Not In My Town

In a world mostly filled with good and decent folks, there are exceptions. I’ve had great experiences and met amazing people in my travels near and far, but history tells us that there will always be individuals who want to inflict evil and harm upon others. I think one of the defense mechanisms for a community is to hear about a shooting, or a hate crime, or any sort of awful thing and say…”that would never happen here! Not in my town!

I’m sorry, but yes. It can happen in your town, and the question is…how do we respond? This is something that Molly and I have both been faced with recently. In January of this year, there was a school shooting in Marshall County, Kentucky. The place where Molly’s paternal family is from, where her grandparents still live. In a sleepy town of 4,000 people, a 15 year old opened fire in a classroom and killed two other 15 year old students.

And then, yesterday. In Wayne County, Indiana, my home for all 26 years of my life, a teenager took a gun and shot his way into a Richmond middle school. Thankfully, the police received a warning call and put the school on lockdown before he arrived, and thankfully, the police were able to respond immediately. It could have been so much worse, though that’s probably hard to imagine for the family of the shooter who turned the gun on himself. They are left trying to process pain, betrayal, and loss during this holiday season.

I’ve sat through far too many arguments about gun control. I have friends on both ends of the spectrum; I know dedicated anti-gun activists, and I know loyal NRA members. I hang out with people who wouldn’t dare to touch a gun, and I hang out with people who carry one with them every day. All of them are great people. I’ve heard ALL of the arguments, and I’m simply not going to get into them in this post. If you have a strong opinion on guns, you might be getting angry just reading this paragraph. I respectfully ask that you bear with me.

We are so quick to argue. We rush to defend our positions, to prove our points, to compartmentalize people based on political or religious views. I think we sometimes forget about simple humanity. What drives a teenager to the point that picking up a gun and killing others (or themselves) seems like the best option? Isolation? Anger? Depression? Abuse? Perhaps a combination of all of these things. How often do we even consider the question before we fall back to our preset arguments and positions?

Over and over, we hear about these incidents on the news. And we do nothing to address the root causes, because “it could never happen here”, or “if we just ban guns, then they won’t be able to kill other people”, or “if we just arm the teachers, that’ll fix it!” When are we going to start asking ourselves the hard questions about the toxicity of our culture? About what sort of environment leads to violence in the first place? And, when are we going to start reaching across the boundaries of our differences, to make sure that our sense of humanity isn’t lost?

In Wayne County, the answer is now. I hope you’ll join me.

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Artwork by Molly Wallen

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It’s Not Dark Yet…

The holiday season is full of expectations. This year, it’s hard to escape the Amazon commercials that fill TV airwaves with singing boxes. “Can you feel it? The whole world’s coming together!” Ads selling everything from cars to clothes show happy families bounding down the stairs on Christmas morning to rip open packages full of joy. Of course, we should know that stuff doesn’t make you happy, but the expectation of happiness swirls around Christmas like those little particles in a snow globe.

Every year at Christmastime, I try to think about the others, the people not pictured in the Mercedes-Benz ad. The grieving son or daughter who has lost a parent. The broken heart of someone who’s relationship just ended. The stress and pain of being estranged from family. The weary soul fighting critical or chronic illness from a bed in a hospital or nursing home. And of course, the many people who just aren’t financially able to put those gift-wrapped boxes under the tree. I have a whole playlist of songs that I go to for that reminder.

Myself? I’m happy this Christmas. I’m blessed with a great family, wonderful friends, and good health. But I know that as the years go by, that may not always be the case, and I know it certainly isn’t the case for many. I’m glad that the music makers of the world recognize that sad and simple truth. One of Bob Dylan’s best songs is an ode to weariness, recorded in January of 1997. “Not Dark Yet” is pure poetry about a soul at the end of their rope.

I’ve been down on the bottom of a world full of lies
I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes
Sometimes my burden seems more than I can bear
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

In this season of long nights, let us not forget the story actually told by the Gospels. When Jesus made his entrance, it was into a broken world, and it was for those weary souls. Prostitutes, lepers, blind men, thieves…all manner of disillusioned and downtrodden people. He never promised happiness, shiny gift-wrapping, a new car, or even comfort. Hope doesn’t come with all of those trappings, especially if you can’t even hear the murmur of a prayer.

Don’t believe the advertisements. You don’t have to be happy this Christmas. Whatever you’re going through, know that you are loved, and that you don’t have to go through it alone. And if it’s getting darker, let someone know. We’ll bring a torch.

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Stop the Hate

From the Associated Press: “A man with the same name [as the shooter] posted on Gab before the shooting that “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

HIAS is a nonprofit group that helps refugees around the world find safety and freedom. The organization says it is guided by Jewish values and history.”

That isn’t fake news. That is hatred, fear, and evil. A man has killed 11 people in a house of worship, and it appears to be a hate crime in every sense of the phrase.

Let’s not make the mistake of dismissing this as the actions of a random “crazy person.” This crime was the latest in a long line of anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant atrocities, stretching across the eras.

And it’s an example of why we can’t be silent, why we can’t ever stop standing against hatred, division, and fear. The political climate in our country is dangerous. The lack of civility, the lack of respect for humanity, and the absolute lack of empathy is adding fuel to the fire for evil.

The discussion about immigration and refugees is a good example. It is absolutely possible to have differing ideas about how immigration laws and border enforcement should be approached without falling into the angry rhetoric, name calling, and fear mongering that surround the issue.

Everyone involved is a human being, and everyone would do well to remember that. The man who posted those comments on a social media site, picked up a gun, and killed 11 innocent people lost touch with humanity, and found other voices to encourage his hatred.

This is not a Conservative, Liberal, Democrat, or Republican issue. This is far greater than that. The last year of American history has seen white supremacists marching in the streets, massacres at concerts and high schools, and now this act of Xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

We must end it, by standing against hate with conviction and kindness.

“Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Room At the Table

I’m writing this from Ireland, because I’m on my honeymoon. My wife and I have always wanted to visit Scotland and Ireland, and we are very grateful to be here, particularly to get a break from the toxic political culture of the United States. It seems like everything turns into an argument back home, and it always seems to break down along party lines.

According to a recent AP poll, more than 80% of those surveyed think that the country is greatly divided, and 77% are dissatisfied with the state of politics. Isn’t that amazing? We can’t agree on anything, but we can somehow agree that we don’t like the political situation we find ourselves in.

Recently, the issue of sexual assault has been in the forefront of the news stream, thanks to the #MeToo movement and some very high profile cases. The accusations against Brett Kavanaugh and the subsequent frenzy on social media brought a lot of women I know to very dark places, because of the lack of humanity shown by people behind a keyboard. Victims of assault or harassment who were reliving bad memories were bulldozed by people looking to argue, and it seemed to quickly become a completely partisan issue rather than a human one.

For my part, as a musician, I don’t talk partisan politics. From the stage, or on social media. You won’t hear me stumping for one side or another. But I felt like I needed to say something to stand up for the victims in my life, especially with the issue of sexual assault so prominently in the news stream. So, I made a couple of posts on my personal page to remind people that sexual assault is wrong, it happens a lot, and we should all be considerate to folks going through a tough time because of their own experiences.

I was bewildered by what happened next. It turned into a partisan political argument! I started getting all sorts of “likes” from Democrats, while Republicans started getting upset with me. I started hearing that I should “stick to music” and stay out of politics. At no time did I advocate for one party or another. But in our political climate, everything turns ugly fast. I don’t care what’s going on around it; how messed up is our political climate when talking about sexual assault is a “side”?

What happened to us? When did everything become so sharply divided, each of us lumped all the way to one end of a narrow spectrum? I see so much hatred and anger in the way people argue with each other. The group of Christian brothers and sisters that I’m part of, Disciples of Christ, operate under a guiding principle that things are centered around the communion table. There is room for all sorts of different beliefs and backgrounds, so long as we can all meet at the table.

I’m wondering how many folks are willing to do that? It’s not as easy to insult someone or attack them when you aren’t behind a keyboard. In the midst of my posts about sexual assault during the Kavanaugh stuff, a good friend of mine who had a different perspective on some of the issues came to one of my shows. He didn’t skirt the issue; he approached me immediately, told me he was glad that we could disagree and have a conversation about it as friends and adults, hugged me, and told me he loved me.

That’s the only answer, folks. We have to put aside the anger, the bitterness, and the desire to push everything to one side or another. Life is complicated. Messy. Painful. That brokenness is it what makes us, for better or worse, and we need some humanity here. You can’t put an (R) or (D) next to your name and think it gives you license to hate everybody with the opposite letter attached. Listen. Have empathy for others. And above all, be kind.

Let’s make some room at the table.

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Starting Over

I’ve been playing music for the majority of my life, which is a crazy sentence to type. I picked up the guitar when I was 10, quit my day job and went full time at 19, and now I’m 26. I’ve been through several different transitions as a musician, starting out in church and bluegrass bands as a kid, and getting into electric blues and rock as a teenager. There are few things in life more terrifying, exciting, and liberating than starting over as a musician, and that’s where I find myself again.

When I met the woman who would become my fiancee, I knew that she was talented. You don’t spend your entire life singing and get a degree in vocal music education without having chops. But it took me a few months to realize just how our abilities could merge together to create something entirely different. Once we starting working on some tunes together, it became clear to me that we owed it to ourselves to explore this new direction. We started performing together about a year ago, and after a few months of building up to it, Molly quit her day job in November.

Up until that point, I’d been relying on a network of contacts I’d built up over seven years as a solo blues guitarist. I’m SO grateful for all of the people who have supported me in that field, from the International Blues Challenge to the Telluride Blues Fest to Europe and beyond. But even before I met Molly, I’d known that a change was coming. I started diving deep into the music of singer/songwriters like John Prine, Jason Isbell, Ryan Adams, and Jon Foreman. In addition, I found myself craving the music that I’d started out playing, the old gospel hymns of my childhood and the propulsive rhythm of bluegrass. When I found out that Molly shared a deep love for the same kind of music, I realized that an opportunity was right in front of us.

We took the first year to feel things out; to make a “soft” transition. I’m really glad we did, because there is nothing like experience when it comes to music. Playing shows, travelling, writing, and having great and awful nights are the only way to make progress. Gradually, we started to find our sound, to transition away from what I was doing as a solo artist and really become a duo. It isn’t ONE style of music, it’s our own blended up version of a bunch of them. Bluegrass, delta blues, gospel, folk, alt rock, country, foot stomping, storytelling, and singing. Call it roots music, Americana, or whatever you like.

It’s been challenging, but I really like the sound that Molly and I have found together. But now, we’ve reached the scary part, the jumping off point. We are truly starting over. I feel like that 19 year old kid again, turning in my two week notice and looking at a map of the world, not knowing where my journey would take me.

If you’d like to join us and be a part of this crazy ride, we welcome you with open arms, and we ask you to bear with us as we figure it out. Thank you to everyone who has supported me as a solo artist all these years and has already shown so much love and support to us.

-Brian of The Wallens

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Sufjan Stevens is a musical genius

As a performing musician, I try to cover artists that I truly love. John Prine, Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Doc Watson, and Ryan Adams are just a handful of the influential songwriters who I’ve attempted to pay tribute to during my sets. But of all my influences, I would consider Sufjan Stevens to be the most talented artist.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on Sufjan, but it’s apparent to me that his creativity knows few bounds. He has recorded over 100 Christmas songs, an electronic album inspired by the Chinese zodiac, two different “state-themed” albums about Michigan and Illinois, 18th century hymns, and a classical collaboration written entirely about the solar system. His most acclaimed work, and his best in my opinion, is a highly personal and painful record about his mother and stepfather, Carrie and Lowell. Wikipedia lists his genre as “indie folk/alternative rock/baroque pop/electronica”, and he plays everything from banjo to glockenspiel. He’s a classically trained oboist. He’s got range, in other words.

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My first extended exposure to Sufjan was this record. The dignity and grace that Sufjan gives to the people of struggling places like Flint by telling their story is striking. I was in after the very first song.

Sufjan is in rare company as a musician; he came out of the gate making some of his best music. Michigan is 15 years old now, and Sufjan was writing these songs at my age,  just 26 or 27 years old. His writing has gotten more refined and complex with the years, but the depth was always there. Age and experience have simply given him the ability to concentrate the emotional impact into an absolute gut punch, as with the the opening track on Carrie and Lowell.

Listen to that song, and you’ll know why I’ve yet to cover Sufjan. It would be incredibly difficult. Death With Dignity is so personal; his pain and loss is on display, for all of us to partake in. I downloaded the album to my iPhone, and listened to it on repeat when I flew to Germany last year. It’s a terrific soundtrack for travelling alone.

Despite his excellence, and despite an avalanche of critical acclaim and awards, popularity is not something that has really befallen Sufjan Stevens. Despite being on nearly every year-end “Best Albums” list, Carrie and Lowell only sold about 100,000 copies. (It was self-released on Sufjan’s label, Asthmatic Kitty.)  Perhaps he isn’t popular because he doesn’t care about popularity; by my estimation, Sufjan hasn’t made many artistic or business decisions based on anything other than doing what he wants to do.

While on a plane to Australia this winter, I watched Call Me By Your Name, the Oscar-winning film that Sufjan provided the majority of the soundtrack for. He was nominated for an Oscar himself, for a beautiful  song called Mystery of Love. He performed an abbreviated version of the tune during the awards ceremony with a backing band comprised of other immeasurably talented and-not-at-all-famous artists, like Chris Thile and St. Vincent.

As you can see, he wore a purple jacket with dragons on it. And by the way, he didn’t win the Oscar. I’m guessing he didn’t care. Not all heroes wear capes. Sometimes, they wear wings.

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Home in Wayne County

In case you don’t know me, I’m a singer, songwriter, and guitar player. I make my living from music, and I travel all over the place for my job. In the last few years, I’ve been to 43 states, 3 different continents, and covered over a million miles. No matter where the road takes me, I’m always really grateful to come back to my home in Indiana, Wayne County.

I didn’t always appreciate it; like most folks, I couldn’t wait to get out and see something different when I was first starting out. Fortunately, experiencing different cultures across the globe is a true benefit of being a professional musician. It also served to show me just how good we have it in the place where I grew up. I wanted to take a moment to highlight just a few of my favorite places and sights to see in the area.

Cambridge City

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Cambridge City is a vibrant little village on US 40, the Old National Road. Two large murals by Wayne County artist Pam Bliss serve as centerpieces in the framework of this historic town filled with antique shops. You can easily spend hours on a Saturday afternoon strolling from one historic building to the next. If all of that antique browsing works up an appetite, you could stop by the No. 9 Grill for a steak, or El Cazador for tacos. I recommend you grab an afternoon latte and ice cream at Main Street Sweets to top it all off.

My fiancee and I live just a couple of miles up the road in Dublin, and we never tire of driving down the hill to Cambridge. It’s simply wonderful.

Roscoe’s Coffee Bar and Tap Room, Richmond

Just 20 minutes from Cambridge City is the town of Richmond. There is a whole lot to like about this community, but the first thing I’d like to mention is my favorite coffeeshop in the world.

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I’ve sampled the Wiener Melange at Cafe Central in Vienna and had my share of delightful Flat Whites in Melbourne, but for me, it doesn’t get much better than a Cappuccino at Roscoe’s. They have two locations, one in the Historic Depot District, and one on the more commercial East Side. You can’t go wrong with either, but my personal favorite is the cozy East Side location, with its wall made from cassette tapes and outdoor patio.

New Boswell Brewery and Taproom

Speaking of the Historic Depot District, you can find another of my favorite places there, just down the street from Roscoe’s. Located in the old Jones Hardware building (which dates back to the turn of the 20th century), New Boswell serves up tasty craft beer and some of Richmond’s finest live music. The atmosphere strikes the perfect balance between historic and modern industrial. A large stage anchors one end of the building, with great views of the old train depot serving as the backdrop. Their weekly Monday night open mic is a particularly great community event.

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To me, the amazing thing about Richmond is that it has everything you could want from a big city, without any of the traffic-and-parking related hassles that can come along with that. Richmond offers a symphony orchestra, an art museum, a theater company, and tons of great local restaurants. Want BBQ? You can get it at The Firehouse BBQ and Blues. Farm-to-table fare? Just drop by the Kitchen at the Loft. How about Indian? Gulzar’s has you covered. Not to mention a health food store, a record shop, and all of the commercial shopping options you could ask for.

I haven’t even gotten into the terrific musical heritage of Starr-Gennett Records, a place where jazz titans like Louis Armstrong, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, and blues legends Big Bill Broonzy, Charlie Patton, and Blind Lemon Jefferson all recorded in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

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In the interest of brevity, I’ve only mentioned two cities. There is so much more I could have written about, which I hope will help to prove my point. When it comes to arts, culture, cuisine, and heritage, Wayne County has a great deal to offer. That’s why my fiancee and I chose to put our roots down here, and why we’d never want to live elsewhere.

It’s good to be home.

-Brian Keith Wallen

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