It was the night after high school graduation. Pete and I were camping by the flooded Wapsi. It had been gloomy all day. Unrelenting drizzle which at nightfall became wisps of fog flowing along the river, drifting in beneath the trees.
We’d kept a fire sputtering most of the day that by evening had become a beacon in the mist. Pete read. I picked a piece of ground by the fire, sat and slumped against a large felled tree and listened to KAAY in Little Rock on Pete’s radio.
The warmth of the fire against the cold lulled me into a hazy sleep that I surfaced from now and then to some fragment of a song.
Somewhere around two in the morning a voice sang into my dreams coaxing me to consciousness. The melody was haunting. A woman’s voice. A lonely keyboard emoting an empathetic sadness to the sorrowful cry of this woman’s lament. There was something so lost and full of longing in that music, in that voice.
Pete was reading, and when I asked who this siren was he told me Joni Mitchell singing Woodstock. The song didn’t move my best friend. To him it was just aural wallpaper. But it jacked with my thoughts and stirred my emotions haunting me for days.
Throughout the rest of my life it has been an amazing experience to stumble across songs with great “feel” to them. Songs like David Crosby’s Guinnevere and James Taylor’s Fire and Rain are a couple of ballads that work on me.
And I have searched for that ineffable “something” I experience in those songs and try to put it into my songwriting. This language of music has been a powerful form of communication. And I love it when I meet people along the road who are as powerfully affected as I am by music.
Take to the Country
Sometimes I Wonder
Eden Lost - the Darkhorse Sessions- 2001
This project will never be forgotten by the musicians who brought it to life. Eden Lost unfolded at Darkhorse Studios in Nashville on September 11, 2001. It was begun in shock as Martin, the producer, sat sipping coffee in the Darkhorse lounge, watched in disbelief as 9/11 blazed across the TV screen.
We had to decide if we were going to work that day, or even if we should do the album under such dark circumstance. But everyone agreed that to close down the work would be to give into the terror. Still. . .it was a difficult task. It colored the day. Sidemen retreated at points to try to absorb what happened and checking in on loved ones.
Whenever I listen to those songs I can feel the sorrow in the first four songs. The fifth reflects a change in the studio atmosphere and it was an extremely emotional song for me to track.
I will be forever grateful to the guys who faithfully poured their talents into Eden Lost. Steve Brewster did an amazing job with drums and encouraging me to relax — try to enjoy this rare moment in a major studio. Matt Pierson added such beautiful bass lines that reinforced the structure of the songs. Dan Phelps was Mr. Wonderfingers as he created some awesome guitar atmospheres. John Catchings cello lines intensified the feel of Bitter Wine and The Poet. Martin Woodlee, the producer and engineer, kept us all on the same page and was my voice — helping to put my non-musician jargon into some form the players could access. And I will always be indebted to Jon Phelps for making this project happen. Without his encouragement and friendship this would’ve remained wishful thinking.
Heart of a Fool: Dream Machine Recording – 1982
College graduation, a hiking trip to the Northwest — Rhonda and I decided we needed to move from our sleepy rural Missouri existence to St. Louis. The adjustment was jarring.
After a few months doing the song and dance of St. Louis, we decided to check out Orlando, Florida — maybe set down roots there. And a couple of friends I’d toured with in the ’70s were gracious enough to let us crash there while we investigated job possibilities. Ultimately we decided to move back to St. Louis.
Before we left my friend Jon offered to track three of my songs. He had a startup label and wanted to hear where my songwriting was going. His offer landed me in one of the classrooms at his fledging audio engineering school Full Sail. Out in a large garage area, my friend Greg McNeily manned the helm of the Dream Machine mobile recording truck after a full day of teaching. He was a great sport, pulling an all-nighter to track these songs.. He also played bass and Rhonda, my wife, sang backing vocals with me on Heart of a Fool.
Sleepless nights, lots of talks between Rhonda and me, we just felt Orlando didn’t fit us. We are midwesterners to the bone. But it was a tough decision to choose a path that moved us away from musical friends.
From the Sig Tau Folk Show 1975 at Truman State.
This was the last time Marty, Neil, and
I played music together.
The album Photographs posted below incorporates
part of the tape made in 1972 of Marty with
Neil’s commentary intact.
Words Tell Everything.
Neil Starr stormed our dorm room, as if in desperate reentry of the earth’s atmosphere, starved for oxygen, in a hurry and one singular thought on his mind; to talk my roommate out of his tape recorder for the afternoon.
In hyperbolic fervor, he unloaded his quest. Neil had just met a couple of women at a retreat and wanted to record a songwriter friend’s music for them. The women, Rhonda and Debbie, attended a college sixty miles away.
I had known Neil for only a few weeks. Neil knows no strangers. Hyper. Enthusiastic. Addicted to exaggeration, so much so that over time we began to call any exaggeration a “Starr Factor.” Both Bob and I were skeptical of this songwriter Neil was raving over in his sales pitch. But Neil turned the deal when he told us we could tag along.
On a nod from Bob, Neil snatched the recorder and ran out, us trailing him up three flights of an echoing stairwell, spilling out into a hall, then into Marty Skeels’ room. Slumped in a chair, casually strumming a Yamaha 12-string, Marty didn’t seem surprised Neil had pulled two more people in.
It was late April, unseasonably hot. No air-conditioning in Dobson Hall. A declining sun roasted the shades, turning the room into a sweat box. No fan, so the recording would come out. Door closed, because of hall noise. Four of us stuffed in this cheesebox, radiating enough BTUs to crockpot a beef roast.
Tape rolled. Neil began, “Hello Rhonda. Hello Debbie. Okay, here we go. Marty wrote ‘18 Years.’ It’s about the draft. His number is seven, by the way. I think you’ll understand why he wrote this song. Marty, hit it.”
For the next hour or so, we listened. Songs of protest, peace, and love, spun by an eighteen-year-old curly-headed kid from Fairfield, Iowa. Sung and played in a laid-back style. Effortless. The room discharged with the hopeful energy of youth. A feast of freedom, exuberant, transforming. Tape ended. Marty laid the guitar aside after a song about defecting to Canada. The room cooled. We left.
Marty, Neil, and I became good friends in our sophomore year. We played music together. Hitchhiked together. And somewhere in the fall semester Marty showed me an open G tuning on the guitar. Told me I should try to write. The new sound inspired my first song ever; a pale, naive portrait of lost love. Not very good, heartfelt.
Sometimes I listen to that tape made for Rhonda and Debbie to revive that moment so long ago. Yes, I have the tape. When I hear Neil and Marty, it all comes back. I’ve talked to Marty and Neil. Their take of those days not nearly so vivid, or sentimental. I listen to the tape and think on the mystery of living, of growing up, of how people influence. Smile, knowing that the Rhonda referred to on the tape has been my wife for the past forty-one years.