In reverence of reverie

Are “devices” “the vices” of our age? No. It is our dependence upon anything with a screen that seems to make them so.

As an independent career person, I strive to  to lead a balanced life between personal happiness and success as an entertainer and freelance writer. Through books and podcasts by career coaches Michael Hyatt, Ariel Hiatt, Seth Godin and Dan Miller, I picked up some tips that have really helped.

In 2011, I began making lists each night of my day’s successes and what I needed to do the following day. When I heard Miller say that Henry Ward Beecher called the morning’s activities during the first hour, “The rudder of the day,” I began to take a serious look at what I did upon waking. Instead of going straight to my phone or computer to check messages and see if I need to put out fires, I now read as I drink coffee. My morning fare always includes a short devotion from a book by Presbyterian minister P.J. Southam and a bit of the Bible.  If time permits, I’ll read part of a book or a newspaper.

Reclaiming Conversation author Sherry Turkle, songwriter Les Kerr

More recently, I read a book called Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle. Its basic premise is that technology isn’t bad, it is our addiction to it that is causing people to literally avoid talking to one another if they can send a text message or an e-mail instead. (Aside: to me, the word “text” is not a verb. It describes printed words.) My friend Dr. Randy Cross invited me to a conference at Calhoun Community College in Decatur, AL to listen to Professor Turkle speak and to meet her. She was fascinating and illuminated the issue that seems to be an epidemic.

Considering all of this input on the non-stop inundation of information which can consume us all if we let it, I wrote a simple song called In Reverence of Reverie. I sing it to remind myself to take a deep breath, look around, appreciate my surroundings and never pass up the opportunity to look someone in the eye, have a conversation, shake a hand or offer (or receive) a hug.

Click image to see video of Les performing In Reverence of Reverie

In Reverence of Reverie
Words and Music by Les Kerr

In reverence of reverie, I’m turning off my phone
There I’ll be with all my thoughts
So I won’t be alone                                                                             
No multi-tasking, reply-asking
Message on a screen
I’ll be aware of what is there
A moment just for me

So many think they’re on the brink 
if they have to converse
Face-to-face seems out of place
To them, there’s nothing worse
Than speaking without tweaking
And no edits before, “Send.”
But there’s a choice: a sound, a voice
A smile from a dear friend

Devices have divided us; 
We can’t see eye to eye
It’s text or instant message, 
Information on the fly
Avoiding all emotion, 
We just pass along the facts
And if we need to laugh or cry, 
We’ll find an app for that

I’d like to say we’ll see a day 
Not built upon the trends
Of social mediocrity 
And never-present friends
It’s haunting and it’s daunting
But there is hope, in the end
Let’s ditch the hype. 
Let’s talk, not type,
And we’ll be better friends
In reverence of reverie, 
I’m turning off my phone

Words and Music Copyright 2016 
By Les Kerr/O.N.U. Music (ASCAP)
Click to download song In Reverence of Reverie

Click for Les Kerr's complete 
online music catalogue.

Text and photos copyright 2016 by Les Kerr.

Originally published July, 2017.

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Tracks

 

The memorial service at a little West Tennessee country church was followed by fried chicken, green beans and potato salad. Mixed in between the homemade banana bread and sweet tea were, “It’s good to see you,” “How have you been,” and “Nice to meet you,” many times over. Laughs and stories about those who were and weren’t there triggered a few rolled eyeballs and snickers among the usual devilish and irreverent bunch always and delightfully present at such gatherings. Next, a trip to the home of one of the departed loved one’s relatives and some informal singing. Then, hugs and, “Well, I guess I’d better be gettin’ on home,” and, “Look forward to seeing you again before long, now, alright?”

Tracks 4 and 5

I had asked directions for the fastest way back to Nashville and turned onto the long two-lane road that took me past fields and farm houses on the way back to Highway 45. The album I had been listening to on the way over was playing as I turned onto “45.” In Humboldt, I was to head east, the quickest way to Interstate 40. Then, Track #4, Carl Perkins singing Blue Suede Shoes, began to play. Next out of my speaker was Track #5, Matchbox. Then it dawned on me. Jackson, Tennessee, Perkins’ hometown, was less than 30 minutes away down 45. I decided to head south.

The fact that Jackson is Carl Perkins’ hometown is interesting, but it’s not the real reason I decided on this unnecessary detour. I spent every Christmas and Thanksgiving until I was fourteen years old in Jackson visiting my grandparents and later just Granddaddy after Grandmamma died. Summer vacation weeks there allowed me to make childhood friends in Tennessee in addition to my buddies back home in Mississippi. Jackson, Tennessee has always felt like another hometown to me.

The duck pond and an old house

Mama’s parents, Dewey and Ruby Pittman, lived on Arlington Street near the intersection with Campbell Street when I was a little boy. I drove into Jackson on 45, then Highland, took a right near where The Hut and Georgia’s restaurants used to be and I was on Campbell. I headed toward a landmark I’ll always remember. On Campbell was what we called “the duck pond.” And there it still is.

The duck pond

The duck pond looked amazingly similar to the way I remembered it fifty years before. It even seemed a little bigger. There were some ducks in a yard along toward the back and an old man and an old woman were fishing on the banks. The man was on the north bank, the woman on the west, on the Campbell Street side. “Catching anything?” I asked. She pulled something tiny out of the pond just about that time and laugh/answered, “I think this one might fit in my goldfish bowl!” She removed it from her hook and I wandered along.

Soon, I was a few blocks down on Arlington, looking at the house where my grandparents had lived. It wasn’t the white home it used to be but a kind of off-tan, if that’s a color. Maybe it was the new paint that made it look smaller. Or maybe a ten-year-old’s eyes had made it appear bigger than it really had been in the 1960s. I walked up and down the block and remembered riding my bike along the sidewalks around the neighborhood with my friends.

Sidetracked

Then, the tracks began to call. The railroad tracks that still lead into the old building that once housed the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad’s Iselin Shop. Granddaddy was Master Mechanic, in charge of that whole operation. When I was a kid, he would take me to work with him. I became addicted to the smell of diesel fumes, the sound of locomotive engines and train whistles.

I pulled up to where the tracks go into the freight yard, before they connect with others that allowed many a switch engine to pull boxcars, coal cars, gondolas and cabooses around the yard and in for maintenance. The big old building is home to another business now but the tracks and some locomotives and railroad cars were there, oddly silent on a Saturday afternoon. I walked around the tracks, not going into the yard because I didn’t want the video cameras to make some security guard think I was trespassing. But I remembered when I would have been just visiting.

Old crows and dirty nickels

The many times when I was welcomed as “Mr. Pittman’s grandson,” in The Shop, as Granddaddy called it, flashed into my mind. His secretaries Cecelia Bennett (affectionately called “Ceelie,” by everyone) and Miss Yetta Barhanovich always had candy and hugs. Mr. Buck Kitchins kept his rifle in the trunk of his car and he would take me out to shoot crows off the top of the building. I don’t remember him missing a single crow. On the other hand, I don’t remember hitting a single one. Mr. Buck really took chances that all of the windows would still be intact at the top of The Shop by letting me take my shots.

I was a young engineer looking out the window of a switch engine.

A crusty old wrench-turner named Mr. Smith had a heart of gold that probably matched the tooth always shining when he smiled. He was one of my favorites and Granddaddy always made sure to find him for me. Usually, he could be found in a big pit underneath a grease-dripping locomotive. He seemed to welcome the diversion of cutting up with the boss’s grandson.

“Son, you want a dirty nickel?” Mr. Smith asked every time I saw him. “Yes sir!” I would gleefully answer. After reaching way into his overall pocket, his rough workman’s hand always pulled out the greasiest, blackest, oil-stained nickel that ever existed and handed it to me. At first glance, there was no sign that Thomas Jefferson’s image was heads and his beloved Monticello was tails under the grease that covered the coin. But for me, those dirty nickels may as well have been hundred dollar gold pieces.

The right track…

Still hoping I choose the right track.

It is true that railroad tracks “run both ways.” After walking over them and looking toward the old GM&O Shop and reminiscing, I knew it was time to look the other way, follow them out and head home. Often at times like this, I reflect too philosophically. But as the afternoon sun got closer to the iron rails heading west, I reviewed some of the tracks I’ve taken in life. I wonder if I ever really know which tracks are best to follow at the moment when it’s time to release the brake, sound the bell and the air horn, notch the throttle up and go. Which rails should I take next? Maybe I’ll have to wait for my own memorial service to find out if I am on the right track.

 

Click this photo to hear Les Kerr sing the train song “The Little Rebel”

Text and photos copyright 2018 by Les Kerr.

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The lower lights

Round Island Lighthouse, Pascagoula, Mississippi

Lighthouses speak to me. The first one I remember seeing as a little boy is the Biloxi Lighthouse on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Later, when my family moved to Pascagoula in 1970 and I began to sail, the Round Island Lighthouse just off the coast fascinated me. Long out of service by the time I first saw it, the old brick tower still stood with the top intact. It was there without glass or the lens that rotated a beacon of white to sailors at sea and those who lived along the shore of the Mississippi Sound. The interior where the burned out spiral staircase once stood was now charred black as the result of many impromptu bonfires started in the base by beer-drinking overnight island visitors.

The stilts that held the lighthouse keeper’s home off the sand still stood, though the home was only a memory to a few when I, as a teenager, first came to revere that old lighthouse. I remember sailing out to Round Island alone many times in my twelve-foot Singing River Pram called the Half Moon. I stood in the base of the lighthouse wishing that, somehow, it could share its storied history with me. I would stroll around the beach that surrounded the stand of pine trees that held just enough ground together for it to be called an island.

Lower lights

Hymns speak to me, too. Within the last few months, I have become obsessed with one that uses lighthouses, and the lower lights around them, to illuminate the light of the Lord and the responsibility to help others see it. Let the Lower Lights Be Burning was written in 1871 by Philip Paul Bliss after he heard an inspiring sermon by legendary preacher Dwight Moody. The song is known far and wide. Yet, I had missed it completely until this year when I read the lyrics without hearing the music. In search of something to augment my “morning read,” I began thumbing through an old hymn book called Triumphant Service Songs. I read the lyrics on any random page during my devotional time to help set a more spiritual tone for my day. Ironically, many of the selections of Triumphant Service Songs seem to be out of service, themselves.

The title, Let the Lower Lights be Burning, drew me in immediately and there, in the first line, is a lighthouse. The song describes a sailor caught in a turbulent sea. He sees the lighthouse but needs help in getting his ship to the safety of the harbor marked by its beam. Without guidance, he’ll never make it to shore.

It’s the description of the sailor fighting the angry ocean that I seem to relate to most. Perhaps I have too frequently seen myself as lost and in need of a skillful navigator to show me the way, whichever way I may have been seeking at the moment. Many times I have felt bombarded by the waves of life which have pounded upon me like the tempest tosses the seaman’s vessel in the song. That feeling still occurs more often than I prefer.

It is safe to assume that I am not the only one who has felt a little lost at sea during the journey through life. Like the blues, confusion and lack of direction happen to everyone. Nagging old uncertainty that just settles in, sometimes for no apparent reason, causes those of any cultural, ethnic or economic background to founder a little. Or a lot.

Old lighthouses

While the composer’s image of the lighthouse as the Lord’s word makes a lot of sense to me, I think another picture could be added. I look at people I have known and know now, those solid, dependable ones, who are able to offer calm stability in the in the middle of my personal tempests, as lighthouses, too. My grandfather comes to mind. You have them in your life. Seek them out when you need them.

The words of some who sent signals for safe steerage in the past are still with us, even if they are not. I look to The Preacher who wrote Ecclesiastes. And Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians. Mark Twain, Hunter S. Thompson, Will Rogers, Robert Service, Rudyard Kipling and others. In reading their messages, I sometimes feel as if they know what what is happening in my life and are speaking only to me.

The beacon of a lighthouse showing you exactly where to steer may also sing the proper course to follow. Listening to song lyrics by Kris Kristofferson, Randy Newman, W. C. Handy, Jimmy Buffett, Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Mercer and so many more also gives me guidance that I need now as much as I ever did. Like many an old lighthouse, they are within sight and sound for a reason and they are built to serve.

Click photo to see Les Kerr and Brent Stoker perform the song Old Lighthouse

Text and photo copyright 2018 by Les Kerr.

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Southerners and Irishmen, revisited (song link included)

Les Kerr & The Bayou Band perform their annual St. Patrick's Day Concert at Jimmy Kelly's Steakhouse, Nashville, TN

Les Kerr & The Bayou Band perform their annual St. Patrick’s Day Concert at Jimmy Kelly’s Steakhouse, Nashville, TN

Songwriters are often asked where they get song ideas.  I hope you’ll enjoy this story behind my song, Southerners and Irishmen.

When I lived in Mobile, Alabama in the 1980s, I developed a near-addiction fondness for coffee with chicory, readily available in local grocery stores at very reasonable prices.  New Orleans (where I have also spent a lot of time) is most associated with this flavorful and potent treat, but it’s also found up and down the whole Gulf Coast.  When I moved to Nashville in 1987, I realized that finding it on grocery shelves here was nearly impossible, and always expensive.

So when my performance schedule took me back to the Gulf Coast or New Orleans, my standard operating procedure included loading up at (the late, great) Delchamp’s and other local grocery stores on coffee with chicory.  I chose every opportunity to load up with vacuum-sealed bricks of Community or Café du Monde coffee every time I made it down South.

2018 marks our 24th St. Patrick’s Day appearance at Jimmy Kelly’s in Nashville

In the late 1990s, I had spent a few days in the Mobile Bay area before performing at an event in Destin, Florida.  As usual, I made sure to buy a bunch of coffee to take back home. Around that time I had heard some report about how nostalgic people from Ireland and from the American South become when they leave the familiar places where they were raised.  In my own case, I was raised in Mississippi and had spent a lot of time in New Orleans and I have always felt like coffee with chicory is a way to start the day with a taste that part of the country, which I still so dearly love.

So with my car full of coffee with chicory heading back to Tennessee, the thoughts of this song occurred to me.  I stopped at a roadside gas/convenience store somewhere in Alabama and bought a pad and wrote these lyrics as I drove back home.  Songwriters might relate to this – drive a while, stop and write.  Drive a while, stop and write.

By the time I got back to Nashville, I had finished the song, and it’s been a good one for me.  The recorded version is simple: Robby Shankle plays flute, Jeff Lisenby plays accordion and I sing and play acoustic guitar. It is included on my Bay Street album and you can click the link below to hear it.

I hope you will enjoy the lyrics, printed below.

Click here to hear Southerners and Irishmen

And, by the way, I’m happy to report that coffee with chicory now found in many Nashville grocery stores.  But I still “stock up” every time I’m on the Gulf, just in case!

Southerners and Irishmen
Words and Music by Les Kerr/©1999
 
Southerners and Irishmen always long for home
No matter how far they’re away or how long they’ve been gone
The little things that take them there for moments at a time
Are elevated to a place that’s sacred in their minds
 
To hear a fiddle play a piece of some old Irish reel
Can cause a man from County Cork to genuflect and kneel
A Georgia lady in New York might fall down on her knees
If someone merely speaks the words, “My mama’s black-eyed peas.”
 
Show a cotton boll to a Mississippi son
Or talk about the bluegrass with an old Kentuckian
Find a displaced Dubliner and sing, “Oh, Danny Boy,”
And smiling eyes will soon be filled with grateful tears of joy
 
I do my best to keep a taste of home right close at hand
I guard coffee with chicory like smugglers’ contraband
Be it Irish Whisky or fried chicken with green beans
Southerners and Irishmen are brought home by such things
 
Southerners and Irishmen always long for home
No matter how far they’re away or how long they’ve been gone
Others have a sense of sight, of hearing, touch, and taste
But Southerners and Irishmen are blessed with sense of place
Southerners and Irishmen always long for home
 
Text copyright 2012 by Les Kerr
Learn More about Les & join the e-mail list for free downloads, including Southerners and Irishmen
at www.leskerr.com
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To do: 1-meet Jimmy Dean. 2-do laundry.

The view from the balcony of my apartment after a snowfall.

The view from the balcony of my apartment after a snowfall.

The apartment I rented when I moved to Nashville in 1987 was high on a hill in a complex surrounded by beautiful trees. I was fortunate because mine was on the hill side of the highest point in the complex. When the leaves were just right in the fall, the view was spectacular. I lived there until 1993 and have fond memories of that period.

Early one evening, when I was carrying my laundry across the driveway behind my building to the place where several washing machines and dryers were provided, I stopped to let a big, black limousine pass. But it didn’t pass. It stopped right in front of me. The back door opened and out stepped country music legend Jimmy Dean. I dropped my laundry basket full of dirty clothes. There, beside his limousine, stood the man who had given the world one of the best selling records of all time, Big Bad John. There, beside my dirty clothes stood a young songwriter in awe. I, in my worn-out boat shoes and blue jeans, and he, in his perfectly tailored black western suit and shiny cowboy boots, were within two feet of each other. His fiancée, country singer Donna Meade, lived in the apartment that backed up to mine. He had come to pick her up for a date. I had met Donna not too long before this chance encounter with her soon-to-be husband. Had she been with us, I told myself, she would have certainly introduced us. But since she was still in her apartment, I seized the opportunity.

“Mr. Dean?” I said as I extended my hand.

“Yes, sir, and who might you be?” he answered.

I told him my name and how much I admired him. He politely thanked me for remembering his music. I said I really loved Big Bad John but when I was a kid, the flip-side of that forty-five was the one I went around the house singing. It was an upbeat novelty tune called I Won’t Go Huntin’ With You Jake (But I’ll Go Chasin’ Women).

Jimmy Dean’s face lit up when I mentioned the flip-side of his biggest hit. He flashed a wide grin, let out a loud spontaneous laugh and said, “Son, you won’t believe it but the fellow that wrote that song about chasin’ women wrote some of the biggest gospel songs ever recorded.” The songwriter he mentioned was Stuart Hamblen whose compositions include It Is No Secret (What God Can Do), Known Only To Him and Dear Lord, My Shepherd. And I Won’t Go Huntin’ With You Jake (But I’ll Go Chasin’ Women).

Mr. Dean and I chatted about music for a few minutes and he wished me well in my own career. He was the perfect gentleman during our moments together in the driveway and I’ll always remember how friendly he was. I’ll never forget that genuine smile he showed when I mentioned my preferred song.

Jimmy Dean knocked on Donna Meade’s door and I picked up my dirty clothes and went to the laundry room. I lived on the top of a big hill but right then, it qualified as Cloud 9. A childhood hero had lived up to my expectation of being like the person he had described in Big Bad John – a big, big man.

Text and photos ©2013 Les Kerr. Learn More about Les at www.leskerr.com

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Comfort and joy

 

Perhaps God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen is my favorite Christmas carol because I aspire to maintain the countenance of a “merry gentleman,” myself. The song is cheerful and positive, as upbeat now as it must have been when sung with gusto in 18th Century England. It also has a dandy rhythm. I like that.

The Hymnbook, the old red one-my favorite, was published in 1955 jointly by the Presbyterian Church of the United States, Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, United Presbyterian Church of North America and Reformed Church in America. In the mid-fifties, these organizations represented factions of the Church with differences between them. Differences strong enough to keep them separate from each other, while still maintaining basic Presbyterian principles.

But they all agreed on at least one thing: Selection 166 in The Hymnbook used by each group would be God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman. It’s a hit, with all the things modern songwriters revere: catchy lyrics, strong melody, memorable hook line, and a universality that makes it appeal to the masses.

Good news

According to Webster’s Seventh Collegiate Dictionary, the word “tiding” means “a piece of good news – usually used in plural.” So today, I hope the tidings you hear will be the ones admonished to the proverbial merry gentlemen: Comfort and joy. And I hope we will all find comfort and joy throughout the coming year.

Merry Christmas, Y’all!

Click here to listen to Nat “King” Cole sing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.

Text and photos copyright 2017 by Les Kerr.

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My thirty-five white Christmases

My mother always gave me underwear for Christmas. She did this until I was thirty-five years old, the year before she died. I think it was her way of reminding me that she was “mom,” no matter how old I was. She would give me other presents, too, but I could always count on some new Hanes briefs and V-neck t-shirts.

In 1986, I was asked to contribute a Christmas poem to the Azalea City News and Review, a fine weekly newspaper published in Mobile, Alabama, where I lived then. Of all Christmas poems, stories, books, songs, movies, dioramas, printed reminiscences and TV shows, I had never seen one that focused on underwear, so I decided to make my own mark in the holiday tribute genre with that topic.

My mother and step-father lived just across Mobile Bay in Montrose, Alabama when the poem was published. Mom was beside herself to be referenced in print and took the paper to the drug store, restaurants and the beauty shop to show her friends. I’m glad she liked it and I hope you will enjoy it, too. Remember, snow is not the only thing that can give you a White Christmas.

The poem as it appeared in the Azalea City News & Review, December, 1986

The poem as it appeared in the Azalea City News & Review, December, 1986

Christmas is Always White

It’s Christmas when I’m given
Many things I’d never buy
A drug store gift cologne set
A green and yellow tie
No matter how mundane the gifts
Impractical or bold
My mother always saves the day
With something I can fold
 
Mom always gives me underwear
It looks so nice and white
The new stuff always lasts me
All the way to New Year’s Night
Then I have to wash it all
And put it in a drawer
With all my other skivvies
Which were washed and worn before
 
 
But memories of opening
The box of virgin cloth
Last me many lonely moments
As the new wears off
So, Mom, I’d like to thank you
For making Christmas bright
You always give me underwear
And Christmas is always white

Text and photos copyright 1986, 2012 by Les Kerr. Visit Les Kerr’s web site at www.leskerr.com

Click photo to view Les Kerr’s online CD and download catalogue.

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