Matthew Cochran is a guitarist, composer, and educator whose musical activities crisscross a variety of expressions ranging from classical to jazz and popular music. He is the Guitar Instructor at Interlochen Center for the Arts. Praised by Soundboard Magazine for his “commanding stage presence” and “intimate expression”, Cochran has performed in prestigious international festivals such as the Guitar Foundation of America, the Silesian Guitar Festival, and the Iserlohn Guitar Symposium.
In 2009, Cochran embarked on a journey of musical self-discovery that explored the richness and diversity of the American Diaspora. The result of this journey is a synthesis of styles most recently displayed on Vapor Trail from a Paper Plane, Cochran’s debut recording as a singer-songwriter-composer, about which No Depression raved “The pure emotive quality of Cochran’s music pulls you into its embrace and empties your heart with every sigh.” Cochran maintains an active performance schedule that includes solo, concerto and chamber music for classical, electric, and steel string guitar, and frequent singer-songwriter appearances at cafes and folk festivals.
There’s this musicologist named Wiley Hitchcock who wrote about American music as a pair of complimentary streams. He named one of the streams “cultivated” music (i.e. classical stuff), and he named the other stream “vernacular” music (i.e. everything else). This approach may work in the dusty halls of academia, but everywhere else its pretty much bullshit.
No matter what they tell you in grad school or the now-moribund Virgin Megastores, music is too messy to be retrofitted into tidy categories. This is especially true when it comes to American music because most of our traditions come from someplace else. Scratch beneath the surface of an old Appalachian ballad and you’ll find an even older version being sung at a pub somewhere in the British Isles. Trace Earl Scruggs’ banjo back far enough, and you’ll find yourself in Africa. There are no “streams”; just an infinite variety of creative voices whose artistic vision represents their own little piece of the American experience.
My little piece of the American experience began in rural Pennsylvania, Amish country, where the favored décor of dining establishments is taxidermy. It was there I learned Appalachian ballads like “Pretty Polly” from my Kentuckian Maw, and on Sunday mornings belted out “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” with Brethren in Christ dairy farmers.
I was ten years old, clutching a bag of lawn fertilizer at Ace Hardware when I first heard Mark Knopfler’s guitar playing. “Walk of Life” was a surprise hit for the Dire Straits that year. It was originally a B-side for “So Far Away” but the tune gained stream on its own merits and wound up on heavy rotation at Top 40 stations like Wink 106.1 out of Corning, Elmira. I cleaned gutters to earn money for the single and dug post holes to purchase the LP.
My parents bought me a massive Fender dreadnaught for my birthday. It was a tank with strings that hovered about a foot off the fingerboard and brutalized my fingers as I endeavored to master the F barre.
One Thanksgiving, a family friend who recently gave his life to Christ brought over three boxes filled with records that he claimed contributed to his moral shortcomings. He was apparently not concerned about the salvation of his impressionable beneficiary, an oversight for which I will always be grateful. After dinner, I hauled one of the boxes into the dining room where the record player was housed. Standing among the ravaged carcass of what was once a turkey, I heard Sgt. Pepper, Highway 61, and Electric Ladyland for the first time. It was a tryptophan-laced psychedelic bliss-out, after which the F barre never stood a chance.
It took me a couple weeks to get to the bottom of the third box, where I found an album that featured the profile of a man who vaguely resembled Han Solo. The record was called Parkening Plays Bach and, despite the Spartan album design, I figured it deserved a whirl or two on the turntable. It was and still is a magical recording. By the final bars of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” I was determined to become a concert classical guitarist.
Twenty years, three degrees, and a mountain of student debt later, I was more-or-less able to play “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” to my satisfaction. Near the end of my last degree I formed a group with some guys who could also play the hell out of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”. We called ourselves the Tantalus Quartet, and we made the rounds at guitar festivals and concert halls in the U.S. and Europe.
Over time we built something vaguely resembling a performance career shilling Bach and Brahms to folks who love Bach and Brahms. It was nice. But one day I looked up and realized that my childhood in rural Pennsylvania with “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” and “Pretty Polly” were more than just warm memories, they were an integral part of that weird primordial ooze that artists like to call their identity. There they were: Polly and Jesus, waiting in the wings, threatening to kick some ass unless I started paying attention to them.
So I did. I screwed up some guts, wrote some songs and I’ve been singing them to anyone that’ll listen ever since. Sometimes it’s a concert series, other times it’s coffee shop or a bar. On the days I feel like playing Bach, I play Bach. Other days it’s Paul Westerburg. Paul hasn’t complained and Bach’s not much of a talker, so I figure I’m in the clear.
I don’t worry too much about which stream Wiley Hitchock would want me to swim in. There are those who preserve and those who innovate, but I’m neither. I’m a filcher, happy to cobble together music from table scraps. And I’m having a ball.