Stuart Adamson was the singer, lead guitarist, and primary song writer for Big Country, my favorite band. I’ve always been dazzled by his guitar work, but not being a musician myself, I was never really able to find the right words to describe what I was hearing. When I meet folks who play guitar, I always have to recommend they give a listen to Big Country, as most are not familiar with Adamson’s work, but I’ve never been able to explain exactly why he’s so good. The other day I came across Tom Kercheval’s blog – he’s an independent musician – and not only is he a Big Country fan, he listed Adamson as his primary influence, and unlike me, he’s able to explain Adamson’s talent:
…the thing that always struck me about Stuart’s playing was not so much his lead playing (although it was great) but his rhythm guitar playing, particularly the odd chord structures he came up with. To this day, he’s one of the few guitar players that gives me fits when trying to figure out what he’s playing. His use of droning, open strings when playing chords was so appealling to me, and the Scottish/Celtic sound of the playing as well. He is so underrated. Beyond belief underrated. I still think the album Steeltown is a guitar masterpiece. Listen to that one with headphones and just hear the guitar symphony that is going on on most of those songs – tons of parts interweaving with each other, creating a huge, totally unique sound. Just brilliant. Like no one else.
In regard to Steeltown, I would add that it is also a masterpiece lyrically. Unfortunately, despite a 4-star review from Rolling Stone when it came out, it went nowhere in the pop charts. I think the album was musically too intricate, and lyrically too dense, to stand a chance on pop radio. But those are the qualities that have given it staying power – more than 20 years after it’s release, the opening track Flame of the West can still send chills down my spine.
This bio piece provides a good explanation for what inspired his songwriting, and what gives it the rare quality of being deeply personal yet political at the same time:
My mum and dad also had some great friends who played folk and country music (my mum does a mean Patsy Cline) and they would come to our house after the bars were closed and people would sing through the night. This made me aware of the power of the song and how music was interwoven with the lives of the working class Scots I grew up amongst. I would watch these big rough, hard men declare their love of family and the land — emotions they would be embarrassed to admit to in conversation — in songs old and new. I realised a lot of my schooling was solely aimed at my learning to accept my place in the British class system and railed against it. I believe the measure of a man is in his actions and not his social background (maybe this is why I like the US…another disenfranchised Celt)… A lot of the darkness of the Steeltown album comes from remembering my first experiences of the prejudice of class and nationality and the obvious truths that little had changed in my adulthood. The desire to write initially grew out of just wanting to be a “real” band and then I found I was driven to communicate some of the joy and frustration of the human experience…
Those are the people I grew up amongst and I could see the beauty in such simplicity as well as the anger and beaten acceptance. I think that frustration and learned apathy is the daily bread of the great majority of people in the world and as such represents the greater part of life experience, certainly in the western world and is to me a fertile source of inspiration.
Here’s the opening track from Steeltown, Flame of the West:
Originally published April 12, 2006