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

molly

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.

metamora

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.

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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.

LOVE ALONE IS WORTH THE FIGHT.

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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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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