chief sitting bull

The Austin Five.


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]

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

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. 


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.