Why some of us are terrible singers

Do you go to Karaoke bars or watch some of those TV singing shows like “American Idol”, “The Voice”, “The X Factor”, “The Sing Off” or “Glee”? A new study has found that most people, as many as 62%, can’t sing. Wow! Wake the kids and call the neighbors!

This might be news to researchers who studied this phenomenon, but it’s hardly a revelation to guys like me who’ve been backing up this 62% for years in bars, on shows and in studios. No, you don’t have to naturally be in the coveted 38% to get a record deal because ProTools can put you there. Makes you wish Shure would get restraining orders against 100% of the 62% to keep them from abusing any more innocent microphones.

An excerpt from the article on MSNBC:

In a series of five experiments, researchers compared small groups of people with or without musical training. They tested participants’ accuracy at matching their voices to various pitches, to a target vocal or musical tone, or to other singers.

The study found that anywhere from 40 to 62 percent of non-musicians were poor singers, a rate much higher than shown in previous research.

It also found that roughly 20 percent of people can’t sing accurately because they don’t have good control of their vocal muscles. Another 35 percent of poor singers have trouble matching the pitch of their own voice to the same sound heard in other timbres, such as when it’s coming from a trumpet, piano, or a person of the opposite sex. And 5 percent of lousy singers lack the ability to hear differences in pitch or discriminate between two different sounds.

To be sure, some aspects of singing are influenced by genetics. “There are certainly people who are more natural singers, and the physiological shape of their vocal tracts can give a more or less pleasing natural sound to the voice,” Hutchins points out. But he says, the best singers just like the best athletes will be those who are blessed with natural talent and have devoted a large amount of practice to their craft.

However, it’s the poor singers of the world who are the least likely to practice. And that’s what’s necessary to get better at it.

I never worked for Johnny Paycheck

Along about the middle 90’s I decided to quit the road, after 20 years of cold hamburgers, warm beer and hot licks. I wanted to be a web designer, so I signed up for some classes at Nashville Tech. I was working clubs around town and also driving cars at the airport part-time for Thrifty Car Rental, so I figured I didn’t need to be a road dog anymore.

Several road offers presented themselves at this pivotal juncture in my so-called life, and it was some serious shit to turn them down. Johnny Paycheck’s brother, the guitar player and bandleader, called me one night and left a message on my answering machine (remember them?). They were looking for a steel guitar player, and could I go out on the next trip? I put off the decision for a day or so and then called him back, and they’d got somebody by then. Whew, now the decision was out of my hands.

I’d always been a Paycheck fan. Not so much his big hits, but the early stuff on “Little Darlin'” with Lloyd Green. Great stuff. I’d been on a couple shows with him, so I kinda knew him, and I knew the guys who were on the band now, and I knew there was a lot of cigarette smoke and drugs and whiskey on that bus. No big deal, but it was kinda another incentive – or so I told myself – to stay in town and pursue my mid-life career change.

So, I forsook the Opry and the jam sessions on Broadway and the night clubs and veered off in another direction. Heh, there were some who thought that I was doing some serious veering when I’d decided to be a steel guitar player and head off for Nashville back in the 70’s.

So now it’s 15 beers years later and I’m living with the consequences of my actions, for better or worse, and I still wonder what woulda become of my life had I gone out to play “A-11” way back then.

What monKey are we in?

monkeyfacePlaying live with unrehearsed bands and sit-ins, which I’ve done a lot for the last 39 years, can be dangerous and can make a monkey out of you if you don’t play with circumspection. It can drive you bananas.

Most of the bands I’ve worked with do the same songs – country standards and whatever’s hot at the time – and the musicians usually know what they’re doing, but arrangements and keys can vary, especially when a sit-in or a chick singer or a big ego is involved.

I don’t know how many times I’ve kicked a song off in D when it it was supposed to be in G. Well, I thought the singer said D. The drummer’s banging around on his kit, the bass player’s hollering at some girl, the piano player’s practicing “Last Date”. It’s noisy on the bandstand; hard to hear. If anyone knew the sharps and flats they could just flash one finger up when they want to perform in G. Hell, most Nashville musicians don’t even know this, let alone singers.

“Big City” can be an adventure sometimes. The turnaround in the middle is the same as the intro on the record, but sometimes a guitar player will want to play a ride in the middle, which always confuses the bass player.

You never know if you’re going to modulate in “Look At Us”. If you do it like the record, the band probably won’t. So you’re hanging out there like a big matza ball.

The 4m in the tag on “Farewell Party” can be fraught with peril, and I usually play just the root and 5th of the 4 until I hear what kind of a 3rd everybody else is playing.

Some symphony in Nashville was doing a piece a couple years ago and someone missed a cue, and the whole thing ground to a halt and they had to regroup and start up again. And they were rehearsed, and reading their parts. Obviously not bar band musicians.

But it’s all good experience, and it makes a better musician out of you eventually, I tell myself as I contemplate the infinite monkey theorem that states something about an infinite number of moneys plucking away on a steel guitar for an infinite amount of time and coming up with something better than “Steel Guitar Rag”.

Where’s Buddy?

Buddy Emmons on the iPhoneBack in the old days during the DJ Convention in October you could see Buddy Emmons, Jimmy Day, Paul Franklin, and even me, at various places around Nashville jamming away. Lower Broad was a hot spot and there was no telling who you’d see picking at The Den, The Wheel, Tootsie’s, or just gamboling between “every crack in these dirty sidewalks of Broadway”. The King of the Road motel, the Ramada Inn and Sho~Bud were among other places that hosted some of these steel guitar extravaganzas.

Some were advertised, like the Peavey Room, but most weren’t. So where was Buddy tonight? Hard to tell. You could ask around, or drive around, and if you got lucky you’d find him.

But what if there were Facebook and Twitter and Foursquare back then? How cool that would have been, to check your iPhone and find out what the hell was going on. Save a lot of gas and time.

Unfortunately, now that we have these modern conveniences there aren’t any spontaneous jams to go to. You have to go to a steel guitar show in Dallas or St. Louis or Knoxville, all well-advertised, orchestrated (!) and expensive, what with the travel time and hotel costs. Hell, I live in, or near, Nashville, and I ought to be able to see some good picking without having to drive for hours.

I’ve been working, or at least hanging out, on Broadway since the 70’s and I really can’t remember the last good jam session I saw down there. Maybe sometime in the early 80’s.

Well, the Den isn’t there anymore, Sho~Bud’s history and they don’t even have a DJ Convention these days. But all isn’t lost; I can sit in the comfort of my studio and dial up Buddy, Jimmy, Weldon, and even myself, on YouTube, crack open a brewski and have a good ol’ time. No gas expense, no DUI risk, no parking problems. But, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg notwithstanding, that ain’t as good as it used to be, is it?

Ol’ Jim

Ol' JimOl’ Jim used to come out to see us anywhere we played, and we’d always get him up to do a couple tunes on his harmonica. He came alone; his wife was sick and couldn’t get out. He was probably the worst harmonica player who ever lived. He ran it through a little Peavey amp with the reverb on 10 and the echo on 11. All you could hear when he played were the effects, not any real notes. And he had a problem with time. A lot of his bars had 3 or 5 beats in them, so following him was a challenge. He liked to play old county songs, like “Crazy Arms” and Hank Williams stuff, and when he got done he always complimented us and bought us a round and went back to his table and rolled a cigarette and listened to us for the rest of the set, grinning.

Ol’ Jim had a recording studio in his house and I went over there a few times to put down some steel tracks on some instrumentals he was working on. There was a train track that ran right next to his house and we’d have to take 5 when the 3:13 came by. Or the 6:15. Or the… you get the idea. He had pictures of him and me and some of the other guys on the wall. He was real proud of those pictures.

Ol’ Jim made CD’s of the stuff we recorded and brought us all autographed copies. I didn’t listen to them, but I still have them.

Then Ol’ Jim got sick and went to the VA hospital. Then he died. He was in his 80’s. I miss Ol’ Jim. We all do.

Darrell McCall

Now here’s a great country singer, true to the roots of classic country. So of course he doesn’t get played on the radio. His “Lilly Dale” album was one of the ones I wore out learning Buddy’s licks. I backed him up a few times here and there when I was with Faron, and it was always fun.

I was playing a sit-down gig at a club in Camden, TN, and management wanted to get Darrell in there, and I said, sure, good idea, I can put a great band together to back him up. So, a month in advance I got a bunch of real good pickers to do the gig. Redd Volkaert on guitar, Ronnie Dale on bass and a fine drummer, who shall remain anonymous.

I checked on everybody a week or two before the downbeat to make sure they hadn’t forgotten, or been arrested, and everybody was cool. But a day or two before the gig the drummer canceled. He couldn’t supply a sub, and I had to find somebody. This was back when I knew every musician in town, but I couldn’t find a good drummer. Everybody was booked. Everybody, no shit. All I could find was a guy who who turned out to be really new at drumming and had apparently never heard of Buddy Harman. So new and clueless that Ronnie had to tell him what drums to hit on every song. The poor guy just couldn’t play a shuffle, although he did the best he could.

Darrell was a trouper, and went on and did his show and didn’t raise any hell with the bandleader (me). He even told me after the show that he could tell I really liked his kind of music, whatever that meant.

But this fucking drummer who let me down, this piece of drek who canceled at the last minute… Geez, I’d worked with him many times, he was a great drummer, he had a good resume and he still works on Broadway. It blew me away, how unprofessional this guy turned out to be. I never woulda suspected it. But, that’s the kind of shit you have to deal with when you’re a bandleader, I guess. I wouldn’t hire this motherfucker now to piss on the Ryman if it were on fire; he’d probably tell me at the last minute he had prostate trouble, and I’d have to get some derelict from Robert’s to handle the job.


A Road Tip

So you’re down in Texas in the summer playing a rodeo and some of your fans pull up, dodging the cow patties, and park as close as they can get to the bus. It’s 95 degrees, and they don’t sweat much for fat girls. But they’ve got beer! It’s in the trunk, where it’s probably 120 degrees. Yow, you hate warm hot beer, don’tcha? Well, if you can get some ice, you can cool it down in a couple minutes, just by laying a can on the ice and spinning it with a finger. You’ll thank me later.

Some Singers

I’m playing some club in Nashville and some guy gets up to sit in. He wants to do some song that’s like number 89 on some chart somewhere that he recorded at a custom session with some sweet-talking producer who charged him as much as he thought the traffic would bear and he thinks we oughta know it, and he gives us all the skunk eye when we ask if he’s got a chart because we’ve never heard his fucking song. (And, oh, I’d know the song if I’d been on the session, but he doesn’t want to hear that.) He’s thinking he should be a priority in our lives while we’re just an option in his. Huh. These guys kill me; they’re not musicians (unless they actually are), and a couple years later they’re gonna be back home working at Quickie Lube while we musicians are still gonna be doing what we do, working with other singers (who actually had some hit records), playing sessions and the Opry, and developing our craft.

Dickey Overby and phrasing

Dickey Overby at the Midnight JamboreeDickey’s one of my favorite E9th players. He’s a monster, and those wide chord grips kill me. He’s got his own take on phrasing. He’s busy, plays a lot of notes. Holes be damned. And he makes it work. I was talking about this with another steel guitar player recently, and we came to the tenuous conclusion that this seems to be kind of a style in Texas.

I’ve written about him before, here and here, so there’s nothing else I can say.


Stonewall Jackson

I was playing an outdoor gig with Stonewall Jackson, a fair or something in New York State. We were sitting around the bus, killing time until it was time to dazzle everyone with “Me and You and A Dog Named Boo”. A cop came on the bus to visit and Stonewall asked him about his Mace.
“Hey, Hoss, what’s that on your belt?”
The cop explained what is was and how it worked.
So Stonewall, always willing to absorb new ideas, held it in his hand and peered curiously at it, like King Kong did to Fay Wray. Then he sprayed himself in the face. On purpose. Wanted to see how it worked, he said. He could barely sing. I mean, he could barely sing in time for the show.