Friday, October 19, 2012

Craig Carothers: The Vagabond

Today, readers, I have the pleasure of discussing an excellent release by another one of my old Portland homies: Craig Carothers. The album is The Vagabond, and you get a lot for your money – 15 songs, in a time when most artists seem to be releasing puny little 4-song EPs. Born and raised in Oregon, Carothers has been based in Nashville since the 1990s. In 1996 he won a gold record for Trisha Yearwood’s rendition of his “Little Hercules.”
The Vagabond’s title cut, co-written with Steve Nelson, is a real stunner lyrically. Oppositional images seesaw and accumulate, building up to the sweet release and romantic sentiment of the chorus, all wrapped up in a very conventional and tasteful acoustic country arrangement:
I've been the liar, I've been the lie, I've been the junkie, I've been the high
I've been the genius, I've been the fool, I've been the outlaw, I've been the rule
I've been the freight train, I've been the track, I've been the tightrope, I've been the slack
I've been the juggler, I've been the pin, I've been the scalpel, I've been the skin
But I never would've dreamed I'd end up here on a
Steady course with even keel where you
Don't have to reinvent the wheel 
Not if you've got something real
I love the way your love makes me feel

For some reason “The Vagabond” reminds me of “Elysium,” the gorgeous song by Mary Chapin Carpenter that always makes me burst into tears:

I could show you the arrows and circles I drew
I didn't have a map, it's the best I could do
On the fly and on the run
To dreams that were tethered like kites to the ground
To the bridges I burned, to then turning around
It was here in your heart I was finally found
And the last battle won for Elysium

Craig has always had an exceedingly snarky sense of humor, which is in abundant evidence on The Vagabond. The snark triumphs in “No You in We,” co-written with Randy Sharp and Kathy Grucella. It’s a masterful exploration of disappointed, bitter love, fully expressing country music’s fondness for puns and double entendre. The snark disappears on “Bad Idea,” a lament from a guy at high risk of falling into stalkerdom, but who sees his peril just in time.

Music marketers advise artists not to use the word “eclectic” to describe their styles. They have a point, since marketing is next to impossible without an easily remembered tag these days. Fortunately singer-songwriter is now an established genre, and it enables its practitioners to meld multiple musical influences if they feel like it. The music itself can be eclectic, when, as Craig does here, you are playing with artists who can shift gears easily even while they bring deep experience of particular musical pathways. It’s not mix-‘n’-match, or pastiche; it’s profoundly American music woven from many closely-related branches. For example, “Nothing’s Going to Stop Me,” co-written with Angelica Alm, is a swampy blues, dripping with electric guitar work. A couple of tunes – “Mr. Sorry” and “You” – recall the Time Between the Wars, that is, the period from about 1918 to 1939, when women in heavy satin evening gowns draped themselves on sinuous Art Deco furniture and men knew how to pop a silk top hat.

Craig had started out as an English and theater major in Eugene, but those plans were scrapped when he encountered singer-songwriter Tommy Smith, who introduced Craig to a new concept:

That was where [I encountered] the whole idea that there was something in between being the band who played at the school dance, and the Beatles - an idea that had never really occurred to me before that.
One reason it might not have occurred to him, other than his extreme youth, is that the era of the singer-songwriter was relatively new at the time, emerging from the folk tradition and basically created by the likes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Paul Simon - individuals who wrote, recorded and performed their own material (and, to the music business’s distaste, often retained most of their intellectual property rights).

Armed with a new vision, Craig returned to Portland, where many singer-songwriters were already cultivating an intense identity as auteurs, about which Craig adds:
I think for good or bad, Portland was not much of a collaborative culture, in bands perhaps, but not so much in songwriting. I think that may have helped me develop a voice, and participated in my becoming adept at both writing words and music alone.
The scene at the time was extremely lively, with numerous clubs and coffeehouses all within a radius of a couple of miles within the city’s core. Riding the vast wave of Baby Boomers in their 20s, musicians put together all kinds of bands: R&B and funk, country rock, jazz, psychedelic, and quite a few bands whose material was uncategorizable, like Notary Sojac, The Sunnyland Band, and my own band, Moonstone, in which I sang and played acoustic guitar, recorder, percussion, and flute, while other members played congas, tenor sax, various electric guitars, trumpet, and dulcimer along with the usual piano, bass and drums. It sometimes took us several minutes to reconfigure ourselves between songs. Ah, the analog world! (Note: If you’d like to know more about the music scene in Portland in the late 1960s & early 1970s, see this article.)

Craig's Portland days helped him become a good songwriter with a very nice voice, an enormous amount of energy, and plenty of aspiration - just the qualities necessary to succeed in Nashville. There he transcended auteur isolationism, latterly adopting the modern Nashville practice of teaming up with other songwriters, including  Angelica Alm, Peter Busborg, Phillip Coleman, Claus Frovin, Kathy Grucella, Don Henry, J. Fred Knobloch, Bill Lloyd, Steve Nelson, and Randy Sharp. On The Vagabond he has also drawn in numerous stellar players from both Nashville and Portland and beyond  – enough women, I am happy to report, to form a band: Catherine Marx on keyboards, Alison Prestwood on bass, Andrea Zonn on fiddle, and vocals from former Portlander Caryl Mack Parker, Kim Richey (one of my fave alt-country artists!), and the young Swedish songwriter Madeleine Jonnson.

For me, Vagabond makes the whole idea of singer-songwriting worthwhile: the scraping by, the open mikes, the wee hours lugging gear, the revolting stench of Pine-Sol mixed with stale tobacco smoke, the jealousies, grudges, misunderstandings and broken faith. As envious as I am of the musical prowess on display on The Vagabond, it’s also an inspiration to know somebody has actually achieved the goal of independent, high-quality songwriting and performance that can span the emotional spectrum with such acute perception and expressive gift. And the merger of Nashville and Portland makes a very nice place to live indeed!

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