Sunday, August 07, 2016

It's Simple, Really. But Complicated.

So, I was speaking with Kris Kristofferson the other day…

Two old guys, one of whom is very, very
talented. The other one writes this blog.
Wait, wait, wait . . .  Yeah, I always wanted to start off a blog post with a major name-drop like that. But I really was speaking with Kris Kristofferson the other day; he’s my wife’s cousin, and we recently met up with Kris at a family reunion in Oregon. And, oddly enough, our conversation actually is relevant to this blog post. (I also got to play guitar and sing with him for bit, and that part is not at all relevant to the topic of this blog post, but c'mon . . .  How many of us get to say that we played with Kris Kristofferson?)

Ahem . . . So, anyway, I was speaking with Kris Kristofferson the other day, and I asked him who was the best guitarist he’s played with. Now, Kris has played with a lot of really good guitar players in his 60-year career, but his answer surprised me. He said the best guitarist he’s worked with is Willie Nelson. I had never paid much attention to Willie as a guitar player. I assumed he was competent, of course; good, even, but nothing special. It’s country, after all. “Three chords and the truth,” right? How complicated could it be?

“It sounds simple, but it’s really not, not the way he plays it. The guy plays like Segovia,” said Kris. “Definitely the best I’ve played with.”

And he’s got a point there. (Well, of course he’s got a point. He’s Kris-Freaking-Kristofferson!) If you listen to Willie’s work on the Stardust album, which is full of old standards and torch songs, you can hear that he plays a lot of complex rhythms and sophisticated jazz chords, with the occasional flamenco-style trill or run thrown in for good measure. But the thing is that when you examine much of his country work, he’s doing some of that there, too. Even in his “pure” country songs, if you listen carefully, you can pick up subtle echoes of both jazz and classical Spanish guitar work—with maybe a little blues thrown in. (I’m not really sure that there’s actually such a thing as “pure” country. Or pure anything, really. My friend and former colleague, Seth Colaner, who is both an excellent writer and an accomplished musician, knows a lot more than I about music, music history, and music theory. He touches on the subject in the Artist Statement on his website. Definitely worth a look, and be sure to check out his music while you’re there.)

Like many things of great beauty, Willie’s guitar-playing sounds . . . simple. Understated. Even the flourishes seem straightforward; they never overshadow the song—they’re subtle touches meant to complement, not stand out. It makes you think that playing like that would be easy.

But of course, it’s not easy. Most things that seem simple are only simple because so many of the complexities are masked.

Software, for instance. When you run a program and discover that it’s easy to use, chances are that someone (or a team of someones) went through a great deal of trouble to make it easy to use. There is nothing simple about software; even in the most rudimentary programs, there’s a whole lot going on behind the scenes, and many, many ways that the program’s interactions with the user could go astray. Someone figured out all of those ways (or as many as possible, anyway), and tried to account for or avoid them. The software you’re using is easy to use simply because a skilled designer or programmer made it so, and that person expended a great deal of time and energy in the effort.

And writing is “simple” in the same way. Very few people can write beautiful prose (or poetry or song) off the tops of their heads. For most of us, writing is a great deal of very hard work. It seems simple and straightforward and natural only because we labored to make it so. 

Discussing the craft of writing reminds me of the saying usually attributed (in various forms) to sportswriter Red Smith: “Writing is easy. I just sit at my typewriter until beads of blood form on my forehead.”

It’s not that bad, really. But it’s like any craft: working up the basic framework might be simple enough, but tweaking and reworking and polishing it can take many, many hours. And yet, when you read it, the work will feel smooth and effortless; it will be a coherent whole that seems to flow naturally and easily. All of the artist’s hard work is hidden from view.

It’s there, though. Good work takes work

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