Reconsidering the Singer-Songwriter

OK, singer-songwriters are fine, I know, but I still have a knee-jerk prejudice against singer-songwriters as a genre. If you are one, rest assured, the post becomes much more friendly to you later on. Fortunately, I never experienced any kind of singer-songwriter trauma. I’ve never had a guitar-toting busker too-earnestly insist I support his art. Really, it’s nothing like that. At some point, I bought in to a stereotype, chose to follow a crowd, and just placed singer-songwriters in with polka artists (I’m not apologizing to polka fans. I just hate the music.). So, here’s the roots of my problem:

Hee Haw, the TV show ... better than Lawrence Welk

Hee Haw, the TV show … better than Lawrence Welk

  • Hee Haw. I remember four TV programs that were allowed in our household and our grandparents household (where boredom prevailed). There was the news, Lawrence Welk, Sesame Street, and Hee Haw. Singer-songwriters have nothing to do with Hee Haw, but, when some hat-wearing dude or dudette stands in front of the microphone with just an acoustic guitar, it really looks like a singer-songwriter. But, yes, Hee Haw was all country music and, more specifically, a kind of exaggerated folksy version of it. It made me hate the music and whatever looked like it. Even re-runs of Gomer Pyle shows looked too much like Hee Haw.
  • Earnestness. An earnest 5 year old is great. Some Earnest’s are important and Earnest (Ernest, really) went a lot of places but, other than that earnestness can be just too much. An earnest guy in a coffee shop with his acoustic guitar fits the ambience, but if you make even a little eye contact, every song will be sung to you, just you.
  • Solitude. A singer-songwriter in her natural element just seems so lonely. She can’t find even one other band member and everyone wants to be in a band. She comes across as a friendless board gamer or an isolated music blogger. It’s not natural!

But that’s all wrong. I am all wrong. You see, singer-songwriters are artists, too. Some are quite good. That earnestness? Some are out to save the world and, too-sweet that may be, it’s still a positive goal. As for the solitude, that’s just a person with so much talent that no other musicians are required. And Hee Haw … well … let’s just leave it at that.

My prejudice is real, but fading. In real life, Dana and I met some new friends and Alex, half of that cool couple, is kind of a singer-songwriter. His songs are basic, not boring, poppy songs about life, love, and feelings. Yes, he plays with a band, but almost everything about his music fits the niche of singer-songwriter. But he gets along great with people and just wants to share the fun he gets in music. Sure, he’ll look at you from the stage, but it’s not creepy, it’s just another way to spread his joy. He takes his art seriously, but his art is fun. That’s a huge crack in my unfair stereotype. All that’s required is one more tap and it’s gone.

Recently, I stumbled across the blog of another real singer-songwriter, Jasmine Kyle who’s made a living at it, for awhile in LA, and now, after detouring through regular life, is starting up again in Milwaukee, including live performances. I know nothing about her music, nothing at all, but, from her blog, I can tell that her music is about tapping in to her deep creative drive. I was so stuck in my view of singer-songwriters crusading for justice, one folky song at a time, that I never considered how the inner spark, flame, or pilot light just has to get out. So, there goes the prejudice, at last. Echoes may remain, but the main prejudice? Gone.

Now, in my new, more open self, I realized I already knew some folks who, in some way, might be considered singer-songwriters. Barbara Parker, an all-around artist, has several songs on SoundCloud where it’s her voice, a guitar, and some more-or-less folky songs. I was against her? That’s just wrong?!?! There may never be a more relaxed, accessible artist. Another blogospheric member, Mr. J. Hubner (one of my two go-to bloggers) doesn’t play conventional singer-songwriter music, but he sings, writes songs, and records many of them all by himself. Technically, he’s a singer-songwriter, too. Rejecting him would be like rejecting an electronic brother. Some day, hopefully soonish, I may join their ranks, although I could be more of a howler-songwriter or just weirdo-songwriter. We’ll see.

So, as a genre, I am probably still not a big fan, but I respect the art, the creative process, and, given the right song, even the music. If I don’t like it as music, it’s still valid as art and art is good.

16 thoughts on “Reconsidering the Singer-Songwriter

    • Ah, yes, the humor. Back then, I groaned. Now? I think I’d groan harder. It’s kind of Laugh In for the fake hillbilly set.

  1. I’m afraid I too have always been a little rough with the singer-songwriter model. Though, my eschewed view was because of 70s singer-songwriters like Dan Fogelberg, James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot, and the like. Something about the emoting and the gentle finger picking, well it just annoyed me. Even as a kid I’d want the radio station switched every time something like Bread came on the radio, or “Sundown”.

    I still hold a grudge to that era, but guys like John Vanderslice, Damien Jurado, and even Steve Gunn have helped me get past my singer-songwriter hatin’. Even my friend Mark Hutchins has shown me it’s not all bad. His bread and butter is playing acoustic guitar for 30 or so drunk folks in tiny pubs, and he does it very well.

    J. Hubner? Never heard of him.

    • I think some of your modern singer-songwriter writings (and Fichtenstein’s, too) have had an influence. As for James Taylor, I actually learned to appreciate him not from his recordings, but the fact that, in live performances I heard (not in person), he’d do some creative/interesting new arrangement of his old songs. Also, with me North Carolina period, I probably got a little indoctrinated: “James Taylor, he’s from aroun’ these parts!”

      That Hubner guy? You might like him. Chances are that some of your family like him more.

      • I have an uncle that was the singer/songwriter type. I can remember vividly growing up and he’d always have an acoustic guitar with him. He’d play his own songs, plus the previously mentioned artists(minus that Canadian that sings about sinking ships). So you’d think this would make that a positive memory with me, but it doesn’t.

        Taylor I can listen to more than the others. There’s just something there in those certain singer-songwriter types that reminds me of a part of the 70s I can’t hack. Variety shows, over-the-top schticky humor(Hello Laugh-In and Hee-Haw), and a cheese-filled danish known as disco. There’s so much of the 70s I love, that’s just not one of those things.

        And I mean no disrespect to Seattle and the Wayward Pioneer. It’s me, not you.

        • Maybe I’m getting too deep, but it’s the 70’s fault. We were young and the musical culture wasn’t speaking to us unless it was speaking down to us. Even Disco Duck sounded patronizing. Did Dan Fogelberg care? No. Carly Simon. Nope. Barry Manilow? Maybe, but probably not. I guess I have something to talk to a therapist about!

  2. Ah. Don’t know what to say here. Schooled in the art of “write what you know” in Latte-Land (before it WAS Latte-Land)where Bonnie Guitar devolved to Heart, devolved to Grunge, I am probably one of those singer-songwriter types who make J. Hubner’s flesh crawl. I try not to do that, but well, see above.

    But we also had Hendrix, which helps, and I came to love Ray Charles more than Hank Williams, Sr., and pretty much deserted Patsy Cline when I found Etta James. This is my heritage. I am trying to write my way out of it. Don’t think of this as an apology – I actually feel better when I write and sing something that rises out of that amalgam. It may not be precious metal, but there are those who connect to it, and for now, that is powerful stuff for me.

    As for the singer-songwriter image? If you take the plunge (and you KNOW you want to…) either howler or weirdo gives you a much wider range of wardrobe than conventional guitar beater. Just sayin’

    • Honestly, it never occurred to me that people would organically follow that path. The folks Hubner mentioned, particularly Dan Fogelberg, seemed so self-indulgent to me. Maybe he was, but that shouldn’t have turned me against all such musicians. That connecting to it? That’s what I didn’t understand. I’m grown up enough now (I think) to appreciate people connecting to music I like and to music I don’t like. It’s such a relief to not have the world revolve around me … as much.

      Honestly, if/when I take the plunge, I’ll probably destroy convention more by my guitar-wrangling than vocals. The guitar may sound like Bloom County’s Bill the Cat, but the vocals will be, probably, somewhere in a lower-register of James Taylor.

    • Fascinating! A Performer of Canadiana, seller of worn out stompin’ plywood, worker in Canadian tobacco fields (I didn’t think the climate supported that), and a man who despite very unhealthy habits lives to 77. It’s nice to share many commonalities with Canada, but it’s cool to discover the differences, too.

  3. My definition of singer-songwriter is pretty eclectic and not limited to the earnest and folky genre (oh no, I’ve just discovered someone on YouTube called Earnest Folkie!). And I like the ’70s AND James Taylor. But yes, a little earnestness goes a long way… a very long way.

    All the best with the weirdo-songwriter genre — although I have a feeling it’s not a new one,
    Anna (singer-songwriter)

    • Earnest Folkie? Oh my!

      In retrospect, my definition was probably too narrow and too judgmental. It’s refreshing to remove my distorted lens and see the fun and art of it!

      Also, my image of you expands yet again: artist, designer, musician. I’ll await the debut of any novels or theatrical performances.

      • Oh I know plenty of singer-songwriters who fit the narrower definition and I’m probably guilty of taking myself too seriously at times (busted) but at least I’ve never written a polka… although now that I think about it, that could be fun ; )

        Sadly, no novels or theatrical performances any time soon — I don’t have the time for the life I’m living now!

  4. I also use the term “songwriter” ambiguously, sometimes with a sneer, sometimes to talk about good art. I think we should start to use different expressions for the “bad” kind. Something like “Shmongwriter”…I always think that those just fiddle a little with their guitar, write a few personal/pseudo-personal lyrics and call it a day. Now, the good songwriters however, really really work on their songs and treat them like sculptures, carefully chipping away, adding details and trying to find the magic in a melody or lyric. Funnily enough, J. Tillman used to be a Shmongwriter (a pretty good one, though) and then realized that it wasn’t fulfilling at all and that he didn’t really use his real voice and then he became Father John Misty and did wonderful things.

Am I wrong?