Saturday, July 19, 2014

Rules of Engagement

What is entertaining people on a mass level is no longer genuinely popular culture - but a pale eviceration, a pathetic dilution of a rich cultural tradition...It seems sometimes as if we have all been convinced that we owe it to ourselves, we must be entertained by whatever entertainment is most readily at hand...And yet I have seen clearly, I have witnessed that there are deep pockets of culture which are resistant to homogenization, there are still polyglot elements in our melting-pot land...To appreciate [this] you have to be prepared to make a commitment of your own.  What is involved is a kind of leap of faith on the listener's part, a willingness to extend his or her own horizons and break out of the passive restraints that a technologically evolving society has imposed upon us.  
What is involved is engagement.
(from the introduction to Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians by Peter Guralnick)

I'll start with a confession.  

Last night was a beautiful cool mid July night in Nashville. On any given night there are more than a handful of choices for outstanding live music, ranging from free honky tonk on Lower Broadway to pricey stadium shows at The Bridgestone Arena.  I have no excuse if I whine and say "I don't have anything to do tonight" because at the very least I could just take a quick drive over to my neighborhood haunt, the haunt of most East Nashville musicians I know, The Family Wash, and for literally dollars in a tip jar I can see some of the best songwriters and bands around while sitting at the bar.  Last night I was feeling rather lazy. And I got a text from my friend, a drummer from Austin, who happened to be in town playing a free show along the riverside with Hayes Carll, one of my favorite songwriters and rock&roll&country dudes.  My drummer friend Mike even offered to leave a VIP pass for me so that I could hang backstage. The only hassle would be finding parking downtown and walking to the riverside. Not much of a hassle to be honest. But at 9pm, I was home and feeling tired from a day in the studio and the last episode of Season 1 of "Breaking Bad" on Netflix was calling my name and I texted Mike some lame excuse, like I didn't want to go alone. He texted back the name of a mutual friend who was backstage with him at the time. Hayes would be going on in 20 minutes. I was basically in my pajamas. It would have been so easy to just lie on that couch. But something nagged at me, some inner voice said "Tomorrow you'll be really pissed off you didn't go" and I got dressed really quickly and drove downtown. Parking cost me $20. I walked to the riverfront park, got there just in time to meet up with the mutual friend and sit on the banks that overlooked the Cumberland River and watch my friend Mike play a great set with Hayes.  And I realized that was only the 2nd time I'd heard Hayes play a full set live. I have his records and I think I've seen him play a lot, but the truth is I haven't because everytime he comes through town I think, "Oh I've seen him. I'll catch him next time." But the truth is I haven't. And the truth is I like his music a lot and I always feel better after watching live music. It inspires me. I get ideas for songs of my own or for banter or I'm just really happy to be making a living playing live music and have friends that do the same thing.  I feel more a part of the community. My life is enriched by getting my ass off the couch to see live music. I forget this when the Netflix pull is strong on a lazy night. 

I played the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival last weekend in Okemah, OK. Quite literally a one-horse town.  They just opened up the first real coffee shop in Okemah last weekend.  It's a free festival in Woody's hometown and by free I mean not only for the audience, I mean no one who plays the festival gets paid a dime in performance fees.  Everyone from Arlo Guthrie to me plays for free (our travel expenses are paid for and we are able to make a bit of money by selling our CDs). Which creates a unique magic for this festival. I play some magic festivals where the boundaries between audience and artist disappear at night around the campfires. But this one has a special kind of community where there are no stars there are no divas there are no emerging artists. Everyone is there for the same purpose: to share music and to share the spirit of Woody Guthrie.  I loved every single minute of this weekend.  Many of the performers are already friends of mine but a new camaraderie was formed in the late night jamming in the parking lot of the Days Inn, while playing our songs and having a legend like David Amram play whistle solos along with us in between his stories of his days trolling the country with Kerouac or playing music with Monk.  83 years old and the man could outjam the 19 year olds. This was engagement that was easy. This was a commitment to an artistic life that made me feel part of a whole.  My Nashville neighbor Tim Easton, himself a Guthrie accolyte, took me to Woody's homestead, just a sunken-brick outline of a once-house.  He played "This Land is Your Land" on my guitar while I gathered a handful of red dirt in my hand that I rubbed all over my 1942 Gibson, dusting my hair with the leftovers.  Tim has a song that I heard for the first time at Woodyfest and it's too late right now for me to text him to ask him the lyric I need and I can't find it on Wikipedia, but the chorus inspires people to "Participate" rather than sit on the sidelines and complain.  He's been tweeting this week as early voting starts soon in our town here. We musicians can be a lazy lot not voting in local elections, running around the world on tour trying to take over audiences in far flung places while ignoring our own districts right next door.

I guess what got me thinking about all this was a conversation I recently had with my good friend Neale about his House Concert. He and his wife have one of my favorite House Concerts on the East Coast and I booked a night there for the Fall and Neale told me that his audience was dwindling.  He said, "Numbers are down, way down. I don't know why" and then named a prominent folk artist who'd recently played there to a 3/4 full house. It was depressing.  And I've been thinking, as have every single one of my musician friends, how do we GROW our audience. But maybe the question is not about growth but about MAINTENANCE. How do we keep the ones who've been with us since the beginning ENGAGED? Because I know that ever time I've played a town to a very light audience, I'll get 20 Facebook/Tweet/Emails from fans who will ask when I'm coming to their town, that town that I just played the night before. And it would be rude for me to respond, "Where were you? Don't you read my Email Newsletter I sent you telling you I was coming?" And sometimes, these are the same loyal fans who will swear that of all the musicians they know from the scene they'd put money on so and so 'making it'. But then when so and so comes through town, that loyal fan might be Netflixing it away thinking, "Eh, I'll catch them next time."  Well: what if there IS NO NEXT TIME? 

So this is a plea to all of us, me included, the me that would have sat on her ass and watched TV rather than get up off my duff and go out and see Hayes Carll last night.  This is a plea for engagement.  This is a plea for artist and audience to know that we can't do it without your commitment to engage just as you can't be a part of our music without our commitment to making it for you.  This is plea that when your favorite travelling songwriter comes to your town to play a House Concert or a Unitarian Church Concert Series or the local bar or the ticketed venue in town that you make it a point to go see them.  And this is a plea to all of us troubadours to not be lazy and take for granted those people that buy tickets to come spend the night with us. This is plea that we all stay in active engagement. Let the Katy Perry's and U2's and Taylor Swifts have their mass markets.  Those of us who play for 20-200 people have a unique life - we get to know you by name and you get to know more than just our name. 

See, I saw Hayes Carll last night. And something that made me get up off my ass and go was that about 6 months ago Hayes Carll (who I'd never met before and we don't hang in the same circles and although I really like his music and think he's really cool, I don't know him at all) tweeted about my song "The Sea & The Shore" and then his wife tweeted about it.  And Hayes Carll has about 26,000 more twitter followers than I do. And that meant something to me. It meant that by the next day, I had a few more followers based on Hayes saying he liked something I wrote.  He didn't have to do that. But he did and that was cool. I have done that too - when I like something someone has done, I want others to know about it. But I really appreciated that little gesture from Hayes.  So my getting off my ass was mostly because I like the dude's music but it was also a bit of a thank you gesture to him. He was getting paid regardless if I came or not because it was a free show for the audience, but I thought of that House Concert Host who said audiences are dwindling and I didn't want the conversation to end with me saying "Eh - I'll see him next time."  Because it's THIS time that matters. 

These are the Rules of Engagement. Participate. Live. In Person. If you like an artist, go to their show when they come through town. 

And if you're near Sudbury, MA on Friday September 19th, I'll be at the Fox Run House Concert.  I'd love it if you could make a reservation and join me at the home of Neale Eckstein & Laurie Laba. They don't get any financial benefit from opening their home to me and to the 70 people they can fit in their living room. They do it because they love music. Because they are engaged.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Independence Day

July 5th, Nashville, TN. 

I'm gonna admit something. I didn't watch any fireworks last night. I had a really good day and then as the sun was lowering in the sky, I wanted to go on a long run along the river with my dog. When that was done, I spent some time with a friend who needed a friend, and then I went home and made a choice to do what I wanted to do rather than to do what I thought the day expected. After a hefty social week of being out every night either playing music or listening to it, I stayed home, cooked for myself, kept the doors open to hear the neighborhood pops and cracks and sizzles, and watched a movie with my frightened dog by my side. And not once during the night did I feel lonely or really alone. I didn't feel any resentment of my choice, didn't feel the tug of FOMO ('fear of missing out'), didn't feel that old whine of "oh, I wish I had a boyfriend or a partner or at least someone to kiss...". I just felt like I'd made a choice to do what I wanted. Which was to spend the night not out, not watching fireworks, despite Nashville's standing as the country's 2nd best display (I've seen it. It's amazing. It kind of kicks Macy's NYC ass. Bless their hearts).

Truth: I was tired. 2nd Truth: Last time I watched the fireworks was with my friends as we all drank beers by the river and I didn't want even the possibility of feeling left out and abandoning my course of What Is Working For Me. I felt really really good last night. And even as the distant thunder of fireworks reverberated in my home and Flo shivered against my leg, I felt even more satisfied that I was in my home, on my couch, not having to talk to anyone, just quiet. Content. Not isolated. And it struck me that there's a difference between being alone and being lonely and that the difference could be a choice. A few years back, I wrote a blog on July 4th where I was in a totally different space. Less choice. More lonely. I read that blog today and I remembered that girl. That girl was lost. That girl was stuck. That girl lost her ability to fight, didn't have anywhere to run to fly anymore, and so that girl's feet got stuck in Freeze. A very very long Freeze. An arctic freeze of a life filled with unconscious and conscious bad choices and non-choices. Today, from where I am, I can read that blog and see the cracks just starting to spread out on the landscape, knowing a full-fledged earthquake is about to erupt for that girl. It would take years. But it came. But today, a day after July 4th, I can say with pure honesty I am grateful for that eruption and I'm grateful to not be standing on fissures anymore. Or, at least when I do find I'm walking on eggshells these days, I figure it out much more quickly and I jump the fuck off that ground. Or ask for help flying.

This was the last sentence of that 2009 blog called "Make Lonely Your Friend": 

...and maybe that's the impact of Independence Day for me this year. 
Not a celebration though. 
A melancholy awareness of the loss of something for the gain of the unknown and a blind faith that the leap will make sense on another far away July 4th. 

That girl had no idea that in 2014, THIS girl would be making sense of it all. Not so far away, in fact. Only a few years...

So if you read MAKE LONELY YOUR FRIEND from 2009, don't feel sorry for that girl. Feel really glad knowing she got through that shit and made it to the other side. At least for today.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Follow follow follow follow...

You see, sometimes there are days when I wonder about this choice I've made here, driving for hours alone in my van with almost 200,000 miles on it without the current means right now to buy myself what I would like (a Prius, used, even, but better gas mileage and not on the verge of breaking down). Driving alone for hours with an IPhone loaded with great music. Driving alone for hours with the company of the voices in my head. And sometimes the voices are welcome company. When they gift me lyrics or uncover memories or just swirl around in places for meaning and connection. And sometimes those voices lead me down dark paths of disconnection and, if I'm truthful, vulnerability and loneliness. And thus began today. Fighting the dark voices. Alone in my van. After a wonderful night of playing music and a great show, a great audience. Sometimes the voices are just in a bad mood because the clouds are out. Nothing more dramatic than that. And you wait for them to change their mood. Or you feed them: John Moreland's new record, Otis Gibbs' podcasts, NPR. But sometimes, like today, the voices take me to questioning this path, this solo journey, the choices I've made. And there I was in my little self-contained swirl this afternoon as the sky opened up to blue sunshine along the little road I found myself on. 30A. A familiar road from Nashville bumper stickers I've seen from the songwriter's festival I've never been to. And as I had Robert Ellis' brilliant new record playing and was thinking about how it must be amazing to be here during that gathering of song, I pass Robert Ellis Street. And it stopped me. And shut the voices up in my head. And then that little road became yellow brick and strange magic began to occur. This afternoon I was to play Central Records, a cool indy record store here along the beach in Florida. And the dudes who work there were super friendly and welcoming and I literally expected nobody to show up, but as I plugged in, the shop became full of people, old and young, holding glasses of wine and cans of PBR, people who came intentionally, people who would lean their heads in and I watched their bodies be drawn in by the music. Hipsters who just about an hour ago I would have thought in my dark self-flagellation wouldn't pay attention to me at all. And folks who reminded me of my own parents. A young guy, probably early 30's, holding a newborn bundled in pink smiling at me in surprise as if finding me and my music was the best part of his walk with his daughter. And even the hipsters who worked there were smiling and listening. And my view from where I stood and sang "The Sea & The Shore"? A doorway to the ocean as the sun set pink along the fading blue sky, the blue waters lapping up along that white sand and the sky bursting with pastel. And I thought, I am lucky. And at one point I forgot the lyrics to my song "Ghost" because I was honestly distracted by the sunset and the thought of my grandfather the sailor along those waves and I invited someone who had bought the record to hand me the lyric book and up walked this older man who had something of my Dad in him, in multicolored Madras shorts, bright yellow and blue sneakers, and multicolored glasses. He held out the lyrics and gave me his glasses and we both just laughed through this whole spontaneous bit. And I hugged him at the end of the song. And at the end of the show, when someone asked me where I was staying and I said I'd be driving towards Jacksonville and finding a motel along the road, this man with the shorts and the glasses and his wife offer for me to stay in their guest room in their condo. Stu and Jane Campbell from Chicago who spend 3 months a year here in Florida. But they need an hour or so to get the room ready, they said, so a few girls who were at the show standing there buying my record, girls who seem cool and hip and beautiful and stylish in an East Nashville kind of way, offer to take me to dinner and I find out that 2 of them are new transplants to Nashville (where I live now) from Jersey City (where I moved to Nashville from). And the other is an incredibly smart and interesting woman from DC who lives here part time who took me on a walking tour of the artist retreat and talked to me of the tight knit community here who, I swear I would hire as a tour manager if she'd have me. She said, 'We take care of each other here. We don't let anyone fall down. We're right there to pick them back up if they do.' And as the night sky grew chilly and I drove to meet Stu and Jane I thought of my own parents who had spent a month in Florida 2 years ago before my mother's health had started getting squirrelly, and how happy they were and how young they looked for that month. And I thought: I am lucky. How blessed I am to wander and stumble and sometimes intentionally walk down this yellow brick road I'm on, albeit alone, to bump into strangers who take me in and tell me their stories. And distract me from the voices in my head that tell me I should be doing something else.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Falling Back

I made use of the extra hour tonight. It's 2am. I'm not sleeping. I've been sitting at the piano in my quiet house like I did when I was a teenager. Back then, I'd light candles and hover my hands over the keys, hoping for divine intervention even though I was fairly sure that God didn't exist (or if he did he'd pretty much ignored me or would be way too busy to intervene with a 13 year old's desire to start songwriting when she couldn't even play by ear and had no ideas, just this strong almost physical desire to create). I thought if I just sat quietly with my hands somewhere in the vicinity of the key of C, something, anything would come through the silence, seep through and move my hands like a Ouija board. It never happened. It was sharp and such a tug that I remember the physical ache of the need and then the disappointment. Like I'd failed. Like something in me that was deep rooted like DNA was calling and I couldn't hear. So I let it go, forgot about it. I, instead, began to date songwriters. Or at least crush out on them. First was Jon Goodman in high school. The boy with the most incredible baritone voice. A superstar of a high school singer. A songwriter. We never 'dated'. He didn't seem interested in me like that. But one summer I thought something shifted, I went away to a summer program for the Arts, a kind of prestigious thing that I'd auditioned for and bartered God with everything I had to get in. Jon had gone the year before and he was clearly so far more talented than anyone else in our school, hell, in our State, that just by being accepted I felt a bit closer to the stars. That summer, he wrote me a song. I still remember the first line. It started with "She left for Spain today, seems time has left me too". After he went to college, I lost touch and didn't really see him anymore in my life. A few more songwriter-crushes until one day, when I was about 25 or 26, a few songs of my own fell out awkwardly. Something moved inside of me and trickled, then about 5 years later, it started spilling out like water. It still feels clunky and slow to me. Never fluid. Never easy. It took picking up the guitar and wading through a completely new instrument to hear what was happening in the silence.

So, tonight I sat at the piano, playing a few of my songs, awkwardly, clunky and rough. Then I tried to play a few songs I knew. It was slow and I had to think too much, translate frets to keys, but it got easier as it got later and later. And then a friend sent me a song and I had to learn it and play it. And now I feel like I wish I had three days of nothing to do but sit at the piano and play until the current runs smooth and clear. Right now there's rocks everywhere.

I envy my friends who started writing when they were really young. I always feel years behind. Which is why it doesn't matter that it's 2am and I need to wake up early to get somewhere important to my soul - my kind of church - where I find God -- or what I feel is more like a current of wind or water than a blonde human with blue eyes on a cross. It's not just about quiet for me. It's about really early morning or really late at night quiet. There's an electrical hum and a fearlessness that comes from being half-awake. Hovering hands over a shapeless idea. If I catch even a corner of it in this weary state, maybe when I'm awake I can make sense of it. 

Like saying "MacBeth" outloud in a theater, I wonder if I'm about to be struck down for writing 'outloud' this mystery. It's the thing that makes me feel most insecure. Most vulnerable. Most terrified. Most joyous. Most hateful. Most despairing. Most blissful. Most alive.

Most in the current.

p.s. and for the record, I'm glad that boy in high school didn't return my crush, as that maddening ache started something far more important inside me than any slow-dancing Prom date could promise. 

p.p.s. he really was the most incredible singer. Probably still is. Wherever he is in the world.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Five Fingers

Falling asleep on the edge of the woods in Frederick, MD in a large log home my parents are about to put on the market although I always had this dream that one day one of my songs might make enough money that I could pay off the house for them and still have my place in Nashville and buy their worry off their back with my dream that they helped pay for when I was much younger but sofar that has not happened and so instead of wish for things out of my reach I will be grateful that I had an evening off to come here and have dinner with my family and watch a movie with my parents and listen to the falling rain on the large windows that look out to the creek and the acres and acres of trees that when I was much much younger my father might have taken me on walks amongst in order to collect and classify the leaves to identify the trees, shadowing the forester.

These are things that I am made of: a five finger spread against a red gold leaf, the afterburn musk of a campfire, a bushel of hard shell crabs slathered in Old Bay on a Bethany deck, the hum of my now 13 year old niece when she was the size of my forearm cradled in warm bath water while I sang to her, the Boston accent that slipped and slid from my grandmother's words, oyster stew and lemon meringue, a hound leaning on my knee and letting go, an oversized Red Jesus Bible, and a Maryland rain lullabye.

Monday, June 3, 2013


The rain started in suddenly about fifteen minutes ago and then, as quickly as it came, it left trailing off like a sigh.  The late night humid spring took a cool turn and my dog’s panting slowed.  I’m sitting here on my couch, not watching a movie I have on the TV.  Instead, I’m watching my dog breathe.  Memorizing every fold of her skin, every spot on her ticked fur.  I lay with her a while ago, alongside her worn body, gently trailing my palm down her back, feeling every anorexic ridge of her spine sticking out, my nose buried in the fur of her neck, breathing in the dog smell I’ve come to know as home.  I can feel the catch in her breath, the effort of remaining.  I am afraid to go to sleep, to let down my guard, to let go.

Tomorrow I may have to euthanize my dog. Her name is June and she is 12 and four days ago I learned she most probably has cancer, although the only way to be sure would be an invasive surgery she might not survive at her age.  The news was devastating, as I’d convinced myself her rapid weight loss was a simple infection that medicine could fix.  Still, I thought, cancer does not mean today. I once had a Rottweiler diagnosed with bone cancer and given 4 months at most who lasted 2 beyond that prognosis.  Surely June might have a few months. Surely there must be a way to beat this.  Just yesterday I was told there is no beating this, it is beating her, and rather quickly, and the kindest act of love would be to let her go. And soon. As in a few days.

I became practical.  Not today, I thought. She has to come home and eat dinner and I have to at least have another walk with her. She has to sleep to the side of my bed below me in her dog bed, looking up to see if I’m still awake.  Not today.  Maybe Thursday. I leave town on Friday for a week. I cannot leave the sad task to my dog sitter. I have to do this myself. So Thursday. That gives me a day to grieve before having to get on a plane and get to the festival. I call my best friends.  They will take off work and help me. They will drive with me. I do not want them in the room. I want to hold June on my own, the two of us together as it has been for the past 3 years. Thursday it is.

Last night my friends came with their old dog, June’s friend. June perked up a bit. My friends brought me dinner. They let me cry. We shared our dinner with June. We laughed. We talked of other things and for a moment everything was normal. Then I’d see June try to lie down on her distended belly, in obvious discomfort, and I’d cry again.   After my friends left, my ex husband called on a video call. He wanted to see June one last time. To see his face breaking down was more sorrow than my heart could take. I tried my best to hold the phone up so that he could see her. We talked briefly about the day we adopted her, 11 years ago. For a moment, I missed him. I missed us. In the grieving, much was erased.


This morning I awoke and looked into June’s eyes and something had changed. There was effort. A fog. Maybe pain. I couldn’t tell. My stomach dropped and I thought, not today, not today. And then immediately a calm settled in and I thought: if today, so be it.  I got out of bed to put the kettle on the stove and June padded in behind me as she always has, waiting for her breakfast, and then gulping it down and licking the bowl clean. Not today, I thought, with relief. Not today. And then I began planning: if she can make it a few days, a few weeks, maybe even a month… I thought, I just have a one week teaching gig then a festival. She’ll be fine with Milton, my friend who watches her while I tour. I’ll come back, we’ll have some time together…I began stretching out the days ahead, believing she’d hold on.

I have held three other dogs as they fell to the last sleep.  I grieved each of them deeply, most especially the first. But with all of them, I shared that last moment with my ex-husband before the ex-ness.  It is a far emptier thing to let go alone.  With my marriage, it was partly the dogs that kept us together for a long time.  That was a good thing.  We allowed silence to creep into our marriage and were able to ignore it with one or two large dogs sleeping in between us.  We drifted away from each other and closer to the dogs. Eventually, I confronted the quiet and I left.   It was a sad parting, but felt inevitable, and we both grieved deeply into the fur of our beloved shared dog June.  Somehow in this, we remained close friends, helped each other find our new apartments, June going back and forth between.  Perhaps it was June who prevented bitterness from infecting our bond.

June lived with my ex for a while, as he grieved, when I first moved away. He says that it was June who kept him sane, who saved him.  They’d walk for miles and miles in the shadow of Liberty, rebuilding his life.

Eventually I moved thousands of miles away to a new town and brought June with me into my house with a fenced in backyard.  I fell in love with another man when he got on his knees immediately upon meeting June and nestled his beard into her nuzzle.  He would live with me for a very short time, bringing his own dog into my home.  That man would tiptoe backwards very slowly out of my home, my heart, my life, his dog would die, and through it, June was my anchor. June would lie next to me on my front porch as I watched the sun set over my street, drinking enough wine to numb my heartbreak.  June would sleep next to me in my bed, curled up around my legs or on the pillow. 

I joked that June saved me like my ex says that she did for him. But living alone never seemed lonely with another breathing creature with sad hound eyes sharing my life. And when the loneliness did crowd in, all I’d have to do is lie on the floor with my dog and I’d know I was not alone.

I lay on the couch Wednesday with her and decide to spend the night sleeping next to her here in the Living Room. She wakes me at 5am, panting, whimpering, and I know something has shifted. She is not seeing me. She is confused. I rush her to the ER, clearheaded, exhausted, alert.  My friend accompanies me, the one who loves her the most, who takes care of her when I am away. He is solid, but worried and I appreciate having someone here next to me. 

Eventually, the doctors tell me there is nothing more to do and I look into her eyes and see the weariness and I realize it is time.

It is Thursday. As if she heard me earlier in the week, planning. As if she set her own calendar alarm.  She is letting me go right now, I can see it in her eyes that droop in pain. She is showing me pain so that I will let her go.

The only thing right now I know to do is keep looking her way, keep memorizing her fur, her eyes, her being.  And to keep telling her she’s been the best dog I’ve ever had. And that I love her very much.  And that I’ll see her on the other side.