The ??th Annual What I’m Thankful For List

Thanksgiving is still several days away as I write this. But the more I contemplate the fearful unknowns and the ugly knowns of my country, the more I feel like turning back into a third grader and writing my I Am Thankful For list. This is one is completely off the cuff; I’m not even wearing cuffs. Just letting my mind ramble over bright spots. Like…

–having a job where I get to work with interesting, supportive people, and to make stuff like this:

(Courtesy Stephanie Smith and Holly B's Bakery)

(Courtesy Stephanie Smith and Holly B’s Bakery)

–having friends to sing with at (very nearly) the drop of a hat:

(Photo: Anne Whirledge-Karp)

(Photo: Anne Whirledge-Karp)

–being able to enjoy other people’s dogs vicariously, since we no longer have one:

"Which hand has the treat?" "Both?"

“Which hand has the treat?” “Both?”

Road Trips to visit Cute Cousins (more on this later):

"Quick, hide their ice chest! Then they can't leave!"

“Quick, hide their ice chest! Then they can’t leave!”

Will I be doing more of this in the coming months? Yes. Does it help? Yes. Yes. Yes.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Count whatever blessings you can, and be careful of one another.

Oh, and if you’d like to share some of your blessings here, I would love that.

When Country Songs Get Real: Robbie Fulks and the Bittersweet of Shared Nostalgia

I’m not a fan of country music. I tend to stereotype it as being about–well, stereotypes. Easy to dismiss that ol’ achey-breaky-pickup-trucky twang as having nothing to do with my life.  

But I’ll listen to anyone who is a) an excellent musician, and b) someone I went to high school with. Robbie Fulks is both. So when I saw that he was touring in Bellingham, a couple of hours away (including ferry ride), of course I went.

Robbie played with a fiddler friend, Shad Cobb, at the Green Frog, an appropriately grungy tavern, and did us middle-agers the favor of starting before 7:30 and ending at 9. Of course, he’s a middle-ager himself, having graduated three years behind me. His voice is as sweet as ever–think Willie Nelson mixed with John Denver–and his lyrics even sharper. Seems in middle age, Robbie has decided to take his lyrics back to Chapel Hill in the mid-late 70s. And there in the beery dark of the Green Frog, he took me too.

Robbie showed up my sophomore year when his dad took a job teaching history at Carolina Friends School. Picture this ridiculously adorable 13 year-old with long golden curls, crooked teeth and dimples. His dad took him along to the Upper School retreat at the start of the year, and on the last night Robbie played in our talent show. In a voice way, way beyond his years, he crooned that early 60s song, “Earth Angel.”  “Earth angel…earrrrrrrth angel….please be miiine…my darling dear, love me all the tiiiime…” And my girlfriends and I fell madly in love.

OK–in crush. I mean, the kid was 13. And as we all grew older, Robbie became less of a phenom and more of a friend. I can’t say he was a close one of mine because, by the time he entered high school, I was a lofty senior, taking classes and running track at nearby Duke University and spending barely two hours a day on my old campus. I went with my friends to hear Robbie when he played at local clubs, but I all but lost track of him when I left for college.

One tie kept me in touch. One of my three besties, two years behind me in school, was close friends with Robbie’s girlfriend, M. When she told me that Robbie had gotten M. pregnant I wasn’t surprised. What was surprising to me, back in the early 80s, was that they decided to get married, at age 19.

Fast-forward now about 35 years. I attended a CFS reunion in 2015, and spent time with the woman who first married Robbie and had his son. M. and Robbie split long ago, but saw each other amicably at their son’s wedding.

I mention all this now not to gossip, but just as a backdrop, so that you know what I was thinking about when Robbie sang his new song, “Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals.” Not only is it apparently about the time when young love changed his life and M’s forever, it contains details so specific that only someone from central North Carolina would understand: “the Airport side of Franklin Street”–the coolest hangout in Chapel Hill. “Northgate Mall”–less cool (and darker, if you listen to the song). And dear Tommy Thompson, founder of the Red Clay Ramblers and dad of our friend Jessie.

This song is about my people. And that means it’s about me. I may not have been one of Robbie’s “Carolina Gals,” but I’m still one. This hits close to home.

I went up and hugged Robbie after the show, small-talked for about a minute (while other folks waited in line), and bought his album. I’ve been listening to it. And now I can’t stop wondering…how many of those cliched country songs out there are animated by similarly specific, poignant, bittersweet reality?

Think of any genre of music you’re not comfortable with. Maybe it’s country, like me. Maybe hip-hop, maybe opera. But maybe, as I’m learning to do, if we listened more closely, we could feel that sweet connection of shared pain or joy. What but good could come of that? 

Thanks, Robbie, from this middle-aged Carolina Gal.

Notes to Self: Everything I Know About Myself I Learned From My New Guitar

Nothing like a major life purchase to force you to look your character straight in the eye. When I bought my first guitar this week, I learned about a few traits. Or re-learned. (Sigh.)

First of all, yes, I’ve owned a guitar since 1981. But that one was given to me in a typically generous but not well-thought-out impulse by my father, who didn’t consult me on what kind of guitar his college-student daughter might like. This week’s purchase was my first EVER. Here’s what I (re)learned about myself:

Trait #1: Good Enough is Good Enough. No matter that the string action of my 1981 guitar is so high I had to have the bridge lowered, and it STILL kills my fingers to play an F chord. No matter that the dreadnought body is so large and wide I get shoulder aches when I play too long. When I have something that works okay, I hang onto it forever, even when I know I don’t have to. Loyalty? Cheapness? Efficiency? Laziness? Eco-friendliness? All of the above?

Trait #2: Big Decisions Make Me Feel Small. Even with one music buddy at my side to ask all the right questions and help me listen for the right sounds; even with detailed notes on guitars researched by another music buddy; even with that second music buddy adding his two cents via speakerphone, I still felt like a little girl in that guitar shop. Overwhelmed. Unqualified. Unworthy. False modesty? Real modesty? Chickenshitedness? Fear of not living up to my own musical hopes and dreams? All of the above?

Trait #3: I Won’t Apologize For Being Cheap When Being Not-Cheap Feels Wrong. I went into that guitar shop with a $600 price limit in mind. I knew that was the low end, and I can give you all the arguments of friends who tried to talk me into looking at guitars over three times that much. “You’ve had that guitar 35 years; you’ll likely have the next one for at least a couple more decades.” “You’re playing so much more now–you’re worth it.” “Think of how much better a musician you’ll be with a better instrument to live up to.” “You can afford it–why sell yourself short?” My answer: I don’t want to feel like my instrument is way above me in quality. I’m 54, I have a wonderfully balanced life, and I’m never going to devote enough time to music to be the kind of guitarist who needs a $2,000 guitar. I’m buying a new guitar for a better physical fit, not an upgrade. Therefore my cheapness is not simply cheapness–it’s sense.

Nice...spendy, but nice...

Nice…spendy, but nice… (next 3 photos courtesy Beth Geever)

Yes, I did try out a $1,000 guitar. I might even have bought it if the fretboard had felt right. But it didn’t. And that $2,5000 one? I tried it too, and it sounded and felt beautiful…except to my gut. Which I listened to.



Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

It's laminate...but it's still pretty. And Guitar Friend #2 assured me only the top of the guitar matters when it comes to sound.

It’s laminate…but it’s still pretty. And Guitar Friend #2 assured me only the top of the guitar matters when it comes to sound.

YES. Come on home with me, darlin’. Let’s make beautiful music together.

Meet "Di."

Meet “Di.”

I walked out of that shop with a beautiful $600 guitar, and one more (re)discovery:

Trait #4: I Value Family and Friends Above Everything, Even Music. I would never have considered going guitar shopping without their encouragement (my Mate’s especially), and I never would have returned home with “Di” without their help.

So I’m curious. Any major purchases in your life had that holding-up-the-mirror effect on you lately? Please share!