Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sunday Music: Curtis Eller

Well! Now that I'm back at my own computer, preparing for school and another all-too-short semester, how about some late Sunday Music?

Curtis Eller. "Sugar in My Coffin." Live at Dr. Sketchy's.

A nice performance that picks up as it goes along and the audience gets involved. A wonderful spoken part in the middle.

I still have yet to pick up a couple of Eller's albums so I can't quite comment on his growth as a songwriter, but I've spun his Taking Up Serpents Again more than a few times in the last year. Like many of the new folk/Americana acts appearing these days, he seems to take a slightly detached (some say 'ironic') approach to his craft. Though his stage presence is full of life, it seems that he typically writes about experiences of others, particularly historical figures (Lincoln above, Amelia Earhart and Buster Keaton also get songs on the same album) or characters immersed in the sort of America one doesn't expect from a NYC native (like the snake handling of the title song).

There's nothing inherently wrong with this. It describes some of my favorite acts as well (Tom Waits, the Decemberists), and there certainly wasn't any shortage of folk, blues and country being written internally within the recording and sheet music industries of the Big City even during the supposed heydays of the genres. But it seems to me that many of these genres are still waiting for another American songwriter who has genuinely lived an interesting life through the highs and lows of our culture and stumbled onto some interesting ground without having searched for it.

Which, of course, brings me to fellow banjoist, John Hartford.

John Hartford. "Steamboat Whistle Blues."

I became a fan of Hartford after hearing only his performance on Béla Fleck's second Tales from the Acoustic Planet in 1999. I bought and borrowed Hartford's 70s albums quickly after as well as his more recent Ed Haley fiddle albums. The man wrote charming, original music that was deeply rooted in tradition and his own obsessions. Despite rarely writing a true love song, everything he did seemed to come straight from his strange, strange heart.

One of the things missing in the NYC trad school is being in touch with the techniques of the old guard. Hartford was a veritable encyclopedia of American traditions, particularly when it came to fiddle and banjo styles. Like the movement from regional traditions to a generic 'celtic music' in the seventies, the movement toward a generic 'Americana' has removed much of the liveliness and diversity. (The same happens in other genres as well. Witness the recent boom in 'gypsy music' that seems ignorant of so much Roma music.)

I can't help but feel with artists like Eller that their banjos are props. It's certainly hard to imagine Eller without his banjo, but something about the way he plays it seems generic and impersonal. His technique is neither traditional nor new. There's few echos of Doc Boggs and even fewer voicings never heard before.

But I'll grant that Eller knows his own voice quite well, but then, the power of a song - the part that makes it iron-clad in Hartford's terms - is often what the song allows others to re-interpret. A rather zen-like strength in bending.

Oh, and Hartford also knew how to kick it up on stage too.


Curtis Eller said...

Hi BH,
Curtis Eller here. I just stumbled onto your post and thought I'd drop a line to thank you for lending a sympathetic ear to my tune. I've been a dedicated fan of John Hartford's since I started playing banjo back in 1983.

I started off as a straight bluegrass player, and he was one of my main inspirations to start writing songs and playing the banjo my own way.

He once said that writing a good song is always an accident, but writing a lot is a way of making yourself accident-prone. I always loved that thought.

Anyway, thanks for spinning the tune. I hope to see you out at a show one of these days.
Curtis Eller's American Circus

B H said...

Hey! I'm humbled you stumbled upon this. And I apologize if I came off a tad negative. I just constantly feel let-down by contemporary roots musicians who owe more to The Band and The Byrds than anything, well, rootsier. You are definitely a cut or two above that bunch though, and I do look forward to seeing you perform if you make it out to Indiana.

B H said...

Also, that is a great Hartford quote.

Curtis Eller said...

I'm happy to know that people are listening...especially people who are also listening to Dock Boggs and John Hartford! Both of whom I like because they didn't follow the traditional playbook too strictly.

Dock Boggs once said that he wanted to play the banjo like a blues piano player because that's the kind of music he was listening to.

If it makes you feel better, I don't really consider myself a "roots" musician at all. I consider myself a rock and roll singer...I just happen to play the banjo.
Here's something I learned from Uncle Dave...
Curtis Eller and Uncle Dave