Ever heard of a “relic’d” guitar? It’s a guitar that has been taken to with a belt sander, maybe a lit cigarette and some gravel, in an attempt to make said guitar look “lived-in.” More often than not, it’s a guitar that has been professionally finished originally to last for decades — see early ’50s Fender Telecasters that look like they were made yesterday — which is then un-finished by the relic’er, to make it look like whoever owns the thing has played more shows than he’s lived days in his life. For around 3,000 clams, you can have the nicest used-looking, used-car-price guitar on the block.
Jim Oblon, a monster guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, comes by his (and, one supposes, his guitar’s) wear and tear naturally: by living. Backing folks like Paul Simon (with whom he plays guitar and drums, and sings) gets Oblon a lot of the press attention when he’s playing outside of Music City. But folks who only know Oblon’s sideman work need to hear Sunset, an album he recorded with a power trio that includes organist extraordinaire Larry Goldings (Maceo Parker, Jack DeJohnette, Pat Metheny, John Scofield) and legendary drummer Jim Keltner. (Oblon describes Keltner this way: “Basically, everything he’s on is cool. That’s all you need to know.”)
Oblon’s playing mixes equal parts lithe power and an impressionist’s sense of tone and placement. His playing isn’t flashy, but it is accomplished, and his technical prowess never seems to get in the way of the song. Those skills are the result of an early and complete immersion in music and musical instruments.
“My first guitar was actually a bass which my uncle had given to me,” Oblon says. “It was a 1972 Fender Precision Bass. … I learned a lot of basslines off of records in those days. The weird thing is, that was the first instrument which was mine, but there was always a guitar around. There were organs, a Hammond B3, Moog synthesizers. My parents were music education majors. There was my grandfather’s banjo, and I had one uncle who played concertina, and another played accordion. There was never just one instrument – it was just a plethora of all kinds of shit.”
Children pick up foreign languages faster than adults; it’s said the same is true about learning instruments.
“If you’re a child, I think you naturally make connections,” Oblon says. “I remember, and this is with language, but having some ‘ethnic’ albums around the house and listening to them and learning what they were singing and just singing along with it in whatever dialect that it was. As an adult, maybe you start to split everything up. Perhaps we overcomplicate it. The bass, piano, guitar and drums, they’re all considered rhythm instruments. They’re all kind of all the same instrument, as far as I’m concerned. It’s all a membrane, and then you have to strike it, and then the membrane vibrates and it makes a sound. Unlike say a wind instrument, where you have to blow air from your own body into. And that’s a completely different way to make a sound.”
In the same way that Keltner’s long and impressive resume made their collaboration appealing, Oblon says his coming to Nashville was itself due to liking the way Vance Powell — who’s worked with the likes of Jack White and Kings of Leon — mixes records (the vast majority of which Oblon says he owns).
“Vance Powell had mixed all the records I liked, so I sublet a place there [in Nashville] and mixed the record with him. Then, after few weeks, you start to feel out a place. It just dawns on you at some point, you know? ‘I’m going to stay here for a bit and settle down and see what’s up.’”
In the same way that Nashville just felt like the thing to do, Oblon says that his regular fooBAR residency gig (which has since morphed into an 8 p.m. slot at Music City Tippler beginning Sept. 3) came about instinctively.
“It just felt right,” he says. “One of the hardest things to do playing on radio is that you have 20 minutes to play something, and by the time you get used to the sound . . . it’s over. One of the cool things about playing a place every week is getting to know the sound and the PA and all that coming in. I was just in fooBAR having a drink and thought, ‘You know, this would be a cool place to play.’
“I liked the whole vibe. It’s just cool to have a chance to play in front of other people, but not with the pressure of a showcase or oneoff. You’re not pressured as to whether people are going to show up,” he says, laughing. “This being an industry town, there’s a lot of showcasing that goes on out there. You’re supposed to let it all hang out from the beginning, but sometimes the best stuff doesn’t pop out until halfway or three-quarters of the way through the set. It’s a lot of improv going on when we do these residencies. I love it. It’s using these old tunes as a vehicle to get somewhere else.”
Although industry-town technical ability and loose, live improv — what Annie Clark of St. Vincent calls the “athletic school of guitar playing” versus the more opaque, instinctive things called “soul” and “feel” — can seem mutually exclusive, Oblon sees some ambiguity.
“Not to get too artsy-fartsy, but I think you have your artists and your craftspeople, and there’s all sorts of people in between,” he says. “And there’s someone like Jimmy Page, who I always really dug, because he was kind of the best of both worlds. He was a craftsperson, a studio guy, and a session guy, and a live guy. And sessions back then were different than they are now. Back then, you didn’t have many electric guitarists to choose from. Like three. You had the country guy, the jazz guitar player, and the rock guitar player . . . and they all pretty much played the same guitar. [It’s the] same with drums and bass. Now there’s a whole rig that goes along with it. If you’re a metal guitarist, there’s a whole rig that goes along with it. If you’re a jazz guy, there’s a whole rig that goes along with it.
“There are all these categories now, and it’s not always easy to see where a guy like me fits in. But I think it’s important to stay true to who you are. Which is not to say don’t constantly try new things. But, if you become too much of a chameleon, you can lose yourself a little bit. The sessions I do get called for, at least in Nashville, they want my thing. Whatever it may be.”
Oblon keeps that thing, at least in the gear sense, pretty simple, since he figures sometimes things that might seem in the beginning as gateways can turn into obstacles.
“I don’t really use a distortion pedal, for instance,” he says. “My thing is maybe more from the D.C.-area Roy Buchanan/Danny Gatton school of things. Roy Buchanan typically just plugged into a [Fender] Vibrolux with his Tele. I like a very simple path straight into the amp. Then it’s all up to your fingers and what you do with them as opposed to relying upon other sounds. I don’t mean this in a negative way at all. It’s just an assessment. It’s just that if I think about it, all of my favorite records weren’t made with overdrive pedals or distortion pedals. And I think all that sort of stuff is a byproduct of a ‘boom – I need a jazz sound,’ easy-fix [sort of mentality].
“We’re never guaranteed another day,” Oblon says. “For me, it’s just, ‘How do I want to spend the time?’ I used to make lists of what I liked the most, and sometimes it was, ‘I like the way my guitar sounds through a Fender amp, slightly distorted.’ Regardless, it’s all about that search, and those times when you’re playing, and it’s like ‘Poof!’ and you’re out of the gravitational pull, and the amp is responding to exactly what your fingers are doing, and it’s a really groovy thing to have happen.”
For Oblon, the key to those unique and personal “Poof!” moments is searching for and coming by them naturally, too.
“We live in a time where there’s so much information about how to get this sound, or that sound,” he says. “But sometimes that sound just sounds like information, more than it does music, at least. It’s like taking information and placing it in different areas, instead of writing a song.
“I think playing guitar is kind of like being a hunter. Are you going to be the kind of dude with a high-powered scope, and then you are you going to shoot the animal and then have razorblade-sharp tools to dissect it, or do you go after it like a lion? One is raw, and one is kind of surgical, but there’s also a lot of finesse and grace in the lion. And that’s where I think I want to be, where I want my playing to be. I want my playing to be – and this sounds corny – but like a gazelle being taken down by a lion. There’s a lot of blood in the fur. It’s really kind of violent, but within that violence there’s thousands and thousands of years of evolution.”