A Musical History
- Both of my parents are musicians and singers. My mother is a singer and piano player and an organist. My father is a singer and a drummer who can also plink around on the piano and the guitar. One of my uncles is a singer. Another uncle, now deceased, sang and played piano. In short, there was a lot of music in my life as a kid, and there was never any question about whether I would play an instrument, it seemed to me. It was just a matter of which ones.
- I played some trumpet, which I didn’t like. I played some piano, which I found frustrating, since I couldn’t play the bass bits. Then I picked up the guitar.
- I don’t remember when or why or how. I think I was about 14 when my father figured that I would need to play left-handed, instead of laying the guitar flat on my lap and playing in open tunings.
- I wanted to play the music I liked back then: James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg, the Police. While the cool kids in high school were listening to Guns ‘n Roses, I was driving around on Friday nights listening to James Taylor’s Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon.
- In those early days, I remember two guitars: first, there was my father’s mid-1970s Sigma (a Japanese off-brand of Martin guitars), which was the acoustic guitar that I played until my fingers bled and which was the guitar I really think I learned to play on; later, my father gave me an Epiphone stratocaster knockoff and a Crate wooden amplifier (I don’t want to believe that it was the now legendary CR-1, but it might well have been). It seems like I did nothing through high school but play guitar. I took it everywhere. I played it constantly.
- A girlfriend gave me a copy of a fake book called “20 Easy Songs for Guitar by the Police.” The joke there, which I didn’t know at the time, was that there were no easy songs for guitar by the police, so my first chords beyond the most basic ones were these unimaginably complex 13th or augmented or diminished chords.
- I had a little band back then, too. We never really did anything other than practice, but we played every weekend and made music and learned how to play with other people and how to read signals from other players and how to keep time and we fantasized about what it would be like if we had nicer gear. The funny thing now is that some of that crappy gear I had back then is now vintage, and I’d kill to have it back.
- I don’t remember the first time I played live, but I’m pretty sure I was about 16 or 17, playing with my father at a festival downtown.
- My memory is a little fuzzy, but I believe that when I left for college I had three guitars: the Sigma, a mid-1960s Kay archtop that sounded terrible and played awfully but which looked just awesome, and a Washburn RS-10 that I would absolutely kill to have now in a left-handed version.
- I fell into a group of musicians in college almost on the first day. My roommate (whom I knew already) was a bassist and guitar player. I had met a drummer during orientation who knew a singer. His roommate turned out to be a bassist.
- We all hit it off, staying up late and writing songs and making music. We played the fabulous open mic nights at the Pub Down Under, where a hundred people would show up and sit, quietly, on the floor, listening to musicians who were just amazing—Pat Sansone, Steve Deaton, Tara VanDevender, Emily Graham.
- The group of us rehearsed. We bought slightly better equipment. I bought, first, a decent Washburn acoustic guitar that I played for a year or so until I heard Steve Deaton’s Seagull guitar one night at the Pub Down Under. Then I saved my money and bought one of those.
- The band formed officially and started gigging regularly in town. Then we started gigging out of town (sometimes to empty rooms; sometimes to a room full of skinheads).
- Somehow, and I honestly don’t remember how, I started playing solo gigs around Hattiesburg. I played a handful of university gigs. I played a single night at Robbie’s (a frat bar that I hated). I played regular weekly gigs at the Wild Magnolia. I occasionally got asked to play at a bar opening for someone. I played fraternities’ pre-parties during the day, where the guys would drag a couch out on to the patio and sit with their girlfriends and listen—and then not recognize me on campus the next week.
- When I went home, I sat in with my father’s band, playing while they took a break.
- I traded my Washburn electric for a very rare Takamine GX-200 electric guitar that would never stay in tune. My collection of equipment got increasingly complex, going from a couple of effects pedals and a terrible Fender amplifier to a Digitech effects processor, power amp, and a huge 3×12″ speaker cabinet to a complex foot-controlled effects processor with guitars switching through an A/B switch into separate effects and EQs and even speakers. It was ridiculous.
- One night, after it took me something like four trips to get my gear out of the trailer in Vicksburg, I said I’d had enough. When we got back, I traded it all in for a Crate tube amplifier and a delay pedal. I have never looked back.
- I took a job in a music store, and while working there, I fell in love with this weird Canadian guitar: a Godin ST-1. It was a sort of pinkish color and we were selling it for about $1400. At that point, I was getting ready to buy a nice electric, and this was in my price range. I worked out a deal with my boss to let me use it while I paid it off. When I graduated from college, he told me just to forget about whatever else I owed on it. This was incredibly kind.
- Around this same time, we began seriously recording in a little studio in Meridian. Pat Sansone was the engineer, and I spent a fair amount of time in the studio with him working. I learned a great deal watching and talking with Pat and really fell in love with recording.
- And then, suddenly, I had graduated from college, done a semester of MA work at USM, and was preparing to transfer to Oklahoma State University. We played one last show at Tal’s, and I left the next morning for home, and then Oklahoma.
- When I got to Oklahoma, I only knew one person, so I spent a lot of time alone. I was also young enough that I had plenty of time to spend hanging around the local music store, Daddy O’s. Stillwater had a neat music scene—a lot different than Hattiesburg’s—but after I recorded a demo I didn’t have any trouble finding regular gigs. I put together a nice little PA system. I played, often, a couple of nights a week, doing the human jukebox thing at The Stonewall and Willie’s on a regular basis. I played alone at first, and then, later, with my friend Todd Petersen.
- And then, around the tail end of my doctoral work, I stopped playing live. I did it largely because I was either studying or writing and I just needed the time—often from the early evening until about 3 AM.
- When we moved to Utah, a few things happened. First, I didn’t know anyone. Second, I was too old to hang around music stores all day and meet other musicians and network. Third, I had a job and I needed to focus on it. So I didn’t play at all. For years and years.
- I bought Apple’s Logic and a USB interface and recorded lots and lots of things.
- When I got tenure, I decided that my reward was going to be a nice guitar. I ordered a hand-made Breedlove C25. It took them four months to build it. It’s the finest guitar I have ever owned, and one of the most amazing ones that I have ever played. I put a miniflex mic system in it, just in case I decided to play again.
- Walking across the parking lot one day, I bumped into a colleague I knew was an Irish piper. I said “I have a kind of weird question for you, but do you know anyone who needs a guitarist?” He invited me to one of his monthly Irish sessions, which was well-attended and a lot of fun, even though I know nothing about Irish music.
- At that session, I met up with a fiddler. We rehearsed once and played a gig at an art gallery that I was uncomfortable with and didn’t feel prepared for. It paid $75. I told her to keep the $37. This was the first real indication I had that places around here don’t pay very well.
- Later that year, I went home to be with my sister, who was having her first child. She and her husband are musicians, and we had a blast making music into the wee hours of the morning. Somewhere in all of this, my father pointed out that I may have to suck it up and play some poorly-paying gigs in order to land some better paying ones. In other words, he shamed me into playing live again.
- When I got back home, I contacted a colleague who runs a music lab to see if he had a room quiet enough for recording. It turns out it did. He also had a very nice Neumann microphone for recording vocals and a equally nice matched pair of Rode mics for recording the guitar. I took a few hours and recorded a few songs for a demo. I mixed them over the next week and then I asked my friend Todd to make me a CD insert.
- Right before Christmas 2012, I dropped off a CD at the only place in town where I hear about people doing anything like what I do. I told them I’d call them in a couple of weeks.
- I called from the road, but the manager said that she hadn’t listened to it yet and for some reason couldn’t find it. I called again, when I got back, and she said she still couldn’t find it.
- I decided just to bring her another one, so I went down there for lunch one day. I told the server what was going on and asked him to drop one off for her. She’s super busy, so I didn’t want to bother her. He took the CD and went off. A few minutes later, he came back. He said “Dude, you’re going to think I’m a huge idiot for this, but she didn’t lose it. I took it off her desk and I’ve been listening to it.” He then proceeded to ask me very specific questions about lyrics in the songs. He also explained that he’s the guy who gives the owner the thumbs up or thumbs down on booking gigs. I called back a few days later, and he booked me for a Thursday night.
- I realized that I need some equipment. I bought new speakers. The ones I’d had in Oklahoma were huge, 15″ things, and cost $600. My new ones are smaller, 12″ ones, and cost half that and sounds just as good. I bought a new 31-band EQ. I bought a few new cables. I bought a rack-mountable power strip with pull-out lights. I’d always wanted one of these, but thought they were an extravagance and usually opted just for a cheap, normal power strip, instead.
- I joined Facebook—almost entirely so that I could use it for announcing gigs and connect with local musicians.
- In the middle of all this, I bought a DIY telecaster kit. Many of my friends had no idea I played guitar.
And now I’m prepping for a gig, something that I haven’t done in ages (either gigging or preparing for one!), and I’m consistently amazed at how much of this is just muscle memory. I’m also amazed at how I’ve lost a couple of notes off the high end of my falsetto. I assume they’ll come back once I get back in the habit of singing.
But I’m also struck by how this thing that has been so much a part of my life for so long simply hasn’t been here, for a decade. And so things that were common knowledge about me—that I play, that I sing, that I write—haven’t been in place.
I’m hoping I can get things back to normal.