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Nathan Gunter, Managing Editor
Photo by STEVEN WALKER
Sing, Sing a Song
By Nathan Gunter
August 28, 2014
Here’s a conversation you and I probably won’t have:
You: Did you see the VMAs last night?
Me: Yes I did!
I couldn’t tell you the last time I heard a song that was racing up the Billboard Top 200 and felt that thing deep in my soul that I feel when I listen to great music. We each have our own definitions of “great,” of course, but I can only be exhorted to find my way to the nearest dance floor so many times before I start to worry about the sleeping habits of the young person who is singing. I can only be battered by this or that sick beat for so long before I start feeling claustrophobic.
(Between you and me, I think if Taylor Swift was really shaking off all the criticism she gets, it wouldn’t make its way into so very, very many of her songs. Also, between you and me, I’ve only ever heard about four Taylor Swift songs, so take that however you will, but I can’t say as I enjoyed any of them.)
But we all get to decide what we like, what we do not, and why. Being a person who works well with words but almost needs a flashlight to find his way around his guitar, I always will be drawn in by a good lyric. A beautiful image or a turn of phrase that causes the thing deep inside me to scream, “TRUE! TRUE! TRUE!”—that always wins. For example, try this tune by Patty Griffin, “Wild Old Dog:”
I had the chance last week to see Nickel Creek at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa. This threesome of Sara and Sean Watkins and Chris Thile have been playing together since 1989, which is amazing when you consider that their average age is the same as the age I am now—thirty-four years old. The Cain’s show was especially gratifying, as they were able to honor Guthrie resident Byron Berline, who was Sara Watkins’ fiddle instructor for a time (in fact, the name of the band, Nickel Creek, comes from one of Berline’s songs). So here’s another thing that will always ring bells in me: people who can play—really, really play—and harmonize, write, and perform. Watching Sean Watkins’ fingers fly over that guitar or Chris Thile work that mandolin and Sara saw her fiddle, all while blending their voices in harmony—all I could do was stare in open-mouthed awe, smile, and dance a little.
This is why music venues are holy places to me: Music feeds my soul. That place inside me that knows up from down, the thing untouchable and fundamentally me—it makes it glow. Sometimes, listening to a fantastic song, harmonizing in the car, picking out a melody on my piano, I feel like I might spontaneously combust from joy.
Earlier this month, I had a chance to see a band I’ve loved for two decades, Toad the Wet Sprocket, play at Choctaw Casino Durant. They were opening for perennial hitmakers Counting Crows, and they killed. Even though they spent more than a decade on hiatus, their melodies and musicianship were as tight as could be.
Something I also love to do at concerts is to watch the audience. In Durant, it was a party atmosphere. It made sense: everyone there was about my age or a little older—my fellow ’90s people. And they were there to see Counting Crows, so, as happens to opening acts, Toad wasn’t the center of many people’s attention. But oh man, they were the center of mine. When Glen Phillips, the lead singer, announced the band would be shaking hands and taking pictures at the merch table after their set, I rushed out to meet him and say “Thank you”—for the band, for his solo work, for side projects like Mutual Admiration Society and Works Progress Administration (also with members of Nickel Creek).
So often in our culture, music is a part of the background. It plays in every store, constantly in the car, and in our ears as we walk to and fro during the day. That’s why I love live music especially—if you’re doing it right, a concert is more than a carnival atmosphere: When a musician is playing live before you, every nuance of a song is there too—the frustration or pain or giddy love that inspired it, the broken strings, the missed beats, the connection with the audience. That little piece of heart a songwriter had to pour out to create this tune is there, hanging in the room. It’s a generous and beautiful thing. The music plays, and we listen, feel, remember, and sing along, all those souls glowing a little together.