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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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!).
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.
I mean, come on, Johnny Cash AND Ray Charles on stamps. That’s pretty swinging.
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?”
“OK, well, I’m Darden.”
“You a musician?”
“Yes,” she laughed. “You?”
“So, do you put out records and stuff?”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
When I was in my early 20’s I became fascinated with these big cut-out Marlboro billboards of a guy riding a horse. They were simple, and very surreal. It was just a guy on a horse, holding a rope, in full gallop. But they were 70 feet tall and always placed so that he appeared to be riding up over some never ending horizon. And being a kid from Texas, there was always a part of the Western myth so embedded in me that I couldn’t escape it even if I had wanted. And to me, this billboard was like a hyper-color manifestation of all those cowboy stories, the western myth, and that peculiarly toxic James-Dean-lone-horseman bullshit all rolled up into one, plastered across the sky under the guise of selling cigarettes.
There was one on Sunset Boulevard, in Hollywood, placed near this curve in the road so it looked like he was riding over the plateau of strip joints and bad tattoo parlors, off to some movie shoot beyond the hills.
But my favorite one was just west of Houston, where FM 1960 connected with Hwy 290. I remember driving back to Austin after one of my trips to play a show at Corky’s in the Heights, seeing this thing up there, lit up and bigger than life itself, and thinking it was about the coolest thing ever. It spoke to so much of what it is that makes Texas both alluring, and at the same time so damn weird and inward. I loved it, and more than that, I believed in it.
That next week I had to write a paper for a class on Western Art and Imagery (yes, I did go to college). I decided to write about this billboard. But in an effort to one-up my other classmates I turned in a song to go with the essay (it goes without saying that I did get an ‘A.’ Occasionally songs actually do pay off). I don’t remember the paper, but the song, ‘Wild West Show,’ ended up on Native Soil, my first disc.
Then a couple of months later Hurricane Alicia tore through Houston. I had to go home and help my dad clear out all the trees that fell in the yard. On the way back to Austin, at the intersection of 1960 and 290, I looked up and the billboard was missing the cowboy’s head and the horse head. I sat at the light thinking about all the meanings behind that image, and as I drove past the sign I saw the two pieces laying in the grass and weeds beside the highway. I did a U-turn, pulled over and threw them in back of my truck.
Through nine moves, two marriages, and 25 years of collecting and getting rid of stuff, these billboard parts have stayed with me. They’re so beautiful and strange, and I think I keep them as a way of reminding myself of where I come from. Over the years I’ve foolishly ditched a beautiful ’72 Fender Precision bass, a Les Paul Custom, a Nudie suit that belonged to Carl Smith and countless other pieces of art and clothing, but not the Marlboro Man.