Across the Tracks

I have been at this quite a long time. ‘Seen some amazing things, heard and was fortunate enough to play a lot of music, wore out a few passports and sets of tires, and generally rode guitar music around all over the place. I’m planning a book that will tell some of the more bizarre stories. The people who did the bizarre stuff should tremble at the prospect; but actually, they don’t need to worry, since by the time I get it written, I will have outlived most of them, and bizarre dead guys don’t have to sweat their reputation.

But today, I’d like to introduce this column by telling you a Crary road story of one of the most positive, one of the happiest things that ever happened to me in music. Back in college, when I was an announcer on the campus arts radio station, somebody programmed an album of something they called “early music.” The performers were the Waverly Consort, directed and produced by Mike and Kay Jaffe, and the music was medieval songs of The Virgin (Las Cantigas De Santa Maria). And OMG, it was exquisitely beautiful. Never heard anything like it before. Talk about old time music, this was really old. I had loved the old songs that my bluegrass heroes, The Bluegrass Boys, The Stanley Brothers, and The lonesome Pine Fiddlers sang, songs that were so old that no one knew who had composed them; but here the Waverly Consort sang stuff that was centuries old.

It was a little like raising the dead: whoever had composed these beautiful songs long ago turned to dust in a forgotten grave. But here, on FM radio in high fidelity, the coffin creaked open and you could hear that ancient voice sing again. From that moment, I made sure I had every recording the Waverly Consort ever made, medieval, renaissance, age of exploration, a huge repertoire, one record better than the next. It was incredible how parallel to bluegrass music the sound was; Mike Jaffe later pointed out that the parallels and similarities between a so-called broken consort and a standard bluegrass band are, instrument by instrument and voice by voice, precise, with a sort of ker-chunk. I listened to that early music hundreds of hours over the years, and its dark, raw, cold-wind-from-the-cosmos beauty crept conspiratorily into my playing, made it darker, more raw, more “lonesome” than ever.

Cut to 1983, The Waverly Consort came to Pasadena, and I’m sure I, their greatest fan, was one of the first to buy a ticket. These folks had appeared all over America, from Carnegie Hall on down, and now, here they came to my neighborhood. It was surely one of the greatest concerts I ever attended: they employed voices, viols, woodwinds and a lute and drums to make the middle ages come back to life again. The music was beautifully unfamiliar and obscure to that audience, and they went standing-o berserk anyway. It was magic, it was mesmerizing and transporting, it was musical time travel on the wings of a “broken consort.”

When it was over, I played groupie… went backstage, shook hands with the director, Michael Jaffe. And I asked him if I could purchase from him one of his out-of-print LP’s. Our beloved old English setter (name: Raisin Cookie) had innocently (and characteristically) eaten my original copy. He said no, but was impressed that I had every one of their many LP’s and CD’s. And that was that….

But there’s another chapter to this: about six months later, I had a nice concert in New York. After the show, backstage, I was talking to some attendees, and lo and behold, the Waverly Consort director Mr. Jaffee walked into the New York backstage area and right up to me. I thought, well maybe he’s paying a return courtesy call, so I said, “Hi Mr. Jaffe, how are you.” His response: “How do you know my name?” Long story short, he didn’t know who I was when we met before, but as it turns out, he’s a major flatpicking guitar fan, and had for years been listening to my recordings. Man, that was a moment: I got to meet both Mike and Kay Jaffe and became great friends with these geniuses of early music.

I hope my telling you this story conveys a little of why it was important to me. But now, here’s why it’s important to you: one of the most important, enriching, immediately valuable things you will ever do for your playing is to listen to music outside your own primary genre. Go over the walls of one’s ghetto, cross the tracks to another neighborhood. Get in the habit of listening to somebody else’s music, both for the feel and spirit of it, and also as a goldmine from which to extract, borrow, “steal,” or otherwise lift musical ideas to insert into your thinking and playing. Of course, you don’t have to make the same choice of somebody-else’s-music I made; but somewhere out there is other people’s music that will tickle your passions. Whatever it is, it just needs to be an escape from the myopia of one’s own music and experiencing the wider world of somebody else’s.

You will be amazed at what happens in your own head when there is a fusion of great ideas from diverse backgrounds. Surely you know the story of Bill Monroe’s “putting the blues in Bluegrass” as Bill used to say it. It’s a great story, available to you in his biography. Doc Watson used to talk about the great old jazz bands and everything else among the many things he listened to as a young player. This is no secret: all the great traditional players are articulate and dedicated to multiple kinds of music.

So listen up to some exotic music: among other styles, try on a little Italian romantic music from Beppe Gambetta. Or check out Sabicas’ 1960 masterpiece “Flamenco Puro.” Or check out the Waverly consort or the Baltimore Consort or Anonymous 4 or a thousand examples of really old time music. Or listen up to the incredible Baroque guitar of Rolf Lislevand, or the harp and classical guitars of our pal Muriel Anderson. Or venture into the blues with recordings of the late John Cephas. Or make your ears bleed with some powerful Nashville cats playing from Brad Paisley or Keith Urban.

One of the best licks I ever came up with was seriously borrowed from the old doo-wop group, Peaches and or Herb. Another of “my” licks that has been copied worldwide I stole from a blues piano guy… dang, it sounds pretty on the guitar. As Chet famously said, it’s not stealing, it’s research. And it’s called teaching yourself how to play the guitar.