Recently deceased radio disc jockey, musician and activist, Lyn Akers, once used her longtime friend, folk guitarist and songwriter Phil Volan, to make a point about talent.
"People say 'Phil is so talented,'" she told me. "Well he is talented, of course, but it's because he works so hard. He stays up 'til four in the morning working on guitar parts. People don't see that; they just see him play his guitar so beautifully and effortlessly."
If I recall the context of the conversation correctly, Akers was making a point about the tendency of people to say people are born with abilities as an excuse not to work hard to improve their craft.
I hope Lyn will forgive me if the quote is not verbatim; I wasn't taking notes at the time. But I think it's safe to say that given Akers' respect for hard work, her comment about Volan was a high compliment.
Nowhere is Volan's dedication to craft more apparent than on his recent CD release, Changing Channels, a near hour-long, 15-song opus produced with some of the most impeccable professionalism and musicianship I've yet heard from a local recording. (Volan will play songs from the CD, among others at a gig this weekend at the Black Rose Acoustic Society in the Black Forest).
Co-produced with Joe Scott, of Absolute Sound recording of Berthoud, Colo., the CD's neatly orchestrated tracks, warm sound and well-honed arrangements, belie the fact that the work was produced without benefit of record label support.
Though Volan and Scott (the guitjo player from the group Wind Machine) drew on a cast of experienced musicians and friends to add background color, this CD was essentially financed out of one man's pocket. From the CD's impeccably crafted cover and insert, which shows Volan interfacing with a vintage Philco TV set, to the tastefully orchestrated harmonies and instrumentals on the disc inside, Changing Channels is a pro effort all the way.
For those who like their folk completely raw, this more highly produced album (complete with pop-song-like end fades and perfection) might be a bit too well-done. Volan's trademark finger picking, which has stood on its own in past solo CDs and concerts, is indeed less prominent in this recording.
But Volan's attention to detail, including his commitment to leave his guitar and voice at the music's heart, makes this a soulful, back-porch sing-along, as opposed to the kind of Nashville knockoff that some folkies mistakenly strive to make.
It helps that there are some pretty talented (I mean hard-working) folks on Volan's back porch, including Sally Van Meter on dobro, producer Scott on mandolin and guitjo, and Hank Singer on fiddle, among a larger cast of equally proficient musicians. Helping Volan on vocals, Donna Galbraith and Connie Dover, help create some beautiful vocal background textures.
All this backup is a big departure from Volan's earlier CDs. Both Walking on Air, a collaboration with Joe Uveges, and Favorite Colors, a collection of instrumentals, rely much more on bare guitar work, or sparse but silky smooth harmonies, than big supporting casts.
Though Volan often jams or plays live with other musicians, this is the first time he's worked so closely with a wide range of pros, many of whom he didn't know. It's also the first time he's worked with a producer, an experience that allowed him to bring other people's influences to the music.
On Changing Channels, Volan also gets plenty of help from girlfriend Jane McBee, who many people know as a photographer and one-time writer of the Independent's now-discontinued "Local Folk" column. McBee politely declined to be interviewed for this story, saying the CD was really the product of her beau's hard work. "You don't even have to mention my name," she told me over the phone.
Tough luck Jane.
McBee's presence permeates the music, in no less than nine songs that she co-authored with Volan. While Volan handled the musical composition, the guitarist noted that McBee's writing talents and her Southern upbringing brought vivid imagery, colorful memories and a flair for storytelling to songs such as the unabashed love story, "Galen and Marliss," and "Cathode Ray," a funny spoof of the TV age.
I'm a single guy
Unattached and I glow in the dark
Because I'm radio-reactive
turning green and unattractive... like Quark
My biological projection
encourages rejection because
I'm Cathode Ray
'Cause I watch television ...
Now throw in some Andrews Sisters-style background harmonies, a swinging baseline, and a bluesy guitar vamp in the middle and you've got the album's hit single.
In the less-likely-to-be-a-pop-hit category, I personally like "Alley Walking," a dark little ditty about a woman who witnesses a murder through the window of a rich couple's house.
Behind buttery rectangles
A total stranger
fights with his wife
The flash of a knife
He covers his tracks
Leaves no sign of attack
The perfect crime
Thinks he's alone
Picks up the phone
"Someone's stabbed my wife"
The song is less chilling for its content -- the time honored folk theme of love and treachery -- than its resolution, or lack thereof, which leaves the listener wondering how and if justice will be served on the song's antagonist. Slithery guitar picking and eerie minor vocal harmonies complete the mood.
"Jane and I used to take walks at midnight and we just couldn't help look in the windows in these two- or three-story Victorians, 'cuz people would leave their shades open," Volan said. "So we just sort of imagined this scenario. I think that song is going to be really mixed, some people are just going to really hate it, because it has violence in it. But others I think will get it."
Other collaborations tell tales of a young girl lost amid circumstances beyond her years, a worker drone's need to escape the techno-drama of the modern material life, and what I imagine to be the yearning of a middle-aged folkie to reconnect with his or her first childhood love.
But now we're playing grown-up games
A chase for money, love and fame
But the world out there isn't always fair
When you play alone
Now I wonder where you're dreaming tonight
Speaking of love, this CD is proof that good songs don't just come after heartbreak; both Volan and McBee told me separately that they broke up and re-hitched numerous times during the songwriting process. "We had a lot of fun," Volan said. "But we kid each other that we broke up after each song because we have such different ways of working and such different personalities."
The two would sometimes clash over which direction a song should go, or what (or whose) language or aesthetic to use, Volan said. Nicely, the result of whatever bickering went down is a series of songs that are complete, consistent and whole in their musical and lyrical language. They are also sparse and to the point, avoiding verbosity or me-centered monologues in favor of the less-is-more, let-the-listener-add-the-rest approach.
I don't know that else Jane and Phil fight about, but here's hoping for many more years of musical breakups. The CD is available at several locations around town, at Volan's gigs and on the web at www.songs.com/volan.