Saturday, October 15, 2011

4 Seasons of Music

Every few years or so, I find the music I am listening to completely defines a point in time. Where synchronicity steps in -- suddenly I am in my own movie, there is a sound track, and I will forever equate that period in my life with those songs.

This has been one of those years for me. I love it when that happens! Like all the other mysteries in life, you can’t plan or explain when and why these things happen. But I have 4 CDs to share that are now part of my DNA.


My first road trip was through the back roads of Illinois. Barren trees and farm land rolling all around. Someone had given me a copy of “Time On Earth” by Crowded House. Just as I hit The Great River Road on the Mississippi, the song “Say That Again”  started playing and everything changed from black and white into color. Neil Finn, so ethereal and sophisticated. His voice soared like the hawks I saw circling above me on that winter day. I think I hit repeat a dozen times. “Don’t Stop Now” will always remind me of silos and red barns and frozen rivers by the banks of snow. This CD has a rhythm to it that says keep going, keep driving, even when everything around you feels dead, there is life, and where there is life, there is hope.


Years ago, I met a singer songwriter named Ariane Lydon. She is a devastatingly talented woman. She plays the harp, 12- string guitar, and many other instruments. She was single at the time and raising her son. She gave me her CD “Lady Of The Green."   I remember listening to it then and really liking it. This spring I fell in love with it. So many CDs have an agenda these days. So many songs are written with hooks that want to manipulate. I get worn out by these songs. While driving to Ann Arbor, her rich deep voice seemed to call out from the woods and left me crying uncontrollably in my car. This CD plays like a haunting, unrequited love story that could have been written hundreds of years ago. All in all it’s a masterpiece. Ariane seems to go from death to life and finally to a place of reckoning. With all the spring flowers blooming around me, “Lady Of The Green” woke something up inside of me that had been sleeping for a long time.


So there I was, sitting in my chair, tuning my guitar and getting ready to play a gig at a club in Minneapolis. In walks Ben Kyle from the group Romantica. He is wearing a hat, has a flower on his guitar, and speaks with a soft Irish accent.  He totally blew me away. Just when you think you’ve heard all the great songs and all the great voices there are in the world, it amazes me that still today, some stranger can walk in and sing a song and rearrange all the molecules in your body. I can’t say enough about Ben Kyles songs or his CD “America."  I wore it out this summer. It’s one of the best Americana genre CDs I’ve heard in years. It has horns, great catchy choruses. It makes you want to eat a taco and polka and “Drink The Night Away." Music to dance to and fall in love to. Perfect summer CD. Every time I listen, there are stars above and fireflies below.


The North Shore, Minnesota. It’s not an ocean, or is it? They say it’s a lake, but I don’t know. There are waves, ships, lighthouses and jutting rocks. Mmm? I brought a CD along that I really wanted to listen to on the North Shore. My sound track for the year came to a zenith on this drive. “Under The Skin” by Lindsey Buckingham came out in 2007. Its his acoustic CD. This guy can get more out of a guitar vocal performance then I don’t know what. When his voice goes from that soft whisper to his wild banshee scream, I feel like an animal that has been gripped by the scruff of the neck and fall limp. His version of the Donavan song “Try For The Sun” explodes in rays of sunlight. “Cast Away Dreams” is simply stunning. His Rolling Stones cover “I Am Waiting” pulls and pulses like the waves of the ocean, I mean lake. He may be known as that guy from Fleetwood Mac, but I see Lindsey Buckingham as one of the greatest singer songwriters of our time. His introspective songs are not cold and lonely like some, but have a sheen and glow with a warm light. I am going to follow the light.

Bonus CD

When I was not boring a hole into the 4 CDs above and needed a palate cleanser, “This Is The New That” by Jonathan Byrd was blasted at ear-bleed volume. I put Jonathan in same realm as Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Bruce Springsteen. Listening to this CD is like opening your garage door and finding a rock ‘n’ roll band playing with wild abandon on a Saturday night. And the music is so good, you invite all the neighbors and have a beer... and I don’t even drink beer. Jonathan transcends time for me. I can just as easily see him being invited on stage by Robby Robertson in “The Last Waltz” as I can see him on “Austin City Limits” today.  Jonathan is a friend but there are times when I feel I should be asking for his autograph. If you ever get a chance to see him, just go. Drive hundreds and hundreds of miles. It will change your life

Cheers, Sally

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Diamond In The Darkness

Stars, angels, voices, bumper stickers, accidents--an unending chorus of signs surrounds us all the time. Even a simple word can be the signpost that opens the door to a new world. Or someone’s eyes looking straight through you, not seeing you, can be the sign that a door is closing.

I know myself well enough now to realize that when I am smiling on the outside and screaming on the inside, it’s a sign that I need to go home, rest, and shut out the world for a while.

I find many of my signs in nature. For me, rain means “write.” Sun means “walk.” Clouds mean “surrender and let go.” Storms mean “candles.” Rainbows mean “there’s more.”

Sometimes signs come in the form of flying objects. My old black Ford Probe had no air conditioning and a black interior. I fondly referred to it as the “Ford Antichrist.” The last repair bill came to exactly $666. One day, while I was on the highway, a huge rock came flying and cracked my windshield. I took it as a sign that God was laughing at me, and the rock was His way of saying  “get a new car!”

One of the biggest signs of my life came from a folk DJ on Minnesota Public Radio. I was in the second year of my “lost years” when I heard this stunning acoustic guitar being played.  I dropped everything, called the station, and the DJ told me it was William Ackerman whose records could be found at the Homestead Pickin’ Parlor. That Saturday, I walked into the store and was suddenly surrounded by banjos, fiddles, mandolins, upright basses and bluegrass music. My lost years were over.

When falling in love, I really need certain words to be said and certain things to be done. Only then will I feel that it’s okay to proceed. I have learned the hard way to keep my eyes open to see things for what they are, not for how I wish them to be. When I can easily fall asleep next to someone it’s a sign that it’s safe to be me.

A lighthouse in Minnesota that stands in a place called Artist Point became a big sign for me this year. I was performing in Grand Marais, feeling completely free, but also at a crossroad. Life had sprung some changes on me. My time as a staff writer in Nashville on Music Row was ending. The music industry was changing, my world was changing, and the ground was shifting beneath my feet.

I had been a full-time songwriter for a publishing company for 16 years, I had a handful of songs covered by country artists, and I even had a Grammy nomination. However, It had become clearer and clearer to me that the industry and I were going in two different directions. I was starting to feel like I no longer fit in. I was tired of playing my songs for someone sitting behind a desk looking for the next big thing. What I really wanted to do was find my voice again and connect with a real audience. The idea of doing so both excited and terrified me. I just needed a green light--I needed a sign.

As a spiritual and artistic person, I am no stranger to the importance of signs.

I think about the day my brother-in-law told me I was looking for a diamond under the light but I would never find it there.  I needed to look for my diamond in the darkness where I was afraid to go.

I remember my college history class. It was the end of the semester, and the teacher called me up after our last class. I walked up preparing myself for a big huge F. Much to my surprise she wanted to tell me that I had a gift with words and that I should keep writing.

I think about the hit-and-run accident I had a few years ago in Memphis when my car was totaled by a drunk driver.  I was doing 60 miles an hour when my car was spun around 3 times and crashed against a guard rail. I sat there shaking uncontrollably. A student nurse happened to be there; she took my hand and didn’t let go.

I think about driving to Nashville 18 years ago after my soul got “the call.”

Psalms 139 says that the Lord Almighty charts the path ahead of us. How amazing it is to know that our path is charted and lit with signs from the beginning all the way to the end and beyond. Signs don’t abandon us in the middle of our journey. I have to believe the same voice I heard when I was 5 years old, that told me to sing, is speaking to me now and has a plan--a clear road map complete with markings and arrows.

Back in Nashville, we are having a real winter and snow is falling.  All I want to do is cozy up with a Jane Austen book. Instead, I am sitting on the edge of my bed trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. That’s when I get my sign.

Something deep in my body seems to take over. Even though my mind is racing, my spirit finds a calm. I walk back into the music room and pick up the guitar. That other world that lives in another space and time softly knocks. A song wants to come out.
Before I know it, I am singing. My dad always used to remark after I was getting over a cold or flu, “She must be feeling better, she is singing.”

Yes, I am feeling better. I still don’t know how, what, who or when, but I am singing.
I think it’s a very good sign.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


I am driving the back roads between Lynchburg and Blacksburg Virginia, listening to Bruce Hornsby sing “Mandolin Rain” in a minor key and I am in Heaven.
Mesopotamia may be the cradle of civilization, but Virginia feels like it could also be the birth place and maybe even the Garden Of Eden.
Springtime has a certain magic but in Virginia it is especially triumphant. Dogwoods are blooming in high mountain air. Voices drift from front porches.  It’s one of those ridiculously beautiful days where you feel like you’re in a live moving painting. 
My love for Virginia started about 16 years ago when a friend invited me to her house in Lexington. That first drive up 81, through the Shenandoah Valley was all it took, I was hooked.
It’s all coming back to me again, listening to the Ricky Scaggs/Bruce Hornsby cd, why I am driving from town to town playing music and why I moved to the southeast in the first place.
Here the music is a natural as breathing. The people are refined, earthy, genteel. They are natural born singers. Their voices have melodies in them. There’s still blood in the dirt. A fiddle solo has the power to conjure. There are cobblestone streets and monuments and old town squares. Rivers run along the road side like it’s just a normal everyday occurrence.  Towns have names like Jamestown and Richmond. I think I have a crush on Thomas Jefferson, or is it Stephen Dillane playing Thomas Jefferson. 
We wind on through a hollow and somewhere there is a barn filled with moonlight and Ceili dancers are doing a “Hey”. I go there and dance for awhile until a sharp curve pulls me back to reality.
There’s not a drop of Irish or Scottish or English ancestry in me. Yet these are the people settled here and I feel most akin to. All my life, folk music, old ballads and bluegrass have been home.
 In the hustle of a traveling musicians life, it’s hard to keep perspective on what it is that you are actually doing. Between, Facebook and airports and contracts, one can get really bogged down in a mire of confusion. I sometimes feel like a swirling vortex with no destination, except hopefully a comfortable bed at night.
A day or a moment of clarity like this is a treasure. Simple truths put everything back into place. I am deeply connected to something appalachian. I love Virginia. I love to sing songs that are dark and mysterious. I love seeing people play guitar on their front porch. I love to read dense thick books about history.
And I love listening to the Mandolin Rain.

Finding Jane Austen

Jane Austen. Just saying her name makes me feel better. She is my buddy on the plane, my ever-present dating consultant and she is always there to help size up any situation.  When I mention my obsession with Pride and Prejudice at my shows, I see all the other Janeites in the audience smile, and I have instantly made new friends.
Jane has gotten me through more rainy Sundays, lonely weekends and Christmases  than I can count. Sense and Sensibility is often times randomly playing in the house so I can walk by and hear “besotted” or “Give me an occupation or I shall go mad.”

Lately I have found myself needing to know more about Jane. Her face and physicality in particular. So much is known from a face. There are so many people from history that I simply will need to meet in person somehow, before I am satisfied. John Adams, Jesus, St. John, Queen Elizabeth I, Cleopatra and Helen Of Troy are just a few names on the list.

But Jane..... was she like Emma Thompson, did she just look intelligent? Was she as pretty as Anne Hathaway? Or is she more serious like Amanda Root?

In my search for Jane, I recently found a clue that really shed some 18th century light. A few years back a documentary aired called “The Real Jane Austen” hosted by Anna Chancellor. Anna informs us that she is Jane’s great great great great niece! Or something like that.  Anna Chancellor plays Caroline Bingley in P&P and gives a knock- out performance in Four Weddings and A funeral. She is a funny, witty, warm and brilliant British actor. Jane was said to be tall, brown in coloring, have an animated expression and very pretty, to be sure. I can totally see Jane’s blood running through Anna Chancellor! This missing piece to the puzzle is extraordinary indeed. I could suddenly see Jane at her writing table, smirking to herself. I could imagine her at dinner parties with insufferable company, too many ladies and not enough gents.

But something more profound was discovered that goes deeper than skin. Jane was telling me who she was all this time, and I can’t believe it took me this long to figure out.

I always thought of Jane as one of those wise oracle people. Calmly and cooly finding inspiration from the intrigues and vignettes of others around her. As if she looked at the world from a safe, mocking, distance . As a writer, I should have known better.

Jane’s story exists in all of her stories. She wrote from experience. Jane was a wild child. She was sensitive, she had real fears, and she wrote with passion.

Like vulnerable and lovesick Marianne Dashwood, she fell for the charming Tom Lefroy. He was in no position to offer marriage, but wooed her and left her with a broken heart, eventually marrying an heiress.

When her parents decided to move to Bath, Jane watched helplessly as her brother James and his wife inherited her family home. They were as eager to move in as John and Fanny Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. Jane is said to have fainted. She also stopped writing.

I can’t help but wonder now if her sister Cassandra was a mixture of Elinor Dashwood and Jane Bennett, always acting with reserve and moderation, suffering through life’s trials quietly.

I think Jane, in her best-loved character Elizabeth Bennett, included a big part of herself. Elizabeth, we are told, is not a great beauty but strong willed, spirited and alive. She has a sharp wit and is not afraid to walk in the mud. She is also under enormous pressure from her mother to marry up. When Darcy finally “sees” Elizabeth, he “gets” her and falls in love with her. I can’t help but wonder if Jane desired to be really known and understood by her suitors. She must have felt invisible at times because she didn’t have the qualities most grooms were looking for-childbearing genes and an inheritance.

Later in life, Jane is found in the character of Anne Elliot. Jane was a fish out of water in Bath-a place she loathed.  It is said she waited for an “unnamed suitor” to return. In Persuasion we find a happy ending, when Captain Wentworth returns for Anne, but in real life we do not.  Jane had hopes of an offer from this mystery man, but he never returned. She later found out he had died. Had he lived, Cassandra believed he would have been a very suitable match for Jane. I can’t help but wonder if Jane just threw in the towel on romance after that.

In yet another layer, I find myself very close to Jane. I am single and a writer living from my pen. I won’t settle for a marriage without love. I have had my share of Willoughbys and Wickhams and am still hoping for an Edward Ferris to show up.

In Jane’s time, it was a scandal for a woman to be a writer. Her first novels were written by “A Lady.” More women died in childbirth than men died fighting the Napoleonic wars. After around age 28, unmarried women were in a precarious position.

As I face the struggles of daily life, I think of Jane, who faced them all the same and chose her pen. I think of Jane, devastated when she had to leave Hampshire for Bath and can only relate knowing my own sensitivities when it comes to location. I think of Jane who found love and lost it and lived her life without it. I also think of how I lean on my older sisters who are far more level-headed then me.

Jane is more than your everyday genius writer who invented the modern day novel. She is the Elizabeth Bennett in all of us who stand up for ourselves, refuse to crumble under pressure and won’t settle for anything less than a passionate life.

Fall is just around the corner, and soon I will drink in all of my favorite Jane Austen scenes. One of my favorites being when Edward Ferris comes to Devonshire and proposes to Elinor Dashwood and she cries with tears of joy.

Oh Jane, I am so sorry you never had the love you wrote about, but so grateful that you were brave enough to write novels concerning the heart. We would be lost without you.