By the time I was 19 years old, my fate was sealed. A musician’s life was knocking, and I was eager to answer.
But I had just started college, and with my small-town Wisconsin upbringing, I was only answering to the idea of a musician’s life, something I wasn’t fully certain was even possible. Where I came from, there wasn’t a lot of precedent for professional artistry, so I couldn’t fully picture what it might look like, how I would live or if I could even hack it. Still, my college freshman self was following grand thoughts that were ever expanding outward. My friends and I had confidently found all the answers and assurances we needed in the recordings we worshiped and stole from. We practiced endlessly with a formative certainty about where we were headed.
As aspiring performers with a jazz-minded approach to discipline and mimicry, we often looked to heroes who could shred. It was natural as race cars, horses, roller coasters and time warps—going fast ruled. In my teenage years, my speedy superheroes were bebop pioneers like Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie, funk captains like Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder, rock virtuosos like Victor Wooten. My brother and I would listen to Wooten in amazement, the mere physical feats of his fingers making our mouths stand agape. That’s the gist of the first part of a journey, the jaw-dropping amazement at what human beings are capable of accomplishing. We drilled scales and arpeggios in the same manner that someone would wake early to run distances and rep curls.
Then, we found Bill Frisell. Two decades later, I can tell you that finding his music was the most important shift in my understanding of what it actually means to answer the call of a musician’s life. He could play something that spoke deeply to my experience with just a few notes, with space and patience. It slowed me down and helped me to understand that this life I’ve chosen is a journey, not a match. Listening to Frisell helped to calm that competitive energy—something that never came naturally to me, anyway. It gave permission to an approach I didn’t even know I was longing for. “Live fast and die young” could also be “Stop and look around once in awhile.”
Patience, however, is a continual goal, and I’ve felt this again and again. It’s often just out of reach, but inherently requires trust in the unknown that lies ahead. We don’t know what’s coming around the bend, and that’s a hard one to navigate.
Bill Frisell is a man of very few words, as any interview from the last four decades will show. He’s uncomfortable taking any kind of spotlight. His true voice is communicated through his instrument, through the notes he plays and those he doesn’t. Frisell is a road trip buddy who quietly stares out the window from the backseat. You almost forget he’s there until you ask him how he’s doing and, following a pregnant pause, he simply says “…looking at the clouds…” Then you remember that there are clouds to look at. You take in the view and realize they’re gorgeous. Picasso painted some of his finest works with only four lines. Musically, Frisell achieves the same.
A year later, 1999, I’m sitting outside of Racy’s, our college coffee haunt, when my younger brother, Brad, pulls up in our inherited Chevy Lumina wearing a secret grin. He begs me to get in, and we drive a stretch of road south of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He had just come from the record store with Frisell’s newest effort, Good Dog, Happy Man, a masterful landscape of American musical dialogue. The centerpiece of the record brings Frisell and Ry Cooder together for the first time with “Shenendoah.”
This track is the essence of mastery. That afternoon, I rummaged through my father’s LP collection to dig out every Ry Cooder album he had and dove in head first. His style and approach showed me that music and arrangement without borders and rules is real freedom. Cooder has been a beacon and gatherer his whole life, listening deeply to traditions and creating his own while maintaining love and respect. No other musician has had as much influence on me in the last eight years.
Ry Cooder grew up in California far away from the deep Southern music that affected him so deeply, coveting the same Delta blues and Texas gospel 78s as many of his other guitar-toting buddies. Learning about his journey was like holding a mirror up to my own path. I felt so strongly what it meant to connect with music that was far removed from your own culture, time and place. In discovering his music, Ry was giving me another set of permissions.
Collaboration will open your eyes and soul to other people and their paths. Ry seemed to be the one who saw meaning behind the scenes, the sauce in the spaghetti, the swing under the solo. He was concerned with how things were put together and how to spot a story in a stranger. In 2013, I got a bunch of pals to help me reconstruct Cooder’s great Boomer’s Story from front to back. Using his example, I asked my favorite musicians from all around the Triangle to help me do it. We made the songs our own, as Ry had done, moved them along stylistically and rooted some of them in North Carolina soil. I made a vow to myself to continue project-based collaborations for the rest of my days.
What Frisell and Cooder have helped me to realize is this: The true greats—be it writers, singers, musicians or artists—have found their voice. I can recognize Frisell and Cooder’s guitars as quickly as a voice like Ray Charles. On Friday, both men play blocks from one another in Chapel Hill. I urge you to make time to see either one of them. My own touring schedule has me away from home often these days, which means missing a lot of good shows. I’m grateful however, that tonight, I’ll be home and able to slip into the audience.
Ry Cooder performs at UNC’s Memorial Hall with Sharon White and Ricky Skaggs. Tickets are still available. Frisell takes the stage at The ArtsCenter in a trio, and tickets to that show are also still available.