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Aspen Times Weekly cover story: For the sake of the song

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times WeeklyAspen, CO Colorado
Lyrics by Robert HunterCover by Afton Groepper
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ASPEN – What do a heavy-metal guitar shredder, an opera diva, a bluegrass fiddler, a pop crooner, a jam band, a children’s choir and that guy sitting on Aspen’s Cooper Avenue mall strumming a guitar and hoping passersby will throw change in his case have in common?None of them are going to get very far without a song to play.”Without a song, you don’t have much,” John Oates said. “It’s the foundation and the bedrock on which the entire music business is built – on which music itself is built. There are great players, great singers, but they have to have something to play. The song is the be-all and end-all.”Oates is a songwriter. He spoke recently from Nashville, Tenn., the country’s songwriting capital, where he was engaged in writing sessions. Oates is also a singer and guitarist, half of the soul-pop duo Hall & Oates, whose songs – “Sara Smile,” “Rich Girl,” “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” and more – have become ingrained in American music culture.And Oates, a Woody Creek resident, is co-producer of the Wheeler Opera House’s 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival. The festival, the third edition of which runs March 21 through 25, grew out of a project Oates launched a few years ago. His “Stories Behind the Songs” series of performances was intended to strip away all the aspects of music – the studio production, the stage lights, the guitar solos – to place a narrow focus on the songs themselves. After bringing that show to the Wheeler Opera House, Oates and Gram Slaton, the Wheeler’s executive director, began talking about expanding the concept.

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In the fall of 2010, the Wheeler hosted the first 7908, with Oates, folk-blues picker David Bromberg, New Orleans icon Allen Toussaint, alt-country singer Tift Merritt, local singer-songwriter Dan Sheridan and others performing their songs with minimal backup and production but lots of sharing the sources of those songs with the audience. The purpose was to present the songs in their most naked and intimate form, with lyrics heard clearly, melodies standing on their own and the writers’ creative process and intentions laid bare.”It’s showcasing the people at the core of where all music comes from,” Oates said. He made a distinction between that core – the songwriting – and the recordings, the sometimes literal bells and whistles that are added to a song in a recording studio and onstage. “A recording is technicians, the studio, producers, all these layers of things,” he said. “Hall & Oates was known as much for their production and style their songs. But I can strip away that ’80s marketing and style and see the song. Does it stand the scrutiny of just being naked? I’m constantly looking through the product, the style, the era, and looking at what makes a good song a good composition.”Oates brings up Kenny Loggins, another songwriter who was known first for his work in the ’70s pop-rock duo Loggins & Messina. Loggins later emerged as a solo artist whose biggest hits were highly produced songs that happened to be featured in movies (“I’m Alright” from “Caddyshack,” “Danger Zone” from “Top Gun” and the title song from “Footloose”). Oates says audiences will see Loggins and his songs in a different way when Loggins appears at 7908 as a member of the Blue Sky Riders, his new country trio with songwriters Gary Burr and Georgia Middleman.”Kenny Loggins – people relate to the recordings because that’s all they’ve heard,” Oates said. “But seeing him sit on a stage and play a song by himself – that’s a whole different experience.”The Wheeler’s Slaton was watching a video recently about the making of “Exile on Main Street,” the classic 1972 Rolling Stones album that included such memorable songwriting efforts as “Shine a Light” and “Tumbling Dice.” But the video was unsatisfying. “It was too tricked out. Lots of confusing effects instead of just telling the story,” Slaton said.Oates says embellishments have always intruded on the pure essence of songwriting, at least since the dawn of pop music. But songs have been getting increasingly overwhelmed by technology and fashion over time. One marking point was the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, which added elements such as electric guitar licks and rock stardom into the mix. Then came the rise of the music video, and the visual element often made as much of an impression as the music. The Digital Age has made it possible for even the most secluded songwriter to put a sleek production on his work. A programmed drum track is practically required for a contemporary hit song.”Like a lot of other art forms, because the technology is so available now, there’s a sort of mute understanding that you need to trick out your original vision,” said Slaton (who named himself after country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons – “the most heartbreaking voice in popular music,” according to Slaton). “People making home videos now, they have to throw in every visual effect that the computer allows to make it feel not avant-garde but current.”The rise of the Americana genre, Slaton says, is an indication that the appreciation of songwriting hasn’t been lost to computerized techno. Americana is a sprawling genre, embracing bluegrass, old-school rock ‘n’ roll and modern alt-country. What tends to make the genre cohesive is a focus on songcraft.”So much music is now so overproduced, you can’t get to the kernel of it. Finding what that original voice was – that’s what we do here,” he said. Slaton had several examples from the past two 7908 festivals to illustrate the point – especially the appearance last year by Jimmy Wayne, who offered the gripping backstory of his song “Stay Gone,” which is based on the abusive relationship he saw his sister go through. Slaton also went outside the festival to another performance at the Wheeler last month by Jon Anderson, the lead singer of the prog-rock band Yes. Anderson’s concert was solo, just the singer with his rudimentary guitar skills.”Before maybe 10 years ago, Yes had made maybe the most complex albums,” Slaton said. “But to hear him acoustic, you realize that’s an amazing song all by itself.”Slaton says the 7908 Festival makes clear the connection between a song and its writer, that songs tend to come from a personal place, born from the writer’s singular experience. “We’re trying to create the shortest distance between the songwriter and the fan’s ears,” he said. “There’s nothing like hearing a singer do his own song. You can hear a Neil Young song by someone else, but it’s never going to sound better than when Neil Young sings it. Same with Randy Newman. They may not have the greatest voice, but they are the greatest interpreters of their own work. I’m sure when Dolly Parton wrote ‘I Will Always Love You,’ it sounded a lot different than when Whitney Houston sang it.”This year’s 7908 gets tricked out in its own way. The festival expands from four to five days. And a songwriting competition introduced this year proved impressively popular. Competitions were held earlier this winter in six cities and towns around Colorado, including in Aspen. Turnout was so high that the competitions often lasted till 2 p.m. The final round of the competition will play out through Friday at the J-Bar, Jimmy’s and the Red Onion, with each contestant getting multiple half-hour slots. The judging will be by four anonymous judges, and the winner will get a short slot at the Wheeler on Sunday evening.Those contestants – who ranged from 11 years old into their 60s, from musicians with albums to their credit to those who had never performed their songs for an audience – will join a diverse group of songwriters on the 7908 bill, including pop-rockers, bluegrassers, soul singers and folkies.The festival opened March 21 with folksinger Darrell Scott, whose new album “Long Ride Home” has been on top of the Americana chart, and the duo of Adam Aijala and Ben Kaufmann, both of Colorado’s Yonder Mountain String Band.March 22 opens with Texan James McMurtry followed by Bob Schneider, who was a member of the rock band the Ugly Americans before moving into singer-songwriter mode. March 23 begins with a free show, The Berklee Songwriters Circle; followed by a double bill of J.D. Souther, who co-wrote several hits for the Eagles, and another Texan, Carrie Rodriguez; and closes with the Blue Sky Riders.Sophie B. Hawkins, the soul singer who had an early ’90s hit in “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover,” plays the early show on March 24. Matt Scannell, the voice behind the band Vertical Horizon, follows, and the night ends with Louisiana R&B singer Marc Broussard, who plays with a full band.Angel Snow, a rising talent who had three of her songs recorded by Alison Krauss, kicks things off on March 25. Mandolinist Sam Bush, who has become the designated picker for 7908, sitting in with numerous acts each year, joins forces with Oates for a set. The festival closes with the return of Matt Nathanson, who, since putting on a memorable show at last year’s 7908, has released the hit album “Modern Love.”

Stewart Oksenhorn is the arts editor for the Aspen Times Weekly. His last cover story, about local school chef Tennile Folk, was published Feb. 9. Contact him at stewart@aspentimes.com.

Songs burrow their ways into our brains in all different ways – a supreme melody, a unique chord change, a lyric that illuminates a fuzzy corner. Or it might be circumstances: This is what was playing when that girl walked into seventh-grade homeroom and your heart stopped. However they get there, songs have a way of staying with us, offering 3 1/2 minutes of comfort, wisdom, happiness or an over-the-top guitar solo.Following are the songs that have stuck with the artists in the 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival.John Oates (festival co-producer, performing March 25 with Sam Bush): “Blue,” by Joni Mitchell. “She had separated. Her domestic life was not working out. To me, this is the ultimate expression of that feeling. It’s not only called “Blue” – it sounds blue. It feels blue. And the music and lyrics are perfectly in sync with each other.”Darrell Scott (opened the festival on March 21): “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” by Kris Kristofferson. “It’s a perfect observer’s song. It’s a photojournalist’s view combined with an interior monologue of a guy on Sunday morning, walking around the street because he has nowhere else to go. It’s what he sees – a kid kicking a can, a church choir, a little girl pushed on a swing. And in contrast it’s how alone the guy is on Sunday morning. He’s had enough of the house and has to get out. And the chorus busts out, and he’s observing himself. That jumping back and forth is perfection.”Sophie B. Hawkins (performing March 24): “Pastures of Plenty,” by Odetta. “It’s rich with the visuals of sharecroppers, the pilgrims of other peoples’ progress, whose spiritual joy are the moments of being at peace in nature and being free. But that’s also the pain of being a laborer, invisible, making no mark, leaving nothing behind. The song asks, ‘Who is really free?’ Odetta shares the physical and philosophical pain of having nothing on this earth and the wisdom that none of us has anything really. We just have our body and soul and relationship with God. There is a romance of a person who can live this life she sings of: ‘We come with dust, and we’re gone with the wind.'”Angel Snow (performing March 25): “In Your Eyes,” by Peter Gabriel. “I love it. It’s just a song that transcends time, and I remember hearing it for the first time when I was a little girl in the backseat of my mom’s car and just being so mesmerized by the feeling of the music and the writing. To this day, that song takes me back there. It has a magical quality of hope and love, and I never get tired of hearing it.”Ben Kaufmann (performed March 21): “Gentle on My Mind,” by John Hartford. “The song was such a hit that it gave Hartford a chance to spend his days playing old-time fiddle and writing riverboat songs – not particularly lucrative pastimes. I want to point out that this song uses the words ‘sleeping bag.’ That’s hard to do and still have it be a good song. Hartford then went on to make some of the most important albums that I own. I’m not sure he could have if it wasn’t for the success of ‘Gentle.’ Oh, and the melody is wonderful.”Adam Aijala (performed March 21): “Arthur McBride,” performed by Paul Brady. “Always on my playlist. It’s an old Irish folk song that tells the story of two young Irish men who are confronted by a British army sergeant in an effort to get them to enlist. The boys refuse and end up beating the sergeant and his two men in a fight. I love this song not only because Paul Brady’s guitar playing and singing is absolutely amazing but also because the underdogs are the victors. Just a great story.”


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