Songs of Self
Nashville tunesmiths release personal musical statements
By Michael McCall
MAY 22, 2000: Nashville proudly boasts that, among other things, it is the Songwriter Capital of the World, a promotional way of saying that it's one of the last outposts that enthusiastically welcomes those who desire to compose short, lyric-based tunes for a living.
Once they arrive, Nashville delivers a clear message: The road to success features large curbs that direct creative impulses toward fashioning catchy, one-dimensional ditties about love, small-town values, and feel-good statements about what's good about life. For those who show promise, there are plenty of practiced professionals willing to share a cowrite for some fresh inspiration, as long as the newcomer graciously allows the seasoned veteran to show them how the formula works.
The results are discouragingly predictable: Individuals with unique experiences to share end up creating songs that sound like everyone else's. It's as if the esteemed Iowa Writer's Workshop gathered the best young novelists in the world and encouraged them to collaborate on advertising slogans.
Fortunately, some songwriters who make the pilgrimage to Tennessee disregard the Music Row money game and follow a more individual muse. Occasionally, one of these iconoclasts breaks into the system and dips into the pot of gold.
Marcus Hummon, for example, is an ambitious sort who, after years of sticking to his own set of rules, has filled his pockets with the bounty that comes from cowriting radio hits (including a couple with Martie Seidel of the Dixie Chicks, one of the few successful Nashville acts willing to move beyond the usual song formulas).
Hummon, a native of Washington, D.C., obviously aspires to achieve more than the typical Music Row hack. Since a failed stab at country music success in the mid-'90s, he's written three musicals, published a book of poetry, and provided lyrics for the PBS children's cartoon series, Book of Virtues.
Hummon's new album, Looking for the Child, is his second independent release since leaving Columbia Records, where he put out an ambitious country-rock album that eluded a popular audience. Looking for the Child is similarly ambitious: Hummon strives for epic songs packed with weighty lyrics and sprawling arrangements that merge undulating rhythms with string instruments and bright bursts of clustered piano notes.
Freed of trying to write radio ballads and country dance tunes, Hummon's independent work hangs together as more of a singular piece. Musically and lyrically, his songs are reminiscent of those by Bruce Hornsby or the latter-day Paul Simon. However, like Hornsby, Hummon's talent sometimes gets lost in layers of textured instrumentation and in the fuzzy allegories he piles into his songs.
Make no mistake, he's after something grand. His lyrics probe personal and spiritual issues while concentrating on creating something that inspires people to be better, more compassionate individuals. But the songs never quite carry the impact Hummon seems capable of delivering.
Like Hummon, Elisabeth Cutler's songs balance the personal and the spiritual. And, like Hummon, they're built on a foundation of pulsating rhythms. But Cutler's work slices through; the emotion of her songs contains an undeniable thrust that's both distinct and effective.
A Boston native who's lived in Nashville since the early '90s, Cutler's third album, Tower of Silence, features a provocative edginess that suggests she's taking chances in the revelations of her words and in the offbeat turns of her sparse, precisely detailed arrangements. Moreover, Cutler's confident, crystalline voice presents a wide range of emotion: Songs like "Sorry" and "Dirty Truth" are angry and cleansing, while tunes like "Mind Over Matter" and "From the Inside" express an inspirational bent with concise clarity. All of the songs gain strength from the refined, evocative jazz-pop arrangements, which are elegant and hauntingly unusual.
In recent years, Cutler has been gaining a national following, and Tower of Silence, which will be out in June, should further expand her broadening fan base. (The Nashville resident will celebrate the new album's release with a performance at Bongo Java Upstairs on June 21).
Air Parma, a grown-up Nashville-based pop band, owns connections to both Cutler and Hummon. George Marinelli Jr. produced and played guitar on Cutler's album, while bassist Mark Prentice is a member of Hummon's Red Wing band. They've done much more than that, too: Rock fans might recognize Marinelli as a longtime member of Bonnie Raitt's band. He was also a founding member of Bruce Hornsby and the Range. Prentice, meanwhile, has worked with Lyle Lovett and backed the Fairfield Four. Together, they make up Air Parma, along with drummer Vince Santoro, a longtime member of Rodney Crowell's band.
The band's capable musicianship comes across clearly on the self-titled album, and there will be plenty of instrumentalists who will want to pick up the album simply to hear these guys play.
However, at times, the band sports a locked-in quality that's more professional than inspirational: They sound like guys more concerned with studio polish than with getting a rise out of an audience.
The best of the album ( "Still Wondering," "One Less Wounded Heart," "The Best of Times") contains a playful quality that, even when probing serious topics, catches a mid-tempo breeziness that's lighthearted yet mature. But Marinelli's hoarse tenor rarely gives the songs the lift they need--the band sounds best when Marinelli and Santoro double-up their voices throughout the song, as they do on "Good Things" and the beautiful "Marigold Hill."
Too often, though, the arrangements are laid-back when they should lash out. Compared to the exhilarating pop-rock coming out of Nashville by such acts as Joe, Marc's Brother, Bill Lloyd, David Mead, and Owsley, Air Parma never shoots for the sky.
Nonetheless, each of these performers takes chances. Unlike the mass of Music Row pros, they risk failure by breaking away from careful formulas and by daring to find a more personal way of expressing themselves.
Hummon could easily fill his plate, and his bank account, by spending each day crafting potential country hits; Cutler could follow suit, using her remarkable way with words and melodies to try to join the hit parade; and Marinelli, Santoro, and Prentice are sacrificing studio and stage time to do something meaningful. Nashville would be a better place if more of its songwriters and musicians followed suit.
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