The era of forward-thinking acoustic folk music never quite seems to arrive. Name a decade, name a year, and there are always a handful of fantastic musicians bubbling under, never quite obscure but never quite breaking through to popular success.
Of course, this make sense. No matter how fast an acoustic guitarist's hands, no matter how subtle their tonal shadings, they are automatically relegated to the second rank of artists as far as popular success goes. Look at Picasso's charcoals. They are breathtaking in their power, full of energy and vigor and darkness and light, and the best of them are fully the equal of his greatest achievements as a painter in my humble and perfectly uninformed opinion. If the attractions are more subtle for the lack of color, I at least find them no less profound.
And so it goes with acoustic guitarists. Not to take anything away from Edward Van Halen, but every sixteen year old guitar novice soon learns that it really is easier to sound awesome on the guitar if you crank up the volume to 11 and slap on some echo. That's great and fine - there is no moral dimension to rocking out - but it is a much more demanding thing to blow minds if it's just you, your fingers, and six strings on a hollow box of wood. The musical statements are just as compelling (and undoubtedly more so in many, many cases), but there are just not as many people willing to extend their ears a little and listen.
I once stood outside the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Massachusetts for forty-five minutes in the cold, transfixed by the late acoustic guitar master Michael Hedges. I was early to see whoever was playing the late show, I didn't have a ticket for Hedges, and the place was sold out. So I stood outside in the snow, watching in awe as Michael Hedges scattered flurries of notes all over the room, as he half-danced along with the music he made, as he spun heroic tales all on his own with two hands, six strings, and an electronic echo box. As a guitarist, as a music fan, as a person not particularly open to the attractions of poetry (much less new-agey guitar music) I was flabbergasted at the spectacle. The fundamental laws of my universe changed a little on that snowy New England night.
The new compilation Imaginational Anthem on Near Mint Records is a lovely collection of acoustic guitar performances both old and new. The oldest recordings date from the mid-1960s, the newest were recorded last year, and it's nearly impossible to tell without reading the liner notes which is which. Taken together, the songs on Imaginational Anthem are a stunning digest of the past forty years in solo acoustic guitar music. The best of them changed my universe a little once again.