Each year, I move farther from the events that shaped me. And still, I think I’ve made good on the promises made to myself when I left Rogersville after high school and, completely unaware, never looked back.
“You can throw me in the Colbert County jail house. You can throw me off the Wilson Dam. But there ain’t much difference in the man I wanna be and the man that I really am.” – Never Gonna Change, Drive-By Truckers
When juxtaposed with 2009 and 2010, I suppose 2011 is Return of the Jedi to ’09’s A New Hope and ’10’s Empire Strikes Back – complete with Ewoks. The trilogy of my most recent three years has been an epic journey of how to deal with circumstance and rebirth. Then, perhaps 2011 was its own trilogy, with each third of months representing its own stage of an entire life. This year has been a remarkable dichotomy of blessing and curse, and it’s final days have been an epic reflection of how far we’ve come.
Making good on my parting words from 2010, this year began in Glendale. It’s a spectacular story, one that I have hung on to in hopes of publishing, one that I will be sharing until my last breath. There was an escape from the worst snow Alabama has seen since 1994, a flight with Julio Jones, a ring pawned to buy a ticket which proved to be counterfeit (and got me into the stadium anyway), a cell phone battery that died and a party I don’t remember. If the last three years are a trilogy, this moment was the climax.
My step-brother and I hanging out at the plaza near the University of Phoenix Stadium before kickoff.
Upon my return from Arizona, I began a writing project with Birmingham Box Set, the music blog extension of Birmingham Magazine. It’s a role that, ultimately, led me to my current full-time position as Public Relations Coordinator at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and allowed me an opportunity to interview a lot of terrific musicians that came through Birmingham. My attention to this project has waned over the last six months, largely because of a hectic schedule and circumstance that hasn’t allowed me the time to devote, and partly because of a thinner Birmingham concert itinerary.
Interviews from 2011:
William “Smitty” Smith of Truth & Salvage Company
Bob Crawford of the Avett Brothers
Jon Spencer of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Hardy Morris of Dead Confederate
I also did a couple of pieces on Birmingham area artists which, in March, went to the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas.
My interview with the former led me to recommend them for CBS 42’s Iron Bowl coverage, leading the group to record a song for the broadcast. Carla Jean Whitley wrote about that collaboration here.
And somewhere in the middle of all of this, I ventured to Nashville with Blair for Show Choir Nationals at the Grand Ole Opry. I never imagined the scale of the event hosted by her family each year, and the trip provided a lot of perspective on a segment of pop culture most only define by the scripts on “Glee.” It was an amazing trip that gets lost in the shuffle of a year headlined with a BCS National Championship Game trip to Glendale, Arizona, a tornado, a new job and trips to my first major music festivals. I was able to see the Opry for the first time (and, briefly, run the sound board), check out the Predators for the millionth, meet fellow Montgomery native Tommy Shaw of Styx, stay in the Opry hotel (a suite, no less) for the first time and meet a lot of new and interesting people that still remain in my life.
Clinton, Mississippi’s Attache
Me and rocker Tommy Shaw
Above is a high quality camera phone picture of me in the circle taken from the original Opry at the Ryman and placed at the new Opry location – the same circle Hank Williams was booted from, the same circle Carrie Underwood would perform from one night later.
I suppose it’s no small coincidence that my work with Birmingham Box Set waned a bit after I had the opportunity to speak to two heroes in a month’s time – Jason Isbell and Mike Cooley, formerly and of the Drive-By Truckers. I was able to see the former four times this year on the heels of his third post-Truckers effort and one of my favorite records of 2011 “Here We Rest.” And the year concluded with a rare solo appearance (one of two sold-out nights) from the latter.
Another of my favorite pieces from this project was one I did on the rebirth of a scene in Muscle Shoals, a topic and town very close to my heart.
Those pieces nearly felt as far as I could take that gig. And when I returned to my home in mid-May to find April’s destruction beginning to take a massive toll on my home, drastic changes were imminent.
April 27 affected each of us in a unique way. Some lost everything. And by comparison, what happened to me was insignificant. In the first wave of storms that would later be most identified with wiping out Cahaba Heights, my house took a hit. It was 6:00 a.m. and I was sound asleep. When it struck, it jolted me from my bed and I dove into my basement, head first, instinctively. As the dust settled and my neighborhood began checking on one another, I was told my roof took a nasty hit. But the hole was nothing compared to what I saw across my street.
And I didn’t particularly care. I had desperately wanted out of the house for a long time. And I openly wished that I could have placed my home in the way of someone else’s that was more affected. As my co-workers and I stood in the stairwell of Infinity Insurance (my employer at the time), I only hoped the storm didn’t take my record collection.
I didn’t return home for three days. I feared having to cross the path in Fultondale to get there. I made one trip to get some clothes and carry back to Joey’s in Hoover. He had power, while Hayden looked post-apocalyptic. I made my insurance claim and an adjuster that was sent from out of state wrote a quick, hasty settlement check. But the rains continued for days and contractors refused to do the work for the unreasonable amount. I requested a supplement that wasn’t reinspected for nearly two months. In those eight weeks, the water collecting in the ceiling caused collapse, shown above. When my co-owner refused to cooperate with repairing the damages, I began to develop an escape plan.
I wanted out. Out of my house. Out of my job. I wanted to be happy again. And I was motivated for the first time since I felt the same way in Florence in 2004. It was all overnight – I had accepted my current position with the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and I had decided to move into the city the weekend before. Lease signed, verbal agreement and start date in place, I spent the final month of complete irresponsibility taking in the Hangout and Bonnaroo music festivals, my first trip to each.
Hangout Music Festival – Gulf Shores, Ala.
When I returned from the summer of first festivals, I began my work at The Gardens. It has been the most amazing experience of my life, working with a lot of really great people who have become much more than colleagues in a very short amount of time.
True story: shortly after I had accepted the position at The Gardens, I was asked by CMT to interview for a position in Nashville via webcam. At one point I was asked, “What is the proudest moment of your career?”
Difficult. When I was old enough to talk, I wanted to be on the radio. And by the age of 17, I had accomplished that. By 25, I had done and seen more than I could have ever hoped for. And I know my actual answer wasn’t what they wanted to hear, but it was honest.
“This one,” I said. “I just accepted a position that really makes me happy, and I’m talking to you about your position. I’m going to be happier than I’ve ever been regardless.”
I didn’t expect to ever hear from them again, and I didn’t. I didn’t care. I followed through with the interview because I felt I owed that to myself. But I knew that my heart had already found a new home.
It’s an opportunity that afforded me so many more – the best decision I have ever made, the best gift ever given to me.
In September, my friend Greg managed to get us meet-and-greet passes and pit seats for Taylor Swift’s tour stop in Nashville. She smelled like lavendar.
Taylor brings Kenny Chesney on stage to perform “Big Star.” I am not using zoom on this photograph.
Tim McGraw joins Taylor to sing “Just to See You Smile.” I am not using zoom on this photograph.
You can read more about our trip to Nashville, which collided with my review of the Auburn/Clemson game, on what had been serving as my blog at The Playmaker on Tumblr.
A lot of other things were happening this year on that blog, as well, including a piece that I did when my favorite band, R.E.M., announced they would be retiring. It was later picked up by my friends at Birmingham Box Set and al.com. The original version is here: Eulogy for the Best Friend I Never Met (or a Pistol Hot Cup of Rhyme).
I also did a few pieces for the Pelham City News this year, including a piece on Auburn linebacker Jake Holland, his brother, UNA running back Wes Holland, Pelham head coach Brett Burnett and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney.
I did a pair of pieces on that blog, first and second, in reaction to Harvey Updyke’s murder of the Toomer’s Corner tree and my frustration toward hollow sympathy from rival fans. It caused friction with one of my best friends, my stance, but I stand by it. It’s one topic I still don’t care to hear Alabama fans broach. I believe the first of those blogs was picked up by a more mainstream Auburn blog, though I can’t recall which one. Some guy asked me for permission to use it, which I granted as long as credit was given.
One of my favorite moments of 2011 was a photoless evening – a gathering of SEC bloggers at the J. Clyde during SEC Media Days in July. Spencer Hall of EDSBS, Team Speed Kills, Holly Anderson, Chris Vernon and guys like my friend @RickMuscles and @CaptainAnnoying. Late in the evening, Clay Travis walked in and he and I had a memorable exchange, which I captured in this piece.
This year, I helped create a new statewide Auburn radio program with my former intern, Justin Hokanson (now editor of AuburnSports.com) and former Auburn Tiger, current optometrist, Rob Pate. I continued my role as the Voice of the Mountain Brook Spartans football team, and watched the Spartans knock off Hoover for the first time since the school was known as Berry High School. I continued my role as the voice of the UAB Blazers women’s basketball team, and watched them conclude 2011 on an eight game winning streak, the longest in school history. I continued my work with the UAB and Birmingham-Southern baseball teams on PA, watching a BSC senior class graduate that was never given a chance to rightfully claim a conference championship, but statistically earned one (or two).
In 2011, some of my closest friends and I also launched the Birmingham Lunch Club, a silly little blog project in which we choose a Birmingham restaurant each week to share lunch at and write a review. In the final days of the year, we actually received a comment on the blog from one of the restaurant owners, signifying that we had made it.
In a year filled with change, travesty and triumph, that’s really what made the third year of this trilogy of misadventure worthwhile: the amazing people that I have worked a lifetime to surround myself with, and the amazing new people that have become a permanent part of my life. They helped me collect a lot of broken pieces and rebuild a much better and stronger machine. I love each of them, and forever owe a debt I’ll never be able to repay. Below, are many of these people with me in 2011.
Top 10 Concerts of 2011
1. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – I was fortunate enough to see my favorite current artist four times in a year that was huge for his current project: April 8 (Shoals Theater), April 9 (Zydeco), December 10 (Workplay Theater) and December 23 (Crossroads Cafe). I lump this all into my top concert of the year, but the reason it earns this spot is a the December 10 show at Workplay, in which he welcomed Late Show musical director Paul Shaffer to the stage and acknowledged Late Show host David Letterman looking on from the balcony. In a room that holds 300, it will forever be one of the most shocking concert moments in a very colorful resume of shows seen in my lifetime. I review the show here for al.com. It’s a piece that got over 4,500 hits in less than 24 hours, one of my proudest moments on the internet. Also, here is:
VIDEO: “Jason Isbell & Amanda Shires – GD Lonely Love (at Crossroads Cafe, Huntsville).”
VIDEO: Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Psycho Killer (at Shoals Theater)
VIDEO: Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Alabama Pines (at Zydeco)
VIDEO: Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – American Girl (at Zydeco)
2. Foo Fighters (Hangout Music Festival, Gulf Shores, Ala.) – Again, I am lumping two performances into one, but the first of these two is the reason this set jumps to second in a very close race with number three. Cee-Lo Green was late to arrive to his midday set at Hangout, so Dave Grohl took to the stage and proclaimed, “I guess we’re playing two sets today.” The band launched into a five-song set of covers, seemingly unrehearsed, concluding with their familiar cover of Prince’s “Darling Nikki.” When Green arrived during the tune, he attempted to sing the rest with the band.
3. Taylor Swift (Bridgestone Arena, Nashville, Tenn.) – To borrow a line from Joey, this was the biggest, dumbest show I saw in a year in which I saw Kid Rock. Greg pulled some strings and we were able to hang out backstage in the Vibe Room, meeting Taylor, having her sign our LP’s and checking out her iPod. We were the only 20-something men in the pit during a show in which two of country music’s biggest stars came on stage to each sing one song (Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney). 60 Minutes was filming their special on Taylor, which aired last month. It was all over-the-top, massive pop spectacle. It was a lot of fun, and I met one of the biggest pop stars on the planet at the top of her game.
4. Paul Simon (Hangout Music Festival, Gulf Shores, Ala.) – I can’t remember the last time Simon toured, let alone came to Alabama. This show was everything I expected: a perfect end to what became a perfect weekend of music with some of my closest friends on the beach. It was a stunning name to headline a festival which made a massive jump in its second year. I’m eager to see what its third year has in store.
5. Mike Cooley (Workplay Theater, Birmingham, Ala.) – Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers never plays solo. On December 20 and 21, he headlined two sold-out shows at Workplay with no crew and no tech, just himself, a couple of guitars and a small monitor. It was one of the more intimate “storytelling” type performances I have ever seen, which saw Cooley explore a vast catalog of material he has written with DBT. He threw in a couple of covers, fought to empty a bottle of Maker’s Mark and hung out with my friends after the show. Often labeled as brash, he came off extremely personable and played an amazing set for people that had traveled from as far as the West Coast to hear the performance. VIDEO: “Cottonseed.”
6. The Grand Ole Opry (Opry House, Nashville, Tenn.) – This is kind of a cop-out, but I’m including it anyway. I had an opportunity to witness the oldest radio show in America in all its granduer: the commercial breaks on stage, the quick set changes, the intermissions. And it was absolutely fascinating. Diamond Rio headlined this evening, and for a brief moment, I was able to run the sound board. I grew up watching the televised version of the Opry with my grandfather, and to take it in live was a spectacular experience.
7. My Morning Jacket – I’ve never been sure how to feel about this band. But this year, I saw them perform three very good sets at Hangout, Bonnaroo and headlining at the Tuscaloosa Theater for tornado relief. Each time, the band grew on me. I’ve become a fan, despite still not being able to decipher a lot of Jim James’ lyrics. The shows are a lot of fun, and I’m eager for them to continue growing on me. I love their 2011 release.
8. tUnE-yArDs (BottleTree Cafe, Birmingham, Ala.) – What a fun show. The new kids that most made an impression on me in 2011 were tUnE-yArDs. I’d like to believe they are heading for big things, but I’m not sure they peak at a larger venue. In any case, this was my favorite show of 2011 in my favorite venue.
9. Ben Folds (Alys Stephens Center, Birmingham, Ala.) – Secretly, one of my favorite artists ever. It was the first real show I went to after I began choosing the shows I went to – I was a 16-year-old junior when I made the trip with my then girlfriend to the Ryman. I had an opportunity to meet Folds near his bus, a photo that was nearly completely destroyed in the flood at my house. This set didn’t disappoint. I wrote about this one for Birmingham Box Set.
10. Weezer (Crawfish Boil, Birmingham, Ala.) – I hesitated to include this. Having already included Ben Folds, it would have been much hipper to include something from the below honorable mentions: Fleet Foxes, Gogol Bordello, Monotonix. But this show came the weekend after April 27. I wrote about all of Crawfish Boil for Birmingham Box Set, complete with videos of Cee Lo Green’s “F*** You,” Sublime with Rome performing “What I Got” and Weezer performing “Say it Ain’t So.” Weezer came out and played 90 minutes of hits. They didn’t beat around the bush – they knew they were playing for a crowd that barely felt like coming to a rock concert because of the circumstances it had been dealt, and they owned it. It was the first time in a week I had heard people able to have a good time, if only for the duration of the set, and forget about what they had to go home to. Weezer has never disappointed me live, but this set was something very special – 90 minutes I wish I could bottle and relive. In this photo, we enter the festival behind all of the members of the band except Rivers Cuomo.
Full review of Hangout Festival at Birmingham Box Set
Full review of Bonnaroo at Birmingham Box Set
James Taylor – Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band – Kid Rock – Rihanna – Fleet Foxes – Gogol Bordello – Monotonix – Washed Out – Tornado Rider – Drive-By Truckers – J. Roddy Walston & the Business – Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers – Arcade Fire – Huey Lewis & the News – Steve Earle – Loretta Lynn – NOFX – Explosions in the Sky – Alison Krauss & Union Station – Eminem – Hayes Carll – Justin Townes Earle – The Black Keys – Mumford & Sons – Scissor Sisters – Dr. John with the Original Meters – Flaming Lips – Motorhead – Avett Brothers – Primus – Ben Kweller – Pete Yorn – Guster – Old 97’s – Colin Hay – Jackopierce – Cake – Yo La Tengo – Girl Talk – Robert Plant & Band of Joy – Bama Rising Benefit Concert – Ra Ra Riot – Scars on 45 – Those Darlins – Ted Leo & the Pharmacists
Me and Ben Kweller
Me and Amiee Driver of Scars on 45
Alison Krauss & Union Station at Bonnaroo
Arcade Fire at Bonnaroo
Kid Rock at the BJCC
Monotonix at BottleTree
Yo La Tengo at Workplay
Our inflatable turtle pal, Tyrone, clowns out at Arcade Fire at Bonnaroo
Top Ten Albums of 2011
This list is, bvy no means, comprehensive. It was the first year since 1994 I didn’t buy a single compact disc, so my musical taste has evolved mostly into vinyl I buy at shows I like. For instance, I still haven’t heard the new Black Keys. And I just heard the Black Lips record this week. So I’m behind. But I’ll try.
1. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Here We Rest
2. R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now
3. tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l
4. Foo Fighters – Wasting Light
5. My Morning Jacket – Circuital
6. Smith Westerns – Dye it Blonde
7. Black Lips – Arabia Mountain
8. Amy Lavere – Stranger Me
9. The Head and the Heart
10. R.E.M. – Part Lies. Part Heart. Part Truth. Part Garbage. (whatever, it’s my list)
Over these last three years, I feel I’ve gotten repetitive, but still, my message can not be clear enough: my friends are the most amazing people in the world. There are some which have stood beside me through some of the most difficult trials life has thrown. There are others who arrived in the depths of those trials and worked to and successfully guided me in the right direction. And there are a slew of new people in my life that have arrived as recently as the last 12 monnths that have made it all even more spectacular. I am fortunate enough to have more CLOSE friends than I can count – a Myspace Top 24 or 48 – a group whom I love more than they will ever know. My house was hit by a tornado, it was robbed of nearly all of my childhood memories (by a likely suspect), my phone and credit card number were stolen – all this year. And I never blinked. The people around me and the circumstances I have overcome have made me realize there is nothing I can’t overcome, and there is nothing I care about more than them. I’m eager to share 2012 and beyond with each and all. I have no idea what it will bring, but the worst is far behind.