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I am of the opinion that it’s never too late to bring some good news into the world. Well, my current good news, or “gospel” if you will, comes in the form of a new album entitled, “The Shadow Can’t Have Me.” This is not a perfect album, it’s mostly a collection of one-take demos, some even written on the spot. The fragile nature of this record is fitting because these songs arose out of the last couple of years of my life…a very broken season for me personally. To me, these are gospel songs for those in the valley…songs that confess the shattered nature of everything and in the same breath point to a hope that is real and eternal. In summation, this is an album for people walking through hell. If you are in the thick of such a journey I pray these songs do what I would hope any song of mine might do. I pray they help.
That’s right folks. Starting today (Friday, 9/21) I will be performing on this weekend’s Mountain Stage broadcast on NPR! You may recall me traveling to West Virginia back in June to be on the show. Well, the time has come for the world to hear what happened that night in Charleston. It was an honor to share the stage with such legendary songwriters as Ray Wylie Hubbard and Dar Williams. I’m pretty excited to listen in myself. Click here to find broadcast times and stations that carry the show in your area.
I’ve always had the ache, that buried burden. That mysterious longing for the better. Hurt wants to be healed. This is the birth of hope. When everything is wrong you pine for the day it will all be made right. You may not even believe that day will come, but in your grief you have to hope. Before all hopes are dashed they must, at least just once, be hoped upon. I have concluded this is basic human nature. We all have the ache…and the hope. It’s our condition.
I grew up in the South and in the church. Like most kids I wasn’t that aware of my surroundings. Everything felt normal. Now that I’m grown it feels so odd to be surrounded by so many temples of worship. I don’t think I could travel through any town in my current county of residence without seeing at least one church. The church building is a part of the southern landscape. We have our woods and lakes and mountains…and our churches. Mostly white buildings with signs out front spelling out a certain name to claim. For many they are shelters from the storm.
As a kid in church I learned the basics: Jesus loved me. I was a rotten sinner. I needed Jesus to save me. These kind of things were drilled into my brain in sunday school and youth group. But somewhere along the way I started believing more. I think I just wanted to. It all goes back to the ache I mentioned at the start. I wanted more because the ache wouldn’t let me settle for anything less. Somebody said or I heard once that “all things shall be made right”. This is what we all want, right? And isn’t this just simple justice? Anyone with eyes can see something has gone wrong. Its not like things went sour yesterday. We’re dealing with a long history of the wrong or better said the “not-right”. The world is not as it should be. A lot of that is our own fault as residents of earth. Well, its all our fault. No one is innocent. Guilty as charged and what are we do?
It is in the silence that comes after asking this question that I am stirred to belief again. Not just in my fellow humans to work in love for a better world. But for Jesus. All things shall be made right. I am unable to believe the contrary. In the gospel meetings of my youth there was also the hope of Christ’s return. I remember looking around every corner, waking up from my slumber thinking this might be the day of his return? May he find me loving my neighbor and this world we both inhabitant. This is what “Darkness to Light” is about. I am waiting in the night for the sun to rise. It gets so dark sometimes that it feels there will be no dawn. But I know it will come. Tears well as write this like forgotten memories, reclaimed for a desperate time. I know that day will come.
“Maybe we should go back to a garden, that perfect little world….to two lovers who couldn’t keep it right.”
Songs are written by songwriters and rise out of the bedrock of their own experiences. All I have mentioned concerning my upbringing and faith is one snapshot of my overall experience thus far. When I strummed those simple chords in my kitchen I knew I was onto something in “Darkness to Light”. To me the song stands out in style and approach compared to the rest of my work. I usually don’t ever start a song with a chorus, but here that’s just what I did. Lots of gospel and country songs do this. Looking back at the writing process I see how I was channeling some of the greats like Hank Williams and even Paul Simon to compose the tune. And when I say channeling I really just mean listening. Listening not only to their music, but their approach, the cloth from which they were cut. “Darkness to Light” in essence is a song of light and hope. Light for everyone. Hope for anyone who would dare to ache for a better world.
“Maybe we should go back to a garden, that perfect little world….to two lovers who couldn’t keep it right.”
Listen to the album version here
She is the picture of kindness.
You are the worn and weary soul.
Unspoken is the understanding.
She takes you in.
Your shirt hangs, ripped and brown.
Coffee is on the boil.
Slowly, as a fog or an old man might get up to leave the words begin to spill out upon the moment.
First her. Then you. Then back and forth. A tide, rising to fall again.
She leaves and returns.
On the table’s back now a splintered old box.
She eyes the hollow tear, the one of many.
And when at last your eyes meet hers….a story is lost. Lost as something is given. Lost as light gives warmth.
Silent she stitches. You wait. Humility comes.
In time she mends each tear. During you shed stubborn tears. They run quick, down your cheeks and neck.
More than cloth has been married. You know this. Halves have been made whole.
But you cannot stay.
A well man shall not remain in the infirmary. A growing child shall not remain in the nursery. A living soul shall not remain in the grave.
Oh, the picture of kindness she was, is.
A mender of rags and flesh. The mediator of past and present.
The streets lay covered in snow. You walk and walk and the world seems finally awake. And so do you. Awake and whole.
What I just wrote should not be made into song. Though much is missing in the poetic narrative, far too much is at hand. Writers, and especially songwriters, are given the task of knowing what to keep. Keep too much and the song is lost altogether; keep too little and the song collapses. When I wrote my song “One Silver Needle” I had the above poem/story in my head. It was not word for word as I have arranged it, but the general framework was there.
Songwriting is by no means like writing a novel. I spent a whole summer several years ago working on a novel. I got 100 pages in and eventually gave up. The discipline needed is the same, but the process is altogether different. I can’t spend 3 verses describing the nature of a wood(perhaps Dylan could get away with this). Songwriting is a far more condensed format. You’ve got 3 to 4 minutes to get across an idea or to tell a story. It’s not an easy thing to write a song. Good ones come with toil. Great ones can take a lifetime. The more you write them the more you know what to keep. Even good ideas need editing.
I could have tried to fit every detail that was in my head into “One Silver Needle”. The song would have given way though. There were boundaries, confines to fit in. It is a process, of listening to the voice inside you. The more you write the more that voice is heard. Learning is doing. Daily I discover this.
Listen to the album version here.
“Lo, the many shadows that hang outside my door….calling through the keyhole, creeping across the floor.”
I am always looking for opening lines. Always. I don’t ever wake up with a closing line in my head. It is nearly always the first line that appears whether it be to a chorus or verse. This seems natural enough. It is far easier to start at the beginning than at the end. At least this is my experience. I love the act of starting. That’s my obsession as a writer. To take the step leading on a journey and finally to a destination.
The above first line came out of nowhere and I knew I was onto something. It painted a picture, one of mystery and intrigue. What are these shadows? Why are they calling? Why won’t they leave? The questions eventually lead to answers as I worked out what would eventually be the first verse to “Bring My Heart Out”. The answers were lines. See that’s what an opening line must do: it must inquire. It must beg and beg until given a response. A good first line is a persistent child, never giving in, settling for nothing less than undivided attention.
“A whisper bears a burden I cannot ignore. Long time to wage a war.”
And so I had four lines that seemed to sit well beside each other. They seemed to flow and begin a story. A chorus lay in the darkness, hunched over and ready to reveal its presence. I could feel it.
“I’m gonna bring my heart. I’ve gotta bring my heart out to breathe”.
Without this first stanza I have no chorus. The fear that is so apparent in the opening lines is dealt with here. The chorus is a response to the shackling fear all around. I won’t take it anymore. The heart has been caged for too long. Room is needed, room to breathe. Light though it be blinding must shine. The chorus is a confession, a proclamation, to all the world and especially to self. A future is determined and the past can do nothing to deter it.
Songwriting is building. Words and melody are the blocks you are working with. The idea is to build something sound and beautiful. Ultimately it is a song’s beauty that draws people in. It is the beckon call from afar. However, the integrity of the structure, is what keeps people coming back. The foundation is firm and the listener knows it can be trusted. Great songs don’t ever let go. They become more than just a beautiful building, but a place of refuge, a shelter.
But without a great opening line you have yet to lay the first brick.
“Bring My Heart Out” is by no means a perfect song. I’m sure even the opening lines could have been sharper and even more descriptive. The point is that the first line lead to another and then to another. I suppose this is the litmus test: if your opening begs for no response, find another opener. Good openers for the most part produce good songs. Well, at least the first solid block has been laid. Much work has to be done to finish strong. It is easy to get discouraged and abandon the work altogether. A good opening line will not let you quit. It may take years, but the work will one day be finished. It must.
Just yesterday I wrote down the line, “You’re a penny among a holy host of dimes.” Sounds like a good opener to me. Now to fashion the walls.
Listen to “Bring My Heart Out”.
I remember the notion lingering inside my head. Eventually came the fruit, the voicing of that circling idea. She heard it, my Momma did, one Saturday morning. I guess it just sort of spilled out into the air. I don’t remember her response. She probably didn’t know how to take me. See, I had shown no interest in this area before. Not even a sideways glance. Still, we left for the corner pawn shop in our black and grey Chevy Astro. We had no idea what we we were doing.
In essence it was just a teenage whim, but when I opened the worn door of that shop it felt like something more. We asked the man already knowing the answer and he went to the back in search of one. Soon he brought back an angular, cardboard box that contained what we had come for. I opened the cover and beheld something entirely foreign yet somehow familiar. The small guitar glowed it seemed in various shades of brown below a layer of lacquer. The strings, old and bronze, gave a dull shimmer. I knew it to be an instrument for musical purposes, but it felt, in first viewing, more like a map. To me, every map has a secret. I was drawn that moment not by what I knew, but by what I knew could be known. I sensed a secret and I longed to find it out. I was consumed.
Momma paid the man $40 and I clutched the box awkwardly, carrying it to the van. I hurried to open the sliding door, so no one would see me on the street. I had followed the whim, but I was not ready by any means to reveal this to anyone. It would be years before I could tell someone I played guitar without blushing.
The only story most of us are fit to tell is our own. That story, as has been said numerous times, is a work in progress. The only part we can even venture to speak about is the stretch that has gone by. We look back on a particular moment and if our minds are still sound we can tell any soul just what happened. I am sure I will always tell of the day my mother bought me a guitar. It is one of many short stories comprising my life story. Who can say how important it will appear when it’s all said and done?
The storyteller in “We Had a Mind to Run” centers in on a quite different scene from his childhood. His story is primarily concerned with that curious season of youthful rebellion we all experience. We kick against the pen not really to get free, but just to see if we might break at least one board. We’re not sure what we might do if we are successful. This truth means nothing. We “run against the grain under the gun”…..no one can stop us or change our minds. Indeed we have a “mind to run”.
In the song the backdrop is small town U.S.A. Many things have been said of the great cities of this world and rightly so, but it is the small town that holds the ache and mystical reverence for such places as New York or Paris. Small town boys camping underneath a starry host understand that there is vastly more to this world than a few dusty roads and fence posts. They long for the “more” though they may not or cannot obtain it. The song reveals in the final verse a small victory. The boys make one last attempt at a break just to cross the county line and turn back home. But “they had to try”. All kids have to try, to push their parents’ limits, to stretch the confines a little. Kids especially know when the boundary lines are too close, when the walls are too thick and the reigns too tight. Who can blame them when they try? No one really. We all try in our own way. Some never stop trying and die trying. It’s human to try, profoundly human. We hurt and we try. That’s pretty much the bottom of it.
When we got home from the pawn shop I went up to my room and closed the door. I sat on my bed and plucked the strings individually. I had no idea what I was doing. There were no chords, no notes. I was alone with a map that I knew held a secret. And though I didn’t know it…. I was “trying”. Suddenly, instantly the boundary lines were gone, the walls lay in ash, the reins absent. I was trying. I was finding it out, crossing the sacred lines. I was finding the secret, the song.
I like to think as a songwriter that each song leads to another song. If this is true “We Had a Mind to Run” is the key to some other tune. I have probably written it already. The next song is proof of the song before and all the songs before. Truly it is the journey that shows the path, that path you’ve made.
Listen to the album version of “We Had a Mind to Run”.