Swiss Army Knives at La Cabane De Frou Frou

Nov 19, 2020

I spent the last couple days as a hired gun. An old New York pal of mine was working an ad job, and asked me to not only record some lap steel, but also shoot video of myself doing so, both in my studio and out on location. The sort of cool, weirdly seductive thing about the time we live in is that I actually have, over the past several years, acquired the capacity to do all of those of things, and all on my own if necessary. I'm not a great engineer, but I know how to own a nice microphone and a nice preamp, and how to hook them up so the sound gets into my computer like it's supposed to. I'm definitely no cinematographer, but I can flip the lights on, clip an iPhone on a tripod and get some reasonable footage of myself in action. And I have enough accounting skills to generate an invoice, put my signature on an NDA, and get the whole mess sent back via email without wasting the entire afternoon.

But should I be doing all that stuff? And I don't that mean in a diva kind of way, like it's beneath me. In fact, having grown up not knowing how to fix a car or build a deck, I now take pleasure in possessing at least these small digital competencies. The question is more a matter of orientation. For decades, I've taken pride in being a good craftsman, someone who can do the job – whatever that job might happen to be at the time. Session musicians, sidemen, producers and the like often reach for the metaphor of the Swiss army knife. "Show me the problem, I've got the resources to solve it." That kind of flexibility and adaptability, the capacity to pivot and cover what needs covering, is a badge of honor and the mark of a professional.

But at some point, you have to ask: really? A Swiss army knife? Yeah, there's a saw and a scissors and a corkscrew and a couple of blades, and maybe it doesn't matter what you open your Red Stripe with. But is a carpenter going to count on the screwdriver tip of that bottle opener? Is a clothing designer going to cut fabric with those scissors? Is a sommelier going to use that corkscrew to open bottles for the regulars at La Cabane De Frou Frou? Yes, you could do all those things and more with one universal device, but when you're serious about what you do, are you going to reach for the Swiss army knife, or for the dedicated tool that makes doing your job not only easier, but downright pleasurable?

It was fun recording, and a nice change of pace to spend the afternoon out in the hill country. And it'll be nice when the check clears. So I managed to get my head straight enough to enjoy the gig for what it was. But I couldn't help thinking, "I could be back at the studio, shooting lessons. Editing my next video. Writing the next Letter." This letter, in fact. Granted, I have to know how to do a bunch of different things to run Fretboard Confidential. Many of the same things, in fact. But the point is entirely different. Now that my lap steel tracks and video clips are posted, I'm done. It's in someone else's hands, and bon voyage to them, I say. When I'm shooting and editing and writing and all the rest, it's part of an ongoing project I've concocted myself. I'm not sure what the metaphor is for what I'm delivering here, but on a good day it feels both singular and coherent, something with a specific purpose and a point of view. I still have to deliver, but it's delivering on a consistent idea, one developed over time through continued practice.

There's a reason I don't teach Stevie Ray Vaughan licks, or beginning guitar, or even prewar country blues repertoire. I could, and I have, but I don't, for the same reason I don't write my songs with a flatpick or perform them with a rock band or work as sideman anymore. At some point, whatever the gig, the question becomes: what should I be doing? It's a bit like the joke about how to carve an elephant: "Take a ton of granite, and carve away anything that doesn't look like elephant." When I carve away all things I'm o.k. or even good at, what's the left are things I think are singular, the things maybe no one else could do, at least not in quite the same way. In my twenties or even my forties, I would have thought that sounded insufferably vain; now I just think it's practical and efficient. (Plus, I already know I'm vain.) What's the point in doing stuff you're only o.k. at? It was fun learning to flatpick "Salt Creek" and working out the introduction to "Kind Hearted Woman," but there are people who care so much more about getting that stuff right than I do. They care about it the way I care about groove and phrasing and practicing improvisation. When you stop worrying about the things you're only half invested in, it frees up a lot of attention for the few things you really love.

There's great fun in being a generalist; music is a big puddle, and it seems a shame to only splash around in one corner of it. A big part of the appeal in playing or writing music is trying on different styles; even the Beatles described owing aspects of their creative process to trying to sound like their favorite current single, or a particular band they admired that week. And arguably, that's where a style comes from – trying on everything you can to see what sticks. But at some point, when you stop and think about it, you know what sticks. Or, you just decide. Which you're allowed to do, by the way. And once you do decide, the other things won't necessarily disappear. Some may, but some will just shift into the background, becoming context and atmosphere for a more focused, coherent foreground.

If your idea of a coherent foreground includes improvising over a steady bass in E, I've got a new video for you in my One Thing About Fingerstyle Blues series. "Resolving To The b3 In E" is a short lesson on how you can resolve the b3 of the blues or minor pentatonic scale up to the major third, or down to the second. You can find it here:

Resolving To The b3 In E

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