For every Charley Patton putting songs to record in the South in the early decades of the last century, there were dozens who influenced the course of music without ever seeing a recording studio or microphone. One such country blues guitarist was Arnold Schultz, whose dynamic, syncopated thumb/index picking made an impact on musicians in western Kentucky, particularly Kennedy Jones, Mose Rager, Ike Everly, and Merle Travis. This Muhlenberg County sound, along with Maybelle Carter’s “scratch,” recast country music guitar playing, giving it a slick swing, a jazz potential, and directly shaped the music of Chet Atkins. As country music hit its sophisticated stride in the 1950s and 60s, Atkins was behind much of its transformation, his instrumental prowess, coupled with his skills as a producer, advancing an ethic of musicianship in country music that continues to hold sway. To this day much of the world’s guitar talent resides in Nashville.
And in England…
When Steve Howe joined Yes in 1970, he was able to up their game by bringing to it a music — channeling Travis and Atkins — that went deep to the roots of blues and country. He connected the dots with some hints of irony, for how could such classical posturing of the kind Yes exhibited (successfully) live tooth-by-jowl with such self-styled provincialism? That it works so well is one of the primary reasons Yes was Yes, and why Steve Howe is such a special guitarist. Like John Fahey, Howe was essentially a classical guitarist with a passion for the complex picking styles emerging from the American South decades prior. And ultimately this is what made progressive rock’s first wave what it was and gave it a freedom that could roam stylistically, because it could do justice to the styles that in their own rights were already a musical gumbo. Prog rock was and is about musicianship and musical literacy but, more importantly, it’s about creative synthesis, world music back to the source, and putting together the puzzle pieces in ways that make sense and that rock. And nothing, NOTHING, rocks like the kind of right hand action Merle Travis and Chet Atkins could bring to country swing.
Howe’s impact on Yes is is up front on 1971’s The Yes Album (his first with the group). The band was impressed enough with their new guitarist that they tucked a live instrumental, Howe’s “Clap,” in the middle of the first side of the album, setting up the “Disillusion” sequence in the next track, the prog epic “Starship Trooper.” In retrospect this was a radical move, and pushed Cream’s blues homages (“Spoonful,” “Sitting on Top of the World,” etc.), and Zeppelin’s folk tributes (thinking their reading of “Black Mountainside” and “Gallows Pole”) into new terrain. Put them in the cosmos, a space pastoral, conjuring the kind of world suggesting the LP covers Roger Dean would soon be painting for the group. Set the controls for the heart of the Delta.
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