I have a modest guitar collection if you compare to some. Each instrument I have and play, though, is as unique as a child. Each has its own “voice,” and no two instruments are exactly alike, even if they are identical models. Each piece of wood sounds a little different from all the others. You learn this if you are a serious player.
Instruments have their oddities, too. Sometimes, tuning is not precisely right on every fret, or the “feel” of the instrument varies. Some applies to guitars, violins, banjos, mandolins, any instrument of wood and wire. This eccentricity, like that of human voices, is a source of delight, not frustration. The reason I generally hate a lot of electronically created music is the sameness of it.
Human voices are like that. I like gravely voices, deep voices, angelically soft voices, and raspy voices. Each voice expresses who that human being is, at least in part.
My very first guitar of my own was a Yamaha FG-230 Twelve String guitar. My parents got if for me for Christmas of 1971, I think. I had started playing music with two great friends who were musicians.
Both would go on to professional music careers, one still in it. My friend Woody had a Hoffner bass like Paul McCartney played in the early Beatles’ music, but that year got a Fender Jazz bass. Paul, who already played a Fender Telecaster like a pro by age 17, got a Yamaha six string the same Christmas. We both loved old country music and bluegrass. Paul introduced me to everything else in the world–he liked all kinds of things, from Grand Funk Railroad to Dillard and Clark to the Incredible String Band.
Adapted from my newsletter column to the church this week at www.vhbc.com:
As I was looking over past writings and came upon this one, from 1994. It still seems useful for now.
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).
The problem of life is not faith, but fear. Fear of failure can paralyze a talented person from ever trying. The fear of success can explain why many equally-talented people seem to sabotage themselves just on the brink of success or achievement. Psychologists tell us that fear is the root of much procrastination in the perfectionist who can never begin the task until she is a little better prepared.
Fear can keep us silent in the face of evil when we should have spoken. It is the fear of change that paralyzes our wills and reduces life to discontented mumbling against fate rather than risking ourselves to move forward. The fear of death can turn us hollow and brittle, fearful of a misstep and terrified of suffering. Fear grants a thousand deaths to a cowering heart.
Change, all change, brings fear with it. Transitions surpass our past copings and leave us exposed and vulnerable. We are once again where we find ourselves continually in life: thrown back on our wits and facing the unknown.
Every day, every week, we are facing changes as individuals, as the church, as families. The creative possibility is that in the face of change we will choose with courageous faith to trust God’s new life through us rather than fear.
Parker Palmer says that “the core message of all the great spiritual traditions is ‘Be not afraid’…the failure is to withdraw fearfully from the place to which one is called, to squander the most precious of all our birthrights–the experience of aliveness itself.”
As we look at the world around us, it is not a brilliant observation to see that we are in a time of suspicion, distrust and unkindness. The cheapness of life, the anger and fear of our culture, and the rampant selfishness of too many is easy to see. But what to do about Continue reading “God’s Dream and Our Fear”→
We must face our losses. Courage does not spare us from them.
Courage’s work begins at the other end of honest acknowledgement.
Grief can encompass many parts of life, not merely death. It is, in many ways, our most universal experience. It can be the death of dreams, grief of a way of life that ends, the end of a relationship, leaving home, moving to another town, divorce, a broken friendship. The question is, “What are we to do with it?”
I can’t speak for people who have no faith in God, but I will admit that having faith in God doesn’t dispose of grief. It is just the same, just as overwhelming, the same disbelief followed by disintegration and despair and a long struggle to put life together again.
One verse of scripture I have found meaningful is this one:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 1 Thess. 4:13
I take great comfort that it does not say, “Don’t grieve, you’re a Christian,” but I have heard many a well-meaning minister stand up and talk about death like it was a flu shot. Death is real, it is irreversible, it is disheartening. I don’t think dismissing reality is a good idea. It has a way of showing up again with reinforcements.
The denial of death is, as Ernest Becker said, the most pervasive of human failings, and the most futile. The Apostle Paul said, very intentionally, that we should not “grieve as those who have no hope.” Instead, I would assume, we should grieve as people who DO have hope. Continue reading “Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows”→
“…there is a playful randomness about what we find and read. Or rather, what finds us”
When I first rekindled my interest in songwriting and music again, sixteen or seventeen years ago, I began hanging out in music stores, playing the guitar again and digging out songs from my memory and on faded notebook paper from years ago. One day, a worker in the store I frequent most, Fretted Instruments of Birminghm, said, “Are you just starting to explore the discography?” I had just said that “I was getting into bluegrass music” and that was his reply.
I began to delve into just that—listening, going to shows, scooting to Nashville now and then. I bought a collection of Bill Monroe’s music. Over the coming years, I heard a lot of music live—Bruce Hornsby, Ricky Skaggs, Nickel Creek, J. D. Crowe, Earl Scruggs, Vince Gill, as well as a lot of lesser-known but excellent players and singers coming through the Station Inn in Nashville or here in Birmingham, Continue reading “Exploring the Discography of Life”→
“The genetic code of bluegrass and old time music is more sophisticated than that. It carries stories of birth, life and death in the old days. It tells of children dying young, tragic love, shame, murder, alcoholism and faith. To learn the code, no stereotype will do. You have to descend into the music and listen.”
In 2005 I took a three month sabbatical to study, pray, and feed the senses. I went to art museums, read books, went to Nashville to learn about the music industry and played at open mic at the Bluebird Café, reaching one
of my bucket list items (the ultimate would be a gig on the “Prairie Home Companion Show” while Garrison Keillor is still on earth!). But a lot of that time was “exploring my roots,” musical, theological and spiritual—which led to a week at Steve Kaufman’s Acoustic Kamp.
I’d been to the Kamp before, in Maryville, Tennessee. Unless you are a devotee of the guitar and acoustic cousins like the mandolin, the “fiddle” (violin played a certain way), bass, banjo or dobro, you don’t realize that hundreds of camps happen every year across the world where musicians gather and play and learn the heritage of “roots” music—folk, jazz, country, celtic, and so on. In these places, campers rub shoulders with the legends of bluegrass, swing, fingerpicking and new acoustic music. I met legends like Bill Keith, Clarence White, Continue reading “Mapping the Bluegrass Genome”→
Anyway, riding in a van for a week turned us from “Friends
and Brothers” to angry inmates who couldn’t wait to bust out.
Fifteen Years. That’s how long Shades Mountain Air has been together, at least the core of Greg and Nancy Womble, Gary Furr, and Don Wendorf. We have spent a couple hours a week most of that fifteen years weekly at Greg and Nancy’s house, practicing, horsing around, composing, arranging, learning and growing from one another. We’ve only had one personnel change in all that time–Don’s son, Paul, our outstanding fiddle player, left us to move on with wife, kids, career, to Texas, and so, we were four again for a while, then found Melanie Rodgers. Mel has added dynamic new joy to our sound, and is now a part of our 15th Anniversary Live Album that is now available. (Go to the website store for our new CD click here!)
The album sounds great! We hired Fred Miller of Knodding Off Music to record and engineer our live concert. Fred did a fantastic job and we are so happy with the result. He captured our live sound and energy. It sounds like us! There is NOTHING like live music, and though it’s fun to be in a studio and monkey around with something until you get it “perfect”, there is a corresponding loss of that spark that performers-audience and a venue provide. We did it at our favorite gig–Moonlight On the Mountain in Bluff Park in Hoover, Alabama, with Keith Harrelson, as always, handling lights and sound.
I say all this because Shades Mountain Air is more than a band. We have become family together. We love playing together, singing, creating, whether anyone is listening or not. Greg and Nancy’s kids grew up having to hear us every week in their house. We have been through life crises, griefs, and changes Continue reading “Thou Shalt Love Thy Bandmates”→
Several years ago, Dr. Penny Marler approached me about participating in a program where pastors might become
friends across differences—race, age, denomination—and learn from each other. Rev. Arthur Price and I decided to make that journey together. He is the pastor of historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where, 50 years ago this fall, people driven by hate and fear set off a bomb that killed four little girls who had just prayed together. The episode set off a national revulsion to the radical racists and helped put America in a new direction.
Over the course of that few years, we became friends, Arthur much younger, a different personality, a native of the North, me a son of the South. It was one of the richest experiences of my life, and it is documented on the website of the Resource Center for Pastoral Excellence. (For more information about the project Rev. Price and I did together, click HERE)
One of the side blessings of that friendship was connecting our churches. We visited each others’ deacons meetings, had our congregations together for fellowship, and continued our friendship by having breakfast together regularly over the years. Last year, we began to talk together about doing something positive that would mark this anniversary by affirming that we are in a new day and that the faith community is part of that. We were joined by another friend, Rev. Keith Thompson of First United Methodist Church downtown.
The truth is, the banjo, like all the indigenous music of the South,
is another of those curious shadowy meeting places of black and white people.
Surely by now you’ve seen that bumper sticker that says, PADDLE FASTER—I HEAR BANJOS PLAYING. It’s an allusion to the worst movie for the banjo’s image since the minstrel era—“Deliverance.” Despite the wonderful “Dueling Banjos” song, which was written by the talented Arthur Smith, whom I used to watch on TV from Charlotte, NC as a boy (and who also wrote the “Guitar Boogie.”), it was an image I’d as soon forget.
The banjo is associated with rednecks, hillbillies, and racism in the American mind. We think of it as an instrument of uneducated mountaineers in the rural South. We remember white people in blackface mimicking the music of the plantations that makes us wince in pain now. And that’s too bad. The banjo is an instrument that contains a shared history in black and white. It is an African instrument that white people—especially the poor–came to love.
Unfortunately, the searing history of the plantation, slavery, with all of its terrible damage to the people brought here against their wills, left us with a bizarre and tragic legacy of contradictions that perhaps reflect in our music. The notion that an African instrument, the banjo, would embody racism is odd indeed. The truth is, the banjo, like all the indigenous music of the South, is another of those curious shadowy meeting places of black and white people. From the painful memories of the minstrels to the accusations against Elvis as “race music,” the musical inventions of southern culture—jazz, gospel, rock, soul, R&B, blues, country, folk and bluegrass—all formed bridges across a divide that was stupidly attempted by law and cultural taboo.
A couple of video explorations that will open up that world for you differently. One is “Give Me the Banjo” NARRATED
BY Steve Martin on PBS. You can watch it online here CLICK It is a wonderfully told narrative of the instrument through its complex history and cultural settings. It will introduce you to a lot of players you’ve never heard of, black and white, blues, old-time, folk, bluegrass and other styles.
Like so many cultural artistic expressions, you will find yourself realizing that all your surface shorthand stereotypes are nearly worthless. Finding the worlds under the music is like the difference between taking a tour of a country and living there.
Finally, I recently found Bela Fleck’s wonderful documentary, “Throw Down Your Heart.” A camera crew follows the master banjo player and his sound man as they traipse through Africa to reintroduce the instrument to its home and play along with native folk musicians across the continent. Movie reviewer Lou Novacheck wrote of it in 2009:
The main story covers their trip, beginning with Uganda in East Africa, and ending up in Mali in West Central Africa, and includes hundreds of African musicians from the countries they spent time in, Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal, Gambia and Mali, from the famous to unknown. I’m sure neither Fleck nor Paladino saw the complexities and immensity of the project ahead of time, and I’m equally certain that there will be at least one additional similar
trip in the future. The origin of the banjo and its concomitant history are subjects that music scholars have been chewing on for years.
Early in the ninety minute film there is an astounding clip of a group of men playing what is a gigantic “xylophone” made of small logs calibrated to different notes. Fleck, the great jam musician he is, finds a place to play along. The music is haunting, joyful, and you see as many smiles as any film ever has, genuine and pure.
Truth is, most music through time was not primarily entertainment as we have created it in the last century but participative. Music was a way that common people found relief from the dreariness of life and connected in their sorrows, joys and hopes my sharing the gift of music. The image for the banjo to me is not the “minstrel” or the sinister condescension of “Deliverance” at all. Those terrible truths existed and still do. But the image of the banjo is the jam, where people sit together and make music. There is an etiquette to old-time and bluegrass jams about taking turns, learning a canon of tunes, being invited in, and initiating the newcomer.
This year I finally broke down an bought a banjo (to go with my guitars, acoustic and electric, mandolin, harmonicas, keyboard, violin, dobro, bass, two ukuleles and penny whistle, among other things. I just love sounds—any and every. I have a Gold Tone BG-250, a gorgeous instrument that prices at the beginning of the high end banjos. I bought it from my good friend and banjo wizard, Herb Trotman, at Fretted Instruments of Homewood Alabama.
And playing it is not a political event to me at all. It is simply soothing, a connection to ancestors and the mystery of all life. When I sit alone and play, I am not alone. I connect to the ages and to all things. While I’m not very good yet, here is an MP3 I came up with as a first composition, called, “Dynamite Hill” with banjo and keyboard on my recording. LISTEN TO GARY PLAY “DYNAMITE HILL”
In a time when people sit, docile, in front of Blueray screens and passively watch other people live life, the jam seems pretty healthy by comparison. So I offer, in closing, a wonderful group from North Carolina, “The Carolina Chocolate Drops,” play “Cornbread and Butter Beans,” who keep alive that this music belongs to all of us. In the weary, tiresome deadness of current politics and economics, we desperately need the arts to help us find our souls again. A good jam is
I once heard someone say that Loretta Lynn described country music as consisting of three kinds of songs: “Songs about love, cheatin’ songs, and songs about Jesus.” That may be so, but I don’t know of anything that a good song can’t touch. In my last post, I mentioned songs that had spoken to me in my own grief through the years. Usually they are songs that simply “find us,” a synchronicity of expression and need. You hear it and it unearths sorrow or whatever from the deepest part of you, puts it up where you can feel it and when it’s done, you have a sense of relief or having found a treasure.
There is no “this will speak to you like it did me” list. Maybe it will, maybe not. But I do like to hear about songs others have liked. So here is a partial “songs that touched me in the journey of grief and pain.” You probably have some great additions to this.
Peter Rowan, Legacy “Father, Mother” This is one of the most poignant, most beautiful songs about sorrow and hope mingled. A family walks together on a cold morning to the cemetery and remembers. It is achingly beautiful with a stunning vocal ending.
Pierce Pettis, Everything Matters “God Believes in You”
Emmy Lou Harris, Roses In the Snow “Wayfaring Stranger,” “Green Pastures,” “Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn,” and “Jordan.” Rickie Skaggs, and a ton of talent plays and sings on this old CD, but Emmy Lou’s voice and these haunting old gospel songs is beautiful.
Lynda Poston-Smith, Sigh of the Soul, Songs for Prayer and Meditation
Ashley Cleveland, Second Skin “Borken Places” I had the privilege of opening for the Grammy winner a number of years ago. After a long career singing with people like John Hiatt and others Ashley went through a dark place in life, but during recovery rediscovered her faith again by remembering the hymns of her childhood.
Second Skin is a wonderful collection original songs in collaboration with her gifted husband Kenny Greenberg. is a terrific talent the song that spoke to me so much on that CD is called broken places
Chained to the past, chained to the fear chains on the floor, broken for years
Freedom is calling me and my heart races I feel it in the broken places.
Every diver knows there’s a lot at stake
But to the depths he goes as the water breaks.
And for every secret, well there’s a pearl he takes
Vaughn Williams, “Five Mystical Songs” with the London Philharmonic. Based on the poems of the Anglican priest and mystic, George Herbert, the whole set of songs is worth listening to again and again, but “Love Bade Me Welcome” and “The Call” have been constant companions in my listening life.
Hugh Prestwood, “The Suit,” performed by James Taylor. I like Hugh’s own recording of the song, about an old Nebraska farmer. The song speaks for itself. Listen to James Taylor do it here with Jerry Douglas. CLICK TO LISTEN
Johnny Cash, American IV, The Man Comes Around. “Hurt.” I guess everyone has seen this one, but the video is one of the most overwhelming music videos ever made. It’s not his song, but Johnny sings about the train wrecks of his life and makes it his song. The moment when his beloved June looks at him with sad eyes brings me to the edge of tears every time in a genuine way.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, Requiem “Pie Jesu,” sung by Sarah Brightman and a boy soprano. Webber wrote his Requiem in tribute to the death of his father. I listened to it again and again in the 1980s. “Pie Jesu” is so tender, and the innocence of the child’s voice in their duet conveys a transcendent feel for me. Classical music is filled with great help in this journey, too many passages to mention, but for a couple of decades I listened through the great classics just for my own enjoyment and found so many great expressions of sorrow and grief.
Rosanne Cash Black Cadillac This makes a wonderful companion to your Johnny Cash collection and a necessary correction to the simplification of the movie, “Walk the Line.” When Johnny died, daughter Rosanne did this musical tribute to her experience of her father. Even without respect to Johnny’s life and music, it stands on its own as a great artistic accomplishmenr.
Vince Gill, When Love Finds You, “Go Rest High On That Mountain.” Originally Vince started this song as a tribute after Keith Whitley died. It languished for a while, but then upon the death of his own brother, he completed the song. It has become one of his most lasting and loved songs. It is out of synch with the tone of the rest of the CD, mostly country love songs in vintage Vince style, but I have been asked to sing this song at more than one funeral (a half octave lower, of course!). You can listen to it all over YouTube. It continues to speak to those who grieve.
Kathy Chiavola, From Where I Stand: A Personal Tribute. Kathy is a well-known backup singer, performer and vocal teacher in Nashville. It was recorded as a tribute to her partner, Randy Howard, a great fiddle player from Alabama who died in 1999. Randy is on part of the CD, as the album was underway when he died. My own favorite song is “Across the Great Divide,” a Kate Wolf song that describes death through the metaphor of that mystical peak in a mountain range where the rivers begin to flow the other way…
I’ve been walking in my sleep Counting troubles ‘stead of counting sheep Where the years went, I can’t say I just turned around and they’ve gone away I’ve been sifting through the layers Of dusty books and faded papers They tell a story I used to know And it was one that happened so long ago It’s gone away in yesterday And I find myself on the mountainside Where the rivers change direction Across the great divide The finest hour that I have seen Is the one that comes between The edge of night and the break of day It’s when the darkness rolls away
Could I even talk about death and grief without mentioning the hymns? They have been my companion and comfort and for countless others. Everyone has a list, but mine are often connected with memories of funerals I have conducted over the years—now in the hundreds. Singing “Victory in Jesus” congregationally years ago at the widow’s request as the recessional, while the wife, left penniless by her pastor husband, walked out with the family, head lifted up, tears streaming down her face, and defiant hope on her countenance. My other favorites (only a few!):
“The Old Rugged Cross”
“It is Well With My Soul”
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness”
“Blessed Assurance” I sang this one with a group of pastors in Israel in 1983 in Jerusalem while one of our leaders stood on a hill and wept over a loss in his family shortly before the trip. I will never forget his silhouette in the morning sun, hand braced against a solitary tree, head down, face buried in a handkerchief, while we sang, “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior, all the day long.”
“Shall We Gather At the River”
This blog is drawn in part from some chapters I’m writing for a forthcoming book on prayer from Insight Press. I’ll announce it when it is available for purchase on this site.
Moments of sensitivity to God’s presence happen in the oddest places—foxholes, pinned in a car wreck, hospital waiting rooms, lying in bed when you can’t sleep. People report God’s presence when life is unraveling, but also sitting on the porch on a quiet afternoon. Holding a baby. Counting blessings. Waking up and drinking coffee. Chance encounters. Prison cells, torture rooms, earthquakes and financial ruin. A meal with friends, a good book, listening to a hymn in church and singing to yourself. God can show up anywhere, unannounced.
I had one of those moments in a basement laundry room in a retreat center just before worship. I had spent a great deal of time alone that day, thinking, praying, and resting. That evening, we were scheduled to have communion in the chapel before dinner.By the SS
During free time that afternoon I took some laundry to the basement and sat there, alone, except for my old twelve
string guitar, which I had owned since the age of sixteen. I took along a hymnal to play and sing some songs to pass the time, and did a wide variety of songs. After a while, I stumbled upon an old favorite, “In the Garden.” Theologically sophisticated people do not generally like this hymn—it has no sense of the social or community, no ethics, no grand sweep of history or lofty notion of God. It is all personal and private.
The words “I, me and my” occur twenty times by the time you sing it all the way through, most notably as, “And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own.” It can be seen as a rather undeveloped view of faith, infantile and self-absorbed.
But as I sang it, something remarkable happened. I began to think about my grandfather, a self-taught worship leader in Baptist churches in NC who taught shaped-note singing schools. We moved from there when I has only seven. Until then, my grandfather was nearby and always present in my life.
I am from the old school. Because I am of Welsh ancestry, I am musical, emotional and mood-swingy passionate. But because I am an American man, I am half Marlboro cowboy. I only cried at the acceptable times—maybe once per grief, or, like my father in law, who said the only time he ever cried was getting kicked in the groin in football.
The only time American men can cry acceptably like little children is when their chosen sports team loses. Then they perform tantrums. They also cry watching certain movies and shows, but it always seems to be about something else.
Now, I sat in a windowless basement in California, singing “In the Garden,” when suddenly a vision of my dead grandfather came to my imagination, but now he was alive, singing with the hosts of heaven, and I felt the tears welling up. It was twenty-five years after I got the news.
Not that I had failed to grieve at all. The very first song I wrote, “The Last Freight Train,”(CLICK to listen)is where I put my loss. I wrote it around age fifteen, and the lyrics sound like a fifteen year old, but I made it the first cut on my first CD, “permanent world of pretend,” because it was my “starting place” in songwriting.
Grief can make you crazy, or, if you handle it halfway right, it can make you well. Up to you. Ignore it, and you can destroy everything around you without a clue why. Move through it and you can live for the first time like you were supposed to live. Running away is pretty common, of course, except this is more like running away to escape a terrible tattoo.
Music is a wonderful tool to put in your “grief box.” Since my grandfather, and my families on both sides, were singers and players, music helps me. But if you can’t play anything except a radio, music can help.
At our church, we are blessed to have an incredible musician, Dr. Terre Johnson, who leads our music. He is an amazing musician and minister, worked at Carnegie Hall for several years with a choral company there. He is a terrific arranger and composer of
choral music. He has written some astounding pieces for grief and out of grief. One, after a tornado hit a school in Alabama years ago, has been performed at the White House, an arrangement of “Come, Ye Disconsolate.” (LISTEN-click) He knows that the right music at the right moment can do more than soothe—it can elevate the moment above hopelessness and sorrow.
I say all of this because as a songwriter, I am always dealing with feelings of one kind or another—happiness, sadness, hope, fear, you name it. You want to feel something in a good song, not just talk about it. I write out of those wells of feeling. Disconnect from them and the song never happens.
You can drown in them, of course, but that’s another blog. The point isn’t to get stuck in sorrow, but to “man up” and stay in the room until the door opens into peace and acceptance.
I’ve met more than my share of crazy people in my line of work, and I’ve got to say many of them have some kind of terrible grief that they flounder around. And instead of moving into it, they run the other way and make themselves and the rest of us miserable with their determination to will it out of the picture. Too bad. A good cry on a regular basis or a healthy helpin’ of blues, hymns, an adagio or two, and they might climb out of the tarpit.
Next time I’ll share a list of my own favorite “grieving songs” over the years. Usually their significance has more to do with the synchronicity of occasion and song and not merely with the song itself.
Until then, don’t wait for a kick in the groin. Grief is a powerful secret that you can’t keep down in the basement forever. You don’t have to carry it around on your sleeve or talk to everyone. But find your way to sit with it, feel it, and draw on your faith to outwait it.