About the song: Don’t Think That I Can Say Goodbye

“Don’t Think That I Can Say Goodbye,” from the Almost There album, is one of those new songs that feels like it has an old soul. During the writing process, I kept picturing a Nashville songwriter in the ’50s or ’60s… But I don’t know country music from that era very well at all, and I couldn’t pinpoint a connection to any specific songs or artists.

A couple of days before Almost There came out, I was getting ready to interview the brilliant guitar duo of Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge for Acoustic Guitar magazine. I was listening to their album Avalon, and the song “Keep Me from Blowing Away” knocked me out—at first simply because it’s a gorgeous song and performance, and then because it suddenly struck me that this song comes from a similar emotional and musical place as “Don’t Think That I Can Say Goodbye.”

Anyway, I did some research about “Keep Me Blowing Away” and the songwriter, Paul Craft, who was indeed a Nashville writer and a friend of Chris Eldridge’s dad, Ben (banjo player in the Seldom Scene). I shared this anecdote, and my new CD, with Julian and Chris when we met. And about a week later, I heard that Craft passed away. He arrived in my world and left so abruptly.

One unusual aspect of “Don’t Think That I Can Say Goodbye” is that it has an outtake verse that I like just as much as the verses that I sang on the album. I include it below. Which do you think is better?

JPR and Wendy Ramsay in the studio. Photo by Juan Junco.

JPR and Wendy Ramsay in the studio. Photo by Juan Junco.

We recorded the album version live in the studio, with me on lead vocal and guitar, Wendy Ramsay on harmony vocal and clarinet, Josh Dekaney on percussion kit, and John Dancks on upright bass. The only overdub was Rani Arbo’s fiddle, recorded a few weeks later in her house. The instrumental section, where the guitar and clarinet harmonize, is one of my favorite passages on the whole CD.

DON’T THINK THAT I CAN SAY GOODBYE

Words and music by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers

Don’t think that I can say goodbye
So I’ll just go
Can’t figure how to quite forget
So much that I know
Some silver lining
Is out in this storm, I’m sure
But all I see are clouds
So I’ll just go

We reach for the reasons
And find only traces and shards
Trifles or treasons
We can’t tell just what they are
As the days blow by
Let the pieces fall
And crumble to dust under our feet

We reach for forever
But nobody shows us the way
We think that we’re clever
Believe all the things that we say
But the painted lines
Are in shades of gray
Dissolving away into the night

Don’t think that I can say goodbye
So I’ll just go
Can’t figure how to quite forget
So much that I know
Some shiny morning
Out on a distant shore
Nothing to say
There will be nothing to say at all

Outtake verse:
We reach for the river
For washing the sting from our eyes
To be the forgiver
Is harder than we recognize
As the years flow by
Will we see once more
Open and clear into the light?

Radio Nowhere interview

Radio Nowhere interviewAt the recent NERFA (Northeast Regional Folk Alliance) conference in the Catskills, I had a chance to sit down with Joltin’ Joe, host of the great Radio Nowhere show on WSMC in New Jersey, for an in-depth interview on the Almost There album, songwriting…and interviewing itself! The whole conversation is posted online here.

About the song: Closer

This track from Almost There is the latest song born out of my love of funk/soul grooves, especially created on acoustic instruments. Many of my songs come from discovering a cool rhythm on the guitar, but I’ve also written a number of songs just playing percussion and singing. “Sycamore Tree” (on the Stop, Drop, and Roll CD), written while banging a rhythm on the dining room table, is one example. I wrote “Only the Soul” (Humming My Way Back Home) playing the cajón (wooden box drum), and that’s how “Closer” started too. Only after completing the melody and lyrics did I sit down to figure out chords and then add a guitar part.

The lyrics to “Closer” actually grew out of an object-writing exercise, drawn from Berklee professor Pat Pattison, that I use in my Syracuse University classes on songwriting and creative nonfiction writing. The basic idea is that you pick an object and write freely for ten minutes about it, trying to capture sense memories involving that object. In this case, one of the objects I gave to my class was ticket, and I also gave the same word to my songwriting group as a prompt.

Josh Dekaney on rub board

Josh Dekaney laying down the groove on rub board. Photo by Juan Junco.

My own object writing on ticket gave me the imagery of the opening verses, based on childhood train rides into New York City from home in New Jersey. I so vividly remember the old conductor who sang the name of each station with a beautiful warble, and the impressive hole puncher he used. I followed these sense memories and eventually arrived at this story.

When I first wrote “Closer,” I had a lot of arrangement ideas in my head, so I sat down with Pro Tools and sketched them out—playing cajón, tambourine, guitar, and bass, and overdubbing four or five vocal parts at the end. At the Almost There sessions, we recorded most of the track live in the studio, with me on acoustic guitar and vocal, Josh Dekaney on percussion kit, Wendy Ramsay on harmony vocal, and John Dancks on upright bass. Afterward, Josh killed us with his way-funky shaker and rub-board overdubs, Josh and Wendy layered additional vocals for the syncopated ending, and later I overdubbed the guitar solo in my home studio. We had a hell of a good time, as I hope you can hear.

CLOSER

Words and music by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers

On a slow train to the edge of the city
In the lurching of an empty car
Your jaded eyes, a thin disguise
You’ve never gone this far

You hear the punch punch of the hole in your ticket
And the old man sings a station song
And when you dare descend the stair
Your shadow will grow long

This is your time, this is no test
You’ve got no crime to be confessed
There’s only love for evermore
Will take you back to the core

When you stand alone in the crush of the city
When your heartbeat is a distant drum
You never know that you must go
Until the time has come

In the cold light of insinuation
You’re a cartoon of what they say
You take your stand when you demand
Just who the hell are they

Chorus

The drum drum is taking you back…

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