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.


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.


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.

30264899_923522282430_5344199906305245184_o(Photo by Joe Augustin/Achilles Tenderloin)

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.

18815033_10213228148207657_6183095127773434372_o.jpg(Photo by Steven Foster at the Firehouse BBQ & Blues: Mural by Pam Bliss)

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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Not Dead. Different.

Molly and I recently attended a networking event at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, and we got to speak to about ten different folks from the music industry. Some were involved with record labels, some were involved on the promotional side, but the message we received was clear. I’m paraphrasing, but it was along the lines of this; “blues is dying. Do something else.”

That’s an ironic statement to hear at an event sponsored by the Blues Foundation, but it’s also a worry in the minds of many artists, from more than one genre. I hear lots of stories about diminishing interest, shrinking crowds,and it doesn’t paint the most optimistic picture. But what those industry folks were saying is actually this; if you readjust the frame a little bit, you get a whole new perspective. A much brighter one.

I think it’s true that a lot of individual branches from the tree of American music are struggling, particularly the traditional forms of blues, bluegrass, jazz, gospel, and folk. But here’s the interesting thing; when you put them all together, into what I like to call roots music? Roots music is THRIVING. 

From my perspective, we’re living in a post-genre world. Folks that love music are no longer interested in just one thing, and they want to hear all of your influences and abilities. The first place I ever sang was my great grandma’s church, I grew up playing bluegrass, got into blues as a teenager, and then worked my way back through folk music. It makes all the sense in the world to combine my influences, but when I started touring, I thought I had to choose just ONE branch. That kind of thinking is born from a long gone era of A&R executives and corporate radio.

Justin Timberlake just released a new song from his upcoming album, “Man of the Woods.” It features Chris Stapleton, one of my favorite genre-bending blues/country/bluegrass/soul singers. When asked about the record, JT had this to say.

“It sounds more like where I’ve come from than any other music I’ve ever made… It’s Southern American music. But I want to make it sound modern – at least that’s the idea right now…

I think where I grew up in America has a lot of influence – Growing up in Tennessee— very central of the country — Memphis is known as the birthplace of rock & roll, but also the home of the blues, but Nashville’s right down the street so there’s a lot of country music.”

Sounds like a roots record to me. All of those concerns about diminishing interest? Not an issue for Chris Stapleton, or Jason Isbell, or Gary Clark Jr, or Sarah Jarosz, or Punch Brothers, or Shovels and Rope, or…fill in the blank.

This is good news. Chances are, you don’t just love ONE style of music. Why limit your audience and your own creativity to just one tiny space? The important thing as an artist is that your music has to sound like YOU. Be creative, passionate, and open to change, and you’ll find an audience.

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The Wilderness


So, a bit of backstory if you don’t know me. I play music for a living with my fiancee, Molly. We travel all over the place, and one of the most meaningful compliments we receive is just how happy we look. I was a solo musician before I met Molly, so as folks who were familiar with me get to know her, I’m hearing more and more comments about the difference in my personality. Something along the lines of; “you used to be a sad bluesman, but now, you look so happy and joyful!” Molly has been responsible for a lot of great changes in my life, and she does make me very happy, but I’d be lying if I said she was the only reason.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “wandering through the wilderness.” The Israelites had to do it for forty years before reaching the promised land. Jesus had to do it while he was tested and tempted, and I think we all have phases of our life where we have to go through a mental, spiritual wilderness. That’s where I was before I met Molly. I was coming out of a four year relationship that ended badly, and I felt like damaged goods. I was also at the lowest point of a multi-year struggle with my faith. I was carrying around a lot of biases and bitterness, pain and pride, and I just didn’t know what to believe. Michael Gungor (one of my favorite musicians) has talked about a moment where he was crying on the bathroom floor of a hotel, hundreds of miles from home, unsure of whether he could believe in anything anymore. That’s the wilderness.

The wilderness was where I spent much of the last few years. Wandering. Searching. Reaching. Struggling. I figured that God must have created us and decided to just let us go, careening off into the universe. But then, just a few days into 2017, I met Molly. She saw right through all of that brokenness on the surface. She and I both knew that she couldn’t fix it, but she challenged me in the right ways, pushed the right buttons to get me going in a different direction. Her grace and love got me to reexamine my biases and bitterness, and start to let go of all that pain and pride. God was reaching out for me the whole time, and I just couldn’t see it. I was too preoccupied with my own pain to let go of it. When it comes right down to it, I just had to get out of my own way. Jesus, as it turns out, loves broken people. Accepting that was the hardest part.

It took some time in the wilderness, but here we are. I’m grateful for all of it. So, if I seem happier, that’s true, but I wanted you to know the whole story. A lot of things can make you happy, if for a brief moment, and it’s easy to spend time chasing that spark of emotion. When we think about real, sustained happiness, I’m pretty sure we’re actually talking about gratitude. My friend Dean Phelps recently shared some wise words that his father passed onto him; “I have never know anyone who was grateful who was at the same time bitter or sniping or petty.” When I think back on those days in the wilderness, gratitude was missing.

I know that things won’t always go smoothly. Life is full of bumps in the road, some bigger than others. But with enough grace and love, I hope that I can face all of them with gratitude. If you’re going through your own wilderness, I wish the same for you.

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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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