Marathon Speeding Ticket

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You get used to driving fast in West Texas. There’s no reason not to.
So, when I went through Marathon on my way to Marfa, yes I thought I was going slow. But compared to 90, 60 feels slow.

When the sheriff pulled me over, right in front of the Gage Hotel, looked at my license for a minute, gave me a very polite lecture on speed limits, then asked me what I did for a living, I said, “Oh, I’m a songwriter.”
“You write anything good?”
At that, I reached into the backseat and pulled out a copy of ‘Marathon,’ and handed it to him, saying, “Well, there’s that.”
“Well, I’ll be damned. Really?”
“Yeah, kind of crazy, but I wrote it about this part of the world.”
“Well son, I’m gonna listen to this on the way home, and if it ain’t any good, I’m giving you a ticket next time. OK?”
“Absolutely.”
“Have a great day, and drive safe.”
“Thanks.”
Who says music doesn’t pay…

And, yes, I hauled ass to Marfa.

Knox Chandler

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In 1992 I was in NYC to make “Little Victories.” The producer Richard Gottehrer told me that he had this guitar player he wanted to try on a couple of tracks. I showed up at RPM Studios on 12th Street a little before we were supposed to start and there was this guy in the main room, bent over a stack of amps and pedals. He’d been like that for two hours, an assistant said. I’d never heard anyone play so loud.

Knox Chandler. Over the next two days he played some of the most amazing sounds. The first song we did was “Loving Arms.” I remember when we came on the opening guitar hook for that one. It took my head off. “Levee Song,” “Little Victories,” “Levee Song,” “Dreams A Dream,” that’s Knox’s crunch and wail holding it all together.

Knox was one of the coolest and most bizarre guys I’d ever met. I remember walking through the East Village with him around this same time, and asking him what he thought about the tattoos that seemed to be appearing from nowhere. He turned to me and said, “You know, that’s just too weird for me.” I thought about that for a few seconds and said back, “Brother, if it’s too weird for you, it’s way too weird for me!” I’ve never been tempted to get a tattoo since that conversation.

On one of those walks we used to take through lower NYC, he turned to me suddenly and asked, “Feel like a pickle? Let’s go to Gus’ Pickles (I think that’s what it was called).”

He was there when I did the Tonight Show. That’s his guitar all over the “Sunflower” album. Our sons are the same age. I realize now that we’ve known each other for damn near 25 years. When I went to NYC around the end of September 2001, Knox was one of the people I went to see, just to give him a hug and hear his story of living below 14th street during those weeks.

Last night in Berlin, sitting, talking with Knox in my friend Jan’s backyard garden, it took me back to those days in the early 90’s walking through NYC, getting an education that can’t be found in any book.

August 25, 2015

Freedom — 7.4.15

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Alex Marrero, the badass drummer / singer / guitar player / voice over artist, gave a great Pecha Kucha talk here in Austin in July 2015. I’m going to do my best to summarize it here for your Independence Day reading (Non-US readers, just go along with us…).

In 1962, Alex’s parents left Cuba because they wanted freedom.
Freedom for themselves, freedom for their children.
They left all that they knew behind so that they and their kids might have the opportunity to make the choice of how and why they spent their days, how their children moved through the world.

Think about that for a moment:
They left everything, and started over, for freedom.

They landed in Virginia, and it was weird.
Became citizens.
A few years later, the family moved again.
Mexico City, where Alex grew up.
They started over, again.
In his twenties, Alex moved to Austin.
To play music.
He’s Cuban, grew up in Mexico, lives in America.

Alex’s says that when he was a kid, his parents made them read the Spanish and English language newspapers. He insisted that they be bilingual. Alex understood what they were doing, but only later did he appreciate that what they were doing was giving him one more chance at freedom — freedom to navigate a bigger world, to be who he is without restriction.
Freedom to choose.

All the dislocation his parents went through,
All they put their kids through,
Was in pursuit of a very simple concept —
The ability to have some say over the way you live your life.

Alex told us that because his parents had the guts to leave everything behind, he now has the freedom to play music (which is a bit of a ball and chain in itself, but let’s don’t go there).

If you’re in the US, you have certain freedom.
It’s not perfect, it may not be all glory and silver linings,
But you do have the ability to make choices.
It’s possible to change direction.

So, on this Independence Day
Think about what the people who came before you, your family,
Your bloodline went through so that you have this luxury.
What did they give up, leave behind, overcome,
So that you can have these freedoms, big and small?

Freedom of choice.

Alex told us his story that night, looked us all in the eye, and asked us, as I’ll ask you now:

What are you choosing to do with your freedom?

A GOOD CRACK-UP

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My agent quits on Monday.
On Wednesday I tell my wife that I’m filing for divorce.
That afternoon my manager Ron calls and tells me that my record deal is history.
It’s been a big couple of days.

I’ve been building up to it, these 72 hours in 1995.
And this triple slap brings on a five-year whirlpool.
I hit the ground again and again. Hard. It hurts. I break all the way down.
And I question everything — money, responsibilities, music.
I wonder how to make all these seeming opposites work together,
Travel so hard for so little cash, and so little time home,
Put myself, my songs, out there over and over
For people to love, slam, or worse, just fucking ignore.

When my brain is at it’s darkest,
I see a hundred reasons for quitting music,
To stop making everyone put up with the fallout from my dream.
But I come to the simple fact that nothing fills me
Like putting words on a melody, telling a story that I’ve pulled from thin air.

The success or no-success of it is completely disconnected from the work itself.
And this is why I do it, what makes it worth the fight.
I fell in love with the work, not the feedback.

And I’ve never looked back.
Now the challenge is how to make daily life fit in with music,
Not the other way around.
Music is the constant.
It’s what fills the cup.
Everything else is just extra goodness.

It was my time to hit the wall, 1995,
To come up against myself,
Who I thought I was,
To find the reason to keep moving, stronger,
More exact in my dream.

The value of a good breakdown can never be underestimated.
As an artist, if you never confront yourself,
Your work is going to be stuck in the beginning phase.

Grow up. Crack up. Rebuild.
Tell the truth.
Make art.

© 2015 Darden Smith

 

STANDING WHERE HANK STOOD

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Every now and then I find myself in a situation that makes me realize how incredible my luck is. I’m reminded how music has taken me places I never dreamed I would go, and that the surreal quality that it brings to my life is way beyond what I could have ever imagined.

Like today: This morning I did a radio interview from the Green Room at the Grand Old Opry on WSM-AM. Radney Foster had told me to make sure to check out the main stage, especially the wood circle where the microphone stands. This circle came from the original stage at the Ryman Theater, where the Opry originated. Johnny Cash and June Carter, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill and countless other heroes have stood on those boards and played their songs.

I walked out on the stage and stepped inside. I heard the wood creak under my feet, felt the rhythm ghosts from a thousand songs come straight up through my boots. All those voices, the ones who had called out some of the best music ever written, were begging me to join them. I got the guitar out, grabbed a stool from behind the piano, and just sat there playing and singing for about 30 minutes, soaking it all in, listening to the echoes.

To stand in the place where Hank stood is a big damned deal.

The theater was empty, but this morning I felt like was singing with the angels.

Repeating Yourself

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It’s 1995 or ‘96, and someone, I’m still not sure who, has shelled out $750 for a voice lesson with Warren Barigian. He’s from California, the guy who got Meat Loaf singing again, has worked with countless rock and opera stars. Bonnie Raitt. Jackson Browne. This better be good. That’s a lot of money.

We’re in a hotel suite in Austin. He comes in, walks around me a couple of times, pokes me in my chest with his finger, lightly. I let out a yelp. He’s definitely hit some sort of a nerve. He tells me I’m holding a lot of old stress in my body. Thanks.

He sits down, says, “Pick a line from any song and sing it ten different ways.”
No problem. I choose the opening lines from an old standard.

“Skylark, have you anything to say to me…”

I get three passes in before he stops me.
“You’re repeating yourself. I said different. Try it again.”

I start in once more, after a couple of attempts, it’s the same thing, “You’re repeating yourself. Try harder.”

Three more times we do this dance before he stops me.

“Look, you’re still repeating yourself. Stop worrying about the notes and just sing.
Every time you repeat yourself you’re cutting off your creativity.”

Then he turns around and walks out of the room. The lesson was over.

No matter what you’re doing, act like there’s no tomorrow, as if this is the first time, and the last time.

When you sing, sing that moment.
The details will take care of themselves.

My voice is less than perfect. It is what it is. But the way I sing, and how I bring myself to it, will never be quite the same.

That is a well-spent $750.

© 2015 Darden Smith

 

ON DRAWING

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I like to draw pictures.
But, being left-handed, stuck in these damn right-handed desks at school,
I have a hard time making drawings that aren’t all lopsided and weird.
The other kids, being kids, tease me about the bizarre scrawls on my paper.
So at the bitter age of ten, I’ve figured out how to make the teasing stop:
I quit drawing.

I make up a story.
And the story is, “I can’t draw.”

In 1989, in L.A., in the studio recording what will become Trouble No More,
Scratching on a newspaper with a pencil and I accidentally draw a tree.
Suddenly I’m nine, sitting in the back of the class,
Lost in the land of crayon and construction paper.
The world opens up to me again.

Now I fill notebooks with weird little black and white pictures
And there’s not a straight line to be found there, and it doesn’t matter.
I don’t make the images to show people.
I don’t need a gallery wall for proof they’re valid.
Just the doing of it is all that counts now.

But sometimes I still think about all those years I spent believing that story
I tell myself when I’m ten. It’s a story of no, and it’s wrong.
Because I listened, I missed out on a lot of joy,
A lot time dragging ink across a page.

Don’t listen to the teasers.
They probably don’t like art anyway.

Music And Food

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MUSIC AND FOOD

Many musicians are great cooks.
Writers make beautiful paintings.
Photographers play music.

Past all the particulars and the moving parts,
It’s really about seeking the connection between raw, disparate ideas,
And the audacity to try to make something
Knowing you might fail. But you do it anyway.

It’s like there’s a wheel moving beyond other wheels.
Get on one and you can reach many others.
That’s where the beauty is.

The fearless desire to dream
And the capacity to create
Knows no specific medium.

© 2015 Darden Smith

John Prine

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When I was seventeen years old, standing alone in the Texas Opry House in Houston, TX, drinking a beer off my brother’s ID (long story), listening to John Prine, I never dreamed that some 35 years later I would be standing in the St. Louis airport talking with him while we waited for our luggage.

I learned “Souvenirs” when I was fourteen, and still play it occasionally around the house on a Saturday morning.

As a teenager, I spent hours dissecting John’s songs, trying to figure out how you make a chorus like “Sam Stone” work, or a love song like “Angel From Montgomery” fall together. Where does that magic come from?

One time, in the late 80’s or early 90’s, on a night off in London, John found out where I was staying and for some reason called me up. We went to dinner or something (neither of us could remember exactly what we did, which is rather telling…). I’ve done shows with him over the years, joined in a scary song swap in his hotel room at some Canadian folk festival with James McMurtry, Sarah McLaughlin and a couple of other people (again, the details are sketchy…there’s a pattern here). Every now and again, I run into him in an airport. I always have to remind him of my name, which I find endearing and don’t take personal. If I was John Prine, I’d probably forget a few names as well. There must be so many. Always, without fail, he is gracious, a gentleman, and funny.

It’s a policy of mine to make sure, when possible, to tell the people who were my guides in songwriting what they did for me. Two days ago, standing there watching the bags go around the carousel, it was a pleasure to do just that.

Thanks again, John.

The Dream Curtain of Song

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It’s a weekday morning, I’m 16, maybe 17 years old, listening to the radio, getting dressed for school. The radio is on, of course. Music is the constant of my world. KLOL, FM 101, the only station worth tuning into in Houston, TX in the late 70’s. Dylan’s ‘Simple Twist Of Fate’ comes on. I stop, mesmerized. Just the bass line is enough to pull me in. I sit there, dazed, on the edge of my bed, one shoe on, one shoe off, staring at the stereo. I listen, trying to figure the song out. I can’t. What’s he singing about? The song comes at me as if from another world, someplace hidden. And wherever it’s coming from, I want to go there.

I’d been writing songs since I was 10. Guy Clark, John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker records, those were my guides. Willie Nelson. Pretty straight ahead. Deep, good, the classic story telling line of thought. Folk songs. Country songs. I wasn’t into Townes yet. And here comes Dylan, knocking the legs out from under all that I knew, telling the story backwards, if at all. Starting at the end, then jumping to the beginning, the details filled in as if they’re an afterthought. I listened hard, thinking, how did he do that? How do I get what he has?

That moment was an invitation into the mystery. The song itself called out, “Follow me.” And from that day on I did, down into the swirl of words and melody, behind the dream curtain of song.