Characters in songs are one of the ways that strong writers make their music more than just sound. A good instrumentalist adds to that through their skills, which is certainly appreciated from us as music lovers. Look back at some of the best all around songwriters. What was it that made you and I true fans? Often it’s more than a killer guitar lick, drum solo, or even a vocal part that seems mind-blowing to grasp.
When you get down to the core of what has made some artists really shine, and what can propel the next generation of songwriters, it’s great characters and stories. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, Simon & Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, and a slew of other folk and rock legends all built their careers around stories.Hendrix, Sinatra, Willie Nelson, BB King, Johnny Cash, Michael Jackson and a seemingly endless list of other music icons did too. Just listen to the songs.
There are great instrumental and even graphic elements of songwriters forever stamped in the Best Of All-Time category, and there are novel or even literary comparisons that can be made to how the song pulls us into the storyline because of the characters involved.
We just see it a lot more often and a little easier in the folk and singer-songwriter realms than other genres, with a few exceptions. Blues, soul, and gospel are some of those exceptions. Recently I saw a performance by the very talented Ruthie Foster whose own incredible vocal range mixed with a killer drummer and bass player made for one hell of a show. But at the heart of her work were some of the most powerful storylines written. Go hear The Titanic for further proof.
I’m not trying to diminish or take away from powerful instrumentation, because those players and their skills are absolutely a part of a powerful listening experience. There’s no way to hear Bugs Henderson’s guitar work and not be floored at the talent and pulled into the experience. However, when you can add a John Grisham-esque storyline to it, you get what Springsteen has done for the past 40 years.
Which leads us back to the indie music realm, or more appropriately, the non-platinum recording artist world where true fans are looking for something passionate, original, and heart-felt to cling on to. We, as music lovers in this capacity, are drawn to songwriting at captures us in our hearts and souls, that sings to us our own stories or ones similarly enough that we understand ourselves better. A character that embodies the best of us in our aspirations and the worst of us in our actions.
I can honestly say that’s what has made Iron and Wine one of my favorite artists in recent years. His older work like Creek Drank The Cradle, The Shepherd’s Dog and even some of Kiss Each Other Clean plays out like a Cormac McCarthy novel. At times desolate and unnerving, at times hopeful, always engaging and intriguing.
What storylines and storytellers are you drawn to? Share the stories and songwriters you turn to with me and I’ll see about getting them on the radio show.