After almost 40 years in the business, Max Ellis lets fly on one of his pet whinges...
Tedious love songs
The comments I'm about to make have been building up steam for quite a while, but some performances I heard at a recent Tamworth Country Music Festival have pulled it all into focus for me. Mind you I'm not a composer, singer or musician but I do have ears!!
Over the years, like so many others, I've squirmed and cringed my way through countless talent quests and concerts where young hopefuls have performed, often sending the audience staggering out in a lyric coma, with jangling senses and tortured ear drums.
Like so many others, I've asked time and time again is this really country music or are we in danger of losing the spirit and essence of our genre?
Well, perhaps a spell listening to successful artists like Troy Cassar-Daly, Melinda Schneider, Sara Storer, Adam Brand, Graeme Connors, Beccy Cole, Lee Kernaghan and Colin Buchanan (to name just a few) will help restore your faith in country. I admit that some of them do sing pretty up-tempo, noisy stuff sometimes and that they are obviously far better and more experienced singers than the youngsters I'm referring to.
But apart from actual performances there is one major element that sets them far ahead … their songs.
Of course there are notable exceptions, but for many of the young hopefuls, it's a different story. Over the years I've been subjected to a cacophony of pappy, crappy, soppy, soupy, fluffy, fuzzy, rocky, love chants with no stories or narratives and totally without any content worth listening to.
You lost your girl or perhaps found a new one? … Well who cares !!! … unless you can make it an interesting story. Some young performers seem to think that repeating clichés, ad nauseum, about love and lovers, preferably at full volume, equates to intelligent and interesting lyrics. It doesn't. It's sheer bloody boring.
Recently I heard a young hopeful sing "A Bushman Can't Survive", John Williamson's classic song that Tania Kernaghan made popular. Instantly it cut through the rubbish like a Ferrari through a gaggle of home made hot rods. It was class … a story worth listening to and the way it was presented gave me a real idea of what that artist was capable of.
I'm sick of self indulgent, introspective, egocentric pap that is only relevant to the writer. I like narrative songs that are what country music is all about. If you listen to Troy and the artists I've mentioned, you'll find most of their songs are narratives, about happenings, people, places or situations. In other words, story songs. They have varied subjects, substance, content and even musical styles but the singers all have something to say to the listeners. They tell us a story that grabs our attention.
Don't think I'm knocking songs just because they deal with love and feelings. Swinging Door which Catherine Britt presents so well, is a clever, catchy narrative about rejection. And there are heaps of examples of country love songs with substance and story line too like Brendon Walmsley's Rose & Rodeo and Two Stars Fell, which Gina Jeffreys made a winner.
These days, there is a great focus on writing your own material in country music and that's fine … if it's any good. But for many youngsters who are still learning about life and lyrics, a better option would be to find excellent narrative songs written by someone who has mastered the craft and adapt them to their own style and presentation. They should also look carefully at composers who specialise in writing songs for others or co-writing with an experienced and successful composer.
Telling a story is one of the things that sets country music apart from most hip hop, rock, pop, jazz or what ever, and the people that succeed in Australian country do just that. Listen to the top country CDs or look at the Golden Guitar results over the years and you'll understand.
So if you're starting out please, please, please remember …. Narrative, Narrative, Narrative.
First published in Capital News 2007