BLOG: Why The Wood Brothers Are Right About Singing [Plus: Oliver Wood on Fayetteville!]

If you get too worried, what you ought to do is sing…

Let’s talk about music. Let’s talk about why we’re here. Why we are doing what we do on this website. Why you are here reading. I mean, MUSIC. But… why?

For me, it’s personal. Very personal. Those of you who have known me for a long time know that live music – especially bluegrass and old gospel tunes – transports me to a place of comfort, peace, and safety that no longer exists for me on this planet. Not since my mom died – slowly, over two years of great pain and suffering from brain cancer, all of which I witnessed – when I was 13.

If you get worried, what you ought to do is sing…

Before the cancer came, I had the best childhood ever. My mom was a rock star of moms. THE rock star among all the moms. And my dad, a gifted musician, was constantly taking us to his gigs, mostly bluegrass, with any number of bands, playing at festivals and events all over Arkansas and the South. We would camp with all his musician buddies and their families.

If you get worried, what you ought to do is sing…

The Wood Brothers’ song “Sing About It” has been a great lesson for me on how to reclaim my joy; and it turns out that science explains why. The Wood Brothers are headlining this weekend’s Fayetteville Roots Festival.

In the daytime, we’d fish and explore caves and trails in the surrounding wilderness. In the evenings, my mom and younger brother and I would proudly watch my dad and his friends play on stages big and small. We’d all sing along, too, but I was the only one of us who didn’t mind being heard. My mom never sang loudly, but she had a beautiful voice. I think I’m the only one who ever really heard her sing at full volume – always while she cleaned the house, when no one else was home, and Linda Ronstadt’s “When Will I Be Loved” or “Love Is a Rose” was booming from the record player. (She seriously belted out some Linda Ronstadt, and hit every note dead-on with gusto and passion; I still listen to those songs weekly, and sing as loudly as I can every time.)

Sing about your troubles, it just might pass.

At night, around our campfire, magic ensued. Musicians from all over flocked to our little part of the outdoors, and dozens of folks of all ages and from all walks of life would take turns calling out classic bluegrass tunes and old gospel stalwarts like “I’ll Fly Away” and “Jesus Hold My Hand.” I sang along, hitting harmonies that most trained adult vocalists only fantasize about. (My ear for harmonies earned me a college scholarship years later.) I knew every word to every song they played, and I loved that community and those nights more than anything in life. Then, I’d fall asleep inside our tent, the happiest I have ever been in my entire life, listening to the cicadas and tree frogs trying to out-sing the guitars, banjos, mandolins, fiddles and voices jamming to Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs hits till the wee hours of the morning.

And if you get lost, what you ought to do is sing…

But despite my near-perfect childhood, I grew up a worrier. Somehow, I guess I knew something bad was coming. I know it sounds crazy. But that is simply how I have always felt; constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’d had nightmares from as early as I can remember of my mother dying. From around the age of 4, I woke up crying, at least once weekly, repeating: “I don’t want my mommy to die.” In my my earliest memories of praying, I was already begging nightly, “God, please don’t let my mom die.” None of the adults in my family could figure it out; she was healthy and always had been. So I was no longer allowed to watch scary movies or read scary books. And our church, my grandparents’ respective churches, and every person we knew prayed about my nightmares for six years; they went away when I was about 10.

A year later, she was diagnosed with brain cancer. We went to a church that emphasized what I will respectfully and with great self-control describe as misguided teaching. (A column for a different day and a different website.) The result, though, was me believing 200% that she my mother was being healed. That God WAS HEALING her. Not that He could, or He might. That He WAS. Not once during her two-year illness did I have any nightmares of her dying. I was so sure it would be OK…

Îf you get lost, what you ought to do is sing…

And then, when I was 13, on the night of June 29, 1985, a Saturday night, she reappeared in my dreams. At the time, my brother and I were visitng our parents’ best friends, Dean and Claudia, in Rockwall, Texas. They had kids our age, and a pool, and family nearby with horses and four-wheelers. It was a much-needed break from the round-the-clock, in-home hospital care my mom had been receiving from our two live-in nurses for the past six months. (I didn’t know then that it was hospice care, but again, another story for another day.)

In my dream that night, my dad and brother and I were walking through our “local hangout,” McCain Mall. We saw what we thought was my mom walking across the way toward us. It was her, in every way – the way she was dressed, the way she smiled at passersby, the way she was carrying herself, the way her hair was styled. My brother, then age 10, immediately began leaping up and down, hooting and hollering, and raced to her, clutching at her in a giant hug, repeating “You’re healed! You can walk! You’re all better! Mommy! Mommy!”

I remember this dream like it was a movie I saw daily. I recall the look on her face: shock, awkwardness, uncertainty, discomfort. She had no idea who we were. My dad rushed over to them, and, pulling my brother off her, gently told my brother: “This is not your mother. Don’t you remember? Your mother is gone…”

If you get lost, what you ought to do is sing…

I woke up instantly. And I knew we had to go home. I knew the gig was up. Without any explanation, I very firmly instructed Claudia: “Change our plane tickets please. We have to go home TODAY.” She saw my expression, and as her face went pale, without any further discussion, she picked up the phone and called the airport and then my dad. We got back home in Arkansas around dinnertime, and my mom – semi-comatose, in her hospital bed in the master bedroom, both nurses present – opened her eyes when we went in to see her. When we showed her the souvenirs we’d brought her, she attempted to smile with the half of her face that wasn’t frozen by the brain tumors. She squeezed my hand when I cheerfully told her I loved her and I missed her while I was gone.

The next day, she died. And my innocence was shattered. Along with my faith in God, and my faith in the many adults who had told us every day that “she was getting better.”

Sing about your troubles, they just might pass.

My dad’s guitars and banjo and fiddle fell silent for a long time after that. So did my voice. I literally do not remember a single event from the year following her death. I learned recently, after reconnecting with one of my mom’s college friends through Facebook, that I sang at my mother’s funeral. It floored me. It still does. I can’t even imagine it, much less remember it. I also learned that I was first chair in a very large school choir and knocked ’em dead as the star of several large musical productions that year as well. Don’t remember any of it.

But at some point, sometime during 9th grade, I came out of the fog. And I sang. All the time. I still do. My favorite thing to do is sing in the car, with someone I love. DJ for them, play all the songs that have given me life, both old and new, and sing and sing and sing. My second-favorite thing to do is sing at a jam session or in a group, like with a choir. I am working on doing that more often.

And if you get broken, what you ought to do is sing…

As an adult, I’ve had some great years and some horrific ones. The terrible years – the years where I suffered from debilitating depression, severe panic attacks and nonstop fantasies of dying so my pain would just stop – those are the years when it has been the hardest to sing. Looking back, I see a pattern of hard times pushing in, my worrying mind taking over, and my voice getting harder and harder to hear. No singing, no talking, no laughing. No dreaming, either. Just… thoughts. Worries. Fears. The “what ifs.”

If you get broken, what you ought to do is sing…

What I know now, having recently overcome some of the most horrific and traumatic shit a person could ever experience, is that when I stop singing, it’s time to make some changes. It’s time to immediately shift my focus, change what is bringing me down. I realized a few months ago, while listening to The Wood Brothers song “Sing About It,” that, for me at least, when I stop singing, shit is about to hit the fan and it’s time to immediately review the path I’m on, the people I’m spending time with, the job I’m working and everything else that has the power to bring a person down.

Sing about your trouble, sing about love and hoping it lasts. Sing about your trouble … it just might pass…

When I first heard this song, I wept. At first, I thought almost angrily: No, the trouble won’t pass just from singing. But I was missing the bigger point.

I recently ran across a story about new studies by scientists and physicians all over the globe that are all proving that singing actually stimulates almost every part of your body that makes you happier and healthier.

When I read them it hit me: It is not the singing that makes the trouble pass. Instead, it is the empowerment and the joy that singing instigates within your body and mind that then provide you with the motivation and strength to do what’s right – put in the hard work as necessary – so that those troubles can pass. So that they don’t control you or destroy you. So you can weather the storm and come out smiling. Dripping wet and shaken, perhaps, from that storm, but smiling – SINGING – nonetheless.

I recently had the opportunity to visit with Oliver Wood of The Wood Brothers. He said he was super excited about performing at Fayetteville Roots Festival this year; he spoke very highly of Fayetteville, and said when they played at a prior Roots Fest here, they were very warmly welcomed, and they connected easily with the organizers and the fans. He also said he has fond memories of performing at George’s Majestic Lounge and Wakarusa in years past.

About his motivation behind writing and performing music, he said this:

“On a subconscious level, I assume that when a song moves somebody it comes from empathy and compassion – because we all are the same, we all face the same difficult stuff. Anytime someone is vulnerable and writes something from that, someone is going to feel that and they’ll be encouraged. It might mean something totally different to them, even, but that isn’t important. I love that a song can be inspired by something very specific, but it can be ambiguous enough that it is interpreted and meaningful in totally different ways to the listeners.”

He described how their song “Loving Arms” was written about his mother, who passed away a few years ago from ALS. “She lost the use of her body gradually, and when her arms wouldn’t work any more, she couldn’t hug us anymore,” he quietly told me.

I then shared with him how listening to their song “Sing About It” had brought me back to where I started, to a place of being able to find joy through music again; it has helped heal me. It has inspired me to use my voice again (and not just for complaining or venting, ha ha). And as a result, my joy has returned. My sense of limitless possibilities, my good dreams. All. Back. Because. Of. Music. (He was very gracious, and thanked me for my gratitude and encouragement.)

So, if you wanna know why we’re here, why we care so much about music, why we are working so hard to make a place where music of all kinds can be more efficiently shared, promoted and experienced, now you know.

Music brings life. Science proves it. So, next time you feel like shit and the world is pulling you in too many directions, do what you gotta do to remove yourself from those circumstances. And when you aren’t sure where to begin or how to find the strength to do anything: Sing about it.

The Wood Brothers perform Thursday evening as part of the Fayetteville Roots Festival and again Friday evening on the event’s Main Stage. (Tickets are sold out, we hate to tell you. But there are many other fantastic acts whose shows are not sold out or are entirely free!)