It can be an enlightening and somewhat scary exercise to sift through the past in search of some turning point, the one defining moment that set you on your present course. One such moment arrived at the impressionable age of thirteen when my older brother Terry snuck me into Poor David's Pub in Dallas to see the legendary Texas singer/songwriter Steve Fromholz. Stepping through the door on McKinney Street into that smoky domain was like setting foot in some exotic new world. Fromholz told his stories, sang his songs in between tequila shots, and made a believer out of me.
That pretty much did it.
Along the way there have been many other moments: In 1979 I saw Cheap Trick at the Dallas Convention Center. This led to my conversion to rock and roll and later to the formation of a great little rock band called the Agents of Kaos. I wrote some songs about social justice, but mostly I just wrote about girls.
During a party in college in my hometown of Denton, Texas, I heard Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" for the first time. This opened up a whole new world of music for me. Soon, I was listening to Nick Drake, John Martyn, and Leonard Cohen. On a California road trip my sister Susan turned me on to the greatness of Richard Thompson as we drove through wine country with a serious buzz. The songs on his live album Small Town Romance instilled a desire in me to write better songs. Around this same heady time, some friends introduced me to the great Irish tradition as played and recorded by Planxty and Christy Moore. These influences led indirectly to playing music with my brother for over ten years at Renaissance festivals and small venues throughout the south including the aforementioned Poor David's Pub--which had moved to another location on Greenville Avenue by that point--and the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, Tennessee. Somewhere in the middle of all that, I earned a master's degree in history from the University of North Texas and bummed around Europe with good buddies in 1982 and again in 1989. I also mowed lots of yards and painted many apartments.
In 1990 I bought a cheap guitar and a one way ticket to Australia. I hitchhiked over 5,000 miles, playing street corners from Sydney to Melbourne and from Adelaide all the way through the Outback to Darwin. Seven months later, I ended up in Koh Samui, a small island in the South China Sea, where I played six nights a week at a party spot called the Jazz Bar. I eventually earned enought money for a strange flight to Sophia, Bulgaria. Later, during a particularly memorable performance in the cobbled streets of Prague, I realized that I was living the greatest of all possible dreams.
In 1994, with the help of many good friends, I released a CD full of songs written on my travels called Breakfast at Jim's. I then moved to Nashville to conquer the world. I believe Fromholz did the same thing. His song "Late Night Neon Shadows" chronicles his Nashville experience: "You try and put Nashville in a nutshell/it's a hard sell town, the dollar is the king/When you're drunk and you're broke and you're standing in the rain nobody cares how well you pick and you sing." Fromholz moved back to Texas. It's 2012 and I'm still here in Gnashville. I've been humbled considerably. I've also been inspired from time to time. Once, I sat next to Emmylou Harris and watched three Texans--Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and Steve Earle--spin their masterful tales on the Bluebird Cafe stage.
In 1997, I lost my brother Terry--my touchstone, confidante, partner in crime, and best friend--to a reckless driver in Oak Cliff, Texas. The world as I knew it changed forever. Since then, I have found a strange and sometimes uneasy peace playing the instrument he pioneered in Texas--the glass harmonica.
It's not possible or desirable to make a complete list of the myriad forces that shape who we are. With years of listening to my Dad sing Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Johnny Cash, and George Jones around the house and in the car, is it any wondder that I now live in Nashville? I'm married and have a son of my own now. I've found that there is no greater joy in life than being a father and I try to be conscious of the influences I might have on his life. As I sit here in Tennessee trying to see all the connections, I recognize that some paths are circuitous, some are shortcuts, and some play out altogether like a dirt road leading to a river. But it does seem to me that it was all set in motion in a special little dive in the bowels of Dallas. I've often wondered what my brother said to the doorman to let me in. Years ago, I had a bumper sticker on my car that read: "It's Fromholz's Fault.." Nothing could be closer to the truth.
God bless him.