It’s December, and what better way to celebrate the holidays than to gift myself a new guitar? This month finds me taking a new vintage Vega (C-20 from 1938) out for a drive playing an old favorite from the All the Fixin’s songbook, Long Hitch. I love the way the C-20 rings out the harmonics (when I manage to hit them!).
About All the Fixin’s, life in the early 90’s, and the song
All the Fixin’s, for those who missed us during our brief run in the early 90’s, was Claude Pate exploring its Americana side. This was long before that movement had jelled into anything called Americana, in fact, bands like Uncle Tupelo, Gear Daddies, and the JayHawks were just starting to tour and play out. I’ll concede at this distance that the Fixin’s had a similar vibe to those more famous acts, but it wasn’t as if we listened to any of those bands at the time. Our sound had more to do with the fact that Jon Hahn always had a penchant for the rootsy side of rock, Mike liked the blues and bluesy aspects of country, and I was a huge fan of Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt (still am), and that in the years without a band, I had taken to writing in a more singer/songwriter mode, strumming a Sigma Martin I bought with a Christmas bonus from Compressor Controls (circa 1989) up in the spare bedroom of our house in Des Moines.
Looking back at my experience of the late 80's and early 90’s, the pace of those years seems shocking to me now. In quick succession the band broke up in May, 1987, I had a job at CC by November, was married to Naomi in January, bought a house in Des Moines sometime that year and started tearing it apart, then Wynnie was born in September 1989, and by spring 1991 I talked Naomi into chucking it all so “we” could go back to school starting June, 1991. Crazy!!!
Once back in Ames, I got the itch to play for audiences again. It started innocent enough. I remember I played a solo show at the M-Shop that fall opening for a very popular local songwriter who was kind enough to give me a break (Larry, of Jack and Larry, but Larry’s last name escapes me now). Mike and Jon were there, I think, and we started talking about playing again. It wasn’t long before we were back in front of friendly Ames, IA audiences, but this time around we were focused on a much more acoustic sound. This time around Naomi still came to the shows, but instead of being there to drink and dance, she was often accompanied by our oldest daughter, Wynnona, a toddler by then who was eager to hang out with the adults and to be fussed over as she wandered around Dugan’s, or Thumb’s, or the Lost and Found, gamely teetering from table to table, visiting with our friends, while dad made familiar sounds from the various “stages”. It made some sense, I guess. Most of my songwriting from this period was built around the styles of Lovett, Hiatt, and Los Lobos, the music I would dance to with Wynnie, rocking her gently around the living room of our house in Des Moines, late at night (early, early morning, actually) trying to persuade her to sleep.
Long Hitch is an excellent song from this period and sort of sums up where I was musically and personally at the time. On the musical front, the song is the essence of simple G, C, D strumminess (OK there are E and A chords as well). Several of my better songs troll this landscape (think Rope Around the Moon), and I don’t go here as often anymore because with time, it has become harder and harder to feel creative in this mode. But after Claude broke up, I really tried to focus on creating things that might achieve a timeless quality. Trends come and go, but the sound of what is now called American roots music never seems to lose its appeal. It is basically our folk music, and the simplicity of its structures works well for my type of direct simple lyricism. Which is a fancy way of saying my lyrics aren’t terribly sophisticated, and a simple setting works best. On the personal front, Naomi and I were moving deeper and deeper into the entwined fates that married with kid(s) represents, and Long Hitch captures the essence of the problem of marriage. Why stick the Long Hitch out? Hardly new territory for song craft, but I took my cues from John Hiatt, who’s Slow Turning album is rich in exploring this terrain in ways both direct and fanciful. The break in this song owes a lot to Hiatt and the Service (I loved 10 Miles out of town), and I think it is about as good as I get at the delicate act of creating a grounded dream. The wind in the wires, and the wires by the field, by the road that we’re traveling, love seems so real, that you don’t ever want to let the long hitch end, don’t let it end. Which is my way of saying that the very things that can be viewed as boring are also hypnotic and beautiful and imbued with meaning if the right conditions prevail and you are open to the possibilities.
About the Recording
I record these videos 10:00 AM Sunday mornings, because, oddly enough, Doug’s studio is rarely occupied at this time. For Long Hitch, I chose to use a brand new old guitar, and we had an interesting experience trying to capture its sound.
I had told Doug that I would be bringing the new guitar, and that it was a small bodied archtop similar to what Dave Rawlings uses with Gillian Welch and with the Dave Rawlings Machine. When I showed up at the studio, Doug had an article open at his desk that was all about the recording of Revelator. Doug does his homework. Anyway, we started out using two microphones, as usual, with one being my “vocal” mic and the other “guitar” mic directed at the f-holes of the archtop. These things are in quotes because with the C-20 being as loud as it is, there was a lot of bleed. We tried two takes this way, and neither of us liked the sound. To my ear, the guitar was coming across kind of a muddy, bottom-endy mess on the recording, which was just weird, since it is a kind of loud, highly articulated, trebly instrument when you are sitting there strumming it! When I voiced my concern about the bass heavy sound to Doug, he said, I can fix that, and moved the “guitar” mic over towards the neck of the instrument, as you can see in the video. What a huge difference in the recorded sound! When we finished, Doug took me over to his desk and showed me the photo of Dave and Gillian recording and pointed out how they too had used a similar microphone placement. Then Doug pointed to a paragraph in the article where Rawlings explains that getting that fabulous sound they have on their recordings involved meticulous attention to mic placement, and that it came down to millimeters! Fortunately for us, we landed in a pretty good spot on the first try in the neck position, but I gained a new appreciation for the art of recording and for Doug’s homework.