Mountain High – River Deep

The Adirondack’s rose above half iced-over lakes.  With their peaks no longer blanketed by snow, but still frozen in time, they are rampart reminders of age-old battles and lifelong challenges.  From the windshield of the old ‘98 band-van, we gazed upon vistas once seen through Iroquois eyes and still echoing Algonquin tongue and trapper accents of old world France. It all seems to harken back to a day when the Saranac, Sacandaga, and the Oswegatchie ruled the valleys alone, free from the shadows of concrete trails and iron trellises.

It’s difficult to think of a more powerful, albeit over-used metaphor for life’s ups and downs.  But for a small indie-band starting anew, on our first long tour together, the paradise that is defined by high reaches and ancient flows seems tailor-made for our pursuits alone.

The trials and travails of this band, not to mention my own personal journey over this past year are stories as stark as any granite cliff and as raging as any forever-wild river.  This trip north, with a new band and a new record, seemed improbable at best, just a few short months ago.  I admit that when compared to a visceral example of life and death, playing music seems a hard sell to put into the same category.  But when music is your life, the death of it is as unacceptable as any, and you ford whatever cold water and scale any ridiculous pitch you must for one more chance to place a chord into harmony and to state your business through rhythm and rhyme.

So we made a new record and endeavored to load a van and find anyone and everyone we could sing to.  We left Nashville behind for stages that stretched out over 7 days, 9 states and 2,600 miles.  The not-just-metaphorical mountains of the Adirondacks gave way to fertile farmland dotted by generational barns and Amish simplicity, just mere miles from the Canadian border.  We played a benefit in a North Country family restaurant for women celebrating their victory over cancer and other women just beginning their journey.  We played the storied Pickens Hall – dating back to the mid-1800’s.  We loved playing for Huevelton’s schoolchildren in the morning, half excited to be part of the band’s day and maybe more than half excited to be out of school for a few hours.  We played radio stations oddly eager for new music, a vineyard enthusiastically dancing to fiddle tunes, drinking wine-slushies’ and exercising their love for a good time.  We also played a wonderful Jewish temple and community center, filled with people who followed along to every word, even when we did not.  In between it all, we sat around meaningful kitchen tables with good friends and sang songs.  We played music on an Amish front porch and drove an Amish buggy.  We ate Cowboy Burgers after the crowds went home and further down the road, we drank with old friends in an even older bar in Connecticut.

I’m proud of our little band of three, as well as the musicians, friends and fans who have stuck with us and who have chosen to continue sharing our space.  In a very short time, we will be telling you all about the new record, how to buy it and of our always bigger-than-life plans to bring the music to your town.

I do love the life of independent music making, despite the challenges brought before us or even sometimes created by us.  It’s all absolutely worth it.  Mountains are indeed high and rivers are for sure deep.  The alternatives, however, are neither.

Mark Elliott – Runaway Home
“It’s The Music That Makes Us Smile”

Adirondacks 8

Oliver’s Big Shoes to Fill

It’s been an exhausting few weeks of making the new Runaway Home record, but I can safely say that I’m tired from making music rather than tired of making music.  What a difference that one word makes.  We have loved every minute of it.  We are trying hard to have the new CD finished in time to take it with us on our Upstate New York tour in April.  If that was the only task before us it would be daunting for sure, but it’s just one of many, making the whole thing a fairly ridiculous notion.  Non-the-less, we are bound and determined to birth this baby in what will end up being less than two months time.

Subscribing to the life and model of #indieband is more than just making music on your own terms.  It’s a commitment to doing nearly everything yourself and understanding that the making of the music is the least of what we do.  Often times in a normal day of indie band life we’re not making music at all.  The trade-off of not being on a label and having the freedom that independence gives us, is that we also don’t have a staff of people doing all the behind the scenes work.  We are lucky to have Marilee Chipoletti doing the booking and managing the hot mess of making cold calls, but nearly every other job falls to us.

Social media is a bane and a blessing, and in constant need of being fed new content.  A typical day is updating Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the 12 other platforms we service.  We are mailing out posters and CD’s and writing emails to countless people we think may be in a position to help us.  We are strategizing, outlining, assigning tasks to each other, bookkeeping, selling merchandise and panicking about it all at the same time.  In-between that, we are rehearsing, enduring the ever-constant Nashville lung crud, making a record, editing a video and then at the last possible moment, loading the van and heading off to play a gig.

This is not meant to be a complaint blog, but it’s easy to see when in a list form, that being in an indie band can be more about the business than it is the music – even more so than if we were commercial label sellouts.  Okay, I take the word “sellout” back.  We all know that “sellout” is the word #indiebands use when we’re not the darlings the industry is interested in anymore.  I know that our hard work now on building the band up and getting the new record out will lead to more and more opportunities to play our music, but I want it to happen faster.  I want it to happen at least as fast as my hair is disappearing! Now that I think about it, I need it to happen even faster!

I look at other artists who have come before us and who have pulled off music careers throughout nearly every decade of their lives and that gives me hope and motivation to keep after it.  However, the real reminder of why we work so hard to make music comes in those short stretches of 45 or 90-minute sets, in font of both hometown crowds and far away faces.  No amount of social media, videos, CD’s or merchandise sales compare to the rush and confirmation of playing our music in front of people who want to hear it.  I think we were all reminded of that this weekend.  We took the show a couple of hours down the road to Monteagle and Jim Oliver’s Smokehouse.  We have played there often and have finally built up a nice following.  It’s always affirming to make live music.  We played old songs and new songs, some of them just as we intended and others of them a little off-script.  That’s the magic of playing live.  You never know what’s going to happen during a song.

That night we struck up a fiddle tune (excessively fast – as usual) called “Salt Creek.”  About midway through our (truck with no brakes, heading down a mountain pass) rendition of the song, our bass player pointed a young boy off the side of the stage with his ball cap and cowboy boots on, clogging for all he was worth.  Taking a three-second break from my cramping fingers, I motioned him up to the stage.  He ran up on stage with a big smile and never looked back.  He danced for the next couple of minutes as if nothing else mattered.  He grabbed the moment presented him and made the most of it.  Music, never mind life in general, is all about moments, enjoying them and making the most of them.  Oliver’s fast-flying, snub-nosed cowboy boots were at first glance, small – but they represented for me, and I think the rest of the band, mighty big shoes to fill.

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White Snow On Top – Black Ice Underneath

We’ve had some difficult days here in Nashville the past two weeks or so.  It’s been a less than gentle reminder of how Mother Nature can define more than just the weather.   Snow, ice, frigid temperatures and the good life.  On the surface, they don’t seem to go hand in hand.  Getting the front door to open over three inches of ice, much less driving on it to get to work has been one fail after another.  School kids are driving themselves and their parents crazy with cabin fever folly, the trees have bent over and snapped along with the electric lines.  The old can of soup I was saving for that perfect storm-ravaged day, well, it seems to have defied the cliché of lasting forever.  Thankfully, the beer in the fridge is still ice-cold because the house is the same temperature as the powerless fridge.

For longer than those of us below the Mason-Dixon Line can stand, we’ve struggled to see temperatures anywhere close to freezing on the top end.  In fact, we’ve endured many days of teens and single digit madness.  Before my good friends in the northern states like Massachusetts and New York begin making tiny violin gestures or asking if I’d like a little wine with my cheese, I will have to say, yes, you do have it worse.  I’ve seen your roof-high snowdrifts, your -17 degree temperatures and a relentless onslaught of snow-pocalypse blizzards.  But you are hearty, far more used to it and own more pairs of snow chains than we do trampolines and satellite dishes.  We also have one thing in Nashville that would surely bring your Paul Bunyan meets Yeti toughness to its knees.  Nashville drivers!  Yes, that one entity that can turn a shallow dusting of snow into a legitimate fear-for-your life event.  We drive too fast on roads that look slightly dry and oh so pretty, then at the first sign of glistening ice, we do what any full-fledged moron would do.  We slam whole-heartedly and without any reservation upon our brakes.  What happens next is the predictable train wreck of our car hitting the next car and the next 10 cars and then the entire parking lot full of us, go off into the ditch.

When it comes to weather and driving in it, especially in the south, it’s what’s underneath the surface that should concern you.  What’s underneath?  The unknown.  The deadly and the dreamy.  That concept got me thinking about my default love of course, that of music and all things creative.  That’s probably because a life in the arts is not far from the bumper-to-bumper slip and slide disaster that defines late winter driving in Tennessee.

It should come as no surprise that Runaway Home has used these past few weeks of paralyzing weather to begin our own slipping and sliding through our sophomore album project.  Maybe because two-thirds of Runaway Home have official northern driving bonafides, with Gary learning to drive in the streets of Boston and me in Washington, D.C.  Maybe it’s because Malinda is a cross between Joan of Arc and a fiddle-playing Annie Oakley, but no matter what it is – this band has proven undaunted of late.  Considering the natural and unnatural storms we have endured since January, the album is coming along oddly easy. We are trying our hardest to get this new album out in time for our New York tour in April.  It’s hard to tell which will arrive first, our UPS boxes of CDs or a complete snowmelt under the Amish wagons in Heuvelton, NY.  Winter is long up there, but I wouldn’t bet against us.

A combination of old songs and brand new ones have settled in quickly and we are having the time of our lives playing them together.  Although Gary and I have played together for nearly 25 years and Malinda has been with the band, at least on fiddle for the past year or so, we are learning to be a brand new band together – and that’s just too much fun.  We’ve navigated the obvious surface obstacles of recording, like picking the correct tempos, finding the right keys and harmony inversions, deciding where the solos should be and who is going to play which instrument on what song.  We have barely begun to scratch the surface of the unknown that lies underneath.  We are randomly hitting on the subtle hidden meaning of a line in a last verse or stumbling across that doubled melody lick that we didn’t see coming until it was too late – in a good way.  I can’t wait to see what else we come across and dig up in the last month of recording and in all the months to come.

It’s easy to love the big white snowflakes and rush into them headlong only to find black ice and unsure footing.  The black ice is scary and often times lands one far from the comfort of the painted lines.  I won’t wax-philosophic on the driving part though, because in Nashville, that’s just plain lunacy.  As far as music goes however, give me as much black ice as you’ve got.  We love to play the notes, write the words and find the harmonic convergence that I never saw coming.   We don’t even mind spinning out from time to time.

Mark Elliott – Runaway Home
“It’s the Music That Makes Us Smile”

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Wishbones, Backbones And  A Bone To Pick

This week I saw a newspaper clipping shared on Facebook about raising teenagers.  It was essentially parenting advice from a judge.  Advice from anyone on parenting always makes me a bit leery.  I always wonder if it’s coming from someone either without kids or from someone still trying to validate their own lack of a childhood.  The article in question was full of fortune cookie-meets-Reader’s Digest nuggets.  Like both of those literary legends, the article was just true enough that I couldn’t completely disagree with it.  So why after reading it did I feel like I needed to take a shower, walk outside in the sunshine or just generally purge.  It complained that teens are ungrateful, irresponsible and wanted everything handed to them.  It went on to imply that society should not spare the rod in disseminating the hardened truth that children, like the rest of us, are just small pieces of a larger whole. There was one statement, about halfway through the article that got my back up and prompted me to change altitudes right there in my office chair (otherwise known as self-righteous levitation.)  The old judge said, “Grow up, stop being a crybaby, get out of your dream world and develop a backbone and not a wishbone.” Now, I’m a devotee of the wishbone-backbone metaphor.  It shows up in the music that I love and is even plastered across the kitchen appliance I love even more (which is a whole other problem).

Night Sky was a mountain duo in Snowshoe, West Virginia.  I saw them when I was barely 13 years old, just when I was in my duck imprinting stage of music loving.  Their LP, “The Road That Take Us Home” is still a seminal record for me.  In it, with guitars, banjos and flutes, they sing, “Your wishbone’s connected to your backbone and that’s all you ever need to know.”  On my refrigerator, the aforementioned appliance, I have a cardboard sign where I wrote down Tom Paxton’s advice on my first night in Nashville some 25 years ago.  He told me not to wait on songs, but to work tirelessly at tracking them down.  The phrases, now faded on the cardboard but etched forever in my ethos are, “Inspiration is connected to discipline” and “Disappointment makes you bitter or better.” Night Sky was right and Tom Paxton was right.  So why do the words of the old judge strike me so wrong?  Maybe it was the “crybaby” part or the sentence that came after.  “Start behaving like a responsible person.”  Yep, I think that’s it!  Responsibility, civic duty and selflessness are all fine goals and rightful expectations, but to attain them in lieu of dreams, wishes and feeling special seems a tough sell even to me at 47, so good luck with selling it to a teenager.  Ego, whether wielded by an unruly teenager or a snarky judge, is something I don’t mind people having in extra supply, but especially the young.  This world is at times very hard and unforgiving, and it can be quite unfair in its dissemination of life lessons.  Life tears at self-esteem with near Gail-force power.  So much so, that if you don’t go into the world with a little extra wind in your sails, enough to push back with, you’ll come up way short of the necessary confidence to navigate the world, and at the very minute that you need it the most.

You might ask what this blog subject has to do with Runaway Home or music in general.  A fair-enough question.  Well, nothing…and everything.  Artists of any age are not all that unlike teenagers.  Artists working in every possible medium, leverage societal expectation against one good shot at the extraordinary, and they do so on a daily basis.  Artists like teenagers, appear self-centered and overwrought with emotion, until you see that their art reflects the true world around them and low and behold, it turns out that they were listening to everything the entire time.  As far as being an artist or a good human being is concerned, nothing is more important than work ethic and follow through, except for maybe the dream itself.  Hard work without dreams is just misplaced enthusiasm.  Bottom line.  There’s no use in having a backbone if you got no wishbone.

Mark Elliott – Runaway Home
“It’s the music That Makes Us Smile”

Mark Boy Guitar

 

We Are The “They” – A Rant!

Nashville is a fine place to live!  Last weekend I went to see our treasured symphony play in our world-class hall, the Schermerhorn.  They played selections from Leonard Bernstein and Dvorak’s 1893 New World Symphony.   The night started as it always does for us, up in the wine bar listening to a pre-performance lecture.  On this night, it featured the symphony’s concert Master Jun Iwasaki.  For thirty minutes, Jun gave us an inside view of the work he puts in off stage and outside of symphony hall.  He works on bowing patterns for upcoming pieces and with the conductors to help bring their vision of a piece to life, not to mention the myriad of tasks in his role on stage and off stage, as the conductor’s liaison with the symphony.  He may not be hauling in amps and speakers into a smoke-filled bar or hauling them out at 2am into the back of a barely street-worth Jeep Cherokee (or maybe he is,) but his is just another example of how much work goes on with musicians behind the scenes of what we all see on stage.

The concert was as always, expertly played and heartfelt.  After the concert, like most nights, there is an informal gathering with the conductor and the soloist at the back of the hall for another short lecture and Q&A session.  On this night, it was guest conductor, Maestro Lawrence Foster and the brilliant Russian born pianist Kirill Gerstein.  Barely ten of us showed up in the last rows of the hall for the after-performance talk.  It began with the Foster giving us some funny and insightful anecdotes about the pieces and the times in which they were written.  There was also some inside baseball on what it’s like to tackle such pieces as a conductor versus a soloist.  All very interesting, but quickly overshadowed by a single question from a young woman in the audience, probably in her early 20’s.  She asked of Larry Foster, simply and directly, did he have any advice for a young concert conductor looking to break into the business.  He replied curtly, “don’t do it!”  The reply seemed the standard joke and it received the obligatory laughs, but he was serious, sadly serious.  He stated that he had never seen the state of music, especially live performance, so fragile and seemingly anemic.  He said to her, “I’m not sure there will be a business of music for you to make your living in by the time you educate yourself, work hard and take the necessary risks, and I am devastated to tell you that.”  At 73 years old, Larry Foster has truly seen it all and done it all, so his diagnosis of where the state of the arts is heading, is both damning and difficult to refute.

That single question and answer sparked an open discussion about arts education, arts funding and the overall role of arts in a society.  Though alarming, it was incredibly refreshing to have this discussion outside of my own narrow field of country, acoustic and bluegrass music, and with people so incredibly credentialed, that they could have their say without worrying about whose toes they were stepping on.  We talked about how competitive the slots in almost any symphony have become as competitive as slots on a commercial album have become.  And when you get the slot, the pay is rarely what your work or talent level deserves.  We talked about how the public is far less supportive of live performance than they once were and certainly less interested in paying the kind of money they would be willing to pay at a sporting event or a night out drinking.

Maestro Foster talked of his second home in Italy.  He angrily denounced Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon and three-time Prime Minister of Italy for his evisceration of the arts in that country.  Berlusconi, through his Minister of Culture, had a habit of opening many of the country’s famous opera houses during daytime hours in order for tourists to visit.  They would take pictures behind red velvet ropes and return home with a musical snow globe of the very place where opera was born.  However, those same opera houses were shuttered to performances at night, due to the lack of funding.  That brought about a spirited discussion of public government funding versus private grant funding of the arts and the role politics and big business plays in the withering of a once vibrant art scene.  There were no shortages of people and entities to be blamed during that conversation and rightfully so.  But it got me thinking.

The powerlessness that comes from blaming others is exponential.  I don’t think Maestro Foster was intentionally skirting personal responsibility; in fact, he struck me as a passionate warrior for the arts.  However, the demise he so angrily and eloquently laid out, ultimately can be laid at our own feet.  For example, as independent musicians, angry with corporations for their thievery and one-sided contracts, we ultimately began giving our music away in trade for email sign-ups, Facebook likes and the promise to attend one of our future live shows.  The same live show no doubt, that was already free or severely undervalued.  The worth of a song, a performance or any art, especially art based on intellectual property, seems not a victim of murder as much as it does suicide.

Taxpayers decide what governments spend on programs in the end and somewhere along the way, our priorities changed for the worse.  Considering our embarrassing cutback in the arts in grade school and high school, and that the current generation is growing up with the 99 cent song or the free download as an expectation, I am not optimistic about those tax priorities changing any time soon.  It’s like watching a slow-motion accident on endless loop.

This is a topic worthy of another blog, or maybe one thousand more blogs.  It is definitely worthy of more thought and soul-searching than the reactive soap-boxing I have mustered here.  That said I have come to one conclusion about art and culture priorities in this country and around the world.  It’s the same conclusion I have always come to when confronted with all other social or economic ills.  When we say, “they are doing this and they are refusing to do that,” we somehow have forgotten that we are the “they.” We are the “they.”

I just wonder what “they” are going to do about it now.

Mark Elliott – Runaway Home
It’ the Music That Makes Us Smile

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Hey, How Do You Like Our Moment?

Photographs capture one moment in time.  The only message they are truly meant to convey is the emotion that exists in-between the opening and the closing of the shutter.   The honest thing about photographs, even if they are in the digital realm, with filters and unending editable attributes, is that they can’t help but be what they are in a fraction of a second.  Nothing you add to them later, though endlessly creative, can change what is real about the time in which the image was taken.

Making music live and even in the studio is similar.  You can add EQ, reverb, tune the flats and the sharps, and even move bits of information around to form a new phrase.  But for better or worse, the root of it all is still just one moment in time. I love technology and have generally defended its usefulness and impact on all things creative.  I think what has always made me accepting of it and unafraid of it is that no matter the incredible modifications you can make with it, the original, momentary brush with creativity defines every derivative after.

In the midst of all the changes in the band of late, we are back in the studio working hard on our sophomore record.  Though it’s not a live record in the traditional sense, we are keenly aware of the importance of letting the notes fall where they will, trying our best to allow the emotion to form a moment worth capturing, and then doing so in a way that honors those moments and the music within them.  Perfection is something we have banned from the process. Doing so is not all that hard really.  We just have to be a little braver than our nature.  Half the battle in protecting our music from perfection is already won, long before the first chord was ever struck on this album.  You don’t have to be a musician or a creative soul to be reminded on a daily basis that perfection is a ship that sailed the minute we became human beings.  Learning not to chase some semblance of perfection after the fact is arguably the rub.

We’ve gathered in my studio, Cub Creek Sound, two times in as many weeks and we have already laid down six songs.  It helps that the three of us have played music together for several years and that Gary and I have recorded music together now for nearly twenty-five years.  But the times are new and the balance of the music has changed.  As much as that presents a challenge, it is also a beautiful opportunity to snap the shutter on moments that we have not been privy to before.  That’s exciting.

I have very expensive studio gear, with a lot of lights and buttons, but in the end, it’s not all that different from the shutter button on my old Polaroid camera.  I press the letter R on my keyboard and though we’ve played the song a hundred times before, we are capturing the sound of the record in one three-minute shutter lapse.  It won’t be exactly the way we played it the time before or even the time after.  Close maybe, but never identical.  Our ethos for this record is to allow the songs to be what they will be in any given moment.  If we don’t think we can live with the take we have forever and ever, we try it again.  But we are not interested in 90-degree corners or long straight lines on this record.  We want to take a snapshot in time.  If we like it, then that is the way you will hear and remember the song forever.  No pressure, but some moments are indeed important.

The process has been natural, without worry and judgment, but far from perfect. I think the sounds we have captured so far, whether its Gary’s Collings’ guitar or my old Martin D-35, have real life in them and I know that is true of Malinda’s mountain fiddle.  We’re going to lay our vocals down next and if the universe is fair and we are being honest, I think the words will fall out the way they were intended to.

I suppose we may have to change the verbiage we use with industry professionals, reviewers and fans.  No longer will I ask, “Do you like our song?”  Or “Do you like our record?”  I think I’ll ask instead, “Hey, how do you like our moment? That’s all they are really, just moments in time, and they will never come again.  New ones will, but these moments won’t.  I kinda’ like that way of making music.  To tell you the truth, I kinda’ like that way of living life too.

Mark Elliott – Runaway Home
“It’s The Music That Makes Us Smile”

Studio 5

 

 

It’s The Music That Makes Us Smile

It’s funny that I haven’t thought of our overall blog series title as being a title of an individual post yet, until today.  Sometimes the most obvious of life’s offerings show up when you least expect them to, and hit with the blunt force of epiphany.  Losing a hold on the obvious is one of life’s more prickly annoyances.  The frustration of losing track of things is at the very least, mitigated by finally finding them again, and in some special cases, being afforded reminders of a greater purpose.  I should know.  I lose things all the time.

Car keys, wallets, watches and my damn shoes tend to be my favorite items to lose on a daily basis.  My frantic, last-minute search usually ends with finding them in old familiar places, like my studio desk, the car, the driveway and the jeans I have on at the moment.  After a good thirty minutes of cussing, stomping and the general espousal of convoluted philosophy, often times the lost is even found embarrassingly, in my own hands. The relief of finding what I need when I need it the most is so great, that it may well enable my losing of it again and again, just get that feeling back.  The return of the prodigal keys or the wanderlust wallet is celebrated with a party that looks like the first time reunion has ever taken place.  Cue the image in your mind of the clichéd movie scene where two long-lost lovers run towards each other in dramatic slow motion, finally meeting in an, it’s-all-ok  embrace.  Yeah, that’s usually the scene between my wallet, my car keys and me.

These last few weeks in Runaway Home have been somewhat like the hair-pulling madness of losing what I need, on a daily basis.  The scramble that accompanies change and growth is not unlike the chaos of running late and not being able to start the car or find my damn shoes.  Last weekend we did start the car though; we found our damn shoes, and we went back out on the road.  Florida and the 30A Songwriter’s Festival wound up being much more than just another series of gigs or miles to count down.  It was an affirmation. It was forward momentum.  It was rediscovery.  And it was fun.

We stepped onto the stage at 723 Whiskey Bravo for our very first gig together.  As the songs began to spill out from the set list, the harmonies started to envelop our stage space and the old guitars and fiddles made the sound of new music together, something wonderful began to happen.  What was once lost was found again.  The audience, already primed for a close connection, were with us.  They smiled and laughed in all the right paces.  They nodded their heads in affirmation when a lyric, a fiddle or guitar lick meant something to them.  The hard road of change began to smooth out.  The worry and second-guessing of forward momentum gave way to being alive in the moment. The clamor for keys to start the car, for wallets to cover the expenses, for watches to measure the time, for our damn shoes, and all that we use in our daily lives, died back.  What we were left with was a most important reminder.  It’s the music that makes us smile.

Mark Elliott – Runaway Home
“It’s the Music That Makes Us Smile”

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