4161383004_ea14822707[1]In the fall of 1992, I was publishing a small Bay Area music newspaper– this was back in the BAM era, for those of you who were there, and a time when a person could say the word “newspaper” without sighing wistfully — and had been writing reviews for long enough to have become a jaded bastard, particularly when it came to demo tapes. In those days, indie bands didn’t have 40,000 music blogs waiting to be mass-mailed with download links, and they didn’t have affordable home recording technology; they had to schlep enough money together to buy recording time at an actual (albeit usually very low-budget) studio, and then they either had to pay to manufacture a few boxes of hissy cassettes or drive to Kinko’s, print up their own J-cards, and dub the things themselves.

This helped winnow out some of the really crappy bands, but certainly not all of them, and when I received a tape from a New York duo calling themselves the Rails in late ’92, I wasn’t expecting much. In fact, if the letter that came with the cassette hadn’t mentioned that the Rails knew some friends of mine, I might not have listened to the album at all. Instead, not knowing what to expect, I popped the tape — titled Wonderfull — into my stereo, sat down at my desk, and listened. It’s been 17 years, but I still remember it vividly, because I didn’t get up from my chair until the album was finished — I just sat there, watched the late afternoon turn into early evening, and fell in love with the Rails one Wonderfull track at a time. The production was lo-fi and the drum machine tinny, but the songs radiated with all the yearning and anguish you’d expect from a pair of twentysomethings laboring into an eight-track recorder in an apartment over a sausage factory — and they were smart and tuneful besides. They still resonate with me now. I was hooked from the opening lines of the first song, “Far & Wide” (download):

Where you lead I will follow
And the clues you lead I will find
But I guess I’m always a step behind

Nearly ten years later, I even covered “Far & Wide” on my solo album (download). By this time, I was more than just a Rails fan — in 1994, I put my money where my mouth was and backed the production of their second album, Happy Summer; four years after that, I signed Fred Wilhelm, the chief songwriter and vocalist in the band, to a publishing deal and solo recording contract. Needless to say, that tape I heard in ’92 has had a profound impact on my life, professionally and personally: Fred is not only my favorite songwriter, he’s one of my closest friends, and I consider myself lucky to know him.

4160496795_b6b5f68129[1]All of which explains why I hopped in my car two Fridays ago and drove to the little town of Granby, Connecticut, to watch a benefit concert in a high school auditorium. Fred grew up in Granby, you see, and he’d helped organize an “in the round” performance featuring himself, Catie Curtis, Mark Erelli, and Lori McKenna. I had at least a passing acquaintance with the music of all the other artists, but I was going primarily to see Fred perform — he lives in Nashville, and we both have young children, so it had been a few years since I’d seen him, and even longer since I’d been able to catch one of his shows. Honestly, the music was secondary.

That might sound funny coming from someone who listens to music for a living, but the sad truth is that I remember the first time I heard Wonderfull so vividly because listening experiences like that are so rare. I know they’re rare for everyone, but as much as I love what I do, this job makes it easy to lose the emotional connection with music that makes you want to be a critic in the first place. Most of what I listen to, I listen to for review purposes; these days, when I don’t have to listen to anything, I’m at a loss as to what to play for pleasure. There are so many albums — and the pay grade, quite frankly, is so low — that if you aren’t careful, you can end up just plowing through albums by the fistful, taking notes, writing reviews, and moving on to whatever’s next. It isn’t a very balanced approach, but it’s a hard trap to avoid.

It’s also the headspace I’ve been in for most of 2009. Don’t get me wrong, I think this has been one of the best years for music I can remember, and plenty of albums have gone into heavy rotation around here in the last 12 months — but many, many more have come and gone without leaving any kind of impression. It’s left me feeling uninspired without really realizing it, which is why it’s such a good thing I drove out to Granby, and found myself in the audience for an evening full of music that broke me into a thousand glowing, grinning pieces.

Part of the evening’s thrill was simply the format. I love watching musicians work together — I love seeing the language of song pass between talented players. And playing in the round creates a lot of opportunities for artists to sit in on each other’s songs, adding new instrumental and vocal layers to wonderfully intimate performances that strip the material to its most essential ingredients. On this particular night, the audience was treated to four performers who are not only ferociously gifted songwriters in their own right, but who have worked together often enough to develop a real appreciation one another’s work. I knew what to expect from Fred, obviously, but I hadn’t spent much time with his co-headliners’ music; ironically, I was most familiar with Mark Erelli, and that was only because I’d bought — and mostly rather disliked — his 1999 debut.

I also knew that in addition to being recording artists, Erelli, Catie Curtis, and Lori McKenna are all Nashville pros — and writing for hire, like listening for hire, can deaden your creative batteries pretty quickly if you aren’t careful. McKenna, for instance, is arguably best known as the singer/songwriter that Faith Hill plucked from obscurity when she covered three of her songs for her Fireflies album; I was expecting the kind of songwriting savvy that helps pay the bills, but doesn’t necessarily rewire the listener’s emotional hardware. Fittingly, it was McKenna who destroyed my low expectations with her opening number, “How Romantic Is That.” Here’s a video from an earlier in-studio performance:

To badly paraphrase Bill Cosby, those of you with children will understand.

Fairly straightforward Nashville blue-collar storytelling stuff? Sure. Under different circumstances, I’m not even sure the song would have resonated with me at all. But there in the Granby Memorial High School Auditorium, I was blown away — first by McKenna, then by Mark Erelli’s ferocious, mandolin-backed “Baltimore,” and so on and so forth, on through the night. I was never anything less than captivated. I was probably most surprised by Erelli, simply because of my (totally incorrect) pre-conceived notions of his work; my favorite number of the evening was “Once,” a song inspired by the birth of his son:

Mark Erelli “Once”

Catie Curtis’ music is sunnier than Erelli or McKenna’s, but she’s just as deft at communicating the largely unspoken truths of an ordinary life. I thought the highlight of her set was “Dad’s Yard,” an old number about a packrat of a father whose emotional inventory runs just as deep:

He can see the beauty beneath the dust and the grime
He can see potential where the rest of us are blind
He will polish the grey until it shines clear blue
And if you know my dad, well, he won’t give up on you
So if you need something when times get hard
You can probably find it in my dad’s yard
And if you need love, if you’re coming apart
You can surely find it in my dad’s heart

Yes, it’s your garden-variety folkie ballad, and if you aren’t in the right frame of mind to receive its message, it’s very easy to roll your eyes. But who hasn’t benefited from the kind of love that never gives up…or wished they had? And just that sweet little line — “And if you know my dad, well, he won’t give up on you” — it sums up the spirit of the song so beautifully, hearing it actually made me smile with surprise.

4161265368_9b8ece97c1[1]I was smiling a lot that night, actually, and remembering something I hadn’t realized I’d forgotten: the joy of watching musicians commune on stage, and the joy of listening to music purely for pleasure. Yes, I was taking notes during the show, but mostly just so I knew which songs I wanted to download when it was over. I spend so much time listening with an ear toward whichever article I’m writing that something as simple as just watching songwriters ply their trade in a darkened auditorium for a couple of hours felt like an epiphany. It knocked me back into alignment, and reminded me that keeping ourselves open to that joy is just as important for Popdose as it is for us to try and cover the latest music, movies, books, television, current events, and more. That’s something I’m going to try and carry with me throughout 2010 — to remember the emotional connection that keeps bringing us back to music, and worry less about new releases, publicist pitches, and site traffic. Not that any of that stuff has ever been Popdose’s primary reason for being — staying on top of it all requires hipness levels never reached by sites run by guys who get swoony at folk shows in high school auditoriums — but when you get lucky enough to experience the kind of growth we’ve enjoyed over the last couple of years, it’s easy to get wrapped up in trying to give your audience what you think it wants instead of just following your muse.

So thanks for being here. I’m grateful for your readership, and I never stop getting a kick out of the idea that my favorite group of writers entertaining themselves also entertains you. Over the last two years, we’ve come a pretty fair distance together, and I’m looking forward to finding out where we go from here. Who knows? If we’re lucky, we might even get to share one of those magical listening experiences along the way.

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