If you've ever been to the Northwest of the United States, you know how precious water is. Even in places people think of as rainy (like Seattle), the quantity of rain is much less than most cities in the Eastern United States get. A few summers ago I was driving across a long wide stretch of prairie and saw a thunderstorm way off in the distance. There was a dark line extending underneath the length of the storm system, and I realized the rain was evaporating before it could reach the earth: all that parched land, water just above and none of it reaching ground. It reminded me of the way we want so badly to connect to the people we love the most--and how often we fail. (Video by Wes Cobb.)
Filtering by Category: Acoustic
An old mill (Loray Mill in Gastonia, NC) with a storied past (see my prior posts about the mill strikes, Ella May Wiggins, and taking part in a cd project) gets a spectacular renovation into condos but with a nod to the past with the creation of the Alfred C Kessell History Center in the mill. I enjoyed playing music for the open house (hundreds of people turned out--many with connections to people who worked in the mill).
Ever encounter a big talker who loves himself/herself more than anyone else in the world?...that's the inspiration for this song. I wanted to write a fun blues song that virtuoso blues pianist Bob Malone could play for my first cd of original songs. (But Bob was not the subject of the song!) I wanted to give the piano player a chance to show off (and personify the big talker in the song). Mike Alicke does a nice job on the guitar solo in this version (with Edan Aldridge on bass and Paul Walker on drums). Video by Wes Cobb.
The older I get, the more grace I have for mistakes other people make. Sure it's entertaining when the occasional politician "hikes the Appalachian trail" or a vain celebrity makes a fool of himself or herself, but upon reflection, I think we all realize it's never wise to throw stones. Most of us end up falling on our face at some point or another. Why not have compassion for folks who are down on their luck--or perhaps have never been dealt a fair hand...because in the end, we are all only "two steps from disaster"....
This song will be on my first cd of original songs due for release in the fall.
(Video from "Folk Society Night", March 16, 2016 at The Evening Muse in Charlotte, NC with Mike Alicke (lead guitar), Paul Walker (drums), and Edan Aldridge (bass). Wes Cobb: videographer.)
If there's anything better than creating music, it is creating music with other people. I'm looking forward to playing in Charlotte's best listening room (The Evening Muse) on March 16 with a great audience (Charlotte's Folk Society is hosting the evening, so there's a full line up of musicians) and talented fellow band members (singer/songwriter and guitarist Mike Alicke, drummer Paul Walker and bassist/multi-instrumentalist Edan Aldridge). It will be a treat to have some of my bluesy/rockin' songs given a full treatment with instrumental solos and full drums. West Art Videos is taping the evening for me, so I'll post some videos at a later date. I'll play a couple of songs that I premiered a couple years ago at the Muse (Laughin' Through My Tears, Never Enough) and a rocking fast arrangement (thank you Dan Hood) of a jazzy song that I will close out the evening (Play Me) along with a number of new songs.
I had the great privilege of getting to hear this beautiful song, "Dear Sister" by Claire Lynch and Louisa Branscomb performed live at the International Bluegrass Music Association's conference in 2014 where it won song of the year. The song is a letter from a soldier to his sister that uses the image of home--a longing we all share--to call for peace for all humankind.
The song "Love at the 5 and Dime" describes the complicated "dance" of a couple's journey: from young love, marriage, infidelity, forgiveness through old age--describing the whole arc with brief but poignant details ("showing not telling"): "Rita...made the Woolworth counter shine; Eddie was...a darn good dancer". "...married up in Abilene, lost a child in Tennessee".
One of my favorite lines encapsulates the jealousy, insecurity, the "what if" of a midlife crisis in two lines: "One of the boys in Eddie's band took a shine to Ms Rita's hand; so Eddie ran off with the bass man's wife." And then regret and forgiveness; "Oh, but he was back by June; singin' a different tune. And sporting' Ms Rita by his side."
The whole song (and the couple's love) is held together by music--by dancing. And the poignancy of the dance grows deeper and takes on a slightly different meaning with every verse: "Dance a little closer to me.... 'Cause it's closing time and love's on sale tonight at this 5 and Dime". The first verse repeats as the last verse in a lovely return to the beginning.
Beautiful writing and imagery, lovely melody. Nancy has a wonderful intro talking about the harmonic being evocative of the Woolworth store's elevators. (She ends the live recording of this song "...going up.") When I was writing my song "When Dragons Were Real" for my children I wanted to use a harmonic chord to evoke magic, so I used tuning and a couple of chords from this song (knowing, too, I could pair the songs in a set!). Thank you, Nanci Griffith.
Sally Barris rocked the house last Saturday and then on Sunday led the best songwriting workshop I have ever attended. She returns to Charlotte in November with her new cd "The Road in Me" in hand (hosted by Charlotte songwriters Tim and Sarah Geis Williams who co-wrote songs on her upcoming release). Sign up for my newsletter to get invitations to house concerts like this, find out about projects I am working on, hear videos and more.
It's not often new songwriters get to record their songs along with famous artists, but that's exactly what happened for me. Thanks to Si Kahn's invitation, I have a new song premiering at a cd release party on August 22. I will be taking the stage with David Childers and DeWitt Crosby--performing my song "Dark Clouds" AND premiering Si's new song, "Here in Gastonia" (Si had previous engagements he could not change) at Zoe's Coffee House in Gastonia. I will post links to buy tickets for the event on my Facebook music page and in my newsletter (sign up using the contact form on this page if you haven't already!). For more about Ella May and the event, see my post "Songs for Ella May Wiggins and the Loray Mill strike". To read about the song I wrote, see "Dark Clouds": my song for Ella May". Here's a link to listen to the song. Contact me to purchase the cd; all proceeds from cd sales and the event will benefit the Ella May Wiggins Memorial Committee.
I hosted Craig Carrothers and performed in 2 house concerts in June (thank you to Sarah and Geoffrey Curme and to Katya Lezin and David Lieberman for hosting me). Link to article in Charlotte Observer here.
For more about the song and why I wrote it, see my blog post: New single: “Saving the Whales” (Saving the Humans!). The song can be purchased at cdbaby and on iTunes or streamed on numerous sites. Pictures by Jack Oates used with permission. All other pictures (except mine) are published under the creative commons license on flickr. Attribution and links (in order of appearance in video):
- My children taking pictures of the Seattle skyline, Katie Oates, 2014 (For my family to get together at Thanksgiving 3 of us flew across the country, 2 of us drove 8 hours, and 1 took a bus for 8 hours: high use of gas and oil...).
- My computer and plasma tv, Katie Oates, 2015 Computers and tvs use lots of energy. In NC, unless you are "off-grid," energy can only be bought through one regulated utility [Duke Energy in my case], so I have an agreement with Arcadia Power to buy the equivalent of my home energy usage in renewable wind energy.
- My website entry of "Saving the Whales", Katie Oates, 2015. My website server host (1and1) uses green energy and employs energy efficient practices, but much of the energy I and others use is not renewable.
- "King of the Trash Hill" Buckhorn Mesa Landfill, 2013, by Alan Levine, 2013
- “Polluted Earth” Hudson Park, New York, 2007, by Vincent
- "Friends of Coal", 2006, by Noricum
- "Mountaintop Removal Mine above Homes in Eastern Kentucky", Pike County Kentucky 2010, by Matt Wasson, Appalachian Voices
- "Runoff From ‘Reclaimed’ Mountaintop Removal Mine in Kentucky" Magoffin County Kentrucky 2010, by Matt Wasson, Appalachian Voices
- “Coal Mining in Brazil” Criseluna, Santa Catarina 2011 by United Nations photographer Sebastiao Barbosa
- "Coal Fired Power Plant" Pacific Corp/Rocky Mountain Power near Price, Utah burning coal mined nearby in Eccles Canyon, 2009, by ArbyReed
- "Gathering" (birds at shopping center), 2011, by Nicholas A Tonelli
- “A creek runs under it. Somewhere.” 2012, by Washington State Dept of Transportation Scatter Creek Bridge near Enumclaw, WA, In 2014 as part of a seismic retrofit to a bridge, the concrete and rebar from the prior bridge that had collapsed in 1965 was finally removed from the stream.
- "Whales!" Orcas in Victoria, British Columbia, 2011, by BohemianDolls
- "Mountaintop Removal, Wise County, Virginia", 2011, by Universal Pops
- Centennial Mountains, Idaho-Montana border 2010 by Jack Oates
- Family on boardwalk at Pacific Beach, California by Jack Oates 2015
- “Paved Paradise”, 2009, California by fishfoot
- "The San Ardo Oil Field From the Coast Starlight", 2009, California by Loco Steve
- "Why East Kentucky Kids Use Orange Crayons to Draw Streams" Magoffin County Kentucky, 2010 by Matt Wasson, Appalachian Voices
- "Water pollution in China" 2009, Inner Mongolia by Bert van Dijk
- Pelican on Madison River near Ennis, Montana, 2014, by Jack Oates
- Pelicans taking flight at Pacific Beach, California by Jack Oates 2015
- Fish at Birch Aquarium, Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California by Jack Oates 2015
- Gull on sand at Pacific Beach by Jack Oates 2015
- Cedar waxwing, Missoula, Montana by Jack Oates, 2009
- Sunset at Pacific Beach by Jack Oates, 2015
- Sunset at Pacific Beach by Jack Oates, 2015
- Mountain Range in St George, Utah by Jack Oates, 2015
- "Hump Back Whale, South Island, New Zealand" 2007 by Gemma Louise Lowe
- My children, 2000, at Pawleys Island, SC by Katie Oates
Last summer I attended a songwriting workshop led by John McCutcheon at The Highlander Center in the foothills of Tennessee. Kim Buchanan and I were randomly paired up and told to write a song honoring the kitchen staff. Unfortunately, the handful of songs I have written took me months to write. Kim and I had 40 minutes.
For most of my music career I have been a singer and performer but not a songwriter. I never imagined I could write a song that I would be interested in singing--much less a song someone else would want to listen to or sing. But at midlife I had finally realized that the only thing worse than trying something new and failing was not to try at all. So here I was at a songwriting workshop struggling to come up with ideas with Kim…and doing a good job of failing. John came by to listen to our progress about 30 minutes in to the exercise and delicately suggested that we scrap our song and start over. Time was up, and we were the only pair of songwriters who didn’t have a song to share. It was pretty much the worst possible outcome. Kim and I were both embarrassed and discouraged. We resolved to meet during our down time and come up with something we could share with the group the next day.
Looking back it’s hard to know what clicked for us on our second effort. It helped that we had heard everyone else’s songs and heard John McCutcheon sing a few of his songs. By this time I had also learned that Kim was a pastor on a sabbatical focused in part on songwriting. She was not going to give up—which is what I would have done if it had been a solo exercise. It was one thing to let myself down, but I was letting Kim (and by proxy) an entire congregation down by fixating on my own insecurities. Feeling slightly panicked by Kim’s determination, I started to act like I knew what I was doing and work harder. I would believe in myself—and us—for Kim’s sake if not for my own. Egos aside, we began putting ideas out there, dividing up tasks and going with our gut. We didn’t even have time to second-guess ourselves. I kept changing the melody on every pass until Kim finally said (just before we stood up to present it to the group), “I’ll play; you sing”—both of us knowing we had no idea what would come out. We took a leap of faith and not only did John and the other workshop participants like the song, the kitchen staff loved it. The video in this post was taken by Lou Dominguez of Kim and me singing the song for the kitchen staff (with tears and hugs at the end). You can hear John McCutcheon laughing and singing along!
There are lots of issues I care about and support, and most (if not all of them) come down to this moral question: do my actions (or that of my community and nation and humankind) lead to abundance for myself and others or to destruction, fear and scarcity? Can we, as humans, learn to live more like trees (every part of a tree's life-span and even death creates more life) or will we commit the ultimate irreversible sin and destroy the very ecosystem that all life depends on? Five years ago on a Thanksgiving trip across the southeast, I spent hours looking at the changing leaves and the deep blue skies and thinking about how often we sacrifice the things we need for things we want. As I drove, this song, "Saving the Whales" began taking shape in my head. I tried to keep the song light and funny (with a peppy beat), but the message is serious (a poet friend of mine immediately dubbed it "Saving the Humans"). Can we save ourselves?
Si Kahn produced the recording. Si's current project is uniting musicians to sing out about protecting one of the world's last great wild spawning fisheries--the last best source of wild cockeyed salmon: Bristol Bay, Alaska. More info here.
I recently attended the International Bluegrass Music Association's annual conference: "World of Bluegrass" and picked up my camera more often than I did my guitar--a great week listening to many talented performers. Claire Lynch's performance pulled me off my feet to snap pictures of her enchanting interpretation of "Dear Sister" around midnight in the conference center (watch the youtube link of her performance--she gets a standing ovation in the middle of her set ):
The song (co-written with Louise Branscomb) went on to win "song of the year" at the Bluegrass awards ceremony later in the week.
Also wowed by Melody Walker of Front Country's singing and songwriting--lots of heart and soul along with interesting music, instrumentation and lyric writing.
Way to go ladies! I'm a fan!
I have had the good fortune to meet renowned folk-singer and activist Si Kahn who just so happens to live in my neighborhood. (Read more about Si here.) Si and I share a passion for social justice and music, and I am grateful for his help in recording my single "Saving the Whales."
Cheryl and I recently recorded the first song I ever wrote ("Saving the Whales") at Old House Studios with Chris Garges recording and Dan Hood playing every instrument you can imagine (guitar, bass, drums, mandolin, electric guitar). We're all very excited with the result and are looking forward to finishing the final mix and recording some more songs! Daniel Coston happened to drop by the studio and take these pictures. Thanks Daniel!
Anthony Abbott (a former professor of mine at Davidson College) and I have collaborated to add music to his most recent poetry collection and narrative titled "The Angel Dialogues." A montage of the July 2014 performance with Marla Brown can be viewed here.
Several months ago I wrote a song about the experience of waking in the middle of the night and being filled with doubt and existential angst (as the poet in Tony's book is bereft of inspiration and filled with doubt). I based the melody on the Westminster Chime--which any insomniac with a grandfather clock knows by heart. As I researched the piece, I discovered that the chimes (with its play between 4ths and 5ths music intervals) also inspired Handel's "I Know My Redeemer Liveth". The juxtaposition of Handel's aria declaring absolute theological certainty and the haunting chime was an intriguing setting for 2am angst--and a perfect musical riff for Tony's poet's crisis of faith.
Two pieces from my CD Going Over Home also fit perfectly: "He Shall Feed His Flock/Come Unto Him"--continuing with the Handel riff--and "Wayfaring Stranger". I'm also excited about premiering one of my favorite original songs that I just finished: "When Dragons Were Real." My friend and co-band mate, Cheryl Hoover, requested that I write about the experience of watching our oldest children say goodbye to childhood and leave home. It took half a year, but I finally finished it just a couple months ago.
You never know where a class, a friend, a song, a poem will lead you.