by Bruce Mason
IIn a dizzying array of diverse roles, Paul Pigat is a leading player in our region’s music. The guitar wiz is also generating an international buzz with music he is uniquely covering and creating.
“If I had a chance to play everything I like, I’d be playing in 50 different bands,” he says. “In fact, I’m not even certain what ‘my music’ is anymore; starting off as a metal-head, becoming a bluesman, going to school to study classical music, touring Top-40 country, working on jazz, while making my living in rockabilly.”
Long before establishing Vancouver as home base, Pigat began picking his way to legendary status in the wide world of guitar, gigging professionally at age 12 or 13 in bars around Toronto. Decades later, his most recent musical project, Blue Smoke: The Music of Merle Travis, showcases why he is earning so much international respect and popularity. His tribute to the influential finger-style master/originator is jam-packed with virtuosity, pop history, originality and – are you ready for it? – humour.
“Anyone who has ever tried to fingerpick a guitar owes something to him,” Pigat says, explaining the commonly used term ‘Travis style’ guitar, in which the thumb plays bass notes, while fingers (in Travis’ case, one finger) pick the melody. In the hands of a master, the ubiquitous instrument is transformed into a little orchestra.
But as Pigat notes, “Almost everything sounds better in a band.” In this case: one of his many musical incarnations, Cousin Harley, widely regarded among this planet’s premier rockabilly groups, with the inimitable Keith Picot on stand-up bass and equally outstanding Jesse Cahill on drums. The flame and much of the heat in Blue Smoke is classic signature Travis licks and songs, the sum of which is ignited and made greater by Pigat’s well-established versatility and fiery imagination.
“Merle created guitar playing resembling stride piano with its ‘om-pah’ bass and a counter melody. What’s unique in Travis Picking – think of anyone else who has a whole style of guitar playing named after them – is syncopated melody. Not just blues, jazz or country, but all of them, and more, along with a dictionary of unique chords, including some which are near impossible. I’ve been covering his tunes for years and the man could write some seriously funny songs. Any time I play them, I’m happy.”
Merle’s swinging finger-style playing, driving back-beat and wry sense of humour are integral to the increasingly globally popular rockabilly trio, but Pigat explains, “We’ve taken some liberties and added a bit of our trademark flair to the original recordings, but our goal was to pay homage and respect to this inspirational American music icon. Why mess with the best?”
The idea of a tribute record had been on Pigat’s encyclopedic mind, but the 100th anniversary of Merle’s birth in 2017 made it more powerful. So did the enthusiastic support and sponsorship of Gretsch Guitars, which Pigat is closely associated with, now owner of Bigsby, which originally custom-built Merle’s axe.
Blue Smoke is comprised of lingering classic hits such as 16 Tons and Dark as a Dungeon, mixed up with lesser known Travis material, some of which is now politically incorrect. Lighting up Merle’s legacy it’s supplemented with Pigat’s innovative personal touches and an original, Rosewood, named for the guitar pioneer’s birthplace in Kentucky.
To paraphrase Chet Atkins, a Travis practitioner who became better-known than his mentor, during a visit with Merle, he could write you a hit song and sing it, tell you what was wrong with your mule, draw you a cartoon, fix your watch and show you some great solos and licks.
Undoubtedly there will be a nod to, and touch of, Merle Travis in all of Pigat’s eagerly awaited inventions and incarnations, as there is in so much modern music. But right now, that’s on record and Paul has transcribed every note while on bullet trains touring China. It will be available at paulpigat.com, along with his fast growing, diverse discography.
Blue Smoke is much more than a mirror; it’s more like a bonfire to shed some light and inspiration, warm your heart and put a smile on your face. Duty done, Pigat is returning to, among other things, his Boxcar Campfire project, acoustic guitar sessions – more fuel to add to myriad, ongoing projects of a local musician who is catching ears, worldwide.
Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic.