Rhythm & roots review

On The Planet 

"I believe that a song being sung is one of the clearest views we ever have to witness how humans reach out for warmth with our art.”
— from “How to Write One Song” by Jeff Tweedy
That other fine Jeff comes closest in his books and interviews to getting at the seemingly magical process of writing a song and heartwarming feeling of making sonic connection with a listener. Of course, the ineffable nature of it means we can only go so far in cracking the code. And that's as it should be: The world could do with more good mysteries.
I know this much: 2023 represented peak creativity and connection for me. I released my fifth solo album, “Between the Commas,” and performing it in full to a sold-out crowd at Trinity House Theatre, a gem of a little venue in suburban Detroit. Making the album with ace co-producer, engineer and talented multi-instrumentalist Andy Reed (with assists from my Garrison Corner bandmates, George Luckey and Dan Houston) and playing it with those fine gents were high points of my musical journey. Everything fell into place and I felt that warmth flowing back and forth from audience to stage.
Other great musical moments came performing with Garrison Corner at Christ Episcopal Church Dearborn's summer concert series for the eighth (or ninth?!) time and two solo performances in Detroit: Palmer Park and Cadillac Square. I also had a bittersweet experience playing at Mode's Tavern in Bay City—sweet because I played for friends who hadn't seen me before in a musician-friendly venue, yet bitter because Mode's would be destroyed in a fire about a month later. The owners are great, community-focused people who are formulating ideas for the future, so we remain hopeful for some kind of return.
I figured it would be a while before I ventured back into a studio after “Between the Commas” because of time, financial and creative considerations, and I half-kept that promise. While taking a break from my day job at the University of Michigan, I found an empty ballroom with a Steinway piano in the Michigan Union, and decided it was the perfect opportunity to cut a demo of an original song I'd long hoped to record called “Last Call.”  
The piano, of course, was great, and the acoustics in the room were superb. I captured a better-than-expected moment, and with the encouragement of Jonah Brockman, another outstanding producer and audio engineer, I wrote a string arrangement, recorded it in his studio and he beautifully mixed and mastered it all. I was so pleased it was featured on AmericanaUK's website.
A “corporate gig," which felt less so because I was hired by my friend, Jennette Smith Kotila, offered connections aplenty. I was in a room with folks I've known from my lifetime in journalism (and now academic PR) and I opened for the Arkells, a great Canadian band who stripped it down and brought the audience close in. Best part was getting to play with them—well, sort of: One of the members didn't have his acoustic guitar (a bus breakdown had them temporarily without much of the gear), so I gladly agreed to share mine. Artists helping artists is a good thing.
On a final note, I thank everybody who, in myriad ways, offered their support and connected with my music this past year. I try not to chase awards or accolades, but I can't help but be honored that my album was one of A2 Pulp's staff picks for 2023. I'm grateful to the publication, and of course, the author, Lori Stratton. She is an amazing friend to Michigan's indie artists and worthy of much praise.
So, here's to 2024. I wish you all peace in the new year and look forward to connecting with you—whether it be online or in person. I salute you for helping me keep this little indie train running! 

Last Call  

I’m drawn to the idea that songs can be about one thing, multiple things, everything or nothing. I’m also keenly aware the creator’s meaning may differ from the listener’s. I find it fascinating that despite those divergences and disconnects, people nonetheless loudly (and not especially tunefully) sing along to songs like “American Pie” and “Closing Time,” particularly at the end of an overserved night. In the ragtag group, the songs lose subtlety and nuance yet in the process take on still more meanings.

Taking all that and more into consideration, I wrote “Last Call,” which has more than one meaning in my own mind and perhaps even more for those listening. Whether my tune can stand alongside those classics by Don McLean and Dan Wilson of Semisonic, well, that's up to the listeners, but I can certainly say they influenced and inspired me—not just as songs but also for the multi-layered, mysterious stories behind them and the ways they've evolved and mutated once released in the wild.

So, what is mine about? Maybe the dark night of a bartender's soul. Perhaps it's a lament about late-stage capitalism. Or the end of the world, whether real or perceived by the narrator. I felt a little like a cinematographer with this one, imagining multiple angles and points of view. I don't know what you hear, but I welcome your ears and interpretations.

Grateful for the use of Steinway grand in an acoustically delightful ballroom at the University of Michigan (during the relatively quiet, sparse summer break), and the engineering and co-production talents of Jonah Brockman, who recorded my string parts and helped edit, mix and master it all beautifully in his studio. 

I'm also thankful for AmericanaUK, which saw fit to feature Last Call. You can find it in the usual streaming places (YouTube, Apple/iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, etc.).  It's been so cool to see it garner plays around the world. I'd appreciate it you listen, and, if so moved, share it with folks you know and add it to your playlists. If you are or know radio folks who might dig it, please share it with them.  



There are so many songs, particularly sacred ones, about the lost, the found—and, of course, the lost being found. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s clear that the musical marketplace is full-up with tunes for the doubters and devout, and the road from the former to the latter. 

In shorter supply are songs for those who fall in-between: Those who got the memo, but are still deciphering it. Who followed the steps in the instruction manual but the pieces don’t quite line up. Or those who feel the presence of a higher power…and then the call drops from time to time. I suspect a lot more of us fall somewhere in the nuanced ‘in-between’ than we’d like to admit. Sometimes heading one way, other times heading the other. Maybe stuck in the middle.

At the beginning of every worship service, Dearborn First United Methodist Church Pastor David Nellist welcomes those who know all about God or the Bible, as well as those who know, well, a lot less. Reassuringly, at least to me, he welcomes those who fall somewhere in between. That speaks to me, and even inspired a song I call “In-Betweeners.” Here’s the chorus: 

I know there are songs for the true believers 

And others for those full of doubt 

I guess I sing for the in-betweeners 

The ones who are still trying to figure it out 

Personally, I don’t see being in-between as a shortcoming requiring intervention: I think mystery is baked into faith. As author Jonathan Merritt wrote, “In a world that forces an answer on everything, only the mature can utter that holy phrase, ‘I don’t know.’” As for just how mature I am, well, I don’t know that, either. Still, I do proceed with caution when someone declares they know all there is to know and shuts the door to more insight. 

Anyway, I don’t expect anybody to beat a path to my door to add this song to the United Methodist Hymnal, much less its slimmer, more contemporary kin, The Faith We Sing.’ Still, like the often overlooked generation (Gen X) to which I belong, I remind you that we are here. And boy, are we as committed as ever to our ambivalence! 

I don’t yet have a polished studio recording of it, but you can hear its public debut at the Aug. 14 service at Dearborn First here. It starts around the 24-minute mark.

Thanks as always for checking out my music. If you like what you hear, I’m grateful for those who listen, follow and share it on/from the usual streaming services (Spotify, SoundCloud, Pandora, Amazon, Google, Apple Music, etc.) And, if so moved, please add me to your playlists.


Of Home and Half-Moons 

The first lines of ‘Home’ came to me as the North American mainland receded from view, and the plane I was on ventured out over the Atlantic Ocean: ‘I’m over the water now—the lights take their final bow…’ More words came later while I was on the ground in northern Finland, and the last came once back ‘home,’ appropriately enough. Among the ones that stand out to me, even as I still try to figure them out: ‘The farther I go, the closer I am to home.’ 

‘Half-Moon Over Helsinki,’ another song written in pieces, started to emerge three years later while on another Nordic jaunt. Some lyrics popped in my head on a ship traversing the fjords of Norway, and more revealed themselves once we’d arrived in Finland. The opening line actually came at the tail end of our time there, as I packed our rental car for our trip to the airport and looked up at the mid-summer night sky that looked much more like early evening back at home.  ‘Half-Moon over Helsinki—very low, rising slow; midnight sun is almost gone, time to go, yes I know…’ 

For both, I scratched lyrics down on whatever scraps I could find: receipts, tickets, or other paper left in the case for my mandolin—which I happened to bring along to share songs with family and friends. I had no idea inspiration might strike, though I was a Boy Scout just long enough to remember the value of the motto, ‘Be prepared.’ 

I ultimately finished those tunes, and they’ll be key parts of my set lists in the next couple weeks during my first official gigs in Finland: Two sets at the Kaustinen Folk Festival July 12 and 13, and July 20 at the Café Purje in Kirkkonummi, on a harbor about 30 miles west of Helsinki. It’s hard to come up with adequate words to describe my gratitude and excitement playing overseas, but suffice it to say it’s long been a dream to share my music across the globe and in-person. That it’s happening in Finland means even more. 

It’s been a decade since my first visit and nearly 10 years since I wrote ‘Home.’ Finland always has been a welcoming place to me, but each time I return I feel even more at ‘home.’ Being invited to share my music there really is a high honor, and I’m eager to connect and commune over tunes—and under skies where the sun barely sets for a glorious yet fleeting burst of time.

The Human Heart (both anatomical and emotional) 

“I try in the first line of a song to say something that is true. Not an emotional truth but a fact. You are less likely to get mired in cliches if you start off with some statement of truth.” — Paul Simon

If I never reach the critical and commercial heights of Paul Simon (and I think your bets are safe on that score), I can at least say I nailed his advice on one of my newest songs. And, really, was it ever more important to avoid cliches than when dealing with matters of the heart?

It all started with an email I get called The Daily Atom that always contains a short, simple fact from the world of science. On one recent day, the email began, "The human heart weighs less than 1 pound." There, my friends, is a solid and song-worthy statement of truth that even "Rhymin' Simon" could get behind, I suspect.

The email was comforting in its strangely scientific way, arriving in my inbox just a couple weeks after the death of my mother. Hearts were heavy among her loved ones, of course, and on our minds: She died of complications from congestive heart failure. It didn't take long before the words started to form that blended fact and feeling: "The human heart weighs less than a pound, which is strange for all it contains. Love must be light in the place where it's found—yeah, love must be light right where it's found..."

It goes on, as love does, and—cliche alert!—it did my heart some good to keep writing. I hope it does for you, too, as you listen. The result is here.


Dog Days of Summer 

I found myself strumming and singing to people — real, live people — twice in recent weeks. They were the first gigs since early March 2020, the final days of the Great Before. I've always said people taking time out of their busy, distracted lives to come to a show featuring a small-time, indie roots-folkie is impressive enough, but to see people smiling and singing back at me after a year-and-a-half absence was magic. It brings to mind the words of the late, great Tom Petty: "Music is probably the only real magic I have encountered in my life. There's not some trick involved with it. It's pure and it's real. It moves, it heals, it communicates and does all these incredible things."

Pandemics are a nasty business (he said, with some understatement), and it's clearly still having its way with us despite some progress. The loss of live music pales in comparison to the loss of millions of lives, and the significant suffering of many more. But the curbing of gigs has certainly affected the livelihoods of musicians (I'm fortunate to have other work) and eliminated an enjoyable escape from everyday demands for fans. To see people gathering outside to hear my original music— there's no adequate words for that. It was a connection I craved and I'm indebted to those who came to Christ Episcopal Church Dearborn and the Henry Ford Centennial Library as well as those who made the shows possible. If all goes well, there's more to come, both solo and with my comrades in Garrison Corner, but it's worth pausing to reflect on the return of something magical and deeply missed.

Play on!


Good Things a-Comin' 

The past couple weeks have been eventful, and music has been right along for the ride. 

First, there was the opportunity—thanks to highly effective vaccines—for my Garrison Corner bandmates and I to reunite in close quarters and without masks to make music. Not that we wasted time during the pandemic: We recorded several songs in a socially distanced fashion and have released them here. In fact, we’ve been doing song drops since the beginning of 2021 and plan to keep it up through the end of the year and perhaps beyond. The latest is ‘Someone Else’s Child,’ a lovely composition by my friend and bandmate, George Luckey, featuring him on guitar and backing vocal, Amy Luckey on lead vocal, Dan Houston on drums and yours truly on fiddle. That followed another original by George called ‘Any Way Out’ and an original of mine called ‘Share My Sun.’ 

George and I also got word that the song we co-wrote, ‘Over and Over,’ earned a first place in Take the Mic, a contest and research study aimed at gauging the effectiveness of community-created messages promoting COVID safety. While the U.S. is making significant strides toward a return to normal, we do owe our frontline healthcare workers a longterm debt of gratitude. Their service and endurance is what we aimed to capture in our song. We’re also so grateful to all of you who cast a vote for us. You can hear it here and other places where you stream music. 

Finally, much thanks is joyfully delivered (duty free!) to Dan MacDonald, host of Hear + Now on the legendary CKLW-AM.  In recent weeks, he has played ‘Share My Sun,’ ‘Over and Over’ and another new song I composed and performed called ‘Heart out on a Sleeve 1.’ I never run out of excitement or gratitude for radio play, particularly when it comes from local and indie music lovers like Dan. His show is a cross-border treasure (whether or not he plays me, I hasten to add) that reminds me of the closeness of Detroit and Windsor and my personal fondness for the place going way back to my wee days of watching my father in the Windsor Symphony Orchestra and my own experiences in a binational youth orchestra that performed for both US and Canadian audiences. I do so look forward to the day the border reopens to all traffic and I can again play a show across the river—something Dan and I have discussed. 

Music was one of the things that got me through this past year, and I can only hope it ramps up as we enter the on-ramp to the highway out of Pandemic Town. Thanks to you all for listening, supporting and otherwise traveling this road with us. I admit it's been more of a prayer than a prediction during the past year-plus, but I still say 'good things are a-comin.' 


We Are Moving 

I’m often critical of my own songwriting, but every once in a while I say just what I hope to say, and lay it down exactly how I hear it in my head. Even on a later listen with time to reconsider, I'm not swayed to change a thing—whether or not that's a view shared by listeners! Still, it's true icing on the creative cake when others dig it and catch the vision. 

So it is with 'We Are Moving,' and it was gratifying for me to have Dearborn First United Methodist Church Pastor David Nellist share it at the end of his sermon this past Sunday.

The sermon topic was 'fresh starts,' and ‘We Are Moving’ embraces the idea of a restart and overcoming things that lay us low, as well as the grace and power in the act of taking even one small step forward in the darkest, hardest times. His sermon deftly pivoted from the second (and third and fourth…) chances afforded Bill Murray’s character in ‘Groundhog Day’ to the second chances Jesus gave his disciples. Side note: I kinda like Bill Murray as a modern-day disciple. Why not? He golfed with the Dalai Lama himself. Sorry, another movie for another time.

Anyway, you can hear my song around 57 minutes into this video (though it’s worth going back a little for all of David’s great sermon). 

If you want to stream the song, it’s in the usual online places, including here. It's from my album, 'Pieces Break,' which was recorded in 2019 in Manchester, Michigan, and Amherst, Massachusetts.

Thanks for listening and I hope it resonates with you. 

Over and Over 

I recently shared the story behind my latest song, a co-write with my friend, George Luckey, with people who have signed up for my mailing list. Now, I'm sharing it here—though you all are welcome to sign up to that list by clicking on the link at the bottom of my home page!

Greetings from my Motown bedroom bunker! 

I come with a little story and a request that involves just a couple minutes from the comfort of your chair—and NO money... 

The call was issued for new ways to deliver old messages about COVID-19, personal stories about staying safe and keeping others safe during the pandemic and expressions of thanks for those who are protecting or caring for others in the midst of it all. 

Those were the guidelines for Take the Mic, a contest and research study whose goal is to learn if messages created within the community can help enlighten people about COVID and protect people from it. Once I read that, some ideas immediately came to mind. I contacted my friend and musical collaborator, George Luckey, and before long via texts, emails and phone calls, we had a song. ‘Over and Over’ aims to hit all those points. 

We just learned the judges—seven community leaders from four Michigan counties—selected our song as a finalist. That’s an honor in and of itself, but now the public gets to vote on the winner. And this is where we ask you for your vote. 

Here’s what inspired us: We have family, friends or fond acquaintances on the front lines, and we are both at that stage where we’ve been doing what we can to keep our older parents and children safe. Living through this once-a-century pandemic has caused us to think and reflect a great deal, and one way for us to deal with all this is to grab our guitars and put pen to paper. We imagined what those front-line workers have seen and dealt with, as well as what they hope for even as we finally start to emerge from this global crisis. We hope our song does some justice to what they've done and endured. 

Voting is easy and can be done by clicking here and following the steps. Our song is in the 'other media' category. Once you select it (if you're so inclined), then you scroll down to the right arrow to submit. 

We thank you from the bottom of our hearts for listening and, if so inclined, voting. And, if we're getting greedy, we'd be even more grateful if you shared with friends and loved ones. If nothing else, we might help spread the word about staying safe until we're finally rid of COVID! 

If you want to download or continue to listen to the song, it's here

Thank you again! 


Lift to Reveal 

A little over a year ago, I had new music in hand and was sharing it live with the world—at least my home state of Michigan. I'd had my album release show a couple months prior for 'Pieces Break,' and in early 2020 I performed live on WDET-FM (Rob Reinhart's Essential Music) and enjoyed a double bill with my friends, The Early Risers (Putnam Smith and Ashley Storrow). More was to come. Then, like the rain in 'Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,' the gigs didn't gradually stop—they CEASED. That would be it for me and so many other artists for the foreseeable future as the pandemic had its way with the world.

I loved those songs and had every intention of sharing them with people throughout the year. While it's hard to shut off the songwriting spigot, I was focused on promoting 'Pieces Break.' Yet when those public performances vanished and I retreated to my bedroom bunker, I started writing new songs. I was forced to sit still, experiencing these strange, tragic times, and new melodic and lyrical ideas presented themselves involuntarily. I obeyed and started writing, strumming and singing what emerged.

The first of what would become a half-dozen 'Isolation Hymns' came nearly a year ago: 'All I've Got.' It sought to capture some of the pain and hope of those I knew and the world at large. I had no intention of creating another collection but the fates had other ideas. And since going to an outside recording studio wasn't in the cards, I grabbed my guitar and iPhone equipped with a couple of recording and mixing apps. Precision took a backseat to passion, intimacy won out over intricacy. 

The reception pleasantly surprised me: Jon Aird of Americana UK called the first 'a little gem' and Dan MacDonald of Hear+Now (on CKLW-AM) played every tune as it came out on SoundCloud. The 'hymns' and I were featured on the great 'Stateside' program, hosted by April Baer and produced by Michigan Radio. That's everything to any artist, but it's still more gratifying when the world is locked down and upside-down.

Unlike previous outings, I haven't turned the collection into a proper album, per se, but the half-dozen tunes are gathered on my SoundCloud page, accompanied by the image of a cloud. It seemed fitting to keep them a little less tidy or tied up in a bow. As I write new songs, embark on some new projects solo and with friends, and even start talking about in-person gigs later this year (if all goes well!), I want to take a moment to mark a year of music-making unlike any other in my life and thank you all for supporting me and other songwriters trying to musically make sense of all that has been going on. 

To quote saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, 'If you're in the song, keep on playing.'