Just after Christmas in 1997, I loaded up all my worldly possessions into my 1989 Honda Civic (which got 40+ miles to the gallon even back then!) and drove south from Saint Paul toward Atlanta. I was going to enroll at Emory’s Candler School of Theology and work on a master’s degree. I stopped in Arkansas on the way, left my car parked outside my sister’s double-wide trailer, got in her car and we drove together to Tucson, Arizona for a family reunion. My younger cousin was the first of our generation to get married, and we were going to celebrate her, and my grandfather’s birthday. I think we drove overnight so we could arrive on New Year’s Eve. I don’t know if you’ve ever driven east to west across Texas, but that is one really wide state of the union.
My sister really knows how to drive. Puts the pedal down and locks in and goes. So it was 4 a.m. when we finally traded places. There’s something about the hours between midnight and dawn, the small hours, that gets me pensive. Just headlights, few other cars. The buzz of the overhead lights at the empty gas station, and the moths trying to stay warm. Hours and hours of straight lines and, if I’m lucky, stars.
I wrote down the lyrics to this song at our next stop, when we traded seats. I set it to music a week later, after I finished my trip to Atlanta (because yes, we had to drive back across Texas just a few days later).
I realized, recording this last winter, that I had never told my sister about “Abilene” or played it for her. So it was fun to make that connection 23 years later.
I am especially grateful to my friend Andrea who contributed background vocals to this track. She’s in Sydney, Australia, and thanks to the magic of the internet her voice was in my ears as I mixed this one. She’s a great musician and songwriter.
I never ended up taking any classes at Emory. Instead I wrote a lot of songs, and then moved back to Saint Paul and re-joined the House of Mercy Band, and we made some records.
The House of Mercy Band recorded several albums from 1999 to 2010. We were the host band at the House of Mercy church in Saint Paul. I don’t think I’m overstating things to claim that the band would not have made any records at all, and maybe never started a record label, if I hadn’t wandered into the church one evening in the fall of 1996, then again in the summer of 1997. There’s a good origin story for how Chris Larson and I met, and how I got Peter Rasmussen involved, and how one thing led to another until we found ourselves setting up mics in the church baptistry on a cold Saturday in the winter of 1998/99. A good origin story I’ll tell another time. I will mention Heidi Olson and her beautiful violin playing on that first record, which we called the white album because it originally had no art or title, just a white cardboard sleeve. Heidi and I met through our mutual friend Heidi Van Schooten. Heidi O and I played music together at Heidi VS’s wedding in the late summer of 1998, and it was so magical that we tried to play together several more times before life logistics intervened. One such time was that original recording session at the First Baptist church building in Lowertown Saint Paul, and I’m forever grateful she made it there.
I wrote the lyrics to “Sunny Georgia” in the autumn of 1998 and gave them to Chris. I think Chris and Doug Trail-Johnson worked up the melody/chords together, and I remember them playing it for the band at Chris’s house at a practice night. It must not have been solid enough to make it on to that first record, but it was the lead-off tune on the next record, “Too Many Treasures“. I wrote lyrics for four of the 11 songs on that record, but “Sunny Georgia” was always my favorite to play. I told Chris once that it was one of the few songs I never got tired of.
The walking bass line in the song is ripped straight from “Stray Cat Strut“. It’s one of Chris’s genius attributes that he does not realize he’s borrowing from other songs, which is what frees him up to write familiar sounding melodies and chord progressions. I’m always afraid to sound too much like other, more famous songs. Chris once told me that Hank Williams Sr was the same way, borrowing music freely from other songs and adapting his own lyrics. It’s a freedom I’ve never felt and sort of envy. I suspect that one of the reasons I don’t get tired of playing “Sunny Georgia” is that I always really liked the lyrical construction and the music feels like an old friend.
Since I stopped playing in bands my cheap little classical guitar has been a source of comfort, and I often pick it up in the evenings and play old songs, my own but mostly others’. So when Russell Rathbun reached out in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic to ask if I would contribute some songs to his podcast, I was glad to set up a mic and just play like I often do in the evenings, one old friend after another. They were all first-takes with no overdubs, which is my eternal bias for recording anything. I did go back and take out some of the hiss and add a little reverb, but otherwise it’s just me and my nylon string guitar (the same one that appeared on the first Brett Larson record) and a microphone.
The spring I turned 40 I experienced a small songwriting flurry and several songs emerged. One of them was called “A Little Heartache” that I wrote for Angie Talle. I always love hearing Angie sing and when I asked her, one evening at the Turf Club back in the winter of 2011/12, when she was going to record an album, she said she needed some songs and I should write her one. I think we were both surprised when, a couple months later, I sent her a demo of that tune. (The song did eventually make it on to her album several years later, in an altered form.)
That same winter Juliana got to attend a conference in New York City, and in a rare logistical alignment, we were able to leave the kids with grandparents and go together. What a fun trip, our first together to the Big Apple. When we returned to Saint Paul I wrote “Put Your Hand in Mine” which includes one verse I distinctly remember composing while “running” on my ancient NordicTrack machine on a cold night out in the carriage house. I gave the lyrics to Chris Larson who came up with a melody in the key of E that he played for me. The next day I couldn’t remember the melody but I remembered the key of E and the feeling of it, and I especially could hear quite clearly in my head this doubled bass and surf guitar line, kind of a classic 60s sound, inspired by what Chris had played.
I carried that sound around in my head for eight years. This recording is one of the few I’ve ever done where I had a very clear idea of what it should sound like ahead of time. It was recording this song that actually spurred me last December to finally sit down and learn how to use GarageBand, and it was the first recording I made.
One of the things I love most about making music is surprising myself with something I play or sing. That spontaneous creation/discovery moment is one major reason I keep doing it after all these years. That happened for me when recording the guitar solo for this song. That was the only part I didn’t have a clear idea about before I started. I experimented with a lot of different guitar sounds before I settled on one that reminded me of the 80s New Wave music I loved as a teenager (think “Just Like Heaven” by the Cure). There’s one part, right at the B section, that made me so happy when I heard the playback that I decided right then to record another of these old songs.
Another process element I re-learned while recording this one was what Alex Oana taught me about finding a Part for each instrument. It can be a really simple melody or riff or pattern, but it’s important for a pop song to have that repeating pattern for each instrument. It builds the kind of emotional recognition that we respond most to in pop music. It seems like an obvious lesson in retrospect, but I’ve been slow to learn it because of how much I enjoy the surprise/discovery in improvisation. When I was recording with Alex on some of the Urban Hillbilly Quartet songs, he gently nudged me toward finding a Part and I am grateful to him for teaching me that.
It was Molly Maher who referred to our house on Burns Ave as the Big Pink, after The Band album. The initial paint color when we bought the house was definitely Barbie Butt Pink. What a great old house in a great location. We had this carriage house too, which was essentially a two-story garage with a third story up top with wood paneling and this real “cabin vibe” that of course all my musician friends immediately recognized as a prime recording space. In theory.
In the dozen years we lived there, lots of aspirational construction and repair went into that space, and there was definitely some music playing and recording done, including at least one House of Mercy Band session and some demos for Pocahontas County. In the end though, it was unheated, which made for a limited window in the Minnesota year when we could reasonably hang out there, and definitely not sound-proof, which made for a limited window in the day when you could reasonably record anything without background car and park noise.
There was a time after my kids came on the scene, probably around 2010 but I can’t exactly remember, when I would occasionally escape to that upstairs carriage house space and plug in my electric guitar and noodle around. The sliding glass door was western-facing and in the afternoon you got this sunny sunray dusty vibe with all the wood walls and the park vistas out the door. This song came out of that time, and when I was recording it this last winter here in my basement office in Kansas, playing that little chord progression with the B minor took me back to those sunny Minnesota afternoons in the spring and fall when the park was green and I had just a little time to myself.
Back in 1998 I was living in Georgia and I got lonely for all my friends in Minnesota. During that year I wrote a lot of songs because that’s what (some) lonely people do, especially lonely people doing a lot of driving and spending tons of time alone.
In 2020, like a lot of people with time on their hands, I decided to revisit some of those songs that had never gotten recorded before. Inspired by the process of recording music again, after nearly 20 years of not recording my own songs, I decided to (slowly) make my way through the shoebox of old tunes and see if they still made me happy to play. Some of them do.
I’ve been putting the new recordings up here as I finish them.
I’m also going to write up some notes about each song, since one of the things I like to know when I listen to an album is details like when and where a song was written. A little context helps frame my experience.
“Ready for the Fall” was written in 1998 right after I moved back to Minnesota, around Labor Day. Something about the wordplay of autumn and lapsarian and some struggles that my family was having at that time. This was a song that we recorded in the winter of 1998-99 for the first House of Mercy Band album (the “white album”) but our version never quite hit what I heard in my head. This version is closer, and I am grateful that Chris Larson contributed harmony vocals on it, as he and I used to sing it together in those days.