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.

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Two Longs, A Short and A Long (song link included)

As the grandson of a railroad man, I grew up hearing more than my fair share of stories about trains. I spent a lot of time with my grandfather, Dewey Pittman, especially after he retired and moved to an apartment my parents had fixed up for him in our backyard in Pascagoula. While he and I shelled black-eyed peas, picked the best tomatoes from a roadside stand and when he helped me learn to drive a car, he always found a reason to talk about trains.

When he stopped driving, I was often his designated chauffeur. Once, as we stopped at a railroad crossing after the red and white crossing bar was down but before the oncoming locomotive arrived, he said, “Listen – here it comes!”

“The train?” I asked. “I can see it.”

“No,” he said impatiently. “Listen for the whistle.”

Then I heard four urgent, lonesome air whistle blasts. The engineer made two long pulls on the whistle, one much shorter, and then another long one.

“You could set a railroad watch By that old crossing bell”

“That’s the whistle code for a crossing,” Granddaddy said as he smiled at me. “The engineer is required to use just that pattern so you’ll know the locomotive is coming. Other blasts are for bridges or just to let people know they’d better get off the track if they don’t want to get hit. But two longs, a short and a long always mean the train’s coming to a crossing.”

“Pass the torn-down market and the old Masonic hall.”

Thirty years later, after I had moved to Nashville, I lived near the railroad crossing on Old Harding Road near Bellevue Road. A minor back problem woke me up several nights in a row around 1:30 a.m. At precisely 1:40 each morning, I heard the train speak its language to my darkened community as it passed between the then torn-down Bellevue Market on one side and the Masonic lodge on the other as the crossing gates fell. Two longs, a short, and a long. I checked the railroad approved wristwatch I wore each time. Yep, it’s train time.

A song came out of those nights hearing the train go by and memories of my grandfather. To this day, I still wear my railroad approved wristwatch and look for slices of life that happen as they should. And each time I have to wait for a train to pass before crossing a railroad track is a chance to remember the locomotive’s lonesome song: Two longs, a short and a long.

Click the image of the “torn-down” market steps below to listen to “Two Longs, A Short and A Long.”

Two Longs, a Short and a Long

Two Longs, a Short and a Long; a diesel locomotive’s crossing song
One forty every morning, roll through Bellevue, then you’re gone
Two Longs, a Short and a Long

This time of night there’s no need to slow down
Hi-balling through a sleeping little town
You pass the torn down market and the old Masonic hall
You ain’t disturbing anyone at all

I begin to ramble in my mind
When I hear you rumbling down the line
I want to climb into the cab and let you take me far away
But I’ll wake up right here come break of day

You could set a railroad watch by that old crossing bell
You’re always right on schedule with your lonesome tale to tell

Three diesel engines, headlights burning bright
Pulling freight and tank cars through the night
You’re hauling railroad memories I just can’t turn a loose
You can’t un-couple dreams like an old caboose

Copyright 2003 by Les Kerr
Publisher: O.N.U. Music, Nashville, Tennessee ASCAP

Click the steps of the “torn-down market” to hear Two Longs, A Short and A Long

Text and photos copyright 2002, 2017 by Les Kerr.

Click to order Les Kerr’s 2016 Bay Street CD (includes Two Longs, A Short and A Long). Also available on ITunes, Amazon and other online outlets.

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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

As the Bayou Band and I get ready to play our annual St. Patrick’s Day Concert at Jimmy Kelly’s Steakhouse in Nashville on March 17, this song and its story come to mind. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about how the song came about and that you’ll join us for our show!

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 resonable 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 whenever 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.

2017 marks our 23rd 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 anevent 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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“Saints”

“Saints.”  Say that word to a New Orleans jazzman and he will know what you mean.  If you are in the French Quarter on the street or in a club, he also may respond by extending the hand not holding his horn as he looks you in the eye and says, “Fifty.”  You may then reach into your pocket in search of a green/gray piece of paper with Ulysses S. Grant’s picture engraved on it.  If you can’t find a Grant, a Jackson may do – possibly a Hamilton but never less than two Lincolns (paper, not copper).  What you will learn with no uncertainty from this exchange is that to get your toe tapping to the familiar notes that follow the words, “Oh, When the…,” it’s a matter of dollars and Saints.

I heard it from “his master’s voice”

My mom’s huge hi-fi

These thoughts come to mind around Mardi Gras or anytime during the year when my Bayou Band and I play When the Saints Go Marching In.  My earliest memory of it comes from my mother’s record collection.  She loved the music of New Orleans trumpeter Al Hirt and Crescent City clarinetist Pete Fountain and played their records on our big, furniture-sized RCA Victor Hi-Fi every night after I went to bed.  Along with Basin Street Blues and South Rampart Street Parade, “Saints,” always marched in as sure as the turntable went around and around.

As I grew older and became more familiar with New Orleans music and especially Louis Armstrong’s version of the song, it dawned on me that of all the songs ever linked to places, “Saints” is one of the strongest.  And unlike New York, New York, Kansas City, Tennessee Waltz and other songs about places, the city itself is not mentioned in the lyrics.  That’s because the song organically became part of New Orleans culture originally through churches, then parades, funerals, parties, nightclubs and any number of special occasions where an upbeat song came in handy.

According to author Thomas Brothers in Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans, Satchmo himself said about jazz, “It all came from the Old Sanctified Churches.”  Brothers also writes that the rhythm and movement to music by the Sanctified Church members, who called themselves “saints,” showed unity among those whose denomination was perceived to be inhabited by the lowest social class in New Orleans.  He then asserts that around 1900, church music, most likely including When the Saints Go Marching In, began to creep into New Orleans dance halls through musicians such as the legendary Buddy Bolden.

And when the sun…

Les Kerr & The Bayou Band playing “Saints”

There are probably as many theories as to where the content for the lyrics of “Saints” originated as there are versions and verses of the song.  One popped into my head a few years ago at Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville where I am a member.  The scripture came from the book of Acts.  It occurred to me as I read along that I was reading some of the very references found in the version of the song I sing.  I adapted it from David Cohn’s 1930s classic book God Shakes Creation.  Cohn went to a church attended by sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta and transcribed When the Saints Go Marching In as he heard it that day.  Based on those lyrics, this is how I heard our scripture reading in the 21st Century:

Acts 2, verse 20 (King James Version) states: The sun shall be turned into darkness. I heard, “And when the sun refuse to shine; and when the sun refuse to shine.”

Verse 20 continues:  and the moon [turned] into blood.  I heard, “And when the moon goes down in blood; and when the moon goes down in blood.”

Verse 21 sums it up with: Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.  I heard, “I want to be in that number,” and don’t we all, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

So the next time you’re in New Orleans and ask a horn player for “Saints,” don’t be offended if you’re asked for money in return for the tune.  Just think of it as putting a little something in the collection plate.

I couldn’t resist including a little “Saints” at the end of my song Below the Level of the Sea. Click here to listen.

Recommended reading: Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans by Thomas Brothers                                                                                                                                                   Where I Was Born and Raised by David L. Cohn (includes God Shakes Creation)

Photos & text copyright 2012 Les Kerr                                                                                     Below the Level of the Sea from the CD New Orleans Set.  Words & music copyright 1988

Visit Les Kerr’s web site at  www.leskerr.com

This blog was originally posted in February, 2012.

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Understand the Blues (contains free song download)

335-copyIt isn’t always necessary to know someone very well to figure out if something’s disturbing them. Sometimes, you don’t have to know them at all. Language isn’t important, either. It’s not necessary to understand them or to even hear them speak. You can see they have the blues.

Once, while standing in line at the post office, I noticed the sound of several dialects being spoken by others in line and at the counter. I heard what I believed to be Spanish, Middle Eastern, perhaps Romanian or Czechoslovakian and my own good old Southern-style English. Each person speaking was talking with someone who sounded like they did, either in a native tongue or in English with a thick accent. I wondered how much we could understand each other if we were all in one conversation.

Then, it dawned on me. If one of us needed help or had to communicate that something was wrong, we would all immediately understand. Perhaps we couldn’t get the specifics, but we’d know they were unhappy. We could tell the blues was in ‘em.

The idea for this song came from that moment of realization in 2000 in the Bellevue, Tennessee post office that no matter what language is native to any of us, we all Understand the Blues.

Click here to listen and download Understand the Blues free. (free download through Feb. 8, 2017).

Understand the Blues
Words and Music by Les Kerr
©2000 Publisher: O.N.U. Music (ASCAP)

We’re going multi-cultural in this wide world of ours
It’s putting quite a strain on all of my linguistic powers
If you’re not bilingual, you can’t get your business done
But I found me a way I can relate to everyone
Spaniards hablan Espanol and Frenchmen parlez vous
But you can speak my language if you Understand the Blues

The Blues is spoken ‘round the world by women and by men
By anyone who’s lost a dollar, peso, pound or yen
You’re lover leaves you cryin’; your l’amour bids you adieu
Then you know what I’m talkin’ ‘bout, you Understand the Blues

Music is the universal language, so they say
But the most common dialect is in the Blues today
This accent’s heard in every voice, no matter what they speak
It’s part of every tongue from Mandalay to Mozambique
From Australia’s land Down Under to the mountains of Peru
Ain’t a living, breathing soul who doesn’t Understand the Blues

We know about the differences between each foreign land
We say, “They speak a language no one here can understand.”
The nations search for common ground but I know this is true:
In one way they’re united ‘cause they Understand the Blues

Ain’t a living, breathing soul who doesn’t Understand the Blues

Text and photos copyright 2017 by Les Kerr

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Tennessee at The Kennedys

Tennessee

Tennessee was well represented at the 39th Annual Kennedy Center Honors. Almost all of the musicians who performed to honor the recipients had a connection with the state and its music. Beginning with Ringo Starr, who recorded his Beaucoups of Blues album with The Jordanaires, Pete Drake and others in Nashville, many who appeared had a current or past musical relationship with Tennessee. If not a deep involvement, they had, at least, a passing acquaintance with one of the country’s most melodious states.

Memphis Bonnie Raitt, who paid tribute to Mavis Staples, has performed many times in Nashville, including a 2016 two-day stint at Ryman Auditorium. While she and others honored the gospel-pop queen, images of 45 RPM Staples Singers records produced at MemphisStax Records twirled about. A film clip of Mavis’ performance at the 1972 Wattstax festival underlined the significance of the legendary Memphis studio.

  Nashville

It is easy to hear the influence of Nashville’s country and Memphis’ blues in James Taylor’s music. From Sweet Baby James to Steamroller Blues, Taylor has acknowledged his musical influences throughout his career. To celebrate his status as a Kennedy Center honoree, current Nashvillians Garth Brooks, Sheryl Crow and Darius Rucker took the stage individually and collectively to perform. While a man who wears a big black cowboy hat may not invoke images of a soft-spoken, articulate folk singer, Brooks has often spoken of Taylor’s influence on his music and his life. He even named his daughter Taylor after James.

In the 1970s, the last thing many may have expected to hear on a pop record was a five-string banjo. But there is one on The Eagles’ 1972 record of Jackson Browne’s Take It Easy. Some call the music they created “country rock” and some call it “folk rock,” but however you describe it, the influence of hillbilly roots cannot be denied. So it was only appropriate that Country Music Hall of Fame member Vince Gill delivered one of their classics, Peaceful Easy Feeling, and Nashville-based rockers Kings of Leon performed Take It Easy during the honors program.

Classical pianist and Kennedy Center honoree Martha Argerich was treated to a performance by Itzhak Perlman. Perlman performed at Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center to officially reopen the concert hall after it was devastated by 2010 flooding.

The music of Tennessee, itself, was honored by the presence of so many it has influenced at the 39th Annual Kennedy Center Honors.

Text and photos copyright 2017 by Les Kerr.

Click to order Les Kerr's 2016 Bay Street CD. Also available on ITunes, Amazon and other online outlets.

Click to order Les Kerr’s 2016 Bay Street CD. Also available on ITunes, Amazon and other online outlets.

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Still on the farm

Songwriting tools.

My songwriting tools.

“I took a bull to the sale barn today and ‘bull’ is what they offered me. But sometimes you just have to take what they’ll pay and pray it gets better, you see.”

That’s almost a direct quote from a conversation I had years ago with my cousin Jim Starks in Louisville, Mississippi. It’s also a line from a song I wrote called Still on the Farm, inspired by the conversation Jim and I were having when he said those words. He was married to my mother’s first cousin, Jane. With their sons Jim and Michael, Jim and Jane lived on land that included a pecan orchard and some cattle.

Jim was talking from the perspective of an agricultural businessman. What he said speaks to anyone in any kind of business they pursue, come hell or high water, because they love it. A performing songwriter like me, a pharmacy owner, a freelance writer or computer consultant can relate. Any sole proprietor determined to make a go of it understands exactly what Jim said.

For several years in the 1990s, about the time Jim and I had that conversation, I wrote articles for Tennessee Cattle Business magazine. I literally interviewed farmers “out standing in their fields,” pastures, barns or farm houses to learn about learn about them, why they liked a certain breed and what they wanted to share with other cattlemen about methods that worked for them. One breathtakingly hot summer day in West Tennessee I drove up a dirt road and stopped between a farmer’s barn and his house. My interview subject, wearing jeans and a sweat-soaked plaid shirt with sleeves rolled up to his elbows, met me at my car and led me over to his cattle so I could photograph them for my story.

“How’s the cattle business?” I cheerfully asked.                                                                     “We’re workin’ too hard to still be so hungry,” he laughed. “But we still work, no matter what.”

They say songwriters and reporters are never off-duty. When you have the habits of both, sometimes you find yourself working two jobs at the same time. This man’s dedication and reply stuck with me, as Jim Starks’ words did, and I realized a song was coming along. “Hungry” was awkward for me to rhyme so I took the cattleman’s reply to my question and put my own brand on it. It came out: “We’re working too hard to be this close to broke but I’m thankful we’re still on the farm.”

Jim and Jane are no longer alive but I think about them often. I think about that farmer, too, and hope he doesn’t still feel unduly hungry for the amount of work, sweat and belief he and his family must have put into their farm in the twenty years that have passed since I talked to him in the broiling Tennessee heat. One thing he and Jim both understood was that they were responsible for their own success and it was up to them to find a way to make it work.

If you toil in a field you love, as I do, I hope you are still on the farm.

Click here to listen to Still on the Farm from Les Kerr’s Bay Street album.

Still on the Farm

Kudzu

Kudzu

If kudzu could somehow become a cash crop
If cotton brought ten bucks a pound
And, Lord, if this dry spell ever would stop
We might turn this old farm around

I took a bull to the sale barn today
And “bull” is what they offered me
But sometimes, you just have to take what they’ll pay
And pray it gets better, you see

I’ve got a good wife and a good family
And the Good Lord to keep us from harm
We’re working too hard to be this close to broke
But I’m thankful we’re still on the farm
One more year, we’re still on the farm

I saw a friend at the co-op today
Who told me he’s selling his place
He said those old taxes were too hard to pay
And a teardrop rolled right down his face

Sometimes, I wonder why I’m hanging on
As shaky as this life can be
But what would I do if this old farm was gone?
No, that’s not an option for me

The fair-market price for a labor of love
Is not paid in money, it seems
You reap your reward when the going gets rough
And you don’t give up on your dreams

I’ve got a good wife and a good family
And the Good Lord to keep us from harm
We’re working too hard to be this close to broke
But I’m thankful we’re still on the farm
One more year, we’re still on the farm
One more year, we still own this farm

Words and music copyright 2002 by Les Kerr Publisher: O.N.U. Music (ASCAP)

Click to order Les Kerr's 2016 Bay Street CD. Also available on ITunes, Amazon and other online outlets.

Click to order Les Kerr’s 2016 Bay Street CD. Also available on ITunes, Amazon and other online outlets.

Text and photos copyright 2016 by Les Kerr.

 

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