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Fiddlin’ Around – September/October 2017

Fiddlin'AroundIn the music world, funny is good. Funny is important. Funny is probably more useful and definitely more interesting than profound. I love songwriters who can make us laugh at our paltry little problems, or who can bring perspective to what we think are huge issues, or who can describe a piece of life in a way that brings us comfort and smiles instead of alienation and angst. My Dad, another musician, always told me not to take myself too seriously. He was right, and luckily for us, there are a couple of skillful songwriters around here who write about the humorous side of life and love, not just the so-called important stuff! John Prine, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Johnny Cash, Lyle Lovett, Steve Goodman, Charlie Daniels, Robert Earl Keen, Kinky Freidman, Jimmy Buffett, Roger Miller, Ray Stevens, Arlo Guthrie and even sometimes Bob Dylan—they all know the value of laughter—and so do a couple of our local guys, Ben Orton and Ken Nickell.


Ben Jammin’

Ben Orton is an excellent and generous vocalist and guitarist—I’ve been playing with him for several years now, and appreciate all of his songwriting, including his lighter and more whimsical songs. He’s got a song called Sell Your Stuff, which is of course a re-occurring theme and impulse for many of the first timers who find this beautiful area. The first lines of the song are,

Some say that it’s paradise—at the very least it’s very nice—and if you’ve got the nerve to make it real—sell your stuff and move to Costa Rica!

In the song Ben talks about getting rid of your winter clothes, buying some shades and sandals, eating huge shrimps and he even manages to throw in the words flora and fauna and bio-diversity. The song ends with these words,

Well, I ain’t rich and I never had a notion—that from my bed I would ever see the ocean—but every day I watch the sunset coloring up the sky, and thank my lucky stars that I’m alive.

Ben has another song, Under the Coconut Tree, which takes those newcomers to the next stage,

You traveled a way right to this spot—the sea is cool and the sand is hot. Take a look around and see what you’ve got—mucho fiesta, yea we party a lot! Where else would you rather be? What else do you want to do? But when you’re under the coconut tree don’t let them fall down on you. So you been here a while, it’s sublime—you wish you could blow off the airline. Though you gotta go home it’s no crime—you’ll be here again when it’s time.

Ben says he tries to have an overall concept for a song first, then builds the lyrics around the rhythm and melody. He has the skills and experience to know when to let the song take on its own life, cause every effort is different.

Ben and his brother Billy wrote a reggae-kinda song one foggy night called Have a Toke and Think About It, which again references our way of life down here,

I used to have a woman who beat me—my boss treated me like a rug—then I had a toke and I moved to Quepos—now honey come give me a hug! So when you feel anger, stress or confusion—I hope you remember this song—Just have a toke and realize oh bla dee oh bla dah—life goes on!

Ben leads a sometimes changing gang of musicians every Wednesday night at Dos Locos, plays with Corey Butler at Hawg n’ Bill’s on Saturday nights and with Ben Jammin’ and the Howlers (including me) Friday nights at Roca Verde in Dominical. He can go from serious to silly in a heartbeat and no two shows are ever alike.

G String Cowboys

The G String Cowboys

Ken Nickell plays with Tim Rath and John ‘Shorty’ Hill in the G String Cowboys. He is the main writer, although everyone gets in the act of arranging and fine-tuning the songs, and Ken is not afraid to be funny. He’s funny in regular life—several years back he was enjoying having his college-bound kids visiting him and they were having fun playing music together. I remember him wistfully saying how he wished they’d just give up that college nonsense and play in a band with him. Now when have you ever heard a parent say that!? Ken gets inspiration from a plethora of sources, including our stimulating environment here in Costa Rica, his friends, his life experiences and good herb. He says sometimes a simple phrase will stimulate a song to just pour out, and that relationships of all kinds bring emotions and even guilt into a song. He says, “Sometimes I like to lay my head down on the box of my guitar, with new strings finely tuned and with my ear firmly against the top, and I just listen. I combine notes into chords and melodies and sometimes I hear an orchestra in there.”

He’s got a song called A Fresh Batch of Brownies, which has turned into a mini-anthem around here—check out his lyrics,

Woke up this morning, another short night. But I don’t care ‘cause I’m feeling alright—I got a fresh batch of brownies and a cold Imperial (to start the day). Ain’t much for talking, got nothing to say and nobody cares what’s on my mind anyway—I got a fresh batch of brownies and a cold Imperial (makes me more interesting). Playing our music, ain’t half bad. We’ll sound better the more that you have—I got a fresh batch of brownies and a cold Imperial (makes the G Strings superstars). Watching the sun slowly fall, well I don’t know but I think we’ve got it all—we got a fresh batch of brownies and a cold Imperial (makes those colors more intense). There’s just one thing in life that I know. When it’s finally my time to go, I’m taking a fresh batch of brownies and a cold Imperial (it might be hot there). I’m taking a fresh batch of brownies and a cold Imperial!

Ken has a bunch of songs on YouTube and Cloud—songs like That’s How It Goes in the Real World or I Like Hookers or Stoned Drunk and Half Blind—or his newest, I Should Not Have Had That Last Brownie. The G String Cowboys play Roca Verde in Dominical every Thursday night, and are kinda the house band at the Bamboo Room in Ojochal. Go check them out—they are all good players and singers and they are FUNNY!

Ben & Nancy

Ben & Nancy

The process of writing songs is not easy and there is always a temptation to get ‘heavy’. That can turn into being preachy, which is not a technique I react well to. I like cosmic stuff as much as the next guy, and I love the blues, but sometimes that is not what I need. Songwriters struggle with finding the right balance between meaningful and playful—not an easy task. Sometimes we just want to laugh.

There’s quite a few good and professional musicians around here and many of them write their own songs. I hope our visitors (as well as the local characters) get out to listen to them! All of us are pleased when someone really pays attention and hopefully appreciates our efforts. I was going to talk about the big guy with the big voice—Ralph Simms—but I think I’ll wait and spend my whole next article on him and his stories and songs. He’s the real deal and has plenty to say, so I’m gonna dig deep on him…

So much of the world is plunged in darkness and chaos—so ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering—there is a crack in everything—that’s how the light gets in! Leonard Cohen

Songwriting is a bitch. And then it has puppies. Steven Tyler

Songwriting’s a weird game. Keith Richards

If you pour your life into songs, you want them to be heard. It’s a desire to communicate. A deep desire to communicate inspires songwriting. Bono

One Response to “Fiddlin’ Around – September/October 2017”

  1. Surfer jonny said:

    Always love writing.Brings me home 2 sweet home costa rica. Piracy Vida.

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