At the State Fair we entered at a gate next to the main stage (which is huge – many nationally known acts play the fair) and a country group was playing. Now, without getting into the relative merit of many so-called “modern” country acts, they were quite good at what they did although I find the lyrics and arrangements of much of modern country to be boring and totally disposable. But I recognize why this genre is more popular than ever, especially in Texas of course, as it is catchy and requires very little of the listener. Just kick back, have a good time and relate to the central themes of love gained and lost, home towns, pick-up trucks and partying. Include a catchy lyric hook and with the proper promotion and air play you’re pretty much guaranteed a hit. I have no idea who the band was but they were good at their craft, such as it is.
On another stage was a Celtic rock band who apparently have been playing the fair for many years. They featured electric guitar, electric bass, keyboards, drums, bagpipes (!) and a young woman on electric fiddle who was quite accomplished. They played original tunes in the Celtic style but also electrified versions of well known Irish tunes like “Red Haired Boy.” The crowd loved them and it occurred to me that adding a driving rhythm section to those old fiddle tunes makes a lot of sense if you want to make that music more palatable to audiences who have only a passing interest in that style of music. Hmmm…. Might be worth putting a group together around here doing that, I thought.
As we left, a quite famous Christian rock group had taken the main stage. Now, I won’t deny the chops of the players and the group harmony singing but I gagged on their rap between songs, which focused on their “mission” and blissed out state of mind. Excuse me for being a somewhat jaded New Englander but the whole thing cam across as fake and contrived. Yuck.
At the street fair we heard a local but apparently quite popular indie-rock type band that featured not just the usual keyboard/guitar/bass/drum line-up but also a young man honking on a tuba and another guy on cello. I gave them style points for trying some different instrumentation but alas, their songs fell into the trap that so many young indie prog-rock groups do: minor key, medium tempo whiny laments, made even more depressing thanks to the low honking tuba and droning cello. OK, I do remember the angst of youth, but geez, I thought, I know it’s probably desperately uncool to actually write songs about being happy, but GET OVER YOURSELVES!
The most interesting music I heard was at the Stockyard area of old Fort Worth. This restored area is on the National Register of Historic Places and in contrast to slick, sleek Dallas, they really play up and embrace the cowboy heritage of the area. A group was playing outdoors on the steps of the Cowboy Hall of Fame called “Cowtown Opry.” Their line-up included an old-timer on accordion, another on harmonica, a rhythm guitarist on a beat up old Fender acoustic, and two women singers playing interesting looking guitars, acoustics with fretboard inlays on the state of Texas. All members dressed in cowboy outfits. Their songs were pure Western music – not to be confused with “country western” – songs of cowboys and riding the range. They were not slick but totally genuine and the younger woman singer also was a good yodeler. Yodeling has a long and respected place in Western music and when I got home and did some research on the group it turns out she did the signing voice-overs for the character “Jessie” in the Disney Toy Story movies. I also learned that Cowtown Opry has a revolving membership that often includes youngsters – their mission is to preserve and promote this unique style of American music.
After they finished their performance I approached the lady singers and asked about their interesting guitars. It turned out both were made by local guitar maker and both guitars had names given by their owners, who clearly loved their instruments. Both guitars showed loving use, beat up with finish checking and various dents and dings, and were obviously designed to have that wonderful percussive sound that is so important when strumming this style of music. No finger pickers, these!
Even though Cowtown Opry was not in the same league as the other groups I heard over the pervious few days in terms of slickness or technical facility, I loved them for one simple reason. Their music was honest, heartfelt – and REAL. I think the famous Christian rock band on the huge stage at the State Fair of Texas could have learned something from them.
Peace & good music,