This is part of a series on music that has influenced contributors to Music is Good.
I was a bona-fide “grown-up” before I realized there were all kinds of good music hidden away in a vast array of genres I never took the time to investigate. I suppose I am not unique. During our teen years, while some adventurous listeners may follow the beat of their own individual drum, most of us at this stage of life are typically influenced by what the airwaves are playing from the latest top-40 charts. None of the music from that early part of my life was, however, what I would call influential in defining my lasting musical preferences. It was only much later that some albums began to seep into my ears and, in hindsight, I see how they proved to be landmark albums for me – albums which encouraged me to branch out into other genres, and once on that unbeaten path, find all those undiscovered treasures that awaited me. Here’s the ones that did it for me:
I received this CD as a gift from a friend many years ago and, while I had vaguely heard of The Waterboys, I was not at all familiar with their music. From the moment I popped this CD into my player and heard those riotously glorious fiddle notes that open the first song, “Fisherman’s Blues,” I was hooked. This was a sound very different from anything I had been musically exposed to previously. It was my springboard to the discovery of a whole new world of folk-rock with touches of traditional-sounding material by performers outside the U.S., which in turn, led me to more traditional folk tunes recorded by the likes of Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson, Steeleye Span, etc. Fisherman’s Blues is still a CD I play often.
I first heard the album Amazing Things by the Scottish folk-rock band Runrig playing through the computer speakers of one of my coworkers at work, who had obtained it from another coworker from Poland who, being from Europe, had had a much different exposure to music than I had thus far come across here in my own little American backyard. It was one of those times you just have to ask, “What is that you’re playing?” It had a good strong rock beat, but different. It sounded a little tribal to me. And the lead singer’s voice was one of the best I’ve ever heard. The song was “Amazing Things” that first caught my attention and I still find it, well, amazing. I remember thinking at the time how nice it was to hear a song with such optimistic and uplifting lyrics, too. This album started me on a Runrig kick that lasted for years. I still love their music, especially when they sing in Gaelic. (One of the best songs I have heard is Runrig’s live performance of “Loch Lomond” at the Loch Lomond outdoors concert included on the album Celtic Glory. Watch it here. The excitement of the audience participation adds to the thrill.) Runrig in turn led me to Wolfstone, Kris Drever, Damien Dempsey, Spirit of the West, etc.
Loreena McKennitt’s The Visit introduced me to a beauty in music I didn’t know existed. This is, as my sister said when I introduced it to her, pure “balm for the soul.” When a friend loaned this album to me, I had never heard of Loreena McKennitt, but it didn’t take me long to discover her other albums. When I had pretty much exhausted them, I went searching for more “balm” and came across another landmark artist for me – Connie Dover, whose style of music is similar to McKennitt’s but more focused on Scots-Irish/Celtic music without McKennitt’s world music influences.
Instead of If Ever I Return, I could just as easily have listed here Dover’s album, Somebody – Songs of Scotland, Ireland and Early America, since I purchased the two together. The song “La Fontaine” demonstrates how beautiful Dover’s music is. Both albums are true angel’s music, and were equally influential in prompting me to search out other traditional Scots-Irish and English folk singers like Karan Casey, Kate Rusby, Dougie MacLean and others too numerous to mention. Dougie MacLean’s album, Tribute to Robert Burns, Neil Gow and Robert Tannahill was one of particular influence. I don’t see how anyone could listen to the first track of that album and not be moved by its intense beauty.
Having gotten my feet wet with exposure to music from outside America, I delved into the edgier sound of Nordic music. Both Varttina and Hedningarna conditioned my Western ears further with their respective albums Karelia Visa and Vihma .
Back home on the other side of the Atlantic, I discovered how great folk music of the troubadours can be:
Richard Shindell’s Somewhere Near Paterson was a real eye-opener for me. Here I discovered music that not only sounded good, but also really had something to say. Shindell is a master story-teller through song and his stuff can make you either laugh, weep, or wonder with him, depending on which song you are listening to. I now own all of Shindell’s CD’s and he has never made a bad record. His music led me to the discovery of scores of numerous other truly great folk music musicians, not the least of whom was Greg Brown, with his album Covenant being another original eye-opener for me.
I also discovered a host of worthy albums in Americana (country-rock, alternative country, or whatever it is called). Here’s the album that forged the way for me:
Uncle Tupelo’s Anodyne taught me just how edgy and rockin’ country can be. It led me to the wonderfully twangy artists Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Buddy and Julie Miller, and also the much under-appreciated R.B. Morris. Morris’ album, Zeke and the Wheel, played a major role, as did The Jayhawks’ Hollywood Town Hall. Topping the list of all of them was Steve Young’s Switchblades of Love, but I probably never would have discovered it or any of the rest without Anodyne starting me down that road.
I began to dabble in blues. The owner of the used CD store I frequented at the time handed me the CD Inspiration by Kelley Hunt to sample and it proved to be my “inspiration” for further investigation. Hunt has a very low-registered, husky voice perfectly suited to the blues. She plays a very mean piano, too, and is backed by a very tight band. Her later albums became more country sounding, but Inspiration, her first, is more blues oriented.
Another influential record for me in blues-rock was Mark Selby’s More Storms Comin’. This is still one of my desert island disks. It led me backward to pure blues with Mississippi Fred McDowell’s I Do Not Play No Rock ‘n’ Roll, which in turn catapulted me forward to Sonny Landreth , David Jacobs-Strain , Harry Manx , Chris Whitley (particularly his album, Living With the Law) and others.
The disk that made a baroque music lover out of me (something I thought was impossible to do) was, strangely enough, a children’s CD:
I had bought Vivaldi’s Ring of Mystery for the kids, never dreaming I would become so taken with it. It is one of a series of disks focusing on classical music through storytelling. I gave it a listen while driving home from work and it held my attention throughout. The story had not ended by the time I got home but, not wanting to be left hanging, I finished it up immediately afterwards. As I listened, it occurred to me that I never knew how many layers one piece of music could have. It was like audio in 3-D. The solo violin parts I found achingly beautiful and expressive – at times it sounded as if the instrument were crying. From this unlikely experience of listening to a child’s disk, I was prompted to investigate classical music CD’s.
I chose a baroque recording – Andrew Manze’s Vivaldi: Concert for the Prince of Poland, mainly because it was Vivaldi (whose works I had heard on the children’s disk), but also because I was intrigued by the ensemble’s name (Academy of Ancient Music), and the reference to a concert for the prince of Poland in the title, which I thought appealingly old and regal. It was the Concerto in D Minor, RV540 (tracks 7-9) on the disk that really struck a chord with me. It is a marriage of strings and lute all wrapped up in a gorgeous melody that sounds like a “song,” as opposed to elevator music (which is what I previously supposed all classical music was). From there on, I discovered more beauty in the compositions of Bach, Handel, Telemann and a host of other baroque composers. Now that I have discovered the wonders of baroque music, I will never be far from it.
What was even more amazing to me than finding I had grown to love baroque music, though, was discovering I could also love opera. Opera had been, for me, definitely in the same category as scratching on a chalkboard. I shunned it like the plague, even after becoming infatuated with instrumental baroque. What turned things around for me was this disk:
Tous Les Matins Du Monde by Jordi Savall is a gorgeous instrumental disk featuring the viola da gamba. It is a soundtrack of a French movie by the same title of the lives of viola da gamba master and pupil, Saint Colombe and Marin Marais. There is one very long vocal track here (track 9) for two female voices. It is very lovely and hypnotic. This one selection cured my aversion to very high-pitched vocals. I was now ready to openly listen to vocals in baroque music. I started with Handel – Arie e duetti d’amore by Sandrine Piau, Gloria Banditelli, and Europa Galante/Fabio Biondi. It has been discontinued and is very hard to find now. Probably the next most influential CD featuring vocal baroque music which prepared me for opera was a disk by La Serenissima:
There are baroque albums with even more beautiful voices than La Serenissima’s Antonio Vivaldi: Music for the Chapel of the Pieta, but this is the disk that made me realize how much the voice adds to the beauty of the instruments in baroque music. Coming to vocal baroque music from the strictly instrumental perspective of my previous exposure, my ears naturally concentrated on the instruments when I heard this album, inversely keeping the prominent voice in the background. With this listening technique, it soon became apparent (and this was a real revelation to me), how the voice can weave in and out, over and under and through the strings, adding a whole new layer to the music which enriches the overall sound 10-fold. I still listen to baroque music this way. While I used to go out of my way to avoid vocals in baroque, I actually prefer their presence now. I eventually graduated to listening to whole operas which I get immense pleasure from.
I had ventured into jazz territory numerous times. I really tried to like it. I purchased numerous used copies of various jazz CD’s in an attempt to find something that clicked for me, but each one fell flat. In fact, much of what I listened to I just plain disliked. I should like jazz, I thought. What was wrong? I gave up. Then a good friend of mine handed me the disk The Best of Art Pepper during a time in my life when I was deeply entrenched in baroque music – I had been listening to nothing but baroque for probably 6 or 8 months. What a shock! I can’t describe what a strange visceral feeling those unconventional bass lines infected me with. Not in a good way, either. I resigned myself to the fact that jazz music was not for me. Then my friend switched gears and handed me this:
The classic swing jazz of Sidney Bichet’s Up a Lazy River pushed the right buttons for me. From there, I found an even more impressive disk: Louis Armstrong’s Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy. In my honest opinion, there has never been a song before or since that surpasses the excitement heard in Armstrong’s version of “Chantez les bas”. It starts out slow and gentle with characteristic Armstrong vocals, but just wait a little bit and you will hear Trummy Young’s amazing trombone kick in. From there on, it is a riotous celebration of horns that continually builds to the most powerful musical climax. Oh, those horns! I get immense pleasure out of playing this one loud, loud, loud. From these two albums, I went on to discover the great clarinet players, Pee Wee Russell (whose music I would describe as “classy jazz”), Albert Nicholas (whose album Baden 1969 is still one of my favorites) and trumpet officianado Buck Clayton, as well as European and Scandinavian bands that explored and built upon classic swing jazz such as the Dutch Swing College Band and Danish sax man Jesper Thilo – also jazz singers Ella Fitzgerald and the lesser known (to audiences, but not to jazz musicians) Maxine Sullivan. Last but not least was the incredible blues/jazz singer, Eva Cassidy.
There you have it – the landmark albums that opened the door to broadening my musical horizons. Once having stepped over that threshold, I have encountered countless worthy recordings previously unbeknownst to me. I am still on the journey, and each corner I round seems to bring new delights.
Kezzie Baker lives in the heartland of America and if there’s one thing she likes better than listening to all kinds of music, it’s talking about it. There are just way too many truly great artists that never receive the notoriety they deserve. She tries to do what she can to change that by spreading the word around to anybody who will listen.
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