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The Curmudgeon: An Ode to Gravel-Throated Singing

How can something so technically wrong sound so emotionally right?

Music Features Lucero
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Anyone who has ever dared to growl during a vocal lesson with a classically trained coach will never forget the look—as if a cockroach had just been swallowed—on the teacher’s face. Once the bug has been digested, the warnings soon follow about making ugly sounds and ruining one’s voice.

One is left to wonder how a way of singing that is so technically wrong can sound so emotionally right. And how can gravel-voiced singing be wrong when it has produced some of the greatest moments in pop music history?

Sure, there is something thrilling in a voice so clean that the notes seem to slide out without friction to fill the air with a pure tone that sounds as if it were produced by intention and feeling alone without the need of a body. But there’s something equally thrilling in a growling voice where each note seems to fight its way through a gauntlet of obstacles as it passes from the chest through the throat and mouth.

Clean singing evokes a transcendence we aspire to; dirty singing reflects a reality we live with. We need both, and it would be as wrong for rock ’n’ roll voice teachers to change clean singers as it is for classical teachers to change dirty singers.

Raspy singers have been around as long as there have been working-class performers beyond the reach of bourgeois correction. But the vocalist who gave the sound a permanent place in mainstream American music was Ray Charles. Charles came out of an African-American milieu where singers such as Howlin’ Wolf and Big Mama Thornton were pushing musical roaring to its limits.

Charles initially resisted that path, imitating the silky crooning of Nat King Cole instead. But it was only when he embraced his inner growl and turned the old hymn “I’ve Got a Savior” into the throaty lust of “I Got a Woman” that he found his sound. That approach not only produced top-40 hits but also influenced hundreds of singers to come, from Rod Stewart to Wilson Pickett and Bonnie Raitt, but none more so than Charles’s greatest disciple: Van Morrison.

Even today, when many pop divas use Auto-Tune and Pro Tools to purify their vocals till no trace of physical effort remains, the tradition of gravel-voiced singing still thrives. It has been conveyed from Morrison via Bruce Springsteen to a new generation of rock ’n’ rollers who allow their vocals to be scratched and gouged on their way to the microphone, often with dramatic results.

A welcome reminder of this came during the recent Americanafest in Nashville, where the Memphis quintet Lucero played the songs from its terrific new album, Among the Ghosts. Lead singer Ben Nichols—wearing a gray baseball cap, a plaid shirt with snap buttons, tattoo sleeves and a salt-and-pepper beard—pushed his notes through the gravel pit of his throat to get them to an audience standing shoulder to shoulder in the Cannery Ballroom.

The sound of his singing reinforced the stories in his lyrics. As hard as it was for the notes to claw their way through his throat, it was just as hard for his characters to balance the demands of making art and paying a mortgage, of exploring the world and protecting the ties to home.

On the new album’s title track, for example, the song’s narrator is walking out the front door for another road trip, leaving behind a young daughter who doesn’t understand. “The first word she said to me,” Nichols sings, “was goodbye.” The electric guitars of Nichols and Brian Venable and the electric bass of John C. Stubblefield are distorted to match the lead vocal. The rhythm section pushes forward, as if shoving him out the door, while the lyrics seem to be digging in their heels. Caught between these opposing, equally valid forces is a voice ground to dust.

The song doesn’t merely deglamorize the myth of the traveling musician; it addresses the quandary of many Americans in the new gig economy, forced to travel to pursue their profession: the salesman, soldier, untenured teacher, corporate mid-manager and farmhand. Forced to make impossible choices between a stable home and a success that demands transience, these workers face a dilemma that calls not for the transcendence of clean singing but the struggle of dirty singing.

In Nashville, Lucero also played “To My Dearest Wife,” another song from the new album. The story is told in the form of a letter from a Civil War soldier to his wife back home in Tennessee. He wishes he were back with her, but, he sings, “Tomorrow’s battle will not wait; I don’t see no other way.” Beginning as a ballad, the song gathers force, fueled by Roy Berry’s military snare rolls, increasing the pressures on each side of the decision without ever resolving the question.

Most of the songs on the album are variations on this theme: a man on the road wishes he were home but is unwilling to give up his quest—or is simply unable to resist the momentum carrying him away. On “Everything Has Changed,” the man is a hobo with a Sterno can by a campfire. On “Long Way Home,” the man is a drug smuggler holding a pistol in a shaky hand on I-40. On “Loving,” the man’s an outlaw on the lam sending a message to his woman that he’s coming for her.

The final track, which also closed the Nashville show, is a rock ’n’ roll anthem “For the Lonely Ones,” for all those lost and broken men. Over a fast, chugging beat, Nichols’ scratched and weary voice calls out to his woman, “Come on, Baby, dance with me; they’re playing for the lonely ones.” The album is one of the year’s best recordings.

Nearly as good an example of gravel-voiced rock ’n’ roll is this year’s Sleepwalkers, the second solo album from Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon. While Fallon’s first solo effort, 2016’s Painkillers, was an Americana detour from the band’s sound, Sleepwalkers sounds like Gaslight Anthem at its best (i.e. like 2010’s American Slang) with a different rhythm section (though longtime Gaslight producer Ted Hutt and Gaslight touring guitarist Ian Perkins are still on board).

The album’s centerpiece is “Etta James,” a song about a raspy-voiced singer finding inspiration and solace in a raspy-voiced singer from the past. Unlike Nichols, who always sounds gravelly, Fallon can decide when to turn the scratchiness on or off. On this song, he sings smoothly on the opening stanza, a reverie about a childhood when “we sold our souls on the fantasies we found in records and black and white movies.”

But as soon as nostalgic memory turns to contemporary discontent, the growl returns to his voice, and he calls out to his black guardian angel Etta James, the legendary R&B singer from Chess Records, singing, “For most of my sad life I figured I was gonna die alone,” but the sound of James on the stereo “drips through my blood like a remedy.” By sharing how he found comfort in the roughened voice of a tortured singer, he suggests that we may find similar succor in his.

This lifeline to James is significant, because Fallon’s roughened voice—like those of Nichols, Morrison and so many similar singers—works best channeled through an R&B format, whether it’s the finger-snapping Four Tops feel of “If Your Prayers Don’t Get to Heaven,” the rave-up-guitar Isley Brothers sound of “Neptune,” the gospel-soul Solomon Burke feel of “Watson” or the organ-and-horns Ray Charles sound of the title track. Fallon escapes the gravity of his influences only because he writes such strong, melodic hooks for each of his choruses.

He even tells one of his long-put-upon lovers that, “My Name Is the Night (Color Me Black).” The narrator is comparing himself to the dark skies of midnight, the time of day when he feels most comfortable, but there’s a racial subtext here that echoes his worship of Etta James.

At a time when working-class communities are being squeezed together into an ever smaller economic space, white workers can either turn against their non-white neighbors or turn to them. In the most exciting rock ’n’ roll of the Donald Trump Era, singers are finding sustenance in the vocal growls and rasps of the African-American tradition, are finding a way to articulate the struggle between making a living and making a home in the strained sound of their own throats.

Nichols and Fallon are merely the most obvious examples of this trend. One can hear the same push-and-pull in the hard-times lyrics and gravelly voices of Lucinda Williams, Alejandro Escovedo, Kevin Gordon, Brian Henneman, Dave Alvin, Tony Joe White and Walter Salas-Humara, who have all released powerful rock ’n’ roll records this year. By allowing the harshness of their singing to come through, these vocalists allow us to feel at home with our own rough times.

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