My dad and my brother played guitar, but I didn’t start playing until I was a senior at Millsaps, when I was doing an honors thesis that was driving me crazy. I was a huge music fan, but I’d never played anything. I was also writing things like any silly English major in college taking creative writing classes. I’d always liked music as much as or more than I did literature, and songs are easier to write than novels.
I grew up in Mobile, where my oldest and best friend, Will Kimbrough was a professional player, an original song-writing guy from the age of 16 on, an unbelievable record freak. And he was touring! He was our conduit for stuff like The Clash and The Jam; not as much punk as sort of punkish rock-and-roll. Not that I’d call The Clash punk; to me they’re the greatest rock-and-roll band ever. We were lucky there because one guy could change the field.
I’d been in a punk band in Mobile, “Joe Strange”, and I wrote songs then. We weren’t bad; we were okay. But I started playing on stage again when I was in school in Oxford. Law school was so boring, and I was around people who were so incredibly different from me. I was seven years older than most of them, for one thing, and they were all a bunch of Republican yuppies, who with a few exceptions just bored the shit out of me. So I hung out with the quirkier people in Oxford, and I think I wound up there for a reason.
I started writing songs because I knew I was never going to be a hot-shot guitar player; I couldn’t play “Stairway to Heaven”. I knew I was never going to be in a band because I was a great this or that, and I wasn’t going to be just another white dude playing in a blues band, I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to play “Mustang Sally”. I didn’t want to be hustling money for playing stuff that I had no business playing, so I didn’t, and for better or worse, this is what I started doing.
When I turned 30 my good friend Eileen Wallace sent me a book she made: she’d made everything, the binding, the paper, the cover. I started writing things in that, and I’ve never stopped. And I’ll tell you, the voice memo function on an iPhone has changed the way I write songs. Now if I’m doing something else, something boring, just driving, or maybe watching a game, I can hit the voice memo, and mumble some stuff, and keep it to work on later. It helps. You know how this is as a writer; it comes, and you only catch a tiny portion of it in the net. My favorite songwriter, Richard Thompson, carries a notebook with him everywhere. It just ups the odds of not losing something important.
When I’m writing songs just for me, as opposed as to for a band or someone else, I always tell myself they have to be okay just to play on an acoustic in front of people. Maybe that’s folk music; I don’t know. If they work like that, it’s okay because a lot of the time when I’m playing, it’s solo. I like to perform; it’s thrilling to play solo, but it’s kind of scary. I mean, it’s just you out there on the tightrope. It’s easier for me to play in front of 100 people I’ve never met than in front of 10 people I know. Denny Burkes is the best musician I know, so if I’m playing in front of Denny, it’s different. It’s like reading some of your stuff at a writer’s workshop instead of reading to a bunch of students. But I like it.
I can’t sing too great, I’m an okay guitar player; nobody’s going to ask me to be a singer in their band. The reason I play and sing is so that I can do my songs. I think once you find the way you get stuff out, if you find it, whether it’s building model planes or whatever, you’re lucky. I’m lucky in that I can write for myself; I don’t have to please anybody else. I don’t have a record executive breathing down my neck, so I can write whatever I want whenever I want. I think music is moving more away from a business and more into an avocation because anyone can make a record now, and hardly anyone can make any money because it’s all free. In a weird way, it’s going back to what it was like for people in the early 20th century when on Saturday nights people played music and traded songs just for the art, for the fun of it. That’s why I do it; I’ve made hundreds of dollars!
I’ve put out two albums. Neilson Hubbard produced the first two; Will Kimbrough will produce the next one. When I get into conversations over what I’m going to do, I always have people who’ll tell me, ‘Well, you need to market yourself; you need to do this, you need to do that …’ and I keep thinking, ‘Okay, why? So I can do what?’ Right now it makes me incredibly happy that I have people covering my songs; I can’t get a bigger compliment. I’ve gotten weird reviews from places like Holland and Belgium, but I think most of that is people see you’re from Mississippi, and they’re like ‘Yeah, yeah, Mississippi!’
I have some songs I’ve been working on for years. “Her Grief is a Man” came easily, out of a difficult situation. Some songs are from personal experience, some are just flat-out, straight-up fiction. I don’t know how that happens. I’ll be on a run, say, and the cadence of the run determines the meter of the song; it just starts. A lot of them start on the guitar. Inspiration is fleeting, but you can up the odds by picking up the guitar and playing one every now and then. You’ve got to work a little bit. If someone covers one of my songs and sends me a bunch of money, great; I’ve had some calls about songs being placed on television, and that hasn’t happened yet, but if it does, it’s great. I do want to make records, and it’s driving me crazy that I’ve not put one out in five years. I love “Leaves of Tennessee” and I have a few more I like very much in this batch. By my standards, it’s going to be a very good record, but it costs money and takes time, and I’ve had things to happen in my life which have made finding the money and time to make a record a relatively low priority.
My daughter, who is the best critic I have. She’ll come in, and I’ll be playing something, and she’ll ask, ‘Is that yours?’ ‘Yes,’ I’ll say, and usually she’ll go something like, ‘Meh,’ but the other day, I’ve got a new one that I just finished, and I heard her humming the chorus. And that’s when you know that it’s a hit; a hit is a hit, whether it hits your house or hits the world. People respond to a good song. What I think is my best stuff, some people don’t. There’s a song of mine called “Levee” that I thought was pretty good; I was trying to write something different, a two-step, and I’ve heard a lot of people tell me that’s the best thing I’ve ever written.
What I hope that means is that the more I write, the higher the bar is raised and that my weaker songs in the next batch will be better on average. And that’s a great thing.