Why I Picked This Job
I’m taking a 14 hour solo road trip tomorrow. I haven’t started packing yet but I am just about finished with my playlist… a playlist with a very specific and hopefully instructive theme: Country songs wherein the singer relays the wisdom they have received from someone who has achieved the status to be a wisdom giver… folks like mothers, grandfathers, cowboys, elderly alcoholics, gamblers… you know the bunch.
My hope is that by the time I arrive in upstate New York and meet up with my family I will have something smart and wise and, more than anything, helpful to say to my daughter when she graduates from college on Sunday. The pressure is on! So far, as I’ve skipped through the list, Country Music has provided a grab bag of notions that, devoid of context, can seem a little beside the point:
“Feel small when you’re at the beach.”
“Any time 2.7 seconds or above is a respectable achievement for an amateur bull rider.”
“You’re gonna miss this? Too late for that one! So. Maybe, you’ll also miss the next thing too someday when that’s over as well so...”
“I didn’t have to be… no wait, does that sound like I’m picking a very poor moment to tell her she’s adopted?”
“Turn the radio up? Drink beer? Purchase dirt? Eat fried chicken?”
I’m sure there’s something somewhere in there. I’ll report my findings. But I welcome your suggestions. Please!
Though I suspect I’ll spend a lot of the drive not listening to anything except whatever my brain decides to cook up. Just driving and thinking. Thinking and driving. Probably at some point thinking back to the weird, difficult, fuzzy week I had almost exactly thirty years ago during the time between finals and my own graduation.
The day of my last exam, my mom called to tell me that my best friend from growing up had died in a rock climbing accident down in Tennessee. I flew home to Nashville for his funeral and then, still reeling, I returned to Connecticut for a few days to party and graduate and say goodbye to the people I believed (correctly) would be some of the best friends I would ever have. This was, obviously, before social media. It was also before cheap flights, before cheap long distance calls and really before email was much of a thing. So I knew (correctly) that goodbye really meant goodbye and that I wouldn’t see much of any of them for a long time. All of that began to sink in as I made the long, solo, north-to-south version of the south-to-north drive I’ll be taking tomorrow.
But after four years in Connecticut I was returning home to Nashville to be a professional Country Music songwriter… not because I’d ever written a song anyone could describe as anything more than “competent” and not because I had a voice that could “sing the phonebook” and not because “I had a dream since a tender age/to hear my songs on the Opry stage” or anything reasonable like that.
I was just following some advice that my dad had given me… something he heard somewhere (most likely not a Country song) and decided to share with me. And now that I know what it’s like to be a father the age he was at the time, it was probably just him thinking out loud one day and it wasn’t some deeply considered paternal knowledge drop.
He said this: “Don’t pick a job based on the work, pick a job based on who you’re going to do the work with.”
I’d been thinking about law school but that immediately took lawyering off the list. And I had liked the idea of college professing, but I wasn’t convinced that many of the college professors I knew liked that idea.
But then I thought about one morning, two summers earlier. I had a job pulling weeds. And I didn’t hate it. Mostly because I got paid to be outside and listen to my little Walkman all day. That morning I was listening to Gerry House’s morning show. (For you youngsters in the biz, Autumn’s dad… he was the drive-time DJ it seemed like everyone in Nashville listened to at the time.) He had on some songwriters who had just started a new band called Billy Hill. And for an hour or more Gerry and John Scott Sherrill and Bob Dipiero and Dennis Robbins played songs they’d written but mostly the just made each other laugh.
That. I realized. That was the answer to my dad’s question. Those guys are who I wanted to hang out with and be friends with and be like when I grew up. Ok. Maybe not those guys specifically (although I did sign my first publishing deal a year and a half later at the company where Bob and Scotty wrote, too.) But songwriters.
I guess one of the benefits (dangers?) of growing up in Nashville is that you know songwritering really is a job you can have and I knew or had met or been around other real live songwriters… Stewart Harris, Steve O’Brien, Layng Martine, Jr., Paul Craft, Kent Robbins. To me, they were just grownups who lived in Nashville. And I wanted people like them to be my friends from work. My Song Friends, so to speak.
And for the last three decades, they have been.
Y’all have been.
So is that the advice I should give my daughter? It definitely feels like the classic hokey/hackey setup as we go into the final chorus:
“So just like my daddy said to me…”
Gross. Sorry. No.
Honestly, unless I stumble across a thought or a line or golden nugget of truth I’ve never heard before somewhere between here and Brooklyn (where I’ll be staying with one of those college friends I left behind long ago) tomorrow, I’ll probably just tell her I love her and that I’m proud of her and keep my mouth shut, advice-wise. She’s already smarter and kinder and wiser than either my dad or I could hope to be. Life (and whatever life-lesson songs she stumbles across on her own) will teach her the rest of what she needs to know.
But I, on the other hand, I think I need to continue re-giving myself the same advice that my dad gave me back then that got me into this mess in the first place.
Because it’s really easy to get caught up in the missed cuts and the potential next singles and the tracks and the contracts and who’s hot when you’re not… or more than that just the daily grind of giving your all to songs that you know, statistically, will do nothing but gather dust. That is always a part of this job. But so is the reason I decided (correctly) that I wanted the job in the first place. Because I still get to spend every day with my friends… my weird, funny, cool, new, old, young, smart but dumb, dumb but smart, crazy, always Mexican-food-loving, tired, angry, broken, goofy, inspired song friends. And most every day we’re still just hanging out talking about our lives and talking shit and making each other laugh.
Oh. And writing songs. We also write songs.