Song of the Day #109: ‘Everyday I Write the Book’ – Alison Brown

alisonbrownRecently there was a comment thread on this blog about the merits of country music. The question came up of whether the “country’ is in the song or the treatment of the song.

In other words, can you take a pop or rock song and turn it into a country song just by using different instruments? Or is there some fundamental quality in the construction of a country song that transcends its musical treatment?

I lean toward the former explanation. I think country music as it is commonly understood has everything to do with instruments, production and vocals. Add a slide guitar and a southern twang to just about anything and you have a country song.

To support my argument, I present Alison Brown’s treatment of Elvis Costello’s song ‘Everyday I Write the Book.’ Brown is a bluegrass banjo player. The singer here is Sam Bush, a legendary bluegrass singer and guitar player (he did the vocals for George Clooney in ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’).

Here’s a straight-up pop song (that has a real 80s sheen in its original version) that sounds absolutely splendid in bluegrass.

20 thoughts on “Song of the Day #109: ‘Everyday I Write the Book’ – Alison Brown

  1. Amy says:

    ๐Ÿ™‚ The music works very well, but the lyrics seem forced to me. So, to me, this is only a partially successful experiment. When he’s not mangling Costello’s lyrics, I find myself immensely enjoying his musical interpretation of the song. However, when he takes words that need to be tossed off in a clipped, knowing tone, and sings them more earnestly (and twangy), I somehow doubt he’s seen a pen, let alone an “electric typewriter.” ๐Ÿ˜‰ And I certainly don’t “buy” that these words – and the sentiments behind them – are his.

    Still, another in the line of enjoyable test cases. And I sure do love this song.

  2. Clay says:

    An interesting thought, but I wonder how much that reaction is colored by the fact you’ve hear Costello’s version a million times? I’m guessing a lot. And are you suggesting people who sing with twangs are hustling rubes who don’t know how to write? ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. Dana says:

    Okay, first I am adding “confection” (as in pop confection) and “rube” to the prententious words and phrases list:)

    Second, while I suppose this version is fun, to me it totally proves my point. This is NOT a country song in construction, and while it (like almost any song) can be country-ized with instrumentation, it remains a pop song in essence. Amy’s point as to the lyrics is well taken, but it really just has more to do with the chord structure. I believe if you were to play this song for 50 musicians in this way (assuming they had not heard the Elvis original), they would immediately note that it was a pop song with forced country arrangement. Please get back to me after you have concluded that study:)

  4. Amy says:

    Boy, it does seem as though I’m suggesting such a thing, doesn’t it? No, that’s not what I mean. It’s just that these lyrics, regarding this speaker, who is reflecting on how the object of his affection’s “dreamboat turns out to be a footnote” and who “is up to the same tricks in chapters 4, 5, and 6,” and on and on in a briliant extended metaphor. I just don’t buy that this guy wrote those lyrics, not that he could never write any lyrics.

    I have no problem hearing him sing:

    “I am a man of constant sorrow
    I’ve seen trouble all my day.
    I bid farewell to old Kentucky
    The place where I was born and raised.
    (The place where he was born and raised)

    For six long years I’ve been in trouble
    No pleasures here on earth I found
    For in this world I’m bound to ramble
    I have no friends to help me now.”

    It’s not as though those lyrics, from “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow” are the words of an uneducated rube. But they seem more believable coming from this singer. And, yes, it’s certainly a factor that I’ve heard Costello, who I consider clever, intelligent, knowing, cynical, sing this song a thousand times. Perhaps I’ve simply merged his persona with that of the song’s speaker. But I don’t think so.

    Ultimately, I think this song captues both sides of the argument. Clearly, once again, instrumentation is able to “countrify’ a song; however, at least to some listeners, the song doesn’t seem quite right after the transformation is complete. It seems a bit like a kid dressed up in clothes that aren’t all that comfortable. You feel for him and you want him to change back into the clothes that suit him.

  5. Kerrie says:

    Sorry, Clay, but I have to agree with Amy and Dana on this one. I haven’t heard the Elvis version anywhere near a million times – although I would certainly consider it a very familiar tune. I thought this version was really nice and I enjoyed the addition of the banjo but it didn’t sound any more country to me than the original version just because of the instruments or the singer (he wasn’t all that twangy – now use someone like Hank Williams or Alan Jackson and you may get a different result*).
    I don’t know much about the music other than whether or not I like it, but I know that this is the second version of this song that I’ve heard and I liked it very much both ways. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Give the song “When You Say Nothing at All” a listen. It was done by Alison Krauss (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjsjZWlRVvo) and by Ronan Keating in two quite different treatments (hers country, his pop for the Notting Hill Soundtrack). He also did a version with Paulina Rubio in English and Spanish – (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qlzYo4E-ZpU&feature=related). If I’m not mistaken, the country version was first. This one sounds very different to me in each treatment but I don’t know if it’s the instrumentation or the vocals or something else. I’d be interested to know what Dana thinks about these.

    * By the way, just because I know the names of well known country singers in no way implies that I listen to their music. ๐Ÿ™‚ I went through a country phase in Gainesville but it was mainly Garth Brooks and John Michael Montgomery, so really country – lite. ๐Ÿ™‚ Just wanted to put that out there before someone responded with a barb about my musical tastes.

  6. Clay says:

    I still have to wonder if any of these things would occur to us if we didn’t know the song so well in its first construction. Obviously that’s a thought experiment we can’t do, because you can’t turn off your knowledge of a song.

    But maybe there is some hustling rube out there who has never heard the Elvis version and we can run Dana’s test. Of course Dana suggested we run that test on “50 musicians” while I’d prefer to see it run on 50 music fans. I’m a music fan, and certainly not a musician, and I love this version of the song… doesn’t feel forced to me at all.

    Amy, I don’t know if your elaboration is any less offensive to the Sam Bushes of the world… it seems to boil down to a “country” voice not being able to convey concepts like “clever, intelligent, knowing or cynical.” I’d point to Lyle Lovett as somebody who can do all of that with a country voice.

    On the flip side, what do you make of Elvis Costello’s forays into country music? Does he seem too smart to pull off a ‘Man of Constant Sorrow?’

  7. Clay says:

    And I didn’t write “confection” anywhere, Dana! ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Amy says:

    Actually, I was once again going to cite Lyle Lovett as a country artist, who is able to do just that effectively, but I figured everyone has had enough of me going on and on about Lyle Lovett.

    I think I am guilty of continuing to offend the Sam Bushes of the world (sorry, Sam Bush), and I’m clearly just basing my gut impressions on gross stereotypes and narrow definitions. So… consider me convinced.

    I now think it all comes down to what you know about an artist, and what those expectations lead you to expect. After my umpteenth meeting of the day, I plan to go in search of some country song by a songwriter I’ve never heard of – maybe then I’ll be able to give it a fair listen.

    Still, you’re not saying that you like this twangy schlock better than Costello’s version, are you?! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  9. Amy says:

    “What those expectations lead you to expect” – I belong right next to these rubes, don’t I? ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. Clay says:

    No, I prefer Elvis’ version.

    It’s funny, after reading through this thread I went to lunch and the first song that came on my CD player was a track from Lucinda Williams’ new CD (which I still need to review) called ‘Jailhouse Tears.’ It’s a duet with Elvis Costello in which he plays a drunk loser who’s thrown out of the house after taking her truck and carousing all night. He does a great job!

  11. Dana says:

    First off, you used “pop confection” in some earlier thread, I just never got around to calling you on it.

    Second, not to get all musicky on you, but here are some of the chords to Everyday I Write the Book:

    E, G#m, C#m, F#m , C#, F#m

    Those are just not chords you associate with a country song. By contrast, here are the chords to Willie Nelson’s Always on My Mind:

    D, A, Bm, G, Em7, A7 D Em

    Now, I am not necessarily suggesting that all country songs are musically simple, and lord knows there are many simple rock tunes, but I don’t think you will find many country songs with the chord structure Elvis uses in Book.

    Now take a more convertible song like Shameless, written as a rock song by Billy Joel, but covered by Garth Brooks. That chord structure looks like this:

    G, D, Em, C, Bb, Am7, B, F#

    Again, far more basic–mostly major rather than minor keys, not much in the way of jazz or even blues chords.

    Certainly, one could probably play one of Mozart’s piano concertos on a banjo or fiddle, but this would not make it a country song.

    I said good day, sir!

  12. Amy says:

    ๐Ÿ˜› chord structure, shmord structure

  13. Clay says:

    That may well be a compelling argument, but I wouldn’t know because it looks like Chinese to me!

    Besides, if you are “not necessarily suggesting that all country songs are musically simple” then what is the argument here? This is a pop song delivered in a country music form, and effectively so. To my mind, that makes it a country song.

    If this song was released for the first time ever on Alison Brown’s CD, I don’t think critics would’ve scratched their heads and wondered what this out-of-place pop song was doing on the album. (Though maybe they would have wondered why this hick was using such big words… right, Amy? ๐Ÿ˜‰ )

    As for Mozart on a fiddle, will you settle for Beethoven on a banjo (w/yodeling)? Courtesy of The Coen Brothers!

  14. Amy says:

    One for country classic for the road…

  15. Dana says:

    You don’t find the Raising Arizona opening to be out of sync with your traditional country song? It is, of course, humorous, but it ain’t country just because it’s being yodled.

    And my point regarding the lyrics is that you typically will not find minor and major 7th chords in most country songs. Just as you rarely will find a blues song that doesn’t either have a 1-4-5 progression with a 7th thrown in. So, if you ask a musician to play jazz, chances are you will hear diminished and sussed chords, basically your “clashing” and atypical sounds that define jazz. If you ask for a blues riff, you will get the 1-4-5 to the 7th. If you ask for a rock sound, you will get the major power chords, and if you want country, you will get predominantly major chords, with very little of the jazz structure. Here’s a link I found to 101 country chord progressions with samples:
    http://www.sheetmusicplus.com/a/item.html?id=69435&item=4951447#

    Anyway, while I find this version of Elvis’ song interesting, I don’t find it to be country–just country-ized.

  16. Dana says:

    I found the following online, which I think may be helpful to the discussion–and it backs up my chocolate on eggs theory–that, to have a true country song, you need the basic structure AND the instrumentation–otherwise, you are just fighting against the grain::

    What is Country Music?

    Whenever people talk about country music, the question arises about how to define it? There are more different views than there are songs. Here are some answers!

    A) Years ago John Minson and Max Ellis were on a promotional trip for the Tamworth Festival and in the course of talking to a number of journalists whose total knowledge of country music was two wordsโ€ฆ Slim Dustyโ€ฆ they kept getting asked just what was meant by the term Country Music.

    Of course the answer is that Country Music means different things to different people. Ask 20 people and youโ€™ll get 20 answers. Most of them are unequivocally positive that their definition is the only authorized version. Sounds religious? Thatโ€™s because for many it is a matter of faith, with different denominations conducting a war of words over which version is the true gospel.

    So John and Max, as practical types, attempted a general specification summarizing some of the specific characteristics which set country aside from other types of music.

    1 A simple Chord progression. Generally country depends on a limited number of chords. It is not musically complicated and this certainly contributes to its popularity and playability.

    2 Country music should have a strong story line. โ€œThe Band Played Waltzing Matildaโ€ or โ€œPub With No Beerโ€, illustrate the point.

    3 The song should have a simple and memorable chorus, which supports the storyline and is one reason so many people find it easy to recall and sing a good country song.

    4 Identifiable instrumentation. Organs, orchestras, strings, wind instruments are NOT country. Guitars, banjos, fiddles, pedal steel guitars, harmonicas definitely are. There are exceptions of course but instruments must be played in a country manner.

    Some say that geographic locations are a factor, insisting that a non urban setting is an essential ingredient. But there are plenty of examples of successful country songs that donโ€™t have country locations.

    Summarizing

    Simple chords, Strong storyline, Memorable chorus, country Instruments.

  17. Dana says:

    Oh, and by the way, while doing this research on google, I was surprised to find MY OWN WORDS pop up in one of the searches under one of your songs of the day ๐Ÿ™‚

  18. Clay says:

    The Raising Arizona opening isn’t traditional, but it does feel like country to me. I think in the “20 people with 20 different answers” scenario you quote above, I fall into the category who thinks instrumentation is the key to defining country music.

    If I understood music and chords better I’d probably see your perspective, and I could probably hear the difference if I really tried. But I’m content to be “just” a fan when it comes to music (as opposed to movies, where I feel like I know more about how they are made).

  19. Amy says:

    I like that site you quoted – what is it? Please cite your sources ๐Ÿ™‚

    Since I can’t technically make music or movies, I consider myself a fan in both realms. I’ve just, thus far, been a more educated film fan. So thank you, Dana, for helping me to understand (at least on a theoretical level) the musical differences between the various genres of music. I guess, similar to films, one genre can be explored and experimented with by a talented songwriter or musician.

    To come full circle to the yodeling opening of Raising Arizona, the Coen brothers probably illustrate this point better than most other filmmakers – having experimented with “film noir,” “screwball comedy,” “true crime,” and the like. Not sure if there is a director who sticks faithfully to one style (Quentin maybe?), but the Coen brothers certainly jump about more than most. Maybe they’re the Lyle Lovett of movies ๐Ÿ™‚

  20. Dana says:

    I agree that lines are blurred, as well they should be, because that is what makes music so infinitely interesting and ever evolving. I suppose the equivalent movie analogy might be the oft said comment that there are only 5 types of stories (I think it’s 5 right?). If there is any truth to that at all, there is no doubt that film makers have often blurred, mixed, stretched, experimented, etc., to come up with something original from the 5 basic themes. So too with music–there are, after all, only so many notes and so many chords, and while there are definitely structures that, at a base level, might define a genre or style, it is the great artists who stretch, who mix it up, to come up with something truly original. And I believe that, generally, it is that originallty that all of us really cherish.

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