Bread, Cheese and Perfect Strangers…

Grateful Blog: Day 87: It should surprise no one that knows me that I talk to the people at the grocery store. I mean we all do that right??? I can’t say that I know them all by name but we always talk. About this, that, life, the weather, and plans for the weekend. I always say ‘Hi’ to the checkers as well as the gals at the deli, and ask then how they’re doing, to the wine steward who lives in Battle Ground and the guys at the butcher counter, Johnnie and Ramón. Johnnie’s Dad died last year. It was a hard time for him. He took several trips toCaliforniato be with him, then to settle his affairs. Johnnie’s an easygoing guy but you could see how losing his Dad wore on him in his face. It’s been almost a year now and I still see it there. I know it’s still going to be awhile but every so often Johnnie gets this big laugh and I know he’s going to be alright.

Tonight Johnnie wasn’t there and Ramón was. We chatted a bit and of course I asked ‘how’s it going?’ and he said ‘Great! I can’t complain’. It was unusually chipper for him. So I asked ‘Well THAT’s positive for a Monday?!’ and then he said ‘It could be worse—a lot worse. You know the gal who works the cheese counter and olive bar?’ ‘Yeah, sure I do.’ She had a stroke the other day. Can’t talk or function. She’s got a 2 year old.’ My heart sank. I’d talked to her dozens of times. She’s a fan of country music and she always said ‘Hi’ because she saw my cowboy hat. We’d talked about music, and life—almost never about cheese or olives. I’m sad that I don’t know her name although I doubt that’d matter. I spent the rest of the time in the store in a fog, trying to wrap my mind around what a difficult time she must be going through while feeling Ramón’s sense of optimism and relief because that horrible something that suddenly happens wasn’t happening to him, or me.

I bought my groceries. The checker was new. It was weird somehow. The flowers I’d bought for my wife didn’t ring up right. There was no special occasion, mostly ‘just because’ I wanted her to feel special today. Ultimately I gave in, told the checker ‘whatever’ just to stop holding up the line. I went outside and it was windy, a storm front brewing. The wind hit my over-stacked cart and things fell onto the pavement. I started gathering up items in the road when a much older man, probably in his 80’s, stopped, stooped over, and took a new, warm loaf of bread that had fallen out of the sleeve onto the pavement and gently slid it back in and handed it back to me. Our eyes met briefly and he kindly said ‘Here’s your bread, I hope I didn’t make it worse’.

In retrospect it seems like such a weird thing to say, but at the time, it made perfect sense to me. That little kindness between perfect strangers that we might see every day and never, ever notice. Tonight I’m so Grateful for that…

A Little less Sugar…

Grateful Blog: Day 86: Bert Sugar died yesterday. Bert Randolph Sugar was known as “The Greatest Boxing Writer of the 20th Century”, as well as “one of the foremost historians alive,” and was elected to the International Boxing Hall in January 2005. Bert was one of those larger than life characters. He wore a fedora, smoked a cigar, rolled with the high rollers in some of the biggest sporting events in the last century and witnessed a ton of them in person. I’m not really a boxing fan but Bert was a regular guest on one of my favorite sports radio programs: ‘Prime Time with Issac and Suke on 1080 AM.’ Issac and Suke called Bert once for an appearance on the show and 2 weeks later Bert just started calling the show and giving tips on which college football teams would win that weekend.

It became a regular feature and I totally looked forward to it even though I couldn’t have cared less who won or lost. Bert would call in Thursdays at 4:30pm and tell stories about how he’d hung out with Mohammed Ali or drank with Joe DiMaggio and you felt like you were listening to the radio in 1956 or 1966 all over again. He was a complete throwback from another era, a living legend and a real-live link to the past that most folks just read about in books. He also had that wise-acre sense of humor and gravelly voiced demeanor that’s part weird uncle and part genius. The fact of the matter was that Bert Randolph Sugar was one of a kind, a world class storyteller, and the sort of guy we never see anymore, and that I think we could use more of.

There was one night I was listening and Bert was laughing loudly, his whiskey and cigar tinged laugh and said ‘Hey fellas, once upon a time don’t work no more’. I wrote it down and went home and wrote a song by that name that night. I’m Grateful he called in every week and told his stories. I think he just wanted someone to talk to who knew what a treasure he was. I miss Bert already…

Doverlaff House Concerts: ‘The Church of Song’

Grateful Blog: Day 85: (Part 2) Continued…

After yesterday’s Talent Show, I finished up my set list for the 2nd Official CD release show for ‘Ash and Bone’ and got ready for the show. The show was part of the Doverlaff House Concert series. It’s becoming legendary in the Portland area one epic show and fabulous artist at a time. It’s put on by Dan Dover and Cheryl Mitzlaff, 2 of the nicest people you’ll ever meet hosting musical acts in their home with 50 of the best audience members you could ever hope to have. In fact, it’s the polar opposite of the talent show: A full house and no judging. Its part concert and maybe part church service: The ‘Church of Song’ perhaps.

There’s something magical about the setting and the room, or I should say the people in the room. They show up early, stake out a choice seat, and then mill around with the artists prior to the show. Folks hug, catch up, and you can palpably feel the warmth in the air. Then the lights get set down low, the artist takes the ‘stage’, less than a foot from the front row, and then something special is about to begin.

There’s this beautiful mix of intimacy and electricity. At some point in the first set I played a brand new song, less than a week old. I wasn’t even sure I knew it. So just to highlight that (and because I’m a sucker for a certain degree of that high wire act) I got out from behind the microphone and played the song unplugged, acoustic and stood even closer to the audience. You could hear a pin drop. That might be scary for some musicians but for those of us who’ve played one too many noisy clubs the opportunity to really be heard is intoxicating. I think they loved the song as much as I did and somehow I believe they felt the experience as intensely as I did. It was truly amazing. The opposite is also true; with no real encouragement or direction that wonderful audience spontaneously bursts into song and sings along with you. Like being able to hear a pin drop, it’s also music to the ears. It’s better than that actually, it’s like being swept up in a wave and allowing yourself the freedom to enjoy the ride…

There are not enough words to describe how I felt about last night. Like the first ‘Ash and Bone’ CD release show it sold out and did so really quickly. I like to think it’s because my songs are getting better and because my shows are gaining a reputation for being special events. I don’t know. I guess I have no real perspective on that and maybe I shouldn’t. I’m just so dam Grateful when people spend their precious free time spending an evening with me, to let me tell my stories and sing my songs. It’s a bit like this blog. You start out thinking you’ll create something and then that something becomes more special than you ever imagined. And like the show at Artichoke Music, last night’s show was so, so special. It felt like part celebration, part graduation and part conflagration. For a little while we set the place on fire, fanned the flames and it kept us warm.

There’s nothing better for me than living in the moment and nothing better than that wonderful ‘Connection’ with the audience. Moments like last night define my life in a way I had no idea was even possible until I started this journey 4 years ago when I met Dan and Cheryl. I’ve often said that anyone you meet on any given night can change your life. It’s so true. And last night was just further proof of that. I’m so Grateful to be part of a circle of friends and a community that can still hear a pin drop, that loves to sing along on a chorus, that cries with you, laughs with you, and hugs you once beforehand and twice afterwards. Some night’s are better than other and last night was one or those…Amen!

The ‘Talent’ Show…

Grateful Blog: Day 84: (Part 1) I missed yesterday’s ‘Grateful Blog’. Actually that’s incorrect. I didn’t miss it so much as I lived it. I went to be early Friday night only to wake up Saturday morning at 4am and while tired and still 16 hours from my 2nd Official CD release show for ‘Ash and Bone’, I had a set list to do. Set lists are funny things. I’ve tried the spectrum form avoiding them entirely, under the guise of spontaneity to a blow by blow word for word set up. I’ve found the best lie somewhere between the 2 extremes. In any case, I was up early and spent a good portion of the morning toggling between working on my set list and listening to the early morning ‘Swing and Country’ radio show on KBOO 90.7 FM. By mid-morning I was off to do a talent contest (a what???), yeah, one of those American Idol type talent show deals.

It was set up very much like the TV show talent shows are. I was ENTIRELY unsure what the heck I was doing there but when they asked I thought ‘sure, why not, no harm right?’ It was first class and well run and when I got there the contestants backstage were anxiously awaiting their turn. At some point I realized that it was just like everything else I do in my life—I do it for the fun, for the experience and for the amazing people I meet. In fact I was having such a good time doing just that backstage that suddenly I was called up and it was my turn.

So there I was on this big stage, with almost no audience but the 3 judges at their table and I was clearly on the spot. It was actually a little nerve-wracking for a second or 2. But then I did what I did what I always do, tell my story in words and in song. I know that it’s not for everyone but for the people who like what I do, they really like what I do, and there’ll be that ‘Connection’ they’ll make with the songs and with me and that alone with be worth it.

I have no idea how I ‘placed’ or didn’t place in the contest but I know how it turned out—I did my thing, I met some great people and my song actually moved one judge to tears. I don’t know if that qualifies as ‘talent’ or not, but I do know this: I’m Grateful that I did it because it involves the process that as artists we continually struggle with: The fear of rejection. Nevermore is that so on naked display as a ‘talent’ contest. But I’m most Grateful because I met some really great people: Fellow contestants, organizers and judges–every last one of them. In the contest between ‘winning’ and that ‘Connection’ I’ll take the ‘Connection’ any day of the week. It’s really no contest at all. And I’m Grateful for the wisdom to know the difference…

Let the Mystery Be: The search for Amelia Earhart goes on…

Grateful Blog: Day 81: I read in the paper this morning that there’s a new expedition in the South Pacific looking for clues of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance, which happened 75 years ago. I’m too young to have grown up with Amelia Earhart but her flight and subsequent disappearance are legendary. Somewhere on July 2nd 1937, after leaving New Guinea her plane, a Lockheed Electra 10E, disappeared and she was never heard from again.

I think I first learned of her watching old 1980’s episodes of the show ‘In Search Of’ where the host Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek’s ‘Spock’) would delve into topics such as the Bermuda Triangle, the Loch Ness Monster and Amelia Earhart. Later, when I used to attend bluegrass jams at Seattle’s New Melody Tavern in the early 90’s, occasionally someone would lead the group in a rousing version of a song dedicated to her. There’ve been many songs dedicated to her, from artists as diverse at Joni Mitchell to Kinky Friedman to Bachman Turner Overdrive. I once stayed in the ‘Amelia Earhart’ room in the La Posada Hotel inWinslow, Arizona. Amelia Earhart’s legend got around…

But nobody exactly knows what happened to her that morning while attempting to circumnavigate the globe with her only crew member Fred Noonan. One only need to look at her Wikipedia page to see it rife with theories, myths and urban legends of what may have happened flying over the vast South Pacific ocean. The most salient is that through a series of navigational errors, they missed the island they were attempting to land at, ran out of gas, and crashed at sea. And for 75 years, only Amelia and of course Fred Noonan, know what happened…

The new expedition used the phrase of ‘finding a needle in a haystack’ when explaining their chances of finding meaningful evidence but I honestly hope they don’t. In today’s technologically driven world it feels like we’re one step removed from a computer algorithm telling us that we’re not human or real at all, that we’re somehow less than the sum of our parts. I know that’s far-fetched but we’ve already broken down the world into it’s smallest atomic particles, mapped our DNA and explored the new frontiers of nanotechnology and the far reaches of the universe alike.

It’s not that I’m a Luddite or that some of those scientific findings might not be good in advancing the cause of the human race, it’s just that I’m a romantic at heart. I like to think that some mysteries should just remain exactly that. That maybe the legend of Amelia Earhart should live on, in songs and stories and in our imaginations, rather than in an inglorious ending finding an aluminum strut washed ashore on some remote South Pacific beach.

So let them search for Amelia’s needle in that vast blue haystack, let them search and search and search until they’ve exhausted their wits and their funds. And let them return home empty handed like so many have before. Let the mystery live for another 75 or 175 years before technology rules every square inch of our beautiful and endlessly complex planet.

This morning, in the absolute middle of 64 million square miles of the beautiful, vast and calm South Pacific, there is only the rhythmic sound of the waves, the sea birds that sail over it’s waters, and the low, throaty ‘rat-a-tat-tat’ of Amelia Earhart’s silver Electra, still looking for a place to land…

I’m Grateful that Amelia’s still out there, and that some mysteries may never be solved…

Hope Springs Eternal…

Grateful Blog: Day 80: Today is the First Day of Spring! The First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! The First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! The First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! The First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! The First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! The First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! The First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! The First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! The First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! The First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! The First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! The First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! The First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! The First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! The First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! The First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! The First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring! First Day of Spring!…

And yet for some damn reason its freezing cold and raining sideways? Well, I’m Grateful anyways. Because Gratitude, like Hope, Springs Eternal…

The Last of Winter’s fires…

Grateful Blog: Day 79: It’s the last night of Winter but you wouldn’t know it. It’s been cold lately and even snowed yesterday. It didn’t last but still, it’s pretty weird for around here. Just three months ago I spent the longest night of the year, the Winter Solstice, sleeping on 19 acres I’m borrowing from God for a while up the Columbia River George in a place called ‘Klickitat’. TheYakimatribe used to ‘own’ it, not all that long ago. Me I just go up there, throw down my sleeping bag on the ground and watch the stars come out. When it gets cold I make a big fire, drink a little whiskey and maybe play a few songs that feel right under the bright, clear Milky Way.

But that was 3 months ago and even though this Winter felt short and maybe just a little bit sweet, it’s been hanging on of late; Throwing us a curve. Tonight when I came home I took out the trash and noticed the temperature, like the level of oil in the tank for the furnace, had dropped precipitously again. Winter just doesn’t apparently know it’s supposed to politely exit stage left, or at least take one last bow and be gone.

In any case I put the trash can on the curb and walking back up the driveway remembered that I might still have a little wood left. I get a fair amount of it up in Klickitat:Oregonwhite oak mostly, some maple and some ponderosa pine. The dry climate up there is so different from the moisture we get here but that oak burns as long as the pine burns fast. Sometimes in the mornings when we’ve been ready to leave for work, we’ve noticed that last night’s oak log is still in the fireplace, still smoldering. It makes you wonder ‘should I really leave the house?’ or just re-stoke the fire and call in ‘well’.

Tonight when I checked the garage I found there were just a few buckets’ left. There was enough for a fire tonight. That oak that had been storing summer’s heat in its tight rings, would finally release some of that heat, at just the right time. Enough to keep away the chill of the last night of Winter, and enough to remind us that Summer, with all it’s beautiful, sublime and sensual heat, is coming once again. You have no idea how Grateful I am for that…

A Phone Call, A Diamond Ring and an Old Friend…

Grateful Blog: Day 78: Last night was typical Saturday night. I didn’t have a show to play but I did have at least 4 friends that had gigs. I meant to go to one or possibly 2. But then you know how that saying goes ‘Life happens when you’re making plans.’ An old friend called. I think we’ve known each other 16 going on 17 years now. When we met I was getting ready to ask my girlfriend to marry me. I made the tour of jewelry stores, big and small, downtown and in malls. And yeah, I even went to the Shane Company because I thought I ‘had a friend in the diamond business’ (I didn’t). I asked questions but mostly I think they see you coming like used car salesmen see you coming. My friend was working for a time at one of the other mall stores. What I remember most when he sold me my ring was he said ‘Look, it’s going to be beautiful. She will absolutely love it and she will say ‘Yes’. But if in some strange case she doesn’t, bring it back, no worries”. I have no idea if he could actually back up that boast but I was sold. Frankly, he’s about the best salesman I’ve ever known.

So I bought that ring from him and my girlfriend Diane said ‘yes’. The rest as they say is history. Except when I bought the ring from the guy I said ‘Well, if I’m going to spend that much on a ring, the least you can do is buy me lunch!’ It seemed like it took him back at first. Buy you lunch? But then he said ‘I’ll do one better, once your girlfriend says ‘yes’, call me, and then you can both come over for dinner’. So we did. Weird right? Perfect strangers. The salesman who sold me the ring. Perfect strangers until our wives met and we looked at each other and said ‘Uh, I think we’re friends now’.

So that was 16 years ago. We’ve seen each other’s lives change immeasurably since then. There have been some real triumphs like the birth of his son and some real low points, personal and financial where both of us despaired for the future. So when he called last night and said ‘I know it’s St. Patrick’s Day, but today’s the 11th anniversary of my brother’s death. Come over for dinner. I’m making soup’ (he’s the world’s BEST cook btw) I put off going out to spend the night seeing friends play music to re-connect with some old friends who I treasure dearly. The company couldn’t be better. We shared laughs and some of the same old stories we always tell and we talked about the future like it would always be there. The meal was this amazing homemade lentil soup; Desert was that morning’s leftover Voodoo Doughnuts. In a word it was perfect.

I had brought him a copy of my new CD ‘Ash and Bone’. He hadn’t heard it yet and he opened it, said we had to listen to it right then and there—loud(!), and to be honest it sounded better than I remembered it. He took out the booklet and asked me to sign it. For about 10 minutes I just stared at it because I had no idea what to write on it. There’s not enough room in a 5 inch square to say what needed to be said. As we drank wine and caught up I kept looking back down at that cover and wondered what I could say that would cover 16 plus years of friendship. Finally, standing there next to my lovely wife of 15 years I wrote the one thing that maybe scratched the surface of those years just a little bit: ‘I’m so glad you sold me that ring’.

I can’t tell you how Grateful I am that he did…

Swing and Country: ‘Good Old-Time Country Music’

Grateful Blog: Day 77: This morning was one of moments as a musician you always dream about. I got asked to play on one of my all-time favorite radio shows, ‘Swing and Country’ on 90.7FM in Portland,OR. You know, a half a dozen years ago when I started writing songs in earnest I never allowed myself the thought that I’d get to do that someday. But I’d listen to the show every week, getting up sleepy eyed at 6am and record it on my old cassette deck to be able to listen to it later when I got up. Then I’d make mix tapes of my favorite songs and compiled some 60 hours of classic shows from over a decade. I was always careful to keep some of the DJ’s on there too, to preserve the feel of the show. There was just something about hearing those familiar voices in the morning that felt like old friends. I’m no the first to feel that way about a DJ nor the last, but I memorized their voices and the songs they played.

So it was such a joy to go down to KBOO this morning and play on ‘Swing and Country’. A double treat that we had an enthusiastic live studio audience that sang along with my songs as well as country classic’s like Roger Miller’s ‘King of Road’, Hank Williams Sr.’s ‘Ramblin Man’ and Buck Owens ‘Act Naturally’. Everything about the show felt right. But maybe the best part for me was getting to meet the DJ’s. Most of the guys I listened to in the old days are gone now, but the guys and gals holding down the fort now, Wayne and Kathy Johnson, Henry Weeks and Moggy, Don McLaren and his son Mike are carrying the torch in fine fashion, blazing their own trails though the finest of what former DJ ‘Uncle Sam’ used to call ‘Good Old-Time Country Music.’

So I was Grateful today to have that experience. To soak up the ambiance of the station, to play in front of stacks upon stacks of records (Yeah, records!). But I was even more Grateful to be able in a small way to give a little something back in the way of music, to the show that’s given me so much joy. It was on ‘Swing and Country’ that another past DJ ‘Uncle B.’ pushed the bounds of ‘Country’ a bit and introduced me to both Tom Russell and Dave Carter. Hearing their songs on my cassette tape that morning (which I still have), inspired me as a songwriter in more ways than I can describe. And meeting them both, after shows and on trains changed my life. I can’t tell you exactly how, but the seeds of my life transforming in some ways were right there, on those cassette tapes. Believe it. It’s true.

So I’m so Grateful that Wayne and Kathy invited me to do the show, I’m Grateful I didn’t gush too much on the air (God knows I tried), and I’m Grateful for the folks that came and stopped afterwards to buy a CD, chat and tell me how much they liked one song or another. You know, that is the singular best part of being a songwriter, connecting with you audience in some meaningful, personal way. It beats everything else hands down, because that ‘Connection’ is why we do this. Or at least it’s why I play music. That connection is so important. And I was Grateful for just one Saturday morning, on ‘Swing and Country’, that I was able to tell the people I only knew as voices, how much’s that’s meant to me, all these years and 6am Saturday’s ago…

Or as the King of Country Music, Bob Wills would say ‘Awwww Haw!’ Indeed Bob, indeed…

P.S.: You can hear ‘Swing and Country’ every Saturday morning from 6am to 9am PST on 90.7FM in Portland (in Corvallis 100.7FM and HoodRiver 91.9FM) and streaming on www.KBOO.fm

P.P.S.: And if You’re not a ‘Member’ yet of this great local, community, non-profit station, give it some serious consideration like I did roughly 10 years ago. I think find that being a member is about a lot more than writing a check, it’s about being part of a community…

Waiting for the Echo…

Grateful Blog: Day 76: The unexpected happens when you’re least expecting it. Last night just about midnight I was standing in a friend’s driveway, tired, getting wet, and getting cold. We were talking about a friend who’s been going through a rough patch. A REAL rough patch. The kind you often never get through except to maybe the other side. It’s such a helpless feeling. To know what is likely, what is unlikely and what is most likely inevitable. It’s not a rock and hard place; it’s just a hard all over.

So my friend says ‘Hey, any chance you could sign a CD and I could pass it along. It’d mean a lot.” I thought to myself, in the big scheme of things I can’t imagine how it could, but maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the ‘point’ already happened when 2 friends stood out in the rain and commiserated how ‘F’-ing unfair life can be sometimes and how blindsided we can be by the way it unfolds.

Although I’ve not been a ‘musician’ for long, my music’s meant a lot to me and I often hope it means a fraction of that to someone else who chances to listen. So I signed the CD. Did the best I could with what few words one could say at the time like that and in a 4 ½ inch square. It felt equal measures resignation and hope and wondered like if the gesture would ever be enough, like throwing your voice into the dark canyon void and waiting for the echo.

I don’t know. I know less now than I did last night. I’m still waiting for that echo. But I DO know this: Being a musician has taught me more about being a human being, than being a human being has taught me about being a musician. It’s taught me to be patient, humble, and to treasure the moments. I’m truly Grateful for that. I’ll stand in the rain with a friend or for a friend for hours any time, any place and be Grateful for the moment…

Peace my friend…