Kelly McCartney of The Bluegrass Situation asked me to share some thoughts post-election. I don’t normally post political items on my website. I know people come here for updates on musical things. But these are not normal times.
Like virtually all my musician friends who have spoken out, I’ve been on the receiving end of some vitriol. I’ve been advised to “stick to music” and “keep your politics to yourself”. If you know anything about my music, you know that my politics, along with my worldview, my sense of empathy for the vulnerable and my deep desire to bear witness for the underdog are at the core of my work as a songwriter. I try to speak truth as I see it. So should you. So should we all. I chose a career as a singer/songwriter; at no point did I sign an agreement to be silent about injustice, inequity and above all, hate.
20 years ago I embarked on my first tour of the UK, a few months after my first album, The Secret of Life, came out. Although it had received some glowing reviews, they didn’t translate into sales or radio play (or gigs) here in the US, and prospects for the album were looking grim. A friend who’d toured the UK with a popular folk artist urged me to make the trip. He assured me I’d find an audience there, where one had eluded me here.
How right he was. On that first tour it was a very small audience – 40 or 50 folks at a go, in small venues which in some cases were no more than pubs with a tiny corner stage. But I felt a connection almost immediately. This month, that connection was tangible as I met dozens of people who were at those first shows. Twenty years later, they were still coming to see us play – in venues ten or twenty times the size. I don’t know what the norm is for most artists, but I have a suspicion that I’ve somehow accrued as loyal an audience over twenty years as anyone could. It sure seems that way from my point of view.
Last month’s 20th Anniversary Tour was a celebration, an emotional reconnection to those longtime fans, and hopefully a warm welcome to new ones. We pulled out some old songs, played some new ones, reinvented a couple. We had us a time. One of the many highlights was our show in London at Union Chapel on February 16th. It’s hard to put into words what I felt that night. When I first came to the UK in 1996 I didn’t envision myself performing to a full house in such an awe-inducing space. I don’t think I spent much time thinking about it – I’ve always been more comfortable concentrating on the work (the writing, the recording, the performing) than on the dreams. Focusing on the outcome opens the door to disappointment, unpreparedness, nerves and a host of other devils. Put your head down and do the work, and, you’ll get where you’re going – that’s always been my way of working.
But I did take a moment onstage in London during the heart-opening standing ovation at the end of the show to stop, be in the moment and take in what was happening. I wanted to be present for what was given to us so generously by the audience that night – their appreciation, enthusiasm and love. It’s harder than you’d think – your mind is going 50 different places and it’s hard to just – be. It seems almost self-indulgent to bask in it.
As someone very wise once told me, the only gracious way to receive a compliment is to simply say “thank you”. So I want to say thank you – to all of you who came to any of our UK shows, from 1996 to 2016 – and sat in the dark with us while we tried to conjure some magic. Some of you have come to many, many shows over the years; some of you have just been to your first on this tour. I’m grateful for you both. Huge thanks are also in order to our tour manager, Rebecca Kemp, who moves mountains whilst smiling all the while; and to my UK booking agent, Nigel Morton, whose enthusiastic support has kept me both working and believing. And finally, it was my deepest pleasure to play these songs with Barry Walsh, Conor McCreanor and Colm McClean – three brilliant and intuitive musicians who help me keep the lyrics front and center, yet take the songs so far beyond what they are in themselves. I feel like the luckiest woman in the world. Thank you for all the love.
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. -David
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. -Brian Abbott
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. -Barbara Erbe
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
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. -Loretta Wheeler
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 – -Laverne
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. -Pauline
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? -Barry Moss
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? -Michael Brown
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. -Val Mettam
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? -Liz Ferguson
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!
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 One of a two-part Q&A, to be continued in my May newsletter.
I love the song ‘Ghost’ from your Burnt Toast collection and there are subtle references to ghosts in some of your other songs. Do you believe in ghosts and if so have you ever seen one? – Andy Green
I do believe spirit is a real thing and we don’t really know where it goes when not embodied. As with most things of that nature I try to leave my mind open – both the intuitive and rational sides! I live in a 150 year old home and there is supposedly a ghost who lives here. She’s a prostitute who was killed right here on the porch (now a room) of this house. Former residents say they heard her walking in high heels at night. She appears to be at rest now or perhaps she’s moved on, because we’ve never heard her. We did have a repairman who saw something so scary in our attic that he startled and fell partially through the ceiling. Maybe she’s living up there now.
We all love to hear you singing your own songs & after all, because you wrote them they are all suited to your own voice & are relevant to you in the first instance. However, is there anyone living or dead, that you would really love to have either written a song for or hear them sing/record one you have already written? -Debbie Jones
I would love to hear Emmylou Harris sing one of my songs. She has been one of, if not the most influential artist for most of us “girls with guitars”, and her song choices, of course, have always been impeccable. Luckily she’s still recording so there’s hope!
Love the song If Heaven. I can find it on Youtube but find the sound quality a bit off. Would like share the song with music groups I follow on Facebook. is there any way I could find it elsewhere or would you consider bringing it out on Youtube? I love your music so much Gretchen. If people would have the courage to follow this song and make it a part of their lives the world would change for the better. Thanks for what you do. -mjb32000
Thank you! I’m working on digitizing a lot of old video (actually my son is working on it, I’m just looking forward to seeing the results) and I hope to be able to post a lot of fun stuff on my YouTube channel soon. Hopefully there’ll be a good quality performance of “If Heaven”. You can find me on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/user/gretchenpeters
How many songs did you write before you had the success that made you decide you just might be able to do this for a living….? -Neil
It’s impossible to know, but I probably had written 30 or 40 songs when I decided that I needed to move to Nashville and give this singer/songwriter thing a real chance. I hadn’t had any success at that point (unless you consider playing in countless bars and honky-tonks a success, and I’m pretty sure my parents didn’t) but I had a burning desire to do it. It may sound strange but I didn’t really concentrate much on writing songs before moving to Nashville – I was too busy working on other things like singing, performing, keeping a band together, learning how to handle a rowdy crowd on a Saturday night. It wasn’t until I moved to Nashville that I did my “postgraduate” work on songwriting. And it wasn’t until I’d been here a couple of years that I wrote good enough songs to get one cut.
Hi Gretchen – can you tell me how many of your songs are personal experiences, how many are observances and how many are your imagination? They all seem incredibly personal but can’t all be….right? And do you use alternate tunings? -Ed Brown
It’s a funny thing about songs – they can start out seeming as if they’re about someone else and suddenly – or gradually – you realize they’re about you. “Circus Girl” comes to mind. She was a character I dreamed up, but ,clearly, she became me, or I became her. I think all my songs are a mixture of personal experience and imagination. “Picasso And Me” is a good example – it’s about Picasso and his cat (the cat being the narrator and omniscient observer), but it gave me a vehicle to say things that I wanted to say about art and the artist’s life – things that might have sounded presumptuous or affected had I not had those two characters to speak for me.
That song and quite a few others of mine, especially on the Gretchen Peters album, are in alternate tunings – mostly Drop D, DADFAD, DADGAD or variations thereof.
I grew up on Long Island, born Nov. 15 ’57, as it happens. My dad worked for Lockheed at Idlewild when I was young, same time as the events in your blog post “50 Years On”. I live in Mississippi now, about 18 miles outside Jackson, not far at all from the Evers home. With the exception of four years I’ve lived in Mississippi since 1984. My family is mixed race, it’s complex and every one of the cousins has a different take on the whole thing, the South Carolina history, the New York history, the versions we each got. Anyway my question – In the song, in Idlewild, you use the word nigger. As a songwriter how important did that inclusion feel to you, and how did it/does it feel to sing it? The way its written you really take ownership of it – you begin the phrase with “we” and my sense is that you are not taking writers license there and speaking as a character from the writing, but more as a literal one of the “we”, an American who lived in a through a cultural moment. Your vocal phrasing there is angry. Its a powerful moment and makes the song, to me. How often do you perform that song (ok, I snuck a second question in!). Powerful stuff. I think your song is the perfect post-Dylan commentary on those times. -Billy Cochrane
Thank you, Billy. You are exactly right that the “we” in that section of the song is really a collective American “we”. I think of the narrator in that song as the “omniscient child”, a point of view that I’ve written from before – I’m not sure why, but one thing it allows me to do is write with a certain amount of circumspection. Children are keen observers, almost little reporters, and they can tell the facts of a story without editorializing as much as adults naturally do. But at that point in “Idlewild”, the narrator switches to a bigger “we” – all of us who were there in the midst of the violence and anger and tumult that was the 1960s.
As for the n-word: I struggled with that for a long time. In the end it was the only correct choice, and I came to that conclusion after considering how the song would work without it – with some substitute that was less inflammatory. The answer was – not at all. The truth of what it was like to be alive in America in the 1960s is carried in the weight of its words, and that was the most prominent of them all. It was everywhere, and it carried the full weight of the hate and violence that infected this country.
I’ve been singing “Idlewild” at every show for the past two years, and I don’t think it will be out of the set list anytime soon. It’s a very personal and important song to me.
Does the well-deserved acclaim for “career-defining”Hello Cruel World” affect the standing of your previous very fine albums in any way? Do they get a bit lost it forgotten in some way? If so, is it just the nature of the beast for a song-writer if an album really takes off and it therefore doesn’t matter at all? That may not be very well worded, but the thought initially occurred to me last year. Then recently someone said their gardening was a two album task so they needed new music to go with HCW, to which my instant thought was “why not take Burnt Toast or One To The Heart out in the garden with you as well?” 🙂 By the way, no criticism implied of the gardening fan, I’m just interested in whether a really brilliant last album changes perception of earlier work. -Ken
Thanks Ken – I think it’s the nature of an artist to love her most recent work the best, so that takes the sting out of it somewhat! I don’t go back and listen to my old albums much – really, ever – so I am sometimes surprised when I hear something from an early album. They sound, for the most part, pretty good to me. When I was putting together the Circus Girl compilation (which was not my idea – my record label felt it was time for a “Best Of”) I was very reluctant about combining songs from so many different records, because my experience of making those records varied so widely. In my mind, they all sound very different and reflect different levels of maturity, skill and ability. It was a big surprise to hear how well that compilation hung together. The common thread, of course, was me, which is what I had completely discounted. Just more proof that an artist isn’t the best judge of her work, at least after it’s been set free in the world.
Paul Simon has said that when he discovers a new chord voicing, time signature etc. he will find a way to write a song just to use that new chord. Have you ever done this and on which song(s)? -Gordon Riley
Absolutely! Any new element can be a jumping off point for a new song. When I’m writing I’m usually on the lookout for anything that veers off course from my well-traveled G/Em/C/D chords, or my usual 4/4 time signature, or any of the other ruts I can fall into. Although it’s a very simple song, “Saint Francis” is based upon a new voicing of a G chord (capo on 5th fret, drop-D tuning and a Gsus9 configuration) which gives it a distinctive sound. Anything new and novel, especially musically, is a great way of getting the creative juices flowing.
My question for Gretchen: I’d love to know what tuning you use for St Francis – gorgeous song – and if you wouldn’t mind I’d like to cover it in my set. -Fil
I don’t mind at all, Fil – have at it! See above re: tuning. I would also recommend you check out the recent Couch-By-Couchwest video that Barry Walsh and I did for “Saint Francis” so you can have a look at the chord voicings I’m playing: http://couchbycouchwest.com/gretchen-peters-saint-francis/
Is there any possibility of a picture of the outside view of your home with Barry? Nothing too specific (I’m not stalking!), I’d just love to see what styles you like in design, landscaping, etc. – Steve Du Lany
Sure! We love our urban neighborhood – its history, its proximity to downtown (we can walk to the Ryman!), not to mention its fabulous restaurants. Here we are at Christmastime:
When you co-write with someone who lives far away, such as the UK, do you always meet “in person” or do you use technology (MP3’s, Skype, etc.)? -Amelia Gagliano
I’ve used Skype, the telephone, email and Dropbox to write songs. I love the fact that you can collaborate with someone halfway around the world while in your pajamas! I cowrote a number of songs with Bryan Adams in the ’90s and early 2000’s, though, and we wrote in some fantastic places – Jamaica, Paris, Cologne, London, Mustique… I do miss that. But I have enough jet lag in my life, so the technology is a blessing.
Have you ever taken the bus to St. Cloud, Minnesota? I suspect this question may have been asked before. Do you still have your first acoustic guitar, the guitar you learnt to play on? Is there one in particular you consider precious for sentimental reasons? -Richard
I have never taken a bus to St. Cloud, but I have driven through it – always in the sumer, so it doesn’t much resemble the St. Cloud in the song. I don’t have my first guitar, which was a Favilla that belonged to my older sister’s boyfriend (my parents bought it from him). I wish I still had every guitar I ever owned, but the ones that got away were sold to buy other guitars. I now have a collection that isn’t large but is very special to me. It includes an 1860s era parlor guitar which I played in the video for “The Matador”, a new Collings OM which was with me on the Hello Cruel World tour in 2012-13, my wonderful Gibson J-185 which I toured with in past years but retired because it’s so big it gave me tendinitis, and my latest acquisition, a 1957 Gibson J-45 which I found (with the help of Tom Russell) in the East Village in New York City last summer). I also have a Gretsch Silver Jet electric guitar which I love, seen here in this photo:
Thanks to everyone who submitted questions – stay tuned for Part Two in the May newsletter.
Fifty years ago today, Medgar Evers was gunned down in his own driveway, within earshot of his wife and three children. As a very young child, I experienced this event, and the ones that followed like a recurring nightmare (Kennedy, King, another Kennedy), mainly through the prism of my parents’ response. My mother cried in broad daylight. My father raged. He was angrier than I’d ever seen him. It was scary, and my first indication that the larger world didn’t necessarily resemble our little haven of surburbia in Pelham, New York.
Later on, my life briefly intersected with the Evers family. Mrs. Evers brought her children to Pelham and began working with my father, a writer, on her memoir, later published under the title “For Us, The Living”. I was too young to fully comprehend her grief, and that of her children, but the youngest boy, Van, was about my age and I was happy to have a new person my age to play with. My chief memory of that time was making a snowman with Van in our front yard. I was amazed that none of the Evers kids had seen snow before – living in Mississippi seemed as exotic as living in France to me. We never talked about his father, that I can recall – we talked about the stuff kids talk about. We talked around it, probably.
This past January, on the day of President Obama’s second inauguration, I was driving through southern Alabama, coming home from a series of shows. I heard Mrs. Evers (now Mrs. Evers-Williams) deliver the invocation. Her deep, powerful voice came through my car speakers and took me straight back to Pelham in the 1960s. I thought about what southern Alabama would have looked like back then. I thought about the fact that Mrs. Evers had lived through a horror most of us couldn’t imagine, and now here she was fifty years on, playing a major role in the inauguration of the first African-American US president. The second inauguration, which somehow, for many of us, seemed even more significant than the first. And here I was, driving through the Deep South, a place that had seemed so remote to me as a child, so different from where I grew up; and now it feels like my back yard.
Everything changes; everything stays the same. That’s a line from “Idlewild”, a song I wrote about my parents, Medgar Evers, JFK, the men on the moon – the zeitgeist of the 1960s through the eyes of an omniscient child (which I wasn’t, but that’s where creative license comes in). And it’s true: so much has changed, and so much has not – not really. Racism lives, as does sexism and several newly named (but not new) -isms. But I’m an optimist at heart. I can’t help but look back at that day in 1963 and think that we did, despite how it seemed during the decade that followed, wake up. I wish I could talk to Van Evers again and see what he thinks. We never talked about it back then.
Barry Walsh has once again put together a great set of walk-in music for our upcoming UK/EU tour. You can read about it at his website. Here’s what you’ll be hearing before the lights go down if you’re coming to a show:
Monteleone – Mark Knopfler (Get Lucky)
Down From Dover – Marianne Faithful (Easy Come Easy Go)
Where’s Home? – Richard Thompson (Electric)
Little Tornado – Aimee Mann (Charmer)
Duquesne Whistle – Bob Dylan (Tempest)
Seven Times The Charm – Shawn Colvin (All Fall Down)
Alabama Pines – Jason Isbell (Here We Rest)
Million Miles – Bonnie Raitt (Slipstream)
Salford Sunday – Richard Thompson (Electric)
Use It Up – Sadie & The Hotheads (How Not To Lose Things)
There’s A Whole Lotta Heaven – Iris Dement (Sing The Delta)
Not Cause I Wanted To – Bonnie Raitt (Slipstream)
Chains Of Love – Ryan Adams (Ashes & Fire)
Early Roman Kings – Bob Dylan (Tempest)
The Boxer -Jerry Douglas with Mumford & Sons and Paul Simon (Traveler)
Lucky – Sadie & The Hotheads (How Not To Lose Things)
It’ll take me awhile to process everything that happened in 2012. It was an amazing year that went by so fast I’m not sure how it got to be December already. Covering all the highlights would be difficult, but here are some of my favorite moments, in no particular order.
You don’t think it’s going to be as big a deal as it turns out to be. I wasn’t raised on the Grand Ole Opry – in the suburbs of New York City it was as unknown as grits or turnip greens. But I did fall in love with country music as a teenager, thanks to Gram Parsons and other interlopers from the hippie country-rock era, and I fell hard. I bought every Merle Haggard and George Jones record I could find in Boulder, Colorado, where my mother and I moved when I was 13. I studied Dolly Parton’s songs, the catch in Tammy Wynette’s voice, the deep soulful sob of Patsy Cline. Emmylou Harris was the gateway drug – she made it hip to be a country singer. And country music wasn’t that far from the folk music I grew up listening to and loving. It was musically simple, but not simplistic. It was about the stories. It was about everyman, and everywoman. Their fears, their failings, their sins, their joy, their sorrow.
After moving to Nashville 25 years ago this August, I made my solo debut at the Grand Ole Opry last night. I didn’t think it would hit me so hard. I didn’t expect to be so nervous backstage, talking to Buck and Sharon White just before I walked into the spotlight. But you stand on that sacred circle of wood where Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson and Patsy Cline and so many, many others have stood, and you can’t help but feel the eyes of all of those legends on you. Ghosts and heroes. And the thing that saves you, just like it did them, is a song. You grab on to the lyric, the melody – the story – and you sing it. Last night I sang one about a middle-aged woman who’s worried that her willful daughter will follow in her own ill-advised footsteps. And then I sang another one about a man and a woman who have somehow drifted so far apart that they’re complete strangers to one another. Country songs. Folk songs. Just songs. It was a night I won’t forget, and it was a very big deal.
If you’ve attended a show on the current UK/EU tour, here’s what you’ve been listening to beforehand:
1. At The Same Time – Tom Waits
2. Moonlight Mile – Cowboy Junkies
3. The Best is Yet to Come – Patty Griffin
4. Come Home – Ryan Adams
5. Millionaire – Solomon Burke
6. Speed of the Sound of Loneliness – Jeffrey Foucault
7. Goodnight, Juarez – Tom Russell
8. Poison & Wine – The Civil Wars
9. 4 Door Maverick – Howe Gelb & A Band Of Gypsies
10. Love’s Been Rough on Me – Etta James (written by yours truly)
11. Back in The Crowd – Tom Waits
12. Don’t Carry it All – The Decemberists
13. Sea of Heartbreak – Rosanne Cash (with Bruce Springsteen)
14. Soon – Over The Rhine
15. A Good Life – Jill Sobule
16. Job’s Coffin – Tori Amos
17. Rewrite – Paul Simon
Recently Sirius/XM asked me to host a series of shows on The Village, the folk channel. The show is called Tower Of Song, and the playlist for show #4, which aired on February 15, 2012, is below.
(Feat. guest: Mary Gauthier)
intro: Tower Of Song
song: Donovan “Catch The Wind”
song: Fairport Convention “Who Knows Where The Time Goes”
song: Krista Detor, feat. Karine Polwart, Emily Smith, and Rachael McShane
“Clock Of The World” from The Darwin Song Project
song: Mary Gauthier “Mama Here, Mama Gone”
guest: Mary Gauthier
song: John Prine “Sam Stone”
song: Townes Van Zandt “Tecumseh Valley”
song: Iris DeMent “Acres of Corn”
song: Gretchen Peters “Five Minutes”
song: Judy Collins “Tomorrow Is A Long Time”
song: Mickey Newbury “San Francisco Mabel Joy ”
song: Cheryl Wheeler “75 Septembers”
song: Simon & Garfunkel “Bookends ”
song: Jeff Black “Immigrant Song”
song: Bruce Springsteen “State Trooper”
song: Richard & Linda Thompson “Down Where The Drunkards Roll”
song: Mary Black “Columbus”
song: Gretchen Peters “Saint Francis ”
song: David Olney “1917”
song: Buddy Mondlock “The Cats Of The Colosseum”
song: Blind Boys of Alabama “Moses”
song: Sweet Honey In The Rock “Sylvie”
song: Ribbon Of Highway Cast (Jimmy LaFave, Slaid Cleaves, Eliza Gilkyson, Ellis Paul, Sarah Lee Guthrie, Johnny Irion, Michael Fracasso) “This Train Is Bound For Glory”
I’ll be doing a 3 day songwriting workshop in Nashville February 25-27 in association with Performing Songwriter. Registration is now open, and the class is limited to 20 students. We’ll dig deep into the art and craft of songwriting. The workshop will include: building the backst…
My online store has been shut down for the past few weeks while we reorganize, but we’re open now and offering a 20% discount on everything in the store. This includes handwritten lyrics (there may be a delay getting those to you due to my travel schedule, so order soon if you are buying a ...…
…And then, as the band left she finished the night with a new song, asking for the lights not to be turned down too low so that she could read the lyrics. Comfortable enough in front of a sold out crowd, to close out with new material, spoke volumes. She really is on top of ... MORE
…Using the opportunity to showcase some new material she delivered the haunting ‘Lowlands’ that on first hearing drew comparisons with Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune’ – the misgivings of Nixon-era America updated to encompass Trump and fake news. The other debuted songs showed her turn of phrase…
…Amongst the highlights were the melancholy The Matador, the intense foreboding of Black Ribbons, the Southern rock guitars of Woman On The Wheel and the down-and-dirty Wichita. The common thread running through it all was the utterly stunning imagery – the description of a fallen lover’s body…