‘Last Man Standing’ Premiers on The Bluegrass Situation

guitar_0photo by Rob Wilson Photography

Thank you The Bluegrass Situation for previewing my song “Last Man Standing.”

Have you been watching the news? What’s going on in Standing Rock is real, and it’s right now.

I wrote LMS about the great Sioux leader Chief Sitting Bull, who was murdered on Standing Rock reservation land 125 years ago. A restless defender of his people, Sitting Bull foresaw Custer’s defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn, was instrumental in the Great Sioux War of 1876, and eventually, found himself the object of international celebrity. I know his spirit is alive today.

“Last Man Standing” won’t officially be out for a few months, but BGS just posted the song and this op-ed piece I wrote. Read and listen. If you like it, download it for a dollar.

100% of proceeds go to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe – Dakota Access Pipeline Donation Fund.

Special thanks to the musicians who made this song happen:

Anthony da Costa on electric guitar
Lucas Leigh on hammond organ
Michael Rinne on upright bass
Alex Wong on drums
Ryan Culwell on harmony vocals
Raina Rose on harmony vocals
Matthew Sever “Matt The Electrician” on harmony vocals
Jim Trick on harmony vocals

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Home Stretch! Listen to “Nothing Really Matters.”

I know it’s been awhile since I checked in. First it was because I was pretty busy driving around the country recording people, and then it was because I was holed up in my house in East Nashville, editing drums and putting everything together, in the former case, action precluded reflection, and in the latter, there wasn’t much to describe.

But I’m back now.

In terms of life stuff, one cool thing happened, which was that I took first place at the 2016 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival Songwriters Showcase! Past winners include Gregory Alan Isakov, Liz Longley, and Deb Talan of the Weepies, so I feel pretty excited to be included in their company. There were so many great contestants this year.

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After Folks Fest, I did a few short tours (I’m actually in California right now – playing in LA at Hotel Cafe this Thursday October 27, and in San Diego at Brick 15 this Friday October 28) but otherwise I was home working on the record and riding my bike over to Duke’s in East Nash for lunch.

And it’s almost done. Almost almost.  I’ve been sending tracks over to my mixing engineer Paul Mitch and, well, it’s finally happening. I’m gonna have a new record. I’m excited, but it’s a little surreal to see everything finally starting to come together. More on that below.

We just put up a sneak peak of one of the songs, and I thought I should take a moment to describe some of what’s been going on with me and this record, and to talk a little about the song specifically. Listen below and read while you’re doing it! Unless you’re like me, and can’t read and listen to music at the same time. In which case, I’ll let you choose the order.

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Nothing Really Matters
written by Korby Lenker and Stoll Vaughn in Los Angeles, CA

Recorded in:
Twin Falls, ID
Portland, OR
Corvallis, OR
Arlington, WA
Nashville, TN

Musicians:
Annie Staninec – fiddle
John Reischman – mandolin
Molly Tuttle – clawhammer banjo
Anna Tivel – vocals
Tim Lauer – Accordian, Pump Organ
Anton Nesbitt – Bass
Alex Wong – Drums
Korby – guitar, vocals, cabasa

Or, in picture form:

nothing-really-matters

Thousand Springs is first and foremost, a personal album. I made this music for me, the way I wanted to, with the people I wanted to make it with. It was a deliberate choice. After living for ten years in Nashville, trying to marry an essentially quirky aesthetic to my town’s preference for commercial relevance,  I’ve made a decision: I give up. I don’t know what people are looking for. You, them, anyone. I only know what I like.

I have friends who are really good at writing 5 songs a week for a TV commercial or a country artist, but I have come to terms with the fact that that is a talent I lack. For the few years I tried doing music that way, I ended up spending a lot of time making songs I didn’t really care about. In hindsight, that sounds INSANE. The world is so full of insincere things, why choose to deliberately add to them? So I quit all that. I’m only interested in making songs that mean something to me. It’s the only thing I’m any good at.

If you’ve been following my blog and stories you’ll know that I recorded a lot of this album out in Idaho. That was on purpose too. I wanted to go back to where it started and see if I couldn’t get the smell of desert sagebrush into the hard drive.

I made a lot of these recordings outside, in alongside the canyon or the woods, with a battery and a laptop and a plastic folding table like the kind they keep in church basements. The studio was rudimentary. The point was to make the feast a moveable one. I didn’t want the recordings to sound expensive. I wanted them to sound real.

So there was a geographical return. Could there also be a musical one? 

Over the last few weeks, while I’ve been holed up in my bedroom in East Nashville, hunched over a small computer screen, editing drums or doubling vocals, I’ve been thinking about what started me down this path. My career choice wasn’t predetermined. My parents aren’t artists. I grew up far enough from any active culture that I didn’t see my first rock show until I was 18 years old. So why this? What was that first spark that lit my ears on fire?

I look backward: to the five years in my twenties singing in a bluegrass band and trying unsuccessfully to be Tony Rice. Before that, to the Phish junkie I was, transcribing Anastasio guitar solos with a mechanical pencil. Further back, to my high school rock band Clockwork Orange. We played county fairs and junior highs throughout the Magic Valley and we knew more Cure covers than the DJ on Postmodern MTV. 

But the beginning, the real beginning, came in the form of an unmarked cassette tape given me by a marine. 

The Marine was my older brother Shawn. When I was fourteen, he was stationed on a destroyer in the Persian Gulf. Twice a year, a loose collection of dubbed cassette tapes would arrive in the bottom of a cardboard box addressed to my mom. It was understood who the tapes were for. Tones on Tail, Joy Division, Bauhaus, Ministry, Front 242, Love and Rockets. I would rush them downstairs to the privacy of my basement bedroom and see what joys they brought. Mostly, I didn’t like them. Too loud, too much drums. I wasn’t a cool kid. 

But there was this one tape. No label, so I didn’t know who it was. It was the weirdest music. It was, like, religious but then he would sing about cutting a guy up, and then there would be a kooky song about hearing the rain. I was like, WHAT IS THIS. I listened to that tape for three years without knowing it was the Violent Femmes, their second album Hallowed Ground. At the time I couldn’t tell if it was a studio album or a rehearsal that someone recorded in their basement. It was real, in all the ways. It was music that didn’t fit. It wasn’t punk rock, because it was too quiet and too acoustic, but it definitely wasn’t folk music either. And it was kind of backwardly churchy. I was like, I think this guy maybe used to be a evangelist or something and then he started using hard drugs and playing guitar all the time and he got kicked out of church and now he’s in a band

A band. I listened to that album over and over and the flint struck the rock and the spark lit the tinder of my teenage heart. Prior to hearing that album, it had never occurred to me that you actually could make music that was personal to you, assembled from the detritus of your own messed-up life, and people would let you do it and even give you money for it. That was it. Fifteen years old and my fate was sealed.

When I listen to the songs I write, and to the people I’m drawn to, and to the lifestyle I lead, I notice it’s never really hung with the money. With the popular thing. It’s not something I’m necessarily proud of, it just is. I think if I was good at making stuff that naturally lent itself to an appearance on Saturday Night Live, I would have done that. But guess what Lenker? You’re kind of a fringe guy. You would rather read a book than talk to a girl (that’s not quite true). You prefer the company of old people to the mercurial attention of the young. And the music you make reflects that. Don’t be surprised that you have to do your own booking. 

I think when you’re young, it’s wise to try new things, things you may turn out to be bad at. You have to do stuff that makes you uncomfortable so you can see if there might be a better way. And then, after you’ve done that for ten or fifteen years, it’s probably good form to return to the thing that animated your muse in the first place. 

So that’s me with this record. I tried bluegrass, I tried jamming, I’ve programmed more than my fair share of beats. I’ve been trying shit for 20 years. Now I’m gonna do the thing I know best. I’m back in the basement with that teenage kid, laying on the bedroom floor with my head propped up on my elbows, staring at the tiny plastic wheels spinning through the plastic window in the plastic boom box. 

I like my songs sharp and to the point. I like craft. And I like to hang around people who’ve spent a lot of time getting good and playing their instruments. The musicians I most love are the ones who make songs I can relate to. I don’t really know how else to put it. Guy Clark, Gillian Welch, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Shawn Colvin, Todd Snider, and their famouser friends Neil Young, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell…they write songs that feel true. There are plenty of great songs that also top charts, but mostly, the music I love exists on the fringe. Songs by introverts for introverts. That’s what I like. That’s what I do. 

But Thousand Springs isn’t just about me. More than 30 artists and musicians came together to make this music happen. After I recorded the basic songs in Idaho, I drove out to the west coast — to Oregon, Washington, California. A few weeks later, it was Madison, Chicago, Austin, Boston. I recorded friends in their houses or hotel rooms. I even squeezed in a group vocal backstage at the Rocky Mountain Folks Fest. The one place I avoided was anything resembling an actual studio. 

Finally I brought made the past current and finished things up in Nashville. We recorded the drums in my buddy Alex’s living room. And for the last six weeks I haven’t done any writing because I’ve bee spent many, many hours going through everything I’d recorded all over the country and putting it together, like a ship in a bottle. 

Finally, we’re in the home stretch. My new album, my seventh, is almost finished.

Paul Mitch of Madison, Wisconsin is mixing this beast. I’ve been sending him tracks for the last two weeks. I’m starting to get them back. It’s hard to describe the feeling of listening to the final mixes for the first time. This project officially started a year ago when I released the kickstarter video announcing the plan, but the songs on this record have been a part of my life going back — some of them — three years or more. When I listen to the mix, I’m immediately transported —  to where I was when I wrote the song, what happened that day. Then, the instruments, the way the hotel smelled where John was staying, me and Anton listening to a Paul Simon record right before the session. Alex making an afternoon pot of cold-brewed coffee. 

No one has any idea how to release an album anymore. It’s a level playing field: the majors and the indies, everyone is equally clueless. Which is exciting because it means you can do anything you want. I don’t know exactly when the official release will be, but the Kickstarter people should have a CD by the end of November. And whether or not you pledged on the record, here is my plan:  over the coming weeks I’m going to release each song, one at a time on my soundcloud account. Every one of these songs is special to me, and I want to tell you each of their stories. So along with a link, you’re getting one. A story, for each track. These little dears only go out into the world once, and I want to send them off properly.

So let’s start: I’m proud to share with you a tune called “Nothing Really Matters”. I wrote it in LA with my friend Stoll Vaughn. We were sitting in a dark room in a low building on the corner of La Cienega and Pico and wanted to write something kind of Paul Simony. We were going through the false starts and getting-to-know-you banter that begins most co-write sessions, then I started playing this brush rhythm with my thumb, something I’ve been doing a lot lately because I like the sound of strumming but I don’t really like the sound of a plastic pick scraping across the strings. We got a little groove going and I started thinking about this old guy I had seen on a boardwalk once in Florida. He was wearing a faded yellow old man style fisherman’s cap with little puffs of white hair sticking out underneath. There were people around him fishing — other old men mostly — but he was just watching the seagulls flying around the pier. No one paid any attention to him. I watched him for a long time, and he had this really contented look on his face, a quiet smile, like. I’ve thought about that guy through the years and have wondered if that will be my fate, just a guy by himself watching birds on the pier while the world goes on unaware. 

Stoll and I wanted to turn it into a love song, so we put a girl in there, a street musician who plays fiddle for the passerbys. Maybe she’s had a hard life —  who knows why she’s there? I picture her playing with her eyes closed, and she’s good. Not, like, formally trained, but she plays with abandon and you can feel it. The old man in our song can feel it, which is why he comes night after night, down to the water and the seagulls, to just hang out and listen to her. They are a couple, the girl fiddler and the admiring old man, even though she never knows he’s even there.

Anyway, I recorded the guitar part in an old mechanical elevator at the mortuary where my dad used to work. I wrote about it. Then I sang the vocals in a cabin north of Sun Valley, Idaho. Incidentally, this song was the last thing I sang before my voice took its frightening 3 month vacation. It was actually the high part of the song the did it. That tricky bit “And she doesn’t even notice” where I go up high. I must have sang it that night thirty times. When I woke up in the morning, everything had changed.

A week later, I spent an afternoon at the house my friends Anna Tivel and Jeffrey Martin share, in Salem Oregon. We recorded some stuff, one bit of which was the harmony vocal to this song. Anna has this tender, almost shy, singing voice, which made her the perfect voice for the girl in the story. The next day, I sat in straight-backed chair in a hotel room off the I-5 corridor in Washington State. Across from me was the great John Reischman and his 1924 Lloyd Loar mandolin. That’s why the mandolin part on this song sounds so good. John is a master, and his instrument is the Stradivarius of the fretted instrument world. 

A bunch of stuff happened after that. I toured Europe, record parts for other songs, started pitching my TV show, went in for voice therapy at Vanderbilt. Then I few months later I was back in Oregon on my way to a family reunion. I was riding with my parents in their car and I talked my dad into stopping in Portland for an hour so I could record Annie Staninec. There are many very capable fiddlers in Nashville, but I wanted someone who moved when she played, who moved like the girl in the song. Annie was home for a few days, off the road from her main gig playing with Rod Stewart. My parents waited outside in the car (their choice!) while Annie gave me about 15 takes of the musical equivalent of wild abandon. 

Finally, back home, I finished up the track with some Nashville zing. 

Molly Tuttle played clawhammer banjo into a microphone installed in my closet (for sound and vibe). 

And then my friend Anton Nesbitt, who has been playing with me for years, came over. Anton plays with the Staple Sisters, and Johnny Lang and Cee Cee Winans, so it’s a serious thing when he comes over to your house. For this song, I was like, “this is kind of a bluegrass song, but it can’t do the boom boom in the bass, it’s got to be more interesting. Because it’s not a bluegrass song.” Anton looked at me blankly. I was like, “how about I just press record, and we see what you do?” 

That’s what we did, it was interesting, but after a few takes, I realized I was looking for something more specific. Probably one of my favorite records of all time (and probably a lot of peoples’) is Graceland. What Paul Simon is trying to do there — making the personal universal — I’m playing the same game. I realized that all along, back in the elevator at my dad’s mortuary, even further back, sitting in the writing studio with Stoll in LA, it was Graceland I was channeling. 

So I cued the song and we listened. Our separate headphones plugged into the headphone splitter into the jack. Anton smiled. “I think I know what we’re trying to do now.” What followed is what you hear on the track. 

When Alex Wong plays drums, you’re not going to get anything less than an artist producer’s take on what best serves the song. When, a few days later, I came over Alex Wong’s house with my hard drive, his drums, and about 12 microphones, were already set up in the living room. I just laid down on the couch in front of the kick drum and let him do his thing. 

 That was about a month ago. Between then and now were a lot of late nights editing parts. Finally I sent off the tracks to my mixing engineer Paul. An hour later, I realized something was missing. So I dug out the necessary item, pressed record and then song was done. Good people I am hear to tell you: cabasa is the new cowbell.

Imaginary Conversations with Animals: Dallas.

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

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

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

DALLAS: Deal! 

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

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

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

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

DALLAS: That was AMAZING! Your best throw yet!

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

Dallas pretends not to hear.

ME: Before I throw it again — 

DALLAS: That would be very exciting.

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

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

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

ME: Well I’ve been working out.

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

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

DALLAS: I agree, it is a tedious subject.

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

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

ME: Why dumb?

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

ME: How do you know who I am?

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

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

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

ME: Say that in English maybe.

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

ME: I’m okay now.

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

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

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

ME: Can I say, why not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

ME: What?

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

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

DALLAS: Go on. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dallas pauses, looks up at me.

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

ME: Now who’s boasting?

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

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

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

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

DALLAS: Anyway what’s it about?

ME: What’s what about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

DALLAS: Sounds….autobiographical. 

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

DALLAS: What’s it called? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dallas seems to consider what I’m saying.

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

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

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

ME: Yeah.

The dog and I exchange a long look.

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

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

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

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

ME: Yes you did. You’re a good dog.

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

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

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

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

ME: Do you think my show will work?

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

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

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

A Book Nerd at Parnassus.

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

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

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

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

This is the story I want to tell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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The Austin Five.

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

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

Book People
Book People

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

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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. 

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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.

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

Uke Good

Any Weirding Invention.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birthdays in Europe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I played a show.

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