Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Portrait of the Guitarist

Over a semi-boozy Sydney Blogger Meetup a few weeks back, I extracted a semi-promise from Shaun Cronin (his music and uh, other blogging interests) for a guest post here, something I'd been thinking of for a while. Despite a first love of AC/DC, Shaun spent a wild time in LA as a country guitarist and I'm pleased to have his recollections here ....

A three part series of the misadventures of a young country guitarist in Los Angeles back in 1996-97.

Episode 1: In which Shaun goes to LA, takes a musical change in direction, enters the LA country scene, learns the tricks of the trade, finds an interesting way to attract the interest of audience members and is summarily ejected from his first country band.

Some are born to play country music. Others have country music thrust upon them. As for me, it was all about the money as it was the best chance of getting paid gigs in Los Angeles during my time there in mid-90s.

Like many young lads and lasses you hit the streets of LA with stars in your eyes and the stuff of dreams in your heart. And then reality knocks the stuffing out of you unless you are one of the lucky ones. I was not one of the lucky ones (reality had it in for me I tell you) but I had one hell of a time as a guitar player in LA. But as this is to be posted on Flop Eared Mule I won’t regale you with all the tales of life in LA but stick to my experiences as a country gun for hire.

I went to LA to study at the Musician’s Institute back in 1995. Enrolling in GIT I spent the next year and a bit immersed in music. Almost everyday was spent with a guitar in hand. There were structured classes as well as live performance workshops (pick a style and then you got up on stage to play through a few songs) and rooms were you basically jammed with an instructor. All great fun. I was a dyed in the wool blues player when I set foot in LA. The trouble is I was one of many. So about half-way through GIT I started to listen to country. Of course I had access to some great country guitarists. Steve Trovato was an instructor at the time and Lisa Purcell, who became a good friend, were very helpful in getting my chops. And there was Pedro who often seemed amused by my playing (I still remember the expression ‘atonal blues experiment') but taught me a lot.

So it came time to graduate. I decided to hang around in LA and see what I could do with my skills. Thanks to Lisa I was soon gigging in a country band down south of LA. The leader was an ex-army guy what wanted to be the next Garth Brooks or someone of similar acclaim. Initially we hit it off and got a band together.

At that time there was quite a health country scene. An obvious influence was Dwight Yoakam as well as the usual Nashville types (this was around the time when Alan Jackson’s ‘Chatahoochie’ was a huge hit). So you got to play a mixture of old classics, hip new country sounds and absolute commercial dreck (oh how I hate Brooks and Dunn).

One of the first things I discovered was that country musicians can be very narrow minded in regards to what a country guitarists should be slinging. For instance I started gigging with one of these. One day while setting up the local country patriarch (every area has one. Usually some old guy with mysterious powers of influence that all the newcomers look up to. If he can actually play it is a miracle) came by and with barely disguised disdain asked “Can it twang?” “A Strat can do whatever you want it to do, mate” should have been my reply. But it would have been wasted on the ignorant. I eventually did graduate to a proper country guitar (which I still have) but the comment still rankles. Pissing off the patriarch is not a good start.

In a most bands the band members chat between sets. In this band the drummer rarely said anything to me. The bass player, singer (and leader) and I got along well enough. I thought this was strange. The drummer seemed to hold his own court with the others which I thought this was strange. Not to worry. You can’t please everyone and I’m sure that he would come around and we’ll be able to have a good chat.

In relation to the LA Country music scene we were on the outer rims, in the desolate lands of covers and disinterested audiences. The one time someone in the audience did show interest it was a drunken tirade directed at me for not playing the solo in ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ properly. As a guitarist, I’m happy to learn the chord progression and signature licks and riffs when playing covers. But be buggered if I was going to learn and play every solo as the recording. I ain’t no jukebox. The ego demanded a creative outlet and if I had the chance I was going to let rip in my own fashion (cue the Boatshed at Manly about 5 years when for some reason I found myself playing SHA again and let rip with a wildly inappropriate cascading, jazzy, chromatic run in the middle of the song that sounded quite cool. Take that drunken American audience guy!)

Still this was a great training ground. I learnt the arcane arts of playing songs I’ve never heard before, built up a repertoire of country standards, honed my licks and experienced being booted from the band.

In hindsight the omen the end was nigh was when the drummer started talking to me all friendly like at a gig one night. The next day I got a call from the singer saying thanks but they are going to experiment with another guitarist. Bastards. Could they not recognize raw Aussie talent? To be fair raw was the correct word as I was still finding my feet as a country guitarist. Not that I was playing crap as I did well at GIT – just inexperienced. And I have this habit of wanting to meld styles more than play a straight sound. But thems the breaks in the small country clubs south of LA. Not that the singer ever went anywhere from what I know.

So I bemoaned my fate a little bit and wondered what to do now without $50 a night from playing gigs. But thanks to Lisa another opportunity came my way and I was at it again.

Episode 2: In which Shaun joins another country band and moves one rung higher in the local scene, experiences the wondrous mysteries of an Elks lodge, is asked by cops whether he is carrying drugs or guns, sees one way to diffuse a fight and gains revenge by kicking the drummer out of the band.

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