Paul Cotton: 1943 – 2021

playing pedal steel guitar with Paul Cotton in NJ, 2010

The first time i saw him on a stage, I wasn’t sure it was him at first glance.


I’d never seen the band before, and I didn’t recognize the drummer or the bass player at all…I knew Rusty, of course, but there was this balding blonde dude playing guitar, sporting a white Stratocaster with a tortoiseshell pickguard and – while it could’ve been Paul, I wasn’t sitting close enough to make out his features well enough to tell…


…until he opened his mouth to sing.


They opened that show with Ghost Town, with Rusty singing the first verse – and the minute the blurry guy stepped to the microphone and sang the words silver moonlight falls…between grey walls…all doubts vanished.


that’s fucking Paul Cotton! THANK GOD.


They finished Ghost Town with a frenzied lap steel solo by Rusty and went right into Legend, the title track from their biggest record…I was holding the sleeve of that very record in my hands, trying to keep it dry while sitting in a misty rain in the audience with tears forming in my eyes, thanking the Gods that I was actually getting to see them play.


I wouldn’t have known about this show at all if my mother hadn’t flown into the wrong major city in Pennsylvania when she came to visit her granddaughter – she opted to fly into Pittsburgh when she should’ve flown into Philadelphia, and I drove out to retrieve her from the airport. As I always did in those days, I grabbed copies of whatever music-related free weeklies were available to scout the ads for potential places to play in the entertainment listings. There was an ad for the summer concert series at the waterfront, and SONOFABITCH – Poco was coming!


I didn’t know who was in the band anymore, and I didn’t really care – I had already done my first record, and it had a cover of Made of Stone on it, and I happily drove the five hours back to Pittsburgh for the show with a cassette copy of my record and my Legend album cover and sat there, fixated on the two guys who (to me) had always been the heart and soul of the band in the first place. Rusty and Paul were the principal songwriters and vocalists when I first became aware of the band, when I’d fallen in love with their music – so as long as they were there, I was happy.

with Rusty Young and Paul Cotton the night we met for the first time, 1991


They played Ghost Town, they played Legend…they went from there into Call it Love (their most recent hit) – later, they took turns doing solo acoustic songs with Paul playing his classic Bad Weather and Rusty playing a new song that hadn’t been recorded yet called Old Hat. I found out thirty years later that it was a co-write with Jack Sundrud…somehow I never knew that until after Rusty passed away back in April.


Yesterday, Jack sent me stems (digital audio files) of a recording of Old Hat done by the surviving members of the band back in June so I could add some pedal steel to it before it goes off to mix.


Life has been an avalanche of full circle moments lately that I’m purely incapable of enjoying – because most of them are (at best) bittersweet in Rusty’s absence…but the fact that I’m adding pedal steel (Rusty’s instrument) to a song written by Rusty and Jack..that I heard for the first time at my first Poco show…a song that was never released by the band – that definitely goes to the upper echelon of that list.


I had also started recording a couple of Poco songs in my home studio over the past month – with one of those being Paul’s Please Wait For Me (from the Blue and Grey album) – I posted a clip of myself singing it during the vocal tracking for that one on Instagram just a week or so ago, and I figured I’d go ahead and put steel on that song while I was set up to track Old Hat later that night.


A few hours after the files showed up in my email, word floated out that Paul Cotton had died peacefully at home – from a post on his Facebook page.

Onstage with Poco at the Colonial Theater, 2006


I have a ton of great Paul memories – of staying up with him in the hotel bar after a show I opened for them in 1995 and playing guitar until 4am (I still can’t believe my wife didn’t drag me out of there well before then), of sitting in with the band on a handful of occasions…of his smile and the perpetual twinkle in his eye, of gear talk and his stories from the old days.


The last time I saw Paulie was at Wildwood in 2019, and…it was a challenge to keep my game face on.

He looked a little lost, and his health was clearly in decline – but he hadn’t forgotten me, to my immense relief. I was there to act as interim roadie for the band, as there were a myriad of tuning changes and such, and I assured him and his wife Caroline that I would take good care of him once the lights went up.

He gave me a big hug and smiled…“I know you will, Tommy. I know you will.”


His last words to me at the end of the weekend were “Tommy…I sure do wish we lived closer.”

With Paul at Wildwood for the last time, 2019


Our collective mortality was hanging heavy in the air that night – we’d just lost Claudia Upton, a notorious Poconut and lifelong fan of the band, and there was a memorial for her during the show that weekend, but…looking around the room, at the faces in the audience and on the stage, it went further than that. I couldn’t shake the thought that this could easily be the last time I see this group of people on this stage again.


I had no idea that the notion was actually a premonition, but that weekend did, in fact, turn out to be the last time that Pauley and Rusty ever played together…the last time Rusty played at Wildwood…the last legitimate Poco show at Wildwood (there will be a show with the surviving members this October as a tribute and memorial, but it’s not Poco without Rusty).


I recorded a number of moments from that show, but I never posted any of them on social media because they felt like private property…like they belonged to the folks who were in the room. For people who know me, that has to sound like I probably copied and pasted those words into this missive, but – I just couldn’t do it.


Now that Paulie has left the building, I don’t see them ever coming to light.


I went back to my hotel room after the first show of the weekend, and this “end of an era” weight just wouldn’t leave my shoulders. I had Bad Weather stuck in my head and it occurred to me that it might be a fun songwriting exercise to see if I could fashion a new song from scrapbook cutouts of lyrics from other Poco songs…it was supposed to be something to occupy my brain until I managed to shake this sense of dread that was following me around, and it started out well enough:


In every day that passes us by
Indian summers, come and gone
I can still hear that nightbirds’ cry
singing straight on through until the dawn


Every one of those was from a Paul song…obviously, having seen him this weekend had left an impression. It became even more obvious as I kept writing:


Now none of us are young men anymore
And you can’t ignore the writing on the wall
I guess that’s what the stories and the songs are for
A chance to take our eyes off of the ball


It quickly evolved from musical scrapbooking to a love letter…


So many years have passed
But I still wanna hear that sound
I wanna make it last
Another time around
Sing a picture of the days gone by
With a gentle, aging hand
Because tonight my friends, all of us are living in the band


The rest of the song turned into a declaration of sorts for me:


In the beginning, not so long ago
For a thirteen year old kid from Tennessee
There was just a little magic in the music they were singin’
and I could hear it calling out to me
They left a trail of love and glory
As they crossed the southern sky
And my life would be a sadly different story
If that harmony had somehow passed me by


So plug in that steel guitar
I still wanna hear that sound
I wanna make it last
Another time around
Sing a picture of the days gone by
These crazy lovers understand
Tonight my friends, all of us – are living in the band
Yes, tonight my friends, what’s left of us….are living in the band


Most songs that are worth the trouble write themselves…this one jumped onto the page, largely a result of the overwhelming sense that I was saying goodbye that weekend – and it’s taken a couple of years to realize just how accurate that foreboding turned out to be.

Early 2000’s – sat in with the guys during a surprise birthday party in NJ


Rusty and Paul both cut deep, deep rings into the center of my tree, both musically and personally…from a distance, they appeared to be the perfect foils for one another – Rusty’s instrumental virtuosity and his gentle, lilting voice aside Paul’s soulful guitar playing and his full-throated unmistakable voice…it made for a lot of magical moments. They both became mentors and were incredibly supportive over the years, and I’ve never forgotten it – and likely never will.


The Legend album cover that the two of them signed for me still hangs in my living room to this day…


from Rusty: “it’s great to meet you! keep on pickin’!”


from Paul: “a pleasure! happy trails!”


Happy trails, Paul.


I wish we lived closer, too.

you are what you eat

so I’ve been on a bit of a tear lately, where songwriting is concerned – for a multitude of reasons. there are projects just around the bend for which i’ll be expected to contribute material, but also – i’m finding that i’m attracted to the exercise for the first time in recent memory.


i’ve written a couple of things over the past few years, for sure, but it hasn’t been anything remotely consistent for a long, long time. I had a short fit of creativity rekindled by the re-emergence of an old flame for a month or so, and there’ve been a handful of songs that have essentially written themselves while I was in the room (“wrong side of history” most notably among them), but I’ve churned out roughly a dozen songs over the past two months and it’s been an education.


the most obvious lesson that i’ve learned from all this is that while age isn’t always a bedfellow of wisdom, it has brought a certain – boldness, perhaps?

i’m finding that i’m no longer weighing my words as carefully as I once did, i’m not as afraid of the consequences of my words, of what friends or loved ones might say or feel in reaction to what I write.


it’s not so much that I don’t care what they think, it’s that…well, i don’t care what they think.


(it sounds bad when I put it that way, doesn’t it?)


what i think i’m trying to say is that i’m not as frightened of the end result of speaking my truth at this point in my life, because i don’t feel as though it’s classified information anymore. i’m not carrying around any secret longings, not feeling trapped in my own skin (at least not to the same degree I once did), not plotting some daring escape from my day to day circumstances – a lot of the things i once used as fuel for songs no longer constitute the lion’s share of the weight i carry around on a daily basis.


i find myself a lot more contemplative, a lot more reflective, more willing to say some pretty uncomfortable things out loud – generally, a little more brutally honest than i might have been at other times in my life.


and let me tell you…”liberating” doesn’t even begin to get the point across.


so – because i’m going to need to play these songs for other people, i spent a couple of weeks recording demos recently, and i uploaded a sampling of them to a folder on a Google drive and sent an email to a handful of folks whose opinions I respect and asked for some honest feedback. “let me have it,” I said in the email with the link. “rip ’em to shreds and send me back into the shadows to contemplate whether i should’ve even thought about doing this again.”


well, i didn’t get any feedback of that particular flavor, but i did get a lot of honest thoughts about the direction i’d embraced from a lyrical standpoint, about song length (almost to a song, all of them are in the six minute range with one in particular clocking in at over nine minutes, but it’s long for a reason – there are thirteen verses, and there will be noisy guitar solos…it’s probably not a candidate for a record, but who knows?) – i was grateful for all of it, for sure, but there was one bit of feedback that i saw fit to chew on for a while.


i won’t single him out, but a longtime collaborator pointed out that some of the instrumental parts that i’d played had made stronger melodic statements than the melody of the lyrics themselves, and that after hearing the songs more often, he found himself humming the instrumental parts moreso than the lyric…and that gave me reason to examine my process, and i had a couple of epiphanies around that.


i’ve always imagined that folks who write music and lyrics simultaneously are probably best equipped to come up with memorable melodies, because they’re creating the melody and the lyric at the same time. i used to write that way all the time, but now i find that i’m either ambushed by a lyric (one of the new songs, “fade away”, was recited practically verbatim into my cellphone while driving to pennsylvania for a show back in june), or i’ll come up with a chord progression or guitar part that feels like a song and i’ll record it into my phone while i just “Mellencamp” along with it (grunt nonsensical noises that bear no resemblance to words along with the musical part as something of a placeholder for what i’d likely sing over the chord changes).


it’s not that i prefer this method to the notion of sitting down with the guitar AND the legal pad at the same time and completely focusing on the task at hand, it’s just the way things tend to get done nowadays. even so, i find that when writing lyrics, i’m almost always more focused on the pentameter of the words than the melody itself. I don’t have a specific reason for this that i can point to, but in considering it over the past couple of days it occurred to me that a lot of my favorite lyricists (Dylan, Jackson Browne, John Moreland, Dar Williams, etc.) seem to write as slaves of the narrative, and i find myself more attracted to that than to the notion of finding the right notes and making the words fit into that framework. of course, then there’s Richard Edwards and Shawn Colvin and Jimmie Spheeris and a dozen others whose melodies are so compelling that i almost don’t care what they’re saying…and Joni Mitchell, who defies any effort to lean her in either direction.


considering this analysis of my work from outside my own bubble, though, it’s been a bit of a revelation to look at my work alongside my influences and see whose fingerprints loom largest as rings inside the tree. no surprises, but good information nonetheless.


(this is not to say that if you listen to “Late For The Sky” over and over again that you’ll eventually write something that brilliant…if that were possible, i’d have done it by now. i’ve put the time in, for damn sure.)


the most gratifying thing i’ve taken away from this introspection into my own process, though, is that i didn’t walk away from it feeling as though my work was inferior as a result of examining it in this light, but rather that i’d learned something about my own process that i hadn’t really considered prior to now…and that it might be worth challenging myself to step outside my own routine and get uncomfortable and try some new things to see what other tools might fit into my toolchest.


the music i listen to in the car comes courtesy of a 32GB flash drive with several thousand MP3’s on it, and i discovered some time back that the best form of “shuffle” for this scenario is good old Alphabetical Order. that’s right – there’s nothing more jarring than letting everything play in order by song title where you go from “Superman” by REM into “Super Trouper” by ABBA…and that’s just one bizarre alphabetical seque. there’s hundreds more.


but this morning, as if to underscore this topic, i heard my favorite Bob Dylan song (“Sweetheart Like You”) followed by “Sylvia Hotel” by Cheryl Wheeler – and it underlined this entire thing with a bold black sharpie.


“Sweetheart” is more spoken than sung, really – and the lyrics are sprinkled with moments of genius, punctuated with the same closing line to every verse, and it’s brilliant. Musically, there’s an atmosphere that perfectly fits the lyric, and it forces me to grab the volume knob every time it comes on. But today, “Sylvia” came on right afterwards as if to underscore the notion that you can have a poignant, haunting, transformative lyric without sacrificing anything melodically or giving up options in your narrative.


life never stops teaching if you’re willing to remain open to learning new things.

a month…a week…a day or a year….

It’s been a month today.


It still doesn’t seem real…it doesn’t seem real because, in some ways, my life hasn’t changed a lot with regard to my day to day routine. I get up, I either get in the car and go to work or sit down at the kitchen table and start replying to emails, dialing into meetings…the usual mundane stuff that a workday brings. I sleep a lot, probably a lot more than usual…I sit in front of the TV and watch stuff that I’ve seen before, so I don’t have to commit a lot of actual attention to it.


It’s almost as if it never happened, and yet…it’s never out of sight. It never goes away.


I got a phone call from a buddy today after I got home from work, and he asked me how I’m doing – I immediately thought of the first verse of Jackson Browne’s song The Late Show that closes side one of Late For The Sky:


“Everyone I’ve ever known has wished me well
Anyway that’s how it seems – it’s hard to tell
Maybe people only ask you how you’re doing
Because it’s easier
Than lettin’ on how little they could care…”


So, I figured – fuck it, let me give him an honest answer and see what he says…


“…well, buddy – aside from the fleeting reprieves offered by work or sleep or the occasional phone call, my life is basically an endless wellspring of sadness…not rock-bottom despair, just a deep, profound, perpetual chain around my neck that never completely goes away – and can go from a few extra pounds to bone-crushing and back again at the drop of a hat. That about sums it up.


He was quiet for a couple of seconds, and then he said…

“…well, I actually expected it to be a lot worse.”


Some days it feels like this month has been a year long, others it feels like the phone just rang this morning.


The morning after Rusty died – after Jack’s phone call, I ran away to the office to try to hide from the news – I threw myself into every menial task I could, and I got through most of the day without showing my hand to the folks I worked with. Around 4pm, a friend of mine in HR came by my desk and she knew, somehow, that something wasn’t quite right…and she tried to talk to me about it, and nearly broke me in the process.


It was time to get out of the office.


I drove home and went to the fridge…I already had a plan for the afternoon that I’d concocted in my head as I plodded through the day like a zombie, and it was time to put it into action.


Back in April of 2020, shortly after news got out to the world of my having become the newest member of Poco, my longtime buddy (and bandmate in Idlewheel to Jack and myself) Tommy Geddes sent me a bottle of champagne to welcome me to the band. Tommy knew what a fanboy I was, and he understood the significance of my membership in the band as well as anyone. And while I appreciated the gesture, I didn’t open the bottle.


I opened the package and read the card with a smile…but I set the bottle aside.


I thought to myself that – as much as I appreciated the gesture, I couldn’t bring myself to open it yet.


I felt as though I needed to hold onto it until such time as I’d actually played a show with the band, until I’d made my actual public debut with the band as a legitimate member…I’m not really sure why that was important to me, but with the advent of COVID and our involuntary respite from the road…opening that bottle of champagne and celebrating my membership in a band I’d loved since before I was old enough to drink or vote or get a drivers’ license just felt…premature. I’m not particularly superstitious, but…it just didn’t seem right.


It’d mean more if I popped the cork after my first show with the band, so…I waited.


…and waited. And waited.


And that bottle of champagne sat in my refrigerator for weeks…then months…then almost exactly a year.


The day of The Phone Call, though, I came home and went to the fridge, retrieved the bottle, and went down the hill in the back yard to the dock beside the lake and popped the cork and watched it fly out over the water and float for a moment before it sank to the bottom. I poured the first drink into the water beneath my feet (for Rusty, of course)…and I sat on the dock and proceeded to drink the rest of the bottle as the sun went down on the shittiest day I could remember.


I had put my phone on vibrate earlier in the day, as I knew I wouldn’t be able to form sentences around the news of the day…so it felt pointless to field calls or try to talk about any of this. My voicemail filled up. Texts were coming in, but – I just couldn’t.


I was still in some strange mix of denial, disbelief and rage.


And – truth be told – I think that I’ve learned a lot about grief in the time between then and now. But that’s a longer conversation for later.


I set up my laptop on the kitchen table and worked from that spot for a couple of days, going through the motions and considering the repercussions of what had happened. I hadn’t just lost a bandmate – I’d lost a childhood hero, a friend, a mentor, a teacher, a bandmate, and (by virture of all those things combined) a big part of who I was.


There are a number of things that makes this loss difficult to convey or describe to other people – no, we weren’t related…and no, I can’t really describe my relationship with Rusty in a way that I can tie up in terms that other non-musical people can comprehend.


If you get it, you get it, and…if you don’t, I can’t really help you.


The days after Rusty’s passing are something of a blur – Jack, Rick and I had a vocal rehearsal scheduled for that Friday, as we were prepping for the possibility of a video shoot on the west coast…the three of us got together that afternoon at Jacks’ house anyway, in the spirit of commiserating and remembering our Founder. We sat around Jack’s kitchen table and talked about how certain we’d been that Rusty had another twenty years in him, about how Mary had been posting pictures of Rusty in his rubber boots working in the yards all winter and how he seemed invincible…and yeah, about how completely fucking unfair it was that he was the first of the Poco alumni to go.


I’m not sure if I’ll ever get over that last point…the fact that the ONE MAN who spent over fifty years of his life keeping this music alive and keeping this band on the road – HE would be the first to go.


It’s not fair. It’s not fair…it’s…not…


It’s just fucking wrong.


It’s wrong – not just for me, but for Jack…who’d been the constant in the band for thirty years. For Rick, who’d been an outspoken advocate for bringing me into the band from the days of my first rehearsals as a sub, and – yeah, of course, for me – who’d spent over a year on the sidelines waiting for the COVID cloud to pass overhead so we could unveil this version of the band to the world. All of us, to a man (including Rusty) were really excited about taking this version of the band on the road and showing people what we could do with this lineup of singers and players…but we’d been deprived of that opportunity now. We had a brief glimpse at the possibility of this lineup a year ago, and we’d have to settle for what might’ve been.


Needless to say, all Poco dates that were scheduled from June through the foreseeable future were taken off the calendar. There’s no Poco without Rusty – he was the constant in the lineup of every version of Poco for well over half a century, and it seems blasphemous to even think about going out under that banner without having Rusty on stage. So we set those dates aside, with the exception of the annual Wildwood Springs Lodge booking…which we set aside as Rusty’s memorial weekend. We discussed it, and Mary felt like it’d be the best available point in time to gather to remember him…Wildwood Springs was the place that Rusty and Mary had met, and over the years it had become something of an annual Poco Family Reunion for the most hardcore fans – so we kept that on the books.


Over the course of the next few days, the pieces began to fall into place for a separate memorial of sorts, a gathering of musical brothers-in-arms to testify, to tell road stories, and to remember him…it started out as a radio show, but grew – and kept growing – right up until time to go on the air. It was originally a two-hour slot on a radio station in Columbia, just south of Nashville…but by the day of the show, it was a full audio and video livestream broadcast on well over a dozen Facebook pages and ultimately seen and heard by almost 80,000 people (and charting in the Top Ten in Pollstar Magazine’s Livestream charts for the week).


It feels like name-dropping to list the folks who participated, but the list felt like a who’s who from the liner notes of the record collection of my youth…some in the room with me, some calling in from parts unknown to share Rusty Stories. The assembled folks in the room got together the afternoon before the show to run through a handful of songs that we were to play live over the air, and looking around the table was humbling. I sang the lead vocal on a pair of songs, both songs that were always Rusty’s domain in the set – Call It Love and Keep On Tryin’ – and when Timothy B. Schmit called in afterward, he complemented us on the job we did on his song.


Yet another thing that would’ve been fuel and inspiration under just about any other circumstance…but had only managed to ring somewhat hollow in the moment.


The show was supposed to have been two hours, but the owner of the station – who had attended in person – gave us his blessing to go on for as long as we wanted, and we did. The final caller said their goodbyes somewhere around 9:30, and the total running time was just a half hour shy of being double its original allotted time slot…and could’ve went longer, honestly.


Jim Messina talked about the story of how Rusty came to Hollywood to play pedal steel on “Kind Woman” – a story I thought I knew until that night, but he dropped a bit of a bomb on me in his telling of it during the show.


For those of you who aren’t familiar with the instrument, the pedal steel is essentially a math problem with legs…there’s a network of metal rods on the undercarriage of the instrument attached to a hinged mechanism that either raises or lowers the pitch of the strings, either individually or in tandem with others. When the system was first invented, the combinations of pitch changes were endless and the means of setting up the instrument had very little rhyme or reason until a handful of folks started standardizing the sets of changes into a loose standard. Eventually, two “setups” rose to the top – the “Emmons” setup, named for Buddy Emmons, the recognized and accepted Black Belt of Pedal Steel, and the “Day” setup, named for Jimmy Day – another admired and accomplished player.


Over time, the Emmons setup became the VHS, the Microsoft of the two, while the Day setup became the Betamax, the iMac…superior in the eyes of its faithful devotees, but not as accepted by the market as a whole.


Rusty (as well as John David Call of Pure Prairie League) were both Day guys, although I never knew it until I got to know them both. Rusty once told me he’d been playing the Day setup since he was 11 years old…and this is important to know when you hear the story of the Kind Woman session – although I don’t think Jimmy was aware of the specifics of any of this before the radio conversation that night.


Rusty packed his Day-modified pedal steel guitar and set out for the airport to fly to the west coast for his fateful date with destiny…playing on a Buffalo Springfield record…only to find upon arrival that the airline had managed to mangle his instrument into an unplayable state. Here he was, on maybe the biggest day of his musical life, without a functional instrument.


But wait – all wasn’t lost. Stephen Stills, it turns out, had just bought a pedal steel guitar, and it was available…so let’s just borrow Stephen’s guitar for the session and we’ll be back in business!


Except – as you might’ve guessed by the blatant foreshadowing from earlier – Stephen’s pedal steel was configured in the Emmons setup. A pair of pedals backwards, knee levers slightly different, and somewhat foreign to someone who’d been playing the other way for half their lives up to that point.


I’ve often made the analogy, when I retell the story, that it’d be like opening your laptop and finding that Windows was installed in Spanish…all the icons were in the same place, they did the same thing, but it’d be different enough that you couldn’t just sit down and open up Microsoft Outlook and begin checking your email without slowing down to think about every click you made.

But Rusty sat down and played the solo on Kind Woman on Stephen Stills’ borrowed instrument and changed the course of musical history in a matter of a few passes…and an entire movement owes its genesis to the origin story written in the space of that moment.


And from the time I first heard the full story from Rusty many years ago right up until that Sunday night, that was the story as I understood it.


The next thing you need to know about pedal steel before we finish this story is that – while this has changed in the last twenty years or so, most pedal steel guitars have always had two necks, two sets of strings tuned differently with independent sets of knee levers and pedals assigned to change specific strings on either neck. The front neck has historically been the E9 neck, often called the “Nashville” neck, while the back neck is in a C6 tuning, often called the “Texas” neck…as that tuning is usually used for western swing, jazz, and chord voicings that fall outside the stereotypical chord changes available on the “Nashville” neck.


I’d never for a moment considered that to be a factor in the Kind Woman story until Jimmy’s telling of the story, when he revealed that Rusty played the solo for “Kind Woman”


on the C6 neck. On the back neck.

On the neck that wasn’t NEARLY as affected by the differences in Emmons and Day setups as the front neck was.


Let me tell you…in the decades that I’ve had Rusty’s phone number in my Rolodex, I’ve never, ever wanted to call him as bad as I did when I heard this bit of the story that night.


I wanted to bust his chops for never having told me that, for letting me think all these years that he’d been visited by some genius spirit that allowed him to make split second judgements about the differences between the instrument he was playing and the instrument he was used to, to laugh about the fact that I never figured it out for myself…and to tell him that – really, it’s another kind of genius at work to evaluate a crisis like that and adapt so goddamned beautifully and to make history with one hand tied behind your back.


Then I got angry at myself…angry for all the down days during COVID that I didn’t pick up the phone and check in because I didn’t want to seem like an overeager teenage kid – not wanting him to feel pressured about going back out on the road, to feel somehow accountable for the downtime coming when it did. It seemed more pragmatic to let him enjoy the extended stretch with Mary, to work in the yard and fish the creek – and when we did talk, I always made a point of telling him that this will all be over soon enough – we’ll restore some degree of sanity in leadership and we’ll find out way out of this mess, and…if he feels like it…we’ll all be here and ready to go back out with him.


I know he missed it. I know he was excited about fine-tuning this lineup and going back out. I know it because he told me multiple times, up to and including the week he died, and I’m really thankful for those conversations…and I wish I’d had a few more of them.


There’s a long list of “a few more”s that we can’t go back and collect, and that’s a huge multiplier of grief. Grief is, at its core, a personal inventory of just that…the things we lose by virtue of losing someone we love. That loss manifests itself not just in shows we won’t play or in songs we won’t sing again, but in hotel breakfasts and backstage conversations and soundcheck jams and rides to the airport and phone conversations about tuning and string gauges and memories of shows past, of departed band members…in movies I wanted to watch with him on the road, songs I wanted to try to squeeze back onto the setlist…in endless undailed and unspoken telephone conversations that are lost to the ages now.


One last instance of foreshadowing before I close, if you’ll indulge me:


Rusty used to tell the story of Richie Furay’s exit from Poco from the stage at shows, often to illustrate the rewards of tenacity – Poco was formed in 1968, Richie left in 1973…and they didn’t enjoy their first real chart success for another half a decade, with the two hit singles from the Legend album. But on that day in 1973, David Geffen (yeah, that David Geffen) called the band into a meeting…everyone filed into a conference room, and Geffen pulled Richie out of the room and took him to an office down the hall. They’d been gone for some time, and the band had no idea what was going on – until Geffen returned alone a while later and announced that Richie was leaving the band, that he’d put together a deal for him to make a record with JD Souther and Chris Hillman.


He announced it in a manner that seemed to indicate that Geffen thought he was announcing the bands’ breakup to them, and he went around the room, addressing each of them.


Paul Cotton: “Paul…you know, you sing…you write songs…you’re gonna be just fine.”


Timothy B. Schmit: “Timmy…you sing, you write songs…you’re gonna be fine.”


He then turned to drummer George Grantham and Rusty Young and – with a dismissive wave, said:


“You two – you don’t sing. You don’t write songs. I don’t know what happens to you two.”


The moral of the story, of course, is that Rusty ended up writing and singing the bands’ biggest hit (cue the intro to “Crazy Love” here).


The Saturday morning of the weekend of the livestream, I felt no real immediate need to get out of bed. This isn’t to say that this day was much different from most others in that regard, but this particular Saturday, I doubled down…I woke up a little before 10AM, rolled over and went back to sleep. Woke up again 45 minutes later, rolled over and went back to sleep.


Then, at some point after falling back to sleep, I found myself loading gear into the back of a trailer after a show…it was dark, the show had been over for some time, and I was stacking road cases into a trailer when Rusty walked up to me with a Sharpie and a poster from the show we’d just played.


“…the promoter wants everybody – band, crew, and staff – to sign this. Got a minute?”


he handed me the Sharpie and the poster, and I held it up against the trailer door to sign it and saw that there were already twenty five or thirty signatures on it, but one person wrote the words “I like the trio version better” under their autograph…so I made a point of signing my name as close to that signature as I could, and wrote “THE NEW GUY” under my name.


Rusty saw what I’d done and laughed about it as we both turned to start walking back towards the stage door area of this outdoor pavillion we’d just played earlier.


(Poco did tour as a trio – without a drummer – for a time with Rusty, Paul Cotton and Jack Sundrud on bass.)


I said to Rusty as we were walking back – “I’m a little shaky about this particular trio version, boss. We have to play your memorial at Wildwood, and I know we’ll pull it off, but it won’t be right without you.”


Rusty put his hand on my shoulder and said…“I’m counting on you.”


(“I’m counting on you”…was the last thing he said to me on his way out of my hotel room in California when we were there to play the Gallo Center…right after a conversation about how pleased he was with what I’d brought to the band.)


I didn’t look over at him, but I said…“I don’t see myself ever getting over this, man.”


He stopped walking for a minute and I looked over at him and he said:


“Hey, you know what?

….you sing. You write songs. You’re gonna be fine.”

Rusty Young: 1946 – 2021

Whoever said that you should never meet your heroes never met Rusty Young.


I became aware of Rusty in my teenage years as the maverick pedal steel virtuoso in Poco, a band already on their way to becoming one of my favorites at age fifteen. It was a time when it was still common to become aware of a band in the middle of its trajectory – to have the now-largely extinct experience of going back and discovering an artist’s older works, tracing the path from their own origins up to the point you had boarded the bandwagon. By the time I’d gotten on board, Poco had morphed from their origins as the midwives of Country Rock into a more mainstream sound – and I went on the adventure of going back through their catalog and discovering that they were there – in the room where it happened – when my personal favorite musical movement was conceived.


These were still my formative years – I’d started out as a drummer and had only just begun to pick up the guitar and learn other peoples’ songs. My kid brother and I shared a room, and he asked for a stereo for Christmas – his only demand being that it have both a cassette deck AND an 8 track player. I went to buy my first 8 track tapes and found copies of both Legend and Indian Summer, and bought them both. I’d put them in and let them cycle on repeat while I slept…further engraining those songs and that sound into my musical DNA.


To say I was a fan was something of an understatement…but in those days, the thought of actually meeting any of the guys in the band felt as unlikely as the notion of being knighted by the Queen of England.


I continued buying up the entire back catalog whenever I’d find a copy of something I didn’t have…and that pursuit became a lot easier when I left home and set out into the world. I bought a Tascam 4-track recorder at eighteen and one of the first songs I recorded on it was a cover of Magnolia – which I only knew to be a Poco song in those days, since my cassette copy of Crazy Eyes didn’t have liner notes. My musical aspirations had taken over every ounce of ambition I possessed – I honed in on songwriting, started playing live shows as a one-man act, and recorded my first release in 1991, which featured a cover of Rusty’s song Made of Stone (from the Under the Gun album).


After having made that record, I actually got an opporunity to meet Rusty and Paul Cotton not long afterward. I sheepishly handed Rusty a cassette copy of the album after the show and said, “If I’d thought there was a chance in hell you’d ever be hearing this, I’d probably still be working on it.” He was kind and gracious – and signed the copy of Legend I’d brought with me for an autograph with “Tom – it’s great to meet you! Keep on pickin’!


It was a four hour drive from that show in Pittsburgh back to Reading, PA, where I lived…the sun was up when I got home, but I was still wide awake.


That was over thirty years ago. I’ve known Rusty for well over half my life.


There are a hundred more stories from the years since – as Rusty morphed from a hero to an acquaintance to a friend to a peer, and – eventually – to a bandmate. Time passed and we exchanged phone numbers, occasional Christmas cards, and played together on the same bill many, many times…and he always had a kind word, always had time to talk shop.

There was a show at Sellersville Theater a decade ago that I played with Tracy Grammer, opening for the band…when Rusty made a point of remarking about how much my playing had been improving, my phrasing and intonation. He didn’t have to say that, and he wasn’t exactly known for bullshitting people or handing out compliments for the sake of flattery. As such, kind words from Rusty went a long way.


The one that will stick with me was our show in Modesto, CA last year – I was in my room, using my phone to record a video playing mandolin and singing a John Moreland song when there was a knock on the door…apparently we were next door neighbors in the hotel and Rusty came over with his acoustic to sit down and play a bit, with an eye on working out a specific part for Rose of Cimarron for the show. As he left, he was effusive about what a great job I’d been doing – how the vocal blend was the best it had been in a long time, how well everything seemed to fit musically…


…that kind of praise is inspiring. Words like those become fuel…and that kind of fuel burns a long, long time.


Thankfully, because my phone was still recording, I have the whole exchange as a keepsake.


It made me want to be a better player, to be deserving of that kind of praise from someone who’d been a big part of the reason I chose this path in the first place.


Last night, he texted the band to let us know that a planned event was being postponed from May until the fall…I quipped that “by then, maybe I’d have figured out those 9 mysterious notes in You Better Think Twice that had been eluding me…


He texted back – “I can show you that! G tuning!


I replied with a video of myself playing the lick that I’d figured out with a note about the part that I hadn’t gotten the hang of yet…and I figured that we’d circle back and run through it when we started rehearsals in a few weeks.


Jack called me unusually early this morning – we were planning to get together tomorrow for another vocal run-through, and I thought that maybe something had come up with regard to timing or something of that nature…but I answered the phone and he simply said “Rusty died.”


I told him I was gonna need a minute to process this…I got out of bed and stumbled into the shower, as I had a full plate at work…I guess I figured that if I pretended I hadn’t heard, maybe I’d wake up for real and none of it would be true.


I got in the car to head to the office and Rose of Cimmaron started playing when I turned on the ignition – I immediately turned it off and drove to work in silence…with Rusty’s pedal steel guitar gently shifting about in the back of my car, having just been picked up from the shop the day before.


The loss is compounded by knowing how much he was looking forward to taking this version of Poco back out into the world – he seemed re-energized in a way that seemed to have been missing for some time, and I’m not the only one who noticed it…and while Rusty’s passing wasn’t COVID-related, it can certainly be said that the pandemic robbed us all of what could’ve been if we’d been able to see this phase of the band to fruition.


I suppose that writing this remembrance is an effort on my part to make it real to myself, to try to accept the fact that this has happened, that my friend and bandmate is actually gone, that it’s not something I’m going to wake up from like so many bizarre COVID fever dreams from this past year.


It’s not really working.


I’m not really ready to say goodbye to him.


So for now, I’m just going to say thank you. Thanks for everything you did – whether consciously or otherwise – to help me make my way down this trail.


See you on the other side, cowboy.

IN MEMORIAM

In a year that lasted longer than any other year in my own recent memory, it’s hard to believe that Neil Peart, David Olney, and legendary Philadelphia DJ Gene Shay all died this year.

This year we also lost civil rights era heroes John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, Bruce Boynton and Charles Evers – as well as Chuck Yeager and the Notorious RBG.

The sports world said goodbye to a laundry list of legends: Gale Sayers, Don Shula, Joe Morgan, Don Larsen, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Dick Allen, Tom Dempsey, Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Paul Hornung, Jay Johnstone…and we said goodbye to Sean Connery, Carl Reiner, Chadwick Boseman, Brian Dennehy, Buck Henry, Robert Conrad, Lyle Waggoner…

Behind the desk, we lost some great ears – this year, Keith Olsen, Bruce Swedien, Rupert Hine, Bob Kulick, and the legendary Hal Willner all left us.

Country music took an especially hard hit this year – Mac Davis and Helen Reddy died on the same day. They also lost Kenny Rogers, Hal Ketchum, Jan Howard, Joe Diffie, Charlie Daniels, Billy Joe Shaver, KT Oslin, Justin Townes Earle and Doug Supernaw.

Then there were the folks whose names you might not recognize – Buddy Cage, Pete Carr, Jamie Oldaker, Bucky Baxter, Chris Darrow, Todd Nance, Bones Hillman, Lyle Mays, Bucky Pizzarelli, McCoy Tyner, Eric Weissberg…all great players who left their mark on the landscape for years to come.

Little Richard. John Prine. Emitt Rhodes. Bill Withers.

And because the year just doesn’t seem to let up, we’re still processing the loss of Charley Pride, Leslie West…and Eddie Van Halen.

That’s a herd of huge footprints that’ll never be filled. Fare thee well.

SNS preview: The Road of Diminishing Returns

I got to the venue – Picasso’s in Elizabethtown, Kentucky – about ninety minutes early, and had time to collect my thoughts while I waited for the girl I was billed with.  Her name was Kathleen Roy – she was a talented singer and writer, and we were a good match…she seems to have gotten out of the business, as I did a few cursory web searches and couldn’t find any mention of her.  We were playing both shows together on a co-bill arrangement…neither of us were opening or headlining, it was two sets of equal length, split between the two of us.  As such, we split the proceeds equally as well, but I’d soon learn that I needn’t have concerned myself with that particular topic.

The Picasso’s show had maybe a dozen or so people in the audience – Kathleen had never heard me before, and she was sincerely effusive with her praise, and was full of assurances that the show the next night in Louisville would probably have a LOT more people, and she couldn’t wait to play with me again tomorrow and we said our goodbyes.  I packed up my stuff, and – for the first time that entire trip, it occurred to me that I hadn’t given a single thought to where I was supposed to be staying for this run.  I hadn’t brought it up with Matt once in the time we’d planned the run, and it hadn’t come up in conversation at any point…and now, here I sat in Elizabethtown with no real bead on a place to stay.

Now this wouldn’t have really been an issue in other, more temperate times of year – and I’d slept in the van before, and I wasn’t above sleeping in the van again.  I’d packed well, after all – I had a sleeping bag that stayed in the van at all times, and I had this hooded sweater that I called “Derek” (because it was very much like one that my old manager used to wear all the time – I bought it for that reason on another road trip with Matt and Michelle at a truck stop maybe a year before).  I had the same green army coat that I’d been wearing for years and a few changes of clothes, and I was packed for the trip, so I wasn’t worried about being prepared…but it was fucking COLD at night, let me tell ya.

Leaving Elizabethtown, I hadn’t really given any thought to how far it was from Louisville – and now, it’s kind of comical to think about – but I thought there’d be a rest stop somewhere along the interstate between E-town and Louisville, not realizing that it was barely up the road.  As such, I got to Louisville before finding a place to pull over and sleep – so I’d already arrived in town and needed to find a place to put myself for the night.  I got off the exit for Bardstown Road and started scoping out spots along the route until I saw a cluster of blue lights in the distance in front of me.  My first thought was that it was either an accident or a DUI checkpoint, and I wanted no part of either possibility.  I pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store and circled around back – I backed the van into the parking spot adjacent to the dumpster (it felt important to conceal my “yankee license plates” at the time) and locked it down – then I crawled into the back and pulled “Derek” up right around my neck and zipped the sleeping bag up to the top and dozed off to sleep in pretty short order.  It was probably a little earlier than I’d planned on going to sleep, but I had nothing else to do, so I slept until I woke up to the sound of traffic and general bustling outside the windows of the van.  I tried to sleep through it, but it just wasn’t happening.  If it had been May, I’d have happily slept until noon, but the cold wouldn’t allow for it.

I woke up and started the car – I knew that the expectation that it would heat up was futile at best, so I started up the street until I found an open McDonald’s.  I pulled into the parking lot and went inside to eat something and thaw out for a bit.  I had my backpack with me, so I pulled out my journal and wrote for a while – I ended up going out to the car and coming back in through the side door with my bag and sneaking into the mens’ room to wash up, brush my teeth, and change clothes for the day.  

I had a lot…A LOT…of time to kill between then and the gig.  I read most of “Message in a Bottle”, which Heidi had loaned me before I left…I spent well over an hour at Guitar Emporium, I went up and down Bardstown looking for bookstores and record shops, but I didn’t want to stray too far from familiar territory.  Again, this was pre-GPS, pre-cellphone…and I didn’t want to get lost or have to grope my way back to the gig.  It was a relatively relaxing day of doing nothing, although I regretted not having told my brother Jimmy that I was going to be close.  If I’d known that I was going to have this much time on my hands, I’d have made the effort to track him down, but I thought I’d have been on a straight shot north from Elizabethtown to home from the end of the first show.  Rookie mistake.

The show that night at Twice Told was one of the best shows I’d played in the past two or three years prior to that – it wasn’t a huge crowd, but it was a great crowd.  My voice was in pretty great form, and I’d gotten great reviews from the folks at both gigs, and I was assured that I’d be welcome to return anytime I wanted – which was a big part of the point of doing the shows in the first place…getting my foot in the door and making an impression.  

There’s a political element to forging one’s way through this forest, and I had known this for some time, having played the game locally in Philadelphia – but if I had notions of expanding my base and following my John Gorka blueprint, I had to start working outward.  And this pair of shows had accomplished that – I had return commitments, and it was within the realm of possibility to add venues in Nashville or Cincinnati or elsewhere the next time around.  That’s how the donuts get made, y’know.

I left the show in good spirits with plans to drive as long as I could to try and heat up the inside of the van before I pulled over to sleep – the way I saw it, I figured the warmer I could get it, the longer it’d take for the cold outside to push it out.

I drove for a couple hours and found a rest stop where it felt safe to park and sleep…it was well past midnight at this point, so I figured that it’d warm up a bit when the sun came out – so I was probably looking at six hours or so of real cold before it warmed up a bit, and I felt pretty sure that I could sleep through that like the professional that I was.

I slipped on a second shirt, a long-sleeved henley pullover and put Derek on over the top of it and slid down into the sleeping bag and zipped it all the way up so that the only thing sticking out of it was my face – and hunkered down to get some sleep for the rest of the drive back.

I don’t remember falling asleep – it must’ve been quick.

At some point in the middle of the night, I slipped into a dream…I was outside, and there was a stage – it wasn’t a traditional bandshell, but similar.  There was backline and gear set up on it, and I knew that I was supposed to be playing, somehow.  

Prior to this dream, in real life, Matt and Marlene had been negotiating with an indie label (Palmetto) to sign me – they had an amazing female singer/songwriter named Mindy Jostyn on the label, and I think Matt thought they needed a male contemporary that they could promote and potentially pair up for touring – or at least that’s how they pitched it.

At any rate, this show I was apparently playing in this dream was supposed to be something of a live performance preview of songs from the new record that was coming out on Palmetto – and I was seeing the craziest combination of souls in this outdoor park, gathering for this show.  Steve Wellner was there with his trademark smile, Tom Del Colle from Grape Street was cooking on a grill, a couple of guys I knew from high school were milling about on the grass – my Navy buddy from Iceland, Jay Smalley was there – but all standing somewhat spaced out on the grass, looking in my direction with contented smiles on their faces.

The band was Todd and Bob Stirner on guitar, Lee Shusterman on keys, Garry Lee on bass and Ronny Crawford on drums – every one my first pick if I were able to put together the band of my dreams.  Jayda and Dylan were there with their mom and her new boyfriend, and…

…it was almost as if my subconscious brain had selected a “greatest hits” playlist of sorts to parade past me in this apparition.

So as we’re doing a line check and I’m looking out at this field full of happy, supportive faces and I see a sandy-haired girl wearing denim overalls and a white T-shirt walking across the grass towards the stage and I know immediately who it is.

I take my guitar off and put it on a stand behind me and step down and take maybe ten or fifteen paces in her direction until we’re standing right in front of one another.

She looks directly into my eyes and reaches up to touch my face and she says:

“Tom – just because I couldn’t love you the way you wanted doesn’t mean I didn’t love you.”

I must have awakened at that very moment, because I don’t remember anything from the dream after that.

When I woke up, it was daylight – sunlight was shining in through the windows and I was staring up at the roof of the van absorbing what I’d just heard in my head in this dream I’d had.  As I was waking up, I hadn’t quite left my brain just yet.

“Just because I couldn’t love you the way you wanted doesn’t mean I didn’t love you.”

I didn’t realize how cold I was until I noticed how strange the tears felt on my face – I’d slept until nearly ten o’clock, and…contrary to my assumption from the night before, it had not warmed up when the sun came up.

In fact, most of my face was numb from the cold – there was no real difference in the temperature outside or inside the van at this point, as I’d managed to sleep for nearly ten hours somehow.  But over the course of that ten hour period, the only heat that remained in the van was what I’d barely managed to trap inside the sleeping bag with me – and that wasn’t much.  

That morning, before I started the van to head home, I had to scrape frost from the inside of the windows.  I’d never considered the possibility of that being necessary under any circumstance, but sure enough…I guess the condensation from my breath over the course of a ten hour slumber had created enough moisture in the air to frost the windows from the inside.

Not just a light coating, either…I actually had to use the scraper that I usually used for clearing the outside of the windows on both sides of the windshield before I was able to pull out of the rest stop to start the drive home.   After I finished scraping, I checked the oil and added another two quarts before starting the engine to let the van warm up for a moment while I tried to regain the feeling in my extremities so I could actually drive…again, I’m not someone with a propensity for the cold, but I was freezing that morning.  

The only other times I can remember being that cold was waking up in our house before I was in my teens – when the only source of heat we had in the house was a wood stove that had long since burned down to embers overnight.  My mom would get out of bed before us every morning to start the fire again before she’d wake us and get us up to get ready for school, but the wood stove was often no match for the cold that had settled in overnight.  When I got up, I’d grab my clothes and run to stand next to the stove and get dressed while standing as close to it as I could to try to stay warm.

The drive home wasn’t unlike those winter mornings getting ready for school – it never really got warm…or if it did, I wasn’t able to feel it.  In fact, I don’t think I warmed up until I got back to my penthouse on North Fifth Street and got myself and my guitar inside.  I remember my feet feeling strange when I got out of the van, because it had been so long since they’d touched anything that wasn’t the floorboard.  

Now, you know by now how I felt about my little nest above North Fifth Street – it was home to me at this point, and it was mine…the first place I’d lived that I could truly say that about.  But when I got home from this particular weekend’s shows, I don’t know that I’d ever been so glad to walk up those three flights of stairs and unlock that door to step inside my place.  MY place.  I was glad to be home in a way that felt like equal parts relief and contentment.

I took off my road clothes and took the longest, hottest shower I’ve probably ever taken – I turned on the television in the bedroom after I got out and put on a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt, and laid down on the bed tucked into the corner of the back room and let my attention drift from the dialogue from the TV to the delight I felt in actually being warm again for the first time in what felt like days.

It was Sunday – it wasn’t particularly late, and I’d slept pretty long the night before finishing the drive home, but I was drained.  I had come home from two marginally successful gigs with less money than I’d left home with, and I’d been thinking about all of this for the entire days’ drive and apparently, I wasn’t finished mulling it over yet.

I was staring down the barrel at 34 years old and I was beginning to feel the earth shift beneath my feet a little bit.

I’d had almost two years to cobble together a followup to my 1997 record, and I had…nothing.

(OK, maybe not nothing – but nothing I’d been as excited about as I’d been when I’d assembled this crew of believers to start working on that record…and no, it’s not fair to compare them, any more than it’s fair to compare your children with that kind of expectation, but…that weekend, it had started to sink in that I was ill-equipped to follow up that record.)

I had songs.  I had songs I liked, even.  But I think that the experience of making Mutual Angels with Steve had…well, it had kinda ruined me.  It’s not as though the door at Longview was closed to me, but I think that when someone (in this case, someone in Steve’s position) decides to invest their time and talent alongside your time and talent to create something, they expect you to be as excited about the prospects of your joint creation as they are, and I will never accept that I didn’t disappoint Steve on that level.  Steve stood next to me as we made that record, he believed in that record, and he was proud of that record, and – it came out and my life imploded and I took my eye off the ball.

When the summer of 1997 happened in the manner it did, Derek did the best he could to try and create a space for both that record and for me as an artist within the sphere of where I lived and worked, but I wasn’t present for it.  I didn’t have my heart in it, as I was distracted by the things going on in my life.  But I got another shot, when Matt came along and was every bit as motivated as Derek had been coming out of the gate, but again – other things in my life demanded my time and attention and I didn’t live up to the work I needed to do to give it the same amount of effort that the people around me were putting into it.

If you’re reading this, you likely know me on some level outside my capacity as a long-winded autobiographer, and you already know that there was never any real follow-up to Our Mutual Angels – there have been records in the years since, but they’ve largely been homemade efforts, and in the years after this particular weekend run of shows, my attention shifted largely away from songwriting to other pursuits.

I don’t recall the exact date, but at some point Steve Wellner evaporated into thin air.  For a while, no one knew what happened to him or what became of the studio – he turned up some years later, happy and healthy and living in Southern California with a great gig as an engineer and is doing quite well.

When I was touring with Marshall Tucker Band in 2013, we were playing a show in Woodland Hills, CA and I reached out to Steve to let him know that I was in town – he came to the show and we got a chance to go sit at the bar at our hotel and talk at length for the first time since he’d left Philadelphia, and…to call it a catharsis still feels as though I’m selling it short.

I got to thank him properly, at last, for the work he’d done on that record, for his belief in me as an artist, and for the sacrifice he’d made to give birth to it.  He was gracious and complimentary and convinced me – maybe for the first time – that it was as much a labor of love for him as it had been for me.  I told him how much I regretted that I hadn’t been as present as I should’ve been in the aftermath of the record, and that I felt like I let him down, but he told me that he completely understood – he’d been present for the emotional turmoil that fueled the creation of the record as well as the fallout, and he was a firsthand witness to what had taken place in my life in those years, and he got it – and he told me that he bore me no grudges about any of it and that he was glad to have been a part of it, and…

…and I don’t know that the words are available to me right now to tell you how that felt.

It was like having a regret that you’ve carried around for years liquidated and washed away.

I hadn’t seen Steve in almost fifteen years by then, and it was as if no time had passed when we saw each other that night…and I think the thing I took away from that encounter was the notion that maybe there was a reason that Mutual Angels was a one-time thing.  I couldn’t have made that record with anyone else, and I would’ve measured anything I did after that with the template that I’d created in my relationship with Steve, and I’m not sure if anyone else would’ve lived up to it.

Now, I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of sessions in the time since that record, and I’ve forged some great relationships with producers and engineers in studios all over the place in that time.  I consider myself a pretty flexible guy in the studio and I can work with just about anyone…

…on other people’s music.

Whether I could ever make another record like Our Mutual Angels with anyone other than Steve?

Well, I know what the answer to that question has been for nearly a quarter century.  I guess it could be said that the jury is still out, but whatever might come next, in terms of a Tom Hampton record of all original compositions – it’ll be apples and oranges to the work I did with Steve.

As I lay in bed after that road trip, though – back in February of 1999 – I hadn’t fully processed this yet.  I still had some work to do and I needed to be gently led in another direction.

I needed a creative vacation – a distraction of sorts.  And I’d soon figure out what that looked like.

…another auld lang syne

I feel like I’ve been researching this book for a year…largely because – well, because I’ve been researching this book for a year.

This week has been “open every document on all your old hard drives” week, and I’ve found some great stuff…a song I forgot that I’d written, a handful of saved AIM conversations with old friends, and…this article that I saved from the days after Dan Fogelberg’s passing in 2007.

A great story loves to be told, and this is a great story.


At Woodruff High School, Jill Anderson had a typical teen romance: on-again/off-again with the same boy over several years.

He’d write a lot of poetry and share his insights with Jill. But as they went to separate colleges, things cooled off. They tried to stay in touch, but he moved out West and she headed to Chicago.

And that might’ve been the sum of a sweet memory, if not for a chance reunion one Christmas Eve at a Peoria convenience story – one music fans know well.

Jill’s old boyfriend was Dan Fogelberg, who memorialized their convenience-store encounter in “Same Old Lang Syne.” Since the song’s release in 1980, Peoria – as well as the rest of his fans worldwide – has wondered about the “old lover” referenced in the song. Fogelberg never would say, and only a handful of people knew the ex-girlfriend’s identify.

Jill, now Jill Greulich of Missouri, feels she can finally share the story.

“It’s a memory that I cherish,” she says.

She says she had kept publicly mum because Fogelberg was such a private person.

“It wasn’t about me. It was about Dan. It was Dan’s song,” Jill says.

Further, though she and Fogelberg only rarely had communicated over the past quarter-century, she feared that her talking about the song somehow might cause trouble in his marriage. But in the aftermath of his death – he passed away of prostate cancer Sunday at age 56 – she has been sharing her secret with old friends in Peoria.

“I don’t want this to overshadow Dan,” Jill says. “When I heard the news that he died, I was very sad.”

She and Fogelberg were part of the Woodruff Class of ’69. They would date for long stretches, break up, then get back together.

Often, they would head to Grandview Drive, take in the vistas and listen to the likes of Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Fogelberg often would pen poetry, some of which he gave to Jill.

“I still have some of those in a drawer at home,” she says.

After high school, Fogelberg went to the University of Illinois in Urbana to study theater, while Jill attended Western Illinois University to major in elementary education. They stayed in touch, even continuing to date for a while. But the romance ended for good when he left the U of I early to head to Colorado and pursue his music career.

After graduating college, Jill relocated to the Chicago area, where she worked as an elementary teacher and flight attendant. Not long after college, she married a man from that area, and her connection to Fogelberg faded to memories.

But on Christmas Eve 1975, Jill and her husband visited her parents, who still lived in the Woodruff district. Also at the home were some friends of the family.

During the gathering, Jill’s mother asked her to run out for egg nog. Jill drove off in search of an open store.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away, a similar scenario was playing out at the Fogelberg home, where Dan Fogelberg was visiting family for the holiday. They needed whipping cream to make Irish coffees, so Fogelberg volunteered to go search for some.

By happenstance and because almost every other business on the East Bluff was closed, Jill and Fogelberg both ended up at the Convenient store at the top of Abington Hill, at Frye Avenue and Prospect Road. She got there first, and Fogelberg noticed her shortly after arriving.

They bought a six pack, sipped beer in her car and gabbed away. “We had some laughs,” Jill recalls.

As two hours flew by, Jill’s family and friends grew worried.

“We were like, ‘Where is she?'” says a laughing Eileen Couri of Peoria, one of the friends at the gathering that night.

When Jill returned, she simply explained that she had run into Fogelberg, and the two had caught up with each other. No big deal.

Five years later, Jill was driving to work in Chicago. She had on the radio, and a new song popped on. First, she thought, “That sounds like Dan.”

Then she listened to the lyrics, about two former lovers who have a chance encounter at a store. “Oh my gosh!” she told herself. “That really happened!”

They would not discuss “Same Old Lang Syne” until years later, during a conversation backstage at a Fogelberg concert. Two parts of the song are inaccurate. Blame Fogelberg’s poetic license.

Jill does not have blue eyes, but green. In fact, when they dated, Fogelberg called her “Sweet Jilleen Green Eyes” – a combination of her full first name and his twisting of a song title by Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Fogelberg explained that he took the easy way out for “Same Old Lang Syne.” As he told Jill, “Blue is easier to rhyme than green.”

Also, her then-husband was not an architect but a physical-education teacher. Jill doubts Fogelberg knew what her husband did for a living. She thinks Fogelberg probably just thought “architect” sounded right for the song.

But those are minor details. The heart of the song hangs on its most chilling line: “She would have liked to say she loved the man, but she didn’t like to lie.”

Still, even decades later, she declines to discuss that line of the tune.

“I think that’s probably too personal,” she says.

But the song had no impact on her marriage. By the time of its release, she had divorced.

“Somebody said he waited until I was divorced to release the song, but I don’t know if that’s true,” Jill says.

In 1980, the same year of the song’s release, Jill married Chicago-area native Jim Greulich. Eventually, they would move to a St. Louis suburb, where she now teaches second grade.

A few of her school associates have known her secret about the song. So has Fogelberg’s mother, who still lives in Peoria and exchanges Christmas cards with Jill.

This week, Jill sent e-mails to a few old pals in Peoria, lifting the lid off the “Same Old Lang Syne” mystery. One of the e-mail recipients was Wendy Blickenstaff, a Woodruff classmate of Jill’s and Fogelberg’s.

“I had a big suspicion” it was Jill, says Blickenstaff, now the head counselor at the school. “I’m happy for her. It’s really cool. … That’s a memory that she treasures.”

Jill agrees. Yet her memories of Dan Fogelberg stretch far beyond “Same Old Lang Syne.”

“I’ll always have a place in my heart for Dan,” she says. ” … Dan would be a very special person to me, even without the song.”

Chapter Preview – Connoisseur of Worst Case Scenarios

Nashville looks different to a teenage Opryland theme park visitor than it did to a 30 year old folk singer – when I lived in Tennessee as a kid, the thought of going to Nashville as a pro musician had never even crossed my mind.  What was I going to do, play in Conway Twitty’s band?  My first sights were set on being a drummer, but as I evolved and took up songwriting, the thought of this place wandered even further from my mind.  I never felt a kinship to Nashville in those years.  Now, though, we found ourselves in the deepest throes of what Steve Earle has called “The Great Credibility Scare” – a period in Nashville’s history that found artists and labels stretching the very boundaries of what could be called Country music, signing acts like him, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kevin Welch, Lee Roy Parnell, and a host of other artists who would never in a million years fit the mold of a “hat act”.

And – because it needs to be said and confessed – I never would’ve come to Nashville that year if Matt and Michelle hadn’t set the whole thing up and convinced me to come along.

Once it was in ink and we’d committed to it, though – the prospect took on a degree of excitement.  I was actually looking forward to seeing what things looked like from the “boots on the ground” perspective and getting a closer look.  We’d booked a couple of shows in town, including a writers’ round at a place called Big River (it sat all the way at the end of Lower Broadway where Acme Feed and Seed lives today), and an in-store live performance at Tower Records.

Travelling with Michelle was fine, as long as the wheels of the car were moving.  When the car stopped, she got to be a bit of a handful.  After we’d first arrived in town, she spotted a ring at a shop that she passed over at first – and then suffered an absolutely debilitating case of buyers’ remorse that found us actually going back to the shop so that she could buy the ring she’d passed over the first time.

There are a lot of details that time has managed to blur over the years, and one of them is the name of the woman that we stayed with while we were in Nashville – she was a friend of Matt and Michelle’s, really sweet – Matt and Michelle took the guest room, and she offered me the choice of the couch or sleeping with her.  It was completely innocent at first, or at least that’s what I said to myself to rationalize the notion of sleeping with this woman I’d just met…and she was lovely.  I’ve thought about her a number of times since moving to Nashville six years ago, and sadly, I don’t think I’d recognize her if I were to pass her in the produce aisle at Kroger.

Our first night in town, we had tickets to the Ryman Auditorium to see a band called Jars of Clay, who were recording a live concert video that night.

Now, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Jars of Clay, I don’t know if you have an opinion of Jars of Clay, but that show – that night – was somewhat otherworldly to my eyes and ears.  I had never heard of them, and every song was brand new to me, and I was an instant fan.  I had taken a single seat a few rows over from Matt and Michelle for the sake of logistics, and I was somewhat grateful to be able to sit there and let this music wash over me by myself with no forced interaction with anyone else…

…until I felt Matt tap me on the shoulder about two thirds of the way through the show.

“Hey, man – I’m sorry, but I think we’re gonna have to go.”

I looked up at him and he looked both distressed and slightly panicked – I didn’t ask any questions, I just got up and followed him up the aisle to the exit, where a sobbing Michelle was waiting on the other side.

Michelle had gone to the bathroom and had taken off her new ring to wash her hands, and had walked out of the bathroom without it – and she lost her shit.

Thankfully, someone turned the ring in to the box office and the breakdown eventually subsided and we were able to collect ourselves and move on.

Another early stop after arriving in town was the office of NSAI headquarters – Nashville Songwriters’ Association (International).  They’re an advocacy and networking organization for songwriters with an influential reach into the Nashville community, and into just about every community in the US and beyond with a significant music scene that has a songwriting element present among them.  In town, they offered writing rooms, office space and internet access for their members, and in those days – internet access meant the availability of an analog phone line.  As such, they were a godsend for Matt, who practically lived on his laptop.

While we were there, I did the thing that I did in every city I found myself in, even for a fleeting moment – I grabbed a copy of the local free weekly (in this case, the Nashville Scene)and started flipping through it.  In the listings for live music in that weeks’ Scene, I went to check the Bluebird Cafe itinerary for the week.

“Dammit!” I said, out loud, surprising even myself.

“What?” Matt answered.

“I was just looking at the Bluebird listings…we just missed a round at the Bluebird with Rusty Young from Poco – by two days!”

Matt, being the expert networker and politician that he was, took the story from there and explained to the folks in the office that Rusty had written one of the songs on my album, and that we were on the road and likely wouldn’t have made the show even if we’d known about it.  He was just making conversation, really – there hadn’t been an outburst, I hadn’t made a scene, and I wasn’t irate or emotional about it…and after having brought it up, I immediately pivoted to another round at the Bluebird that we should take in while we’re there with Jeff Hanna from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Marcus Hummon, and Matraca Berg – I knew Marcus’ recording of a song called Bless The Broken Road from a Musician magazine compilation that I’d picked up long before the trip, and I’d heard Matraca’s songs on TNN…Jeff was just Jeff from the Dirt Band – I later found out that he and Matraca were husband and wife, and that Jeff was a co-writer on Bless the Broken Road – so it all made sense.

So, we missed Rusty – bummer.  But this show would be a good introduction to Nashville for all of us, I thought.

While I continued to peruse the paper, the receptionist came over and handed me a Post-It note that read:

Rusty Young (615) xxx-xxxx

“I just got off the phone with him, and he asked you to give him a call.”

Now – let’s just pause here, for a minute, and think about what just happened.

The receptionist had been a party to this conversation just a few minutes prior, and she took it upon herself to pick up the phone and call Rusty.  I’m left to assume that she told him that there was some guy named Tom Hampton in their lobby who had mentioned having recorded one of his songs…and Rusty had told her to give me his phone number.

Now, whatever you might think about Nashville, know this:

That’s never, ever, ever gonna happen in New York or Los Angeles.  Not in a million years.

That was the beginning of the reshaping of my attitude towards Nashville.

And yeah, you’d better believe I called him – said hello, we caught up a bit, I told him that I was in town for a couple of shows.  He asked where, and I told him that we were doing a writers’ round on Lower Broadway, but that I was doing an in-store at Tower Records the next day.  I didn’t invite him outright, but yet he asked what time the show was, and he told me he’d be there.

At this point, I had been playing in front of crowds ranging from a handful of folks to upwards of a thousand for roughly ten years or so, and I felt as though I was past the point of something like stage fright or butterflies.  I had seen bar fights, power outages, fires, floods – once you’ve seen a dude bleeding all over the floor in the middle of a song, it’s easy to assume that there isn’t much that would rattle you.

Now, though, I was about to play a show with a hero in the audience.  And yes, I’d opened a show for them a couple years prior, but there are a number of important distinctions between these two situations – most headlining acts never hear a note played from the stage before they step onto the stage themselves.  

The guys from Poco actually have a great story that they used to tell at shows about all the bands that had opened for them who went on to have successful careers, and talked about this comedian who came out in a white suit playing banjo with an arrow through his head…and they all agreed that there was just NO WAY this guy was ever gonna make it.  (It was Steve Martin, and of course they were wrong.)  It’s also worth noting that some of the only live shows that the upstart Buckingham-Nicks duo played before joining Fleetwood Mac were opening for…Poco.  

The only real reason to take a gig opening for another artist is to play to their audience and hope that some degree of cross-pollination takes place – that some of their fans will also become your fans.  Of course, there’s a fantasy that evolves early on when we daydream about playing on the same stages as the bands we idolize, forging friendships with our heroes and winning their approval…maybe they’ll like my music and, who knows?  Maybe they’ll invite me up to sit in or something and we’ll all hang out backstage and…sure, it makes for a great movie, but real life doesn’t often lend credulity to the fantasy.   There’s seldom anything more than a cursory greeting exchanged between the opener and the headliner.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: I know, I know…just pretend you don’t know the rest of the story and keep reading, OK?)

Still, I’d gotten acquainted with the band some years back and – while I didn’t necessarily think of myself as much more than an acquaintance, they knew who I was…and that, in and of itself, felt significant to me.  Heroes had been a big deal to me from the beginning.  But the thought of actually getting to know them to the extent that they remember your name, or that one of them would extend their phone number to you, and then to learn that they think enough of you to take the time to come hear you play?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but it was a big fucking deal to me.

So, you’d better believe that when I got off the phone with Rusty, I went upstairs to the cubicle where the public computers were and jumped onto AOL to see if Jon was online – I couldn’t wait to tell him what had happened.

Well, sure enough, I found his screen name in the Instant Messenger window when I signed on (Jon was a graphic illustrator, and he worked from home – so he was online all the time) – but before I could send him a message, an IM window opened on my screen:

Jongeorg:  Hey!  I was going to email you!

Hamptontom:  Dude, you’re never gonna believe this

Jongeorg:  You want to go first or should I

Hamptontom:  You go first…no way will yours be bigger than mine

Jongeorg:  OK

Jongeorg:  I talked to George Grantham, and he’s coming to your Tower Records show 

Hamptontom:  HOLY SHIT

Jongeorg:  Right?

Jongeorg:  What did you want to tell me?

Hamptontom:  Well, here’s a plot twist for you – there’ll be two Poco members at my show tomorrow

I proceeded to tell Jon about the encounter with Rusty via Instant Messenger – but now I needed to process this additional information, because I was still wrapping my head around the notion of Rusty being at the show at the moment I learned that George was coming – and I’d never met George before.

There was another layer of potential drama that occurred to me as I was processing all this.

There had been a reunion of the original five members of the band in 1989 that resulted in an album on MCA and a short tour that was rumored to have ended in somewhat contentious waters.  Richie had jumped ship first, then Randy – and everyone ended up splintering again by the end.  

The version of the band that I’d seen that day in Pittsburgh six years prior was Rusty and Paul Cotton with a pair of players they’d picked up in the interim…and of course, it had certainly dawned on me that there might’ve been a reason why George hadn’t continued on with the band after the reunion tour – personal or otherwise.  Certainly, I didn’t know any of them well enough to be privy to any inside information – and for all I knew, there may have been some bad blood between Rusty and George that rose out of the aftermath of that tour.  I was immediately concerned that they’d think they were being set up to arrive in the same room at the same time as some sort of fanboy matchmaker operation, and they’d both leave angry at having been set up to bump into each other.

This is the thing I invented in my head, anyway – I had become a true connoisseur of worst case scenarios, and I’d cooked up a doozy for myself this time.  By the time of the show, I had worked myself up into a bit of a lather – to the point that I’d have actually been relieved if one or the other hadn’t made it to the show.

So I was standing on the stage, playing one of my songs, and I saw them both at almost the same time – Rusty came in through the door next to the counter, and I saw George walking up through the classical music aisle.  They saw each other at roughly the same time and started walking towards one another and met in a bear hug in the middle of the store, and I felt twenty pounds of stress evaporate and leave my body in that moment.

I had an interview to record after my set, but I took a minute to greet them both after the show and set up a lunch date with George before we left town at a Mexican restaurant he liked before saying goodbye to the two of them.  I did the interview and took some time to get to know a friend of Michelle’s named Tiger, a guitarist in town who was as much of a Poco fan as I was, and we got ready to leave for the Bluebird after the show.

I had never been to the Bluebird – but once I had, I got it.  It was a tiny room in a strip mall that most people wouldn’t have noticed if they were driving out Hillsboro Pike for any other reason.  And yet, it had taken on legendary status over the years as a place where songwriters gravitated to show off their work.  

After the show, I managed to strike up a conversation with Matraca Berg – during which I executed a perfect example of my now somewhat commonplace Lindsey Buckingham Sad Trombone maneuvers.

What would that refer to, you ask?

A long time ago, I read in an interview about an encounter that Lindsey had with George Harrison when he met him for the first time – Lindsey was getting to meet someone he looked up to, and he had a ton of questions he wanted to ask him, but he led the volley with:

“Of all the great stuff you did when you were in the Beatles, where on earth did you come up with that amazing solo for Tax Man?”

George looked down at the floor and answered, “actually…Paul did that.”

I’ve executed similar versions of this same gaffe enough times that I’ve come to refer to it as having “Lindsey’d” someone.

For example – the first time I got to play with Dave Van Allen some years later, I told him how much I loved the pedal steel solo in the Last Train Home song Hendersonville – it was perfect, it was understated and melodic and I could hear it in my head without listening to the record…

Dave’s response:  “well, thanks…but that was Pete Finney on the record.”

Lindsey’d.

So that night at the Bluebird, I marched up to Matraca and told her how much I loved the song Easy to Tell from her Lying to the Moon album, how it was equal parts classic country and Roy Orbison rolled into one, and I thought it was one of her best songs…

“I’m glad you like it, but actually…Stephony Smith wrote that one.”

Lindsey’d again.

I actually committed a misdemeanor count of Third Degree “Lindsey’d” with Paul Cotton the night we met for the first time, when I asked him if he played the solo from Good Feeling To Know through a Leslie cabinet.  Paul’s reply?

“I have no idea!  I’ll have to listen to it sometime!”

I mean, it’s a gift – it’s not like this is something you can teach, folks.

I met George Grantham for lunch the next day and had some amazing Mexican food while we got to know one another – he was such a kind guy, and he had a lot of nice things to say about Our Mutual Angels, and believed that if the right person got their hands on it, Brand New Distance could be a number one country song.  We talked a little bit about the old days with the band, and I worked up the nerve to ask him…

“…listen, at some point, I have to start putting songs together for a follow-up to this record – if we can make it work, I’d love to have you play on it if you’d be interested…”

He didn’t even hesitate – he said that if we could figure it out logistically, he’d be happy to.

He’d been playing a bit around town with a band called Hoopla, and he gave me a copy of their CD at lunch, and we traded contact information before we parted ways – I still had one more show to play before we left town, a writers’ round with chairs for both Michelle and I at Big River on Lower Broadway.

Our round was somewhat uneventful, but I’d met a young songwriter from Texas that night named Terri Hendrix who was in town, and she asked if she could borrow my guitar for her round after ours was finished, and I happily obliged – I took advantage of the extra time to take a walk up the street and listen to the folks playing in some of the other rooms along the strip.

Now, admittedly, I had conjured this illusion in my head that – because of the sheer number of people who came to Nashville to try to run their stuff up the flagpole, that competition must be fierce and that you had to be exceptionally good to actually achieve gigging status in a town with so many great musicians in it.  I mean, that would have to be true, right?

Well, my walk up Lower Broad that night altered my perception considerably.

There was a place called the Gibson Guitar Cafe that had a girl at a piano who might’ve only started playing a few weeks prior to that night…another place had a guy in a cowboy outfit in the window, singing the line “Big Boss Man” over and over while he repeated a 12 bar blues riff on guitar – it was actually a little disheartening to see that open mike hackers could work their way onto stages in a town like this, where music was a cash crop.

Still, for my first trip to Nashville that wasn’t a flyover on my way back to my hometown – for my first actual professional trip to Nashville – I left town with a smile on my face as we headed back to Philadelphia.  I don’t know that I actually harbored any thoughts of moving to Nashville at that point, as my kids were still young and I wasn’t prepared to be that far away from them – and my own personal musical blueprint was still very much the John Gorka career path, and even though Nashville had been welcoming to him, I didn’t foresee a scenario where I found myself living there.

The three of us had stayed at my brothers’ house in Jackson for one night of the trip, and in Nashville for the rest – travelling with Michelle, I was learning, was going to take some getting used to.

On the way north, we stopped at a rest stop off I-65 somewhere in Kentucky that was absolutely massive – it was a food court AND a department store AND a gas station AND a rest stop, and it seemed like they had damn near anything and everything that anyone could have possibly wanted to eat, hot or cold, in one corner or another of this place.  Even though I’d been up and down the roads of my corner of the world for years now, I’d never seen anything quite like this place at the time.

So we gassed up the Caravan and pulled away from the pumps to go inside and find something to eat.  Matt and I went inside and made relatively quick decisions and came back out to the van to eat and wait for Michelle – who remained inside until well after I’d finished my food.

I asked Matt – do you want me to go in and check on her?  You think she’s ok?

We both decided that she was probably just poking around through souvenir T-shirts or something and that she’d be out when she was ready, so Matt finished his dinner as well while we waited and talked about what had happened on the trip.

Some twenty minutes later, Michelle emerged from this travellers’ Shangri-La, this oasis of every kind of food one could possibly yearn for in a roadside setting…

…with two hard boiled eggs and a bottle of water.

Indeed – some getting used to.

The Soft Ache and the Moon

Richard Edwards is operating on borrowed time.


By all rights, he should be coasting down the other side of the hill by now.


Most artists follow a long-established creative path – a short, early creative burst of self-discovery followed by a blissful (and usually brief) period of brilliance – which usually tapers into an autumn of sorts…brought on by complacency or a drought of ideas or inspiration.


Even for some of the best and brightest, this cycle can run its course in the span of a decade…for a lucky few, maybe an extra year or two. Longetivity is usually a side-effect, a result of the trappings of greatness – if you do something that shifts the ground beneath your feet, you get the bonus benefit of riding on your own coattails in the aftermath. Let’s not kid ourselves, though – no one who goes to see what’s left of Fleetwood Mac or the Rolling Stones is going to the show to hear any of the songs recorded in a year that didn’t start with the number nineteen.


Luck and talent will extend a window, and if you’re ready – something beautiful and unique will flow through you and into the world, and we’ll all be the better for it.

Richard Edwards’ window appears to have been open for an abnormally long time.

Richard found his voice while fronting the late, lamented Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s – the band made half a dozen albums (including two versions of the same record) between 2005 and their final album, Slingshot to Heaven, in 2014.


Slingshot was a harbinger of both triumph and disaster. The album itself was easily the crown jewel of the Margot years, tilting its hand at Edwards’ maturity as an artist, but he fell ill unexpectedly, and was sidelined in the middle of touring the record. He was diagnosed with C. Diff – a rare intestinal disease that nearly killed him. In the aftermath, his marriage crumbled and he found himself homeless, couch-surfing while trying to heal himself both physically and emotionally.


The record that ultimately became his solo debut, Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset, started to take shape amidst the chaos of his life in those days.


He’d later say, “Some records you make because it’s been a couple of years and you have some songs that you think are pretty good. Others burn a hole inside of you so hot that you’ll do anything to get them out. It’s these records over which you obsess — they make you crazy and you develop ulcers. They kill some people. Getting them right is more important than food or air. No sacrifice is too great when it comes to their completion.”


To say that they kill some people may sound melodramatic, but even a cursory look at Richard’s life during the time leading up to the moment that LCSS saw the light of day strips away any layers of pretension from such a statement. Emaciated from the aftermath of medical treatments and accompanying weight loss, devastated from the collapse of his marriage – “I spent hours repeating my daughter’s name until I fell asleep,” he said. “Finishing the record was this flashing light that kept me just far enough away from some waters I was getting too close to.”


It’s hard for most people to imagine that any artistic pursuit could possibly be worth what Edwards went through, in terms of extreme levels of every kind of pain known to man, to see this record through to fruition…but it’s not for those of us on the outside to decide such things.

Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset is a record for the ages. It’s loose in places and dreamy in others, and it’s as personal and vulnerable a record as you’ll ever hear – all the more so if you know even a skeletal version of the story of its creator.


In the midst of the turmoil leading up to the record, Edwards posted a long, detailed open letter of sorts on the Margot Facebook page that accompanied a demo recording of a song called Moonwrapped – the post later disappeared but the song lingered in the periphery, and ended up closing the album (later with an accompanying video). It’s one of those songs that leaves you suspended in a state of ache and tension that can only be followed by a moment of silence and contemplation – the perfect mile marker for the end of such a record.


There’s a lot of “Goodbye” in LCSS – there’s a lot of California in LCSS, too, as being on the West Coast became a safe harbor of sorts for Edwards during the completion of the record. Certainly, the pain is palpable, but Richard is somewhat philosophical about it. He later said that “it dawned on me that my purpose might be, if only in this moment, to be a faithful steward of this pain. To turn it into something worthy of its awful power and, in the process, take back some of what had been taken from me.”

It’s a record where you can hear the pain even in the fleshed-out, uptempo songs – but it rewards return visits unlike any record I can point to that’s been made in the past twenty years. I won’t bore you with a recitation of adjectives…I’ll simply tell you that this record will make you feel things you’d forgotten how to feel.

It’s that good.


And he made it years down the road from where he started.


His proverbial window was already open, and – in 2017, after over a dozen years of writing and recording, he’d made the best record he’d ever made.

Until now.

I had made myself a promise in early 2020, after it became apparent that this year was going to become the clusterfuck shitshow that it’s become, that I was going to try to honor a self-imposed moratorium on new music for a while. I’d just lean on stuff that I already had attached to other periods of my life while I rode out whatever would become of the Year of COVID. I didn’t want to unjustly attach any of the events of this Garbage Year to anything that I hadn’t heard before, because – it just didn’t seem fair to the art.


I think of my daughter whenever I hear Bright as Yellow by Innocence Mission. I think of my oldest son when I hear Watching the Wheels by Lennon, I think of standing on the roof of a parking garage in Philadelphia when I hear Long December by Counting Crows – I have an exhaustive list of this kind of thing, and music attaches itself to signposts in my life like barnacles on the hull of a ship, and I didn’t see anything about this period of my life that I wanted to sync to anything that I might like.


So that new Phoebe Bridgers record? It can wait. The new Isbell record? It can wait. The Father John Misty EP? Later.

The new Richard Edwards record – The Soft Ache and the Moon – not ready yet.


And I held out for a long time, I swear I did.


Until I didn’t.

I don’t recall specifically what broke my will – I suppose it was no different than an alcoholic breaking loose from the thin thread that tethered them to sobriety, in a way…at some point, I just clicked on the BandCamp link and listened without a thought to the consequences of what I was about to do.


And then I couldn’t get out of bed.

For a couple of days. Seriously. I got up to go to the bathroom, or to wander through the house and touch base with my wife and my son (who’s almost the same age as Richard’s daughter), but I just needed to be in a room with the door closed…no interruptions, no banter in the background…and I drifted back and forth between sleep and listening to this record for most of the weekend.

I mean – on a creative level, I don’t get it. This shouldn’t be happening.


Richard Edwards is fifteen years in. He should be getting bored by now.

He should be rehashing themes and ideas from prior records, taking the safe or the easy path from point A to point B…he should be at least leaning towards the notion of phoning it in.


That’s how it’s usually done, after all.


I’ve been chewing on this for a minute, and – other than the stories we all know already (Aretha Franklin’s CBS recordings prior to signing with Atlantic and finding her voice being the most well-known of them), I can’t think of anybody…ANYBODY…who’s made a record this compelling this far down their personal artistic path.

We get older. We become preoccupied…complacent, even.


If we become notorious, we become more focused on remaining notorious than remaining true to our art.


The Soft Ache and the Moon is a record borne from a wellspring of courage and vulnerability, and it dares you to try to listen to it casually.


It’ll sneak up on you – you can put it on in the car, sure…but you might miss your exit getting swallowed up in Better World a’ Coming or January and have to double back. You might find your head bobbing to Monkey or Cruel and Uncomplicated and getting lost in the cracks and textures between the layers of guitars and the space between the notes.


Sonically, it resides in the same neighborhood as Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset – thanks in part to ace musicians like Mike Bloom and Pete Thomas, but it’s hard to imagine these songs existing in alternate forms. The production is lush and colorful, the songs are masterfully crafted, and delivered with Edwards’ trademark plaintive, distinctive tenor.


I don’t think this record is for everybody. In fact, I’m glad it’s not for everybody.


This record is a treasure, to be shared among people who are capable of appreciating it for what it is, what is represents, what it will make you feel…whether you planned on feeling or not. These records represent a modern day parallel to the Big Star albums – they’re a common denominator between people who experience music in a specific way.


Don’t believe me? Just skip straight to the final two songs on the record.

Happy Christmas (the whole world has changed), followed by Velvet Ocean, Super Moon – continues Edwards’ penchant for closing his records with songs that dare you to add them to playlists, songs that refuse to be followed by anything but silence for a few minutes afterward.


For this record, closing with one emotional gut-punch was apparently deemed insufficient, so he settled on a one-two combination…to devastating effect.


I think that, in the case of some records, knowing an artists’ backstory adds a layer to our ability to appreciate those works on a musical level. Whether it’s Blue or Rumours or I’m Alive or Blood on the Tracks or any number of other records borne out of turmoil, knowing the lay of the land upon which those records were created adds a degree of impact.

In this case, there’s a layer of poignance to these songs that comes with knowing Richard’s story and even casually observing his journey over these past few years (we’re acquaintances – I would hesitate to call myself a friend, because I haven’t known him that long). Even if you’re a casual Instagram follower, I don’t know how you listen to Velvet Ocean, Super Moon without shedding a tear – knowing what he’s been through over the past half decade, “shedding a tear” would be getting off easy. (I think the kids these days call it “ugly crying”.)


In this record, I can hear his love for his daughter, his deep connection to Southern California, his nerdy obsession with classic movies (easter eggs ranging from name-dropping TCM in Better World a’Coming to the piano fills in the bridge on Monkey) – not knowing about these things doesn’t inhibit ones’ ability to appreciate the record, but they create a sense of familiarity between the artist and the listener when we see the bigger picture.


The universal gift of great art is that it’s created by someone who feels something intensely enough to use their skill to transform it into something that can be experienced by someone else who can feel it on a similar level. It’s the sharing of joy and sorrow in a transformational way on a level that allows us to connect through those shared experiences.


In this case, all those caveats apply – but it can also be said that it’s just a Fucking Great Record.


I’ve recovered sufficiently that I can listen to it while actually being productive…so I think I’m gonna be ok. I’ll definitely be better for having listened to it.


And…as it turns out, my fears were unfounded.


The songs on this record found and chose their own moments in my life to bind themselves to, completely independent of my own will.


Velvet Ocean, Super Moon lifts me out of the present and deposits me into an old, battleship grey chair in my apartment over Fifth Street in Reading after my first marriage crumbled, sitting alone in front of a drafting table next to the window over the street, working on a sketch of my daughter from a photograph.


Better World and January remind me of Philadelphia in wintertime, in another lost year in a prior millenium.


It’s almost as if the songs are somehow COVID-proof, and have decided instead to seek out their own niche in my head…as if I’d known them all my life.


There are a handful of records that I’ve tripped over in my life that I knew – the first time I heard them, even – that they were going to be with me for a long, long time. They’re a rag-tag, dissimilar bunch – from Son Volt’s Trace to Janis Ian’s Between the Lines to August and Everything After by Counting Crows…but none of those records have the continuity this album has, nor do they feel as timeless as Soft Ache does…this record is an instant companion, for me.


I can’t promise it will affect you as deeply as it affected me – in fact, I wouldn’t expect it to. But you’ll find something to love somewhere among the intimate, instantly familiar soundscape of this masterful record.

If nothing else, take heart in the fact that someone who’s almost two decades into this game is still willing to dig this deep, to reveal this much, and to give a shit about the actual art of making a great record while the rest of the fucking world is on fire.

since we’ve last spoken…

So, a quick update is perhaps in order…

As you may already know, my Facebook account was “disappeared” last week with zero warning and no mention of what my offending action might’ve been, and – the only means by which to appeal their decision was to upload a scan of my photo ID. At the time, I fell hard on the “oh, hell NO” side of that option, and said as much when I posted my first mention of it earlier this week.

I started poking about The Googles in the time since, and saw that apparently, this is a thing Facebook has done on a pretty regular basis, with regard to FB asking for identification of some sort during this appeal process…and someone suggested the notion of redacting the information on my license and uploading it with the photo intact.

That struck me as – at the very least, a nice middle finger to the process – so I black-lined everything on my license except my name and my photo and uploaded it via the provided link, and…within minutes, I had already gotten the notification that my account was disabled and the decision was final.

So, that being said, I’m not sure where that leaves my eleven year old Facebook account with over 3,000 friends and countless photos and diatribes and the like.

Now, just for the record – every photo I’ve ever posted on Facebook still lives in digital form on my fledgling home network server here, so the photos aren’t the loss that they might be for other folks who aren’t as meticulous about hoarding their data as I’ve been over the years…and honestly, I’m not so vain as to feel any real sense of loss that my last decades’ worth of ramblings provide any real value to social media, at large.

It’s the principle of the thing, though.

So I’m still examining my options, but I’ve largely resigned myself to the notion that the old FB account is gone.

Now, I have created a pseudonym account, and some of you know this already…I’ve been taking very tiny steps, as I don’t want to wave a giant red flag by “re-friending” everyone all at once or anything of that nature – and I’m not sure that I’ll bother to engage with FB that much, moving forward – save for managing the band’s Instagram and FB group.

I’ve largely been “over” the Facebook platform for some time, and I don’t think I’m alone…I’ve watched a lot of friends evaporate from the platform over the past year or so, and many of us who continued to use it for interaction purposes did so while holding our nose.

So in a sense, I suppose they’ve done me a favor – I have a book to finish, recording projects to focus on, interviews to film, plenty of shit to invest my time in, and less and less time to devote to them.

In the meantime, if you get a friend request from the guitar player from a fictitious band out of a Cameron Crowe movie, know that it’s not a total stranger…