I just read a short interview in Relix magazine the with singer-songwriter extraordinaire Rodney Crowell – he of Emmylou Harris’s original “Hot Band”, the source of more hits than you can shake a gold record at and an amazing discography of his own, impressive work. Like many of my favorite wines, yet another example of the most amazing stuff that almost no one has ever heard of. Bizarre. Anyway ... a couple thoughts in the piece prompted some extended riffing on one of my favorite themes, music in terms of wine, and vice-versa.
In the article, he talked about how his approach to both live shows and recording has evolved over the years, from a production to a performance-oriented approach — much as a non-interventionist approach to “making” wine is founded on aiding and abetting what vineyard and vintage provide; one in which the vigneron assumes the role that Stefano Inama or Jean-Pierre Vanel refer to modestly to as that of accompanist.
Rodney Crowell views the work of songwriting humbly, relying on a blue collar work ethic and the patience of a “song whisperer” to appease the muse. His take on both recording playing live are equally modest — and refreshing: “I like to take production out of the mix."
"It’s all about performance,” he says of recording. “There were a lot of years when I operated from a production angle and as I’ve gotten older and more confident in myself as a guitar player and singer I have become more interested in the performance ... Part of the romance of our recording process is we ditched the headphones and figured out how to play without them. That put us in a different mindset.”
And each night on tour, fans should expect a slightly different, if no less spiritual, interpretation of the songs. “I have no interest in reproducing a song the way it was on the record” he says. ”You can use certain musical signposts, but as far as dragging musicians around with me so they can recreate what someone else did night after night, that’s not of interest.”
Performance versus production makes for an apt wine metaphor (as does the songwriter who views their role as a conduit for inspiration, rather than its source). Wine-wise, there are, obviously, the ubiquitous mega-labels where the goal is to make fruit into a product that’s identical vintage in, vintage out. But production isn’t the sole domain of mass-market brands, it’s also an uber – upscale tool, as producers pander to the palates of the wine press, manipulating fruit in search of the magic metrics that generate 90 point ratings.
If having your good old, reliable glass of La Crema or 14 Hands is your ticket to paradise, that’s what you ought to be drinking and you won’t get any argument from me. And if you’ve got the palate (and the pocketbook) for big points, hats off to you and your good fortune. Likewise, Top 40, flawless studio production, 16 tracks of overdubs, ear-saturating digital delay and lush string arrangments make your ears sing, turn it up. Or catch it “live” with every lick a faithful reproduction of the album, just the way it was back in the day. Sounds fine to me.
But for my time (and money), I’ll take the humility of the songwriter who embraces a blue collar work ethic to be worthy of the muse, whose variability – imperfection even, of live performance, who’ll roll the dice, betting on the maginc that happens when the musicians just play, whose shows are different every night in every town. And I’ll wash it down with wine made by a guy who’ll never even dream of making enough wine to be a household name, who has dirt on is hands, makes wine with sweat and toil rather than a spreadsheet, who knows his vineyards like the back of his hand &emdash; and bets the farm on the magic of the amazing interplay of vines growing in a no-other-place-like-it piece of dirt, nourished by a never-to-be-repeated rhythm of sun, wind, rain, night and day. That’s not just a performance ... that’s art. And there’s nothing else like it.