Love Story

I took this photo with a disposable camera 16 years ago, about 5 minutes after meeting that girl in the center. I didn’t ask permission. It was rude I know, and at the time I couldn’t say why I did it. We were in Fairbanks Alaska, where she lived. I was passing through. On tour. Playing music. Seeing the spongy tundra for the first time.
.
I’ve carried this photo in journals and tucked it in sun visors in about 6 different cars and for the longest time I just wondered about that girl. Where she was, what she was doing. I didn’t have her info. When we met by chance at SXSW years later - literally bumped into each other in a crowd of 1000 people - I couldn’t believe my luck. That she was beautiful was obvious, but what came out more slowly, subtly, was how funny she was, how thoughtful, intelligent.
.
When I moved to Nashville 11 years ago, she was with me in the car. It was an amazing week. I took her to a festival called Merlefest, then to a Snake Handling church in West Virginia, and several BBQ joints in between. She was down for all of it. We went and saw Patty Griffin at the Ryman, sat next to Jim Lauderdale, who hit on her (love you Jim😆).
.
She flew home the next day.
.
We didn’t see each other for 7 years. Living different lives, different relationships.
.
Then one day I got a postcard. She was at large. In New Zealand? San Francisco? I couldn’t tell. But it was clear she was on the move, was unsure what next. We arranged to meet in New Orleans. She was with me again. I like to think I talked her into moving to Nashville. “I’m going to grad school,” she told everyone. Told me. That was 4 years ago. A lifetime again.
.
So many things have happened. I’ve learned a lot. Namely, if you are lucky enough to find a human being who inspires you, forgives you, believes in you, and loves you even if you have a bad show, you hold on to that person no matter what.
.
I love her all the way through. So I asked her to marry me. The best part is, she said yes. My partner, my person, my co-captain. Blaque.

Not Just Me Now

Simon thought maybe writing in third person would help him get through it, the block. He could pretend he was talking about someone else. It would at least be an interesting experiment.

He took a sip of black coffee and stared at the screen and the damned blinking cursor.

A pause. He was trying to write about something big. A tectonic shift in his in his weltanschauung. Weltanshauung. Was that Schopenhauer? Neitzsche? The source he couldn’t remember, the word he could. Typical.

He had for the whole of his creative life cast himself as a loner, earnest but misunderstood, brave but self-defeating, smart but dumb. Maybe he actually was that way, or maybe he was making himself up as he went along. These things blur.

Regardless. It was time for something new.

But how to get from there to here? That was the point of the blog after all: to keep a running account of self-understanding. After 20 years of making stuff, he noticed most of his creative pursuits tended to be of a personal nature. So, exploring the nature of the person doing the creating, seemed a good foundation for future efforts.

Simon had to keep reminding himself that the blog was not supposed to be an artful exercise. It was exploratory. He was taking notes, shoving instruments into his guts and fishing around. Tissue samples. It was intended to be a permissive environmentHe had enough outlets in which Form bent the content. Songs. Short stories. Teleplays. The blog thing was supposed to be more about mucking around in a bog, seeing if there were any interesting bugs lying around.

“Metaphor much?” he said out loud. He was writing badly. Trying too hard. Take a break, brainheart.

He looked away from the computer, over the screen, at the actual world. His current location: a backyard in Texas. Somewhere in Austin. He didn’t know where. It was warm enough to make the sweater he wore unnecessary, and the late morning light still hit the ground at an angle sufficient to throw long blue shadows across the yard. A faint scent of mesquite teased the air. He took a deep breath and looked around more carefully. No real lawn to speak of. Instead, great drifts of unraked leaves curled lengthwise, dried to a brown crisp, heaped upon themselves like peanut shells. A blanket of small smooth stones flung everywhere like a misplaced riverbed. A large tree – a Hackberry –  dominated all, flanked by a faded wooden fence greening with moss.

He read over what he wrote. Huh. He’d grabbed the yard and shoved it into the computer. A miracle, really. Words.

Back to the assignment. From there to here. That was what he was trying to do. Chart it, mark it, live in its new weird skin.

First things first, where was here? Tell it: he had asked her to marry him, and she said yes. He was getting married. Not just to anyone, but to the selfsame girl he met twenty years ago under a low-hanging Alaskan sun. Whose photo he snapped moments after seeing her for the first time, without permission, and which for ten years he tucked away in sun visors and journals, to be drawn out and examined and wondered at. Her simple effortless beauty. The girl who was in the car with him when he arrived in Nashville a dozen years ago, starting over. Who then disappeared, save for timely birthday cards, semi-annual care packages of biscotti or unicorn socks, and who suddenly surfaced once again, years later, uncertain of anything, starting over herself.

The girl with whom he had already shared a potent handful of milestones, happy and sad.

Despite his willful efforts to defy his heart, she was, in every sense of the word, his soulmate. There was no longer any point in trying to pretend otherwise. He loved her.  He knew it in his bones. He knew it as a True Thing, no longer to be questioned. He wanted her. More specifically, he wanted to share his life with her. Boldly and without condition.

The sun was out en force now, gilding the left side of his body. He removed the sweater.

Simon sat quietly for several minutes. He considered his emotional constitution. He was in many ways a ridiculous person and would likely continue to be one. It was in his nature to paint himself on as big a canvas as possible, his vanity being such that he could endure anything, anything but normal life. He probably annoyed a lot of people around him, his friends especially. But, one lives, and one learns to accept oneself as he is and not as he would have himself be. He was a fool, but he was also courageous, willing to try something a hundred times over, unwilling to settle for second best. He did not give chase to trends.

His was a locomotive energy. Hers a river. Where he shoved his way through almost every activity or obstacle, she moved without effort, pulled along by the most natural force in the world. Willowy was a good word to describe her. Elegant.

At the same time, she was deliberate. Everything she did received its due attention. He closed his eyes, and pictured her hands, the precision with which they operated, the way the fingers moved in concert to slice a pear or thread a needle. Whereas he eventually ruined almost everything he owned, she was intrinsically careful – with things, people, animals. He loved this about her.

She also loved music. Maybe more than he did. He had attended a hundred shows with her at his side, and it could not be denied that her presence elevated his own appreciation. Always she gave to the performers an attention that bordered on the beatific. She could be transfixed by music. It was intense. That she enjoyed his own singing and songs was a compliment he didn’t take lightly.

His career seemed to be currently in a holding pattern of standing disaster but, he had to admit, he always felt that way about it, and he kept trying anyway. He most likely wasn’t going to stop trying anytime soon. In some ways, trying was the important thing. Everything else was just, results.

He would try, and the world would, or would not, accept him. Either way, she would be there for him, and he for her. He had his teammate, his co-captain. His heart stirred at the thought of this next part of his life. The life with her. The life shared.

By all appearances, the greedy heart of humankind seemed intent on consuming itself to extinction. That was nothing new. He would do what he could to prevent it, and would continue to work out his purpose, of making the old truths new, and of reminding people what they already felt, about the beauties that had never left them, of that which everyone has in common. He would do his part. But. At present he was more excited about the hamburgers he and she would share on Friday nights at the bar around the corner from their home, and the baseball games they would watch, the yoga classes she would ask him to attend, and the home they would make together. He was excited for the strangers and friends they would meet on the road, for the adventures ahead, as sworn companions, as husband and wife.

It was time for something new.

Nest Sounds and Origin Stories

You know what is nice about being home? Everything. Sleeping in my own bed. Waking up early, scooping ground coffee into the little paper cone, listening to the electric kettle’s gathering hiss. Hurrying to my room to make the bed in the interim, and then back to the kitchen once more. The kettle clicks off and I lift it, tip it, send hot water through the dry ground coffee, the steam, smell, gurgle of a hand-poured percolation. The sound is a cooing. A nest sound.

Quiet. I sit at the familiar wooden table in my kitchen and read under a yellow halo of forty watt lamplight. Everyone is still asleep. I hold my breath and listen to the house shift its weight on creaky bones. It almost seems to purr. I think: I could do this, this little routine in this little home, for fifty more years, and be happy.

To be surrounded by familiar things: this is a form of love. You belong here, they say. See us? You have chosen us, whatever we are; expensive or cheap, sentimental or spartan. We are yours and you in turn, are ours. Here is your place in the world. Take note.

*

I’ve just returned from two weeks of shows. West coast, east coast, Idaho. Many plane trips and rental cars. Touring is a kind of gathering exhaustion. The first few days you think, oh this time, I’ve got it now. I’ll stick with the routine, I’ll keep working out. I’ll eat that salad and not that porkchop. A week later you’re waking up at 10a pouring extra syrup on unfamiliar pancakes.

I leave again Wednesday. Philadelphia. Boston. Pittsburgh. Here is an interview I just did for the Boston show. I’m reprinting it here, in case you’re interested in how I came to play music, and my thoughts on why.

Special thanks to Kathy Sands-Boemer for asking the good questions. Check out her blog, Everything Sundry, devoted to introducing new music to a wider audience. She does great work.

 

I’m always interested in how people first get interested in the arts.  Do you have a pivotal moment in your childhood where you can recall being called to literature, music, or any other of the arts?

There was never any music in my house growing up. I can’t remember a time that either my mom or dad ever bought a CD or sang along with the radio. Ours was more of a sports family. I found my way to music because my mom and dad tried hard to be good parents, and part of that strategy involved giving their kids music lessons. When I was 8, they arbitrarily assigned my little brother the violin and me the piano. We weren’t really asked if that was something we wanted to do. It was just, “you now have piano lessons every Tuesday after school, and we expect you to practice for 30 minutes a day.” Of course I hated it at first, but as soon as I got the hang of it — how chords and melodies worked together, how music was something you could do yourself — it was a revelation. It was incredible to me that I could play the songs I heard on the radio, or on TV commercials. Scott Joplin’s ragtime style was the first thing that blew me away as a kid. I still love ragtime piano.

I was (and am) a shy person, but very early on I discovered I really enjoyed performing, and from the beginning I was kind of told by the people around me that music was something I was good at. So I just kept at it. It wasn’t something I was determined to do, like a goal I set for myself. It was just something I enjoyed, so I did it.

In 8th grade I started playing guitar with this Mormon kid who was in my same grade, but who was a lot better (and more disciplined) than me. He showed me how to play chords, how barre chords worked. When you are a beginning guitar player and you start being able to fret a barre chord, you feel like you can do anything, play any song, because in a way, you can. Me and my guitar pal started a band in ninth grade called Clockwork Orange. We were pretty serious about it, rehearsed twice a week and played wherever we could, which mostly meant junior high dances at the farm towns scattered across the Magic Valley, and the occasional county fair gig. Humble origins, but I learned a lot about how to be in a band, how to rehearse, how to promote and get paid. All that stuff.

You asked about literature —  I’ve always been a big reader. My mom used to read to me a lot when I was little. One of my earliest childhood memories is being on family vacation, driving across Canada somewhere, and my mom reading aloud to my little brother and me. It was Where the Red Fern Grows, and it got to that part where Old Dan and Little Ann sacrifice themselves in front of the mountain lion for Billy. And we’re all just bawling in the car…books have always set my mind on fire and made me feel a lot of things…plus the impression a book makes tends to last much longer than one in a movie…anyway, I definitely read more than I listen to music. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but, well it’s true.

What was life like for you while growing up in Idaho?  As a greater Boston resident most of my life, it’s difficult for me to imagine growing up in what I’d consider an isolated and somewhat alien (but beautiful) state!

Growing up in Idaho was so great. It was simple in a way I of course took for granted, also very beautiful. I realize looking back that I still view the world with a certain kind of naiveté. My parents — my dad in particular — had very high expectations for my little brother and me. I guess it would be called a strict upbringing by today’s standards. We had to chop and stack wood every summer and then bring it up to the house in a sled throughout the winter. Stuff I hated then, because no kid likes chores, but I see now how special it was. There’s such a pleasure in splitting wood with an axe — the sound it makes when the steel hits the round, the heat that comes off a freshly-split log, the smell of the sap, how bright the yellow of the wood. So many beautiful things, ancient stuff you know?

The simplicity of it was limiting too. I mean, it was Mormon country, and rural, so I was off the grid in terms of anything pop culture. Plus my parents weren’t into music beyond what was in the hymnal at church. But when I was about 14 I became friends with this kid Nelson, whose parents were pretty cool, for Twin Falls Idaho. Nelson’s dad had an immense record collection and was always buying music. That’s when I started listening to Neil Young, Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Don Henley, Jackson Browne, you know, the folk rock canon. A few years later I got way into the Cure, like, all the records. In high school it wouldn’t be far off to say we were pretty much a Cure cover band, with a little Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails and maybe some Rolling Stones songs here and there. We used to make these tapes in my buddy’s basement, like, of the whole band recording live. This was before digital recording. We just ran a feed off the mixer into a cassette recorder. For some Idaho high school kids in 1992, the tapes sounded pretty good. But my singing, haha it was sooooo bad! I basically imitated whoever was singing the song we were covering…..Korby sings like Mick Jagger, Korby sings like Trent Reznor, Korby sings like the guy from Echo and the Bunnymen. Just terrible. But, it did provide a pretty great opportunity to try on a bunch of different voices in a relatively judgment-free environment. It wasn’t like there were any other bands in Twin Falls Idaho then.

You make no secret of the fact that your father was a mortician.  Not to be morbid but was death just a normal way of life for you?  It sure must have taken the mystery out of it for you!

Pretty much whatever your parents do when you’re growing up – that’s normal. We didn’t really think anything of playing in caskets as little kids or waiting in the embalming room next to a dead body while my mom and dad discussed what we were going to eat for lunch. I said that my dad wasn’t musical, and that’s true. But he is a really sensitive person, and was when I was growing up, too. He would write these poems – not learned poems necessarily, but from the heart. Like, if a child died, or a baby, it would really affect him, probably cause him to question his faith – and he’d bring home these little poems and my mom would put them in the sock drawer. By the time I graduated there were maybe more poems than socks in there…I definitely got my love of rhyme and meter from my dad.

I remember hearing that you were in a rock band during and after college, I believe.  Did you attempt to make a go of it?  Did you tour at all?

The high school band — well, we always knew that the Mormon guy would go on a mission and then BYU, and that’s pretty much what happened. I was also more into writing my own songs, more like love songs and folk songs and stuff in line with what I do now. When I was 18, I got married and moved out to the Washington State, to a little hippie college town called Bellingham. I took a year off and worked at a camera store at the mall. I built an electric guitar from scratch, went to a bunch of Phish shows, rode my mountain bike everywhere….got divorced a few years later — about halfway through college — which was around when I discovered bluegrass. It was like a lightning bolt moment for me. The whole thing about bluegrass — that it’s simple and song-oriented but technically very difficult — it was just something that appealed to me on a lot of levels. Also bluegrass festivals were a revelation. It was about music, about people playing music together, not about being on stage and having a cool haircut or some bullshit. I’ve never been very good at affecting a persona or cultivating intrigue or something. And bluegrass music was just, can you pick? Can you sing high and lonesome?

I pretty didn’t listen to anything but bluegrass for about 5 years. While I was still in college I started this band called the Barbed Wire Cutters and it just kind of hit. Our first show sold out the club we were playing at, and then about 2 months later the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack dropped, and suddenly everyone wanted to hear bluegrass music. I ended up touring with that band for about 4 years. It was a full-time thing, we made a couple records that weren’t that great but the live show definitely had its moments. I loved those guys and being in that band and when it broke up I promised myself I was never going to be in a band again. Being in a band is like being married to five people. It’s a heartbreak factory.

How did the switch to solo singer-songwriter come about?  Are there advantages to only being responsible for your own career and being able to do what you feel like doing at any given time?

While I was in the Barbed Wire Cutters, I made two solo albums that were more about the songwriting and less about the picking. There was this guy in San Francisco who worked for Disney when it had a record label division — he discovered me on CD Baby. I think he just called me up one day. We started talking and about two months later he ended up flying me down to SF to cut a record. He put a bunch of money into it and we released it in the UK with a press push and stuff and it made something of a splash. Bob Harris spun a song on his program and I ended up touring the UK and playing on all the BBC stations…I mean, the first time you tour overseas, it’s just the best. I was walking around in a daze the whole time.

When I came back from Europe I started producing songs. I made this bluegrass gospel record that I’m still really proud of — called David Goliath’s Old Time Gospel Hour. And then I moved to Seattle and made a rock record called King of Hearts. For whatever reason, King of Hearts kind of counted, locally. The hipster station KEXP was spinning the shit out the single and I got management and suddenly people around the scene cared. I spent about a year opening for everyone from Ray Lamontagne to Nickel Creek to Keith Urban even. I played Sasquatch and Bumbershoot, which are the two big festivals in the Northwest. When it cooled off I was like, I’m moving to Nashville.

Do you feel the muse bugging you at all hours of the day and night?  Are you the kind of writer who has to jump up out of bed to write something down or start a song in case it goes away by morning?

I feel everything bugging me all hours of the day and night. I don’t sleep very well. I also, like a lot of artists, fight a constant nagging sense of failure and insecurity. For weeks at a time, I can kind of accept that and work in spite of the fact that I think everything I do sucks, and then suddenly I’m like, wait you are going out there and EMBARRASSING YOURSELF AGAIN HAVE YOU NO PRIDE?? haha stuff like that. I’m a basically depressed person. That’s not that unusual, I don’t think. Creatively, I like simple writing with moments of cleverness. Not too much cleverness, otherwise you start getting proud of yourself and your writing starts winking at itself. But it has to dance a little. So I’m always jotting down rhymes and little ideas, like, all the time. Singing into the phone, whatever’s around. There’s very little organization to it and sometimes I forget about or lose stuff for years. I tend to be fairly organized in the business side of my life, but the art part has to have a high degree of randomness and chaos for me or else it feels contrived. Art has to reach for the stars, every time. It has to want to be ecstatic. Or else it’s boring. And if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a boring song.

Have you felt like your style has changed over the years?

Yes. At the beginning I loved songs but I couldn’t play guitar very well, so I leaned hard on writing and singing. Then I got so I could play guitar ok, so I started incorporating stuff that was fun to play on guitar. Then I fell in love with bluegrass, and only flat picked and practiced with a metronome all the time. Then I thought I should try to play electric guitar, so I kind of went John Mayerish. Then I saw John Mayer play and I was like “hahahahaha you well never play like that guy. He was born to do that, you weren’t.” So I got more into producing. Learning beats and stuff. Then I wrote a book, and I realized that what I’m good at is words and stories and meaning, and that I’m best when I don’t try too hard. Then I spent about 5 years playing about 700 shows solo, and I got so I really really liked playing solo, because I can do all the things I do, and talk to people and be with them, and I’m not hiding behind a band. I try to play the show I would want to see. There is a lot of variation, song to song, in terms of theme, tempo, approach, guitar-style. I also improvise a lot of my stage banter and try hard to stay in the present moment.

That was a long and potentially unhelpful answer. Basically l like really good songs that make me feel something. And less is always more.

You’re very much a DIY kind of guy.  Tell our readers how your latest album Thousand Springs was recorded.

I’ve lived in Nashville for more than 10 years, and have made a couple records the Nashville way — great studio, producer, top shelf musicians — but after my book got published, I realized that what mattered to me more than anything was story and meaning. I wanted this record’s story to be something more than “well I hired this famous producer and these great guys.”  I also just wanted to make a record the way I wanted to make it. In cooperative creative environments (like working with a producer), I tend to defer to the loudest voice in the room, because I like people to get along. In the past I feel like I’ve made some creative compromises I wasn’t, in the long run, happy with, so this time I just wanted to be absolutely responsible for every note, beat and moment.

I did a kickstarter and got a little bit of money, and bought some recording gear and a battery — the kind of battery used in climbing expeditions and stuff. Real heavy duty. Then I drove out to Idaho where I grew up, where music started for me, and recorded the songs in all the beautiful places, places that were important to me as a kid. The Snake River Canyon, Craters of the Moon National Monument, a little cabin north of Sun Valley, my dad’s mortuary…all these special places. It took about two weeks to record the guitar and vocal for each song — then I spent the next six months on the road, playing shows and recording different friends in different places. It was important to me to record people who were personal friends. In the end there were about 30 artists from the folk scene that made up the musician list — Carrie Elkin, Anthony Da Costa, Amy Speace, Critter Eldridge, Zachariah Hickman, tons more. My friends. It was such a joy making the album because it was really done one person at a time. I’d be in Portland, Oregon with Anna Tivel and we’d have coffee and catch up and talk, and oh let’s just try to play a few songs here…it was very meaningful to me.

I should say that two of the songs were not recorded in Idaho — one was “Book Nerd” which I recorded at a bookstore in Nashville called Parnassus Books. And the other was a song I wrote about Chief Sitting Bull called “Last Man Standing.” LMS won the Rocky Mountain Folks Fest song contest in 2016 and I recorded it on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota, just a few feet from the Sitting Bull Memorial.

You’ve written a terrific book of short stories called Medium Hero.  Your little snippets of life are poignant and so real.  Have you had any instances where you’ve been able to make an inspiration dovetail into both a song and a story?  Or do your inspirations clearly call for one form over the other?

Honestly I haven’t really tried to do anything like that, yet. Writing a good song or a good story is really difficult. I don’t understand much about what is happening in either process, I just try to follow the thread from inspiration to the 15th edit. Trying to incorporate the two is an interesting idea, but usually once I finish, say, a song about a subject, the last thing I want to do is to try to recast the idea in another medium. More interesting to find a new idea. That may change, who knows? Anything is possible.

the limits of being shiny

The last four shows went like this: excellent, terrible, very good, and alright. The corresponding cities – three in Idaho and one in California – were, should you care to line them up: Boise, McCall, Sun Valley and San Rafael. At this moment, writing on a third cup of coffee with a sleeping cat at my feet, I wonder if one’s physical proximity to an event is connected to the erasure of its details, because here at my friend’s house in California, the Idaho shows are already fuzzing.

I remember opening the first night in Boise with a piano song, because I thought it was funny that the piano was, like me, white and over-exuberant. The McCall show was bad because I was playing at the same time as the local hockey team, so the club was empty for my entire set. Once again culture is bested by a sporting event.

I could elaborate on the box score of the particular shows, but I don’t think it’s very interesting. With live music, you were either there or you weren’t, and no amount of florid or enthusiastic description will do much to change that.

Better to write about what happens between the shows.

In Boise, before the White Piano affair, I talked my friend Jen into helping me shoot an audition for a film I’m interested in. I found the room in her house that had the best light – the bedroom she shared with her husband Ray. At first I felt awkward asking if we could shoot there, but then I remembered: art makes no apologies! I can’t help it if the sunlight deflecting through the south-facing window and off the white bedspread was best suited to my purpose. I set up the tripod and I was grateful she saw it my way. She read the lines from behind the camera and I responded to them from in front of it. It was a good audition.

An hour later I was at the YMCA lifting weights (you can’t really tell). Between sets I watched this skinny girl with veins popping out of her arms lift dumbbells twice as big as mine.

The next day, Friday, I drove a forgettable rental car through the Boise forest, winding through the mountain canyon along the Payette River. I made several stops to pee on the side of the empty highway. There were broad golden meadows. There were silhouettes of long-winged birds hanging in the no-cloud sky. I took pictures. I smelled the pine forest and listened to the wide rush of air push against the mountains.

In the town of Cascade I stopped at a tiny grocery store where bananas, fried chicken, and flannel shirts were available for purchase in the same aisle. Next to the grocery store was a tiny house whose bright yellow paint failed to mask the impression that the roof was suspended in a slow collapse. The sign out front said it was a coffee shop. I like coffee, also strange experiences, so I made my way across the parking lot and up a set of steps sinking sideways into the earth. I opened a pink door to the strong smell of potpourri and the thin sound of harp music emanating from tiny speakers. Wait was this a massage parlor? No, I saw muffins. I walked toward them, distracted by the presence of two old ladies to my left having what appeared to be a prayer meeting over whipped coffee drinks.  They looked up at me angrily. The lady behind the muffins took my order with a suspicious expression. “Just coffee?” she asked, like perhaps she wasn’t catching my meaning. I said yes please, and watched her place a plastic melita over a cardboard dixie cup, drop in a paper cone and a large scoop of ground coffee from a can. I was finding it hard to make conversation because I could hear the old ladies muttering behind me. After a full minute, the barista asked, “Is there someone coming behind you?” I thought I misheard. “I’m sorry?” I said. “Is there SOMEONE coming behind you?” “No!” I said, dumbfounded. The woman looked at me flatly. “Then could you please close the door?” I turned around and looked. Sure enough, a four inch gap of bright light and hope from the outside world was plainly visible. I made haste to correct the offense. One of the ladies from the prayer meeting made a show of hunching her shoulders. “It’s COLD!” she scolded.

The internet doesn’t work in the mountainy part of Idaho, so while I drank my potpourri coffee and drove my forgettable rental car, I listened to the latest Radiolab episode. It was great. If you’ve ever read Oliver Sacks, you’ll know what a charming human being he was, as well as a celebrated writer and neurologist. Here, in his eighty-first year, diagnosed with a terminal cancer, he and his partner Billy elect to record some of their conversations – little snippets of Oliver talking about his impending death, his writing, thoughts on family. One of the most compelling moments on the podcast features nothing more than the sound of a fountain pen scratching paper and Oliver murmuring to himself the sentences he works to create. In these closing moments of a life well-lived, you can’t help but think bigger thoughts about your own life and whether your present course is moving toward a worthy end.

The podcast concludes with Oliver reading aloud a passage from what would be his last published essay, which appeared in the New York Times August 14, 2015. It’s called Sabbath. In it, he discusses his upbringing in an orthodox Jewish family in a suburb of London in the 1940s, how, despite his parents’ busy professions (they were both surgeons) the Sabbath Day was “entirely different from the rest of the week.” There is a touching description of his mother breaking away from work on Friday afternoon to make gefilte fish and beetroot jelly. And later, just before the sun had set, lighting the ritual candles, “cupping her hands around the flames”.

Later Mr. Sacks describes the terrible moment when his mother learned that her son was gay. “You are an abomination,” she says to him. “I wish you had never been born.”

The remaining paragraphs summarize his life’s journey, which was famously scientific, yes, but also, a very personal attempt to square a secular intellectual disposition with what he still found valuable in his Jewish upbringing. It is a moving story, with a conclusion worth repeating:

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.

At this very moment, approximately twenty feet away from where I now sit, a woman not yet sixty is lying in her death bed, the life knocked out of her by lung cancer. I have never met her. I just know she is there, a neighbor in the adjoining house in this quiet suburb in San Francisco. She might as well be a universe away. What is she feeling? What is she thinking about?

I only know about her because yesterday, having freshly arrived here on an airplane from Idaho, the dying woman’s husband met us – me and my friend Michelle – on the porch, holding the remains of a store-bought coconut cream pie. It was what you might call a Ruse of the Elderly – a few minutes’ worth of conversation purchased with an offhand gift. Handing Michelle the half-eaten pie, he told her the situation was dire, the medicine didn’t work, they had stopped chemo, hospice had been called and would be joining the household later this week. He relayed the information without gravity; the tone of his voice was almost cheerful. I would describe his facial expression except that I couldn’t see it because I was listening from inside the garage. I had been holding my guitar, en route to the the house, walking just behind Michelle. She went through the side door and  I heard her say, “Oh hello John!” When John immediately jumped into the story of his dying wife, I stopped in my tracks and listened with a cowardly discomfort.

I keep thinking I should go over there. Play them a song or something. I have to finish this first.

What I think of when reading Sabbath, what I feel is that, would tomorrow I find myself a few days from death, I would not express an Oliver Sacks-esque peace.

Rather than dwell on it, I’d rather examine why. I’m not the first person to go through a Dark night of the Soul; maybe I can write my way through it. The goal, after all, is a worthy one. Who doesn’t hope that someday, slouching unwillingly against death’s door, he would yet look back and feel that, unpleasant though it is to depart, he at least spent well his time on earth?

I just spent the last three hours trying to write more about this but I deleted it all. I don’t really know how to do it. Plus I have to promote my shows for this weekend, which means putting on the shiny, posting something that makes people want to do my thing rather than someone else’s. Oh my god I’m not sure I can do it.

…mostly I want to acknowledge that yesterday would have been Shay’s second birthday.

Possibly I am a weak-minded old ladyboy.

In my daily journal there are some recurring themes, unremarkable but for the fact that they don’t change. Over the course of 20 years, you would think my sphere of concern would rotate a little bit, or assume a different character. The evidence suggests otherwise.

One theme which has been a constant, if soft-boned, companion: I pray without expectation. Which sounds like a virtue. It isn’t. Despite my creating a space in my life in which to experience the presence of some Holy Eternal, or at times (like when I was 22 – 25ish), a fuzzier, benign-but-undefined Buddha version, at root I have to concede that I don’t really trust God. It is a basic struggle. My journals are filled with literally thousands of prayers, but they are more an extension of my discipline-minded personality than a continuous spiritual harvest.

If you’re going to pray, you should really believe in what you’re doing, otherwise what is the point? That’s an hour of your life every day, wasted on some mysterious old lady hocus-pocus. You’d be better off spending it asleep.

Or meditate. That is a viable alternative maybe. Except that doesn’t really get me where I want to go. Meditation is like sharpening a kitchen knife. Over time, you’ll have an excellent tool, but you still have to decide what to make for dinner.

I sat with a zen group for about three years, in my twenties. We met every Thursday in a clean empty room with yellow wood floors and tall windows. We sat on black zafu cushions and faced the wall for 40 minutes and watched our breath go in and out of our noses while jasmine incense curled through the air. We chanted something in Japanese (I don’t know what it meant but I can recite the syllables to this day) while the guy in charge hit a bell in time with the beat. It was actually fun, and helpful in a way.

It was also not what I came from, which was a big part of the appeal.

My time on the zafu was an interesting adventure that didn’t really stick. There’s a long explanation for why, but I can save you the trouble and sum it up thus: If Buddhism were a meal it would be a hot thin soup sipped quietly in a clean room. Which is great. Lot of virtue there. But I want thanksgiving dinner. I want the messy family, the brown gravy and jello casserole. I want the wine and the loud voices and the relatives you only sort of like but welcome anyway. Farting at the kids table. Spilled coke on white tablecloths.

I have made this analogy to myself many times over the years, but as I write this, my life is pretty far from a thanksgiving dinner. I like the idea of family, but I live very far from mine. I’m not married, nor do I at present feel at all capable of maintaining a relationship. I go to church but I’m bored while I’m there, or annoyed, and I don’t know the people with whom I worship even though I’ve attended the same church for three years.

So. I have to wonder what the hell I’m doing and if I shouldn’t be doing something different.

At root I’m not sure God cares about me. But that’s not really my hang up. My problem is, I feel like I’ve used my talents poorly. I have been given a lot, and while I’ve tried to make the most of what’s been handed me, I have to concede it hasn’t yet added up to much. So I think what I feel maybe is more closer to disappointment in myself than feeling the presence of an indifferent God.

Its more complicated than that. I’m an artist and artists are not very obedient. I’m not sure God has much use for me. Or maybe, despite my overtures to the contrary, I find a lot of joy in doing what I want when I want. I don’t make music because I’m trying to serve the Lord. I make it because it pleases me. If I did it for any other reason, it would be shitty music.  Speaking of, an irreligious diversion: Christian music makes me want to impale myself on a rusty pitchfork. Contemporary Christian music is actually the new Devil’s music, created by a group of people consciously imitating what they hear on the secular stations, for profit. Aping faith for money. God I hate Christian Contemporary Music. If you want to know what kind of Old Man Troglodyte I am I’m also pretty dubious on the notion of drums in church. I mean, the whole modern world is fucking set to a dance track can’t we just have two hours on a Sunday with a pipe organ and some worn out hymnals?

I digress.

Thinking about it. Returning to paragraph one. I pray because I still hope that I might be of use. I pray too because I don’t know what better to do. If there was something else out there I could embrace with complete conviction, I would. But the world still seems to me to be a very selfish place; the only thing that changes is the particular voice of whomever at the moment is holding the microphone.

I think that’s what I’m looking for when I pray. Something to mitigate the tide of selfishness I see welling up inside of and around me at every unchecked moment.

I was shown a way to live when I was a kid, and I’ll never really shake it. Forgiveness over justice. To yield rather than fight. Meekness as a show of strength. To trust God rather than to rely on my own resources.

I read this and I’m like, Lenker you are a weak-minded old ladyboy.

Then I think: no, there’s something here. Besides what else am I going to do? The answer isn’t in my phone, or in what my friends think, or on NPR.

More information is not what the world needs right now. Wisdom is what I’m looking for.

Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling. Two thousand years later that is still some pretty good advice.

That’s what I’m thinking about this morning.

Pointing Boats

Happy people don’t write. When you are happy, you eat ice cream. You sip coffee with friends. You watch your children sleep. You make music. Only when the world pitches violently starboard and you watch your cherished possessions slide off deck into the storm-tossed sea do you make a buoy of your pen. Maybe, you think, if I can write the world back into order, I might survive. There are worse strategies.

I spent the larger part of a year not writing. Because I was busy being happy. Happiness for me means, working. I was Working On a Project. That project was Thousand Springs, born almost three years ago; it was the axis upon which I aligned my energies on a monthly, weekly, daily basis. It was also a huge undertaking. Even coming up with the concept took more than a few months of writing down ideas (fly a band to Idaho? Record an album in the wilderness?) until I settled on one. Then I did a kickstarter, which – don’t let anyone say otherwise – is the single most terrifying thing you can do as a creative person. I made it through that by the skin of my teeth and then spent the next six months actually making the record. There were many set backs along the way, and it ended up costing twice what I thought it would, but it was never not fun. Making music is a beatitudo perfecta.

This time last year I was spending seven, eight hours a day editing drums, fiddles, electric guitars. Editing drums is boring, but it’s a happy kind of boring. I was making an album of music exactly the way I wanted to, in a way no one ever had before. I was convinced of the merit of what I was doing, the execution of which provided a set of challenges which consumed all my attention. That is happiness.

The Thousand Springs project owned me completely, and while it took shape, a new set of hopes and dreams took shape around it.

Late last year, I finished it. It was mixed, mastered. I shot the album cover myself. I arranged the layout for the whole album and I don’t even know photoshop that well. It was a big pain in the ass, and a total joy.

Then, somehow, the record got signed to a label, which doesn’t really happen anymore – at least not to forty year olds who have never sold more than 3,000 albums a year.

But it did, and that was February, and so I got to spend another three months setting the table for the release. I booked a national tour. I acquired an interested and well-connected publicist and found money to pay him. There was a radio campaign. Long story short, I did everything within my power to make this album count. I believed in it with all my heart, each song, each moment on each song. I made the whole damn thing from beginning to end – every mouse click and instrument was my choice – so it was even more personal a statement than had I used an outside producer and recorded at a time-tested studio. Plus, when the record was signed, it was signed on it artistic merits (the label loved it) over and against my commercial track record, so I was very hopeful that its auspicious reception would carry over and that, once released, the world would fall in love with my record as the label had. I had great hopes: hence, great happiness.

I spent the summer on tour. It was my longest tour ever – eleven weeks spent playing shows, fielding interviews, handling the constant emails while driving myself from show to show to show (yes sometimes I emailed and drove. I’m not proud of it). I got on and off planes, lugging instruments and merch, sleeping in 70 different beds in as many days. I engaged socially, daily, with the people who came out to see me – not out of some sense of obligation, but sheer gratitude. These were the people who actually carved some time out of their busy lives to spend a few hours with me, listening to whatever came out of my head, heart, mouth. I mean, in this world of Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and money money fucking money, anyone who deigns to spend time sitting in a stranger’s living room or in a mostly empty club listening to someone sing, someone whose photo on their instagram feed will elicit envy or admiration in exactly zero of their followers – that person is an angel and a miracle and maybe a unicorn.

Anyway, it was for the release of the album as it was for its making: I was all in, soaking wet, holding my breath for as long as I could. And it was a true and unmitigated happiness. Because I had something to do and I was full of hope that the something I did might, after 7 albums and twenty years, finally matter.

It was late August when I had to concede that the album was going to be a total commercial failure. It was like it never happened. My friends and fans supported me, and to each of them I am so grateful. I’ve had people write me and say which song meant a lot and why, and I’m so grateful they took the time. Because time is the most valuable thing we have. But the radio campaign came and went. The press campaign the same. Not one national press outlet cared enough to even review the record. Hahahahahha not one!

And the monthly reports from the label would make me laugh were I not so embarrassed. Its a terrible feeling when you watch someone who not only believes in you, but ponies up the cash, lose their shirt in the wager. The metrics are pretty bad. I still have songs from the album on Spotify that have the dreaded < 1000 next to them. Meaning there’s seven billion people in the world and less then a thousand of them have heard my song.

I’m not writing this to say poor me. No one has the right to expect their art to matter to someone else. Also the freedom to make art in the first place is permitted to about .0001 percent of the worlds population. I’m a lucky duck and I get that.

What I’m trying to say is, the happiness of that project, and the hope that came with it, is gone.

I have to find something else.

Unhappiness is not knowing what to do with yourself.

Unhappiness is not having a sense of hope in the future.

The two ways I can address this are to give up, or figure out what’s next. The temptation to give up is so strong, but then what would that look like? You either kill yourself and someone else has to clean up your mess or you stop paying your bills until the sheriff escorts you out of your house and into a box under a bridge somewhere. That seems rude, both cases.

So instead I’ll write. I’ll just say what I think and feel, as plainly as I know how, so that I can stop dwelling on it and start working on whatever’s next.

The storm came and washed my happiness out to sea. I watched it go. But I’m still here. And somehow, the boat still floats. I’ve just got to point it somewhere.

Everything is distraction, except

Okay it’s  a new day. New day, new week, new chance. New chance to what?

I quit drinking for a while, starting five days ago. Not like, I Quit Drinking. Just, I’m setting aside that particular joy for a minute while I sort out what is going on inside me. Not because I want to. No. No one goes into their basement because they want to. They go because their water heater broke.

And who knew abstention was such an active pastime? I have done all kinds of useless things in these two days. I ate three handfuls of white chocolate chips. I laid in bed and watched four episodes of a show I didn’t care about. I practiced clawhammer banjo for two straight hours. I wrote a dozen thank you cards. I listened to a podcast on writing screenplays. I made a stew out of leftover barbecue sauce and baby carrots.

All these things I would have done anyway, except the chocolate chips. I have a rule about desserts. It might be the only rule for living I ever consistently follow, and it is this: you can drink or you can eat dessert, but you can’t do both.

But the spirit which animated my Weekend of Sobriety was one of reluctance, inertia, and still, if I’m being honest with myself, escape. Alcohol or no, escapism is the one true sin. Because it dulls the knife of your heart. Your heart knows best. Your mind makes excuses. Follow your mind and you might end up safe, and your house paid off, and your sink clean, but you won’t end up where you’re supposed to be.

People are the same everywhere. We would all rather thrust ourselves into an activity – any activity – that might occupy our attention enough to distract us from what is really going on inside. Isn’t life mostly a distraction? And the distractions abound. For me, they are music (practicing guitar or piano or lately, banjo), reading, weed and alcohol, sending emails, posting stuff on instagram of myself and my life cast in a flattering light, running for 5 or six miles, watching baseball.

There are two things I do that don’t huddle together under the banner of Escape. Both are essentially painful: writing stories and writing songs. Consequently, I’m ever on the lookout to get out of doing them.

I don’t care what people say, writing is not fun. Not fun like, you know, fucking or playing guitar. Writing is an agony. For one, the actual generation of words, one after another, in pursuit of an end you know not what, is unpleasant. What’s worse is that, nine times out of ten, you read back over what you wrote, what you bled onto paper, and it’s usually pretty bad. Then your choices are three: either edit the shit out of the words so you don’t completely humiliate yourself when you show it to someone or everyone, or, let it out as it is and be the first to laugh at yourself. Or finally, keep it to yourself.

I have extensive practice in two of those three paths. For one, somewhere in my closet in a damp cardboard box are fifteen or twenty journals filled with small-print stream-of-consciousness drivel about crises imagined and conjured, which, once-written, were never read, not by me or anyone else, not once.

Then there are the manicured toenails of writing I’ve done which, inexplicably, have been bound into a book and sold for profit. When I was making the book, I read the stories many times – cutting out the fat, moving sentences around, deleting whole stories – until at last I had to admit that, like it or not, this was as good as it was going to get.

The third category, the middle one, is new. This is a blog. A blog is not a novel or a short story or even a magazine article. It is a citizen of a new world. A lesser important world, maybe, but a freer one. I’m sitting here with a now-cold cup of coffee writing down whatever is rattling around in the water heater as fast as it comes out, with nary an eye toward revision. I have conceded in an earlier post that it most likely isn’t pretty. But hopefully there’s something worthwhile in it, if not for you, for me.

This blogging – ugh what a dumb word – is necessary because I’m sick of staring at a screen for whole hours at a time while I wait for the characters in the story I’m working on decide to do something. I feel a lot of pressure in these other outlets – stories, songs – to craft my idea into something singular, whole and true. That is fucking hard. In the meantime, there are all these feelings running wild in the basement, and if I don’t herd at least some of them into the mason jar of a paragraph (God what a terrible mixed metaphor), I’m afraid I might lose them forever.

So that’s what this is, this blogging. Herding feelings. I’m capturing a few of the little devils so I can look at them more closely in better light. They might be helpful. They might not. I don’t really know. Everything is an experiment. I do know that, regardless of what happens starting 8 minutes from now when I go back into the story I’m trying to make, I’ll have this clunky exploratory exercise in freedom to draw from. It might not fix the water heater, but I might as well point the flashlight into a few corners. You know, since I’m down here.

Live Review from Hotel Cafe in Hollywood

Sharing this review of a show I recently played at The Hotel Cafe in LA. Between living in Nashville and touring full-time, I’ve seen several thousand acts play their version of a 45 minute set. Hopefully most of the time I keep my strong opinions to myself, but I pay pretty close attention to everything I see – what’s good, what’s lame – mostly because when it’s my turn, I want to play a show that doesn’t suck.

I don’t know Whitney personally and I didn’t meet her that night in LA, but she obviously watches shows with a lot of attention to what’s happening onstage. This is a thoughtful, well-observed review. As artists, I think we all play the show we want to see, so it’s validating to read when your work is coming across the way you think it is. Even some of the bad things!

Being a performing singer-songwriter means distilling your whole life into a 45 minute Moment. This is a pretty fair description of that moment.

Read the review here.

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.

IMG_6236

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.

IMG_6225

The Austin Five.

IMG_6195

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.

IMG_5732.jpg

Not even Lisa Loeb.

IMG_5392.JPG

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.

 IMG_5408

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. 

IMG_5357

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.

IMG_5305

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.

IMG_5152

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]