Be it prose or poetry, the first rule of good writing is to write of what you know about, and I think that standard might be applied to songwriting as well. As a lifelong listener to multiple American musical genres, I’m now appalled by the banality of contemporary “lyricism,” and in the last few years have mostly just followed the Western regional music scene.
Bluegrass and other acoustic forms thrive in the West (as they do in the South and Appalachia), as local artists produce their own CDs and market them on the Internet or out of the trunk of a car after a show. Outdoor summer festivals are increasingly popular, and make for lucrative impromptu retail markets.
Large corporate record companies (“Big Music”?) find this trend — along with the illegal downloading of music online — disturbing. It’s a plain fact that most musical artists (for example, like most novelists seeking a book deal) will never have a contract with a major label. But the production and marketing landscape has certainly changed. Maybe the best analogy would be blogging. If the mainstream media doesn’t like it, so what, do it anyway.
A current enthusiasm of mine is “Montana Tunesmith,” a brothers duo from Red Lodge, Montana. It’s hard to believe that Tim and Mike Nordstrom aren’t fulltime “professional” musicians, because in the last few years they’ve put out two CDs (“Under Yellowstone Skies,” 1999, and “Life is for the Living,” 2005), and a third is forthcoming. Primary tunesmith Tim is a bioterrorism coordinator in a Billings hospital. Brother Mike is an X-Ray technician at the hospital in Red Lodge.
The Nordstroms are fifth generation residents of this picturesque town at the foot of the Beartooth Mountains, and this fact in itself lends credibility to the substance of their work. From the song “Comin’ Home”: “There’s room here for our biggest dreams/ and you should see these mountains, see these streams.”
Life in the Northern Rockies comes alive in Montana Tunesmith’s songs, whether they’re writing of hunting and fishing (“Dyin’ on Line Creek” and “Castin’ for Cutthroats”), Saturday night antics in a local watering hole (“Montana Bar”), family life (“Little Aurora”), or weather and life on the land (“Strips of Wheat”) — they know of what they write. This from “First Snow”: “Out on the edge of town cornfields cut down/ The scarecrow’s job is over now.”
The world of work is a favorite theme, especially hard, dangerous work. “Smith Mine” recounts the true story of the Smith Mine coal mine disaster near Red Lodge in 1943, where 74 men perished in an explosion and cave-in. The Nordstroms grandfather was one of the rescuers laboring at the near futile and heartbreaking task of trying to save friends and relatives. There were three survivors. “Why does this happen to the best of men?/ The odds are it could happen again.”
Tim and Mike Nordstrom are writing about a part of the country that is undergoing tremendous demographic change. The farms and ranches of their youth are now being subdivided, as the first great wave of retiring Baby Boomers is starting to alter the face of a place that was once both wild and agriculturally settled. In the end, the Nordstroms’ songs have a subliminal sad, nostalgic tinge to them. One tune following this theme and lamenting the disappearance of the old homesteads, simply ends: “They’re gone.”
I saw Montana Tunesmith’s live show in City Park one evening recently as part of the summertime Cody free concert series, and their easygoing stage presence was a crowd pleaser. Jokes and banter are the norm. It was a cool night, and this caused their acoustic guitars to easily go out of tune after every few songs, thus leaving much time for chatter. This stage device comes from bluegrass music, as banjo players must spend an inordinate amount of time tuning up during a show. For instance, Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys would turn an evening at the Grand Ol’ Opry into a combination of great music and vaudeville comedy.
The evening was a success. Tim and Mike closed with one of their original tunes that seemed to sum up their enterprise: “In Pursuit of Happiness.” Afterwards, they visited with concert-goers and sold a few of their CDs.
They seemed to be having a good time, as if that was how it should be.
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