Friday, February 28, 2014

The Flames of Injustice, or Tragedy in my Backwoods Utopia

In the realm of “I live in the woods; it’s utopia” kind of posts, I’m taking to this here blog today to muse on a sad subject that’s rocked my backwoods area as of late and shook it to its serene core.
Here in Tyler County, it’s the typical “everyone knows everyone (and everyone’s business)” kinda setup.
A little over a month ago, a young couple was taken out in front of a church, not far from where I live. I’m not writing this to point fingers at anyone or anything like that. I haven’t the least bit of interest in doing so. I’m just an observer musing on the frailty of life and the tenuous bond of family. That’s the most tragic thing here, in all of this: two people obviously in the physical prime of their lives, gone; a family ruined.
Here are the brief particulars on the case: The victims were a couple of recently married thirtysomethings, Nathan Maddox and his wife, Krystal (nee Humphus) Maddox. Years ago, I’d see Nathan and his brother Josh at parties here and there, but never really knew either of them. I knew Krystal from grade school and would hang out with her when she sat up at the gas station, passing time as her mom worked. She seemed like an interesting girl even then. In retrospect, I think we were thought of as two of the “weird kids” in our grade. Can’t recall as to why. Krystal moved away after a couple of years in Colmesneil. I saw her here and there years later, but can’t remember the circumstances.
Last time I saw Nathan out and about, years ago when I was working in Woodville, he was engaged to be married to an old friend of mine, Kristen. Now, again, I don’t write this to criticize or point the finger of negativity at anyone, but from what I’ve seen and gathered, there have been many who have done so on Facebook and other social media outlets. It’s not hard, given the narrative, to see what kind of conclusions people have drawn, but it also shows just how serene this neck of the woods normally is: nothing like this happens around here (thankfully so) yet when it does, everyone seems to know who did it. It’s a mix of naiveté and righteous anger; completely understandable. As I wrote, everyone (at least seemingly) knows everyone else in these parts, and the husband and wife each represented a great many things to a great many people here. It’s the same case wherever, whenever this sort of thing happens, but it seems so much larger in scope inside our blanket of loblolly pine, light years away from the interstates and urban decay.
At the root of this tragedy, a custody battle is cited as the motive for whoever did the heinous deed, an ongoing, messy struggle over an innocent young girl, the product of Nathan and Kristen’s union. I’m not going to reiterate the details here, but it’s not hard to find them, if one is interested in learning about the case. What I do want to posit here is this: divorce is messy; lives are shifted around in the mire and our most innocent, vulnerable society members all too often wind up rudderless as a result. The children are our future movers, shakers and doers and it is beyond tragic to have the hands of injustice touch them. When families are split apart, foster situations are put into place and accusations from opposing sides are tossed about like so much garbage, it doesn't bode well for the future of children who are the innocent victims of such situations.
I don’t have all the specifics everyone else seems to have about the fate of Nathan and Krystal, nor do I have one iota of knowledge as to the ongoing investigation and what the authorities are uncovering, but I hope that whoever is responsible (at least) loses their freedom and whatever earthly pleasures/treasures have been afforded them. I have discovered that a suspect has been taken into custody. Again, I won’t go into details here, but that information is readily available. Hopefully, it leads the investigation closer to a conclusion. A conclusion meaning a serving of “justice”, but despite whatever a court may rule and whatever sentence may be meted out to whomever, it still won’t resurrect the ties and lives from the wreckage. Not in this existence.
In thinking about this, the ruination factor looms large for me. A great deal of what I write about and sing about is an attempt to reconcile the present with the past, or parts of it that seem so serene, so green and bright. Sometimes I succeed, and in those moments, my existential angst is temporarily lifted. I’ve never known tragedy of such a scale, but I can relate in some ways. When it boils down to it, everything is relative.
There are connections everywhere you look, in every living or inanimate thing. A few years ago, I began research for a book I planned to write on the case of a rising Dallas minister who was accused of trying to murder his wife. Those events happened way back in 1987, before the Internet and our 24/7 news cycle. If such a thing happened now, every nook and cranny would be broadcast all day, every day. The case of Walker Railey was the OJ Simpson-type case of its day. The story itself, tragic as it struck me, seemed like something Flannery O’Connor might write about. There was certainly a Southern Gothic air about it, and a little bit of detective-novel intrigue thrown in, as well. Although my book never got past the proposal stage, the sadness of how so many lives were ruined never left me, and colored my manuscript outline.
My motivation for writing about the case was twofold: I was shocked that there’d not been a worthwhile book written on the case and the injustice dealt by the culprit and the legal system drove me to write. Railey was young, charismatic and a rising star in the Methodist church. Prior to the murder attempt on his pretty and talented wife, Peggy, everyone seemed to love Walker, whether they were of the Methodist faith or not. Even when circumstantial evidence kept mounting and it seemed to be a forgone conclusion to a great many that he was the one who tried to strangle his wife, many people still supported him. In all my research, I rarely came across a story from that time period, covering his criminal trial, where the focus was on the victim or her family.
Here we sit well into 2014, and I doubt anyone on the street would recall the name Walker Railey, if asked. Maybe some in the Dallas area might have a bell rung, or someone interested in powerful religious leaders of the 1980s and their tabloid-worthy downfalls (e.g. Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, et. al). Many of the people involved in the case are now gone, including Peggy Railey herself, freed from the barely conscious bondage that held her mind hostage over twenty years. I was thinking of her and Nicole Brown Simpson when I wrote my song “Teetering” many years ago. It’s a paean to victims of injustice, another driving force behind my work. Said book will likely never be completed; I doubt anyone would be interested at this point, but for Peggy Railey, Nicole Brown Simpson, little Caylee Anthony, Nathan and Krystal Maddox and any victims of injustice anywhere whose lives have been ended or ruined by circumstances you could not control, may you never be forgotten. That is all.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Hungover Sundays with Austin Mayse

Disclaimer: Although I have written on here from the beginning that I’m not sure what the intent of my adventures in blogdom are, I don’t mean for this to become a platform to sound the trumpet for my great musician buddies and what they do, though they are great; much better than what you listen to, and they need every bit of exposure they can get. So, without further bricolage…

This past weekend’s adventures on lovely Lake Limestone, “Chili When It’s Chilly,” or “Bowl After Bowl of Chili Washed Down With Can After Can of Shiner When It’s Semi-Gorgeous Out,” as was the case, was an amazing time filled with great Texas Music, fellowship, cold beverages and lots of other luxuries.

Good times with Manzy Lowry, meself and Scott Ford. Photo by Mandy Meador.

The aim of Chili When It’s Chilly, aside for showcasing great music and providing a venue for some damn fine times, is to raise money toward a good cause. In this case, it was the Boot Campaign. It is a worthwhile cause, and if you’re interested, you can read about its particulars here: . A great deal of money was raised, but what I want to write about here is a little about the music I heard and a few of the cats I had the great opportunity of jamming with by the campfire.
Liz and I got out to Lake Limestone Friday night and were welcomed right away with cold beers, whiskey drinks and embraces from some Radio Free Texas Rowdies and musician buddies. After a hearty night of drinking, jams by the fire and a great many laughs, Saturday morning arrived before I knew it and Mr. Hangover had made it a might hard to face the daylight. A Gatorade/vodka and cold Shiner chaser fixed that and I was ready to folk-out. My set was at noon, which is usually far too early for most musicians to be fully functional, let alone for the vocal chords to be fully warmed-up and seasoned. It was all good times, though. Had the great privilege of sharing a stage with mi amigo Austin Mayse, an amazingly gifted singer/songwriter who I don’t get to see nearly often enough.
After our set (and a few more cold beers) Austin and our respective better-halves all got caught-up a bit. Austin handed me a copy of his album Devil on my Shoulder. Now, said album has been in circulation for awhile (I’ve had it on my computer for quite some time) but the physical copies have only recently come to light. I’m still old-school in that regard. Nothing like a hard-copy to put on the stereo or to drive around listening to, and I’ve gotta admit, I knew the album was good before from listening to it as sound files on the old ‘puter, but it’s much better than I ever dreamed. Maybe that’s just the fact that I’ve only got those 11 songs to listen to while it’s in the player and not tons others dragged-and-dropped into a Windows Media Player playlist, or that it’s coming through real speakers and not those shitty computer speakers I’ve used since my nice studio monitors were stolen, or God forbid, earbuds.
But yeah, I highly, highly recommend Austin Mayse’s Devil on my Shoulder. There’s catchy, great songs and a great voice. What more could you ask for on a freshman album, or any record for that matter? Oh yeah, there’s all that, AND a vocal cameo by the legend himself, Rusty Wier, who lends his vocal bona fides to “Hungover Sundays.” The way it’s printed on the tracklisting is amusing to me. With the lack of font size variance it looks like the song is titled “Hungover Sundays With Rusty Wier”. Hell, there’s a hell of a song in that, too.
The rest of the acts were good. Really enjoyed seeing Beau Hinze and the Backporch Shufflers again, but the real greatness happened at the songwriter circle after the festivities. There was much in the way of great songs, and an older gentleman who sat on a bench and strummed along in the background gave the sweetest comment about my song “Fences”. From where I sat, though, the real magic of that night was channeled by Messrs. Michael O’Neal and Manzy Lowry.
I’d never met Michael before. We were both on the bill at last year’s Geezerfest in Gruene, and several of my RFT friends had spoken very well of his music, but for whatever reason, it took until CWIC to hear him and hang with him. Every song he played that night was the work of someone who doesn’t bullshit around with his craft. Songs like “5x7s” (which can be heard here: ) cut to the core of experience and emotion. One after another, the songs just floored me. Several times I just wanted to put down my guitar and listen.
I’ve had the honor of hearing Manzy many times, and hanging out quite a bit, though not nearly enough (a consistent theme with a good many of my Hill Country-based musician pals). I didn’t get there in time to catch his pre-party set on Friday night, but Manzy’s campfire covers of Townes and his amazing originals give away how in-tune the dude is. He's a poet who walks the walk and sings what must be sung, with dignity and authenticity that many try to buy, and many don't even know they should want. At one point, he stood in front of everyone in the circle and played a recitation piece, a tribute to his grandfather called “Lasting Impressions”. It almost got me in the mood to play my “Flaxen Memories” song, but like many of Michael’s tunes, it floored me. I had to stop and get up and walk around awhile and think; reminisce about days and drives of long ago that are present in my mind, but nowhere else, it would seem.
Those lasting impressions Manzy writes and sings of are a big reason why I try my hand at creating art at all. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Of Processes and Guitar Heroes

Greetings boys and girls…or hello to all three of you who’ve stumbled upon this here dispatch from your humble scrivener. Full of yardbird I sit, and my hungry ears are getting some nourishment tonight, too. Townes is what I’m listening to, and I’m hoping it’ll light a bit of a fire underneath me to work a bit on a pair o’ tunes that need to be wrapped-up.
            Then again, is any kind of work ever truly done? There’s always some improvements that could be made somewhere. No less than Guy Clark said that once in an interview I read. Even Leonard Cohen went back and re-wrote several of his classic songs from forty or so years before as a test of his changed perspective and maturity.
            As much as I love having completed (or near-to-complete as I’ll get ‘em) songs to play for people and to record, I’ve come to realize over the years that the process is as much fun (and sometimes even moreso) than having an end result. I can’t recall a time when I’ve ever been solely focused on results and finishing a journey than the journey itself. I’m a bit of a gambler by nature, and taking some risks (usually ones within reason, mind you) and the inherent adventure always yields the most memories.
            I don’t care much for listening to my records. I’ve spent far too much time listening to them as I’ve made them, but last night I put on my Winter Garden album and listened to it the whole way through. I quite enjoyed it, but then I thought back to the sessions it took to end up with what I was listening to. Great times! It’s the same thing with the projects I’ve got going at the moment. I don’t want to jinx anything, but I’m feeling quite a creative high as of late and although I don’t do New Year’s resolutions, my resolve has held pretty steady to write day-to-day.
            In other processes that are evolving, I’m getting back into playing out and getting musicians together to play with. It’s exciting. I’ve never disliked being onstage sharing my songs and corny jokes, but it’s felt like a coon’s age has passed since I’ve been active in that regard. The last gig was in early December in Jefferson, and though it was a whale of a time, it was booked months in advance and the only gig I’d played in weeks at that time.
            At that show, I noticed a lady who seemed to hang on every word I sang and watched intently as I picked my guitar. It was a packed house for the small venue, and people were digging what I played, but none seemed more into it than this woman. After my first set, I got up to mingle and introduced myself. Come to find out that she was the widow of Bugs Henderson. Folks, I try not to carry regrets. They really don’t look appealing on me, but one of the biggest regrets I have as a music fan is not going to see Bugs Henderson play in Ben Wheeler back in January of 2012. I was playing out there at the Forge on a Friday. I noticed on the schedule that Bugs was playing there the next night. I thought, “Holy shit! I gotta see that!” Of course, I, too, was booked somewhere else that next night. Looking back, it would’ve been worth it to cancel said gig to hear ol’ Bugs. The next thing I remember hearing about him, a couple of months later, was that he’d died. That gig was his last.
I never got to see Bugs perform, but I listened to lots of his six-string heroics over the years. I first heard him when I sought out his music after reading a letter he’d gotten printed in Guitar Player magazine, back when I was in high school. At the time, I was definitely into Stevie Ray Vaughan, and all Texas Blues is good blues, but there was just something about Bugs, something that made him different. He was definitely one of the greatest guitar players who ever lived, and aside from Lightnin’, THE best Texas blues player. Nobody could lay down a shuffle like Bugs. Talking to his wife that night in Jefferson, I felt a little bit of a connection to Bugs. I could’ve listened to her tell stories about Bugs and his good friends (which included, among others, Billy Joe Shaver, Ted Nugent and Townes) all night, but I had another set to play.
            If there’s any kind of point I can convey here, it’s this: Bugs Henderson was a hero to a lot of people, me included. He was a musician’s musician who didn’t seem to care much about money or status, but had friends and admirers everywhere and lived a life getting to do what he was meant to do; what he enjoyed doing. Playing music is what I love doing. It keeps me feeling alive and well. This coming Saturday, I’m playing a solo gig for an event my amiga Sarah is putting on in Nacogdoches, the “Wine Swirl.” I was booked to play at the first one she did last year, but the injury I was recovering from prevented that, so I made a hell or high water promise to play it this year. To say I’m jazzed about it would be like saying James Joyce enjoyed a drink now and again. The Wine Swirl will be a lot of fun, then after that there are gigs lined-up for here and there, some solo and some with a couple of other players I’m working with at the moment. If I were a crackhead pop culture basket-case, this would be my “#winning” pronouncement. I’m always more of a spring person, anyway. Transitional seasons are my thing, and dammit, this spring will rock.
            So, yeah. Rest in peace, Mr. Bugs Henderson…and, creative processes rule!
            Aside from all that, there’s another inspiring musical force I feel I should commit a few words to after all these years. I finally got around to watching the Jason Becker documentary Not Dead Yet a week ago, and my word, what a story it is.
            My old buddy Chad and I got heavily into a lot of old-school hard rock/heavy metal bands from the 70s-80s while we were in high school in the 90s. Kind of funny when I think about what other kiddos were rockin' to back then in our little town. Still don't have much love for Ace of Base, Oasis or TLC. The 90s nostalgia revivalist in me is more suited to the thuggish guitar aggressors, and of course, Roxette, but yeah. Welcome to Digression City. One of the phases we went through together was a revival of late-80s speed metal/neo-classical metal music. Not much of that stuff has aged very well, if at all, but Jason Becker’s work is one of the few exceptions (his band Cacophony notwithstanding, but even those records are pretty cool compared to most of what was out in a similar vein at the time). Becker’s music was cool to me back then because it was loud, distorted and the man played guitar faster than anything I’d ever heard. Of course, there was SO much more to Becker’s musical acumen than those traits, the overall point and feel I "get" now, but yeah, the dude could fuckin’ shred.
            Taking into consideration that nothing is fair in this life, Mr. Becker’s hands were stilled right after he became the lead guitarist (and de facto musical director) in David Lee Roth’s band (THE biggest gig for a rock guitar god, circa 1990, the pre-Nirvana days) to the devil that is ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Politely lay down and die Jason Becker did not. Like another inspiring figure afflicted with the same ailment, Dr. Stephen Hawking, Becker said “fuck you” to ALS and 24 years later, is composing some very cool music that really shows his growth as a musician/composer and how his musical interests have grown over the years.*
            Not Dead Yet follows the trajectory of a traditional, linear biography. It isn’t as artsy cool as the Townes one (Be Here to Love Me) but it is something everyone should see. There’s so many theories as to why someone like Becker (or Hawking) could live for so long with something that is traditionally a death sentence, with a couple of years maximum to stay in the land of the living after the diagnosis. I guess when it comes down to it, the idea that a disease is always terminal is utter bullshit. The medical establishment doesn’t do well to explain someone’s will to live or how having a passion for something can add years to someone’s life. I knew about Jason's struggle, but hadn't really kept up with him. I'd read a story here and there in a music magazine about a benefit concert or something, but the last thing I'd read about him was a hilarious "Dear Guitar Hero" column in Guitar World where he responded to readers' questions. That was in '08 or so, but he'd written in there that his health was good and that he'd even regained the use of a few muscles. I had no idea he was still composing music until I saw the film.
            Jason Becker’s bodily movement is pretty limited now, true, but to see him onscreen or to listen to his more recent musical works, which he writes, arranges and produces, but has other musicians perform, is a testament to a fire burning that won’t be snuffed. Although Jason lost his voice years ago when he underwent a tracheotomy (which actually saved his life and restored a large measure of his then-dissipating health) he “talks” through a series of eye movements that are translated by an interpreter. The eye movements are also how he operates his computer and works in the studio, too, apparently. There are several recent interviews out there with Becker, and in the film, as well. Not only is the man brilliant and determined, but he’s hilarious, too (albeit a bit sophomoric at times for a man who is nearing the big 5-0, but that’s alright. Someone as cool as JB can make all the lame dick jokes he wants).
            Naturally, since Jason Becker is a musician, I would identify with his story, but I think there’s a lesson for anyone to glean. None of us are guaranteed tomorrow, or even the next five minutes, but for someone like Mr. Becker to ignore the constant scary talk of doctors telling him he only has such and such amount of time because he’s got music to make and football games to watch, ALS be damned, is impressive. Whoever sees the film (or reads of his story) should try to put themselves in his shoes. What would you do if it were you? How would you react to such a grim diagnosis? My guess would be that a high majority of us wouldn’t be quite as nonchalant about it as Jason Becker was. Most of us would probably resign ourselves to an early fate. When it comes right down to it, though, we’re all “terminal”. There are no guarantees on anything, save for death (and, maybe, the fact that annoying solicitors will call you numerous times each day).
            I hate to keep drawing a parallel between Jason’s story and that of the other noted ALS-stricken genius, Stephen Hawking, but the parallels are certainly there to muse upon. In one of Hawking’s essays, he traces his impetus for moving on with his pioneering work in cosmology, his taking on a teaching position while working on his PhD and his desire to start a family in the face of his diagnosis (in his early 20s) to the fact that he was a young man who grew up in Europe during the post-WWII years, and in an era when weapons of mass destruction were possible (and had been used) and felt that everyone felt resigned to certain doom, so life should go on regardless. That might also help to explain why so many courtships of the time resulted in marriage soon after each partner had time to catch their respective breaths after the first big night on the town, or why the tried-and-true, mapped-out path to “adulthood” became such a tenable, “can’t get here quick enough” goal to American youngsters.
            Needless to write, that “early death” hysteria died-down at some point, and today, despite our ever-shortening attention spans, we generally take our time, making our paths to those touchstones, by and large. Jason Becker’s sheer will to keep on keepin’ on isn’t as eloquent (or framed by historical events) as Dr. Hawking’s, but there is a great amount of hope and a simple philosophy to ascertain from the way he lives his life: find a way to put passion and beauty into your existence and watch where it takes you day-to-day, and also, don’t put off the things you can (and want) to do today.

            I’ve found that having a passion to create things and a fondness for observing and taking in art that I enjoy, as well as the fellowship of good friends, has pulled me from many a valley over the years. Strong drink has also helped a great deal, too. Bouts of depression, the cement shoed-feeling of anxieties and the blown-out feeling following moments of panic can all seem as crippling as something like ALS, but at the end of the day, most of us are still lucky enough to be able to move on our own and touch our feet to the ground. Jason Becker can’t and the guy still works through it all to do what he was meant to do. I hope I haven’t come across sounding like some half-assed motivational speaker during our time together today, though I have come close at times to winding up living in a van down by the river. I guess to conclude this ‘ere ramble, there’s two mantras to leave you with:
            1. Jason Becker fucking rules.
2. Find that passion and do it, no matter how those who can’t wake to see the beauty in your dreams would put you and it down.

That’s all, folks!

*Having not heard any of his music for years (since buying the Perpetual Burn album in high school) I listened to some stuff from a collection he composed and produced new material for after watching the film. He got some of his guitar god buddies to play his complex tunes, but they’re really nifty. From what I read now, he also wrote some music for Marty Friedman’s forthcoming solo record, which is kind of a Cacophony reunion.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Pete’s Hammer and the Season of Grieving

All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to ... remain silent.—Thomas Jefferson

“The season for grieving,” in the words of my buddy Keith Whitton, is what I’ve come to know the winter as. He’s right. Statistically speaking, the lion’s share of death and dying occurs in the months where the trees are bare and a roaring fire and bottle of whiskey are things of beauty. Not like either is ever an unwelcome sight.
     Now, before I get further in today’s rambles, I’ll try and refrain from making this blog turn-out too morbidly. Despite my depressive tendencies as of late (which are getting better all the time) I’ve got plenty to write about here that has nothing to do with mourning and general morbidity. I’m thinking tomorrow I’ll write about my latest disgust with the ever-present, omnipotent security state. Then again, that might even be more depressing than detailing someone’s agonizing death from (insert the most horrible illness you can think of here).
     Back to today’s scrawl: a new year always brings about new things. Some of them good, but many of them, well, yeah. New laws, new bans on certain products (grrr…those assholes will rue the day they banned the production of incandescent lightbulbs…grrr!...That was me growling, by the way. It’s fierce, if you could hear it in person) and of course, the first few celebrity deaths of a new year. The rule of thumb seems to be “they die in threes”. Well, yesterday brought news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s demise. He was one of the few modern-day actors I actually dug, plus he had the class and dignity to fight his demons in private, unlike many contemporary celebrity trainwrecks. It’s sad whenever someone loses that war, but at least he’s free of his burdens now. Here we are, just a few days into February and I haven’t bothered to look up a “Celebs who’ve died in 2014 so far,” but I’m sure the list of personalities from film, politics, etc. is more than a triptych at this point of household names.
    This year has certainly been unkind to great musicians. Let’s see, we’ve already lost the great Texas singer/songwriter Steve Fromholz, blues great Jeff Strahan, Phil Everly and just the other day, the sad news appeared on the sea of links I regularly attempt to peruse on that Pete Seeger had passed.
     Talk about a moment where the breath leaves you. “What? No! That’s impossible,” I thought, thinking the nonagenarian folk music giant would/should/could live forever (much in the same fashion I used to think about Les Paul and Doc Watson).
      Thinking about the tall, reedy banjo-playing gentleman didn’t really start until last night, when I watched an American Masters episode about him. It struck me how much Pete’s music has been a part of my life (and his influence extends to all of us who’ve sung songs of truth, joy and pain) although I’ve yet to own a Pete Seeger record. I plan on changing that travesty here pretty soon. I heard his songs on mixtapes that my grandparents made when I was a youngster, and later on, I heard covers of his songs (chief among them the Byrds’ rendition of “Turn, Turn, Turn!”) that elevated many rock groups’ coolness/substance factors tenfold.
      At the risk of throwing a huge cliché out here, the man was simply a giant of American music. Whether you heard Pete doing his own songs or not is irrelevant. In some way, if you’re a music fan or, especially, if you fancy yourself a folksinger, Pete Seeger’s connection is there. Irrelevant, also, are whatever notions one might have about Seeger’s political views. Although it seems to be “cool”, currently, to be intolerant of one whose politics you might not agree with, Pete Seeger’s contributions and lifelong commitment to his art and bringing people together in his own way transcended any knee-jerk reactions to witch-hunt-worthy scare tactics that he was a victim of. Besides, those who demonized him and withdrew him from the public's view were proven to be liars. Yeah, that'd be you, Senator Joseph Mc Carthy. You and Hoover both ruined a great number of lives, but anyhuevos, I digress. One of his most famous tunes, “If I Had a Hammer”, which I first heard on a Trini Lopez 45, shouldn’t just be thought of as an anthem for the Communist Party or whatever progressive or collectivist ideas one might/could assign to it. If anything, it should be an anthem of positivity and love. Music is always spoken of as the “universal language,” and that sort of song, with its simple, hummable and catchy melody and uplifting lyrics serve as a prime example of that idea. Not for nothing was the song adopted as a theme for those who fought for civil rights in the 1960s.
      A large chunk of the American Masters segment focused on Pete’s activism and anti-war songs during the Vietnam era. Although he had gained nominal re-entry into the public consciousness during that time, after years as a victim of McCarthy’s blacklist, his stance against the war and songs like “Waist Deep in Big Muddy” assured that he wouldn’t be accepted by the mainstream in the way that Peter, Paul and Mary (who covered many Seeger tunes) were. If anything, Johnny Cash put it best in an interview that was shown on the program (circa early 70s). He told Seeger that he believed him to be “one of the most patriotic artists ever,” despite the criticism of Seeger’s politics. What is patriotism anyway? I tend to favor Thomas Jefferson’s oft-cited quote about dissent being the highest form of patriotism than any line-towing, jingoistic claptrap that seems to become the order of the day, party affiliation or party-in-charge irrelevant.
      Although I do not write overtly political songs, I’d like to think that in striving to be a better lyricist and not going the easy route in songwriting is a part of that tradition. I don’t tow lines very well. Whether I get invited to the cool kids’ shindigs or not based on something I said or sang is an idea I couldn’t give less of a shit about, and I know Pete Seeger felt the same. Nothing cool or innovative was ever done by those who just followed the tide of safety and surety. From the guy who invented the printing press to the guy who wrote The Sound and the Fury, coloring outside the lines a bit gets things done and generates new perspectives. That’s who Pete Seeger was. For the better part of 94 years, he made people think, pissed people off and got people to tap their feet. Good job, Mr. Seeger. I only hope that some of us folksingers, writers, visual artists, inventors, etc., have picked up your hammer.
     94 is a damn good run. I fervently hope I get to do the things I love for a great long while, too. Here's to you, Mr. Seeger and to those who have the gumption to give legs to their ideas, no matter how crazy the naysayers might see them as.

P.S.: Anterior to what I wrote a bit about not writing overt political songs, that's one thing I've been meaning to get to. You see, before my buddy Big Tom passed on, we were writing an anti-TSA song that I never got around to finishing. These days I'm getting better about finishing things I start and feeling more and more organized and motivated every day, so I'm thinking not only will the TSA song ("The TSA Groped My Freedom Away") will soon see the light of day, but I'm feeling like writing one about those fear merchants at the NSA...hmmm...a theme developing...

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Remembering a true friend of Texas Music

Just over a year ago to this day, I was happily reunited with my old lead guitar-pickin’ running buddy Alex Westphal onstage at Billy’s Ice in New Braunfels. The night was a blast. Many tall Pabst Blue Ribbon cans and some solid jams with Jordan Minor later, a great night in the Hill Country had come to a close. Right after that reunion, Alex and I booked a gig for the next night at Riley’s Tavern. It was just magic—though we hadn’t played together in over a year, it felt good to be playing those old songs again; it was still there, but even better than before. Also on the agenda was to stop by venerable Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos and howdy with a good friend that I didn’t see nearly enough, “Big” Tom McAleer.
A week later, a freak accident had mangled my body and stripped me of the ability to play guitar and my good friend was gone. Luckily, the ill effects of the accident are ancient history and I can play guitar, piano, etc., again, but my friend is still gone. There’s rarely a day’s passing I don’t think about Big Tom. I didn’t have the honor of knowing him nearly as long, or as well, as some of my buddies did, but that’s irrelevant. Big Tom was a good man and the sort of fellow who left an impression on every soul he encountered. Hell, my girlfriend hung out with Big Tom only two or three times and still talks about him to this day. I have held back on writing about him. There are lyrics to a song that’s half-finished, which hopefully I will get to soon, and there’s an unwieldy essay I started writing shortly after he died (typed painfully slow with the one hand I had free and functional at the time) but neither of those things were shared outside my mind, computer and notepad.
As with anything else on this blog, I don’t really have any sort of purpose for this. I hope in some small way, it can explain and pay tribute to a man who gave so much to so many. I’m still discovering the debt I owe Big Thomas J. McAleer.
I first met Big Tom, appropriately, at Cheatham Street Warehouse. I learned over time, mostly from other folks, that although he had seen untold thousands of bands and artists over the years at just about any venue one could name, Cheatham was pretty much sacred ground to Tom. Tom wasn’t a musician or songwriter, but the man knew great art when he heard or saw it. Retroactively, it boosts my confidence level a thousand fold to know that Tom dug my songs. At the time I met him, I had no idea who he was. I’d only recently begun hitting up Cheatham, and was playing a happy hour gig there when I caught sight of Missoula Slim in the audience with a mountain of a man sitting next to him.
After I stepped offstage and was kindly introduced, the conversation started. Three hours of solid gab (and a few beers, well, I was drinking beer) later, I knew I had a new friend. It wasn’t just music we talked about, either. I learned that he’d recently recovered from some serious health issues and managed to quit drinking. I would learn, over time, that his drinking prowess was legendary. I’m sure if I’d hung out with him while he was still guzzling Shiner, my liver would still be recovering.
Over the next few years, Tom would book shows for me when I was passing through the magical Austin/San Antonio/New Braunfels/San Marcos area, as well as in other locales, but he was more than a booking agent, he was a good friend to hang with and the only person I’ve been able to converse with on the phone for hours at a time. I’m not too adept with chatting on the phone, and generally have to schedule blocks of time to return calls. With Tom, I had to make sure I wasn’t doing anything for a few hours. He was always excited about a new band or singer/songwriter he’d heard or saw, new contacts for my benefit or full of talk about whatever politician was screwing up (and screwing over constituents), and of course, there was the unbridled enthusiasm for his beloved Green Bay Packers, which carried the devotion that many folks only show toward their chosen deity. From that first night we hung out, I knew there was a very, very good soul in Big Tom.
Tom was that guy who was always excited about his new discoveries, and he always wanted to share whatever it was with anyone he met. That’s the sort of passion you don’t see much in this day and age of disconnected, solipsistic lifestyles. If anything, it’s frowned upon. Wax too eager on something and you’re labeled a crackpot, or whatever the term is these days. To say that Tom’s gusto was contagious would be to severely understate the man. Politically, Tom and I agreed on many issues, but Tom knew damn good and well that the music world is a lot like high school, and those with conservative views wouldn’t always get invited to all the cool kids’ parties. He didn’t care, though. Like I wrote, the man was passionate about whatever he pursued.
It was probably easy for some to overlook just how cultured and intelligent Tom was. From what I gathered, his extreme flatulence was as legendary as his bawdy sense of humor, both of which he used toward fueling his self-deprecating personality. Sure, he could be crude, but he could just as easily talk for hours about the convoluted, ever-shifting mess that is geopolitics, or break down a particular line in a Townes Van Zandt song that made the song so special. Tom was one of the few people I trusted when it came to taking musical recommendations. Off the top of my head, only Mike Ethan Messick and Steve Nanney (my girlfriend’s dad) possess as much knowledge about music as Tom did, and can be trusted in their pronouncements on music. Tom not only knew the lyrics and melodies to damn near every song imaginable (in Tom fashion, he had a database of critiques for ‘em, as well) but he could also rattle off who all had played on those songs and albums. This wasn’t only true of Texas Country bands and artists, either. The amount of music Tom knew about (and enjoyed) is as staggering as when I contemplate the sum total of what I’ve spent on Shiner products over the years. Anyone can generalize as to why an "artist" sucks, based on superficial details, but Tom McAleer could launch into a dissertation-length diatribe as to why Eminem is not a good lyricist, complete with examples to back it up.
To really see Tom at his happiest and in his element, one would only need to take in a live music performance with him. The last time Tom and I were at a show was at Cheatham (naturally) right after I played a restaurant gig he’d booked for me. Tom rode with me to the gig and spent the brief drive to our shared favorite venue extolling the virtues of Courtney Patton and Kylie Rae Harris. I knew Kylie from Troubadour TX, but Courtney I hadn’t heard of. If Tom dug her, though, I figured one of two things: she was a great artist, or she wasn’t lacking in the looks department (or both). The music I heard that night blew me away, something that doesn’t happen a lot these days, even though I’m only thirtysomething. In true Big Tom fashion, his excitement couldn’t be contained (much like his love of cheap, filling Mexican food) and during Courtney and Kylie Rae’s set, he rattled off snippets about other shows of theirs he’d seen or anecdotes about Courtney’s songwriting prowess, and this was on a night when the “Listening Room Night. Please Be Quiet” sign was taped to the front door. Sorry about that, Kent. :)
I’ve been lucky to have a lot of praise given to me and my musical efforts, but one of the comments I will always treasure is what Tom told me at a party one night about my Winter Garden album. I told him that I was getting ready to start recording a new album (a project that is still in the works) and Tom asked if I’d been writing. I told him about some of the (then) new songs I was so proud of, and Tom said, “Really looking forward to it. The Winter Garden album is just so good. I love those songs on there.” That sort of thing floored me, especially considering how high Tom’s standards were. He didn’t hold back his opinions on music. He was friends with Stoney LaRue and had worked with him, but even so, he wasn’t afraid to tell him that he didn’t think his last album was up to snuff. On the positive side of his critical eye, I’d found out from the last visit I had with Tom that he’d placed Matt Harlan’s Bow and Be Simple album as Number One (it is a masterpiece, by the way) for a column he was writing, a year-end “best of Texas Music” type list, for Lone Star Music magazine, I think. Matt was tickled pretty pink when I told him about that, and he’s won just about every major songwriting award you can think of.
One of my favorite Big Tom moments (and the one I told at his memorial service) happened after I’d played a South By Southwest showcase he’d set-up. We were walking down the street, out in Austin, and both feeling pretty jazzed from a night of good times and tunes. I’d just debuted a new song, which would be the first song on the aforementioned Winter Garden project. It was called “Highway Shoes,” and one of the lines in it goes “I just can’t retire my old highway shoes.” Well, as we walked and talked, the sole of my boot just gave up the ghost. It flopped forward, noodle-limp. I froze and cursed. Tom just pointed and laughed, “Well, Chris, I guess you’ll have to retire those old ‘highway shoes.’” It’s hard to play that song now and not think of Big Tom. I was unable to play an instrument at the memorial, so I did that song acapella. I’d played it before on the Cheatham stage and dedicated it to him because of that night in Austin, but I never thought I’d be singing it a memorial service for him.
Tom never sat out to be a power player in the world of Texas music, but that’s what he was. In ways, he might not portray the conventional meaning of such a term, but the man worked harder than anyone to further the cause, and more often than not, to little reward. Sometimes I felt that just being at a show with his friends was the greatest reward for him. He told me at his birthday party, “I’ve got some of the best friends in the world, and I get to hear them play some badass music. My life’s pretty great, man.” The way he cared about his friends showed itself, not in direct “I love you, man!”-style messages or whatever, but in his actions and in the jocular fellowship one could expect when at a show or party with Big Tom. I recall one mutual friend who was having a terrible time of it, and Tom stayed up all night one the phone with him, shooting the shit with him just to make sure he’d be alright. At his memorial, Cara Miller (Radio Free Texas’s First Lady) made note of how Tom never missed a chance to express his love for friends.
Big Tom’s memorial (held at Cheatham, of course) featured many funny stories about Tom, along with some touching recollections of the man who brought so many people together. I hadn’t seen the Warehouse quite so full in a good long while, but it just spoke to the fact that so many people loved Big Tom. Right after I saw word of his passing on Facebook, the entire network of Texas musicians, music fans and fellow promoters/booking agents on the site was abuzz with tributes to him, and radio stations had moments of silence in his honor. I can’t remember ever having been so prolific on Facebook in the wake of the news. I kept checking the site, searching for mentions of him, just hoping it had all been a terrible mistake and that somewhere Tom was just fine, watching a band play and giving buddies at the bar the play-by-play on the band and its songs.
The night before the memorial, Liz and I sat on a porch at a friend’s house in Gruene, sipping whiskey and Shiners. It was a small gathering of some fellow RFTers. Some bittersweet memories were exchanged. Both Daniel Miller and I tried to keep it in check by exchanging tales of misadventures fueled by Jagermeister, and Liz tried to bring a little humor into the mix, making mention of Tom's Tex Mex-fueled gastrointestinal exploits, but ultimately, despite mine (and the others’) intoxication and the laughter (both of which Tom would’ve wanted, this I know) I saw a moment that just nailed the fact that we’re all connected here on this big ball of water and soil. I’d stepped inside the house to grab another beer and found Cara alone and crying. I hugged her and although I couldn’t think of anything consoling or meaningful to say, I cried with her and the numbness I’d felt since the news came to me left.
All of us were richer just for knowing Big Tom. We’ll have those memories. Some respective, some shared, but regardless, there are people in the world who didn’t know Big Tom and are poorer for having never met him, but not us. Not those of us who hung out at Melissa’s house that night, or those of us who were at Cheatham Street the next day, or anyone in San Marcos or Austin (or wherever) driving around in a vehicle with the Big Tom tribute sticker. He’s a part of all of us.
Big Tom, rest easy my friend. I hope you know just how much you’re loved down here. Hope you're enjoying all the great music where you're at. If I know you, you're probably working on setting up a Townes Van Zandt/Doc Watson/Lightnin' Hopkins song-swap as I write this. Don't forget to book me for something with some of those guys when I get to the other side.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Learning to Re-Emerge in the World of Digital Convergence

Lately it seems as if some of the demons I’ve been fighting have headed for the hills (at least for the time being) and as a result, I’m finding myself unencumbered by many of the anxieties that kick sand in my face.
One of the effects of my being (mostly) off anyone’s grid is that I’ve taken a hiatus from social network comings and goings. The irony is not lost on me that I’m about to detail my vacation from Facebook and inevitably, I’ll wax anxious about the ever-increasing Internet convergence on this site, which is linked-in to my Google account (which can access damn near anything from Youtube to allowing me to comment on most any site) and God-knows-what-else-from-there. I used to think to myself “does a person even actually exist these days if he/she doesn’t have a Myspace account?” Now I ask myself “does anyone remember Myspace?” I was first introduced to Myspace as a way to promote and network my musical endeavors, which became quite successful. It was like a paradigm shifted from the “old-fashioned” Internet where all the sites were self-contained to a version of having everything linked together, and that was just a few years ago. 2006 or ’07, to be more precise.
When I finally got into the cult of Facebook, I warmed to it a little slower than most folks I knew who encouraged my complicity. Right away, I was able to connect with bands and pickin’ buddies that I’d not seen in awhile (much like I could on Myspace, which I was still using a bit at the time) but the whole idea of checking it multiple times in a single day hadn’t dawned on me yet. I started using the thing more and more in the last couple of years and while my addiction wasn’t as harsh as some, it was definitely there. To-do lists suddenly featured reminders to post various thises and thats to ye olde FB. My Facebooking (years ago, I never thought I’d use this verb) came to a head last summer when I wasn’t keeping regular contact with a lot of folks. Instead, the world of Facebook was my window to their goings on, up until late September.
What began as a response to an unintentional shirking of a favor for a friend turned into an act that left many people probably wondering if I’d kicked the bucket, joined a cult and dropped off the map or was abducted by aliens. Yes, I’m writing of the Facebook embargo. Not for nothing are there terms like “digital detox” existent in the current cultural lexicon, and after I stepped away from the vampire of time that is the Book of Face, I certainly felt the sting of withdrawal. I mean, what was life without random FB logins to fill empty spaces? The idea of adjusting to such madness certainly seemed daunting, but over time, I found myself not missing the idea of being “plugged-in” to a social network. Sure, there are many friends on Facebook whose posts I enjoy reading, but it was beyond time due for me to go demon slaying. Being locked-into a grid of ever-converging digital social interaction didn’t bode well for my increasing anxieties at the time at all.
I won’t go into too deeply into detail here. I’m sure I will at some point provide a chronicle of a difficult fall and winter, but the nut-cut of today is this: I’m feeling a lot better. Best I’ve felt in eons, and with better mental health I feel like I can take on the world…or at least leave my house. Hell, I might even re-enter the world of Facebook in the next few days, with a lengthy essay to post to assure the folks my name is still Chris Edwards and I’ve not been in the witness protection program, or hiding in a cave, or dumped in the desert by little green men or whatever other outlandish theories could be hatched by those who spend too much time on the Internet (or flipping through the magazines in the checkout line).
In the meantime, I’ve managed to take a voyage on the Twitter comet (something I told myself I’d never do when it first came into vogue, but is now necessary for musicians, or so I’m told) and I’ve even managed to maintain an Instagram page, which my girlfriend began for me. Aside from that, my sweet friend and booking agent Ms. Beth has helped spread word about the few gigs I’ve played during my time in the wilderness and I’ve managed to stay fairly productive while holed-up in the house, writing music and what-not, and while I’m not quite feeling like the king of the mountain exactly, I think 2014 will rock like boulders.

Live wrong and perspire!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Greetings all! I am Chris Edwards and thanks for happening upon this blog. I will be using this as an outlet for random writings that don't fall into the category of stuff that I publish (i.e. stuff that isn't lyrics, poetry, short essays intended for publication or other ephemera that winds up getting used someplace). I hate to use the term "dumping ground" to describe this blog, but at the moment that is about the half of what it amounts to. Who knows? These writings might be of use to me at some point...or maybe someone, somewhere might nibble on a kernel of something here that fuels a thought. Let the fun begin...