Showing off his musical chops

Kurt Wagner is touring solo behind his band's latest album, hoping his stop in Israel will prove to be a learning experience.

Kurt Wagner 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Kurt Wagner 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For some, it must be frustrating to be a huge success - to a very small few. But Kurt Wagner seems to like it that way, having parlayed his cult status as the leader of Nashville indie collective Lambchop into a challenging and satisfying career. In case you never heard of the band, Lambchop was once labeled "Nashville's most f****-up country band." But with 10 increasingly expansive albums to its credit, the quirky combo has, in the words of the authoritative American Music Guide, "grown into perhaps the most singularly pleasurable pop band of their day, mastering a sound that embraces the broad sonic palette of chamber pop and the ambitious experimentalism of indie rock without losing touch with the organic, human voice that informed their early work." And that voice, both literally and figuratively, belongs to the 50-year-old Wagner, who will be making his Israel debut performing solo on April 6th at Tel Aviv's Barby Club. With his trademark baseball cap firmly in place, and a droll country/blues voice that sings lyrics that sound like they were written by a prize-winning short story writer, Wagner is unassuming and enigmatic in an age where everything else is in-your-face. A quick listen to the band's latest album, OH (Ohio), will clarify what all the accolades are about. "I'm very pleased with OH (Ohio), I think it's one of our best records," Wagner wrote to The Jerusalem Post in an e-mail interview as he made his way on tour across Europe last week. "One can only hope that things turn out well when you begin making a record - at least that's the way it is for me. I wasn't sure exactly how things would work out, and I think that this is the point somewhat - that the record would be a bit of a surprise to all, including myself." What's no surprise is the emotion and sense of authenticity that Lambchop brings to its music, with much of the credit going to Wagner. According to one review of OH (Ohio), "[Wagner's] plaintive mumbles and mutterings have evolved into a remarkably expressive instrument, projecting a palpable range of hurt, longing and conviction through his cryptic but genuinely fascinating lyrics." They may have been talking about songs like the riveting "Sharing a Gibson with Martin Luther King," which Wagner explained is about a dream he had. "That dream was about having a drink with Martin Luther King, who we all know also had a dream. What I tried to do in writing it was to capture the fractured nature of trying to remember dreams and how they become harder to make sense of as we awaken and try to recall the dream. For me, songwriting can be cerebral and intuitive and emotional. That's what good songs are at any given time, depending on our point of view," he said. WITH A literary bent and an articulate way of expressing himself, Wagner has toyed with the idea of trying to write a book, but he feels that without the accompanying music, the prose might fall flat. "I've thought of publishing a book on occasion… but then again, I haven't really considered such a thing very much because what I do is as much about how words and music work together. It is still unproven whether what I write can stand alone as an act of prose. I'm always thrilled that they look like poems on paper, but the fact that they are meant to be part of a music experience seems to be significant in their existence," he said. One element that's been essential to his music is his band, which sometimes sounds like a soulful orchestra with up to eight players onstage. Yet performing by himself, like Wagner's doing in Tel Aviv, can be a valuable learning experience. "I look at solo performance as an opportunity to try to get better as a writer and player by distilling things down to something very basic, but at the same time very charged with potential for discovery and fun," he said. "Hopefully I learn something from the experience that I can use in my efforts to improve my work. But I do miss the experience of being with the band - we have a good time together." Despite living in the country music capital of Nashville, Wagner said that he doesn't feel like he's a part of the city's grand tradition, and he has never attempted to join its musical establishment, preferring to walk his own path wherever it leads. He said that he never gives thought to whether the town elders accept him or his music. "I live a pretty quiet existence here, as I'm not much of a scenester. As for being accepted, I don't think I'm considered much one way or the other," he said. Still, Lambchop can tackle a country standard like Don Gibson's "I Believe in You" - like it does on OH (Ohio) with the earnestness and sincerity that only Nashville cats can muster. "Perhaps it seems a bit out of character, but in our minds it was a pretty 'irony free' attempt at relating to a song and a sound of our hometown that has some resonance today. The fact that it was seamless in the way it was approached on our record says a lot about how far we've come," said Wagner. Wagner is also going far to arrive in Tel Aviv for the first time, a journey he said he's looking forward to. "I try to stay somewhat informed as to what goes on in the world. We are its children and we need to stay in touch. But I think that the information I get here in the US is perhaps a simplification of a very complex society of man," he said. "I am trying to go to Israel with an open mind about what I might find and discover. So in many ways, I try to remain ignorant or devoid of opinion in the hopes that I will let the experience speak for itself." And if nothing else, the experience will undoubtedly provide a new set of intriguing lyrics for the next Lambchop album.