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.

 

Eryka Badu and I

She boarded the plane, threw her bag down in the window seat next to mine. Row 5.
I asked, ‘You interested in switching seats? I’d love the window.”
She looked at me over her glasses and said, “Baby, I wrote a song about getting the window seat. It’s the way I roll.”
I said, “Well I wrote a song about falling off a horse, so, big deal. What about switching seats?”
“No.”
“OK, well, I’m Darden.”
“Eryka.”
“You a musician?”
“Yes,” she laughed. “You?”
“So, do you put out records and stuff?”

“Yes.”
“Really? That’s great. You play live?”
‘Yes, 8 months out of the year.” She pulled out her phone. “Here’s a copy of one of my albums.”
I looked.
And damn near fell out of my seat.
“Oh shit, You’re Eryka Badu. Hi. I’m an idiot.”

We talked for three hours straight, DFW to Salt Lake. What a sweetheart.

Hiding In Plain Sight

It is actually pretty easy to be amazed.

In fact, the less effort I make, the more amazed I am. I don’t have to do anything, go anywhere, spend any money. It’s not about having the right plane ticket to the destination of my dreams (which I hope I never find). More often than not, it’s about seeing what is in front of me, what is right before my eyes, what has been there all along.

A conversation with my kids, the sound of a guitar, good wine, how the still water in a deserted pool looks right before I jump in — this is where beauty lies, waiting for me. All I have to do is slow down, see it.

I was lost in the middle of my weekend day, on the phone, rushing about, adding things to the list, checking things off the list, when I happened to notice this moth on the outside stairs of my place. It just sat there. So regal, so pure. The height of beauty.

And if I hadn’t noticed the moth? I know it would have still been sitting there, looking the same, not caring about me one way or the other. It’s my job to see the moth, not its job to be seen.

The best parts of my day are often hiding in plain sight.

Industrial Nature

For a kid who grew up in the country, surrounded by fields, trees, wind and chickens, it’s odd how much I love intense urban scenes. The highways, the bridges and tunnels, the buildings climbing up through the clouds, lines of warehouses, built by unending lines of dreamers–all pull on my imagination as much as any view of the natural world. In this, my preference has always been the zones created somewhere between the turn of the century up through the 1950s, when America was still in its “as a matter of fact we are going to build that” phase. It was an era of big shoulders, big hands, big concrete and lots of steel. We took the people who couldn’t bear to be in Europe anymore, stirred them in with the ones already here by choice or force, and came up with a construction cocktail that flat-out got things done. The east coast and upper Midwest in particular have the look — New York, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, and all the others. There’s something about the reflected strength, the sheer massiveness of scale and purpose that gives voice to the rise and decay of the American myth. It’s the rusting over of one collective muscle.

On the 1-9, just west of Hoboken if you’re headed to the New Jersey Turnpike, there’s a mile or so of highway, sunken with another road above it. It’s all asphalt and massive steel girders, a road built for commuters, and trucks hauling granite, for the stream of building and tearing down that is the lifeblood of change. Graffiti covers any flat surface. Sunlight and shadow use the exhaust to make a knife edged angle from the sky to the pavement. If there was ever a wreck here you would be trapped, and it wouldn’t be pretty. Everyone drives fast, both the radio and their guard up loud. You can feel the pulse of the city.

If you asked me for a list of 10 places that reflect America, I’d put this near the top.

Drive it, fast, and turn up the radio.