Thursday, April 7, 2016

Someday We'll Look Back - Goodbye, Hag

I imagine there are a lot of people out there asking, "What's the big deal about another old country singer passing away?" and what's a guy who spends his time creating and writing about weird avant-garde music that most people find unlistenable doing getting worked up about country, that annoying, corporate, assembly-line pop music from the radio?  Well, it's because Merle Haggard was one of a kind--because great songwriting is great regardless of genre trappings--and because the man's music and story clearly have that special quality that touches people's lives.  In remembrance of a singular musical figure, I'd like to say what his music meant to me by considering three of my favorite Hag albums.

I first heard Merle Haggard's music about 10 years ago, when my mom and I saw him open for Bob Dylan in Portland--what a show, which included a surprise stage appearance (but no performance) by that other Bakersfield luminary Buck Owens, who passed away not long afterward, and also included Dylan performing a delightfully craggy rendition of Owens' "A-11."  Merle's brand of old-school, steel guitar-drenched Bakersfield country immediately struck a chord with me and I became an instant fan.  A couple years and about 15 albums later, I was a devotee for life, for countless reasons.

Branded Man was my first Hag record--it didn't disappoint my expectations after seeing the man perform.  While in retrospect, it's a relatively minor entry in his classic string of 60's and early 70's releases, the songs and performances demonstrate all of the things that make Hag so special--it's got that hard-edged Bakersfield sound that stands in stark opposition to the contemporaneous Nashville production, which sounds almost baroque in comparison, and it's got a wide-ranging set of songs that deal with heartbreak, drinking, and jail--those country music wellsprings that seem to never go dry.  What sets Hag apart from other singers on these subjects, though, is his authenticity.  Sure, as a performer he imagines himself into many characters and situations, but it's always clear that there's a passion and powerfully true emotional weight that's informed by his difficult upbringing, his troubles with the law, and his struggles as an imperfect human being.  And those track titles! "Loneliness Is Eating Me Alive;" "Don't Get Married;" "Gone Crazy;" "I Made the Prison Band"--the song titles are stories unto themselves!  And yet, there's so much more depth to these songs than crying-in-your-beer earnestness; Hag's wry wit is never too far around the corner, be it expressed as the hallowed country music trope of cheesy wordplay (e.g., the ex-girlfriend whose grasping, materialistic aspiration was riding in a "Long Black Limousine" and, after a fatal car crash, finally gets to, or turns-of-phrase like "if you're trying to break my heart, you don't have very far to go"), or in the carefree expression of lovesick madness that is "Gone Crazy."  Through it all, it's plainly evident that Hag--the man who sat in the San Quentin pen serving time for armed robbery while a certain so-called "outlaw" performed his act for the prisoners--isn't just singing these words, he's living them.  Even at this early stage, he proves through consummate songwriting that he can't be pinned down to a reductive conservative ideology, tackling the subject of cross-cultural relationships in "Go Home."  I'd be remiss if I didn't mention those buttery smooth vocals--from the swooping highs to the reedy lows, there are valuable lessons for any singer to be gleaned from Hag's impeccable phrasing and his ability to wring emotion out of the simplest melodies. 

Hag's second album, Swinging Doors and the Bottle Let Me Down may be a bit less sophisticated than Branded Man, but it stands tall next to Buck Owens' Together Again/My Heart Skips a Beat and I've Got a Tiger by the Tail as one of the purest, hardest-hitting exemplars of the Bakersfield sound ever recorded.  This is the record I reached for first when I got home yesterday--it's got two out-and-out hits in the dual title tracks, with that aforementioned wit present in droves (every track seems founded on a cleverly worded conceit), it's got that slinky steel guitar running roughshod all over all the tracks, and in between, it's stuffed with filler that's as good as any top shelf singles--an art that seems to have been lost since the 60's.  The subject matter may be a little narrower in scope, but damn if that cracking snare and Hag jubilantly working his way through heartache and self-loathing isn't a recipe for a good time.  As bummed as I was when I got home yesterday, this album reminded me that Hag's music has always been about good times for me--after all these years, "I Can't Stand Me" and "Shade Tree (Fix-It Man)" never fail to get me moving and singing along--and there's no better music to drive to, might I add.

Lastly, I'd like to point to 1971's Someday We'll Look Back as an album that exemplifies the depth of Hag's s songwriting, his influence on country music to come, and his broad-ranging appeal.  By this time, his Bakersfield approach had become steeped with even more stylistic influences than on albums like Branded Man, incorporating western swing ("The Only Trouble With Me"), straight-up blues ("Huntsville"), folk ("Tulare Dust"), and Nashville-styled pop country ("Carolyn").  The incorporation of these influences not only speaks to the man's restless growth as an artist (heralded by his outstanding tribute albums, A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (Or, My Salute to Bob Wills) and Same Train, a Different Time: Merle Haggard Sings the Great Songs of Jimmie Rodgers), it prefigures the assimilation of mainstream music that, for better or worse, changed the face of country music in the 80's through to its present, abominable state (as Hag himself would and did say in so many words).  Through it all, Hag pours his emotion, his sensitive worldview, and his imperfection as a human being into the songs and the performances.  This album is heavy on the hardships of his upbringing and the uplifting forces of family and nostalgia, themes that are indispensably woven in the fabric of all of his greatest works.  You can feel the grit of the dust and cotton fluffs on Steinbeck-ian tracks like "Tulare Dust," "California Cottonfields," and "One Row at a Time," as he sings about his family's tragic poverty, the failure of his father's attempts to migrate for economic opportunity, and, of course, the resulting troubles with the law that so often accompany such a background.  The regret expressed by these song's characters is a real part of a complicated performer, but so is his enduringly optimistic outlook--as the title track refrains, "someday, we'll look back and say: 'it was fun'".  Finally, this album gives us "Big Time Annie's Square," a song about what happens when a country boy tracks down his hometown sweetheart in a hippie commune.  Hag's output from this period is peppered with songs that describe similar cross-cultural clashes, not least of which is "Okie From Muskogee," one of his signature and most controversial tunes.  What always strikes me about these songs is that they're so much deeper, so much more empathetic they seem at first blush.  He always acknowledges the seemingly insurmountable differences between conservative country folk and big city progressives and the tensions that caused (and continue to cause) so much friction, but he is always ready to see the commonalitiy we share as human beings, and that even the most serious beliefs and pride should be taken with a wink and a grain of salt--it is manifestly clear that Hag believed that love and respect can overcome cultural differences, and that a heterogeneous society is something to be celebrated in compromise, not pushed apart by division--a concept that seems woefully lost on contemporary country music's reprehensible patterns of widespread promotion of consumerism and in-song corporate product placement, shallow jingoism and nationalism, and angrily divisive, exclusionary expressions of cultural identity.  It bears mentioning that these attitudes aren't limited to music, and that folks on both sides of the ever-growing cultural and political divides that dominate modern life would do well to learn from Hag's message of empathy and the pitfalls of ideological extremism.  This might be pop music, but it's thinking-person's pop music, and the fact that a man like Merle Haggard had a mouthpiece to broadly express such a layered, authentic, and human outlook is a special thing indeed.

Like any great artist, Hag's challenges as a person are evident in his art--that's why it endures and has appealed to many kinds of people across the decades--even staunch advocates of the avant-garde like yours truly!  I'm continually thankful to have this music--from which I've learned so much as a songwriter, performer, and human being--in my life, and I urge anybody who's scoffed at country music in its present form or written it off as shallow and not "for" people like them to give a classic Merle Haggard record a spin--you just might find out why the passing of this country singer really is a big deal to a lot of people: history marches on, a lot has changed in 50 years, and the world that shaped an artist like Hag ain't making them like it used to.  Thanks for everything, Hag.

For further reading, check out past reviews of Strangers, Branded Man, Sing Me Back Home, and Someday We'll Look Back.

Friday, May 16, 2014


Paraprosdokian! is Elliot Knapp's fifth independently-released studio album since 2010.  Its 11 original songs focus the wild creativity and avant-garde leanings found on 2012's Cheap Seats atthe Cartesian Theater and November 2013's Anadromous into tightly-composed pop songs that are no less surprising, intricate, or unusual than Knapp’s previous outings.  Knapp’s trademark eclecticism shines across this music’s ethereal vocal melodies, otherworldly guitar hooks, rhythmic counterpoint, and polished poetry, all of which are anchored to 11 intricate compositions of joyful struggle, yearning, and passion, wherein the limit of cynicism and the potential of dreams are blurred past the point of recognizability.  

While tracks like "Hungry" evoke a manic and undeniably twisted, funky reconstruction of New Wave sensibilities à la Talking Heads and The Cars, others like the buoyant "Memory" find Knapp's trademark intricate guitar counterpoint wound into sparkling iridescence of uncategorizable provenance, rising from moody spaces even farther to an anthemic pitch on the swelling "Left Wanting," while elsewhere Russ Kleiner's uncanny breakbeats marry with edgy synth bass and angular post-punk guitar riffing on "The Secret Room" to push Knapp's sound into untrodden corners of some future sound palette. 

Paraprosdokian! is available to purchase on Knapp's Bandcamp, CD Baby, and iTunes as well as numerous other online marketplaces and streaming venues.

Music video for "I Live In Ballard," track three from Paraprosdokian!:

Paraprosdokian! was recorded, mixed and mastered by Justin Phelps at Cloud City Sound in Portland, OR, with assistance from Rohan Sforcina.
Russ Kleiner plays drums on all tracks.
Elliot Knapp sings and plays all other instruments.
Album art designed by Michelle Koelbl.   

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


One of my most recent music projects was a charity release for my beloved Discovery Park, located on the Puget Sound side of Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood.  In short, it's an album-length sound collage of field recordings of an actual route you could walk around the park.  The entire recording is here to stream, with more information on the collage as an art form and the ways the release benefits Discovery Park below.

Over the past six years, Discovery Park has been a constant friend to me—I’ve spent hours running and walking, and exploring as many of the hidden trails as I can find.  I’ve written countless poems, lyrics, and brainstormed ideas I probably never would have come up with anywhere else.  I’ve seen birds and other animals I’ve never seen anywhere else in Seattle, and I’ve even had a chance to photograph a few.  I’ve always felt that, since it’s so large, well-maintained and diverse in environment, Discovery Park offers an experience unlike any other parks Seattle has to offer, and one that’s been an absolutely vital contrast to the bustle, crowds and noise of urban life.

With Discoveries, I wanted to recreate in sound the experience of exploring Discovery Park, so this summer I spent six days collecting field recordings of all of my favorite locations within the park and the vast range of different sounds you can hear when you’re there.  Then, in the modern classical tradition of musique concrete composers like Luc Ferrari and Chris Watson, I edited, layered and composed the recordings into an hour-long sound collage which, in the end, is made up of almost 50 discrete mono and stereo recordings.  Discoveries is organized as an actual linear journey you could walk on the park’s trails, starting and ending at the visitor center and traveling to all corners of the park.  Throughout the recording, you’ll listen to the birds waking up at dawn in the woods and by the pond, travel through long grass, tall trees, across the beach, over creeks, past the wastewater treatment plant, high above the shore at Daybreak Star overlook, across the Wolf Creek marsh and back through the woods during a characteristically-Seattle rainstorm.  I wanted the recording to really reproduce through sound the unique sense of place Discovery Park has to offer—listening to Discoveries, you can take the park with you wherever you go! 

My other goal with Discoveries is to not only recreate the substance of the park’s sounds, but also the feeling of being there.  There’s something magical about how it feels to sit quietly in a natural setting and simply listen to what’s going on around you.  Living in city, we get so used to the constant throb of mechanical noise that we have no choice but to tune out the sounds of our environment.  When you’re in a place like Discovery Park, though, the relative quiet allows your mind to decompress, and after a little while you start to realize it’s not necessarily quiet at all—there are thousands of different sounds all happening at the same time.  As a musician, I find that when you start listening to the sounds going on around you, there’s almost always something musical happening, whether it’s a randomly orchestrated chorus of birds, the ever-shifting rhythm of waves crashing on shore, or the layered texture of wind blowing through hundreds of leaves.  Stopping and tuning in to the subtle sounds happening around you can be not only be entertaining in a musical sort of way, but I think it can also be quite meditative in a way that clears your mind, helps get the creative process flowing, and inspires ideas.  It’s this feeling and experience I want Discoveries to offer as well.  It may not be quite as good as a trip to the park, but hopefully it can produce a similar effect.

As a thank-you to the park for all that it’s done for me and continues to offer the people of Seattle, CDs of Discoveries were offered for sale at a special “Pints for Parks” event at The Noble Fir tavern in Ballard on December 11th.  All of the proceeds from the event (including a dollar from every pint sold) were donated to the park, and any continuing proceeds will also be donated.  There are still a few handmade CD packages left, and you can easily download the recording for free or with a donation of your choice from the Bandcamp link above.  As with many other publicly-funded projects, Discovery Park has a small staff and relies on limited funds keep up with the park’s neverending maintenance and the educational opportunities offered by the parks department, so your support makes a very real difference in keeping the park around for many years to come!

Elliot Knapp - Field recordings collected with Tascam DR-05 digital recorders July 14, 15, 19, August 18, 29, and September 24, 2013.
Sound collage composed by Elliot Knapp October 22-25.
Mixed October 30, mastered November 1 by Justin Phelps at Cloud City Sound Studios, Portland, OR.
Album art by Courtney Morgan.

Friday, November 1, 2013


Here we are, just shy of a year since the release of Cheap Seats, to talk about the impending November 14 release of my next album, the all-acoustic collection Anadromous.  It's already available for pre-sale on Bandcamp, and you can also pre-order and support my other very soon-upcoming projects by viewing the Kickstarter campaign seen above!  Don't blink...the next album, Paraprosdokian!, will be out in December...

Anadromous has been in development since I was finishing work on Cheap Seats.  Where Cheap Seats attempted to state an abundance of ideas in structures as brief and elemental as possible with very little repetition, Anadromous focuses on storytelling over simpler, one-guitar arrangements and longer song structures with musical ideas that develop to be come subtly more complex and knotty as the stories unfold.  These songs come at a time in my life when I am on my way into adulthood but close enough to childhood that it's still fresh in my mind and dynamic in affecting my worldview.  Like an anadromous fish, I'm headed downriver to the ocean for adulthood, but always feeling the magnetic pull beckoning me to return to the stream of my origin.  I'm on my way, but I've got a few things to revisit first!

These heavily metaphorical narratives unfold with a sense of mystery and leave many questions unanswered, delving into supernatural phenomena and unexplainable occurrences.  For instance, the lead-off track "Nobody Saw" sees my fiancée and me transformed first into harbor seals, then into butterflies to disappear into a world of our own, while numerous other songs revisit the mythology of my childhood as dedications to family members.  Though it's punctuated by some lighthearted moments (like the poem in "Suspended (Omgoi)," which I wrote when I was 15!) Anadromous is a contemplative, somewhat spare album with typically intricate guitar work that reveals subtle development and evolution across the sometimes sprawling song structures.  While Cheap Seats sought to display the potential of thick layers of rock coloration and counterpoint, Anadromous seeks to find just how much you can say with one instrument and one vocal.  I hope you like it!

Friday, June 14, 2013