Austria!


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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München

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. 

Danke. 

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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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The Culture of Hate

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That’s Joe Bonamassa. By my estimation, he’s a great guitarist. I’m not his biggest fan, by any means, but I absolutely appreciate his talent. He has a clean and aggressive style of playing that sort of knocks you back in your seat. The most remarkable thing about him is actually his business acumen. He has built a massively successful career in music without the aid of a record label, radio airplay, or much in the way of promotion at all.

He has played Carnegie Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, and sold out thousands of shows all over the world. He represents the dream of every independent musician grinding it out on the road. And yet, he is one of the most hated men in the world within the Blues community. 

Search for his name on Facebook or Twitter, and you’ll find scorching comments by the thousands. This is a guy who has a charity foundation that invests a great deal of money and resources in helping kids get started with music. By all accounts, he’s a nice guy. But the hatred directed towards him on social media platforms is constant and poisonous. Why?


There is something about the anonymity of social media that empowers people in a strange way. Sitting behind a keyboard, a lot of folks seem to feel comfortable hurling expletives and insults at just about anyone. It doesn’t stop at the bounds of celebrity, either. There has recently been a huge spike in hate groups and messages on social media, according to the USA Today.

I hear many lament how “PC culture” has taken over, resulting in free speech being restricted. I don’t really see that at all. The irony is that it’s really the opposite; the internet has become one giant free-for-all, with people feeling empowered to spread insults and hatred in disturbingly common fashion.

My concern is the hatred spilling off of the screen and into “real life.” Maybe it starts with criticizing a musician you don’t like, but it’s a slippery slope. As a society, we seem to be more divided than ever. It’s way easier to surround yourself with people who are like you than it is to seek out others who come from a different background or culture. In fact, many of us go to great efforts to keep “others” away from us, sometimes without even realizing it.


Heineken recently took all of this on in a beautiful YouTube video that should give pause to all of us. I encourage you to watch it, because it greatly impacted me.

I write this blog post partially in hopes of pointing out some of these issues, and partially to hold myself accountable. The truth is, I think we’ve all been one of those haters at some point. I know I certainly have, and I’m not proud of it. But, I would hope that I’ll always be willing to sit down and have a coffee or a beer with someone who thinks differently than I do. That’s ultimately the kind of world I think we all want to live in.

Despite the best efforts of the internet warriors, Joe Bonamassa is still out there playing guitar. It would seem that hatred seldom ever solves anything, particularly the 140 character version.

Kindness matters. Open your world. Discuss. Think. Learn. I’ll be trying my best from here on out.

-BKW

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In Appreciation of Baseball

June 20, 2011. Yankees vs Reds. Great American Ballpark, Cincinnati, OH.

That was the first Major League game I ever attended. I think I ended up with tickets as part of a Tire Barn giveaway. At the time, I was dating a girl who loved the Yankees, so we had to go. I was always more of a football guy, and I hadn’t even glanced at a baseball game in years. Despite that, I couldn’t help feeling a little bit excited as we made our way into the stadium. There seemed to be a contagious energy in the air. I decided I was definitely going to root for the Reds.

The first thing we did was stop to buy a program. “I always get a program,” my baseball-savvy companion said. And so we did, and then proceeded to climb all the way to the top of the stadium. Our seats were in the very highest row of the View Level, but I didn’t mind. You get a great view of the river up there. While waiting for the game to start, I started thumbing through the aforementioned program. Being wholly uneducated about the Reds, I was surprised and delighted to read that the MVP of the league was on their roster. “Hey! This Joey Votto guy is really good!” I exclaimed.

So he was, and so were the Reds back then, but that night did not belong to them. The Yankees, courtesy of superb hitting from both Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano, won the game 5-3. Mariano Rivera closed it out in the 9th. But a spark was lit in the muggy Midwest air that night for me, one that would illuminate a path I’m still walking down.


I play music for a living, and there are many parallels between my job and baseball. For one, the schedule; the season is 162 games long, and I usually play anywhere between 160-180 shows in a year. The travel is another, with teams travelling anywhere from 25,000 to 45,000 miles in a season. As a touring musician, I was on the road for 50,000 miles last year. Another is the struggle and grind that players go through to make it. For every star like Rivera or Votto, there are hundreds of unknown guys in the minor leagues, working for minimal pay, all trying to make it to The Show. It’s a long road, and a lot of guys are in the minor leagues for 8 or 10 years before they “make it.”

I had the fortune of catching a few Spring Training games in Arizona this year, and I was struck by the immensity of it all. I was surrounded by prospects from all over the world, all working towards a singular goal. Some make it, many don’t, but there is nobility in the effort.


Back to 2011. My newfound interest in baseball just so happened to coincide with the beginnings of my career in music. I had spent the first part of the year working a regular job, and it made me absolutely miserable. But, Cincinnati offered an opportunity in the form of an event called the Cincy Blues Challenge. Not even a month before my first Reds game, I had gathered up my guitar, my insecurities, and my nerves, and put them all on the stage at Arnold’s Bar & Grill. Hoping for a chance. I got it, in the form of winning the competition.

That was May 22, 2011. The day before my 19th birthday. My journey as a professional musician started there, in the Queen City’s oldest bar. I went into work the next day, quit my job, and never looked back. It’s been all music ever since, and I’ve been working my way up through the system. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.


It’s taken me every bit of these past 6 years to gain a true appreciation for the beauty in baseball. I was angry and impatient as a teenager, and I didn’t have the perspective or patience to follow an entire season. Football, that adrenaline-filled sport where every game is life or death, was a better fit for my younger self.

So, I started out as a casual fan, and I grew a little bit with each passing year. I’m almost 25 now, and I’ve learned that the journey matters as much as where you end up at the end of it. A win is nice, but if you’re expecting one every night, you’re going to end up being disappointed a lot over the course of 162 games.

For the first pitch of Opening Day this year, I wasn’t in Cincinnati. I wasn’t at the parade, or glued to a TV in a sports bar. I was on the road, heading to my 45th show of the year. Scott Feldman got the start for the Reds; he’s a journeyman who’s been in the leagues since 2005. He’s played for 6 different teams. He’s lost more games than he’s won. He isn’t famous. They can’t all be.

The Reds lost to the Phillies on Opening Day, 4-3. I found out during sound check, and it was okay, because I knew there were 161 more games to come this year. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

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Going Back Home

Note: This post is about Singer-Songwriter Brian Keith Wallen’s new album, “Going Back Home.” You can listen to songs from the album and download it by clicking here.

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In the tradition of artists like Bon Iver, the Black Keys, and Sufjan Stevens repping their home states, I give you “Going Back Home.”

Indiana is my birth home, my foundation, the place that made me and supports me. The UP is my community home, the place where the people make me feel welcome and fill my heart with hope and belonging. Colorado is my spiritual home, where the mountains take away my troubles and the rivers give me peace.

I came up with the concept for the cover artwork before I even had all the songs; I knew I wanted to do the map of America, and the initial idea was to highlight each state where a song had been written. But as time went on, that vision evolved into wanting to highlight my “home states.” I reached out to Rachel Hart, who’s done all of my graphic design work for the last year, and she stunned me with the gorgeous cover you see above.

I feel drawn to all three of these states, and you’re likely to find me going back and forth between them at any given time. Let me take you song by song and tell you how they inspired me.


Crazy Beautiful World

I wrote this song in February 2016 in Marquette, MI. It snowed one night, about 7 or 8 inches. The next morning, I walked half a mile down to Lower Harbor. I gazed out into the fog hovering over Lake Superior and pondered life for a while. Here I am, in that moment.

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I could feel a song coming on, so I rushed back to my room, grabbed my Dobrato, and wrote Crazy Beautiful World. Suffice it to say, Lake Superior makes you feel a lot of things. (Side note: I ended up playing the Marquette Blues Fest at that very same place, Lower Harbor, in the summer. That was a cool moment!)

“When you get to to the edge of the earth, you’ll see how little you’re worth.”

Colorado

This song started in Indiana, in May, with this hook.

It evolved over time, and I tried a bunch of different lyrics. Nothing seemed to work particularly well. My friend Ted said the hook sounded “laid back and cruising”, and that gave me an idea of a travelling/road trip theme. I finally broke through with something in late August/early September, right before a trip to…you guessed it. Gareth, my bass player, really brought this song to life with his part.

“So I’m back on the road, and I’m going back home…to Colorado.”

Arkansas Blues

This song came to me in Fort Smith, AR in mid-April. I was on tour, and I’d lost two shows last minute. I put out a plea for help on Facebook, and my buddy Matt Dodd hooked me up with a show at a fantastic venue called R. Landry’s New Orleans Cafe. It has the coolest vibe; beads hanging up all over the place, a funky stage, crawfish and gumbo on the menu…

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It inspired me, so I grabbed my Dobrato, went outside, and started playing the hook for what would become Arkansas Blues. Like with Colorado, I shot a video of my initial thoughts and posted it on Facebook. My engineer/producer Corey came up with the idea of doing the stomp/clap pattern on the back half of the studio version. It gave it a whole different vibe!

Break Away

The origins of this one go back the furthest; I had lyrics floating around for this as far back as September 2015. I wrote the words in Colorado, and shelved it because I didn’t like the music. I finally came up with the right hook and music in January 2016, on a cold Indiana winter day. (In Elkhart, with snow on the ground.) It’s a ballad, a love song, which is unusual for me. It took me a while to get comfortable with it, but I really want to write more songs in this vein.

“We can cross that Mississippi River, where the cornfields turn to wheat…break away with me.”

Give Me Peace

I was on tour in Colorado back in June 2016, and I found myself stopped in one of my two favorite Colorado towns, Buena Vista. After eating lunch at Eddyline Brewery, I grabbed one of my Taylor guitars, walked down to the Arkansas River, and sat down on a bench. I looked around, and saw the river, the mountains, the trees, the sunshine…before long, a melody was ringing in my head. Fortunately, I had a guitar and my phone to record it. I finished the lyrics later, but the heart and soul of the song was birthed on that riverbank. I’ve got a picture from the moment.

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“I’m gonna sit here on the riverbank, and let the world pass my right on by. When the water starts to rise, I’ll let it wash the trouble out of my mind.”

More Heart, Less Attack

I knew I wanted to do a cover song on this record. But deciding which one proved to be difficult. I tried out a bunch of different things, and none of them felt right at all. It got to be the day before I was scheduled to go into the studio, and I was at a loss. Fortunately, my producer Alexis came to the rescue. She asked: “what’s the most meaningful song you’ve ever played?” This NEEDTOBREATHE tune popped into my head immediately. I’d covered it exactly once on a show, when an audience member asked me to play the most meaningful song I could think of. Ironic, right?

Corey, Alexis, and I came up with the arrangement pretty much on the fly. Like I said, I’d only played it once before! It ended up being one of those raw, spontaneous moments that I treasure. This is my favorite song on the record.

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

Turn the Lights On

This one started with the hook, that little acoustic guitar part you hear in the beginning. I started writing it in April 2016, right after I got back to Indiana from Memphis, TN. The lyrics took a long time to solidify, as did the whole feel of the song in general. I wrote it during a break-up, so that’s what it was initially about. After Merle Haggard and Prince died, it evolved into being about losing your favorite artist or band. The last line of the chorus references that feeling you get at the end of a show, when they turn the house lights on and it’s time to go home.

“What do you say when the end has come and gone? And left you waiting around for more, until they turn the lights on.”

Blues Train

This is the last song I wrote for the album, in October 2016. It’s directly inspired by an event called the Durango Blues Train, which I was fortunate enough to play back in June. The DBT is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in my life. It’s a steam-powered train that goes up into the Rocky Mountains, and twice a year they do a Blues Festival ON THE TRAIN. With a different artist in each car! It’s magical, and I feel so fortunate to have played it.

“There’s rhythm in the rails, and the whistle wails and moans…so fill up your cup, and let the blues train take you home.”

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Grateful Heart

Of all the songs on the record, I felt it was the most important to get this one right, and it wasn’t easy. The initial melody and lyrics came to me in July 2016 as I was driving down the road in West Virginia. I had to pull over in Beckley and grab a guitar and my phone to record the idea. I messed around with it over the span of a couple months, and nothing felt right at all. It had multiple verses initially, and it felt really clunky.

I met up with my brother Dean Phelps in Denver later on in September, and pulled it out while jamming with him one evening. All of a sudden, everything kind of came into focus. I pared the song down to a single verse and chorus, and Dean’s additions and input on guitar really helped me point the song in the right direction. We went into the studio, and our version of it ended up on our EP collaboration, Mountain Roads.

I loved that version, but once I had all the other songs together for Going Back Home, I knew it needed a bit of a different feel to fit on this project. Alexis suggested I slow it way down, do it fingerstyle, and bring in another one of my friends and brothers, Randy McQuay, to play harmonica. He gave it just the right feel, and you can really hear his personality on what he played.

“Whenever trouble comes my way, I pray a grateful heart will lead the way.”


So, that’s a more detailed look behind the songs and the production of “Going Back Home.” I could NOT have done this without my creative team; Corey Miller at the Lodge studios, Alexis Klosinski, Rachel Hart, Dean Phelps, Randy McQuay, and Gareth Somers, who all contributed in significant ways. I look forward to working with them on many more projects in the future.

“Going Back Home” means more to me than anything I’ve ever done. I put everything I had to give into it, and I hope that shows when you listen to it.

You can download the album for $5, or get a physical copy for $10 by clicking here. Thanks for reading.

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Most People Are

It’s been a crazy week, yeah? I spent Election Day in a hotel in Conway, Arkansas, which I booked just so I could watch the election results after my gig. Regardless of result, I had hoped the end of the night would also be the end of the hatred and divisiveness swirling around this campaign season. I was surprised, and not in a good way, to see people doubling down on it all over social media the next day. It was practically inescapable.

I won’t lie, it started to get me down. I felt a weariness deep within me, one that I know was shared by lots of other folks. News of protests and riots and hateful messages sprayed on buildings began to emerge. The finger pointing and arguments between both sides reached a fever pitch. My favorite radio host, Dan LeBatard, asked a half-joking question that got to the heart of things. “Is America more divided now than it was during the Civil War?” Despite all that, I couldn’t stay discouraged for very long. Because this is how my election week looked.

Monday, I played a set at Red Brick Bar in Oklahoma, and then got to take part in a jam session with five or six super talented musicians, who welcomed me into their group without hesitation. There were a whole lot of positive vibes in the room that night; everybody just playing their heart out.

Wednesday, I was welcomed into Hot Springs, Arkansas by Larry Womack, who hosted me as a guest on Blues night at the Ohio Club. He let me sit in with the band, do my own set, and then take part in what became a big jam session at the end of the night. And then, put me up at his house.

Thursday, I drove over to Fort Smith, where I was welcomed by Matt and Jackie Dodd, friends I met at the International Blues Challenge. They let me stay at their house every time I come through. Got some more jamming in with Matt and his band.

Friday and Saturday, I was welcomed to Fayetteville by Larry Brick and Rachel Fields, who are terrific musicians that I’d never met before. Larry Womack called and arranged for me to stay with them. Not only did they give me a place to sleep, they also fed me and gave me a tour of all the cool places in town.

It was Saturday I had the epiphany. I called my parents to let them know that I was coming home the next day, and I told my dad, “I’ve stayed with musicians almost every night this week. We get bad press sometimes, but musicians are all pretty good people.” He responded, most people are. It was a reminder at exactly the right moment. It’s the same story that I’ve been telling this whole year, the foundation of my new album. And yet, for a minute there, I lost myself.

It’s so easy to forget all the good things right in front of us. Is there ugliness along the edges? Yes. Are there real problems we have to face, and wounds we have to heal in our country? Yes. But I know this; music can do it.

And most people? Still good people.

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