Some light news and some heavy history

So if you’ve been paying any attention at all to my social media lately, you’re likely aware that something is underfoot.

Yes, it’s true…I’m working on not one, but TWO new albums and three projects, all simultaneously.

One will be a 25 year anniversary re-release of Our Mutual Angels, due out next year that will include the original record plus a handful of restored rough mixes from the period the record was created, plus a handful of newly recorded versions of some of the songs.

The other will be the first actual full-length release of original material SINCE Our Mutual Angels, and work on that record is already in progress.

The third, and the one that will see the light of day first, is an album I’m calling Out To Pasture.

It’d be easy to call it a “tribute record”, but it’s a little more than that.

It’s an album, but it’s also a love letter…a sympathy card, a goodbye note, a bedtime story…it’s a collection of songs written by Rusty Young and Paul Cotton, but it also contains two original songs – one of them a moody rocker called Legends, one of them a song that I wrote during Poco‘s last Wildwood Springs Lodge shows in 2019, and one of them a posthumous co-write with Rusty Young – you’ll certainly hear more about this once the record is ready to see the light of day.

It’s the best way I could think of to say goodbye to a band that I’ve loved for as long as I can remember, and that’s essentially what it is…the sound of saying goodbye.

I have to say, though…jumping back into this process has been…well, it’s been a bunch of things.

Since I lack anything resembling the gift of brevity, pour yourself a drink and I’ll elaborate if you like.

There’s some part of me that’s varying combinations of voyeur and historian that has been and remains fascinated with other peoples’ creative process.  And yeah, I love the road stories and the nostalgia and the gear nerd stuff and all the trappings of the rock and roll part of it, sure…but watching those Classic Albums documentaries and “the making of…” – those land in a different spot for me.

It’s one thing to think about what the air in the room might’ve been like at a particular show or during a particular moment with certain people in the room – but I find myself much more drawn to thoughts of what it would’ve been like to have been at Joni Mitchells’ house the night Crosby, Stills and Nash sang together for the first time…to have been in that tiny dressing room the night David Lindley walked in with his fiddle and played Song For Adam with Jackson Browne on the night they met…to have been in the studio looking over Brian Wilson’s shoulder as he was leading the Wrecking Crew though the Pet Sounds sessions…to have been on the other side of the glass as a baby Dan Fogelberg was layering the wordless harmonies that precede the final verse of To The Morning for his first album.

Standing by the pool while Keith Moon throws a television into the water is happenstance.

Playing a great show is varying degrees of chemistry and mechanics, and it doesn’t happen if both aren’t present – you have to be able to play, and you have to be able to contribute an ingredient to a recipe that doesn’t come from anywhere else.  Yeah, it’s dexterity on a base level, but the thing that takes it from being a recital to being an event – that’s chemistry.

The creative process, though – there are ingredients, but it’s almost impossible to break it down, because the ingredients are different almost every time.

Janis Ian made her landmark record Between The Lines at a studio in Blauvelt, NY that was also used by The Ramones and Bruce Springsteen – so while the technical tools are a common thread in translating art to physical product, that’s really all the responsibility the recording medium bears for the end result.

Leland Sklar played bass on some of the most important records of my formative years, but he also played bass with Billy Cobham’s Spectrum, Lee Ritenour, Enrique Iglesias and Toto – great players are able to adopt to a host of musical styles and the ones favored for session work are often chameleons that adapt to their surroundings.  In fact, that’s often a factor in getting the gig in the first place.  So they’re an ingredient, to be certain – but you could use the same core players for a James Taylor record that you used for a Randy Newman record and the result would be significantly different – so you can’t guarantee an outcome by using the same studio with the same players, then.

The producer?  Some producers (Phil Spector, Jeff Lynne, Daniel Lanois, Roy Thomas Baker and a few others come to mind) will walk into a project with specific gear or instruments or some other such stash of “secret weapons” that invariably ensure that whatever record they’re working on sounds just like every other record they’ve ever been associated with.  (For proof, listen to Roy Orbison’s You Got It next to any ELO track next to the Wilburys’ Handle With Care next to pretty much anything off Tom Petty’s Into The Great Wide Open and make your best argument that I’m wrong.  I’ll wait. This isn’t to say it’s the wrong approach – I mean, the guy has been phenomenally successful, and that’s probably in large part to the fact that he does put his fingerprint on his work. I’m not judging, just making a point.)  Others, like Rick Rubin or T-Bone Burnett will specialize in a genre of music that’s dear to them but can bring their chops to just about anything and make it better as a result of their presence.

Again, certainly an ingredient – but not the one that defines the recipe.

At the root of it all, there has to be a vision that drives the process – that informs the choice and the use of the gear, that informs the choice and assignments of the musicians, that informs the choice of songs and material, and that leads the musical contribution to the realization of the end product.  Sometimes it’s a singular vision, sometimes it’s a collective, but that process – that translation of a vague notion into an end result – that flavor of creativity has always fascinated me.

Whose idea was it to assemble the giant tape loop of cash registers that required two people to maintain tension with a pair of spindles on microphone stands that resulted in the intro to Money, from Dark Side of the Moon?

The huge, assembled mass of pianos playing a massive C chord in unison for the ending of A Day In The Life?

The backwards drums on Are You Experienced?

The Beatles literally inventing flanging by experimenting with multiple tape recorders?

And yet – while my imagination was fired by hearing these sounds I’d never heard before, the flip side of that coin – artists just sitting down in front of a microphone and plainly stating a lyric and a melody – was what really stirred my soul.

Jackson Browne singing Something Fine…Joni Mitchell on Marcie…Fogelberg singing Stars…BW Stevenson singing If I Pass This Way to close side two of his My Maria album…there was no technical wizardry, no trickery, no manipulation that somehow transformed a mechanical act of dexterity into art.  It was fully formed, and captured for posterity by technology.

That, to me, was more magical than flipping over a reel of tape and using it as a rhythm track.

By the time I was of an age to be able to write my own songs, home recording was just gaining a foothold and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on my first Tascam 244 – and I annoyed the shit out of my roommate in the barracks recording guitar parts and overdubbing vocal harmonies across the room…but there was no going back after that.

I dove headfirst into songwriting at that point, fascinated by the mystery that shrouded the songwriting process, and the sheer volume of possibilities made available by the recording process.  There appeared to be very few set rules for either – other than basic notions regarding song structure and technical no-no’s like “don’t let the meters go too far into the red” and things of that nature.  Both pursuits felt self-perpetuating…the more I learned, the more I realized how little I knew and how much more there was to discover – and like any addiction, the more I got…the more I wanted.

My first songs were terrible, and my first recordings…if such a thing could be possible…were worse.  But there existed a hunger to do the necessary work to get better, to improve my craft, and to try to crystallize some form of creative vision and improve my ability to channel that vision into a finished song or a finished recording.

One of the first things I learned to make peace with, though – even at that early stage – was the notion that the finished product (for me, anyway) seldom matched what I’d initially heard in my head when I started down that days’ particular path.  I’d get close sometimes, really close other times – but the process itself would almost always make its own set of suggestions, and other doors would open that I hadn’t anticipated…and sometimes that can be exhilarating, but other times – when there’s a specific sonic goal that you’re reaching for and can’t quite grab – the resulting frustration comes in a multitude of flavors, from irritation to self-loathing to crippling doubt to waves of inferiority, jealousy and envy of others’ creative output, right up to the edge of defeat and resignation.

When things are going well, when juices are flowing and the results are satisfying and rewarding, there’s nothing else like it.

When that’s not the case…I’m not very good company.

Some who’ve witnessed those periods would say that’s an understatement.

I’ve sacrificed relationships (and one marriage) at this particular altar.  When I resign myself to the notion of making a record, it becomes a consuming pursuit, and – as mentioned – it’s a knee-jerk carnival ride from elation to despair and back again from start to finish.  The things that derail me are often things that have little to nothing to do with creativity – album art, publicity and promotion, duplication of the final physical product, things of that nature.

But when the thing that’s under the microscope is something of a creative nature, it becomes much, MUCH harder to traverse.  If there’s a problem with the artwork or the duplication, that’s usually reparable via a few emails or spending a little more money – but when there’s a speedbump in the actual creative process that you just can’t seem to smooth out…well, often there are no tangible methods to overcome that, other than continuing to chase the result you hear in your head.  Sometimes it’s attainable and sometimes it’s not, and when it’s not – scar tissue can build up beneath the effort you’ve thrown at it, and if you’ve missed the mark – it colors everything that comes afterward.

Sometimes it’s a technical limitation…hell, MOST of the time it’s a technical limitation, whether it’s related to gear, or a personal inability to execute the thing I hear in my head.  Often it’s the distance between the sound I’m trying to capture and the sound that’s actually being recorded – and the energy and effort put into trying to nail it down descends into one or more flavors of frustration, especially when nothing translates the way you want it to.  Or you’re trying to play a part a certain way and no matter how many times you run it, nothing that’s coming from beneath your fingers works or fits the framework of the song in the manner you’d imagined and you end up deciding that you’re just not up to the task on any level.

My first self-produced commercially available collection of songs was a self-titled cassette release I did over thirty years ago…I started the project in a studio that was based on ½” 8 track analog recording, but the producer folded up shop in the middle of the record, so I felt obligated to find another studio that used the same format, since I’d already bought tape for the project – the guy I ended up using was a pretty headstrong guy with a brain full of weird notions, and I ended up hating both that record AND the songs on it.  (I’ve since seen a pattern in a lot of artists who look at their first recorded efforts through similar lenses, but trust me – I’m right about this.)

It took me another six years to make a follow-up.  I started looking around at studios within a year or two of making the first record, but there was always something that nudged me away.  I can’t say for sure anymore whether it was the bad taste in my mouth from the first time around, but I knew that I’d missed the mark I set in my head by a mile, and I wasn’t gonna go through that process again without feeling a lot more comfortable with my choice next time around.  I laid a lot of blame on the room and the gear, but I also knew next to nothing about the process of making a record, and I needed to fill in a lot of blanks…which I set out to do.

Still, there were a couple of misfires and false starts before I tripped over my own feet and fell backwards into the arms of Steve Jay, who opened his studio to me and became not just a producer and engineer but a partner in making Our Mutual Angels.  Still, at the time, I had a very different record in my head than what ended up in my hands – because Steve was so passionate and so hands-on and knew so much more than I did about the process, I made a conscious decision to let go and hand him the reins.  And honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever had a better experience making a record than I did with that one.  Sure, there were some things I might’ve changed in the moment, but I can still listen to that record all these years later and be fine with the end result, and I can’t say for sure that this would be the case if I’d forced some of those decisions in my own favor.

The net result of that experience, though – having that relationship with Steve and feeling like Longview (Steve’s studio) was my musical and creative home – was that when that door closed (literally, as Steve moved to the west coast not long after OMA was released), I didn’t even really look for another place to make records after that.  The chilly reception that the record received after all the work and love we put into it soured me on the entire collective experience of writing songs, making records, flinging myself out into the world as an “artist” – and almost everything associated with it.  Almost.

I found in pretty short order that I could scratch a lot of the same itches by playing in other peoples’ bands, and do so without the stress and risk associated with being The Name On The Marquee.

So for a long, long time – that’s what I did.

It would be almost a decade – 2006 – before I made another record, and it was easily the worst effort of my life so far…a self-produced, self-recorded set of demo recordings released as Noises From The Basement, made on ADAT recorders with a RAMSA console and cheap outboard gear and microphones.  Totally unlistenable to me now, really – and I haven’t even tried in a long, long time.

I made it on a lark as the social media era was just getting underway, on the premise that I could just make records at home, sell them over the internet, and play shows whenever I felt like it, but I ended up hating the record so much that it took another seven years before I worked up the nerve to do it again.

During my stint with Marshall Tucker Band, someone made an offhand remark that I could probably do an entire record of songs written by people I’d played with – by this time, I’d done a lot of session work and felt a lot more comfortable with the notion of possibly recording myself again.  Gear had changed quite a bit, and recording to the computer has become the industry standard – as such, I could get decent results with good converters, a few nice microphones and preamps…how hard could it be, right?

Well, the gear may change as years go by, but the second guessing and crippling self-doubt will follow you from room to room forever, once you let it in the house…and it’s been a constant companion of mine for as long as I’ve been able to push down the guitar strings hard enough to get a clean note from them.

Friends And Heroes was an ambitious concept – a double CD with one disc devoted to songs written by artists I’d actually collaborated with in either live or studio settings, and a second disc devoted to artists who’d been an inspiration for me to follow the path that I did.  Conceptually, it was very heavy on “warm and fuzzy” for me, and I was genuinely excited about making the record – and I have to acknowledge that part of the attraction for me was that it contained ZERO Tom Hampton songs, as I still hadn’t quite gotten back to a place where I felt like sharing anything I’d written with the world at large.  One of the reasons that Noises happened in the first place was because it was a split of cover songs with a few leftover originals on it that I’d written during the OMA period, and my will to write just dried up after that record was ignored to the extent that it was.  I took that personally, as an editorial commentary on the worth of my work…largely because I had let myself believe that it had more worth in the eyes of other people than it did to me personally.  And at the time, I might’ve been right.  But with this new project, I could hide behind other peoples’ songs and make a record with my name on it with what felt like a legitimate purpose for making it – to pay tribute to the folks who’d trusted me to add something to their records or live performances over the years.  I had an unreleased Dan May song, an unreleased Craig Bickhardt song, an unreleased JD Malone song…and a Robert Hazard song called Summerland that we’d only played twice before his passing…and would’ve been lost to the ages if Brian Light hadn’t recorded a performance of the song on a radio show Robert and I did as a duo.  I pulled some great songs from elsewhere in my orbit, including Kind Woman (which allowed me to duck the notion of choosing either a Rusty song OR a Paul song…I just went right back to the “in the beginning” moment).

Once I was deep into the weeds on this record, though, I found myself second-guessing decisions about arrangements, about drum sounds, about which instruments to layer into which songs – I beat myself to within an inch of my life during the mixing process.  NOTHING I did sounded good enough to my ears.  I’d burn reference disks and listen to them everywhere, convinced that there was something I was doing wrong that made them sound so radically different when going from one environment to another (and yeah, there was an element of that, but I was also harboring unrealistic expectations that the mixes would sound identical just about anywhere.  The music I listened to that WASN’T mine did, why couldn’t I get these mixes to be consistent?

I was obsessive – I was working a day job, touring with Marshall Tucker constantly, and spent whatever time I had left tweaking, remixing, tweaking some more, burning another reference CD and taking it out in the car to listen for the next thing that would run me off the rails.

If I hadn’t gone ahead and scheduled a release date with accompanying live performances, I might STILL be working on that record…but it had to be duplicated and ready to go in time to go to retail and to start fulfilling orders, and I eventually had to settle for a set of mixes that – ultimately – lacked any real punch because I was trying to get them to sound the same across platforms that they really weren’t supposed to sound the same in.

That was almost ten years ago, but it might as well have been thirty – while a lot has changed since then in various parts of my life, my approach to making records hasn’t moved around much.

Friends and Heroes might well have been the last record I ever made if I hadn’t joined Poco…and if the events of this past year hadn’t come to pass.

I’d written a few songs, but other than throwing down reference demos so I’d remember how they went, I didn’t give them much thought…but there’d been a notion of a new Poco record that had surfaced in a couple of conversations here and there during COVID and I had a couple that I was legitimately excited about sharing with Rusty and the band.  Now, in the aftermath of Rusty’s passing (and Paul Cotton’s death just a couple of months after Rusty), there’s a new band that’s forming around the remains of the old band, and…an outlet for songs, since we’ll be making a record this year.  

So…I started writing again.  In earnest.

I don’t know exactly what happened…if it was the collective trauma of losing a friend, hero and mentor in the midst of a life-altering pandemic and the emotional fallout from that, or if I just nicked an artery when I picked up a notebook and a guitar with something resembling actual intent for the first time in decades – but words just started gushing forth.

The first thing I did was to take the chorus of a song Rusty had sung to open a show they played for the television cameras back in 2004 (called Where Did The Time Go) and write verses and a bridge for it, since Rusty never actually finished the song…after that, the floodgates opened up.

So, now – I find myself in the late stages of two separate projects that I’m working on concurrently…my first album of original songs since Our Mutual Angels in 1997, and a record called Out To Pasture – a collection of Rusty and Paul songs, along with the aforementioned Where Did The Time Go, a song I wrote during the bands’ last shows at Wildwood two years ago, and a ten minute opus called Legends – all songs directly influenced by the band and by our stories, our mission statements, our lifes’ work.

And I’m falling into those same traps again, relistening to and remixing and rethinking and burning reference CD’s, and…

…and strangely, I’m finding that I’m not as obsessive as I once was.

I’m not sure if it’s because I’m more confident in my skills, if I’m happier with what’s coming out of the speakers, if I’ve just given up the ghost and it hasn’t become apparent to me yet…I can’t put my finger on it.  I mean, I’m not enraptured with every single note I’ve recorded…far from it.  Just three nights ago, I did 54 passes of a guitar solo until I got one that felt like it developed at the right pace and fell back into place when it was supposed to.  I probably could’ve gotten away with using any of the passes I recorded, but I wanted it to be right, and I knew I had the right one in me, so I waited until I got the right one before I stopped.

I’m still plagued by the inconsistencies I hear in drum sounds from song to song, in levels, in where the vocal sits across the spectrum of songs on the record, but…I feel like I have an out.  I’m not afraid to ask for input and for help, and I know it’s out there – so I’m trying to make the best record I can and to reimagine these songs a bit, and leave it all in the space of a musical monologue of sorts.  To say goodbye to this band, to bid farewell to a piece of myself, to say my piece and lay this dream to rest.

There’s plenty here to haunt me without lying awake at night over drum bleed.

I’m not sure how that became a feature and not a bug, but…well, here we are.

I don’t know how much more time I have left in me, with respect towards creating new music…and I think it’s a bit of a pipe dream to entertain the notion that there’s a joyful record buried somewhere inside me that’ll find its way out eventually.  I don’t think I was ever intended to make records that make people dance or smile or bob their heads while the wind blows through the windows of their car.  I make music that’s pretty emotionally dense, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

Making records is no different than any other creative exercise in a lot of ways – and it means different things to different people. For me, it’s as close as I’ll ever experience to the actual physical pain of childbirth…the frustration, the self-doubt, the waves of inferiority, the very nature of how I carry myself when I’m immersed in the process…all that is peppered with moments like the 55th pass of that solo I tracked last week, when it rolled off my fingers in one pass exactly the way I needed it to evolve for that song…or hearing the harmonies line up in a way I hadn’t anticipated, but better than I could’ve hoped…or hearing an accidental clash of two separate passes of mandolin and dobro echo a pattern in succession in a completely unplanned way…

It’s auditory heroin, really. It’s a momentary buzz that – once you experience it for the first time – becomes something that you chase in some form or fashion for as long as you continue to punch that particular clock.

And not unlike childbirth, you’ll have some offspring that will need a little explaining and you’ll have some that’ll bring forth tears of joy – and sometimes they’re the same child, whether you even realize it or not. But they make you proud, in a collective sense – not just of who they are, but of who YOU are.

The cathartic element is more plain to me than it’s ever been, with this record – and I guess the only wish I’m really harboring for this album is that I might actually carry that cleansing notion through to fruition when it’s done and I’m holding it in my hands.

But for now…it’s time to put the cans on and sing.