In the quest to sustain a career in music, some artists tune their creative frequencies to a specific market. By contrast, others work so hard to avoid definition that they become commercially transparent and largely overlooked. Then there are the musicians whose approach falls somewhere in between, such as guitarist Michael Hedges, who brings his unique, one-man show to Humphrey's on Sunday.
It is no coincidence that Hedges appeals to four frequently disparate types of listener: those drawn to guitar virtuosity; those who love a well-crafted, skillfully sung pop-rock song; those who favor contemplative sounds, and those attracted to a rude, eccentric artistry. For the past decade, Hedges has provided something for them all.
With his 1981 debut album, "Breakfast in the Field," Hedges became a shining light of the then-fledgling Windham Hill label, which eventually became the most successful purveyor of so-called "new age" instrumental music. Hedges' skills on acoustic guitar earned him a Grammy nomination for the 1984 album "Aerial Boundaries"--which remains his best-selling effort--and also helped establish Windham Hill's identification with neo-impressionistic music.
In the public perception, Hedges was lumped together with the label's other dream weavers. But he proved to be that rare performer who listens too intently to his restless, internal muse to hear either the cha-ching of the cash register or the dictates of any particular audience.
If his most obvious endowment is a mastery of electro-acoustic guitar, Hedges considers himself foremost a composer. He studied flute and composition at Phillips University in his home state of Oklahoma and later studied classical guitar and earned a degree in composition at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.
Accordingly, Hedges' arrangements for woodwinds, synthesizers and such unusual string instruments as the harp guitar and the TransTrem electric guitar, belie both the "guitar hero" and the "new age" tags. Also obscured in the shuffle are songwriting and vocal talents that would be the envy of any ambitious pop star.
In a phone interview this week, Hedges claimed to be working on an album, due out in the fall of 1993, that will showcase his singing and songwriting. And he opined that any surprise people might register at the prospect of a mostly vocal album has more to do with lingering misconceptions about him.
"I've always written (vocal) songs," Hedges said in his soft, matter-of-fact manner. "My first two albums were instrumentals because, at the time, Windham Hill didn't have any (acts doing) vocals and I was sort of going with the flow. I had a bunch of guitar instrumentals, so I thought, let's put them out.
"But, when I finished with that, the only original material I had left were vocal-oriented songs," he added. "So, in 1985, I put out an album of guitar-and-voice songs called 'Watching My Life Go By.' Then, I did a live album that was half-and-half, followed by an all-instrumental album. The point is, I've always gone back and forth."
Hedges' 1990 release, "Taproot," proved immensely popular, and constituted a major portion of last year's extraordinary Humphrey's concert. But the album---which, like its predecessors, was self-produced--also was an exploration of new musical territory prompted by continuing experimentation with various instrumental contexts. Not surprisingly, Windham Hill is most comfortable when Hedges follows the path of least resistance.
Windham Hill "didn't want 'Taproot' at first, then after it started selling, they thought it was good," he said, chuckling. "I think the label has always wanted me to do 'Aerial Boundaries II.' And, while I understand why someone in this business would want to replicate something that has sold well, that (motive) has nothing to do with art. I just have to keep going my own way and hope my music sells well, because if I thought I had to keep replicating myself, I'd die."
Certainly, Hedges has cut an idiosyncratic swath as a guitarist. His style incorporates odd, self-invented tunings; both pulling on and finger-hammering the strings; slapping the guitar body for percussive emphasis, and de-tuning strings in mid-song. Hedges calls his personalized technique "savage myth guitar," and while it might seem esoteric in concept, it has a mesmerizing effect on the listener.
"People make up myths to answer the questions of their existence, and I created a personal myth ('Taproot') that was autobiographical, as a form of therapy to deal with problems I had," Hedges explained. "Within my myth, I wanted to see how heavy I could groove, and what came out was a very rhythmic thing, which is where the savage or primitive aspect comes in. The myth part took that approach beyond the academic and made it purposeful.
"But I've always tried hard to establish a rhythmic drive. My attacks on the instrument, slapping and whatever, are like accents that add to the rhythmic perception of my music; it's like adding a drummer. I've been influenced to some extent by other guitarists, but mostly my style has evolved from my need to provide a rhythmic accompaniment."
Hedges' recordings are good touchstones for potential fans, but it's live performance that fuses all of his components into an irresistible art form. Roaming the stage, wringing and wrestling with his guitar, eschewing the usual between-songs patter to share occasionally outrageous anecdotes and observations--Hedges doesn't so much entertain as galvanize a crowd into a malleable mass.
Only after seeing him in concert does one fully appreciate that Hedges is not boasting but only stating fact when he asserts that his core audience will follow him through any manifestation of his muse.
"I'd like to be successful, and I do want to have a song of mine on the radio someday, but I'm not interested in targeting a specific market or anything," Hedges said. "I'm always evolving, my live show is constantly improving, and my records sell steadily. I feel that one reason I'm able to stay on the road and draw good crowds while some other artists are cutting back is because my audience senses that I'm remaining true to my art. I'm not in this for the short haul; this is my life."
* Michael Hedges will perform at 8 p.m. Sunday at Humphrey's, 2241 Shelter Island Drive, San Diego. Tickets ($20) are available through TicketMaster (278-TIXS). For more information, call 523-1010.