My friend Nigel Grainge passed away this week.

He was a mentor, guide, confident, source of perpetual curiosity and frustration, role model for how to remain interested in the world. But above all, he was an enduring inspiration.

In the music business, Nigel did what they call “A&R” (Originally this meant “Artists and Repertoire). He found artists, signed them to a deal, and made records. But he was more than that. In my mind he was the ultimate Record Man.

Over the years, he was wildly successful at spotting talent and making great records. Some of the artists he’d worked with were people like Rod Stewart during the “Maggie May” years, Thin Lizzy, Steve Miller, 10cc, The Boomtown Rats, The Waterboys, Sinead O’Conner, World Party. He was willing to take risks, go the opposite direction from the mainstream. He spent a fortune making a record with Buffy Saint-Marie that few people heard. He didn’t care! For awhile, his label Ensign Records, was one of the most successful labels in the world. It was almost comical that he ran it out of two rooms on Monmouth Place off Westbourne Grove in London’s Notting Hill. It was just him, his partner Chris Hill, and their indomitable assistant and god-mother-to-wayward-artists, Doreen.

I met Nigel in 1988 in Austin. He’d picked up my album (“Darden Smith”, used, three days after it was released) in a record shop down the street from his office. He said he wanted to sign me away from that deal and get me on Ensign. As a teaser (or maybe a joke, I don’t know), he asked if I’d be interested in writing with one of his artists, Boo Hewerdine. I’d never heard Boo’s music, but quickly realized it meant a free trip to London. So of course I said yes.

It was a good call on my part.

Boo and I wrote two songs a day for a week in Martin Lascelles’ kitchen on Croxley Road in Queens Park, did some demos, Nigel took us to dinner and, bizarrely, offered us a record deal! We’d known each other for less than a week. Once the details were worked out (I was still signed to CBS), he booked two weeks at Arlyn Studios in Austin three months out, flew Boo in a week early so we could frantically write more songs, and we made a record with Martin producing. It was that simple. None of us, Martin, Boo or I, knew what we were doing. We just stumbled through it.

The album, “Evidence,” came out, got three and a half stars in Rolling Stone, and promptly disappeared. But for Nigel it was all about the record. His real talent was putting people together in a studio to see what would happen. He was great at it. Our project was a bit of a folly, but it was also genius. He knew, somehow, that Boo and I should work together, that we could do something new.

In the coming years, after the record, Nigel and I became friends. I continued to return to London to write, record, mix albums, tour. Nigel showed me the city, took me to countless dinners, Arsenal games, films, concerts, parks on Sundays, explain the intricacies of Cockney slang, introduce me onto the Goon Show, secret Indian restaurants. I would stay at his house, and on weekends we would walk down to Portobello Road, shopping for records. Later we would take them back to his place to listen. His stereo was outrageous. The entire top floor of his house was full of music — 78’s, 45’s, albums, cds, artifacts and memorabilia. He had the most extensive collection of singles I’ve ever seen. I seem to remember him having every top ten song on all the charts dating back into the early 50’s, from both sides of the Atlantic. He could talk Philly Soul, New Orleans, Reggae, Dub, Country, Dancehall, Memphis, Muscle Shoals, Swing, and he had the records to back it up.

Nigel embodied music. I think he was one of those people who heard sound differently than most of us. I still remember him up in that room one afternoon, listening, eyes closed, swaying slightly, as he played for me a perfect clean 45 of “God Only Knows.” He went to a different place when a song moved him. He didn’t know, or didn’t care, about the how records were made, not the technical parts. He just knew if he liked it, if it was exciting, something unique, real.

Even into his late 60’s he was one of the most plugged-in musical people I knew. He bought music almost every day. When we would get together I would ask him what he’d been listening to lately. I was always amazed at how his list would align with my teenaged daughter’s! Though he struggled to find a place in the modern music business, few could touch his depth of knowledge, passion, and, as always, his collection, which he’d been working to digitize. He was working on a, TunesMap, a digital platform that would put music into a larger cultural framework. I saw this work as a way for us all to see what was inside Nigel’s brain.

Rarely did I play him music that I liked, for fear that he would turn the volume down, and with that North London accent just say, “Shit.”

But he always wanted to know about my life, my kids,. We talked family, his daughters Heidi and Roxie, relationships, his health. He loved SongwritingWith:Soldiers, and saw immediately how it was pure music, without the hassle of the music business.

In many ways, he was still my A&R man. I would call him before making every record to talk sounds, players, concepts. With him, your work was either “brilliant” or “rubbish.” He was black and white, and painfully honest. When I was young his criticism was hard to take. But he did me a favor, showing me that everything I did wasn’t great, that I could be better.

Boo and I were talking this week and we both admitted that after 30 years, we still make records for Nigel, hoping he will approve of what we’re up to.

That won’t stop. Some perspectives just don’t go away overnight.

I last spoke with Nigel about a month ago, before and then shortly after a surgery for an old ailment that had resurfaced. He was back in the hospital. I told him I loved him, and I meant it. Just last week I sent him a photo of Boo and I from our recent songwriting workshop in Somerset. In many ways, the collaboration is better than ever, some thirty years later! The text was read two days before he died.

On Monday, the day I heard the news, I was driving to through the Cotswolds to do a show in Birmingham (the one England). I pulled over at a beautiful old church and went inside to send my friend off with a song. I played some piano, sang “Loving Arms”. Later, sitting there in the pew, wiping my eyes, I looked up, and where the beams came together above the altar, saw a Star of David carved into the wood. In all the churches I’ve been in, I’ve never seen that. Why now? Why did I pick this church?

In the end it doesn’t matter.
I think it was Nigel, following me around, telling me to keep going, to keep moving, stay curious, to always look up.


When I was around 12 years old, my brother came home with a copy of Jerry Jeff Walker’s album, “Viva Terlingua.” It sounded out of control, rough, like a cross between a bar-fight and a church revival. But the songs…they brought you in and wouldn’t let go.
And a voice that was all gravel, whiskey and velvet.

I was already writing songs by then, but that album altered my stars and set me down the trail of the whole Texas music thing that was going on around that time. Guy Clark, Townes, Rodney Crowell…

Later, after my family had moved to Houston, I bought every Jerry Jeff album I could get my hands on. I used to go see him play whenever he was in town. I would sneak into the Texas Opry House to see the Lost Gonzo Band, and discovered others, John Prine, BW Stevenson, Michael Murphy, Steven Fromholz…it was my education. Stories, with a melody. Great songs. They showed us all how it is done. The sound of those records is scratched indelibly onto my brain.

But for me, it all goes back to Jerry Jeff.
Without him, I probably wouldn’t be writing songs, playing music. You could say he ruined my life! Or blessed it.
Every now and then I run into Jerry Jeff around Austin. We talk guitars, drink coffee. I love his stories.

At The Nobelity Project event this year he and I sang Railroad Lady together. If you would have told the 17 year old me that this would happen I would’ve called you crazy.

Aren’t you glad life doesn’t work out like we plan?



Back in 1979 I dragged two friends to Rockefeller’s in Houston to see J.D Souther. I was just a junior in high school but I knew that he was cool, that he’d written all these great songs.

Black Roses, White Rhythm And Blues.
New Kid In Town.

He was sick that night, barely had a voice, so instead of doing two sets, just did one. But the show was amazing. It was one of the nights that made me want to be a songwriter for a living.

Yesterday I stepped out of my hotel in lower Manhattan and there he was, standing by the door.

I think when you see a hero you should let them know. And maybe get a picture.img_0265



1996 – Nashville

Rodney Crowell is on his way to pick me up for breakfast. I’m standing in the lobby of the hotel wondering why this is happening. I don’t know Rodney that well. We’ve toured together a few times, ran into each other a few times in airports and on street corners in New York.
Like so many events in my life, I’m not sure how I got here, but here I am.

He shows up in a brand new Lexus. This is the first time I’ve been in one, maybe even seen one.
“Nice ride,” I say.
“Yeah,” he says, “Pretty tall cotton.” (That has to be one of my favorite Texas turn-of-phrase.) “You know, I’ve done well, but I never did so well that I wasn’t hungry. I’ve always had to work. All my friends that don’t have to work? Their songs start to suck. They’re not hungry anymore.”

And looking at Rodney’s output, from songwriting, records, touring, producing, books, it shows. He works. He both wants to, and needs to.
Just as there are many ways to get paid, hunger comes in many forms. Call it drive, desire, passion, the need to pay the bills, it’s all the same. It’s that thing, that voice telling you to get busy, the motivating fire to make something. And to do it better, constantly pushing to find something new, to go a little deeper.
Always be a little hungry.

(I took this photo of Rodney Crowell in Nashville on 9.12.16. He sounds better than ever. And that is one nice hat.)


Years ago, David Kahne (the record producer and also my A&R guy atColumbia Records) told me that the magic of Bruce Springsteen is that he writes new folk songs. You feel like you’ve heard them for years.
This morning when I sat at the piano for an hour learning “Racing In The Streets” that statement made sense.

I woke up singing the song today, and lately when that happens, I have to learn whatever it is that’s bouncing around my head. Songs like “Autumn Leaves” or “My Funny Valentine.”
I like to explore how the songs are put together, why they work.
With those old songs, the melody and chords go together like a complicated jigsaw puzzle. There’s a lot of moving parts.

“Racing In The Streets,” has this incredibly deceptive simplicity that, when you really look at it, is so complicated and crafted, so beautiful, and haunting in it’s truth. The lyric just sits there on the notes. There is nothing fancy about it.
It’s just real, true.

You don’t have to be behind the wheel of that car to feel it.
And there’s only 6 notes in the song.

Almost twenty five years after David Kahne’s statement I found myself sitting at the piano, playing that same melody for an hour, singing the words over and over, marveling at what a truly great gift Bruce Springsteen is to the planet.




Writing a song with somebody connects you like glue.

You sit in a room and spill your soul, tell each other secrets that you can’t, or won’t, confess in any other setting.
You find the poetry that hangs around the edges of a life,
Sing about the beauty, the darkness, what’s lost and found.

Together, you put it all into a rhyme, a melody,
Sing it a couple of times, make a recording.
It might be that no one ever hears it, might turn out to be a hit.
Regardless, at the end of the day, you have something that wasn’t there before, something you couldn’t have made without each other.

There’s a connection that comes from doing this.
The song may not last, but that link does.

I’m grateful to have had the chance to write with both of these gents, Radney Foster and Jack Ingram.
The songs are usually pretty good, but the hang is relentlessly fantastic.

Joe Ely


The first time I saw Joe Ely was around 1986, at the Austin Opry House. I remember saying to the person with me, “Well, that’s what Rock and Roll looks like.” It was raw like good church, a show. He was all over the stage. The songs were a crazy mash up of West Texas swing, Mexican rhythms, and flat-out rave. Loud guitars, pedal steel, drums and accordions.

A few years later, at a party at his house near Austin, I sat around a fire and listened to him, and others, sing. His version that night of “Because Of The Wind” stuck in my mind because of his voice — low, soft, full of horizon.

In 1989 I opened for him on a tour of the Netherlands, UK and Ireland. Every night was electric. We would stand backstage and watch Joe give it all. It was something like the power I’d witnessed as a kid hanging out near the chutes at rodeos around Texas.

Joe is that mix of melancholy distance and barely controlled lightning. He has more stories than most libraries (whether they’re all true or not is completely irrelevant), and he’s a master at the telling. His music is equal parts Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Woody Guthrie and Mexican folk songs. To me, he’s an American treasure.

I ran into him the other night at a party and he told me a great story that had to do with being stuck in a New York City basement during Hurricane Gloria with Keith Richards and Ron Wood.

You should’ve been there.

Marathon Speeding Ticket


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?”
“Have a great day, and drive safe.”
Who says music doesn’t pay…

And, yes, I hauled ass to Marfa.

Knox Chandler


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


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?