A long, long time ago / I can still remember / How that music used to make me smile
—Don McLean, American Pie
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Like A Shovel and a Rope (David Ramsey, Oxford American)
In the before times, a little over a year ago, we traveled to Savannah, Georgia, for a music festival. It was fall, but still sweltering. We stood for hours directly in front of the stage, shoulder-to-shoulder with sweaty strangers who, too, love music. This seems like a heat-induced fever dream, an act now incomprehensible. The day’s highlight was seeing Shovels & Rope — the husband-and-wife duo of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst — play live. The energy and intensity of their performance outshone the sun on that humid Georgia afternoon.
At Oxford American, David Ramsey’s intimate portrait of the hardest-working couple in rock ‘n’ roll is a love letter written in 40 short parts. Ramsey captures not only the je ne sais quoi of Shovels & Rope, he documents the down and dirty, the ordinary sleepless exasperation of raising a family while writing, recording, and touring.
Many of their best songs have a deliberateness on the topic of how to build a life, both wistful and hard-edged. “Making something out of nothing with a scratch and a hope,” they sing on “Birmingham,” their origin-myth anthem, “two old guitars like a shovel and a rope.”
There is a way of singing that is a distant cousin of the temper tantrum. A sound that simmers at the bend and snap of the spirit, fragile and fierce. We are peculiar animals that sing songs to each other, but we are still animals.
I think what got me hooked on the way that Cary Ann sings shares something of this current, the way something so powerful could have such brittle edges. Shovels & Rope is like this, too—they seem to conjure in each other a kind of frenzy, grease and fury, tender cries at the edge of a scream. They are an anthemic band, but their medium is the fragility of the anthem: Something about to break.
The thing that they do, I hesitate to say that you have to be there, but—there is an intimacy and devilment to their live performance, a lift and crash, that has been hard to capture on record. So that their art, like the lives they have carved out for themselves, is a thing on the move, uncatchable as a storm. Home and the road and home on the road.
Pure Magic: The Oral History of Prince’s Super Bowl XLI Halftime Show (Alan Siegel, The Ringer)
When I think of Prince, I remember his musical genius. How when he did something, he did it his own way and how his way was always a sharp cut above, a sneak peek into his brilliance, which seemed to radiate from him like heat from the sun. His approach to the 2007 Superbowl half-time show was no different, from how he secured the job and created the setlist, to how he ignored the traditional pre-event press conference requirement to play a few songs instead. Then of course, there was his legendary game-day performance — in the pouring rain, to boot. A truer artist there never was.
Meglen: We had a little meal, just the four of us. At the end of the meal, Prince reached down, and he had a little portable DVD player, because that’s what you had at the time. We weren’t going online at that point. He had a bunch of the previous Super Bowl halftimes. And he basically was critiquing them, saying, “This was good but I wouldn’t have done this.”
Hayes: This is what his thing is: “I don’t care about how you did it before. This is how I do it.”
Meglen: Which finally prompted Saltz to go, “What would you do?” He looked at Saltz, and in his normal Prince way, said, “Sir, follow me, please.” And the three of us followed him upstairs into the living room. And the entire band was standing there in position.
Hayes: He tried to give us a heads-up just to make sure we were on point. Just so, like, everybody knew their stuff.
Meglen: He went over, put on his guitar, and said, “Hit it.”
Arzate: He gave us actually all a private show. The cleaning people, myself, and the executives.
Mischer: When we said, “You’ll have to have a press conference. They would like to interview you,” Prince point blank said, “I don’t do interviews.”
Mischer: He said, “I’m just gonna play for them.” And we said “OK.”
Shelby J.: As we’re walking to the stage I’m like, “I think I’m gonna be sick.” All I can see ahead of me is all these cameras. And so there were these doors over to my left, I didn’t say a word to anybody. I just kindly excused myself for a moment. There were bushes outside. I literally got sick, stood back up, and was like, “OK.” And people were [there] in their Super Bowl garb, but they don’t know me from a can of paint, so I was cool with that. I shut the door and came back in.
Adande: Prince and all his people come out and kind of pick up their instruments, and take their positions.
Flanked by Australian dancers Nandy and Maya McClean—the Twinz—Prince stepped up to the microphone in a salmon-colored suit, thanked Mischer, and addressed the reporters sitting in front of him. “We hope we don’t rock your ears too much,” he said. “Contrary to rumor, I’d like to take a few questions right now.” At that moment, someone in the crowd blurted out, “Prince, how do you feel about performing …”
Adande: I think it was a plant.
Gongaware: It was one of the sportswriters.
Adande: Before he could even finish [the question], Prince just breaks into “Johnny B. Goode.”
Push Play (Chris Dennis, Guernica)
Throughout our lives, most thinking human beings struggle with the question of who we are. As Chris Dennis so eloquently puts it, “We align ourselves with some predominant pattern to alleviate not just our own loneliness, but the perceived loneliness of others around us—until some wild, original thing appears and, against our simpler nature, we leap for it.” For Dennis, loving the music of Dolly Parton and her unabashed conviction in being her made-up, bouffant, silicone-enhanced self helped him understand his own identity.
In the fall of 1986 I turned seven years old, and my father gave me a used black Magnavox boombox. It was sitting on the coffee table when I came home from school. “Push play,” my dad said, and the look on his face confused me, until I realized that the surprise—the actual gift—was the cassette tape he’d already put in the player. So I pushed play. Looking back, it’s obvious that he had fast-forwarded to the song he knew I would immediately recognize and want to hear, because I’d heard it on the radio in the car several times and sang all the words. But when I pushed play, I suddenly felt embarrassed, uncertain, because I loved the song very much and the gift meant that my dad knew: that he saw me, and approved of my loving it. I couldn’t have articulated it then, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted my dad to understand me in this way. I had some ineffable sense that loving Dolly Parton might be something I should hide.
Meet the Revolutionary Women Strumming Their Way Into the World of Flamenco Guitar (Lavinia Spalding, AFAR)
I started to study guitar four years ago, finally making good on a dream I’d put off and denied myself for decades. A few years later, I started studying bass too. Of all the decisions in my life, committing to music has had a profound influence on me, on how I perceive my limitations and my potential. It’s a daily labor of love, where focus and concentration bring small, yet regular rewards from learning to read music, playing songs, training my ear, and working on rhythm and timing. While I’ll never achieve mastery, Lavinia Spalding’s piece at AFAR immediately resonated with me. A child guitar prodigy, she gave up playing in her teens. In a bid to reclaim her music skills and reconnect with her late father, Spalding travels to Spain to study with three tocaoras — the oh-so-rare female Flamenco guitar masters. This piece reminds me of the sheer joy of learning music and how powerful a good teacher’s encouragement can be.
You don’t need to read music to play flamenco, she says. “Flamenco is ninety percent improvisational,” she explains. “It comes from the houses; it’s deep inside the people. It’s an ethnic music, not a scholastic music.” She suggests I simply follow along while she plays falsetas, or soleares melodies. Then her hands explode across the strings like fireworks, and all I can do is stare. And panic. And realize how unprepared I actually am.
Fortunately, she’s as encouraging as she is talented and tenacious. “You’ve got it!” she says again and again during our hour together. She repeats this praise even when it’s abundantly clear that I have not, in fact, got it. Toward the end of our lesson, she suggests I record a video of her playing slowly. Back in my rented apartment, I watch the video 50 times and practice fanatically—once for six hours straight—until I memorize the falsetas. And when my fingertips start tingling, I’m euphoric. I run my thumb over them like they’re a row of tiny talismans.
“I miss my body when it was ferocious”: The Transfiguration of Paul Curreri (Brendan Fitzgerald, Longreads)
Imagine that there is a thing you are put on this earth to do, and then suddenly, you’re no longer physically able to do it. This is exactly what happened to singer-songwriter Paul Curreri, who was cut down in his musical prime, sidelined by permanent injury. “Paul Curreri gives what few songwriters can,” Matt Dellinger wrote in The New Yorker in 2002. “It hits you soon and hard that you’re hearing something exquisite.” In this deeply researched and carefully crafted Longreads feature, journalist Brendan Fitzgerald documents Curreri’s uneasy relationship with his body and his art after suffering damage to the primary tools of his trade — his fretting hand and vocal chords.
In 2008, Curreri’s body began to mutiny. A vocal hemorrhage canceled a tour; another silenced him for more than a year. He self-produced two more studio albums, then he and his wife left Charlottesville. They tried Berlin, and then Austin, Texas. In 2012, while working on demos for a new album, Curreri injured his voice a third time, after which his body seemed all at once to come undone. A twinge in his fretting hand appeared overnight and did not resolve; a doctor told him the pain would not improve. Both arms became inflamed and ached in such a way that, for a time, Curreri found it hard to turn a doorknob or hold a fork. He shelved the new songs and moved with Sproule back to Charlottesville.
Curreri’s appeal, for me, had always lived in his brazen standoffs with limitation, failure, and dissolution. “Beauty fades — it goes a-crackin’ and a-juttin’,” he sang on 2004’s The Spirit of the Staircase. “Some folks go slow, some all of a sudden.” For years, Curreri’s work had shouted, and so he became a shouter of singular beauty. Then, he went quiet — slowly, at first, then all of a sudden.
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