After Cher’s 1998 hit Believe, I honestly thought I would never again have to hear digital pitch-correction used as an effect. The first time I heard it, I hated it. Every digital engineer had played around with it, but it wasn’t something you allowed in public except maybe to scare kids on Halloween. Mark Taylor is responsible—not just for the monstrosity that is this song, but for starting a deeply scarring trend. My brother-in-law (and Emmy Award winning sound engineer for Fox) Lee Walker promises me that the trend is almost dead. I hope he is right, but I have noticed that it still lingers—though more subtly—on singers such as Taylor Swift; this makes me think that Swift can’t sing. So now we just have to find “cute” little things, correct their woefully out of tune singing, and claim we are just “producing” their music.
All of this explains, in part, why more and more I gravitate to older music. When a guy stands in front of a mic with just his voice and guitar, you get as close as possible to a real human interaction—a human connection. Recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of music from the 1920s and 1930s. One artist—Geeshie Wiley (there are MP3 files of three of her songs)—I was introduced to at a free concert that I attended by Eric & Suzy Thompson back on 25 September 2009 at the Sonoma County Library.
In general Suzy sings and plays the fiddle and Eric plays guitar. But they mix it up; they are both multi-instrumentalists. What is more important is that they perform an eclectic mix of music, and I don’t mean Death Metal as well as Glam Metal; they do everything from Country (like the Delmore Brothers, not modern Country that seems to be nothing more than pop with a slide guitar and optional affected southern accent); and diverse Blues (Memphis Minnie and Peg Leg Howell who are almost from different planets, much less the same musical genre—Minnie is the one from earth in case you were wondering); and Cajun music (the Thompsons were part of the California Cajun Orchestra with the late Danny Poullard and are now Aux Cajunals).
They were engaging, fun, and musical throughout their 12 song, hour and ten minute set before an audience of a little less than 100. In addition, there were two high points for me. First, Eric Thompson’s guitar playing on Memphis Minnie’s Nothing In Rambling was magical; if I hadn’t been watching him, I would have thought he was playing slide guitar; I’m still trying to figure out just what he was doing. Second, Suzy sang Geeshie Wiley’s Skinny Leg Blues—having reworked the lyrics to suit her style. The song is about a wronged woman who is coming to have her revenge. The original is sexual and violent. Wiley sings:
I’m gonna cut your throat baby, gone look down in your face …
I’m gonna let some lonesome graveyard, be your resting place.
Thompson removes the violence and makes it all about sex and maybe domination:
I’m gonna squeeze you tight baby, until you scream and shout
Cause this little bitty mama knows what it’s all about.
The bottom line is that she killed the song; I loved it.
If you get a chance to see either or both of these fine musicians, don’t pass it up. You won’t be bothered with electronic effects or stage histrionics—just good music well performed. There are not many better ways to spend an hour or two.
Postscript One: Bluegrass Guitar
In 2000, Eric Thompson reissued his first album Bluegrass Guitar (1979) under the title Thompson’s Real. The reissue includes one extra song with David Grisman. It is all instrumental and doesn’t include anything that blows me away. However, it is a very enjoyable album; I like to listen to it when I’m cooking dinner.
What is most remarkable about the album is the musicianship—especially of Thompson. As a fairly capable guitarist myself, listening to Thompson reminds me how much I get away with playing Rock. Rock is sloppy and I love it. Bluegrass, on the other hand, is as demanding as classical music. Listening to this album, I often just marvel at the technique. “Wow! ‘Wow’ is the word you’re looking for!” I couldn’t say it better myself (so I didn’t).
Postscript Two: Dream Shadows
I just got a copy of the Thompson’s 2008 album Dream Shadows.
What a wonderful album this is! It is somewhat like the concert I attended. There are a number of the same songs such as Beaver Slide Rag and Lloyd Bateman. And, of course (because Suzy Thompson seems to be as aware as I that she kills the song), Skinny Leg Blues—which she calls Little Bitty Mama. I wish I could provide it for you here, but that would be illegal and unethical and really unfair to these fine performers; but the good news is that you can download the MP3 for just 99 cents—like most songs. The album also includes a beautiful tune by Geshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas: Motherless Child. Suzy’s voice really takes to this kind of song. The same goes for Wiley’s Last Kind Words.
I have to agree to some extent with Ralph in the comments that their Cajun music was not particularly good live. On this album, it is different. There are two stellar Cajun tunes: Gasport Two-Step and Valse de Vieux Temps. It helps to have a few more musicians; Cajun music is a little hard to do as a duo—not that they don’t; live their Cajun music was enjoyable, just not as great as the rest of their stuff.
I’m not going to go into the background of the original artists and songs or even list them any more than I already have. The Thompson’s have already done this. Buy this album; it is just $8.99 for the MP3 download of the whole album from Amazon. Now. Really.