I’m a song writer who grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, worked at Sugar Hill Records, and now resides in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Asheville, North Carolina. It’s fair to say my musical interests have been shaped equally by all three of those.
My dad’s office when I was a kid was three doors down from the Bluebird Café but I never set foot in it, nor did I fully appreciate what Music City had to offer. There are two Nashvilles. The one full of musicians, and the one full of bankers, truck drivers, and real estate agents. I straddled that fence- living in a normal neighborhood, swimming in the Harpeth River on hot summer days, playing little league baseball.
But some of my closest friends’ dads wrote #1 hits. I took a 4th grade field trip to the County Music Hall of Fame (the dusky OLD one, not the shiny NEW one) and they let me sing an original song I’d written. It was terrible as you might expect, but getting to do it stirred something in me.
I loved English class in high school and college- read good books, wrote a lot, learned about poetic devices and iambic pentameter, which are when you get down to it the nuts and bolts of writing song lyrics. My senior year art teacher played Unleashed by the Nashville Bluegrass Band. Somewhere around that time I was introduced to Sam Bush, Doc Watson, and Robert Earl Keen.
Most kid go punk in high school. I went hillbilly. I will never forget the first time I saw (and met!) Doc Watson at a show in Lenoir, NC, my freshman year of college. It was like meeting a member of the Royal Family. No, it was better than that.
After college, I landed my dream job at Sugar Hill Records. I didn’t know my head from my hind quarters, but “good music” seeped into my pores anyway. I met Dolly, got a gold record for Nickel Creek’s first album, and worked for Barry Poss and Bev Paul, who helped make Americana and bluegrass music what they are today.
I picked up a guitar in college but didn’t do much more than put my finger on the strings. Fifteen years later when my wife (who is an author), our daughter, and I were finishing an 18 month book tour driving through Wyoming near the Bighorns I blurted out, “when we get home I’m gonna try to write a song.” My wife would say I blurt out a lot. But it was almost like the voice came from my core. Like I’d seen all this beauty we’d been driving through and thought “Hey God, I want to create, too.” So I did.
I had no idea what I was doing the first time I tried to write a song (having had no training whatsoever) but they say “write what you know” so that's what I did. What came out was “Soul in the Wood,” a loosely autobiographical song about the decline of the furniture industry in North Carolina. My granddad owned and ran a furniture factory in Nashville in the mid-20th century so it felt like the right thing to get down. And I was happy with how it turned out.
Charles Humphrey (Songs from the Road Band, Steep Canyon Rangers) was a trail running buddy at the time and one day I screwed up my nerve and asked if he'd help me make a record. Charles isn't one to shy away from adventure and said “sure, as long as we use my guys.” I was glad we did because he introduced me to a lot more talented artists than I deserved to play with- guys and gals from bands like Punch Brothers, Steep Canyon Rangers, Songs from the Road, Peter Rowan and Maren Morris's bands, the list goes on. And not least was Charlie Chamberlain, one of the best producers and guitar players in Nashville who’s become a good friend.
Charlie one time called “Americana” music “Amerikinda” because it’s all over the place, and I fully embrace that. My songs are bluegrass, country, gospel, folk, even pop. I call it all Brewgrass. I write what comes when it comes and don’t discriminate. I have a day job and young kids and my wife’s work makes a lot more than songwriting ever will, so unless I become the next Jackson Browne- which ain’t likely- I’m happy to write on the margins of my life. Sometimes that’s where the best ideas are anyway.
I don’t do drugs when I write, but I most certainly get a “writer’s high” when I finish a good one. The satisfaction lasts for days. It is a gift to get to call myself an artist, the same as John Prine, Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Patty Griffin, Mississippi John Hurt, Gillian Welch, Tim O’Brien, Todd Snider, Darrell Scott, Aoife O'Donovan, Scott Miller, Tyler Childers, Buddy Miller, Townes Van Zandt, the list goes on and on toward the sun. My musical heroes, the ones I emulate on purpose and by accident.
Art gets commoditized these days like everything else, but I really believe good music stands alone on its own accord and that’s true whether people listen or not. Maybe that’s what I tell myself because most of my songs aren’t out there yet and I just play breweries around Asheville and am still learning how to play guitar halfway decent. I’m just grateful to OWN a guitar and to have the time to play it- unlike so many around the world in Ukraine and Sudan and Fiji and everywhere else where life is tougher than it is here in the "goodle" US of A.
I think every time I play, the guitar notes and the noise from my vocal chords floats out there somewhere, little remnants of it hovering on for all eternity. That may sound pie in the sky or sappy but it’s true. Maybe one song’s helping the leaves fall off the trees in October. Maybe another’s blessing someone who’s on their death bed, making the crossing over a little less painful. Not because they know it or are hearing it at the time (although that’s been true, too.) But just because the song is something positive I've sent out in the world.
Heck, maybe the songs are just helping me. If they’re doing some good I’m happy for that and grateful I get to be a part of this big ol’ green and blue orb in such a way.