A man, a guitar, and some songs; that's become a familiar part of the musical landscape of North American pop culture since the days of Robert Johnson. A man telling a story dates back to the beginning of our creation as a species and over the millennia has evolved into a myriad of forms, from the playwright to the abstract painter, but the guy who can put those stories into verse, or better yet into song, has always held our attention just a little bit more than anybody else.
When the fierce Norsemen went a Viking travelling with them was always a bard to make a record of their voyage. He would recount their heroic deeds, remember the dead, and heap scorn upon their enemies. As night closed around their longboat, leaving it adrift among the oceans of stars, the bards would tell the stories of past heroes and Gods to ease the loneliness of men leagues from home and stoke the fires of their courage during the long cold hours of darkness.
It was said among the ancient Celts that in order to become a Bard you needed to serve a twenty-one year apprenticeship. How could you sing about the world if you hadn't experienced it? How could you even hope to sing with honesty about human emotions if you've not lived long enough to understand them yourself? Bards were also expected to have the courage to go inside themselves and face up to their own personal demons, for how else could they sing about others with honesty if they couldn't face their own truths.
We don't have near the same expectations for those we entrust with singing our stories these days, and although I'm not saying a twenty-one year apprenticeship should be considered de rigour in order to sing and write songs for other people to listen to, the idea that they have a degree of life experience and some understanding of themselves is a good one. Being groomed for, or grooming yourself for stardom. and then "suffering" from the attention of the press doesn't quite count as learning about the human condition.
Part of the problem is people don't even know what they're missing. Being spoon-fed sentimental cliches from the first moment we are planted in front of a television hasn't done much for any of our critical faculties. It's only when you hear somebody like Grayson Capps unaccompanied by nothing save his guitar and one other person on violin and harmonica that you can truly appreciate how shallow those raising the flag, bring a tear to my eye moments, at a football game, really are. Listening to his release Songbones, on Hyena Records, might not make converts out of the masses, but it sure will be breath of fresh air for anybody in desperate need of a reminder of what it's like to hear somebody sing with more on their mind than their place in the charts.
Those of you familiar with Grayson's work with his band the Stumpknockers will have heard some of the songs on Songbones performed with a full band before as this is something he recorded almost on the spur of the moment back in 2002. He and Tom Marron, who accompanies him on violin and harmonica, had gone over to Mike West's studio/home after a gig and decided to keep playing. They sat down in front of some microphones and over the course of the next five hours recorded the bares bones versions of the songs you hear on this disc. (As Grayson puts it in his liner notes they are in their most naked form: Songbones)
I've been struggling for a couple of days trying to figure out how to best describe the experience of listening to Grayson Capps for the first time. I could say it was like listening to so and so the first time as a means of describing the enormity of his impact, but that would also imply a similarity of style or material that isn't valid no matter who was used as the basis of comparison. Certainly he has attributes in common with people like John Prine, Steve Goodman, Woody and Arlo Guthrie, and Bob Dylan, in terms of the integrity of his music and his ability to communicate emotions honestly, but he brings something to his songs that's different from anything I've heard from anyone else.
There's the sense that he has an understanding of individuals and their feelings in a way that perhaps only Woody Guthrie approached with his songs about the dirt poor farmers in the depression or that John Prine brings to some of his material. Yet there is something about Grayson Capps's approach to his subject matter that is different from any of the others. While they are telling people's stories, you get the feeling that Grayson might actually have lived what he sings about.
Whether he did or not is not the point, anyway he'd be long dead by now if he had. What is important is that he seems to have the uncanny ability to see the world through the eyes of the people who populate his songs. Perhaps it's because in each of his songs he is able to bring the world his people exist in to life around them, thus allowing us to experience a small piece of their reality. His ability to create an atmosphere where we can empathize with the character the song is about, no matter who or what they are, is something that I don't think I've experienced to the same extent before in the work of any songwriter.
On those songs where he relays a story from his own perspective, there is something about the manner in which he is able to convey his thoughts and feelings that make them seem less a personal statement, and more an expression of universal sentiments about a set of circumstances. He's not telling us how to feel, instead he has the ability to show us a more compassionate way of being without lecturing us. He is able to let us walk a mile in the shoes of people most of us wouldn't normally have the time of day for, and let us see just how a person could end up in a place we don't understand.
Tom Marron plays violin on the songs that are presented on Songbones in harmony both with Grayson's guitar work and with a song's melody. Not only does it sound beautiful, it adds a layer of atmosphere to the songs that makes them even more powerful. I've not heard songs like "Mermaid", "Washboard Lisa", or "I See You" performed by Grayson and his band, but if these are only their bare bones, they must be close to overwhelming powerful.
Songbones is the first collection of music that I've ever heard by Grayson Capps, and it leaves me wanting to hear much more of his work. For people like me who aren't familiar with him, it's a great introduction to his work, and I think for those of you who do know his material, the versions of the songs on this disc will deepen your appreciation for his talent. Grayson Capps writes songs of power and grace, and Songbones is a wonderful showcase of that talent.
(Originally posted March 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.