Last week Jamie and I sat in a small, classy theater in downtown Franklin, Tennessee and listened as one of the finest songwriters in America blew my mind.
I first encountered Marc Cohn’s music in 1991, my junior year of high school. I was steeped in heavy metal, hair metal, pop rock, swamp rock, prog rock—basically, [choose any adjective] rock. (I know, I know. Shocking. I’m saving my Tesla/Extreme post for another time.) But when “Walking in Memphis” strode through the airwaves back in 1991, I experienced something altogether different.
I liked the emotion and the musical high I got when I was listening to straight-up rock and roll, but I often rolled my eyes at the lyrics (except for those of the aforementioned Tesla and Extreme). Lyrics mattered to me even then, but not enough to make up for my disdain towards what I thought of as Easy Listening music. Basically, if it was on my dad’s radio station, I avoided it like homework. This included James Taylor, Paul Simon, Jim Croce, Jackson Browne, and others I’ve come to love.
So, I kept looking for stories and deeper meaning in rock and roll, but I just couldn’t seem to find it. Then one day I heard a pretty piano part dance out of the car stereo, and a raspy, warm, and welcoming voice sang,
Put on my blue suede shoes and I boarded the plane
Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues in the middle of the pouring rain.
I sat up straight and paid attention. It was as if I had happened upon a deer in the woods. I froze. I don’t remember the exact moment I first heard that song as a seventeen-year-old kid, but I was probably driving my dad’s Pontiac station wagon with the volume cranked, wearing a look of dumb delight. Like a great film or a great book, that song goes everywhere your heart wants it to go, and yet you’re still surprised by it. It’s no overstatement that “Walking in Memphis” feels like a moment of grace.
Hey, folks. I’m writing from North Carolina, where I’m doing a few shows this week. The fall leg of the Light for the Lost Boy tour is over, which is sad, but just around the corner waits the 13th annual Behold the Lamb of God tour, followed by—I’m pumped about this—a tour with Jason Gray in February, followed by—and I’m also pumped about this—a spring Lost Boy tour, once again with CALEB.
But as much touring as we’ve been doing, there are still pockets of the country (nay—the WORLD) to which we haven’t come, not because we don’t want to but because no one in that part of the country (nay—the WORLD) has booked a show yet. In the meantime, though, we have the interwebs. And thanks to a cool thing called StageIt, I can put on a 30 minute concert in my living room. It isn’t recordable (computer hackers, please comply), ensuring that what you’re seeing is a legitimate one-time event, which you can watch from the comfort of your couch or Starbucks chair. There’s even a real time chat room, where you can make requests and say hello to each other. Hook it up to your TV, invite your friends and family over, pop some popcorn, and enjoy some live music. I’m not saying it’ll be better than whatever sitcom you usually watch, but I suppose that depends on the sitcom. It’s pretty cool, and it’s only $5.
So. This Sunday night, November 11, at 6 p.m. Central, join me (and perhaps a surprise guest) from wherever you are for what promises to be a slightly awkward but entirely live and raw concert. Click here to get your tickets, and reply to this post to make any requests. I can’t promise anything, but I’ll do my best to accommodate them. Thanks for supporting me and mine, everybody.
This week I checked out Wendell Berry’s The Country of Marriage and stumbled on a poem I hadn’t read before. Just a few days ago my kind neighbor Tommy gave me permission to harvest a few maple seedlings from his property and I spent an afternoon replanting them around the Warren with these same hopes for the blessing they might be to my children’s children. Once again, the sage words of the Mad Farmer gave me a clear picture of what it means for us to be keepers of his creation, standing amidst a breadth of old beauty that we didn’t ask for and don’t deserve. I’m tempted to draw out a metaphor, like I did in my song of the same title, but I think maybe it’s good (especially in light of the glorious autumn all around me in Nashville right now), to let the trees in the poem stand in their own bright significance as members of God’s creation.
In the mating of trees,
the pollen grain entering invisible
the domed room of the winds, survives
the ghost of the old forest
that was here when we came. The ground
invites it, and it will not be gone.
I become the familiar of that ghost
and its ally, carrying in a bucket
twenty trees smaller than weeds,
and I plant them along the way
of the departure of the ancient host.
I return to the ground its original music.
It will rise out of the horizon
of the grass, and over the heads
of weeds, and it will rise over
the horizon of men’s heads. As I age
in the world it will rise and spread,
and be for this place horizon
and orison, the voice of its winds.
I have made myself a dream to dream
of its rising, that has gentled my nights.
Let me desire and wish well the life
these trees may live when I
no longer rise in the mornings
to be pleased by the green of them
shining, and their shadows on the ground,
and the sound of the wind in them.
A few years ago I had to bid farewell to one of my favorite haunts in the interwebland: Portland Studios, an illustration and story company. I went there for inspiration about six times a week, but after a good run, the folks there decided to dismantle the company and, more or less, to go freelance. I’m sure it was the right decision, but I was sad. It was a company that felt more like a community, and among its many artists and web developers and storytellers were three guys whose work I’ve loved for years—guys whose websites I still visit almost every day, just to see what cool pictures they’re cooking up.
There’s Cory Godbey, who illustrated the first Slugs & Bugs CD, as well as the amazing video for the equally amazing Stephen Delopoulous song “The Ruin of the Beast”, which we featured here; Chris Koelle, who did the cover for Andrew Osenga’s The Morning, not to mention the tour poster for the still-underway Light for the Lost Boy Tour, the stunning Revelation App, and John Piper’s JOB; and finally Justin Gerard, Hutchmoot alumnus, illustrator of my Wingfeather Saga books and covers, as well as my 2006 album The Far Country and Phil Vischer’s Sidney and Norman. Whew. That’s a healthy portfolio for these guys, and that’s just with the stuff we’re associated with—the tip of the far corner of the iceberg, so to speak. They’ve done gobs and gobs of great work for publishers and film companies the world over.
You get the point. I’m a fan. So check THIS out.
Cory, Chris, and Justin are putting together an online illustration course called The Lamp Post Guild (a name of which I heartily approve). If you’re like me and you’ve always wanted to spend more time learning to draw, or if you’re like my son Aedan, who’s very seriously pursuing a life of illustration, this little video might geek you out. They’re raising money to develop the class, and for a relatively low contribution you can take a serious step toward doing better—maybe even excellent—work. As a homeschooling dad with a kid who’s into art, this was a no-brainer for me. It’s hard for me to imagine a more perfect scenario for my boy. Thank you, Justin, Cory, and Chris for doing what you do.
Let me tell you a quick story about something cool that happened to me over the course of about twenty years. I promise it has to do with Hutchmoot 2012. It all started at church camp. I was working as a counselor at North Florida Christian Service Camp in the 1990′s—the same camp where as a guilt-ridden kid I rededicated my life to Jesus every year—when one night, while everyone was hanging in the gym playing carpetball or foursquare or Audio Adrenaline songs, the high schoolers suddenly went crazy over a video that featured talking vegetables. It was the first time I had ever seen Bob and Larry, and I was delighted that whoever had put the film together seemed to take the Gospel very seriously while not taking themselves seriously at all. (This is something I would love to be said about me behind my back or at my funeral.) I laughed and I learned, and I was proud that the folks behind this video were Christians and genuinely funny.
Fast forward to when Aedan and Asher were toddlers. We fed them a steady diet of VeggieTales and bought every episode when it came out. I looked forward to the “Silly Songs with Larry” segment every time, thinking how fun it would be to write one of those songs. (I was also thinking how fun it would be to pay some bills by writing one of those songs.) One night in Estes Park, Colorado I was performing a short set for Compassion International (along with Phil Keaggy, of all people), and after I finished playing I bumped into a guy wearing a VeggieTales cap. I mean, come on! First, Keaggy and now VeggieTales? I introduced myself to the guy (who turned out to be Kurt Heinecke, the brains behind the Big Idea music for years), and told him my kids loved the videos. He gave me his card and told me that if I was ever in Chicago I should come by and play some songs for the employees at Big Idea.
Last night I tromped down the hill with a hammer, six wooden stakes, and a spool of fishing line to do battle with deer. But it’s not what you think. As far as I know there are no vampire deer in the neighborhood. No, our deer are the usual docile, graceful, and enormously frustrating sort. Frustrating because I’m a wannabe gardener, and they seem to think I’m doing all this work for them.
I planted a pumpkin patch down in the lower part of the yard, just past the young willow tree. I’ve never had much luck with pumpkins, so this year I went all-out. My kind neighbor brought his tractor down the hill and turned the ground, revealing darker soil than further up where I plant my corn. When it rains a lot (well, when it used to rain a lot) I can’t even mow this spot for fear of getting stuck in all that soggy grass–which is why I planted the thirsty willow tree there last year. I’m guessing all that moisture and runoff has been feeding this little section of the yard for a hundred years. Now, by golly, that soil was going to feed my pumpkins.
The lame duck period is, well, pretty lame. The months during the making of a record are equal parts exhilarating and exhausting, and the months of touring and supporting the record are the same. But the period of time between the two, when the artwork is finished, the album is mastered, it’s sent off to the presses, then packaged and shoved into a Raiders of the Lost Ark warehouse to await its eventual shipment—that part is fairly maddening.
I don’t write songs just for my own pleasure, after all; these are for you. Sure, I may get some enjoyment out of the process, and there are residual blessings that come from the writing and production of the music, but the real thrill for me has always been the mysterious way songs (and whatever light lives in them) have the potential to find their way into the world, into your ears, and, hopefully, your hearts. That you would give them that chance is a great honor, and my great hope for the album.
When I was a boy my dad consistently called on a wrinkled old sage named Mortimer Hawk to offer the closing prayer at church. He was so old that the congregation’s stillness deepened as soon as he opened his mouth. “Most Holy Father,” he quietly boomed. (I know that sounds impossible, but that’s how I remember it; he boomed—quietly. Honest.) “We thank Thee for Thy bounty, and humbly seek Thy guidance as we depart this place to proclaim in word and deed Thy merciful affection.”
So he began. That’s not verbatim, but it’s the general vibe of Mortimer’s weekly supplication. The way he pronounced every “Thee” and “Thy” assured me that in his mind they were capitalized. He transported the whole church back about a hundred years, and reminded us how rich and humble a prayer could be. And that was the weird thing—he didn’t speak that way in normal conversation; he reserved his King James prayers for church, but somehow it never struck me as pretentious or put-on. It was merely this humble old saint’s way of honoring the King to whom he spoke. He didn’t pepper his prayer with mindless repetition (“FatherGod, we pray, FatherGod, that you, Jesus, FatherGod, Jesus, would be with us, Jesus, God”, etc.), a habit many of us have acquired which strikes me as dangerously close to “babbling like the pagans do” (Matthew 6:7). My guess is that this odd repetition that’s so pervasive in our prayers is either nervous habit, an oratory device employed to buy us time to think of what to say next, or maybe we’ve grown up thinking it’s just what you’re supposed to do. I’m sure someone out there will demonstrate that I’m wrong to reference that verse here—but hopefully you see what I’m saying: sometimes our public prayers are padded with nice sounding words and phrases that don’t mean a whole lot. (This is what is known on the Internet as “opening a can of worms.”)
The Peterson family just started reading The Lord of the Rings aloud this summer and I’ve been nerding out a bit more than usual (which is saying something). I thought I’d re-post this piece from four (four!) years ago.
So my nine-year-old son Aedan just finished reading Tolkien’s The Return of the King for the first time.
He came downstairs after he finished and we talked about the ending, about the mysterious Undying Lands to which the elves were compelled to go; about how happy and sad he was for Sam, who had a family and a home in a restored Shire but who had to go on without his dearest friend; the bittersweetness of Frodo’s farewell at the Grey Havens. I can’t imagine a more poignant or complete ending to the story.
I told him that Ben Shive wrote a song about the Grey Havens, and I played him that song from The Far Country while he read through the lyrics. (I don’t normally push my own music on the kids, so he wasn’t too familiar with it.) I was impressed all over again at what a great writer Ben is, not to mention Tolkien.
What is it about that idea of being wounded and ill-at-ease in our present condition that resonates with me so? Obviously, it’s because I’m wounded and ill-at-ease. Much of the time I feel content with my lot, and why shouldn’t I? Most of the people reading this have been blessed with the means at least to own a computer, and the leisure at which to browse websites with it. You have the ability to read, to see, to think, to type. What could we complain about? Well, about the fact that our hearts are crippled and weak. Our literal eyes may be able to see, but the eyes of our hearts are often so bloodshot and weary that our souls trip and fall.
This is a transcript of my opening remarks at Hutchmoot 2011, revised slightly to work as a post here. In case the spirit of the thing comes across as actual irritation, let me say that this is intended to be good-natured ranting, if there is such a thing. I have a lot of friends who use the terminology I’m poking fun at, and the last thing I want is to make enemies. This is just me raising my hand from the back of the class to ask if there’s a better way to think about the subject. –The Proprietor
Allow me to kick off Hutchmoot 2011 with a complaint.
Many of you have heard of “verbing”: the practice of using a noun as a verb. The very word “verbing” is a case in point. Other examples: friend, spam, and Google. You “table” a discussion. Concerts get “booked.” I get it. Language is a fluid thing, and part of the beauty of it is the way it changes with the times. Still, as Calvin said to Hobbes, “Verbing weirds language.”
Allow me to dialogue a little more with you about it. (See what I did there?)
There’s another word that’s popped up recently, and every time I’ve heard it or read it I’ve had some kind of reaction. It’s not a noun that’s been verbed—rather, it’s an adjective that’s been nouned. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I just verbed the adjective-ing of “noun,” and in this very sentence verbed “adjective” too.
Nouning verbs is a little more difficult, but it happens every time I go on a run. It happened a few minutes ago when I stood in line for Evie’s cooking. I thought to myself, “Gimme some eats.” And Evie, in a brazen case of verbing two nouns and employing two nouned adjectives, with some hyperbole thrown in, likely thought to herself, “If Andrew comes back for thirds I’m going to fork him in the innards, and he won’t stomach that for a second.”
I’m certain that made no sense. Let me be clear: this phenomenon is nothing new, nor is it wrong. It’s one of the things I love about language. But let me get to the point. The word I’m talking about, the one that galls me a little, is this: “creative.” I keep hearing people refer to themselves not as creative but as creatives. As in, “I’m a creative who works in the ministry,” or on the occasional Twitter bio, “I’m a wife, a mother, and a creative living in Punxatawney, PA.” I’m sure some of you are in this room, and that’s fine. But let me push back just a little, lest this “creatives” thing get out of hand.