When I was ten years old Pops gave me a hard covered journal that he pulled out of the basement of his parent’s house. He retrieved it from a bookshelf and handed it to his middle daughter, the one who would scribble poems about dogs and horses and big prairie skies on notebook paper. He flipped through the blank pages of the journal, inspecting it for forgotten words, and then handed it to me. And told me to write.
I imagine the book was something my Pops picked up at a gift shop or got for Christmas from a family member, an object that could have been tossed or used for grocery lists, but instead sat stored away in that basement for years waiting for me.
I have a memory of when he handed that book over to me, one I’m not certain I didn’t make up in a dream or something. It’s a memory that is full of inspiration and imagination and possibilities. It was as if my father had handed me potential–blank pages that smelled of must and mothballs waiting for someone to write something brilliant and touching and moving.
Waiting for me to be brilliant.
I had those pages filled before my twelfth birthday with poems about the creek behind my house, rodeos, horses, wildflowers and not wanting to grow up. My handwriting was neat and loopy, slanting diagonally across the unlined pages, sentences about the colors in rainbows and wishes trailing right out of my adolescent head and down the center of the pages.
I didn’t know it at the time but that book is where my music career started. Those words I wrote turned to melodies when I picked up a guitar for the first time, practicing other people’s music, but spending most of my time creating my own. I would play with my words, ramble with the lines and phrasing for nobody’s ears but my own. And because I was the only one listening, I could say what I meant or make no sense at all.
It didn’t matter.
It was for me.
As I got older my dad convinced me to perform that music in public. And so I strummed my green guitar alongside him, a dorky, gangly girl in a Garth Brooks inspired western shirt baring her soul.
Besides my little sister who was sleeping with her door half-open across the hallway from my bedroom, my dad’s ears were always the first to hear my music.
I’m thinking about this today because I am in the middle of recording a new album. It’s an album of music I’ve been writing since I moved back to the place I grew up…back to the place where that ten-year-old tomboy scraped her knees and caught frogs and wrote it all down. I’ve done this studio thing before and I’ll tell you, it isn’t easy to introduce music that you’ve written on lazy Sundays, in the middle of the night or pulled over sitting in your car on the side of the road to a room full of musicians you respect and admire. Performing songs for the first time that only the walls and dogs have heard have been some of the most intimidating and emotional experiences in my life.
Because I believe in it. I know what I’m trying to say.
Or at least I think I do.
And when I make the decision to share it, to record it, to perform it, to get in the studio at long last, I second guess that decision about seventy to eighty times before I make the trip down the interstate with my Pops and our guitars.
See in a project like this you could work through logistics all day long. You could share ideas and swap stories and talk about music you like, your vision and who’s on board until the sun goes down.
But it comes down to one thing in the end.
And the songs are mine. Soul-baringly mine. So eventually I’ve got to play them. It’s kinda the whole point.
So I start by plucking my guitar, closing my eyes tight and leaning in against the microphone, wondering if it’s possible to hold my breath and sing at the same time. The first note rings out and then the first verse and it’s just me exposed waiting for my father to pick up his guitar and add a rhythm, my dear and talented friend to lean over his dobro and fill in with a haunting lick, the bass to kick in a long lonesome note…the drums to find the heart beat.
And soon my song becomes their song and the room is filled with it. The guys I’ve trusted with the notes have given it a pulse and the music I wrote on my living room floor lends itself to a harmonica part, a guitar breath…a long pause.
And sometimes it happens that I’m in that studio, two days into laying down tracks about the landscape, my home, my love and maybe even a quirky song about a dog, and things are going well. I think I’ve almost made it through the hard part, if only I could skip through the song that scares me the most.
Because it’s the one that is so personal I am certain no one is going to understand. It’s the one that makes me cry big sobs before I reach the end.
The one that they are telling me to try. Just try it out.
And so I take a deep breath and work to come down off a bouncy song I wrote about being happy and living in the moment.
I suppose living in the moment counts for hard stuff too, so I take my own advice…
play the notes on my guitar…and sing…
“I dreamed you on the prairie,
on mountain tops and oceans wide…”
I hear my voice waiver through my headphones but I’m ok. I decide I might get through it…until I hit the second breath and the sweet sound of my friend’s guitar part fills in the quiet spaces the exact way I have heard it in my head…if only I could play that way…
“I loved you before I met you…”
My voice cracks and it’s over before it started…but my band keeps playing, coming in with a low bass part and a quiet whisper of a drum.
So I keep singing and sniffling because the music’s just too beautiful to give in to an emotion I’ve pushed down so long that it became fed up.
I decide that if it’s time for this I might as well capture it. Isn’t this what music is about?
So the guitar lead pulls me into the chorus and I whimper the words behind the glass of my isolation booth. I wonder if the guys can see the tears streaming down my face behind the shield of the microphone…
The sound coming out of their instruments makes me feel less alone though, which touches me so deeply that more tears roll and no words come out.
But the guys keep playing, taking me through the bridge of my song as I sing it like I’m collapsing in on myself.
I close my eyes and breathe in the rhythm they have found for me as I gather myself for the ending note, the note that I squeak out but they let hang subtly and quietly in the air of the studio.
I wipe my eyes and apologize as I put down my guitar to step out of the room only to find the two men who have been the background to my music my entire life: my father and the sweet talented dobro man, with eyes red and teary too.
Feeling for me.
Playing my music like it is their own.
So I’ll tell you this today as I sit in the middle of this music project and reflect on the weekend I spent lost in the music. When I moved back to the ranch as a grown woman with plans to make plans I wasn’t prepared to run into my ten-year-old self again. I wasn’t prepared to fall in love like her, to get the same flush in my cheeks, to embrace loneliness, celebrate life and morn losses the way I used to when I was so young and vulnerable and completely honest.
I didn’t expect that she would grab my hand, take me on walks, sit with me on hilltops and quietly push me to fill up some blank pages again…and then sing those songs out loud to the prairie sky.
But she did. And I open her book today and find poetry and stories that are innocent and awful and embarrassing. But I’ll tell you if I had to save something in a fire it would be that book. It has sat on my nightstand next to my lamp for nearly twenty years, a reminder of the girl who chose to fill it up with the stories about her world and everything that was inside of her.
And the only way I can think to thank her is to keep doing what she has done…
Curious about the new music coming from the red dirt roads?
Listen to me talk about life in oil country as I play my new song “Boomtown” live from my momma’s kitchen
Jessie Veeder’s Boomtown
Follow the progress of my new album at www.jessieveedermusic.com
Recording at Makoche Recording Company in downtown, Bismarck, ND