Through performing and being involved in the acoustic music community, I’ve had the opportunity to meet so many excellent pickers. More importantly, I’ve been able to experience the incredibly variety of individual expression within the format of folk, folk blues, fingerpicking and independent songwriting. I stress independent, because the heart of music culture today is not on the hit parade, but in the small venues and house concerts across the land. There, independent and self sustaining musicians are offering their wonderfully original take on our cultural heritage of folk, blues, jazz and pop.
I want to portray as many of the good fingerpickers I meet as possible on this blog, and when I can, present exclusive video of their performances. While in Irvine recently for the annual Folk Alliance Region West (FAR-West), I took video of several Fingerstyle Guitarists. I have presented them together in a half-hour video “Fingerstyle at FARwest 2009“.
One of the guitarists I was lucky enough to meet is Shaun Cromwell. I’ve posted the clip of Shaun playing his very cool song “The Rise and the Fall of It All” below, as well as on my YouTube channel.
Shaun was a featured performer at the FAR-West conference, and his show proved to be one of the most enjoyable for someone like me, who loves good songwriting combined with great fingerpicking. About the fingerpicking in a minute–but first the songwriting. For non-pickers, the first thing you’d notice about Shaun might be his compelling vocal style, or the funny way his face scrunches up when he sings–more evidence of just how fully he puts himself into his songs. Then, as you listen, it dawns on you that the lyrical content is really intriguing, and surprises with unexpected meaning and rich, literary references. Even after multiple listening, songs on his CD “The Turning Of Clocks” reveal new depth and choice poetics, making obvious why Shaun has been a finalist in such prestigious songwriting competitions as the Mountain Stage Newsong Contest, Dave Carter Memorial Songwriting Contest, and the Acoustic Blues Competition at the Telluride Blues Festival. A comparison to Paul Simon is appropriate, given the quality of of Shaun’s vocals, lyrics and guitar work, as well as a comparison to Kelly Joe Phelps, given the way Shaun’s music cleaves to the roots. When it comes to picking, a tune like “Cholla Cactus Rag” is a case study of the kind of clean, vibrant picking I always want to hear more of.
On the video of “The Rise and the Fall of It All“, Shaun does an excellent job of balancing a tranquil mood, skillful rhyming, cool, complex picking and an off-the-cuff feel. This is of course the mark of a good performer, to make it all seem effortless, and despite the degree of complexity (which he makes seem deceptively casual) Shaun really doesn’t work too hard. His hands (and body) are incredibly relaxed. His right hand hardly travels at all, and his fingers are gentle and relaxed as he lightly plucks the strings, without sacrificing tone and feel. A wonderful example of all-too-rare 3/4 time fingerpicking, his arrangement includes arpeggios and fluid single string runs (played with his index and forefinger.) The bass line is sparse, and bass notes are irregularly placed, just where needed. This gives the piece an open, breathy feel. A lot of this mood is due to a conscious choice on Shaun’s part to take a page from Bahamanian guitarist Joseph Spence. Shaun’s ability to incorporate and extrapolate on traditional roots sounds is one of the keys to the authenticity of his playing.
For those who have a weakness for luthier-made guitars (remind you of anyone?), Shaun is playing a sweet little John How Grand Concert model. John How is a custom builder, specializing in guitars modeled on the early, hand-made Stella Guitars from the Oscar Schmidt era, which he makes as traditional ladder braced and his own style of X-braced guitars like Shaun’s. He also has a unique take on what a modern fingerstyle guitar should be. Shaun’s instrument has a full voice, even at low volume, and a special shimmer to the sound it produces–perhaps owing to the Madagascar rosewood used on the back. Shaun worked together with John How to get the look of the guitar, and the detail and craftsmanship are evident–the reddish tint to the spruce top and the oddly shaped John How bridge makes it apparent at a glance that it is a very special piece.
I’m looking forward to more music from Shaun. At this point he’s released one CD and this tune isn’t even on it, so I assume he’s got more interesting material up his sleeve.