Imaginary Conversations with Animals: Dallas.


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.


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.

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.


Wherever You Are.


So far on this journey, I’ve recorded at the edge of the Snake River Canyon, where I grew up. I’ve recorded at my dad’s mortuary and my best friend’s basement bedroom. I’ve recorded at a lonely cabin in the woods north of Sun Valley, and at the weird Dr Suessy terrain of Craters of the Moon. As much I love Idaho and feel like I belong to it in a way I will never belong to the South, none of those places out west is as special as the one above. This tree in this secret spot in the woods outside of Nashville.

There was a time about five years ago when I came out here almost every day, to write and think and avoid people. It’s a creative place. Under the crookedy branches and the shimmering green canopy, you can stand on seven seasons of dead leaves and almost feel the fecund earth restore itself. I wrote a story here called The Cool Green Hills of Earth are not Enough, which ended up in Medium Hero. It’s one of the highest points in Davidson county, a shady perch set apart and hard to find, where I would come to be alone with the small animals and birds and listen to the way the wind blew through the trees and flick ants off my computer screen with a pocket knife. 

For awhile, I got too busy to make the trip. And then about a year ago, there was a new reason to be here. Now I come often. Sometimes empty handed, just to sit on a fallen log for a few minutes. Sometimes I bring a camping chair and a some water and food and I stay all day. Today I brought a recording studio.


Do you ever notice how the big events of your life rarely happen in isolation? 

I found out she was pregnant the same night I got my book deal. I was at Dino’s in east Nashville with the publisher’s rep. We were sitting in the booth closest the door, discussing deal points and royalties and stuff I still don’t understand, and she showed up to be with me in my happy moment. She was wearing these pink tennis shoes and a grey floor length skirt that makes her look even longer than she already is. We held hands under the table while I talked to the rep. I remember I couldn’t stop smiling. Between the book deal and this beautiful girl and the perfectly cooked cheeseburger, it was like I was the grand prize winner of the world.

She came home with me that night and that’s when she told me. I was lying in bed, on my side with my knees bent, a bit whiskey drunk, facing her. About to bust a move. 

“I’m pregnant,” she said, suddenly. 

The lights were off but I could hear the vulnerability in her voice. The question mark in it.

Here is the thing about a moment like this: without knowing it, you’ve been preparing yourself for it your whole life. The question began long ago, maybe even before you were born. The answer has been forming itself inside of you for months and years and decades like a pearl, so that when the question finally arrives, the answer presents itself whole and complete and without qualification. 

I thought: how wonderful! I also thought: how frightening! I also thought: not what I would have chosen at this particular moment in time. But, well I participated in the act which has been known to sometimes result in the progenation of the human species, and I did so repeatedly and using a preventive measure that is suspect at best; therefore it was not unreasonable to find myself in this challenging circumstance. 

I think I appeared excited and probably even gushy. I remember feeling that way. I told her great! It would be okay. That we could figure out anything. I told her I loved her, because I did love her and was honored that she would be the mother of my child. I think I asked her if she thought we should get married. She hesitated and then there was a long silence.

Into that silence I inserted: wait, you’re not thinking about killing it, right?

She didn’t say anything, and suddenly I was afraid. Then she said she felt that it was maybe a bad time. That she had another year of school, that she had just started to hit her groove. I listened. I had a hard time understanding. We agreed to talk about it in the morning. She rolled over to go to sleep. I lay awake and thought about the little person inside her, just, you know, growing. Did she have hands yet? Was her heart beating? I was so curious, and excited, and alarmed that the future of this person, my little person, was not yet assured. I figured her mother would come around, that I could inspire the confidence she needed. After all, I was her dad. It was my job to protect her. She was a baby. Ha! It was a miracle!

Over the next week, I split my time between privately freaking out about what I was going to do about my career —which let’s be honest, is not very lucrative — and outwardly presenting a vision of confidence and encouragement. I was worried that having a baby would make it hard to write another book and that it would probably mean the end of touring and music. Which would suck in some ways. But, actually, none of that mattered. I mean, it did matter —I wanted to write a pulitzer-prize winning novel, and I did want to play Saturday Night Live, but in light of the situation, namely that a life was on the line, a life I helped bring into existence, it wasn’t even really a question.

I started getting more desperate. She kept saying things like, but I’m not sure I want to be a mother right now, and it would be me taking care of it — I tried to meet her concerns with solutions and optimism. Because what’s important? There is a baby inside you with a personality and fingers and a little heart that is beating and when you get to be an old codger what is going to matter in your life? The fact that you ran a successful business or made a lot of money or found yourself or that there is a person with your genes who loves you who is walking around on planet earth, falling love and eating ice cream? What is so important in this world that it is worth a human life?

Our baby was aborted on March 27th of 2015, at about 10 weeks. It still feels like it happened yesterday. 

I so do not want to be writing about this right now. People have such strong feelings about abortion for and against and it tends to bring out such ugliness, whichever side. I don’t have any need to get into the politics of it. I can’t tell you what to do or how to feel. I do, however, love my child. Contrary to what is implied by what happened to her, she mattered. She matters right now. Even if I do not get to see her or hold her or listen to her giggle or cry or tell her I love her, she is still in my life. She’s part of me.

I’m not going to get into some kind of morbid description of what happens in an abortion. But when it became certain that there was nothing more I could do, I read a lot about it. On the planned parenthood website, on the anti-abortion ones. I watched a bunch of videos. Obviously both sides have their perspective, but the part that makes me so angry and heartbroken is that no one is a friend to the baby. The mother counts, the doctor counts. The baby is the person who doesn’t count. The baby has no friends. She is treated like a nothing. Like she never existed. To be erased and forgotten as quickly and as cleanly and pleasantly as possible so everyone else can resume their life unencumbered by the hassle of human obligation. 

I dropped her mother off at the clinic. I think about that. Once she had decided and there was no more to say, I agreed to drive her there, to Planned Parenthood. She didn’t want me to wait with her. But I thought I should drive her, to offer something. I still loved her. I felt like she was making a terrible mistake but I also knew I was responsible too and so I should try to do good. At the time I thought it would be better if it was me taking her rather than some friend, but now I feel like an accomplice. Because I am. I helped her do it. I should have been dragging my heels to the very end.

I remember the last night before it happened. Sleeping in bed with them. Thinking that we were a family. At that moment. Mother and Father and baby. Still hoping that she would change her mind. In shock that she felt the way she did. Shocked. And I didn’t see it then, but the beginning of a terrible conviction started forming inside me. I had acted recklessly. I had assumed she felt the same way as me, but I never discussed it with her. I acted as I always act: in good faith that everything would turn out alright. That reckless cavalier attitude was now about to cost someone her life. 

When I think back, I wonder if there was something else I could have done. Because I failed her you know? My baby. I was her only friend during those 10 weeks that she was around, and I wasn’t enough. I couldn’t save her. She’s dead now, forever and ever and nothing will ever bring her back not in a million years. I can win a grammy or fall in love or even have other kids, but nothing will ever bring this special little one back to life, so she can have a try. I won’t ever get to know what she looks like, see what her favorite color was, who her friends turn out to be. I won’t get annoyed by her singing the Frozen soundtrack ad nauseum or get mad when the teenage version of her tries to wear shorts that are too short. She won’t help me make chocolate chip cookies or give me a painted rock for Father’s Day. No. What I do get, is a lot of time to fill, doing what I’ve been doing. Making songs, making stories, touring around.

I actually quite love playing music for it’s own sake, but it requires a herculean amount of sustained effort to keep it going. You have to really care. Only now, it’s hard to get that excited about it, you know? All the time I have. To make songs, for what again? So I can play shows, bigger and bigger shows until I play the biggest show in the world and everything is fine after all. No. It doesn’t matter. It matters so little, all the back slaps and the being on tv. Everything that happens to me from here on out is built upon the grave of my dead baby. I know that’s a dark thing to say. But it’s true and I just want to acknowledge it here, one time. 

After the abortion, I realized she needed to have a funeral. She deserved that much. Oh what they do to the body is so terrible it makes me cry hard tears! I don’t have her little body. I can’t bear to think of what happened to it, how poorly, irreverently it was treated. But I thought that I could make a memorial. Her mother — who in the wake of the baby’s death also has gone through her own sustained grief — contributed a bracelet, which we engraved with her name and a little message. I had a few things that were special to me that we put in a tiny tin box. Her mother and I went out to this special place in the woods — the place where I used to write and reflect and daydream — and we picked a majestic tree and we buried those little things in the gap between the big toes of its giant trunk. I read some of my favorite bible verses and sobbed into the cold wet earth and then we left her there because there was nothing else to do.

I’ve never gotten a tattoo before because what could I possibly put on myself that would matter 5o years later, but obviously there is something now. When she died, I picked out a name that might be for a boy or a girl. Her mother felt very strongly that she was a girl, so I have continued to think of her that way. I believe she is a girl. Anyway, the day after the funeral I went to a guy and had him put her name on my wrist. It will be the only tattoo I ever get.

A few days later, I went back to the tree and carved a big heart into it and inside the heart I carved the four letters of her name with deep wide strokes. Shay. It gives me a little peace seeing it there, knowing that it will probably be there for as long as I’m alive, and maybe much longer.

The survival strategy going forward has been to create obligations that must be fulfilled, and then fulfill them, and to keep doing that. For the first two months after she died, I mostly just went through the motions of keeping my career going, because I didn’t know what else to do. If there was an email, I would answer it. Not really anything else. But then my book was about to come out and I thought I should honor that opportunity, because shame on me if I didn’t. And then I thought, well, I’ve written that song for Chief Sitting Bull, and I think its a good song. It’s a song that deserves to be heard. So I did a Kickstarter so I could record that song and a few others I think are worth something.

Throughout, I’ve barely spoken of it to anyone. For one, I don’t want someone to try to make it okay. It’s not okay. For another, I didn’t want people who knew us both to judge her, condemn her. She had her hands full condemning herself. So mostly, I’ve been doing that thing where you just smile at everyone and try to think of something funny to say about anything, so people don’t feel uncomfortable around you. It’s an important part of being in the entertainment business. Or maybe it’s just the way I participate in life. Either way, as the months went on, it was getting harder and harder to keep pretending, especially when it all just seemed so stupid and pointless. People straining every nerve, stepping on each other for a shot at playing Fallon or Folk Alliance. Why. 

Still, I didn’t want to write about it, because it’s so dark. It’s shameful.

But last month, spending all that time alone in the cabin, I would wake up and make coffee and look at the list I made the night before, and just try to get through it. I was doing 15, 17 hours a day recording, just so I could just finish the record and not have to deal with it anymore. I knew that I couldn’t really get through this — losing Shay and witnessing the slow inevitable dissolution of my relationship — without writing about it, but I didn’t feel like I could do that unless I set aside a big chunk of time and really zeroed in. 

But then my voice broke. I suddenly, physically, couldn’t sing. That happened 24 days ago. Since then, I’ve kept feeling worse and worse. My whole body aches and I have this constant sob in my chest I can’t get out. I can’t sleep at night unless I drink a heavy shot of Nyquil. And then I still wake up in the middle of the night and think about her. And in the meantime I keep doing all the pretend things you have to do to keep it smooth and positive in the entertainment world. After all, I have shows booked and people are counting on me to hold up my end of the bargain. 

But really, I don’t care. I haven’t smiled with all the teeth since I don’t remember when. And the few times I’ve felt light-hearted I immediately remember she’s dead, and that she was innocent, and that she was put in peril and ultimately killed because of my reckless coarse action. And I heap scorn on my frivolous pleasures.

The other thing is that even though my baby is dead, I am not. I’m alive, and I’m kind of obligated to Life to keep it going. I can’t bring her back and I know that. But what I can’t figure out is how to move forward without forgetting her. Because that is the one thing I am unwilling to do. The abortion tried to make Shay disappear. I am not about to let that happen. She was a person and she counted and she matters even right now in this moment. In a way, I’m grateful for all the terrible feelings, because that means Shay still matters. She’s making an impact on the world, because she’s affecting me. If I forget or I stop feeling, Shay disappears. And then the abortion wins.

Really I just wish she were here right now. That everything was okay. I would give anything. Also I would like to just go to sleep and not wake up. Being asleep is the only time I feel okay.

A few days after it happened, I wrote a song for her. I’ve played it exactly twice, because it turns out people don’t like to hear songs about dead children. But I came out here this morning to this special place in the woods, to record it with my messed up voice. 

Her name is Shay Eden Lenker, and she is my little girl. And she will always be my little girl. I love you sweet Shay.

I’m probably up too late
Trying to write down something that’s too big for me to say
The funny thing about you gone
Is that you’re not
Just been a few days since
But it don’t feel like I’m ever gonna get used to this
Cause you’re on my mind
All the time

I don’t want you
to think that
nobody wanted you around

I can only hope that you can hear me
Somewhere out there in the stars
I know how this world can be
But I loved you
And I still do
Wherever you are

Its crazy how it all began
Just a twinkle in my eye
You know I never saw it coming
Cause I’m just another black hat
And you’re a magic rabbit
And everything else is just a facsimile
And nothing I can say or sing
Is ever gonna bring you back to me
And maybe it’s all in vain
But I won’t accept that

So if I can
write you a little song
Maybe I can keep you
around a little longer
well you know I’d do anything

I can only hope that you can hear me
Somewhere out there in the stars
I know how this world can be
But I loved you
And I still do
Wherever you are
Wherever you are
Wherever you are
Wherever you are

Not even Lisa Loeb.


It’s been a minute since our last update. To be honest, I’ve been avoiding it, the posting. Sometimes it’s just easier not to talk, you know? To keep it light. I had some shows this week and I was having to make some tough decisions about whether or not to cancel them, or pretend that everything is fine. So I pretended.

Monday night I played a show in Nashville with Lisa Loeb. Wow! If you are older than 33 you probably remember her crazy smash hit song, “Stay.” I bet you’re humming it right now. The movie it was attached to, Reality Bites, came out my senior year of high school, which means it took root deep in my adolescent heart, such that I think Ben Stiller is still an asshole. That character he played. Ugh.

But anyway, whatever happened to my voice happened more than 3 weeks ago now, and while it’s a little better, it’s still not even close to okay. It’s not a professional voice.  I feel dumb talking about it, but the point of this blog is to describe the journey of making this new record, Thousand Springs. And whether I like it or not, this is the shape my journey is taking. So, I guess I gotta deal with it.

Monday night was the Lisa Loeb gig. In the afternoon, I went into my primary care physician and got a steroid shot. It didn’t do anything, but by then it was too late to cancel – I would have left everyone in the lurch (to use an amazing underused phrase). So I got my guitar and went through the first half of 5 of my mellowest songs. I could sort of do it, as long as I didn’t sing loud. I dropped the tuning on the guitar down a whole step for insurance and at the show I talked slow and sang quiet and I read a story from my book. It was mostly fine. I had fun and people laughed and Lisa and I ate cupcakes afterward (not a euphemism) and I felt like it went as well as it could have gone.

Voice still felt real weird though. So tight and no big notes at all. Plus I’m supposed to go to Europe in a few weeks, which will be a lot of singing. I’ve talked to several singer friends throughout this, and one thing I was worried about was that I had a vocal hemorrhage or something that could turn into a long-term injury, which reckless as I am, I yet do not want. So I sorted out an ENT visit.

That was Wednesday. It was remarkably unpleasant! The specialist stuck a long skinny camera in my nose. I don’t know exactly what it looked like because I kept my eyes closed. But that was what I was paying for, so okay fine. The camera went through my left nostril and down into my throat and the doctor took a long look and had me say ‘eeeeee’ over and over. Then he slid it out and the cycle of discomfort was complete.

To my relief he said there was no physical damage, and that my talking voice actually sounded pretty good. He said I should rest as much as I can, and that if I start singing in an unnatural way, then to keep an eye on that. 

The problem is, I still can’t sing. Something is definitely off. I was recording last night and I couldn’t get my voice to do the thing it’s done for 35 years. It just isn’t working. I don’t know what’s going on…the muscles in my neck hurt and everything in my body feels tight. It sounds terrible. And last night, as I was singing through a not-very-difficult song I got more and more frustrated. I just want to do what I’ve been able to do, you know? 

I finally gave up and went to bed. I woke up two hours later in a gross wet sweat. I thought about all the things I always think about. Afraid my career is over, that I’ll never be able to sing again. That I’m turning into one of those mental people who have problems no one else can see.

In the meantime I’m carrying on like everything is fine. Keeping up with the facebook posts, the emails and show advertisements. I don’t know what else to do. I can’t just stop working because my body feels like it’s falling apart. I have to pay rent. And in order to do that, I have to tour, and in order to do that, I have to sing. I really don’t know what’s going on now and I feel powerless to do anything but believe it’s going to be okay, and to carry on like my voice will come back. What else can I do?

Also I would be an incomplete truth teller if I didn’t acknowledge there stuff going on in my life right now that I guess you could call spiritually adverse. It’s so heavy it’s just not appropriate to share with anyone really, but I’ve been keeping it inside for so long now – pretending everything is fine –  that I think it’s starting to poison my body. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in more than a year and lately I wake up every night and go through all of it in my head again and again until the sun comes up and then I make a cup of coffee and say some prayers and try to keep it to myself. 

Even this post is embarrassing. But I’m kind of reaching the limits of what I’m capable of dealing with. I never talk to anyone about it, ever. But at this point the shit inside is very literally strangling me.

So I’m going to spend some time tomorrow trying to describe my situation. I don’t really want to, but I’ve come to a point where I don’t know what else to do. Maybe it will help me. Maybe it will help some other people. Something’s gotta give, and if you’re going to crash and burn anyway, you may as well tell the truth the whole way down. You are welcome to refrain from attending.

I just found this picture from the first day I was in Idaho, recording. A little over a month ago. Wow. That seems like a long time ago. I remember how I felt when I took this picture. Like the earth moved forward through the sky. I had a good feeling.