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.

Igneous, Sedimentary & Metamorphic Rock: Why Grand Canyon Offers The Best Metaphor For Love & Marriage

I adore geology metaphors. Plate tectonics, uplift, magma–are you kidding me? In Grand Canyon last year, even before this trip, I was struck by the way the three types of rock symbolize the growth of a long-term relationship. So struck, in fact, that I wrote a song about it. I’ll let the lyrics explain themselves, ok? It’s called…

Rocks of Ages 

When I first met you, I couldn’t get you

Into my arms fast enough

You said you adored me, you melted down for me

Hot lava lava lava love                  

Two igneous kids, swimming in bliss,

That’s what we were at the start

Now that we’re older, the magma’s grown colder

But we’re still rock solid down deep in our hearts.

[igneous, ok? Plenty of that around Lava Falls in the lower half of the river]

Hot lava lava lava love

Hot lava lava lava love

Rocks of ages, counting the stages

Life is what happens while you make other plans

After so many changes, the only thing strange is

How the earth still moves when you take my hand.

[That’s just the chorus. Now for the sedimentary, the layered stuff:]

Albums in piles, stretching for miles

Children and homes and careers

Stacking our cares and blessings in layers

Years upon years upon years

Life’s mighty stratified, but I’m nothing but satisfied

Let’s go ahead and grow old

Call us sedimentary, we must have been meant to be

‘Cause the age that we’re heading for is looking like gold.

Call us sedimentary...

Call us sedimentary…

Rocks of ages, counting the stages

Life is what happens while you make other plans

After so many changes, the only thing strange is

How the earth still moves when you take my hand.

[here comes the bridge…] 

Who could have seen us, all that passion between us

Living those promises of sickness and health?

I’d like to say I knew, when we said “I do,”

But you know I’d really just be fooling myself.

[and now, finally–metamorphic. Rock whose chemical structure’s been changed by pressure, heat and time. That’s marriage for ya!]

After so long, feelings so strong

Generate forces so vast.

Family pressures, too strong to measure

Uplift a life that will last.

We didn’t plan it, but our love is granite—

Yeah, we got metamorph hearts.

Love in our souls like diamonds from coal

Gives us riches to live on till death do us part.

Yeah, we got metamorph hearts

Yeah, we got metamorph hearts

[my beloved Vishnu Schist!]

Rocks of ages, counting the stages

We entered into with those golden bands

After all of our changes, the only thing strange is

How the earth still moves when you take my hand.

Rocks of ages, counting the stages

We entered into with those golden bands

After all of our changes, the only thing strange is

How the earth still moves when you take my hand.

Yeah, the earth still mooooves when you take my hand.                                 G. Wing, April 2015

See what I mean? 

Oh, want to hear what the song sounds like? Copy & paste the following URL into your browser (sorry, couldn’t get it to work as a link):

C:\Users\Gretchen\Documents\songs\RocksOfAges.MP3

Or maybe you want to share your favorite geology metaphor? Please, rock on!

 

Road Trip VI, Days 4-7: Oakland to Pinnacles National Park: Oh, Those California Hills

When I was 16, my dearest wish was to go to Stanford. No, not true; my dearest wish as to win the heart of a certain blue-eyed California man. But Stanford was second. Not for its courses of study or its resume-boosting power, understand. I was in love with the hills.

I first saw them while out visiting my aunt in the Bay Area. I was a little North Carolina girl, raised in the unspectacular beauty of the rural south. Those golden hills, graceful grass swellings studded with tortuous oaks–I had never seen anything like them. To walk upon them, I felt, would be like walking into a painting. No scruffy underbrush of poison ivy and blackberry. No copperheads. Clean and pure.

(Courtesy Wikimedia; I did not have my camera handy--but can't you just hear them calling you?)

(Courtesy Wikimedia; I did not have my camera handy–but can’t you just hear them calling you?)

I did not get to do that. By the time of collegiate commitment, I was in a deep relationship with that California man–my Mate–who had grown up literally across the tracks from Stanford and scorned all things Cardinal in a visceral way. I stuck to the east coast, and I’ve never regretted that choice. And later visits to this area, seeing my in-laws, taught me that those hills were never as pristine as they looked, being, A) laced with poison oak and B) largely private property, and therefore C) loaded with cow poop. Neither clean nor pure.

But driving past them now, when they’re green with recent rain? My heart is 16 again. Northern California is so freakin’ gorgeous.

I’m reminded of lyrics from one of my favorite songwriters, Kate Wolf:

Here in California, the fruit hangs heavy on the vine

 but there’s no gold, thought I’d warn ya–

and the hills turn brown in the summertime.

Yeah, yeah, I get it, Kate–youthful dreams are just that. Life doesn’t turn out that way. But in my case, it turned out better. Thanks, life.

I’ll write about the Pinnacles later. Right now I’m too busy connecting with my inner teenager.

Does Your Muse Have ADD?

What’s your M.O. when your creative brain refuses to buckle down and do its thing?

Here’s me the other day, arguing with my Muse:

Me: OK, so, Vivian [new character in Book 3] originally was going to ___________, but now I need her to ____________ instead.  [sorry–no spoilers!]

Muse: la, la, la, I can’t hear youuuu….

Me: Help me out here! If Vivian _______ then Jocelyn would have to ___________, and that’s totally out of character.  What should I do?

Muse: Well, I dunno, maybe you could–ooh, shiny! Squirrel! All other indicators that my attention is elsewhere!

Don’t know what you do in this scenario. Me? I took my Muse for a walk in the wind. It took an hour and a half, but when we got back, I had my plot unsnarled, and hey! I got some exercise too.

This has happened to me enough that I even wrote a song about it. Don’t have a recording good enough to share, but all you need are the lyrics:

Muse

My Muse detests the interstate—in fact she hates to drive

But set my bike on a country road and then she might arrive.

My Muse is happiest outdoors; she’s never at the mall

And in a doctor’s waiting room I can’t find her at all.

 

But walk along a windy shore and soon she’s joining me

To whisper, prompt, or point me toward what she needs m to see.

She doesn’t love computer keys, but visits when I think

With notebook full of paper and a pen with real ink.

 

Her favorite drink is Earl Grey—it makes her twirl and leap,

But though wine may make me cheerful, it puts her right to sleep.

She’ll drop in when I exercise; she loves to see me sweat—

Not in a gym all safe and warm, but out in the wind and wet.

 

A nest of pillows on the couch she doesn’t seem to min

But never if there’s company of the distracting kind

Unless it be a small café with loud, generic din

Then she’ll consent to visit me to lay her treasures in.

 

But if I’m stuck inside a car, she’ll trail sadly along

And toss me wisps of poetry to turn into a song.

And though the life I call her to is busy, loud and crude,

She’s granted me these humble lines to show my gratitude.

DSC03360

 

Yeah. So that’s me. What do you do to get your Muse to settle down? Go for a walk, then let me know.

To Copyright or Not to Copyright: Pondering the “Writing” Part of Songwriting

Copyrights? For books, it’s a no-brainer. Duh.

For songs? Well, yes, when I first started writing them, about two and a half years ago, my music teacher persuaded me to go through the copyrighting process as each song came out. Obediently, I did…through the first eight or nine songs. Then I got tired. (And it got expensive! $35 per song adds up!)

And I started wondering…what would happen if I didn’t?

Worst-case scenario: I upload one of my songs to YouTube. It goes viral. Everyone starts singing it. A famous singer picks it up, does a cover, makes a million bucks.

You know the part of that scenario I’m focused on? “Everyone starts singing it.” The million bucks? That singer’s welcome to it. Money is not driving my songwriting impulse. Money, apparently, does not figure anywhere in my calculations.

My books? Yes, definitely. I would love to be paid for them. But they represent hours and hours, weeks, months, years of my life. My songs–maybe a few hours each, no more.

Even more than the time differential, my songs come from a place that is wholly spontaneous, unplanned, even startling…unlike my books, which represent a deliberate and highly-planned career shift.

So…by all means, check out my songs as they begin to appear in cyberspace. Let me know if you’d like the lyrics and chords. Sing them, share them, pass them on. I’ll be nothing but thrilled.

And if Emmylou Harris that famous singer out there ever does a Gretchen Wing cover and makes a million bucks…feel free to remind me of this post if you ever hear me snark about it.

Think I’m being naive here? My mind’s still open on this topic, so feel free to chime in.

A Shout-out to Twenty-Somethings

When’s the last time you told someone you were proud of them?

When’s the last time you said that to an entire generation?

I’ve been meaning to do this for a while. Back in April, having just spent time with my then-21 year-old son, I wrote a song expressing both my regret at leaving him a world with so many problems to deal with in his adulthood, and my pride in his ability to do just that.

Yes, I said April. And it’s now August. But hey, I finally got that song recorded. So today’s post is going to be the words of my song, “Launched.” I couldn’t say it any better in prose.

Here’s your chance to share your own pride in the 20-somethings in your life. Tell me about them! Then go tell them how proud you are. 

The Gift of Confidence: “Gretchen Wing with Chicken Biscuit” Now Feels…Legit

meThis is what I’m doing tonight:

This is my second annual “Gretchen Wing With Chicken Biscuit” concert. The year before we were simply Chicken Biscuit. Then I started writing songs, and something changed.The story’s a little longer than that, but I’ve told it before.

Right now, I just want to compare two Gretchens:

October 2012
Lopez Community Member: “So, you’re giving a concert?”
Gretchen: “Yeah, I know, it feels so weird, I can’t believe I’m actually asking people to pay money to come hear me, I’m just, you know, I’ve never done anything like this before.”

November 2013
Lopez Community Member: “So hey, another concert?”
Gretchen: “Yup! So excited! Hope you’re coming!”

What changed? I’m only a marginally better guitar player than I was a year ago, and I have a long way to go before I reach the level of the wonderful Biscuits who play with me. My voice is probably a little stronger, from a year’s worth of singing.

But the main ingredient of change is CONFIDENCE. By now enough people have told me I am a good singer and a good songwriter that I have finally stopped thinking they are all extra-nice folks with low standards.

I believe I’m good: therefore I am. WHOA. Talk about a life-changing Blinding Flash of the Obvious.

I could probably run with this theme, and who knows where it would take me? But I’m kinda in a hurry here…gotta walk the dog and get the house ready for the post-performance party before heading into town for set-up and sound-checks. (I meant to post this yesterday, but our internet went bye-bye…so it goes!)

So I’ll close with the obvious question: Have YOU had an experience where someone telling you you could do something made it happen? Are you having such an experience now? Please tell me all about it!

 

Spirituality on the Radio, a.k.a. Shame-less Self-promotion

A sweet guy from Wisconsin interviewed me for the radio a few weeks ago. Since I live in Washington (which, granted, has a few similarities with Wisconsin except that they don’t call their U of W “You-Dub” like we do, and our hills are a tad higher), this really is as random as it sounds.

The sweet guy is Mark Helpsmeet, who turns out to be aptly named. He runs a radio program out of Eau Claire, Northern Spirit Radio, which focuses on non-denominational spiritual journeys. Its offshoot, Song of the Soul (title taken from a Chris Williamson song), deals with the musical side of that issue. A friend on my island who had previously been interviewed for Northern Spirit gave Mark my name. After Mark You-Tubed a couple of my very amateur performances, he decided I was a good fit for his program and gave me a call.

Random photo of Mt. Baker at sunrise, inserted because, well, it seems kinda spirity...

Random photo of Mt. Baker at sunrise, inserted because, well, it seems kinda spirity…

I sent him MP3s of some of my songs ahead of time. Then we spent a cheerful hour-plus  phone conversation discussing my music. Since I consider myself an accidental song writer (see https://gretchenkwing.wordpress.com/2013/08/26/sure-i-have-a-website-just-a-sec/   for more on this) this was an easy conversation.

Mark: So where’d you get the inspiration for that term you use, “sufferometer”?

Me: Oh, I just made that up.

See–not exactly Bob Dylan.

So a few days ago Mark sent me the link: “Gretchen, your Song of the Soul is up!” and encouraged me to send it to everyone. He needs to promote his radio program even more than I need to promote my music. Much, MUCH more…since I’m really not feeling any need to promote my music.

So here’s my dilemma. I do want to share Mark’s program for those who are interested, and I do want to share my interview, because, let’s face it, it was FUN to be interviewed for the radio–in WISCONSIN!–while sitting out on my own sunny deck with my dog.

But the program is about spirituality, and the intro, if you listen to it, is VERY, well, spiritual-sounding. NOT churchy, NOT preachy, just…spiritual. And, well…this is my blog. I try very hard not to alienate folks who wander into Wing’s World. My rule is, if I wouldn’t have brought it up in my classroom, I wouldn’t bring it up here.

Here’s what finally weighted the scales: Mark is a great guy who reached out to me. I’d like to help him promote his work. I’m just attaching this caveat so no one thinks, “Wait…WHERE is she headed now, and do I really want to go there?”

The interview itself? Not “spiritual” at all–unless by “spiritual” you mean family/social/political influences such as everyone has.

So, with me so far? Then here’s my suggestion: check out my interview at http://www.northernspiritradio.org/index.asp?command=showinfo&showid=631911164185

Then, if this is your kind of thing and you want to know more, check out the rest of Northern Spirit Radio at its main site, http://www.northernspiritradio.org/

You’ll be glad you did. Mark’s a good guy.

This post does give me the excuse to bring up this question, though, which is one I certainly would have asked my students: What does “spirituality” mean to you anyway? Give me your best definition. When handled respectfully, this is a wonderful topic to share, and it has nothing to do with self-promotion. 🙂

Sure, I Have a Website…Just a Sec…

Last week I launched my nation-wide radio career.

Well, that may be a TEENSY bit of overstatement. But I did do a radio interview with a lovely man named Mark Judkins Helpsmeet, who produces a show out of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, called Song of the Soul. http://www.northernspiritradio.org/  He played a half-dozen of my songs, asking me about each one, and about my journey as a songwriter. A journey that is just beginning, I might add, as in–18 months, give or take. An unplanned, and so far, mostly unguided journey, with no particular destination in mind. Especially not national exposure.

Which may explain why, when Mark asked me if I had a website, I choked.

First I said, “No.” Then I quickly amended with, “I mean, yeah, I do…I mean it’s not a songwriting website or anything, but I do have a blog…I mean, I’m a writer, that’s my real career now, so, yeah…” Then I blurted out the URL.

Mark (kindly): Ah, are you sure that’s correct? URL’s don’t usually have @ in them.

Me (not at all flustered, on national radio): Oh. Yeah. Right. I mixed it up with my email. My website is…just a sec…

When I told this anecdote to a friend later, she asked me, “So if you’re starting to get attention as a songwriter, why DON’T you use that to promote your writing career?”

Ummm…because I’m new to the whole idea of self-promotion and still finding my way in the dark an idiot?

So now I’m thinking: Yeah, why DON’T I? The whole singing-songwriting thing is beginning to generate a life of its own. I’m putting myself out there on the stage, relying on a decent voice and a darn good writing style (I’m certainly not relying on my guitar skills!), so why NOT put myself out there in cyberspace as well? Let’s see what happens, shall we?

So, to begin: here are two clips from a recent community concert on Shaw Island, the next ferry stop over. I didn’t realize, when I accepted the invitation to participate, just how GOOD the other musicians were, and I had the interesting luck of following a FOURTEEN YEAR-OLD future phenom onstage–which explains the intro of this first song. My friend Bruce got totally jostled while trying to record me, so if you can’t handle the jumpy camera, just close your eyes and listen, ok? It’s a good song.

The second song’s intro got cut off, but I have to sneak it in here ’cause I’m proud of it. I said, “I wanted to write a good ol’-fashioned My-baby-left-me song, but my baby never has left me, so I had to use my imagination.” 🙂

So, hey. Whether you listened to the songs or not (how’m I gonna know? It’s not like I count YouTube hits or anything), I’d like to hear from you. Why is self-promotion so hard? Is it harder for women, do you think? Does it get easier? Or maybe it should never get too easy? Let me hear!