Fake Happy

It is the holiday season, and as Christmas approaches, that means it’s time for the annual rollout of marketing-driven narratives. Everything is warm and fuzzy and happy and bright! Buy more stuff, because it makes you feel good! Of course, this isn’t specific to Christmas, but the volume level seems to get turned all the way up to 11 around this time of year. The truth, of course, is that life is messy and imperfect. Fractured relationships are a tough part of family dynamics. Loved ones that once gathered around the table have moved on or away. Maybe you find yourself grieving over a loss. In the midst of Hallmark movies and sugar cookies, there doesn’t seem to be much room for grief or, God forbid, sadness. There seems to be a near-constant pressure to be, as Hayley Williams put it, “Fake Happy.”

I’m just one person out here amongst the hubbub of the holidays, but I feel it’s important to talk about this. It doesn’t have to be the “hap, happiest season of all.” Whatever your beliefs, history suggests that the world of the Christ child was a dark and complicated one. The babe in the manger didn’t represent happiness, but rather hope. That’s a hugely important distinction, and it’s why I’ve always been drawn to songs like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

“O come, O come, Emmanuel,

and ransom captive Israel

that mourns in lonely exile here

until the Son of God appears”

Mourning and exile are not likely to be featured themes on your holiday Starbucks cup, but they are as much a part of life as anything. And, tough as it is, it’s okay to feel and express that. Don’t feel like you have to be something other than your truest self, and know you aren’t alone. That’s true any time of year, even Santa’s month.

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More Heart, Less Attack

It’s no secret that one of my favorite songwriters is Ryan Adams. He speaks to my soul in a way that few others can; when words fail, his music slips into the cracks to help fill the void. He is hugely influenced by Tom Petty, to the point that Benmont Tench, Petty’s longtime keyboardist and collaborator in the Heartbreakers, has played on multiple albums for Adams. The lyrics to “Outbound Train” are a particular kind of balm today. The song is deliberately placed in a key that pushes Adams’ vocal range, so that his voice strains and almost cracks as he delivers the gut punch lyrics. “I was so sure, I was so sure, I was so sure, but I don’t know anything more.” Me too, Ryan. I am heartbroken by the tragedy in Las Vegas and the loss of one of our greatest musicians. I needed to organize some of my thoughts into one space, so here goes.

I’m only 25, but life has changed a whole lot since 1992, and the changes are readily apparent in music. When I started playing gigs as a kid, I remember typing up my show schedule in big bold letters and printing it out on blue paper to hand out to people at the gigs, so they could know where I’d be playing. You couldn’t easily create a website, or have Bandsintown automatically send out email blasts, or Tweet to promote your gig with a flurry of hashtags. Things were simpler then, but technology has by-and-large made our world a better place. I wouldn’t have dreamed of being able to tour the world without it. YouTube, Spotify, Facebook, Google Maps, and a hundred different apps and websites have made it possible for me to take my music to places that were previously reserved for those fortunate enough to have the backing of a major label and all the infrastructure that goes along with it. I’m grateful.

The flip side, however, is that the world seemed like a kinder place back then. I don’t know that it actually was, but the “bad apples” didn’t have the reach or voice that they do now. I was a young, raw musician, and my stage presence rubbed a few folks the wrong way. I would occasionally hear of some criticism through the grapevine. It didn’t bother me, because nobody ever said anything directly to me, and the people that didn’t like me just didn’t come to the shows. Imagine that. I’ll never know what pushes someone to commit a terrible act like the one in Vegas. But I know the negativity of online culture is not helping. If you pay attention only to social media, you would think the world is a truly awful place. It felt like it took approximately zero seconds after a devastating, horrific tragedy for people to start arguing with each other. I opened up Twitter for about 60 seconds, and then I closed it for the rest of the day. It was discouraging.

People are good. I wholeheartedly believe, based upon my travels, that the vast majority of people are kind, helpful folks trying to do the right thing. But there is something pervasive about the culture with social media, something about sitting behind a screen, that empowers the haters and amplifies the hate. You can build a wall around yourself quickly, and end up in a dangerous echo chamber. We’re more connected than ever, but we’re more isolated than ever at the same time. How do we fix it? I don’t know. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle; technology has advanced, and social media is here to stay. But I do know that kindness is always the best option. Going forward, I’d like to see us all make more of an effort to meet at the table for face to face conversations. Being physically present with someone in a debate or argument is a lot more conducive to empathy, and that’s a good thing.

Speaking for myself, I’m done with the negativity. I want to fill social media (and the world) with kindness, love, and music. I don’t know why someone like the Las Vegas shooter turns to evil. I don’t know why good people have to suffer sometimes. I don’t know why it’s so easy to default to anger. But I keep coming back to the NEEDTOBREATHE lyrics from “More Heart, Less Attack.”

“Be the light in the crack, be the one that’s mending the camel’s back.
Slow to anger, and quick to laugh. Be more heart, and less attack.”

Join me, won’t you?

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Local Music Community

I saw a tweet from Ari’s Take the other day that really grabbed my attention. (A little background; Ari’s Take is a website that offers a lot of helpful business tips and info for musicians.) This statement about supporting your local music community resonated deeply with me.

I’m from Indiana, and I grew up playing Bluegrass, Gospel, and Blues music in Indiana and Ohio. I’ve been thinking a lot about how great our local music community is, but I believe one graphic does a pretty good job of illustrating it.


That is the music lineup for part of just ONE DAY at the Metamora Music Festival. My friend Cheri put it together, because there are so many venues hosting music in a town of under 200 people that you need a spreadsheet to keep track. I’ve been playing in Metamora for ten years now, and I’ve met some of my best friends, colleagues, and business partners through music events there.

Metamora is special. But around here, that type of music community is more widespread than you’d think. A big time example is the Baker Park bluegrass jam in New Castle, Indiana. It’s been happening on Monday nights during the summer for decades. I’ve been going for about 11 years, myself. I wouldn’t be the musician I am today without the folks out at Baker Park. It’s where I learned the ropes of playing with others, and it’s such a staple that it caught the attention of an Indy TV station, Fox 59. Check out the video, and watch for a cameo from a 15 year old me. (Which my 15 year old self was way too eager to point out via subtitles. Ah, youth.)

Fast forward a few years later, to age 18. I had a job working at Walmart in the same town, New Castle, because I lacked the confidence to make the jump and start pursuing a music career in earnest. Almost every day, someone from Baker Park would recognize me, come up to me, and say some variation of the following: “What are you doing here, boy? You should be out playing that guitar, not working here!” Eventually, I listened to them.

Everything good in my career has come from the local music community, from Metamora to New Castle to Beavercreek to Richmond to Muncie to Cincinnati. My family, the other musicians, the music lovers, the venue owners…they are the reason I’ve been able to go out and tour all over the world. They’ve opened up doors for me in previously unimaginable places. They are the reason I’ve been able to make a great living in music for more than six years now. I can’t even begin to COUNT the number of people who have supported me over the  years!

There is a mindset that often infiltrates the thinking of musicians, an idea that you have to go somewhere “better” to succeed. Nashville, Austin, etc. I used to think that way, too. It took some growing up to see what was right in front of me, but now, I appreciate it for what it is. A treasure.  

This community is the reason I’m able to say that I’m buying a house here in Eastern Indiana. The closing is next week. I’ll always tour, whether in Germany, Canada, or Colorado, but I want my home to be right here in this community. I’m excited to continue being a part of it for years to come. To everyone who’s made this such a great place to grow up as a musician, and given me a chance to make a living doing what I love, thank you.

Metamora Music Festival. Top: age 18. Bottom L-R, age 19 w/Dean Phelps and Ted Yoder, age 15, age 17.

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Bridging The Divide

Lord knows the internet doesn’t need another opinion on all the craziness happening lately. But let me just say that I’m tired. My heart hurts, my soul is heavy, and I suspect that probably goes for most who will be reading this. If I’m being honest, it’s not entirely because of the actions of those who marched in Charlottesville. By and large, we know that hate exists in this world, and we know that it’s wrong. My brokenness stems from the arguments and division that have arisen from those incidents, particularly on social media and around the countertops and kitchen tables of America. It honestly feels like this country is more divided than it has been in a really long time.

That’s particularly difficult for me to swallow, because I make my living as a musician. That means I get to perform for all sorts of people in all sorts of places. Just in the last year, I’ve shared my songs with folks in Canada, Germany, Austria, and from coast to coast in the United States. People of many different races, religions, and political affiliations.

I’ve always been of the belief that as human beings, we have more in common than not. Music has often offered me a connection point to sit down and have a cup of coffee with someone that I might not ordinarily run across in my everyday social circles. I usually listen a lot more than I talk when I’m meeting people out on the road. One exception to that rule is when someone starts to bash one side of the political spectrum or the other. I always tend to stick up for the other side.

I’m proudly Independent when it comes to politics. I have been since my teenage years; during that period of my life, I tried on two or three of those political “hats”, and found that they didn’t fit me very well. The “LEFT VS RIGHT” or “REPUBLICAN VS DEMOCRAT” arguments and confrontations, however you want to frame them, are difficult for me to understand. I always feel sick to my stomach when it really gets going. What it boils down to at the end of the day is “US VS THEM.” Pick our side, because the other side is WRONG AND BAD.

It’s such an easy trap to fall into. Human nature is to compartmentalize and draw lines. It’s what helps us make sense of the world, and sometimes, we need to do it. But honestly, I think we often lose sight of the fact that we’re all human beings. And depending on when and where you’re born, and how you grew up, the world view you end up with as an adult is likely to be unique. And that’s okay. It doesn’t have to fit neatly into a box.

We’re dealing with an extremely complicated set of issues. When we hear about things like Charlottesville, it’s discomforting and frightening, for any number of reasons. But, human nature being what it is, the first instinct when faced with that discomfort is to compartmentalize. Who’s on my side? Where are my allies? Unfortunately, that very quickly leads to ugliness. It leads to shouting without listening. In my news feed this week, I’ve seen so much shouting. I’ve done a lot of it myself, and I’m not innocent. The temptation is so strong, but I’m so tired of it. Yelling into the void isn’t going to fix a damn thing.

So, here I am. Tired, and worried, and looking for hope. Wanting to believe in the goodness of my fellow man and woman. It shouldn’t be this difficult. We can all agree that the beliefs of white supremacists like those who marched in Charlottesville are unacceptable. So let’s start there. Before we run off and start drawing our own lines to talk about statues or counterprotesting or politicians or ANYTHING ELSE…

Let’s start by stopping with the name calling. Let’s start by agreeing to listen. Let’s start by taking a moment before we assume that the opinions and beliefs of others are lesser than our own because they are from a different generation, or wear a different type of clothes, or come from a different latitude. Let’s talk to each other.


This blog post is inspired by the music, words, and actions of Jon Foreman. Please consider reading what he has to say as well.

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Oh, Austria. Mein hertz ist voll! I’ve had a magical few days playing my first two shows of the tour in in Graz and Waltersdorf, and I’m so excited to tell you about it. I should tell you first that this part of my trip is thanks to my new friend, Bernd. We met in Colorado last year when I was playing at a Brewpub in Alamosa. When I found out that he was from Austria, I told him of my touring plans, and he went to work setting up gigs for me.

My first show was a house concert, generously hosted by Christopher. Upon arrival, he and his friends and family made me feel welcome and at home right away. His father, Thomas, and I really hit it off. He explained to me, “many people know English, but are shy to speak it. I am not!” I’m so glad! He had a ton of great stories to share with me about Graz and about his travels. The concert itself was terrific; it was held in a basement room with great acoustics, and I played completely unplugged, so it had a very intimate feel. The thought struck me that house concerts are similar everywhere; whether in Texas, Florida, Massachusetts, or Austria. The audience is great, the hosts are wonderful, and the end result is always sharing a drink and conversation after the gig. Everyone in Graz was so kind and generous, and I ended up having a conversation with one gentleman about our shared interests in music; Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, and even Darrell Scott! 

Christopher was kind enough to host me at his place for the night, and the next morning, Thomas and his wife took me into the city center of Graz for a lovely breakfast at Cafe Sacher. Afterwards, they set me up with maps and suggestions, and I spent the day exploring. WOW! What a city! My favorite part was Schlossberg, the castle hill that affords panoramic views of the whole town. I felt so comfortable, so at peace in Graz. This is a city that goes back to medieval times, so it has some incredible architecture. But the main thing for me was the atmosphere. There was a market set up by the tram station, with local artisans selling their crafts and creations. Vendors in food trucks dishing out Wurst and Schnitzel. Street musicians playing violin and accordion on narrow streets, the buildings serving as a natural reverb chamber. A hundred little shops and restaurants and biergartens. In Munich, I felt like an awestruck visitor. In Graz, I felt like I was at home. 

My next show was at a rock club called Roter Gugl. I got the gig because of another kind musician, Wilifried. He found out about me from Bernd, and set up the show. I am so thankful for all the people who help me do music. Roter Gugl is in the country, about 45 minutes at outside of Graz. I honestly felt like I was back home in Indiana on arrival, being surrounded by farmers, fields, cows, and chickens. An evening thunderstorm brought a drenching shower with it, setting the stage for a peaceful sunset. Hot air balloons floated by overhead as I pulled into the parking lot. The venue itself was full of rustic charm too, and it reminded me of places I’ve played in the Midwest. Roter Gugl is run by a musician named Werner, who decided that he wanted to start a place for real music. He plays guitar, sings, writes songs, and brings in artists from all over the world to play. 

Werner’s band plays most weekends, and before the show even started, I was already hitting it off with Wolfgang, the lead guitarist in Werner’s band. Musicians can always find common ground, and we started talking right away about amps, guitars, pedals, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Joe Bonamassa. So, I was at ease before I even started the set. And the audience was just like one you’d expect at a small club in the US; dancing, full of energy, and enthusiastic. I got multiple encores! It seems things are not so different in Austria; several people at Roter Gugl told me that it’s difficult for rock and blues artists to find venues or make money. And that it can be hard to get people to come out for live music, especially in the city. But people still truly support live music in the village of Waltersdorf, population 2,192.

There are so many wonderful things here, and it honestly makes me want to learn the language. I could spend weeks exploring villages throughout Austria. If you’ve ever thought of coming to Austria, DO IT. The people are friendly, the landscape is gorgeous, the food is delicious, and you’ll be a better person for visiting. Thanks to Bernd, Christopher, Thomas, Wilifried, Werner, Wolfgang, and EVERYONE else for making my first two European gigs unforgettable. 

Next up: a couple of days in Vienna, and then back to Graz for a show at Cafe Vorstadt!

Danke fürs Lesen. Liebe, Brian

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I wasn’t planning to publish a blog post today, but I experienced so much this afternoon that I couldn’t help writing about it. I walked 10 miles today, if that gives you an idea. Munich is a city that crackles with energy. Positive energy. I’ve been to many cities that are filled with a different sort. Desperation, or perhaps anxiety. Heaviness. But in Munich, it feels crisp, purposeful, electric.

You want a melting pot? This is it. I saw people of every different age, culture and color that you can imagine. Just walking down the street is an adventure, as you catch fragments of conversation in different languages. One thing I noticed; so many people I passed today were impeccably dressed. Businessmen in stylish, form fitting suits and oxfords. Women in colorful dresses and skirts. Teenagers in tight denim and graphic tees. To be fair, you experience the same sort of thing on a smaller scale walking around Downtown Chicago. But it struck me all the same. 

One of the first stops I made was St. Michael’s Church. Construction began in 1583 and it was consecrated in 1597, so it’s the oldest building I’ve ever been in. It was severely damaged during WWII, but it’s been restored to its former glory over the years. The inside is “a representation of the triumph of Catholicism as true Christianity during the Counter-Reformation.” It’s certainly impressive, though what stuck out most to me were the sheer number of candles, programs, books, and souvenirs in the sanctuary, each with a price list and donation box displayed prominently. I think Jesus got mad about merchants in the temple once, but I’m not sure. 

I had a mediocre lunch, which was my fault. I was hungry, having not eaten since dinner last night, and I stopped into one of the first places I saw. It was a grand, large looking restaurant on the main drag. As soon as I sat down, I realized I had chosen a tourist trap. Ah well; I quickly made up for it, by stopping into a quiet little coffee shop just off of Marienplatz for a Cappuccino. Marienplatz is the center of everything, and has been since 1158; you’ll find hundreds of shops and restaurants, with city hall towering above everything. I spent a good chunk of my day working my way out from there, exploring all the nooks and crannies of the side streets. 

I eventually ended up in Viktualienmarkt, the city’s daily food market. If you’ve ever been to a farmer’s market or city market in the States or elsewhere, you get the gist. This one is just a little more extensive, as you can find just about anything: fresh meat, fruit, smoothies, fish, bread, gelato, flowers…you name it. I made a mental note to come back for dinner, and headed to Odeonsplatz, another old city square. 

Odeonplatz sits next to Hofgarten, which is a beautiful park that serves as gateway to Englischer Garten, AKA English Garden. This was my favorite part of the day, by far. The English Garden is MASSIVE! It covers nearly 1,000 acres. There is much that I didn’t get to, but what I saw was spellbindingly beautiful. Musicians abound, playing classical guitar or accordion alongside peaceful streams of water. Ducks quack in delight as the passerbys toss them pieces of brot. On a massive expanse of grass, people play futbol or sunbathe. The Monopteros sits atop a gentle hill, offering a view of the skyline and a place to reflect. 

Now you see why I walked 10 miles today! After spending a good chunk of time in the park, I wandered back over to the Viktualienmarket, and grabbed a Bratwurst with kraut and mustard. I couldn’t resist another lap around the Marienplatz after dinner to take in the energy one last time. Even as the sun drifted towards the horizon, that same magnetism was still present. It’s the feeling that I’ll remember most from my time here. As I headed back towards the U station to catch my train back to the room, I couldn’t resist treating myself and capping off the day in style.

If I may, I’d like to end this post with some levity, and a statement of truth. All other ice cream is pointless and fraudulent. Gelato will CHANGE YOUR LIFE, people. It is reason enough to visit Europe. 


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Sprechen Sie English?

I stepped off the plane after a 9 hour overnight flight. I walked, somewhat wearily and warily, towards the long line at “Passport Control.” A new world of possibilities waited outside the door, but first, I had to go through customs, collect my bags, and pick up my rental car. Sitting in a booth was a gentleman in his 30’s, wearing a uniform and a badge on his chest that said “Polizei.” He greeted me in German, probably something along the lines of “Welcome to Deutschland.” I handed him my passport, and said, “Sprechen sie English?” He chuckled and said, “yes,” for probably the twentieth time today. After asking me what my plans in the country were, he stamped my Passport with a nod and a smile, and sent me out into the world.

Picking up my car, I was informed by the concierge that my Audi rental has in-dash GPS. “There’s an option to switch the language to English,” he volunteered. I went out to the garage, found my car, and did just that. I programmed in my first destination of the trip, Dachau. I also popped a prepaid SIM card into my phone that was supposed to provide me with data service. It didn’t seem to be working, but I figured it was because of the parking garage. And, the GPS was working fine regardless. So, off I went.

The Dachau Concentration Camp is free to visit, but you have to pay 3 euros for parking. I knew this ahead of time, so I was prepared with a 5 euro bill. I greeted the attendant, got my change back, and found a spot at the back of the lot. It was at this time I noticed my phone’s data was not working at all. Slightly problematic, as I was hungry and had hoped to find a restaurant to eat lunch at. No worries, as it turns out that Dachau’s Visitor Center has a cafeteria. It’s clearly geared towards people like me; there were a few German staples with long, tounge-twisting names on the menu, but also…”Sausage. With Fried Potatoes.” Which is what I ordered. It was only 5 euros. Fried potatoes means French fries, as it turns out. 

Nothing puts your troubles or your fears or your meals in perspective quite like walking through the gas chambers, furnaces, and hanging grounds of a former concentration camp. Large signs with foreboding bold print tell the story; how economic struggles and anti-immigrant attitudes led to the rise of an extremist faction, one that eventually decided that others who weren’t like them should die. Gays. Jews. Jehova’s Witness’. Street beggars. Political dissidents. The Polish. On and on. On the main gate, wrought out of iron, “Arbett macht frei.” Work sets you free. I was humbled and chilled to the core.

Back to the present world. It was time to check into my room, so I plugged the address of my AirBnB rental into the GPS, and off I went. I knew I’d have to resolve the phone situation at some point, so I drove until I found a place that looked kind of like a supermarket, and pulled in. I walked in the door, and there it was; a magical, bright sign that said “Vodafone.” I stepped up to the counter, and the gentleman said something that of course, I didn’t understand. “Sprechen sie English?” “Ah, yes, a little bit. What do you need?” 10 minutes later, and for only 30 euros, I walked out with a month of prepaid cell service and a working phone. He set it up for me, no problem.

After dropping my bags off at the room, and a quick nap thereafter, it was time to seek out dinner. I knew it was best to walk; I’m staying on the south side of Munich, and parking is scarce sometimes in the city. I started out at a place I’d seen on Google Maps, about a 10-15 minute walk away. Turns out, it was a restaurant on the upper floor of a store that seemed to be the German equivalent of IKEA. “KARE.” It appeared to be a fast casual, walk up and order kind of place. I couldn’t interpret what a single food item written on the chalkboard was, so I left. It’s the kind of place you go when you already know what you want. 

I walked another 20 minutes to my other option, a traditional German restaurant called Alter Wirt. I examined the menu that was posted outside, and again, didn’t understand a single thing that was on it. I shrugged, and went inside. “Hallo!” “Hallo. Sprechen sie English?” “Ah!” The host raised a finger, and then returned with a young lady who led me to a table. She sat down with me. “Hi, yes. I’m sorry, my English is not so good, but I do the best I can! I’m not sure how to explain all that is on the menu, so just tell me: what food do you like to eat?” I ended up with roasted pork, a potato dumpling, and a dish of slaw with a tomato on top. It was delightful. 

I was ignorant. I had heard and read that tips were mostly included in the bill in Germany. I had also heard that leaving a tip on the table could even be considered offensive. I tried to look up more info while I was at the restaurant, but my cell service was not good enough to do so. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I paid my bill and left. I found out while writing this article, that the custom if you are satisfied with your service is to offer a 5-10% tip when the server brings their change purse over to settles up your bill with you. She won’t see this, but the waitress at Alter Wirt deserves an apology; she was so gracious, and I didn’t respond appropriately. All I can do is learn from it.

Walking back to my AirBnB, I passed a grocery store. There is so much you take for granted being at home; you can always dash into any store and grab something. When you are traveling in another country, language, and culture, it isn’t so simple. I went into the store to buy some bottled water to keep in the car. I brought a pack and some dark chocolate up to the register. The cashier spoke a few phrases to me, and I didn’t understand anything he said. I didn’t want to bother him with asking to speak English, so I just nodded, paid, and thanked him with one of the few words I know. “Danke.” Did I come off as aloof? Rude? As a tourist? A foreigner? Dumb? Who knows? The cashier handled it with grace, regardless of the fact that I didn’t. 

I’ve spent one day in Germany, and it has already changed me in some way. Being in a place where you don’t fit in and you don’t speak the language humbles you. Quickly. Hopefully you noticed the common thread in the stories from today, though. And it’s kindness. Everyone I’ve met today has gone out of their way to help me, with a smile. I’m a foreigner. I don’t speak the language. I’m different. I don’t fit in here. And I’ve been graciously welcomed by everyone I’ve come in contact with. 

Something to think about, next time you run across a stranger that strikes you as different. Smile. Help if you can. Be welcoming. Way over on the other extreme, on the dark side of humanity, are Dachau and places like it. There are many differences between us, but we’re all members of the same human race at the end of the day.

Sprechen sie English?

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