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Music Review: Grayson Capps – Songbones

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A man, a guitar, and some songs; that's become a familiar part of the musical landscape of North American pop culture since the days of Robert Johnson. A man telling a story dates back to the beginning of our creation as a species and over the millennia has evolved into a myriad of forms, from the playwright to the abstract painter, but the guy who can put those stories into verse, or better yet into song, has always held our attention just a little bit more than anybody else.

When the fierce Norsemen went a Viking traveling with them was always a bard to make a record of their voyage. He would recount their heroic deeds; remember the dead and heap scorn upon their enemies. As night closed around their longboat, leaving it adrift among the oceans of stars, the bards would tell the stories of past heroes and Gods to ease the loneliness of men leagues from home and stoke the fires of their courage during the long cold hours of darkness.

It was said among the ancient Celts that in order to become a Bard you needed to serve a 21-year apprenticeship. How could you sing about the world if you hadn't experienced it? How could you even hope to sing with honesty about human emotions if you've not lived long enough to understand them yourself? Bards were also expected to have the courage to go inside themselves and face up to their own personal demons, for how else could they sing about others with honesty if they couldn't face their own truths.
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We don't have near the same expectations for those we entrust with singing our stories these days, and although I'm not saying a 21-year apprenticeship should be considered de rigour in order to sing and write songs for other people to listen to, the idea that they have a degree of life experience and some understanding of themselves is a good one. Being groomed for, or grooming yourself for stardom. and then "suffering" from the attention of the press doesn't quite count as learning about the human condition.

Part of the problem is people don't even know what they're missing. Being spoon-fed sentimental cliches from the first moment we are planted in front of a television hasn't done much for any of our critical faculties. It's only when you hear somebody like Grayson Capps unaccompanied by nothing save his guitar and one other person on violin and harmonica that you can truly appreciate how shallow those raising the flag, bring a tear to my eye moments, at a football game, really are. Listening to his release Songbones, on Hyena Records, might not make converts out of the masses, but it sure will be breath of fresh air for anybody in desperate need of a reminder of what it's like to hear somebody sing with more on their mind than their place in the charts.

Those of you familiar with Grayson's work with his band the Stumpknockers will have heard some of the songs on Songbones performed with a full band before as this is something he recorded almost on the spur of the moment back in 2002. He and Tom Marron, who accompanies him on violin and harmonica, had gone over to Mike West's studio/home after a gig and decided to keep playing. They sat down in front of some microphones and over the course of the next five hours recorded the bare bones versions of the songs you hear on this disc. (As Grayson puts it in his liner notes they are in their most naked form: Songbones)

I've been struggling for a couple of days trying to figure out how to best describe the experience of listening to Grayson Capps for the first time. I could say it was like listening to so and so the first time as a means of describing the enormity of his impact, but that would also imply a similarity of style or material that isn't valid no matter who was used as the basis of comparison. Certainly he has attributes in common with people like John Prine, Steve Goodman, Woody and Arlo Guthrie, and Bob Dylan, in terms of the integrity of his music and his ability to communicate emotions honestly, but he brings something to his songs that's different from anything I've heard from anyone else.

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Gleam

    Thanks for the review of Grayson Capps. He’s really one of a kind. I’ve seen him a number of times live and it’s always a one of a kind experience.