June 20, 2022
Old Guy New Songs - music saved me. Again.
In a last minute impulse I uploaded the tracks for the new CD to Bandcamp.com last week. The CD has had a nice reception, for which I’m grateful! But my gratitude goes beyond CD sales to the effect of music on me personally and us collectively.
I’m pretty sure we are built to be connected to each other. As imperfect humans, we do a pretty good job of effing up the relationships that are most important to us, often in our desperation to connect to something outside of ourselves.
Music is the vehicle that I’ve used to reenter society on a couple of occasions. 20+ years ago I found myself unexpectedly single, when my wife of 21 years and 3 kids told me she’d met someone she would rather be with. When my sense of self worth was at its lowest, I started taking my guitar back out to the coffee houses. I made new connections, musically and personally, which allowed me to reenter the world outside my house. Plus, the music enabled me to express difficult emotions in a socially acceptable manner. I think.
When I met Suzanne, I was smart enough to take my guitar along on our 2nd date. I guess she thought I played ok, because she agreed to a 3rd date!
Last July 14, just shy of a year ago at the time of this writing, Suzanne succumbed to the cancer she’d been living with and fighting for the prior 5 years. My purpose in the last year of her life was to be her full time caregiver, especially when she was on intravenous feeding at home. I had to keep the plumbing and machines in order until she made the transition to hospice care here at home. Then my purpose was to keep her comfortable, let her know she was loved, and assure her that Dustin and I were going to be ok.
After Suzanne died, I focused on making sure that Dustin was indeed ok, but there were those quiet moments when, quite naturally, I was floundering.
Music again became the tool of my salvation, at least emotionally. I set about a very disciplined approach to writing songs, working every day. The songs enabled me to look my emotion in the face and deal with all of the things in my head and heart. Most of those songs will never see the light of day (for which you should all thank me), but several of them were good enough to share with people. Around this time, my friend Eddie White asked me to play at an open mic his other songwriter friend Danielle Howle was hosting literally down the street from my home. Open mics tend to start off slowly and pick up steam once musicians find out about them. I told Eddie I’d be happy to play once or twice a month. It was a great opportunity to make new friends and acquaintances, and to test out these new songs on an unsuspecting public.
I met a few other folks, too. George Fox, who runs a Folly Beach open mic at a joint called Chico Feo, is yet another songwriter I’m now delighted to call a friend. Folly Beach is a lot like Greenwich Village. Tourists come during the day to see the hippies. The hippies come out at night to be themselves. Mike Terry, actually a friend from my band parent days when Dustin was marching for Wando High School, runs a couple open mics in the Charleston area. Eric Barnett, who mastered the tracks for the new CD, runs a podcast called Songs of the Unsung, and is quite a songwriter himself. Sam Rae and Pete Henry are full time road warrior musicians young enough to be my children. Sxvxnt reintroduced me to the world of hip hop and rap; Alan Hartley encouraged me to play throughout the pandemic and there are others (Chuck, David, Kevin, Gerard) who were also extremely encouraging in a difficult time. My newfound family at Fox Music House also had a huge hand in my coming back to life.
My newfound purpose became to use the music from this time to raise some money to fight the cancer that killed Suzanne. So far it’s working.
I remain grateful for so much, but mostly these days for the people in my life.
Next time we can go track by track on the new CD
March 18, 2022
So. It's been a minute.
Doesn’t take long to see that there hasn’t been much activity here since 2015. Shoot, the last blog post wasn’t even mine.
The original intent for this site was to generate revenue. When we moved here in June 2015 the thought was I’d supplement my pension from my teaching career with substitute teaching and private lessons. I did pick up a few students, which was great(!), but life didn’t go according to plan.
I picked up a long-term sub gig as an elementary school music teacher in North Charleston in August 2015. That job turned into a full time teaching position, first in Charleston county and then in Berkeley county. That kept me out of mischief during the day and I was fortunate to meet, work with and learn from some incredibly committed and talented colleagues!
In November 2016, we lost Suzanne’s mom, Audrey, who moved to Mount Pleasant with us. Literally a few days later, Suzanne was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She had been feeling “funny” for a while but chalked it up to the stresses of caring for her mom while balancing being present for the rest of us. But, on a visit to our family doctor she mentioned that she had some kind of bump in her lower abdomen. The doctor felt around and referred Suzanne to a gynecological oncologist. He confirmed that, indeed, Suzanne had been slowly growing a tumor for a few years.
She was dumbfounded because she’d had a total hysterectomy as a younger woman. How was there any way that a woman without ovaries could develop ovarian cancer?
Suzanne’s cancer was actually classified as Primary Peritoneal. On a cellular level it was identical to ovarian. Sometimes a little bit of the ovary is left after a hysterectomy, or sometimes the cancer cells just look for similar material to attack. At any event, Suzanne’s tumor had lodged in her abdomen.
We took a trailer trip that Christmas, our first, to Disneyworld and to visit family in Florida. When we got back Suzanne was scheduled for major surgery to remove the cancer, then aggressive chemotherapy to get whatever they couldn’t see.
If you know me you know the story between Suzanne’s diagnosis in 2016 and her eventual death in July 2021. If you don’t know me you likely know someone else who has lived through the gradual loss of a loved one from cancer or some other debilitating illness or condition.
So. Why is the website back up now?
I remain one of the luckiest men I know. I had a 20 year marriage to a woman who I loved with my whole heart and who loved me with hers. That was a big loss, and will hurt for a long time. However, all of us have things in our lives we have to overcome or live with as best as we can. I can’t do anything for Suzanne anymore, but I can try to support the work of those who are trying to eliminate the disease that killed her.
The website is back up because my music activities for the foreseeable future will all be geared towards raising money for STAARoc.org. STAAR (Survive, Thrive, Advocate, Advance Research) is an organization founded by women who had the same rare type of ovarian cancer that killed Suzanne. I’ll be running regional house concert/small venue shows as part of my ongoing Cancer Revenge Tour. Admission will be by donation to STAAR; expenses will be offset by cd sales, and there will be a new CD! The title is “Old Guy New Songs,” and will be finished in time for the fall shows. More next time on how music saved me yet again.
August 27, 2015
Ron Block of Alison Krauss and Union Station (ronblock.com) wrote a wonderful piece on practicing. His management was kind enough to let me post it here -
Thoughts on practicing, fresh on my mind from finishing the new bluegrass instrumental record, Hogan's House of Music:
My Dad gave me a guitar when I was 11, and I liked it but had no direction. I didn't really get the bug until about 12 or 13, when I first heard bluegrass. Dad says, "I got him a banjo and he didn't come out of his room until he was 20." The biggest prompt to serious practice is a love for music and a desire to play the best music one can. I used to think I was disciplined, because people told me that, but I was just going to my room and doing what I loved. At times, later on, I lost some of the intense love for it and then tried to be disciplined but the results were vastly different. Along with desire for and love of music and playing, there must be the sense of faith that one can excel - a growing acceptance in one's mind of the gift. When I began playing, I never even questioned my ability; I just loved the thing itself. I loved playing so much I didn't want to do much of anything else except read books.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized a 14 year old has a lot more free time than someone with a family and a home. I've had to learn ways to become more focused. That's where I struggle at times. I bit off more than I could chew when I was young. I played guitar, banjo, electric guitar, and sang, and wrote songs. Each of those could be a full time job. So I have to manage, make sure I don't play banjo for four hours and forget about writing, or play guitar to the exclusion of banjo. It is always a juggling show for me. Add a family and home to that, and working at home, and you have the potential for chaos.
Break it down:
Optimally an effective practice strategy involves looking at the whole subject and breaking it down into learnable sections. I have never been too good at doing that in a comprehensive way. But if a person wanted to learn the guitar in a complete way it would involve daily transcribing, learning scales, chords, arpeggios, rhythms, playing with a metronome or drum machine, and playing with other people.
Work on what you don't know:
It's crucial to work on what you don't know, what you can't play. Of course there must be review at times, but learning new things all the time opens up windows of possibility. There have been times on the road where I learned, say, a Django solo over the course of a couple days, and it changed how I played the solo on Oh Atlanta.
I have had a struggle at times to maintain focus during practice, for various reasons. In the main it's important to keep the end result in mind (playing this particular song better, learning these new chords, etcetera), and yet we must enjoy the process. A mindset focused only on results brings fear and tension to the creative process. A mind that chooses to enjoy the process as well as expecting a good end result is less susceptible to fear. To this end, Robert Capon wrote, “Mere facility, of course, is no more a guarantee of good taste in cooking than it is in music; but without it, nothing is possible at all. Technique must be acquired, and, with technique, a love of the very processes of cooking. No artist can work simply for results; he must also like the work of getting them. Not that there isn't a lot of drudgery in any art - and more in cooking than in most - but that if a man has never been pleasantly surprised at the way custard sets or flour thickens, there is not much hope of making a cook of him. Pastry and confectionary will remain forever beyond him, and he will probably never even be able to get gravy to come out the same way twice. Interest in results never conquers boredom with process."
Respect for the calling:
Sometimes don't want to go downstairs and play banjo or guitar but I know I must. If I push through and do it, I'm soon enjoying it. It has a lot to do with confidence in the gift. My co-writer, Rebecca Reynolds, has taught me a lot about how creativity works. She told me this: "Safety isn't in practice, safety is in identity. Practice is just respect for the calling. Fear says safety is in practice. If you believe that practice will save you, you will procrastinate. However, if your practice simply honors the gift that has already has been given, then you will have focus, energy, and drive to do it. Practice honors the work God is about to do. It is like prayer."
It's important to push aside distractions. Checking email, Facebook, and all that when practicing can destroy the integrity and effectiveness of the practice time. I don't believe in watching television during practice, but that may just be my own particular inability to focus when the television is parading noises and images through the living room. I don't multi-task easily, and I'm not sure anyone can do it fully. There is only so much mind to go around, and if doing something requiring a high level of concentration it is not possible to be watching a movie, too. Some, though, may use the television as a means of distracting the mind from tension when practicing something over and over.
"I don't have time":
I hear from people sometimes, "I don't have time to practice." Now, in many cases that is true - someone may have six kids to feed and clothe, two jobs, a Chevy that needs a head gasket, a leaking sink, and tiny black ants invading the pantry. But quite often, "I don't have time" means simply, "I am not making music a priority." If a person is surfing the internet or watching television for two or three hours a day, or even more, they certainly have time to practice. But then it is not a question of discipline but of desire. I think, most often, "I don't have time" is a lie we tell ourselves when really we do not have sufficient desire.
And now we're back to passion:
To stimulate desire to play, listen to great music. Go see concerts. Read books on music and musicians. Passion is something caught, something spread.
July 17, 2015
So why should I (or my kid) learn music anyway?
Music is ubiquitous in our culture. It’s awfully hard to escape music without putting earbuds in to listen to our own, you guessed it, music. Music is used on its own, in other artforms (theater, dance, film, tv), as anesthesia at the dentist, as anesthesia in the mall, as a motivator when working out, you get it. We are surrounded by music; it makes sense to at least know something about it.
“I don’t know what it is, but I know what I like.”
So, doesn’t it make sense to understand what about the music you like makes you like it, so you can find more of it or make your own?
But there’s more.
At one time, music was an important part of a child’s education. Way back, when wealthy kids were provided an education and poor kids learned their parents’ trade, music was considered central to a child’s curriculum of study. Kids learned to play piano, harpsichord, violin, learning how to read and play the music of the day.
Meanwhile, in poorer families, kids learned to play the songs their mothers and grandmothers sang while working. Music was part of the social fabric, an integral and intrinsic part of culture. Before the days of streaming to your kid’s smartphone, before the Walkman, before the boom box, before the stereo, before the transistor radio, music existed. In fact, when our only means of making music was banging rocks and singing, music existed.
If you’ve ever seen babies and young children respond to music, you know it’s in our DNA; we are hard wired to do music in one way or another.
Next time we’ll talk about HOW to learn to make music!
July 1, 2015
Thoughts of an Immigrant
Most of these posts will be about music and the guitar, but not this one.
We went to dinner last night at the new home of a couple who had moved from New Jersey, just as we have. It was comforting to hear familiar cadence and rhythm in their speech (and to share news of home), though it made me realize – my family and I are immigrants to the South, just as much as if we went to live in a completely different country.
It’s different today; we can instantly become and stay connected to people all over the world, even those we’ve never met, through the magic of social media. I have good friends who use the internet as a medium for music composition and instruction; business is conducted over the web all the time. Sometime, though, we have to talk to people who actually live near us!
We live in Park West, at the northern end of the historic and beautiful town of Mount Pleasant. When my wife first asked me to look at homes here, my initial exposure to the township was Route 17 – didn’t see much different from New Jersey, to tell the truth.
It didn’t take long, though, to realize the Lowcountry is a special, magic place. While Mt. Pleasant is not exactly a beach community, it’s easy to get the dog to the ocean for a walk in the morning (assuming I can get the necessary humans out of the house). There are all the same restaurants and stores you can find anywhere in America, but there are places unique to this spot. Those are the ones I want to get to know.
I knew when we moved here that I needed to be careful to not judge or offend. The culture and heritage are different than mine. The rhythm and cadences of speech are different. There is a different set of musical traditions – I never heard of shagging before we moved here, and it’s not something I want to approach lightly…
When the horrible events unfolded at the Mother Emanuel church downtown, I held my breath like many others. I was away from here, finishing up my last few days of work in New Jersey. I was stunned at the calculated hatred displayed by the perpetrator, and wondered what kind of place I had agreed to bring my family for this next part of our lives.
But then I heard the families speak at the hearing, “You hurt a lot of people, but God forgives you. I forgive you.” In those incredibly strong and unbelievably brave few words, all of the power of that horrific action was removed. The pain surely remains, but the victims' families are not seeking personal vengeance; they are seeking a higher form of justice.
I was driving to my new home when I heard those words on the radio. I was on the highway between Baltimore and Washington, and almost had to pull over. A few days later I was driving again, this time to teach for my brother Steve at his camp in Maryville, Tennessee. During my drive the people of Charleston, Mount Pleasant and the surrounding areas joined hands across the entire span of the Ravenel Bridge as a show of unified support for the victims’ families, and to demonstrate that there wasn’t going to be a race war.
As a new resident of the Lowcountry, I recognize subtlety and nuance in culture. I have a lot to learn about faith, love and plain old respect from my new neighbors, and I look forward to doing just that.