The Person in the Speakers

Greg Adkins Fighting a War cover

Greg Adkins is fond of quoting the line most credibly attributed to performer Martin Mull: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” There’s a fair bit of truth in that. Having read and written music reviews myself, I can tell you that much of the middle-echelon writing is nearly worthless as descriptive literature, though it occasionally makes a stab at being advertising copy. Plus, even with the most gracious write-ups, the best way to know whether you’ll like a record is still to listen to it. It’s like eating. After all, what proletarian ever ordered foie gras because of some diatribe in a magazine? We either trust our friends’ recommendations or we commit ourselves into the hands of an artist. Thus, in the spirit of appropriate descriptive application, this isn’t a review of Greg’s new record, Fighting a War, as much as it is the account of me listening to a friend.

Greg invited me in to the making of his new project in the role of keys, vocals, and occasionally whatever I thought might work. Our history goes back a ways, to a place called New City Café and late Thursday nights sharing songs that would never see the light of day. We thought they were good then, or at least tolerable. The value of those delusions of grandeur is that they carried us forward into better works. Several years, kids, jobs, and records later, I’m once again invited to help my friend with his music. The honor was not lost on me, but as a healthy byproduct, my immersion in a close friend’s creative process taught me valuable lessons. I loved the work, but it was the human context that I found most beguiling.

People in art industries—music, theater, painting, literature—often hide their work until it’s ready. This is good and right. If a story is a vehicle to transport a reader somewhere, you don’t send it off with half an axle. Things have to be completely ready—plots developed, tracks cross-faded, colors blended, blocking rehearsed. Otherwise, the magic doesn’t happen, the beauty doesn’t translate, and people get lost trying to sort through the jumble. An artist doing his job will put the heart in the foreground. But there’s another side of the coin.

I know a lot of songwriters and artists, and social media has made the internet a giving tree of my friends’ accomplishments. This can be oddly depressing. Amid all the fully-fledged releases, I feel inundated with good material before there’s adequate time to consider what’s been put before me. In addition, I fall to thinking that anything less than constant, perfect proliferation makes me a bad artist. Not only should I be working, I should consistently churn out polished nuggets of cultural contribution with nary a month for development—or so it seems.

Not a week goes by without a great new release from someone, and the names blur together into a towering, endlessly creative Somebody Else. As a result, I feel unproductive, bordering on useless. There’s no one to blame for this misgiving but myself, but I can’t be the only one who wrestles with the perceived successes of my fellow man. Most of us don’t see the bad work, the notebooks full of false trails, cookie-cutter plots, plagiarized verses, and—heresy of heresies—rhyming poetry. It’s good to know these things exist, lest artists become superheroes in our minds.

There are real humans in the humanities. Seeing the people behind the art is one of the best parts about working with friends. Greg is a husband and father. He’s been a pastor, a DJ, a graphic designer, and a very non-Mexican employee of a very Mexican restaurant. He holds a degree in creative writing. He plays golf and enjoys watching college sports. He’s one of the last people I know to ever speak ill of folks. He’s endlessly appreciative and honest. He has compared himself to Chunk from The Goonies. He owns tiny dogs and has written songs—okay, one song—about a church that clones David Crowder. He also wrote a song containing the word “angioplasty.” This alone should raise your interest a few notches.

Imagine all the music he has written against the backdrop of a life. I haven’t even told you have of what I know—and I know less than half of everything—and still the richness of lyrics and chords is multiplied exponentially. A body of a thousand and one musical decisions juxtaposed within an identity offers the gift of encouragement like no mere song or album is capable of doing. Songs have their work to do, and it’s good work, but there’s a reason we enjoy interviews with artists and ask questions about lists of influences. If the art is rooted in a real person and a real place, we have a framework for listening or viewing as real people in real places.

It’s no secret that a lot of musical and lyrical junk gets passed off as worthwhile. I grow weary of inexperienced rants over unrequited love and odes to various liquors. While they might be speciously honest, they’re not so much masterpieces as rites of passage for a songwriter. It’s an artist’s duty to labor in the longstanding traditions of everyone from Solomon to Robert Burns to Kanye West. That doesn’t mean the song will edify the public ear. The cream that rises to the top is what is most relatable and, for those brave enough to have their hearts put in the dock, what is most revelatory. Greg’s victories make it into his songs as victories, and his sins as sins. His work doesn’t assuage my compunction but lends it courage. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to have people—especially artists and friends—be open with me. That humanity is the ground where good songs grow.

Maybe I’m boasting. Maybe I’m saying that I’ve got a front-row seat to hear my friend’s tunes while others strain from the nosebleed section of iTunes. It’s possible, but I don’t think things are that cut and dry. Playing keys on a record isn’t the only method of immersion. We’re all guilty of hearing without listening, of seeing without perceiving. The reason for our guilt is that we’re capable of truly paying attention. I don’t discount that there is a time for background music. When that time comes, I’m personally thrilled to play it and bring home the resulting check to buy groceries. Most musicians know that the job is still a privilege even when it’s a job. Fighting a War, however, does better in the foreground, and like many good records, it bears repeating. There’s a person inside that sound, and his heart is worth hearing. How about that? I squeezed in a review after all.

Greg’s music is available on iTunes and at GregAdkinsOnline.com.

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