The title of Music for the Bluegrass States derives from Lawler's choice of instrument: the resonator guitar. Originally designed "to be louder than conventional acoustic guitars which were overwhelmed by horns and percussion instruments in dance orchestras," the resonator guitar is a distinctly American invention, mainly known for its use in bluegrass, folk and blues.1 Lawler has commented on the unavoidability of the guitar's association with these forms and the impossibility of ever divorcing it from its origins.2 But as opposed to his debut long-player, the self-released Ghost of a Plane of Air (Konstant, 1999), Music for the Bluegrass States is focused less on the kind of tradition-free, atonal improv inspired by Derek Bailey and more on the specific gestures of Southern musical vernacular. What emerges from this dense criss-crossing of eras and styles is an album at once raw and accomplished, sublime and haunting, with one eye to the past and one toward the future. The beauty of a burning building is nothing without the structure's discernible outline, somehow rising along with the flames.
This new venture distils the array of extended techniques and erratic stylistic shifts Lawler presented on Ghost into a coherent exploration of raga- and drone-influenced folk; above all, this is music that tells a story over its hour-long running time. It's a tale of the resonator guitar's evolution from the annals of American folk forms to the horizons beyond -- to the hypnotic forms of the East, to the atonality of European improvisation, to the odd harmonics of African music -- absorbing foreign bodies into its pear-shaped frame and adapting to them in an act of autopoesis. In other words: nothing enters Lawler's vocabulary without somehow being changed. "That Train Has Already Left the Station" begins with fragmentary, dissonant chords that make their source unmistakeable. The resonator guitar's amazing capacity for natural reverb is one of Lawler's main points of entry, making every sound hover in the air for ages before vanishing. The ghosted notes seem to compete with those being produced in real-time, with Lawler's finger-picking eventually making the two hard to distinguish. "Wall Climbing Spirit" and "1930" continue in this vein, introducing elements of more traditional folk playing that create an alternating mood of jubilance and sadness -- another of Fahey's greatest talents.
"The Air on Mars is Hard to Breathe, We'll Just Have to Stay in Louisville" is deliberately placed at the album's center as a kind of bridge. At twenty minutes long, it forms the core of Music for the Bluegrass States and sums up the album's aesthetic proposals in miniature. People often reference Tony Conrad when writing about Lawler, but I hear more of Ellen Fullman here, the track's delicately bowed phrases recalling her Long String Instrument's complex harmonic overtones. Surprisingly, however, Lawler plays it fairly straight for the majority of the track's duration, creating dense networks of detuned guitar bows, scrapes, chugs, strums and plucks. Pieces of melody emerge bit by bit from Lawler's sonic weft -- hard to believe this is all produced by one man, as it sounds more like a string quartet on tracks like this and the following "One of These Days". "A Universal Rose" comes the closest to stomping, with the vibrant chords from its fractured theme always resurfacing from the din below. The last three tracks form a trio of ballads that bring the album to its solemn farewell, the understated "Our Prayer". Ayler is there alright, even if this wasn't a cover of the tenorman's classic; you can hear his spirit in those mournful, funereal notes that bend and waver with vocal-like clarity. But let's be done with comparisons; as Lawler shows, it's far better to rewrite the dictionary than fumble for definitions.
1 Wikipedia, "Resonator guitar."
2 Keenan Lawler, "National Steel Guitarist," interview with John Berndt (5/30/01).
Keenan Lawler - A Universal Rose.mp3 (320 kbps, 21.2 mb)
Music for the Bluegrass States (Table of the Elements, 2006)