Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Thirty years - a long time to live a lie

Recently, the country singer Chely Wright (right), whom I follow on Twitter, was doing a Q&A with her fans. Wright is perhaps better known these days for her sexuality and gay rights campaigning than she is for her music, and unsurprisingly many of the questions and discussions reflected this.

Wright leapt to fame in the '90s with successful singles like Shut Up and Drive and Single White Female, but slipped from the limelight in the last decade. Last year she made a comeback, which was timed, some might say cynically, to coincide with her coming out. In doing this she became the first country singer to be out in the public eye – a brave and controversial decision in a traditionally very conservative market.

During the Q&A, one fan asked Wright at what age she realised she was gay. The answer was 9. Another question asked her age when she came out. The answer, which I already more or less knew, was 39. That's thirty years difference. Thirty years of living a lie, of pretending to be someone you're not.

It's something I really can't imagine. I realised I was gay at the age of 15, sometimes towards the end of my Year 10 school year. Eight weeks later I was back at school after the holidays and, within a week, I'd already told a couple of my closest friends about my sexuality. It took just another two months before everyone knew. You could say it was brave, but I never really considered it in that way. To me, it was something exciting, something that was totally a part of me, and I couldn't think of how I could live without people knowing. I wanted people to know – even if they hated me for it. Perhaps there was a bit of adrenaline in there, a bit of the risk-taker in me showing his face, but overall I just wanted to be able to live my life openly and freely, and that's what I've done ever since.

That means that I can't imagine what it must have been like for Wright to know that she was gay, to have accepted this fact and to have embraced it, and yet to not be able to live her life according to this. It must have been so difficult, and so confusing, to have to live a life that was contrary to what she felt inside, partly because of being in the public eye, but even more so not being able to be open and honest with friends and family. Indeed, Wright refers to this "lying and hiding" as causing damage to her life.

I hope for her sake that her life since coming out to family, friends and the public has gone some way to easing the damage caused by those thirty years. Indeed, she's now happily married and is very much living life, it seems, as a confident and proud gay woman. And I'm very, very happy for her. I just can't imagine how those thirty years must have felt. It makes me very glad that I am who I am, and makes me thankful that my situation in life, as well as my friends and family, has let me be who I am. Some people aren't as lucky as I've been, and thinking about Wright's statement, literally those few words about her age at key points in her life, gave me reason to pause and consider this.

Listen to Heavenly Days from Wright's latest album, Lifted Off The Ground:

Monday, 29 August 2011

Eurovision goes country

Those of you who know me will probably know that my two great musical passions are country music and the Eurovision Song Contest. Not two genres that naturally fit well together, I admit, but in this blog entry I'll take a look at nine of the songs that were entered for this year's contest (though didn't get there), which wouldn't necessarily sound out of place on US country radio.

Babel Fish – Depend On Me
Who'd sing it? Rascal Flatts

The first time I heard this song, I was immediately reminded of the group Rascal Flatts. The slightly straining falsetto in the chorus and the sentimental lyrics are very reminiscent of their work, and this song would fit right in on one of their recent albums. I'm not sure they've ever had a stage show that involved looking through the window of a cardboard house though.

Dalma – Song for Him
Who'd sing it? Gretchen Wilson

Dalma puts on the growls a little too much for them to sound authentic, but there's a decent country song at the heart of this – or possibly two or three different country songs. There's a bit of a kiss-off and there's a couple of broken hearts; I'm not so sure about the silliness at the end though – it works well enough as a song without having to be a pastiche.

Evija Sloka – Don't Stop the Dance
Who'd sing it? Pam Tillis

The lyrics are a little questionable, and the accent is all over the place, but there's no mistaking the country influences on this song that never really stood much chance of making it through a Latvian selection. Sloka lists Brad Paisley and Alan Jackson as her dream duet partners.

Hanne Sorvaag – You're Like A Melody
Who'd sing it? Jewel

In 2010, Eurovision fans were comparing Swedish singer Anna Bergendahl and her song 'This Is My Life' to Jewel's earlier work, but nowadays she'd be more likely to record songs like this Norwegian finalist. It's very much at the pop end of pop country, right where Jewel's recent albums have positioned her, and the feelgood similes hold together very well and would fit right in on contemporary country radio.

CH – Gid nif uf
Who'd sing it? Keith Urban (he basically already did!)

Other than being sung in Swiss German, this song sits right in the Keith Urban-school of country music, with pumping beats and a prominent electric guitar line, but it's grounded by the fiddle that runs right through the arrangement. The song's so committed to sounding like Keith Urban that it even steals the entire chorus melody of the Australian's 'I Told You So'.

Yohanna – Nótt
Who'd sing it? Carrie Underwood

It's not really country, but this track would fit right in on a Carrie Underwood album, particularly in its English version, with its considered lyrics and a silky melody that takes off into a crescendo for the last chorus.

Carmel Eckman - Nosa'at el ga'agu'ay
Who'd sing it? Sarah Jarosz

To be honest with you, Israel is more or less the last place where I'd expect to find a song like this. It's a gentle, acoustic ballad, with a lovely strummy guitar and a fiddle break in the middle. Unsurprisingly, it came almost last.

The Lucky Bullets – Fire Below
Who'd sing it? Justin Townes Earle

I was absolutely astounded when I first heard this in the Norwegian preselection, as it sounds so authentically rockabilly – not a hint of the slight 'foreignness' that often blights Eurovision songs that are trying to be very American. I was even more impressed when the Norwegians voted it into third place in the final, and I even got to cheer for it in person!

Pernilla Andersson – Desperados
Who'd sing it? Kathleen Edwards

Perhaps less country and more Americana than some of the songs on this list, 'Desperados' was one step away from making it into the Melodifestivalen final. The gentle chugging beat, the savoured chords and Andersson's velvety voice combine to make this my favourite song of the Eurovision season.

I'm sure many of you will disagree with the singers I've chosen to record these songs, so I invite you to post your suggestions below. And clearly, some of them would need quite a bit of changing and improvement before the singers mentioned would even consider going near them, and they might not take too kindly to being connected to them (sorry Pam Tillis!). But this is Eurovision, I have to take what I can get!

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Discovering Tanya Tucker: a personal Top 10

I recently decided that I knew next to nothing about Tanya Tucker, one of the big female country artists throughout the years, and that it was time to educate myself. So I listened to several of her Greatest Hits albums; like many artists who've had long careers, Tucker has been released by several record labels, all of whom have put out their own collections of her work. So after listening to around 70 of her (supposedly) best recordings, I've chosen ten that were my favourites. It's by no means a comprehensive list, as I don't claim to have listened to all of her extensive catalogue, and I'm certainly no expert! It's just a summary of what I listened to.

And if you'd like to listen along with the list and you have Spotify, click here for a playlist.

#10 – Down To My Last Teardrop

An enjoyable example of pop-country done well, Tucker's character has cried all her tears over her man, and she won't cry anymore. Despite sounding from the title like it might be quite a sad song, it's actually a fun kiss-off number with a catchy melody, a great example of the genre.

#9 – Baby I'm Yours

This song comes from Tucker's sole release for the Arista label, 'Changes', the cover of which features her wearing the ugliest jumper known to man. Tucker sounds surprisingly childlike considering the date on this straightforward song of eternal love, with its simple call-and-response structure, but her performance is emotional and convincing.

#8 – Spring

Released by Columbia in 1975 after Tucker's move to MCA, this song was presumably recorded and not used on a previous album. It has an unusual narrative structure for a three-verse country song, but the optimistic ending works, as does Tucker's interpretation of both the good and bad times.

#7 – Strong Enough To Bend

A simple metaphor, executed simply. The tree in the backyard is never broken by the storm, because its limbs bend with the wind. The same is true of a good relationship, where both parties learn to compromise – an important lesson to be learned, that can be applied in many situations. The minimal arrangement and uncomplicated melody line complement the message well.

#6 – We Don't Have To Do This

The characters in this song would do well to learn from the lessons of 'Strong Enough To Bend'. Both partners are too proud to put aside their differences, even though the narrator agonisingly recognises that she doesn't want the relationship to be over – “Tell me where it's written that we can't change our minds”, she sings. Tucker's performance is exquisite, bringing across the despair and sense of horrible inevitability in the song perfectly.

#5 – What's Your Mama's Name

The painful story of a man who spends thirty years trying to track down his lost love and their child, going to prison for child-grooming and being driven to drink in the process, this song manages to be catchy and sing-along despite the dark subject matter – a frequent theme of much of Tucker's early work.

#4 – Texas (When I Die)

An iconic song that really set the scene for some of the singers who have been popular in recent years, like Gretchen Wilson and Miranda Lambert. This song's just a whole lot of fun to listen, and shows a different side to Tucker's voice to many of the songs on this list.

#3 – Delta Dawn

Tucker's first single, and reflective of the complex material she would tackle during her career, particularly during her younger years. At the age of just 13, Tucker's already found her distinctive, mature voice on this recording and it's incredibly powerful. Perhaps best known to international and younger audiences as the song where Monica's shirt goes see-through at the piano bar in Friends.

#2 – Two Sparrows In a Hurricane

A beautiful song, one that could have just been a standard 'lovers making it against the odds' ditty, but is set apart by an expressive performance and a skilful use of the three-verse structure, juxtaposing and comparing the youth and age of the characters through the near-identical first and third verses. The end-result is something that feels almost quite life-affirming, and always makes me feel happy and content.

#1 – Lizzie and the Rainman

Easily top of my list before I even started putting it together. The characters in this song are so strongly drawn that I even looked up the song to see if it was based on a true story. Tucker's performance is brilliant, with strains of a gospel preacher complemented by the choir behind her, and the arrangement is exquisite. Try listening to it through headphones to hear the sounds of the rain, the violin glissandos and the beating of the drums going around your head that uses the best effects of stereo to make the whole scenario feel real and present. All the elements come together to produce an excellent song.

So, do you agree? If you're a fan of Tanya Tucker, would you have put different songs on this list? And if I've managed to introduce you to her music, would you have ranked them in this way? I'd be interested to see what people think.

How not to thank me for my donation

A couple of weeks ago, I read a powerful piece on the website of a prominent UK mental health charity (I shan't name and shame them here). I subsequently made a one-off donation on their website, and yesterday I received a thank you letter for that donation. At least they're thanking their donors, which is allegedly more than some UK charities manage sometimes, but the way they've gone about it has destroyed a lot of the goodwill I had towards them.

The actual thank-you letter is decent enough, apart from unnecessary shoe-horning-in of Gift Aid regulations. I would generally prefer to be thanked for an online donation by email though - it just makes more sense to me to thank through the same channel as the gift was made - but I accept that's a personal preference, and isn't a big deal here.

What perturbed me was the accompanying literature included alongside the thank-you letter. A small postcard with the story of a service user would normally be acceptable, if it were telling me what my donation has achieved. It's not: it's telling me what a donation of £200 would achieve. The next item I picked up was an envelope. On closer examination, it's a donation envelope. So that's effectively a second donation ask in what's ostensibly a thanking package.

The last item included in the package is a 12-page leaflet detailing the charity's work. Or rather, six pages of it are about the charity's work. The remaining six pages provide a plethora of ways I can give money to the charity, from making a simple donation, to leaving a legacy, to getting involved in a marathon. The latter I mind less; it's perfectly acceptable to try and convert a donor into doing an event for the charity, but the others are inevitably going to be far less effective. I'm a one-off donor who has given £25 because of an article I saw on your website. I'm extremely unlikely to want to include your cause in my will, or ask my company to provide corporate support. It's just completely the wrong forum to be making this kind of ask. And then, of course, at the end of the booklet is another donation form.

And just when I thought that was the pinnacle of the over-asking, I've now noticed while writing this that the headed paper the letter came on also tells me that the charity relies on donations to continue its work (no shit!) and invites me to call or email them to make a donation.

Going back to the booklet and its pages on the charity's work, I was dismayed at how badly the cause is presented here. It takes until the seventh page (by which time it's making an ask) to mention the word 'you'. I've always been taught that in the act of soliciting a donation, the most important factor to consider is the donor. Instead, the booklet is full of the work that 'we', the charity, do, and the ways in which 'we' help. As a (prospective) donor, I don't care about the charity itself, I care about the difference I can make. And I don't mean that I can make a donation to the charity. To prompt me to make that donation, I need to be told that I will be helping people with mental health problems, and the ways in which I will be helping. It's not about the charity; it's about the donor. The problem is that this leaflet is trying to accomplish too many things at once, and is not succeeding particularly well at any of them. It's probably also used for information at events, for example, or for community fundraisers to present to contacts in order to support their ask. There's nothing really inherently wrong with the leaflet itself, it's not suitable as part of a thank-you package.

So, to sum up the overall problem: in a mailing from a charity that's supposedly thanking me for my donation, I've also been directly asked three times to give more money (along with several other soft asks). And while asking, the charity is completely failing to explain to me how I can help. I suppose I really shouldn't be that surprised. When I initially went to make the donation on the charity's website, upon clicking the 'Donate' button, I was presented, not with the donation form, or perhaps with a page explaining what different levels of giving would provide, but with a page inviting me to consider making a donation in memory of a loved one. Completely inappropriate - I've already considered and decided to make a donation, and the inclusion of a reference to donating in memory is, happily, not relevant to me. It was almost enough to stop me giving there and then; after this 'thank-you' letter, I'm sorry to say I probably won't donate again to this charity. It's a shame, and a difficult decision, because it's a cause I really identify with and want to support, but at the same time I have no desire to support bad fundraisers. Fortunately, there are other charities in the field whom I can switch my giving to.

Just to end this entry on a positive note, I'd like to praise another charity thank-you letter I received recently. This one was from WaterAid, in response to a regular donation I'd set up. The letter itself is clear and concise and repeatedly tells me what my gift will achieve. The four accompanying postcards (below) are also much better executed than the one mentioned earlier. They allow me to send them to my friends, with space for writing a message and an address on the back, and are therefore a great tool for me to solicit donations to the cause if I chose to do so. They also provide a brief story to go with the picture on the front, and, importantly, don't refer to what WaterAid has accomplished, but rather what WaterAid supporters have accomplished. The distinction is very important.