too old?

I love the Classic Albums DVD’s…I probably own a dozen of them, if not more.


And even though they’re supposed to be mostly about how the records were made and such, there are some sobering interview moments that crop up every now and then – the one that plants a huge rock in my gut every time is Robert Hunter, in the “Anthem to Beauty” episode, where he talks about being in London, and having bought this case of wine…and walking around the city taking it in, and then – in a single afternoon – writing “Ripple”, “Brokedown Palace”, and “To Lay Me Down”…and then saying, “…would that those days but come again…


…and they will.  But not for me.”


Then in the Rumours episode, there’s a segment where Stevie Nicks talks about her regrets from having committed to Fleetwood Mac to the degree that she did for the best years of her life – “I never married and I never had kids,” she says, “because having a baby would have meant taking two years off and that just wasn’t acceptable.”


“…Everybody I know, all my friends who are famous…are sorry for something.  And I’m no different.”



This life that we’ve chosen comes with a HUGE price, and I think that if all these folks lining up to audition for American Idol had any idea of what it means to commit to a life as an artist, as opposed to having a part on a TV show for a season, only to be forgotten in a years’ time…they’d go back home and go to college and put it completely out of their mind.  The truth is, fame and notoriety don’t have shit to do with being an artist.


And when it comes right down to it, the biggest part of the choice you’re making doesn’t have shit to do with being an artist, either.


I’m saying this as a man a few birthdays shy of 50 years old, a man who’s most certainly sabotaged his own life with choices he’s made in the interest of pursuing a life as an artist to varying degrees since the day – over 25 years ago – that he received his discharge papers from the Navy and settled in a town eleven hundred miles from where he was born and started a band.   Several failed romances and estranged parental relationships later, I’m still working a day gig, as an IT consultant, and living from paycheck to paycheck – in order to create room in my life to do what I consider to be the only thing I’ve ever been good at.


And were you to ask the question that’s on the tip of your tongue right now,  I’d love to stick my chest out and proclaim loudly that, hell yeah – it’s totally been worth it, and I’d do it exactly the same way if I had it to do over again…but then there’s that always-present sense of doubt.  I don’t know that I’m speaking for anyone but me, but the notion that I’ve completely flushed my life down the toilet never completely leaves my mind.   But that doubt fuels me, pushes me on, inspires me to prove myself wrong…and sometimes I do.  It’s usually fleeting, but it does happen on occasion.


That moment when you create something that you immediately recognize as bigger than yourself is, quite possibly, the worst drug known to man.  Insanely addictive and every bit as dangerous as any illegal substance you could name…once you’ve made that happen, the drive to repeat the process fuels itself.  And when it happens – when you finish a song that you connect with, when you execute something on an instrument that gives you goosebumps, when you stand on stage in front of a crowd of people and the connection between you and them begins to exchange energy back and forth – well, there’s nothing else like it.  Those moments are fleeting, but – if you’re meant to do this – they become a lifelong craving that you’ll do anything for, give up anything for, risk anything for, sacrifice anything for.


And…we typically end up living rather bohemian lifestyles as a result of the choices we make in pursuit of The Artist’s Life.   And this is where the disconnect truly makes itself obvious – between those who choose this life and those who opt to live more conventionally.


If you want to go the conventional route, you sink your time and effort into a career path that requires MUCH more of your attention and energy than you can spare if you want to live The Artist’s Life.  If you want to go to law school and pass the bar, you’re going to be held accountable for how you spend your time…and taking a week off to do a Northeast Club Tour is going to be frowned upon by the folks paying you a salary to devote your undivided attention to the work they’ve given you.   The careers that create the kind of income it takes to live life on the conventional route require that you be engaged, permanently – and most folks who pursue The Artist’s Life are typically permanently engaged by pursuits that have little to do with what we do during the course of the day to earn money to pay the rent.  Serving two masters – the Muse and the Job – is a supremely delicate dance, and it can be draining in every sense of the word.  But for a lot of us who aren’t lucky enough to be able to make enough to live strictly by playing music, it’s a necessary dance.


And…AND – if you’re as lucky as I’ve been, and you’re not only still playing the game at my age, but possibly playing it better than you’ve ever played it – you’ll have managed to make enough during whatever endeavors the daylight hours bring you to allow you to pursue The Artist’s Life with as few compromises as possible.


But there WILL be compromises.


You will watch as friends your age, folks you went to school with, go on to jobs that command a comfortable salary…move into houses that will inspire envy when you visit…put their children through school, and save money for retirement.  You’ll watch this as you continue to pay rent, as you continue to move from job to job and make just enough to get by…as you continue to sacrifice the comforts of the conventional route in order to pursue The Artist’s Life.   Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t.  Maybe you’ll have children, maybe you won’t…but you’ll find that, if you choose to follow the family road, that your choice of lifestyle will become an issue – whether spoken or unspoken – between you and the family you create.  Your spouse may insist that she’s one hundred percent onboard with your choices…but every time you have to choose not to pay a bill that’s due, every time you have to postpone repairs to the car, every time you have to decline to buy something for your children solely on the basis of an empty wallet – you will feel the weight of your choice, whether your family presses it upon you or not.


And you’ll be tempted to be jealous every time you encounter someone that you knew when you were young enough that you still had the option to choose…and see how they’re living, what they’ve accumulated, how well life has treated them.


But if the truth be told, chances are pretty good that this particular shoe fits both feet.


Your friend – the one that you envy for making the socially acceptable choices and taking the Conventional Road – is likely envious of the fact that you made the hard decision to follow your dreams and see where they take you.  It’s highly likely that you posess a skill that they simply do not – whether it’s your voice, your abilities on an instrument, your talent for weaving words together – you have spent your life honing a craft to the point where people pay you to use it.   You may not be making as much as a hedge fund manager or a securities banker, but you have something they don’t.


You may live in a circle of friends and family who don’t approve of your choices…but your choices are yours.  They may have forgotten that, but you don’t have to.


And maybe, you – the person reading these words right now – are at a crossroads in your life, and you’re weighing choices that would lead you down one road or the other.  Maybe you’re wondering if it’s ok to be taking this road at this particular time in your life, at your age…maybe you’re worried about what your friends and family will think about your choices.  Maybe you’re having the age-old argument with yourself about whether you’re doing the right thing or simply throwing away your life at a time in your life when you should be going to graduate school, applying for your internship, doing your residency.


You have to ask yourself a hard question right now.


And you will need to become accustomed to asking yourself this question, because it will become a regular signpost on your travels, no matter which path you choose.


“Will I regret this if I don’t do it?  Or will I regret it if I do?”



Maybe you ARE too old to decide to be a songwriter.  Maybe you’re not talented enough to sing in front of people.  Maybe you don’t have the chops to play professionally.   Any one of those things could be true.


But do you want to find out for yourself, or do you want to be 75 years old and complaining to the nurse who empties your bedpan at the assisted living facility, whining about how you could’ve taken a shot at it, but didn’t?


They say that you’re officially old when your hopes and dreams are replaced by your regrets.


Every man and woman walking the face of the earth wants more than what they have, when it comes to material possessions – you’re no different than they are when it comes to wishing for more than life has given you.  But if you’re pondering the choice right now, you should ask yourself the hard questions:


Am I willing to sacrifice in order to participate in this lifestyle?


Do I believe in myself to the degree that’s necessary to be confident in my actions?


Am I able to overlook the standards set for me by other people?  Am I willing to look at the questions of where I should be “at my age” and remind myself that I have to hold myself to a different standard?  Can I do that?



This life is full of rewards that other journeys simply don’t offer…and honestly, there’s no point in elaborating on that for you.  If you’re thinking in these terms, you already know that.


So it’s up to you…


What do you want?


OK, Good.  Now are you willing to do the work to give your choice the fair shot that it deserves?


 No need to answer now…take your time and give it some thought.  But don’t forget to ask yourself – will I be ok with my choices at the end of my life when I’m looking back on this moment?


on the road and in the round: craig bickhardt, don henry, michael johnson and lizanne knott

y’know, i can still remember the very first time that craig bickhardt and i played together.  it was at chaplin’s in spring city, pa – we were doing a songwriter’s round, and i was there because skip denenberg and jim femino brought me along.  at the time, jim was developing an artist who was also on the bill named kassie miller, and he’d recruited me to back her instrumentally.   when jim was doing the rounds, he set the room up bluebird cafe style – with a table and a large lamp right in the middle of the floor, with everyone around the table…and tables and chairs were actually set up on the stage to minimize the impact of the stage and make the whole space feel like a stageless room that could’ve passed for someone’s den.

at chaplins' with craig bickhardt, jim femino, skip denenberg and kassie miller, 2007.
at chaplins’ with craig bickhardt, jim femino, skip denenberg and kassie miller, 2007.

craig and i kinda latched onto one another at that point, and we’ve worked together ever since – both with me backing him instrumentally under his own name, and then later as a full member of a side project he’d undertaken with poco bassist jack sundrud called idlewheel.

craig’s songs are understatedly elegant, and while they’re not terribly complex, they are a challenge to play properly – which is to say, there’s definitely a line of delineation between overplaying and playing what’s appropriate for the song.  his music requires a certain understanding of how much is enough, and how much is too much.  it’s not a gig for everybody…but that’s one of the things i love about playing with him.  if you understand that simple concept, you’ll look like a genius playing next to him – whether the description is accurate or not.

craig has also opened some doors and there are relationships that i’ve formed as a result of my association with him that would not have come about otherwise – many of them through the “On The Road and In The Round” shows we’ve done.  stellar writers and performers like don henry, julie gold, thom schuyler, jim photoglo, and others have done these shows with us – alongside great local talent like jd malone and lizanne knott…and i’ve gotten a lot of opportunities to join the crew and back everyone on the bill for a lot of these shows, and while the “trial under fire” aspect might be scary at times, it’s also a bit of an adrenaline rush.  and, thankfully, thus far there’ve been no complaints.

for this show, there was some new blood along for the ride – michael johnson, of “bluer than blue”, “this night won’t last forever”, “give me wings” and “that’s that” fame.  (fun facts:  michael johnson was the first guy in nashville to give jack sundrud a gig as a bassist.  also, “give me wings” was my ex-mother-in-law’s favorite song for many years.)

back row: tommy geddes, michael johnson, don henry front row: tom hampton, lizanne knott, craig bickhardt
back row: tommy geddes, michael johnson, don henry
front row: tom hampton, lizanne knott, craig bickhardt

i had never met or played with michael, but don henry was joining us along with craig and lizanne knott, so michael was the only unfamiliar face on the bill – and i was pretty sure that we’d all be ok…and i know when to play and when to sit back and fold my hands in my lap, so i had that going for me too – along with the fact that i was on my home turf, on stage at sellersville theater.

craig, don and lizanne were their usual entertaining, funny and brilliant selves – and michael was a great fit in every one of the same categories, as well.  he’s a great player, for one thing – sticks to nylon string guitar, a wonderful fingerstyle player…and played some funny parodies of standards like “you make me feel so…so” – and to the tune of “blue bayou“, he did a song about a toupee called “blew by you“.  but i did get to sing the high harmony to “bluer than blue“, and i got to play “beautiful goodbye” with don henry with his co-writer, mike moran, in the audience, as well as don’s song “all kinds of kinds” (a recent number one for miranda lambert) – and the usual assortment of awesome bickhardt songs, closing the show as we often do with “this old house” and “if he came back again“.

i don’t think i’d ever brought the pedal steel out to one of the OTRAITR shows, but i fixed that for this gig – it was lap steel, pedal steel, mandolin and baritone guitar…and ran it all through the princeton reverb, turned with the speaker pointed towards the curtain behind us.  it would be this particular night that the reverb would decide not to work, though.  (note to self:  stop procrastinating and get the new pedalboard worked out yesterday.)

with jd malone and the experts, steel city coffeehouse, phoenixville PA

so it had been, as they say, a while.


the steel city gigs have always been jd malone‘s hometown shows – and we’ve always done well there, and this show was no exception.  a great crowd with lots of friendly faces – oh, and it was carolyn’s (jd’s wife) birthday, so that didn’t hurt, either.

the opener was a young guy from north carolina named sam lewis – usually, the opener gets drowned out by conversation and laughter in the green room…only because that’s inevitable when this crew is all in the same place.  now, i’m not saying there wasn’t plenty of both, but sam was an undeniable talent, and i sure did enjoy his set.  super nice guy, as well.  he was actually touring via Amtrak – taking whatever form of transportation he could get to the gig, which had to have been an interesting twist…i can vaguely remember being young enough to have the gumption to try something like that, but it seems so very long ago now. 🙂

dylan and jayda both came to the show, as did wendy – who cut a deal with carolyn’s kids to hang out with danny so she could get a night off to come out and hang out with grownups.

now, it’s been quite some time since i’ve bothered to update my perpetual life story, here – and to say that much has happened in the time since would be an understatement akin to calling World War II a “territorial conflict”.

a lot has happened since we last spoke.  a LOT.

and, frankly, it’s only been a few weeks since i had largely resigned myself to the notion that i might not be speaking with either of my older children again for quite some time, if ever.  things had soured that much.  i’m not certain right now to what extent the ship has righted itself, but it was good to have them both there that night, to say the least.  even if all the debris from the summer hasn’t washed away yet.


the last time we played this room, i brought “the toaster” – my ’57 gibson GA-20T amplifier.  i was promptly washed out and almost inaudible for the show.  i had it turned up waaaay past its’ sweet spot, and it didn’t respond particularly well.  i was thinking about bringing my deluxe reverb this time around, but with everybody riding together, space was at a premium.  so, i figured, the princeton did so well on the denver shows with boris garcia last year, maybe it wouldn’t be completely out of line to give it a crack at this gig.  plus, with the space issue being what it was, i didn’t bring the banjo, the 12 string electric, or any of the other toys – it was lap steel, baritone guitar, and mandolin and that was it.  so you could say i was travelling uncharacteristically light for this gig, and i figured that if worse came to worse, i could use one of the backline amps from the green room…which i always seem to forget about until i go downstairs to stow my cases and see them there. 🙂

jayda hampton onstage with jd malone and the experts, november 2013

well, the princeton made its daddy proud – i had it on 5 most of the night, and it sounded amazing – especially on the lap steel.  that’s definitely its’ sweet spot for that instrument.  the band was, this time as it was last time, pretty loud for a room that size.  i don’t know how many other acts that play that room are as loud as we are/were, but we shook the rafters, for sure.

jd debuted a few new songs during the show, with my personal favorite being if you pray…but we also shook up window painted blue quite a bit, as well.  i had made up my mind that there really wasn’t going to be an arrangement of that song that both he and i were gonna be happy with, but he proved me wrong.  and of course, jayda got up with us to sing black yodel and leave us alone…i couldn’t hear her vocal at all on the latter, and for a while thought that maybe she’d been doubling my part until the bridge came around and the dynamic died down enough that i could actually hear her voice.

jayda and JD singing "black yodel"
jayda and JD singing “black yodel”

next gig i have on the books with the guys will be burlap and bean later this winter.