What do Homer, the scop of Beowulf, Bob Dylan, and John Lennon have in common with Mick Kinney? That’s right, they’re all singer songwriters.
Wait, you say. First, The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Beowulf are great epic poems, not songs. Their authors are poets, not songwriters. Except...in the olden days, literature was an oral tradition. Homer was a “performance artist,” who chanted his epics before kings.
Second, acoustic music fans in Atlanta and the Southeast know Mick Kinney principally as a multi-instrumentalist, including some instruments you’ve probably never heard of (lap steel?). He’s the North Georgia Old Time fiddle champion, member of the Georgia Crackers (a string band focusing on Georgia Old Time music), and cabaret partner to his wife, Elise Witt. He’s an innovative music teacher, having taught at the John C. Campbell Folk School, Swannanoa Gathering, and the Alabama Folk School. (And he’s my patient and supportive fiddle teacher.) Oh, yes, he’s also a songwriter.
Mick Kinney possesses more talent than any one person deserves to have.
But back to songwriting. I’ve always wondered, Which comes first, the chicken or the egg—the music or the lyrics? Mick says, the chicken and the egg. “Sometimes the lyrics may be an afterthought to a catchy melody, or the words can be primary. Often the verbal phrasing makes the rhythm obvious. I try to always maintain a natural spoken cadence to a line of words and music.” What process does he use when he approaches a new song?
I work much like a furniture builder. I usually get a snap of inspiration—could be only the punch line, and then I picture a finished product and reverse engineer it. When I wrote “Missing Part,” I had the line “Part of me is missing part of you” and nothing more. That would have been a sad tender piece, but I chose a humorous angle with sexual double entendre. Then I felt a good old beer drinking honky tonk would suit it, and that made the verses easy to craft.
This answer brings up an unusual aspect of Mick’s songwriting, indeed, of his musical tastes. He’s a musical omnivore. In addition to the musical styles mentioned above, Mick performs and/ or writes Irish, Cajun, Swing, jazz, Gypsy jazz, ragtime, music hall, and many more. He calls himself “compartmentalized,” that is, he focuses on one style at a time in order to keep true to it. He’s a mimic, a chameleon, an impersonator—in a positive sense. He immerses himself in that style and culture to produce something true to it. In writing Gypsy jazz, for example, he says, “I don’t learn one or two songs. I’d read books about gypsies, study their diaspora—it adds to the empathy and pathos. I’m not just playing notes.”
You can hear this diversity in Mick’s two songwriting cd’s, Nothing Left To Chance and Secret Songbook. The former traces facets of a man’s life, in particular “stuff not working out in relationships.” In this “mini jukebox,” Mick uses classic country, calypso, swing, Bossa Nova, and “quite possibly the kitchen sink” to reflect the different stages of the relationships. The latter cd, his homage to the Great American Songbook, he wrote in the style of favorite lyricists of the 20s and 30s.
Part 2 will examine one of Mick’s songs, “Spare Us the Verse,” which is itself a mini-history of American songwriting.
If you want to hear Mick performing his songs or purchase Nothing Left To Chance , go to http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/mickkinney . For Secret Songbook, contact Mick directly. See below. If you’d like to hear Mick the Fiddler lay some rosin down with his bow, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qFsSYjj5iU and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9M82kVkb1o
Want to learn to play fiddle, banjo, guitar, or piano in any of the styles mentioned here? Want to commission a song or score? How about a special performance for your next party? Go to email@example.com .
Wow! Mick’s music and Mick himself are not easy to put into words. You’ve done a fantastic job and I can’t wait for Part 2! Congratulations!!
Thanks, Elise. I had fun writing this series. After seven years as Mick’s student, I thought I knew him, but only now am I seeing the layers and layers of talent–like peeling an onion!
Excellent, Chris! Well written and very interesting. The man is an incredible talent. Looking forward to the next installment.
Thanks, Chrinda. It’s easy writing about somebody who is so fascinating.
I am proud to say that Mick is my Nephew and Godchild and thank you Christina Kaylor for your kind words. It is so nice when he comes home to Wisconsin for a visit to his Mother & siblings & the rest of the family & performs for all of us. His Dad is now in Heaven & he was always so proud of Michael as we all are.
Shirley, I appreciate your comment. We Southerners are so glad Mick hiked south on the AT and discovered Georgia. I’m in awe of his talent and thankful he’s my friend.