Music from the Heart

Music, for the luckiest among us, is rhythmic, melodic and harmonious thoughts we carry around in our head which are far best expressed through the heart.

Sad to say, but too much of the music I hear around me doesn’t come from the heart.

Instead it sounds like product – not unlike soap or canned goods or beer — to be packaged and sold.

A few years back I attended a three-day songwriters’ workshop at the Community Arts Cafe downtown, which featured professionals from all facets of the Nashville music scene. There were songwriters, producers, performers, even song pluggers who made the trek up I-40 from Nashville to inform aspiring songwriters willing to shell out $300 how to make it the business.

Their main message was how hard it is to make it in the business, and what was required to do so. Yeah, they said, talent and ability might come in handy, but nobody makes it in Nashville without patience, perseverance, pluck and most of all, luck.

What they were selling was a dream, a dream I’ve had since I first recognized that my favorite musicians – giants like Hank Williams and Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly and the Beatles – were those who wrote their own songs. I learned to play guitar at age 15 for one reason only, and that was to write songs.

But here I was 45 years later being told that if I wanted to make it in Nashville, that, along with my house, I would also have to sell my soul. The only songs Nashville was interested in were those that would sell X-amount of units – again, not unlike soap, canned goods or beer.

Looking back, what they were telling me made total sense. The music industry is, after all, a commercial endeavor that requires a return on investment.

Besides, there are already thousands of songwriters who have chased their dream now starving on the streets of lower Broadway. So these fine folks from the industry – several of whom I got to know fairly well and like — weren’t really looking for anything new and fresh.

By the third day, with most of the Nashville players on stage wrapping up the workshop, I experienced an epiphany. I asked myself, would I change my life as a sportswriter for the Winston-Salem Journal with theirs, a songwriter in Nashville writing songs for the sole purpose of making enough to eat and keeping a roof over my head?

If you wonder about my conclusion, go back and read the first graph of this post.

Music has to be about more than making money or it’s not worth the bother of tuning a guitar. And when it’s good, you don’t know it in your head or even your bank account. You know it in your heart.

Susanna Clark, the long-time wife and muse of one of my favorite songwriters, Guy Clark, might have penned it best in the song she wrote with Richard Leigh.

You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money,

Love, like you’ve never been hurt,

You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watching,

It’s got to come from the heart,

If you want it to work.’’

This past Sunday I cruised downtown to the monthly open jam at Liberty Arts Coffee House ram-rodded by two good buddies, Richard Boyd and Billie Feather. Richard, who sings like I sing in my dreams, is the front-man of the killer rockabilly outfit The Bo-Stevens band which features the multi-talented Billie on bass.

For two glorious hours about a dozen of us, old friends like Jeff Wall and Cindy Taplin and brand-new friends like Mike and Lisa and Debbie and John and Dennis, sat in a circle and passed songs around like a bottle of the best brandy. Billie had her bass, Lisa played a dobro, Mike a banjo of some sort, John a mandolin, Dennis a harmonica and Richard and Jeff and Cindy and I strummed along on our guitars.

A couple of originals were trotted out, but most of our time was spent playing the good old-time songs everybody knew.

Nobody was there to sell a song, or even sell themselves. We were there to make music with friends and celebrate the opportunity to do so.

It was the same kind of celebration you can experience weekly down in Bethania at our Thursday Night Open Mic at Muddy Creek, one that has me waking up every Thursday morning with a smile on my face.

So if you want to hear the best music that can be made – music that comes from your heart – don’t bother with Nashville or any place dependent on a recording industry. Head on down to Liberty Arts Coffee House at 2 p.m. on the first Sunday or the month, or down to Muddy Creek Cafe any Thursday at 6:30.

Thank the ghost of Hank Williams that there’s real music to be heard.

Anyone looking can find it all around them.

Homage to The Garage

Back when I traveled regularly for the Winston-Salem Journal, covering Wake football and basketball far and wide, my most dreaded times were spent alone in hotel rooms with the walls closing in around me.

I had to get out.

More often than not, my refuge was any club, bar or honky tonk in town known for cold beer and hot music. I’d scour up a local entertainment guide, maybe do a little due diligence on the internet, hail a cab, pay my cover charge and take my chances.

To me, genre has always been a lame word contrived by marketing types for those who don’t realize that all good music flows seamlessly into all other good music. (And besides that, it’s French).

But my rule of thumb was, when in doubt, go with the blues.

You rarely go wrong with the blues.

There were many nights I would love to remember every magic moment and there were nights I’d just as soon I could forget. But it dawned on me one time coming off the road that my prevailing opinion of any given town was shaped almost entirely on what kind of scene I happened to find on that given night.

Case in point: Anyone who has made it to the Tractor Tavern, up north in to the university community of Ballard, knows that Seattle is one rocking town. Any establishment that has a weekly Hank Williams Tribute Night is all right by me.

Conversely, I never found Tallahassee to be much fun until about my 15th trip when my compadre Lenox Rawlings and I drove about 10 miles north to this cinder-block dive with the tin roof stuck way back in some field called the Bradfordville Blues Club. Turned out to be one of my favorite haunts of all time, and had me looking forward with bated breath to the next trip to the capital of the Sunshine State.

To peer through the other end of the telescope, any working stiff passing through the Piedmont from mid-2007 through 2011 lucky enough to fall into the Garage on a Wednesday night we were having our weekly Open Mics had to return to Peoria or Hicksville or Flagstaff or Kalamazoo absolutely certain that Winston-Salem, N.C. was a mighty cool place to be.

What wild and rollicking times were to be had down that long, narrow hallway off Seventh Street. The beauty of the Garage was it never tried, or needed, to be more than what it was, a warm, happy, naturally cosmic space with the comfortable vibe you seek in such places, one that lets you know you’re welcome.

We always made sure everyone who showed up to play felt like they belonged, because they did. And by we, I include the whole family, owner/managers Richard Emmett and Kimberly Lawson, sound engineers Jeffrey Paul Irving and Brian Doub and servers like Sarah E. Smith and Erin McCully-Davis.

The music was amazing at times, a bit hard on the ears at others, but what mattered most was that we had gathered as a community to show and tell and celebrate the music and art and each other together. As I’ve written before, Open Mic done right can be downright holy.

None of which is to say Wednesday was the only night magic could be found down at 110 West Seventh. There were so many other evenings I danced myself silly to the Emma Gibbs Band or the Red Elvises or the Bo-Stevens or the Near Strangers or Lonesome Bob or Possum Jenkins or Vel Indica or the Band of Heathens or the Red Lipstick Society or the Felice Brothers or the Liquor House Soul Revue or the Solid Citizens or whatever groove a local icon like Mitch Easter might happen to be in at the time.

Best show I ever saw there was the Gourds sometime back around 2000 when Kevin Russell and his cohorts were in all their glory. It was mandatory attendance for the Collins family, though Nate was only about 15 and Rebecca around 11.

I feel almost guilty in saying I didn’t make the scene much after Tucker Tharpe took over the bar from Richard and Kim five years ago. We got the Open Mic up and going out my way at Muddy Creek Cafe, and it wasn’t the getting downtown that impeded me as much as the prospects of getting back home.

Truth is, I got older. I also got spoiled by having what I wanted – cold beer, hot music – five minutes away.

And now the sorrowful news comes down that the Garage will suspend operations come the New Year. Richard and Tucker are, from what I gather, holding out hope that somebody with deep enough pockets will come forward to keep the door open and the music and adult beverages flowing, but that obviously remains to be scene.

I wish that somebody could be me, but that would require me winning the lottery. Anyone with a love of live music and all the good times associated with it will attest that the town needs places like the Garage to get folks up from their easy chairs and out of their apartments and homes, and, lest we forget, the hotel rooms with the walls closing in.

Open Mic

It makes you scared,

It makes you numb,

But it’s the price you pay

If you want to become

The Star of Your Dreams.

From Open Mic Night at The Rubber Soul

If there really is such thing as a mid-life crisis, I experienced one along about 15 years ago.

It was the dawn of a new century and I’d just turned 50. I’d been in the same profession doing pretty much the same thing for 30 years. Our kids, Nate and Rebecca, were old enough to get in and out of the bathtub by themselves. And, considering their mother, Tybee, is a teacher and way smarter than their dad, they rarely came to me for help with homework anyway.

So around the house, I was starting to feel, shall we say, superfluous. I needed some juice in my life. I was bored and getting more so every day.

But fear not. I didn’t go out and buy a fancy red sports car to tool around town with the ragtop down. And if you’ve seen me anytime since, you’ll know I didn’t start wearing some stupid rug on my head.

What I did, instead, was to toss Buckshot, my 1967 Gibson J-45, in the car and scoured around town to find an Open Mic scene where I could play the songs I had been writing since I first learned to play at age 15 or 16.

And sure enough, down on Burke Street near the intersection with First Street – at the top of the hill – I stumbled into a bar called the Rubber Soul, which featured a thriving Open Mic Night on Wednesdays. And I give thanks to this day that Kent Dunn, the wide-open owner of the establishment, and Neal B. Goode, who ram-rodded the Open Mic and operated the sound board, never ran me off.

I kept coming, week after week, until sadly, the Rubber Soul closed its doors sometime around 2006. The scene died, but thankfully the three patrons shot in there on that tragic Monday night all survived.

But the hook was in pretty deep by then, so I talked the owners of the Garage – two good friends and even better folks, Richard Emmett and Kim Lawson – into letting me run an Open Mic at their bar on Seventh Street downtown. We had a really good thing going there for 4 ½ years, a show on that wonderful big stage that started at 8 and ran until 12.

We kept tweaking the format until, in the later years, we offered 15-minute sets for singer-songwriters the first couple of hours leading into two 45-minute sets for bands from 10:30 to midnight.

I’ve been told by folks who might know this kind of thing that 4 ½ years is an eternity for any Open Mic scene. I do know we had us quite a time until our show finally ran its course and ended. We always had plenty of performers to fill the bill, but when the number of folks there to listen and buy adult beverages slowed to a trickle, Richard and Kim weren’t making enough to keep it going.

By then, I was pretty much done with hanging around until the last note died at midnight. So I was cool, and then some, with how it all went down.

But I was still writing songs, and I still needed a place to play them. You see, playing a new song live is, at least for me, essential to the process. I don’t even feel I’ve written a song until I’ve show-tested it, to to speak, in front of live human beings other than my bride Tybee.

I kept hunting around town for another happening Open Mic scene, but could never find one to suit my purposes. I fell into a couple of scenes where there were Open Jams, but if you’re a songwriter, nobody you’re playing with at these shows is going to know your songs.

It just didn’t work.

And perhaps you’ve heard the saying about how if you want to do something right. . .

So finally, early in 2014, I wrote out a proposal introducing myself and explaining what I had done at the Garage and what I was willing to do elsewhere, and dropped it off at every bar, club and venue in town that featured live music. And for months, I heard absolutely nothing.

Then in the late spring of 2014 I got a call from a guy named Bill Heath, who was interested in maybe getting an Open Mic going at Muddy Creek Cafe in Bethania. Right away I was interested, especially considering the Cafe is about five minutes from our hacienda.

We launched in June of 2014 and have been going great guns ever since. Befitting my age, it’s an earlier scene. We start at 6:30 and wrap the night up by 10, if not sooner.

Over all these experiences I’ve become more and more devoted to the concept of Open Mic.

On its worst nights, its time well-worth spending.

On its best nights replete with amazing music and even better communal fellowship and fun, it can be downright holy.

And at Muddy Creek Cafe we take great, great pains to ensure that our Open Mic is totally open. Being a musician myself, I recognize how harrowing getting up on stage to play for people can be – especially when you’re laying your soul bare by performing songs you, yourself, wrote.

So our motto is that You’re Among Friends at Open Mic at Muddy Creek Cafe. And we always welcome newbies with open arms.

What I’ve found is that relying on the same core of two or three dozen people will carry you only so far. Eventually life catches up and the numbers start to dwindle.

I attribute our longevity to being able to expand the circle with newbies every week. Besides, the larger the circle, the more fun for everybody. And we happily include all people of all ages, genders, races, attitudes and tastes.
Why not? Good music is good music, good people are good people and good times are good times.

Every week I leave my house before six knowing I have absolutely no idea what to expect. Every week is different but every week has been a blast.

I wake up every Thursday morning with a smile on my face, knowing there will be an Open Mic that night. And I’ll have the same smile on my face when I leave the house tonight for the show.

So if you’re a musician looking for a place to play, or if you’re just a music lover looking for a happening scene, we’d love to have you drop by. For those wanting to perform, just know that at 6:15 we draw numbers to determine when everybody plays.

The real fur begins to fly with the first chord at 6:30.

We’re having too much fun to miss. Hope to see you there.

The Big Bad NRA

Nobody in their right mind is advocating the prohibition and confiscation of guns in American.

There are, studies show, more than 300 million guns privately owned in our country. Think about it. Nobody could get rid of that many guns even if they tried.

Nor should they.

In addition to those who are willing to fight to the death to own firearms, I’d hazard to guess that there are millions of Americans who feel about the say way I do. Guns are deeply embedded in our culture and besides, if someone wants to keep one in their home for protection, or likes to hunt, or maybe just enjoys collecting firearms for a hobby, more power to them.

I repeat. Nobody in their right mind is advocating the prohibition and confiscation of guns in America.

But next time you catch a guns’ rights advocate make their case, check how quickly they raise the specter of prohibition and confiscation Watch how they go from reasonable and sensible gun control to the abolition of guns in America faster than a Lamborghini can accelerate from 0-to-60 miles an hour.

Because without that tired, overused canard, they have nothing to defend their extreme position, a position that there’s really nothing legislatively our elected officials should – or even could — do about guns to stem the epidemic of mass shootings raging in our land.

Twenty five good folks were gunned down this week while at worship in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. A month ago 58 were slaughtered and 546 wounded at a country music show in Las Vegas.

It’s hard these days to turn on the television without being bombarded by more breaking news of another mass shooting in America.

Let’s concede every sane and responsible citizen has a right to own a gun in America. For that, I have no problem. But don’t I have a right to attend church or go listen to some good music without being gunned down by some crazy with a weapon of war in his or her hands?

We elect our politicians to solve these kinds of problems. Our president certainly didn’t waste any time advocating the policy solution of tighter immigration when a deranged soul originally from Uzbekistan plowed over bikers and crashed into a school bus in New York City.

But the next time there’s a mass shooting – and I’m conditioned to expect that it won’t be long – check out the reaction from the politicians currently in power.

First they’ll maintain that it’s “too early’’ to comment, and by doing so would only “politicize” the tragedy.

Then, of course, they’ll offer their “thoughts and prayers’’ to the victims and their loved ones.

Not to say there’s anything whatsoever wrong than extending thoughts and prayers – as far as that goes.

The problem is, then they do absolutely nothing

If they were to follow up by advancing reasonable and sensible solutions to the problem – and here we’re talking about expanding background checks, closing the loopholes that allow the bad guys to get guns, keeping weapons of war such as high-powered, rapid-action assault rifles out of the hands of the general public – then all that would be well and good.

Instead, the powers that be just keep on keeping on accepting and cashing their checks from the NRA and other extreme guns’ rights organization and doing nothing to stem the epidemic.

But I have to think that at some point, either here or in the hereafter, they’re going to have to answer for their deafening silence.

And good luck with that.

Buckshot

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 By nature I’m not a materialistic guy. The only two possessions I own that I would bother to chase somebody down the street to take back would be my Bolivian Sombrero and my 1967 Gibson J-45, affectionately known as Buckshot.

I love my Sombrero, partly because it’s a great show hat but even more for knowing that my fearless daugher Rebecca lugged it home from her post-undergrad back-packing hike through South America.

But I love Buckshot even more. We’ve been partners in music ever since I liberated her from a music store in Galax, Va. about 30 years ago.

Now’s the time I should mention that I’m not a patient guy either. But the one instance when I managed to control my impulses came following a heaven-sent financial windfall of around $900. I knew I finally needed a good guitar, and I knew I couldn’t spend the entire largess on one.

So I budgeted half the amount — $450 — and spent the next year looking for the guitar of my dreams. Not being all that confident in my musical abilities, I wanted a name brand, the kind of guitar that people would take note of when I pulled it from the case. So I knew I’d have to go the used route.

On every trip I made while covering football and basketball for the Winston-Salem Journal, I’d scour every music store and pawn shop I came across. I came close to pulling the trigger a couple of times. There was a Guild in Atlanta I almost convinced myself was the right guitar.

But I knew it really wasn’t, so I waited.

Then one day my cousin Rick Morris from Cherokee — an accomplished guitarist in my own writ — called me to say my search was over. He had gotten to know a couple of brothers who vacationed regularly up on the reservation, and they had mentioned how they had a guitar hanging in their store up in Galax with my name on it.

With great alacrity, I sped across Fancy Gap to find Jennings Music. And there, sure enough, was the guitar of dreams, just hanging there waiting on me. I knew she was the one as soon as I strummed the strings. And when I asked the price, I knew the search was successful.

She cost $450, of course, which proved to be the best $450 I ever spent.

All this reminds me a bit of the wonderfully haunting song by Guy Clark called “The Guitar,”  but I swear it’s all true. For the past 30 years we’ve been through thick and thin together as I chase my dream of making some kind of mark in music.

Our son Nate grew up to be a professional musician. He’s a classically trained percussionist living in Dallas who teaches on the side when he’s not playing with all kinds of orchestras, symphonies, musicals and ensembles throughout the Lone Star State. And Nate, like so many fine musicians, is particular about his instruments. He’s not big on others playing them, and I respect that.

In that regard — like in so many ways — I’m different. My take is that a guitar was made the be played, and the more people who have played Buckshot over the years the happier both she and I have been.

For 4 1/2 years I coordinated an Open Mic down at the Garage in downtown Winston-Salem. For the past 3 1/2 years I’ve ram-rodded an Open Mic at Muddy Creek Cafe down in Bethania. I’m partial to Open Mics. To me they’re communion.

Over all those years, whenever somebody showed up with a busted string, a dead battery on their pickup or maybe without the ax they conveniently forgot at home, I’d shove Buckshot in their hands and say “Play her.” She’s never happier than when being played, and she comes through every time.

Buckshot and I will be back at it tonight down in Bethania at our weekly Open Mic at Muddy Creek Cafe. We have a time every week, and would love for you to come be part of it.

And if you ask just right, I’ll even let you play Buckshot.

The Kid From Waycross

Of all the great bioflicks never made, right at te top of the list is story of one of my heroes, Gram Parsons. He never found fame, never had a hit, but if you love music honesty compels you to admit how much you owe — how much we all owe — the Kid from Waycross. He also discovered Emmylou, and for that alone he deserves Sainthood.

 

 

The Great Renaissance

The most compelling evidence I’ve come across that we have a say in when we begin our ride through space and time is my birthday, August 16, 1952.

For a guy whose life would not be worth living without music, I could not have come up with a better time of arrival.

Think about it. My earliest musical memories were of Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Lefty Frizzell, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee “The Killer” Lewis, Carl Perkins and the one and only Elvis “The Pelvis’’ Presley laying down the asphalt on that magical, mystical musical highway to the Promised Land.

Then, at the tender age of 11, I sprawled out in front of our black-and-white Philco on Forest Avenue in Franklin, N.C. to watch four mop-top weirdos from someplace called Liverpool, England do their thang on The Ed Sullivan Show. I was transfixed. I was pole-axed. I was never, ever, ever, ever the same.

My mother, seeing my wide-eyed wonder, prayed for my soul.

She meant well, but she was too late.

All my life I’ve heard people debate which was the greatest decade of music. The two leading candidates seemed to be the 60s and 70s. Finally, after mulling the question for years, I realized the start and end of a decade is way too arbitrary for a line of demarcation.

Did music suddenly start to suck on Jan. 1, 1970. Of course not. American Beauty showed up in at the Record Exchange on Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street that year, as did Live at Leeds, Let It Be, Layla, Sweet Baby James, After the Gold Rush, Moondance, Bridge Over Troubled Water and CSNY’s Deja Vu.

And did the explosion continue to rock our world all through the 70s? This is just me talking, but I found less and less I really, really, REALLY wanted to listen to by the time the calendar finally turned to 1980.

There’s no doubt in my mind the Beatles hitting our shores in 1964 begat the Tsunami that deluged our musical consciousness for at least the next dozen years. And if I had to pick a time when it all started to peter (as in a verb, not a noun) out was when John Travolta disco danced across our theatre screens in Saturday Night Fever and the whole scene became less about the art and the soul and more about the clothes and what anyone could find to sniff up their nose. Style trumped substance, and we all suffered for it.

But oh those 12 years, from 1964 through 1975, what a time to be coming of age, to be cutting your musical teeth, to be alive. Oh what a lucky boy I was.

One of these days I plan to get around to writing a book about that period, and again, I’m halfway there. I already have my title:

The Great Renaissance.

I defy anyone to name a richer, more vibrant, creative and mind-expanding cosmic period of musical history than what I experienced (and yes, Jimi, I was experienced) from ages 11 through 23. Even the sub-groupings work out so perfectly in that if 1964-75 was the Great Renaissance, then the five years in the middle, 1967-72, was the High Renaissance. And if the double entendre escapes you, you obviously weren’t there.

And what great occurrence transpired right smack in the middle of the High Renaissance, in August of 1969 on a bucolic landscape in upstate New York.

That’s right. Woodstock.

My daughter Rebecca grumbles and rolls her eyes when I go on and on about our period of music. I’m actually proud of the way she champions and defends her music, the music that came along after she was born in 1990. And I’m not too lunk-headed to see that there have always been great musicians making great music. We danced our behinds off this June at Nate’s wedding to a 90s band called, appropriately enough, The Clinton Years. A rowdy and rollicking time was had by all.

But even Rebecca, in a weak moment, will acknowledge that there has never been and likely never will be a band like the Beatles.

As a former journalist, I was trained to qualify and quantify my assertions, to attribute, to deal in facts and not just fly by the seat of my pants. To that end, I spent the morning scrolling through Rolling Stones’ Top 500 albums of all time.

Now none of this is to say that Rolling Stone is the be-all, end-all arbiter of all things to do with popular music, but it is one source worth at least checking out.

And my suspicions were indeed confirmed. Of the list of Top 500 albums of all time, a grand total of 222 (or 44 percent) were released from 1964 through 1975. And that’s not even counting the Greatest Hits collections from artists of that period released later by Rhino and other retro-labels.

What also became apparent was that the concentration of albums from the Great Renaissance got heavier and heavier the higher up the list I went.

Of albums ranked 500-400, 31 were from the GR.

Of those ranked 400-300, there were 34.

Of those 300-200, there were 44.

From 200 to 100 it was 54.

And of Rolling Stones’ Top 100 albums of all time, 59 were from the greatest 12 years of music we’ve ever known.

But listen to this: Nine of the albums ranked in the all-time Top 10 were from the Great Renaissance.

No. 10 was The Beatles’ White Album (1968), No. 9 Bob Dylan’s Blond on Blond (1966), No. 7 The Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street (1972), No. 6 Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? (1971), No. 5 The Beatles Rubber Soul (1965), No. 4 Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited (1965), No. 3 The Beatles’ Revolver (1965), No. 2 The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966) and No. 1, of course, The Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.

With the one and only Billy Shears.

I know you’re wondering what was No. 8. It was the Clash’s London Calling, a call I have absolutely no trouble with.

How I would love to live through another period to match the Great Renaissance but I suspect one of those come along only in a Blue Moon of Kentucky.