by John Winn
14 December 2010
Look up the term "well-rounded" in the dictionary and Chris Edwards picture would be off to the side. From journalism to a successful music career, he's done it all and seen it all, capturing the smoky haze and distinct flavor of East Texas' bars and clubs as only a native can. But he's no stranger to poetry--his first work "Singing Jester" premiered on Hennen's earlier this year. Correspondent John Winn caught up with the multi-talented singer-songwriter and discussed his art, the future of music, and his fondness for Townes Van Zandt.
John Winn: You come from a musical background--playing in bars and clubs in Nacogdoches. When did you decide to expand your focus from playing covers to writing original music? Did you aspire to be a singer-songwriter or did it just happen?
Chris Edwards: Well, I’ve often heard many musicians say that playing music, especially in front of crowds, is “addictive,” and I’d have to agree, as I got hooked from the very beginnings, from the rough start at open mic nights and playing for tips in bars. I originally did covers, mostly, but even then, I wanted to write my own tunes. I’d come from something of a writing background originally. I’d tried writing in several forms; dabbled in poetry off and on, and even worked as a journalist for a while, but I think that I occasionally wrote original tunes here and there for awhile until around the summer of 2006, when I really made songwriting my focus. Anterior to all that, my grandmother was an incredible writer, and I think that being the wise soul she was, she knew things about me before I even knew them-- she encouraged my songwriting pursuits way back when I was still trying to find my voice as a writer of songs, or even to find that I had a valid voice.
“Scripted Lives,” which I wrote back in 2004, and which also appears on my new record that’s coming out soon, is the first fully realized song I’d played for her of mine, and she enjoyed it. That’s primarily why I put that one on my new record.
JW: In "Singing Jester" you describe in great detail the life of a traveling artist. How did that come about?
CE: It’s interesting, that piece. Much of my work, especially with my lyrics, are about that lifestyle, the freedom of the artist/gypsy-type, but with that poem, I was writing about a friend of mine, an old house painter who once was a country singing star, but is reduced to a booze-soaked joke in the eyes of those around him, just “cheap entertainment,” as I wrote. Of course, with that piece, I guess his lot in life does correlate in some way to the wandering gypsy artist, one who lives on their own terms.
JW: Are there any poets or writers who influence your work? What are your favorites?
I could go on for days here about people who’ve influenced me. There are tons of songwriters I derive influence from in all my forms of writing, as well as poets and novelists. I’m continually blown away by the work of people like William Faulkner, Dylan Thomas, Eudora Welty, Townes Van Zandt...I also love Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but I will say that The Great Gatsby is something I think I will always look at as the ultimate in what can be done with the novel form. In recent years I’ve really enjoyed some short story collections that have blown my mind, namely Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer and See Through by Nelly Riefler, whose writing kind of reminds me of a contemporary version of Carson McCullers, whose work I also go back to often.
JW: Good question. I don’t think, generally, that one can make that claim, as I’ve always considered song lyrics and poems to be quite mutually exclusive forms. Kissin’ cousins they may be, but there are just many song lyrics that simply do not work as poetry, however there are songwriters who transcend this. Townes Van Zandt is the best example that springs to mind. Quite frankly, Townes is the greatest songwriter ever, and the only one I can really think of whose work stands alone as poetry without the melody. I mean, take for example the true commingling of language and sound in “Quicksilver Daydreams of Maria,” which begins “A diamond fades quickly/when matched to the face of Maria/All the harps they sound empty/When she lifts her lips to the sky.” That’s just one example of a lyric that really stands out at the moment. Trying to pick the best Townes song is like trying to pick the worst Elvis movie: there’s just too many!
As far as musicians today being the “new poets”, I’m not sure who’s doing what because I don’t really follow much music today. But since I’ve rambled about Townes enough, to further posit something to your question, my work in music does play large into my other writing pursuits, whether I’m writing short fiction or essays or poetry. There’s always an awareness of sound that I can’t let go of. I think my strength as a writer is that I know how language works, well the English language anyway, and I’ve been working at honing my craft as a songwriter for some time, so using sounds comes fairly easy.
JW: Final Q: Team Gibson, Fender, or Les Paul? Where do you stand?
Well, even though I’m supposed to endorse Art & Lutherie--a fine Canadian brand of acoustic guitars, check ‘em out--I am a Gibson man. I love the nice, hearty tone of a jumbo body Gibson acoustic, and I used a J45 for most of my new record. As far as rockin’ out goes, nothin’ but nothin’ beats the crunchy sound of a Les Paul or an SG through a Marshall half-stack. I’m not much of an electric player, but I know the sounds I like.
However, being the countrified folkie I am, there’s always something satisfying about hearing a Fender Telecaster in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing, like Big John Mills or Redd Volkaert. I’d give up my vast fortune (ha!) to be able to play a tenth as good as either of those cats, but I guess I just wasn’t really wired to be a real guitar-picker…guess I’ll always be a folksinger/songwriter.
UPDATE: Edwards was kind enough to send this correction via email: "I wanted to make note of one thing. In regard to Question Five, the Les Paul is made by Gibson, actually. Darn fine guitar if I do say so myself. Like I wrote in the interview, I'm not much of an electric guitarist, but I used to have a Les Paul that I cranked out riffs on through an old Marshall amp, and it was alot of fun...probably not for my neighbors at the time, but yeah, I pretty much just make noise on an electric, I'm more into wood and wire."