You are currently browsing the monthly archive for May 2012.
In the wake of Doc’s passing, I thought I should share this story about the one and only time I met him personally.
It was the mid-late 90’s, and I had been living in Boone, NC for a year or so. I was probably about 21, and I had been singing tenor with the Springhouse Farm Choir, a small sort of avant garde/traditional choir based out of Valle Crucis, a few miles outside Boone. A couple of my parent’s old college friends lived there in a big old farmhouse, and also headed up the choir. Now, a lot of very interesting people came through the doors of that farmhouse over the years, and it was a sort of social hub for a wide range of individuals and groups, from local farmer types to older hippie types and everything in between. It was a great place to hang out, and you just never knew who would show up or what might happen.
Sometime before I had made the scene there, an Irishman named Ronnie had hooked up with the Farm, and he would come every summer with his traditional Irish band and they would go to the old time and bluegrass festivals and fiddler’s conventions, resting and lodging at the Farm between festivals. They were a lively crowd, and the late night music was great. I was playing at the time, although not professionally by any means, and we would play and sing and drink late into the night. It was all great fun, and they were fantastic musicians. Later I found out that they had been attempting to meet up with Doc for several years during their visits, and it had never worked out until this particular night.
It seems silly to me now, but I didn’t know who Doc Watson was, really. I knew he was sort of a local legend, and I knew people seemed to love and respect him. I also knew that he had some connection to the folk revival in the 60’s but that was about it. These half dozen Irishmen knew more about him than I did, and I lived 4 or 5 miles down the road from his house. I also knew the normal crowd got pretty excited when word got around that he had accepted the invitation to one of the music parties out at the farmhouse. I still didn’t know what it meant, but it sounded like it was going to be a pretty good party out there no matter who came, so I was in!
So that evening, maybe 50 or 60 people were gathered in the living room of this farmhouse, a large wooden room with very high, probably 12 foot ceilings, where most of the musical performances were held there. Doc arrived, and sat in a chair in the back of the room by the fireplace while the Irish band was playing mostly traditional tunes. The first thing I remember noticing was that within the first few notes of each tune they would start, Doc would yell out “Old Joe”, or whatever the tune was, with a huge grin on his face, slapping his leg in time with the music. He was clearly enjoying himself, and seemed to know every song they played. I only later began to learn about the crossover between our traditional mountain music and the Scots-Irish musical heritage, but it was demostrated to me that night for the first time.
The Irishmen took a break, and I was asked to come play a song or two. Thank goodness I didn’t know enough to be scared, or I would have been petrified. So I marched up to the front there and played some ridiculous song I’d written with a friend about some late night drinking adventure we’d had. It was a rhythmic tune, though, and Doc was slapping his knee to that just like he had to the band. When I had finished he asked, “Who wrote that song, son?”, and when I said that I had written it, he said “Sounds like some of my adventures when I was a boy!” and laughed.
The Irishmen came back and played some more, and asked Doc to play with them, but he declined, preferring just to listen for the moment. But then a little later he agreed to play a few tunes by himself, and took a seat at the front of the room. As he started to play, it’s like the top just blew right off of my head. It was amazing. There had been half a dozen Irishmen playing their hearts out in that room just a few minutes before, with fiddle, flute, bodhran, mandolin, at least one guitar, and a concertina, shouting and stomping, but I swear to you that there was more music bouncing around in that wooden room from this one man than when they were all playing. I was just transfixed. I remember that he played “In the Jailhouse Now”, and a few other songs, but I can’t remember which ones. He sang beautifully, and yodeled for us, but what I remember the most was his guitar work.
There have been two times in my adult (and I use that term loosely) life that seeing someone play an acoustic guitar live has completely changed the way I approach the instrument. One was a few years later, and is another story entirely, but the first, and most important, was this night when I met Doc Watson and saw him play solo in a farmhouse in Valle Crucis. I was not familiar with cross picking, or even that familiar with flatpicking at all, but I can’t imagine a better introduction to the craft. It was incredible. The energy I felt from that man was overwhelming and unforgettable. I remember two things clearly from that night. The first was the realization that the amount of music and connection and energy that a performer wields and conveys has nothing to do with volume or how many members in the band. Doc singlehandedly blew a fantastically talented full Irish band out of the water right in front of me. And the second thing I remember is the realization that I have no idea how to play a guitar. I could strum and flap a little melody line out here and there, but I was suddenly back to square one. And it felt more like square zero.
The rest of the evening is a blur. Doc went home, and the party continued late into the night. I think everyone there was a bit awestruck, even the folks who had known what to expect. Only in hindsight, and really only now writing this, do I recognize what an amazing experience and gift that was. I will never forget it.
So did Doc Watson change my life that night? I don’t know how melodramatic I want to be about it at the moment, but there was a sharp pivot in my concept of traditional mountain music and guitar playing in particular that night. I turned a corner I didn’t know was there onto a street I didn’t know existed because of a blind man I’d barely heard of who lived right down the road from me. The spark that was lit by Doc that evening has led me to all kinds of guitar players and traditional music that I would not have sought out had it not been for that chance encounter. And I know for a fact that that is true for thousands if not millions of people around the world. While people all over the planet have been introduced to Appalachian music by Doc Watson, he introduced me to the music that had been all around me the whole time that I’d just never noticed.
I never spoke to Doc again, although I saw him from time to time at festivals and events there in the High Country. He was the kind of famous person that people respected enough to not bother or accost even when you did see him out in public. He was just there, and we all knew it. I think one of the things that was so endearing about Doc was that he was the genuine article through and through. He was the real deal, and that is hard to come by these days. There is no doubt that we have lost a national treasure with Doc’s passing, but I believe he is gone because his work was done. And what a body of work that is! There is not an acoustic or americana or country or celtic or bluegrass picker out there today who has not been influenced by the great Doc Watson, and he’ll live on in every one of them one way or another.
And that night will live on in me forever. I’m no Doc Watson, and I never will be. But I’m a better guitar player, and hence a better musician, and hence a better human for having met him that night.
I can’t think of the words to thank someone for that kind of gift. But in its simplest possible form:
Thank you, Doc.
After 7 full days in the studio, today it has been time to get back to work on the day job. I’m not really too excited about it, but I’m not sure how much more of that studio time I could stand without a break either. It’s best taken in smallish bites for me.
Will and Billy finished all their parts on Monday, and although there’s a lot of work to be done on the tracks, some if it is already sounding way better than I had anticipated. That’s the good kind of surprise! Chris Rosser did a great job of directing and guiding us when we needed it, and staying out of it when we didn’t. He’ll be doing some editing and rough mixing later in the week, and then we can start working on the guest musicians and my guitar solos and harmonies and that sort of stuff. I am not sure if one or two of the tracks might get cut for various reasons yet, but we’ll see how they play out. No pun intended. One step at time.
But I can say already that this is going to be the best recording I’ve made so far. The songs are better, my performance is better, and the band sounds great. That’s what you always want, for things to improve steadily, but it’s reassuring to just do your thing like you do it without any judgement and then find that the results were not only as good as you anticipated, but a couple notches above that. I can’t wait to get it finished and share it with all of you.
My Uncle Bill is fond of saying that “it’s all about balance”, and I tend to agree with him on that. I continue to work on that balance, and finding what works for me. I think the main reason I started this blog was to work out my own feelings about work and creative endeavors and finding balance between them. I can definitively say that I’m not there yet, but I’m still trying. I have this dream of playing music for a comfortable living, but not only am I not sure how to get there from here, I’m not sure exactly what it will look like when I get there or whether I’ll like all that goes along with that, either. Time will tell, and I am sure about that. I don’t know why I feel like it’s already a done deal that I’m going to get the chance to see what that kind of success with my music will feel like, but I do, and I have for a while. I don’t know when that will be, but I will do my best to be ready when it is.
So like I always do when I get overwhelmed with how to forge ahead on an unseen path, I break it down to the simplicity of the “next right thing”. Do the thing that’s right in front of you, I say. It’s usually something very simple. Tonight my list included doing some bookwork for the business, emailing a couple prospective venues about booking me and the band, sitting down and writing a post to keep in touch with you folks, get some exercise, and rest up so I can work another long day tomorrow. I’m only about 80% done with that list, but I feel a lot better already.
As I sit here in my beautiful office this evening with Doc Watson on shuffle, I am reminded of how blessed I am. Not that long ago things were quite different, and I am truly grateful for the life I have today. I joke a lot about the “first world problems” meme, but it’s fairly accurate for the majority of my complaints (and the ones I hear around me). I have a roof over my head, a family to share my life with, good health, food in the fridge, a job that pays the bills, and the opportunity to play music for my friends from time to time. I think there are a lot of people who would love to have that list apply to them. And I’m one of them.
So let’s all have a grateful rest of the week, why don’t we?
Time to catch you all up on the progress in the studio the past couple of days. On Wednesday and Thursday I finished up all of my guitar and vocal tracks. Some of them went great, and some were a lot more work, but we got them all done. We actually have a good bit more material than we need for the CD, so if there’s something that isn’t working out or just doesn’t fit then we can cut a song or two. But hopefully we can keep them all. We certainly have a lot of takes (versions) of all of the tunes. The record for me was 13 takes of one particular song, and even though it was only about 3 minutes long, it felt like singing the same thing about a thousand times! And I don’t care who you are, do that and you’re bound to go through a whole gamut of emotions, from loving it to hating it, from confidence to doubt. And that is the essence of my experience in the recording studio every time. The trick is to stay focused and believe in your work and songs and talent and just keep going forward. What’s left at the end usually surprises me.
So as I type here from the love seat on the side of the studio (Friday PM), Billy and Will are recording their parts on the song “3 or 4 Minutes”, which is about the mystery and magic I love so much about live music in general. A fitting song for the moment. It is really loud in here, but it sounds good! I have been able to listen back to my parts and see that they have a particular energy, but this is the phase when I can feel things start to come together in a way that is much greater than the sum of the parts. I’m glad to have such good musicians and all round nice guys to work with.
I think I’m the designated lunch fetcher for today, so I’d better start taking orders. Thanks for checking in, and I’ll talk to you again soon!
I’m sitting in the studio watching my engineer Chris Rosser going through the 30 or so takes we did of 4 different songs today. They sound pretty good, and could probably stand on their own without the band behind them for the most part. That’s been the goal for me on this recording, and I think we’re on the right track. But I have to say it’s exhausting to sing and play that much, especially with the intense focus necessary for recording. On any given show night I might play 2 or 3 hours, but there’s lots of space filled in by the band and a lot of variation, but for the past two days I’ve been playing probably better than 4 hours solid each day, with a lot of focus and intensity, on the same songs over and over. But it’s good. It’s nice to push myself into the mental spaces that this process necessitates. It’s like a psychological game I have to play with myself, and stay balanced between the critic and the creator. Not to mention the “let’s do one more take and I bet we’ve got it” part. Ok. One more take. No problem.
But you know what has been the coolest part of this for me? I have continually gotten encouraging and positive messages from friends, family and fans via FB, emails, texts, and posts for the past two days, and it’s been awesome. Two specific times I’ve been having a really tough time with a song, taken a moment and turned my phone on and there in front of me was a message that said exactly what I needed to hear, and was able to turn right around and make the tune happen on the next take (or three…). This is the first CD I’ve recorded when there have been so many people supporting me and interested in the product. I can feel it, and I am delighted to have all of you here in the studio with me in spirit. But not in person. Seriously, you guys stay out of here.
I say the toughest part for me is about halfway through, although in the past two minutes it became apparent that I might have to re-record one of the songs we thought we nailed earlier today. Whatever, it’s part of the process. And thanks to all of you reading this, I’m here and able to do this.
Many thanks for everything, and I’ll keep you all in the loop!
Last week I met with the band, Chris Rosser my recording engineer and co-producer, and took care of everything I could in the world of my day job so as to have next week as free of distractions as possible. I spent the better part of yesterday and all of today up until now fine tuning songs and the ever elusive bridge configurations, and although I have a few non checked checkboxes on the list, it’s well within reason to have everything done and cleaned up in time to record. I figure I’ll record a few songs a day, or more if it’s going well, but I don’t want to have to rush. Then Will and Billy will come in towards the end of the week and lay down their parts over the course of a few days. And who knows, there may be a guest musician or two scheduled in there somewhere.
So like every other aspect of my life, there’s the nuts and bolts and homework/legwork portion of the task, and then there’s the intangible, spontaneous, creative part that can’t be forced or planned. I’ve pretty much done the homework and preparations, and now it’s time to step out of the way and let the real energy flow that makes the difference a prepared performance, and an inspired one. I’m not going to lie to you, sitting in the recording booth holding a guitar and staring at the microphone is a fairly intimidating position to be in at times. Particularly when what you’re offering up is an original song, and you’re not sure yet if it’s going to fly or not.
But I’m on it. It’s going to happen, and I’m not even worried about it. I am confident that this is going to be the best and most representative recording I’ve made yet, and I can’t wait to share it with you all.
I’ll keep you posted as the week progresses, and thanks so much for being there and making this recording happen.
As in songwriting, it’s probably best to write about what you know. And what I think I know the most about right now is the difficulty of trying to be an artist and productive musician and also make a living. My method so far has been to juggle two concurrent careers: a full time job as a contractor (which generally pays the bills) and a part time job as a musician (which generally pays for itself).
There are lots of things I like about working carpentry and construction, and about the running of my business. I like working with my hands, building things. I enjoy designing spaces that really fit each individual client of mine, and hopefully improving their day to day lives with the home I build for them. I do have a passion for energy efficiency, and actually enjoy attending to all the tedious little details that bring a green built home up to the next level. I even enjoy the feeling I get when all the bookwork is done and all the expenses are categorized and everything is in its right place. The organization appeals to me. And there is no doubt that one of the primary things I love about owning my own business is having the freedom to schedule gigs when I need to and have a somewhat flexible schedule.
But the downside is that the construction industry in general over the past 3 or 4 years has been challenging, to say the least. It has bankrupted large and small companies, and basically eaten alive many of my contemporaries and contractor friends. It has been a depressing and demoralizing profession to be in, and no matter how hard one might try to stay optimistic and grateful, there are many days when it’s hard to want to keep going. But I have, and my company has stayed afloat, despite being broadsided by a wave now and then that washes across the deck and makes me worry and wonder how we’re ever going to make it.
Much of the reason I’m still in business is that I do everything. Bookkeeping, estimating, invoicing, customer relations, on the job supervising, materials delivery, vendor meetings, subcontractor supervision, and a lot of the actual hands on work, as well. It’s a lot to carry, and often I am overwhelmed with it all. Profits have been so slim lately that there’s no way I can afford to delegate any of that, at least for now.
So why stick with it, you ask? Because other than playing music, it’s the only thing I know how to do. One of my best industry friends says “You’ve got to stay in the game to be in in the game”. There’s truth in that. Closing up shop at this point certainly wouldn’t help anything. And even with the difficulty over the past few years it’s the best living I can make. Even when it is slow enough that it’s just me and a helper doing the work, a day’s pay as a skilled carpenter is pretty good. And I am good at it. It ties in with my creative side in a tangential way, too –making and building and putting things together in such a way that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
But then there’s the music. I have been playing and singing as long as I can remember, and unless I’m mistaken it’s my greatest gift and in a large part what I’m supposed to be doing in this lifetime. If the concept of “flow” or the times when a person loses track of time and has a total lack of self consciousness is the indicator of being where you’re supposed to be, then performing music is undoubtedly it. I can express myself in a way that’s impossible in “real life”, and hopefully help other people get in touch with parts of themselves and their higher purpose through that expression. I am completely lost in the song and the notes when it’s going well. Of course a 2 or 3 hour show seems like work sometimes, but it’s all worth it in the end. It feels good, and it feels right.
So I have this double life of sorts. I think if I only had one of these careers to deal with I might have some free time or less of a sense of always needing to tend to one or the other. But I have both, and truthfully I would be screwed without either one right now. Without the construction business I wouldn’t be able to pay my mortgage or put food on the table, and without the outlet of the music I would be spiritually bankrupt and one unhappy human. But between the two I find myself working at least 10 hours a day, and usually more like 12. Weekends don’t mean much when you’re self employed, that’s for sure.
Don’t get me wrong, when I’m in a good mindset I am nothing but grateful, and I know I am blessed both to have a business of my own and to be fortunate enough to be a person people will actually pay good money to see and hear perform. But there is nothing wrong with having goals to improve any situation. And the situation right now is I am torn between two worlds. The door hasn’t shown itself yet, but I know it’s there. Trying to get noticed as one in a thousand other aspiring musicians is not for the faint of heart. It’s hard as an artist to know when to take things personally and when to let them roll off your back, too. It’s ebb and flow, give and take. Last week I had both the incredible affirmation of having my fan base pre fund my next CD’s production costs through a successful Kickstarter campaign, and the disappointment of my booking help dropping me because they couldn’t secure enough gigs for me to make it worthwhile. It’a a rough row to hoe.
So I’m going to keep doing the next right thing, and put one foot in front of the other. I will keep working on these songs I am recording next week in any free moment I have, and make them as good as they can possibly be. Who knows, one of them might actually be that door I’ve been looking for. And I will keep swimming upstream into this music world, and see where it can take me. It doesn’t make much sense, but I have a really strong feeling it’s the way I’m supposed to go. I can’t ignore that.
I think that’s enough for blog post #1. I’ll keep you posted, as I am sure more will be revealed.