So many songwriters, so many opinions, so many scuffs on Bob Dylan's furniture. Rolling Stone magazine just published its list of the 100 greatest songwriters of all time. The list mostly ignores pre-1950 songwriters and isn't at all charitable toward the maestros of Broadway, jazz and blues.
The exclusion of Gordon Lightfoot is mystifying, but most of the notable omissions or seemingly strange inclusions can be explained: The songwriters honoured are the ones Rolling Stone readers would expect to see, those being the hit makers of contemporary pop and rock music. After all, the myopic list is sponsored by Apple Music, a streaming service which doesn't get much call for the illustrious canons of Stephen Foster, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington.
Famously, Steve Earle once vouched for a fellow songster's bona fides. "Townes Van Zandt," he proclaimed, "is the best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that."
Van Zandt did not make the Rolling Stone roster, a high-profile list somewhat blind to troubadours and Americana tunesmiths. That is no surprise. Recently a small group of Canadian music journalists I know discussed the importance of lyrics in their appreciation of a song. The consensus was that meaningful prose and nifty wordplay were admirable but not essential qualities.
The disregard for thoughtful lyricism jabs like a quill pen to the neck of someone like Chris Luedecke, the Juno-winning, banjo-strumming balladeer from Chester, N.S.
"It's disturbing when the tastemakers don't care about such things," he says. "I've always thought that it's not enough to just say the same dumb, inexplicable and abstract phrase for a minute, and not have it mean anything more."
Luedecke, who under the name Old Man Luedecke releases thoughtful, spry and tuneful albums of well-turned phrases, specific references and upbeat introspection, probably speaks for his country's more meticulous tunesmiths: Ron Sexsmith, Amelia Curran, John Southworth, Al Tuck, Sarah Harmer and Leonard Cohen among them.
But Luedecke and his clef-note-and-thesaurus crowd would seem to be in the minority.
Many lyricists – R.E.M.'s religion-losing Michael Stipe for example; that's him in the corner – rely on a stream of consciousness flow, with words and sounds that click well, gibberish or not. "By the time the words have stuck, they have just stuck," Radiohead's Thom Yorke has explained. "The glue is set and I can't undo."
For evidence of the institutional snub of the troubadour, look no further than the winners of the Polaris Music Prize, the country's national award for the album of the year.
Of the Polaris's nine winning records (2006-14), three albums were instrumental (or mostly so), while two others featured lyrics that were indecipherable to many, either because of language (by the elegant francophone alt-rockers Karkwa in 2010 for Les Chemins de verre) or ruggedly unrefined vocals (as found on the thunderous 2009 winner, The Chemistry of Common Life).
"I care that people like the Polaris voters don't seem to care about such thing as lyrics," says Luedecke, at a bustling Toronto coffee shop to chat about his latest superb record, Domestic Eccentric. "But am I going to change? The only reason I've ever done this is that I have a sense that it's right for me. And that gives me enough confidence to keep doing it for people who seem to like it."
Domestic Eccentric was recorded in a tree-set cabin recently built by hand (Luedecke traded $100 and four CDs for windows from an old church). The album, as identified by its title, concerns Luedecke's home life, well documented on the affecting, image-laden single The Early Days, about the treasured memories of common experiences, routine as a "shopping cart full of toddlers at the Superstore, they were eatin' Goldfish, askin' for more."
Luedecke, currently on a cross-country tour, is easy-going, but he's defiant in his craft. "There are lots of ways in which I can doubt and see what I do as not being successful, and there's no shortage of people who will tell me my music sounds like old music," he says, pondering and with a laugh. "But I think there's room for literate folk music in 2015 that is about very unique and individual things."
Rolling Stone, by the way, named Bob Dylan as the greatest ever songwriter. The troubadour gets his and her due, plenty of room on the coffee table for their kind.
Chris Luedecke on entering Tig Notaro's 'world of excellence'
Many of us met the comedian Tig Notaro and learned of her misfortunes (a rare intestinal disease, her mother's death, the end of a relationship and a double mastectomy) through her live album, or a pair of documentary films, or her HBO comedy special Tig Notaro: Boyish Girl Interrupted. The banjo songster Old Man Luedecke met her on an airplane.
In his words: "I got on a plane in Halifax and the woman seated next to me asked me what time it was in Ottawa, which was where we were headed. We talked for a second. I had just found out that a friend of mine had put regular gas into my Jetta, a diesel car. I was wondering if I'd just lost my vehicle. She said she had the same car and our conversation went on from there.
It was Tig Notaro, the comedian. I wasn't familiar with her. She had a show in Ottawa and we talked the whole way there. She told me the story of all her trials, but really we talked about stagecraft.
After the flight, she asked me if I wanted a lift to the hotel. The promoter who picked her up knew who I was, and so Tig asked if I would open up her show that night at the Bronson Centre.
So, I played the gig. And it killed. And then she did her show. I was totally transported to this world of excellence.
It was such a wonderful, roundabout, acoustic way to come onto something – to have had a meaningful human interaction and then play for 800 people, and then to have thoroughly loved seeing that the spirit that had animated our conversation was actually a performance spirit."
– Chris Luedecke, as told to Brad Wheeler