you love and acknowledge the 'rules' but not be bound by them.
In the age of fake news, deceit, narcissistic posturing, climate change denial perhaps we need more than ever the power of prayer. Not for me religious prayer but secular prayer. Words that remind us of our humanity, our connectedness, the indivisible bond that binds us, for, as the murdered politician Jo Cox so memorably said, “We have far more in common than that which divides us’
Prayer? It may seem an awkward word and I am sure phrases like ‘protest song’ sit more easily. But prayers ultimately are about establishing rapport between an individual and something precious and greater than themselves. A song like ‘Forever Young’ by Bob Dylan is a great example of this, words of hope and love for his son yet universal its embrace of fatherhood everywhere.
I have been trying to create a lyric as a prayer. I cannot say how successful it is yet, I am still working on it. But here it is in its first wobbly steps.
Nashville when we got to it was a mixture of the musical sublime; Alison Kraus at the Ryman Theatre and Carter's Vintage Guitar Store; and the profane; tawdry and exploitive with endless bars playing over-amplified soft country rock, We searched along Broadway late at night seeking salvation and redemption but found only disillusion ! But we were to be saved! (from Steve's new book 'A Beautiful Broken Dream.
I felt that Nashville was starting to let us down. We walked back to Broadway, every bar continued to thunder out a blur of noise of contrived country rock songs played very, very loudly. Disillusioned, we decided to head back to the hotel. Dinny suggested we just looked at a few bars on the other side before jumping into a taxi at the line which was parked opposite. The first places we looked in were much the same as the others. Feeling like drowning, I summoned up the will to go in to one for a beer anyway, just to lament the lost dream. Dinny, who after last night’s excitement, looked so stoically mournful when she agreed, that I did not have the heart to inflict such punishment upon her. As we walked towards the taxi stand, we paused outside a joint called Layla’s. The trio inside were playing a good full on honky-tonk bluesy thing.
Something better was going on here, we both sensed it.
“Okay,” I said, “let’s have a quick drink, we can stand at the back away from the noise.”
Going in I got myself a Blue Moon beer and Dinny a Coke. And that is how we came across the Eskimo Brothers.
They were everything that had been missing all day. The lead guitarist was wearing a black sleeveless shirt, looking like a cross between Springsteen and the Fonz. He was playing an old, friendly Telecaster with verve, humour and no little skill. He could pick, he could strum, he could riff from the bottom to the top, roll round his thumb and make the bass strings sing. Another guy was playing a stand-up double bass. He had a more than passing resemblance to Jim Carey during his pet Detective/ Mask period, facial expressions and all. Sometimes he would lean his base at an angle of 45°, stand on the hip, sticking out one leg behind and slapping the thing as if he was trying to bring it back to life. The drummer was a bespectacled guy with long, straight hair, a round face and a beard struggling here and there. He looked like he might have a lot of video games back at home but played spot on the beat and kept the show from flying away.
The second number in we heard them play an outrageous rockabilly, bluegrass version of Queen’s ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’. Dinny grinned, reached for my beer and taking a swig, moved forward to the front. Keeping up the pace, they played a number of their own songs plus stuff by Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash (Folsom Prison Blues at 100 miles an hour), Hank Williams and roughneck versions of songs about cars, horses and getting into a fight. They ripped up a version of ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’, the speed of a runaway train, the bass player singing with perfect diction, stopping suddenly to grumble we were not clapping fast enough and then singing it even faster in high octane delight. They did ‘Suspicious Minds’ complete with passable and very funny Elvis impersonations. We stayed for a second beer, passing it back and forth between us and hollering and clapping along.
It was fun watching people coming in off the street – sometimes they looked, well a bit beat up, as if they were trying to grimly fulfil an imperative to ‘have a good time’. Usually a few steps in, as the band played on, there was a sudden smile. One couple came in and as they passed the stage spontaneously started dancing together. Another old fella, who must have been about 70 or even more, wearing broad braces did a little soft shoe shuffle as he walked towards the bar and reappeared a minute later with a middle-aged lady as they both hurtled about in some sort of country style jive.
The guitarist, who afterwards I found out was called David Graham, really worked the crowd committing himself to drawing everyone in. After a while, he slowed the music down and, as ‘Jim’ kept playing the bass and the drums kept on, he rested the guitar neck on one arm and said,
“In this town we don’t get paid except by you! It’s the tradition here. If you like us that’s great, if you don’t we’re broke. And, whilst you put your hand in your pocket, give a little out for the girls behind the bar, they ain’t paid neither!”
Bass player Jim stopped playing, laid down his bass and jumped off the stage walking around with one of those ice buckets, empty of course, except it wasn’t when he came back, it was overflowing with dollar bills not just singles but five, tens and even, for the price of a request, a twenty.
They kicked off again with a great old honky-tonk song called ‘Driving Nails In My Coffin’, made famous by the great Ernest Tubb. He of the eponymous record store and a million nights of the Grand Ol’ Opry, his ‘Walking The Floor Over You,’ may have been the first honky-tonk song. Called the Texas Troubadour, he famously couldn’t sing much but that didn’t matter. He must have a side to him I thought, he once fell out with a record producer and tried to shoot him with a .357 Magnum. Drunk, he aimed at the wrong person but missed and was promptly arrested. Apparently, he was so mad with the fellow he forgot to put cowboy boots on.
Heading reluctantly back I knew Nashville was saved. Moonshine Music played on.
If you would like a special edition copy of A Beautiful Dream go to the bookstore, Here if you enter the code NASHVILLE you can enjoy a 15% discount. If you would like a signed copy also drop Steve an email at email@example.com letting him know who it is for.
Carters Vintage Guitar Store, sits off the main strip in Nashville, in a part of town where maybe you wouldn’t want to hang around after dark. It’s a long, low, non-descript building, like so many others along the side streets. There’s a car park outside, a railway line clatters nearby. But it is the island of Anthemusa and its sirens are made of wood and gut and steel and bronze, although their shapes are no less winsome than those who would have enticed the hearts and loins of sailors in classical times.
I tried to protect and brace myself against what I knew would be overwhelming temptation. The usual precautions of tying yourself to a mast or plugging your ears with wax did seem a little counter-productive, so I made a mental list of why I did not need another guitar and asked Dinny to physically prevent me from jumping if she saw me tottering on the edge of surrender.
My second line of defence was that I believed Dinny would soon get bored in there, creating that distracting sense that somebody wanted to go but wasn’t saying anything… yet.
It really is the most extraordinary place. Hundreds maybe a thousand or more guitars hang from racks upon the wall looking mournful and desperate to be loved like so many dogs in the pound. Each one silently beseeching ‘play me!’ If anything can rival the Colt 45 revolver and the Winchester rifle as a symbol of American identity, it has got to be the guitar. It has become the weapon of dissent, of solace, of escape and ultimately rebellion. It is possibly impossible to estimate the shape shifting impact of America on both global music and in particular the voice of youth. From jazz, to rockabilly, to rock ‘n’ roll to blues, to rhythm and blues, to swing, the Western swing, to grunge, to folk, to protest song, to heavy metal, through them all America entered into a conversation with the young of the world and the young of the world talked back.
And at the heart of it all was the wood, the wire and the shape of the guitar. Its image is etched in the consciousness of generation after generation. It sits under the spectacles of Buddy Holly, as the bleeding pen and ink and paper of Dylan, it is a flaming light as the sun goes down with Jimi Hendrix. Not for nothing did Woody Guthrie write on his Gibson, ‘This Machine Kills Fascists.’
And one thing more than any other, a guitar captures the essence of America and makes it available to all; you don’t have to play great to communicate. Sure, people get unbelievably adept but, at its heart, a guitar is a simple thing and playing it easy. When I was seventeen, I learnt three chords and wrote a song. One of the greatest of Chuck
Berry’s songs, lyrically a work of sinewy art, ‘You Never Can Tell (C’est La Vie)’ consists of a magnificent two chords.
And to think the definitive instrument of American music might just have been the banjo!
So, I was window shopping for a lot more than handbags and hats, I was looking at the instruments of magical revolution. The sort of thing that gave everyman wings. And when the first guitar I picked up was a trial model, semi- acoustic and the tag on which said, “Previously owned by Steve Earle,” I knew I was surrounded by holy relics. I was not being called upon to buy a guitar, but make a statement, a testimony if you will, to who I was.
Which is how I came to be the owner of a forty year old National Steel resonator guitar. It wasn’t my fault! Dinny mischievously snuck off and found an eloquent employee of the store whilst I was just introducing myself to its rusty old strings. He appeared at my side, nodding appreciatively at my clumsy picking. I handed it to him so I could hear it from a distance. He tuned it to an open tuning and picked a lazy pattern and the vocal sound of a nation declared itself.
The National Steel is voice of the dispossessed, the plantation worker, the guy on the assembly line, the hobo, the long train coming. Incredibly loud, four times louder than an ordinary guitar, it is made to be heard.
It is strange thing of wonder. The guitar, the body of which is highly polished metal with the ghosting effect of palms trees on the front and back, has a wooden neck the head of which bears the blue and red shield of the National. Two ‘f’ holes are cut into the top of the body.
It’s a sound like a multitude. It hums as you play, like there is a motor in it, the bottom strings a Baptist choir from the land of the delta, the top strings aching with hurt and lost love.
Incredibly this monster was built to accompany Hawaiian music.
Last October, I hit the road again. Not on one of the long treks that have been my way for the last few years, this time it was in a hired campervan with the aim of exploring the deeply lovely and mysterious New Mexico. I was going to spend a few days on an Indian reservation, take two and three-day hikes into the fantastic wilderness areas of the state and search out the legends and ghosts of a region which had seen at least four different civilisations flourish and often fade within its magnificent landscape. Coming out after a few days trek into the Bandolier wilderness, I headed down to Las Vegas; not the Las Vegas of one armed bandits and Tom Jones stripped to the waist, that is in Nevada but, maybe a more interesting Las Vegas, once one of the most lawless places in America. A place where people like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday used to hang out and Billy the Kid would enjoy the company of dark-haired Spanish ladies. A place where you can be shot for looking at the wrong person in the wrong way, or perhaps even the right way. It turned out to be a day of serendipity and magic; a day in which you look for one thing and to your delight find another.
Las Vegas was the scene of the melancholy and mysterious tale of Paula Angelo, the story of whom I had come across by accident once before. It is wrongly claimed she was the first woman to be hanged in New Mexico. Hanged she certainly was but maybe not the first to so end her days. Even so, in the peculiar and skewed morality of the times, when it was perfectly okay to shoot, stab, strangle, scalp, bludgeon as well as hang men, executing women was not seen as the “done” thing.
Her portrait shows an evocatively beautiful face. She had killed a married man, probably a soldier, who had jilted her, and her execution was ordered by a judge who was in a hurry to move things along and get back to his drinking and gambling. She was allowed to appeal, though rather thoughtlessly, the date of execution was not postponed whilst the appeal was held. Thus, in front of a crowd of onlookers, both curious and appalled, she was strung up from a cottonwood tree, standing on the back of the cart that had transported her there with her coffin. The jailer and executioner who seemed to have some antipathy towards her, maybe he was a relative of the soldier, had botched the job and her hands were left free. When the cart was driven away to leave her swinging in the air, the onlookers were appalled to see her grasping at the noose around her neck in an effort to relieve the fatal pressure on her windpipe. Angrily some bystanders cut her down and whilst she struggled to recover an argument broke out between those who said that as she technically had been hanged she could now be set free and those who said the judge had called for her to be hanged until she was dead, and therefore the whole ghastly business should continue. In the end the latter argument prevailed, and the poor girl was finally killed
The story had been intrigued me and in my mind it seemed a great opportunity to write a ballad in a traditional form – something that often has a dozen or more verses following a fairly strict structure. So plenty of material required and I hoped that in Las Vegas to find out more about Paula and her melancholy story.
I had read that after the excitement of the late 19th century when Las Vegas had stood as one of the key cattle towns at the top of the Santa Fe Trail and railhead, that it had fallen on hard times as history had moved on to other stories and tales. But this adversity seems to have had a positive consequence, many of the old buildings along the main street and in the central area called the Plaza, had not been pulled down but hung in there waiting renovation. This is now happening as gradually the buildings are restored. With polyglot names like Stern and Nahm, Kortes, and the E Romero, Hose and Fire Company 1882, the great old buildings stand in that distinctive American western style and in sunburned colours of blue, olive and red. At the end is the old Plaza Hotel on the edge of a grassy area where perhaps once the stagecoach pulled in and horses moved restlessly in the heat. I had lunch in the old hotel and is now a rather genteel establishment. It is hard to imagine that once upon a time the legendary Doc Holliday, gambler, gunslinger and most improbably, dentist – his surgery was out the back of the hotel apparently - hung out in the saloon bar once killing a man in an argument.
I asked the manager of the hotel if he had heard of Paula Angelo but he said he was afraid that he hadn’t. I went into one or two old bookshops asked the same question got the same answer. I tried some antique shops with no luck either. I then headed to the museum confident that they would be able to help me, but they were cleaning it and despite my best pleading, they would not let me in. Somewhat despondently, I wandered back along the Main Street and paused outside a shop that appeared to house some sort of local history exhibition. Going inside, I saw promisingly that there were lots of old photos and exhibits about the Santa Fe Trail and Las Vegas itself on the walls. At the back of the store two old men sat watching me. One was short and rather dapper -looking; the other seemed incredibly ancient, with sprouts of hair appearing everywhere including on top of his nose. He was wearing blue-bib dungarees and his eyes were red rimmed and rheumy. He was, I thought, the oldest man sitting upright I had ever met.
“Can I help you?” said the first guy, who I later learned was called Leroy Ledoux.
“I’m over from England,” I said, “and wonder if you knew anything about Paula Angelo?”
“Sure”, he is said, “a bit, sit there and we will tell you what we know.”
Offering me a chair, he went to the front door and locked it so that we might not be disturbed.
Returning he spoke to the other guy in Spanish after introducing him as Joe Lopez.
“I asked him if he knows anything” , Leroy said to me
Joe looked at me slowly and shook his head.
“Why don’t you tell me what you know”, said Leroy, “and I will tell you anything I know in addition to that”
Which I did.
“That’s about the whole of it’ said Leroy when I finished.
“She came from Loma Parada !” Said Joe suddenly in English.
Leroy questioned him in Spanish and Joe repeated himself and added:
“It means grey hill in Spanish, was a wild place, 5 miles from the soldiers stationed at Fort Union. There was a casino and bars for the soldiers, and it was the closest place to find a woman.”
Leroy nodded “soldiers would all head over there.”
Joe looked at me again as if summoning up memories.
“Soldiers used to fight with the local ranchers. There was plenty of hanging done out there - the locals didn’t like the way the soldiers treated their women.
So if Paula had come from Loma, Parada, she would have come in regular contact with US Soldiers I wondered aloud.
“He had five children”, said Joe.
We both looked at him.
“He went back to his wife so she killed him”
This part of the story I had heard before. Paula was probably about 19 and had fallen in love with a married man who had broken it off. She had asked to meet him one last time and in the course of this meeting had stabbed him to death.
We speculated as to whether the fact he had five children probably meant he had served in the army for some time. Was he a popular man with a strong group of comrades who would want to avenge his death including officers who had the influence to hurry things through to see rough justice done.
It seemed easy to picture the scene in which a naive, beautiful girl is drawn in by an older man and then destroyed by the inevitable narrative of the times.
“Loma Parada is a ghost town now” said Leroy. “Not much remains but you can get out there if you turn off the Interstate 25.”
I felt the warmth breath of history touch my imagination and felt that rush of momentum as another story starts to unfold. But before I got carried away Leroy and Joe wanted something back in return,
Leroy and Joe were both intrigued by my Englishness and the conversation moved on to the origins of names and families. Joe told me his family had moved over from Spain in 1700s and that he was born on an Apache reservation, on land illegally given by the US government in spite of the treaties that were supposed to protect land rights. Leroy was the descendant of French trappers who had worked their way down the western side of the US originally from Canada.
They began to ask me what I knew of the origins of names from the British Isles. Where for instance the Higgins might have come from or the Conways and the O’Neills.
“Where would the Bonneys have come from,? There are Bonneys in my family”, Joe suddenly asked.
I smiled. “You know Billy the Kid was a Bonney supposedly, William Bonney?”
Joe looked at me and nodded.
“He’s the Kid’s third cousin” said Leroy “his grandfather knew him well!”
Joe simply nodded again.
“He was a handsome man, despite that picture, the Spanish ladies loved him.”
And so I had met a relative of one of the most, no, the most famous outlaws that ever lived. Was it true? Who knows? On one of the exhibition stands was Joe’s family tree and his mother was a Bonney. So little is known of the Kid’s life, a man who embarked on a three-year killing spree and was dead by the time he was 21. A man whose grave I would visit a couple of days later only to read that perhaps he wasn’t buried there after all and had escaped to Mexico.
But it was getting late, I could see that Joe was getting tired, and I had a ghost town to visit before the sun had set
My poor England. Where have you gone? These are dis-eased times in which each morning I wake thinking - "surely it will be better today" and find it isn't. This old place is tearing itself apart and what we stand for is being burned and buried. Treacherous, mocking crows call and lie and strut across the grave of something fine.
We are a proud mongrel race. We are of the Celts ,the Saxons, the Jew the Danes; Of Huguenots, and Bengalis and the Caribbean; the sons and daughters of a vagabond heart. I am no less English for being British, no less British for being European. I am not diminished for believing in a world where people come together to build a better one for ordinary folks, I am not empowered when I walk away from my companions.
England is a place of rogues; rebels; thieves and acrobats but deep within it flows something profound and worthy. Those who lead us betray us.
I have felt like this before though not as painfully. 25 years ago I wrote the following song- - the tune was done with my good buddy Tim Gadsby.
We’ve been storm rocked and battered, until nothing else matters,
But to stay here, and lay here, and sleep by your side,
We’ve been cheated
and flattered, our hopes have been shattered,
But I’ll stay here and lay here and dream by your side
Looking Back on England Steve Bonham and Tim Gadsby (c) 1993 Recorded on 'The Moon's High Tide - Steve Bonham