Friday, January 29, 2010

How it all began

Pretty sure no one is tuning in to this station, so I'll just blather on about music. I wrote a pretty serious memoir back in the late 1990's and a great deal of it concerns music and songwriting. So, I'll go back to the beginning (at least the guitar part of the story) and snip out some extracts from the memoir and pass them along when I don't have anything new to say. This part starts in 1977 in the City of Chicago, after having quit my job and then taken a 6 week journey through England, Scotland, Ireland and Paris.


When I got back from Europe, somehow I got pointed in the direction of the Old Town School of Folk Music (perhaps my mother told me about it, I'm not sure). I signed up for the first class available after my return and the rest is almost history. Practically the first thing that they teach you is how to tune your guitar. Then they teach you how to play Row, Row, Row your Boat and Go Tell Aunt Rhody and a lot of other old chestnut songs that you can play with one or two chords. I took lessons until sometime in 1980, but after a while I began learning mostly from watching other people perform.

I met Terry and Ed in March of 1978 when I began the third set of classes at the Old Town School. Terry was a psychologist, working at IIT at the time, who was a big ham and wanted to be a Rock 'n Roll star. He was a big Elvis fan which should have turned me off right there, but they were both good guys. Eddie was a pharmacist. We didn't know it at the time, but Eddie was on some pretty serious anti-depressants. He had problems with women and also with his family, and both were tearing him apart on the inside, but he seemed like such a nice guy.

The first session we took lessons together was on a Saturday morning. We started going out to lunch occasionally and started to become friends. We were all pretty serious about learning the guitar and were at about the same level. The next session we took was on a Wednesday evening and that was really the beginning of our deepening relationship and an even more serious turn towards the music. There was an open stage on Wednesday nights at this little club a few blocks from the school and a large group of folks would go there and hang out and play after the lessons were over (maybe around 9:30).

Our teacher at that time, and for a long time after, was Bill Hanson. Bill was a country music fan who had a little group that would play regularly at the Single File on Wednesdays. None of us really liked Country music all that much, but Bill was an okay guy and we learned a lot of popular music from him. Our playing was beginning to improve dramatically and we started practicing together more. Ed eventually picked up the bass and started to perform with Bill and his group. Terry and I finally got up the nerve to get up and play a couple of songs at the File. I think originally it was mostly Terry, with me just hanging in there. Being a natural ham, he was infinitely more comfortable on stage than I was.

We performed together maybe one or two times and then Terry decided that he wanted to do things on his own(probably play Elvis songs). I started to practice my singing more and fortified by about a six pack, I began trying to play at the stage all by myself. The first time, in the summer of 1980, I was so nervous that I forgot the words to whatever song I was singing(I think it was Part of the Plan by Dan Fogelberg). It wasn't a glorious beginning.

Alvin, another teacher at the school, who was at the time the host of the Open Stage, took me aside after one of those early attempts and told me that I really should be working with Terry. He talked about how I had no stage presence, but had the makings of a good solid musician and Terry had the charisma, but needed some grounding. I thanked Alvin for the advice, but told him that it was really Terry's idea to split up, and that if I was going to get better at performing then I'd have to do it alone (at least until I found someone else to work with). I want to say that this was sometime in 1979, but it may have been late 1978.

Alvin, who knew a million songs, but wasn’t that great a performer, was disappointed. I'm sure he didn't want me taking up valuable space on his list of Wednesday night performers. But I persisted, and Terry persisted at doing his own thing and eventually we started to get reasonably good at it.

Sometime in 1979, Mike Blackburn appeared in the classes that we were taking and joined us at the Single File and later at other clubs. Mike was probably a better player than any of us and was good on stage. He'd actually lived off playing for a while in Florida when he was just out of college. He was also a cop, but a good guy none the less.

I started writing songs not long after I began playing. One of the reasons was that I didn't entirely see the point of singing and playing songs that "professional" musicians had already done better than I ever would. I wasn't much of a singer in those days. I was too afraid to open my mouth when I got outside my living room. The first two songs that I wrote, which were quite forgettable and not very musical or poetic, were Plutonium Meltdown Blues and I want to be a Spaceman (I wonder if I even still have they written down anywhere?).

I took a songwriting class at the OTS in the fall of 1978 and it was during this class that I wrote the first two songs that I still perform: The Psychologist Song and Miguel's Song. The seminar was taught by Bob Gibson (who died in 1996 in his early 60's). We started out having to write a song about the American Dream and after a few weeks, Bob didn't think it was going too well, so he had us try to write a song based on one of the stories in Working, by Studs Terkel.

I wrote Miguel's Song in the way that is somewhat typical of my songwriting. I began playing around with a chord change that I had recently discovered (A major 7 to A7 suspended 4th) and I liked the way it sounded. About a week later, I was walking home from class at the OTS. It was December and pretty cold, with a bright moon. I was passing the Lincoln Park Conservatory, watching my cold breath, when one of the phrases from the song came into my head. Then a few more came.

I picked up my pace to get back to my apartment more quickly. The walk from Fullerton to Diversey is long enough on a cold night, but with a song bursting into one's head, it must have seemed like an eternity. All I remember is that when I got home, I put the words down and polished them up in less than an hour. It might've taken me a few days to get the music straightened out, but I knew that the chord change I'd been playing with would play a prominent part.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

It's never too early...

I'll be performing next at Buzz Bakery, 901 Slaters Lane in Alexandria on Monday, February 8th and I could really use your support...

That's in about two weeks. Don't worry, I'll remind you more than once. Yes, it's a school night and it's also the day after the Super Bowl. Two strikes against it. But I'm practicing hard and expect it to be a very good show.

Adios for now.

Monday, January 25, 2010

On to the Super Bowl

Go Saints... as a musician, I can't see how anyone could root against New Orleans. Bourbon Street, French Quarter, Mardi Gras, Jazz, gumbo and etouffe. I mean, even Peyton Manning should be rooting for the Saints in his heart of hearts.

Lets not even talk about Katrina, but certainly that's a subtext of this. Lest we forget about the horrors of 2005, they are replaying about 500 miles Southeast in Haiti the last couple of weeks.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Buy Direct

Crass Commercial Announcements. You can now buy my CDs and Cassettes directly from my web site and use your Credit Cards (or Paypal)....

Check it out at:

Jim's Ordering Page.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Stephen Bruton

The other night, Jeff Bridges won a Golden Globe for Acting in the new movie Crazy Heart, the story of a broken down Country singer trying to make a comeback. I hadn't really heard of the movie until a couple of weeks ago when the Washington Post ran an article and interview with the Director. As it turns out, the musical director for the film was Stephen Bruton, who also composed some of the original songs with T-Bone Burnett. This was one of Stephen's last projects before his untimely death last May.

I first became aware of Stephen when he produced Jimmie Dale Gilmore's album After Awhile and other albums by Austin artists. He had moved to Austin about the same time that I did, but I really didn't know much about him and other than the songs he produced, I really never did learn much about him, or even hear him play.

That changed a few years ago, when Laura and I visited Austin and stayed with one of our good friends who suggested that we all go to the Saxon Pub (little dive on South Lamar where I had played a couple of times in the late 80's and early 90's) on Sunday evening to hear a little pickup band called the Resentments. They did a weekly show at 7 pm (very early for Austin) and packed the place. The cover was a ridiculous $5. The show was great. The Resentments were basically, Stephen, Jon Dee Graham, Jud Newcomb, and Bruce Hughes, although they weren't always there. They would trade lead vocals, pass the bass around, switch between acoustic and electric. Stephen would pull out the mandolin for some songs and then kick ass on electric lead. I bought a few of his albums and albums by the Resentments (and downloaded others - legally!!!).

We visited Austin again last spring and made another trip to the Saxon Pub. Stephen was noticeably frail and wore a hat throughout the evening. The music was still wonderful, though perhaps Stephen did less of the singing and was more in the background (or maybe that's just hindsight). A couple of months later he was gone. So, here's some of the stuff that I didn't know. Stephen went to high school in Fort Worth with T-Bone Burnett and after college began playing guitar for Kris Kristofferson, which he did for many years before moving to Austin. He's recorded a bunch of records on his own. Last year he played guitar on Kris' most recent album, wrapping production a couple of weeks before his death. Check out some of his songs on iTunes. I particularly enjoy Bigger Wheel, The Clock, Nobody Gets Hurt (Resentments) and more when they pop up randomly on my iPod.

And check out Crazy Heart as well. See if Jeff Bridges and the movie makers have captured the flavor of Austin music. We're looking forward to seeing it when we have a chance.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Last Night

Good evening. Jammin Java has a really nice, big, professional stage with black curtains behind you and a very good sound system (although the monitors were too hot for my taste and I never think to tell the sound man to adjust). I deviated from the set list I posted the other day a little bit. I substituted Thorns that Guard the Rose for I'm not the One (it just wasn't happening when I was practicing) and added a fifth song, The Moon is Shining Up Above, to close the set. I think it went well, but it's always hard to tell (especially since Laura didn't come along, so she couldn't provide feedback on the sound and audience reaction). Not as much feedback as the last showcase. I think I did a really good job on The Gravedigger's Song. There was also maybe a little rust, since I haven't played much since before Christmas. A few gaffes that I hopefully covered up pretty well. Definitely need to practice some more in the next few weeks for my gig at Buzz on Feb 8th.

Some very good musicians were there performing. The guy before me, I think his name was Dan Cahill, played a cover of Purple Rain which he seemed to pull off pretty well. I didn't really catch much of his set, since I was in the back tuning up and limbering up my fingers. Then there was Mateo Monk, who does this very interesting one man band thing with looping, so he lays down some guitar, then adds a bass part, then either plays some lead guitar over it or puts down his guitar and plays some flute. Then there was a guy named Dan Fisk, who announced to the room that this was his first night as a truly "professional" musician - quit the day job and doing music to make a living. We'll check back and see how well that goes. He was a very good guitar player, interesting dynamics. I didn't really get his songwriting for the most part. Seemed a little incoherent and disjointed, but maybe that's just me. Then there was a woman with a very good voice playing some bluesy piano with a little help from the host (Ron Goad) on percussion and a guy named Sol on electric guitar. There was a very young guy named Owen Danoff, who was quite good. It's usually hard to follow songs the first time you hear them, but my overall impression was that the songs were well thought out and definitely well executed.

The night ended with a jazz, blues, reggae jam with Sol on electric guitar and vocals, Mateo contributing some lead guitar, color, and flute, the woman added some backup vocals, Ron on percussion, and a fellow that I also didn't catch the name of on piano (he also sang a blues song). As always, Ron was a very gracious host.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Showcase Gig, Monday January 11

I'll be performing a short set (maybe 20 minutes) at Jammin Java in Vienna next Monday night as part of a showcase run by host Ron Goad. The show starts at 7 pm and I'll be on about 7:45. For this set, I intend to dig quite deep into the catalog; back to the beginning in fact.

I started learning to play the guitar in the late 70's when I was living in Chicago after graduating from college and dropping out of Graduate School. I took lessons at Chicago's famous Old Town School of Folk Music. After lessons a group of us would often walk a few blocks over to a bar called the Single File, which had an open stage on Wednesday nights. When I started to perform there, it was with a couple of classmates, Terry Shapiro and Ed McCarthy. If we were lucky, Alvin (the host and a teacher at the OTSFM) would let us play around midnight. Terry was pretty much the front man, since he was the ham and Ed and I were both pretty shy. We would practice together some on weekends. I can't recall how long this lasted, but eventually it got pretty difficult to find time to practice (or perhaps we were all losing interest), so I started performing on my own at the open stages.

Alvin took me aside one night and pleaded with me to get back together with Terry, since I'd never make it on my own. Besides, Alvin explained that I had the musicianship and Terry had the stage presence, so we really needed each other. I said that he was probably right, but it just wasn't working out. Anyway, Alvin relented and let me play after midnight and eventually I got more comfortable and the rest is mostly unrecorded history. Soon after this, I started to get a little bored playing cover songs and thought I should really try to write my own songs. I had written poetry in high school and college, so I didn't think it would be such a stretch (except for the music).

So I enrolled in a six or eight week songwriting seminar at the OTSFM which was being taught by Bob Gibson (NOT the famous Cardinals pitcher). Bob had started hanging around at the School, doing some performing (this was 1978). I didn't really know much about the history, but Bob was a pretty big deal in the late 50's and early 60's before drugs and alcohol derailed his career (I really didn't know any of this at the time, other than his being a "famous" folk singer in the 60's). He'd met Pete Seeger in the early 50's and quit his job to learn the banjo (and 12-string guitar) and become a folk singer. He'd been a mainstay at the legendary Gate of Horn (Chicago folk club, long gone by the time I was living there) both solo and with his sometime partner Hamilton Camp.

During the seminar, I wrote the first two songs that I still perform. The first was a song called "The Psychologist Song", which is the only song I ever wrote about my mother. Terry was also a Psychologist in real life, so it was sort of dedicated to him. I don't remember that much about the content of the seminar and only a few pieces of Bob's wisdom. He did ask all of us to read Studs Terkel's book Working and write a song based on one of the stories. I chose the story about a Gravedigger and wrote "Miguel's Song" for the assignment. Actually, it started to write itself as I walked home from the OTSFM one clear, cold night (from Armitage to Diversey) in the bright moonlight. I remember walking past the Lincoln Park Conservatory as words started to tumble around in my head, shifting the guitar from one hand to another as it got too heavy to carry. When I got home, the words tumbled out on paper in about 20 minutes and some chord changes that I'd been playing around with for a couple of weeks seemed to fit it perfectly (AMaj7 - A7sus4).

As I mentioned, I was pretty shy about performing at that time, so I never got up the courage to play either of the songs for Bob and the class. I did show the lyrics to a couple of my classmates and they seemed to think they were pretty good and eventually I started to perform them at the Open Stages. A couple of years later I took another shorter songwriting seminar with Bob and that time I did play him a song, "I'm not the One", which he was not that impressed with, although it won me a spot in the finals of the Kerrville New Folk competition about a decade later. The last song I plan to sing was written considerably later, but still has a connection to Bob Gibson. At the time I was taking his songwriting seminar, I was trying to learn one of his songs (by ear) and was having trouble figuring out one of the chord changes. So I asked Bob about it one time when I ran into him before class. Bob picked up a guitar and played the section for me, teaching me the diminished chord in the process. For years I tried to figure out how to use the chord in a song and finally did in my song "I want to live Forever".

Bob continued to live in Chicago, touring in the 80's with Tom Paxton and Anne Hills as Best of Friends. He died in 1996 from a neurological disorder similar to Parkinson's disease.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Back at Work

First day back at work after the holidays (actually, I worked a few days each of the last two weeks, but it seems like forever that I'd been out). I was listening to my iPod on shuffle on the bus and had a good mix of classic rock and a few other personal favorites (John Lennon, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, the Beatles, Jimmy LaFave, Richard Thompson, Bruce Cockburn, and Paul Simon (solo)).

I'd like to talk a little bit about Jimmy LaFave here. Jimmy moved to Austin just about the same time that Laura and I did. I first heard him play at the Open Mike at Chameleon's in January of 1986 (can it really be 24 years ago!!!!). That night (with guitarist extraordinaire Gene Williams at his side), he did his songs Only One Angel ("in hopes that you could hear that sound, in streams of magic colors painted across the ground") and Minstrel Boy ("where roman candle people explode across the night so beautifully"). Both are personal favorites, along with Deep South 61 Highway Blues ("I've been everywhere baby, but I've never been nowhere with you") and many more. It took a few years for Jimmy to put the right band together and really break out, but he's now almost (if not) an Austin institution. He's recorded quite a few CDs, including at least an album's worth of Bob Dylan covers. He played at a Woody Guthrie tribute at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (where he reportedly shared the stage with Bruce Springsteen and other luminaries). He's played at Folk, Rock and Blues festivals across the country. He's played at the Kennedy Center Millenium Stage. He's played in Europe. His music has maybe acquired a bit more of a country edge as the years and the miles have rolled along (or so it seems to me from the CDs). Unfortunately, we haven't had the chance to hear him perform live in several years. I caught him at an acoustic showcase he did at the Birchmere a few years back (with Tish Hinojosa, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Terry Hendrix), but he's been on the road the few times we've been back to Austin.

Anyway, back in the late 80's, he and I and Betty Elders (there I go, name-dropping again) shared rotating hosting duties at the Open Mike at Austin's Chicago House. We shared the stage a few times and it was always a treat. Wherever you are today Jimmy, here's to "rolling down the highway in the neon night."

Just read on Betty's page that Glynda Cox, one of the proprietors of Chicago House, died last January (about a week before my dad died, though she was quite a bit younger). I hadn't kept up, especially after Chicago House closed and then after we left Austin, but if the world has been a little less bright this past year (and who would argue that it hasn't been), then that is one of the reasons.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

It's a Brand New Year

No whining about cold and snow this year. It is cold out though (for DC). It's not supposed to reach 30 today and will stay in the low to mid-30's all week. But it's supposed to be dry. Almost all of the snow from the great blizzard is gone, except for the large mounds of snow that the snow plows left. There's a huge one in the development behind us that blocks half the street. Not sure why the neighbors (and businesses) don't tidy up. The first picture is our deck the day after the snowstorm. The second picture is over Christmas weekend (about a week later). The mounds are continuing to disappear, but as you can see, the grass was completely visible...

We've made our plans for a Cancun getaway in late February (17th-24th) at Sun Palace (check it out at Should be great (again). Come and join us! Unless I get hauled off for starting another brawl at karaoke night (who would have thought that Norwegian Wood would have been so incendiary)...