Greg Brown is a storyteller. He’s what I like most about folk type musicians: He’s down to earth. He could be flashy and famous, but he shows up on stage and sits down to play his guitar and tells stories, like the one in “Canned Goods,” about specific but ordinary and every day things. He excels at keeping it real.
Townes Van Zandt was, I suppose, a country-folk artist, but primarily he was a songwriter. I know more people who have passed on his music than got hooked because his songs seem ordinary and unremarkable. I felt the same way until I learned to play a few of his songs, and then they began to feel like my songs, like they were coming from me. I’ve spoken to musicians who have had similar experiences with Townes’s music. It takes a while to catch on to it, and then it subtly penetrates and resonates and takes over. “Highway Kind” was the first song that crept up on me like that.
“It’s a shame that it’s not enough. It’s shame that it is a shame.” I rarely listen to Townes Van Zandt these days because he’s unbearably sad most of the time, but I still appreciate him. He led me away from conventional white rock music and got me listening more to music that could be played by one person as opposed to produced in a studio. The calm, quiet water often runs the deepest. Or something like that.
Tom Waits is the love child of the Cookie Monster and Sonny Boy Williamson and I’d pay several hundred dollars to see him live and not even blink. He’s #1 on my Hope I See Him Before I Die list. I don’t know what to say about him because there’s too much say. I could pick 50 of his songs that grabbed hold of me an didn’t let go. Trying to select one that’s representative of his music can’t be done. “Walk Away” ain’t a bad little ditty though.
The last bit of inadvertent influence my father had on the music I listen to — and it’s a big one — is from Sonny Boy Williamson. My father happened to buy a Sonny Boy Williamson record. He didn’t listen to it. I did and my head nearly exploded. Most of my favourite artists are influenced by the blues. I hear the blues in everything. I still listen to and appreciate the music of plenty of great blues artists like B.B. King, Blind Willie McTell, Howlin’ Wolf, James Cotton, Lightin’ Hopkins, Little Walter, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Pinetop Perkins, Skip James, Son House, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. But if I have to pick the one blues artist who can’t do wrong, who I know, whatever track you pick, I’m going to love it, it’s Sonny Boy Williamson. In my book, he’s the embodiment of everything that is the blues.
If you don’t like Sonny Boy Williamson, get out of my house.
My father’s incidental influence on the music I listened to during my formative years petered out as I got older. He usually bought whatever was offered through the Columbia House record club, mostly pop schlock that I had little interest in. Once in a while he’d order some records or CDs that collected dust, and those were usually the ones I noticed. He bought a series of CDs called Atlantic Blues, for instance, packed with great blues artists from the Atlantic label I’d never heard of it. Some were blues, some where R&B — cool cats like Van ‘Piano Man’ Walls, Rufus Thomas, Jay Mcshane, Mama Yancey, Jimmy Yancey, John Hammond Jr, Jack Dupree, Sippie Wallace, and Professor Longhair — and they were all an education for me. “Nothin’ Stays The Same Forever,” by Percy Mayfield, is the killer track on that collection that hit me the hardest and still does.
(It takes about 10 seconds before the music starts.)