Semi-hillbilly and proud of it

When I three years old, my mom passed away. When I was six, my dad packed up his four kids (ages 9, 8, 6 and 4) and moved us from uber-urban Jersey City, New Jersey to really rural Hagarville, Arkansas. (Population: 300 if you count the cows.)

I like to call it a “reverse Beverly Hillbillies.” (Culturally, anyway… we never were rich.) I guess my dad wanted to get a fresh start of sorts.

I vividly remember the first day we went to our new home in Arkansas. The property was bordered on one side by a dirt road, and on another side by a cow pasture. There was a propane tank near the driveway… I thought it was a submarine. I got burrs in my socks from walking in the ankle-high weeds, and had no idea what they were. In some ways, I felt like I’d landed on another planet.

Like this, only with more chicken coops next door.

We gradually adjusted… I adopted the University of Arkansas Razorbacks as my college sports team, and I even had a slight Arkansas drawl when I moved away to go to college in Cincinnati.

But the “Land of Opportunity” never quite felt like home, mainly because we were “Yankees” and had no relatives within 600 miles in a place where so many of the ties that bind have to do with close kinfolk.

“Seems the land of opportunity for me is just a curse” – John Hiatt in “Tennessee Plates”

However, it was a good place for four motherless kids to grow up. We could be what I like to call “free range children.” Hiking, biking, fishing… exploring the world without adult supervision and learning more about self-reliance.

I’ve only been back once since 1985. Dad’s long gone, my siblings live elsewhere, and the house is slowly being reclaimed by nature (watch out for the burrs!). “There is no there there” as Gertrude Stein famously said.

But I still have a soft spot in my heart for The Natural State. It’s where I went from a boy to a… er, boyish man (and not a “Mannish Boy”).

So when I heard a new tune called “Arkansas” by Chris Stapleton, I got excited. Especially because it rocks.

When I worked as a lifeguard for a couple summers at the city pool in Morrilton, Arkansas, the city employee who managed the pool would switch the radio station playing on the P.A. system from rock to country… and I’d raise holy hell. I remember him telling me “when you get older, you’re gonna like country music.” I still don’t care for mainstream country music (a.k.a. “bro country”) at all, but Stapleton’s not mainstream.

“Arkansas” is on Chris’ new release, which is really good from start to finish. The album is called Starting Over. That reminds me of Arkansas too.

The Tom Petty Diet

You hear a lot about “eating clean” these days.

But what are you feeding your brain? Check out this clip from the Broken Record podcast — it’s an episode with Tom Petty’s daughter Adria, and she talks about how her dad fed his brain and nourished his soul:

I love that clip! First of all, I love Tom Petty, and I think this clip helps explain how he was able to continue to make great music for 40 years.

“He would feed the well with only this really, really good information, and take all the rest away. He didn’t really take a lot of noise and negativity into his diet.”

Adria Petty, talking about her father Tom

[Semi-sidebar: The Broken Record podcast is great if you’re a music fan. You’ll find interviews with established artists like Bruce Springsteen and Santana, and up-and-coming artists like S.G. Goodman and Deep Sea Diver. If you’re a Tom Petty fan, you’ll love the episode with Adria, as well as the interviews with Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench. Check it out.]

Even if you’re not an aspiring rock star, there’s a lot to learn from TP on how to “eat clean” for your mind, your heart and your soul. It’s way too easy to binge on empty calories… endlessly snacking (or doomscrolling) on tweets, spending hours at the all-you-can-eat Facebook buffet, sucking down pop culture listicles, stuffing yourself with “reality” TV, bellying up to the 24/7 news bar. There are countless temptations that can consume endless hours of your time on earth, and they mostly just weigh you down with “noise and negativity” as Adria put it.

Instead, take a cue from Tom Petty, and read a good book, watch a classic movie or a documentary, listen to some great music.

If you eat clean, you’ll feel better.

Write, right?

“It’s the cheapest psychiatry there is. I love writing; it takes a lot off my shoulders. Everyone should write. There’s no way you can lie to yourself; you can try, but you know better. When you get it down on paper, it’s like you’ve taken off a load and you feel lighter. Confession is good for the soul; at least it is for my soul.”

Billy Joe Shaver

“Outlaw country” singer/songwriter Billy Joe Shaver passed away Wednesday at the age of 81. He led an interesting life for sure. This article from Paste provides a nice overview.

There was a lot of heartache too – especially losing his song Eddy, a great guitarist and his bandmate in Shaver, to the scourge of heroin.

Eddy died of a heroin overdose on New Year’s Eve, 2000. The father had a hard time surviving that blow, but as he did with all his crises, he wrote his way out of it. He turned that impossible pain into the elegiac song, “Star in My Heart,” that he sang at every show the rest of his life.

From the Paste article linked above.

Billy Joe Shaver has left us, but thanks to the writing he did, he’s gonna live forever.

Music that mattered. People who cared.

Matt Berninger is a singer and songwriter, best known as the frontman for The National, a group he formed with two pairs of brothers (Bryan and Scott Devendorf, plus identical twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner). All five of them hail from Cincinnati. Matt has a new solo album coming out this Friday. You can read more about that here and here. (Sidebar of note: the album artwork was done by my friend Dale Doyle – you may remember him from this post, when he was “downsized” by the ad agency where he worked for 23 years. What a difference a couple of years makes!)

Artwork by Dale Doyle

Growing up in Cincinnati, Matt tuned in to a tiny station with an even tinier transmitter, broadcasting from 35 miles northwest of the city, in Oxford, Ohio. 97X (WOXY-FM).

From the November issue of Uncut magazine

Nearly four decades ago, Brian Eno made a now-famous statement about The Velvet Underground in particular, and gratification in general:

“I was talking to Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet, that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band! So I console myself in thinking that some things generate their rewards in second-hand ways.”

Brian Eno in the Los Angeles Times, 1982. Source.

I’d like to think a similar concept holds true for 97X, where I worked for a few years in the late 80s and early 90s. The station only had about 3,000 listeners, but everyone who tuned in was a true music lover. Not all of them started a band (although Matt did), but to a person, they were folks who cared deeply, profoundly, sometimes rabidly, about the music. It wasn’t just about the artists, it was about the community that formed around that music… the “tribe” in Seth Godin parlance. Many listeners grew up misfits and outcasts in “normal” society. At 97X, they found a home, a place where they truly felt like they belonged.

You hear a lot about diversity and inclusion these days – it was baked right into the station’s programming. 97X ran the gamut of “modern rock” – jangle pop, punk, goth, singer-songwriters, grunge, you name it… with specialty shows for blues, reggae, dance, industrial, metal, and local music. If it was new, if it was different, it probably got played. We’d always err on the side of the listeners’ ears – play it and let them decide, not us. To be a 97X fan was to be open-minded, tolerant, adventurous, liberal in the broadest definition of that word.

All of this helps explain why, more than 16 years after the terrestrial station went off the air, and a decade after the internet version died, 97X still holds a special place in a lot of people’s hearts. There’s a FB group called WOXY Forever. There’s a monthly playlist of new music on Spotify, compiled by dedicated listeners who never lost the joy of discovery that was inculcated by 97X.

There are college professors who give speeches about it. There are listeners who have painstakingly recreated countless hours of playlists, and archived each year’s “best of” and the “Modern Rock 500” (a Memorial Day countdown of the top 500 songs). It’s why Dave Tellmann (who worked at 97X for a decade) and I do a podcast about 97X (shameless self-promotion: it’s available on Podbean, Spotify and Apple podcasts).

The fact that Matt Berninger developed his musical tastes listening to 97X is super-cool. But I’m just as thrilled about all the other listeners who made 97X their station. We were all part of a small but mighty band… and we’re still focused on “the future of rock and roll.”

Bursting your news bubble.

Brett Newski is an indie musician. (Or, per Wikipedia: Brett Newski is a North American nomad, songwriter, illustrator, and folk punk guitarist from New Berlin, Wisconsin.) Times are tough for musicians these days, especially the nomadic types. Brett played a very entertaining house concert at the home of my friends Dave and Jacqui, back in the Before Times when house concerts were still a thing. I sure miss those days.

Brett’s newsletters aren’t the cut from the same cloth as most musician’s. They’re deeper, wider, not so much music-centric as life-centric. A recent one really hit home for me – I think you’ll find some wisdom in it as well:

If there’s one thing we can agree on as people, it’s that politics really suck. 
I don’t care how divided we are right now, deep down we want to be buddies. 
It breaks my heart to see us at odds based on what political team we are on.   
We have more in common with our fellow citizen than we do to Trump or Biden. 
The old white guys in the control tower of politics want us to be at odds. If we are at each other’s throats, it makes it very easy for these old white guys to run the show. 
Right now, the big guys are winning. They’ve got us emotional and angry and scared and confused. That’s what they want. But we don’t have to keep drinking their poison. 
A small boost to healing is this…
Seek out those on “the other side” and chat them up, but not about politics.
If you see a man in a red Trump hat, chat em up about sports or recreation or the nice park you’re standing in together. If you see a purple-haired fedora wearing liberal, chat them up about Modest Mouse or community-farming or whatever feels right in the moment. 
I did this for 3.5 hours on the beach yesterday. I swear it injected positive echoes between the 10-12 people I talked to. Those echoes will reverberate into their future interactions too. It’s a spiderweb of productive energy. Maybe this sounds tiny and insignificant, but it beats sitting in the car, absorbing more news, and getting more fearful toward our fellow people. 
Deep down we all want to be buddies. 

It’s easy to get trapped in your own news bubble, your own Twitter-verse, your own echo chamber. But understanding starts with reaching out. Let’s find the humanity in our fellow humans.

You can sign up for Brett’s newsletter here. His new album is here on Spotify.

An old soul

Chuck Cleaver is one of the best songwriters in the known universe. He’s also a funny dude, in his own unique, gruff-yet-lovable way.

Chuck’s in a band called Wussy, and he and the other lead singer/songwriter in that band, Lisa Walker, do a live set of songs every other Friday night on Facebook. (On the alternate Fridays, their bandmate Mark Messerly plays a set. All the videos are here and are well worth checking out.)

The songs are brilliant. The between-song banter is the icing on the cake. It’s funnier than most network sitcoms. Here’s Chuck from a few weeks ago, going on a rant about old folks. (At age 62, he counts himself among that number). I can relate. My daughter drags me up to St. Vincent de Paul nearly every Sunday because if you’re 50 or older, you get a 25% discount:

Preach on, Brother Chuck! This old man loves it!

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