Foc si Muzica cu Prietenii

I've been in Romania for the last week, visiting friends in Cluj, Sibiu, and Fagaras.  

Many thanks to Dusty Blake for arranging shows at the Beer Cafe and Restaurant in Fagaras and Imperium Cafe in Sibiu--a basement venue with some awesome vaulted brick ceilings.  Dusty is one of the few Americana artists in an area dominated by EDM, and he's got good taste, ranging from covers of Johnny Cash, Hayes Carll, and Leonard Cohen (not Hallelujah). 

I managed to land in Sibiu just in time for the International Theater festival, and we were treated to a spectacular fire show and experimental musician who made music with everything from his electric guitar and looper to a drumstick run across the grill of his mic, to a set of contraptions dangling from the gazebo, while a bunch of metal figurines spun their legs crazily and reflected the light of the surrounding flames.  During the day, dancing troupes and their crowds filled the streets.  

Sibiu's old town is rows of red-tile roofed buildings, centered on the fan-cobbled Piata Mare (Great Square), with the town hall at one corner and the Sfante Treime (Holy Trinity) Catholic church flanking it, while the high steeple of St. Michael's Evangelical Church dominates the whole town, surrounded by the old city walls. 

It's been good to get back into the practice of the limba Romana; I'd forgotten more than I realized, but it came back quickly.  Linguistic mishaps go both ways--a friend laughingly asked me why I was asking for "onion of the pig"--ceafa for neck, not ceapa--but then he pointed to an apartment and said, "I live in that erection." 

Today I walked the 2 miles out to Astra Park, which is full of restored traditional buildings from around Romania, from the crosses carved with roping, to roofs of split shingles or thatch, walls of stone, wood, or wood and plaster, and fencing made of woven withes.  At 7.50 lei (about 2 dollars), it's well worth a visit for anyone, whether you're interested in folk styles of construction or just looking for a large area where the kids can let off some steam while you have a nice walk. 

You might even see a donkey. 


Hitching and Hiking and Mulling it Over

I picked up a few hitch-hikers in Romania last year, got proposed to by a few single mothers, and so decided when I landed on the Isle of Mull that it was worth giving it a go myself.  That and the bus to Tobermory’s youth hostel had just left and the next wasn’t for another 2 hours. 

I started walking with my pack, banjo, and guitar on my back, and then I saw the road sign for Tobermory.  21 miles. Well, at least it wasn’t raining—I knew better than to say this out loud, but I was certainly thinking it. 

Every time I heard the hum of a car’s wheels behind me, I turned, flashed out the thumb, and watched them go by--Audis, Peugeots, Skodas, BMWs, camp vans, etc.  I just sort of grinned and enjoyed the scenery.  The flowers were blooming, it was cool, cloudy weather, and it wasn’t raining. 

I’d covered about half a mile when I saw the next bus stop and re-checked.  That’s when I noticed the bus didn’t even stop at this point, but did at the next stop.  Well, I thought, that could make things interesting.

The Dun da Gaoithe, “Fort of the Two Winds,” stretched high above to my left, sloping from high, rusty ridges down into green fields and dark conifers until I reached the broadleaf forest spotted with purple flowers and the occasional dark green of the gorse, decorated with golden flowers.  Waves from the Sound of Mull slapped against the rocky coast.  After about a mile and a half, I came to a large stand of gorse, sweet-smelling as coconut macaroons, and then a golf course, signs for eagle-watching, and a parking lot with a few cars for bird-watchers to park. 

I heard a Scottish voice to my right: “Where are you heading then?”

A lady was standing behind her car, waving at me.


“Come on then.  Come on, we’ll give you a ride.”

Gratefully, I headed on over.  “Paula’s my name,” she said, extending her hand, “and this is my husband, Glenn.”

“I’m Colin; thanks for the lift.”

“Aye, we saw you back there and figured if you still wanted a lift, we’d give it to you.” She grinned. 

“Well, that’s kind of you!”

So we chatted on the way, as the road wound higher up on the shoulders of the hills (that would have been a lot less fun to walk), and we knew some of the same places in York and Virginia both. 

“Well, you’ve got guts doing that,” Glenn said. “My dad and I used to hitch hike all the time, but no one does that anymore.”

“Well,” I said, “I figure you meet a lot more interesting people that way.” 

“Ha, that’s true,” he said.  “And it makes sense when everyone’s heading the same way anyway.” 

They dropped me off at the hostel.  “You already have a bed?”

I grinned.  “Not yet, but I’ll sort it. Thanks, and I’ll see you about town.  Just look for the guy with the banjo.”

"Right then.  It's not supposed to rain tonight, either." 

UPDATE: The hostel had a bed.  And I got a gig at the bar across the bay on Thursday.  


The Strait and Narrow

Growing up, you probably heard a lot about “staying on the straight and narrow.”  About the time of my life I took a flying leap off that path, I also realized two things: 1) I liked driving back roads and 2) the original phrase is “strait is the gate and narrow is the way.”  “Strait” like “narrow like the straits of Gibraltar,” not “straight like an arrow.”

I quickly figured out, thanks to those Virginia backroads, that the narrow way is rarely straight.  It winds along the shoulders of hills and down creekbottoms, shoots up a ridge and leaves your stomach behind as it dives down the other side, is closed in by trees, then opens up into a meadow where you can see clear to the folds of the Blue Ridge. You pass old stone houses, time-blackened hog parlors, and country stores that advertise “Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and Bait.”

I took back roads from Charlotte to Durham yesterday and stopped in Randleman to see the grave of “Little Omie Wise,” after whose murder in 1807 one of the most famous American ballads was written.  After an overnight stop to hit an open mic with an old friend, Alan Barnosky (whose Old Freight, by the by, is a fantastic piece of songwriting and flatpicking both), I started heading north to Virginia.  I stopped at the Lawson Family graves, at the corner of Brooks Cove Road and Rt. 8 in Stokes County.  Listen to the Stanley Brothers tell the story here.

I’m still on Route 8, stopped at the Floyd Country Store for lunch as I’m passing through the heart of oldtime music territory.  I’ve got a head full of songs and am doing my best to capture them on paper. 

Collecting Thoughts

As a writer and English major, I’ve made a hobby of thinking about the concrete meanings of phrases, but it wasn’t until the last couple months I started thinking about the phrase “collecting my thoughts.”

Thoughts are sort of like luggage on a long roadtrip.  You pack the night before, underwear neatly folded and placed beside your rolled socks and shirts and jacket, your duffle bag beside your backpack and a box of snacks with a water bottle and thermos of coffee.  Your guitar and banjo fit perfectly in the back seat.

After a couple days, you realize that dirty socks are starting to poke out of corners of your duffle bag, there are crumbs on the carpet (or there would be if the Walgreen’s and Hardee’s bags weren’t in the way), and you’re not quite sure where you put your flashlight.

The next morning, you discover that the neighbor’s cat stowed away, the thermos is on a countertop somewhere in west Texas, dirty socks have started crawling from underneath your seat, you’re eating grubs, and the engine has started sounding like an 80s punk band.

By the time you get home, you start to smell the offerings the cat left in your glovebox, your shirt is in rags, and you’re barefoot. And the car’s on fire. 

Anyway, our thoughts get scattered when we’re stressed or constantly on the move, and we often don’t have or make time to capture the things we’re encountering, or think about where we're heading.  I’ve been on the road or in planes or in school pretty constantly for the last 3 years, and I’m just now sitting down to collect my thoughts—to clean out from underneath the seats, throw away the stuff that needs trashed, clean off the flashlight and put new batteries in it, return my neighbor’s cat, and actually take the photos off my camera and put them in an album, and put the memories onto paper.  That’s it’s own adventure. 

On another note, we were joined at our almost-snowed-out show at Greensboro's Common Grounds by an Ohio native you should check out.  Gretchen Pleuss is one of those songwriters who manages to encompass worlds.  The music and singing is at once grounded and ethereal, solid and airy, with her acoustic guitar work underpinning sound samples, hypnotic electric guitar riffs and chimes.  Her songwriting is both intricate and insightful, with lines like:

Days pass like kidney stones around here
But each new year comes faster than before
Do feelings change with passing time
Or age like wine for richer or for poor?
("Noah and the Ark," From Birth, to Breath, to Bone)

Further, she freely jumps from the mythic ("Waves Like Drums") to literary ("Jane Eyre") to the local ("Noah and the Ark") and embodied ("The Unknown"): from Moher to Ohio to "The parts of me that neither one of us can understand/ It's in the way I hold my head and how I clench my hands."   I'll be listening to From Birth, to Breath, to Bone, and Out of Dreams for a while.  

On the Road Again

The Peacock Feathers EP tour is off to a roaring start.  It opened with a Saturday show in the upper room of Jack’s Run Brewing, a block from where I used to live in Purcellville.  The building’s ghost only flickered the bathroom lights a couple times during the show. 

On Sunday, I gave a presentation on the history and influences of Appalachian folk music, including a sing-along of “Tom Dooley,” because every kid needs a murder ballad in their repertoire.  Also, while doing some research for the presentation, I found that the writer of one of my favorite Sacred Harp tunes, “Idumea,” was a Virginian.  Ananias Davison was from Shenandoah County and published Kentucky Harmony in Harrisonburg in 1816 (no word on why it was called Kentucky Harmony).

Getting to play Richmond on the Camel stage was an awesome opportunity to meet some other songwriters and hang out with some Army buddies.  I did the tourist thing the next morning with a visit to the VMFA’s display of the terra cotta warriors of Ying Zheng, emperor of the Qin.   The 8 figures were striking in their detail—the fired-clay robes still had folds in them, and the archers were tense. If you’re around Richmond, definitely stop in.

After a stop at the Blue Note Grill for BBQ and dancing with a friend, I got into Greensboro just in time be snowed in, but the mistakes I made in my early driving in Nebraska served me well enough that I made it to my gig at Common Grounds.  Just drop it to 3rd and keep under 25.  Despite the snow, we had a full house, as the Rinaldi Flying Circus, Farewell Friend, myself, and new friend Gretchen Pleuss played to folks who walked in from the neighborhood around. 

This morning, I worked on a new instrumental, then got a call from a friend to see if I wanted to help shovel snow for a bit of cash.  There’s all sorts of ways of making money, some more honest than others. Anyhow, it’s on to Carrboro on Friday, Winston-Salem on Saturday, and Greensboro’s Scuppernong Books on Sunday before a hiatus I’ll spend with family and at open mics. Then Lynchburg on the 26th and Richmond again on the 28th before I head back north.

See you on the road!

A Big, Kickin' Thank You!

"When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that for the writer to worry is to take over God's business." 

~Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being

There are two kinds of humbling experiences I've had--the kind where you're prideful enough that the universe needs to take you down a couple notches, and the kind where you're prideful enough to not believe in what it is you're supposed to be doing, and then you get faced with the evidence that YES, THIS IS, NOW STOP WHINING AND DO IT. 

A few years ago, when playing at King's Court Tavern in Leesburg, I had the first kind of experience.  I had driven back up after a recent move to North Carolina, and it was my first solo full-length bar gig.  A bunch of college and music friends came out, and I'd been playing about half an hour when I looked around to notice that they were all talking and laughing and joking and catching up.  But what ran through my head in that moment wasn't gladness that everyone was having a good time, but the cutting thought that "They're not paying attention to ME or to these songs that I wrote." 

Yuck, right? I thought long and hard about that for the rest of the show and afterwards and eventually decided that reaction—natural as it may be, because who doesn’t hope to be heard?—missed the point of all that I’m doing.  Writers write because we must, and because, not just the skill, but the words and stories are a gift that, if you don’t use them, will eventually wither.  As a musician, I’m there to make music and to sing a song—I’m there for the song itself, and to sing it clearly.  And the song can be fun background music, or it can also carry a deeper message for those who have ears to hear.   

An example of the latter kind of experience came after I gave a copy of Nelson County Wayside to a fellow soldier as a thank-you for some favor, and he told me later that it had gotten him through a hard time.  Another time, my fiddling housemate and I were packing up after an evening of busking on Greensboro’s Elm Street.   We’d played a while, and a couple people had dropped a dollar in and kept walking.   I was latching my guitar case when a homeless couple walked up and asked us to play one more tune.   “Sure,” we said, and they sat on their bags in rapt attention, then stopped us with tears in their eyes, thanking us for that bit of beauty in their day.  We tried to refuse the dollar they handed us, but we kept it in a Mason jar to remind ourselves of the importance of beauty over money.

Your support on the Kickstarter project was likewise humbling—some friends new to the music; some who have heard these songs once, years before, and then waited for this EP; and some who graciously gave to support both the last album and this one.  Thank you, and again, thanks to Joe and Stacey Rinaldi of the Rinaldi Flying Circus and Christen Mack of the Zinc Kings and Kelley Wills of Brain Flower Designs.  If you like anything about this album, check out their projects, too!

I’m finalizing the tour schedule, too!  So far I’m playing around Loudoun County, Richmond, Lynchburg, and Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and Carrboro.  You can check out the tour schedule here. 

Thanks again, and see you on the road!

Ever Forward

Life comes in chapters, and sometimes those line up with birthdays.  The weeks before my 29th highlight the pages that have been turning in my life lately.

I spent my birthday weekend on a date with Uncle Sam, at one of my last drills with the Virginia Army National Guard. Thanks to him, I’ve spent one weekend a month traveling up or down the Blue Ridge to the armory in Lynchburg (or Bedford or Farmville), explored a bit along the way, spent more time in Blackstone than anyone ever should, been to Georgia, Arkansas, New York, Texas, and New Mexico for training, and worked overseas in Germany, Qatar, and Romania (with stops in 7 other countries on the way).  It’s been a good ride, and I’ve gotten to do and see some cool things, from riding in helicopters to shooting sniper rifles to volunteering at Doha school sports days to hearing Romanian folk songs sung on a Transylvanian patio. 

Along the way, I got to serve in an organization whose history as the Virginia militia precedes both the Army and the U.S., earned its nickname in the Civil War, its motto in the Great War, its fame at Omaha Beach and the Normandy Campaign, and whose blue and grey patch symbolizes the re-union of a fractured America. 

Most importantly, I got to work with some of the best people I’ve ever known, from Iraq and Afghanistan vets to brand-new privates to sergeants who had been NCOs longer than I’d been alive.  On the civilian side, they have been everything from college students to counselors to policemen to mechanics to farmers to cell tower repairmen.  We’ve shared everything for a little while, from stories that will never be told outside of the ranks, to cigarettes under helmets while the sky came pouring down around us, to soggy plates of Army chow.  Thank you for all of that, and everything you’ve taught me.  “29th, let’s go,” “Rally on the Virginians!” and “Ever Forward!”

I spent the week before drill in Greensboro laying down tracks for a new 4-song EP that will also feature my friends Joe and Stacey Rinaldi of the Rinaldi Flying Circus.  Joe is a fantastic arranger and guitar player, and Stacey is a powerhouse singer who reminds me of Patsy Cline.  The songs are based on short stories by Flannery O’Connor, a Georgia author whose works and vision were a revelation to me in college. Kelley Wills, a West Virginia friend whose clawhammer style is what got me to trade in my Marshall amp for a Gretsch banjo, is also a fantastic artist, and she’ll be doing the cover art for the EP's release in early January.

I also submitted my applications for MFA-Poetry programs next fall and the Cambridge English Language Teaching for Adults certificate.  Traveling; working with local students, budding writers, and people transitioning from different backgrounds; and publishing and performing my own poetry and stories, whether on page or on stage, is what I will be doing with this next chapter of my life.

I spent the weekend before Thanksgiving with my family at my Granddad’s east Carolina farm.  The house was loud, and stories and games went long into the night.

Most of my songs are about running away from home and trying to find your way back.  What I’ve learned, though, from this last year and a half overseas, and coming back, and finding love everywhere I went—even filling up the Facebook wall or my cell phone as dear friends from around the world wished me a happy birthday—is that you can find home anywhere you have chosen to love those around you, and have found yourself loved, too.  My heart is full.

Thanks for listening.  Stay tuned for more details and some sneak peaks on the EP, and come hear the music in Leesburg and Berryville this month!


From Ancient Greek: κατάβασις, from κατὰ "down" and βαίνω "go."

"For dust you are and to dust you shall return."

As the red-flushed leaves send the smell of their rot from beneath our feet, it seems fitting to celebrate the dead.   

I am sitting in the same farmhouse kitchen where, five years ago, I first heard that Bonnie Libby died.  She was killed in her sleep by a deep-vein thrombosis—the clot that had formed in her leg during a train trip broke loose, traveled to her brain, blocked a vessel, and burst it.

Bonnie was the first person to trust me as a writer. She was my faculty advisor in undergrad, and she pushed me to edit the literary journal, present at conferences, teach class workshops on meter, and apply to UNC-Greensboro, where she had earned her PhD.  "You're a writer and a teacher, and it's a teacher's school, she said."

When she passed, I flung words at God like lances, and I tossed a grenade into the structure of what I'd grown up believing and let it burn as I walked away. 

Bonnie's death, and the violence of my reaction to it, forced me to face my demons.  I had a lot, but I found that, as I faced and put a name to them, they grew smaller and lost their power, like cockroaches in the light or mold drying up and blowing away.  Songwriting became my exorcism. 

It hurts, and sometimes it feels like dying.  But that's the point.  What looks like death is the beginning of a new life.  All Hallows' Day is placed right after the fall equinox, when darkness starts crawling earlier and earlier across the earth.  You can hear Old Man Winter sharpening his knife and the death rattle of the trees.  But it's a time to rest, and it's the beginning of the arc that turns at Christmas, where it reaches up toward Easter.  Each of these is preceded by the fasts of Advent and Lent.  

Life is a series of little deaths.  Each opens the way to a bigger life.  We sleep at night, and we can't stay kids forever, and you've seen the old men and women who try to stay 21 their whole lives.  Joseph Campbell writes: "The refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative...whatever house he builds, it will be a house of death, a labyrinth of cyclopean walls to hide from him his Minotaur." 

If you have skeletons in your closet, we all do.  But keep them there, and "what you fear will come upon you."  Pull them out, lay them in the sun, mourn them, then bury the bones.