In my recent blog, “My Amazing Wife,” I told how Holly wrote lyrics without ever attempting to.
For me, it’s both puzzling and inspiring. It’s puzzling to be a songwriter who came to Nashville to learn the craft and pursue it professionally, then to marry someone with no experience or interest in the music business, but that didn’t stop her from writing beautiful lyrics.
And it’s inspiring, because the beauty of the lyrics that she comes up with shows that Holly’s in touch with something real and valuable. Something eternal.
It was an appropriate accident: a way for me to find creative opportunities completely outside my own paradigm, and completely apart from that crazy game called “the music business.”
DEEPER TRUTH ABOUT ART
Art is an opening into ourselves. It gives us a way of seeing ourselves, and seeing the world, that didn’t exist before we encountered that particular work of art.
Lyrics are a form of art. They work with music, and songs can be written by teams - collaborators who handle the two areas of words and music separately, allowing them to fit together as one thing.
Some great songs have been written by individuals who handle both words and music. “White Christmas,” by Irving Berlin, or “Blowin’ In The Wind,” by Bob Dylan, or “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor are great songs, and great examples of lyrics and melody organically joined into one seamless unit, because each one came from one person’s imagination.
Holly is not a songwriter, and doesn’t even think about it. And yet, she is sensitive enough to pay attention when inspiration strikes. The way she puts it is that she writes what comes to her, simply transcribing the words that show up in her imagination.
It’s essentially a spiritual experience.
Basically God has given Holly words to write, and God has given me the talent to recognize them as words I want to write music for. And, as should be obvious but is worth mentioning, God put Holly and me together as husband and wife. That makes our collaborating not only convenient but very beneficial to our own faith and spiritual growth.
A NEW SONG
In the fall of 2017, Holly received a set of lyrics this way, wrote them down, and presented them to me. It was called “I’ll Leave The Moon On For You.”
I loved the inventive way the word “moon” replaced “light” in the common phrase “I’ll leave a light on for you.” Right away, there’s a shift in perspective, a playful game comparing the moon to something as small and domestic as a table lamp. The rest of the words are straight forward, sincere, romantic declarations of love.
And yet, there’s something underneath it all that implies a love that’s more serious than any romantic love. The line “All I have is exactly what you need,” for example, is a pretty dramatic thing to say. It almost sounds supernatural.
Then there’s the mysterious reference to “Until the world is done with you….” What can that mean? How many love songs refer to the beloved’s adventures in “the world?” or suggest that such adventures are troublesome? and that the end of those troubles will be a blessing? There’s a very large perspective implied in these lines.
It all started to make sense when Holly told me that the underlying idea behind the lyrics is the story of the prodigal son.
One of the most famous stories in the Bible tells of a father whose younger son leaves home to sow his wild oats, then ultimately hits bottom and, realizing his mistake, returns home, where the father greets him with open arms and a huge party. The older brother is jealous and complains, but the father tells him “Everything I have is yours, but your brother was dead, and now he’s alive. Let’s celebrate!”
It’s a family reunion, a homecoming, and a perfect illustration of the redemptive love of the Father, who is patient with all our wanderings, and loves us even when we depart from Him. And He is happy to see us, all our mistakes forgiven, when we return, realizing that we are better off back home with Him.
A JAZZY TUNE
As a songwriter, I was excited to recognize “I’ll leave the moon on for you” as a fresh and inventive phrase. I was happy to take the lyrics and find a suitable melody. It turned into a very intimate, laid back, jazzy love song.
In a way, it feels like my melody was inspired by the same Spirit that led Holly to write the words. I recognize it as mine, and yet it’s not like anything else I’ve written.
All of which adds up to an appreciation for God, who gave me the talent to write and perform and love music, and Who gave me Holly, and Who gave her lyrics that that became this special song.
“I’ll leave the moon on for you” sounds like something God would say, since He’s the Creator who put the moon in the sky.
MY FAVORITE COLLABORATOR
But since the Father in the prodigal son story shows us His love, it also makes sense that a love song - which could be between a man and a woman - shares the same passion and commitment that makes marriage such a profound example of love. It’s the way God designed us - husband and wife, lyricist and composer.
The recent blog about “My Amazing Wife” tells of how Bilateral Music came to be, and continues to draw attention. Last month, she and I were both featured as guests on the monthly live concert by River of Calm, her talking about EMDR therapy, and me playing several songs from the Bilateral Music albums.
During that concert, we met Gus Laux, the sound man who engineered the audio for the show. Gus and I talked about the unusual context of performing Bilateral Music live, and shared our appreciation of his former employer Don Williams. A few days later, Gus forwarded me an invitation to an open house featuring some artwork on display created by his wife Anna. The house, on 33rd Ave., is part of the newly developed neighborhood called Sylvan Heights, comprised of about a hundred modern rectangular homes with a great view of downtown. I wasn’t in the market for a new house, but I happened to have the time available, so I accepted the invitation.
And that night, October 24th, happened to be the full moon. And I happened to arrive at the house in time to go up on the roof to view the downtown skyline just as the moon was coming up. It was a cold night, and not a comfortable time to stay up on that roof, but the view of the moon was spectacular, and I caught it on my cell phone.
I had to use the zoom feature, which results in a fuzzy quality to the buildings in the distance, but the overall effect is still fine. And that’s the picture that became the perfect image for the new song.
So I’m grateful for the song, for my wife, for the “accidental” chance to catch a photo of the full moon rising over Nashville, and for God, who is the most abundant Creator.
Bloggin’ Bryan 22november2018
A New Name, A New Word
Ketch: a new name.
Chinkypin: a new word.
New songs that sound like they’re old, a children’s book, and a present for Ella.
Ketch Secor is the name. Born in Harrisonburg, Va., attended Exeter prep school on scholarship, went full-tilt into music, especially old folk songs. Met musicians in Ithaca NY, formed Old Crow Medicine Show, moved to Boone, NC, old-time music mecca, where Doc Watson heard them.
Made moonshine, stayed in cheap hotels, lived hard, chewed tobacco (well, his bandmates did.)
But kept at it, playing, traveling, writing songs, including “Wagon Wheel,” co-written with Bob Dylan (that’s another story) which became a standard on Lower Broad, and a hit for Darius Rucker.
With Old Crow, Secor played the Ryman, won Grammys, joined the Opry, and then, because he could, he wrote a children’s book.
All of this info is new to me. I had read about Old Crow, and heard the song “Wagon Wheel,” but never heard them. The book “Lorraine” got a lot of attention this year, and I bought a copy for my granddaughter’s birthday.
The book is about a girl who lives on a Tennessee farm with her granddaddy and they make music. Old time music. The book has the rhythm of an old folk song, even as it makes references to old songs. Not quite Dr. Seuss, but charming rhyming couplets, and colorful well-chosen words, along with nearly mythical characters, events and lessons learned.
One of the many beautiful words Secor uses is Chinkypin. I looked it up. It’s the colloquial version of Chinquapin, another name for a miniature chestnut tree.
I’d never heard that word, but I sure recognized its charm, its inherent snap and playful sound. Hey, I’m a southerner, and we love the sound of language. My Daddy wrote poems, and loved to recite them. So I can appreciate Secor using the word Chinkypin, enjoying the sound of it.
I’d read interviews where Secor talked about music, old music, how deep it goes underneath the culture of the American song. He’s got a great perspective, and a lot of talent.
I’m glad to know about Lorraine, and to give it to Ella, my first grandchild, born in Nashville in 2009.
If you read this before her birthday November 17, please don’t tell her. Let it be a surprise.
Blogging Bryan 6 November 2018
Atlanta Home Cumming on November 7 brings together family and friends who have been making music for over half a century.
We all grew up in the same Atlanta area, attending the same high school, playing in the band, then forming and joining bands of our own.
Our musical roots go deeper than that. We also played together in a unique elementary school band, composed of students from dozens of schools, conducted by a woman named Mrs. Evelyn Sisk, who launched the Northside Highlander Band to give 9 to 12 year olds with musical ability a chance to excel. The Highlander Band had several concerts during the year, and sounded better than most public high school bands, because of the intense discipline of practice and rehearsing that Mrs. Sisk provided. Several members later became members of the Atlanta Symphony.
Those of us who were in the Highlander Band, and then attended North Fulton High School, became a special fraternity, staying in touch over the next fifty years. Three families are still in touch with each other from those early days: the Hibberts, the Deans, and the Cummings.
Jonny Hibbert has been like a brother to the Cumming family, often joining us for family singalong. In this typical scene from the Preston living room, it's Jonny, me, brother Walter and sister Anne, probably playing a Beatles song.
The Cumming family had the extra advantage of being a home-based Dixieland band in addition to our formal Highlander Band training. But we didn’t pursue rock’n’roll the way the Deans did. Or the Hibberts.
HIGH SCHOOL PARTIES
In a naive imitation of modern politics, high school candidates for class president would throw parties as part of their campaign. For one such party, the Deans had a great local band, "The IV of IX," (a painfully clever musical pun as their title,) members of which later became the Hampton Grease Band, playing in their backyard.
Anyone who lived through the “hippie” era in Atlanta remembers the Great Speckled Bird, The Twelth Gate, and 14th Street, “the strip.” The Allman Brothers played for free at Piedmont Park, and crazy local bands emerged like Thermos Greenwood and The Colored People.
That was the notoriously creative Dean brother Tommy, who describes that scene in vivid detail here: http://www.thermosgreenwood.com/CPorigin.htm
Britt Dean, the oldest of the Dean children, played trumpet. Britt was also a fine singer, singing for many years for the choir at St. Phillip's (the church three blocks from our house where my parents were married,) wearing a purple robe with ruffled white collar, which provided a colorful contrast to his otherwise rambunctious teenage lifestyle. In later years, he co-owned and managed a local music venue called The Point, where his brother Tommy performed, perfecting his jazzy blues stage persona, which became legendary around Atlanta.
My own musical adventures took me beyond Atlanta in ’73, so I only heard indirectly about Jonny Hibbert forming his own label, HibTone, which in ’81 released the initial single by the Athens based R.E.M. That band soon went on to a major label and greater fame, but my old high school buddy had been there at the inception.
I always had family to see in Atlanta. Another family that was close to us Cummings was the Emersons. The dad Bill Emerson was a lifelong friend and colleague of my father Joe Cumming, having hired for him for the Newsweek job that defined Daddy as a journalist. The Emerson children were our age, so we naturally spent time with them. They were indirect cousins of ours, their mom being the sister of the uncle who married my mother’s sister, and we always felt like family.
Bo is the Emerson who became inspired to learn to play trumpet, and took it further than any of us, attending Harvard where he played in the marching band and met Dizzy Gillespie. Bo became a journalist like his father, but has always played music as something he enjoys. He plays many instruments, sings almost any part, remembers all the words, and loves to perform, so he’s a great asset to any musical group.
Here's Bo and me rehearsing for version of Handel's Water Music which he arranged for the wedding ceremony for my nephew Alston Cumming and his bride Julie, in August 2016. That band included my brothers Doug and Walter.
The Chosewood piece of the puzzle came about a few years ago as the Deans were looking at property, and discovered that the abandoned church building for sale was also being investigated by Clay Preston, who happened to be married to my sister Anne. It became a business partnership with ties to the long musical history that connected so many of us.
I learned through Clay about Chosewood, and all the work that he and the Deans undertook to refurbish and modernize the place. Now it’s up and running, and a beautiful place for music.
And The WannaBeatles, planning a trip from nashville to Florida, needing a place to play along that route, became the idea of playing in Atlanta. And starting with family and friends as the basis for something happening there. And now that we’ve got it planned, we’re making it as much of a celebration of all the music all of us have made, and been inspired by, as possible, with Jonny Hibbert, Bo Emerson, David Hibbert, Birtt Dean, and special appearances by my sister Anne and her daughter Helen, on stage with us Wednesday Nov. 7.
My brothers Doug and Walter would be perfect guests, and I invited them, but they are both unavailable for this particular edition of the Home Cumming. Maybe next year.
It’s an amazing collection of people, songs, memories, and the pure joy of music, in a beautiful new facility, containing the story of Atlanta’s growth as it also contains its history.
Bloggin’ Bryan 29Oct18
FALLING IN LOVE
I saw something special in Holly the night we met, at my sister’s house in Atlanta on March 28, 1992. My life has never been the same since then. We fell in love and, after nineteen months of long distance relationship and serious conversations about our lives, got married. It’s been a great adventure, with many unexpected delights along the way.
With a quarter century of perspective, we can see things embedded in our story that we couldn’t recognize at the time. God was at work, and allowing us time to discover what He was up to.
Holly has an adventurous spirit. She came to Nashville, a city where she’d never been, to marry me.
From her first job here as a Montessori teacher, Holly has been doing things that were part of an invisible (to us, at the time) story that is only beginning to become visible: we’ve actually been working together creatively for years without realizing that’s what we were doing. God snuck up on us, and now, with the emergence of Bilateral Music, we see that He had specific plans in mind for our being together, plans that bless us and many other people simultaneously.
This month we celebrate our first 25 years of marriage. As Holly says, it’s a personal best for both of us, who met each other after being divorced from less successful marriages.
October 2018 also marks the first time we’ve been featured together as the people who came up with Bilateral Music.
Briefly, Bilateral Music is soft, gentle instrumental music created for EMDR therapy. Holly, as a therapist trained in EMDR, suggested it to me, and helped produce the album, and took the lovely photograph that became the cover artwork.
This beautiful photograph has subsequently been viewed by thousands of Spotify and iTunes subscribers all over the world who stream tracks from the album. The latest report form CDBaby indicates over five thousand streams in the last week.
The growth of the music since it was released in 2013 has generated a second album, Bilateral Music II, again featuring a lovely photo by Holly.
The music was created in my studio. It’s never been performed live, until now.
RIVER OF CALM
Earlier this year, internet radio station River of Calm started playing Bilateral Music. Ed Bazel, the musician who started River of Calm, is very interested in the healing power of music. He invited Holly and me to appear as guests on the monthly concert series.
The concert is Thursday, Oct. 18, at Miller Piano in Franklin, starting at 7 pm. It’s free, and will be simulcast on Facebook Live. Holly will be interviewed by Ed Bazel about EMDR, and then I will play two songs from the first two Bilateral Music albums, accompanied by pianist Eric Bikales.
Thursday will be the first time the concert has featured a therapist together with a musician. It helps illustrate the unusual quality of our collaboration, how music and therapy can work together. Ed Bazel’s natural interest in healing music and the opportunity for us to appear together make the concert a great way to celebrate what God has done by putting Holly and me together.
Bilateral Music didn’t come out of nothing. There’s a story of where it came from. I can tell it from my perspective as Holly’s musician husband. Before Bilateral, there were other songs, all unplanned, at least from our limited human perspective. It could have been part of God’s gentle way of weaning me off of believing that “the music business” could provide for me. Now I see that God has ways of making things happen that nobody with a “music business” mindset could ever imagine, much less accomplish. And He has demonstrated this through Holly.
HAVE YOU HEARD
Holly had no interest or experience in writing songs, so it was a surprise in the early 90’s when she wrote the words to a beautiful song. She says she just transcribed it; the words appeared in her mind in a moment of pure inspiration. She showed them to me, and I put the words to music and recorded a demo.
A few weeks later, we received a mysterious phone call from a woman asking if we knew anyone with original songs that could be used in a church music project. We submitted our song, “Have You Heard,” which was included in a compilations sent to churches nationwide. We received a $500 payment for the use of the song, a non-exclusive agreement, which meant we retained ownership of the song. We also got to attend a recording session at one of the finest studios in the area, Kitchen Sync in Cool Springs, to observe the recording they made, a full arrangement of our song, including a dozen singers.
The lead sheet, printed in red ink, was used as a Christmas card my parents sent to their friends that year. We’ve heard it performed in several Nashville churches since then.
A few years later, we wrote another song together, “He Gathers The Lambs,” as a prayer of support for our niece and her parents, as they dealt with her anorexia, from which she has totally recovered. We never intended or expected anyone to record the song, but a singer who came into my studio happened to hear it and decided to include it on his next album.
Both songs were total surprises, both in how they came into existence, and how God engineered circumstances for their being heard.
A few years later, Holly was inspired to write some more words, this time in the form of a prayer. She entitled it Breathing Prayer, and asked me to record it, reciting the words in my voice. After listening to it, she asked if I could add some gentle music behind it. I was happy to try.
In the studio, while listening to the words of the prayer, I played a series of chords on the guitar, trying to remember what I was doing, so that I could come back later and play along with it. It was a totally spontaneous composition, conscious of nothing more than playing guitar to fit the words of the prayer. The spoken prayer was over eight minutes long, which gave me time for lots of variations in the chords. About half way through the song, I changed keys, and finished it in a new key. Guitarists will know that the keys of G and E are both very inviting, making use of the open strings tuned to those notes.
After finishing the first track of guitar, I recorded a second guitar part, a melody to go over the chords played on the first track. Since the original track was not written down, the melody I played over it had moments of uncertainty, as listening was an important part of the playing, flying blind in a sense, almost a case of artificially imposed humility. But that quality added to the mystery and tenderness of the music. Holly and I both liked the result, and felt that it had value on its own.
And that was how “Wandering Path” was born. The two word title reflected the creative tension of having a destination or purpose, but not knowing exactly how or when to get there.
How that song would launch a record that would revive my sense of purpose as a creative musician is connected to the story of Holly’s career after she moved to Nashville.
TEACHER, ORGANIZER, COUNSELOR
Holly’s first job in Nashville was Montessori teacher. After a few years, she went into business for herself, as a professional organizer. She discovered that people who struggled with decluttering their physical spaces often struggled with underlying emotional issues.
That ability to understand and help people with emotional issues drew her into counseling.
She enrolled Trevecca and, in 2007, received her master’s degree. After a few years of internship, supervision and licensure, she’s now been in private practice for several years.
Part of that journey involved learning about a new mode of therapy called EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR goes further than “talk therapy” or cognitive approaches by giving the brain a chance to break out of its usual patterns and access the subconscious.
EMDR was developed by Francine Shapiro, who found that moving her eyes back and forth from left to right helped reduce her emotional response to certain painful memories.
In neuroscience, memories and thoughts are identified as specific electrical signals that pass among neurons. Eye movement was first, but other forms of bilateral stimulation have been used and found to be effective in EMDR. For touch, a client can hold electrodes in each hand which are activated to transmit a gentle buzz first in one hand, then the other. For hearing, a client can wear headphones and listen to a click sound that appears on one side, then the other.
Holly had received EMDR therapy, and then trained in it, so she could use it on her own clients.
MAKING IT BILATERAL
She heard some music I was working on in the studio and suggested that it might be good for EMDR therapy, if it were presented with bilateral panning.
Since Holly had been through EMDRI therapy herself, she knew intuitively what the patient’s experience was like, and what would be effective. And so she could give parameters that would make the music useful for this use. In a way, we were experimenting with music in a new application.
There was no thought of song structure, or genre implications of any particular instrument or sound. The opportunity was completely outside what I had perceived as “the music business,” which provided - even required - a radical freedom.
The goal was to establish a peaceful mood with slow moving music, and then making it pan back and forth at a slow rate.
A NEW WAY OF MAKING MUSIC
Holly helped me understand about the threshold of stimulation that exists when music works to relax the mind. In theory, any sound, any melody, and any chord progression is possible. But the most important feature is sensitivity to the brain of the patient, providing a soundtrack that is reassuring and unobtrusive. It’s almost the opposite of pop music, where everything is designed to attract attention. Instead of a heavy beat, fast tempo, loud voice, or urgent repetition of a phrase, the music for therapy is slow, soft, and gentle. It has rhythm, melody, tempo, and structure, but sounds vastly different from “pop” music, because it has a completely different purpose.
One key parameter is tempo. One constant characteristic of Bilateral Music is a tempo that is near, or below, the rate of the human heartbeat at rest, which is around 72 beats per minute.
Another parameter is the relative “intrusiveness” of certain instruments, or the way in which they are played. I had been creating “soft jazz” songs for several years. Since I played saxophone, I tended to favor sax as the melody instrument, carrying on the lyrical tradition of the players who inspired me, like Stan Getz and Paul Desmond.
Holly liked the songs I was creating, but found the sound of the saxophone too strong, too demanding of the listener’s attention. As I digested this news, it expanded my own sensibility. Holly said her own experience was that a melody played on an acoustic guitar, especially a nylon string guitar, never sounds obtrusive. There was something about the sound of a string being touched by fingers that conveys feeling without being demanding. I enjoyed playing nylon string guitar, so this was not a difficult transition for me.
Holly also suggested mixing in nature sounds, usually wind, rain, and ocean waves.
The songs were longer than typical pop songs, which gave me room for extensive improvisation. The acoustic guitar, the flute or recorder parts, keyboard pads, hand percussion, and the nature sounds were all layered together in the recording to create an audio track six to eight minutes long. It was a familiar process for me, assembling music in the studio, but it was both easier and more interesting than previous efforts, because it was something new, created for a new purpose.
RELEASING THE ALBUM
I collected nine songs that fit our new formula, adding up to an hour of music. We used Holly’s beautiful photo for the cover, added the title Bialteral Music and released it on CDBaby in 2013.
Holly told her clients about it, and offered free samples of several songs on her website. Other EMDR therapists heard about it and told their clients about it.
A woman named Lisa Schwarz, who had developed her own hybrid approach to therapy called CRM (Comprehensive Resource Model,) heard Bilateral Music and began to recommend it to her trainees. She ordered dozens of copies of the CD to hand out at her conferences, and encouraged me to make another album.
Holly was happy to continue the work, and helped me put together a second album. We chose another beautiful photo she had taken for the cover, and assembled ten songs that became Bilateral Music II, released summer 2018.
It’s been amazing to see that Bilateral Music is being heard all around the world. It has restored my faith in my own musical desires, and potential to reach an audience, as I see that my perceived lack of success in “the music business” has been part of a story with a much bigger agenda, and much larger perspective.
What God has been doing all these years is showing me how much a woman can bring to a man as they join together to make something that never existed before. It’s very satisfying to see how powerful and creative a marriage can be. But it’s even more inspiring to realize that it’s not us making it happen, but God. Our story is our testimony. We have faith, and the willingness to respond, and God does all the rest, with His enormous imagination, abundant grace, infinite love, eternal patience and beautiful plans to bless us and all the people we reach, no matter how long it takes us to realize what He’s up to.
The first 25 years have been great. I’m awed by the amazing woman He brought to me, and everything that she has brought to my life.
Blogging Bryan 15 October 2018
My father is 92, and has dementia. He’s physically healthy, but can’t remember how to play piano, or even that he wrote songs.
When my siblings and I play one of his songs back to him, and tell him he wrote it, he’s delighted to hear the news.
He wrote songs most of his life, and we sang most of them, around the house, on stages, at parties, and in homes of family and friends.
One song from his later years became a sort of soundtrack for his dementia - a song he knew he wrote, and, about two years ago, could still play and sing. It was recent enough that we hadn't become familiar with it yet. He spoke of it as if it were his final musical offering.
It’s called October Song.
Here are the words:
Why is there no October song
We can sing along
Under a new blue sky
Just take one whiff it’s in the air
Red and yellow leaves fly by
Some will tell the harvest moon to shine on
The hunter’s moon is coming soon
That’s what we pine on
In the evening chill
By the fire we’ll
Tell October gold good-bye
I had learned this song from Daddy about two years ago, and we often talked of it, and sang it together. But I never had the chance to record it until a few weeks ago. Here's a quick sample of the audio.
It’s only 46 seconds long. It may need an instrumental section. But at least the words and music have been recorded so other people can get a “whiff” of Daddy’s romantic musical soul.
For those who know older songs in the American Songbook, there’s a great one called “Shine On Harvest Moon.” It’s among the songs Daddy used to love to sing, so it’s part of my organic musical education. The opening words to that song are sung on two successive notes, one half step apart, with the chord underneath those notes giving the phrase a distinctive tang that fits the mood of the song. Daddy has taken his familiarity of that older song and incorporated it into his own song, during the bridge, which also contains the words “shine on.” He has deliberately put those words into the same phrase, and chords, to match the other, more familiar, song, triggering people’s memories with the reference. In looking at the way the bridge is constructed, one can almost sense that his entire agenda was to find a way to use the phrase “shine on” as a musical echo of the other song. It’s craftsmanship that maybe only a songwriter would appreciate, but it’s there, a little signature with a smile.
October is a great time for songs. The season reveals the burst of energy that happens to trees as chemical changes produce vibrant colors. The air becomes brisk, the sunlight slanting at a new angle.
I’m ready with new songs myself. I’m happy Daddy has written his October Song. My own songs continue with what he passed on to me, a gentle creative spirit.
BC 30 Sept 18
One of the great, and still underrated, musical influences from the sixties was Antonio Carlos Jobim.
The bossa nova craze, led by “The Girl From Ipanema,” brought a fresh sound, and new groove, to American airwaves, featuring the sultry voice of Astrud Gilberto and the breezy lyrical sax of Stan Getz.
It was beautiful music, and it was popular.
And most of it was composed on a nylon string guitar by Antonio Carlos Jobim. His other songs, Wave, One Note Samba, Desifinado, were all beautiful, expertly assembled melodic lines with exquisite chord progressions. Ipanema was a beach near Rio de Janeiro. Jobim, and Gilberto, and the music they created, came from Brazil.
Of all the countries in Latin America, Brazil is the largest, and the only one where the native language is not Spanish, but Portuguese.
Spanish and Portuguese are similar, as Spain and Portugal are adjacent countries, but they are as different from each other as Spanish is from French. They must be learned separately.
The word for “thank you” in Spanish is gracias. In Portuguese, it’s obrigado. It’s easy to see the connection to similar words in English: gracias connects to grace, and gracious, while obrigado connects to obligated or obligation.
I was a young lad in Atlanta picking up a guitar for the first time around 1964, and I began to see how my fingers could form chords that sounded like “Girl From Ipanema.” That was an essential foundation of my emerging understanding of the chords and notes available on the guitar fingerboard.
Soon, I was writing songs of my own, partially inspired by The Beatles, but also informed by the gentler vocabulary of Jobim. The major seventh chord - requiring four notes to sound its true identity, rather than three notes of more common triads of rock and country - sounded beautiful to me. I was happy to find it on my guitar, and use it in my early compositions. I was following a path that Jobim had inaugurated.
And now, decades of music making later, I’m still writing songs on the nylon string guitar, and, in an ironic flash of historical payback, somehow, the music I make is being heard in Brazil.
I’ve never been to Brazil, except for one stop in the airport in 1979 when I was on a tour with David Soul that included Argentina and Chile. And yet, Brazil seems large in my mind, a most famous, inviting, and exciting place, filled with magnificent carnivals, rain forest jungles, colorful birds and flowers, and a steady soundtrack of sensual music.
I’ve had Brazilian musicians come into my Nashville studio to record their own songs, which reveal a deep admiration for classic American country, like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Some of their songs are in English, and some in Portuguese.
I’ve known musicians in Nashville who’ve lived in Brazil, one who still lives there, calling himself Beach Man.
But what fascinates me is that, without any effort on my part, my own songs are being played there.
Spotify is the platform that tracks streaming globally, and provides precise reports for that activity.
For several months, Brazil has been a large market for my Bilateral Music album, typically #2 right below the United States.
This week, for the first time, my Spotify chart shows that Brazil has taken the top position.
Last week, 848 streams in Brazil, ahead of 811 in the United States.
I don’t know why it’s happening, but I can say I’m grateful. I can say thanks.
I like the word grace, so I can say gracias.
Speaking the language of Brazil, I can say obrigado, recognizing that I am obligated to Brazil, for producing Antionio Carlos Jobim and the beautiful music that inspired me to make music the way I do.
Blogging Bryan 21September18
“Skunk” is the nickname of Jeff Baxter, a guitarist and producer who’s made a point of being different.
During the early 80’s, when I had the chance to work with him, he had already made a name for himself as a member of two of the biggest bands of the 70’s: Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers.
He grew his hair long, and wore a large walrus mustache. He wore a beret, and aviator glasses.
He had a distinctive style.
I appreciate “Skunk.” He was a bright guy, navigating the various realms of the music business with skill - always being more than just a guitarist. He had his own way of handling fame while maintaining his individual identity.
Billy Vera and The Beaters at The Roxy, 1981
front row: Keith Robertson, Jim Ehinger, Ron Viola, Beau Segal, Billy Vera, Jerry Peterson
back row: Bryan Cumming, George Marinelli, Jeff Baxter, Lon Price, Chuck Fiore
Jeff became part of the Billy & The Beaters scene by sitting in with us. That adventure started with a series of shows at the Troubador in Hollywood every Monday night that kept drawing larger crowds.
For us, it was always a fun musical occasion. For Billy, it was also a Hollywood social experience. Somehow what we were doing on those Monday nights at the Troubador gained an air of “hipness,” which became validated, in Hollywood terms, by having various celebrity musicians join us onstage. Rickie Lee Jones was one great example.
Billy cultivated those connections, making friends with actors and actresses as often as with musicians and songwriters. It was easy to do in those days, as actors and musicians are intersecting communities.
But Skunk was definitely a musician. He played guitar with us, then switched to steel guitar. That’s what you hear on “At This Moment.”
When we appeared on television, he wore a western style jacket, looking like a member of New Riders of the Purple Sage or something.
Here's a link to the youtube video of the band performing Billy's song "Millie, Make Some Chili."
In this video, you will see much younger versions of us. George Marinelli, who takes the guitar solo, is now a Nashville resident, making records of his own, between road trips playing for Bonnie Raitt. After 35 years of changes, I'm back to wearing a tie onstage, but the dark hair and mustache have turned light gray.
I remember Jeff from those Troubador days, sitting stage left, with the horn section, sharing with us his appreciation for jazz. He would play bits of “Green Dolphin Street” as a way of connecting with us, displaying his appreciation for the jazz language of chord motion.
Realizing he had been among Fagen and Becker playing on those early Steely Dan records gave me a whiff of how musicians learn from each other and pick up “cool stuff” - little inspirational treasures of music history, licks and theory that they hear along the way, which can become part of their sense of identity.
Skunk was definitely a skilled and creative guitarist, with a very creative approach to the instrument. One particular guitar he brought on stage with us was a clear lucite solid body guitar, based on the strat, but enhanced with custom pickups and other technical details that reflected his innate scientific curiosity.
Japan, Roland, & Guitar Technology
Skunk took that curiosity into a long and productive relationship with the Roland company, which was producing some major equipment at the time - guitar pedals (the Boss Chorus, made famous by Andrew Gold on Linda Rondstadt’s record "You’re No Good,”) guitar amps (JC 160, with built in stereo chorus), and keyboards (the Juno 106, heard on Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghost Busters.”)
Skunk was already exploring the possibilities of MIDI pickups on guitars with the Roland research team. He liked telling us that the horn sounds we heard on a recent Doobie Brothers record were not played by keyboard synthesizers but on a guitar.
Roland is a Japanese company, and Skunk’s Japanese connections became a big part of our trip there in 1981. Billy ended up signing with Alfa, a Japanese label. I don’t know how much Skunk had to do with that deal, or getting us the chance to play the Tokyo Music Festival, but I know he had plenty of contacts in Japan, which helped us out while we were there. He was the only one of us who had been there before. The night we arrived he advised us to stay up late to fight jet lag.
Billy Vera and The Beaters in Tokyo, 1981, with three Japanese children joining us. "Skunk" on left.
Recording the first album was quite an adventure. It may have been Skunk who helped Billy decide to record it live, since the band had such a good live energy.
This involved a truck devoted to recording parked outside the Roxy, and spending all day running cables back and forth, to establish individual microphones for each of the ten members of the band, plus at least ten mics on Beau Segal’s drum kit.
It was a big night, and we were nervous, and we may have played too loud, and been out of tune.
But, thanks to recording technology, we could take the tracks from that night and work on them in the studio, which we did, replacing almost all the horn parts with studio versions that were more in tune. Of course, crucial parts of the night’s show could not (and should not) be replaced, especially Billy’s vocals, the drums, and the solos. But the horn parts were “fixable.”
It’s a little embarrassing to think that we spent all that time playing everything over, but that was considered a necessary part of making the album. Or at least Skunk convinced the record company that it was necessary, and they paid for it.
Every time we went into the studio to record the horn parts over, we got paid union scale, which amounted to several thousand dollars for each of us when those sessions were over.
Skunk let us know, in his own offhanded way, that he had done us a favor. It was impossible to know at the time how much.
I can testify now, thirty five years later, that the money I earned in those sessions that Skunk produced for that Beaters record contributed substantially to the pension fund that becomes the basis for calculating the monthly pension check I get from the Musicians Union. It also showed up in my Social Security records, boosting the income that would determine my “retirement” income. The records show that my earnings as a musician were (relatively) substantial in 1981, if in no other year before or since. But that bump in my earnings made a difference, and blesses me every month.
Thanks, Jeff, for your playing skills, and your wisdom that blessed us in our adventure.
Blogging Bryan 19September2018
“Blame it all on my roots,” sang Garth Brooks in “Friends in Low Places,” his 1990 hit.
That line always resonated with me. Not because of friends I had in low places, but the opposite: my roots were a notable line of ancestors who occupied a somewhat higher social stratum.
I’d like to introduce you to three men, all born in the 19th century, who gave me my name.
And a reason for maintaining facial hair.
These men represent consecutive generations of the family. They were all born in Augusta, Georgia and lived there. They were all lawyers.
The first of these, Joseph Bryan Cumming, was born in 1837. He studied law at Harvard, married a woman from Connecticut, and brought her back to Georgia in 1860, just as secession was tearing the country apart. He served as an Confederate officer during the Civil War.
Their son, Bryan Cumming, was born in 1862. Like his father, he became a lawyer, during the "New South" period after Reconstruction, from 1884 until his death in 1943.
The next in line, my grandfather, was born in 1893. He continued the tradition, entering his legal practice in 1920.
These photos were assembled by my grandfather, listing the years that each man served as a lawyer (“counsel” was the more dignified title.)
They were all named, like me, Joseph Bryan Cumming, with one exception: the second one in this particular sequence, Bryan Cumming, was given only the two names, without the “Joseph.” The convoluted explanation we’ve received is that his father wanted to avoid the embarrassment of his son inheriting a name that could become a burden, if the father somehow dishonored his own social standing.
Missing from these three photos is the next in line, also named Joseph Bryan Cumming (with a Jr. added at the end). That was my father, born in 1926, who deserves special credit for NOT becoming a lawyer.
His natural personality was much more creative. He played music, wrote poetry, danced to swing bands, and staged musicals. He was not built for continuing the family tradition.
He was the first in this line to leave Augusta.
He definitely paved the way for my life as a musician. And the rest is history.
He never grew a mustache. It just didn’t quite fit his face.
It’s funny how styles come and go.
When I was a teenager, listening to music and noticing the winds of change that brought various political movements - civil rights, antiwar, environmentalism, etc. - I began to see the mustache as an expression of rebellion, or at least cultural innovation. Many of the activists of the time were wearing them as they shouted their slogans to disrupt the system.
Of course, the Beatles appeared with mustaches, all four of them, on Sgt. Pepper in ’67, which validated the style as a countercultural item.
Facial hair was part of what happened in the sixties. But after a few years, styles changed. I shaved mine off, then grew it back, then shaved it off again. Finally, after years in New York and L.A., I came to Nashville, and settled on the mustache as an essential part of my look. I think my ancestors were talking to me.
So, blame it all on my roots.
Or genealogical momentum.
-Blogging Bryan, 7 April 2018
The upcoming Studio 23 Nashville Live concert at World Music Nashville features some great songs. Some of them have been chart topping hits, and others not as widely known.
Our headliner Walter Egan has several hit songs, and he’s the artist who originally recorded them. His biggest hit was “Magnet and Steel,” a top ten pop hit from 1978. “Hot Summer Nights” was a minor hit for him, and a bigger hit for the group Night in 1979.
Walter’s credibility as a writer goes back to “Hearts On Fire,” recorded by Gram Parsons and EmmyLou Harris in 1973, on Gram’s final album “Grievous Angel.”
We’ll be doing Walter’s versions of those songs, along with others he’s written more recently. I especially like “Old Photographs,” released last year, which you can find on youtube, with Walter performing it solo at McCabe’s in L.A.
Other songs we’ll be doing at the concert are from writers who were not the artists who made them hits. For example, Diamond Rio sang “One More Day” but it was written by Bobby Tomberlin with Stephen Dale Jones. Kevin Sharp sang “She’s Sure Taking It Well,” but Tim Buppert wrote it, along with Don Pfrimmer and George Teren.
Both those songs were number one country hits. There can be a long discussion about whether a “great” song is necessarily a popular one, but the fact that a song hits number one can get your attention.
What is a “great” song?
Can we define a “great” song? If it’s a hit, is it then automatically “great?” If it moves one person to tears, does that make it “great?” There are many ways to apply the word.
From a musician’s perspective, a “great” song is one that seems to play itself. It has an inherent logic that provides a momentum that makes it easy to play, as one’s fingers seem to find their natural place playing the familiar chords and rhythms that work so well for that particular song. It all makes sense, even as it contains enough surprises to make it original and refreshing. It flows.
Making it look easy is the hard part.
Nashville is a place where songwriting is appreciated, and practiced seriously on a daily basis. When a song is successful, other writers can appreciate the craftsmanship. They may be a little jealous of the success, but determined to equal or surpass the achievement of the hit writer. They go back to their craft and try again.
Like many other musicians and songwriters, I moved here from L.A. It was music that drew me there, and songwriting that drew me to Nashville.
Walter Egan and I were in L.A. around the same time. His song “Hot Summer Nights” was recorded by the group Night in 1979, produced by Richard Perry on his Planet Label. I had the privilege of recording a sax solo on another record produced by Richard Perry for his Planet Label, “Dirty Work” by The Pointer Sisters.
You can catch that tiny piece of my history around the two minute mark in this youtube video: https://youtu.be/io4tVuFXe0I
I never met Walter back then. I don’t remember hearing “Magnet and Steel” on the radio. I was busy playing more R&B flavored stuff, which turned into Billy Vera and The Beaters.
But now, in Nashville, I know Walter, and appreciate the song, and the others he’s written. Walter is an unusual presence in Nashville, a hit songwriter and artist who continues to create original material without the benefit of music business support.
Credit for my appreciation of Walter Egan, and the fact that he’s involved in the Studio 23 Nashville show, goes to Beth Sass, who has been collaborating with him for the last three years. It makes perfect sense that Beth would also be featured in the concert next week. She and Walter have just completed an album together.
As an indication of their creativity, Walter and Beth were still working on the title of it when we gathered to rehearse recently. They liked the fact that their initials - WE, BS - formed a word, WEBS. But that wasn’t good enough. So they expanded that to create the word Websight, a delightful pun that emphasizes their creative vision.
Remembering Don Pfrimmer
Beth has also written extensively with Don Pfrimmer, a respected Nashville songwriter who died in 2015. Don’s writing is directly connected to two of the five artists featured in the concert - as co-writer of Tim Buppert’s “She’s Sure Taking It Well,” and as co-writer of “Too Many Doors,” which Beth is singing.
As an indirect connection, Don also co-wrote “Meet In The Middle,” Diamond Rio’s debut hit from 1991. Diamond Rio is connected to this show by way of Bobby Tomberlin, who wrote and will perform their later number one song “One More Day.”
So we have Walter Egan, Beth Sass, Bobby Tomberlin and Tim Buppert as established writers, from both pop and country words. The other writer on the show is Laura Powers, who has charted her own creative course. Her trilogy of albums “Legends of The Goddess,” is in a Celtic pop style, with ethereal sounds and mythical lyrics. Laura also painted the cover art for each of the albums.
I met Laura when she was writing songs for the Nashville market, and in fact one of her songs at the concert, “If This Greyhound Just Had Wings,” is more “country.” She will also perform a song I co-wrote with her, “Piece of the Sky,” which is more of a jazzy style. Laura is a delightful performer, and I’m very happy to have her as part of this show.
I know that having a “hit” gives a songwriter bragging rights, but I also know that there are great songs that remain known by a smaller group of people. I am glad to be playing great songs with the five artists who wrote them on the Studio 23 Nashville Live show March 10.
Walter, Beth, Bobby, Laura and Tim are all very talented people worth hearing, and they’ve never been on the same stage together before. That in itself is a creative act.
See you there!
Bloggin' Bryan 3march18
It’s sad to hear about Lari White dying of cancer, but there’s no lack of local appreciation for who she was.
I had only a handful of encounters working and conversing with her over nearly 30 years in Nashville, but I came away impressed that this woman carried a huge talent with an equally huge dose of grace in her life.
It’s obvious that she could sing, and write.
Her unexpected venture into the movies, playing Tom Hanks’ girlfriend in “Castaway,” was both beautiful and brief, another flash of the grace she carried.
My first experience with Lari convinced me that I’d probably never meet a more talented singer. That is, if singers are to be evaluated by musicianship, then no one could surpass Lari for depth of knowledge and intuitive wisdom.
To put it in more specific terms, she came to country music with a totally qualified knowledge of jazz. She was a graduate of University of Miami, and knew the “standards” well, and could sing her way around them like a jazz musician. She could negotiate the chord changes and lean into the swing groove like the best of them, Ella Fitzgerald, whoever.
But her chances of reaching an audience in the 1990’s were better with country music, so that’s where she landed. Her writing was always witty and concise. I remember “Lead Me Not Into Temptation - I can get there just fine by myself.”
Lair was the kind of person you wanted to succeed. She was so deserving, and professional, and generous with her ability and the people she was around.
I listened to a song of hers yesterday, to check in with what had been released along the way to represent her to the world. “Now I Know,” another classic country song, with a perfect vocal to go with it. A fresh personality, with talent to burn. The video had a commercial formula to it - it was part Lari’s talent, and part record company effort to create a “product” to sell. But I could hear so much in her voice - the deep wisdom of other styles, other eras, the emotion that came through jazz records, doo-wop songs, early pop of the sixties - Lari absorbed a huge amount of music into her one singular life, and condensed it into a beautiful artistic whole.
Last year, I had finally finished my first solo swing album, and I sent it to her, knowing she would appreciate it.
She wrote back, “So cool, Bryan….I love this.”
I’m glad I got to hear from her one more time before the chance was gone.
Lari - we’re glad you were here. You made this place better by being here.
We are grateful.
Blogging Bryan 27january18