No one has ever accused me of being shy or too timid to voice my opinion. If you ask me a question, I’m going to give you answer, like it or not. However, I’ve mellowed. I’m no longer an outspoken critic of everything under the sun. I won’t voice an opinion unless asked, and even then, you might not get one. Nowadays, I’m more likely to shrug than spit hot fire.
Despite spending a treacherous amount of time on the Internet, reading every scrap of news noteworthy and otherwise, I don’t have a lot to say about modern political and social issues. That doesn’t mean that I don’t care—I do care, a lot more than I want to admit—but I care for the sake of my son. As a parent, I am obligated to understand the world I’ve brought him into. Understanding doesn’t necessarily mean long-winded conversations and playing ping pong with comments on Facebook.
Therefore, generally speaking, I couldn’t tell you my views on the situation in Ukraine because I don’t have any. I wouldn’t waste my breath discussing U.S. foreign policy because it isn’t ever going to make a difference. And I shouldn’t have to choose a side in the on-going debate about what we can or cannot do with our genitals because it’s got nothing to do with me. I’m good, thanks.
On the contrary, there is one subject—there are several subjects—which you may not want to bring up with me because I can’t or won’t stop talking. One of these topics is guitar. It matters not what context you want to approach, I will talk about guitars, guitarists, playing guitars, fixing guitars, smashing guitars, buying guitars, guitar amps, strings, straps, picks, pickups, cords, chords, effects, gauges—you name it. If guitar is in the subject heading, count me in.
This is because I love playing guitar. I love playing guitar so much that I go long periods of time not playing guitar because I don’t want to insult the instrument by giving a half-assed effort. When I play guitar that means I play every day for at least an hour, usually much longer. It is something I have done since the beginning. Either I give it 110%, or don’t even pick up the ax.
Before I started writing for In the Spirit of Almost, I spent almost a year working on my guitar chops, which involved learning new material as well as re-learning stuff I already knew. For instance, about 10 years ago, I studied the work of classical maestro Agustin Barrios. After two years, I could pull-off some of his more difficult pieces. And then my attention shifted to something else, and Barrios was no longer on the music stand.
A couple of years ago, I dug out the old books and started reviewing the Barrios stuff. Jaysus, what a humbling experience! Most of the melodic and harmonic stuff came back to me in a matter of minutes, but the muscle memory was gone. And then I dug up all my J.S. Bach tabs and good grief! It was one of those experiences that make you think, “Maybe I’m not a guitar player.”
For some reason, I woke up this morning with the theme song to the TV series Green Acres running through my head. It was literally the first thought of the day. As I went through my ablutions, it occurred to me that at some point in the last two years, I had actually learned a fingerstyle version of the Green Acres theme song. And I could recite the lyrics as easily as “Our Father”, no doubt.
When I was a kid, watching Green Acres was one of those Lady or the Tiger-type choices, and we didn’t have a lot of choices in the pre-cable mid-1970s, especially during summer vacation. If you were lucky, you got Hollywood Squares and M*A*S*H* reruns. But most times you had a choice between the [Chicago] Cubs on WGN, General Hospital, re-runs of Bonanza, and Green Acres. Or you had the black and white Gilligan’s Island episodes you’d already seen a hundred times.
Or Popeye. My vision of Hell was being locked in a room and forced to watch the Chicago Cubs play baseball and episodes of Popeye between innings. Actually, the Nubs are another thing you might not want to bring up with me. So in certain situations, you went with Green Acres. And it wasn’t such a bad show after all. The tropes were sometimes funny; Eva Gabor was real easy on the eyes and Eddie Albert was a decent actor. Plus, they had pigs in the house.
As I was brushing my teeth, I tried to imagine the chord shapes and the picking pattern of the theme song and wondered if I could still play it. So I pulled out the 12-string and gave it a shot. Pfffft. Yeah right. I couldn’t even remember the opening sequence. The guitar went back in its case and I’m not even sure whether it was in Standard or Open tuning. Not one note was played. It was pathetic.
One of the most exciting things about guitar is when I see or hear somebody do something that I can’t. It doesn’t matter who is playing what. If I can’t do what they are doing, even if I don’t particularly want to do what they’re doing, I am automatically compelled to figure it out. For example, I remember hearing Yngwie Malmsteen for the first time and thinking, “How is he doing that?”
It didn’t take long before I was perfectly satisfied to let Yngwie and Co. play in their corner of the sandbox.
On the other hand, one of my all-time top 10 favorite guitarists, and a seminal inspiration for picking up the instrument in the first place, is a dude named Leo Kottke. My uncle gave me a copy of 6 and 12-String Guitar, and it blew my 11-year-old mind. “Holy smokes, this guy sounds like he has four hands!” His style and technical prowess was so intimidating that I thought I’d never figure out what he was doing.
So anyway, I was listening to all kinds of guitar. Everything from East Bay Ray to Vinnie Vincent to Marc Ribot to Lightnin’ Hopkins. The true student can learn something from everyone—something that Mike Watt once said to me (and a nice personal validation).
At some point I got into a Chet Atkins funk, and I spent hours on YouTube going through his career. At random, I came across a clip of Chet playing with a cat named Jerry Reed.
Jerry Reed! I forgot all about that dude! Jerry Reed, ladies and gentlemen, was one of the most revered country pickers that ever lived. He was a Legend of Legends. And he also had a successful career in Hollywood. A lot of people might recognize him from his various comedic film roles such as Burt Reynolds’ sidekick in Smokey and the Bandit, or the mean old coach in Adam Sandler’s The Waterboy. Anyway, I could go on and on about ol’ Jerry Reed. I love that dude. Here is the best thing I have ever read about Jerry Reed, and it’s in his own words (from his Wikipedia entry):
In July 1967, Reed had his best showing so far on the country charts (#53) with his self-penned “Guitar Man,” which Elvis Presley soon covered. Reed’s next single was “Tupelo Mississippi Flash,” a comic tribute to Presley. Recorded on September 1, the song became his first Top 20 hit, going to No. 15 on the chart. In a remarkable twist of fate, Elvis came to Nashville to record nine days later on September 10, 1967, and one of the songs he became especially excited about was [Jerry’s] “Guitar Man.”
Reed recalled how he was tracked down to play on the Elvis session:
“I was out on the Cumberland River fishing, and I got a call from Felton Jarvis (then Presley’s producer at RCA). He said, ‘Elvis is down here. We’ve been trying to cut ‘Guitar Man’ all day long. He wants it to sound like it sounded on your album.’ I finally told him, ‘Well, if you want it to sound like that, you’re going have to get me in there to play guitar, because these guys (you’re using in the studio) are straight pickers. I pick with my fingers and tune that guitar up all weird kind of ways.'”
Jarvis hired Reed to play on the session. “I hit that intro, and [Elvis’] face lit up and here we went. Then after he got through that, he cut [my] “U.S. Male” at the same session. I was toppin’ cotton, son.” Reed also played the guitar for Elvis Presley’s “Big Boss Man” (1967), recorded in the same session.
So it turned out that Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed had teamed up in the early 1970s for a pair of albums, Me and Jerry (1970), and Me and Chet (1972). I did not know that. But man, I couldn’t get my paws on those two records fast enough!
The YouTube clip that brought me back to Jerry Reed was a live take of “Jerry’s Breakdown” from Me and Chet, on the television program Pop Goes the Country in 1974.
After a few viewings, I thought, “I’ve never learned to pick like Jerry does” so I found the guitar tab online. Upon first glance, I thought there had to be some kind of mistake. There was no way Jerry was playing those notes in that position. It was absolutely incongruous to me. I tried it a couple of times and put it down. I was convinced the tab was wrong. Going back to the video, it seemed that I was wrong and the tab was right. Jerry was playing those notes in that position.
Um, invest the seven minutes and watch the whole clip. It’s amazome. Awesome and amazing are overused. After you watch it, answer me this: Does it seem like Jerry is jacked up on coke? Cuz it looks to me like ol’ Jerry is grinding – hard.
I must have watched the clip of “Jerry’s Breakdown” for a month straight. One night I kept it on a loop while working on my laptop. At one point, my wife Janice asked what I was listening to and why was I listening to it over and over again. So I showed her the video and said, “Isn’t that incredible?” She wasn’t terribly impressed and said, “What’s the big deal? You can play that.”
I snorted and said, “Yeah right! I’ve been working on it for a month and I still can’t play the damn thing!”
During the course of my attempt to learn “Jerry’s Breakdown” – and by the way, I got pretty close to being able to play it note-for-note – I would get frustrated and start noodling on something else. After a while, I came up with a little riff that vaguely reminded me of a cross between Leo Kottke and Jerry Reed. This little riff would wind up being the opening eight bars of the first of today’s featured tracks. Both of today’s jams are instrumentals, and at one point – due to an epic struggle to write lyrics – the entire album was going to be instrumental. Nevertheless, these two songs were intentionally written to stand alone without vocals.
Once I got a hold of the opening riff, I started branching off in different directions, eventually forming a structure of what might technically be considered a minute-and-a-half “solo.” Unfortunately, I let my ambition get the best of me, and the piece was actually too difficult to play in one take. Whenever I think about getting old, the first thing that pops into my mind is that when I was younger, I could always find a way to get what I heard in my head to cooperate with my fingers. Nowadays I can’t make it through the first half of a song – that I wrote – without making a mistake.
On March 4, 2013, I posted an AH recording update which read in part:
Thursday night was dedicated to getting one solid take of “Yeah Right,” which finally happened—kinda sorta—after 135 takes. That’s no exaggeration; I’ve been counting. Plus, I took an hour’s worth of video to document the process. What you see here is a one 10-minute segment distilled to 3:45. The final take (starts at 1:45) was not a keeper, though it was the closest I came during the first bottle of wine. The keeper came about 35 takes later and having listened to it a day later, think I can do better, so that’s why it’s a kinda-sorta deal.
You might watch the video and think, “It doesn’t seem all that difficult to play. Why is the guy having such a hard time with it?” Well, I’m glad you asked. See, this type of piece—a country-folk-punk instrumental—is kind of new to me in the sense that I’ve been listening to Leo Kottke my whole life, but I never consciously tried to emulate his style. The majority of stuff that I do leaves some room for error; that’s kind of the point, really. There’s space between chords and notes, the rhythm and the melody. If I make a minor mistake, I can go back and fix it; not so with something like “Yeah Right” which has two quarter-beat rest notes in the whole one-minute and forty-five seconds it takes to play.
Fuzzy Fact #1: The take featured in the video – the one I said wasn’t a keeper – was used, or at least part of it was. The majority of what the listener will hear is one 12-string performance (the 135th take) recorded after the video was shut off, and spliced at about the 1:10 mark with the aforementioned non-keeper take. So the streak remains alive. The 135th take wasn’t even perfect. There are several little miffs which the serious guitarists will hear, for sure. It’s hard to say whether I gave up or the song beat me. “Yeah Right” remains undefeated.
Son of Yeah Right or Crawl of the Tapeworm
“Son of Yeah Right or Crawl of the Tapeworm” was recorded with a Fender Tele and a Fender 12-String in three different tunings, but mainly in Open E7 tuning (EBDG#BE) and based in E major. The goal was to cross “Flight of the Bumblebee” with an Indian raga, and regardless of whether or not I achieved anything close to that, I have never, not once, been able to play it all the way through without making at least one mistake.
My take on guitar-based songwriting is that you can never just come up with something out of nowhere. You might come up with some hot new riff that you swear sounds like nothing you’ve never heard, only to realize weeks, months, even years down the road that it was a subconscious cribbing of something you’d heard before.
I’m sure there are plenty of guitarists out there who swear to have never played a cover song or learned a Clapton solo note-for-note. That may be true, but it doesn’t make them any more or less original than the next guy. Music doesn’t work like that. What we listen to is ultimately more influential than what we (learn how to) play. You might not be able to play Clapton, but you’ve heard him whether you’ve wanted to or not. Garbage in, garbage out. So even a purist who only plays what they “hear” is basing their expression on or as a reaction to something they’ve already heard before. It’s like Dr. Seuss and Yertle the Turtle. This is the way it is. There can be no other way.
So the main reason I spent a year working on my guitar skills before writing new material is that I wanted to be able to translate what I would be hearing in my head to the instrument. Even though I’m severely partial to “rock” music, I listen to everything. That includes arias and show tunes and beer commercials.
Alright, to keep it brief, this song is a by-product of “Yeah Right” in the sense that it was headed in a similar direction but influenced by a different set of characters. Whereas “Yeah Right” has a folky feel, “Son of Yeah Right” is more of a hillbilly raga.
I’ve been a huge fan of Ravi Shankar and Indian music for decades. I’m also a fan of Qawwali music and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. After the Chet Atkins phase, I drifted over to sitar music, and ventured into Thai psychedelia and places unknown. At the same time, I jumped off from Jerry Reed to Roy Clark.
Sigh. What can I say about Roy Clark that hasn’t been said before and said better? Most of us older folks remember him from hosting Hee Haw, and some of them might recall him playing a banjo once or twice. But Roy Clark was a monster guitar player. I remember seeing him do “Flight of the Bumblebee” on Hee Haw or some other show – it’s not on YouTube – but I saw it, I swear to God. You don’t just imagine stuff like that. Be that as it may, the working title for this cut was “Crawl of the Tapeworm” and a nod to Roy Clark.
So we’ve got all these ingredients in the mix, and it’s threatening to wind up a huge mess, so we stop and start over.
I recorded a three different versions of “Son of Yeah Right” (and two of the papa – forgot to mention that), each with a slightly different arrangement. Obviously, there are a ton of notes in the jam and it was a matter of making all of them fit. The problem was that I liked all of them. So I combined all three versions and chopped ’em up accordingly.
Tim Hogan played tabla, African drums, and assorted percussion on both songs. It’s actually easier to tell you what he’s not playing as opposed to what he is playing because (A) there were so many tracks that I lost count and (B) sometimes both of us are playing percussion at the same time; for instance, he might be on tabla and I’m on tambourine.
Of all the people I’ve worked with over the years, Tim is probably one of the most reliable. He reminds me a lot of Chris Lanier. When he says he’s going to do something, he does it. In fact, he was just one of about half a dozen local musicians that I invited to collaborate with me, and he’s the only [local] who showed up. Now that’s not a knock against the others; it’s a testament to Tim’s ethics. If the others were going to contribute or participate, I would have had to track them down and hold guns to their heads. “Come on, you’re going to do this.” Not with Tim. I asked, he said yes, and we did the sessions.
Not only that, but Tim’s a great musician with a unique vision of rhythm and you should check out his band Muddy Basin Ramblers. They have a new record out, Formosa Medicine Show, and it’s delightful.
The intro melody is loosely based on George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You”, my absolute favorite song on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And of course, the vocals on the outro are cribbed from the song.
The opening sample is Wesley Willis from one of his numerous solo albums. [The samples were originally used in 1995 on one of my home demo tapes and I’m pretty sure it’s from Wesley’s Mr. Magoo Goes to Jail.] “Ride them, cowboy!” and “I’m going to shoot your ass down, motherfucker!” There’s also a part where he’s screaming something like, “I am Adam Ant, you stupid motherfucker!”
The drums were recorded almost as an afterthought, and it wasn’t until a couple of days later that I came to realize that the beat reminded me of Beck’s “E-Pro” from Guero.
Overall, these two songs were the most fun to write and record, despite some of the complications. As of today, I consider this to be the last Aztec Hearts record. The project isn’t over as much as it has run its course. If I were to do another record (under a different name), I would seriously consider doing all instrumentals. I’m not a very good singer, but that’s a subject for another set of songs.