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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!
I have always loved James Taylor's version of "In the Bleak Mid-Winter." The lyrics are from a poem by Christina Rossetti which she wrote while sick with Graves disease. She died before it was published. As my mother noted in an email to me reflecting on this advent song: "we are all waiting for better race relations, waiting for hurting people, waiting for children with cancer...waiting for 'Joy to the World.'" Receiving this beautiful reflection from my mother made me think of mothers and their love for their children. But, also, of the grief of mothers who are separated from their children or whose children are sick, have died, or were murdered. Oh if only we could all be healed by a mother's love. And so I recorded this song in my home on my own piano, and I dedicate it to my mother and my mother-in-law who have supported, encouraged, nurtured and loved me for so many years. Winter pictures for the video were taken by my Dad, Jack Oates (a talented photographer and painter) and by me. http://youtu.be/d7voq9P1vtQ
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 had the opportunity to sing this solo (Precious Blood Medley) in a shared Palm Sunday service between 1st Baptist Church West and Park Road Baptist Church in 2006 and 2007. It's a rough recording (you can hear the guy who recorded it singing along at times), and I am singing over a full choir (with no microphone). The acoustics in the church and the high notes at full volume helped. If you listen to the end you'll hear me sing a high C (the note at the very top of my range at the loudest volume I can muster--my entire body rocked back and forth with the effort).
Singing with an African American choir with a very palpable history of generations of blood spilled—murdered—during slavery and in the many years of injustice that followed, made me feel it in my bones. I am chilled by the thought of ancestors of mine who took part in oppression and murder (or stood silently by) and, perhaps, of my own ancestors who suffered and died in oppression. Who wouldn't want to be liberated from that evil?
And so when the elderly black gentleman approached me after the concert, I could see he had something weighty on his mind. He just stood there quietly looking me up and down; my heart sank a little. I thought maybe I had offended him. Why had they let a white woman sing that powerful solo? Finally he smiled and said "Young lady, I believe you've got some soul in you." He couldn't have summed up that moment more perfectly for me. I just beamed back at him and said, "Yes, sir. I believe I do."
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.
I've been enjoying supporting causes I believe in lately: two weeks ago played for a benefit for Time Out Youth, next up is supporting Friendship Gardens in their effort to raise money for SNAP benefits, and in a couple of weeks playing for my friend Laura Moore's posthumous book release. Singing from my heart….
Cheryl Hoover joined me for "Never Enough" and "Laughing Through My Tears" (click here to watch the video). Laughing Through My Tears is currently the only original song I have recorded in a studio and is available as a single on my ""Buy Online" page).
Mark Larson joined us for a rousing version of "Heart for a Ride"
and for "Play Me"
Photo by Daniel Coston
On Wednesday, January 15th I will be playing for Charlotte Folk Society’s new venture: "Folk Jubilee" at the Evening Muse: 3227 North Davidson Street from 9:30-10:00pm. I will play 5 original songs at the end of the evening and will be joined by frequent collaborator Cheryl Hoover (bass, vocals), who also plays at Covenant Church (and formerly played with the 'Rents and Crossroads) and multi-instrumentalist Mark Larson on keyboard. Some of the songs I'm playing I've put up on youtube or recorded "Little Song Blues," "Never Enough," and "Laughing Through My Tears," and two songs I haven't recorded yet which are a little more risqué (!) but all in good fun: "Heart for a Ride" and "Play Me." The evening will begin with a song circle at 7:30 pm, then at 8 pm Casey Conerly and DeWitt Crosby (who are in a songwriting group with me) play. The Myers Park High School Bluegrass Band (filled with many talented young folks I have heard perform) plays at 8:30 followed by Mark Larson (who I am also in a songwriting group with) at 9:00pm. Come out and enjoy Charlotte's best listening room for music!
Here's a free song for sharing or downloading. I arranged this old advent hymn for guitar using all minor chords to keep that haunting sound throughout and changing some phrasing so the wording isn't so awkward. This live recording is from last week's service at Park Road Baptist Church. Much of my singing career has been in churches, so I rarely have a recording of it (for obvious reasons…what??it's not all about me??!!), so thank you Bruce Holliday for the recording and picture.
Lou is my niece who studied photography at UNC-Asheville and is now a budding professional photographer. She spent an afternoon at my house taking pictures of me playing or talking to her--trying to get me to relax so I wouldn't close my eyes when she snapped the shutter! Her photo is the one I used for the pictures on my first cd. Somehow it seemed fitting that this darling girl who I'd once held in my arms as an infant would be the one to help me launch my first cd project. She is a deep soul who particularly enjoys photographing people in rural settings. I am honored to have been among her first clients. Her photos are the heading photos for my "Schedule," "Listen," and "Contact," pages. See her website at loumurreyphotopgraphy.com.
"What is it about old friends?" I have written a fairly unsentimental answer to this question. Sometimes it's hard to stay connected to friends or family who are so different from who we are today, so I acknowledge that difference (and the arrogance of either friend in thinking the fault lies with the other) in the first verse. And in the second verse I also completely dismiss the idea that old friends are special because of some inherent specialness about either person; my husband hates that line…:-). In the end I argue that old friends are special because we orient each other to our past, present and future. I use the metaphor of an old friend being like the prime meridian (historically the "brass line" at O degrees longitude at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich England). I had an opportunity to visit the observatory several years ago. While I'd known the observatory had once kept track of time by the sun (and that that standard was used to calculate time for the world), I hadn't known about how important the discovery of how to calculate longitude was to travel (particularly by ship). Ships can navigate somewhat by distance travelled (longitude) and orient by the stars and the sun, but that's not always accurate or reliable (cloudy day or night). The only way to truly know where you are is to know how to measure longitude (distance on the North/South axis) and latitude (distance on an East/West axis). Likewise, friends may travel in different directions (or an old friend may stay in one place while you move to many places), but the divergence actually can help us reorient. Old friends truly are "gold"--to be treasured. For any music theory buffs: I wrote the song in the key of C--kind of like home base for the piano and music theory. Yeah, I know, pretty nerdy….
They say try and try again. That's the motto I keep in my mind when writing songs. I might not have ever finished this song (Never Enough) if not for encouragement from Nashville singer/songwriter Sally Barris.
I met Sally in 2011 at a guitar and songwriting camp (“Swanannoa” held annually at Warren Wilson College). My guitar teacher, John Tosco, had recommended the camp as well as Sally as a teacher. At the time I was brand new to guitar playing and songwriting, so I was a bit of a mess when I tried to play my song for the class. But Sally was gently supportive and encouraging. She has a way of hearing what a song wants to be despite the flaws of songwriters and performers, and after class she sat down with me and helped me work on my song. (It took me many more months and more than a few nudges from Sally but my song “Never Enough” which I eventually recorded on 2 cds came out of that effort.)
I've been intrigued by how people interpret the song differently; some people feel the frustration of constantly striving but never getting "there," others feel time slipping through their fingers and want to hold on, still others feel that existential emptiness of wanting more from life. All of those interpretations are part of that emotion I wanted to capture.
Congratulations Lynn Caldwell et al for being voted "Best Farmers' Market" in Creative Loafing's Best of Charlotte 2013. Cheryl Hoover and I will be playing there on Saturday, October 12 10am to 1pm (ish).