TWANG 1: SAW
THE EARLIEST references to 'twang' are found in the 16th century. The word leaped into life as an imitative expression designed to mirror the sound of a plucked string and, around 100 years later, expanded to describe in any vaguely similar nasal vocal sound. It existed as both a noun and verb from very early in its etymological history and was generally described as something disagreeable, as opposed to either tuneful, genuine or endearing.
Modern definitions retain the meat of the original usage, with some adaptations. Merriam-Webster's listing expands the nasal vocal element to include description of the speech of a region, locality or group of people. In that context, the word is almost exclusively used to describe American accents, and more often than not of the southern, rural or backroad variety. An Appalachian twang; an Oklahoma twang; a redneck twang.
M-W additionally lists twang as being a harsh, quick ringing sound like that made by a banjo string; related words might include jangle, clank or clang. In a technical sense, for serious vocalists, it also describes a specific mechanical feature of the physical process of singing that can be found in a range of genres but perhaps most notably in country and folk. Not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg in that relationship.
Use of the word peaked in the late 19th century and then slid back over the next 100 years or so before picking up again starting in the mid -1970s. Many of the negative connotations associated with twang have been turned on their head over the last 30-odd years, but particularly in the new millennium, coinciding with a new-found positivity and pride centred on all that the word has come to represent in Asheville and Austin, Memphis and East Nashville, Los Angeles and Chicago: an identity, a lifestyle, a choice. Something sought after and to be celebrated.
In cultural terms, it can sometimes be hard to define exactly what it sounds like, what defines it, what makes the sprawling genre instantly identifiable in a very binary way: twang or not twang. For this correspondent, at least, the first steps towards understanding the component elements of the phenomenon, what it feels like and why, can be found on the high plains of Texas. With a bit of hardware.
THERE IS a moment during the intro to The Flatlanders legendary 1972 recording of Waiting For A Train when Jimmie Dale Gilmore says in his Llano Estacado drawl: 'Play that saw, Red.'
(At least I think he says Red; I'm ready to be corrected. As to he saw part, that's 100%.)
Steve Wesson, still relatively new to the instrument, does as requested. To blinding effect. It wobbles and sings, resonates in lonesome, empty landscape eeriness alongside dobro, guitar and fiddle. There are yodels too, but we'll get there in a bit.
The saw as captured during the sessions at the Singleton Sound Studio in Nashville perfectly reflects the shared Lubbock heritage of the assembled musicians, the West Texas sound that had been honed on tour in the autumn of 1971 and put onto tape the following year.
Tracks from the session were released by Sun Records in 1995, although there are a number of other versions on the market. The humble tool-cum-instrument features in most of the 12 songs, notably supplying opening gambit Dallas with its core sense of alienation and forlorn otherness, but it is the cover of the Jimmie Rodgers train song where Wesson is at his most effective, at least to these ears.
The roots of the sound stretch deep. According to self-described 'musical saw pioneer' Mussehl & Westphal of East Troy, Wisconsin – manufacturer since 1921 – the instrument was already widespread throughout Appalachia in the 19th century. The handle grasped between thighs, a fiddle bow would be drawn across a non-cutting edge bent into an S-curve to produce a variety of notes. Some players opted for a mallet rather than a bow.
'What probably began in a moment inspired by curiosity soon caught on and before long mountain music bands throughout the area had a member manipulating the blade of a common carpenter's saw and stroking it with a well rosined bow,' explains the company on its website.
The saw became an informal instrument in the same way as overturned buckets, washboards, jugs, spoons and a string stretched between tub and broom handle.
Others have traced the tradition of saw playing to as long ago as the 1700s across several fronts including the Scandinavian and South American timber industries. All agree that the exact starting point, the combined genesis and eureka moment of music from blade, is unlikely to be identified. However all seem to agree that mass production towards the end of the 19th century, and the quality assurance and ready musical properties that came with a rolled steel product, was key to the widespread adoption of the 20th century.
The saw became a national phenomenon across the US in the 1920s and 1930s, perhaps most inspired by touring hillbilly entertainers and Grand Ole Opry regulars The Weaver Brothers & Elviry. The act, originally from Christian County, Missouri, offered an Okie extravaganza that included jokes, dance numbers, popular songs and novelty instruments including the saw. The popularity of the trio was such that they moved into Hollywood films in the years before World War II.
Clarence Mussehl, again according to the company he founded (saws still for sale!), caught the act in 1919 and immediately began designing a bespoke musical version of what was previously just an adapted tool. Thinner steel, different blade widths, teeth and no teeth: the combined result was a instrument capable of producing between 16 and 20 notes across a number of octaves. At the peak of business in the 1930s, sales totalled 25,000 per annum.
A range of rival modern manufacturers sell a surprisingly wide variety of offerings that stretch from beginner to expert, alto to bass: US company Charlie Blacklock features four different sizes while English outfit Thomas Flinn & Co sells three different sizes across two different finishes under the Roberts and Lee Parkstone brand (a specialist originally based in Enfield near London but subsequently rehoused in Sheffield under the new owner).
There are many others crafting the instrument, spread around the globe, but business in the current era is, by comparison with the heyday, slow. The sound made by the musical saw can be reproduced – to varying degrees, and depending on who you ask – by the theremin, by the synthesiser, by the flexatone/fleximetal. Inclusion of an actual saw, as in the early years, remains more often than not visual and performance-based. Like many elements of country shows across the genre timeline, the instrument identifies a live band as having a connection to the past, with roots in the mountains, the country or the farm, and a demonstrable sincerity of purpose.
That does not mean the saw has disappeared completely from recorded music. Neil Young, Tom Waits and The Handsome Family have all used the saw at various points in their careers, while Neutral Milk Hotel put the instrument to work in all of its haunting majesty on the band's 1990s alternative lo-fi classic In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
The instrument continues to have its niche.
Kentucky native Holly Montgomery, currently of Los Angeles band Mustangs of the West but also having recorded as a solo artist, was seeking what she described as an 'emotional and slightly macabre timbre' for a 2016 song about tragedy, loss and the nature of the afterlife. 'I didn't want the song to be sad but very contemplative and stealthy and borderline insidious –I wanted people to be on the edge of their seats listening.'
She decided against standard, fretted instruments for the song, called Beyond the Veil, but also did not want a fiddle, a violin or an electronic sound; step up the musical saw, and self-described 'Yorkshire musical saw man', Charles Hindmarsh.
'He played the signature lines flawlessly and took the song from the ordinary to the unique and sublime,' said Montgomery of the Englishman.
Chelsea Williams also put the saw to work on her 2020 release Beautiful and Strange. The California artist embraced what she described as 'the whimsical carnival-esque sound' of the instrument, which on the title track creates 'an image of a woman on a high-wire in my mind'.
She added: 'We really tried to keep a pretty natural instrument sound. Even through the soundscape is wide and layered we wanted to have a natural feel. I felt like the saw brought an otherworldly element while still capturing the right feel.
'I had never used the saw before. I'd heard it on some recordings – Tom Waits, November – and seen it in films like Wristcutters and I'd been wanting to include it in a recording for ages.'
Perhaps the saw, and its primitive, pioneer version of twang, is making a comeback of sorts. Yorkshire saw man Hindmarsh, who is admittedly more attuned to the British Music Hall tradition than country or Americana, is looking forward to any resurgence.
'As more recordings are made, the brighter the future gets,' he said.
Amen to that.
All text © 2020 by Todd Westbrook. May not be reproduced without express written permission of the author.