I was an early adopter of NPR Music, All Songs Considered, All Concerts Considered, Tiny Desk Concerts, etc. Through the years, NPR Music has become one of the most respected names in music reporting, and I remember hearing Bob Boilen's warm, patient, enthusiastic voice for the first time as he introduced a live set from Washington's 9:30 Club. While I do not recall the name of the artist, I listened because I knew that venue well and wanted to hear if its "sound" came across on the radio.
I've since watched Boilen and NPR Music grow, exponentially it seems. Boilen's voice has always been a steady, "considered" voice with a fedora, a voice that disables your defenses and preconceptions, a mind that gets inside the music, and an interview style that opens up those sometimes intimidating music-makers.
All of those skills of his culminated, for me at least, in his excellent 2016 book, Your Song Changed My Life. So, imagine my pleasure when I learned that he'd be guesting at my favorite local venue, Stuart's Opera House in Nelsonville, Ohio, bringing along three outstanding guests: John Paul White, My Bubba, and Adam Torres.
I learned later that Ohio University's Josh Antonuccio and Stuart's' Tim Peacock were primarily responsible for bringing Boilen and company there for a day in April. That day began with a open house at OU in Athens, where students could hear some music and ask questions of Boilen, White, and My Bubba. (Adam Torres joined them later that evening.) The students mostly asked Boilen logistical questions such as how he's able to get artists to engage. His response was practical: "Find an idea that's fun and exciting. Develop it first, work it out, and hire people who want to actively promote what they love."
When someone asked him about his favorite venues, Boilen said he likes the informality of house concerts as well as the 9:30 Club (of course), but what he really admires are artists who "play to the room," using the attributes of the venue itself to best effect.
There was a lot of discussion about the "process" of music-making, the roles that fate and opportunity play. Jack White noted that music is a long road. It's not about any one song, but about being ready; it's about having "a trunk load of others that you can wow [an audience] with" once one song finally clicks. "The more you practice," he added, "the luckier you'll get."
Later, at a book signing, Boilen was patient and kind to every fan. When the music began, he made only the briefest of appearances, adroitly introducing My Bubba, Torres, and White, in that order. Sticking with the theme of Boilen's book, all three artists included the "song that changed their lives" in their performance.
My Bubba, an Icelandic-Nordic duo, kicked off their set with Bob Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go." It's the first song they ever performed together and is usually the one they employ to end their sets. The pair has yet to record it, and their lilting live version is to die for. It rivals Baez's "Farewell Angelina" as my favorite Dylan cover.
Torres followed. Boilen said he heard some Ralph Stanley in Torres' voice – not high, but certainly lonesome. Torres' song that "opened the door" for him was when a college buddy played him Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne." As a teenager, he had listened to "a lot of pop stuff." This is a good example of a thesis I have held for years: We gravitate to what we have been exposed to. If all we know is pop radio, then that is what we think is "good." If we are fortunate, something happens to expose us to wider experiences.
Torres' set was good, but most folks were there for John Paul White, whose advice to the audience was, "Be careful what you play around the house – it can come back to haunt you." When he was growing up, there was a constant mix of country and show tunes playing in his house. White noted that his dad loved Slim Whitman while his mom loved Johnny Mathis.
White's selection was Whitman's "I'll Remember You," which I remember well. Even though it's a country song, you hear a lot of Broadway in it. He also cited Jim Reeves' "I've Been Over This Before." White said that there were "gateway artists" such as Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, and Rosanne Cash who each enabled him to "make sense" out of Reeves' music. I have no doubt many others felt the same way.
White was highly complimentary of the rock band Journey, saying he knew of them before he'd ever heard the Beatles. He then went into "Midnight on the Water." However, the highlight of the evening was the final song of the night, during which all three artists combined their talents for a slowed-down, intimate cover of Ben E. King's "Stand by Me."
To close, since I'm on the subject, I thought I'd share what song I would choose as my life-changer. I could easily point to Hank Williams, Ray Charles, James Brown, Patsy Cline, or Bob Dylan. However, the song that haunts me is Bobby Bare's "Detroit City." Even with strings, there is no mistaking the ache of the dreams lost and lives that were crushed when, after the war, many folks left the farms for the industrial cities of the North. Fortunately, even though at a certain cost, my family survived mostly intact.
Please, share the song that changed your life in the comments section below.