At the 1994 IBMA Conference I heard Marty Stuart's keynote speech. Marty started in bluegrass music and has gone on to be a country music star. He talked about his love for traditional bluegrass, and then said: Where are the new songs? He felt that the primary thing holding back bluegrass from greater popular acceptance was that the songwriting was staying behind the culture. This talk was a revelation to me. I realized that what I had been struggling to write was a new kind of song: steeped in the musical materials of traditional music, and the lyrical conventions of older songs; but trying to speak in images that were the right images for these times. In many ways this would feel like old voices reaching out and calling to us. It's not just writing "modern" lyrics in traditional musical clothing; nor is it just imitating the themes of traditional songs.
I write songs and I also play and listen to various kinds of traditional music: Irish, old-time American, bluegrass, Balkan, klezmer, you name it. These varied musical forms have influenced my songwriting very strongly. I'm attracted by the writing of other people who can drawn on strong traditional models for their work. There's no hard and fast boundary around this community, but I recognize that certain feeling.
I went to a songwriting workshop where I met a fellow who had acted as the lead in the stage production of the "Buddy Holly Story." He had learned ALL Buddy Holly's music. I thought his songs were great; they were different. They didn't sound like everything else.
I think the values inherent in this traditionalist approach to songwriting are several:
1. Respect for and sense of connection with tradition. This was there in the early folk scene, but as the acoustic singer-songwriter scene has become its own insular world it feels as if many of these links have been broken.
2. Connection to other cultures.
3. Connection with other generations.
4. Working with a broader pallette of forms: rhythms, modes, styles...
5. Working within distinct genres or styles at all. Bluegrass songs are like haiku: unbelievably economical lyrical forms that are a source of wonderful lessons in songwriting.
6. Connection with instrumental music and dance as well as the solo songwriting tradition from folk clubs and stage performance.
7. Connection to harmony singing, community-based singing, ballads that tell stories about events. Singing other peoples' songs; traditional songs as well as your own.
If I had to stick my finger in the wind these are some indications I could point to of someone who is a "traditionally-based songwriter." I warrant it's what gives that particular flavor to writers like Tim O'Brien, Martin Carthy and the entire English acoustic songwriter school that I grew up with and love so much, Paul Brady, Richard Thompson, and the fine crop of new bluegrass writers that are around. I hope my work as a songwriter will be seen as part of this wonderful tradition in which I have been raised.
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