I spent the first week of this month in northern Michigan, about as far north as you can be on the Lower Peninsula (except for two days actually on the Upper Peninsula), spent most of the next week on the road and now have been back in New York City for slightly more than a week.
The worlds of northern Michigan and New York could hardly be more different, but in both places I was thinking about the same thing: country music.
Michigan is a special place for me. The cottage where my wife and I stay has been in my family since 1893 (before Jimmie Rodgers was even born), and I’ve been coming there literally longer than I can remember. It’s less than two hours’ drive from Atlanta, the tiny former logging community where my mother grew up, as those who’ve heard my song “Safe Between the Covers” may recall. The cottage is named after my grandmother and her sisters, and in the park across the street stands a swing dedicated to my mother’s memory.
Usually this is where I go to unwind from a year of New York living—which, yes, is lived a good bit faster than in most other places—and catch my breath. This year, though, it was also the place I went to get ready for a really busy year. We’re halfway through Year 2 of the Tennessee Walt project, and things really are happening in New York time.
I live in a third-floor walkup apartment, which is another way of saying that I’m a piano player who doesn’t get to play a piano very often. Thanks to a bend in the stairs, there will never be a real piano up here, only an electric substitute which is a very good electric piano … and not a patch on a real piano.
In Michigan, though, thanks to a conservatory of music that’s a 10-minute walk from our cottage, there’s a real piano accessible to me almost all the time. I spent two or three hours playing every single day I was there, and I left only because I had a performance of The Other Great American Songbook to get home for.
This summer I added 25 new classic country songs to my repertoire, every one of them a pleasure to play: “Cocaine Blues,” “Hey, Good-Looking,” “Loving Her Was Easier,” “My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You,” “You Don’t Know Me” and many others. Every old song I learn is a new window into country, a new way of looking not only at that song, but also at many of the others I already knew.
I also wrote several new songs this summer, including a few that are now among my favorites of my own work: “It’s Too Hot to Dance,” “Stanley’s in His Garden” and “That’s Just Some Guy.” I’ve written 20 country songs in my life, all since last summer, and that still hasn’t ceased to amaze me.
When I wasn’t playing the piano, I was often lying in a hammock and (between chapters of Jane Austen, a summer tradition for many years) making plans for the fall and beyond. There’s a lot going on, some of which I can’t talk about publicly at this point, but there are a few things I can share with you.
For one thing, there’s A Fine Country Evening with Tennessee Walt. This is a project near to my heart for a variety of reasons. Scheduled to take place on Saturday, Oct. 15, in Garden City, N.Y., it’s an all-new concert of classic country songs and more than a few originals, no more than one of which has been part of The Other Great American Songbook. There’s a lot of talking in that show, and I’ve been delighted by how well people have responded to it, but A Fine Country Evening is going to be less talking and more singing. I’ll be doing some of those new songs I’ve added to my repertoire; I’ll be taking audience requests—not just one, as I do in Songbook, but a bunch; I’ll welcome a couple of sensational guest stars for some classic songs that aren’t even in my repertoire now, but will be by then; and, did I mention, I’ll be doing a healthy clutch of my own songs?
This show is also special for reasons that predate my interest in country. I lived in Garden City, off and on, for 40 years, and it will always be home for me; to make my first appearance there as Tennessee Walt means a lot to me. The show will be held at the Ethical Humanist Society on Old Country Road, a place which has figured in several of my most cherished memories, including my father’s memorial and, most of all, my wedding, 15 years, two months and 14 days ago. (Besides, it’s on Old Country Road—really. If ever there was a place destined for a Tennessee Walt show … )
One final thing I love about this show: It’s my first benefit. Every nickel raised will go to the Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island, which has been my artistic home for an amazing 41 years now. This company, the work it does and the people who do that work mean the world to me, and that hasn’t changed at all, even if the music I’m doing now comes from a different place. That I can bring together my old life and my new life in a single evening is a grand thing for me. The company will get the money, but the benefit is all mine. (See the tour page for details.)
It’s not my only show of the fall, of course. I’ve got another Songbook in October and three more in November—on consecutive days, no less. By the end of 2016 I’ll have done 10 Walt shows, not bad considering that the first wasn’t until April 23. I’ve met all kinds of cool people in the audiences of those shows, and had some memorable conversations about country. I can honestly say that, in a life devoted to the arts in many forms, I’ve never had a better time, onstage and off.
Meanwhile, in cyberspace, I’ve resolved to blog more regularly (and, usually, on topics more interesting than what I happen to be doing—stay tuned for some thoughts on Kitty Wells, the history of politics in country and “Is It Rock or Is It Country?”) and to update my Facebook page more often. Just before leaving for Michigan, we posted four new performance videos to YouTube, and the plan is to put up a new one every two or three weeks hereafter. Just search for “Tennessee Walt,” reject the autocorrect to “Tennessee Waltz” and you’ll find them.
But you ain’t seen nothing yet. I’m feeling all “Bullpen Bulletins” about our plans for Year Three of the Tennessee Walt project. Look for more performances, including some summer parks shows, and keep your eye out for … well, no, I can’t really talk about that, or about what I’ve been doing down in Philadelphia, or even … well, trust me. It’s going to be great.
It’s never easy for me to leave Michigan, but it was maybe a little easier this time than it usually is, because I could hardly wait to get back and to get cracking. Stay tuned.