Charlie Haden

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Charlie Haden died on July 11th. I’ll miss his presence on the planet.

Of all the jazz players out there, he was my favorite. There was something about his bass that drew me in. He taught me so much about music, about where a bass should sit in a song, the possibilities. Being unschooled in music, I’m fascinated by how the rhythms fit, what tones and notes go together, how they sit on your ear. When Charlie Haden played, the tones were right.

He was American, came from a rural upbringing in Missouri, grew up playing and singing country music with his family. Then polio took his singing voice and he directed all his music through the bass. Somehow (there’s probably a bio online that would explain the path) he wound up in Ornette Coleman’s band, playing the most out jazz there was at the time. He helped change the musical vocabulary of the era. He was there at the birth. In later years he came full circle, recording an album of folk and country songs with his family. In between is a vast catalog of music.

Charlie Haden has been with me for a long time, showed me so much. His Quartet West records taught me about LA in the 40’s and 50’s. Records with Pat Matheny, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and so many others shined a light on the possibilities for quiet sound. I own more of his albums than any other artist, after Duke Ellington and Miles. In my living will there’s a directive to play music from “Steal Away,” his collaboration with the pianist Hank Jones, at my funeral.

Over the years I heard him interviewed several times. He was plainspoken, and almost child-like in his directness, especially when talking about music. He was dedicated to his art, focused on his role in the world. He knew what he was supposed to do and he was getting on with it. But the one thing I hope to carry is his statement (and I summarize) that it’s the role of all of us to recognize beauty when we see it, to seek it out and celebrate it.

And so, this morning, as I sit in a hotel room in Washington, DC, I’m listening to Charlie Haden (“Nocturne”), letting the beauty wash over me.

With great gratitude, I celebrate the music and the life of Charlie Haden.

Wake Up, Show Up

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The songwriter Billy Kirsch and I were talking about our work a couple of months ago. What we came to was that in order to do our jobs well, to really be in the song we’re writing, recording or performing, we have to be present, alive, and paying attention.

For artists, job #1 is to wake up. In order to write a song, I first have to see the world. Only then do I have something to pull from, something to say. It’s not so different from other jobs. Whatever you do, being awake and bringing your whole self to the task is the route to your best work.

When I sit down to write a song, I pull inspiration from anywhere I can find it. Something seen while traveling, bits of conversation overheard in a coffee shop, the latest article or book I’ve read, a movie, anything, it’s all fair game. Basically, I throw a lasso around my life and use it in the song.

I bring myself to work.

I used to put up a wall between my work and my family. I kept the guitars in the studio, rarely played music in the house. I was afraid that I would overwhelm those around me, take all the oxygen out of the room. At some point, I did a U-turn, and started hanging guitars on the walls, kept one in every room in the house, put a piano in the kitchen. I let my kids see me working on songs, played guitar while they got ready for school in the morning. The result was that they began to know me, and I saw them differently as well. They would come sit in the living room while I played piano and do their homework. When I showed up, it opened doors for my family to do the same.

I brought myself home.

At work, at home, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, bring your whole self.

Show up.

Eli Reed on 23rd Street, NYC – 6.27.14

In a random meeting last night last night on 23rd street in New York City, (between 7th and 8th Avenue), I meet Eli Reed. He lives in Austin, but has traveled the world, seen more than most have twenty times over. Eli is a Magnum photographer. It’s a small, elite club. What are the odds that we know the same people? He’s an international photographer, been all around the world, and I’m a songwriter from Austin.

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Random. No connection, right?

I was walking with my friend Nigel Grainge (from LA, via London; the man who introduced me to Boo Hewerdine), and saw these two guys walking, coming from the opposite direction. And yes, the thought did cross my mind, “You see some crazy looking people on the streets of New York.”

His friend John stopped us. We’d met in Austin previously. Introductions are made.

Within minutes, Eli and I found eight connections between us, stretching from Paris to Seattle, from the photo editor John Morris, who I met at an event in Paris, to photographers Michael O’Brien, Stacy Pearsall and Andy Dunaway. There were more.

The point isn’t that we happen to know some of the same people in the photography world. It’s that the lives of two people walking down 23rd street on a Friday night, who might on first look appear to be vastly different from one another, intersect many times over. And how easily it could have slipped by us, had Nigel and I had stayed a little longer in the restaurant, or walked south on 7th Avenue.

So many times we see someone and think, “I have nothing in common with that person.” We miss the connection, and it’s often because of snap judgments and secret prejudice. It’s the idea that we’re separate islands.

More and more, I’m seeing that it’s up to me to make sure that I’m not the one pulling down that curtain.

When I open up, I meet the best people. I mean, Eli Reed, on 23rd Street, NYC, on a Friday night. Really?

Yes, really.

 

 

I’ll See Your Talent and Raise You A Phone Call

Being a musician is a blue-collar gig. And making a living at it isn’t for the faint of heart, or the thin-skinned. It’s a cruel and illogical game that favors…well, it doesn’t really favor anyone, come to think of it.

Basically, in order to be a musician you have to be a street hustler. Not only do you have to pull rabbits out of hats, sometimes daily, you have to repeatedly find new hats. You make music so you can pay your bills so you can afford to make more music.

Back around 2006, Radney Foster and I toasted each other on mutually making it to 20 years in the music biz. While we sat around drinking whiskey we talked about what it takes to be a working musician — to indulge yourself in the act of never completely growing up, spending the time it takes to work on your craft over a long period of time while still managing to feed the family year in, year out.

Radney & DS; Austin, TX; 2014

Radney & DS; Austin, TX; 2014

Radney is the one of the best I’ve seen at creating a life in music. He’s crazy talented. He writes and sings with his whole heart. But more than that, the guy works harder than almost anyone I know. He balances the creative with the business, doing both with equal passion.

What we came to that night, and what I still stand by eight years later is, “I’ll see your talent and raise you a phone call.”

It’s not about luck. Everybody gets lucky once, sometimes over and over.

And it’s not just talent. At some point, if you’ve spent enough years in the business, you see that everyone is talented.

Big deal, so you’re talented. What else you got?

Get good. Then get busy.

 

Bluebonnets

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In an effort to more fully participate in the Texas cultural fever that is “The Great and Eternal Bluebonnet Photo,” I for the first time in my life stood on the side of a busy highway and posed with nature’s (and Lady Bird’s) bounty.

Oh, Joy.

The Water Tap

Years ago, Gary Nicholson and I were in his Nashville studio trying to write a song. But really we were talking about writing, how weird and utterly miraculous it is to actually write a song, and the big, bad bear in the room — writer’s block.

In his usual straight ahead way, Gary likened it all to a water tap: “You’ve just got to turn it on everyday,” he said.

Think about it. If you don’t turn a faucet for awhile, when you do try, odds are it’s hard to get it to turn. The water can take awhile to move through the pipes. It might spit air on its way. It can be brown, full of rust. All that mess has to move through the pipes before the cool, clear water makes it out.

But if you turn that same tap on everyday, it all happens much easier. The good water comes out from the start.

Write something, create something everyday. Even if it’s not the best thing you’ve ever done, do it anyway. I think it’s the same for painters, novelists, any art form. The more you do it, the easier it is to find that magical zone where the work takes care of itself, where you’re just the person holding the guitar, the paint brush, the pen.

Turn the tap on everyday.
Well said, Gary.

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Steve Fromholz’s Martin D28

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This guitar, a 1951 Martin D28, used to belong to Steven Fromholz. He bought it in Nashville in 1971. Who knows where it was before that.

I saw him play this guitar at the Texas Opry House in Houston in the late 70’s (I was still in high school and had snuck with with a fake id. That’s a whole other story). Later, I watched him play it on Austin City Limits. When he opened for Guy Clark here in Austin in the early 80’s, I was there. He played the Martin. Later still, I sat around a campfire in Big Bend one night while it was the background for his howls at the moon.

It’s probably a good bet that he wrote “I’d Have To Be Crazy” on this guitar. I used to play that song when I was in high school at parties, and at my first gigs.

It was probably this guitar, the one right here, in the photo, the very Martin D28 that I’m holding right now. I just hit a A minor for Steve. Can you hear it?

(Hear this guitar in action — Angel Flight, from a session at KUT-Austin in July 2013)

Guitars have lives. They hold ghosts, dreams, songs. They speak, call out for you to play them, to pull out the songs. With really good guitars, it’s not who ‘owns’ them necessarily, but who happens to be the one playing it, the lucky person who gets to drag a pick across the strings, or sit up late at night humming an old song to it’s chords, listening for the magic.

Fromholz died yesterday. I hadn’t seen him in years. But I have his guitar. And though I bought it a couple of years ago, really it will always be his. I’m just keeping it for you for awhile, Mr. Fromholz, changing the strings, listening for the songs.

Carry on, amigo.

Now and Forever

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Now And Forever

When the night falls around you
And the light is sinking low
And the stars that would guide you
Have gone missing, where you do not know
And you feel your days
Slip away
Like water through your hands
Know that I
Am always by your side
Now and Forever

When your past starts to haunt you
And you feel the heavy load
Mistakes put upon you
They will not let you go
You look for love
But can’t find love
Even for yourself
Just know that I
Am always by your side
Now and Forever

Let the night fall around you
Let the light slip away
Come into these open arms
Till the new day
Let your mind
Rest easy
Let your heart go where it will
And know that I
Am always by your side
Now and Forever

From “Now And Forever”
© 2014 Darden Smith

Covenant House

For three years, I’ve had the good fortune to bring SongwritingWith to Covenant House in Newark, NJ. Recently, this work was featured by TIME.com.

At Covenant House, I spend my mornings talking about creativity and writing songs with the residents. These young people, ages 17 – 21, formerly homeless all, have taught me a great deal about compassion, understanding, and acceptance, along with some pretty great street lingo. More than anything else, they’ve taught me the value of listening.

Deep down, to judge another person is to strip away their story, their history, their humanity. At Covenant House I’ve written songs with a former Juilliard student, an aspiring law student, poets, singers, writers, fantastic dancers, along with kids who’ve been dealers, gang members, prostitutes and yes, a slave. All of them have stories. Most are hard to hear. Sometimes glimmers of redemption shine through the darkness. At Covenant House I’ve witnessed again and again what happens when someone is seen and heard and valued. As we transform words into songs, their faces open up, they sit straighter, they want to keep going.

We’ve all got stories. And as I’ve learned with projects like SongwritingWith:Soldiers, our stories need to be told and need to be listened to. As you move through your day, slow down, look and listen, and discover the stories that surround you.

DS and friends at Covenant House

DS and friends at Covenant House; April, 2013

Stamps

I love stamps.

A stamp on an envelope is pretty good, but sheets of them, with the image repeated across the page, that’s divine. And I’ve got envelopes full, dating back more than 30 years. My kids give me a hard time about it. Relationships have faltered over the expense and my insistence that they aren’t always meant to be used (I always buy a sheet to use, a sheet to keep. Believe me, this practice adds up after awhile and can be the source of household friction, as if I needed more!).

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Personally, I think the US cranks out some of the best stamps in the world. This notion continually gives me hope, though small and rather eccentric, for the future. Just the mere fact that the Post Office has over the years sanctioned what I consider to be quite modernist art, given the slightly Warhol-esque nature of the look, inspires great faith in my country. For, no matter what particular outrage we might inflict on the world at large, how we’ve lost our industrial groove, or the many ways that Congress might appear ridiculous at times, history will show that we at least got our stamps right.

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I mean, come on, Johnny Cash AND Ray Charles on stamps. That’s pretty swinging.