Mad hatters mar their music
There is no good reason for a musician to wear a hat on stage – unless they’re sensitive about being bald, or protecting their head from the elements, or keeping their hair out of their eyes, or if it’s part of a costume or uniform.
Other than that, BEWARE: it’s a sure sign they’re going to show off by overplaying.
Music fans know instinctively, for instance, that the presence of a pork pie hat on a bass player’s head will lead to a bass solo in a song that doesn’t need one. Berets or flat caps often presage acoustic guitar solos. Jazz and blues harbour some of the maddest hat offenders, and both genres encourage showing off – even bass solos. Folk musicians are just itching to wear hats. A gig at the folk fest is a great excuse to rock a silly hat and claim you’re protecting yourself from the blazing sun, even though you’re probably shredding bluegrass under a tent. Classical musicians are among the most accomplished musicians, and they don’t often wear hats; aside from the odd cadenza, they also don’t play solos. Coincidence? Not this time.
Hats exert a strange power upon those who wear them. Off the top, we have all experienced the sensory phenomenon of forgetting you have a hat on your head and then feeling like it’s still on after you take it off. More than that, hats are a token of identity. It’s like that old Bugs Bunny cartoon where a hat truck loses its load on a windy day; Bugs and Elmer Fudd assume different personalities with every hat that lands on their heads. Try this with three-year-olds and you’ll see that it’s true.
Even if you discount the many allowable exceptions, the evidence for hat-induced musical self-indulgence is overwhelming. Carlos Santana is never seen without his trademark fedora. It’s part of his brand – and he’s the biggest noodler in guitardom. The late Stevie Ray Vaughan was likewise known for lots of notes, and also for his custom-made “plateau” hat festooned with shiny medals; while B.B. King – God rest his hatless soul – could make magic with just three notes. Slash: Hat. Eric Clapton: No hat. Bruno Mars: Hat. Sam Smith: Hatless. Need we go on?
While the dreaded fedora is a harbinger of long harmonica solos, the cowboy hat must be singled out as a special case. It’s more than mere headgear. It’s part of the official uniform of country music, a genre-wide affectation and a symbol of rural America that still holds strong in the bosoms of country folk everywhere. There’s a lot of history riding on that hat. The cowboy hat only draws attention to itself and its overplaying bearer when it is worn ironically. You can tell if it’s a band that doesn’t seem to have any connection to country music whatsoever. Some of them turn up their brims at the side, to signify rock ‘n’ roll style, like Ted Nugent. One of the greatest ironic cowboy hat offenders is Bret Michaels from Poison – and he’s dabbled in country, too. Ditto Bob Dylan. That’s how powerful the effect is.
Few would accuse Alberta’s behatted hero Corb Lund of being pretentious. While his music sits on the alternative side of the country fence, he comes from solid rural rodeo stock in a place where venturing outdoors without one’s cowboy hat would be an unforgivable faux pas. He comes by his hat, and his music, honestly.
The new breed of male country star is bucking the cowboy hat tradition – only to have it backfire by drawing attention to itself. Eric Church is one of a number of bro countryists who sport baseball caps – maybe because they and their fans are more likely to be driving pick-up trucks than on horseback, where a cowboy hat actually makes sense. Zac Brown, meanwhile, has opted for a woolen toque that makes his head hot. What do these two artists have in common? They’re both huge hams.
Special exceptions must also be made for hats that have become an inescapable part of one’s image. For Corb Lund and countless other country stars, alt or not, cowboy hats are mandatory dress code. It may have started as an affectation, but it’s too late to take it off now. Other famous hats have been similarly branded to their owners forever: The Civil War hat glued to Lemmy’s head, the backwards red baseball cap worn by Fred Durst from Limp Bizkit, the weird lumpen scoutmaster chapeau sported by Pharrell Williams, and the many different hats worn by Kid Rock to reflect the many facets of his artistry. Fedora, cowboy hat, baseball cap, you name it, he’s tried it. He really likes hats.
Juno-winning Edmonton folk legend Bill Bourne (right) is rarely seen on stage without his black stovepipe hat – for so Dickensian an effect that he was cast as Scrooge in a musical version of A Christmas Carol. The hat was a gift from a friend, he says.
“It fit perfectly as well. I simply felt I had no choice but to wear it,” Bourne says, adding that he doesn’t really like to wear a hat unless wants to keep his head warm, and still has lots of hair. “Still,” he says, “the top hat is now something people seem to like so I usually wear one at a show.”
It turns out that Bruno Mars wears hats not necessarily because he’s a big show-off, which he is, but because he’s only 5’ 5”. He told NME, “I’m a short guy, and that’s always something I have to think about. I’ve always done the hat thing. Now I’m doing ones with bigger brims to make myself look taller.”
Clayton Bellamy of the Road Hammers favours a bowler type of headgear, but can also be spotted in the do-rag-ironic-cowboy-hat combo. He explains, “I think to be a frontman in a band you have to be a bit of a show off. Case in point: Me! … But I think the hat does make the man and a good one can be an extension of your personality, which oftentimes when you are on stage you want to come across larger than life. Other times it’s practical application. I sweat like a whore in church when I am on stage and a bandana or a hat saves me from looking like I just got out of the bath halfway through every show. I also glue extra strands of hair to the inside to beef up the long locks, just to keep up appearances.”
Lots of information here. Behatted frontmen can be spared from too much shameless hat shaming – because it’s their job to show off. Female pop stars are likewise excepted. Beyonce looks good in any hat. It’s the sidemen you have to watch out for. Especially if they play ukulele.
Sometimes music hats are so distracting that you can’t concentrate on the music. All it takes is one guy to ruin it for everyone else – and yes, we’re looking at you, dude from Mumford and Sons. And if it spreads to the rest of the band, God help them. Big Sugar’s last metamorphosis in 2011 is the prime example, and this heinous sartorial incident from an otherwise great band bears repeating again: Frontman Gordie Johnson wore both a do-rag and a toque over his long hair, the keyboardist-rapper covered his white-guy dreadlocks with a newsboy cap, the harmonica player wore a blues fedora, and the drummer sported a skull cap. They all overplayed.
General Rule of Rock Hats: The bigger the ego, the worse hair, the more insecurity, the greater chance of adopting a hat, the more likely the hat-wearer is going show off their amazing musical abilities at every opportunity – adding unnecessary distraction from what they should really be showing off: Their songs.