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.

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.

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.