andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Tag Archives: speed trap town

Under the Covers: What to do with Dylan and Isbell

When I started off playing guitar, all I did was cover versions. Then I started writing my own songs, and thought I didn’t want to do anyone else’s.

Both daft positions, of course: why would you not want to cover a song that means something to you? On the other hand, why would you think you could do better than the original?

There’s the thing, though. You can love a song, and its creator, to bits. You can think the instrumentation on it, the production values, everything about it are perfect the way they are. But if you fancy yourself as a bit of a musician, or even if you don’t (step forward, all you denizens of karaoke bars) your desire to produce your own version of it is directly related to how much you like the original!

Isaac Brutal. A collaborator

But how to cover it? Well, of course there are the physical and other limitations that most of us labour under – it’s not like most of us can call up the E Street Band, or the Tom Pettyless Heartbreakers, to give us a bit of a leg up in the studio. You can only work with what you’ve got. But limitations are only a funnel for creativity, after all – so what floats your boat? A reggae version of ‘War Pig’? ‘Ace of Spades’ reimagined as a piano ballad?

As part of my musical experimentation, I’ve been trying out a couple of covers recently. The first of them, Jason Isbell’s ‘Speed Trap Town,’ has been sitting about for a bit: I’d intended for one of my collaborators to put a bit of electric slide on it, but in the end he thought it wouldn’t add anything. Actually, since I last put this track up on Soundcloud, I’ve subtracted, mainly, rather than adding (apart from a bit of cello at one part) by taking out some of the atmospheric radio chatter. It’s such a great lyric, I wanted to be sure whatever I did was to serve the song.

This is by far the more ‘conventional’ cover: I even went on YouTube to check out what chords Isbell was using, and discovered a new way to play a G! But that lyric, though. If you did as spoken word, it would be a piece of flash fiction, and I intend to use it as an example in a wee chat on storytelling in songwriting I’m doing in a couple of months: starting with what Robert McKee would call ‘the inciting incident,’ the woman in the car park handing the narrator flowers, it goes on to tell the story of the narrator and his father, now lying in a hospital bed in a coma. Not all is as it seems, as a plot twist reveals towards the end of the song. It’s quite simply brilliant.

‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,’ on the other hand, needed different treatment. A classic song from Highway 61 Revisited, it is, in its original form, a very simple structure musically: basically a three chord trick. It’s probably one of the first songs I learned to play on the guitar, being from what’s probably my favourite Dylan album of all.

That being the case, I approached a cover of it with some trepidation. You could do it a number of ways, and I still think Isaac Brutal should do a country version: however, doing it largely on my own (although Mr Brutal himself contributed some guitar) I decided to ramp up the Gothic.

One of the reasons I rank this as one of Dylan’s best is that, in the throes of his drug-fuelled surrealist period, here’s a song that actually perfectly conveys a single story, that of a stranger in a strange land, prey to drugs, hungry women, official corruption, and worse. The opening line, according to some, was thrown out by Dylan’s friend Bobby Neuwirth as a challenge: ‘write a song with that!’ To which Dylan reportedly replied: ‘Sure. Hold my beer…’

Whether that’s true or not, it’s again, a great scene-setting opening line: When you’re lost in the rain, in Juarez, and it’s Easter time too… who among us hasn’t been there, figuratively, at least?

Anyhoo. When I got under the bonnet of the song, I more or less thought, what would Nick Cave do? Well, throw a couple of minor chords in, for a start…

Feel free to comment, and let me know what you think!

 

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Speed Trap Town, Songs and other Flash Fiction

What a great first line: ‘She said, it’s none of my business, but it breaks my heart.’ It could be the first line of a Raymond Carver short story, or an Ian McEwan novel. It’s only when you hear that the second line is ‘dropped a  dozen cheap roses in a shopping cart,’ that the rhyme gives it away as a poem, or a song.

Since splitting away from Drive By Truckers to plough his own furrow as a singer-songwriter, many of Jason Isbell’s best-known songs have a definite autobiographical air: ’24 Frames,’ or ‘Cover Me Up,’ where the line about swearing off that stuff always attracts a cheer from the gig crowd, which is ironic, really, since most of us haven’t actually sworn off that stuff. But he has, and we’re glad it’s working for him.

On the other hand, some of Isbell’s finest work is a narrative about someone else. ‘Hudson Commodore,’ for example, has a female protagonist, the story of how she’s making her own way amongst men who want to own her told in the third person. In ‘Speed Trap Town,’ however, he uses the first person to tell the tale.

The first verse is actually a superb example of what Robert McKee, probably the best known modern exponent of storycraft, calls ‘the inciting incident‘: the woman at the supermarket, with her kindly meant gesture, throws the narrator’s life out of balance in the sense that, up till then, he’s been going along, surviving, drinking a bit too much, visiting his Dad in the ICU; but that bunch of flowers tips him into making a decision.

The whole song is, at 271 words, an almost perfect example of what would without the rhyming scheme be called flash fiction. The narrator goes from the supermarket to a High School football game, a bottle of booze under his coat: but that only serves to remind him of how far, and how little, he’s come, since he left school himself. As the protagonist in this story, he has to protag. But the real story, as the twist reveals, is about how Daddy got in the ICU in the first place.

Anyhoo, I could witter on more about storycraft in songwriting, but since the real purpose of this is to get you to listen to my cover of the song, I’ll stop there and tell you instead a bit about it instead. I don’t generally do cover versions these days: too busy trying to bottle what’s coming out of my own head musically in the limited time available. However, Isaac Brutal is working on what promises to be a very interesting covers project, and was kind enough to ask me to supply some guitar for a couple of tracks. We kicked around two possible Isbell songs for him, I recorded the backing for both, and got to keep ‘Speed Trap Town’ for myself. I’ll let Mr Brutal reveal his own choice in good time.

The Isbell original is beautifully spare, with just him and his Martin acoustic, some fine electric slide guitar, and a bit of piano. The best covers for me do something different from the original: but I felt throwing more instrumentation at it would just distract from that brilliant bit of storytelling. So, instead, apart from my Lag and a bit of acoustic slide on my Freshman 12 string, I opted for sound effects. It was easy enough to find a hospital machine bleep on Freesound: but where I really got lucky was the police radio clip.

Some may feel I’ve over-egged that by keeping it going, albeit at a reduced level, under the vocals. However, it just fit the narrative so well: the way the female dispatcher and the cop interact. They’re not flirting, exactly, but there’s a relationship there, I think, as the terse information is relayed back and forth with a smile in the voice.

Incidentally, if you like the track enough to want to download it, sling me an email address at venus [dot] carmichael [at] gmail [dot] com and I’ll sign you up for the Inner Circle of my mailing list. This is not an onerous thing: you’ll get an email from me once a month or less about my various creative activities, and much less frequently, something like this with a download code.

But hurry – you’ve got until the end of September to download this particular dragonfly!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below here, only adverts – and Jason Isbell’s brilliant original…