After a recent Q&A I did for a music blog, someone said to me that if they’d been doing the interview, they’d have asked different questions. I thought it was a fun idea, so I mentioned on social media and in my newsletter that if anyone had any burning questions they’d like answered, I’d compile them in a Q&A, to be published in my monthly newsletter. Not only did I receive some great questions – there were a LOT. Too many to put into one newsletter. For those of you who aren’t signed up for my newsletter (why not? You get free music every month!), I thought I’d post them here. This is Part Two of a two-part Q&A. Thanks to all for your questions.
If it’s not too personal or painful – what are your memories of the time you played “The Aviator’s Song” at The Sage, Gateshead on the night after your father died? Did you consider canceling – the word “try” is huge here: “…I plan to try to sing The Aviator’s Song for him tonight in Gateshead, and give him a good send off…” – received 21/05/07
Some of us in the audience knew this – a lot did not – and I remember the inhalation that seemed to suck the walls in and not let go until the end. I will never forget what you said afterwards, when I said that I did not know how you had gotten through the night: “…It was only here, with you people, giving me the strength…” Raw, raw emotion, tears on every face, the applause that burst forth…small wonder that “Idlewild” appeared a few years later.
I remember that night very well. I was on tour with my Wine, Women & Song sisters, Suzy Bogguss and Matraca Berg. When I received a call on my mobile phone in the early morning (UK) hours I knew something had happened – it was the middle of the night back home. My father, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, had died. We were in the middle of a UK tour and there was no way to cancel without it unfairly impacting a lot of other people – and there was really no reason to cancel either. He was finally at peace after what had been a terrible and frightening ordeal for him. I wrote “The Aviator’s Song” about him but had never played it for him when he was alive. It was complicated, and he was complicated and after all, I had written it more for me than for him. But that night it felt like the right thing to do. It’s true that I couldn’t have gotten through it without Matraca and Suzy on either side of me and without the audience who, whether they knew or not, seemed to sense what was going on. If I ever start to doubt that music is much more than just entertainment, I think about nights like that one.
It occurred to me that song writers often get inspiration from strange things. Paul McCartney dreamt “Yesterday”. Have you ever thought about asking fans to send you a one-line lyric and see if any lyric sparks off inspiration for writing a song? By the way, I heard that RyanScare are thinking about doing flights to the USA for less than a tenner.
That’s never occurred to me, Brian – but I’m not usually at a loss for lyrical ideas as much as I am for ways to get them organized into proper songs! I have so many scraps and shards and pieces of lyrics I’ll never be able to finish them all – and they are not all worthy of finishing, either. As for RyanAir – never again! Sometimes it’s worth paying extra. 😉
This is a selfish question for me. Its been a year or more since I saw you at Unitunes in Houston, or the Bugle Boy in La Grange, Texas. Any plans for a flesh to flesh concert coming up in this area soon?
– Dave Kelly
We will most assuredly be back in Texas soon, Dave. When I started touring more in the US back in the early 2000’s, one of the best parts was finding such wonderful audiences in Texas. In some ways playing in Texas is like playing in Scotland and Ireland – everybody seems to be a huge music fan, and half of them are musicians themselves. It must be in the blood.
Is there a song you’d give your eye teeth to have written? Anyone you’d like to write/duet with?
-Lesley in London
I would have loved to have written “Famous Blue Raincoat” (Leonard Cohen), “Guadalupe” (Tom Russell), “Good Old Boys Like Me” (Bob McDill), “Just Like A Woman” (Bob Dylan). I could probably think of about 100 more. Having spent my formative years singing Everly Brothers and Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris songs, I am passionate about duet singing. Two part harmony is my favorite kind. I’ve been lucky enough to sing and write with Tom Russell (and I love doing both). I would love to sing with Don Williams. He’s just a gem.
What is your favourite cover version of one of your songs.
That’s a tough one. Two from the 90’s that really seemed like a perfect fit, artist to song and vice versa, are Martina McBride/”Independence Day” and Patty Loveless/”You Don’t Even Know Who I Am”. I am also very proud to have written a song that the great Etta James saw fit to sing (“Love’s Been Rough On Me”). But I think maybe the cover that blows me away as a listener is Jimmy LaFave’s version of “On A Bus To St. Cloud”. Even if I hadn’t written it, I would love it.
In the moment of singing/performing a song is there a space that you go to to be able to deliver the feeling? I ask from the point of view of a 51 year old lover of music who has watched countless performers over the years present their songs. Watching Ryan Adams for example, finding that spot… that zone… Most recently John Murry ( The Graceless Age album) highly recommended if you haven’t heard. Some artists appear able to find an almost spiritual place to be in to perform. Is it a mixture of such a place and on occasions just having to go with what you have? It’s a big question I know. Is it an easy one to answer? I have been blessed to have seen you and Barry and Christine several times over the years and find your performances to be the most beautiful, warm and yes spiritual thing.
Rob, this is the endlessly alluring and sometimes frustratingly elusive thing about performing. When it’s right, it’s Church. I’ve always said that it’s the only time I can actually get out of my head, but that doesn’t happen every night. It’s dependent on so many things. The audience, the room, and the sound quality all play a part. I think what I’ve discovered in recent years, especially the last two when we’ve done so much touring, is that whatever I have to bring to the stage, it’s my obligation to bring it. That includes even things like exhaustion, which, if you accept it and open up to it, can translate into openness and vulnerability. That may sound strange but it’s part of the process of tuning into the deepest part of yourself. The best nights are always the ones where you feel that something deep inside comes out of you and soars around the room for awhile, like a bird. It flies not because you force it to, but because you get out of your own way and let it spread its wings. It’s absolute magic, and you’re right, it’s spiritual. That’s what keeps me going.
I’m breaking the rules and pleading for you to come to a venue in Louisville, Kentucky or Evansville, Indiana (the home of your little red piano)….pretty please.
When will you , Barry and Tom Russell come to Vancouver Canada together? That would be sooo awesome! I would clear my calendar and do a happy dance for that! A fan of you all –
We’ll work on it, Loretta & Laverne – and if you have a venue in mind that would be right for us please let them know and give them the contact info for my booking agent (on my website)! We’d love to come.
I have seen you and Barry quite a few times here in Bristol UK. A couple of times with the excellent Christine Bougie and also in the trio Wine, Women & Song with Suzy and Matraca. My question is to do with the subject matter of your emotive song “Idlewild”. The last time I saw you and Barry you both signed the Woman On The Wheel ~ Live from the Hello Cruel World Tour 2012 set I had purchased. Inside you write about each song on this album and I have been re-reading what you said about the idea for this song and about the actual process of writing it which I gather was quite difficult, or parts of it was. Your March newsletter includes a video to this song and your comments on it, or rather the visuals shown and your memories of the 1960’s as a young child.
Have you either met or been in contact with Van Evers, the youngest son of Medgar Evers? You write that you would love to meet up with him again having not seen or spoken to him since you were both children and built a snowman together. I have to assume that Van is still alive, and also assume he knows of you as a singer-songwriter and just maybe has heard of the song “Idlewild” and if so has heard you singing it and knows the lyrics and again possibly has the album it’s on. It would be lovely if you two did met up and spend sometime quietly together talking about those days so long ago. I knew of Medgar Evers through songs by Dylan, Phil Ochs etc so have been aware of his life and sad death but am pleased that you too have now included him in a song.
I haven’t seen Van Evers since we were both young children. I would love to meet with him at some point; I would be wary of intruding into his life as we only spent a few weeks together years ago, and I am not sure if he even remembers it. He, after all, had just lost his father, and I’m sure the trauma of that superseded anything else. But obviously it was an experience that stayed with me for many years afterwards.
My husband and I love to see you when you play the Sage in Gateshead, England, it feels like a such a small place compared to the festivals etc you play around the world. Do you really enjoy it as much as we think you seem to? Look forward to your next visit.
-Lynda & Garrie Holmes
We adore the Sage! It’s one of the great venues of the world. Playing festivals is a lot of fun – very exciting, big crowds, a great adrenaline rush – but almost never the sort of hushed, pin-drop atmosphere that you get in a beautiful, intimate concert hall. Those moments are really my favorite ones – so I’m always going to play venues like the Sage, for as long as they’ll have me.
Do you look for a sound i.e. a 12 string guitar with piano as the lead instrument, or a powerful lyric over a musical backing. Maybe both would be the ultimate song?
One of the most important things I learned in my early years in Nashville is that the song comes first. Without a song you have a pretty package with nothing much inside. So I guess I subscribe to the theory that if you can’t sit in a room and play it on a guitar or a piano and move people, you don’t really have a song. Having said that, sounds and production are tremendously important. If I hadn’t been surrounded by great talent like Barry Walsh, Doug Lancio and the fantastic band who played on Hello Cruel World those songs wouldn’t be the same.
How difficult is it to keep some of your old songs fresh (“Independence Day”, “Bus To St Cloud”, “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am”, and my favorite “When You Are Old”) after performing them for so many years?
Sometimes it’s harder than others. I put “Independence Day” away for awhile (stopped performing it) because I couldn’t get back to the feeling I had when I wrote it. When I pulled it out again I reinvented it as a piano ballad. Somehow that put me back in touch with the song. Others, like “On A Bus To St. Cloud”, I’ve somehow been able to keep interpreting over the years without feeling that they’ve grown stale. I always seem to be able to find something new in that song – I think it has something to do with the fact that there are unresolved mysteries in it.
I would love to know… If you could have 3 people from past or present with you on a desert island who would you choose (those people could bring the instrument of their choice)…. and why… Mine would be you, Bryan Adams and Eric Clapton because yours and Bryan’s music means a lot to me (played at my wedding 4 years ago) and I really would love you 3 to get together and either write, record or jam.
I’d love that too! My first choice would have to be Barry Walsh. Not just because he’s my husband but because there’s no one on earth who understands my songs so well, on such an intuitive level. We’ve been playing together for so long that we anticipate each others’ moves, which is a wonderful feeling. And I’d have to invite my two Wine, Women & Song sisters, Matraca Berg and Suzy Bogguss. We discovered early on that our three voices have a really unique blend – singing with them is pure joy. On the other hand, if we’re playing make-believe – how about Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Etta James? That would be a master class in singing.
Jim gets frustrated when changing guitar strings – do you change your own and if so how do you find it?
So far I haven’t found anyone who is willing to change my strings for me (except on the odd tour – John Prine’s guitar tech graciously offered, and I accepted before he could change his mind). It’s a luxury to me – beyond massages or hotel upgrades – to have someone change my strings. I hate it. I’d rather iron clothes or scrub a sink. I do, however, love the sound and feel of new strings – and they tend to break when they get old – so I try to do it with some regularity. While on the road I try to change strings every 5th or 6th show, since I give them a pretty good workout during the course of an evening.
Hi Gretchen, I was wondering if you have traced your family tree? Is there a European connection?
-Steve from Artrix
I’ve never made any serious attempt at doing genealogy research, but from what I’ve learned from my parents and grandparents, my father’s side of the family is English. My mother is a little more typically American – a mix of French Huguenot, English and German. I’m related on my mother’s side to Josef Mohr, who wrote the lyrics to “Silent Night”, and also to Adlai Stevensons I and II, the US Vice President, and the US ambassador to the UN under JFK, respectively (not to mention McLean Stevenson, who played Lt. Colonel Henry Blake on M*A*S*H!)
Thanks to everyone who submitted questions – we’ll do another one sometime!