Saturday
Nov102012

Confessions of a Math Student


Let it be known. I have forgiven my math teachers. Now that some years have passed
(far more than I care to admit), I even like some of them. At least the ones who will still
speak to me. Let me say up front that it was not entirely their fault for making me feel so
dumb. I was dumb. At least as far as “cipherin’”  was concerned. I just didn’t get it.
Numbers just didn’t stick in my head. I think Kentucky humorist James Tandy Ellis was
on to something when he said "Mathematics are for people who neither expect nor derive
any pleasure from life."  I always hoped against hope that when they were putting my
dismal math grades on my otherwise decent report card, my teachers would notice the
good grades I got in History and those right-brain subjects like  Literature, Band and
Creative Writing. But alas, if they did see those scores, it certainly didn’t seem to make
any difference. I was a failure. I was destined for the ash heap of history...or arithmetic.
I suppose I could blame some of it on the fact that I was in the guinea pig generation
when the wizards of education were pushing “new math”. I really didn’t get that. For most
of my third and fourth grade years, my dad, who was good at math, would sit with me at
the kitchen table and say “I don’t know how they expect you to do this, but here is how I
would do it!”. Good old long division. But I guess the “new math” excuse won’t really fly
either, because some of the kids...most of the kids...in my class DID understand
(although, I recently reconnected with a favorite elementary teacher who confessed that he
didn’t get it either).


When I reached junior high, things really started to unravel. All that stuff  I didn’t learn in
elementary was coming back to bite me. It didn’t help that I was assigned a seat in the
very back of the class next to a kid who’s two biggest talents were drawing caricatures of
hot rods and distracting me with dirty jokes.

 
Somehow I made it through eighth grade and landed smack in the middle of a man-
made purgatory known as algebra. The class may as well have been taught in Esperanto.  
I would look around and see the dawning of comprehension on the self-satisfied faces of
my peers while I remained hopeless, fumbling around in the dark. The pitying looks of
my classmates soon turned to disdain and dismissal. I had been left behind.
It  quickly became  obvious to me that my teachers had not only lost faith in my
prospects of becoming a rocket scientist, but were beginning to have serious doubts
about my being able to make change for a dollar. During one semester, I got two F’s and
a D minus and my teacher was so desperate to get me out of his class that he gave me a
D as a final grade. My first thought was “NOW who’s dumb in math?” After getting out
of that class, I swore I would never take another math class as long as I lived. Then
came chemistry. Who knew?


I must confess that perhaps one of the reasons I was not so good at the numbers game
was because I spent most of my spare time holed up in my room, playing electric bass
and guitar for hours on end until my fingers bled. In addition to being an escape from the
tyranny of mathematics, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Neil Young and The Guess
Who spoke to me. Here was something I could be good at.  Not that my math teachers
ever noticed. I was still a dud as far as they were concerned. A nobody. A nonentity.  At
least it felt that way. I can still remember their exasperation and their incredulity as to
how anyone could have so much trouble with something so easy, so cut and dried. One
frustrated math teacher  who really only wanted to help told me  “Math is just like
music. It’s just numbers”. My thought was “If that’s your idea of music, I'm glad you chose mathematics”.


School did eventually get better. Teachers in other disciplines did see  potential in me and
cheered me on and made me feel pretty good about myself. But it was music more than
anything else which gave me an identity. Something I could call my own.  Something the
straight A students or the jocks couldn’t necessarily do so well. Something that might
keep me out of a career in motel management, as one of my teachers suggested.


As I said, I have forgiven you math teachers and apologize for making your jobs harder
than they had to be. I feel as though I owe you something.  In the spirit of friendship, let’s
get together for coffee. Let’s bury the hatchet.  It will be my treat and I will even use my
debit card to make sure I don’t mess up the bill. You can leave the tip. I’m still not too
good at figuring percentages.  Afterwards, come on over.  You can play and sing one of
your songs for me.  What’s that? You haven’t written any?  There’s really nothing so
hard about that.  It’s only words and a melody. Whadda you mean you can’t? You can
TALK can’t you? Have you ever written a grocery list? Anybody can do that. It’s the
same skill set. You do READ, don’t you? If you can talk, think and hum, you can write a
song. Anybody with half a brain who has ever listened to the radio should be able to
figure it out.  


Maybe you can figure it out, or  maybe you were created with other talents... ones that I
don’t possess.  I’m glad for that. I respect your abilities.  I don’t like to imagine a world
where the people who design nuclear technology have math skills like mine.  I also don’t
like to imagine a world where musicians boil everything down to an algebraic equation.
It’s not that one is superior to the other.  I still think you are an ok person and I wouldn’t
vote you off the island.  The world would be a pretty boring place if  we were all the same.  
Some kids were never meant to be physicists or engineers (and yet the “experts” are
determined to reshape them and pound their little round heads into square holes until
they all don’t know the same things). Skills do not need to be utilitarian in order to be of  
value. Sometimes it’s ok to create something  just for the sake of being creative. Potato
plants are far more useful than a pot of mums, but somehow I don’t think potatoes
would do much for the ambiance of my deck.


Now, how about I have another cup of coffee while you balance my checkbook?

Sunday
Jun032012

Newspaper Interview 

By Maddie Wallace

 

Hi Kevin. 

What was the first song you ever wrote? What inspired this song?

 I can’t really remember the first song I wrote, but I can remember the first one that ever amounted to anything. The song is called “Arizona Love”. I wrote it when I was 17 or 18 and it was inspired by a girl I liked who was supposedly moving to Arizona. It was just a teenage crush, but at least I ended up writing a song. 


When you write a song, how do you go about putting the lyrics to music? 

Sometimes I come up with the lyrics first and other times the music will come first. I like it best when it happens together because it just seems more “organic”. For me, I seldom come up with the music first. Quite often, I will have a lyrical idea, develop a melody and then finish the lyric. 

Usually, if I can come up with a verse and a chorus, the rest will fall into place. If I am really struggling with a song, I will often put it aside. I may  or may not come back to it later, or I may “borrow” part of it to use in a new song. I try not to force anything. I find it somewhat difficult to write music to an already completed lyric. Some people work that way, but not me.  I’ve written a lot of songs from a title. That’s a good way to proceed. If you start out with a good title, it can give you a target or a destination. Come up with a good title and go from there. 

 

What is the funniest song you ever wrote? Why did you write this? 

I don’t write all that many “novelty” songs, which is what they are called in the music business, but back in the mid 1990’s I wrote a song called “Deodorant Breakdown”. I was working with several other musicians as part of the dance band at the Kentucky Summer Dance School on Lake Cumberland. It was really hot and muggy and one of the fiddle players commented that he was having a “deodorant breakdown”. Since he was a bluegrass fiddler, and “breakdown” is a term commonly heard in bluegrass circles,  I thought it would be funny to write a bluegrass song around that idea. It got a good laugh at the time and it still does whenever I play it. I don’t play it that often. 


When you perform a concert, what song that you sing has had the most 

positive reaction and why? 

There are a couple that come to mind. “You Don’t Have to Earn My Love” always seems to generate a positive response, maybe because it is a positive love song. I recently got a message from someone in Montana, whom I didn't even know at the time. She told me that she was using that song in her wedding. That’s not the first time this has happened. 

Another song that always gets a good response is a song entitled “Indian Man”, a true story of a boy in late 18th century Kentucky who was captured by the Shawnees and lived with them for 17 years. Eventually he came to be one of them and when he tried to make the transition back to white civilization, things did not go particularly well. I think the song tells an engaging story and also has a nice musical “hook” with the guitar. 

 

What made you want to start writing songs and get into the music 

business? 

Girls. Oh, and the money, but mostly girls. 

Seriously (as if I wasn’t being serious before), I have always loved music and like most young people, I was looking for a place to fit in. I was never overly gifted in athletics and was terrible at math. Going to a small high school, there weren’t all that many options.  Everybody needs some place to fit in and for me, it was music and performing.  The writing came a little later. That stemmed more from a need for self-expression, I suppose. 


How do you think your songs have changed over the years? (ex. have 

they gotten more serious, playful...) 

Hopefully, they have gotten better! It’s funny, but they have kind of come full circle. I started out like everybody else, learning the craft and just writing about things that moved me and saying what I wanted to say and not really caring whether they were “commercial” or not. In the eighties and nineties, I was spending a lot of time in Nashville and I started writing in a more country oriented direction. I learned to write lyrics that were much more direct and my songs became a bit more formulaic. Now that I am older, I have reverted to writing about things that matter to me and only writing when I have something to say. I like to write songs that tell a story and touch people on some sort of emotional level. These days, I try not to get too “clever” when I write. 

To me, songwriting must be two things to be really good. Art and craft.  Young songwriters (and some not so young), in my opinion, would do well to listen to great songs that have come before, not just what’s current, and try and figure out what makes them great. Listen to how they are put together. Notice how the verse sets up the chorus, how the melody shifts from one section to another. Learn the form, learn the rules (and then break them from time to time), learn the craft of songwriting. That is the frame that surrounds your art. It’s the same in every art form, I suppose. Painters need to learn how to hold the brush before they paint their masterpiece. It’s no different for songwriters. 

 

What (in your opinion) was the best song you have ever written? What is 

your favorite part about the song? 

I don’t know if it is the best song I have ever written, but I really enjoy performing “You Could Convince Me”. It’s on my latest album (or “cd” for you young folks). I like it because it’s a lot of fun to play and it is a bit different than many things I have written. I am also happy with “Working Class Guitar”. It’s a very personal song. 


Do you have any upcoming concerts? Where can people find your cd's? 

I try to post my events on my facebook page  and I am absolutely terrible at it. I am determined to do a better job of keeping people informed via my new website. If people are interested in listening to my songs or buying a cd, they can go to my website’s homepage at kevinstonerock.com and follow the links from there. 


Thank you! 

 

Friday
Jun012012

Musical Influences

My Musical Influences or "Records That Made Me the Star I Am Not Today"

 

You know those online lists which start all sorts of heated arguments over the top ten best albums of all time? This ain't that. This is a list of records that either influenced my writing, singing, playing or production styles or have just held up remarkably well over the years (therefore I had to eliminate Grand Funk's Closer To Home, even though when I ground out the bass line on I'm Your Captain, it never failed to impress the swooning 15 year old girls at the sock hop...well, at least I imagined it did. I may have imagined they swooned as well. That was a long time ago). 

By now, you are probably saying to yourself, "Who do you think you are, Redrock? ( I did a show some time ago and that is how I was introduced). Nobody cares about what you have to say!". Eau contraire. I have a small, but very loyal fan base. 

Mom, this is for you.


During the course of this discussion, I may use the term "record" and "album" interchangeably. I grew up in the sixties and seventies when "CD" stood for "Civil Defense". So, here is my list. Again, this is not intended to be a "best album" list. This is my list. Please feel free to add one or two of your own favorites in the comment section. 

This is in no particular order...but then again, it might be.

Carole King - Tapestry 

I would be hard pressed to think of any other album with more well-crafted songs than this one. This album turned me into the sweet, angst-filled, nostalgia-driven, guilt-ridden, sensitive 21st century guy that I am today. Maybe I should have bought that Black Sabbath album after all. Hmmm. 

Creedence Clearwater Revival - Cosmo's Factory

Aside from John and Paul, nobody knew how to write a hit single in the 60's better than John Fogerty, and this record was was loaded with them. When I was a kid, I took guitar lessons from a guy who taught from the Mel Bay Method. I would go to the lesson and make an utter fool of myself, then come home, lock myself in my room, put Cosmo's Factory on the record player and twang along. I also learned to play bass (until my fingers bled) along with Stu Cook. I also learned that trying to sing like Fogerty can really give you a sore throat. Somehow I never did get around to learning the Mel Bay version of "Little Brown Jug". It is still on my "to do" list.

Neil Young - Harvest

Harvest is a seminal album to me (ok, wise guy...seminal...not "Seminole"). It also was the catalyst for my extensive and fine collection of flannel shirts and patched jeans, but that's another story. Harvest was an ALBUM, not a collection of songs. The first song I ever played in public on acoustic guitar and harmonica was a cover of Heart of Gold. That would have been in 10th grade. It did not, however, have the desired effect. The basketball players still ended up with the girls (take heart boys....those things have a way of working themselves out over time).

Dan Fogelberg - Souvenirs

Another ALBUM. I went through a couple copies of this one. Dan was an amazing talent (and fellow Midwesterner). I saw him in concert many times and whether with a band or solo, he never gave less than a stellar performance. Everything about this particular record just flows, including the cover art and the masterful production work of Joe Walsh (another Midwesterner). I listened to it recently, and it stands up as well today as it did in the mid-seventies. I learned and stole a lot from Dan over the years, especially on my early recordings from the 70's. I never had the opportunity to meet him, but I miss him, as do all of his fans.

Gordon Lightfoot - Nearly Everything He Ever Recorded ...what's that? I have to pick ONE? How about two? - If You Could Read My Mind and Don Quixote

For better or worse, no one had more of an influence on my singing and playing style than Gordon Lightfoot. I spent the summer after my senior year in high school learning to finger pick along with the two aforementioned records. I try not to listen to any Lightfoot records at least a couple months prior to my own recording sessions because of my inadvertent predisposition to use some of the inflections I absorbed by listening to his records (man, am I glad the Tiny Tim fad didn't last!). Some time ago, a publication printed a review of one of my albums (a good review, by the way).The reviewer said it sounded like James Taylor's songs as sung by Gordon Lightfoot. I once tried a rendition of Fire and Rain in Gord's voice just for kicks. Funny stuff.

Mark Knopfler - Golden Heart

I liked MK just fine as the lead singer in Dire Straits, but I LOVE his solo stuff. That guy can put more feeling into one note than most players can put into an entire scale. Golden Heart showcases Mark's wide range of style and his penchant for writing songs filled with pathos and emotion while still maintaining a pleasing bit of dispassion. This is one of those albums I would take with me to that fabled desert isle....oh please let me go! Wait...do they have electricity?

Son Volt - Trace

Another great ALBUM. No offense, but I always liked Son Volt better than Wilco. Maybe it is my brooding personality, I don't know. I am still never quite sure what Jay Farrar is trying to SAY, but he sure says it well, whatever it is. In addition to the songs, I've never gotten over Eric Heywood's tasty, retro-infused, bluesy, over-driven steel guitar licks on Windfall. For my money, he's one of the best steel players in the business and this is one of the best (maybe THE best) alt-country albums ever made.

David Mallett - Artist In Me

When I was hanging out, pounding the pavement and doing gigs in Nashville, I often listened to another Mallett album In The Falling Dark, which a friend had blessed me with (I had been impressed with Mallett's writing style after hearing Kathy Mattea's cover of Summer of My Dreams and was excited to learn that he had released recordings of his own). My songs, while quite well received in the places I played live, always seemed to be a little too folksy for the Nashville circuit. I credit Dave's music with giving me the validation I needed to continue writing the kind of songs I write instead of the mainstream country stuff I was trying to force myself to write. Like I always say, "if you can't beat em, leave". Anyhow, you can't go wrong with any Mallett album, but my favorite is Artist In Me.

J. Michael Henderson - To Make the Night Complete

I first met Michael in 1977 and we've become good friends over the past few years (at least I think he would agree with that). I used to catch his live gigs from time to time and I learned a lot about stage craft by watching him perform. His album To Make The Night Complete (1976) is still one of my all time favorite records (and thankfully, is now available on cd). It gave me the encouragement I needed to begin planning my first lp (yes, young people..lp...long play...same as record and album and ...good grief!). That just goes to show you don't have to have big recording budget behind you in order to make great music and to make a difference in someone's life with it. Thanks Michael. (If you want to check out his music, you can do so at his website, jmichaelhenderson.com).


Michael Murphey - Blue Sky Night Thunder

If Carole King helped me discover my "sensitive" side, Michael Murphey (he currently goes by Michael Martin Murphey) helped me get in touch with my inner cosmic cowboy. The guy is just a great singer, and fine writer with hits in several genres. This album contains his best early work, including Wildfire and Carolina In The Pines. I was an avid outdoorsman when I was younger (still am to some extent) and always loved the west, so maybe that is why this record connected with me. Besides, Wildfire was about a horse. My 20 year old pea-brained logic went something like this: "This is a sad song about a lost horse. Girls love horses. Since girls love horses and sad songs, if I learn this song , girls will love me too." What an idiot. 


Don MacLean - American Pie

Most widely known for the title song, this album also contained several other finely crafted pieces, including the moving Vincent and the equally poignant Empty Chairs. When I first began doing solo gigs, having a very small catalog of original songs and playing a lot of restaurants and coffeehouses, I covered several of MacLean's tunes. For the record (no pun intended), I think more young artists would do well to learn some cover tunes. Learn what makes a song work and take some of those lessons and apply them to your own music. There is certainly no shame in that. It's a great way to give yourself a solid foundation upon which to build. 

Cat Stevens - Tea For the Tillerman

Cat (Steve? Yusef?...it gets so confusing) was a huge influence on my singing and playing style as well as on my beard and hairstyle back in the day. Then I discovered the fat gram and all bets were off. I listed Tea for the Tillerman, but could just as easily have listed Teaser and the Fire Cat, Catch Bull at Four, or Buddha and the Chocolate Box. Cat (I'm sticking with that for now) had a certain childlike quality to his writing style...a sense of wonderment. His productions were interesting while still allowing the song to be king. His songs were also good for furthering that sensitive, nice guy image of mine which worked so well with the ladies. Uh...OK. Sure. 

Crosby Still and Nash - Crosby Stills and Nash

Enough has been written about this album to fill a lot of books. For me, this record was all about harmony as something other than background vocals. All the parts could be heard, and therefore learned and the lessons applied. Here's a fun exercise...try to listen for the Crosby part. It's the "ghost" part. His was the most "unselfish" harmony part. It doesn't really call attention to itself. But it was Crosby, as much as the other two, who gave them their distinctive sound. 




OK, there you have it. As I sit here looking at my scads of vinyl records, I could almost have blindfolded myself and picked them out at random. Just about every artist I ever listened to has influenced me in one way or the other. That is as it should be, I suppose.


Oh, by the way, thanks Mom.

Friday
Jun012012

House Concerts

"Coming to a Home Near You!"...hosting a house concert

 

(I stole this from my own website...I know...if you are going to steal you should only do it from the best, but I was desperate...)


House concerts are an increasingly popular venue for performers like myself. Hearkening back to the era when music was presented in people's parlors, they are intimate and satisfying encounters between performer (me) and audience (you and 20 or 30 of your closest friends), and a great alternative to the usual way people go out to hear music. They are really pretty easy to produce and host.



HOW DOES THIS ALL WORK? Glad you asked!

A House Concert is a great way to hear good live music. It's just what
it sounds like...a concert in someone's house (not a party with background music). 

Here's how it works:

Many traveling musicians, including myself, are looking for fill-in dates (often on week-
nights) around their venue appearances. Depending upon my schedule, I am not averse to traveling just for the purpose of putting on a house concert even if I don't have another date in the area. Someone with an interest in live music, and a room or deck that will hold 20 -50 people comfortably, books the performer and invites their friends in for a show. Here are the essentials (beyond which there's plenty of room for creative variation):

SPACE -- You'd be amazed how many people can fit in a modest sized
living room in relative comfort (you might also be amazed at how many people can fit in the back seat of a 55 Chevy, but that is another story). As stated above, it's a concert - NOT a party with music - so people won't need room to move around and socialize except before 
and after the show and during the break in the middle (if you and the artist
decide to have a break...and THIS artist will!). Depending on the number of folks attending you can simply rearrange your existing seating or bring in folding chairs, etc. 
Some folks have the audience bring their own folding chairs (but it's probably better to set up your own so that you can control the layout). One more thing on space ... parking. In many neighborhoods you can fit a lot more people in your living room than you can cars in your driveway. 

LAYOUT -- There needs to be a "stage" area for the performer. This can 
be as simple as a rug, or something more elaborate. The main thing is that 
the audience should be able to see and hear the performer without distrac-
tions...so don't set things up where the "fashionably late", or guests needing the rest-
room, will have to pass back and forth between the performer and the 
audience or behind the performer. The performer (hopefully me) will also need to get to and from the "stage" without climbing over folks. Although I am fairly agile, it gets more complicated when carrying a guitar. 

SOUND -- Depending on the size of the audience, many house concerts are
done without sound equipment. I carry a small, but very good, sound system with me. Whether or not to use a sound system is a decision best left to the performer. Nearly always, I will prefer to use my system, as much for balance and ambience as anything else. 

LIGHTING -- This need not be elaborate - but it is critical. The goal is that 
the audience be able to see the performer (again, hopefully yours truly) clearly without shining bright lights directly in the performers face, or in my case, blinding the audience from the reflection off my receding hairline. Dim the house lights. Dim the background 
lights. You know that Dylan album with the blue backlights illuminating his Afro? Not a flattering look on me. It's best not to black out the room entirely though. We don't want somebody tripping over one of your heirlooms. One or two inexpensive clip-on lights mounted near and ABOVE the performer - and you're all set . You may have adequate lighting in place already (track lighting can be adapted very easily if it's already in the right place). I can also provide some simple "par 38" light cans which will provide ambience and are more than adequate. (I always wondered why they are called "par" lights. I have come to the conclusion that it must be from the par boiling you get from standing under them too long.)

MONEY -- I love what I do, but I also have to make a living at it. 
Typically house concert guests pay $15 to $20 each. If you have 30 guests 
that's $450 to $600. Of course, this is all negotiable. 
Typically all proceeds go to the performer (and then to the IRS). I don't know anyone who
presents house concerts and expects to make money on the deal. It has to 
be for the love of the music. Sort this out with the performer in advance to 
avoid misunderstandings. If you are concerned about being socially responsible, if you hire me, I can assure you that all of the proceeds will go to help a needy person who lives in East Central Indiana. 

REFRESHMENTS -- Most sponsors provide light refreshments; some en-
courage guests to bring something to share as well 
and some make it a full-fledged "pot luck" before or after the show. Cheapskates like me let them fend for themselves. 

AUDIENCE -- The audience will be drawn mainly from your network of friend's
and acquaintances. The important thing is that you take reservations 
and ask those who express interest to commit to attending since seating is limited
and the performer needs a decent turnout to make it worthwhile.

If you're in the right place and can make your house and your
friends available on a date that suits the performer's schedule, (again, hopefully moi), we can have a great time centered around some original acoustic music and plenty of groaners and one-liners from me. I take performing very seriously and will bend over backwards (a little ways, at least) to give your guests an enjoyable and memorable concert experience.