Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Thanks, Dave

To the best of my knowledge, my grandmother Imogene Walker — my mom’s mom — never met a celebrity in her life.

She spent most of her 88 years in a tiny red house on a hill outside Carmi, Illinois, raising three kids, taking care of my farmer grandfather and the workers who’d help out as the seasons came and went, doing her crosswords and reading her magazines.

And she was as plugged-in to the world as any person I knew.

She understood pop culture (even if she didn’t like most of it), she understood politics (even if she didn’t like most of it), she understood the power of mass media, because she was an unabashed consumer living out on the Big Prairie.

If it hadn’t been for our annual family vacations to that tiny red house in the country, I wouldn’t be a writer today. I absolutely believe that.

Growing up, my grandmother and I would have long talks about whatever was interesting me that year: from Star Wars to comic books to sports to you name it.

All those interests were looping around the media landscape that was ever-present in their house, because the TV was on all the time and magazines and newspapers were everywhere. Those one-to-two-week stays outside Carmi were a bit of a refuge, because I knew I could dive into a virtually endless stack of reading materials and the time would pass by.

So there’s an additional layer of sadness this week as David Letterman signs off from his amazing television career, because it was in that living room on the hill outside Carmi that I first discovered Dave, in the late ‘70s as a guest on Carson’s Tonight Show, then his short-lived NBC morning show (which I’m pretty sure I saw the debut of), then him kicking off his version of Late Night following his hero Johnny.

I picked up the Letterman fandom from there, with the meat of his NBC career happening while I was in college, then jumping to CBS and his Late Show not long after I relocated to Nashville for good. I remember the drama of who’d be Carson’s successor, and was always on Team Letterman.

Obviously, television watching patterns ebb and flow as you go through your 20s, 30s and 40s, and over the past decade or so, yes, if I was watching TV at all past 10pm, it was to watch Stewart and Colbert, both of whom will also change their availability this year. But Letterman was always there, always present when something happened in the world that needed a razor or blunt instrument taken to it, and even as he got grumpier and grayer, his take on the world got that much sharper.

So as Dave gets ready to flip the switch of his genius television career to the off position, you have to forgive those of us who’ve been fans. We’re losing access, however fleeting a late-night television program can be considered “access,” to somebody who’s been a constant for us for more than 35 years. It’s a tough pill to swallow.

There’s been the predicted cavalcade of stars and tributes and montages and moments as we hurtle toward Wednesday’s final broadcast, but my favorite moment from the show came not from Dave, but from his longtime sidekick/musical director/fellow genius Paul Shaffer. Starting with the four-piece known as the World’s Most Dangerous Band and wrapping up with the CBS Orchestra, Paul has been such a constant at Letterman’s side, crafting the perfect walk-in moments and backing the Who’s Who of the Who’s Who of the musical world. Say what you will about the viability of the institution itself, but a case can be made for Paul Shaffer as a member of the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame.

Shaffer and the WMDB put together what they refused to call a “music video” for a Late Night prime-time special in 1985, with an original called “Dress Cool.” Does it hold up, sonically or visually, 30 years later? Don’t be silly. But it was intended to be silly, much like most of content that came out of Letterman’s orbit over the past three decades. It didn’t take itself too seriously (or seriously at all), and I think that’s what most of us liked about Letterman. He, and the supremely talented people who worked with him, knew this stuff wasn’t necessarily going to change the world, and if it didn’t, well, there was always tomorrow to try again.

After tomorrow, it’ll be somebody else’s turn to try. Thanks, Dave.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

It's not you, it's me, 2014...I think we should see other years...

I feel like this was the first year EVER that I actually accomplished a resolution, that of spending more time with the Small Land Mammal. And my life was markedly better for it. I’ll redirect, yet again, the wish for him to be happy and healthy and for our relationship to continue to flourish.

Meanwhile, on other fronts and for so many people I know, 2014 was far less gentle than it could have been. It’s easy to sit here under the rubble of the previous 365 days and say we’re going to arise, dust ourselves off and start the new year with a clean slate. It’s far harder to actually do it.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. And that’s what I’m going to try to do.

If you’ve spent any time with me, you likely know that my default position tends to run toward the doom and gloom. My primary goal for the upcoming solar cycle is to yank myself out of that rut. In no way shape or form does that mean I’m going to completely transform from Eeyore into Tigger. 

But I meant it the other day when I wrote that even the slightest shift into positive thinking can dramatically alter situations, starting with the ones in your head. And so that’s where I’m going to start.

Good things are gonna happen. And the good things already in motion are gonna become great. I’m going to keep saying that to myself as often as I need, and my other hope is that it will happen for you as well.

“Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.” Goethe said that. Happy new year, ever’body.

Sunday, August 24, 2014


I've not written a lot about my abrupt entry into fatherhood. The reason is fairly simple: the two weeks between when I learned about Will's existence and his arrival into the world was the darkest fortnight of my life, and I don't really gain anything looking back on it.

August 24, 2011 was the scariest, heart- and gut-wrenching, and then supremely joyous day of my life.

Many of you know I am adopted. My wonderful parents, Don and Kathy Hendrickson, never kept that information from me, and so I've never really been driven to find out who my biological parents are. I have a handful of information that I'm able to reflect on, and thank those two people for giving me a chance at life.

But here's one of the upshots of that situation: I had never looked at a person before and known that I shared a biological link to them. I'd never knowingly seen my features on another human being.

One of the side effects was that I really couldn't discern who people (mainly newborns) looked like in comparison to their biological relatives. It was just a muscle that I'd never really used.

But on that late August afternoon, after all the fear and the uncertainty, after the rushing downtown to Baptist Hospital (and I don't give one whit what name's on the door...it will always be Baptist Hospital to me), after a very no-nonsense but supportive nurse helped me scrub in to the NICU for the first of what would be close to 50 times, I walked up to an incubator, gazed upon this tiny, ropy form wearing a diaper no wider than three of my fingers...and I saw my nose.

That's my nose. There's a respirator taped to his face, an umbilical IV, a handful of other monitors strapped onto his minuscule form...but that's my nose.

I knew two things in that moment: that he was going to be OK, and that I was no longer alone in the universe. Here, in this plexiglass womb, with doctors and nurses dedicated to making sure he would leave that environment as quickly as possible, was proof that I existed.

I know this is a lot to put on a kid, especially one who showed up 10 weeks early, but he saved my life that day. He gave me purpose and direction and a reason to put two feet on the floor and one foot in front of the other. I'm not saying I haven't stumbled (a lot) in the past 36 months, but he's the reason I get back up, dust myself off, splash some water on my face and try to move forward again.

So here's to my shaggy-haired, lanky-limbed, smiley-faced, tomato-lovin' super-sweet boy. Being your Daddy is the best thing I will ever do. Happy birthday, Will!

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

The Next Fourscore Years

We've all been asked -- some of us very recently and with a surprising amount of rancor -- if we're better off than we were four years ago.

If you can answer that simply and succinctly, I'd wager you haven't had a very interesting life over the past four years.

Mine got very interesting 14 1/2 months ago. And so today I struggle to express not so much what I want from the next four years, but what I want from the next 80+ years. For my small land mammal.

I want him to grow up in a country of which he can be proud.

I want him to grow up in a country where acquiring a good education isn't viewed (or priced) as a luxury.

I want him to live in a country where he knows he can speak his mind, publish his thoughts, question his leaders, worship as he chooses, and that his birthplace isn't as focused on the "under God" phrase of a 31-word pledge as it is with that pledge's final stanza, "with liberty and justice for all."

I want him to live in a country where he can marry the person he loves without hesitation or restriction.

I want him to live in a country where national debt remains a national issue, not recast as an individual financial issue. You know, in the way a catastrophic illness or accident would be an actual individual financial issue.

I want him to live in a country that has safe streets, roads and bridges, and have fewer means of destruction that deny others in different parts of the world safe streets, roads and bridges.

I want him to live in a world that, yes, recognizes there is evil living in it. But also one that recognizes words are ultimately far more effective in diffusing that evil than guns and bombs.

I want him to live in a world where fear and panic have their place, as a means to spur individuals to action, not as a wedge to keep an entire populace on edge, much less as a way to make money or get a gig.

I want him to live in a world where reason and logic and respect and science and art and music and knowledge and, yes, freedom are treasured, and to have the country of his birth lead that charge.

And I want him to see the original, non-futzed with Star Wars movies in a theater, box of popcorn at the ready.

I don't know how much of this I'm going to get to see happen. I don't care if this makes me naive. But there's one thing the presence of this tiny human has given me, and that's hope. I would be remiss -- strike that, I'd be a bad dad -- if I didn't acknowledge that hope and help try to make it real.


Friday, June 29, 2012


A remembrance in six parts...

1. Creator of note
The impulse to create grows out of a sense that there’s something missing in the world.

It doesn’t have to be something big. It doesn’t have to intend to right the planet’s wrongs. It just has to emerge from an observation that something needs to be addressed, and only you can do that.

Yvonne Smith, Kate O'Neill and Karsten
Soltauer at the opening of Yazoo Taproom,
March 2010. I'm in the picture inasmuch
as I'm behind the camera.
Karsten Soltauer was a creator.

2. Questioner of people
He would have operated just fine as a journalist, as well. He asked some of the most penetrating questions, even of people he met moments before. And he was dogged in his pursuit of getting you to tell your story.

It was Karsten’s way of tapping the essence of a person, and it was done without guile or agenda. He simply and genuinely wanted a better sense of what made you tick. It helped him fill in the gaps of where you could fit in his creation, all the while you were puzzling over this intensely curious man with the vividly blue soul patch.

3. Hugger of friends
He insisted on giving you a hug. He must have rebuffed a half-dozen of my attempts at a handshake before I got the clue that when you greeted Karsten, you were going to hug him. It was part of his ritual, his connection with you, and it became something you looked forward to when you came into contact with him.

4. Lover of Kate
Theirs was an interesting combination to glimpse from afar and up close. She with the pragmatic, data-loving, multi-lingual intellect infused with a liberal dash of whimsy; he with the visual, spatial, emotion-gathering ability to draw out important concepts and redirect meaning with clarity. They were complimentary of each other, and complementary to each other. They are the human embodiment of the relationship between the colors blue and orange.

5. Respecter of time
His studio was his sanctuary, be it when he was in creation mode or when entertaining guests during his and Kate’s now-legendary parties. You entered said sanctuary at your own risk, because more likely than not, you’d end up revealing something about yourself, be it to Karsten alone or to others gathered downstairs, as part of the price of entrance.

But if you took a few moments to look around at the walls, at the items and images and totems that served to inspire Karsten, you picked up on a few things. One, there was a very definite sense of order, as items were neatly placed on the walls, grouped very carefully. And two, many of the images were from times gone by, not specifically retro or antique, but more from a sense of wanting to learn from the past.

Combine that with the house the studio resides within being one of the oldest in Germantown, and you get the sense of Karsten as a man without a time, neither comfortable nor uncomfortable with the age he lived in, but rather belonging to all time at once. As he does now.

6. Keeper of forever
Creativity itself is an ephemeral process; to tell somebody you can describe it easily is to lie to them. I’ve spent more than 20 years around musically creative people, attempting to translate their process and their output to a general public. Trying to encapsulate creativity of visual art is an even more complex (and perhaps futile) pursuit. But it seems to come down to taking something that means something to you and expressing it in a way that means something to somebody else.

The following is the closing slice of a poem from another visual artist friend of mine:

From “Fingerprint” by Kim Thomas:
If I lay you down on my heart
and cut around the edges
and then give it to you,
I have given you the part of me
that is shaped like you.
Full of breath and spirit,
I am calmed and stilled to have completed today.

It’s emblematic of what Karsten did for so many of us…take a piece of himself and shape it into something we will keep with us forever.

I wrote this Tuesday in a far more public, far less personal space, but I wish to say it again: Yours is a beautiful, curious spirit separated from us far too soon. We will carry it with us always, and will never see the color blue the same.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Fans and their favorites are in harmony at CMA Music Fest

(Original USATODAY.com link)

By Lucas Hendrickson, Special for USA Today

NASHVILLE – One of the most welcome changes at the 41st CMA Music Festival was out of anybody's control: The weekend weather was gorgeous. Country fans descended in droves, and the big stars and up-and-comers turned out — even if they weren't feeling their best.

Lady Antebellum
(Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY)
Ailing Lambert is a trouper: Miranda Lambert says the nausea-delayed start of Thursday's Ran Fan club party had nothing to do with a) overindulging after the CMT Music Awards the night before, or b) pregnancy. ("We've got seven dogs, that's enough.") The Country Music Association's reigning female vocalist soldiered through a handful of songs for followers. "We don't have a job if they don't do what they do all year long — buying our records and coming to see our shows," she says.

It's five o'clock (shadow) somewhere: Rumble-voiced fan favorite Josh Turner is anxiously awaiting Tuesday's release of fifth album Punching Bag, featuring first single Time Is Love, which he played for USA TODAY in an exclusive acoustic performance. The advent of new music isn't the only thing that can make Turner anxious. That honor goes to monitoring his facial stubble. "It actually kind of wears me out to try to keep it this way," he says. "When I'm clean-shaven, my face gets irritated, and when I grow it out too long, it gets itchy and exposes gray hairs. So I have to keep it this same length all the time."

Sunday, June 10, 2012

CMA Music Festival: It's not always rocking

(Original USATODAY.com link)

By Lucas Hendrickson, Special for USA TODAY

NASHVILLE – The spotlight for the nightly CMA Music Festival concerts at LP Field shines on some of the biggest names in the genre, such as Saturday night's re-emergence of superstar Faith Hill alongside performances by nouveau outlaw Eric Church, fresh-faced multi-instrumentalist Hunter Hayes and Bonnaroo-bound country legend Kenny Rogers, among others.

Yes, the big show frequently suffers from the stop-and-go nature of a television taping, but for the most part, it's about the music.

That's not as much the case during the day. To be sure, five stages around the festival's grounds are pumping out live music as quickly as they can turn artists around, but there's also a sense that CMA Fest is simultaneously a four-day "lifestyle marketing" experiment.

Mostly gone are the days of elaborate single-artist booths in the festival's main exhibition hall, replaced by what's left of major label groups rotating their rosters through the days, basic cable networks bringing their reality show stars to highly targeted groups of fans, and even long-established clothing brands hoping to latch on to the next big rising musical act.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

CMA Music Fest showcases top stars, little-known songwriters

(Original USATODAY.com link)

By Lucas Hendrickson, Special for USA TODAY

NASHVILLE - You know something at CMA Music Festival is different when the neon-green t-shirt-clad "fun team" volunteers can't give away artist-emblazoned mini-fans.

Usually, they can't give 'em away fast enough. But with sunny skies and temperatures in the low-80s Friday afternoon, downtown Nashville was downright pleasant for CMA Fest's second full day.

The favorable temps continued to pair well with the subtle changes the Country Music Association made in the footprint of the annual fan gathering, what with additional music stages added in the main exhibit hall of the Nashville Convention Center, Hall of Fame Park across the street from Bridgestone Arena (home of the Nashville Predators and Wednesday's CMT Music Awards), and at the south end of LP Field, where the big-name laden nightly concerts take place.

Merge that with cover tunes blaring out of almost every storefront and honky tonk along Broadway, and the festival exists in a near-constant wash of sound. And the tens of thousands who pack Nashville's downtown streets each June like it that way.

Whole bunch of nothin'
Carrie Underwood
(Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY)
Pretty much from the moment Carrie Underwood stepped onto the American Idol stage in 2005, her life has been in whirlwind mode. The recording, promotion and touring cycle, meshed with near-annual trips to awards shows (not to mention her seemingly now-standing gig alongside Brad Paisley as hosts of the CMA Awards), and a public courtship and marriage to NHL star Mike Fisher gives the Oklahoma native impetus to shut it all down when she gets the chance. "I do nothing," Underwood says when asked what she does to decompress. "I stay home in my pajamas, I get together with friends and hang out, definitely trying to find time to spend with my friends and my husband." That works a lot better now that Fisher is a member of the Predators (thanks to a 2011 trade from the Ottawa Senators), but the cyclone will spin up for both members of the couple sooner than they probably wish, as Carrie heads out on an ambitious tour in support of her new record Blown Away (including her first dates in the United Kingdom) and Fisher returns to the ice.

Friday, June 08, 2012

CMA Music Festival joins fans with country's biggest stars

(original USATODAY.com link)

By Lucas Hendrickson, Special for USA TODAY

NASHVILLE – For all the structural changes to the CMA Music Festival (reconfiguring the festival's footprint, moving stages around, reworking the rules for fans seeking autographs), the most welcome alteration, at least for Thursday's first full day, was something out of everybody's control.

The weather was drop dead gorgeous.

Which was a welcome change from years past, when it seemed the musical deities decided Middle Tennessee didn't deserve two very different gatherings happening the same weekend, and vented their wrath in the form of quadruple-digit humidity and surface-of-the-sun like temperatures.

Country music fans descended on the genre's home base in droves for the 41st time, and the music's biggest stars, up-and-comers and legacy artists came right along with them. Even if they weren't feeling their very best.

"We've got seven dogs. That's enough."
Miranda Lambert
(Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY)
We're going to take Miranda Lambert at her word when she says the nausea-delayed start of her Ran Fan fan club party was due neither to (a) over-indulging after the CMT Music Awards the night before nor (b) pregnancy. The two-time reigning CMA female vocalist of the year soldiered her way through a handful of songs for fans at Fontanel, the former home of country legend Barbara Mandrell, now one of Nashville's newest multi-use entertainment venues.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

'One of us' got it right...

We’ve all done it. We’ve all characterized people as one factor or another relates directly to us.

Most simply, it’s saying that somebody is “one of us.”

That little phrase got bandied about quite a bit when I was working day-to-day in the frequently maligned (and sometimes deservedly so) “Christian music industry.” My colleagues/friends and I would delight in the times when we’d meet “one of us,” because we knew we’d get better answers to questions and a broader-based look at the world, one we frequently shared.

The definition went above and beyond the people we like or would want to spend some time with outside the work environment. They were the people who’ve been through some crap and come out the other side, not always entirely whole, but certainly with perspective and a desire to communicate it.

Mercyland: Hymns For The Rest Of Us
Here’s a dirty little secret not often mentioned aloud: not everybody who works in Christian music thinks the same. Shocking, I know.

Not everybody personally buys into the “God equals guns, money and country” form of American Churchianity (hat tip to Jim Thomas for that particular phrase) that seems to dominate much of the cultural landscape.

The truly innovative artists in the genre aren’t afraid to ask questions, privately and in the company of other “ones of us”. But they also know their commercial lives depend upon dumbing down doubt and elevating absolute, unwavering belief in the faith their audiences have pre-ascribed to them.

(It’s particularly onerous these days, this power we give audiences, but that’s a topic for another day.)

So it seems increasingly rare to hear viable, outstanding art that addresses matters of faith with questions attached. Thank God for Phil Madeira, and thank God for Mercyland.

Phil is most assuredly “one of us,” and has been for a very long time. He’s plied his trade in the trenches of Christian music, but his talent, his skills are too vast to be contained by that narrow definition. So he has spent the last decade-and-a-half or so as one of Americana music’s (another way too simultaneously broad and narrow genre) most capable sidemen, for extended runs with Buddy Miller and currently with Emmylou HarrisRed Dirt Boys.

(And on a personal note, he’s the only person I’ve ever profiled who made me lunch.)
Phil Madeira

I’ve always known that encounters with Phil were going to leave me refreshed, be it by laughter or spirited argument or a wee bit of conspiracy — one of my favorite memories involves him stopping me in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel during the then-annual marathon grip-and-grin session known as Gospel Music Week to tell me he had a cut on an upcoming Toby Keith record titled “If I Was Jesus,” reciting some of the lyric and me wondering if Toby’s team truly knew what they had on their hands with the song. And when they turned it into a Jimmy Buffett-with-dobro quasi-party song, clearly they didn’t.

(Then again, Phil played that dobro and the album went multi-platinum, and I’m never going to begrudge somebody a paycheck.)

So when I heard he had spent the last couple of years slowly writing songs and gathering performances based on the idea of “hymns for the rest of us,” I knew the resulting record was going to be something special. I didn’t know how right I was.

Mercyland is the musical embodiment of the 11th of the 12 Steps: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him (emphasis mine), praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”

Everybody approaches that understanding of God differently, and I imagine that’s the case for every artist represented on this record. But the unifying theme is the reaching out, the identifying of that force bigger than us, and choosing to both rest in and act on the knowledge of it.

Buddy Miller’s take on “I Believe In You” and Cindy Morgan teaming with Madeira for the homey, poetic “Leaning On You” represent that knowledge, just like the North Mississippi Allstars’ rescuing of  “If I Was Jesus” and the record’s most impactful track “Give God The Blues” by Shawn Mullins hold up the mirror to remind us not to get too self-righteous about that knowledge.

The production on Mercyland is minimal, the performances raw and spirited and sad and joyful exactly when they need to be. The Civil Wars’ kickoff track “From This Valley” is a touch brighter than the material on their splendid debut Barton Hollow, but the celebratory nature is needed to lead one into the grittier message delivered on Mullins’ track.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops' “Lights In The Valley” recalls the best of strum-for-your-life campfire singalongs, which John Scofield counters on the instrumental closer “Peace In The Valley,” bringing the album in for a gentle landing while you think about the completion of the journey.

In between reside standout performances by Mat Kearney, Amy Stroup, Dan Tyminski, the project’s spiritual and literal champion Emmylou Harris and Madeira himself. Mercyland is art informed by faith and grounded by reality, something I know so many "ones of us" have been looking for for a very long time and hope others will be compelled to make more of in the very near future.

Thanks, Phil.