All I Really Need to Know I Learned from John Hiatt Lyrics

Listen up, all you womenfolk! Do you want to understand what drives the human male? Do you wish to comprehend the vastness of his emptiness and grok his strange ways? Do you just maybe want to know what’s eating him? Then look no further than the works of The Man himself: Mr. John Hiatt, whose song lyrics explain it all.

Now, women, it’s nice when you love us, but after a certain point we become perplexed (and even begin to resent you) at your seeming failure to understand what a bastard we actually are. (Actually, what we don’t usually realize is that you knew it all along, but can’t act upon the knowledge because of some female-specific constitutional defect that remains a mystery to us.) Anyway, The Man explains it in “Angel Eyes”:

So tonight I’ll ask the stars above
How did I ever win your love?
What did I do, what did I say
To turn your angel eyes my way?

There’s no answer. Or if there is, the guy in the song sure doesn’t find it. He’s asking rhetorical-like questions, see. (Hiatt even has a song called “She Loves the Jerk.”)

The flip side of the “What the hell are you doing with me?” theme is “I swear I’ll always love you and be faithful, and by ‘swear’ I mean I’m gonna try.” Women and men are from the same planet, but words can mean different things to them. The Man sums it up in “Cross My Fingers”:

Baby when I put my mind to it
I slip into another gear
And I travel in another syncopation
When all I wanna be is here with you, and
I’ll be true to you – cross my fingers
I’ll be good to you – cross my fingers

See? He’s trying his best, which is all he can do.

Often it’s a futile effort, as in “Little Head”:

I’m loyal as a dog but I’m a hog for that sexual attraction
It starts up in my mind and makes a bee line below the belt
No consequences just satisfaction
Baby in my heart I’m faithful
This two headed monster is so distasteful
Forgive me when my instincts start stinkin’
I’m just so easily led when the little head does the thinkin’

Even you probably realize that when it gets right down to it, what makes you dig a guy isn’t his little head so much as his brain – expressed, usually, through his words. So who better than a master songwriter-dude to lay all this out so that even your confused female minds can understand it? In “Loving a Hurricane” The Man casts a cold clear eye on the process of courtship, and you’d do well to take note:

You [the man] answer questions like a natural disaster
Voices in the wind – you let ’em call her out
The whole foundation just went flying right past her
She puts her heart into it – and you just yank it out
You pulled her love out through the window pane
That’s what she gets for loving a hurricane

Let’s look closely at that. The song’s very first line establishes the importance of language in the process of love. “Answer[ing] questions like a natural disaster,” he’s using the power of his words to overwhelm her, to take away her sense of control over life – just as happens when nature rises up against us, except this is a form of surrender which she may like and encourage. The “voices in the wind” are the poetic tradition, which he draws upon to whip away her whole foundation, to “call her out” and “pull her love out.”

Traditions are everpresent in Hiatt’s lyrics. In “Your Dad Did,” Hiatt’s workingman hero, though no poet, also recognizes his debt to those who came before: “You’re a chip off the old block/Why does it come as such a shock/That every road up which you rock/Your dad already did?” Even this everyday married-with-children guy finds grace in what came before:

Well the day was long now, supper’s on
The thrill is gone
But something’s taking place
Yeah the food is cold and your wife feels old
But all hands fold
As the two-year-old says grace…
You love your wife and kids
Just like your dad did.

By contrast, a man not armed with at least the homiest wisdom of the ages is a lost soul, as in “Native Son”: “Running through the woods/And the burned out neighborhoods/Looking for someone/A member of your tribe/A place you can hide/’Til the war has begun.” Such a man’s loves can end only in something explosive (like a war) or in a quieter failure, as “Cry Love,” told from the woman’s point of view, shows:

The trust of a woman in his hand
But he was a little boy, not a man
You loved him stronger than he could feel
Yeah he was wrapped up in himself like an orange peel.

What looks to her like an stubbornly uncommunicative man is really a man paralyzed by his own thoughts, like the poor guy in “You Must Go”:

Love is in the air
You can smell it everywhere
It’s in your clothes, it’s in her hair
Ah, you better get out of there
It’s gonna take a midnight train
To straighten out your winding brain.

A lot of perfectly decent guys are caught up in this kind of situation and don’t know how to get out. Some are too smart for their own good, but for many it’s because they didn’t pay attention in school, don’t read books, and don’t know how to use their male brain as intended. The nerd gets the girl in the end, but not, as the Al Bundys of the world might think, because he’s rich; no, the nerd gets the girl because he does know how to use his male brain.

Sometimes the trapped man breaks out, as in “Feelin’ Again”:

I thought I had to curl up from my head down to my toes
But heaven knows that I was wrong, I’m feeling again
Holding my breath and holed up in this cheap motel, I feel like hell
I’m holding my own heart, I’m feeling again

Maybe he had to go through “alcohol fire,” like the guy in “Paper Thin,” but he escaped from inside himself. Still he feels “like hell,” because it’s overwhelming to be feeling so much: “When I get that feeling like a bass drum/Pounding til my head is numb/Electric onion peeling within…” He may have gotten the girl, but that awesome brain of his still can’t satisfy his craving for understanding. (Why did I get the girl?)

As you can see, Hiatt’s lyrics illustrate all the important iterations of the male condition:

1. I don’t know exactly who the hell I am, but I seem to be an asshole. Why do you love me?
2. I’m only my father’s son, so it ain’t my fault. Wait a minute, how did I get here? What is the meaning of – hey, you’re sexy!

“Only the Song Survives” distills this male confusion into a story in which a man dreams of a terrible car accident with a woman who may or may not be his wife. She explains:

Now don’t you remember they put a patch on your eye
Like Dread Pirate Roberts, you looked so unplanned
They cut off my wedding ring and you started to cry
A one-eyed Niagara Falls man

“But I never married,” objects the man. So is this injured woman with the wedding ring his wife? “Faces were changed… faces get strange,” goes the refrain – as they are wont to do in dreams. The dream-man looks “unplanned” because he is. What could be more unplanned, more emblematic of losing control, than a car accident?

But I woke up sweating to breakfast in bed
And there were my children, and there was my wife
Post-traumatic stress, or just a bump on the head?
Or maybe the ride of my life

It’s the ride of his life, all right, a ride of confusion, statelessness, and knocks on the head. Yet somehow his domestic life is still there for him. And he’ll never figure out why. Woman, to him, is magic, like the

woman sawed in half, her legs in Tijuana
She was a bodyless head and trapeze artist in a circus in Bombay
Now a woman’s gonna do exactly what a woman’s gonna
Yeah, some bad magicians wouldn’t have it any other way
She holds on to that trapeze by the skin of her teeth, or so they say

With images of a woman in two places at once and possessed of magical survival skills, Hiatt has now universalized his depiction of the split human condition. The passive (female) subject of the magic trick somehow finds her power and makes do even after she’s been cut in half. Meanwhile the “bad magician,” the songwriter, the caster of spells with words, feels his power, yet ultimately doesn’t understand it any better than the average joe of “Buffalo River Home” does:

I’ve been circling the wagons down at Times Square
Trying to fill up this hole in my soul but nothing fits there
Just when you think you can let it rip
You’re pounding the pavement in your daddy’s wingtips
As if you had some place better to go…

Although domesticated, and walking in his father’s footsteps, he’s still listening for that “Something Wild,” believing in the promise of “It’ll Come To You”:

Now you’re happily married with a wife and kids of your own
But sometimes in the closet at night you can hear them rattlin’ bones
Takin’ bets on your future and your current postal zone
It’s a spooky equation, but check out yourself, Jack, you’re the great unknown…
[but] in the middle of the night, with your covers pulled up tight
It’ll come to you

The understanding that will come to him, and the something wild that he both desires and fears, are two halves of the same nature. All of us have these dual natures. Now you know where to find out all you need to know about the particularly frustrating male version of this internal, eternal conflict: the lyrics of The Man himself, John Hiatt.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up for Oct. 19 2006 – Special Happy Music Edition

This week we cover only happy music. I said: Only happy music. Only. Happy. Music. Shut up.

Nicola, Don’t Take It Personally

Latin-tinged soulfulness and a unique mix of hard pop and polyrhythmic complexity have always characterized Nicola, but she and her band (also called Nicola) inch towards the progressive edge of alt-rock with this, her third CD. As on her earlier releases, Nicola’s catlike alto and spidery, sensuous acoustic guitar meld with the funkiness of her tight-as-leather-pants band to create an original but accessible pop sound. This disc is not as replete with hooks, however, as her past work. The songs, while strong and frequently striking, have more of the rock landscape about them and less of the portrait.

The title track is quite catchy, however, as is the power ballad “Crazy.” “Lighthouse” is a nifty mix of heavy rock and melodic soundscape, and “In Your Own Backyard” is a surprisingly convincing rap-metal experiment featuring Tah Phrum Duh Bush.

From “(5,6,7,8) Hot Date,” a hilarious blast of relationship anger punk, to its opposite extreme, the soul ballad “Combustible,” Nicola’s work continues to express one of pop music’s more creative musical visions. And their live shows are a party and a half. The New York release party for the CD will be at the Bowery Poetry Club on Nov. 17.

Extended clips here.

Brian Simpson, Postcard From L.A.

When an artist is so closely imitative of one inspiration as Brian Simpson is of Tom Petty, the listener can have two possible responses: take it entirely on its own terms, or put it in context. In context, there’s a certain lack of originality. Simpson sings like Tom Petty (crossed with Huey Lewis), he writes like Tom Petty, and most strikingly he arranges like Tom Petty. But on his own terms, he’s pretty darn good, making well-crafted, sunny California pop-rock with engaging vocals and a happy vibe.

The main disadvantage of aping someone’s sound is that your songwriting tends to suffer by comparison. But while Simpson doesn’t match his idol in that regard, few do, and these songs have much going for them on their own. This is well-made, feel-good music, and we always need more of that.

Extended clips can be heard here.

The Brightwings, Stay

Equally sunny sounds come from the Brightwings. The California lilt of their shimmery folk-rock is a tribute to their devotion to their artistic vision and to modern heating (or maybe global warming) – the band is from Boston. “All I Need” is highly catchy, and “Many Miles” and “Mallory” are fine pop baubles as well, while the wispy “I Want You To Stay” harks back to 1960s pop. The only weakness is that some of the lead vocals lack heft, though the lustrous harmonies in the choruses make up for that somewhat. The CD closes with a lovely version of “Please Come To Boston,” an inspired choice.

Melissa Ivey, Lovers and Stars

The title track of powerhouse Melissa Ivey’s new EP is getting a lot of airplay in her home state of Colorado. It’s a fine pop tune that suggests a younger Sheryl Crow combined with a smarter Avril Lavigne. But I like the first of the two collaborations with The Knack‘s Berton Averre even more: though it adheres less closely to pop conventions, “Eye on the Door” fits Ivey’s sultry voice like a wet, torn t-shirt. Her voice, and the CD’s smoky production, polishes the dark cores at the songs’ hearts, digging deeper into the soul than one expects from such a young singer.

The dramatic climax of the other Averre co-write, “Everywhere and Nowhere,” comes as an almost Bowie-esque crescendo, while the fun, punked-out “Far Away” owes more to the riot grrl bands. On the evidence of this limited sample, Ivey has a touch that makes whatever she tries work for her, including the sophisticated folk-pop closer, “No Ties To Break,” whose gorgeous little melody grabs on and won’t let go. Ivey is a big talent we should be hearing a lot more from soon.

Extended clips here.

The Beautiful Girls, Water

Australia’s Beautiful Girls follow up last year’s international success with a new compilation of songs from their earlier releases. Those CDs didn’t get wide notice outside their native country, so the songs will be new to North American and European audiences. The Caribbean influence is subtler on this disc than on 2005’s We’re Already Gone, and there’s more stress on the funky acoustic skeleton that holds up their liquidy melodies. The sound, reminiscent of the Chili Peppers’ soft underbelly, depends on the band’s ability to serve their songs (all written by singer-guitarist Mat McHugh) by holding back rather than pressing forward. Indeed, it’s music that makes you lean back – at least mentally – as you tap your feet and bob your head.

The band depicts a variety of moods using a small palette. The dreamy reflectivity of “Periscopes” slides into the sly “Morning Sun,” whose positive lyrics jostle effectively with tense minor chords. The raw “Water” flows into a barely-there instrumental called “First Sign of Trouble.” The centerpiece of the CD is the joyous “Music”: “‘Cause I got music and it makes me feel all right… and I got it every day.” That’s true wisdom, y’all.

In a few of the softer, more contemplative tracks like “Freedom” and “I Need To Give This Broken Heart Away” the tension drops out and, with it, too much of the musical energy. But the reggae-ish “Weight of the World” points ahead to the band’s lively, mature style. In sum, this compilation has its weaknesses, but fans of We’re Already Gone and of McHugh’s shades-of-grey writing and carefully thrown-away vocals will probably like it – at least to tide them over till a release of really new material.

Vicki Genfan, Up Close and Personal

The Jaco Pastorius of the acoustic guitar? Ellen McIlwaine squared? The Pat Metheny of New Jersey? Vicki Genfan may be a little bit of all those things, but primarily she is herself: a guitar wizard with jaw-dropping technique and gushing creativity. Her new double CD consists of an instrumental disc and a singer-songwriter disc. The former is a revelation. In it Genfan provides a guitar clinic that’s not in the least clinical. With her acoustic six-string front and center, and tasteful backing here and there from other top musicians, she takes us through an eleven-song odyssey through the workings of a scarily brilliant musical mind.

By comparison, the best that can be said about the singer-songwriter CD is that it’s a solid folk-jazz album that presses Genfan’s awesome guitar technique into the service of material that isn’t going to blow too many people away. That’s not to say it’s not a pleasure to listen to, if you’re in a contemplative mood. Genfan’s vocals are calming and assured. “Don’t Give Up” and “Love Thing” with their smooth 70s-style soul-charged choruses owe more to Stevie Wonder and George Winston than Joni Mitchell, and the pretty jazz ballad “When You Are Winter” gets a nice lift from Gil Goldstein’s Debussy-inspired piano runs. The jazz strain continues with an ethereal cover of Marvin Gaye’s classic “What’s Going On,” dreamily decorated with an udu drum and a Wurlitzer solo by Goldstein.

On the other hand, neither Genfan’s spot-on but laid-back delivery nor the stalwart contributions of her excellent backing musicians can bring the weak Chris Jones song “Ain’t Got Love” to life; “Living in the Country” is a potentially nice song that suffers from a creative hesitancy you never hear in her instrumental work; and the cover of The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” is too new-agey for my taste, although its melody – one of the most beautiful ever written, n’est-ce pas? – comes through without damage.

I confess that even the best smooth-jazz stylings have never floated my boat much, so your knottage may vary. About recommending the instrumental CD, I have no reservations whatsoever. You can listen to extended clips of both discs at the release’s CD Baby page and decide for yourself. Then, whatever you think of what I think, I’ll wager you’ll agree that the amazing Vicki Genfan is a guitar-playing force of nature.

OUT AND ABOUT IN NYC: Kirsten DeHaan and Jodi Jett heated up the basement performance space at Club Midway on Tuesday night. Jett’s set was spoiled by an unpracticed and out-of-tune backing band, but on her new CD Revelations an easy wryness harks back to Lou Reed and Patti Smith while low-tech, moody arrangements read like early Jefferson Airplane channeled through Liz Phair and the Cowboy Junkies. (How’s that for cramming multiple comparisons into one sentence? Just wait, I’ll be reviewing the CD in a future column, one not devoted to happy music.) DeHaan, by contrast, is a nineties-style punk-pop dynamo. Her new 3-song EP is drawing comparisons to Belly and U2, which is fair enough, but her live set is rawer and more punked out. This dualism may simply be in the nature of the pretty, driven, biker-haired Indianan-turned-New Yorker, or it may be smartly planned – or both. In any case it makes her recorded music potentially radio-friendly in more than one circuit – grown up Gen-Xers, college rock, maybe even the Avril LaTween set. A combination of talent, personal intensity and looks might soon turn Kirsten DeHaan into a major indie player… Last night the music stage at Mo Pitkins belonged to neo-folk singer-songwriter Meg Braun, whose stage presence is becoming rapidly more assured as she gets closer to releasing her debut CD. Aviv Roth provided inspired acoustic fills and solos. Braun incidentally proved the value of musical collectives by filling the room with her Maggie’s Music Salon compatriots and their friends. If a bunch of musicians provide mutual support by going to one another’s gigs, they can fill a small room and help earn that night’s performer additional bookings. It’s not a new idea, but it seldom succeeds in practice, musicians being a self-interested bunch. Kudos to Maggies.

Theater Review: The Heart of My Mystery: The Hamlet Project

With The Heart of My Mystery: The Hamlet Project, Barbara Bosch and Mark Ringer have pulled off a neat trick: giving a fresh twist to Hamlet, while presenting a true, cathartic, and very good production of Shakespeare’s most iconic and psychologically complex play.

Interrupting the action of the play with quotes from four centuries of Hamlet commentary sounds like it would be awkward or too cerebral, but turns out to have been a small stroke of genius. Delivered by the actors (who step out of character at opportune moments) from sources as diverse as Voltaire, Freud, and Stephen Greenblatt’s excellent recent biography Will in the World, the commentary, far from coming off as a self-conscious meta-theatrical device, is interesting and often just plain funny. The idea, according to the program notes, is to place the play “in juxtaposition with the critical response it has inspired” and create “an irreverent and scholarly study of Hamlet.” That it does, but the result is not a dry experiment but a first-class entertainment.

The cast of nine, solid from top to bottom, is the foremost cause of that success. It seems almost unfair to single out any performance. Bosch pushes her actors to find the conversational rhythms in Shakespeare’s poetry, and they do so with amazing success. The few exceptions to the naturalism, like Rand Mitchell’s herky-jerky Ghost and Antonio Edward Suarez’s mugging Guildenstern and Osric, provide satisfying doses of oddity and broad humor.

Natasha Piletich’s heartbreaking Ophelia deserves a special mention, not because she outshines others in the cast, but because what she does with her part is unusual. Often the heroine’s madness is played as a result of weakness of character; she becomes a fluttery, ghostlike lunatic. In this production, by contrast, over-the-edge Ophelia is just a tiny step from sane Ophelia; from her dark eyes the exact same person looks out. It seems natural to witness such a spirited, dangerously emotional person – a type we’ve all met in real life – addled by extreme grief. Piletich’s performance makes this difficult character more real than any recent interpretation that comes to mind.

The Hamlet Project

Can one review Hamlet without saying something about the lead? Suffice it to say that Peter Husovsky is thoroughly convincing as Shakespeare’s haughty, tragically troubled, and in this case surprisingly funny prince of indecision. He gets able support from Maeve McGuire, who plays Gertrude as a real mother rather than a psychological construct, and Bob Adrian as a gangsterish but desperately tormented Claudius. Bryan Webster holds down the story’s emotional center as the loyal Horatio, and co-adapter Mark Ringer fulfills the comic promise of the blowhard Polonius even without the benefit of the “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” speech – one of the more obvious of the many cuts.

Those abbreviations, and the fast pacing, allow the play to clock in at under two hours even with the commentary. I highly recommend this production for all ages and tastes – except, perhaps, for someone unfamiliar with the play, who should to see an uncut (or less cut) version – sans knowing commentary – first. This clever and lively adaptation with its capital cast deserves to be filling a much larger theater than the tiny off-off-Broadway space in which it plays until October 29. If you’re going to be in New York any time this month, get thee to a phone or a computer (you’re already on your computer, aren’t you?) and get a ticket.

Tickets ($18, students $10) for The Heart of My Mystery: The Hamlet Project are available at TheaterMania or by calling 212-352-3101.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up for Oct. 5 2006 – Singleton, Knight, Kobo Town

Anya Singleton, Not Easy to Forget

Anya Singleton is equally comfortable singing jazz, blues, R&B and even rock; her new EP could be described accurately both as a small smorgasbord of styles and as a delicious, sultry concoction of well-crafted original material perfect for her style. Her voice is passionate but knowing, more warm than cool, and she puts her excellent technique in the service of the song – not the other way around, as jazz singers sometimes do.

However, to my ear, the most enjoyable thing about this EP, along with Singleton’s delivery, is how the original songwriting (by Singleton, guitarist Michael Aarons and keyboardist David Sherman) is so heavily indebted to classic R&B and soul. “I’m Just Fine” is a timeless kind of song in the classic soul tradition, while the title track sounds like one Aretha Franklin could easily have recorded in the 60s. Sherman’s “Slow Man” brings to mind Carole King, while his “Silver and Gold” has an silky Elton John sort of melody. But with all that, the jazzy flavor of the arrangements gives the songs an earthy, acoustic edge they might not have otherwise. The group breaks into more traditional jazz with a solid but unexciting version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You.” It’s the originality on display in the other songs that makes this short set special.

Extended clips can be heard here.

Chris Knight, Enough Rope

Like an angry John Mellencamp, Chris Knight blasts the unfairness of life through stories of small-town and (especially) rural hopes, and the dashed dreams that too often bring them down. Knight lacks the subtlety of some similarly character-driven songwriters like Springsteen and Dylan, but subtlety isn’t his aim; hoarse passion and evocative imagery give this pissed-off holler of an album its force. Knight’s originality, in the context of heartland rock, lies in his advocacy of the small farmer rather than the suburban hard-luck case or union laborer. His axe hits squarely: “I watch them tear it all to hell/What used to be my church/Tearing up my Grandpa’s land/Treating my Grandpa’s land like dirt.” But there’s defiance, too, in grainy tales like “William’s Son,” a highlight of his powerful live show: “And every now and then I kneel and pray/That things will get better one of these days/But I’ll spit in your eye and stand my ground/Just to keep my head from hanging down.”

Producer Gary Nicholson, who has worked with everyone from Etta James to George Jones, makes the CD sound both perfect and real, and he and others have some co-writing credits. But this is Knight’s show, the product of one man’s skilfully honed, often damning vision.

Kobo Town, InDependence

Photo by Matt Howe

Toronto-based reggae-calypso band Kobo Town, brainchild of Trinidadian singer, songwriter and bandleader Drew Gonsalves, is named for the old Port-of-Spain neighborhood that birthed traditional calypso. Though the band’s sound is best described as pan-Caribbean, its inspiration and subject matter have firm roots in the history of Gonsalves’s native land, of whose turbulent history he speaks with poetic specificity and force.

In “Trinity” he looks down on the land from an airplane: “Her clothes were torn, and her shirt was all tattered/Her eyes downcast, every hope and joy scattered/Dream of my past, bright memory shattered/but I adore her still ’cause I know that all that don’t matter.” In other songs (“Abatina,” “Beautiful Soul”) he focusses closer in, examining the lives of individuals. And in “Blood and Fire” he casts his eye on the wider stage of the whole suffering world: “From Gaza to Jaffna, blood and fire/Soweto to Rio, blood and fire…What must fall to be free, blood and fire.”

But Gonsalves and his able eight-piece band couch the messages in bouncing beats that elevate the spirit. Flute and violin lines slither through the clever arrangements; Gonsalves himself handles the guitar and cuatro; and Kellylee Evans contributes some laserlike guest vocals. Fans of Caribbean music, world music in general, and meaningful songwriting should grab this CD when it’s released next month (check this space for an announcement) – it’s a beauty.

OUT AND ABOUT: You can read a little about my trip to Nashville here. Since then I’ve been more out like a light than out and about. Zzzz… wake me up when the Foley scandal is over.

Indie-Cision 2006: An American In Nashville

Indie-cision [n]: a state of confusion over the question of what the heck is what in the music business

Category creep [n]: the process whereby a category expands to include more and more instances and eventually all instances, whereupon it ceases to be a category

Kenyata has mastered networking and the art of focus. Originally from a small Texas town and now based in Wilmington NC, he talks at a New York City clip – but about anything except his music, which he leaves to speak (and scream) for itself. That, whether he realizes it or not, makes him more interesting.

A cherub-faced Southern gentleman with piercing eyes, Kenyata turns into a monster of rock on stage. He and his band The Majestic Twelve played a full-throttle 30-minute set recently at Club Midway. Though he hadn’t appeared in New York City in a decade and was largely unknown to the local press and tastemakers, the room was filled with fans, hob-nobbers and well-wishers. Why?

Force of personality, for one thing. Kenyata’s, mostly. But creative public relations played a major part. The band’s publicist joined forces with a New York based trade publication and artist development company called Music Dish to promote a series of showcases for indie bands deemed worthwhile for no other reason than being interesting, and good.

But what does it mean to be indie?

The traditional distinction between indies and majors has, in fact, lost its meaning, according to Kenyata, who mentions by contrast some underground indie labels from the “good old days” that grew, more or less organically, out of a scene: Bomp, SST, Alternative Tentacles. Today things have changed: everyone wants “indie cred,” including labels that are distributed by or even owned by the majors. Matador, says Kenyata emphatically, is not an indie. That’s not technically true, but the point is that large, mainstream independent labels with big-selling artists have access to the same – or equivalent – brick-and-mortar distribution channels as the majors. Kenyata’s band, along with the vast majority of musical acts, does not.

I named my CD review column “Indie Round-Up” on purpose to give myself enough latitude to cover practically anything I was interested in. I’m not interested in writing about the music that’s coming out on the major labels today, even when I like it. What would be the point? It’s already everywhere. I dig Shakira, but you sure don’t need to hear me talk about her. Whereas you’d probably never heard of The Majestic Twelve – and now you have. And it’s a great band. So, chalk one up for me.

Kenyata prefers to talk about “independence” rather than “indie.” He means, not freedom from a major label, but artists being in control of their music and of the careers they try to build around it. The bands that developed under and comprised the indie labels of decades past worked, in many ways, harder than major label bands had to work. In the process they built scenes and communities.

Artists today need to learn from those predecessors. Kenyata talks of “constantly finding ways of doing things that other people haven’t thought of before, working to put us into a position where we can compete” with bands that have major distribution or label backing.

Case in point: the Majestic Twelve’s new video looks like an expensive major label production. But it isn’t – not even close. Kenyata tracked down the makers of an old Norwegian undersea film that had captivated him years earlier; bought worldwide rights to the footage for a tiny fraction of what the film had originally cost to make; and used it to construct the video for his new single.

Brilliant. Not because having a good video is the be-all and end-all, but because with something this good his band can stand out from the pack. The band’s videos are getting significant play on the Internet and have been licensed by Fuel TV.

Issuing a press release not about his music or video, not about the political messages in his lyrics, but about how the term “indie” has lost its meaning, was a pretty good idea too. Though not earthshaking, or even particularly original, it caught my attention.

So what, if not “indie,” should we call the vast majority of artists who don’t have major record deals?

DIY (“do it youself”) might do, except that it already refers to the bottom section of a three-part pyramid with “major” at the top and “indie” in the middle. That distinction dated from the heyday of indie rock, when DIY referred to artists who did everything completely on their own. But it was a weak distinction even then, since artists on indie labels always had to do a lot themselves, as noted above.

I don’t have an answer to this terminology question, but in the end, what artists are doing is more important than what they’re calling themselves, particularly now that the digital age has opened up so many avenues, which make things both more exciting and more frustrating. The possibilities seem endless now – but so does the competition. CD Baby, the top online CD store devoted to independents, alone carries the work of nearly 150,000 artists. Myspace, which plans to further commercialize its popularity by becoming a for-pay digital music download hub, claims three million band pages in its stable. And – argh – I’m one of them.

So, to get a fresh perspective and try to alleviate my “indie-cision,” I left New York in a rented Chevy Cobalt and headed to Nashville for the Americana Music Conference. But first I stopped in Raleigh to visit my cousin Z and hopefully meet some real Southern people.

Z, a New York transplant, has been boning up on country music – listening to the hits in her car, singing them on a home karaoke setup. At her Monday night poker game, I met some local neighbors. We played them my roots-country-rock CD and they dug it.

Real Southern people having dug my music, I went to sleep happy.

Chevying towards Tennessee the next day, I stopped for lunch in artsy Asheville NC. Like a miniature San Francisco, it’s full of artists and musicians trying to walk along the street without falling down the town’s steep mountain slope. The server at the pastry shop where I buy coffee noticed my Duke Gardens t-shirt – I’d visited the famous Gardens in Durham the previous day, while Z was at work – and told me she’s from “right near there.” I suspect that a great many of the people I saw in Asheville that beautiful afternoon were transplants from as far away as the touring bands who were booked to play the Orange Peel.

That evening, shaking from too much driving, I washed up at a gas station in Harriman TN to buy a map. Then I followed a sign that pointed down a hill to “live bluegrass music.” Only on weekends, I guess; that sleepy day it was just a riverside park with a .6 mile walking path around it, perfect for stretching out my shakes. Harriman’s good citizens, ambling Southern-slow around their park, looked at me funny as I strode by New-York-fast. I still had some adjusting to do.

I journeyed on to Nashville, where the Americana Music Association was putting on a Conference that showcased artists ranging from the gravelly Ray Wylie Hubbard to the bluegrass family Cherryholmes to the titanic prog-country of Darrell Scott to the angelic harmonies of the Anonymous 4. Luminaries Jim Lauderdale, Mindy Smith, Buddy Miller, James McMurtry, Marty Stuart, and Lee Rocker were present too, among many others.

Those with honored careers already behind them, like Hubbard and Lauderdale, seemed as happy to have a place to belong as did newer artists like Hayes Carll and Chris Knight. “Americana” as a classification or genre is quite new, having been boosted into existence on the strength of O Brother Where Art Thou, and it’s very inclusive. Any new music rooted in American folk forms counts as Americana, from raucous roots-rock to delicate mandolinitry.

And there’s another thing it all seems to have in common: it’s practically all indie.

Its awards ceremony may fill the world-famous Ryman Auditorium, honoring big names like Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell and Charlie Daniels; it may have its own radio programs and charts and its own yearly schmoozefest in downtown Music City. But the Americana scene is basically an indie one.

So, whether it’s a basement club in New York hosting art-punkers from North Carolina, or the Austin-based Americana scene descending on Nashville for three days in September, or three crabby middle-aged men with day jobs trying to think of creative ways to sell their music without touring (because of, um, those pesky day jobs) – it’s an indie world, and Shakira just lives in it.

There may be millions of Myspace bands out there, but it is possible, with some creative smarts, to go where no band has gone before.