Friday, June 22, 2012

Telling Stories through song

Story telling is a pastime in the South as it is in many places around the world. In this modern world with social media and busy lives it has taken a backseat but you'll always hear a few among family and friends at social gatherings, weddings and holidays. Nowadays many story tellers are songwriters and the South has their fair share of some really great ones.

Former Drive By Truckers member Jason Isbell is one of these Southern songwriters. He wrote some tunes for the Truckers but he had some songs that didn't fit with their style so he decided to record them for himself which turned into his solo career. You may know him from the song Alabama Pines, released on his album Here We Rest.

He played a special acoustic solo concert this past Saturday at the Alys Stephens Center. Just him, his guitar, his girlfriend Amanda Shires and her fiddle. I didn't know as many songs as would have liked but I knew he was doing something real and not just writing songs for radio play or selling beer. 

It was an intimate show with seating for just over 100 on stage, which meant we would play in the opposite direction from what is usual in the Jemison Concert Hall. There were about twice as many seats above in the choral balcony but I'm sure there was not a bad seat in the whole house.

Earlier that day Jason did a small songwriting clinic where he explained how he began to play music and what his songwriting process was. He also suggested two or three books on the subject and for the second half of the one hour clinic he took questions from the audience. It was enlightening but I really enjoy hearing about the creative process of others whether they be musicians, authors or some other type of artist. 

Before we left he explained that he had to go to the bus station to pick up his lady friend who would play fiddle with him that evening. I was excited because I follow both Jason and his lady friend, Amanda Shires, on Twitter and her appearance was previously unannounced. 

Jason Isbell at the songwriting clinic sponsored by ArtPlay

[Sidebar: Amanda Shires is a fiddle player and songwriter who has been mentioned in national publications. She has played on national television with Jason and has also played internationally with him and other contemporary Americana artists. She plays music for a living and his highly regarded in her field but she took a bus, which I do not see as a glamorous mode of trasnport, from Nashville (I assume) to Birmingham. Musicians will understand this but non-musicians often see these people as leading a Robin Leach type lifestyle which is often not the case]

As I get there I find a seat on stage and notice that Mary Colurso has picked a seat just behind me and I strike up a conversation as I have read her articles in the Birmingham News for years. After I introduced myself she said that she recognized my name and knew I was a musician. That was my almost-famous moment for the evening.

The show was pretty amazing. I think the sound was not as grand as if it had been a full concert but that concert hall was not built for sound to be projected in the opposite direction. Jason and Amanda were great. His banter was spot on. Her fiddle was the perfect compliment to his songs and the short bursts of banter she provided were hilarious and the perfect addition at just the right times. She seemed timid at first and it was hard to hear her vocal harmonies but got dialed in just before intermission.

As many of you know I'm a sideman. I play harmonica in more than one band and I appreciate a good side man (or side woman in this case). Someone who doesn't steal the show with showmanship, but steals the show with how well they punctuate the musical passages and compliment the main act. Her violin could sound sweet, gritty or full on hoedown but whatever style she picked was ideal. I hope to see more from her.

If you need a suggestion on new music I suggest you go check out Mr. Isbell (which, for the record, is pronounced is-BULL). 

Mark your calendars for August 17th at WorkPlay
UPDATE: Monday, June 25th
The Alabama Music Office recently posted this video from the songwriting clinic.

Who have you recently seen or discovered recently that you believe to be a good storyteller? Let us know in the comments.

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