PASSING THE HAT …

If you’re 37 and not yet a music superstar, you’ve probably missed the mania. The entertainment stratosphere is fueled by the hormones of teenage girls. They either want to BE you (Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, etc) or they want to be WITH you (Justin Beiber, The Beatles, etc). You get it. There’s a window for musicians to become larger than life. And it doesn’t always have all that much to do with music.

But after a certain point, and you’ve reached a certain age, the MUSIC is all that matters. And you’re left with a nagging question: How do I keep doing this?

When I’m asked “how do I make it in music?” by young, aspiring talent. I always give the same answer. And I think it applies to anyone, of any age:

“You live in a time with more amazing technology at your disposal than ever before. Put your guitar or keyboard in a car or van or whatever, and start driving west. Stop everywhere people are – set up – and start playing. Set up in front of a Wendy’s or a Kroger or a park. Shoot it all on you iPhone and upload it every night. One of three things will happen: you’ll either give up somewhere around Dallas and realize this isn’t for you, and go home. Or you’ll limp in to LA realizing you’re not all that good and re-group or pack it in. OR you might build a following and one of your clips might go viral. And by the time you get to LA …you might be on Kimmel. Either way, THAT’S how I would do it if I were 22. And the good news about the crumbling of the old music business structure is …now you’ve got nothing to lose. Literally.”

At 50, I’m taking my own advice and doing a “Pass-The-Hat” tour. I’m showing up and playing wherever I’m asked to come …for no minimum guarantee. All I ask is that you drop some cash in the hat if you like what you hear. There’s something about not having a check waiting at the end of the night that keeps you sharp. And I think every musician – at every strata – should do this on occasion. I loved watching U2 go into the subway (in disguise) and see if they could still pull a crowd.

These days entertainment is everywhere. And people sing, write and better perform better than they ever have. A 13-year-old girl who can mimic Christina Aguilera isn’t as uncommon as it used to be. We’ve all stood on the shoulders of giants and achieved an amazing baseline of quality. Being a great singer or a great performer almost isn’t good enough anymore. What’s the rest of your story? Where’s your risk? What are the stakes when you take the stage? Are you just singing nice words to me or are you testifying? Where are your scars?

I’ll take a kid who can barely sing but who’s laying it all bare on stage, over a coifed, chiseled songbird with nothing to say …any day. And you only have something to say if you’ve gotten out there and slugged it out like a drunk prize fighter more than a few times.

So, set up on a street corner (WITHOUT permission) and start playing. Stream it live. Get reprimanded by a store owner. Get some boos. Get some cheers. Heck, get arrested. But mix it up and tell us some truth. And stop trying to catch your “big break.” Make it catch you.

R

WESTERN CIV …

A lot of people didn’t get it at the time. Most still don’t get it even now. But my debut CD, American Dreams, was a concept record. It was a foray into western culture and the notion of America itself. I sliced and diced a lot of western culture up pretty good. But I also extolled the virtues of it. Because, even with its cascade of flaws, I am a fan of, beneficiary of, believer in and participant in …western culture. Everything I do is bathed in it. And if you’re reading this right now, you are probably no different.

We want to believe that wherever we are at this moment would’ve been gotten to with or without certain things we find unseemly. We want to believe there would’ve still been smart phones even if America had never dropped atomic bombs. We want to believe there would’ve still been a Los Angeles even without Manifest Destiny and western expansion. We really want to believe we would still be sitting in climate controlled buildings, sipping lattes and picking out furniture online even without the sooty, grimy industrial revolution.

I wonder if any of that is true.

I personally believe the west would be MUCH farther along technologically and societally had we ended slavery from the jump and allowed women to vote earlier. Even de Tocqueville (French philosopher, admirer of America, and planter of what many consider to be the seeds of libertarianism and conservatism) said in 1830, that slavery (aside from its moral insanity) was completely inefficient and backward for a place like America. Because it failed to unleash the free will and free thinking of an entire population of people. I tend to agree.

But make no mistake – western civilization has a checkered past at best. So, what makes it better than all other civilizations? IS it better? Personally, I believe it is. Why? Because despite its many failures, the tenants of western civilization are rooted (at least theoretically) in human free will. That’s the essence of it. Even if it has often looked like the exact opposite. And human free will gets you a story of criminals and crusaders; saints and sinners; sociopaths and scientists. And maybe that’s as it should be.

I’ve watched a couple of people die lately. And I’ve been to and helped plan a couple of funerals. And believe it or not, the one thing that has continually struck me over and over again, is the ability these people had in their lives to make their own decisions; live their own stories; follow their own paths. If you know enough about history, you know that a woman on this planet, traveling the globe of her own free will, participating in commerce and culture, owning property and having the same rights as her male counterparts – for her ENTIRE life – is an anomaly. Billions of women have lived and died without even dreaming of those things. But my own grandmother did all of those things and more …for 92 years.

I have spent my entire adult life making a living off some strange little ability I have to string words and music together. My children are being raised in a house that’s twice the size of the one I grew up in, going to amazing schools, and watching fanciful magic appear on enormous screens that are placed in every room in said house. They have never wanted for food or medicine. They are not in immediate, physical danger. They have clean water in which to bathe. And whatever heat or cold the globe’s climate dishes out is countered in their bedrooms, with vents that literally change the temperature of the air. And I have provided ALL of that to them by simply following my own talents and instincts.

Where else on planet earth and in the history of the human race can people say such a thing?

I’m getting really tired of being forced into corners to defend something Donald Trump said. There are a whole lot of things he has said that I refuse to defend. But his comments on the virtues of western civilization, in Poland, seem to be taking fire from people. And what were (at least to my way of thinking) cogent thoughts about the need to preserve western culture, have been contorted into “white nationalist” propaganda, by certain members of the press. Some people are simply not going to stop until they turn this guy into Hitler. But he’s not. And I think his points about western civilization were on point.

When 9/11 happened, I saw it as an attack on the WEST …not just America. Definitely not just New York. And THAT was the basis for my song Infidels, on the aforementioned CD, American Dreams.

Western civilization doesn’t just mean “white.” At least it shouldn’t. So many people – NOT white – have contributed to it and helped build it. And even when they may have been lambasting it, they were participating in it. It’s why I put Muhammad Ali in the second line of the song, RIGHT behind so-called “white” icons, Frank Sinatra (who was actually Italian) and Doris Day. Because while Mr Ali was decrying the country and culture of his birth, he was putting stitches in the fabric of it simultaneously …whether he knew it or not. He was becoming a shaper OF western culture. He wasn’t destroying the foundation of it.

He participated in the TV fame. He participated in the commerce. He participated in the hero worship it afforded him. And in the end …he was as much an American citizen and western leader as Thomas Edison or Amelia Earhart. THAT is the genius of the west. Free will, talent and the following of ones own vision can lead to greatness. And that greatness is – and should be – celebrated. Not concealed and consolidated into the needs of the state or the directives of the tribe.

We are in the middle of a great de-construction in this country. So many want to ONLY talk about the bad things that have been done by the west and America. And as an artist, I am a social critic and always prepared to point out absurdity and hypocrisy. But without the western ethos and a protected way of life, those criticisms get squelched and silenced and guys like me get put in prison for being trouble makers.

And nobody gets to dream dreams of any kind …especially American ones.

R

I WAS AN AMERICAN …

I WAS AN AMERICAN …

I know what a lot of people think about me. That I am a mindless flag waver who yells “U.S.A …U.S.A!” during Olympic sporting events, cries during the national anthem, and wears hats that say “These Colors Don’t Run.” Well, I DO wear sleeveless shirts, drive a Mustang convertible and roll my eyes at man-buns and men who wear open toe sandals.

But other than that …nothing could be further from the truth.

The fact is I am a history nerd who is skeptical (bordering on cynical) about just about everything …including my own country. If you’re a born-and-raised American, at some point you need to de-construct your country’s founding and question everything you think you know about it. At the end of that road, you will be faced with two choices: you can decide on the Howard Zinn, colonialism-wrecked-a-peaceful-world, America-is-the-worst-thing-to-ever-happen-to-the-human-race version of things. OR you can put it all in certain historical context and decide that, aside from Jesus Christ, America is the most unique miracle to ever happen on planet earth …in the course of human events.

In my lifetime, I’ve gone back and forth between these two lines of thinking. But I have settled on the latter.

As a history nerd, of course I’m a fan of the show Turn: Washington Spies, on AMC. It follows the underground espionage that took place during the American revolution. And as I watch this show, I’m amazed all over again that this country ever got off the ground in the first place. The idea of it, in the face of the most powerful empire the world had ever seen, was actually mad. And if you focus on the less-than-above-board tactics used to give that little experiment an edge or the willingness of the colonials to kill everyone in their way, you can come to the conclusion that they were no better than ISIS or Al Queda fighters. They were just wearing weirder clothes.

But in every human conflict where people are being killed, you have to ask ONE question – the most salient question: what happens if THEY win? That will always reveal who the good guys and bad guys really are. You have to judge the players based on what would happen in their perfect outcome.

And although the Americans STARTED the American revolution (they weren’t just defending themselves) the outcome determined who was correct in the conflict. One side was loyal to the crown – the monarchy – rule by the privilege of birth. I’m absolutely certain there were very decent and good men on the British side. And they were raised to respect the crown and their country. They were fighting for what they believed were the right things. Honestly, I have no quarrel with their reasoning.

But the other side was fighting for self-governance. A new idea on the planet, that there was no hiarchy of privilege when it came to governing men and women. That people should govern themselves, out of their own ranks, with direct access to their government whenever they had grievance. I definitely like that. And striving for THAT outcome would’ve put me squarely on the side of the colonials.

The men who wrote the founding documents of America were essentially British subjects. And they left vestiges of the classism into which they’d been born in those documents. The experiment and story of America has been an epic journey to rid those documents of every semblance of those discriminatory tiers. This is the essence of the American Civil War. This is the essence of the suffrage movement and the civil rights movement. And more recently, this is the essence of the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, the Trump revolution and, believe it or not, the #resist movement.

In all these waves of belief is that nagging question: what is America going to be?

Well, America for me is the belief in a few things. But it essentially boils down to one thing …the value of the individual.

The old story of the little girl and the semi truck comes to mind. A semi truck driver mis calculated the height of his rig and got it wedged under a low bridge. Traffic was stopped for hours, while expert after expert tried to figure out how to get the truck released from beneath the bridge. Finally, a 9-year-old girl stepped forward and suggested they let the air out of the tires. And it worked.

Believe it or not, THAT is the essence of the American ethos: Anyone from anywhere can have the next big idea, solve the next big problem, or have the answer to the next big question. And that is why EVERY individual is important. That belief is a uniquely American idea that has caught on around the world. And I’m glad it has.

Our continual push and pull in this country is almost always somehow connected to that premise. Is the state the answer? Or are the private citizens the answer? Do people act well in their own interests? Or do they default to greed, envy and, ultimately, lawlessness? If ONE person aggrieved by a state decision, should it stand?

These questions keep getting asked of every generation. And they keep getting answered in various ways.

Personally, I remain an optimist. I remain an individualist. I remain someone who believes existentially that humans have no idea what their full potential really is. And if they truly buy into the American ideal (no matter where in the world they live) they will surprise themselves in ways that blow their own minds.

And that is America for me. The idea of it. The promise of it. The spirit of it. The grit of it. The refusal-to-give-up of it. The we-can-fix-this of it. The belief that life-is-good-and-worth-every-ounce-of-breath of it.

So, I’m including a song I wrote a few years ago in this post. The video was assembled by my good friend, Ed Nash. I don’t normally let my blogging and music collide. But I think it’s important for this particular time in our history. We are so divided as a nation. We are more divided than I’ve personally ever seen. But I believe we ultimately share the same values, even if we don’t know it.

Some people aren’t proud to call themselves Americans right now. Maybe they’re embarrassed by people we’ve elected or they question the wars we’ve fought or they find disdain in the culture we’ve created. Some even think we founded the entire experiment on original sin and we’re doomed to pay for it in ashes and rubble.

But no matter what the world calls it, no matter how it is couched, the idea of reaching farther and flying higher and striving greater is a real thing. The notion of one person being able to change the course of history is a real thing. The concept of every person having a voice and a free spirit is a real thing. And even if America goes away …those ideals will still survive somewhere, in someone. Right now, they survive in me.

So, remember when I’m gone …that I was an American.

 

R

 

 

WHY NO ONE CARES WHAT TRUMP TWEETS …

If you are in the media and think you’re in one of those zombie movies, where all the people you thought were your friends suddenly become glassy-eyed robots and start marching mindlessly toward you …well …you are.

I was raised on Walter Cronkite and “Goodnight Chet …Goodnight David.” And I’d never considered that any of those stodgy old newsmen, reading in monotone, had any political opinions on anything. But they did.

Then, the savior of the world showed up in one Barack Obama. And the press showed us all EXACTLY who they were. I saw several “journalists” crying tears of joy on the night of Mr Obama’s election. One anchor retorted, “this is the FINAL repudiation of the Reagan Revolution.” I found that telling …and a little disturbing. The election of Mr Obama seemed to be a signal to the press that they could finally – after all these years – put all their cards on the table. And so, they did.

When Mr Obama was asked, “what has enchanted you the most about the presidency,” I rolled my eyes so far back in my head I could see a memory from 1975. What was happening? I mean, got the historic nature of Mr Obama’s skin tone. But as he put forth policy after policy that just didn’t seem to work (but was continually given cover by the media) I mentally checked out more and more.

By the time of Mr Obama’s last year, I didn’t watch televised news anymore. I didn’t read any more newspapers. I had let my subscriptions to Time and Newsweek (and DEFINITELY Rolling Stone) lapse. Why? Because I was pretty sure I wasn’t getting the straight story anymore. And too many reporters had shown me their politics. And, more importantly, they had shown their disdain for people like ME.

News people, talk show hosts, comedians, actors and musicians need to realize something: when you criticize an elected official (or a single political party), you’re also criticizing the people who voted for them. You’re not just saying George W Bush is evil, you’re saying the people who voted for him are evil …by proxy. I admit I voted for Mr Bush (the second time). I felt like he was a good man trying to do his best in horrible circumstances. I still feel that way. But when Rosie O’Donnell called for him to be “tried at the Hague” for war crimes, on national TV, she wasn’t just calling for HIS prosecution …she was also calling for mine.

The people in the “fly over” states …GOOD people …had gotten so fed up with being told that just because they didn’t support government run healthcare, just because they would like to see taxes lowered, just because they would love to see the private sector give something a try before it becomes a trillion-dollar government boondoggle, just because they believed in border security, just because they’re not sure they are responsible for destroying the planet when they buy an SUV, just because they actually LOVE their country and want to see it succeed …that they are somehow, racist, homophobic, backward war-mongers who are killing children and grandmothers, taking food out of people’s mouths, and basically being the hands of the devil.

Well, sometimes, when you’re in a relationship with someone who constantly belittles you and cuts you off mid-sentence and marginalizes your concerns and calls you names and laughs at your choices and treats you like a lessor human being, you stop fighting back and just check out of the relationship. You smile and shake your head dutifully and stop listening to pretty much everything they have to say. Then, you stop caring what happens to them. You lose your empathy for their well-being, because you know in your heart they have absolutely no empathy for yours.

And one day an opportunity comes along. An opportunity to drive them mad while exposing who they are. And while you don’t think of yourself as a vengeful person, you are so cut off from them, you just seize the opportunity without emotion.

America’s opportunity of this kind was Donald J. Trump.

THOSE people …the one’s who’d been marginalized by David Letterman and Chris Rock and George Stephanopoulos and John Legend and Michael Moore and dozens of others, came out and secretly voted for Trump. They were tired of being the butt of every other joke on every late night show. They were tired of being called racists because they support the police. If I may put a fine point on it, they were tired of sending their tax money to people who called them “deplorables.”

So, when Trump insulted John McCain …they stood silent and said, “deal with it.” When he mocked a man with special needs, they stood back and again said, “deal with it.” When the Access Hollywood tapes came out, they gritted their teeth and again said, “we don’t care …deal with it.”

He was the new significant other no one wanted to take to a cocktail party or home for the holidays, but who listened and treated them like a real person. He didn’t dismiss their opinions. He embraced them.

Now, we’re watching a president of the United States tweet things at 2 in the morning that make him sound like a 14-year-old girl. But guess what? Nobody who voted for him cares. And all you coifed, made-up, well-spoken talking heads in the media are just gonna have to suck it up and deal with it for the next three and half years. Because all the people you thought were ignorant and devoid of public policy knowledge, just going to ball games and politely raising their kids and going to church on Sundays and being the salt of the earth, have been insulted by you for so many years, they’ve turned into those zombies you thought you knew …who are now coming to eat you (not literally. No one is coming to physically eat anyone. This is called a metaphor).

Guess what? You didn’t know them and you didn’t respect their point of view. And now they don’t care how much you wring your hands. They don’t care how serious your tone is on the evening news. They don’t care about anything you have to say. I believe they know that what Trump is doing is completely unseemly for a sitting U.S president. They know their liberal friends are going to torch them (and him) on social media. But they’ve been called so many names for so long (with total impunity), they’re impervious to it, now. They’re just standing there with terrifying little smiles on their faces while Trump goes hog wild after the next sacred cow.

It won’t matter what he tweets. It won’t matter who he insults. It won’t matter how weird it gets. They won’t care. Because he’s actually addressing their concerns and you pushed them too far away. And nothing short of him committing murder – ON VIDEO – will turn their opinion about him …or you. They hate YOU more than they care about his tweets.

They checked out. You helped them get there.

And you know what? Even though I’m not a fan of Mr Trump’s Twitter antics, as I sit here, LITERALLY breaking the law because I have no health insurance, while listening to people say my belief in repealing the ACA will KILL hundreds of thousands of people …and I watch that absolutely wild, unsubstantiated assertion NOT get challenged ANYWHERE in the media …I’m starting to get it.

R

GENERATION GAPS …

She’s my last remaining connection to the “Greatest Generation” and she lays dying in a hospital bed. She can barely hear me and doesn’t really respond when I talk to her. So, whatever conversations I was ever going to have with her …have been had.

My grandmother won’t survive the month. She’s 92. And once she’s gone, I won’t know anyone left who lived through the depression or World War II. People who lived through WWII never called it that. When you’re in the middle of something you don’t call it what pointy-headed history buffs label it in books, years later. My grandparents always just called it, “the war.” My son will never hear someone talk about it like that. He’ll never have a meaningful conversation with anyone who remembers it first hand. They’re all about gone.

As I watch my grandmother slip away, I think a lot about her generation. I’ve been binge watching every made-for-TV-mini-series and documentary I can find, lately. I’m missing something about the stability of having those folks around. I’m craving something about them I can’t quite put my finger on.

My mother and father’s generation went to the moon and invented rock and roll. And I love their generation for a lot of things, too. They soared higher, raced faster and reached farther than any generation before them. But let’s be honest …they can be a little unstable at times. And they are prone to wild swings in belief. They developed plastic – wrapped everything in it – then told us to stop using it or we’d kill the planet. They got free love …we got AIDS. They invented the credit card …and left us a pile of debt.

I suppose with great accomplishment comes a downside.

Our generation didn’t win a great war OR go to the moon. No, we took the most advanced technological achievements mankind has ever seen and used them to argue about politics, post cat videos, and send pictures of our penises to people. I’ve been wondering where it all went wrong. When did the adults leave the room?

Don’t get me wrong. I have some mixed feelings about the Greatest Generation. If you think about it globally, only about half of them were really great. The other half actually STARTED World War II. You wouldn’t really put old Japanese or German people in the same group as the American, British and French people we call “the greatest.” And that drags our politically correct, “safe-space” notions to the edge of our comfort zone. We don’t like the idea of “enemies” any more. But guess what? That was reality in the 1940s.

I’ve been examining what made that generation “great.” Was it it their toughness? Their ability to endure hardship? Their absolute refusal to give up? Their unmatched bravery? Honestly, I don’t believe it was any of those things. I know Iraq war vets who are as brave as anyone this country has ever produced. I sang at a soldier’s homecoming once, who had volunteered for NINE (that’s 9) tours in Iraq. On his ninth tour, both his legs got blown off by an IED. And when they found him he was still dragging himself toward his men to help them …without legs. That’s as brave and as tough as anything I’ve ever heard about, in any war, anywhere.

Lots of people have endured horrible things. But generationally, what was it that made these people special?

I was watching a documentary on WWII and something jumped out at me. In one of the South Pacific sea battles, there were over two hundred (200) American war ships engaged …in one single battle. I sat up in my chair and realized THAT was the answer. It was right there.

These days you wouldn’t be able to get two hundred PEOPLE to agree on anything, much less two hundred WAR SHIPS full of people. And yet there they were, in ONE battle, in ONE theater of war, among thousands of other battles, being fought in concert and striving toward the same goal. ONE voice. ONE purpose. ONE focus. That’s spectacular.

When my grandmother was born, women had only been allowed to vote for 5 years. We were 40 years away from the civil rights movement. Homosexuality was still considered (by the medical profession) to be a mental disorder. Slavery had only been abolished for 62 years. No one had yet flown from New York to Paris. And the possession of wine was illegal.

Yet the people of that time rose up in unison to defend an unfulfilled idea and a flawed republic. Why? Why would a Tuskegee airman go wheels up at sun up for a country that wouldn’t allow him to eat at the same lunch counter as his white counterpart? Why would a Navaho wind talker share his ancient secret with a nation that had defaulted on every treaty it had ever signed with his ancestors? How could a Japanese American solider become “gung ho” for a president who was imprisoning his relatives in an interment camp? How did these disparate, victimized groups get beyond their own grievances long enough to fight alongside their oppressors? Somehow, these people knew something about the promise of America that we seem to have forgotten.

Maybe they didn’t see America as an injustice that was DONE to them. Maybe they saw it, rather, as an idea they could affect by participation. Somehow, they ALL knew they were on the side of the good guys …even if the good guys were still pretty messed up.

To me, THAT’S the greatness of the greatest generation. Their ability to see the greater good and their willingness to fight for it.

There are a lot of things I love about now. I love that individuals are more free to be themselves than ever before. I love that everyone has a voice and a way to express it. But I do miss the idea of common experience and shared belief. Today, we can’t even agree that our president is duly elected. We can’t agree on common facts. We don’t even know if the news being read to us is true or made up. In that kind of environment, could we defeat a modern-day Hitler? We would first have to agree that WE aren’t him. Then we’d have to agree that he must actually be defeated. Then, we’d ALL have to take some part – some responsibility – in destroying him. I fear public sentiment would turn against the struggle and moral equivalence would crowd out reason before the job could get done. Maybe even before it could get underway.

When my grandmother dies, a lot of memories and ideas and beliefs and ways of doing things will die with her. And maybe some of them should. But I’m gonna miss people who got dressed up for church. I’m gonna miss people who didn’t feel the need to constantly tell and show the world every single thing they were thinking or feeling …or eating. I miss the idea of lifetime commitment. I miss dignity. I miss grace. I miss humility. I miss understatement. I even (in a weird way) miss consequences. I love undo buttons. But life sure got taken a lot more seriously before they were there.

My grandmother has travelled a long, wonderful journey. And while I will grieve her passing, I know it’s time. She has lived well and she will die well, surrounded by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, probably in her sleep …peacefully.

I will miss her. But I think I will miss her generation, and the example they set, just as much.

R

KOOL AID AND COOKIES …

“I’m in your garage,” is the last text I have from him. I keep reading it over and over. There’s something surreal about an active text thread from someone who is no longer alive. But I keep reading it. And I can hear him say it in my mind.

Greg was in my garage, standing at my office door, waiting to have a meeting with my friend, Tim Akers. Tim is one of the best musicians in the world and heads a band called the Smoking Section …full of several other of the best musicians in the world. Their shows are legendary in Nashville. And A-list artists love to sit in with them.

When you see a Smoking Section show you never know when Michael McDonald or Vince Gill or someone like that is just going to show up. It’s one of the coolest perks of living in this town. Tim just happens to be one of my best friends and I was connecting him with another of my best friends for a very strange meeting.

Greg Murtha lived three doors down from me for several years. And he (along with the rest of the neighborhood) watched us turn an old ranch house (that hadn’t been touched since it was built in 1973) into a custom home for a child with special needs. He didn’t know that’s what we were doing in there. But he was the ONLY neighbor who would constantly stop and comment on our progress.

“Reg, it’s looking great, man!” he yelled from his car one day. And I was a bit taken aback because I wasn’t sure how he knew my name. His son Jackson would come over and ask if my daughter could come out to play, when they were small. There was no easy way to explain to him why she couldn’t. And we always felt for little Jackson. He so wanted to play with her. But through the sheer will of continually knocking on our door, the entire Murtha family became our friends.

When my book came out, Greg insisted on reading it as soon as possible. And after he read it, he insisted on barging further and further into my life …and I’m so thankful he did. We became very close. He told me once why my book impacted him so much. He said, “Reg, I think some of us in the neighborhood used to think you guys were just anti-social people who were over protective of your daughter. After reading your book, I realized that what was ACTUALLY happening in that house was completely the opposite of my perception. You guys were going through hell in there. And I was within walking distance …not knowing it.”

For the next several years, Greg would occasionally order an entire box of books from me and hand them out to people randomly. His big takeaway was that you can be standing (or living) right next to someone and have no idea of what they’re going through. He wanted people to think about that.

If Greg Murtha got a single epiphany from my story, I got MANY from his life. Greg went on to sit on the board of directors of my foundation, Angel Wings. And in every board meeting or planning session, he was the one challenging us to think bigger. He was always asking the important questions. And he was genuinely curious about the answers.

I heard him say on more than one occasion, “when and if we talk to the president about this …” and I would interrupt and say, “the president of what, Greg?” His answer? “The president of the United States. Is this important or not?” That attitude made me re-think pretty much everything I do.

Greg travelled the world and worked for organizations that made a difference in people’s lives. I think we all aggregate our own personalities with the personalities of others. In my own case, I have consciously added a lot of Greg Murtha into my interaction with people. To Greg, no one was unimportant. No one’s story was boring. No moment was insignificant. Everything mattered and every action was a supreme opportunity to show love to someone or to speak it into a situation.

And so …the meeting in my office.

Greg wanted to meet Tim Akers and hire the Smoking Section to play at his memorial service. He told us the story of a funeral he’d recently attended where the deceased had been an amazing woman. She’d connected people all over the world and spoken love into people’s lives. And at the reception, after the service, they were serving Kool Aid and cookies and playing very somber music.

In Greg’s own words, “that really pissed me off.” His thought was that her service should have been a huge celebration of a life well-lived. He couldn’t get his extraordinary mind around allowing a person of that much significance to be laid to rest in such somber tones.

So Greg spent the last few months of his life planning his own memorial celebration. And he said he wanted the “best band in Nashville” to play it. He didn’t want anyone wearing black or having to endure “horrible organ music” (again …his words). He wanted a lot of people who didn’t know each other, to show up and meet and drink great wine, eat great food, and dance to great grooves.

We sat in my office and made the plans. And as awkward as it started (for US …it was NEVER awkward for Greg), it ended with smiles and hugs. And after he left, Tim and I talked about what a great idea it was to have this kind of a celebration.

Greg fought through 75 rounds of chemo until his body was simply unable to walk another step. And when my wife kissed him on the head to say goodbye, last night, he was still trying to open his eyes and tell us all something. We left the hospital …and Greg was gone two hours later.

I’ve cried a lot. I’m sure I will cry more. But what I learned from Greg outweighs the sadness. Every time I hear someone say something about their life that they think is a minor detail, I say, “tell me more about that.” I learned that from Greg. I wouldn’t have come up with that on my own. When I hear and see people writhing in anger over religion or politics or something they perceive to be injustice, I try to take a step back and ask more questions, instead of meeting them head on with more anger. God knows I learned that from Greg …and I’m still learning it.

I’m learning that the best life is one of service …NOT ambition and self-focus. And I learned a lot of that from Greg as well.

I don’t know how Greg knew all of this life wisdom at such a young age. But he will be indelibly marked in my heart and on my life. His easy smile and eagerness to serve people is something I will miss. But his inability to end a conversation without telling “just ONE more story, and I’ll let you go” is what I will miss the most. Whenever I hear someone say “last but not least,” I’ll think of Greg …and smile.

People from all over the world, from all walks of life, will be at Greg’s memorial celebration. And I don’t know exactly where he’ll be. Some people hope the loved one is looking down. I tend to hope they have moved on to something so dazzling they wouldn’t WANT to look down.

Either way, Greg, at YOUR celebration …there will be NO Kool Aid and cookies.

R

OH, JUST ONE MORE THING …

I loved the fact that he never drew his weapon or got flustered or had to run anywhere. I was transfixed by how this unlikely genius was always underestimated, never seen as credible, and always dismissed as a fool. No one ever saw him coming. But HE was the one asking the nagging question. HE was the one approaching it all without passion or prejudice. And when it was all said and done, HE was always the one besting the so-called “great master mind.”

I loved Columbo. I still do.

I actually carried a lot of the lessons I learned watching Columbo into my adult (and even professional) life. The first lesson I learned was, don’t judge anyone based on what they look like or sound like. Brilliance AND ignorance comes in all shapes, colors and sizes. The second thing I learned was, trust that little voice telling you, “something here isn’t right.” I listen to that voice even now when I’m writing or producing or performing.

The last thing I learned was, ask the stupid question. Seriously …ask it.

I’ve been in a lot of meetings where I raise my hand and ask something that everyone snickers at …at first. Then, when the thing is cleared up, people will come to me and say things like, “thank you for asking that. I thought I was the only one who didn’t get it.”

Now that I’m older, I care even less what people think of me. That makes me even less afraid to ask the glaring, I’m sure-we-covered-all-this-already-but-bear-with-me question. I learned all of this from Columbo.

Columbo would ask the “8-year-old” question while everyone else was off in the weeds, building grandiose theories. He solved a case once based on the way a right-handed person ties their shoes. Once, he cracked the code based on someone’s love of country music over classical. I love how Columbo thinks. And I find myself thinking that way, often.

My wife and I sat down to watch some of the Comey hearings, last week. All of this seems like such a mess. I just wanted to get some sort of a handle on it. As I understand it, we are being told that the Russian government hacked into the DNC email servers and then released DNC emails to Wikileaks. Then Wikileaks made them public. Then people (voters) saw the private emails. Then they decided who to vote for based on that. And that was how the Russians tampered with the election.

Am I right so far?

And there’s this theory that Donald Trump may have asked the Russians to do this or conspired with them in some way to make it happen. Am I correct on this? I think I am.

And so far there’s no real evidence in any direction that supports much of anything other than the Russians tried to mess with our election. And we know they try to do this all the time. Okay. I think I’m up to speed.

The first question I heard asked of Mr Comey was whether the FBI has actually seen the DNC servers. His answer was “no.” After that answer, I stopped the DVR and looked at my wife. “I don’t need to see anything else,” I told her. “Everything AFTER that answer seems like speculation to me.”

Maybe I’m missing something simple. But if the FBI hasn’t actually EXAMINED the servers in question, how can they know who the hackers were? In fact, how do they know it even WAS a hack? Could it have been a leak? Our own CIA has talked about how they can put anyone’s “fingerprints” on something cyber to make one party look like someone else (a fact that freaking terrifies me). It just seems like someone isn’t dwelling on the most obvious question of all: WAS there actually a hack?

Look, I am agnostic when it comes to Donald Trump. I was the FIRST blogger to assert publicly that I think the man might have some form of Autism. I blasted him again publicly when he made fun of the man with the disability.

I only came to his defense when people started comparing him to Hitler. And I did that mainly because of the abject disrespect that comparison shows to human beings who actually survived the REAL Hitler.

As far as I know, Donald Trump picked up his golden phone, called his friend Vladamir and they conspired to take down Hillary Clinton together. That might actually be true. I have no idea. And if it IS true then Mr Trump should be punished in whatever way you punish people who do that sort of thing (I honestly don’t know what the punishment is).

But is it just me, or shouldn’t the FBI subpoena the servers in question? If some sort of charges were to be filed, from what source would they bring EVIDENCE without the actual servers? Am I the only one thinking this? Surely I’m not.

To my mind, all the noise beyond this crucial piece of the puzzle, is just that …political noise.

I don’t love or hate any of the players involved in these theatrics. But I am raising my cigar to my forehead. I am furrowing my brow. I am folding my arms with a puzzled look on my face. And with a thick, Queens accent I’m saying, “so, just for my own personal notes, sir. Pardon me. I’m a little slow sometimes.” And I’m patting my pockets. “Please bear with me here. I know I’ve got my notes somewhere. Just a second sir. Oh yes …here they are.”

I’m dialing through a tiny note pad, my lazy eye wandering, and examining recipes and random phone numbers and then …yes there it is …

“You’re saying that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is simply taking the word of a third party …a privately funded firm …that the people who HIRED them were hacked by the Russians? That’s your statement, sir?”

Apparently, the straight-faced answer to that question is …yes.

All I know is, where is Columbo when you need him?

 

R

THE HELPERS …

I’m about to begin a string of summer house concerts. I’ve gotten to a place in my life where I’m not all that excited about anything on either side of the show itself. Traveling isn’t the adventure it used to be. Hanging out after a show is getting more and more difficult. I usually just want to go to bed …and sleep.

Over the last few years I’ve gone through a metamorphosis in how approach my entire career. From writing to producing to performing, I find myself in a servant’s frame of mind more than anything.

A few weeks ago I played the Nashville Unplugged show, in Vegas, with my Ghost Town Troubadour comrades and Rita Wilson. Before the show, Travis Howard and I had a conversation about greatness. Great songs. Great lyrics. Great artists. The conversation was honestly awkward for me because I suppose I haven’t thought about that subject in some time. And as I age, I almost feel like a “musical monk” of sorts. I don’t know any other way to explain it. The veneer of accolades and applause and the ability to “wow” a group of people doesn’t hold the same attraction that it once did.

That particular night went something like this:

Although I’ve never been nervous on stage, RIGHT before my first note I think to myself, “they’re going to hate me.” So I play a little harder and sing a little louder. I’m just trying to catch everyone off guard long enough to get through the first song and get my confidence together.

By ten minutes into the set I start the inner dialogue: “What have I been doing my whole life? I should have become an investment banker. What is it I’m doing up here that these people like? DO they like it? Why do people seem to need this? DO they need it? Are they just being nice? They’re just being nice. I should’ve taken lessons. They can’t see what a musical fraud I am. There’s a thing I want to do with my left hand that I haven’t practiced. Crap. Did they hear that wrong note? That girl in the back looks lonely. I’m gonna sing to her. Oh …she isn’t lonely. She was just waiting on her drink and her date. Never mind. The woman to my left is crying. I wonder why. Play to the back of the room. Breathe. Someone on stage just made a comment I can make funny …find the funny. Make them laugh. You need a laugh right here. I suck. I’m awesome. I’m sure I look weird on this note. Can’t help it. This note is hard to hit …focus. I’m quitting tomorrow and getting a real job. I’m never quitting.”

These are the thoughts constantly running through my mind during a show. And I’ve been doing this for decades. I’m sure similar thoughts are running through the head of anyone, on any stage, at any given time.

Because that’s what performing is. And even if you’re famous, the act of performing is courageous every time you do it. You’re leading people somewhere. YOU are in charge of what they are thinking. YOU are taking them into rooms and corridors and spaces of YOUR choosing. And that forces the art of performance into a place of responsibility.

I left that particular night feeling a little depressed. Before the show, a man came up to me and asked me to do one of my CCM songs from twenty years ago. I didn’t do it …but I should have. I don’t even know if I would have even remembered all the words …or ANY of the words. It probably wouldn’t have played well in a club in Vegas. But I should’ve done it for him just the same. And it bothers me that I didn’t …even now.

Because at the end of every show – after I’ve done battle with myself in my head and heart for two hours – I find myself asking, “did I help these people?” I don’t know if other performers think that but it has become my standing question as it pertains to art. Have I helped?

When people tell me they are listening to my music or reading a blog or enjoying something I’ve created, my default question is always, “has it helped you?” I don’t know why I’ve settled on that question. But it seems to be appropriate.

Trends die. Styles change. Crazes evolve. And I find myself less and less interested in popularity and more and more interested in connection. Was I honest? Could you relate? Did it move you?

Art makes us think and cry and laugh and pray and dance and fight and love. Movies and music and literature and art are all here to move us forward and …well …help. If we do our art well, we help. And that seems to be what I aspire to more and more.

I want you to leave my show thinking to yourself, “I feel more love than I did when I came here. I feel some release and connection to something bigger. He helped me think about something I’ve needed to think about. He helped me laugh at something I didn’t realize was funny. He helped me cry about something I’ve been needing to address. It helped.”

I’m looking forward to the upcoming series of house concerts on the “Pass The Hat” tour. I’ll be posting where the shows will be and maybe I’ll see you at one of them. And if I do, I hope it helps you in some way.

I’m an artist.

And artists are the helpers.

 

R

WHY I LOVE KATHY GRIFFIN …

Scorsese knew it thirty years ago. And he used it.

I wasn’t planning on seeing The Last Temptation Of Christ. But then the protests started. And they led the evening news. And my interest honestly got piqued. There was so much hubbub (I think that’s an actual, technical term) surrounding the film, I simply HAD to see what it was all about. And if Christians were this up in arms about something …well, then …there must be something about it worth seeing.

Sorry, Christians …we tend to bring it on ourselves.

Then, after seeing the film, I realized if everyone had just been cool and let it go, not only would I not have seen it, but millions of other people wouldn’t have seen it either. And it would’ve died a quiet death at the box office. It just wasn’t one of Martin’s greatest offerings.

But people (particularly religious folk) can’t let things go. We always feel the need to stand up and fight for our side. But all it does, in the long run, is add oxygen to smoldering flames.

I literally JUST read a meme that has offered a reward for Kathy Griffin’s head. And I’m just shaking mine in disgust. THIS is how she becomes a sympathetic character. THIS is how she ends up being re-embraced by the entertainment community. We’re already seeing it happen. Comedians are coming to her defense. And as anger and hatred rise up against her, she will become what she says she is …a victim.

My opinion is, the best response to all of this might be to simply offer our prayers and love. Smile and say “I understand.” The best tweet Donald Trump could send right now is one that reads, “Our entire family forgives Kathy Griffin for her misguided photo and we accept her apology.”

If he did that …the story would be over. If WE stopped posting angry things about her and simply yawned and moved on …the story would be over.

But better yet, what if Christians (the people she has impugned the most) embraced her and showered her with love, asking for nothing in return? What might that look like? And what if we did it without being smug or trying to appear morally superior?

What if we actually said, “Kathy, we love you …no matter what. That’s all.”

I don’t know …that just sounds like something Jesus might do.

But as it stands, people are doing what they always do …overreaching. Even while being on the correct side of an argument, you can be wrong in your response. And it creates a moral high ground for the other side.

My only tweet about Kathy Griffin was a prediction that she would be a presenter at a major award show next year and that she would come out to a standing ovation. And I’ve had several detractors to that tweet. “How on earth can that happen? She’s done. She’s finished. She will not recover from this!” are some favorite retorts.

But I stand by my tweet. Because I remember those Last Temptation protests. And I know all to well how giving in to your anger and disgust can fan flames.

The way someone recovers from something like this is by being threatened over and over again. The way they become a “truth teller” is when what they say is happening to them …starts actually happening to them.

Well, I would like to be the first to say that I pray for Kathy Griffin. I said it in my first blog and I reiterate it in this one. I really did pray for her today. And I want good things for her. In fact, I prayed for better things for her than I want for myself. I don’t want her to suffer because of a mistake. God knows I’ve made plenty of them. And there are many more to come. Trust me.

I may choose not to watch her but that doesn’t mean I want her to starve or go without. To the contrary …I wish her great blessing. I hope that through all of this, she finds redemptive love and true forgiveness instead of hate and retribution.

And I hope that if (and when) I do something incredibly ill-advised, I find someone out there who will still love and forgive me as well. I promise you I will do it …and I will need it.

This is where Jesus gets real. And, ironically, it was the whole point of the Last Temptation. The “temptation” was to give in to his humanity and act on his baser instincts instead of forgiving all of us.

I’m glad he didn’t do that. Because it’s the only thing that keeps me hanging on.

So I’m trying to follow suit.

Kathy …I love you no matter what. That’s all.

 

R

FAME ART …

The Chinese children were a stark contrast to American children. Every time I pointed a camera at them, they scattered. No one mugged for the lens or flashed a precocious smile or did a silly dance. These children were not oriented toward performance. And as an American, steeped in the notion that being famous is all that matters, I found that odd.

But the last government official we had to see to officially adopt our daughter, couldn’t stop staring at her. Finally, she asked (through the translator) what plans we had for our daughter’s education and future profession. We assured her our daughter would be allowed to soar as high as her wings would carry her. But that’s not what the lady was driving at. She went on to explain that given my profession and my daughter’s uncommon beauty (which is a real thing to this day), maybe I could help her become someone like Brittany Spears.

I stared back coldly. I directed a question toward the translator: “Is the Chinese government really asking me to turn my daughter into Brittany Spears?”

The young translator conversed in Mandarin with the official lady. Then, they both said (in unison) with huge smiles, “YES!”

Even on the other side of the world, the most crass parts of western culture had taken root. I felt a little sorry for the future of those children who would eventually come to know the unspoken pressures of performance. And for the first time in my life, I felt a little sick about what I did for a living.

Now, almost fifteen years later, fame and notoriety has become its own industry. I had a meeting recently with a pod cast producer. A lot of people have asked me to start one. So, I listened to the details of all the things I need to do to “push my brand.” And I suppose I do need to do all those things. Selling myself has always been my weak suit. But in today’s culture the selling is becoming more important than the product. As long as I get your eye balls or ear drums it almost doesn’t matter what I put in them.

And it doesn’t matter if you love me or hate me …as long as you’re thinking about me. THAT is the nature of fame art. And it rules the day.

We elected a president who understands fame art like no one else. His outlandish statements and brash claims kept him in the news cycle when everyone else was spending millions of dollars to get a sliver of attention. And although I don’t believe that alone is why he was elected, I DO believe his ability to “stay on your mind” – for better or worse – probably captured voters no one else could’ve captured.

Enter Kathy Griffin …

Her internet-crashing picture was so disturbing I made my son turn his head away when it came on the news. And then as I watched the “outrage” begin, I shook my head and thought to myself, “why hasn’t someone thought of this before now?” Because the content ITSELF isn’t what is going to be remembered here. Kathy Griffin is going to be remembered.

Sure, she lost a gig at CNN and a lot of people are denouncing her. But just watch and wait. See how this plays out.

I don’t know if what she did was calculated or misguided. I don’t know if she fully comprehended what the reaction would be or if she knew EXACTLY what she was doing. But what I DO know is there are people who know her name now, who would’ve lived their entire lives and died without EVER having a clue Kathy Griffin ever existed. And that may be the point.

I’ve always felt a little sorry for Kathy. She is actually a very funny person who has some severe self-image issues. And that translates into a deep need to be seen and heard. The entertainment world is overflowing with people like that. I’ve whispered prayers for her in the past. I do still. And in a strange way, I don’t even completely blame her for this. I kinda blame US. And even as I blame “US” …I’M WRITING ABOUT IT! UGH!

Because now, as she files a lawsuit against a sitting president, she is guaranteed more of the attention she so desperately craves. And make no mistake, there will be experts brought to bear who might make a pretty cogent argument on her behalf. PTSD and variations thereof will no doubt be called into the equation. And it will lead the evening news. And even as people line up to virtually spit on her in cyberspace, her twitter footprint will grow. And her social media shares will grow. And her presence in the world will expand. And her first ability – that wonderful gift of being able to make people laugh – will no longer matter all that much. It will be secondary and inconsequential. And THAT part is what makes me the saddest these days.

We’ve finally gotten to the place where what you do isn’t as important as how many people watch you do it.

R