Chicken Skin Music

Chicken Skin Music- Road Dog-Summer 2003

Here’s to turning the tables. I would like to carry on about the subjective for a while; particularly the notion of what music sounds good, why it does and how we can create more of it. In the future I hope to get more specific about fingerstyle guitar music, bur for now I’m looking at the world of music in general. By doing so, I also hope to answer a pretty common workshop question: “What do I listen to for inspiration and enjoyment?”

It’s my feeling that good musicians aren’t just folks who have learned to play well, to master the grammar of music and the technique of their chosen instrument. Rather, good musicians are folks who have uncovered some fundamental way of playing, writing, or arranging that sounds “right” when sung, or when played on their chosen instrument, in their chosen setting or ensemble. Listening to someone who has discovered a piece of this truth sets of physical reactions in the listener, which Ry Cooder, years ago, described so aptly as “Chicken Skin Music.” (He also gave this name to his first solo album). For me, there are few experiences that are more pleasurable than this physical, intellectual, and spiritual recognition that the person(s) to whom I am listening has found such a pocket of musical goodness. I am going to start a list of fragments of music which I would put in this category, try to explain why they do so for me, encourage you to try starting lists of your own, and send any or all of it along to me.

First a little more explanation about that sense of “rightness” that this music has. Part of it is completely physical; the aural equivalent of a meal in which the dish is of high quality, the spices complement the dish, and preparation was so good that your body tells you how you feel about it before you’ve given it any thought. Part of it is intellectual; the appreciation for the skills involved in marrying these foods and flavors, and the mastery of cooking, preparation, and presentation. Part of it is spiritual; the wholeness of the vision which produced it, an appreciation for the “rightness” of this approach to cooking and nutrition, and an intrinsic knowledge that it is good to have participated in it.

On to the music. I make no apologies for the eclectic, and admittedly incomplete nature of the list. That’s the beauty of subjectivity. These are but samples from some of the musical worlds which my ears have inhabited over the years. I hope to expand the boundaries in future articles, but I’m sticking to the acoustic world this time around, and for the sake of brevity leaving out classical and most jazz music as well:

The Hot Club’s recordings from their heyday- Acoustic-chamber-jazz at its fiery birth

The David Grisman Quintet’s first, eponymous, album, and almost any solo from any of the five participants throughout the work. Groundbreaking ensemble music that was composed thoroughly and rigorously, and played pyrotechically by five of the acoustic world’s best.

Lester Flatt’s G run on many bluegrass recordings from the Flatt and Scruggs era, which is a primally correct way to use a guitar if there ever was one.

Russ Barenberg’s compositions and solos from his two Rounder albums, now collected into one CD and called “Halloween Rehearsal.” You’ll never find better compositional style than this in the folk-chamber-jazz world, and Russ’s singing tone and incredibly well-constructed solos may never be topped.

Mississippi John Hurt playing and singing “Monday Mornin’ Blues.” A primal example of the persuasive power of acoustic blues.

Silly Wizard’s recording of “A Scarce o’ Tatties” and the “Lindhurst” jigs, two minor key Scottish jigs whose seductive melodies combine with Wizard’s instrumental power to produce Celtic alchemy.

Almost all of Leo Kottke’s first release, generally called “The Armadillo Album,” but officially known as “6 and 12-String Guitar,” and much of the subsequent releases “Mudlark” and “Greenhouse.” They set fingerstyle guitarists ahead 20 years with the first drop of needle into groove.

Any early release by Chet Atkins or Merle Travis. ‘Nough said here.

Robert Johnson’s first release. Blues as a haunted and haunting life force.

Blind Blake’s first, and pretty much only, release. It still makes my fingers (especially my thumb) itch today to listen to it.

DeDanaan’s Irish traditional reworking of “Hey, Jude,” complete with bodrhan solo at the end.

Tampa Red’s slide guitar work. It brings fresh meaning to Ry Cooder’s above description.

Michael Hedges’ “Aerial Boundaries.” The biggest fingerstyle leap forwards since Leo.

Dave Evans’ first recording for Kicking Mule Records, “The Sad Pig Dance.”
Awful cover art and title failed to obscure brilliant writing, fat guitar tone, great playing and groundbreaking use of alternate tunings way back in the early seventies.

Stephan Grossman and John Renbourn’s first duo album. It still sounds cool, and fresh, 25 years later

Tim O’Brien singing just about any Hot Rize song, and early Ralph Stanley bluegrass singing as well. I love instruments, and these voices are true instruments.

Pardons to all who wonder why their favorites were omitted. Let’s face it- I could, and maybe should, take up several more columns with additions to my ‘chicken skin music” list. If you have some winners, send me your nominees and short explanations, I’ll do my best to collate them in some reasonable order, and try to publish them in followup articles. In future columns I’ll also try to take a closer look at fingerstyle, and try to explain what I mean by “finding new ways of playing guitar that sound and feel right.”