Just Who Are The Best Looking Songwriters?

….That’s the question Paste magazine put to 50 writers and musicians for a recently published Poll. And it’s the question that opened NPR’s All Songs Considered program of June 29, which I listened to via Podcast driving back from a race in the Shawangunks on Monday night.

The poll seemed so typical of our increasingly list-focused, looks-dominated society that I barely questioned its intent; in fact, I smiled wryly at the sly idea of judging serious artists not on their work, but their image. I smiled even more when host Bob Boilen offered up a brief summary. Patti Smith was on the list, he informed – “but just barely,” – while Ray Davies was, he noted with disappointment, “twenty notches below Patty Griffin.” Apparently keen to play on the Poll’s theme, he then said, “Without looking, try naming 10 great Patty Griffin tunes.”

Patty Griffin: A Better Looking Songwriter than Ray Davies?

Living With Ghosts The Storyteller

I can’t name even one, but I figured she must look good to have scored so high. So, as I drove round the back of the Reservoir trying to avoid the deer grazing by the roadside and hoping no bears would jump out on me like they did last time, I turned up the volume and got stuck into the programme. Boylan had a few guests to help him dissect the poll, including Josh Jackson, Paste magazine’s editor; Bill Wyman, the NPR News Arts Editor (not the former Rolling Stone); and songwriter Mary Gauthier.

Only when these guests ran down the whole Top 100 did I sense that my idea of beauty might be different than those who cast their votes. Paul McCartney at number five? Sure, we all know he was the Cute One. But Tom Waits at number four? Tom Waits is a wonderful songwriter, I agree, but he’s hardly anyone’s idea of Good Looking. Nor, I hasten to add, does Neil Young (# two) win too many pin-up contests these days. And as for Bob Dylan, who came in at number one, let’s be honest, he’s looked like the back side of a horse for most of these last two decades.

And it was only then I realized: This poll wasn’t for the Best Looking Songwriters. It was for the Best Living Songwriters. (Politically correct NPR would never have sanctioned a program discussing the former idea.) The program suddenly took on a whole new meaning – and not, I should note, a better one. Dylan, Young, Springsteen, Waits, Cohen – any old fool could predict they’d top an American magazine’s poll for Best Living Songwriter. But if you had to vote for your favorite songwriter based on their looks, well… would Patti Smith would still be on the list?

The All Songs Considered Podcast makes interesting listening for anyone who has a wide taste in music. As examples of the studio guests’ own favorite living songwriters, we get to hear music by Paul Westerberg, Jimmy Webb, Sufjan Stevens and, yes, Paul McCartney. And as examples of a song that changed their lives, we hear ‘Anarchy In The UK,’ ‘Walk On The Wild Side,’ Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ and, courtesy of Mary Gauthier, ‘Sam Stone’ by John Prine.

I’ve never knowingly heard ‘Sam Stone’ before, but the song, written in 1973 (when disabled Vietnam Vets were returning to America by the thousand), stopped me in my tracks like a deer caught in headlights.

“Sam Stone came home to his wife and family
After serving in the conflict overseas
And the time that he served had shattered all his nerves
Left a little shrapnel in his knee
But the morphine eased the pain
And the grass grew round his brain
And gave him all the confidence he lacked
With a purple heart and a monkey on his back.”

John Prine, at a peak in the 1970s, and Mary Gauthier, still on the up: Two Great Living Songwriters.

Great Days: The John Prine Anthology Mercy Now

It was no surprise to hear Gauthier state that in her old bar-room gigging days, playing that song “could make a 300 pound biker named Grizzly cry.” But then Gauthier’s own ‘Mercy Now’ had almost the same effect on me. Take this second verse…

“My brother could use a little mercy now
He’s a stranger to freedom
He’s shackled to his fears and doubts
The pain that he lives in is
Almost more than living will allow
I love my bother, and he could use some mercy now.”

Coming on the heels of an opening verse about a father, the song would appear to be concerned purely about family, but a study of the lyrics, which I found online here, reveal a far wider subject matter.

“My church and my country could use a little mercy now
As they sink into a poisoned pit
That’s going to take forever to climb out
They carry the weight of the faithful
Who follow them down
I love my church and country, and they could use some mercy now”

Bob Boilen mispronounced Gauthier’s name too. I was sure he was talking about one Mary O’Shea, until I went searching for these lyrics. I don’t know whether Mary Gaulthier is among the Best Looking Songwriters – hey, all superlatives are subjective – but based on this one stunning offering, I have a suspicion she’s among the Best Living Ones.

Listen to All Songs Considered: Greatest Living Songwriters here.
More on Mary Gauthier here. Watch the video for ‘Mercy Now’ here.
A Case Against Sufjan Stevens here
The Paste Top 100 Greatest Living Songwriters Chart is here

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