Music and Mom
Eight years ago, at the age of forty, I picked up a guitar and decided to learn how to play. I’d been regretting for years not having learned to play guitar when I was a kid, back when my mind was still malleable enough to soak up that kind of learning, and I didn’t have to work a job, pay bills, pay taxes, keep the fucking car in running condition, or worry (too much) about where my next meal was coming from. I also didn’t know then (as I know now), that most of the guys in my high school who did play guitar only knew three fucking chords. But those three chords were getting them noticed. By girls. Pretty ones. Those three chords were also getting them laid, by many of those same pretty girls. This was, naturally, the most closely guarded secret in the halls of my high school. If word had gotten out that taking just ten minutes to learn three chords yielded, like, ten thousand songs, every non-athletic dude in Montgomery County would have been buying, borrowing, or stealing a guitar, just to have a shot at getting into the Jordaches of that girl in class that they sat behind and fantasized about for an entire period.
But it turns out that, for me, playing guitar was (and is) another artistic endeavor for making shit up. I was way too old (and married) at forty to start playing guitar solely for the purpose of getting laid, but I did learn something about myself that was kind of a surprise: I like making music way more than I ever liked acting. I’m not nearly as good at making music (I’ve been acting professionally all my adult life), but I have been picking, plunking, and strumming for eight years now. So while I’m never going to be Jimmy Page, or John Mayer, or even “Weird” Al Yankovic, I am turning into a pretty good Larry Brantley, who sings and plays guitar with his band, McKinney Root. Don’t look for us to be touring through your town any time soon. There’s only three of us, we’re all middle aged (except for my upright bass player, who is technically north of middle aged, but never acts like it), and we all have families and full-time jobs. (Actually, I really don’t have a full-time job – meaning a job I have to go to, and work forty hours a week, and fill out a time card and Incident Reports, or attend Sensitivity Training. For which I am profoundly grateful.) My point is, we like playing music together, but we also like going home after 10pm on a Friday night, to sleep in our own beds and beg for sex with our significant others. (I’m speaking only for myself in that last sentence. Mostly.)
In music, as in every other creative undertaking I’ve ever had, I’m a collaborator. Yes, I could probably make a few extra bucks playing wine bars and restaurants and coffee houses as a solo act, but making shit up is just so much more enjoyable for me when I’m doing it with other people. I’m a huge fan of creating something that requires other people with skills and talents I don’t have. Technology being what it is today, I know people who are their own one-man bands, using foot percussion and looping and harmonizers to sound like more than what they actually are: a guy (or girl) sitting on a stage, spending more time pushing buttons than actually singing or playing an instrument. Mick Fleetwood, interviewed in the film Sound City, said it best: “The down side [of music technology] these days is thinking that, ‘I can do all this on my own.’ Yes. You CAN do this on your own. But you’ll be a much happier human being if you do it with other human beings. And I can guarantee that.” That’s coming from a guy who has been making music with essentially the same group of friends (Fleetwood Mac) for 37 fucking years. Pay attention, young people.
I believe the reason I enjoy making music more than acting is twofold. First, making music feeds my need for instant gratification, the pure joy that comes from playing the right note, at the right time, and hearing my friends and me sync up a harmony that has been eluding us, and suddenly it’s there, and we all hear it. You don’t need an audience for that. You don’t need the appreciation of anyone other than the guys and girls you’re playing with. It’s not quite an orgasm, but it’s fucking close. Secondly, I’m much more willing to be vulnerable while singing and playing than I ever have been as a character on TV or in film. You’ve no doubt heard interviews with actors who say they are able to “lose themselves” in a role. I have never been able to do that. Not once. In twenty-three years of creating characters, whether they ran for years on a TV series, or just thirty seconds on a commercial, I was always on some plane of existence where I was still Larry. Most of the characters I ever played never required a ton of vulnerability, but any acting coach worth a shit will tell you that the first thing you must learn to do, if you wish to be a real, honest-to-motherfucking-goodness actor, is let go. Let go of yourself, your ego, your hang ups, your fears, blah blah blah. I could never do it. Still can’t. I don’t really need to completely let go of myself to be funny, and since funny is mostly what I’ve done in my career, I’ve been okay with it.
Making music is the one artistic space in the universe where I can truly say, “Fuck it,” and let everything go. That doesn’t make me a great musician, or even a competent one. But it does make me honest. I’ve had dozens of pictures taken of me over the last few years while playing with the band, and I find none of them very flattering. But I do find them honest. I make faces when I sing certain songs that, taken out of context, might lead you to believe I was in the process of shitting a porcupine. I don’t care. I have no affectations on the music stage, because I simply don’t have the bandwidth for them. I’m too busy trying to not fuck up the song; I have no time to think about trying to look cool.
You totally thought I was kidding about the “shitting a porcupine” face, didn’t you?
Since I picked up a guitar eight years ago, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by a lot of musical talent where I live in North Texas. Some of those talented folks even call me a friend, and have given me lessons, tips and advice here and there, that has improved the quality of my playing. But only one person gets all the credit for getting me started singing in the first place, and that’s Brenda Patrick Brantley Cook. Also known as “my mom.” I know I’ve said some unflattering things about my mom in these pages, even if they are true, but I believe in giving credit where it’s due. Mom was a hell of a singer back in the day. She was even part of a radio show back in the Sixties and early Seventies. The Hillcrest Baptist Church in Austin, Texas was one of the first to start recording sermons and music for later broadcast on the radio. Mom was part of a trio of singers that provided the music for those churchy programs. The trio was known affectionately as “God’s Golden Gigglers,” for their propensity to start snickering at something or other during each week’s taping, which led to giggling, which often proceeded to full-tilt howling laughter. Evidently the more the pastor and the audio engineer would try to get the girls back on task (they were, after all, singing traditional hymns – not exactly light-hearted fare), the worse the giggling would become, until everything had to shut down long enough for the cackling trio to wear themselves out. This happened, I’m told, almost every single week for the better part of nine years.
I first started singing in church, because that’s where Mom was singing. Shortly after we moved to Conroe, our family joined the Mount Calvary Baptist Church, a tiny white clapboard chapel with a gravel parking lot, an out-of-tune piano, a reverend’s wife who could play a mean accordion, and a congregation mostly left over from the Civil War. Mom would often play the piano to accompany the choir, and one Sunday during service, while Mom was at the piano and the choir was giving hell to “The Old Rugged Cross,” I got up from my pew, walked over to stand beside Mom, and started singing harmony with her. I was, years later, told by some family friend or other that the general belief was that, at that moment, I’d been filled with the Holy Spirit, who had at that exact second given me the ability, not only to sing, but to sing harmony. The plain truth is, I liked the sound our voices made when she was singing one note, and I was singing a different one, but they somehow blended. After that I’d pretty much stand beside the piano every Sunday that Mom played. I had no real understanding of the words I was singing; it was the sound we were making together that thrilled me.
Mom would spin me records from The Bill Gaither Trio, The Heritage Singers, even the Oak Ridge Boys. It was all a little hokey for me, even at that age – but it taught me to love harmony. We’d listen to tracks over and over, and she’d teach me how to pick out parts, and which ones were in my range. Once or twice we even sang duets at Mount Calvary, which was a little scandalous, given that most of the folks in that tiny congregation had zero musical ability whatsoever, and tended to look upon anyone demonstrating a talent they did not possess as “showing off,” and quote James 4:16 (”As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil!”).
That was the first and only creative collaboration I ever had with Mom, but it turned out to be one of the most important collaborations of my life, because it gave me a deep and abiding love for music that is stronger now than ever. But after Dad killed himself and Mom crawled inside a bottle, there were no more duets for us around the old piano. I still sang, but only in my room, and now I was accompanying the likes of The Eagles, The Allman Brothers, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Mamas and the Papas. As I got older and moodier, I delved into music where the focus was more on instrumentation than vocals. But the love of harmonies never really left. And when I finally decided in Middle Age to pick up a guitar, I picked up an acoustic. I never wanted to learn how to shred Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption, but I did want to be able to perform some old John Prine songs – in three-part harmony.And let me tell you: that’s some good shit.