Last week I was fishing on the great North Platte River in Wyoming. It’s one of the few perks of being a an artist and songwriter. I get to go play for people in faraway places and sometimes there’s time enough to do shit like fish and eat.
There is nothing really like it- the North Platte and the west that is.
The great river rolls dark and mysterious through an African-like landscape against a deep blue sky. It’s so clear out on the horizon that you can see thunderclouds plummeting toward the abyss 40 miles away. You can see the craters on the moon if it decides to poke its head up for you. The sage lights up day glow- green and as you reach out in the midst of it, if you pay attention, you can feel where it is you begin and end.
I spent the day with my great Wyoming friends. We laughed and talked and had breakfast under the apple tree. They are the most wonderful people – I love them dearly and they love me. But I found after much time spent there in the west that there is a dimension of my experience and myself that they are terminally interested in but will never completely understand. And it really was the driving force that, after ten years brought me back into the Nashville fold.
I was here in Nashville for 20 years before moving out there. My explosive creative years happened here. Twenty years of peers, musicians and adventurers remain here somewhere in the bowels of my heart and still curious mind. The guys I drove and sweated and dreamed with on wild, booze-soaked rides across America and Europe for 75 bucks and a crappy gig still loom, bent-faced, in the shadows of clubs like The Family Wash and the Basement.
Most of the friends and musicians I made in the west were wonderful but they weren’t those fellow crow’s nest dwellers that joined me on a version of Melville’s cosmic whaling ship ride to nowhere. Those travelers know who I am 100 percent. They know me better than I know myself. I cut my teeth with them. I found myself needing them close by to remind me of who I really am as an artist and to help me process what is real and not real in terms of this creative life we’ve chosen. I’ve looked for home in a lot of places but I’ve come to call them home.
You know the guys.
They live on your street in music towns like Nashville.
They threw everything they owned into a beat up old car, and with $200 in their pockets, drove halfway across the country — or world — to follow their dreams because they couldn’t live with themselves if they didn’t.
In the outback that is a small American town at the base of the Rocky Mountains where I had the privilege of living for the past ten years, I didn’t find much of that.
Most of the writers and musicians in that small town were the ones that never had the gumption or insanity inside themselves to throw it all away and leave. The feeling of usefulness can be absent or hard to come by for a songwriter in that remote corner of America. The pursuit is not held in high regard. It’s mostly perceived as something of hobby. I don’t need a pat on the back or a smile of understanding that often, but I found myself needing to come back here to the pack, as a wild dog, where the worth of my lifelong efforts as a songwriter and artist are presumed to be useful, if not admired.
I spent ten years out there telling people I was a songwriter. They didn’t really know what to do with that. They would look at you jealously and tell you that it must be great to travel the world and be free, or better yet, just give you a blank stare as they punched the factory time clock in their head. They would wonder why you still had to work a day job in order to survive despite the fact you were so “brilliant.”
One thing I find here that I can’t seem to find anywhere else is that any songwriter from Nashville (at least if spiritually fit and in his middle age) knows that success of any piece of work, no matter how good, is proportionately thrown off or accentuated by an elusive commodity known as dumb luck. That realization is the only way he can forgive himself as he struggles on to perpetuate the muse. They don’t get that anywhere else.
There is camaraderie that lives here that is beyond words and an understanding that transcends the ethos of the normal day. There is a kinship of artistic humility in flesh and blood sitting down at the end of the bar wondering what the fuck happened and a place to be of service in that.
I had to live somewhere else to figure that out. Recently, I asked old friend and peer Joe McMahan of Luella and the Sun why he never left Nashville, as it’s evident that it has always been a struggle for him with the overabundance of brilliant talent that exists here. ” I thought about it at one point,” he said. “But then one night I was sitting on a front porch in East Nashville drinking whiskey with Kevin Gordon and (quirky guitar hero/hillbilly savant) George Bradfute and I realized at that moment I couldn’t be having this conversation with these two characters anywhere else in the world.” He said he became grateful for that and stayed.
In the outer reaches there is space. A driving force in the development of a relationship with the cosmos and the muse that is irreplaceable. It’s something to be looked at, contemplated and experienced. It’s an emptiness that encompasses our being and when touched and tasted it changes the way I interact and relate to you when we meet on the street. And then there is the earth which is the people: your people — your peers. And I find even if I don’t see them all the time, knowing they are right down the street, or across the bar serving me drinks, keeps me anchored with what’s really going on here. It’s a grounding relationship that keeps me in tune to who I am as an artist– as I found keeping one foot firmly planted in the earth is the only way I can truly touch the sky.
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Jeff Finlin is a singer songwriter living in Nashville Tn. His song “Sugar Blue” was featured in the Cameron feature film Elizabethtown. He has released ten records. The newest, “My Moby Dick” is available on Bent Wheel Records.