You can still hear that fiddle cry, down in the valley low
As a full-time working musician I get asked two questions frequently. The first has a very typical flow.
“What do you do, Jake?”
“I’m a musician.”
“But what do you do for work?
“I write and play music.”
“Yeah, but how do you make money?”
“I write and play music.”
Usually the inquirer leaves not quite understanding how a person can live off of music. I smile, half wonder the same thing, then go back to my pint.
The second question is my favorite: How did you start playing music?
Since I can remember, I was singing along with whatever came to my ears. I was raised on Southern Gospel music, my first big concert was the Gaither Vocal Band. We drove when we went on vacation and I would get lost in my headphones for days on end. My imagination carried me to the performance stage. Those songs pounding through my Walkman became my own and I pictured myself singing to the crowd.
I spent a lot of time at my grandma’s house. Music was my escape. I could crawl into my favorite albums when I didn’t know how else to cope with life. At the age of twelve I pointed at the guitar that always leaned in the corner of her room.
“Grandma, how do you do that?”
Life is about asking the right questions. She showed me how to form a few chords, and wrote out the arrangement for Amazing Grace on a small piece of paper. Over the last ten years, that paper has hung on my wall wherever I live. She probably wouldn’t have understood my punk rock phase, but otherwise I think she would be proud of what she started.
Grandma Turner passed away my senior year of high school. She went in for a rather routine surgery, and never came back out. I was borrowing her guitar for a few weeks prior to her passing. Days before she passed, we talked on the phone.
“Grandma, do you need me to bring your guitar back soon?”
“No, it’s okay. I won’t be needing it. Keep it for a while.”
I’m not sure if she knew what was coming, but as soon as I got the news of her death, her words drifted through my mind. If I remember correctly, I was pretty terrible at guitar. Grandma never let that stop her from encouraging me or bragging on my “talent” to passersby. She knew how much I enjoyed playing and creating and she protected that.
“Talented” gets thrown around a lot in art. I’ve never been one to say it about myself. I can’t tune a guitar by ear. I can’t play by ear. I don’t know the rules. I write songs or progressions through trial and error. I’m sure it’s a painful process for anyone unlucky enough to be within earshot. I don’t have musical talent, I have iron willed determination. From that day in 1999 to 200 hundred shows in 2018, I’m playing like grandma taught me.
- Little Jake