December 1997
s m u g
smoking jacket
by Jack Smith

Got a Light?

I learned to play guitar in the living rooms of my relatives and family friends. Impromptu jam sessions around a fireplace in the winter, and in the summer weíd move outside, on the porch. This gave me my first real training as a performing musician. On any given Friday or Saturday night, I would fancy myself a grownup as I drank coffee and learned to play reels, and jigs and songs about the serious predicaments youíll find yourself in if you murder your girlfriend with a shovel by the banks of the Ohio.

Because it was bluegrass, we played acoustic. Usually with a few guitars, mandolin, banjo, Dobro, and a bass player, if we could scare one up. We would sit, chairs in a circle and play songs that belonged the history of Appalachia. In that setting I was educated not only on the seemingly endless number of fiddle tunes but also on the act of playing: how to listen to the other musicians and, without the aid of the fancy sheet music, when to play pianissimo and when to play fortissimo.

Although I played trumpet in my grade school band, I learned far faster by being thrown into the fire. My erstwhile bandmates were non-judgmental and encouraged me to jump into songs that were well beyond my ability. I was taught just as they were, by playing with other musicians. None of the folks I played with were close to being professional musicians. Nearly all were blue collar. They only played for personal enjoyment, the mutual love of the music and the social act of getting together to play.

By the time I was 14 or so, I graduated from front room jam sessions to square dances. Around that time, I also got my first electric guitar.

The addition of amplification and electricity changed the dynamic of the act of learning to play. The potential Hendrix or Cobain became exiled to the basement to learn their craft alone. Though, I was nowhere close to the talents of either, I spent most of my first few months with the electric guitar in my bedroom playing along with the radio and with my Eagles and KISS records. The bluegrass that Iíd grown up with and itís collective stance was now dated and I wanted no part of it. Iíd rather spend my practice time alone with visions of rockstardom.

This act of isolation either self-imposed or due to the admonishment of parents who asked us to "turn down that infernal racket" sent us down the path that began with Elvis. It led us through the Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols, Metallica, and ends with the rock flavor du jour. Popular music became less communal and more anti-social.

Many years later I tried revisiting the music that I grew up with by stealing my dadís Jimmy Martin records, and buying various completist box sets. Still, because it was such a part of my youth, it was difficult to listen without the sentimentality that naturally accompanies childhood memories.

Whatís left when Unplugged becomes a marketing category and the protest or social commentary song a vehicle for clever girls with acoustic guitars, non-threatening dreadlocks and nose rings? Save Billy Bragg, Iíve doubted the sincerity of most every person since Dylan to reference even a shade of folk or bluegrass.

Attempts to return to the less jaded days of pop via acoustic music are usually coated with a heavy dose of nostalgia. This is a problem that Lullaby for the Working Class avoids on their newest, I Never Even Asked for Light.

Lullaby augments the traditional guitar, banjo, and bass with the unexpected glockenspiel, cello and trumpet in thick layers as dense as Dixieland. Each instrument provides itís own melody line interlocked with no hint of self indulgence like the Thunderbirds in a close formation fly by over the sound of the Star Spangled Banner during a TV station sign off.

Their first full-length record, Blanket Warm, which started with "good morning" and ended with "good night," took us through a full day. But the Gram Parsons era Stones influence prevalent on Blanket is gone from Light. On Light, Lullaby contemplates the light and the sky. It begins with the light after a thunderstorm and ends with a look to a plane crossing the sky. I imagine it crossing in front of the sun.

"Hypnotist (Song for Daniel H)" is a dream of being an astronaut like Major Tom returning home from the Civil War and "Breadcrumbs" a 6/8 musing like a child chasing a balloon.

The sometimes shaky voice of singer Ted Stevens delivers with conviction the tale of progress and the striving to reach the sky. They analyze the past and the present and the paths on earth and especially in the sky that got us here. Thereís no sentimental longing for yesterday, though I can easily imagine these songs composed in a living room in their native Nebraska. Much like songs written a hundred years ago.

The lure of the city seems irresistable to these country boys and has long been fodder for nostalgia in acoustic and bluegrass in songs like "The Old Home Place." The stellar "The Sunset and the Electric Bill" inspects progress from when "It begins as gravel dust/And ends as skyscrapers." Instead of wanting to go back, Lullaby moves on while pretending that theyíre not afraid.

I Never Even Asked for Light is the sound of the Cavalry bugle that tamed the plains, the hammers building the city walls, the supersonic boom, and the trumpets sounded to bring them all crashing down.

There are hints of rock and roll on Light, but the songs seem too old to be rock songs. Many, like In Honor of My Stumbling and Descent, have a timeless quality and I found myself anticipated the chord changes like I was there in the living room while these songs were being played through for the first time. Itís been far too long since I was really excited to be taken in by a record and believed in the sincerity of an artist. And itís refreshing to find a band that has moved beyond the irony of pop music that has grown tired over the last 10 years. Thatís why I Never Even Asked for Light gets my nod for record of the year.



in the junk drawer:

October 1997

September 1997
August 1997
July 1997
June 1997
May 1997
April 1997
March 1997
February 1997
January 1997

and such
and such

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