"It Can Be a Hard Life. But It's Worth It."
“It’s difficult. It can be a hard life. But it’s worth it.”
Walt Wilkins and I were sitting in metal folding chairs in the shade of Kevin Welch’s songwriting barn on one of those hot, thirsty October days that only happen in Texas. We’d met a couple of days earlier as part of a songwriting retreat that Kevin put together. Walt liked a song of mine, “Watchman”, and we found that we enjoyed each other’s company. I told him that I was contemplating stepping away from my successful career as a lawyer in Boston and pursuing songwriting. Walt thought it was nuts but that I was good enough. He gave me some instructions.
“You have to play a lot. Find every open mic you can and play five, six, seven nights a week. Buy your own mic. Get your own PA. Then you can play house concerts.” And he said it again: “But it’s hard, man. It can be a hard life.”
* * *
A few months after that I was sitting with Walt and my wife at Maudie’s on Lamar eating tacos before his regular Wednesday night Saxon Pub show. We’d get interrupted every few minutes with folks walking up to our table and telling Walt that a certain song of his meant a lot to them. His graciousness was almost other-worldly; he made these folks feel like he was the lucky one because he got to meet them.
My wife and I were in Austin looking for a house. Walt asked my wife what she thought of all of this. She said she thought it was great, that it was what I was meant to be doing.
“I agree,” Walt said. “But it can be a hard life.”
* * *
Moving to Austin in the middle of the summer is crazy, but that’s what we did in July 2016. Our realtor met us – me, my wife, and our two daughters – at the new house. He gave us a branded beach towel as a housewarming gift. We put on our bathing suits, took the towel, and went to Barton Springs Pool. It was a kind of baptism.
I started getting gigs pretty much right away when we got here. I was lucky. And I had a handful of songs and wasn’t sure what to do with them. I emailed Walt now and then to check in and he’d write back.
I met him up at Jumping Dog Studio one October afternoon to talk about the producers I’d been talking to and see who he’d maybe recommend to help me make a record, my first. We talked about some names. How it happened I’m not sure but it became clear there was a gap in his schedule and he’d be willing to produce the thing.
“Having you produce this would be a dream come true,” I told him.
“Good. I thought I was out of the running.”
* * *
We put together the first record over six weeks in January and February of 2017. Walt and his partner in crime, Ron Flynt, were so patient with me. I had no idea what I was doing. Listening back to that record now I cringe a little bit at the sound of my singing but marvel at the beauty of what Walt built around it. And that he somehow managed to build that beautiful thing and keep the songs front and center.
That record opened some doors for me. And I kept writing. But by the end of 2017 I was feeling beat down for a whole host of reasons. Walt came by the house and sat on the couch with me. It was late in the afternoon. I talked about the fact that I couldn’t put my finger on what the hell was wrong but that his words reverberated in my head with some frequency.
“It can be a hard life.”
I don’t remember what he said that late December afternoon but the mere act of being in his presence helped me turn a corner that day. He walked out with a CD of some songs I’d been working on. I wrote a couple more over the next few months. And we put together another record over six weeks in May and June of 2018. I knew a little bit more of what I was doing by this point. I could sing better. We took some crazy chances. That record opened doors, too.
* * *
I started touring more. There’s a playlist on my phone that comes with me on the road. There are a lot of Walt’s songs on there. And so I’d be driving along some stretch of road in some state that I used to fly over, hoping that the motel room that night would have thicker walls than the one the previous night, and Walt’s voice would hit me and I’d feel like he was there with me.
And I’d feel like he was there with me on stage. How every night you have to try something new and reach for things that maybe you aren’t going to grab. How you have to be you, and be real, and that if you keep telling the same damn story the same damn way, people are going to see through that because that’s not real, not real at all. And how after the show, when someone walks up to you and tells you that some words of yours meant something to them, well that’s the greatest gift and you have to make sure that person understands that you’re the lucky one to have someone somehow connect with your words, your melody and feel moved by it.
So yeah: “It’s difficult. It can be a hard life. But it’s worth it.”