Monday, December 12, 2016

"Pick It Up" - The Stories Behind the Songs



"Pick it Up": The Stories Behind the Song

Baker's Half Dozen

Mickey Baker was, of course, a greatly influential guitarist, most famous for his Groove Records hit, "Love is Strange", with Sylvia Robinson. The song was written by Bo Diddley and features a nine note Baker guitar lick.
By the time "Love is Strange" peaked on the charts in November 1957, I had been the young, mystified owner of a Roy Rodgers motif guitar for about a year. I had already learned all the songs in the book that came with the guitar, "Red River Valley", "Home on the Range", and a dozen others.
When I heard that rippin' Baker lick, I was pretty sure that was the path for me. I wasn't sure how he made his guitar sound like that, but I knew I could pick out that lick. I did and was on my way to what quickly became an addiction to pickin' out licks.
Mickey Baker had another role in my development as a guitarist. This influence came through his book, "Jazz Guitar I", which I was given sometime around 1960. The book is not a "song" based approach, but rather just presents dozens of chords, along with a good explanation of why a G7b5b9, for example, is so named. Also, he shows arpeggios, exercises, and some jazzy licks – just what young fingers need to develop. The chords comped behind the solos in "Baker's Half Dozen" are entirely comprised of chords I learned from "Jazz Guitar I".

I Crossed the Line

A clear reference to "I Walk the Line", I intended this song to be a tribute to the Cash style. The story is of a young person who, in envy of material possessions, starts a long slide from which leads to an apparent shooting that earns him a death sentence. It's an allegory for all the decisions we make that "cross the line" and the consequences that follow.

You Could Have Fooled Me

This is an implied "cheatin'" song. "I never really loved you" is offered up to explain why the straying party feels justified in the affair. The one who is left loses not only his home, but his memories of better times – apparently, he was just deluded. Also, I wanted a groove like "Silver Wings" and the band delivered a great one.

This Time It's Different

Gotta have the killin' song. Each year for Austin's annual "Dead Sweethearts Ball", I've written a killin' song. I do not subscribe to domestic violence – it's a terrible thing. However, it is fun to write about from a safe distance. In this song, inspired by all those murder shows on tv, I hope the first time listener is led to believe that "this time he's not coming home" because he ran off with some barroom floozy. Not so, we learn later in the song. The wronged wife follows and executes that spouse and his lover. She expects to be caught and punished, but he just went a little too far. This is Waylonesque two beat/waltz in the fashion of "Amanda"… we love ya', Waylon.

Pick It Up

I've always been an admirer of O'Henry style irony in a story. In this song, I made up a character, Carl, who sells pencils on a corner. He respects money – it's hard to come by – so much so that he'll chase a runaway penny down the street. But when he uncovers a lottery ticket worth $50,000, he becomes disdainful of the value of a penny and just leaves one lying on the ground… and he pays a stiff price. There's a pretty clear moral to this story – but the song ends abruptly ahead to disclosing this moral.

Deep Fat Fried

When I was young, almost all food was prepared by frying… chicken, steaks, okra, potatoes. With the introduction of modern deep fat fryers, you might be led to believe that all food is friable. I've played a dozens of state fairs and have seen a dizzying array of deep fat edibles, from funnel cake, to deep fat fried Oreos.
Musically, this song aurally references Merle Travis' talkin' blues like "Smoke that Cigarette", or "So Round, So Firm", with a little Travis-picked intro.

Bartender, Tell Me

Overheard in a bar as I was setting up for a gig: "Hey, bartender… where's the liquor store?" It just seemed like a button waiting to have a coat sewn onto it…. so, I took it upon myself to write that song. Also, this song is a recollection of how the lyrics of country tunes suddenly take on deep meaning when you find that you're the flapper on the chicken wing of love.
The groove of "Bartender…" is the result of a study of Willie Nelson's early shuffles such as "Undo the Right"… drums and bass settle into a nice shuffle, held in place by the piano. The rhythm guitar hits evenly on every beat, as opposed to the usual 2-4 accents. It's a difficult groove to establish and the entire band does a great job with it.

Note to Self

Once again, if you listen to you audience, you'll pick up some song titles. One night, during a gig with The Texas Hummingbirds, my bandmate, Karen Poston, announced to the crowd that we would be back the following week. I heard a disgruntled girl, clearly expecting something more than the stripped down, "family singing" group that was the Texas Hummingbirds, say a little too loudly, "Note to self: don't go." Although the lyrics have nothing to do with drunk sorority sisters, her calendar commentary became the hook line of the song.
That's not all, though. I've always remembered to introduction to the early self-help book, "I'm OK, You're OK", in which the author tells a story of a potential reader who refuses to read the book, saying, "I ain't livin' nearly as good as I already know how." The character in this story KNOWS better, but he's like dieter with a quart of ice cream in the freezer… he just can't stop himself.
T Jarrod Bonta establishes the song's groove with a piano lick similar to that in Gene Watson's "14K Mind". This is topped with a little Les Paul inspired intro lick.

(Chicken Pickin') the Hen, Pt. 1

This is the one song on "Pick It Up" that I didn't write, but, in a way it's the inspiration for the entire project.
I first heard this song when I was surfing the web for tunes that were issued on Stan Lewis' labels, Jewel and Paula. I found "The Hen, Pt. 1" on YouTube and it just blew my socks off… a great B-3 led funky tune with sax lead and a great jazz/blues guitar solo. However, there was no clue as to the players except the mysterious Louis Chachere on B-3.
So I dug around for additional information – where it was recorded, when it was recorded, and who were the other players. I had assumed these were New Orleans guys… possibly associated with The Meters, or some other well know funk-masters in a hired gun role.
Finally, I got a tip when I learned that Louis Chachere had produced a single by a late 60s girl group called "The Trinikas" – and that it had been recorded in Kansas City at The Cavern (recording studio), the same studio in which I had recorded in 1970. A little further digging revealed that Chachere had played regularly at a club in KC during that time. The guitar player was none other than Calvin Keys, and KC veteran, Dwight Foster played sax. The drummer was known only as "Woodchuck". I don't know how let slip by the opportunity to hear this band at the time.

Wrong John

Yet another club experience. Small crowd… I asked if John was there and 12 of 18 people responded. But each was the WRONG JOHN. It has nothing to do with selecting the correct restroom, by the way. Yet another parable about fixing yourself before you think another relationship is going to do the trick.

I Am, Therefore I Drink

The Latin translation would be "Sum ergo Bebe" and it just follows as a corollary to Rene Descartes' "Critique of Pure Reason… I think therefore I am." I assume a little intelligence on the part of the listener, since there's not a lot in this song. My favorite part is the bridge which explains the many reasons a person might drink. We generally leave out the coda when we play this live since the lyrics are too hard to remember.

It's Not What I Need

I bought at Fender Jazzmaster a couple years back, knowing I really didn't need this guitar, but I'd always thought it was Fender's best design. It wasn't really a bad choice, but the same mechanism that resulted in inducting this guitar into my twang arsenal can lead us to eat/drink too much, buy those impulse items at the store, get into questionable relationships and so on… you get the picture? If not, listen to the song.

Barely Legal

"Barely Legal" was originally created for a Bear Family compilation. The requirement was that each song had to have "Bear" in the title. I don't know why it didn't end up on the comp, but I think it makes a good addition to "Pick It Up".

That's What Friends are For

I wrote this just because I thought it was funny. I wanted a Carl Smith "Hey Joe" type tune. I often poll the audience after this song to ask which men and which women can identify with this tune in which a guy offers to look after his friend's sweetheart – his motives are questionable. No one ever raises his or her hand. I tell the audience that this confirms my hypothesis: "All men are liars, all women are angels."
Musically, this carries on the Tunesmith's groove, along with a Maddox Brother's unruly studio mob hollering during solos.

Pick It Up, Epilogue

This record was seriously delayed by an accident that left me unable to walk for a several weeks… but I recovered, a little worse for wear, but pretty mobile. Anyway… it's good to be alive.

-Jim Stringer

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Groove 101

Stringer's Groove 101

These are songs that, to my way of thinking, really drive home the concept of "groove", and I think all players, beginner and experienced alike, could learn from studying just how this feel was created in each song.


1. "You Can't Sit Down", 

Phil Upchurch. From the first trumpet screech to the last chord on the B3, this recording JUMPS!!! Everytime it listen to it, I get the same old chill that I got the first time I heard it. It sounds LOUD, and wild and yet extremely well played. I know every player in the band understood exactly what the objective was and did not have to be told how to achieve it. One of the my favorite things about the performance is that after the drum solo, the drums stop and the organ brings that band back in! Great turn around on the cliche.

2. "Honky Tonk", Bill Doggett.

 A masterpiece of understatement. Beginning with the most ubiquitous blues guitar lick of all time (da-DANG-da-DANG...), then a whole chorus of just the organ pumping chords beneath that lick. Billy Butler and Clifford Scott play scorching solos, paradigms of the genre, but the groove never gets in the way... always just drawing you further in. Most musicians lean too hard when they try to cover (or copy) this tune like they're sawing logs in the hot sun, when they should be sittin' on the porch drinkin' a big ol' mint julep.

3. "Hideaway", Freddy King. 

Once again, a masterful bit of understatement. Drummers -- this is what a back-beat double shuffle should be -- not a bunch of cymbals ringing, nor a snare drum resounding like colliding trains! I love how the piano punctuates, but never takes over the groove, which happens all too easily. And of course, there's the Peter Gunn straight 8's forced over the shuffle. A really brilliant band effort.

4. "Mustang Sally", Wilson Pickett and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section

Overplay can make a song into a cliche. But in my experience, there are few players that can capture the relentless, but subtle groove established by Roger Hawkins ever in the pocket, and never over the top drumming, enhanced by Jimmy Johnson's guitar riffing. I saw Wilson Pickett live several times and though his show had the energy of a tent revival, the traveling band could never quite match the subtle mastery of the Swampers.

5. Love and Happiness, Al Green

A close call here... "Take Me to the River" is a great groove also, but I think this track is carried more by the song structure, whereas "Love And Happiness" stands on just the groove and is harder to reproduce in its delicate balance in tempo, interplay between Teenie Hodges riff, and Howard Grimes drums, smooth as an ice rink. Not technically part of the "groove", Teenie Hodges eight note intro lick, simple and memorable, sets up the whole song. Maybe guitarists should more often ask themselves, "What would Teenie do?"

6. Rip it Up, Little Richard with Earl Palmer

My experience playing this song is the the drummer will start banging on cymbals -- because after all, we're rippin' it up, right. But Earl Palmer on drums is the key to this groove... he does it with his snare drum until, restraining from cymbals until the sax solo. Bassist Frank Fields and guitarist Edgar Blanchard, both Dave Bartholomew alums, pretty much follow Palmer's lead and create yet another relentless, yet restrained groove. Few bands have the discipline to apply themselves as one to create such a memorable groove. "Lucille" is a close challenger for this list, again, largely due to Palmer's incredible New Orleans beat. Also, Little Richard's piano is a strong contributor. Also, interestingly, The Everly Brother's version of "Lucille" is a contender largely due to the incredible ride cymbal pattern -- likely Buddy Harman. In addition, the track is adorned by a pedal steel solo!

7. Cleanup Woman, Betty Wright, Clarence "Little Beaver" Hale

This track is such a great example of dividing the groove. The guitars and bass are rhythmically complex -- so the drums must be simple. I would listen to this groove played without any vocal or horn section for the entirety of the song -- it's that fascinating. Players who have tried covers of "Cleanup Woman" know how difficult it is to hold tempo throughout. If this gets even a tiny bit faster or slower, the dancability is ruined. Guitarists "Little Beaver" and Jerome Smith (KC and the Sunshine Band, believe it or not) establish the groove, but it would become tiresome if the drums didn't hold it down. Interestingly, Betty Wright recorded a lot of material, and though she has a beautiful voice with a 4 octave range, but she never recreated the magic of this track which though associated with her name, was not actually about the vocal, lyrics, etc.

How to Make Up a Story for Kids (and Grandkids)

How to Make Up a Story for Kids (and Grand kids)

by Jim Stringer on Sunday, April 4, 2010 at 3:59pm ·

How to Make up Stories for Your Kids (and Grand kids) 


I'm going to tell you how to make up stories for your kids, grandkids, etc., that they'll love and will forever etch out your place in their lives. In addition, these stories will put ‘em to sleep at bedtime, and keep them as quiet as a Packard straight-eight when in the car. 

I don't have an English Degree... never wrote a novel. My skills in this department were initially garnered from my Dad who told me similar bedtime stories when I was a kid, permanently damaging my mind, no doubt. I then honed this creative cutting edge with stories for my own three kids. Now I’ve extended into grandkids, nieces and nephews… even other people’s kids, so watch out. 

This is a recipe, or a template, not a fill in the blank. You have to make up the characters, plot, dialog, etc. It requires little or no skill, effort, imagination or intelligence… perfect for the average, worn out, nearly brain-dead working parent. 

1. The characters 
First and foremost, the characters are your kids. If you have two or more kids, they still need all to be in the story. It’s no harder for the most part. 

Second, each kid has an animal friend. My own kids had Morris and Nadine D’Taquinbunee (Rabbits of French extraction), Paul and Pauly Possum, Randy The Squirrel… grandson Cooper’s best friend is Alan the Alligator. They all live in the neighborhood and go to the same schools. 

Third, they meet others, most often elves or other animals. They are usually a little skeptical of these new acquaintances, but always make friends. 

2. The Setting 
It always starts in the morning at home. Main character decides to go to animal friend’s house to cook up some activity. The story may leave the home setting – if they do leave, then the more insanely removed from home, the better. One of my kids Morris and Nadine stories always started with a ride on a green Honda motorcycle to a little grassy spot where Morris and Nadine liked to hang out. Cooper and Alan the Alligator often travel on flying jet skis to underwater locales, other planets, etc. However the plots are always equally mundane. The Story ALWAYS ends with the kids saying goodbye to their animal friend, and always involve eating dinner, getting ready for bed and going to sleep. The stories don’t end (like “they lived happily ever after”), they just go to sleep and wake up the next day, in the next story. 

3. The Plot 
As mentioned in #2, mundane is perfectly fine. They may go to the bakery to get a donut, look for colored rocks, learn a dance, make up a song (I’ll have a future note on writing songs for your kids), build a fort… or any of the things your kids have actually done that day. In one of my recent stories for grandson, Mason, we went to Allen Field House at KU, just as we had actually done that day… but in the story, they asked him (and his animal friend, Ollie the Otter – he likes otters) to play on the team to take an injured players place. Of course, then they came home, ate dinner and went to sleep.

4. Don’t be bound to outcome 
Probably, you won’t even have to make up much of the plot… your kids will continually chime in with, “…and then they…”. Just go with it… repeat what they said and add another line like “…and you know what they saw?” They’ll probably tell you. It’s not Steinbeck. 

5. Names 
For some reason, animal friends in my stories often have alliterative names (Alan the Alligator, Ollie the Otter) and the kids seem to like that. However, the elves and development characters usually have more forgettable (you don’t have to remember them from story to story), but ridiculous names. Elves might be “Pffflllght” (Bronx cheer), Poohpocklenut, Ba-dip-ba-dip-ba-dip-Bill, or Jeeeeeeeeeeyum (say ALL the long e’s.) It makes ‘em laugh. 

6. No-no’s 
Nothin’ scary -- at least not really scary. The ghosts turn out to be friendly; monsters invite them home for Chinese checkers, etc. 

Nobody gets hurt unless it’s a scrape on the knee that your main character actually received that day… you get the picture. 

Nobody gets lost, at least not that they can’t find their way out of easily. 

Don’t moralize… you can work some good behavior into the plot, but these stories should be fun. They’ll spot the propaganda (besides the eating dinner and going to bed at the end of the story.) 

7. Series 
Kids also like continuity. The characters can remember things they did in other stories, meet some of the same characters, visit the same places, or draw on their experience from other stories. Repetition makes your job easier, and they’ll help you because they’ll remember every tiny detail! 

8. Finally, some hints for props 
My kids like motorcycles, bicycles that turned into jets, bicycles that turned into horses (particularly magic, talking horses), skateboards that turned into space ships. They also always like finding hidden things, no matter how mundane, although these everyday items often turn out to be magic. 

Also, the kids like having things from their real, everyday life thrown in randomly. Like, Mason’s shirt gets wet swimming with Ollie Otter, so he puts on the new shirt his mom bought him that day. 

The perk for you, the parent, is that telling stories to (with) your kids will make you closer… and they’ll like you a little more. Make your bedtime stories a little more boring and the kids will go right to sleep… make the car stories longer… you’ll have the quietest ride of your life. Good luck. 
--Reprinted from my original "note" on Facebook.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

After the 2016 Election

Yesterday was election day and today, I'm immensely depressed. Songwriter that I am, I often find inspiration in loss -- and today, I'm inspired, therefore, I write.

The results of the "election" verify what we've suspected -- our country is deeply polarized. It's hard to imagine a more clear cut choice that Trump vs. Clinton. The results clearly delineate the two sides and it's very evenly divided -- the popular vote was roughly 50%-50% with Clinton slightly ahead.

By examining the exit polls:

If you are a white woman with a college degree, you voted for Clinton, 51% to 43%. If you are a white woman with no college degree, you voted for Trump, 62% to 34%.

If you are a white male with a college degree, you voted for Trump, 54% to 39%. If you are a white man with no college degree, you voted for Trump 72% to 23%.

ALL other groups sampled, women and men, college or no college, voted overwhelmingly for Ms. Clinton.

For the record, I voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary, and in the general election, I voted for Ms. Clinton. Clearly, I'm out of step with my peer group -- college educated white male.

I have voted for the progressive candidate in every election of my adult life. I would follow this path again without question and I just can't understand why this is not, by a large measure, the majority position.

So... here's the subject of my rumination: why have I been so consistently out of step with the majority in my peer group?

The first clue lies in the fact that I'm writing a blog, unlikely to be read by anyone (other than myself when I look back to see how clever I am), and equally as unlikely to sway anyone's opinion. I should be out forming my fantasy football team (whatever that entails), making business deals to fatten my investment portfolio, shootin' some animals, spittin' on the floor, swaggering. Pretty large clue.

Second clue -- I have chosen for a large percentage of my life to study, write and perform a music often associated with uneducated, white men. I have a particular distaste for mass marketed music of the past 20 years. Only a musician who has chosen this trail can appreciate how isolated is this route!

And third, I'm 68 years old, three grown children, five grand-kids, one on the way... and still seeking relevance. One of the stunning revelations of aging -- not that your body and mind can fail, that you get wrinkled and saggy. Yes that.... but the isolation you feel from your culture. I don't "get" new music; most modern movies seem trivial and uninteresting; great new literature is seemingly non-existent. And conversely, younger people don't get my lyrics or my music; if they read my blog entries, they lose interest after a few sentences (ironically, if this applies to you, you'll never read this sentence); they've never even heard of the people who have shaped my life, or the events that swept me up and dropped me where I stand now.

So... I can't understand how this election was not a clear choice for Hillary Clinton. How could this result possibly follow in a society to which I belong.

And there's the last clue to the source of my feeling of isolation -- that I continually expect reason to prevail. That superstition, bias and prejudice will recede. That people will make choices based upon enlightened self-interest, anticipated consequences of their actions, and willingness to accept delayed gratification. That critical thinking will displace knee-jerk reactions.

That's why I remain, as always -- 

Jim                                       vs.                            Jim's peer group