The 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 out 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…

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