Chris Gage and I have been together for 23 years. The first decade or so we were joined at the hip, 24/7. Before we lived together, we rented apartments 2 doors apart – #106 and #108. We were on stages, in studios, writing songs, learning songs, on airplanes, in vans, hotels, across the US and overseas; we sat in front of the computer taking care of contracts, accounting, building websites, raised our kids, bought a house, remodeled it, moved in, started a home-based record label and studio, moved the studio out of the house and remodeled that building…all together, all the time, partners in everything. We were in love and merging our hearts and lives, deeply and completely.
Life has changed. The love is still alive and well but over the years we discovered parts of ourselves that were unique and distinct from the partnership. In several reviews of our music, the phrase “greater than the sum of their parts” was used. I agree and get where they’re coming from. I’ve learned that the deeper and more authentic each part is – the greater the sum will be. In music, it is not only about the notes, lyrics, vocal technique or instrumental prowess. Who you are as a person, what is in your heart, your spiritual center, your physical strength, intellect, confidence, curiosity – all of these create the vehicle that carries the music. Chris and I were each called to shift our focus in order to nurture those qualities in ourselves.
Chris spent decades on the road, stuffed into a van or tour bus with a tribe of mostly men, stacked into bunks or sharing double rooms while his wife and children were at home. He was raised in South Dakota where the prairie meets the sky in one endless and infinite expanse of space. With only 200,000 people living in 77,000 square miles, space and solitude are part of his DNA. Being alone in a recording studio, laying down tracks with a multitude of instruments to choose from – guitar, accordion, piano, Hammond B-3 organ, mandolin, Dobro – is his idea of heaven. (Granted, now there is a long-haired Chiweenie waiting in the kitchen for a walk, treat or some snuggle time, but Sito is a welcome motivator to extract him from the console and balance his studio tan with some sunlight.) He was ready for and is more and more grateful for blocks of time to devote to studio clients, to help them bring their musical vision to life.
Over the years he had also mastered the art of the “sideman”, touring with Roy Clark, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock and others – able to provide a rock solid foundation for an artist to dance upon, to know that when they hit the stage they can follow the inspiration wherever it leads and Chris will be ready to kick off the next song, play a blazing solo and guide the band back to home base if they’re chasing some foul ball. When he was offered the gig to play lead guitar with Jerry Jeff Walker, we knew that it was the perfect match. Chris could use all those great musical chops, support an artist he had admired and been influenced by for decades, jump on board for a very reasonable touring schedule that easily blended with our calendar, and contribute to our financial bottom line without me having to handle the details - booking, tour logistics, CDs, paying the band, etc. Jerry Jeff and Susan have become very dear to us and Chris being part of their team has been well worth the “sacrifice” of playing fewer Albert and Gage shows.
While all of this was going on, I was being pulled in a philanthropic direction. My son graduated from high school and after years of focusing my energy and my time on him, Chris, and creating our new life, I wanted to connect with our community and with an idea I had been dancing around since 1992.
That year, I had played a private concert at the home of a 40-year old man who was dying of a brain aneurysm and had been a fan of my music for several years. His wife asked me to play for him at home, since they could no longer come out to our shows. I took two of my band members (Mitch Watkins and Paul Glasse) and the concept for what would become Swan Songs was born. Playing for a gathering of his friends, family and colleagues brought to life for me how important music is – even in death.
I didn’t file the paperwork to create a 501c3 until 2005, but since then Swan Songs has grown into a thriving non-profit that fulfills musical last wishes, bringing whatever musical genre the recipient requests to the care facility, home or hospice to connect them one more time with the music that is the essence of who they are.
After many years as a volunteer, managing Swan Songs has now turned into my day job. In January 2016 I began working for Swan Songs officially, and we now have an office and a small but mighty staff. Together we facilitate over 250 requests a year and with an engaged board of directors manage the finances, logistics, governance, outreach and fundraising efforts necessary to compensate the professional musicians we engage to fulfill the requests and to sustain a healthy organization.
Another major “diversion” from my partnership with Chris was my decision in 2005 (the same year we incorporated Swan Songs) to run for the local board of the Texas Chapter of the Recording Academy® (the national membership organization that votes on and presents the GRAMMY Awards®.) I won that election, which eventually led to being elected to serve on the national Board of Trustees, as Trustee, Vice Chair, Chair and currently Chair Emeritus. These last 12 years were a master class in non-profit governance and management which informed and inspired how I approached the development of Swan Songs. What this meant in our personal life, however, is that time after time I was getting on a plane to fly to LA for meetings, or to one of 12 chapters across the country, or jumping on a phone meeting while Chris cooked dinner (he is the chef in the family no question), or saying no to gigs because of a previous commitment.
This takes time – time away from Chris Gage. We are no longer joined at the hip, 24/7. Far from it.
I have always found great joy in making music with Chris. From the minute we started singing together, there was an ease and “rightness” about the way our voices fit and how easy it was to find my harmony part. We share a desire to travel all over the musical map in our shows – from French, to country, to boogie-woogie, to blues and Chris’s stunning musicianship allows us to do that with grace and authenticity.
These days I appreciate performing with him even more. My brain is immersed in so much non-profit business during the day that I crave that “in the moment” inspiration and exchange of energy with an audience that happens at a live show. When we’re on stage we are no longer flying past each other, leaving notes on the kitchen counter with reminders of tasks and what deadlines we need to stay on top of. We are present and back in that place where we read each other’s minds, riding the wave of the night’s magic (or lack of it, sometimes!) We find that as a duo, when we’re the only ones on stage, it is more intimate and as if the audience is along for the ride on a long overdue date. We tend to tease each other and reveal more of our true selves, inside jokes and relationship dynamics. We truly have fun when we play music and we cherish it more than ever.
Even the ride to an out of town gig is a chance to catch up, talk about the future and our vision for this last third of our lives (if we’re lucky). We get out of the details and become more reflective as the miles pass. Although we no longer take on extensive touring, a couple of nights in a hotel on the road give us a break from the avalanche of commitments that make up our daily lives these days. We grab quality time wherever we find it.
Although we each host weekly residencies in Austin and play regular gigs with our full band, our acoustic, duo concert shows are usually in other cities. Playing Austin Acoustical Café on March 9 will be a chance to not only share our music, but Chris and Christine get a date night!
Thank you to The City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department and The Live Music Capital Foundation for making it possible. See you there.
February 6, 2019