Each summer she descended like a migratory goddess—rare, hard to catch, easy on the eyes. During the school year, she lived in Panama City, Florida, but each summer she arrived in Baton Rouge to visit her dad on Ridgely Road four houses down from mine. In the eyes of us neighborhood boys, Gwen was a goddess, and regardless of the girlfriend situation at the time, a crush on Gwen inevitably superseded any other.
We were red-blooded adolescent boys, always thinking of this and that—mostly that—each vying for the attention of a girl, any girl. As go the minds and assumptions of the male kingdom, we supposed that bravado, toned muscles, and tan skin were surely the qualities to win a girl over. As the gods or fate would have it, Gwen seemed to favor me and my brother, with whom I secretly competed for her attention and the chance to hold her hand. I hoped that my adeptness at sports, occasional attempts at humor, and feathered hair would be enough to tip the scales my way. In truth, there was no competition; I was outgunned by my year younger brother.
My brother was outgoing, brash, boisterous, perpetually golden-tanned, and full of muscles. He made friends easily, put people at ease, was wild and brave. I was the older sibling, cautious, dependable, eerily quiet, pensive, painfully shy, physically unimpressive. My brother played on motorcycles. I played golf. He got concussions. I got tongue thrust orthodontics. He took out engines. I took out the trash on his trash day. And every Friday, whether it was my turn to or not, I mowed the lawn because I could not bear the sight of my brother’s gangly attempts at lawn work.
One of those puppy-love summers, a popular radio song was “No One Is To Blame” by ’80s synth star, Howard Jones. In it, the writer lists example after example of wanting something, being so close to it, but not being allowed to have it. Sitting on the street curb late one night talking with my friends, listening to this song on the boombox, I took the chorus to heart: “And you want her / And she wants you / No one ever is to blame.” Like a good song ought, it rang true, resonating, giving voice and words to an inarticulate soul.
One summer, Gwen did not make her annual trek to the neighborhood. We never heard from or saw her again. Instead, we were forced to redirect our attentions to mere mortal maidens, which, of course, was really no trouble at all for pubescent boys. Perhaps the lures of Florida panhandle beaches were louder sirens than those of land-locked Baton Rouge, perhaps a boyfriend gained Gwen’s attention, or perhaps her parents ceased the visits. Whatever the reason, despite infatuations and summer crushes, even gods and goddesses fall to earth, and fate must be what it is. In the end, Gwen chose neither me nor my brother, but the song that has since become the soundtrack for that youthful season of my life chose me out of all the others to hold its hand.
One night, years ago, while tucking my brother and me into bed, my father started on the subject of stealing. Whether my brother introduced the topic or my dad simply felt the need to talk about it, I don’t recall. Dad expressed his utter contempt for thieves, saying that the lowest person on earth was one who would take something that did not belong to him. My dad’s words clobbered me, for that very day I had stolen a toy car from my friend, our next-door neighbor.
That afternoon in my friend’s room, while contemplating the theft, my internal dialogue went something like this: “I don’t have one of these. I want this one. I will slip it into my pocket when I leave. It’s just a toy. He won’t miss it.” The purloined object was a small, black Matchbox Trans-Am. However, upon hearing my father’s feelings on thieves it might as well have been an anchor the way it made me sink, causing my palms to sweat out of the self-awareness and guilt that was drowning me. I did not dare tell dad how terrified and guilt-stricken I was, imagining he would no longer love me were he to know that I, his eldest child, had dabbled in burglary that very afternoon.
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.
I’m really very talented at daydreaming, at wishing away the days, at allowing my mind to wander, at avoiding or ignoring reality. Just ask my wife. In a dangerous and perhaps ill-advised move, I sought to put myself in her shoes, reminding me — hubby and friend — to snap out of false worlds, to return to and bask in reality (as plain, stale, or frustrating as it may be) and to appreciate what is here and now: the gifts in front of me awaiting the polish of recognition and attention.
I started seeing a counselor (Al Andrews of Porter’s Call, a blessing and a gift to many full-time artists here in Nashville) in late 2010. It was crucial for me to seek help. He and I talked through my many issues, the biggest being my terribly low self-esteem, a result of my haste to listen to the foul, belligerent voices in my head that speak to and yell at me. I was at a point where I could no longer tell the difference between God’s voice and those that lie to me. I had been suffering anxiety and an inability to think clearly, to physically move, or to make any actual decisions. I was a frozen, confused monster. At one point during these counseling sessions, Al noticed and remarked that I was choosing to love the things that hate me the most. For homework, he asked me to write down all the things the plaguing voices regularly tell me and write a song about them. This is that song. I suspect that if the vile voices haunt me, there’s a good chance they haunt you too.
I hope you hear this song as a smile and a hug. This song is an IOU to a group whose music I adore, The Weepies. I wish I were a Weepie. This is the first of the album’s three love songs for my wife of nearly fifteen years.