It’s Austin City Limits Music Festival’s 15th anniversary, and there are plenty of reasons to …
Allow me a moment of honesty.
I don’t like 90 percent of the music I hear. When I say I don’t like it, what I mean is, 90 percent of the music I hear doesn’t speak to me. I wouldn’t seek it out to listen obsessively over and over. I’d consider 90 percent of the music in this town to be on the level of friendly acquaintances to me. As far as I can tell, that’s how it should be. If all of the music in this town spoke to me I wouldn’t have time to sleep or eat.
Now, I know I’m not supposed to say this. Everyone is supposed to be wonderfulamazingawesome. In this town you find something great about the musician you are listening to, you think of something nice to say, and you keep the rest to yourself. It makes sense: Your mother always told you not to say anything if you didn’t have anything nice to say. As if “nice” was the ultimate goal.
This personal bout of honesty was precipitated by an artist who spoke to my cantankerous old soul on Tuesday night at The White Eagle: William Stafford.
An unassuming gentleman walked into the room with a guitar in hand … I could describe his appearance but you would never pick him out in a room full of people. Neither his energy nor his carriage bespoke the music he was about to share with the room. Upon introducing myself and moving forward with the usual tedious pleasantries, including “How are you?”, he responded with a simple “I’m OK.” After some probing he revealed he was a little depressed, which he declared “good for songwriting, and bad for performing.” I had tasted honesty from a complete stranger and I was thirsty for more. We discussed the pitfalls of being an introverted musician for a moment, and then I took my tea and moved to the end of the bar to be alone for the start of the show.
He started the show by informing the audience that a year ago he told everyone on Facebook to “F*** off,” and quit playing music. Then he played us some music. He played us beautifully crafted original songs, intelligent and accessible only to those who took the care the listen. This isn’t dance music, although you could dance to some of it. This isn’t background music. This is music for the engaged soul with eyes and heart open, songs bleeding with empathy, housed in razorblades; sophisticated guitar lines that ebb and flow with the poignant, and honest, lyrical content. Looking around, it was clear that the audience was not expecting to be cut to the quick.
In between songs he spoke to the audience as if we were a good buddy sitting in a bar over some belly-warming whiskey. You know, that friend that you haven’t seen in a very long time, but every time you get together, it’s like no time has passed at all.
After the show an excited audience member approached him and started excitedly gushing praise at him. Stafford looked at her like she was about to steal his wallet.
When I asked him how much his CD was, he said, “Nothing, or whatever you want to give me.”
If you aren’t savvy to the music business you may not know that talent and success are relatively unrelated. You need but a pinch of the former to achieve the latter. Before launching into the first track from his most recent album So Hollywood, Stafford explains that as a volunteer for an organization called “Soldier Songs, and Voices,” he encourages veterans to write music about things that they aren’t necessarily thrilled to be exploring, and so he decided he needed to swallow his own poison to better understand what he was asking. So Hollywood is a perfect example of the kind of music that Stafford writes. It’s not so much about entertainment as it is about exploring the hard and messy truths that we learn along the way.
In this changing world we seem to be shying away from each other and ourselves. A dozen times a day you have the same interaction.
“Hi. How are you?”
“I’m good.How are you?”
But sometimes we’re not good. Sometimes we’re just OK, or awful, or sad, and angry, or outraged. That is one reason Will Stafford stands alone among the madding crowd. I don’t believe he has any choice but to be brutally and beautifully honest.
Honesty like that is a hot commodity these days: Get it while you can.
Get yourself some here.»
– Stephanie Scelza