Musical Influencers: In what direction?

You hear it all the time from this artist or that: “My music has been greatly shaped by…” or “I’ve really tried to model my style on the early jazz masters…” or “Yeah, I guess you could say that __________ has had an impact on my songwriting.” People just naturally draw correlations between an artist or musician’s work or sound or vibe and those of others, sometimes long gone and sometimes still around.

As I think about my own musical influencers I tend to think first about people I’ve actually played with. Two guys I mentioned in an earlier post, Dan and Kevin, mainly influenced me in the kind of music I wanted to play, create, and emulate. I also learned some things about technique and style from those guys. But there was another guy, the one from my college music collaboration days that influenced me in a whole different way.

His name is Carl Henning and by the time we started playing together, he already had fistfuls of pages of songs that he had written. But these were unlike any songs I had ever heard. We were experiencing life in the late 1970s and what now might be called “Christian Music” or “Contemporary Christian Music” (CCM) was really in its infancy…almost non-existent. But lest your mind go quickly to the slick packaging, music videos, and sometimes either spiritually-deprived lyrics or what I once heard a guy call “God is my girlfriend” lyrics of at least a part of today’s CCM scene, Carl and his music were very different.

I was seeking an outlet to express my own new faith in Christ musically and when I heard him playing, I knew that our playing might mesh stylistically, but more so that our ideas of things like higher purpose, worship, and encouragement of the downtrodden, the persecuted and the strays were the same. We quickly formed a bond that has lasted all these years. And very practically, beyond our common agreement on music as message and peace, something really interesting happened. My playing got better. But why? What made the difference?

As best I can figure it, the difference was familiarity…or really a lack of familiarity with what Carl was playing that opened up my stylistic and technical vistas to create something that had never been there before. Up until then, I was just copping other licks, or changes, or songs. Now I was playing music I had never heard before and a gut-level urge to add to the music in a complementary kind of way kicked in hard. He and I spent lots of time saying to each other, “What would sound good with what you’ve always played on this tune?” And so I searched hard for other chord voicings, open tunings, lead breaks and fills (which I had really not done before), harmonics and any other ways that might fill a song out; make it better. The net result was a set of incredible memories, performances, jams, and a few recordings. And in the end, after only a couple years playing together before he graduated and left, my playing had changed…a lot.

So when I think about musical influencers and how they influence us, I realize now that the question isn’t so easily answered as I once thought. Different ways. Different stages of life and learning. Different musical chemistry. Different songs crying out for brand new interpretations and translations. How and from whom you are influenced musically is really complex. But really kind of simple. It would make my head hurt if it weren’t so fantastic!

Oh, lest I forget, thanks Carl for helping me look at music and life and things transcendent in whole new and amazing ways.