On one hand, Another Life began in 1983 when I co-wrote a song, “Chesapeake Narrows” with Geoffrey Himes, while living in Nashville on my first go round. It was in fact another lifetime ago. That was my first year of serious touring that took me to thirty eight states.
In August of 2016 after eleven years of making songs, records and concerts, the story of Jeni & Billy came to a close. Jeni & Billy were an Appalachian Folk duo that performed all over North America and the United Kingdom and Ireland. I had co-written, recorded and produced most of the J & B output. Over the years Jeni and I had co-written a few songs that were about folks I knew from Baltimore, again from another lifetime ago. Those titles are “Kings of the Grandstand,” “Mr. Wilson,the Stonecutter” and “Requiem for an Organ Player.”
That September I was preparing for my first solo tour in a long time, maybe twenty five years or more. I had done most of my performing either with a duo, a trio, a quartet or a quintet. Yes, I did have occasional support slots as a solo but not any road work to speak of. Songs were pouring out of me because of all the changes and I was transcribing words and music nearly every day. There were many “heart” songs emerging.
Then in November, after my solo touring in October, I was home in Nashville and trying to decide about what I wanted to do. Did I want to produce? Did I want to tour? Did I want to teach? Did I want to work at a local tea shop? I had set up a tour of Florida for January 2017. So I was practicing bunches every day. It felt good. I was practicing stories and songs and I was enjoying it. I felt like an athlete in training. There is definitely a physical side to the touring life.
In December a friend from San Francisco had sent me an email announcement that one of her paintings was chosen for an exhibit in Switzerland. I was happy for her and congratulated her. I also spoke about how I enjoyed the painting. It was a bit impressionistic with two figures, a dog and a car. The dog was facing one way and the car another. The car was blue. I said to Ann, I like the dog and the car. She wrote back and said that the car in the painting was a car that I used to have back in Baltimore. Ann and I had collaborated on a Jackson Pollock song cycle I had written in the mid nineties. She had done a tryptic for three of the songs from the cycle.
She asked me if I could tell her about the car. I thought about it and began writing an email to her. I was telling her the story of my great aunt’s life when all of a sudden I realized that what I was writing could be a song about my Aunt Lil. That was the beginning of another “home” song, “Lillian and the Blue Car.”
In January, 2017 while doing the tour in Florida I was staying with Sue Griffiths, a banjoist and librarian who presented me at her library. One night we were playing some music and I asked Sue if she would be interested in seeing how I sometimes write songs using a musical cryptogram. We wrote a song together that night and have been in close conversation ever since. There are two heart songs that Sue and I have written that are included in this collection, “Seven Mondays” and “Night Time Sky.”
In February I was home one night and was looking at a book of poems called Farm Ballads. The collection was put together by Will Carleton in 1873. I read one called “Gone With a Handsome Man.” It was a story of Jane who left John for a han’somer man. It reminded me of A.P. Carter, of the Carter Family. A.P. was married to Sarah and together with Maybelle Carter, who was married to A.P.’s brother Eck, became the first family of country music. Sarah fell in love with another man and A.P. never remarried. These two stories along with my own helped me put together a new song, “Another Life to Live.” I wrote the words first and then put the banjo to them. We live many lives in a lifetime, sometimes by choice and sometimes not.
In March a friend from the UK, Alfred Hickling, a writer-singer-musician was visiting to do some recording, drink massive amounts of coffee and eat kolaches. By that time, the working title of the record was Heart & Home because of the songs. Alfred gave me some help editing and co-writing some of the text on my website. I also played Alfred many of the possible song choices for the record. He ended up adding a few lyrics for a couple of the songs and we co-wrote a new one, “Down Where the Dogwoods Bloomed.”
In April and May, I recorded about sixteen songs at Artland, the studio in my home in Nashville. A friend, Kenny Raduazzo, who lives in the same neighborhood offered to help me out and do some engineering. I couldn’t pass up his offer and we tracked most of the songs in the living room. I would play the song for Kenny in different rooms to see which would bring out the best of each song. One song, “Requiem for an Organ Player” was tracked in the bathroom with a single mic for voice and guitar about two feet away and then a room mic about six feet away. On one song, the last song we recorded, “Chesapeake Narrows,” we tried tracking it in the afternoon. I did about three takes and then decided I wasn’t completely in the song. We took a break, headed over to Kenny’s and had some dinner and watched the Nashville Predators lose the Stanley Cup. It was a heart breaker for Nashville. It was near eleven o’clock and I thought I was gonna be heading home to get some sleep when Kenny said, “Why don’t we go try and track Chesapeake Narrows a few more times.” I thought, well we haven’t tried tracking anything that late so why
not. We did three more takes and the last take is the one that made it to the record. And ironically, it is the last song on the album. And that was the end of tracking for Another Life.
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