This summer, July 4-7, Dave Trout and Under the Radar (UTR) are hosting their first-ever annual conference/music festival called Escape to the Lake on Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. I wanted the Rabbit Room community to know a little more about this Hutchmoot-ish event so I’ve taken the opportunity to interview Dave about it. I hope our conversation will allow you to get to know him a little better as well.
EP: For those who haven’t discovered UTR, what is it that you do for living?
Dave: In short, K-Love (mainstream Christian radio) isn’t for everyone. And Rabbit Room readers already know this, but CCM Top 20 lists are not a really good reflection of the best art being made by Christians. So UTR began about four-and-a-half years ago to discover and share some creative, thoughtful, and truly under-appreciated songwriters who are doing their thing without much support and radio fanfare. We offer a one-hour weekly podcast of “gourmet music”—which also is syndicated on over 225 radio stations every week. But it’s really more of an anti-radio program.
EP: Music is subjective. Are you trying to get people to buy into your tastes in music?
Many of you are, no doubt, familiar with the concept of a house concert. For those who aren’t, it is exactly what the name implies: hosts invite friends and neighbors over, and a songwriter-artist plays a concert in their home. I have been doing more and more of these events the past couple of years and I find them to be extremely rewarding in terms of their informality, intimacy, and relaxed environment. Something magically simple happens when the stage is forfeited and the “show” is taken out of the show.
Imagine twenty or so folks in a large church sanctuary where they, as well as every ounce of their energy, are swallowed in the empty space between the person onstage and the chasm of vacant seats in the room. Now, plop that same number of people in a living room, perhaps put a glass of merlot or cup of coffee in their hand, and what you get is a concert setting as intimate and laid back as if the songs were being written right before your very eyes. I adore this about house shows: stories are told, connections are made, something warm, hospitable, magical and direct happens, and, from my perspective at least, I feel the freedom to be my typically squirrelly self. And surely everyone wants to see that spectacle.
This is a piece (essay? speech? homily?) I wrote for, and presented to, a retreat I was recently a part of in Waterloo, Nebraska. A male cardinal attacked the glass windows as I read aloud this piece, presumably because the bird saw its own reflection, not because of anything I had said or done. –EP
The Undertaking of Hope
Birds live their entire lives in complete vulnerability and full expectancy. Singing their songs from dawn to dusk—or from dusk to dawn, as is the case with the diva mockingbird outside my bedroom window—they never seem to sing their songs the exact same way twice. Similarly, no two persons’ faiths are identical. If indeed we were formed as unique and individual creatures, then it should follow that no two faiths could possibly be exactly the same, that the faith fully alive (or nearly dead) inside our heart is as distinct and peculiar as the midnight song of the mockingbird, the very same melody that wakes or shocks us out of a deep sleep. The frameworks of our beliefs and hopes are intricate treasures, infinitely profound and profoundly different, but the God in whom we vest those treasures, the one who revels in the songs of our hearts, the hymns and laments alike, receives our melodies, whether broken or soaring, with no small pleasure. We are songs of grace in his ears. As the Chinese proverb goes: “A bird doesn’t sing because it has answers; it sings because it has a song.”
“I started listening to the wolves in the timber at night. I don’t know how they found me, I’ll never know quite how.”
– musician, Josh Ritter
“The shadow proves the sunshine.”– musician, Jon Foreman
Whether one believes in origins as a matter of seven simultaneous 24-hour days carved out of emptiness, as the result of billions of years of settling and seething, as a lone voice speaking the entirety of everything simultaneously into existence, or as mere ornamental accident, the artist’s act of creating—the effort to birth something new, previously unknown or unseen into the world—is inherently the creation story retold in its most primitive, though fallible, form. Any artist worth any grain of salt must, even on their worst, most godless day, admit that the act in which they engage themselves is an effort to replicate origins. The artist fully engaged in his or work knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that nothing he creates did not already previously exist. Worse still, neither the shadow nor the doubt will ever leave him in peace.
Though not present at the original unveiling of time, the artist yearns jealously to participate, to have a hand in emulating beginnings. Though plagued by cavernous insecurity and grave doubt, the artist is, ironically, a hopeful soul by nature. He seeks to eradicate the dark by introducing light, struggling to fight off the bloodthirsty wolves, and contending however feebly to muzzle the odious butcher voices. The artist is a figure in storm, rapt and straining to hear melody amid chaos, not at all aloof or immune to projectile shrapnel, very much aware of and susceptible to the pain. If lucky, in the end the artist is able to walk away, but never without a limp. Even luckier is the soul with friends and an audience who listens, affirms and joins in harmony.
Some twelve feet above the ground, in a gutter attached to my neighbor’s roof, a maple tree struggles to grow. In early spring, I first notice the green of the sapling peeking above the gutter’s metal confines. Its single verdant leaf is in stark contrast to the shallow metal container from which it springs so high above earth, its roots never contacting a single gram of the soil below.
The gutter, having not been cleaned for many years, moonlights as a lofted planter, a trough, a wholly unintentional vessel holding rich, alluvial soil in which life manages to flourish. Mere inches from the sapling, the downspout, clogged long ago, acts as a dam, collecting every leaf, nut, or branch the sloping roof above can tender, until the decomposed material creates a phony and shallow habitat.
Honestly, I didn’t know what to think about this song when I first introduced it to Ben in our earliest pre-production days. I felt it had a strong skeleton, but it lacked a face, a personality, or at least one recognizable. It really wasn’t until Andy Gullahorn, with whom I recorded the main vocals, helped me write — or at least dredge from the well — the bridge and the outro that I realized this was no longer a middle-of-the-album sort of song, but was instead THE ending to the album. It’s the epilogue, a benediction to those who listen: “Go into the world, be brave, and don’t give up.” We fight for life because hope is worth fighting for. And without hope, my God!, my God!, what on earth have we to live for?
This is the surprise song of the bunch for me. Going into our pre-production meetings at producer Ben Shive’s studio, I knew I really liked this one. But I was absolutely floored by the treatment he gave it. That guy knows me so well. It’s good to have friends who happen to be incredibly gifted producers, and it’s very good to, every now and then, have an opportunity to write a song like this, an anthem, a song that looks at the horizon and smiles.
This song is a case of marrying old lyrics to new music. I wrote these words in the summer of 2000 and originally proposed that it be on Scarce (2006), but that album’s producer didn’t seem interested in it, so I shelved it. Having always liked these lyrics, I brushed them off while writing Birds of Relocation, set them at eye level, and lovingly affirmed them–I still believe in you. After trashing an earlier, older, and, honestly, outgrown chorus, I rewrote the music entirely, and with the guidance of Andy Gullahorn, gave these lyrics a chance to finally be heard. This song, though written over ten years ago, thematically seemed to fit so well on this album. Funny how time works. And flies.
I started writing this song several years ago while I was recording Scarce (2006). I had the melody and the first lines “We don’t got money, we don’t need fame, but we all want something like it anyway,” but that was all I could muster at the time. I was never able to figure out what to do with it or where to go from there. Clinging to that melody over the following years, I worked it into shape for Birds of Relocation, determined to make something of this little poppery song. This, in my estimation, is a song about community. As Kathleen Norris says in her most excellent book, Dakota, “Community is being together while leaving each other alone.”
I wrote this song for my wife (of nearly fifteen years now). On every album I record, I’ve tried to include at least one song specifically about and for her. I remember writing this on a late-night drive home through the dark Appalachian foothills after a show in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Every now and then Danielle will comment on my eyes’ “crow’s feet,” both of us wondering and remarking on what they’ll look like when we’re eighty and have grandkids. It’s good that she knows the crap in my life and all the bitterness I hold in my heart at times. She also knows how hopeless I can be, how I shrink into darkness, how I hide from my friends. It is good to be known. It’s even better to be nurtured back to life. Behind every halfway decent man is a far superior woman.