When people ask me how long I’ve been playing some instrument, the answer usually approaches 50 years. Which may make them wonder why I’m not any better. The answer, as Betty Talmage so succintly put it, is that “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a great life and have a great family and nice home to show for it. But music changed from vocation to avocation many years ago. That said, I’ve “kept my hand in” as I had opportunity. But when I was recently asked to update my music page and tried to write an “About” page, I couldn’t help thinking back to many things that, frankly would only be of much interest to folks who have been on a similar path.
So I decided to write a short, oversimplified “About” page and add a longer, slightly less oversimplified “memoir” page with all those details. My experience with similar projects is that some folks will wonder why I’m so long-winded (if not outright boring), and others who’ve also “been there, done that,” will “get it” and find catharsis and encouragement.
A Note About the Instrument Photos – I confess, I’m an instrument junkie. I’ve already written articles called Axes in My Life and Horns in my Life that describe how each musical instrument entering my life affected it in one way or another – usually by making it richer. There will be some overlap among these articles, but this one will be more about musical styles, songwriting, etc., and the others are more about the specific instruments (including a number that I have owned that are not shown here). That said, when I mention an instrument that I’ve already posted a photo of in the other articles, I will be copying a photo to this page so you don’t have to go back and forth to see what I’m talking about.
For my love of all kinds of music, I credit my father, who loved musical theater, jazz, and folk music about equally. I also credit the primitive heating system of the 1880-ish home we inhabited in Donnelsville, Ohio up until 1964. The “register grate” on the floor of my bedroom actually just covered a 12″x12″ hole in the floor that opened into another grate into the ceiling of the living room.
In theory, heat from the huge coal furnace in the basement was supposed to rise to my room through that hole. But what really rose was the sound of records Dad played long after my bedtime. 78s of Sigmund Romberg’s The Desert Song, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” and Count Basie collections were interspersed with newfangled 33 1/3 LPs from the Weavers, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and many more.
In those days of manual dishwashing, my sisters Tess, Kathleen, and I would stand around the sink harmonizing to folk songs. We had Peter, Paul, and Mary’s debut album memorized, and many other tunes besides. When we weren’t arguing over whose turn it was to dry or whatever, we sounded pretty good, in my opinion, of course.
Tenor Days – In my fifth grade (1962-63) I wanted to start playing in the school band, so Dad bought me a tenor saxophone. I got good on it, but never good enough for Dad. Nearly forty years later, I realized that Dad loved the sound of a Jazz tenor, and he somehow imagined that I would “get that” and work hard to become a jazz player without any particular nudging on his part.
Sorry I didn’t pick up on that, Dad.
Also, in 1960’s Donnelsville and Miamisburg, Ohio, there was no way to learn Jazz if I had wanted to. (Springfield wind pro “Hap” Ashenfelter gave me two lessons when I was starting out, but said his calendar was too full to take on another student that year. Once we moved to Miamisburg – 40 miles away – that was never an option, anyway.)
I actually did become a halfway decent Rock sax player years later (below), but Dad was not impressed.
Folk Beginnings – A year or two later, big sister Tess bought an SS Stewart archtop guitar, and we both taught ourselves out of a Jerry Silverman book.
We moved to Miamisburg while Tess was still in high school. A year or so later, the school’s music department held a “Hootenanny” – a Folk concert that featured several soloists and groups singing Folk and Folk-like songs. Tess and her friends Howard Pauley and Jerry Phillips memorized all the parts to several Peter, Paul, and Mary songs. They sounded great, rehearsing in our living room. They also sounded great in the performance. There were probably over two dozen people involved in the final show, and Tess’ trio held their own among the best (of course to us, they were the best)
Trivial and dated as such events may seem now, they’re an indicator of just how strong a hold Folk-style music held in rural America in those days. It seemed like every kid wanted a guitar, and most of them worked their way up to three chords at least. Banjos were not uncommon, and even tenor guitars were considered worthwhile instruments (thanks to the Kingston Trio’s Nick Reynolds).
The Miamisburg library also kept stocked up on folk albums, so the ones we didn’t own we heard anyway. Ironically, by the time I heard much from the Kingston Trio, I had already been exposed to later acts like Peter, Paul, and Mary, the Chad Mitchel Trio, and the Limeliters. So the Kingston Trio didn’t have the fresh, surprising sound for me that they did for many baby boomers. Twenty-odd years later, I was surprised to learn that many folk music lovers just a couple years older than I considered them to be the most important folk group ever.
For our family’s part, we learned scores of songs and occasionally got to share with a larger group. And it was entirely normal for everyone in the room to join in on the songs they knew.
In retrospect that was the peak of Humanism in American popular culture. When folks embraced and swayed to “Kumbaya” we really had the feeling that wisdom, justice, equality, and, yes, love would prevail, and our world was on the verge of entering a new golden era. If no one was hungry, they’d have no reason to steal. If everyone was treated fairly, they’d have no reason to hate others. “Come on people, now, Smile on your brother, Everybody get together, try to love one another right now.”
Yes, it sounds incredibly naive now, hundreds of domestic and global crises later. But at the time, we thought music was going to change the world, and we had the callouses on our fingertips to prove it.
High School Days
About the time Tess went off to college (August, 1966), my cousin Linda gave me a plywood Kay guitar she had bought with Green Stamps and never learned to play – in part because the “action” was more like that of a cheese slicer than a guitar. So I took it apart, refinished it, sanded the bridge and nut, and restrung it and played the thing through my freshman year at Wright State.
The “Folk Revival” was beginning to lose steam by the time I hit high school (1966), but the “Up With People” movement(?) was still going strong, and the Catholic Charismatic movement was also feeding folk-style songs like “We are One in the Spirit” into the fading Folk culture. So playing acoustic guitar was still “cool,” although it would have been “cooler” to have had a better guitar. In Miamisburg Ohio, in 1966-1970, no one in high school played electric guitar except the “hoods.”
I got pretty good on tenor sax, but there was no place to play that outside of high school band. Once a “hood” acquaintance invited me to bring my saxophone to his garage band, which mostly played “Gloria” over and over. But I was afraid of humiliating myself – I relied entirely on sheet music at the time. I was also, frankly, afraid of the guys he hung with. So I didn’t even ask my folks for permission.
In 1968, when it was time for me to order my class ring, I asked Dad if I could use the money to buy a banjo instead. He took me shopping in downtown Dayton, where there used to be two “serious” music stores and three decent pawn shops within a few blocks. I bought a Cameo “student” banjo, and Pete Seeger’s instruction book.
My earliest “recording” was probably a song I wrote for an 8mm tongue-in-cheek gangster movie my friend Wil Stahl produced for a class project. “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was all the rage because of the movie Bonnie and Clyde, so I played a Bluegrass-style instrumental soundtrack through the action scenes of the movie, and wrote a theme song based on the movie’s title: “Your Mother Looks Good in Cement Slippers.”
I’m sure the old celluloid has long since crumbled, which keeps me safe from blackmail on that score, but sometimes I wish I could remember the second verse – the song did not suck as badly as a lot of what I wrote in high school.
The Future Hillside Singers – Many people know that Miamisburg, Ohio was the birth place of the McGuire Sisters and the Boyer Sisters (of Midwestern Hayride fame). Very few know that the ‘Burg was also the home of the Hillside Singers, sort of.
After the famous Coca Cola “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” commercial, a single crediting only “The Hillside Singers” was produced and got airplay on pop stations. Unfortunately the “Hillside Singers” did not technically exist.
As it was explained to me, Coke was deluged by appeals to hear and see more from the “group.” So they sent a bunch of singers into the studio to record more songs. They also sent at least two troups of singers across the country to wear color-coordinated costumes, memorize cheezy choreography, and perform those songs as THE Hillside Singers.
One of those troups included several young men and women I had gone to school with – and even jammed and shared stages with – in Miamisburg. Turns out that the leader of the amateur church show choir that they belonged to had connections. The stars had aligned, or so it seemed. I was never part of the show choir, or the touring company, but I was very happy for my friends, as long as the gig lasted.
Eventually, as no more hits were forthcoming, demand for a touring group called “The Hillside Singers” fell off, and most of the gang returned to take day jobs or start college. Two of the most talented and driven members, however, had made enough of an impression on the Coca Cola marketing organization that they got jobs there and eventually rose to respectable positions in the company. A far as I know, none of the the group supported themselves exclusively by music from the “breakup” on, but several have “kept their hand in.”
BTW, I got part of this account second-hand, since I lost track of most of the group when they left town for the first time. If you were part of this group or closer to it than I was, and you have corrections or other information that would improve this section’s accuracy, please contact me and let me know.
The Great Miamisburg Swing Band Experiment – Tom, another high school band friend who had been gigging in swing bands for years, tried to start one of his own. I showed up two times for practice, but I had no idea how to read many of the markings on the swing band scores, or how to take a decent solo. I don’t think it occurred to Tom how naive a second-chair high school senior sax player could actually be about his own instrument. Sorry, Tom, I tried. Ironically I did pick up most of those skills later, but that occurred in a Rock and Roll setting.
In my freshman year at Wright State, I roomed with a fellow who had been taking electric guitar lessons from childhood, and I hung out with folks who liked King Crimson and the Jefferson Airplane. That year I learned to appreciate, not only Cat Stevens, but also the James Gang, the Moody Blues, and the Chicago Transit Authority. I bought a student electric guitar (a Kent Jaguar clone) and a student bass guitar (Harmony semi-hollow body). I also started learning rock and roll licks on the Kent.
Rock Band 1.0 – As a music major, I met a lot of other musicians, including a fellow who played trumpet in a band with three high school kids from his alma mater (Carroll High School). At the time, they were playing Chicago-style music. I joined on tenor sax.
There may have been pool gigs or such but what I remember the best was a huge party for the local Boy Scouts in Dayton, about 1971. The crowd loved the music, and we did crazy stuff like leaving the stage to start a Bunny Hop during the requisite twelve-minute drum solo on “In a Gadda Da Vida.”
When they graduated from high school, the Carroll kids kept going, but in a smaller format that didn’t need brass. There were no hard feelings, though – I used to show up to their gigs to show support.
Flower Power Fizzles – As an aside, by the end of my Freshman year, I still believed in music, but I had lost faith in the ability of the music and attitudes of “my generation” to change the world.
True, the “love generation” looked good in magazine photos and liner notes. And the “movements” of the early 1960s, urged on by the Folk Revival, (inspired in turn by folks like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie), accomplished a great deal, such as working for voter registration in the deep South, and inspiring millions of kids to go into teaching.
But by the time I was of an age to really be part of the “now” generation, that momentum seemed to have split in two directions. One half was protesting a war that, frankly, needed to be protested (but did they really need to call returning draftees “baby killers?”). The other half seemed to be “tuning in, turning on, and dropping out.”
I soon realized that, despite the outward progress of the early 1960s, inward human nature had not changed one iota. My generation was just as selfish and far more self-centered than the “over-thirties” we were supposed to be telling each other not to trust
All that had really changed were the music, the hair styles, and the variety of ways to get stoned. Underneath the haze of blue smoke, people were using each other even more than they were using drugs.
Were there good people? Yes, I met well-meaning folks with drive and purpose, and I’m sure many of them are still out there doing their bit today. But I soon lost faith in the old, informal Humanistic tenet that “people are basically good,” and that all you have to do is to remove hardship from their lives to see their better natures shining through.
Rock Band 2.0
Keep in mind that my disillusionment with the “love generation” as a whole did not extend to my love for music, especially the great new sounds emerging on the radio on a weekly basis.
Two of my other musician friends from Wright State were looking to reform the band they had started in Northmont High School. The keyboard player, who was really the brains and heart of the group, loved doing fifties dance tunes, so he invited me to join on sax. (I also doubled on rhythm guitar, as well as banjo on “I’ll Change Your Flat Tire, Merle.”)
The band played danceable covers like “Gimme Some Lovin'” and “Vehicle.” We were a hit at high school dances, pool parties, several night clubs, and one big high school auditorium concert that the girls screamed all the way through like we were the Beatles or something.
I know, you’re thinking, why would a glorified cover band imagine they were going to go “big” in Dayton Ohio in the 1970s? But at the time, there were a lot of places for regional rock bands to play, and a few area bands had brushes with national success. Franklin, Ohio’s Gary and the Hornets had regional success and appeared on the Johnny Carson show in 1967. Dayton’s Green Lyte Sunday signed with RCA in 1969 and had a national hit with their cover of “Chelsea Morning.” The Ohio Players had released one album on Capitol. Among Dayton, Cincinnati, and Columbus there were probably thirty bands working full time and making enough money for their members to live on while they worked for their big breaks.
For a time one of the regularly-working Dayton bands took us under their wing, helping us track down gigs, etc. Then they took our drummer. However, our drummer’s replacement worked hard and was quite the showman.
About that time, my sister brought me a Mariachi-style twelve-string back from Mexico. I took to it quickly. I tried to get some CS&N and Moody-Blues-style songs into the band’s repertoire, but the truth was, you couldn’t dance to most of them, so that never happened.
As soon as we were getting steady work, however, friction among members (and one member leaving to take a day job that would satisfy his fiance) broke the band apart.
By then I had dropped out of college. I went through a series of lousy “day jobs” at the same time I was going through a series of rock bands that seemed to fall apart as soon as they chose a name and got enough songs rehearsed to start gigging.
Note about Band Names – Folks sometimes ask for the names of the rock bands that I belonged to at one time or another. I don’t share for two reasons:
- Most of the names were really stupid, and I had no role in picking them.
- Several of the bands reformed multiple times, often with radical changes in format and personnel. In at least one case, the version of the band that stuck together the longest did not include one member from the days I was with the group. So naming those bands wouldn’t provide any real information, even to folks who knew the Dayton band scene in the early 1970s.
A Spiritual Twist
About this time, my closest friend in one of the bands that had collapsed out from under me “rededicated his life.” As a lapsed Roman Catholic, I had no idea what that meant. As a practicing atheist, I didn’t want to know what it meant. However, I met several folks my age from his “fellowship,” and they were genuinely nice people. Frankly, it was the first time I had noticed people who claimed to be Christians living like their faith mattered, including the parts about charity toward strangers.
There were a lot of other influences and, frankly, some heated arguments. But the end result was that Jesus changed my life. He may very well have saved it, too, since I had been making some bad personal choices.
Don’t stop reading – this isn’t a “gospel tract,” only an explanation for why my music changed.
Life as a Jesus Freak – I didn’t realize it then, but the fellowship I had come into was heavily influenced by the “Jesus Movement,” a trend starting in California that allowed young Christians to practice a relatively fundamental faith without conforming to the traditional fundamental prohibitions on things like clothing styles, hair length, and backbeats in music. Folks who know Jesus music will understand what I mean when I say that they frequently had folks like Randy Stonehill in to give concerts, and the fellow who led the fellowship for the longest period was a good friend of Randy Matthews.
I kept writing and performing songs, but with more spiritual content and in less smoky places. At the time, I was totally oblivious to the fact that most fundamental Christians of that era would have rejected 95% of what I was writing, not because of the message, which was always theologically sound, but because it incuded musical elements that had entered the popular musical mainstream since 1900.
In those days, Jesus Music was not a genre, per se. It encompassed all genres: Folk, Rock, Folk-Rock, Pop, Jazz, Country, Bluegrass, Ragtime, Blues, even Swing and Ragtime. What made it “Jesus Music” was the message, not the style of music. If you don’t mind hearing demo tapes I recorded years later, here are two examples of songs I wrote in the early 1970s. I performed them for years in “Christian” coffeehouses,” festivals, camps, and youth group outreaches. (Sorry about the basement-style production values, but they were mostly recorded in a basement.)
- “I Couldn’t Lie” – A Rockabilly-style song I wrote in 1973 and which – performed only with acoustic guitar – caused one family to storm out of a church performance in 1983. Wesley Mark Waldron is the violinist on this recording, which was probably made about 1986. Loren Hall, of greater Nashville, played “live” electric drums into a midi sequencer for me so I could mix them into the track.
(If you don’t see a little player bar to the left, click here).
- “No Right to Sing the Blues” – A tongue-in-cheek Blues-Style song I wrote about 1974 and performed in any coffeehouse that had a playable piano (most of them didn’t) for a few years. Again, this recording was probably made about 1986. Loren Hall played these drums as well.
(If you don’t see a little player bar for this song, click here).
Life With the Fundies – Then that fellowship dissolved, and I had to go “church-shopping,” a process I have never come to enjoy, after over forty years as a Christian.
I finally found a church that was more culturally conservative than I would have liked, but which had good Bible teaching at first. Another thing that attracted me was that they didn’t mind a good loud Sunday night praise service with drums, electric guitars, etc. Back in the mid-1970s, that was very rare.
The “Devil’s Horn” in God’s Service. – That was, frankly, where I really “broke through” on saxophone. When I first got the nerve to get my tenor out of the case there, all I knew was a bunch of rock licks and a how to fudge a simple solo. But the music was so loud I could try things I wasn’t sure of without being heard, then kick up the volume when I knew I “had it.” My one year of music theory contributed hugely. By the end of a year or so, I could play along with and improvise solos, countermelodies, bass lines or whatever was needed to any song, style, or key they could throw at me.
Eventually I was joined by other horns. I would watch the organ player’s left foot to see what key the song was going to be in, then I would signal to the rest of the horns, and off we went.
“Hippie Music” and the Church – That freedom was offset, however, by other restrictions. I could play my Jesus Music (on guitar and banjo) in the church’s youth-oriented coffeehouse (“The Rock”), which featured dozens of touring Jesus musicians of that era. But I couldn’t play in the service unless I cut my hair, dressed, and sang like I belonged in the Young Republicans. For a time it didn’t bother me, except during the occasional anti-“jungle music” sermon from the pulpit. For one thing, there were any number of other “Christian coffeehouses” to play in – “The Fish House” and “The Potters’ House,” to name a couple, plus the occasional festival or street fair or gig at a church with fewer restrictions.
Decades later, when I vented to former Jesus Musician John Fischer about lack of support from my home church, he replied by going down a long list of Jesus Musicians who had got the breaks, who had toured and recorded, but whose lives had subsequently gone to pieces. If I had got the support of the church, the best I could have hoped for by my forties – based on several examples – was a paid position leading worship in some church. So I never got my fifteen minutes of “Christian Rocker” fame. But I’m alive and well, and that makes me better off than a lot of folks who did.
“The Years Went By and Rock Just Died” – Going back into live Rock was not an option, even if I hadn’t felt pressure to avoid that lifestyle. The number of venues for live music was dropping rapidly, and most of my friends from that life had gone back to full-time “day jobs.” Plus, I saw the toll that the lifestyle was taking on those who stayed in it, from alcoholism and other addictions, to broken relationships, to broken health, to real hunger at times.
A number of former Rock venues reconfigured as Country bars. A few former Rocker friends adopted a drawl and kept working. But that wasn’t an option for me either – not only did a lot of Country music at the time repulse me, but the cigarette smoke was so thick in those places, I couldn’t sing there if I wanted to.
As I was “cleaning up my act” in a number of other ways, and working a series of less-than-rewarding day jobs, I realized that I’d be pumping gas or something the rest of my life if I didn’t go back to college. So I did, but I changed my major from music (which had been quite overwhelming) to English, which I had found easier.
At Wright State, in those days, the only active Christian clubs – Intervarsity and the Baptist Student Union – were so small they did everything together. I made several Christian friends who were musicians. Some of them were already singing “out” at various Christian coffeehouses. For a while, we would put together “pickup bands” – when one of us got a gig, the rest would come along to accompany. Even though I was working full time and going to school full time – summers and all – life was good.
Speaking of accompaniment, it turned out I could accompany about anybody on several instruments, and quickly find all the potential harmony parts for every song. Credit a year of music theory, my Folk heritage, and all those years harmonizing around the kitchen sink as a kid.
So I had little trouble being invited along to other folks’ gigs to add bass, rhythm guitar, or whatever. But the interesting thing was that, during that period, I accompanied several folks who seemed more talented on the surface, but could not reciprocate. One fellow sang better than I, played guitar reasonably well, and wrote decent songs that I liked. But when it was his turn to “follow” me, he couldn’t sort out a simple three-chorder or make up a harmony part to save his life. Another fellow required many hours of practice and memorization to learn things that most Folk-singers would have picked up – literally – in a heartbeat. Turns out it’s possible to know and play dozens of songs well – and even write a few – without knowing anything more about music than the average short order cook. Go figure.
I graduated college during a recession and a period when there was a glut of English teachers. Eventually, while I was still working not-so-great jobs, I tried starting a more “regular” Contemporary Christian Music band with some old friends from my first fellowship. But the best singer among us kept flaking out – once he actually skipped a gig I had worked hard to get because he wasn’t “feeling it.”
After Shelia and I got married and bought a house (1979), the “band” had rehearsals in the basement. We also played “out” at a number of regional coffeehouses and festivals. But the lack of a professional attitude on the part of one (and sometimes two) members, kept taking us backwards. We did some nice basement recordings which, to my knowledge, have all been lost now.
Here’s one of the songs I wrote during this period, though the recording is from much later. For a time, this was the song that folks who knew me would make a point of requesting whenever they attended one of my concerts. It’s also the first song of mine that has been officially logged as having radio airplay, entitling me to ASCAP membership. That said, none of my songs have ever been on the air often enough to generate any royalties there. (I have lately made a few dollars from internet streaming.) The violinist on this recording is my friend Wesley Mark Waldron, with whom I did several concerts in the mid to late 1980s.
- Still, Small Voice
(If you don’t see a little player bar for this song, click here.)
A year after Shelia and I married, I got my first professional job, as a technical writer at NCR. In late 1982, we left the church I had joined back in the early 1970s for a part-time ministry position in another denomination.
In the new denomination, I met an old-time Country singer who had been keeping his dinky home church on life support, and who offered to open doors for me into the Country music industry. However, he was hanging by a thread himself, so I didn’t want to do anything that would damage his “cred” with his contacts.
I respected his music, which was along the lines of several Country singers I liked (Johnny Cash, George Strait, Willie Nelson, etc.). And it inspired me to write a number of old-style “Country Songs,” as well as a few other songs that were outside the realm of straight “CCM.” But by then, I was the father of three, and in no position to go on the road, even for “real money.”
I did become our new church’s unpaid worship-leader, though, a responsibility I fulfilled for about ten years. Frankly, it was a pretty easy role for a former Folk singer and CCM’er to take on.
Jesus Music to CCM Transition
In the meantime, Jesus Music, which had been largely Folk based, had drawn the attention of big record companies and morphed into what we now call Contemporary Christian Music. The new big labels, encouraged by Amy Grant’s ability to cross from CCM into pop, started trying to turn out other “Christian Pop stars” that they could take mainstream. As a result of this imitation, music styles like Bluegrass, Jazz, Rockabilly, and Blues that had been quite welcome in “Jesus Music” were no longer welcomed – or even understood – by CCM producers and audiences. A long process of homogenization toward a single “CCM sound” began.
Still trying to “keep my hand in,” I continued to network with CCM musicians and record producers. I also met a good number of talented musicians “on their way up,” with record contracts, label-supported tours, and everything theoretically going for them, But by that time, I was in my thirties, and the new labels and producers were really just looking for pretty, young faces that would sell records regardless of talent or spiritual focus.
Even finding local gigs to play was getting interesting. The big record companies had set the expectation for overproduced sound tracks, etc. Hardly anybody but the top tier could afford to drag a 12-piece band with them on tour, so the second tier traveled with pre-recorded music tracks.
MIDI Madness – To compete for gigs as a soloist, or occasionally as a duo with my violin-playing friend Wesley Mark Waldron, I had to have tracks myself. Unlike the average high school kid with a decent voice who could go into the local Christian bookstore, buy the tracks for the song she liked, and fool the average church member into thinking she was a recording star, I wrote all my own songs. So I got into midi early, and learned to record tracks for my own music.
Admittedly, it was far less stressful than leading bands had been. For example, my midi setup never argued over song choice, demanded a bigger cut, dropped out because of an argument with its girlfriend, or left beverage rings on the coffee table.
Here’s a song I wrote about 1985 and recorded later when I was a beta tester for Cakewalk Pro Audio 1.0. In case you’re interested, the vocal, violin, and guitar were recorded analog, but most of the other sounds are from a Roland Sound Canvas, a dandy little device in its time.
- Give It Up
(If you don’t see a little player bar for this song, click here.)
Regarding the tracks, here’s something odd: When I would stand in front of the average church audience playing my guitar and singing with my tracks, folks over 30 generally got into it and folks under 30 were just as likely to tune out, because they thought the “tracks” scene was cheezy (it was and is, IMHO). But when a friend would join me for a gig, using the same tracks and the same songs, nearly everyone would be enthusiastic, even the demographic that usually thought tracks were for sissies. As far as I can figure, for the average audience member, having two people on stage playing instruments instead of one made us into a “band,” and it didn’t matter that they could hear instruments and backup singers that weren’t onstage.
Toward the end of my attempts to get a foothold in the CCM world, I started running into the folks I had met “on their way up,” who were now “on the way down,” bankrupt and discouraged, taking low-paying jobs to pay the bills after their record company pulled the rug for one reason or another. So with a few exceptions, it didn’t look a CCM record deal was necessarily worth risking my family’s financial future on, to put it nicely. (To be honest, I probably would still have taken a chance if a real opportunity had arisen, but that never happened.)
Eventually, the church where I was leading music got a new pastor who managed to make the place toxic within a few months. To gloss over one of the most painful periods in our lives, we eventually left for the church of a friend who was pastoring in the same denomination. I wound up leading worship there as well for a few years. That coincided with the first Iraq war, about which I felt strongly enough that I added an anti-warmonger verse to one of the gospel-themed songs I wrote during that era.
- Cleansing Stream
(If you don’t see a little player bar for this song, click here.)
The experience with abusive church leadership that had most recently caused us to change churches finally cured me of the notion that I had to subject all of my artistic endeavors to “spiritual oversight” by people who barely understood music or poetry or literature and could only see our family in terms of our potential contribution to their “ministry.” If that sentence doesn’t make sense to you, thank the Lord for steering you clear of the toxic “submission” theologies that engulfed so many independent fundamental churches in the 1970s and 1980s, and which are reemerging today on several fronts.
About the same time, a few “secular” coffeehouses that featured live (if unpaid) musicians reopened, and I started singing there to get my performing “chops” back – though I still sometimes felt half-guilty including songs that didn’t have a specifically Christian “message.” The photo to the left is one I used in my “online press kit” in this timeframe.
During that time, I tried to wean my recordings off of the overproduction that the CCM world had demanded. I also tried to include songs that would appeal to my own demographic – the biggest audience at several of the coffeehouses I played. Here’s one example:
- Ironies of Life
(If you don’t see a little player bar for this song, click here.)
I was surprised at how much I had to work on my stamina. Back in the 1970s, I was used to performing for two to three hours a night, but by the early 1980s, the average “Christian” concert had gone down to 45 minutes, and in a lot of settings I was lucky to get 30. So working my way back up to a three-hour coffeehouse “gig” was interesting, to put it mildly.
For a few gigs, I invited other Folk-style singers I knew along so we could spell each other. They always appreciated the opportunity. But for some reason they never reciprocated. I think that the number of venues was so small, they were afraid of introducing “competition” into their favorite gigs.
A Brush with Musical Theater
Then my kids reached high school, which included marching band, sports, show choir, and musical theater, and all attempts to promote my own music went on the back burner. Two of my kids also participated in Clark County’s summer community theatre presentations. I was going to be there at all of the practices anyway, so I tried out for several of the productions and got roles in Brigadoon, Annie, and Aida. My youngest daughter, Molly was in all three of those as well. In Aida we were joined by future Chicago-area independent theater director, J. Cody Spellman, a schoolmate of Molly’s and a very hard worker from an early age.
Shelia and I also assisted with costumes and sets for about ten high school musicals and plays, so we got to know the backstage as well as the stage.
When Molly was in a production of “How to Eat like a Child,” I played bass. Another participant in that production was Sage Boggs, who went on to play lead roles in high school musicals, before “apprenticing to” and becoming a writer for a late night network television host.
If your only exposure to community theater is Waiting for Guffman, you need to know that we worked with over a dozen former theater professionals while we were doing those plays – folks who had made a living on Broadway or in other professional theater scenes for a time, then come back to Springfield to “settle down” and raise a family. Even the leads who hadn’t been professionals nevertheless took their craft seriously; they had taken classes, done summer stock and the like.
The true pros were helpful and respectful of everyone’s contribution, even mine. And I appreciated the chance to work with every one, even though I had to move on eventually. Thanks, folks.
The National Road and “Creek Don’t Rise”
In the early 2000’s I got a series of writing contracts in Columbus, Ohio, about 54 miles from my home near Donnelsville if I took mostly back roads. In addition, we were approaching the 200th year anniversary of the founding of The National Road.
Still involved in musical theater somewhat, I started thinking about the possibility of a play that would celebrate the history of the Road (later Route 40) by telling typical stories of families that had settled alongside it. In my long drives back and forth, I occasionally detoured to the still-remaining stretches of “Old Route 40” or “Old National Road” to see what remained of the towns that had been bypassed when Route 70 was built.
Work in Columbus dried up after a recession. But by then I had a script and a whole play’s worth of songs, all written in my head during the drive back and forth. I contacted the Ohio Arts Council to see if I could submit a grant to have the musical produced in conjunction with the planned 2003 festivities. But they had already allocated all the money in the budget to other projects, the recession was keeping much new money from coming in, and I was way down on the “waiting list.”
Disappointment aside, the project gave me a reason to write several different kinds of songs I wouldn’t have written otherwise, and I have performed a number of them in different venues to enthusiastic response. So, there’s the plus.
Here’s a demo I put together early in that process. Since then, I’ve changed the words to “In Cumberland Narrows, they started a track,” which is more historically accurate, but I haven’t got around to fixing the words on recording yet.
- National Road
(If you don’t see a little player bar for this song, click here.)
During my efforts to promote the play, I put up a web page “CreekDontRise.com” that recorded the history of the National Road and my own family background. It also hosted some of the play’s resources for review. An unexpected benefit of that site was a number of reader inquiries about Folk music in general and folk instruments in particular. So “CreekDontRise.com” grew “sideways,” like most of my other web pages. It now hosts lessons in music theory, discussions of Folk instruments, and much more.
“School Of The Rock”
The church we had fled to shrank to nothing, and we still had teenagers that we wanted involved in a functioning youth group. So we went church-shopping again. At the new church, I was eventually in the “rotation” to play guitar for worship service and to help in other ways.
After getting to know several of the young musicians in the church, I thought it would be nice to provide the same kinds of resources for Christian musicians that I was providing for Folk musicians on the Creek Don’t Rise site. So, I wrote some materials and started a site called “SchoolofTheRock.com” to host them. The most popular article from that effort has been our “Brief History of Contemporary Christian Music.”
More About Saxophone – For a time, I was playing sax in our new church’s worship services. Because the songleader liked putting songs into keys like E and B (which are tough on sax players), I started checking into C melody horns.
While I was researching, I realized that anyone who was new to saxophone would get totally confused by most of the Internet’s content about used and vintage saxophones. In addition, other sax players who wanted to play in church were having trouble finding any usable information at all.
So I wrote a couple articles about those topics and got a surprising amount of reader feedback. When three people ask me related questions and I wind up providing an article’s worth of content in my replies, I know it’s time for another article. So that part of that site expanded rapidly.
At the same time, CreekDontRise.com was getting more questions related to Folk music and instruments. For a time, I tried copying articles of general musical interest to both sites. Finally, I decided to post folk and traditional music-related articles to CreekDontRise.com and to post worship and sax-related articles to SchoolOfTheRock.com. Those aren’t the divisions I would have started out with, but it happens.
Shelia and I had been helping with the Tecumseh High School musicals so long that they continued to ask for help even after the last child was out of the system. I played bass guitar for 110 In the Shade. A year later, I was asked to play bass for The Boy Friend, a faux-Dixieland-era play. I told the director that the play really needed a banjo more than it needed a bass. So we tried tracking down a Jazz banjo player. Then I discovered that – when the play debuted on Broadway – the banjo part was written for a 6-string banjo. So I bought one and learned the parts. Because the director wanted me “plugged in,” I added a $20 pickup. Then I wrote articles about those experiences, including “Are Six-String Banjos for Real?” and “Banjo Pickups”. I wound up getting all kinds of reader feedback, even phoned-in questions from working bands.
Since then, I have written three more articles about six-string banjos. Plus I have upgraded twice, and written about those upgrades, too.
Back to 5-String Banjos
In the meantime, my 5-string (a vintage Kay) had gone off to college with one of my kids and never come back. Once I “figured out” the six-string, I started missing my 5-string more. So I tried out a Deering Goodtime with the idea that I’d play it until the “good banjo” came back. But the Goodtime had such great action I fell in love with it. Then I took it on vacation. Then I took it on family picnics. And so on.
A beach accident that could have damaged it but didn’t reminded me that, for all intents and purposes this was my only five-string. So I picked up a pawn shop Korean-built Samick to be my “beach” banjo. I took the back off, since I prefer old-timey sounds. The Samick’s action wasn’t as smooth as the Goodtime’s but its sound was great. Plus it had a full-length neck, which I appreciated. Later I tried a $1300 (MSRP) new Chinese-built banjo from a name brand company, and determined that – even with fancier features – it was not a significant upgrade. So the Samick is a keeper, and I have actually bought another banjo to be my “beach banjo.”
Then a couple Celtic-influenced bands brought banjo back into the pop music mainstream, and I started getting even more questions. So I expanded my articles about choosing the right kinds of banjos for certain kinds of music, and so on. That generated questions about specific brands, etc.,
When I realized that reviews and recommendations were cluttering up my “how-to” pages, I started RiverboatMusic.com to have a place to host product-specific information. And I started getting even more questions, some of which generated more articles on the CreekDontRise.com sites, and so on.
Back to Folk Banjo
Recently, I have been trying to help friends who are interested in 5-string banjo find useful resources. To my surprise, I discovered that most of the resources available today focus exclusively on one way to play the banjo, be it three-finger, clawhammer, or otherwise. I am not a master of any specific technique, but back in my Folk music days, I had learned several, and was used to switching back and forth depending on the song and situation.
I searched in vain for find materials that taught “banjo in general,” versus some specific style that – to that author, at least – was the only real, authentic way to play the thing. Finally, I started my own tutorials and offered them free on the CreekDontRise.com site. My hope is that would-be banjo players will use them to get used to the neck and changing chords and will try different techniques before moving on to more technique-specific studies.
Here’s an example of one of the banjo parts I’ve arranged and tabbed for our tutorial:
- “Old Joe Clark”
(If you don’t see a little player bar for this song, click here.)
I have received additional materials from friends that I want to post, but most of their tips and tabs require at least a basic understanding of the banjo neck and simple banjo rolls. So, in my way of thinking, the tutorial had to come first. At the moment, my tutorial includes 14 lessons and about a dozen simple folk song arrangements for 5-string banjo.
As I write this, I am still a full-time technical writer. Years ago, I figured I’d be retired by now, but I wasn’t taking into account the devious ingenuity of fraudulent investment bankers or their abilty to bring the world’s economies (and my retirement accounts) to their knees.
For several years, my web sites have been promoting the work of friends and acquaintances who coach young artists and musicians on professionalism, performance, and profitability. I decided a few months ago, as an experiment, to start implementing some of the tips they give to youngsters. That’s why I have started updating my personal “artist page,” which has usually been an afterthought.
Since I need to keep some professional “cred” as a tech writer, etc., I have also started a separate Facebook account for my “music career,” what there is of it. Just to see where things lead.
It wouldn’t hurt to have another CD available, one recorded with less overkill, since I’m not trying to compete with 1980s-era CCM overproduction any more. I have a BUNCH of decent songs (IMHO) that have not been recorded yet. And zero time and space to record them, unfortunately.
My friends say I need to have some good YouTube videos out there. But they also tell me that the computer screen adds ten pounds. Talk about mixed signals!
Obviously, I don’t expect to get “rich and famous” at this age. But I wouldn’t mind playing out more, etc. If you’d be interested in hosting a “house concert” or other opportunity, please get in touch.
In the meantime, I’m answering several reader questions a week about banjos, about saxophones, and about a plethora of other topics. So the “helping others” aspect of my life is still working out, at least. Some of those questions and answers get posted on the CreekDontrise.com discussion forum, in case you’re interested.
If you’ve found this rambling account of a dozen threads of my life entertaining, encouraging, confusing, cathartic, or helpful in any way, please let me know. I hope to expand it with more photos and mp3s in the coming months, but – as you can tell – I also pay attention to reader input.
Keep playing, keep singing, and keep sharing!