Craig Cummings Music


New Year’s Thoughts From A Songwriter
January 2, 2015, 10:09 am
Filed under: Musical Notes | Tags: , , , , ,

Jan 1 beach scene

A new year encourages contemplation…What did I make of myself last year? What will I make of the coming year. Am I moving forward? Treading water? Losing ground? The answer for most of us is probably, “Yeah, all those things.” There are things of which we can be proud, things we could have done better, and some things we should not have done and would like to forget. I think that’s how life goes. So here is my “stuff.” What about yours?

Moving Forward

  1. I wrote some of the best songs of my career.
  2. Started working on my next recordings (yes, plural!).
  3. Worked with and met many new songwriters and musicians.
  4. I took multiple songwriting classes, each of which provided an expanded view on the craft and art of songwriting. I could write multiple posts about this – which I probably will in the coming weeks.
  5. Sought and received feedback on my writing from lots of sources, including thoughts from many people I barely know.
  6. Re-started a monthly performing songwriters’ showcase in Baltimore, which gave me the opportunity to hear and learn from a large group of very talented people. It was so much fun putting these shows together…kind of like making a live mix tape. But the biggest payoff – creating a better sense of community among songwriters and musicians. I think that happened and I got a lot out of that.
  7. Had a song selected for a juried CD compilation.

Treading Water

  1. Recorded some new music but did not get around to actually releasing it.
  2. Played a good number of gigs, but have not yet moved on to some of the more prestigious venues I’d like to be playing.
  3. Played with a number of really fine musicians but have yet to find that steady collaborator that I am looking for…you know, that one person with whom you can write and sing and play, and it’s all good.
  4. Even though I improved as a writer, there are many ways that I could have improved even more. I get impatient sometimes.

Losing Ground

  1. Well, I don’t think there are any ways in which I’ve actually regressed, but… time marches on and I’m not getting any younger. So the question (which is really impossible to answer but easy to fret about) is if my rate of forward progress as a songwriter is faster than the rate at which time is running out to do all of the things that I want to do as a songwriter. I try not to think about this too much and put one foot in front of the other… and write!
  2. I may be losing ground in keeping up with all of the new music coming out – especially some of the stuff that doesn’t interest me or strikes me as being contrived by music industry business people who only care about making money. I’ll refrain from being specific here because I’m not into dissing performers and songwriters. And, I am most certainly not against making money. But some stuff just seems so contrived and formulaic… like I said, I may be losing some ground here, but I’m trying. And I also realize that there is always something to be learned from new music no matter how I might judge it – because things change, don’t they?

My Resolutions For 2015

  1. Write better songs.
  2. Write better songs.
  3. Write better songs.
  4. Release some of the recordings I’ve already made and continue to work on (and release) some new ones.
  5. Find more co-writers.
  6. Write better songs.

Oh yeah… and I’ll keep wondering about my rate of forward progress. Happy New Year everyone. Care to share your thoughts on how you’ve moved forward, treaded water, or lost some ground? I’d love to hear them. We all need company on this journey. Is this your first time reading my blog? Then follow me to continue the discussion (click the follow button on the left). Conversation is a good thing.

Peace And A Cold Beer,

Craig

 



My Favorite Recordings of 2013

Craig at El Nopalito

Most major music publications are busy releasing their “Best Of” lists for 2013. It is quite subjective in the arts to say that one piece of work is “better” than another (except in extreme cases). Most songwriters and musicians don’t look at their art as a form of competition. Most of the time, musical artists compete with themselves to make their songs better with each recording. They are their own harshest critics, even though they may never let on publicly that they spend considerable time analyzing and overanalyzing their work and wondering if it holds up when compared to the work of other artists they admire. Writing songs and creating music is at once a joy and an exercise in humility. Creating something you believe in is an incredible rush of joy and satisfaction. Not being able to get that verse or chorus just right can bring the best of us to our knees in frustration.

For these reasons (and others), I will refrain from indulging in the creation of a “Best Of” list for 2013. Instead, here is a list of my favorite recordings from 2013. If you have not found time to listen to any of the music listed below, do yourself a favor and find some spare time during the holiday season to sit and listen to what these artists created this past year. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

JI
Jason Isbell – Southeastern
This is my favorite recording of the year. Jason’s work has been celebrated in many of the most widely read publications and for good reason. The songs on this recording are soul baring, yet warm and inviting. His story of a life-changing choice to embrace sobriety, and what came before and after, is story telling at its best. Jason’s voice is strong and clear, the arrangements are mostly spare, and these songs raise the bar for songwriters everywhere. Wanna know if your songs are great? Listen to this and ask yourself, “Am I there yet?” My personal favorites are Cover Me Up, Traveling Alone, and Songs She Sang In The Shower. But, every song is terrific. Buy this now.

GC
Guy Clark – My Favorite Picture of You
Guy is in his 70’s now, and who knows how many more recordings he has left in him? His health has not been good, and I’m not sure that he is even doing shows around Nashville these days. But this CD is a masterpiece of songwriting. Guy has been the standard-bearer for excellent story telling for many years, and with this effort he proves that he has not lost his touch. The title cut, found on other recordings, is a love letter to his late wife Susanna. It is a tender piece that confides his love for her incredible spirit and gives some insight into the scope of influence she had over his life and musical career. Hell Bent On A Heartache tells the story of a man who can’t resist making the same mistake again and again in an effort to find love. Patty Griffin adds her typically beautiful background vocals and suggests that this affliction to find heartache isn’t limited to men. Rain In Durango, another song of pining for love, proves that the best songwriters can address the same topic from various angles and never seem repetitive. Guy will always be remembered as one of the greatest of American songwriters. This recording shows why.

SE
Steve Earle and the Dukes & Duchesses – The Low Highway
As a fan of the HBO series Treme, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the scene in last season’s episode when Steve’s character, Harley, is shot and killed during a street robbery. I shouted out loud when it happened, which is odd. I mean, I know it’s a TV show, but thus is the power of Steve Earle to captivate an audience whether he is acting or performing as a songwriter. On The Low Highway, Steve shows that his many years working alongside such celebrated songwriters as Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark did not go to waste. Steve has been telling the story of injustice in American society for some time now, and he is at his peak on this recording. On the title cut he sings of “…the ghost of America watching me, through the broken windows of the factories.” Burnin’ It Down is the story of a down and out soul who wants to burn the local Walmart down because of the damage it has done to his little town and the small business owners who suffer at the hands of corporate America. But Steve doesn’t wallow too much as he offers up the celebratory and defiant Is That All You Got, a song originally performed on Treme, where the New Orleans-based singers challenge the gods of fate to bring it on, because, well, we survived your best shot – is that all you got? Steve Earle has released more than 20 recordings throughout his career. The Low Highway ranks among his best work.

EH
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell – Old Yellow Moon
Emmylou and Rodney were making music together back in the 70s, when she was touring with her Hot Band and Rodney was writing songs, playing guitar, and singing background vocals. After many years of going their separate ways, they are back together again and as solid as ever. Emmylou’s reputation as possibly the best harmony singer ever (not to mention her incredible lead vocals and skills in interpreting songs) is underscored throughout the songs on Old Yellow Moon. Rodney likewise shows that he knows how to move around a note in ways that melt the soul. Invitation To The Blues, a Roger Miller composition, shows how to interpret a standard country song. The rearrangement of Crowell’s Bluebird Wine, first featured on Harris’ Pieces of the Sky album, underscores the duo’s ability to reinvent previous work and make it seem new. There are other songs that jump out at the listener that are worthy of mention, but the prize on this record is the amazing harmonies that these two singers create. Nothing can ever top the Emmylou Harris/Gram Parsons duets that preceded Gram’s untimely demise. But this comes close.

SC
Slaid Cleaves – Still Fighting the War
Slaid Cleaves should be more well known. His skills as a songwriter hold up to standards set by Steve Earle and other Texas songwriters such as Ray Wylie Hubbard and Robert Earl Keen. On this recording, Cleaves shows his spirit is infused by the efforts of Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen, and others who write about the perils of the working class and the injustices that infuse American life in the 21st century. I especially like the storytelling and handclaps of Welding Burns, and the wistful sentimentality of Rust Belt Fields – “no one remembers your name for working hard.”

Mavs
The Mavericks – In Time
As a performing songwriter, I know how important a good singer is to delivering a well-written song. Raul Malo is the bomb. This guy can do it all and if you don’t listen to this recording for any other reason, do it to remind yourself of the importance of great vocal presence and delivery in making songs stand out. The band is not too shabby either! My favorites on this CD include Born To Be Blue and Back In Your Arms Again. Born To Be Blue sounds like Raul Malo singing harmony with Roy Orbison. Back In Your Arms Again makes me want to have a shot of tequila and get up and dance! Buy this CD, turn it up loud, and have a party.

Happy New Year everyone! Can’t wait to hear what’s in store for 2014.



Back at Brewer’s Alley in Frederick Tonight
September 16, 2013, 9:53 am
Filed under: Musical Notes | Tags: , , ,

Craig_at BrewersAlley_9-19-11

Tonight I am stopping in to Brewer’s Alley in Frederick as the featured performer for the Monday night songwriter’s showcase. This is always a great gig – the hosts, Ron Deacey, Todd Walker, Tomy Wright and Ron Goad are exceptionally kind and all talented in their own right (as their weekly performances show); the music lovers who frequent Brewer’s are a listening audience, allowing performers to play songs not always well-received in noisier venues; and, the other performers brought in to play 3-songs sets prior to the feature are always fine songwriters. All of  this makes the feature performer have to “up their game” to the highest level in order to justify the honor of the featured slot. So it is with this in mind that I’m approaching tonight’s performance.

I’ll be playing selections of songs from my CDs Road Trips and Relationships and Whispering Low as well as threads of songs for 2 recording projects currently in development. My 21st Century Poor project is a collection of songs about what happens to good people who find themselves in terrible financial and social situations after living much of their lives somewhat predictably in the middle class (what’s left of it). The other unnamed project is a collection of songs I’ve been performing publicly for a while that remain in need of a unifying theme. Some of these songs are among the strongest I’ve written and once I clarify what they are saying about me (or to me), I’ll be ready to move forward with some recording of these tunes as well.

Stop by and enjoy the show this evening. The music begins at 7:30 pm with a piano prelude by Virginia resident Jim Moon. The 3-song slots are filled by the incredible Tom Dews, Frederick-area duo Basswood, and Jeff Ball and Greg Dillon. The hosts will get their licks in as well, performing either early in the evening or following my feature spot. I’ll probably go on about 9:00. Hope to see you there.

Here’s a song to get you warmed up for tonight. Enjoy.



Some Thoughts About My Songwriters Showcase at Joe Squared

ImageThis Wednesday, August 21st, the third edition of my Screams and Whispers Showcase takes the stage at Joe Squared in Baltimore. The August show features Sahffi and Heather Aubrey Lloyd and the theme for the evening is 60s soul music. If you are in the area, stop by for the show. It is going to be a great one!

This showcase is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I’ve been part of lots of showcases hosted by others, and I always thought that it would be interesting to challenge musicians by asking them to play a few tunes that weren’t too familiar. This “stretch” makes for an interesting juxtaposition with the extended set of their own music they perform later in the show. It’s fun to see which songs are chosen by each artist. So, I create a theme for each show. The first show had the musicians playing Springsteen songs, and the second show, songs by Elvis Costello. Each time the featured musicians commented that learning the songs was a challenge as was deciding which ones to actually play. Interestingly, there has been no overlap of song choice so far. This  focus on the theme as a way to begin the evening is a way to make each show unique beyond the songwriters chosen to perform.

There are quite a few talented performing songwriters in Baltimore. I don’t think that the public really appreciates the talent that we harbor within the Baltimore/Washington/Frederick area. Baltimore in particular, can be a challenging market for songwriter shows. But being able to feature the likes of Tony Denikos, Ken Gutberlet, Rob Hinkal, Tom McBride, is an opportunity I’m not willing to miss. I like the challenge of making these shows successful. And on a personal level, sharing shows with these artists is a treat for me. I’ve been a performing songwriter for a few decades, and I’ve never had this much fun.

As a performing songwriter, I never get tired of sharing my songs with listeners and trying to earn new fans. I am sure that they songwriters that populate the Screams and Whispers Showcases would tell you the same thing. In the current age of faceless communication (thank you social media), we need more ways of sharing our thoughts, hopes, fears, and observations in person…unfiltered and “straight from the heart.” These showcases give performing musicians a way to do this – and they give the listeners a way to do it as well, by talking to us and telling us what they like, what they don’t (gently please), and asking for us to create things we may not have considering creating. This makes us all better – and closer.

So – I hope to see many of you for the show this Wednesday, August 21st, 8:00 pm at Joe Squared, North Ave. in Baltimore. And for some immediate gratification, I’ve provided a link to one of my songs – a preview of what you’ll hear Wednesday.  Enjoy.

 



Emmylou and Rodney Part 2

Emmylou and Rodney

Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell brought their Old Yellow Moon tour to the Strathmore Music Center in Bethesda, Maryland last evening. Yesterday, I wrote about them performing together again after many years. This post is just a quick review of last night’s show.

To put it simply, this was one of the best concerts I’ve seem in some time. The artists’ incredible taste and good sense in music was evident from their choice of songs (3 Gram Parsons tunes and one from Townes Van Zandt for starters), to their decision to put together a touring band that was the reincarnation of their 1970s collaboration, The Hot Band. The current version includes guitarist Jedd Hughes who at several points was channeling James Burton in a way that few would even attempt.

Emmylou and Rodney’s voices are a match made in heaven. From their decision to revist Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty to their soaring vocals on Roger Miller’s country shuffle Invitation To The Blues, the E&R show reminded us of what we’ve been missing all these years. While it’s certainly true that Emmylou can make pretty much anyone sound better, Rodney showed his own vocal chops throughout the show, and he reminded us all, with songs like Till I Gain Control Again and I’m Still Learning How To Fly, that he has been one of the finest songwriters in Country/Americana music for many years. If you’re not sure about this, just check out his 2008 solo release, Sex and Gasoline.

I suppose it’s hard to say how long their current collaboration will last. So, if you have a chance to see them when they come your way, don’t miss the show. I’m certainly hoping they come back this way.



From Country Rock Darlings to Americana Heroes

Senator_AC_Shadow#2

In the mid-1970s, I was a twenty-something singer-songwriter whose songs were properly categorized as country rock. As I continue to write and perform in the mid-2010s, my music is now called Americana. Same style, different descriptors. And just as country rock was one of the major genres of that time, so is Americana one of the most popular forms of music today. Along the way, I ventured into other musical genres, but I never could really escape the kind of music I was meant to make. I think this is true of many artists who have continued to write and perform over the past 30-odd years.

I was thinking about this as I am preparing to attend a concert tonight featuring Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. They just released a new recording, Old Yellow Moon, to rave reviews. Emmylou featured Rodney’s writing on her debut solo alum, Pieces of the Sky. Rodney then joined her in two subsequent releases, Luxury Liner in 1977, and Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town in 1978. On these latter two albums, Rodney is part of the legendary Hot Band, featuring James Burton, Emory Gordy, Hank DiVito, Albert Lee, and others. I still listen to these recordings on a fairly regular basis because I never tire of listening to their voices together.

Maybe they felt the same way just before they decided to embark on their current musical project. The country rock darlings of the mid-1970s have become the Americana Heroes of today, and my instincts tell me it must be because through all the musical twists and turns they’ve experienced, Emmylou and Rodney realized just how good they are together. And, that the music on Old Yellow Moon is the music they were meant to make.

Back in 2008 or so, I started writing songs without trying to be anything in particular – not country, not folk, not pop. What came out was a sound similar to the sound I began with in the mid-1970s. I realized that this is who I am, because it just comes out that way – effortlessly. Not that songwriting isn’t work…but the feel of what I’m creating doesn’t take effort. It just takes letting go.

Listening to Emmylou and Rodney sing on Old Yellow Moon, I am inclined to think that they sound so good together because they are just letting go. That country rock stuff they wrote and performed a few decades ago is now Americana music. But really…it’s just who they are, and what they were meant to do.

See you at the show – if you’re lucky.



Day #2 – Singer Songwriter Cape May Conference

congresshotel

Still Chilly in Cape May!!

The 2nd day of the music conference was filled with panel presentations by industry leaders discussing income streams, publishing possibilities, and recording tips. Folk singer Ellis Paul delighted the crowd with his keynote speech, presenting his “career by the numbers.” Mr. Paul is a very successful folk singer – much more successful than most. His easy manner with the audience and his incredible songs played in open tunings revealed much of why he has been so successful.

This was also the day of my performance. My set was arranged for 7:30 pm at Lucky Bones Grille, a local restaurant and watering hole of some renown. Sandy and I rolled into the place well ahead of the scheduled start time to find a line out of the front door and a stage the size of a postage stamp – well, make that no stage at all, just a tiny area near the front window with a microphone stand and a mixer mounted on the wall. There’s nothing like playing your songs while you move your guitar around to dodge all of the patrons moving back and forth in front of you as you perform. Only many years of playing bars and clubs helps you build that skill!

But, I’m not complaining, just describing the setting as it was. I played a set that began with songs from the first CD. I followed with songs from Whispering Low, and then launched into a couple of songs from my project in progress, “21st Century Poor.” I planned to finish with songs from another project in progress, which I refer to as the “CD I need to make” because I think the songs are very strong (Santa Fe and Natural Disaster among them). But time conspired against me so I never got to the last few tunes. The crowd was great…very attentive and enthusiastic. I talked with new friends from Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey, met someone who grew up in Towson and transplanted north, and worked the crowd as best I could. After the show, Sandy and I ate a clam and garlic pizza that was to die for…beers and a martini on the side.

It takes skill to play a show like this – it is not for the faint of heart. My strategy is to just go up there and command the stage, make people want to listen, and reward them when they do when a few words, a smile, and a download card they can use to remind them that they saw you perform and they liked it.

Time, to hit the road, south on 95 and back to Baltimore…”You’re in the front seat with the window down/golden curls blowing all around” Well, Sandy’s in the front seat but believe me, the window is not down. That won’t happen for another month or so.

Peace and a Cold Beer!