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Does It Groove? Part One: Middle-Age Rock Guitarists and the Oak Ridge Boys Christmas Album
By Jon Nicol - 02/18/2003 - 08:04 PM EST

Remember the three rules that inaugurated this column? Well, we’re finally on the third and final one. Whoo-hoo! Don’t get me wrong; I’ve enjoyed digging deeper into these “rules” (as I hope you have, too). But a series like this can be brutal for a person like me--it forces me to stick to one thing for way longer than I normally would. (Let’s just chalk it up to ADHD. Had I been born a decade later, my mother insists I would’ve been a Ritalin child.)

If you remember, our adventure began with “Groovin’ in the Bag with Sound Theology,” an overview of all three rules (or self-critiquing questions—if you don’t like rules). We then moved on to a more detailed look at each one: “Sound Theology: Truth and a Kick in the Teeth” and “The Eight Ball in the Corner Pocket.” So finally, we’re asking the last question: “Does it groove?” By the way, if you’ve clicked on this article first without ever visiting here before, you might consider jumping back and reading the other three articles first. But hey, 98% of life is optional. I’m just glad you’ve decided to show up here today. So let’s get into the groove…boy, you’ve got to prove…your love for--oh never mind…

If someone were to bring up the topic of “music that grooves”, in all honesty, I think of “Brick House” or a Wilson Pickett tune. I’ve got to admit that no matter how “spiritual” I’m feeling, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” doesn’t pop into my head as a response to that phrase. But for some reason, I decided to maintain the vernacular of my 40-something, bass-slappin’, beer-drinking music teacher. Just imagine all of us longhaired, “Padawan learners” gathered around the Jedi Master of Music as he said, “It must groove, my young apprentices, the music must groove.” (For all you non-Star Wars fans, I’m sorry you didn’t get that last part. It’s OK to not like Star Wars. Not everyone can be perfect.)

What exactly did that teacher mean by groove? Did he mean the particular style of music people call “groove?” Let’s go back and revisit the origin of these questions/rules. If you didn’t heed my advice and travel back to the other articles, you probably don’t know what I mean when I talk about the original questions (or it’s just been too darn long since you’ve read it—yeah, I’ve missed a few deadlines…). Allow me a short review:

The original “rules,” or self-critiquing questions, were for musicians to measure and judge what they were playing in ensemble settings. The first question, “Is it sonically-correct?” stressed the arranging of “right” notes, chords, rhythm, etc. (For our purposes, this one is changed to “Is it theologically sound?” See articles 1 and 2 for that reasoning.) “Does it fit the bag?” was the second question and dealt with “fitting” the musical style and demands of the gig, otherwise known as “the bag.” And finally, “Does it groove?” Even if the musician is playing the right notes with the right style, it can still be missing an element. Let me give you an example: Cliff and Lance.

While I was attending Music Tech for guitar performance, one of my favorite classes was called something like “Contemporary Music Literature,” or a name similar to that. It was basically a fancy way to say we were learning how to play in a cover band. Each week, the faculty introduced a new style of music. They would perform the repertoire for that week’s particular genre and then discuss from the stage what each member’s unique focus and responsibility was for this type of music. We studied jazz, r&b, reggae, pop, country, and even “odd time” (think “Take Five” of Dave Brubeck fame and “Money” by Pink Floyd).

I remember vividly the week we did “rock.” It was the mid-90s. Hair bands were dead. Guys with flannel shirts from Seattle ruled the first part of the decade and the Southern California bands were starting to emerge. Mind-numbing guitar solos on Top 40 radio were nearly extinct. But true guitarists everywhere had their Metallica and Joe Satriani cassette tapes hissing away in their car stereos. As long as there were strings to bend and whammy bars to dive, someone would still keep the blazing guitar solo alive.

Those that were passing the torch that day were Cliff, the head of the guitar department, and Lance, an admissions rep for the school. Normally, Lance didn’t join the faculty in teaching. But this was his bag, baby. He had been playing heavy metal since metal became heavy. His face was already starting to go the way of Keith Richards, and he hit the bottle hard--that is, the hair dye bottle--to keep his gray locks brown. So Lance joined Cliff on stage and, after a few rippin’ solos from each, they began to trade licks back and forth to try to out do the other. Cliff rarely got “out done” on stage, but that day he got whupped. In any other musical situation, Cliff would’ve come out guitarist supreme. Heck, when the guy graduated from Berklee in Boston he was offered (and accepted) a teaching job there. He's no slouch. But Lance lives and breathes the music they were playing that day. I have no doubt he’s probably still sitting around somewhere learning Eddie Van Halen solos. His riffs literally moved the music to a new plane that day. And it’s not that Cliff’s solos were bad--by most comparisons they were great. They were “sonically correct” and they fit the style of the music, but compared to Lance’s stuff they just didn’t groove.

You can see where I’m heading, can’t you? Your lyrics can be flawless in regards to theology. Your music and words can fit the context for which you’re writing. But if it doesn’t groove—if it doesn’t MOVE the listener/worshipper in the intended way, then what’s the point?

So (finally) we can get to a working definition of “groove” as it pertains to worship songwriting. Here’s how I would define it: “The emotion communicated by the song both lyrically and musically.” Remember that communication is two-way. It’s not only about what you say, but what the listener hears. The lyrics and music convey ideas, facts and feelings. If the song truly “grooves,” the listener will not only understand the facts and ideas, but he/she will feel the intended emotion.

The definition above must allow for subjectivity, of course. Out of all three of these guiding questions, this is by far the least tangible concept. What grooves, what resonates, what “speaks” to my “emotions/soul” may or may not groove, resonate or speak to you in the same way. Another example—the Oak Ridge Boys Christmas album…

While growing up, my family’s soundtrack for Christmas was this Oak Ridge Boys Christmas album. We’d spin that record every year. I knew all the songs by heart. But when the vinyl-age gave way to cassettes, and later CDs, that record went away, too. It probably sailed away on a garage sale along with the hi-fi console (with built in 8-track) that resembled a coffin with tweed speaker covers. This Christmas, my sister searched the net for that album on CD. She found it, and we played it while I was home. Wow, it took me back! I was singing all the songs like I had heard them yesterday.

After about the fifth time, I started listening to it with less nostalgia-influenced ears. It’s really not that great. None of the original songs from that album have endured as modern classics. And other musicians have done a much better job on the carols they covered. I also noticed my wife didn’t get too jazzed by it. The album grooved for me, but not her. Why? Because this album was part of my story and my history. It was a positive part of the landscape of my childhood.

So groove does, to a certain extent, depend on the personal tastes, life experiences, etc. of the listener. But every enduring song ever written has something that grooves for the masses. We just have to figure out what it is so we can use it.

So that’s where we’ll pick up with Part Two. See you there.

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