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.

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.