“…there is a playful randomness about what we find and read. Or rather, what finds us”
When I first rekindled my interest in songwriting and music again, sixteen or seventeen years ago, I began hanging out in music stores, playing the guitar again and digging out songs from my memory and on faded notebook paper from years ago. One day, a worker in the store I frequent most, Fretted Instruments of Birminghm, said, “Are you just starting to explore the discography?” I had just said that “I was getting into bluegrass music” and that was his reply.
I began to delve into just that—listening, going to shows, scooting to Nashville now and then. I bought a collection of Bill Monroe’s music. Over the coming years, I heard a lot of music live—Bruce Hornsby, Ricky Skaggs, Nickel Creek, J. D. Crowe, Earl Scruggs, Vince Gill, as well as a lot of lesser-known but excellent players and singers coming through the Station Inn in Nashville or here in Birmingham, especially at the old Moonlight Music Café and it’s descendant, Moonlight on the Mountain. I listened to all kinds of music, leading me back to the Carter family, rekindling my love for Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, but also eventually delving back to my own eclectic roots in James Taylor, the Beatles (naturally), gospel music, hymnody, classical musick and the serendipity of albums I happened to buy at certain times.
It’s a little like books—there is a playful randomness about what we find and read. Or rather, what finds us. Somebody tells us about a book they love, or something they came across while reading something else.
Whatever interests you will eventually lead you forward and backwards, into new ideas, but also back into all that preceded it and explain it. As technology has made more and more available, it is possible for anyone with a computer to go and find all sorts of interesting musical ancestors. So for me, “exploring the discography” was going to graduate school. It led me first to my initial interest, bluegrass, but then on to jazz, blues, soul, R&B, folk, gospel, old-time, and all sorts of fusions.
The intersections can be quite interesting. There are purists, of course, who insist on telling all the rest of us what we are supposed to like, and they are in every genre, but both the honoring of the past and the acceptance of the new have a place at the table of creation. In recent times, I find myself going back again. Perhaps an inevitable preference of aging, you want to re-touch meaning from the past. But I also think there is another rich vein of possibility unearthed when we cease from our worship of “novelty,” (which often turns out merely to be unconscious borrowing or worse) and revisit the discographies of the world. What we find is that, even if the work of art or song or words we read before are exactly the same, we no longer are. We hear differently each time.
A little backward exploration enlightens you to know that everything is borrowed and reassembled. Monroe forged together old-time music with gospel, country, blues and other streams to create bluegrass. The Carter family recorded and handed down hundreds of songs that came from families and groups in the hills that had been sung for generations “by our people” and commercialized it as country music. The great classical composers always stood on the shoulders of others. The old becomes new when it is rediscovered and reqppropriated.
“The Road Less Traveled” is one way to live. But there is value in traveling the road we have walked a hundred times with new eyes and ears. It can be an astounding discovery of something we never saw in the first place. So what is back there for you? It may not be music, but something that keeps yielding fruit for you may still be waiting where you left it.