Acoustic Guitar Magazine No. 106 October 2001
Swimming in Song: by Jeffery Pepper Rogers (Senior writer for Acoustic Guitar Magazine)
Some 50 miles east of L.A.-what you might call the kingdom of product-songwriter Patrick Brayer dedicates himself to a life of process. Every day the Fontana, Califronia native sits down to explore words and sounds, documenting his journey of the last dozen years on what is now a staggering 36 volumes of The Secret Hits of Patrick Brayer-self recorded (mostly live and solo), burned to order on CD-R, signed by the artist, and packaged with only a title on a mustard colored cover. The Music is raw as the pre-sentation suggests: fervent but ragged singing accompanied by driving grooves on guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, boot board, and any other noise makers he gets his hands on. With titles like “Swap Meet Sunburn,” “A Black Dress Floats Out on the Water,” and “The Man Who Embalmed Hank Williams,” Brayer’s surreal cinematic songs may be the closest thing we get to hearing William Burroughs picking old-time ballads and honky-tonk country.
It’s a style and a career stategy that would seem to guarantee invisibility, excpt that musician keep seeking Brayer out and spreading the word. His songs have been recorded by bluesy bluegrasser Larry Sparks, fiddler Stuart Duncan, Alison Krauss (“So Long, So Wrong”), and even John Doe of X. and now Ben Harper, who used to fix Brayer’s guitars and played his first gigs at Brayer’s Starvation Café concert series, is planning to re-release his favorite volume of the Secret Hits on his new label, Inland Emperor (www.benharper.net).
Fiddler Darol Anger passed a tape of that volume, Catholic and Western Fabuli, to Michael Hedges, who contacted Brayer in 1994. The day after Hedges called, Brayer recalls, “I bought a vintage Cadillac hubcap from a thrift store in Fontana, wrote a poem on it in a circle, and sent it off to him, in my estimation to test him-it would either frighten him or he would get it. He saw it properly as a mandala, and we became the best of friends.” They later discovered that they were born a day apart in central California-Hedges on December 31, 1953, and Brayer on January 1, 1954.
Musically speaking, the two guitarists had a lot in common; in a way, Brayer sounds like the singer-songwriter Hedges always wanted to be. Brayer sees himself first as a wordsmith, but along the way he’s developed a deft and funky one-man-band gutar style that Hedges admired, with a pick-and- fingers attack and liberal use of slide. “When people like Mike Hedges and Leo Kottke talked about my guitar playing, I would almost be embarrassed,” Brayer says, “ I didn’t even know people were listening to the guitar. I was just trying to play the guitar so they would listen to my words.”
At the time of Hedges’ death in 1997, he and Brayer were in collaboration on an as-yet-unreleased CD, Tao-Boys and Engines. Hedges selected songs from the Brayer archive, recorded Brayer’s solo renditions, and then overdubbed vocal harmonies, bass, percussion, and sundry instruments in his Mendocino, California, studio. Not surprisingly, the project was too out-there to interest Windam Hill and other labels Hedges contacted, but perhaps with luck these fascinating, funny, and deeply weird tracks will find their way into the world.
In the meantime, selections from ten of the Secret Hits volumes have been compiled on a CD called Sinner Songwriter (Aim, www.aimrecording.com). And Brayer’s own latest work, The Picket Fence of Mirrors, is a quiet stunner. Since Brayer’s CDs are composed under the spell of particular instruments and ideas and recorded so quickly (in the case of Catholic and Western Fabuli, in one day), each volume has a distinct mood: it’s like a dip into one man’s stream of consciousness. Once he has archived the work, Brayer moves on and rarely looks back.
“I get the bliss from the writing itself,” he says. “Whether it’s playing the guitar or writing a song lyric, it’s the same spiritual experience to me, and it’s the process that gets you there. It can’t be taught, and every successful individual has to find his or her own way there. That’s what you’re thanking the artist for when you attend a concert or actually shell out for the CD”
Patrick Brayer’s main guitar is a ’86 Lowden G-23 (similar to today’s O-23), set up with medium-gauge strings and often tuned down to B E A D F# B or, he says, “or one of 20 other Tibetan tunings.” On stage or in the studio, he blends the output from a Sunrise pickup (run through a Stewart UDP-1 preamp) and an AKG SE 5E-10 condenser mic, boosting the bass to compensate for the low tuning and make his guitar sound like a “little giant.” His other guitars include a 1957 Gretsch Rancher, a blond 1940s Epiphone Triumph Regent (signed on the headstock by Scotty Moore), a Harmony Sovereign, and a 1939 Gibson tenor guitar (tuned C G C G) that was, he says, “a catalyst for much of what I call my psychedelic Appalachian period.”