field recording

A Book Nerd at Parnassus.


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.


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

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.


18 Hours in Bellingham with Bruce's Banjo.


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.


Craters of the Moon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where were the keys?

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

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

"Help! Help!" the car shrieked.

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

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

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

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

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

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


White Mortuary.

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

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

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

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

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

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


This is what I mean.

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

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

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


Geordie. Day Two. What to Do in Denver while you Drink Coffee

Tomorrow I'll be home in Idaho, but today I woke up early and edited this video my roommate and me shot in front of my house in East Nashville. It was the last thing I did before I left town...I'm zeroing in on the kind of sound I'm going for with my new record and this is getting close.

"Geordie" is an old English Ballad I learned from an album called Child Ballads by my friends Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer. Beautiful song, sad song. People used to tell the most amazing stories...


IMG_4311 Day One. Salina, Kansas

I woke up this morning happy because the hotel I stayed in costs $35. You know how I like my dive motels. This one was that. Stripped down. No counter in the bathroom. No coffeepot. No frills. I slept on top of the covers, which is probably an empty gesture but you gotta feel like you're doing something to protect yourself. It always seems to work out.

I'm in Salina, Kansas, for another hour at least. Then I make for Denver, which is on the way to Idaho, which is where I'm starting the recording of my new record, Thousand Springs. I'll be there all month, recording in the places that are dear to me: White Mortuary (where my dad worked doing mortician stuff  while my little brother I played in the caskets), my best friend Nelson's house, my childhood home (assuming the new owners let me -- why wouldn't they??), the church I went to as a kid, that sort of thing.

I bought an expensive battery (more on that in future posts) and I'm going to try some outdoor recording too. Wilderness recording. Like at Craters of the Moon if the snow melts. I'll keep you posted on what shapes up.

Got a carload full of instruments and recording gear. Here's what I'm bringing:

20 new songs 1999 Martin D-18vm 1963 Gibson LG Baritone Ukulele I bought from a guy in a parking lot 2 soprano ukes, one of which is mostly plastic 1975 Peavey T60, a guitar I am made fun of for loving Appalachian dulcimer my mom sent me Fiddle I stole from my brother 20 years ago Apollo Twin loaded with my favorite UA plug-ins Oxygen8 2 octave midi controller 2015 Mojave 301FET condenser mic 2014 Sennheiser 935 1989 Shure SM57 1 pair AKG K701 Reference Headphones Modified Canon 7D + tripod and dolly, for filming A couple laptops Modified 2001 Fender Blues Jr amp 1 crate of paperbacks, for recreation 1 bottle bourbon (Jefferson's single barrel), for same Way too many shoes