Serendipity in Music City

We packed up an acoustic guitar and mandolin, stuffing their canvas cases with t-shirts and beanies to cushion their journey. It’s always risky, flying with acoustic instruments – but keep them in a soft case and try as they might, those airline employees can’t quite force you to surrender your baby to the crude handling of the luggage team. (“What was your name? Just so I know who to call if you make me check this and it’s a pile of matchsticks when we arrive.”)

Oh, but that’s the worst-case scenario. The matchsticks reference doesn’t really come up that often. For the most part, people are just curious about what you’ve got strapped to your back. That is, until you fly to Nashville, where a gleaming, cherry-red 1960s Gibson 335 in a crystalline display case greets you by baggage claim. Merle Travis is piped in over the loudspeakers. Patsy Cline smiles down from a giant billboard; next to her, Johnny Cash’s scathing gaze looks right through you. Welcome to Music City.

After landing we headed straight to Exit/In, a club that since its opening in 1971 “has taken its place among the nation’s most venerable, historic music venues.” Everyone from Jimmy Buffett to Etta James, from the Black Crowes to Death Cab for Cutie, has played there. We caught a raucous set by sister duo Larkin Poe, whose powerful voices and soaring guitars filled the room. For an encore, they invited up and coming guitarist Tyler Bryant and incredible slide player Robert Randolph (who had been standing next to us at the bar, unbeknownst to me!) to join them onstage. They then proceeded to bring the house down.

Even though we were new to town, and even though we had followed the impressive careers of some of these musicians but had never actually met them or heard them live, the whole night felt like an easygoing party amongst friends. After their killer encore, Robert Randolph stepped offstage and raised a glass with the crowd, which was mixed: all ages, some in cowboy hats, some in combat boots; young bucks barely of drinking age rubbing shoulders with old bikers who looked like they were born with beer in hand. It all felt very open and honest and straightforward: come as you are and enjoy the music. We’re glad you’re here.

The next day we headed to ASCAP (Association of Songwriters, Composers, and Publishers), the performance rights organization (PRO) which represents both me and Berna as music authors and publishers. I had heard that in the old days, the best thing was to meet a rep from your PRO, play your three best songs, and get their feedback. Maybe they’d tell you to take a hike, and keep your day job; maybe they’d pair you up with another writer.

In trying to schedule such an appointment, I had repeatedly heard the line that ASCAP represents over 750,000 writers and publishers these days, and their reps don’t have the bandwidth to meet with just any writer in their constituency. Fair enough. We showed up anyway.

While we were waiting in the lobby, the elevator opened and a tall, slim gentleman dressed all in black, with bright blue eyes, smiled. We smiled back, shook hands. He introduced himself – Ralph Murphy – and said if we waited he could meet with us. A few minutes later he ushered us into his office. The glass walls and modern furniture contrasted with the piles of books and old school stereo receiver. A large Bugs Bunny stuffed toy sat in one of his desk chairs, holding a guitar; Mickey Mouse lounged in another corner.

Ralph, Bugs, and Mickey all looked at us and waited. A little frazzled (he is the VP of ASCAP Nashville, after all…), I explained what we were there for and asked if we could play some songs for him. He nodded (Bugs and Mickey were stone faced), and from one phone we played a selection of our tunes while he read lyrics off another phone. He tapped his foot and listened intently, and for each song he had both general comments about the rules of writing hits and specific comments on the music and the message of the song. In 20 minutes I got more substantial, concrete feedback on my writing than I had in 15 years of gigging. I came away with some clear marching orders, all outlined neatly in the fresh copy of Ralph’s book which he generously gifted me. But perhaps most importantly, we came away inspired anew to work, reach, and refine our craft.

Despite the downpour outside, our footsteps were light. We walked by RCA Studios A and B – no big deal, just humble little studios where the likes of Dolly Parton, The Beach Boys, and B.B. King have recorded (to name a few) – on our way back to the car. We spent the rest of the day in vintage guitar shops playing precious, beautiful, completely unaffordable museum pieces before heading to The Ryman Auditorium, the famed hall that originally hosted the Grand Ole Opry.

The band was Blackberry Smoke, whose sound blends the liquid, dual guitars of the Allman Brothers with the soulful edge of the Black Crowes. Pure southern rock with catchy guitar riffs and a tight rhythm section, punctuated by interjections from the guest pedal steel player. As has been happening to me a lot lately, this music at once brought me back & pitched me forward. The familiarity of the song forms, the harmonies, and even the bands’ flowing locks (a-la-Gregg and Duane) were comforting, and felt like home; but the songs’ insights and delivery were very much of the current moment.

My favorite song of their set was one I have come to call “Itty Bitty Town”(though the song is actually called “One Horse Town” and the lyrics talk about a “little bitty town”, not an itty bitty one… remember the “creative” song lyrics you’d come with as a kid, based on what you thought you were hearing on the radio?). Contrasting nostalgia and loyalty to family and home with ambitions of something bigger, “One Horse Town” illustrates a conflict that’s all too familiar to the artists and dreamers of small town America. And it’s just as true today as it would have been over a century ago (when leaving town actually did require you to saddle up your pony).

This was the kind of timeless story and detail that Ralph (and Bugs and Mickey) were pushing us towards – something specific yet relatable, unique yet universal. To see and hear such a stunning example of this kind of writing live, so soon after our meeting with him, seemed uncanny… or at the very least, serendipitous. But really, that’s just living in Nashville. The place is simply saturated with music – good music – and everywhere you turn, musicians are reaching back and looking forward, honing their craft, their ears and hearts open. It was all we could do to soak it in for the brief window we walked those streets, tucked into the curves of the swelling Cumberland River, whose singing currents blended with the twang of the honky tonks and drifted up, up, up over the valley, fading into the stars.

Folkin’ Christmas in NY

marina berna livorno

On Sunday, December 9, Berna & I are psyched to be returning to New York City! We’ll play a cozy acoustic set at Rockwood Music Hall (stage 1) starting at 6pm. Nestled on the lower east side, Rockwood presents a variety of independent music 7 days a week on 3 different stages. The tunes are top notch, the staff is great, and the beer’s not bad either – so join us to kick off the holiday season in beautiful New York!

Opening for the Adam Ezra Group!

AEG

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, February 25: Marina & Bernardo head down to Fall River, MA to support New England favorite the Adam Ezra Group at the Narrows Center for the Arts! Marina’s sultry voice and Bernardo’s gritty slide guitar are a perfect warmup to the rollicking, heartfelt, socially conscious music of AEG, a group that’s fast-rising to national acclaim. This is one show of original, homegrown New England music that you won’t want to miss!

Tickets:

About the Adam Ezra Group: A tireless touring outfit, the Adam Ezra Group (AEG) played upwards of 200 shows in 2015, often devoting their time to local charities and always going out of their way to connect with fans. The Group is made up of lead singer, songwriter and guitarist, Adam Ezra, Alex Martin on drums, Turtle on percussion, Corinna Smith on fiddle, Francis Hickey on bass and Josh Gold on keys. Together they are creating a powerful, inclusive community around AEG shows that is beginning to be compared to a social-movement as much as a traditional music fan-base.

 

Co-Write with Woody Guthrie: Color Line (Old Man Trump)

BIG news: I have signed my very first co-write agreement with non other than… Woody Guthrie! I humbly submit to you Color Line, lyrics by Woody Guthrie, music & new lyrics by yours truly. The beautiful arrangement you’ll hear is thanks to producer Bernardo Baglioni (as some of you may have guessed). To listen, click the player below or click here!

The story:

This may seem strange, as Guthrie left this earth quite some time ago. But like many of Guthrie’s works, these lyrics and the subject of the song are very much of this moment in American history, despite the 50+ years they have been gathering dust. So let’s start from the beginning.

In 1950, Woody Guthrie signed a lease on an apartment in Brooklyn, NY. The public housing complex, one of many that received federal loans & subsidies in the postwar years, was owned by Fred Trump, Donald Trump’s father. Soon after moving in, Guthrie began penning lyrics lamenting the fact that the equal opportunity the public housing initiative was supposed to afford was not, in fact, equal. Blacks were turned away, told the housing was full, or discouraged by falsely inflated rents. In his lyrics — unpublished until earlier this year — Guthrie holds Trump personally accountable for the racist rental policies employed at his properties:

I suppose
Old Man Trump knows
Just how much
Racial Hate
He stirred up
In the bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed
That color line…

The accusations made in these bitter lines were later confirmed in various legal proceedings against the Trump real estate empire. The most damning evidence came from Trump’s own employees, who testified that rental applications for Trump properties were indeed coded by race, and that doormen and supers were encouraged “to decrease the number of black tenants… by encouraging them to locate housing elsewhere.”

I came across these lyrics in an article published by Will Kaufman, the scholar who discovered them, in January of this year. And I was absolutely stunned by the uncanny resemblance between Guthrie’s depiction of Trump senior and his son, the 2016 Republican nominee for President of the United States.

Reading the lyrics, I heard a melody immediately. Their prosody, their urgency… they needed to be released. I picked up a guitar, hummed the melody, edited Guthrie’s original lyrics, and added some of my own. It took quite a while to reach an agreement with Woody Guthrie Publications for usage of the lyrics, since they had never been published before and I was among hundreds of songwriters seeking to use them. But now here we are, just a few days before this crucial (unbelievable) election, and a signed co-write contract found its way to my inbox.

100% of my proceeds from sales of this track will be donated to the Woody & Marjorie Guthrie Fund at the Huntington’s Disease Society of America. Woody Guthrie passed away from Huntington’s Disease in 1967, and we are still working towards a cure for this fatal illness.

I hope I have done some justice to Guthrie’s legacy with this project. I hope Guthrie’s original intent carries across the decades to this critical moment in our nation’s history. I hope each and every one of you votes on Tuesday (not to worry – my absentee ballot is IN). And I hope that on Wednesday morning, as dawn breaks over the big, beautiful, protean experiment that is America, we wake to a brighter future.

See you on the other side,
Marina

 

The Lyrics:

(Guthrie/Evans)

I suppose
Old Man Trump
Old Man Trump

Oh he knows
Just how much
Racial Hate
He stirred up
In the bloodpot of human hearts

Human hearts 
When he drawed
That color line

That color line
That color line

This just ain’t, this just ain’t
My home, my home

This just ain’t, this just ain’t
My home, my home
Home – 

I just can’t pay my rent
My money’s down the drain

My soul is badly bent
I break my back
And I’m drowning
Just the same
Though he never earned it,
Trump he drawed
That dollar line
That dollar line
That dollar line

This just ain’t, this just ain’t my home, my home
Where are ya, America
My home, my home?

Children dying in the desert
He says: Build a wall
He draws his hate line in defiance
Of God and man’s law

I suppose Old Man Trump
Old Man Trump

He don’t wanna know…