When I was a young teenager, like 13 or 14, every spare minute I had at home was spent trying to teach myself to play guitar on the pink carpet of my room. Leaned up against the frame of my waterbed (hey, it was the 90s) I pressed stop and play and stop and play on my CD player trying to figure out the chords to Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” or Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” I found these songs in my parent’s album collections and there was something about them that spoke to me more than anything I was hearing on the two FM radio stations that came in at the ranch.
Maybe it was the fact that the first songs I ever heard were coming from my dad playing and singing around the house. I knew the lyrics to Emmylou Harris and John Prine songs before I even heard their original versions. And when I began to discover my own musical tastes, when I could buy my own albums and play them on repeat, I was surprised to find there was something lonesome about it. Because I couldn’t imagine a world beyond my nook of rural America where real people like this existed, playing guitars in coffee shops and clubs and forming and breaking up bands and writing and recording music. Somehow, it made me feel even more isolated, more landlocked, more obscure in my community and so very far away from a world where people create music for a living. I suppose I felt that my only access to it was to learn to play it myself and to attempt to write my own.
I was only fourteen or fifteen when I wrote some of the music for the first album I released my senior year of high school. If I knew then what I know now, I wonder if would I have put myself out there that way. That’s the thing about adolescence—the naiveté keeps you brave.
I’m thinking about this today because for the past month or so I’ve been knee deep in working on music for another album. There was a time I would have told the 39-year-old version of me that I’m too old for this now, that to be creative, to have something to say, you must be relevant, and 39 didn’t seem relevant to me when I was in my early 20s driving up and down the middle of the country trying to write songs about places and things I knew nothing about. There was also a time when I thought that in order to be successful you had to remove yourself from all the familiar things and build yourself back up again somewhere more important. Go to Nashville. Go to California. Go to New York City. Then you’ll be something. Then you’ll have something worth saying.
I grew out of that phase somewhere between South Dakota and Oklahoma in my Chevy Lumina with a caved-in trunk I couldn’t open because of a fender-bender I still hadn’t dealt with. The man I loved and the place I loved was hundreds of miles away, I just cracked the front of my tooth off on a granola bar and I was supposed to be playing in a Nebraska college town in two hours. Was it this I loved? Or was there something else to it?
Last weekend I spent countless hours on the carpet in my grown up room working and re-working songs that could only be written by the woman I am now, hollering down to my daughters to “shush for a minute” and “play walkie-talkie in the basement please!”
I pulled out my harmonicas and immediately I saw two sets of bare feet under my bedroom door. Soon my daughters were playing harmonica too, dancing, singing and requesting for assistance writing their own songs.
I couldn’t help but think about the smoky smell of my dad’s guitar case on the 1980s shag carpet and me sitting cross-legged on the floor, listening. And then another thing hit me: this is how it can start, yes, but this can also just be how it is. There doesn’t have to be more to any of it except that it brings you some sort of peace or some sort of release or some sort of joy. If my daughters ask, that’s what I’ll tell them. Not everything we do with passion has to come to a famous, star-studded, glamorous end. Sometimes the best part is in the learning, or the listening or the creating or the dancing along.
As it turns out, the teenage version of me was right. To write it continues to set me free. And so that’s what I’m doing here, leaned up against my bed frame on the carpet in my room.