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Fall Preview / Pop Music

In Their Own Words

The singer-songwriter is ascendant again, offering introspective, heartfelt work just when we need it

September 15, 2002|ROBERT HILBURN

Bob Dylan's greatest gift to pop culture has long been seen as his role in teaching rock 'n' roll to think, making the music more than a limited teen delight. But it's possible that an even greater contribution was bringing the singer-songwriter tradition into the pop mainstream.

It's a breakthrough that is paying welcome dividends this fall, a season packed with winning new albums from an array of valuable artists, including Beck, Steve Earle, India.Arie, Rhett Miller and Ron Sexsmith. Not to mention Tom Petty, Peter Gabriel, Jackson Browne, Ryan Adams, Peter Case, Tracy Chapman and Badly Drawn Boy.

It's a striking addition to the singer-songwriter tradition that has been a creative center of the pop experience for much of the last half century.

Because of the popularity of such guitar-carrying solo artists as Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Browne in the early '70s, there is a tendency to equate the term "singer-songwriter" with folk music.

But the tradition is broad enough to stretch from Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and Lauryn Hill in R&B to Chuck D., Ice Cube and Eminem in rap to Lennon-McCartney, Elvis Costello and Eddie Vedder in rock to Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Vince Gill in country music.

The emphasis on singer-songwriters lessened in recent years as record producers, from Max Martin to the Neptunes, became the kings in commercial pop, shaping hits for teen and R&B acts.

The result, in most cases, was anonymous music that frequently had catchy, commanding textures but rarely any deeply rooted personal edge.

Against the aftermath of Sept. 11, it's tempting to think there will be renewed interest in the personal commentary and introspection that can result from singers telling their stories. If so, this fall's bounty of albums makes plenty of heartfelt music available.

Although few of the songs in this fall's batch of albums are direct reflections on the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, all four of the singer-songwriters interviewed for this article say that day affected them as artists.

India.Arie, part of the refreshing neo-soul movement that includes singer-songwriters Alicia Keys and Hill, says Sept. 11 underscored her belief that music can be a positive social force.

"I always felt that music had this special power, but it was mostly a theory--until I started seeing it for myself," says Arie, 26, whose "Acoustic Soul" album last year led to seven Grammy nominations, including best album. "There's a connection that you can feel on stage and in talking to people about music--and that's especially true after Sept. 11."

Adds Ron Sexsmith, 38, whose wistful tunes tend to have uplifting components, "I did a show with Lucinda Williams on Sept. 12 [2001] and we didn't know if people were going to show up or be in the mood to listen to music because it was such a scary time.

"But I played this song, 'Former Glory,' that I had written for the new album and you could feel people responding to it as if it had just been written that day, and that felt good."

For anyone under 40, the idea that pop music isn't built around singers telling their own stories must sound strange. But for generations, pop was guys (mostly) in New York (or Nashville or Los Angeles) writing songs such as "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" and Patti Page (or Bing Crosby or Nat King Cole) singing them.

There were songwriters in the "secondary" fields of country, folk and blues who sang their own tunes, but the songs were usually re-recorded by pop singers if the songs were to be accepted in the pop market.

All those great Hank Williams country ballads, including "Cold, Cold Heart" and "Your Cheatin' Heart," were pop hits, but only after Tony Bennett and Joni James recorded them.

Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene" and Woody Guthrie's "So Long (It's Been Good to Know Ya)" only reached the Top 10 through remakes by the Weavers.

There were, of course, many, many great songwriters before Dylan, and their songs sometimes fell into just the right hands--Cole Porter and Frank Sinatra is one of many perfect matches. Mostly, though, the separation of writing and singing worked against the soulfulness and character of recordings.

By drawing on the singer-songwriter traditions of country, folk and blues, some of the early rock stars--notably Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly--helped open a door for Dylan by writing their own songs.

Berry was by far the most significant of these pioneers. Although some of his biggest hits were novelty tales designed to catch the teen ear with their wordplay ("Sweet Little Sixteen"), Berry wove social observation into other songs ("You Never Can Tell" and "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man") that helped lift the aspirations of rock 'n' roll songwriting.

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