Quite a long time ago I fulfilled a long held dream and traveled all across the USA in an old Buick Skylark with a friend of mine. We traveled 11,000 miles and visited more states, National Parks, cities, state parks and rest areas than you can shake a stick at (a favourite saying from the trip that, being from England, we’d never heard before and it made us giggle).
For me it was an unforgettable experience, as I traveled to places with names that had held a deep fascination for me since I was a young boy, Oregon, Wyoming, Montana, Arizona, California, Nebraska (the list goes on, sorry not mention them all, no offence intended to residents of Connecticut and elsewhere).
My fascination started watching western films as a kid. I couldn’t believe the incredible wide open spaces and big skies, the beautiful forests and deserts and mountain ranges, with their amazing wildlife – bears for goodness sake! We get excited if we see a squirrel (and most of them are from N. America and not native to the UK at all, but that’s another story).
And as I grew older I started reading more and more about this wondrous land. I read the Lewis and Clark journals. What an incredible story of an expedition sent out by President Thomas Jefferson to see what lay beyond the great Mississippi River, because back then few people knew, it was literally the wild west. And what did they find? They found an incredibly rich land roamed by enormous herds of buffalo, native people in numerous tribes, wolves, bears, forests and prairie, incredible. Imagine climbing up a ridge and finding yourself looking down upon the geysers and steaming hot springs of Yellowstone, a primordial landscape? In fact the whole landscape was on a par, if not better than, the great plains of Africa for all round natural splendour, and it was still largely intact only 150 years ago.
Then I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. What a heart breaking but deeply fascinating account of the history of Native Americans in the American West in the late nineteenth century. He describes the people’s displacement through forced relocations and years of warfare waged by the United States Federal Government. Much later I read two books by Kent Nerburn, Neither Wolf Nor Dog and The Wolf at Twilight which explored the story of the American Indians in a much more intimate and real, and ultimately far more complex way. Both books beautifully written and compelling, I’d recommend them to anyone.
So you see I’ve got quite an interest in the American landscape. If you add in the influence of the great North American nature writers such as Rick Bass, Doug Peacock, Edward Abbey, David Rains Wallace and of course the greats, Aldo Leopold, Thoreau and John Muir (ok he was Scottish), then that interest has developed into a passion.
Of course I listened to a lot of music, I’ve been doing that since I was 3. Of all the many musicians that were able to speak to me about the American lands through their music (and not their words), Pat Metheny stood out for me. In particular his album with Charlie Haden, Beyond the Missouri Sky was a sublime interpretation of an open, prairie like landscape of big skies, huge fields of wheat and corn, and small farms. That album showed me that you can paint quite specific pictures with simple music, you don’t need an orchestra, as so many of the great film soundtracks have got.
Of course Pat Metheny is a genius and can make his guitar say pretty much anything he wants it to. And Charlie Haden is a master of the understated, delivering warm, folky bass lines focusing on purity of tone and texture. His Oklahoma roots can be heard in the playing of a double bass, now that is a mark of great musicianship.
Later when I heard the album that Charlie Haden made with Hank Jones the penny dropped. They released an album called Steal Away: Spirituals, Hymns and Folk Songs which is a soft, gentle masterpiece and the title tells you all you need to know about the style of the music. Here we had a simple blend of what I’d call ‘woody, blocky’ piano reminiscent of old churches and school rooms, and bass that sounded beautiful to me.
Finally I read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and when I finished I thought how good it would be to write a similar account of my travels, before realising that I ain’t no author. And then it hit me, why not write songs about it instead?
So I started to work with piano, double bass, guitar and drums, and became totally immersed in the whole project as it began to unfold. The more I worked, the more the songs and melodies would come to me. It was as if they had been stored up just waiting to be released, which in a sense I suppose they had.
What resulted is something that I am very proud of because it was such a challenge to compose, arrange and perform the music so that, at times, it sounded like a four piece folk/jazz band. It wasn’t easy to play all of those instruments to the standard that I required so that, hopefully, the listener would be able to hear the emotion and the depth of each composition, and most importantly, feel the wide open space and atmosphere of the landscapes.
I guess it’s for others ultimately to decide how successful you have been as a writer and performer of the music, but all you can ever do is be honest with yourself and ask, did I do that with all my heart and to the best of my ability at that time? My answer is yes, and that’s all that really matters.