Friday, January 29, 2010
I decided to head over to my friend Alayna's, where a particularly lavish bash was simmering. My friends Asher and Missy introduced me to a young man named Mat.
"Phil, do you know Mat Kearney?"
I had heard of Mat, a successful recording artist, but had never met him nor had I heard his music.
The next thing I knew, I was recruiting him to be a part of my non-gospel Gospel project.
We met for breakfast at Bongo Java, a Nashville hot spot, and talked about the project. We discussed my recurring theme of wanting to send a positive message about God, to hopefully offset the frowning icon that much of Christendom has hung outside its impenetrable walls.
We retreated to his car, which was reassuringly messy; I felt right at home as we listened to the artists I'd already recorded for the project: Emmylou Harris, The Civil Wars, and yours truly.
Mat was game.
A few weeks later, we met at the Bombay Bistro for a curry. Enjoying the medium burn of some spicy Chicken Tikka Massala, we talked about life and love. Mat was making wedding plans, bright eyed, and confident. I spoke candidly, as is my way, trying not to imply that that I, a divorced man, was his future. And yet, knowing that I represent half of all marriages: failed.
His joyous beginning juxtaposed with my sobering story was a metaphor for the way life is. Our conversation was heavy and light, funny and sad, sad and funny. We were both laughing by the time lunch ended. Life is what it is.
We finally headed back to my studio, picked up our guitars and started exploring. Mat's old mahogany Martin sounded beautiful, and as he played he sang whatever syllables seemed right. This beautiful, non-sensical singing reminded me of the cult I'd belonged to 30 years before, Love Inn (the name always makes me shudder, but apparently didn't make me shudder when I joined), where people would erupt in melodic songs of ecstatic utterances, "tongues", they called it. Could've been. Whatever it was, it seemed earnest enough.
But when Mat's broken words flew, they were circling an idea, and eventually a song with real words began taking shape. No interpretation needed.
A story started appearing, a story told in the first person, of a wounded man who is blessed with a child, then wounded by the cycle of her life, and finally left bereft, all the while wondering how God is found in the details, a question whose possible answers lead to more questions.
The writing of a song is sometimes a mystical experience, depending on one's methods and one's goals, and depending upon the chemistry between the writers. An openness to the Muse means unchaining one's consciousness from an agenda, and a willingness to ride the wind. Sometimes, the song writes itself, and when a listener later declares the writer "brilliant", the honest composer will know that something happened quite outside of him or herself.
Often, a writer's casually tossed phrase is snagged like a prize tuna by his or her co-writer, and a song is born. More often, writers sit in silence waiting for the idea to surface. And when one writes alone, it's my experience that personal drama, joy, pain, or circumstance must accompany the endeavor for one to achieve anything of substance.
Mat and I threw ideas back and forth, challenged each other's thinking, pondered silently, cutting and pasting, and rearranging letters as if playing Scrabble, until we had our song, which at the moment is called "Walking Over the Water". We're living with the song, and in a few weeks, we'll gather again and record it. By that time, a word or two will surface as unworthy of our piece, and we'll once again search for a sound or a syllable that fits.
In the meantime, the question of God in the details will continue to haunt me. I thank God for my daily bread, while wondering if I've been chosen to be taken care of while some earthquake-ruined Haitian has been forsaken. Something good happens and my first reaction is often "Thank God!" I hate to tell you what my gut reaction is when bad happens, but it's rarely spoken in thankfulness.
Life is happening all around us, joy, love, happiness, prosperity, victory, yet not excluding death, loss, failure, sadness. I wonder what it's like to be thankful on downside of the wave.
I'm not sure what to do with all my questions; I guess that means I'm not God.
Perhaps my constant questioning is yet another way to praise, not much different than the splashing sound of melodic tongues over a fathomless ocean of wonder, as if the nagging is yet another affirmation, proof, and exclamation circling the throne of God Almighty like countless singing Cherubim.
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
The music I heard was being played on WBRU, Brown University's FM station. 'BRU, as we called it, played a melting pot of American music, taking the listener from Blues to Country to Psychedelia within 20 minutes. The music which stole my heart was played by a fellow named Taj Mahal, an educated, Northern-raised black bluesman who mixed country and blues with a taste of bluegrass. What drew me in was the slippery sound of that National guitar, played with a bottleneck, sliding across the frets, never articulating a perfect note, but hovering around it with uncertainty.
The notes which fell out of Taj's mouth dripped with honey and salt, whisky and lemon. His melodic phrases always ended with a sinking note, falling off, dropping low, and heading South. He sang of his baby leaving him, or of his "Big Knead Gal", a heavy-hipped woman that he couldn't get enough of, although it sure sounded as if there was plenty of her to get. He rolled gospel melodies into good-time rhythms that made me think surely God Almighty must love the blues, so much did this music speak to my soul.
I have always believed, since a young age. My father's humble outlook and his genuine love of people was a reflection of his inner life, a life which he had dedicated to God. His life is encapsulated by the Prophet Micah's words "act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God", words that were written in his Bible, a gift from his father. Unlike many in his denomination, he didn't have strict and strident guidelines about what defined a Christian. Christianity wasn't about all the things one shouldn't do, rather it was about embracing a loving and sacrificial Christ who loves all people without question.
In my vocation of music, there are more preachers' kids than in any other line of work. And most of them have tales of treacherous fathers who demanded perfection, proclaimed damnation, and laid down the law on the posteriors of sons and daughters who are now more likely to trust in the bottle than the Bible. They grew up fearing hell, afraid to fall asleep lest Christ return to find them in a nocturnal moment of blissful shame.
I never feared Hell, and if I thought about such a place or state, I didn't worry about finding myself there. But that's another story.
I have never been able to escape Dad's way of faith, even when I've wanted to abandon Christendom and all of its crazy, hateful, blind Pharisees. Sometimes it seems to me that many staunch and staid Christians aren't believers at all, but just a collection of fearful schoolmarms and security guards who want to keep God under lock and key. When I want to reject that world, I remember Dad's unwillingness to box God in, or to proclaim "us" versus "them". He wasn't perfect, but he sure tried to love everyone well. That's how I want to live.
Listening to those uncertain notes that the bluesman plays with a bottleneck on his pinky finger, I am inclined to let God Almighty slide as He will, dipping low into His world, and sharing His cup with any who might partake, not worrying about changing or chastising his broken children, but singing in a low guttural hum, forged in the heat of His passion for humans, a God Almighty love song.
Sunday, January 24, 2010
My mother's mother, Mormor, was baby-sitting for me, and in her wisdom, she believed a boy needed a nap. It didn't matter to her that I was simply not going to drift off into the land of Nod. It was the way things were to be.
I still remember the exact spot in which I stood, opening a bureau drawer as the bedroom door swung open. She looked like a giant to me, backlit by the hall light, her white hair lit by a halo hardly befitting this non-angelic intruder.
Her annoyed tone carried a song of shame. Her English was void of w's, quaintly endearing to some, but grating to me.
"Vie aren't you sleeping!!?", she intoned. "I wish you'd go to Hell!!", I burst out, knowing Hell was The Bad Place, but not realizing that "go to Hell" was a less than quaint colloquialism.
Apart from a recollection of my Uncle Gene putting an ice cube down my 2 year old back, this is my first memory, quaint and endearing indeed.
What followed my outburst remains provocatively forgotten. I doubt that I escaped unscathed, and I assume my punishment was so severe that I've blocked it for all these many years. Of course, I deserved something for my unrestrained and bitter words. In all likelihood, she washed my mouth out with Ivory Soap, appropriate for the crime and acceptable for the times. And when my mother returned, no doubt I was held on her lap and my posterior regions laid into with the right hand of the law.
I wasn't diplomatic enough to explain to my grandmonster that my mother was perfectly happy to let me expend every ounce of energy I had on a summer day, or that the ancient melodies wafting up from the street were calling to my primeval heart, and that it was impossible to ward off the sirens' taunts.
This incident has been part of our family mythology for many years now, highlighting my audaciousness- a four year old telling his grandma where to go.
She didn't go there soon enough, however, and until she grew senile in her nineties, she was present to disapprove of nearly everything I did.
She was an immovable Swede, stubborn and opinionated, solid in her faith and superstitions. Her genuine belief that I was inherently bad was rooted in the fact that as an infant I had not been baptized. Citing the nursery rhyme "Monday's Child", she believed that because I had been born on a Thursday, I had "far to go". Her son Carl, born on a Wednesday and twice divorced, was indeed "full of woe".
This was the kind of logic I was up against.
For the span of 36 years, and then some, Mormor was very plain about the disturbance I was in her life. There was nothing I could do to please this woman. She would often ask me, in exasperation, "Vhy can't you be like David and Ann-Elise?", my older siblings. I used to scratch my head, wondering what I'd done to deserve her consistent chiding, but I could never quite figure it out.
"Vhy can't you do things the right vay?", "Vat do you think Yeesus thinks of you?", and "If your father knew the vay you behaved, he'd spank you good" were all verses in her soul-less liturgy.
She believed that I played the drums just to annoy my mother. I remember her coming down to the basement where I played, flipping the light switch on and off, frantically trying to get my attention, a look of utter panic having overtaken her face, with hands cupped over her ears. I'm sure she believed that I had been taken over by some demonic force, and that these syncopated rhythms I played were straight out of Satan's forbidden jungle.
Indeed, I was transfixed by rhythm and soul and by music which dripped like morning dew off of large magnolia leaves. The South had a hold on me as if the Mississippi had reversed its muddy current, winding soulfully through the cradle of the Civil War, washing across my ancestral farmlands, and straight through Rhode Island, picking me up along the way, and dragging my heart back to Dixieland.
That my bluesboy heart could hope for understanding from this woman whose feet were rooted in frozen, unyielding Swedish soil now seems quite unreasonable. However, it's a fair to expect one's grandmother to love her grandchild.
Thus, I played harder and louder.
Once, I remember sitting around our dining room table, Mormor, Dad, a girlfriend, and me. Mom was away visiting Sweden, and Dad felt the obligation to do something nice for his mother-in-law, which meant doing something not-so-nice for me. Thinking he might give her a reason to appreciate me, Dad suggested "Phil, why don't you play O Sacred Head Now Wounded for Mormor?"
I was a college student, and had taken a semester of piano, hoping to discipline my wild fingers by learning a Bach piece. I had happily memorized a fugue and the moving Bach hymn "O Sacred Head".
"He'd only ruin it", she assured the stunned room.
I've never played it since.
Music, a common thread which ran through the tapestries of both my parents' families, was something that my Grandmother believed I was defiling. I think she had genuine concern for my soul and bewilderment for how to rescue me, but her grand error was believing that the attempt to control me was the solution. If anything solidified my insistence on clinging to who I wanted to be and steering my ship a destination of my choosing, it was my mother and grandmother's desire to take the tiller out of my hands.
We never found our common ground, and any attempts on her part to be pleasant were usually thinly masked stragegies to make me acceptable. She even wrote me a letter when I was in college, kindly suggesting that I would be so much happier if I would give my heart to a more civilized expression. Yet, as my story reveals, the thought of my attempting to play a Bach hymn was akin to sacrilege to her. It was shameful to her that she had a blasphemer for a grandson.
If only I had been born and baptized on a Sunday.
So, what of my profane declaration to my mother's mother? Some people find this story peculiar and disturbing, while I see it as a gasp for air, a demand for recognition.
I don't want to bask in the warmth of my rudeness, but it probably saved me from going in a direction which life never intended for me. Years later, my father told me I should be grateful for his mother-in-law's inability to accept me for who I was, believing that she taught me early on that you'll never be satisfied if you follow anyone else's call but your own.
Thursday, January 21, 2010
My mother always noted that I was born in New Hampshire, and that for the first two years of my life, my home was in a hamlet dreadfully named Gonic, where my father was the sparsely rewarded minister of the Baptist Church. It always annoyed me to know that I was born in their worst years, as if I had tumbled out of her womb with an IOU slip pinned to my big toe. A boy likes to know that he brought bounty with him, good luck, or prosperity, but I just brought rhythm. Born drumming, she still says.
Those were the meager years of their lives, even worse than when Dad was a circuit rider in Maine, dividing his sermons between three churches in the rocky farmland far from any semblance of coastal romance. Before God Almighty moved our family to Rhode Island, Dad preached to calloused-handed farmers and laborers who tithed with bushels of corn or apples, or with their skills, perhaps fixing the parsonage's eternally running toilet, or unloading a cord of firewood.
My mother relishes those days of depending on God's provision, likening their time in the Granite State to the prophet Elijah's stint in the wilderness, as if we were eating raven flesh and locusts instead of Cream of Wheat. She possesses the admirable trait of being non-materialistic, and is thusly warmed by thoughts of waiting on God Almighty to prove Himself in the days of simple needs.
For years, she has repeated stories of His mercy in those days of waiting on Him. One morning, she says, she and my father were singing His praises when a twenty dollar bill appeared, hidden within their hymnal's pages for who knows how long, until just the right moment.
Another time, knowing a fierce Maine winter was approaching, my mother privately prayed for a warm coat. Soon, a parishioner turned up with a bolt of wool, which someone else sewed into the sorely needed garment.
My mother glories in those days of high snow and low dough.
I have no such sentiments about New Hampshire or the North.
Not long ago, when we had a rare conversation, she said "You've lost yaw New England accent". This was music to my ears, because I like to pretend that I never talked like a Yankee. I still cling to one mispronunciation that my Southern born woman teases me for using- "aftawoods", a single clue to my Northern raising.
You see, my body may have been born in New Hampshire, but my soul was born in South Carolina. I'm sure of it. My mother used to tell me how she and Dad and I drove from New England to South Carolina. Dad had been invited to preach at a church in the low country, whose congregation needed a shepherd. I can't remember if an invitation to take the job followed the audition, but we went instead to Rhode Island, where he and Mom lived until his Alzheimer's disease led them to Connecticut, but that's another story.
My siblings were left with their maternal grandmother in Cranston, Rhode Island, but my parents chose to bring their little 18 month old son on their pilgrimage. I was given the entire back seat of their old 49 Ford, with, naturally, no seat belts, restraints, or infant seat. As my parents sat in the front, probably discussing their uncertain future, I quietly and methodically threw every last toy I owned out the window, watching them disappear behind us on a hot Carolina highway. In those rare conversations with my mother, I'm told I was an expensive child.
Somewhere in South Carolina, Dad pulled the car into a rest area, and let it cool under the hickory tree which sheltered a lone picnic table. As they unpacked their basket and blanket, an old black man and his daughter ambled up to the car. Before my mother could spread her tablecloth across the table, the man's daughter staked her claim to it by laying her large torso across it. Thus, my mother invited the two to partake of our simple meal.
There's not much to the story, although it reminds me of my parents' high regard for "negroes", as Mom called them. She loved this story because, in the end, the old man took me in his arms and held me for the duration of their lunch. She said he was "wonduhful".
And that's where my story, or whatever it is, begins. It has to start someplace, and New Hampshire has never worked for me, as the Granite State has no ties to the moaning melodies and sensual, shuffling rhythms that I can't shake. The blues record spinning at 33 and a third in my soul could never be titled "New Hampshire Blues".
Who was that old man, that son of slaves, with his sweet smile and low hum? I wonder if he secretly made some sign on my brow, or spoke some ancient word into my ear, and perhaps sang some old gospel melody as he held on to me. Whatever the case, I always knew that I was a Southern man with a bluesman's heart, long before I finally packed up and moved to Dixieland. My name is Philip, and I'm from South Carolina.
Saturday, January 9, 2010
Everyone I know in the music business has their eye on What's Next. Sometimes, you can't see beyond a week or two; other times you can have your entire year mapped out for you. Everyone I know likes a full calendar, and most of us have a fine work ethic. Some people are driven exclusively by financial gain, while others are driven only by artistic integrity. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, hoping that artistic integrity has a pay day.
Recently, I've been experiencing a pay day of unusual proportions. It hasn't yielded a single dime that I know of, but I'm enjoying the fruits of my labor nonetheless. It's a recording of Michigan folkie Ralston Bowles.
Ralston is someone whom I've been acquainted with since the late Seventies, when I was a part of the Phil Keaggy Band. Our paths have crossed a few times over the past 30 years; he's always been a supporter of the arts, and even brought me up to play a gig in Grand Rapids back in the '90s, at a little club called The Pony. He brought my cds over to WYCE, Grand Rapids' premier radio station, and stirred up their interest for other little known artists, as well.
Though I'd known him for many years, I hadn't been aware that he was a singer or songwriter, so low key had he been about his gifts. But when the Millenium arrived, Ralston started making records. He recorded a CD with the acclaimed Gurf Morlix, and another with Marvin Etzione of the band Lone Justice. Once in a while, we'd be in touch and he'd talk about doing a record with me in Nashville, but the idea never materialized, for a number of reasons.
In the beginning of 2008, Ralston lost the job he'd held for 15 years. A month later, he discovered he had colon cancer.
Six monhts later, I was driving back to Nashville from Asheville when I got the urge to call Ralston. He sounded tired, the regime of chemo-therapy already in full swing. I was frank with him, and said "I don't know if you have lots of records left to record, but I know you have at least one, and I want to produce it. No charge." I figured if we paid a drummer, I could do everything else.
September 22, Ralston Bowles drove down to Nashville and recorded 13 songs in my little studio, Plant of the Tapes. Bryan Owings came over and sat behind my old Ludwig drums while Ralston played guitar and sang in the control room, mic'd up, come what may. After getting about 5 songs, Ralston took us out to Famous Dave's for some ribs. We came back, washed our hands, and finished by dinner time.
When Bryan was packing his cymbals up, I handed him the money Ralston had brought with him. Bryan shook his head, newly aware of the situation, and refused the cash. "I can't take this", he said, "It wouldn't be right."
The next thing I knew, Gordon Kennedy was asking if he could donate some guitar to the project. The light finally came on, and I realized that there might be other musicians who would want to play on the record. Thus, I wrote a letter to everyone I know in the industry, asking each musician for a track of guitar, fiddle, pedal steel, tambourine, whatever. I asked engineers to donate time, and music business thinkers for their ideas.
I heard back from nearly everyone.
In October, I went on the road with Emmylou Harris. I took a laptop and edited the songs in motel rooms, bus lounges, and dressing rooms. Chris Donohue played the bass parts as our tour bus lurched from Madison, Wisconsin to Nashville. By the time we got back home, I had the foundation laid- Ralston on guitar and voice, plus bass and drums. I started sending out mp3s of different songs to folks who'd said "yes". I trusted the instincts of everyone I invited, and when their parts were emailed back, I was usually elated, never disappointed. Everyone gave a little more than the project required.
As a multi-instrumentalist, I'm used to playing a number of instruments on a record, and have at times relied upon myself for nearly everything except drums. So, I made a rule for myself- I could only play one instrument on a given song. If I had played guitar, I'd have to ask another musician to play accordion or Hammond organ or something else I might have played. That rule made me reach out to fellow keyboardists, whom I rarely get to work with. I called Tim Lauer and Jodie Moore for some accordion, Dennis Wage and Tim Akers for Hammond Organ, and Richard Souther for piano.
Richard Dodd, who has engineered recordings for Tom Petty and George Harrison emailed and offered to master the project. Mainstay Todd Robbins offered to mix.
Phil Keaggy donated guitar and ukulele! James Pennebaker played some amazing fiddle and pedal steel guitar. With a budget of $0, I was able to assemble a team of major players, technicians, and singers, based on the combination of my willingness to ask and their willingness to respond.
Between Emmy trips and recording and songwriting, I played organ on a track for former Monkees drummer Micky Dolenz. Keaggy had also played on the recording and had mentioned to Micky's producer, David Harris, what we were doing with Ralston. David asked Micky if he felt like singing on a record of someone he'd never heard of. Micky responded by recording 10 tracks of harmonies on one of the songs!
As our bare-bones project gathered flesh, Ralston felt energized. Pulverized by chemo, he would wake to another note revealing what new musical additions had been flown in the night before. He would call me, excitedly, and say he was being re-charged.
We won't know for some time whether Ralston's disease will go into remission, but I do believe that this process gave him something that all the money in the world can't buy, a taste of pure goodness. He has been given an amazing gift from strangers who assume he's their brother.
One of the ways that I benefited from inviting all these players, was simply being in touch with many musicians I'd worked with, and many that I'd never been in the same room with. But the main thing was experiencing the kindness of so many fellow travelers and minstrels.
As we're closing in on finalizing the project, I am amazed by the goodness of just plain folks. I'm proud of the community of musicians I belong to, women and men who offered up a gift of spirit and soul for someone most of them didn't know.
It's easy to look around the world and find the evidence of Evil; name your government, name your country. Yet, more often than not, if you ask someone for a hand, you will see the evidence of Good.
Thanks to everyone who has participated in this project. It has given back more than one could ever have imagined.
So far, the credits read like this:
Drums: Bryan Owings
Bass: Chris Donohue
Percussion: Dennis Holt, Steve Hindalong
Guitars: Phil Keaggy, Kenny Greenburg, Paul Gordon, Derri Daugherty, Marc Byrd & Andrew Thompson from Hammock, Gordon Kennedy, Dave Perkins, Kenny Hutson, Gurf Morlix, Colin Linden, Mike Roe, Lynn Nichols, PM
Banjo: Dave Perkins
Pedal Steel Guitar: Al Perkins, James Pennebaker, Michael Flanders
Mandolin: Kenny Hutson, David Mansfield
Mandocello: David Mansfield
Fiddle: Jake Armerding, James Pennebaker
Accordion: Jodie Moore, Tim Lauer
Hammond Organ: Tim Akers, Dennis Wage, PM
Piano: Richard Souther
Synthesizer / waveform shaping / electronica: Greg Taylor
Harmony Vocals: Molly Felder, Katy Bowser, Patricia Conroy, Micky Dolenz, Terry Taylor, Dug Pinnick, Glenn Spinner, PM and just about every musician who played on the tracks...
Additional Engineering: Glenn Spinner, David Harris, Nate Baldwin
Thursday, January 7, 2010
"Don't tell me what you're against; I'm far more interested in what you are for."
So says the love of my life, the woman whose turn of a phrase has more than once turned my wayward vessel from crashing on the crags of negativity. Like water, human nature seems to seek out the lowest level possible, and I'm as guilty as anyone else of sinking to the bottom.
Most negative statements are offered up as sly strategies to protect ourselves, our property, and our possessions.
There aren't too many holy wars that have been waged in the name of positivity, that's for sure. And now that the world is online, those wars rage on in virtual perpetuity. Sometimes I feel like I'm watching the Crusades all over again, and I have to say Onward Christian Soldiers is not high on my playlist. Of course, I wish I'd written it; I could use the royalties. (I'm kidding, y'all.)
One of the joys of my life has been playing with the wonderful Emmylou Harris. Summer 2009, I sent a few songs to her. One was an Á capella piece I'd written with Cindy Morgan, titled "My Ransom", and the other was something I'd written with Merrill Farnsworth, titled "Savior's Kiss", a melancholy song about human brokeness.
My letter simply asked, "Would you be interested in being part of a recording which focuses on the Love of God?"
Like me, Emmy was tired of the vitriol spewed by so many people of faith, in the wake of Barrack Obama's election. Watching the campaign by satellite TV on our tour bus, we recoiled at the religious posturing, and I hung my head often, at the ridiculous things asserted by people of my faith.
Emmylou is not particularly religious. But when the language of faith is loving and poetic, and when Jesus is allowed to stand without the props of exclusivity, not as a dashboard statuette, but as an open-armed lover of souls, one need not be religious to find Him appealing.
"Yes", she said.
And so I began a labor of love, which is still in progress, unraveling before my eyes like an orange peel, in one beautiful piece, spiraling heavenward.
Emmylou joined drummer Bryan Owings, bassist Chris Donohue, guitarist Pat Bergeson, myself, and engineer Todd Robbins at a small Franklin studio called "The Workshop" where we casually played through her song "I Didn't Know It Was You". The song is one of her finest pieces, right up there with "The Pearl" and "Red Dirt Girl", and I'm so pleased that she brought it to this project. It didn't take long to find the magic, and I know that everyone enjoyed playing to her guitar strumming and that beautiful voice. After some harmonies and an additional guitar part, the track will be ready to mix.
I like my life.
Besides the Emmylou track, I've produced a song on the fabulous duo The Civil Wars called "From This Valley". I'm in the process of inviting this artist and that, and trying to mix it up a bit, and the response has been beautifully positive from people of varied spiritual and social backgrounds, from Buddhist to Jewish, hillbilly to hipster.
This project has been the spark for writing this blog. Perhaps I'll just write about life, whether music has anything to do with it or not.
Who am I kidding? Music is always with us. Just listen.