About the song: The Wrong Way Home

Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers tenor banjoThe second song on the Almost There album began life on a May Bell tenor banjo built back in the 1920s. The banjo was a wedding present and inscribed for the occasion (more on that below), and I’ve recorded one other song with it: “My Life Doesn’t Rhyme” on the Humming My Way Back Home CD.

The May Bell has an evocative sound, brash but with a beautiful natural reverb, and I like to think it was once strummed in a Dixieland band. Now I have no idea how to play the tenor banjo properly, and that’s often an ideal scenario for a songwriter. When you don’t know what you are supposed to do, you can just stumble around and explore. Ignorance can be creative bliss. I used a real tenor tuning (C G D A) rather than putting the banjo into a familiar guitar-like tuning, and I played with my fingers, in a kinda sorta clawhammer style (which I also do not know how to do correctly, and which is really a five-string banjo technique anyway).

Eventually this song idea migrated over to the guitar. I had a melody but only snippets of lyrics, and at one point I recorded an instrumental version for possible use in a video documentary—which in turn inspired me to finally finish a set of lyrics. All this happened over the course of several years. Songs, I find, arrive on their own schedule.

When we were in the studio recording Almost There, I first did a track of this song with guitar, but when I decided to retake it in a follow-up session I remembered about the original banjo part. So I got the May Bell out of its dusty case, which felt more than a little weird because I got divorced a few years back and the drum is decorated with congratulations for my wedding—my then-wife’s name is written in bold purple letters right above the strings. Once I got past my initial discomfort, though, I loved the way the song came across on the banjo, and in the privacy of my home studio I ceased thinking about the instrument’s personal associations and just got swept away by the sound.

I wound up recording both banjo and guitar tracks for the final album version. Wendy Ramsay sang harmony and came up with a nice little countermelody on the glockenspiel, Josh Dekaney played percussion and chimes, and John Dancks played bass.

At the hometown CD release show, this song presented a quandary. I wanted to perform the songs as closely as possible to the studio versions, but I’d never played the banjo onstage, and in particular I wasn’t sure I could handle playing this banjo onstage, with its billboard reminder of my divorce. I could, of course, replace the drum, or I could somehow color over the inscriptions and my ex-wife’s name. But neither of those options felt right. They would be covering up the May Bell’s history and my own history, and not honoring the generosity and love of those who gave it to me.

So ultimately I played the May Bell onstage for this song, and I’m glad I did. My marriage ended, but I still have that banjo. I’ve thought a lot about this since—how we all live with mementos of past experiences that we may prefer to forget. We can try to get those things of our sight, but we can’t erase our past, nor should we. It’s inseparable from where we are and who we are.

The best we can do, it seems to me, is to take what we have…and try to make music with it.

THE WRONG WAY HOME

Words and music by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers

There’s a black wing circling a brown dirt hill
And the crunch of gravel in the noonday still
With the bottle empty and the hour so long
Taking the wrong way home

The fog has lifted and the signs are clear
We’re halfway going from there to here
There’s no mistaking which road we’re on
Taking the wrong way home
Taking the wrong way home

Where the sea runs dry under blackened sky
I hang my soul to the wind
When the edges fray, I blow away
Ah…

There’s a time for running and a time for rest
There’s a deeper valley when you reach the crest
And you can see nothing but to get along
Taking the wrong way home
Taking the wrong way home

Where the sea runs dry under blackened sky
I’m bound against my will
Try to save a life with a rusted knife
Ah…

“Enough About You” live video

Here’s a clip of “Enough About You (What About Me)” from the Almost There CD release concert 10/11/14 at Steeple Coffeehouse, Fayetteville, New York. JPR, guitar and vocal; Wendy Ramsay, backing vocal; Josh Dekaney, percussion kit and backing vocal; John Dancks, upright bass.

Like-a, like-a, ooh, like-a, like-a.

About the song: Eight Days in January

Like my song “Fly,” “Eight Days in January” is based on a fiddle tune—as you might have guessed, “The Eighth of January.” Fiddle tunes have always struck me as some of the world’s happiest sounds, made for dancing and celebration. In “Fly” I followed the festive feel of the underlying fiddle tune (“Sally Goodin”), but with “Eight Days” I married the bouncy music with a ruefully sad story, and the contrast between those two moods is really what the song is about.

“Eight Days” started when I happened to discover that the Strumstick is great for playing fiddle tunes. If you’re not familiar with the Strumstick, it’s a little three-stringed cross between a guitar and a dulcimer, with a diatonic fingerboard that gives you only the notes in one key. (I’m now the proud owner of both a G model, used on this song, and a D model.)

Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers with Strumstick

Photo by Juan Junco

The Strumstick is just fun as hell to play, and amazingly loud too; it also gave me my song “Humming My Way Back Home.” Perhaps the best-known Strumstick player I’ve come across is Tracy Chapman. I first heard one in the hands of the great singer-songwriter Jennifer Kimball, and in particular was blown away by her gorgeous Strumstick song “My New Vow.”

Anyway, strumming my Strumstick, I got rolling on the idea of telling a story with a verse for every day from January 1 through January 8, riffing off of some painful truths from my life as well as making up stuff. I didn’t know at the time that there were other songs based on “The Eighth of January” (notably Johnny Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans”), but I wasn’t surprised to learn later that others had picked up on this catchy tune.

Rani Arbo photo by Joanna Chapman

Rani Arbo photo by Joanna Chapman

Making the band arrangement for the Almost There album was a blast. The core track was recorded live in the studio, with me on Strumstick and vocal, Wendy Ramsay on accordion, Josh Dekaney on rub board and percussion kit, and John Dancks on upright bass. The absolute coolest thing was: we recorded it on January 8.

In the months before recording I’d had a few chances to perform this song with the fabulous fiddler and singer Rani Arbo, and she really put “Eight Days” over the top. So a few weeks after the studio session, I made a trip to her house in Connecticut to record her parts on my laptop. I particularly love the instrumental section, where we veer unexpectedly into a minor key.

In the song’s narrative, finding “The Eighth of January” makes the narrator feel better despite everything. Music does that for me all the time, bringing unreasonable joy.

LYRICS

On the 1st of January, crawling out of bed

Like a half-inch staple is sticking in my head
I don’t see my dog curled up on the floor
Stumble on his belly and slam into the door

On the 2nd of January, got to get to work
Finish up a project for a freakin’ jerk
Yeah, he knows it’s my vacation, but after all
Gotta have it by tomorrow or the sky will fall

Hey now, won’t you meet me by the river
Hey now, won’t you throw me right in
Hey now, won’t you please deliver
Got a sinking feeling but I got to swim

On the 3rd of January I lock myself out
I’m banging on the window with a desperate shout
But the only one listening inside my place
He wags his tail when he sees my face

On the 4th of January my baby is trying
To explain about a fellow she met online
Such a perfect stranger, no history
Not a heap of baggage like she got with me

Chorus

On the 5th of January I’ve got to ask why
Staring in the mirror I find this guy
Needs a freakin’ coffee and a freakin’ shave
Got one foot down in the freakin’ grave

On the 6th of January I hear a little tone
From a new text message arriving on my phone
On the airport taxi all my baby has to say
Are these six characters: C U L 8 R J

On the 7th of January a storm blows in
Finally shovel out the driveway, the plow comes again
Leaves an icy bank about six feet high
I throw my shovel and begin to cry

On the 8th of January I come across this song
So freakin’ cheerful can’t help but sing along
Such a perky melody and chipper little chords
I sing it and I sing it like I’m out of my gourd

Chorus

 

Complete lyrics now posted

I’ve just finished posting all the lyrics to three albums—Almost There; Stop, Drop, and Roll; and Humming My Way Back Homeon a brand new lyrics section of this site.

Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers CDsAlso, the lyrics to Almost There are posted on Bandcamp—and if you download the album there you’ll be able to access the lyrics on your phone too. Cool, eh?

The lyrics pages are part of a website redesign/overhaul that, given the profusion of content I’ve posted over the years (about albums, books, DVDs, lessons, photography, etc.), is going to take a while. Please bear with me during this transitional phase in which some links will still take you to the old website.

 

The Acoustic Guitar Project on Bridge Street TV

This morning I went on the TV show Bridge Street along with fellow songwriter Ashley Cox to talk about the 9/26 Acoustic Guitar Project Concert in Syracuse, in which ten songwriters wrote and recorded a song in a week on the same guitar. Ashley and I both performed the songs we wrote for the project. Here are the videos.

The interview:

Ashley’s song, “Get Wise”:

My song, “Till I’m Alone with You” (the first two thirds of it, anyway):

Find more info on the concert, and get advance tickets, at the Folkus Project website.

The big launch

Almost There CDs

First look at the CDs.

In the four years since my last album, I’ve forgotten to some degree how intense the experience is of bringing something like this into the world. From creating the songs, to crafting band arrangements, to figuring out how translate that sound onto record, to designing artwork, to sweating every micro detail down to the fractions of seconds between songs…it’s an all-consuming process. And since I am in charge of everything—these are my songs, released on my own label—there’s absolutely nothing to hide behind.

So it feels momentous to put such a thing out there. Thrilling. A little scary.

But when the album comes out next month, it’s time for me to let go—because the album becomes yours then too. What will you feel or picture when you listen to the songs? Where will you take them? That, ultimately, is what matters. I make music to try to build a bridge between me and you.

Last week I launched the Kickstarter campaign for this album. Please take a moment to watch the video (and you’ll get to see a scene-stealing cameo from my dog, Waldo), and consider preordering the album or some of the many other goodies offered there (DVDs, lessons, photos…). Pledges start at $1. Everthing helps, including sharing this project with your friends!

In the meantime, if you’d like to hear some of the new songs live, I’m playing a free online album preview show on Sept. 28. Tune in and say hello! On the show calendar you’ll find a bunch of other upcoming events, including a TV talk-show appearance on 9/23.

Thanks, as always, for staying tuned, and for supporting independent music. Happy fall!
Cheers,
JPR