Imaginary Conversations with Animals: Dallas.

POOF

Here is an imaginary conversation I had this morning with my sister’s dog, Dallas.

DALLAS: Would you mind throwing this ball once more please?

ME: Okay but this is the last time. We’ve been doing this for five minutes and I’ve only been awake seven.

DALLAS: Deal! 

Dallas drops the ball on the lawn, ten feet away from me, and runs to his hiding place behind a small fir tree, to wait for the throw. I see him crouching beneath the low broad branches, fixing me with eyes shining in anticipation. His tail wags a morse code of unqualified zeal.

I don’t know what that thing is called, that orange plastic thing with the handle on one end and the cupped ball holder on the other, but that’s what I use. Holding a blue ceramic LA Dodgers coffee mug in one hand, the Dog Ball Thrower in the other, I walk over to where Dallas has left the saliva-covered tennis ball. The ball, punctured, swollen, abused, fits perfectly in its holder. I see dark bits of pine needle and dirt woven into the synthetic hairs.

I reach back and hurl the slobber comet far into the woods. It whistles. Dallas explodes from under the tree in the direction of the sound. The ball careens off a white birch and lands in a thick clump of dead branches. The dog dives into the pile, no hesitation. 

The ball found, Dallas breaks into a full sprint across the yard, toward me. He drops it on the lawn, ten feet away.

DALLAS: That was AMAZING! Your best throw yet!

ME: Why can’t you just drop it at my feet? Why always so far away?

Dallas pretends not to hear.

ME: Before I throw it again — 

DALLAS: That would be very exciting.

ME: — I want to know, do you notice anything different about me?

The look on Dallas' face changes. Is he annoyed? He returns his pink tongue to its place inside his mouth.

DALLAS: To be honest, humans all look the same to dogs. Two feet, two legs…we really don’t notice much above the knee.

ME: Well I’ve been working out.

DALLAS: Good for you! I’ve always been a fan of self-improvement. For instance did you see how fast I got the ball on that last throw? I think it was my fastest time EVER.

ME: You were amazing. Anyway, I’m a fan of self-improvement too. Though I hate talking about it out loud.

DALLAS: I agree, it is a tedious subject.

ME: I was just curious if it was paying off.

DALLAS: I don’t understand what you mean by paying off. What are you doing it for? Are you trying to be a muscle person or something? Because that would be dumb.

ME: Why dumb?

DALLAS: Because, well, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but that’s not who you are. 

ME: How do you know who I am?

DALLAS: Because I’m a dog. Dogs know most everything worth knowing.

Dallas turns his attention to the ball. He takes it in his mouth, chewing thoughtfully. I take a sip of coffee. The morning wind rustles the branches of a tall cedar behind us. Dallas drops the ball and snaps to attention. He scans the woods for a long moment. 

DALLAS: This time of year there are a lot of deer in the woods. Very exciting. Anyway. Have you considered this fitness stuff might be a displacement of effort due your frustration at the slow progress of recent creative pursuits?

ME: Say that in English maybe.

DALLAS: Well, you’re in the middle of recording this new album. You’ve experienced some setbacks along the way. Not being able to sing for instance. Kind of a big one. 

ME: I’m okay now.

DALLAS: I heard. Happy for you! But in the meantime, you got scared. You started considering other avenues. 

ME: If you mean acting, it was something I had been considering for more than a year. Ever since I started writing my TV show.

DALLAS: Okay. I’ve been meaning to ask you about this. Why a TV show? What is the deal there? 

ME: Can I say, why not?

DALLAS: You can, but it wouldn’t be a very satisfying answer.

I take a sip of coffee. Still warm but cooling fast.

ME: I’m going to try to answer this as succinctly as possible. But bear with me. 

DALLAS: Okay, but this ball isn’t going to chase itself. We’re about due for another round.

ME: The short answer is, I guess I’m tired of playing the game the way its being played. Spend a few years writing a bunch of songs. Record the songs on an album. Release the album and spend a year touring and trying to get people to listen to it. It’s a bankrupt model. It’s always been hard to get people out to shows. And CDs, well there’s an endangered species. Fewer and fewer people even have CD players now—you can kiss those sales goodbye. Everyone listens to spotify. We live in the age of free music. 

DALLAS: You certainly paint a dark picture of the current state of affairs. Trump much?

ME: What?

DALLAS: Nevermind. Dog humor. So the TV thing is your way of figuring out how to get paid for playing music? 

ME: No. I mean, yes. But that’s not the real reason. It’s a lot of things. It’s more like, well for one I’m bored of touring, at least the way I've been doing it, and for another, I want to tell a bigger story. I feel like I have the tools to tell it.

DALLAS: Go on. 

ME: Okay so I wrote a book. Maybe it's good, maybe it's bad,  it's not for me to say. But, well it has a few things going for it. One is, I have a unique voice, a perspective worth sharing.

DALLAS: I’m going to overlook the fact that you are complimenting yourself.

ME: But it’s just a collection of short stories. Compelling little vignettes, okay fine, but no cohesive narrative. I want more. I want to create a causal arc. I want characters who interact with each other, who change over time in response to the challenges standing in the way of the things they most desire. I want to tell a big story. 

DALLAS: Pardon the obvious, but why not write another book?

ME: Well, I've been working on one, but, I don’t know, I think I want to tell the story this way. This new way. Visually. Musically. Along with the action and dialogue. I want to use everything at my disposal, you know? Plus I have all these songs. But more than any of that, I want to do something different. Something that hasn’t been done before. 

I empty the mug of cold coffee into the grass. Dallas watches. He moves to the spot where the coffee disappeared into the earth and makes a show of sniffing at it with his long black nose. 

ME: I also want to scare myself. And acting scares the shit out of me. 

Dallas pauses, looks up at me.

DALLAS: I don’t know what acting is. I’m always completely myself wherever I am.

ME: Now who’s boasting?

DALLAS: I’m just telling the truth. How about throw the ball yeah?

I had forgotten I was still holding the DBT. Dallas runs to his hiding place behind the tree while I press the plastic cup around the glistening sodden contour of his wet tennis ball. The ball whistles its way deep into the woods, missing all trees, bouncing over a rotting log into a dry yellow patch of tall grass. The dog’s pursuit is fast, sure and direct. He disappears into the grass for less than three seconds, remerging triumphant, sprinting back to me, this time dropping the ball directly at my feet.

DALLAS: Did you see that?! Did you see that?! I totally got it!! You threw it all the way out there and I went and I got it and brought it back to you! Honestly I think that was my fastest time ever. Man we make a good team. 

Holding the empty coffee cup I watch as Dallas presses his tooth into a small tear in the seam of the tennis ball. Pinning it to the ground between his paws, he lifts his head, tearing the skin from the wound core inside. He looks at me proudly, the core hanging like rubbery viscera from the disembodied cover. The dog shakes his head violently back and forth and now my shins are covered in spit.

DALLAS: Anyway what’s it about?

ME: What’s what about?

DALLAS: The show. Your TV show. I was thinking about it just now and, well, I’m worried you might be selling out. 

ME: I’m like, the poorest person I know. How could I be selling out?

DALLAS: If you’re the poorest person you know, you need a wider circle of friends. Selling out because, I don’t know, TV. It’s not exactly Hemingway is it. 

ME: Everyone says we’re in the golden age of television. I don’t think I’m selling out. 

DALLAS: Wait, did you see how I just tore the cover off that ball a second ago? Just checking. Awesome right?

ME: The show is about an indie folk singer who tours around meeting weird people, having adventures, trying to make it in the actual modern music business while balancing a love life at home. 

DALLAS: Sounds….autobiographical. 

ME: That’s why I’m not selling out. The show is a loosely fictionalized version of my actual life. In a way, it's an extension of the book, definitely in spirit, but in some particulars too.

DALLAS: What’s it called? 

ME: Medium Hero. Or My Little Life. That part isn’t terribly important yet.

DALLAS: I see. And what makes you think people will like it? 

ME: Well. Because it’s funny and has characters you root for. It's good storytelling. Plus the music is rad.

Dog and man pause at a sudden knocking sound coming from the woods. They both turn toward the trees and look. The sound repeats. Dallas returns to the conversation.

DALLAS: Woodpecker. Okay, so this is all fine and good and while I’m not doubting you, let's play Devil’s Advocate for a second….how are you going to get this made? 

ME: I don’t know yet. I’ve got some friends in Hollywood who produce for TV, and my book publisher set something up with this other guy…but I don’t know, it may end up being a web series for a while. 

Dallas seems to consider what I’m saying.

DALLAS: I can see how there might be some good reasons for doing it that way — the creative freedom mostly. But, like, how are you going to pay for it? 

ME: I don’t know. I’m not too worried about it. 

DALLAS: It seems like there are a lot of things you don’t know.

ME: Yeah.

The dog and I exchange a long look.

ME: But I’ve thought a lot about it — mostly about the excitement of pursuing something wild and unlikely versus the safety of continuing to do things the way I’ve been doing them. And, the excitement wins. I don’t know what else to say except that trying to make this show happen feels like the right thing to do. Most of the big decisions I’ve made in my life were based less on data and more on guts and I guess to be honest, it's worked pretty well. I’ve had an interesting go.

DALLAS: More interesting than mine, I’ll grant you that. 

ME: Oh, I don’t know. Apples and oranges. 

DALLAS: Dogs and people. But yeah, I’ve got it pretty good here. I mean, look at that tennis ball. It’s completely destroyed. I did that.

ME: Yes you did. You’re a good dog.

DALLAS: It makes me SO happy to hear you say it. Let’s have another throw shall we?

I gather the guts of the ball into the cup. Dallas watches closely.

ME: Before I throw this, I want to know something.

DALLAS: Okay. As long as the throwing of the ball follows immediately afterward.

ME: Do you think my show will work?

DALLAS: Well manperson, if there's one thing I've learned from my eight years disemboweling countless round objects of recreation, it's this: you've got to do what feels right. If you've thought about it and gutchecked it and cross-referenced your gutcheck with what you know has worked for you in the past, and everything says you've got to make a TV show - or chew a brand new Wilson DoubleCore in half - then nothing else matters. Listen to your heart.

ME: You might just be telling me what I want to hear, but thank you anyway.

DALLAS: You're welcome. Now let's see if this will be your best throw ever. I bet it will!

A Book Nerd at Parnassus.

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If the major theme of Thousand Springs is to record my songs in places special to me, then this song, “Book Nerd” had to be recorded here, at Parnassus Books in Nashville. 

Parnassus has only been around for a few years, but it’s become one of the most famous bookstores in the country, up there with City Lights in San Francisco, Elliot Bay Books in Seattle, Square Books in Oxford, Strand in NYC…it doesn’t hurt that one of its co-founders is superstar author Ann Pachett. But Parnassus’ success is mostly due its staff: they’re real book people, in love with literature, self-anointed proselytizers of the written word, and plugged into the Nashville community like a quarter-inch jack.

I was there opening night. I remember it well because I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed because I was underdressed, wearing a ripped army shirt I bought at a thrift store. Everyone else was in formal gowns and wool suits. And fifteen years older than me. I drank two glasses of wine and introduced myself to the co-founder Karen Hayes (Pachett’s partner) and then I got the hell out of there, back to the side of the river where I belong.

Garment-fouls aside, it was a fortuitous night. Karen and I have known each other for 7 years now. She let me do my initial reading for Medium Hero at Parnassus. And she played a critical, if unwitting role in my book being formally published late last year. 

This is the story I want to tell.

What happened was, I came to Parnassus on a hot Sunday in June to see genius folksinging weirdo Todd Snider do a reading/release for his own book of short stories, I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like. I was hoping he’d play some songs, but he showed up empty handed, approximately one minute before he was scheduled to read. He opened by announcing he was going camping in East Tennessee immediately after the reading, so if anyone had some weed would they be so kind as to kick down a little. That’s Todd. 

After the reading, I wandered around like I usually do, waiting for a book to jump off the shelf and land in my hand. Karen approached and pointed at a woman doing the same thing and said, “That’s Katie. She’s starting this writer’s collective. You guys should meet.” I said okay so Karen led me over and introduced us. A few days later, Katie emailed me and asked if we could get coffee. 

I sat across a table in a coffeeshop in Sylvan Park from Katie and her friend and business partner, Susannah. They had just started a writer’s collective called The Porch and wanted to know if I had any ideas for an event.

I did have an idea. Two of my favorite creative people in the world are named Tim O’Brien. One is a multi-instrumentalist bluegrass superstar, and the other is the National Book award-winning author of The Things They Carried, and several other great books. I’ve always assumed they at least know of each other, because if you google Tim O'brien, the author and musician are the first two results, respectively. And I've been curious: is each familiar with the other’s work? Are they annoyed they have the same name?

So, sipping a foamy macchiato at a crowded coffeeshop across from two near-strangers,  I wondered aloud: what if we had an event called A Tale of Two Tims? The musician would play and the writer read. People might like that.

I had no idea how we would pull that off, but Katie immediately responded that she knew Writer Tim. Not super well, but she had taken a seminar from him and had his email address. I knew the musician, having played music and tour-managed him a couple times. The next day, Katie called and said author Tim was in. I was pretty surprised. So I called music Tim, and he was in too. Just like that, it was on.

A Tale of Two Tims happened a few months later. Everyone came. It sold out and the venue was beautiful and we were all squeezed in tight with glasses of whiskey and wine in our hands. At Katie's request, I played a few songs to start things off. Then Tim played, and Tim read, and then Tim played again while Tim did some magic tricks. It was a great night. The world felt small and everyone left feeling like you're never too old to be surprised and delighted.

Afterwards, while people were folding up the chairs and dismantling the stage, a girl approached me, asking if it was true I had a book for sale. I pointed at the pile of self-published Medium Heros sitting next to Tim’s books and said yes I do. The girl said she was going to buy my book. She handed me a business card. I read the card. It said she was the acquisitions manager at this place called Turner Publishing. I didn’t think too much of it. But when I got an email a few weeks later, and then a contract, and then an advance, I was like, wow. This is pretty real. And it all happened because Karen introduced me to Katie at Parnassus Books.

So. How excited was I last Friday when Karen let me into the store an hour before opening? I had the whole place to myself. I spent a distracted 10 minutes rereading the first pages of The All of It, one of my favorite books of all time, and then I set the recording stuff up near the kids’ section by the little white pillars. I tuned, and spent about 20 minutes getting the tone right on the guitar. One thing about recording this way, a song at a time, each in a different place, is that every environment is different and emphasizes different frequencies, characteristics, flavors. Every time is a starting over. 

“Book Nerd” is about a girl I know who reads about as much as she breathes. The kind of girl who brings a book to a party. My kind of girl. The store opened while I was still recording. Everyone was politely quiet, tiptoeing around me and looking at the new releases and the classics and the coffee table books while I sang over and over:

She was a book nerd She had blonde hair With a paperback in her back pocket Where ever she was, she was right there She was a book nerd

***

I'm running out of time so this will have to be a story for another day. The story about me having dinner last week with Steve Wozniak. Steve is an evil genius and he taught me how to play a prank on anyone with an iPhone. I’ll show you sometime.

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The Austin Five.

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Last week was a big week for THOUSAND SPRINGS. I got to make music with some of the most talented people in the Texas branch of the songwriting tree.

It took a little planning — in early May I drove up to Minneapolis with a carload full of recording gear, stopping in Chicago and Madison to play some shows. I flew out of Minny to Europe, leaving my car in a friend’s garage. Got back from Europe and drove south to Texas to see what would happen next.

Book People Book People

First thing in Austin was a reading for Medium Hero at Book People — one of the best book stores in the country. People came and I played and sang, so it was all okay. I felt like I had the green light to hang out, so I did. I ate tacos everyday and went to the Y at night so I could eat more tacos the next day. And I had the opportunity to record some of my favorite musicians in Texas. Here's who, and what.

Raina RoseIMG_6085

Raina Rose is one of my favorite people anywhere. Not just her songs with the words and the heart and the dancing voice, but her big personality that goes and goes and does not apologize for where it goes. Also she does something that is borderline impossible. She mothers two small boys with big personalities and she makes it look easy. And she has a weekly column on No Depression. And she does it all while making a song that fastens itself to your head like a well-placed earring.

We sat on the floor of her guest bedroom and she held her youngest, Benny, while I got a level and dialed in the tone. I didn't like how roomy the bedroom sounded so she let me tack a blanket to her wall. Indulgent. She sang pretty on two songs, Weathered Wings and the song I wrote for Chief Sitting BullLast Man Standing.

Listen to Raina’s tune If You’re Gonna Go while you read the story she wrote in No Depression about this year’s impromptu song circle at this year's Folk Alliance

Matt The Electrician Matt The Electrician

I knew Matt The Electrician to be a thoughtful, incisive song manicurist, but I didn’t know he played trumpet. Yes, he said, he went to school for it. I have chops, he said, flashing the beatific smile for which he is famous. He led me through his house to the office where his ideas hatch — a little computer desk in the corner, box amps, guitars on the wall, memorabilia hung painted sketched printed and/or framed from one of Matt's million past tours. On one wall was a book shelf completely filled with these things called CDs. “I remember those,” I said. While I set up the recording machines we talked about the Seattle grunge scene of the nineties and whether or not the documentary Hype got it right. Then Matt played trumpet and sang on a song I wrote called Mermaids. Then he sang on Last Man Standing. Then I headed out for tacos and he went to watch a minor league baseball game with his wife, Kathie.  "Date Night," he said, and smiled.

Listen to Matt’s song I Will Do the Breathing. Goto Matt's website and learn more about the interesting way he is setting about releasing his music. 

Anthony Da CostaIMG_6120

Electro-folk prince Anthony Da Costa has more tones in his guitar than there are bubbles in a bottle of Topo Chico. He’s been out all year with Americana darling Aoife O’Donovan and he was fresh back in town when we got together last Tuesday. He came over to my house pro tem and we set his amp head up on a cat tower and used a shoe closet as the isolation box for the cabinet. To our collective surprise, it actually worked. Anthony spent the next 4 hours devouring pretty much everything I threw at him. He didn’t even eat the bowl of almonds I brought him, such were his powers of concentration.

I love living where I do, but Nashville has a tendency to tame musicians over time. I went to Austin because I wanted the people who still had some weird in them, and Anthony does.

I wonder if he will appreciate the bruise I photoshopped off his shin. Not sure but I did it anyway.

Watch this video of Anthony playing with Aoife O’Donovan recorded earlier this year at PASTE Studios.

Andrew Pressman Andrew Pressman In Austin, Andrew Pressman is in charge of all frequencies below 1KHz. I’ve seen him play on upright and electric many times, always with verve and precision, and best of all, taste. He holds down the low end for Raina Rose (to whom he is married), Ben Kweller, Steve Poltz, Sam Baker, Rebecca Loebe, Carrie Elkin, Megan Mullally’s band Nancy & Beth and loads of others.

About an hour after Raina sang, she laid Benny down for a nap and Andrew carted his gear in from the garage, texted his engineer buddy to find out which API preset was best for his rig (radio bass for you nerds) and we dug in. He laid tracks on Friend and a Friend, Weathered Wings, and a brand new song I wrote with Amy Speace called Father to the Man.

Carrie Elkin Carrie Elkin The first time I heard Carrie Elkin, she was singing with her husband Danny Schmidt on his song Company of Friends at the Rice Festival in Fischer, Texas. They sang under an improvised tapestry of christmas lights, inside a barn that held about a hundred breathless Texas song fans. That night kind of changed my life — I had just been to my first Kerrville Folk Festival, and even though I had lived in Nashville for 7 years and had played music almost constantly for 15, I had never seen scene like that. In Texas, songs live and die on the lyric. And the lyric can twist and turn in way that are decidedly uncommercial. Harder to find that stuff in Nashville.

Carrie has had a busy career, and it’s about to get busier. For one, she’s finishing up a new record with producer Neilson Hubbard, and for another, she’s about to be a mom. Big things ahead.

Watch this video of Carrie performing “Crying Out” with Danny Schmidt. [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M1cI0Dj26qI&w=560&h=315]

Can't say yet when the record is coming out, but I can say I'm excited about it. If you aren't a kickstarter backer and want to preorder a copy of Thousand Springs, you can do that here.

Uke Good

Any Weirding Invention.

.IMG_6109.jpgIt was not early. Mid morning. He stood at the kitchen counter looking through the pane of glass above the sink. The scene beyond was unremarkable. Smoke colored sky. Tree like a broccoli crown. A bulky-house contest facing off across the street.

Using the tip of his finger to work a bit of sleep from the corner of his eye, he turned his attention to the machine before him. Now the mug sitting beside the machine. He leaned against the counter and bent his torso until he could see inside the empty mug without touching it. It appeared to be clean. He straightened, grasped the handle and placed the cold mug on the perforated plastic platform created for this moment. 

Beside the machine was a metal carousel of small plastic cups, each sealed with a colorful label denoting the contents inside. He withdrew one called Donut Shop. With his other hand he lifted the plastic handle that opened wide the machine's black throat. There was a distinctive pop as the hinged worked against itself. He lowered the lever. The throat closed. He opened it again, slowly, closed it, opened it once more and placed the small plastic cup inside the throat. He lowered the lever and the machine swallowed. 

He scowled. How was it possible that a Keurig could make him feel lonely?

He pushed a button and a green light appeared. He pushed a bigger button. A loud buzz filled the room like an airplane propeller. He placed his hand on the lever and felt the vibration. He wondered what was going on, exactly, inside the machine. He wondered why he wondered. The machine stopped buzzing. There was a click like a washing machine and then a sharp hiss. He watched a faint wisp of steam draw away from the thin brown liquid now shooting into the cup. A new sound, a gurgle, joined the hiss. He watched the black line of rising coffee climb the white cup’s wall. The phrase Keurig piss entered his head. He scowled again. He was hoping for something wittier.

While he sipped his coffee which was delicious and convenient he thought about what it was he should write. He felt he was in a difficult spot. Three weeks abroad in the train parade of European travel, through countries German and British. This demanded an accounting, or at least a summary, of sights seen and feelings felt. But while the items worth discussing were several, he couldn’t discuss them all, and choosing which, felt impossible.

There was the fact of his having just turned forty, the nip of which he felt acutely, because he was still in show business where oldness and obsolescence are almost synonyms. For another, his newly lame voice, which he was sick of talking about, was probably at this point permanently altered, and in his mind, not for the better. Notes had dearly departed and never returned, in their absence an exhilarating feeling akin to what might be called paralyzing fear had materialized, wherewith he was sorting out a number of possible alternatives to his current form of employment. Then there was the problem of the music album currently under construction, the existence of which was pre-paid by a fairly large handful of friends and well-wishers. He was under an obligation to produce said album.

In short he felt that the sweater of his life was unravelling around him, and while in polite company he was perfectly capable of maintaining a cadence of positivity and even a kind of high-tenored élan, his nights and alone times were in the exclusive possession of a grave uncertainty.

Also there was the difficulty of his girlfriend ex girlfriend future wife arch nemesis who had generously flown out to meet him on tour, among the cafes and cathedrals of the Old World. In his hour of urgent need, she had come. Even after everything he said, wrote. The simple gratitude he felt toward her. The ensuing complicated feelings. 

But wait. That didn’t have to be brought up, did it? A personal matter. He was under no obligation to disclose his stuttering love life to an online coterie of friends and strangers. Furthermore, writing is always a process of selection, of separation (wheat from chafe, bud from stem): why not narrow its scope to the merely musical, or culinary, or peripatetic?

He already knew there would be no narrowing. Not in that sense. This project was about singing, playing, telling the truth as best he could. He was no longer interested in playacting at art or music or life. No, that wasn’t quite the way to put it. He had never been interested in playacting. It was just that, now, he was taking a sharper tool to himself, actively seeking to uproot the weeds of vanity and insincerity wherever he found them. At whatever cost. Here he was, a man who by any economic standard was, shall we say, languishing, but he still had the two things he valued most. Namely a ruthless approach to self-inquiry and a healthy loathing of bullshit.

While he waited for the machine to produce a second cup of coffee which was also delicious and convenient, a cat appeared, long-furred and calico, leaping onto the counter and sniffing casually at the unwashed plates lying in the sink. He thought of his own cat at home. He thought of his own ridiculous fascination with all things feline. He thought of his annoying tendency to return to subjects already covered in full. He shooed the cat down from the counter. The cat looked up at him from the floor, swishing its bushy tail. Why do you have to make everything so difficult? It said.

Good question, cat. He peered into the empty coffee cup of his mind and saw no answers worth sipping.

For years he had been plagued with a nagging feeling that he may in fact be a bad artist, or worse, a mediocre one. It was one of the unwelcome guests that kept him awake at night. Much noisy chatter.

But lately he had been revisiting the idea of his creative worth, and decided it didn’t matter. No, it mattered. Of course it mattered. But the world didn’t get to decide how good he was or wasn't.

True, the terms of his financial freedom or lack thereof were inseparable from a participation in the capitalistic culture of which he was apart, where fans were won or not, and a numerical value could be (and inevitably was) assigned. But art has no number. Any weirding invention fulfills its own purpose, is complete unto itself. The sincere creative act is about risk and by necessity includes at least the possibility of growth, and so, even if he was tanking his own career by letting everyone have a good long look at the unshaven armpits of his life, he yet gained in the balance.

Armpits of his life. Way better than Keurig piss. His mood improved slightly.

The second cup of coffee gone, he looked around for his laptop. He realized it was still in the car. He had only an hour to write before his recording session began. He had better get started.

Birthdays in Europe.

I don’t know who I like more: the friends who read my writing or the friends who don’t. Both have their advantages. The former tend to know me better. The latter are easier to hang out with. Because my ruse is permitted to continue, uninterrupted by written revelation. Ruses have their advantages.

To you who took the time to read about Shay, thank you. I realize that was an exhausting post for all of us. In a way I’m surprised I wrote it, dark as the subject was. Then again, it is within the purview of the melancholic to occasionally swim away from the light. Which unpleasant as it is, sometimes brings its own illumination. Thanks for swimming with me.

I received so many responses from that post! Forgive me if I haven’t replied to yours yet. I’ve been getting to them when I can. Wow what feedback. Some of you shared stories with me that you haven't told anyone. Some wrote me poems or told me of their own losses. In that way, maybe some small good was served, allowing people a moment to reflect on the things they've loved or suffered. Giving a brief forum for that kind of sharing. One thing that was surprising was how much advice people had for me. How I should look at it, what I should do. I know it came from a desire to help. My purpose in writing that was mostly to make Shay realer than she was, to make her life count a little more than it did. To the extent that people think of her, I’m grateful. And my goal was accomplished. 

This week, I’ve spent a lot of time looking out the window of a train, but it goes on forever so I’ve pulled myself away to say hello. Since the Shay post, a lot of things have happened. Here are some of them:

I played my first seated show in ten years. Seated because I forgot my guitar strap in Nashville and didn’t realize it until soundcheck. That was Chicago. I was nervous about it because it was the first 90 minute set I was obliged to play since my voice disappeared and returned gimpy. I had a few shows earlier this month in Nashville, short ones. My strategy there was to detune my guitar a half-step and sing only the gentle songs, which in my opinion is too much gentle. I have some bite people! Hear me! Anyway, 90 minutes of gentle would be a cruel boring experiment so for Chicago I ventured out and tried some of the slightly more aggressive songs. It didn’t really work, but somehow I was able to move around the tricky parts and deliver a satisfactory, if personally disappointing performance. 

Someone took my picture at the show and posted it on my Facebook page. Which helped me see how weird my hair was getting. So when I woke up in the morning I gave the thing a cut. The only tool I had were some safety scissors. Thankfully, curly hair forgives many a dull chop. I deposited a rodent-sized handful of clippings in the wastebasket and felt like a new man. 

Still in Chicago, I took the el downtown to something called Book Expo America. That's where the book industry gathers itself into a room big enough to assemble a blimp in. The whole universe is there, subdivided by publisher or distributor or I’m not sure what else. The experience was humbling. I wandered around like a lost insect and tried my best to make new friends or at least find another insect. I mostly passed the time eating little candies from the display booths of major publishers. The Scientologists had a big booth but I didn’t eat their candy.

After Chicago I drove to Madison and played a show at the High Noon Saloon with my friends Corey Mathew Hart and Paul Mitch. Super talented guys. I met them in New York a few years ago when we were both finalists at the New Song contest. Corey sings big and his songs stick. Paul plays everything, with intelligence and feeling. I asked them a few months ago if they would be interested in recording a song with me and they said yes. SO after the show we went to Paul’s house and recorded the guitar parts and bass for Northern Lights. One of my favorite new songs. I still seem not to be able to sing in a worthy recordable way so we contented ourselves with the instruments. By then it was late anyway and I had to drive to Minneapolis to play another show and to fly to Europe. 

I’ve been in Europe for more than a week now. Austria, Switzerland, now Germany. It’s funny: after the first few times coming over here you stop feeling compelled to take your picture in front of bridges or towers or churches. Don’t tell the Europeans, but to my Idaho eye, everything kind of looks the same. You can stare up at the gilded ceilings of, like, five churches before they all run together. 

I keep looking for something truly weird to capture the essence of traveling overseas. The best thing so far was a German vending machine that sold Turkish cigarettes. I looked at it for a long time. Is this it? It was outside and kind of beat up and had spray paint graffiti on it and little square plastic buttons with a picture of each brand. Nope, not weird enough. So I’m still looking.

I’ve played a lot of shows over here. One every day this week. It’s been a quiet journey. Quiet because I’ve had to keep my insecure feelings to myself. You can’t go on stage to people who have paid money to see you and say, “Well I’m gonna do the best I can, but the truth is, my voice isn’t what it used to be.” No. You go out there and kick ass, with whatever you’ve got. So that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve had to scratch the biggest loudest songs off the setlist because I simply cannot hit those notes. But everything else is doable with maybe a few moments I have to dance around. It’s been an interesting lesson in working with limits that didn’t used to be. I think on the whole I’ve delivered performances I don’t need to be ashamed of.

But it’s weird because I know what I can do, or what I used to be able to do, and there are a lot of feelings attached to that. Singing used to be effortless. Like, the easiest thing in the world to do. It’s why I chose the crazy life that is being a professional musician. Because the actual act of singing was the most natural thing in the world to me. Being on a stage was like, being home. I could be myself. I could be as emotional as I wanted, as loud or soft. I could be funny or serious. Some of those flavors are still there, but the feeling of being completely at home, isn’t. I have to work to sing. I have to think about it. The physical sensation of contracting muscles in my throat to get the notes to sound right, to be in tune. It’s not the same. In terms of how it feels, it’s not even close.

Will my voice come back? Am I supposed to just stop trying to do this? Is it a message from God to quit playing music and just start writing full time? I have to concede that this might be the case. I don’t know. I'm taking it a day at a time. What I do know is, I owe people a record. I set out to do this thing and I’m gonna do it. There’s not really an alternative!

So I’ve been watching what happens night to night. Is it getting better? I think the answer is yes. But it doesn’t happen incrementally. It’s more like one night will be slightly better, and the next night, no. Worse singing. My plan going forward: I will get through the next week and then a few more shows back in the states, and then I’m going to take about six weeks off.  No shows scheduled. Probably the best thing I can do. Even though it scares me because I’m wonder what I will do for money. But then I think, something will happen. I have faith.

Also I turned 40 two days ago. Huh. There are certain mile markers that bear a significance that can only be stammered at. How do you spend a birthday of that magnitude?

I played a show.

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Wherever You Are.

ShaysTree So far on this journey, I’ve recorded at the edge of the Snake River Canyon, where I grew up. I’ve recorded at my dad’s mortuary and my best friend’s basement bedroom. I’ve recorded at a lonely cabin in the woods north of Sun Valley, and at the weird Dr Suessy terrain of Craters of the Moon. As much I love Idaho and feel like I belong to it in a way I will never belong to the South, none of those places out west is as special as the one above. This tree in this secret spot in the woods outside of Nashville.

There was a time about five years ago when I came out here almost every day, to write and think and avoid people. It’s a creative place. Under the crookedy branches and the shimmering green canopy, you can stand on seven seasons of dead leaves and almost feel the fecund earth restore itself. I wrote a story here called The Cool Green Hills of Earth are not Enough, which ended up in Medium Hero. It’s one of the highest points in Davidson county, a shady perch set apart and hard to find, where I would come to be alone with the small animals and birds and listen to the way the wind blew through the trees and flick ants off my computer screen with a pocket knife. 

For awhile, I got too busy to make the trip. And then about a year ago, there was a new reason to be here. Now I come often. Sometimes empty handed, just to sit on a fallen log for a few minutes. Sometimes I bring a camping chair and a some water and food and I stay all day. Today I brought a recording studio.

***

Do you ever notice how the big events of your life rarely happen in isolation? 

I found out she was pregnant the same night I got my book deal. I was at Dino’s in east Nashville with the publisher’s rep. We were sitting in the booth closest the door, discussing deal points and royalties and stuff I still don’t understand, and she showed up to be with me in my happy moment. She was wearing these pink tennis shoes and a grey floor length skirt that makes her look even longer than she already is. We held hands under the table while I talked to the rep. I remember I couldn’t stop smiling. Between the book deal and this beautiful girl and the perfectly cooked cheeseburger, it was like I was the grand prize winner of the world.

She came home with me that night and that’s when she told me. I was lying in bed, on my side with my knees bent, a bit whiskey drunk, facing her. About to bust a move. 

“I’m pregnant,” she said, suddenly. 

The lights were off but I could hear the vulnerability in her voice. The question mark in it.

Here is the thing about a moment like this: without knowing it, you’ve been preparing yourself for it your whole life. The question began long ago, maybe even before you were born. The answer has been forming itself inside of you for months and years and decades like a pearl, so that when the question finally arrives, the answer presents itself whole and complete and without qualification. 

I thought: how wonderful! I also thought: how frightening! I also thought: not what I would have chosen at this particular moment in time. But, well I participated in the act which has been known to sometimes result in the progenation of the human species, and I did so repeatedly and using a preventive measure that is suspect at best; therefore it was not unreasonable to find myself in this challenging circumstance. 

I think I appeared excited and probably even gushy. I remember feeling that way. I told her great! It would be okay. That we could figure out anything. I told her I loved her, because I did love her and was honored that she would be the mother of my child. I think I asked her if she thought we should get married. She hesitated and then there was a long silence.

Into that silence I inserted: wait, you’re not thinking about killing it, right?

She didn’t say anything, and suddenly I was afraid. Then she said she felt that it was maybe a bad time. That she had another year of school, that she had just started to hit her groove. I listened. I had a hard time understanding. We agreed to talk about it in the morning. She rolled over to go to sleep. I lay awake and thought about the little person inside her, just, you know, growing. Did she have hands yet? Was her heart beating? I was so curious, and excited, and alarmed that the future of this person, my little person, was not yet assured. I figured her mother would come around, that I could inspire the confidence she needed. After all, I was her dad. It was my job to protect her. She was a baby. Ha! It was a miracle!

Over the next week, I split my time between privately freaking out about what I was going to do about my career —which let’s be honest, is not very lucrative — and outwardly presenting a vision of confidence and encouragement. I was worried that having a baby would make it hard to write another book and that it would probably mean the end of touring and music. Which would suck in some ways. But, actually, none of that mattered. I mean, it did matter —I wanted to write a pulitzer-prize winning novel, and I did want to play Saturday Night Live, but in light of the situation, namely that a life was on the line, a life I helped bring into existence, it wasn’t even really a question.

I started getting more desperate. She kept saying things like, but I’m not sure I want to be a mother right now, and it would be me taking care of it — I tried to meet her concerns with solutions and optimism. Because what’s important? There is a baby inside you with a personality and fingers and a little heart that is beating and when you get to be an old codger what is going to matter in your life? The fact that you ran a successful business or made a lot of money or found yourself or that there is a person with your genes who loves you who is walking around on planet earth, falling love and eating ice cream? What is so important in this world that it is worth a human life?

Our baby was aborted on March 27th of 2015, at about 10 weeks. It still feels like it happened yesterday. 

I so do not want to be writing about this right now. People have such strong feelings about abortion for and against and it tends to bring out such ugliness, whichever side. I don’t have any need to get into the politics of it. I can’t tell you what to do or how to feel. I do, however, love my child. Contrary to what is implied by what happened to her, she mattered. She matters right now. Even if I do not get to see her or hold her or listen to her giggle or cry or tell her I love her, she is still in my life. She’s part of me.

I’m not going to get into some kind of morbid description of what happens in an abortion. But when it became certain that there was nothing more I could do, I read a lot about it. On the planned parenthood website, on the anti-abortion ones. I watched a bunch of videos. Obviously both sides have their perspective, but the part that makes me so angry and heartbroken is that no one is a friend to the baby. The mother counts, the doctor counts. The baby is the person who doesn’t count. The baby has no friends. She is treated like a nothing. Like she never existed. To be erased and forgotten as quickly and as cleanly and pleasantly as possible so everyone else can resume their life unencumbered by the hassle of human obligation. 

I dropped her mother off at the clinic. I think about that. Once she had decided and there was no more to say, I agreed to drive her there, to Planned Parenthood. She didn’t want me to wait with her. But I thought I should drive her, to offer something. I still loved her. I felt like she was making a terrible mistake but I also knew I was responsible too and so I should try to do good. At the time I thought it would be better if it was me taking her rather than some friend, but now I feel like an accomplice. Because I am. I helped her do it. I should have been dragging my heels to the very end.

I remember the last night before it happened. Sleeping in bed with them. Thinking that we were a family. At that moment. Mother and Father and baby. Still hoping that she would change her mind. In shock that she felt the way she did. Shocked. And I didn’t see it then, but the beginning of a terrible conviction started forming inside me. I had acted recklessly. I had assumed she felt the same way as me, but I never discussed it with her. I acted as I always act: in good faith that everything would turn out alright. That reckless cavalier attitude was now about to cost someone her life. 

When I think back, I wonder if there was something else I could have done. Because I failed her you know? My baby. I was her only friend during those 10 weeks that she was around, and I wasn’t enough. I couldn’t save her. She’s dead now, forever and ever and nothing will ever bring her back not in a million years. I can win a grammy or fall in love or even have other kids, but nothing will ever bring this special little one back to life, so she can have a try. I won’t ever get to know what she looks like, see what her favorite color was, who her friends turn out to be. I won’t get annoyed by her singing the Frozen soundtrack ad nauseum or get mad when the teenage version of her tries to wear shorts that are too short. She won’t help me make chocolate chip cookies or give me a painted rock for Father’s Day. No. What I do get, is a lot of time to fill, doing what I’ve been doing. Making songs, making stories, touring around.

I actually quite love playing music for it’s own sake, but it requires a herculean amount of sustained effort to keep it going. You have to really care. Only now, it’s hard to get that excited about it, you know? All the time I have. To make songs, for what again? So I can play shows, bigger and bigger shows until I play the biggest show in the world and everything is fine after all. No. It doesn’t matter. It matters so little, all the back slaps and the being on tv. Everything that happens to me from here on out is built upon the grave of my dead baby. I know that’s a dark thing to say. But it’s true and I just want to acknowledge it here, one time. 

After the abortion, I realized she needed to have a funeral. She deserved that much. Oh what they do to the body is so terrible it makes me cry hard tears! I don’t have her little body. I can’t bear to think of what happened to it, how poorly, irreverently it was treated. But I thought that I could make a memorial. Her mother — who in the wake of the baby’s death also has gone through her own sustained grief — contributed a bracelet, which we engraved with her name and a little message. I had a few things that were special to me that we put in a tiny tin box. Her mother and I went out to this special place in the woods — the place where I used to write and reflect and daydream — and we picked a majestic tree and we buried those little things in the gap between the big toes of its giant trunk. I read some of my favorite bible verses and sobbed into the cold wet earth and then we left her there because there was nothing else to do.

I’ve never gotten a tattoo before because what could I possibly put on myself that would matter 5o years later, but obviously there is something now. When she died, I picked out a name that might be for a boy or a girl. Her mother felt very strongly that she was a girl, so I have continued to think of her that way. I believe she is a girl. Anyway, the day after the funeral I went to a guy and had him put her name on my wrist. It will be the only tattoo I ever get.

A few days later, I went back to the tree and carved a big heart into it and inside the heart I carved the four letters of her name with deep wide strokes. Shay. It gives me a little peace seeing it there, knowing that it will probably be there for as long as I’m alive, and maybe much longer.

The survival strategy going forward has been to create obligations that must be fulfilled, and then fulfill them, and to keep doing that. For the first two months after she died, I mostly just went through the motions of keeping my career going, because I didn’t know what else to do. If there was an email, I would answer it. Not really anything else. But then my book was about to come out and I thought I should honor that opportunity, because shame on me if I didn’t. And then I thought, well, I’ve written that song for Chief Sitting Bull, and I think its a good song. It’s a song that deserves to be heard. So I did a Kickstarter so I could record that song and a few others I think are worth something.

Throughout, I’ve barely spoken of it to anyone. For one, I don’t want someone to try to make it okay. It’s not okay. For another, I didn’t want people who knew us both to judge her, condemn her. She had her hands full condemning herself. So mostly, I’ve been doing that thing where you just smile at everyone and try to think of something funny to say about anything, so people don’t feel uncomfortable around you. It’s an important part of being in the entertainment business. Or maybe it’s just the way I participate in life. Either way, as the months went on, it was getting harder and harder to keep pretending, especially when it all just seemed so stupid and pointless. People straining every nerve, stepping on each other for a shot at playing Fallon or Folk Alliance. Why. 

Still, I didn’t want to write about it, because it’s so dark. It's shameful.

But last month, spending all that time alone in the cabin, I would wake up and make coffee and look at the list I made the night before, and just try to get through it. I was doing 15, 17 hours a day recording, just so I could just finish the record and not have to deal with it anymore. I knew that I couldn’t really get through this — losing Shay and witnessing the slow inevitable dissolution of my relationship — without writing about it, but I didn’t feel like I could do that unless I set aside a big chunk of time and really zeroed in. 

But then my voice broke. I suddenly, physically, couldn't sing. That happened 24 days ago. Since then, I've kept feeling worse and worse. My whole body aches and I have this constant sob in my chest I can’t get out. I can’t sleep at night unless I drink a heavy shot of Nyquil. And then I still wake up in the middle of the night and think about her. And in the meantime I keep doing all the pretend things you have to do to keep it smooth and positive in the entertainment world. After all, I have shows booked and people are counting on me to hold up my end of the bargain. 

But really, I don’t care. I haven’t smiled with all the teeth since I don’t remember when. And the few times I’ve felt light-hearted I immediately remember she’s dead, and that she was innocent, and that she was put in peril and ultimately killed because of my reckless coarse action. And I heap scorn on my frivolous pleasures.

The other thing is that even though my baby is dead, I am not. I’m alive, and I’m kind of obligated to Life to keep it going. I can’t bring her back and I know that. But what I can't figure out is how to move forward without forgetting her. Because that is the one thing I am unwilling to do. The abortion tried to make Shay disappear. I am not about to let that happen. She was a person and she counted and she matters even right now in this moment. In a way, I’m grateful for all the terrible feelings, because that means Shay still matters. She’s making an impact on the world, because she’s affecting me. If I forget or I stop feeling, Shay disappears. And then the abortion wins.

Really I just wish she were here right now. That everything was okay. I would give anything. Also I would like to just go to sleep and not wake up. Being asleep is the only time I feel okay.

A few days after it happened, I wrote a song for her. I’ve played it exactly twice, because it turns out people don’t like to hear songs about dead children. But I came out here this morning to this special place in the woods, to record it with my messed up voice. 

Her name is Shay Eden Lenker, and she is my little girl. And she will always be my little girl. I love you sweet Shay.

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/263223753" params="auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true" width="100%" height="450" iframe="true" /]

I'm probably up too late Trying to write down something that's too big for me to say The funny thing about you gone Is that you're not Just been a few days since But it don't feel like I'm ever gonna get used to this Cause you're on my mind All the time

I don't want you to think that nobody wanted you around

I can only hope that you can hear me Somewhere out there in the stars I know how this world can be But I loved you And I still do Wherever you are

Its crazy how it all began Just a twinkle in my eye You know I never saw it coming Cause I'm just another black hat And you're a magic rabbit And everything else is just a facsimile And nothing I can say or sing Is ever gonna bring you back to me And maybe it's all in vain But I won't accept that

So if I can write you a little song Maybe I can keep you around a little longer well you know I'd do anything

I can only hope that you can hear me Somewhere out there in the stars I know how this world can be But I loved you And I still do Wherever you are Wherever you are Wherever you are Wherever you are

Not even Lisa Loeb.

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It’s been a minute since our last update. To be honest, I’ve been avoiding it, the posting. Sometimes it’s just easier not to talk, you know? To keep it light. I had some shows this week and I was having to make some tough decisions about whether or not to cancel them, or pretend that everything is fine. So I pretended.

Monday night I played a show in Nashville with Lisa Loeb. Wow! If you are older than 33 you probably remember her crazy smash hit song, “Stay.” I bet you’re humming it right now. The movie it was attached to, Reality Bites, came out my senior year of high school, which means it took root deep in my adolescent heart, such that I think Ben Stiller is still an asshole. That character he played. Ugh.

But anyway, whatever happened to my voice happened more than 3 weeks ago now, and while it’s a little better, it’s still not even close to okay. It's not a professional voice.  I feel dumb talking about it, but the point of this blog is to describe the journey of making this new record, Thousand Springs. And whether I like it or not, this is the shape my journey is taking. So, I guess I gotta deal with it.

Monday night was the Lisa Loeb gig. In the afternoon, I went into my primary care physician and got a steroid shot. It didn’t do anything, but by then it was too late to cancel - I would have left everyone in the lurch (to use an amazing underused phrase). So I got my guitar and went through the first half of 5 of my mellowest songs. I could sort of do it, as long as I didn’t sing loud. I dropped the tuning on the guitar down a whole step for insurance and at the show I talked slow and sang quiet and I read a story from my book. It was mostly fine. I had fun and people laughed and Lisa and I ate cupcakes afterward (not a euphemism) and I felt like it went as well as it could have gone.

Voice still felt real weird though. So tight and no big notes at all. Plus I’m supposed to go to Europe in a few weeks, which will be a lot of singing. I’ve talked to several singer friends throughout this, and one thing I was worried about was that I had a vocal hemorrhage or something that could turn into a long-term injury, which reckless as I am, I yet do not want. So I sorted out an ENT visit.

That was Wednesday. It was remarkably unpleasant! The specialist stuck a long skinny camera in my nose. I don’t know exactly what it looked like because I kept my eyes closed. But that was what I was paying for, so okay fine. The camera went through my left nostril and down into my throat and the doctor took a long look and had me say ‘eeeeee’ over and over. Then he slid it out and the cycle of discomfort was complete.

To my relief he said there was no physical damage, and that my talking voice actually sounded pretty good. He said I should rest as much as I can, and that if I start singing in an unnatural way, then to keep an eye on that. 

The problem is, I still can’t sing. Something is definitely off. I was recording last night and I couldn’t get my voice to do the thing it’s done for 35 years. It just isn’t working. I don’t know what’s going on…the muscles in my neck hurt and everything in my body feels tight. It sounds terrible. And last night, as I was singing through a not-very-difficult song I got more and more frustrated. I just want to do what I've been able to do, you know? 

I finally gave up and went to bed. I woke up two hours later in a gross wet sweat. I thought about all the things I always think about. Afraid my career is over, that I'll never be able to sing again. That I'm turning into one of those mental people who have problems no one else can see.

In the meantime I'm carrying on like everything is fine. Keeping up with the facebook posts, the emails and show advertisements. I don't know what else to do. I can't just stop working because my body feels like it's falling apart. I have to pay rent. And in order to do that, I have to tour, and in order to do that, I have to sing. I really don't know what's going on now and I feel powerless to do anything but believe it's going to be okay, and to carry on like my voice will come back. What else can I do?

Also I would be an incomplete truth teller if I didn’t acknowledge there stuff going on in my life right now that I guess you could call spiritually adverse. It’s so heavy it’s just not appropriate to share with anyone really, but I’ve been keeping it inside for so long now - pretending everything is fine -  that I think it’s starting to poison my body. I haven't had a good night's sleep in more than a year and lately I wake up every night and go through all of it in my head again and again until the sun comes up and then I make a cup of coffee and say some prayers and try to keep it to myself. 

Even this post is embarrassing. But I'm kind of reaching the limits of what I'm capable of dealing with. I never talk to anyone about it, ever. But at this point the shit inside is very literally strangling me.

So I’m going to spend some time tomorrow trying to describe my situation. I don't really want to, but I've come to a point where I don't know what else to do. Maybe it will help me. Maybe it will help some other people. Something’s gotta give, and if you’re going to crash and burn anyway, you may as well tell the truth the whole way down. You are welcome to refrain from attending.

I just found this picture from the first day I was in Idaho, recording. A little over a month ago. Wow. That seems like a long time ago. I remember how I felt when I took this picture. Like the earth moved forward through the sky. I had a good feeling.

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Billy Gray.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbwK6YmLHu8&w=560&h=315] After yesterday's post, a lot of people wrote me with suggestions about how to get my voice back. Thank you guys for that. I tried them all, and while I can't seem to sing yet, it meant you cared, which is a lot. Thank you.

Assuming I sort this out shortly, I'm playing a show in Nashville May 4 at the Basement with my talented friend Kristin Andreassen. If you live in town, you can get tickets here. A

Anyway before I left to record this record, Kristin and I made a video of our favorite Norman Blake song, Billy Gray. It's one of the greatest outlaw ballads of all time! Enjoy, and if you live in Nashville, we hope to see you Wednesday at the Basement West!

-Korby

I have no voice.

image1-1No one who knows me would say I’m a slave to common sense. No.

After all, I drove here, to the Standing Rock Reservation, to record a song I wrote about a man who lived more than a hundred years ago, who was a hero to people who are not my people. Why am I doing it? I wondered that today as I drove out to the Sitting Bull monument about 7 miles southwest of Mobridge, South Dakota. What compels this behavior? Shouldn’t I be doing something better with my time? Acquiring assets? A house? A wife?

The monument - Sitting Bull’s - is simple. A stone bust rests atop a six foot tall pedestal overlooking a silvery bend of the Missouri River. It marks the second of the chief’s two graves. His remains were moved to the present location from another site outside of Fort Yates, North Dakota, in the middle of the night during a blizzard in 1953. I didn’t know that until later today, when Ladonna Brave Bull Allard told me.

The weather today was cold, a windy mix of rain and snow. When I told the people I was staying with what I was planning, they said, we hope your car makes it. I was like, come on how bad could it be? If there’s a road, my car will roll on it. As it turned out, there was a road, only, it was more mud than gravel - a weird kind of mud that filled the tread in the tires and made them smooth as a skinned chicken (I'm staying on a farm so, trying out some new metaphors). I slid off the road twice. The second time, it seemed like maybe I should plan on spending the night there. There were no cars on the road (why would there be?) and the car was stuck stuck. Everything wet, coated, smooth, deep. I kept shifting back and forth between reverse and drive, gunning the engine. The tires smoked, in spite of the freezing rain. I gunned the engine more. Finally something was working and the car lurched out of the ditch and slid across the road and almost into the other ditch. The steering wheel wasn’t much more than a faint suggestion.

I drove embarrassingly slow for the last 2 miles, through country that fell out of a movie screen. Picture the grey brooding skies slinging angry rain, sure, but picture too the gentle, empty land. The small hills like a girl’s shoulders, rising and falling beside me. The soft green earth without face or fence. Crest tumbling into crevice, as far into the distance as rain permits you to see. The world out here is ancient as Eve but for the red puddled road cutting through it.

I was in a complicated mood when I finally arrived at the monument. Relief because the car worked. Haste because I had to be somewhere else soon. Uncertainty because what the hell was I doing anyway? South Dakota is not on the way to Nashville. It's not on the way to anywhere. It's cold and snowy and recording is not going to work today and this is an expensive trip.

I pulled up to the monument and cut the engine. The freezing rain threw itself against the windshield in a splattering sheet. I belong here, it said. Where do you belong?

I could see the monument a hundred feet away and the Missouri River beyond it the color of steel and choppy.

I cracked the door and got out, walking toward the river. The cold was immediate. I wondered why I didn’t pack a coat.

Sitting Bull's head faces south, looks sternly out over the river and girl shoulders. I stood and looked at him. The nose of the statue had been shot off and replaced with newer stone or plaster, discolored. Sitting Bull's trademark feather was missing, broken away, now a misshapen jag at the back of his head.

Well. Should I feel something? The rain was falling off a little, that was encouraging.

I thought: I have permission from the tribe to record here. But I can’t really do that. The wind and rain say no.

Besides there is this other thing. Which I haven't spoken of yet because I didn't want it to be part of the story. Which is that I lost my voice. For the first time in my life. More than ten days ago, while I was in Idaho. The last day I was there, I woke up and, nothing. It felt like I was being strangled by a weakling. Just a gentle, constant pressure around my throat. It’s never happened before. Not being able to sing. Not once. Crazy. I thought it would go away in a day or two. Seven days later, then ten, it still wasn’t working. I'm on antibiotics now. I've been drinking buckets of water. I even bought a vaporizer. I think something might be dreadfully wrong. I am about to cancel a show I have scheduled for tomorrow. And then Monday, back in Nashville, I’m supposed to open for Lisa Loeb and then play another show later that week. What if it doesn’t come back by then? What if it doesn’t come back ever? 

I make my living with my voice. I miss three shows and it will hurt, in all the ways. Financially, yes, but also, my confidence. Then, what if it's just over? I'm sure it's happened before, to someone somewhere. One day you can sing and then suddenly you can't. Life happens.

I haven’t spoken of it to anyone, because it could come right back any moment and then what would have been the point? But now, something is wrong. Tomorrow it will be 14 days.  While I was in Idaho told my parents that I was starting to get nervous. My mom said, The Lord is in control. Which I guess He is, but to be honest I’ve never been that sure whose side the Lord is on. He sure wasn’t on the Indians’ side.

So I stood there with the collar of my Levis jacket turned up, looking at the vandalized statue of another people’s hero, thinking that life makes no sense whatsoever. I was wet and cold and the wind blowing off the river wasn’t making me feel any more welcome.

Then I thought, well you wrote the song. You wrote it for a reason. You wrote it because you believed in the man, believed in what he stood for. He was an Indian, and he knew who he was, and he wasn't going to stop being an Indian just because he lost the war. And, he might be dead, but  you are alive on planet earth, in 2016, and for whatever reason, you are here right now. You are the white son of Christian parents, but you wrote that song, so you might as well play it for him.

That seemed right.

So I went back to the car and put a sweater on underneath the jacket, and a furry cap on my head. I grabbed a little metal chair I brought with me from Nashville, and I got out the guitar my friend from Geaorgia gave me a month ago.

I set the chair down in front of the bust of Chief Sitting Bull. I took the guitar out of the case. I sat down on the chair and I sang the song, with a voice that could only be described as pathetic. It cracked every time it got higher than a G over middle C, and it was weak and wobbly like shaken jello. It was the voice of a person who can’t sing. My fingers were freezing and I missed some chords and it was the most amateur example of a performance for royalty, ever.

But I knew all the words and I thought about them while I was singing. I sang with intention. No one was there to hear and the statue didn't say anything about it either way, but I apologized anyway and I said I meant well and then I got back in my car to drove to my second appointment, which was to meet Ladonna Brave Bull Allard.

I’ve been emailing Ladonna for weeks, like a fanboy, like a stalker. I sent her the version of Last Man Standing (the song I wrote for Chief Sitting Bull) that I sang into the phone right after I wrote it. That was two weeks ago. She emailed me back and said she liked it and they were currently trying to stop the oil pipeline from coming through reservation land and I was welcome to come and sing and make my recording.

She didn’t answer the next three emails I sent, the ones where I said when exactly I was coming, and could she meet me, and was there anyone else she thought I should talk to.

But last night, driving through the Dakotas, listening to NPR, I was suddenly listening to her voice, because she was on the program, as part of a documentary recently made about the Dakota War of the 1860’s. It was so weird: this was the lady I emailed because I saw her name on a website, and she had mostly ignored me, and now here she was on the radio. I decided it was a sign and so I emailed her again this morning and she got back to me and said there was a meeting at the Grand River Casino about the pipeline and she would be there all day and so I was welcome to come.

So I was on my way there when I slid off the road and sang to Chief Sitting Bull on what I think is his actual grave but maybe not and so then I pulled into the parking lot of a place which was maybe nice 20 years ago but not now. I cut the power and checked my hair because you may as well try to make a favorable impression even if you can’t sing anymore and I walked inside, past the lights and beeps and levers and ringing sounds and the long bored wrinkled faces hoping for a slot machine miracle. I  saw the front desk of the hotel and walked up to it. I said, is there a meeting about the pipeline? The very white girl behind the counter said yes let me show you where it is.

“If you tell me I can find it probably,” I said.

“I just don’t feel like telling you,” she said, “It’s too much work.”

Her face was eaten up with acne and her belly was protruding so sharply that she must have been pregnant, but I didn’t dare ask her while we rode the elevator together because that’s one thing you don’t ask a woman, even if she seems about to burst, as this woman seemed. So we rode in an awkward silence until there was a ding and the doors opened and I was free to see what’s next.

What’s next was an empty banquet room. No, I discovered rounding the corner, not totally empty. A group of eight people occupied the first two rows of chairs, which had been pulled into a sort of crude circle. At once I recognized Ladonna Brave Bull and she recognized me, as the white guy I guess. We made eye contact. I sat down in the third row. She stood up immediately and walked back to me.

I had taken a sip of whiskey back at the Sitting Bull monument because of the cold and for an unclear ceremonial purpose, and now I was frightened she would notice and think I was insincere. She didn't notice. Or if she did, she didn’t let on.

“Hello,” I whispered, when she sat down.

“Stand up and walk with me,” she said, “We can talk in the hall.”

I liked her intelligent combative eyes at once. There was some kind of gold makeup on the eyelids, which added a reckless touch. Perhaps we are in Mobridge, South Dakota, perhaps we are in Dubai.

We sat in two overstuffed chairs separated by a table such that it was a little difficult to talk, the distance.

I said, “Thanks for meeting me. You were just a name on a website, but you are actually smart and super involved.”

She looked at me like, did I just hear you correctly?

I added: "I will probably say a number of dumb things in this conversation. I don't know how to talk about it, the words. I don’t even know why I’m here exactly.”

“Well,” she said, “I will tell you why I am here.”

Then she turned toward a sign that said there was a bonus jackpot for the newly installed dollar slots downstairs, a guaranteed winner every 17 pulls. She didn’t say anything more.

“Why are you here?” seemed to be what I should ask.

She turned back toward me. “I am here to stop the pipeline. And I am here to protect my people.”

“From what?” I asked.

“From the poison and the money.”

That started a conversation that lasted an hour. We talked about a lot of things but for right now I want to say I loved this woman. I felt like we shared something in common. This is a woman who doesn’t fit, because her people don’t fit. Private property, individual ownership, nuclear family. Concepts so basic to the white conception of Mine and Thine that there’s no real tolerance possible. One side just wins, and the other survives, adopts the white way, or dies. Suicide is a huge problem on reservations. It's obvious why.

Listening to her describe her struggle, I wished so bad that I was a powerful person, that I was a movie star or something, that I could make people notice them, the Lakota. People around here notice them, like they notice a pest. Something to put up with. The Indians are on the dole, they are lazy, it's said, they should just forget about being Indian and start being grateful for all things white and wonderful. 

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The problem is so big. Runs deep. 200 years deep. The native people are broken so badly. What can be done? How do you fix it? To be Lakota is to wander the plains chasing the great teeming herd of buffalo. That is no longer possible. For one, the government doesn't allow wandering and for two, we slaughtered the Buffalo.

Did you know that in 1840 there were more than 60 million buffalo in the United States, and that by 1890 there were fewer than 100? They were extinguished, on purpose, by our great grandparents. Think about that the next time you visit a Wallmart.

And who cares about this? Who has time to care? Life is hard enough not worrying about things you can't change. But I can't help it.

And my voice is at this moment still wrecked for a reason I don’t understand, except that maybe I’m fighting on the losing side. I'm canceling tomorrow's show, even though I can't afford to. I have no choice.

I'm here in Standing Rock because I wanted to sing a song for Chief Sitting Bull, because I read his story and I felt ashamed of what my people did. Because people don't deserve to be destroyed just because they are different.

And I feel like now I’m fighting on the losing side. Because I have to. I will die, next week or fifty years from now, either one is tomorrow, basically. And between now and then I'm going to stand up for people don’t have a voice themselves, because someone has to. Because they deserve it. And I’m so mad that my voice is all fucked up and I can’t sing and am all weak and powerless and I can’t be a decent help.

I don’t understand why it goes this way. Why the strong always win, why you are rewarded for serving the powerful, why if you try to help the weak, forces congeal, to crush you as soon as possible. 

Lonely unto death I've heard it called, this feeling. I wonder if my voice is gone forever. If the Lord, who according to my parents, and me maybe, is really in control. Blessed are the meek, it says in chapter 5 of the Book of Matthew, for they shall inherit the earth.

Are the meek blessed, actually?

Or do the strong always win, in pipelines, in land grabs, in wealth?

Should I just forget God and strike out on my lonely own? Worship at the altar of science like most of my friends? It seems like such a sad thing to do, or, a partial thing at best, parsing the complicated infinite universe into a digestible serving. But at least I wouldn't have to have my feelings hurt when my voice was taken from me.

I could just accept that nothing makes any sense, that there is no plan, that the strong crush the weak, that the smart play is with those who are already winning.

I have to drive south now. I'm glad to stop writing. Writing makes you crazy.

18 Hours in Bellingham with Bruce's Banjo.

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I saw Bruce Shaw months before I actually met him. He was onstage at a club (a Bellingham institution called the 3B Tavern), playing mandolin with a band I can’t remember the name of. I had just turned 21, and that night was the second time I’d ever been to a bar.

Up till then, I could count the number of times I’d seen live music on one hand, and I’d never seen anyone play mandolin before. Bruce was up there tearing it up, making a whirlwind of music while the rest of the band tried to keep up. I watched from a booth and drank Rolling Rock, transfixed. The feeling was simple. I have to play music with that guy. I said it out loud.

I was too shy to approach him that night, but we ran into each other at a party a few months later. The place was called Randy’s Roadhouse. Inside there were Dead posters and church pews and girls that spun in circles when they danced. I was full of determination and little actual talent, but I brought my guitar anyway. I remember being really into Doc Watson at the time. I knew Deep River Blues and would play it over and over like it was the only blues song in the world.

Bruce was up there on the little stage in the Roadhouse, older and wiser and more at ease with himself. He was jamming with another band, so I waited for an hour and watched. When things quieted down, I took the last swallow from the flask I brought and stood up. He was putting his mandolin away. I was intimidated as hell, because he could already do what I was only trying. But I walked up to the stage and asked him did he know any Doc Watson. And he said, “I know all of em!” and laughed his trademark giggle laugh, and took his mandolin back out, and we sat on the stage facing each other and played all the songs I knew, one after the other. He played slow so I could keep up.

A few weeks later, he came over to my house with a Norman and Nancy Blake album called Blind Dog. He left it on my kitchen table. Maybe check this out, he said.

The next week it was old time fiddler James Bryan, and then Dirk Powell. He never talked much about what I should listen to, they were just gestures, unspoken suggestions. It turned out that he had great taste in music, and at 21, I had a few things going for me, but taste was not one of them.

Bruce and I went on to form a band called the Barbed Wire Cutters, with Adam Carp, Josh Brahinsky, and Chris Glass. That was a pretty great time in my life. Not only was the band my day job for a lot of my twenties, but it had kind of a cultural impact on the Bellingham music scene in the early 2000’s. It seems sentimental to say it now, but it was important to me and to Bruce and to our friends too. Those years in Bellingham were pretty magical. Playing at the Boundary Bay, or rehearsing at the park or just jamming on a Washington State Ferry headed out to Orcas Island. I still run into people who met their now-spouse at a Barbed Wire Cutters show.

Bruce plays a lot of instruments, but my favorite  is the clawhammer banjo. I called him up a few weeks ago to set up a date, and the day after I recorded Reischman in the hotel room, I drove up to Bellingham for a quick visit. We met at Randy’s Roadhouse. I texted him before I got there.

You want anything? I asked.

Cookies and soda

is what he texted back.

So I stopped at the grocery store and picked up a box of Oreo Thins and two bottles of Dad’s Rootbeer.

We hung out for a couple hours and drank root beer and ate the Oreos. He played clawhammer banjo on Nothing Really Matters and Stormy Seas and I listened along with my big white headphones. Then we just hung out for awhile. I played with a sweet dog named Ace and he told me about his latest girlfriends. And then I got back in my car and drove south.

I love this man and I owe him a lot. I'm excited to share his music with you. And if you ever get to hear him play live, lucky you.

Hotel Room Recording with John Reischman.

IMG_5292John Reischman is a bluegrass legend. He and his 1924 Lloyd Loar mandolin have defined West Coast picking for more than a generation. He met me last night at the hotel he was staying at so we could record together. It was the first time I've ever recorded in a hotel room. Once we unplugged the refrigerator it was pretty ideal. We hunkered down at the far end of the room, between the window and the bed, and started laying tracks - Friend and a Friend, Nothing Really Matters, and then he and I both played Her Heart is Like a Rose, which is a song I won an award for at the Kerrville Folk Festival (New Folk 2013). The way I'm going about this - overdubbing in different locations around the country - is fun and offers a lot of options when start arranging and mixing. BUT it was nice to just sit down and play together, in real time. Has a different feeling. Old time.

Afterward we walked down to the lobby and he let me do a selfie while he held the polaroid I took of him. It was a great night.

Check out John's new recording Walk Along John. 

 

The Polaroid Tradition.

FullSizeRenderIt's a new ‪#‎thousandsprings‬ tradition. Everyone who plays on my record gets a polaroid photo taken, because pictures you can hold are better than pictures you look at on your phone. Don't you think? Yesterday I recorded in Portland, Oregon with Anna Tivel and Jeffrey Martin. I met Anna last year at the Kerrville Folk Festival. And then in January, while I was on my book tour, I played a show with her, and Jeffrey. They are two of the most musical people I know. We had a great time yesterday playing a songs in Anna and Jeff's living room while the dogs yawned and slept and shifted positions on the floor and couch. After we recorded, we went down the street and ate tacos and talked about the weird future ahead. Today I'm driving to Seattle for a photo shoot and I'm late! Bye.

 

Uncle Don.

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I woke up this morning on a picnic table. 

My last attempt at camping - at Craters of the Moon - ended in a 3 AM retreat to the driver’s seat. So this time I thought: if I pick a place unlikely to host predators, and if I stay off the ground, then maybe I can trick my brain into turning off for a few hours. Survival strategy didn't include setting up the tent. Not sure why. Maybe, it seems like a wasted opportunity if you can't look at the night sky while you fall asleep.

Anyway, success! I woke, which means I slept. I tipped my head up and saw the sun hovering over a line of trees at the far end of the meadow. I also saw my sleeping bag was covered in a thick glistening sheet of dew. Like I had been slimed by the night. Further investigation revealed my head, pillow, face and the table were all similarly shiny.

“Small price to pay!” I said to no one, sitting up.

Sometimes, if my suspicion of future discomfort is strong, I take preventative measures: before I went to bed, I set the Coleman stove I bought at Target on the bench part of the picnic table. Beside it, I'd placed a small, covered camping pot, filled with exactly one cup of water. Underneath my wet pillow was a dry lighter, which upon waking, I fumbled for and found. Squinting in the glare of the morning light, I leaned over in the direction of the idle stove. With one hand, I twisted the small black knob beneath the burner until I heard the whoosh of butane. The other hand flicked the wheel of the lighter. I heard the thwap and hiss of the lit stove. What a pleasing sound! Even in the sunlight I could see the blue ring of civilizing heat. I picked up the lidded pot and carefully balanced it on the burner.

Only then did I sit up and remove myself from my bagged bed. My body expressed its regret between the 4th and 5th lumbar vertebrae.

There were shoes waiting for me on the bench opposite the camp stove’s, so I put them on. Then I stood up and turned toward the sun. My face was immediately, pervasively warm. I bent down and touched the ground, slowly.

A few days ago I saw a woman on TV talking about her habit of using the power pose or confidence pose or something — I can’t remember the name she gave it — but it’s where you hold up your arms with your palms out like you’re blessing a multitude of people. It’s supposed to make you confident. I thought it was dumb when I saw it on TV but for some reason out here by myself in the meadow by the river I thought “Why not?” so I straightened my back from the bending over and stretched my arms with the palms out and held them there, like Moses. 

I felt silly but I held my arms up and blessed the meadow anyway and listened to the hissing camp stove and got excited for how good coffee tastes when you’re cold.

Then I remembered I left my coffee cup in the car. Done with the power pose, I went to fetch it out of the car. I held the cup with both hands and looked into it. Pretty clean. Maybe, C+. But there was a problem. The ceramic was cold, which would mean a luke warm morning beverage. Unacceptable. But aha! I grabbed the other ceramic cup (I travel with two - one for coffee and one for tea). I went back to the picnic table and gingerly removed the lid from the pot and poured more water into it. 

I sat down on the bench next to the stove and waited. The birds of my childhood filled the meadow. Killdeer. You know them because of their black and white bodies and also because of their mean, cackling chirp. I watched one chase another, both shooting across the wide flat river bottom and into a thicket of scrub trees. A heated argument followed. Then it was quiet. I watched the tree the birds disappeared into, but no one emerged. I imagined them discussing their conflict in low tones, discretely. 

The lid on the coffeepot made a clinking sound, shifted by the boiling water. I let the birds be and took the cold coffee cup and filled it with boiling water. I waited until the cup was warm, and then I dumped the water out of the coffee cup and into the tea cup. I set the coffee cup back on the bench. Next I took my pocket knife and drew the blade across a small pouch of instant coffee sitting beside it on the bench. The blade left a short mark in the wood. I poured the powder into the cup, and poured the rest of the boiling water over it. While I waited for the coffee to cool enough to drink, I sipped the hot water, immediately drinkable, having been cooled by two cold cups. I’m getting better at camping.

This place is called Martin Landing. It’s located just outside of Parma, Idaho, situated at the confluence of the Boise and Snake Rivers, very near where old Fort Boise used to be. Fort Boise was once a fur trading post, and later, an important stop along the Oregon Trail. Did you know Fort Boise was operated by the British until 1854? It was made of adobe, and then a flood destroyed it, and then the British left. Amazing what you learn if you stop at those historical marker signs. 

I realize I’m doing that thing where I don’t start writing what I mean to write about until I’m fourteen paragraphs in. I should take a class and fix that. 

I meant to write about my visit yesterday, with the charming man pictured above, Don Hammond. He’s my great Uncle. He lives in Nampa, Idaho, the place where I was born. He just turned ninety and lives with his daughter Marveen and her husband Joe. 

Here is the thing about Don. He is never not playing music. When I was very young, before I knew anything about measures or melodies, my parents would refer to Uncle Don as the musician in the family. His name always had a ring of mystery about it. 5 year old me wondered what a person who played music was like. Did they talk differently? Did they eat the same thing as normal people? The idea of a musician in my family was more fascinating than Legos or GI Joe or saturday morning cartoons. 

A few years later, my parents announced we were getting a piano, that I was going to learn how to play it. When I asked? My mom said, "Uncle Don is bringing it over today, tonight after work."

The following day I woke up early with the strangest feeling. It was one of those little kid feelings where you’re excited about something but you can’t remember what. It wasn’t Saturday. My mom hadn’t bought Fruity Pebbles. What was up? I crept downstairs in my pajamas, half awake and wondering. Then I rounded the corner of the family room. There, where the couch used to be, was an enormous upright piano, twice as tall as me. Suddenly the memory of the night before snapped into focus. My Uncle Don pulling up in our driveway with the piano covered in blankets, strapped in the bed of a mint green chevy truck. Dad helping to ease it down from the truck on long steel rails. The neighbor, Raymond, coming over to help in what was the first and only time he ever entered our house. The three men struggling to push the enormous piece of wood through the house. Hearing my mom warn them not to scrape the walls or tear the linoleum. 

When it was in its place, Uncle Don went back out to the truck and returned with his tuning lever. My little brother and I watched from a few feet away. My dad helped him remove the front cover of the piano. What an amazing thing a piano was! The thick copper cords of bass strings, the thin tripled wires of the high notes, the dark square pegs they were wrapped around. I watched what happened when Uncle Don pressed the key, the way the mechanism of wood and felt worked its way up from the keyboard into the hammer that struck the wires. Don would strike the key and listen and we would listen with him.  Sometimes he would twist a peg with a lever before moving on. He went through the whole keyboard, and then he started playing chords and making more adjustments. It took an hour. There was something ritualistic about, like a offering was being carefully prepared, which in a way, it was. 

When he was satisfied, he sat down and started playing. The ladies in church played piano and I saw them do it but I never saw it up close. This, this was something else entirely. He could play so many notes - some at the same time, some right after another. It seemed impossible that he could be so coordinated, that so much music could come out of this heavy piece of furniture. 

It was the beginning of something bigger than my child head understood. I started taking piano lessons (see Willow Reeder in Medium Hero), which lead to guitar, which lead to me being in a high school rock band, which lead to me being in a college bluegrass band, which lead to twenty years of music and records. He didn’t know it, but Uncle Don was there at the very beginning. 

Fast forward to about a week ago, when I phoned my Aunt Marveen and asked if it would be okay to come over. I would be heading west from Idaho to start recording with friends on the west coast, and I'd be passing through Nampa.  Did Don still play? I asked. Oh yes, she said, most everyday. She reminded me that he played at my Grandpa’s funeral in February. 

Just now I started to write a long thing about that, his funeral, my not being there, my guilt. But that is for another time, or a nevertime probably. This is about Don. Maybe all you need to know is that my grandpa - he went by Rudy - fought in WWII and was the pastor of a Nazarene church. He fought at Omaha Beach. Also he loved hymns, and his favorite hymn was ’"Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus." That was what Don played at the funeral. I know because my brother sent me a video from his cellphone.

So I got there yesterday having no idea what exactly I wanted to have happen. Would we record something for the record? Would we know any of the same songs? I haven’t seen my Uncle Don for ten years. Also something bad and mysterious happened a few days ago to my voice and I couldn’t sing. Only very quietly. So, that would bring things down a notch (it’s never happened before and it’s still not working and I’m hoping it was just the smoke from all the fires I built). Also it took me a long time to leave the cabin in Sun Valley so I was really late arriving in Nampa. Maybe everyone would be mad at me. Anything is possible. 

But no. Family is family. Marveen greeted me at the door with a warm smile and Uncle Don hugged me, and we sat down in the living room to visit. I realized that, even though he played a seminal role in my life, I barely know the man, so I asked him when he started playing music.  He said when he was a kid a South Dakota, the first instrument he took to was the accordion. He and his brother. They were so small he couldn’t get his arms around it, so they teamed up. His brother worked the buttons and he played the keys. Don is a very chill dude, but he was clearly pleased at the story and laughed after he told it.

We didn’t talk long. Marveen gave me an envelope of photos from my grandpa’s funeral and we went through those and she told me stories abut who was there and how the well the soldiers did folding the flag and firing the 21 gun salute. While she was talking, Don disappeared into his room and returned with a guitar and a mandolin. I told them I couldn’t sing but I would try to a little. They didn’t care, which set me at ease. It’s nice to not always have to perform. We were just going to play some music. 

We played a Norman Blake song I like called “Billy Grey”, and then we played a few fiddle tunes he taught me. And then we busted out the hymnal. I kept having to change the keys so they were low enough that I could sing, but he was fine with that. And he’s ninety years old, right? So his picking is jangly as hell, but he could pick out the melody, every single time. He’s got the ear.

After an hour of picking out hymns and fiddle tunes, he thought or I thought we should play "’Tis So Sweet.” For grandpa. So we did.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xTOADUyxEM&w=560&h=315]

Love is oh so patient.

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Here is something I recorded Tuesday on the piano. I’m not really a piano player, but if I can make it simple enough, I do okay. I wrote this song with my friend John Martin. We got together at my house in East Nash, had some lunch, and sat down to write. I had made up the piano riff the night before, so I showed it to him and he liked it. We worked for two hours and came up with exactly nothing. Then all of the sudden he blurted out, “Love is oh so patient, love is oh so kind.”

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I’ve come to in this cabin to work, but weird stuff comes up when you remove yourself from the constant stream of distraction synonymous with participation in modern life.  I haven’t talked to a single person in 4 days. I came out here to get away from the shouting world. So I could hear myself. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised a few strong feelings would arise.

An immediate perk: my phone doesn’t work. So no texting. No checking Facebook or Instagram every 4 minutes. I wake up, I do some reading, I write in my journal, and I go to work. I have so little time, I want to make the most of it. I’ll be back in Nashville in less than 3 weeks. This is a precious window.

Between the morning coffee and the evening nightcap, two things keep coming up. One is for another post, but the other is this: I’m scared. I’m scared I’m making a terrible mistake. Coming out here. Making this record this way, slow, uncertain, independent of outside opinion. I’ve made records before, produced them even, and, well historically, I’ve proven I can do it, so there’s no reason to doubt this will be any different.

But that’s not it exactly. It’s not what I’m doing that scares me. It’s what I’m not doing.

What I’m not doing is maintaining an iron grip on my business. I'm letting go a little, to make space for something else. Ever since the last record came out, I’ve spent almost all my time booking shows, updating my website, answering emails, driving. And  then the book got published, and it was that all over again. My life for the last 3 years has been one long to-do list. 

And I’ve been doing everything myself because, well for one, there have been no applicants in the help me department. And the other is I don’t trust anyone as much as I trust myself. I hate it when people let me down, I hate feeling disappointed or angry at someone, so if I never give them an opportunity to let me down, then I’m fine right?

It’s a strategy that works well enough as long as you are a robot. And I have been a robot this year. But I'm trying to make room for another way, and it's scaring the shit out of me.

For the last few years, I’ve been gauging my success by how productive I’ve been, by how many emails I’ve sent or answered. I see shows on my webpage, and I’m like, “Okay, you’re doing it. See there, that’s proof.”

But the thing is, it’s not working for me anymore. I don’t like the way I’m spending my time. Keeping this going is killing me, the way I’m doing it. All by myself. I spend most of my time doing things I’m bad at. I’m terrible at routing tours. It takes me forever to buy a plane ticket. I don’t even have a burning need to be on the road. 

How to say this. There are a lot of things I like about being on the road - in a way, it’s just a long party and you get to see your friends and you meet new people and come on, playing music for a living  is an incredible gift and anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that is an asshole. 

So I’m grateful to have had this privilege, but I’ve also lived with myself the whole time it’s been happening and I’ve noticed that playing shows isn’t the One Thing that I need to do to feel okay. Playing shows is the reward.

What then is the One Thing? That part is clear. Making songs and stories is what I feel called to do. 

Fine. I’ve known this for a long time. But I also have wanted to make the most of my opportunities, to honor them, so I’ve put a lot of work into booking and the organizing and the promoting. Results have been mixed, but at least I’ve been doing something. At least I haven’t been waiting for someone to do it for me.

When I moved to Nashville a decade ago, it was like starting over. Having made music my job out on the west coast for more than 10 years, I came to Nashville and made a surprising discovery. No one cared! Suddenly I couldn’t make a living playing music for people. I had to get a job. It hurt my feelings but it was really the best thing that could have ever happened to me. I valet parked cars at a hotel for four years while I figured what to do. I was depressed a lot. But I also had a ton of free time. There was no business to run. No hustle. 

I was free to explore, so I wrote short stories and I learned how to shoot and edit film and I wrote songs, all of this without knowing how it fit into the world or what good it would do me. I didn’t know what else to do, so I did the thing that made me happiest.

Then when I started getting a little momentum, touring and making money playing music again, I was so grateful to not have to park cars, that I would do anything to keep it all going. Sleep in my Isuzu, play shows for 2 people, whatever it took. Anything but valet.

So yay, I put in the work. I’m not shitting on myself here. There have been some positive habits. Not being lazy is always a good choice. 

But as the gigs have gone up, the creativity has gone down. I haven’t had time to take chances on making new things. I haven’t made time, because I was afraid that I might fail and then I would have to park cars again. 

But if you want to make a work of art, you must be willing to take a chance.

Everyday I wake up, I have a choice: do I take the chance or not? There are only so many hours in the day. The hard thing about art is, it’s hard to quantify. Emails don’t have that problem. If I respond to twenty people, update a dozen shows on my page, create all the Facebook events, post something on my instagram to remind people I exist, I can look at the stuff and feel like, well at least you’re trying. Keeping the valet at bay.

But if I write a song, I risk a lot more. For one, I might write a bad song, or an unfinished song. Or a stupid story. God I’ve written so many bad songs and stories. Way more bad ones than good. So every day I wake up having to choose whether or not to take the risk. And often times, especially lately, I have done the countable thing.

Which would be fine if I were doing what I want to be doing. But I’m not. It's been cool, and I'm thankful to have had this incredible opportunity, but this isn’t what I want my life to look like anymore. I don’t want to spend all my time doing things I’m bad at, just so I can maintain the status quo of driving around by myself 200 days a year to keep the machine going. I want to focus on making stuff. I want to take chances. 

Which is why I’m so scared right now. Making this record, this way, was deciding to break the pattern and do something different. I want to make the music I want to make. But in the meantime all the old distractions (obligations?) are still there, begging for my attention. All the emails. The empty calendar. A lot of my friends have the rest of their year already booked. I have no idea what I’m doing after June. Instead of waking up and plotting tours, I've been making new music. 

I’m afraid, but I know I don’t want what I’ve had. I want something different. I want to make an album that sounds like me. And then I want to finish my next book. And I want to share my job, my career, with someone, professionally. I don't care about money, but I want to make enough to have a team. I'm happy to make other people some money, if it means I can spend time making art.

I want to throw-in with the right people but before that happens, I have to make something new, something they can believe in. Something I can believe in.

What happens if you dare to ask for what you really want?

I just walked outside after I wrote that last line. I opened the door and caught my breath. It’s twenty degrees colder today than it was yesterday. I went back inside to get a heavier shirt and then I walked down to the river. Its name is the Big Wood, and  right now it's swollen with the spring runoff, brackish and rushing. The sound it made was a washing away sound. It snowed this morning but now the sun was out and I could hear little birds whose names I did not know calling out to each other in cheerful singsong. I stood on a lingering snowbank and watched the river and listened for awhile. Then I came back to the cabin and split a few rounds with an axe and carried a load of firewood inside.

I thought: but what if I crash and burn? What if everything falls apart? Well, it has before. I can always go park cars.

The important thing is to listen to your still small voice, and do what it says.

Craters of the Moon.

image3 After a week in the hometown it was time to camp. I didn't know I was going to do that when I left Nashville, so I had to buy stuff. Campstove, cooler, sunscreen, Oreo Thins, skillet, like that.

Know this: I don't like buying things. Two reasons - making decisions and spending money. How do I know if I'm going to want this a week from now? I don't. So most of the time, I leave it alone. But I really wanted to go camping - had to go would be the more accurate way to put it. So on my way out of Twin Falls, I stopped at that reliable outfitter, Target, and loaded up. I even bought a hatchet, which yes, Target sells.

It was a fine spring day. The Isuzu Trooper shot down an empty backroad with the sun roof open wide to the wind and the bright afternoon sky. I drank coffee and listened to a CD I bought for 25¢ at a garage sale the week before. Tina Turner's greatest hits. Simply the best, better than all the rest. She sang, and I sang too.

The car rolled into Craters of the Moon a little after four. I paid the fee by shoving some folded cash into an envelope (quaint!), picked out a campground and hastened to set up the recording gear. I've done this enough times now, I've got a system. Twelve minutes from parked car to working studio.

Craters of the Moon opened earlier than usual this year, because of you know what. Bits of dirty snow still hid in the shade like crouching sheep; otherwise it was warm and dry. The spot I picked was choice. I jumped out of the car and spent a few minutes walking around on a carpet of crushed lava rocks the color of dark chocolate, spongy like runner's track. All around me were unlikely rock formations I can only describe as Seussian. It was too early in the year for birdsong; but for the occasional passing car, the park was completely quiet.

I travel with a foldout table, but Craters lovingly provided a picnic table made from 100% recycled something, so I used that. Yesterday's song was called What Goes Up, the theme of which is I think almost typical to my current style of songwriting. Acknowledging the negative, staying positive anyway. I tried both guitars (the Martin, the Gibson) and about a dozen combinations of channel strip settings and compressors (I'm mostly tracking through either the Neve 1073 or the UA 610-B and the Teletronix or the 1176 compressor). I finally found something I liked and spent another hour getting the guitar and vocals down.

The song was hard. It has this pull-off riff thing throughout and its fast and has some quick words and big notes. It will sound great when I get the rest of the band in on it, and I think I sang well. I still haven't comped the vocal so I might be deluding myself.

I worked and I ate a few Oreo Thins and I had the whole park to myself until the last half hour, when a trailer pulled up into the campsite next to mine. I was annoyed because there were 40 campsites to choose from, so, what's up people. While they were setting up, I had to sing this one line over and over which made me feel self-conscious because it was a loud note where I have to flip up into head voice and then right back down and I kept messing it up. It didn't help that whenever I looked over at them they were watching me.

Finally I was done recording for the day. I started packing up the studio. The sun was going down and I was excited to get to dinner. Not because I was hungry, but because I wanted to try out the camp stove.

While I was putting the gear back in the Isuzu, the guy from next door came over.

I have a long history of bothering roommates with my efforts at music, and also I'm deferential by nature, so before he said anything I said, "Oh, hey, sorry if I was bugging you. I know you left home to probably get away from loud noises."

"Actually I was going to complain that we couldn't quite make out what you were saying," said the guy. "It sounded good though."

"Oh," I said. Then I couldn't think of anything else. So I added, "Thanks."

Then there was a moment where nothing happened. I wasn't sure what I was expected to do, plus I had my hands full, holding a wooden crate full of headphones and mic cables.

Finally he said, "Anyway, we're cooking salmon over there. We got plenty. You wanna come over for dinner?"

I thought about my own prospective dinner. Jimmy Dean sausage and scrambled eggs. I guess I might as well save it for the meal it was intended for.

At this point his wife (I assumed) had joined him, standing to his left and slightly behind. She smiled and it was an open smile. She echoed his original statement, that I sounded good. We talked for a second about something I can't remember. They were both very nice, and I'm not just saying that because at some point they will read this. They made it easy, which is something I love in people, when it happens.

So I said okay. They walked back to their camp and I finished putting away all the gear. Then I got out the tarp I bought at Target. The Tarpget. No that's dumb. I got the tarp and the Thermarest I borrowed from my friend in Denver and I inflated that and laid it down on the tarp. I didn't set up the tent because it wasn't supposed to  rain. Also laziness was involved.

Then I walked over to Steve and Laura's campsite. Steve and Laura from Pocatello. I brought my package of Oreo Thins with me. By way of housewarming. They seemed pleased. We had a nice meal and I was glad for the conversation because I have been spending a lot of time by myself. Then it seemed like I should play a few songs, so I went back and got my guitar and brought it over. I played Northern Lights, which Steve thought was AMAZING, and then I played Hurts Me So and If I Prove False, which he liked also but not as much. Laura recorded one of the songs on her cellphone. So there's probably an interesting captured moment out there somewhere.

Then it was getting dark. Time to go back to my home twenty feet away. Laura insisted on buying a CD, so I tossed a free Medium Hero into the deal, because they both had books on the table they were working through (Revenant, the one that inspired the movie, and something about an Atheist's questions to God). We traded info so I will probably stay at their house sometime down the road. That's how that works.

I returned to my camp as night fell and sat back in the camp chair I bought at Target and proceeded to enjoy the most peaceful two hours I've had this year. For one, no cell service. For two, my campsite, 51, was situated on a small plateau the southern face of which drops into a valley of scattered jagged lava boulders and juniper bushes. At night they are invisible, but the sky is not. The sky was electric, was showing off. I sat and sipped some of the bourbon I brought with me from Nashville. The stars lay before me, reckless and inviolate.

I looked for and found the constellations I knew, which are the same constellations everyone knows, and then I found the ones I half knew - Cassiopeia, Draco. It was like all the stars had been invited and there was nothing you couldn't see. Even the ghostly ribbon of the Milky Way was there. I watched for a long time. My problems seemed far away. I felt a feeling I haven't felt in a long time, that there was something right in the world. Plus I was by myself and I had all the time in the world to pick out satellites and wait for falling stars (I saw 7) and I didn't have to think of a single thing to say to anyone.

The celestial reprieve was short lived. Two drams and it was time for bed.

Carefully, I walked in the dark from the picnic table to the place where my Tarpget lay and then I walked back to the Isuzu to get the sleeping bag. It was already cold, so getting out of my shoes was unpleasant. But the sleeping bag was a four-season job and once I was inside, everything was fine. Except my nose was cold.

I lay on my back. I couldn't stop thinking about my cold nose. I thought maybe I should get the tent out. But it was too late and besides the stars were watching over me. So I sat still and watched and eventually I drifted off to a fitful sleep.

I woke up an hour later, needing to pee. But first I spent about 30 minutes trying to convince myself I didn't. During that conversation I kept stumbling upon the idea of wild animals, even though the only animal I had seen that day was a squirrel the size of a walnut. But I had read there are mountain lions at Craters of the Moon and they are active at night, and I kept thinking about what it would be like if a mountain lion bit my soft chewy face.

So by the time I extracted myself from the nylon cocoon I was both dancing from bladder discomfort and suddenly irrationally afraid of the great silent sleeping world around me.  I peed. And then I walked over to the Isuzu. And though I am ashamed to say it, I opened the door and I tilted the driver's seat back and climbed inside. I pressed the power lock button, I guess in case mountain lions can open car doors.

A blanket covering me, I spent the next hour trying to convince myself I was warm enough to sleep. I wasn't. Finally I decided to fetch the sleeping bag I had for some reason left back on the Tarpget (sorry it's too late to stop now). I sat up and pulled the lock up in the door panel.

Instantly the hyper-vigilant Trooper leapt to DEFCON 1 - headlights flashing, car horn honking, alarm screaming murder out across the desert. The sound was piercing. My embarrassment was total. The people who had fed me were asleep in their little trailer not 20 feet away.

Animated with a crazed panic, I pushed whatever buttons lay before me on the dashboard before remembering Isuzu requires the insertion of the key into the ignition before it agrees that you are not an intruder.

Where were the keys?

I started throwing whatever was around me up into the air, listening for the sound of jingling metal. The alarm went on and on, and on. Finally in a snap of neural heroism, I remembered I left them on the picnic table. I jerked the door open and blindly ran across the campsite in the direction of the table, forgetting the minefield of lava rocks strewn around the car.

I met the first rock with an unprepared ankle and went down hard. Amazingly I didn't knock any teeth out. I lay there for a moment, taking stock. My ankle throbbed in tandem with the car horn. I looked up. Cassiopeia was there, etched in her membrane of stars, shrinking and swelling in time with the pulsing ankle.

"Help! Help!" the car shrieked.

I pulled myself back up, dimly making out the white rectangle of the picnic table. Testing my balance and finding it intact, I hopped my way across the minefield of anklebreakers like a wild animal.

I snatched up the keys. No heard me shout a triumphant, "Ha!" because the car was hogging all the attention for ten miles around.

Keys in hand, I performed the same choreographed hop-and-tumble back to the car, which in spite of the sonic exertion showed no signs of fatigue whatsoever. I grabbed the handle, threw open the door and jammed the key into the ignition. World War III was finally over.

I realized I was panting. My expanding ankle made its presence known. Then I started laughing. Then I stopped. I was still freezing. I remembered the whole point was to get the sleeping bag. So out once more and a hop back over to the original sleep site.

I gathered it up from the Thermarest and came back to the car and shut the door and climbed inside the slippery bag (gingerly inserting the left leg). Suddenly, but for the limb, it was like nothing happened. The Trooper was asleep. The silent dark world returned, undiminished.

I felt my breathing calm. I turned on my side to face the window, warm at last. The glass framed the sky in a portrait of infinite indifference, and I lay with my eyes open and watched for I didn't know what. Time passed. The familiar constellations got bored and left and were replaced by strangers. A timid fingernail moon rose up over the horizon. It was still there when the rising sun swallowed the rest of the sky in a lazy soft blue twilight. I fired up the campstove and made a cup of instant coffee.

 

White Mortuary.

IMG_4563 This is the casket elevator at White Mortuary, the place my dad worked for my entire childhood. It's ancient. Works on arm muscle and pulleys. Remember that diagram you saw in your junior high physics class, where the guy lifts a car with one arm because of the application of science? Well I do. Something about the more pulleys, the less effort. I don't understand how it all works. But I do remember the sound those huge gears made. Every time we visited him at work, my little brother and I would beg Dad to take us in the elevator down to the basement where the bodies were embalmed. Dad was cool so most of the time he said yes.

The platform shifted and creaked when the three of us took our places, the mediciney smell of the formaldehyde wafting up from below, making my little brother wrinkle his nose. Dad stood close to the gear side of the wall. First he would pull the frayed nylon rope until the attached grey metal bar swung freely. That was the elevator brake. Then he took hold of the black rubber cable, giving it a powerful downward tug. We would stare up at the strange machine overhead  as the wheels began to groan and spin, each in proportion to its size. The descent of the platform was simultaneous, gaining speed as dad whipped the black cable faster and faster. 

That he could power an elevator with his bare hands was just another of our dad's apparent superpowers. The times when my mom was there, she'd watch us giggle until we disappeared below the threshold, and then she'd take the short flight of stairs and be waiting there for us at the bottom. The stairs were way faster, but not fun. Looking back, I'm grateful my dad always had time to treat us to the mechanical elevator ride. It's not like it only happened once.

So today, recording, I made a discovery: the elevator might be charming, but it isn't really an ideal acoustic environment. The song I was recording - Nothing Really Matters - has kind of a brushy quiet guitar thing going. Quiet means the room doesn't matter as much, as long as you're close to the mic. But for some reason there was just this woofy sound no amount of EQ tweaking on the channel strip could ameliorate. After an hour of trying, I gave up and switched guitars. The Martin D-18V is my main instrument, but when I switched to the Gibson, all the problems disappeared. That Gibson is a student model and has about half the tone of the Martin. But in this case, half the tone was perfect.

After I recorded the guitar track, I sang a few passes. The song is all low register at the verse, with a few big loud notes in the chorus. Over time, I've tended more and more to sing quietly, but too much of the same thing is boring. Plus I'm trying to do things that scare me, and singing loud scares me. So I went for it.

I haven't listened to the takes yet, but it felt pretty good.

 

This is what I mean.

butter horzYesterday I posted up on the north side of the Snake River Canyon, about a mile north of the house where I grew up. That mound on the far side is what remains of Evel Knievel's 1976 attempt to jump the canyon - still the biggest thing that ever happened around here. The North Side is an unregulated badland of twisted dirt roads and spray-painted rocks and the black remains of illegal campfires. There are no houses, or cows, or cops. Less than 5 minutes from the nearest Starbucks, you can go somewhere and kind of do whatever you want, without permission or a permit. It's our own little Burning Man.

I took my time finding a quiet enough place to set up, and eventually settled here. It wasn't perfect. I had forgotten about guns and target practice. On a sunny Sunday afternoon in Jerome County, shooting is a given, which is one thing, but yesterday someone nearby was testing out his machine gun, the invisible crackle coming in loud and fast and mechanically paced.  At first I was annoyed - silence being a prerequisite for recording - but I figured he would run out of bullets eventually. And he did. By the time I had set up the table, mic, computers, battery, tuned the guitar and powered everything up, the world was silent but for a cool spring breeze coming up out of the canyon rim. It was just me and the lizards.

I spent all afternoon making a new song. And getting a decent sunburn.