"Madame, bear in mind That princes govern all things--save the wind." -Victor Hugo, The Infanta's Rose

Thursday, September 27, 2007

I pick, therefore I grin

Nashville Cats, play clean as country water
Nashville Cats, play wild as mountain dew
Nashville Cats, been playin' since they's babies
Nashville Cats, get work before they're two

Well, there's thirteen hundred and fifty two
guitar pickers in Nashville
And they can pick more notes than the number of ants
on a Tennessee anthill

There's thirteen hundred and fifty-two
guitar cases in Nashville
And anyone that unpacks his guitar
can play twice as better than I will

-"Nashville Cats", by John Sebastian

We're about to leave home to visit my brother-in-law for an extra-long 4-day weekend, and while we're there I'll be helping him set up some new computer equipment in his practice studio. Did I mention that my B-I-L is in a singing group? He and his buddies get together almost every weekend and sing up a storm, and about once a year they record a CD and sell copies out of the trunks of their cars. The first few years they did this, they sought out small producers around the Houston area where studio time was cheap (about fifty bucks an hour), and if they were reasonably well-prepared they could nail a dozen or so tracks in just a few hours. Add in mastering and duplication, and the total cost to make a couple of hundred CD's came out to a pretty reasonable price. It didn't matter to them that the result wasn't as perfect as it might have been if they'd spent more time and/or money on it; they did it mostly just for fun.

As the years rolled by, though, they developed something of a fan base, and had a need for higher-quality production values as well as for more quantity; thus began their annual trek to Nashville. The town is called "Music City" for a very good reason; everything in the area revolves around the business of making and selling music. The best players from all over the world flock to Nashville in droves to get work, and because of the intense competition, you can get high-quality talent at a very fair cost. The life of a session player has always fascinated me; I think it's amazing that some people go to work nine-to-five and pick guitar for a living just like some other folks might flip burgers or work a desk job. But while it might sound glamorous, in reality it's not so much. These guys aren't big stars with their names up in lights; they're just average working stiffs who practice their craft with tools that just happen to be guitars, horns, and keyboards instead of hammers and saws. They're professionals, and do their job very well.

Ray (my B-I-L) and the rest of his group are getting ready for this fall's trip to Music City, and their producer just recently sent them first-draft demos of the music they plan to record this year. Nashville musicians and producers are extremely versatile; you can send them elaborately-annotated lead sheets of exactly what you want, or you can just say "give me something in a 8-bar E-A progression with a couple hooks in the middle and a bucket of fish at the end." ("Bucket of fish", BTW, is slang lingo for that little drum hook at the end of a song; if you say "bucketafish" sort of fast, with the emphasis on the last syllable, it's a rough approximation of a drum lick that goes "ba-ba-da-boom". This is one of many things my BIL has taught me about recording in Nashville.) In any case, they'll perform your composition however you want it, all you then have to do is add your vocals and your own backing musicians, if any, and voilà - a complete album ready to be mastered, pressed, and released to the world.

Technology has changed many of the ways that music is produced. Not only can the average person now afford to have a computer loaded with a "virtual" studio full of recording gear and instruments that sound just like their physical counterparts (and might have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars) just a few years ago, it's also possible to have session players located physically anywhere in the world who play together like they're sitting in the same room. You can easily tweak mixes to your liking, which is why Ray's producer sent him these demos. That way, any changes he might want to make can be accommodated in advance, which saves valuable studio time when they get in town next month to sing their vocals.

Ray forwarded a copy of the tracks to me to get my opinion, and I first have to confess that although Ray's music has been getting better and better each year, I wasn't all that into his particular style and may have been somewhat blasé about it. But this stuff blew me away, and because you, dear Wind In The Wire readers, are such an exclusive, sophisticated and fortunate bunch, I wanted to share two of these tracks with you to see what you think. Keep in mind that these are first draft demo mixes, not meant to be representative of the finished product, but rather something to convey the general "feel" of the song -- no melodies, just the basic structure. But listen to these first, then I'll hit you with a surprise.

The first track is the album opener, an uptempo number:



Whoa!

This next one is my favorite, a mellow, bluesy song that sounds like it might easily be sung by someone like Bonnie Raitt. I find myself getting really drawn into the headphones when I listen to this one.



Not too shabby, eh?

Now the kicker: Ray's singing group is a gospel quartet. Surprised? These two tracks are not exactly what comes to mind when I think "southern gospel", but Ray and his band are trying to appeal to a broader audience. When two of the members of the group retired a couple of years ago, they were replaced by singers in their early 20's. That hasn't made the quartet into a "boy band" by a long shot, but the new guys (in addition to being immensely talented) are not bad to look at either, which has increased their appeal with younger listeners, particularly females. I told him all they need to add is some N-Sync style choreography and flash pots and they'll be ready for an HBO special.

I might just tag along when they go to Music City next month. Even though I got to see the place about this time last year, it still would be fun, and I'd really enjoy being in the middle of all that recording technology. Who knows? They might even ask me to play a few licks. (Yeah, right.)

Hope everyone has a great weekend!


Note: These tunes are © 2007 Gospel Express. All rights reserved.

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