When I started to let my breakdown show itself on social media, my friend, Michelle, tagged me in a livestream tarot reading that she had done a few days earlier. In it, she reminded everyone that we are entering Mercury retrograde, we’re in the super emotional shit show that is Scorpio, we’re approaching the end of the year, and above all, we’re closing out a DECADE. I consider myself a spiritual pragmatist, so I take all cosmic information with a grain of salt, but even under scrutiny it’s hard to deny the gravity of such a massive passage of time. My friend pulled four cards in this reading, but it was the last of them that delivered the gut punch that I needed.
Apocalypsis. Utter destruction clears the way for new growth. Fuck me. My response in her comment section was, “Apocalyptic forest fire? Yes I am.”
What? Did I think this was going to be easy? Drop the day job, ramp up the music career, and see ya later! No sweat! Let’s throw in a brand new romantic relationship and a handful of deeply entrenched personal crises. Oh! And don’t forget to make a metric ass ton of promises that will be financially burdensome and incredibly difficult to keep. And fuck it, let’s spend five days at a gigantic rave right in the middle of all of it!
So yeah, here I am, sitting in a pile of my own shit. There’s dirty dishes on my bedroom floor. I haven’t cleaned my bathroom in a month. I haven’t vacuumed in two months. There are extremely important emails sitting, unanswered, in my inbox – as they’ve been piling up for weeks now. 80% of the clothes that I actually wear are dirty, and most of those are still in the bags I took them to festival in. I’m ending my sentences with prepositions. I’m a fucking mess.
If you met or interacted with me over the past two or three years you most likely experienced a generally happy and positive person, probably sober or close to it, with a good steady job, a militaristic discipline, and a solid work ethic, who was in good physical shape, seemed to be making good life decisions, and always had an ear to listen and a kind word of encouragement to lend.
I liked her.Over the past several months, I began to think I had lost her. Now, I realize what’s really going on. She’s burning. She’s ravaged by fire. There will be losses – some great – but this is nature, and nothing clears the way for new growth like fire. The timing couldn’t be more perfect, really. The end of the year? The end of the decade? What a time to re-create yourself! 2020. Perfect vision going forward. So, fine! Let it burn! Give me an unobstructed horizon as I head into this new chapter. I’ll be glad for the longview.
In the meantime, I have some cleaning up to do. It was a monumental effort that took nearly everything in me, but I kept it together until my release show for The Fighter at The Vista Room. For over a year, I looked at that day like a finish line, and I hit that last stretch in a dead sprint. I took a bow at the end of that show with my arms outstretched, and that was it, that was the end of the marathon. And then I metaphorically fell to the ground and I have been laying here, trying to catch my breath, ever since.It has been 43 days since my record came out. How long do you get for maternity leave? 10, 12 weeks? I’ve only had six. I’m sure, for the most part, people aren’t sitting around drumming their fingers and wondering when the hell I’m going to get my shit together, but there are a few at least, and knowing that makes it extremely difficult to go easy on myself.
There are emails from Eddie’s Attic, The Crimson Moon, and an artist management company from LA sitting untouched in my inbox. These are crucial emails and they feel like cannonballs on my shoulders. All I have to do is answer a few questions, send a few attachments, but it feels like trying to lift my car over my head. I can’t even get the dishes to the dishwasher. For chrissake, there are unopened mystery Amazon packages by the front door with my name on them. It should feel like Christmas, but all I see is one more thing I have to handle. There are no little tasks anymore, just one cumulative, insurmountable mountain of shit that I haven’t taken care of yet.
And so I get really mad at myself for things I shouldn’t get mad at myself over. My sweet friend gifted me a ticket to Hulaween so I could spend five days letting go under the live oaks in Florida – and I did that! And I shut the world out! And I had a blast! And then I came home and I was incredibly sick for four days, and that mountain of shit was still there – only now it was even taller, and I felt worse than ever.
On Halloween night, I had to play a rock show while fighting off the most intense and debilitating nausea of my life. At rehearsal the day before I could barely lift my head to sing into the microphone. Yesterday, finally, I started feeling a little bit better. I was still foggy, but I got through a 3 1/2 hour solo show, and once I got going, I actually enjoyed myself. There was some background noise going on all night – figuratively and literally – but it was the first decent night I’ve had in a week. And then I got home. I glanced at that mountain of emails (big mistake) and one popped out in particular. One of my patrons on Patreon had cut her monthly pledge in half. Fuck. This is my fault. I did send the digital tracks out, but I still haven’t gotten the signed hardcopies to everyone who was supposed to get them. Shit. I log onto Patreon. Two other patrons had completely canceled their pledges. Three in one day. I don’t have a ton of patrons yet, so it’s a big hit. My fault. I immediately feel like a huge failure. I make a post apologizing and asking for mailing addresses, and in my head I see this avalanche of CDs come crashing down my mountain of unfinished business. They cover me and I suffocate to death.
People do this. People handle their shit. I know, because I used to be one of them. What happened? Is there really that much more shit to handle? Or, have I let slide and become an incompetent boob?
I feel guilty sometimes for holing up with my girlfriend when I have so much that needs to be done, but fuck that. What is any of this for if not to find happiness? And when I’m with her, I’m happy. It’s the shortcut around the mountain.
I think I know the answer. The answer is a riddle.
Q. How do you eat an elephant? A. One bite at a time.
Spending time with my love isn’t keeping me from doing what needs to get done. Neither is going to Hulaween, or going out to see my friends play music, or getting enough sleep. It’s not what I’m doing that’s getting in the way. It’s what I NEED to do that’s getting in the way. In one word: OVERWHELM.
When I dropped out of college (with only 18 credits left to graduate), one of my sweet professors, Jodi, tried, heroically, to convince me not to. Eventually, I won that debate and she gave me a parting gift. It was a thin, simple looking hardcover book with white and red and yellow checkerboard on the front.Bird by Bird was the title, and it was written by Anne Lamott. It was rare, back then, for me to read something unassigned, but I read that book, and I’m glad I did. It’s a hilarious tool kit for times like this. I think it would do me good to revisit it now. Bird by bird, bite by bite, email by email, CD by CD, one thing at a time. I’ll never scale the whole mountain in a single bound, I just have to put one foot in front of the other and keep climbing. And now that this fire has burned through, I can probably make a pretty straight beeline for the top. I bet 2020 looks pretty amazing from up there.
Here’s a little treat from my good friend and soul brother, Ralph Roddenbery, for all of you who are also on fire currently:
It’s been years since I’ve been free. I’ve had some adventures here and there, and some of them were truly amazing, but it was never like before. Never like those days on the trail or on my bike or traipsing around the country in a shitty Honda. I can’t remember the last time I opened my cage door with no expected return date.
October 11, 2019. Remember that date. That is my emancipation day. I also hope you’ll remember September 20 and make your way to The Vista Room in Decatur, Georgia. That’s the night that I release my first solo record out into the world. It’s going to be a big party. You’re invited. October 10 is the last day that I will be walking dogs for a living. Starting the very next day I will call myself a full-time professional musician. Is it scary? The scariest. Is it exciting? I can’t even describe it. Here’s one thing about walking dogs… you have a lot of time to think. Over the past four years I’ve been thinking mostly about how I could make this music thing work, and I have to say, I think I’ve got some pretty good ideas.
Just like the old days, I’ll be returning to this blog to share my adventures with all of you. I’ll share my excitement and I’ll share my heartache. I’ll tell you all about my moments of inspiration and I’ll also tell you when I’m feeling lazy and sad and want to give up. Spoiler alert: I won’t give up. But I’ll still tell you about it when I’m feeling it.
Everybody knows that playing gigs is a tough way to make a living, so I have a nice little handful of income stream ideas that I will be trying to use to supplement playing live shows. If you like what I’m doing and you want to support these endeavors, The very best things that you can do are BECOME A PATRON and BUY MY MUSIC AND MERCH DIRECTLY FROM MY WEBSITE. Other things that would obviously help include: coming to my shows, giving me a place to crash if I’m coming through your area, telling me about awesome venues or festivals that I should be playing and helping me get connected with them, and just reading this blog. Oh yeah! And telling your friends about me! Word-of-mouth is so much better than anything else.
I’m just a regular person trying to follow my heart and make my dreams come true. It always astounds me that people are willing to give me their time and attention and support. So if you’re one of those people who does, thank you so much. And thank you for holding my hand while I jump off this cliff.
I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. I suck at this. I’m not fishing for validation or support, I’m just letting you know that I’m not a great musician. Sure, I’m also lazy and a bit of a quitter when the going gets tough, but the biggest obstacle is simply that I wasn’t born with it.
I think my mom was a pretty good singer in high school, and the few times I’ve heard my dad cut loose and sing along with country radio his voice was pretty nice, but by no means did I grow up in a musical family. My big brothers played the guitar as much as everybody else’s big brothers played guitar. Glen, I would suppose, played a little bit more than the average big brother, but there were no virtuosos kicking around for me to learn from. The only member of my family who was decent on an instrument was my grandmother who played piano, but she was as mean as an old cat, and when she tried to teach me I was quickly demoralized by her lack of patience and her penchant for smacking my hands with a ruler when I hit the wrong notes.
I repeatedly asked for guitar lessons, but seeing as I had begged for ballet lessons and then quit and then begged for karate lessons and then quit, I had already been pegged as a quitter at an early age and nobody was about to drop a chunk of money for me to pick up a new hobby that I would just quit after a week or two. Maybe that was good. Maybe that made me want it more.
When I found the shitty old guitar in the outbuilding of the house my parents were renting it felt like a manifestation. I had summoned a guitar into my world and now I was going to learn how to play it. Except it was really hard. That particular guitar was especially hard since the strings were about 2 inches off of the fretboard. I’m pretty old, so there was no YouTube channel to turn to. I must have scrounged up a couple of old Hal Leonard books in that outbuilding. I found them to be quite a bore. I wasn’t interested in playing Hot Cross Buns or Mary had a Little Lamb. I wanted to jam.
Glen taught me a few chords. He showed me how to play Peaceful Easy Feeling by the Eagles. I sounded out the riff for Blister in the Sun by Violent Femmes. I was 15 and my parents had let me take up residence in the two finished rooms of the attic. I would sit at the top of the stairs and bang on the few chords I knew and try to sing along. That was the best advice anyone ever gave me. When Glen taught me how to play those songs he said, “Never practice without singing. Any time you play your guitar, sing along with it. It’s like driving a car. If you learn how to drive automatic first you’re going to have a really hard time learning how to drive a stick. Same with music. If you learn to play without singing you are going to struggle when you try to add that in later.“
So I sang.
Dad spent most of his time on the couch in the living room when he was home. He must’ve been working 60 to 80 hours a week most of the time I was growing up, but he was usually home in the evenings for a while. The living room was on the other side of the house, but when he would travel down the hallway to his bedroom he had to pass in front of the door to my attic apartment. If I was sitting at the top stair play my guitar and singing, he would always take the time to open the door and yell up to me, “Jesus Christ! Sounds like you’re killing cats up there!“ And then he’d laugh and close the door. I know now that he was just playing with me, just making a joke, but back then it would make my blood boil. Luckily, I’m a stubborn son of a bitch just like him, so I didn’t ever let it stop me from playing and singing, but I can’t say I was unscathed. I definitely thought that I sucked. I did kinda suck. But so what? Sucking at something is the first step to being kind of good at it.
But here’s the thing, I was a jock. I was really, really good at sports. While other kids who would grow up to play music had themselves locked up in their room with headphones on diddling along to Jimi Hendrix or the Grateful Dead, I was on the soccer pitch or the basketball court or the softball field. I wasn’t honing my musical craft. I was practicing for the Olympics.
As luck in life would have it, I never did make it to the Olympics. I did have a brief stint playing professional soccer, but my dream didn’t pull into the station at quite the right time. The original W league was unsuccessful and I only ever played in the second division anyway. My age kind of defeated me as well. I was really young when I went to college, and I really shouldn’t make excuses for myself, but most of my team was from Europe and they were much older than me, and I let that keep me small when I should’ve been big. I was definitely one of the best goalkeepers in the country. I’m scrappy and crazy. I could fly. I wasn’t afraid of anybody. Bring on Mia Hamm, I’ll shut her down. I had all of the physical prowess but none of the mental toughness. My mentor, Pade, who had played goal on the Finnish national team, tried to drive it into me. She screamed in my face a lot. She would drag me aside and have these intense heart-to-heart conversations with me, but I was young and dumb and it didn’t work. Like in so many areas of my life, I let my emotions get in the way of my success. I ended up quitting soccer because my coach was hard on me. I could’ve been on the US national team but I couldn’t take the heat. And after all, I was a quitter.
I always loved music. It’s saved me constantly. The Indigo Girls literally saved my life. And I was a poet. From a young age that was one thing that I was undeniably good at. My mom, my teachers, my friends, everybody always loved my poetry. But I was already a dork. I totally didn’t fit in. I was relentlessly picked on. So what was I going to do? Walk up to people and be like, “Hey, do you want to hear my poem?” Oh, hell no. And that’s how guitar became a vehicle to deliver my poetry.
I wrote my first real song when I was 15. I sang it in the high school talent show, and nobody laughed at me. In fact, I got a standing ovation. People who were definitely way too cool to talk to me came up to me that night and told me I did a good job. It felt good.
G, C, D, A, E… oh, I could play some basic chords. And the capo. What a miraculous machine! I could write in all sorts of keys without the stress of learning those dreaded barre chords. I was completely in love with playing half assed guitar. When I went to play soccer in Finland I spent an entire summer without my instrument. The distance really did make the heart grow fonder, and when I returned to the states I bought myself my first real guitar, a Takamine, and I learned how to play those damn barre chords.
While I was still in college, I made a collage of black-and-white photographs of the Indigo Girls that I printed out at the computer lab. I glued them to a dark blue piece of posterboard and I hung that right by my door in my dorm room. Every time I walked out of that room I would put my hand on that collage and I would say to myself, “someday.“ Emily was this fantastic guitar player, but what I really loved about her was the depth of her lyrics. Amy was a relatively shitty guitar player. And that’s what I loved about her. It gave me hope. If I can write like Emily then I can get by playing guitar like Amy.
I started out with Closer to Fine, then Power of Two, and soon I knew almost every Indigo Girls song that wasn’t in some weird tuning. I would play for my friends or sometimes I would jump on the stage at the college pub. I was most certainly a hack, but one day I was playing in my dorm room and friend walked by and stuck his head in. He saw me sitting on the bed playing and he flashed a look of shock. “Damn, barb! That’s you?! I thought the Indigo Girls were playing on the radio!” I think that’s the first time I ever realized I didn’t totally suck.
I started following The Indigo Girls after I dropped out of college. After a brief stint living with Brandi Carlile, which I will explain and expound on some other time, I followed the entire Become You Tour where the girls played almost entirely small venues that held less than 200 people. I got to see my heroes up close every night. The first few shows I just enjoyed the music and the feeling of being at my church with my people, but with a set list that wasn’t changing too much from city to city, I fell into a groove and every night I would work my way up to the front row and stand right in front of Amy and watch what she was doing with her hands. Every day, I would get to the next venue bright and early and I would set up and start playing all these songs that I was learning. People started giving me money. Lots of money. I had left Seattle with $200, a hope, and prayer. When my car broke down in Atlanta a month later I still had $200. Playing guitar outside of the shows had paid for my entire adventure. Well, that and the hemp necklaces that my mama Linda had shown me how to make and a box of T-shirts from my friend Amy that I was selling in the parking lots. But, by and large, I was supporting myself by playing street music? Really? What a strange new world.
The Atlanta show was the last one on the tour, and like I said, my car had broken down. I just ignored that while my friends were in town for the show. I partied with everybody and acted like I didn’t have a care in the world, but once everyone left, I was facing the reality that I now lived alone, on the streets of Atlanta, with my dog, in my broken down car. But I had a guitar.
My car had died, rather inconveniently, right behind Watershed – the restaurant that was owned by Emily from the Indigo Girls. That didn’t really look good. Here’s this kid who has been following the tour for a month and a half, and now she’s living in her car behind the restaurant. Seems a little bit stalker-ish. There wasn’t really anything I could do about it though. Almost every day I would load up my backpack with my necessities, attach my dog’s leash to my belt, balance my chipboard guitar case on my shoulder, and hike from downtown Decatur to Little Five Points to play street guitar.
I found out that I could make a pretty reliable amount of money – about $40 a day. There was also a sweet construction worker named Jose who would stop almost every weekday and buy me lunch at the little Caribbean restaurant, Bridgetown, across from the spot where I played. Sometimes I ran into trouble. One time somebody tried to steal my dog, but some of the street kids who knew me chased that kid down and beat the crap out of him and brought me back my dog and a fresh bag of dog food. Living on the streets taught me a few things. I learned how to be streetsmart, but I also learned that for the most part people are generally good. Even the idiot who steals your dog just really wants a companion.
Playing out there every day was excellent practice and I got to be pretty good. I also learned how to work a crowd. I learned how to smile and avert my eyes. I could be powerful and humble at the same time. There was a certain way of being that I came to understand where my body language and my energy would say to people, “I’m just giving you this and I hope it brightens your day, and if you feel compelled to give me a few bucks that sure would be nice, but no pressure. I hope you have a lovely day.” And I could say all of that with my eyes and my movements. And sometimes I could look at passersby and know just what they needed to hear. I could stop people in their tracks. I could make people dance. I could connect with someone who I’d never met before on a deep and spiritual level, just for a moment, and then let it go. Just writing about it makes me miss it so much.
I have wandered off topic. What a surprise. What I meant to say was that I really suck at this, this music thing. I don’t always know where the one is. Sometimes I need a capo because my hands don’t make that cord very easily, so I need to cheat. I do practice now, quite a lot actually, but my hands are clumsy and my fingers are awkwardly long. I get a little bit better over long stretches of time, but I have a sinking feeling that I’ll never be a guitar hero. I’m also starting to understand music theory a little bit, which is definitely something I never thought I’d hear myself say, but it certainly doesn’t come naturally, and the six-year-old I was hanging out with this morning is probably a little bit ahead of me in the coursework.
But so what?
When I would walk past that collage of black-and-white pictures on a dark blue background and slide my hand across the images of my heroes, I would utter the word, “someday.“ I’ll tell you what I meant. I meant, someday I want to touch people, someday I want to sing songs and I want the people who hear them to feel less alone, to feel more connected, to know that they’re going to be OK.
I can’t jump into the jam and play a sick guitar lead, and I might never be able to.
I can’t hear a song and immediately tell you what key it’s in or what the time signature is or what scale I should play over top of the chords, and I might never be able to.
But let me tell you what I can do. I can take those emotions that always got in the way when I was a kid, and I can transmute them into beautiful lyrics, and I can sing those lyrics with all of the raw feeling that brought them forth in me, and I can reach into a person’s chest and cup my hands around their heart and I can help them feel something they need to feel, and I can build a bridge between the two of us in 3 minutes and 40 seconds, and I can assure them that they are not alone.
So, I might suck at this music thing, but that dream I had when I was 18 years old has come true.
In these first couple weeks you’ve set an awfully high bar for drama and excitement. If you plan on tossing me 11 1/2 more months of this kind of insanity… I’m in.
Ringing in the new year in Lakeland, Florida at The Hometeam New Year’s rally was the best possible start I could imagine to this potentially life altering trip around the sun. Sharing the stage and jam circles with some of my favorite humans was life affirming and inspiring. There was a beautiful blend of friends I’ve known and loved for years and brand new connections that feel like the kind of bonds that will eventually grow into rich, meaningful relationships. I felt renewed.
One of the beautiful moments in camp when my space was only being invaded by people with express permission to invade it.
Me and my Boo Bear in the artist lounge
Lights on the live oaks
Tony Tyler of Come Back Alice covering the entire Dazed and Confused soundtrack
I returned to Georgia with an open heart and faith that I could bring a better attitude and fresh resolve to my daily grind. Things at my day job didn’t settle down the way I had hoped though. My schedule was heavy and thick with difficult clients. I had requested some changes back in November but they had fallen on deaf ears. As something of a resolution, I decided to communicate my needs and boundaries. At the end of my first week back to work I sent Craig and Allison (the owners) a well thought out, professional, firm but pleasant email outlining what was and wasn’t working in regards to my schedule and workload. In response, I received a text asking me to drop off my client keys so they could “rework them and figure out a Plan B.” I sent a screenshot of that text to Arrie. Her reply was “Plan B – you’re fired.” Ha ha. I agreed it was a good possibility. I didn’t let it stress me out. My job at Petmeisters had been growing increasingly tense and stressful over the course of my second year with them, and I had felt things coming to a head recently.
I packed up and drove to North Carolina for the weekend to have a late Christmas with my family. Things were laid-back in Catawba. My parents were getting along. Dad’s health is never going to be good again, but he was feeling alright. Jim had gotten a smoker for Christmas and was excitedly experimenting with different meats. Max had gotten an electric guitar and he was pumped to show it to me, knowing I would appreciate how cool it was. Mom and I played Scrabble, like we always do, downing a bottle of wine and snacking on Christmas dinner leftovers. I would have liked to spend another day relaxing with my family, but I had checked my schedule online and, shockingly, it had been adjusted to show all of the changes I had asked for, so I knew I needed to get back to Georgia for work.
My nephew, Max, being hilarious, and my neice, Hannah, being appropriately embarrassed of her little brother.
Ahoy! My parents have definitely gotten more fun with age.
Driving through the night, I got home around 2:30 in the morning, grabbed about five hours of sleep, and then woke up and got ready for work – as always. I sent a text to Craig and Allison thanking them for not only making the changes I had requested, but doing it so quickly. They didn’t respond. I figured they were out walking vacation dogs. I drove to the office, let myself in, and hollered a hello, mentioning that I was just grabbing my keys. Craig was shuffling around through the papers on the table. He didn’t really acknowledge me until he came up with the folded papers he had been searching for. He turned and stood up, making himself big and sort of blocking me from going through the doorway. He held the papers up high and then dropped them in front of my face saying, “Actually, your services are no longer required. Hopefully this letter will shed some light on why.” I let out a short, unamused laugh and stared at him, not yet taking the papers from his hand. My eyes narrowed. I glanced at Allison who had emerged just behind him. She was trying to appear stern but she was unable to maintain eye contact with me when my glare landed on her. Looking back at Craig, I sarcastically thanked him for letting me know before I showed up ready for work. I snatched the papers from his hand and then turned to go. “We’re going to need your office keys and your leashes,” he bellowed. Snapping the keys off my ring, I tossed them at him and walked out of the house. Allison was scurrying after me. “We need those leashes!” I didn’t respond and only half turned to acknowledge her. I reached into my car and emerged with a couple of leashes and collars. I held them out without looking at her. She took them and thanked me, but I was already in the car and closing the door. I was incensed. I was disgusted with them. But I was done. The rage felt like fire, but underneath it was astounding relief. Four little words snuck out of my mouth.
“Fuck them. I’m free.”
And so it goes. Now I’m unemployed, but it’s a sort of blissful unemployment, pregnant with potential. If you’re wondering about the letter they gave me, it was, of course, a steaming load of horseshit. They accused me of manipulating and guilt tripping them and claimed that no other walkers ever complained about any of their dogs. They said I was unreceptive to feedback, and they wrapped it up by expressing hope that this has been a learning experience for me. Well, it has, but probably not in the way they had hoped. What I learned is that I don’t need them. I’ll continue to walk dogs, but from now on, I’m keeping all of the money. Thanks for the lesson.
The week and a half since I was unceremoniously relieved of my duties at Petmeisters have been unequivocally amazing. My days are packed with creative opportunities, and my musical career feels to be in a period of massive expansion. Our professionally printed shirt inventory had dwindled to dangerously low levels, so I got down and dirty with some fancy spray paints and made some dope Ain’t Sisters T-shirts to sell at our Eddie’s Attic show. I’ve started writing one of the books that I’ve been dying to write for years. I was able to put in long practice sessions in preparation for our release party. I immediately found myself spending more time with friends, laughing more, relaxing… Coming back to myself. Getting fired is the best thing that has happened to me in a long while.
Dope spray paint t-shirts
Silly dinner times with my buddy, Daniel.
Then, it was Saturday, January 12, 2019. After more than three years of recording, editing, mixing, re-recording drums, mixing some more, struggling to get everything mastered, almost breaking up the band, regrouping, slogging through the confusing process of setting up distribution and manufacturing, and at long last, holding the fruits of our prolonged labor in our hands, we ascended upon the hallowed stage at Eddie’s Attic. We were sharing the night with our good friends (and obscenely talented artists) Hannah Zale and Carly Gibson (the Pussywillows).
They put on a positively killer show, and when they finished and we stepped up onto that 8 inch tall platform, one that has held up so many of our heroes before us, we did so in front of an energized, sold out crowd. If any of us had paused too long to take that in, I think we might have crumbled with anxiety. Instead, we set straight to work, flicking on amplifiers and clicking quarter inch cables into direct boxes, tuning our guitars one last time, and laying out our set lists. Thank the goddess for bright stage lights. We weren’t able to see just how massive the crowd was. We could certainly feel their energy though. I was glad we had decided to start with one of Arrie’s songs, grateful for the chance to settle in a bit before having to sing. Nerve-racking as it was, playing our first sold out show in such a prestigious venue, our voices were strong, our playing was clean, and our hits were right on time. We had put in the hard work, and now, on a rainy Saturday night in January, it was all paying off.
The Ain’t Sisters
The after party at the Square pub was raucous and entertaining – even as we were thoroughly and utterly exhausted from pouring everything we had onto the stage at Eddie’s. Some good friends jumped up and played guest sets (BJ Wilbanks, Bonemeal Baker, Amber Taylor, there was even a comedian). That gave us a chance to kick back a little and eat and mingle. Although, we spent most of our break piled into a booth on the top level of the bar, drinking beers and cutting up with one another, enjoying the high we were riding.
After party at the Square Pub. 📷: Arielle Breaux
It was a long, beautiful, exhausting night. Boudreau, John, Chris Holland, and I stuck around until close to collect our pay. As tired as I was, part of me didn’t want the magical evening to end, so I lingered for quite a while, circling around and hugging as many necks as I could before finally retreating through the back door, walking slowly through the rain to my car.
An experience like that sets a high bar, one that we will likely fail to surpass for some time. In the absence of a growth mindset, that could be demoralizing. I’m determined, and I think my bandmates share my resolve, to reach, to get better, to ask for bigger gigs, and when we inevitably land one, to rise to the occasion and push the bar higher still.
In the meantime, I making a solo record. It was right around this time last year when I started seriously putting feelers out, trying to find a great collaborator to help bring a collection of some of my very best songs to life. I wanted to work with a big-time producer, someone who could work magic and take my simple acoustic compositions to the next level. Jonny put me in touch with Don. Don had engineered the “Rites of Passage” album for the Indigo Girls back in the 90s. He had also worked with my former boss, Michelle Malone, on “Beneath the Devil Moon.” Sister Hazel, Shawn Mullins, Kristen Hall, Caroline Aiken, his credits were tremendous and the artists he had engineered and produced were some of my heroes. “Rites” and “Devil Moon” were two of my favorite albums ever.
I got fixated. I had to make this happen. Jonny warned me. “It’s not going to be cheap.” I knew. But I would find a way. I started talking about it. I started a Gofundme campaign. I set the goal at $25,000. People donated. Others scoffed. It was insane! I could make a perfectly good record for less than half that amount! True. But I wanted Don. For some reason, I got it in my head that working with him would instantly elevate me to some rarefied echelon of folk rock grandeur. It occurs to me, just now as I’m writing this, that this is a recurring pattern, for me, of seeking shortcuts.
“If only we get to play with this band, if only we get a gig at this venue, if only we work with this hotshot producer, then we’ll have a shot, then we might make it!”
Indigo Girls at Terminal West
In my life, I’ve rarely encountered a challenge that I couldn’t meet with relative ease. School was easy. Sports came naturally. Art was in me. Poems and prose poured out of me. Only math was somewhat difficult, the formulas and patterns eluded my comprehension, but I muddled through required courses, doing well enough and never really stressing my inadequacies. After all, I was a writer and an athlete, what did it matter if I sucked at math? I’d never use it anyway.
Although the information was presented to me often, and in very plain language, my mind refused, for decades, to acept that:
a.) it was incredibly important for me, as a songwriter, to understand music theory and…
b.) the patterns and formulas of music were intricate and complicated just like the ones in math that had dogged me throughout my formal education, and – for the first time in my life – something that truly mattered to me was going to be exasperatingly difficult for me to master.
Hence, the shortcut problem.
So, that’s why I cried so hard when I read the email. I thought I had explained my budget when we first started talking, but apparently, somewhere along the way, Don and I had ended up on very different pages. The $25,000 Gofundme goal was never going to happen. Not even close. But even with my poor math skills, it wasn’t hard to take the numbers Don had just sent me, perform some basic addition and multiplication, and arrive at an estimated grand total that was – even conservatively – at least $25,000 for a 10 track LP. I couldn’t do it. I was willing to spend every last dime I had in the bank to make this record, but I simply couldn’t rationalize spending twice what I had, selling my car, and potentially ending up homeless again. I was left with two options. I could spend a ridiculous amount of money to record one or two songs with Don, or I could find an affordable engineer who would help me get all 10 songs down on a budget, and hope like hell that the end product was still a solid and professional sounding effort.
As part of what I can now recognize as another piece of my shortcut solution, I had elected to use Jaron Pearlman as my drummer for the project. Jaron had recorded and toured with the Indigo Girls for their release “One Lost Day.”
“If I use the engineer from ‘Rites’ and The drummer from the latest record… Blah, blah… upper echelon… Blah.”
Jaron and I had met, by chance, at a show where I was opening for a guy who was actually a college professor or something. He had hired Jaron to play on a vanity project of sorts. It was an odd, exceedingly random encounter. The bass player, Ben, who also played with the Indigo Girls at the time, had liked my acoustic set and had introduced himself to me, offering up the possibility of him and Jaron providing me with a rhythm section if I ever needed one. I asked who else they played with around town, and when he replied that they weren’t currently booked, but most recently had been with the Shadowboxers and The Indigo Girls, the maniacal shortcut reward center in my brain went crazy. Yep. I was almost definitely going to need them. Thank you.
Although we already had a regular rhythm section, and despite not having anywhere near the caliber of gigs to afford their flat rates, Arrie and I, in what I can now acknowledge was a seriously dick move that was entirely my idea, came out of pocket to hire Ben and Jaron for a big gig at M.O.M.s on Mother’s Day. We were sidelining our dedicated band in order to gain some bragging rights in being able to claim that we had played with – who Jesse and Boudreau not-so-lovingly began to refer to as – the Indigo boys. It was shitty to do, and may have been the first tug at the thread that eventually unraveled our original lineup, however, the rehearsals leading up to that show were when I learned that Jaron had not only been the Indigo Girls’ drummer, he was also a fantastic engineer with a cozy home studio. He had sat at the helm on Amy Ray’s solo record, “Goodnight Tender.” During the rehearsal sessions, Jaron casually mentioned that he had reasonable rates and would work with our budget if we ever wanted to record there. That was in 2015. A seed was planted that day that would take almost 3 years to germinate.
As silly as it may sound, I was dangerously depressed for days, or maybe weeks, after I got the email from Don. I was also still nursing a terribly broken heart, trying to navigate an addiction to a person whose toxicity I simply refused to see. To make matters almost unbearably worse, our drummer for the Ain’t Sisters was beginning to cede from the band, and the remaining members had linked up with another songwriter and the drummer who I was hoping would cover for us if Jesse left. They had formed a new outfit without me. It literally felt like my band had ditched me and Jesse for Mikhail and Richie. This had been brewing for a while, but the potential I saw in making my solo record with Don had provided something of a salve to ease the burning pain of being left behind. Now that dream had collapsed and my despair was exquisite. I was unstable.
Arrie would console me. She would tell me that the Ain’t Sisters was home, that it was her favorite, but I didn’t believe her – especially when the new band, the GMO’s, released an album before we were able to get ours out. Adding insult to injury, they had recorded one of Arrie’s songs, “Changes,” that was also on our frustratingly stalled record. Liz didn’t love me. I felt distanced from my friends and my band. I couldn’t afford Don. Winter was lingering. On top of, or possibly as a result of, the maelstrom of stress and heartache, things at my day job weren’t going well. Whether or not it was true in the grand scheme of things, it certainly seemed like every last piece of my life was shattering. Every day was an epoch of anxiety and dejection. It felt like a monumental tour de force just to wrest myself out of bed and trudge through my fog of melancholy. Life had been reduced to a race in which I was miserably thwarted by my thick depression, as I struggled around the pointless, monotonous, circular track from my bed, out into the world, and, as quickly as humanly possible, back to my bed. Dramatic, I know, but it was like that.
When I called Jaron I did my best not to sound like I was asking my second choice girl to the prom.
“Hi, Janet. Liz said no to me, and you seem, like, pretty single and stuff, so do you want to go to the prom with me? You know, like, as friends?”
In truth, it was nothing like that. Under almost any other circumstance, I would have been giddy and nervous to ask Jaron Pearlman to be my record bae, but crashing down from the ridiculous high of imagined instant relevance had taken all of the spunk out of me. On the phone, Jaron was receptive and warm. He assured me that we could make a great record together. He also assured me that we could do 10 tracks for a fraction of what Don would have charged me. What I heard in his voice triggered a shift in me. He sounded… excited.
It took a week or two to settle into this new reality. I was still poised at the starting line of my first real solo album, I simply had a different relay partner, one who was younger and fresher, if somewhat less acclaimed. It was a tempered transition, but slowly, steadily, I was coming back to myself. Everything else in my life was still a raging dumpster fire, but I liked Jaron, and straight from go he made everything simple, and that was the little spark I needed to make it through to spring.
Captain Jaron Pearlman at the helm.
Assessing my own vocals.
We started work on my record in late February or early March 2018. At that point, I wasn’t sure if the Ain’t Sisters record would ever see the light of day, so I was eager to attack the solo project aggressively. Jaron would be my drummer as well as my engineer, which meant the first rounds of tracking would be quick and easy since he could work on them in his spare time. This led me to make the bold prediction that we would be done tracking by May with a record in hand by November.
It’s January 18, 2019. Three days ago, Arrie, Carly Gibson, and I had a background vocal session to wrap tracking. Only eight months off. Not bad on musician time. Despite Justin Boudreau’s heroic feat of laying down bass tracks for all 10 songs in one three-hour session, instrumental tracking took much longer than I expected, mostly due to the colossal effort required to coordinate the schedules of multiple musicians and also because Dropbox is hard. Technically, I need to stop by the studio and do about five more vocal double tracks, but Jaron can mix around them for a few days and when I get in there it will take all of 30 minutes. Mixing and mastering will take a month or two or three. At this point I’ve learned not to make precise estimates.
We have an obscene amount of fun during vocal sessions
Arrie Bozeman and Carly Gibson. Vocal superheroes, putting the icing on my cake.
All the check marks. ✅ So close to done with tracking!
Jaron keeping the mix fresh.
In any case, I should have a finished solo record in hand by May. I had a conversation with Liz just before Christmas. It was immensely painful, but it opened my eyes to several truths that I had been denying, not the least of which was that she didn’t just NOT love me, she felt deep contempt for me, and there is no potential for love where contempt exists. That night I flipped a switch. Liz Card doesn’t live here anymore. She doesn’t get to live rent free in my head. She’s not even allowed to visit. When she shows up unexpectedly I tell her to get out. Prominently, I’m angry with her. That’s not the greatest place to be, but it’s a hell of a lot better than where I was. The Ain’t Sisters feels strong again. The record is getting good reviews. We’re playing bigger venues to bigger crowds. We’re talking about going on tour. We’re plotting a sophomore record. I’m free from my shitty day job (just to be clear, I loved the dogs, just not the company). I’m finally finding time to write, to learn lead guitar and music theory, to be generally creative. It’s ushering me back into my joy. I’m starting to feel genuinely happy again.
Following my bliss into the blues.
This concludes our journey down the rabbit hole of the solo record and through the swampy darkness of my personal dramas.
Scrawled across my bathroom mirror in my chicken scratch, in red dry erase marker are four words:
“Everything is unfolding perfectly.”
A daily reminder.
Life proves this to me over and over again. Sometimes it feels like the lows get lower each time just to drive home the point. There is no low, no matter how deep it is, that isn’t followed by a high, if only you just hang on.
It all makes sense later.
I’m so grateful that the Ain’t Sisters hit a rough patch. If we hadn’t, I might never have made this solo record.
I’m so grateful that I couldn’t afford Don. That’s the only reason I ended up recording with Jaron, which has been one of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences of my life.
I’m so grateful that Liz and I didn’t work out and that we had that excruciating conversation in December. Now I’m free. I never want to be with someone who doesn’t love me back. I’m so happy that I’ll be single and receptive when someone comes along who adores me.
I’m so grateful to have worked for, and to have been fired from, Petmeisters. Two years with that company taught me an enormous amount about how to run (and how not to run) a dog care company. Now I’m confident enough to build one of my own.
It’s so hard to believe it when your life is an F5 tornado, but it’s true whether you believe it or not. Everything really is unfolding perfectly.
Just hang on.
Oh yeah, and I’ve come to understand that there are no shortcuts. The only way to ever attain any level of “success” (whatever that means for you) is to put the work in every day so you’re always a little better than you were yesterday.
It’s not about coattails and competition. Only growth.
What’s good right now? This coffee. This cookie. This city – despite the weekend rush of tourists. And my new tooth. My back left molar has a permanent crown now. I guess that makes her the queen. This final visit was the third step of my first (and hopefully last) root canal. Getting the crown set was mercifully painless. Doc just popped off the aluminum temporary, cleaned up the site, and cemented the new tooth in place. Miraculous. It’s big and pretty, and most importantly, comfortable. I’m incredibly grateful to have had the money, the connections, and the time to make this happen. It seems like a little thing – maybe even an unpleasant thing – but for me it’s a mellow kind of joy to simply take care of the things that pop up in my life without having to stress over them. There’s plenty to stress over without worrying about my teeth or my car or my bills.
Are you doing ok? Really? Are you? If you are, I’m so happy for you. You are a miracle. I hardly know anyone who’s alright. I don’t know what it is. I’ve gotten older and it could be that, but even kids I know – my nieces and nephews, my friend’s kids – are stressed beyond belief. It could be living in the city, but even when I visit people in the burbs or the mountains, you can still feel a palpable tension. I work too much. Maybe I’m just run ragged and projecting my stress onto others. But even when I have a good day and I can really breathe and relax, I find that the people I interact with are anxious.
And everyone is lonely. We have these little boxes in our pockets that give us nearly constant access to everyone and everything, but they are not true. There is no real connection there. The rewards our bodies give us when we get “likes” or comments on Facebook are not the same rewards we get when we hug our friends. Dopamine is like crack. We need more and more to get less and less high. Oxytocin is the good stuff, but you only get that with genuine interaction. I don’t know how to save the world from the slow social media suicide we’re all slipping towards, but I know how to save myself and the people I come in contact with. And in August I’ll put my theory to the test. I’ll travel like I used to and I will initiate random interactions with strangers. I’ll hug people. I’ll smile. I’ll play music. I’ll be an endogenous drug pusher. I’ll give people free hits of oxytocin so they remember how much they love it, so they wake up from their dopamine nightmare, so they remember what’s real.
I need it. The malaise is killing me. I’d rather be poor and happy, wandering this world and making it better, than to run myself to exhaustion on the hedonistic treadmill. It’s nice to be able to fix your teeth when they break, but what’s the point if you’re just going to use them to gnash on the same food you eat every day, alone at your table, in the 15 minutes between your second and third shift? Perhaps I can find a balance. I hope I can. But if I can’t, I’ll will choose love and connection and joy over possessions and security and the rat race. I won’t survive either way. I might as well go down swinging with a smile on my face.
Right down to the fact that I forgot a paper journal, it’s a repeat of last week. Crazy Thursday at work. Futile break neck rush to hit the ATL perimeter before 4, where I inevitably hit massive traffic anyway. Junk food fueled 5+ hour trek to Catawba, NC. Dinner and a chill visit with my parents. A good night sleep cut short by my blaring alarm. A quick breakfast. Another 8am root canal appointment. This time they weren’t rooting, they were filling and building and fitting me for a permanent crown. For now, they gave me a temporary aluminum crown. It’s got a nice bright silver finish. I’m referring to it as my Terminator tooth. It’s kind of cool. I’m contemplating a full chrome grill. Ok, not really, but I’m not sad about having my snazzy cyborg temp for a couple of weeks.
It’s funny, when you spend so much of your life in a financial bind and can’t afford much dental work, getting a root canal doesn’t feel all that bad. The novocaine shots are pretty unpleasant, but the dominant sensation I’ve felt throughout this process is pride. I’m proud that I am taking care of my body. I’m proud that I am financially capable of paying for it. I’m proud that I’ve been pretty physically and mentally tough about getting my face repeatedly drilled. And I’m proud that I am making the most out of these trips.
To the outsider, it may not seem all that important, but making it to Asheville both weeks is a big deal for me. As you can see from the opening image, I’m sitting in the window at Izzy’s again, drinking freaking luscious coffee and indulging in a giant, fresh cookie (my reward for being brave). And I’m writing. There’s the key. This is what I am. I’m a writer. A gypsy. A vagabond. An adventurer. Yes. But always, underpinning everything, I’m a writer. And Asheville (and great coffee) draw that to the surface. Could I sit in some bohemian Atlanta coffee shop and write? Absolutely. And sometimes I do. But in Asheville I ALWAYS do. I can’t explain why beyond the inspiration of the mountains, the air, the culture, the change of pace, I just want to write when I’m here. Would it be like this if I lived here? I don’t know. I’m afraid that it wouldn’t stick, but maybe it would. I’ve spent some pretty serious stretches of time here in the past and I always write voraciously in this town. What to do? What to do?
This is always an anxious but exciting time… when I start to get twitchy and restless. The pendulum swings. The tension is satisfying. Like that wild feeling in your gut when the swing stalls at the highest height just before you drop. I think I’ll draw it out for a while. I’ll squeeze all I can get out of Atlanta before I shake free.
But in the meantime, I’ll see how much dental work I can schedule. Because I’m a writer. Dammit.
I forgot a physical paper journal on this whirlwind trek, and I must admit, blogging straight into my phone is less gratifying. However, I’m still sitting here in the window bar at Izzy’s (my favorite coffee spot in Asheville), and the sun is shining, and this root canal isn’t nearly as painful as I expected. Life is good.
I drove up to my parent’s farm in Catawba last night after work. I got in kind of late but we stayed up and visited for a while. I slept well and woke up early. We chatted a little more over breakfast and then I headed to the dentist to get my canals rooted. It wasn’t fun, but it wasn’t all that bad either. I know I’ll be happier when my mouth is healthy again. As soon as I was patched up (temporarily, I have 2 or 3 more visits to finish the crown), I hopped back in the car and came here, to Asheville to buy beads for my hemp jewelry and, frankly, to have a cup or two here, at Izzy’s (seriously, this coffee is amazing).
I think I’ll indulge in another refill and then I have to get back on the road. Arrie and I are playing a duo Ain’t set to open the Gemini fest at Fox Mountain in Cherry Log tonight. That will wrap up my crazy driving for a day or two, and I plan on slinging my hammock up in the trees and basking in the beauty of those North Georgia mountains and all of my lovely friends.
This life is my jam. Open roads. Music. Mountains. Great coffee. Art. Sweet humans. Being present. It’s easier like this. It’s natural. I’m moving back in this direction. I needed to experience the hardships. I needed to brave the cold winter and suffer the broken heart. I needed to reclaim my health and find my creamy disciplined center. And now I’m more than I was before. I am expanded. And there are parts I will keep and there are parts I will leave behind.
Rebirth. One more level up on the massive spiral staircase of life. This whole world swirls and changes. But the coffee at Izzy’s is solid. Always. And I return to my vagabond ways. Always.
Truth be told, between the two adventures, I enjoyed my bike ride more than the trail. Maybe because it came first and represented freedom and breaking away from a worn out situation, or maybe because it was more original and I got to make it up as I went, but the bike ride was pure exhilaration compared to the trail, which was exhilarating, but also sometimes felt like strain and drudgery. Still, for some reason, it’s the trail that pulls at me like so much unfinished business. It looms.
Recalling the bike ride feels like recalling the bulk of my adventures. It feels like a dream I had that I would be pleasantly surprised to drift back into. Not the trail. The trail sits in the recesses of my mind and waits. When there’s a break in the action, it steps forward and splays itself out in my consciousness like a billion puzzle pieces challenging me to solve the mystery of the bigger picture. How do I do it? How do I get back on the AT? How do I reinvent the hike to make it work for me? Which way to Katahdin? In the AT community, they say HYOH – hike your own hike. What’s my hike? What does it look like? Those questions have been rattling around in my head for more than four years now. And steadily, the puzzle has been coming together, the image has come into focus. And now I’m sitting in my favorite coffee spot in Asheville balancing myself between excitement and determination, and in just a matter of minutes, I will get in the car and drive to Hot Springs and I will test some of these ideas that I’ve been incubating for all of these years.
With my life currently unfolding at a blindingly rapid pace, and as I am positively content with my job and the process of breathing life into ventures that will elevate my experience to unprecedented heights, this is certainly not the time to return to the trail for a thru hike, but it is the perfect time to awaken the Moose and put these eager feet back on that long, thin line to prime the pump and discover if my theories hold up in practice.
It’s electrifying, taking action in the now that draws me closer to my dreams. What excites me most today is that I’ve developed a robust and fulfilling meditation practice, and that for the next two days I will get to hold my awareness steady and still in each moment as I traverse one of my very favorite stretches of Earth. And also, this coffee is delicious.
For two sweet hours last Wednesday, I frolicked on Folly Beach. I played in the waves, ran through the surf, and walked out and sat at the end of the pier. I swallowed heavenly lungfulls of salty sea air. I watched the sea foam roll along the tops of choppy breakers. I felt my soul come back into my body.
I was overcome with an intense relief; so grateful to feel peace again, to know that I was still capable of feeling peace, that it had not become a stranger to me.
Doubt had begun to creep in, as of late, and I was beginning to fear that some irreversible switch had flipped in my mind and in my spirit, and depression was poised to consume me, and I would never be okay again – never mind peaceful or blissful. Sitting there at the top of Folly pier, with the Atlantic breeze washing over me like an absolution, it was as if I saw a crack of light break through the darkness. Suddenly I could breathe again. I could think clearly. I saw the dilemmas that has been plaguing me, and I realized that they weren’t dilemmas at all. It was my own perceptions, my rigidity, that had been causing me so much turmoil. And those perceptions, that rigidity, had taken root as a result of my desires. I had glimpsed a future that looked pleasing to me, and I clung to it. I clung to it so tightly, and I focused on it with such a narrow lens, that I couldn’t even see that I was throttling it. I couldn’t see that I was rejecting other possibilities by refusing to acknowledge them.
Clinging is an act of fear, and it will destroy everything that you love.
Love is open. Love leaves room for growth and movement and change. Love says, “What ‘is’ is beautiful, and its impermanence makes it all the more beautiful, and I open my arms to whatever may become of it.”
Sitting there on the pier, I knew that I hadn’t shown myself love, I hadn’t shown those around me love, and I hadn’t truly loved life, in over a year. Love doesn’t control. Love accepts unconditionally. Love celebrates. My intentions had been good. I just wanted to realize this beautiful vision as I saw it in my minds eye. But attachment is a sneaky, ruinous bitch, and she crept into my heart while I was dreaming and she wrecked the place.
I love Folly Beach. I don’t have a name for my personal spiritual belief system, but if it ever had a house of worship, that pier would be it. Maybe I was praying without really knowing it. Two hours certainly didn’t feel like enough time, and I didn’t have any other hugely enlightening revelations that day, but I felt my heart open, and I felt hope walk back in, and don’t you know, the first thing she did was grab that bitch, attachment, by the hair and drag her to the curb.
Life is like water. It moves. It has to move or it gets stagnant and rotten and full of disease. If you try to stop the flow, it will get backed up and swell and wreak havoc. If you try to swim against it, it will exhaust you until it kills you. What’s amazing – and so counterintuitive – is that if you let go and relax, and you simply breathe, you float.
Now, I’m in Asheville. It’s another place that I love, another “church”. I’m back, dammit. I’m resolved to float. I’m wide open. And, I can breathe.
I will not be governed by fear, exhaustion, or pain. I will not bury my head in the sand or turn away from an opportunity. I am grateful for what I have, but I will continue to reach for it is striving that defines me.