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.
“Someday” is today.