Long before it became big business and lyric content was king, music was played out on the front porch with the whole family gathered round. Unless the tune was a folk song passed down by word of mouth, there were no lyrics, just beautiful self-taught melodies on string instruments.
Today, though a few things have changed, we call this music Americana.
Fingerstyle guitarist Eric Tingstad is well-known around the world for his instrumental prowess. Like Chet Atkins, Les Paul, Ry Cooder, and many other instrumentalists, Tingstad has a signature sound so distinctive, many can pick out his playing in about six notes. More than merely skilled at creating vivid sonic landscapes, Tingstad’s music was coined “Northwest Impressionism” early in his career and duly noted for creating a definite sense of place.
As pointed out in 2007 by Fingerstyle Guitar Magazine founder, John Schroeter, “Good instrumental music has the inherent advantage of space and not only because of the absence of lyrics. Wordless music invites the participation of the listener in a special way.”
Exceptional instrumental music is distinguished by the space between the notes. Much like legendary architects, composers command extraordinary use of space where time is suspended just long enough to capture an idea that is unspoken.
Tingstad says, “The architect Mies van der Rohe was the first to coin the phrase, ‘less is more’ to describe the minamalist approach to designs and composition. I think he meant the space is just as important as the elements.”
The elements Tingstad has chosen to portray in his two latest recordings are American desert landscapes. In 2007 he released Southwest envisioning an earthy, evocative mood. John Diliberto of ECHOES reviewed the CD, dubbing it “Ambient Americana.” InnerVisions Radio compared Southwest to two other Southwest-themed releases, one being Ry Cooder’s Paris Texas. That year, Southwest received ultimate critical acclaim with a Grammy nomination, Tingstad’s second nomination after winning the Grammy in 2003 for Acoustic Garden with Nancy Rumbel.
Tingstad’s 2012 release, Badlands grabs more grit, throws off more twang with layers of American fingerstyle guitar over a bedrock of crunchy telecaster and infectious grooves with an abundance of dobro, steel guitars, fiddle and shamanic drumming tied together with the help of Cindy Cashdollar and ByronMetcalf. Taking a detour from the ancient tribal vibe of Southwest, Badlands has a slightly menacing mood, reflecting the darker side of the desert.
Thinking about his boots, snakes, and an empty tequila bottle along the dusty trail, Tingstad rounds up a prescient soundscape of ten tunes in a plein air style, a popular visual medium in Nashville that captures the moment and defines a sense of place.
“The beauty of the American desert is not without its unique complications,” writes Charlie Stout. “Predatory species and a pervasive lack of water cause the most fascinating and inviting of lands to be the most unfriendly. Eric provides a gentle reminder of this conflict with “Jornado,” a melody alternating in tone between uplifting refrain and subtle warning. The friendly instrumentation occasionally turns dark as if to underscore the constant threat hidden beneath the mystique of [the] desert.
“Americana is an exciting musical genre,” Tingstad said in a recent interview with award-winning journalist and novelist, George Pica, “but where are the instrumentals?”
“Badlands is more than just a survey of the reverberations produced by the nation’s expansion westward. It distills the vast expanses, the rich textures and the subtle colors of iconic locales.
His aren’t the only instrumentals that deserve consideration,” he says.
Tingstad who describes Americana as a search for the roots of bluegrass, country, modern folk and a range of other disciplines all smooshed together, says there are a number of instrumentalists whose work fits the genre.
“In the ’60s it was possible to make a reasonable guess as to what kind of music people listened to by the way they dressed or wore their hair, says Tingstad. “Genres were much broader — rock, country, swing, classical. Today those genres still exist, but there are subgenres of subgenres of subgenres. There’s more music and more means of producing it and more ways to listen to it,”he observes.
“And there are audiences listening to almost all if it –some very large audiences and some very small. Who you listen to and the performers you can name are the equivalent of passwords to social situations and groups. You’ll hear only a small percentage of music that’s being made if you listen only to radio.”
“Classical Gas,” the most-broadcast instrumental in history struggled to get attention,” says Tingstad, “it took eight months for the guitar classic to hit the top of the charts. Originally written as a piece to play when the guitar was passed around at parties, composer Mason Williams goes so far as to call “Classical Gas” a fluke – the right tune in the right place at the right time.
“It didn’t change my life,” Tingstad says “but ‘Classical Gas’ had a huge impact. I was so moved by that song that I wanted to learn to play like that.”
Guitar enthusiasts and professional players are now taking note of Tingstad’s work. Recently a member of the Steel Guitar Forum wrote, “I would like to say I admire you for breaking the pedal steel out of it’s half century old box. While I love the traditional stuff, all steel guitar music and efforts made, this is a breath of fresh steel guitar air. The things you, Ry and people like Bruce Kaphan, Gary Brandin et al are doing will hopefully beget a widened interest in the instrument. Much continued success.”