Music

Portraits of a Musical Life

Ten up-and-coming musicians on the people, places, attitudes, and influences that have defined them

 

You hear a song with your ears, but you feel the really good ones with your heart. It’s why “Sunday Morning Coming Down” soundtracks so many lonely morning-afters, and why “He Stopped Loving Her Today” can reduce even the most stoic to tears. For songwriters, pieces of everyday life—little insecurities and serious struggles, chance encounters and lighthearted moments—are the basis for their livelihoods, lyric by lyric. We sat down with ten up-and-coming musicians at the Luck Reunion, an all-day concert held each year on Willie Nelson’s ranch in Luck, Texas, to ask them about the obstacles, triumphs, and, of course, the tunes that have shaped them and their art. Read on for a selection of their answers.

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Sam Lewis
Latest album Loversity (Out May 4, 2018)
On tapping into his roots: “I claim two hometowns: Asheboro, North Carolina, and Hillsville, Virginia. They’re separated by I-40. I went to a lot of schools between them. We moved around a lot. I was working in a furniture factory right after high school in Hillsville, and those factories started going overseas, went to China. It was a dead end. Fortunately, the random moving around growing up conditioned me to be very prepared for change—Hillsville wasn’t the only place to me. I started writing songs in my early twenties, and a friend of mine wound up going to Tennessee. I followed him out there and started playing coffee shops, anywhere I could. That’s how it all got started.”

photo: Brennan Wesley

Sunny War
Latest album: With the Sun
On a meaningful lyric: I love Gillian Welch. She’s easily my favorite country artist, and my favorite song by her is “Time (The Revelator).” That one, to me, is about true individualism. When she says, ‘If there’s something that you want to hear, just sing it yourself,’ that has so many meanings. It says to stop looking for answers outside of yourself. Whatever comfort you need, you can create it.”

 

photo: Brennan Wesley

Micah Nelson
Latest album: Particle Kid
On an experience that changed his perspective: “At a certain point, you have to become fearless or you just won’t make it. Every time I was on stage with my dad [Willie Nelson], from the time I was three and basically taking harmonica lessons in front of thirty-thousand people, helped prepare me for life—and not just musically. I was forced to become fearless early on. With my band, starting my own career, there’ve been a lot of these plot points in my life when I had to just jump in. Being surrounded by fearless people from early age, whether it was my dad or my brother or anyone, really, who was one of those figures in my life—I’ve been fortunate to have so many of them—created an example of what it means to be a fearless artist, and fearless person in general; to not apologize for being yourself.”

photo: Brennan Wesley

Liz Cooper (of Liz Cooper and the Stampede)
Latest album: Live at the Silent Planet (EP)
On getting out of her comfort zone: “When I was growing up, I was painfully shy. I was an only child, and although I mainly grew up in Baltimore, we moved around a lot. But when I moved to Nashville, I realized that if I continued to be as shy as I was, I wouldn’t get anywhere, wouldn’t make any friends. So I started actively putting myself out there, putting myself in scary situations. It’s been the best thing that’s ever happened to me. As I get older, I’m continually figuring myself out.”

photo: Brennan Wesley

Aaron Lee Tasjan
Latest album: Silver Tears
On an encounter that changed his life: “My best friend is almost sixty years old. His name is Kevn Kinney, and he’s the singer in the band Drivin’ n Cryin’. We met at his wife’s—then-fiancee’s—birthday party in the basement of this pizza restaurant in Brooklyn. They didn’t know me at all. She’d invited her friends to come sing a few songs, and I came with a buddy. Kevn invited me to jam with him, not knowing I was a huge fan of his and already knew all his songs. But I guess he just thought I was figuring it out on the spot—that I was some sort of genius. He came a week later to my gig and was like, ‘Hey, I’m going to Amsterdam. Want to go?’ [Editor’s note: Tasjan would go on to tour with Drivin’ n Cryin’ as an opening act and as lead guitar player.] Kevn knows just the right stuff to not give a damn about, and he really taught me how to think that same way. Listening to him is like going to summer camp for elevated thinking.”

photo: Brennan Wesley

Paul Cauthen
Latest album: My Gospel
On the value of failing: “One of my biggest challenges was getting over myself—not double-checking and double-crossing my own art, letting it flow. It took me a while to understand that my life journey—what I pull in with my sponge and what I squeeze out by the time it’s done—is all part of the process. I’ve learned to lean on my first gut instinct. But I learned by screwing up a lot, learned by failure. Make enough mistakes, and you’ll figure things out soon enough.”

photo: Brennan Wesley

Lilly Hiatt
Latest album: Trinity Lane
On putting yourself out there: “I grew up in Franklin, which is right outside of Nashville. I loved it. I think it’s really special and one-of-a-kind, even though it’s changed a lot. It’s a hub for musicians, which is a beautiful thing—but as a result of that, people are always coming there from other places. Being a working musician in Nashville has made me tough, because it’s not a town that makes it easy to put yourself out there. It can be intimidating. But I wouldn’t have gotten to where I’ve gotten without seeing an enormous amount of live music and being inspired by that.”


Trinity Lane was one of G&G‘s 17 Best Southern Albums of 2017. Click to view the story.

photo: Brennan Wesley

Caleb Caudle
Latest album: Crushed Coins
On weathering bad days: “Music is not a linear career. It’s a lot of highs and a lot of lows, and not a ton of in-between. Early on, when I was first starting to tour, it was hard to understand how in one town you could have a crazy-good show, where a lot of people show up and it goes perfect, but the town two hours away could be the complete opposite. The biggest challenge for me was accepting that none of that matters. What’s important is, are you having fun? And are you topping yourself? The most fun that I can have is to write a song that’s better than the last song. When you stay secure, and stay in that mindset, it’s hard to care so much about the bad days.”


Crushed Coins was featured in G&G‘s February/March 2018 issue. Click here to read the review.

photo: Brennan Wesley

Erika Wennerstrom
Latest album: Sweet Unknown
On finding contentment: “As human beings, we’re always working toward something. Sometimes it’s growing your career or making more money. But my obstacles these days are more about inner growth and working on myself. When it comes to success, it’s about finding some sort of sense of peace within, and gratitude for what I already have. Then everything else just becomes the icing on the cake.”

 

photo: Brennan Wesley

Jonathon Childers (of Blank Range)
Latest album: Marooned with the Treasure
On overcoming obstacles: “I had to quit drinking to move forward with music. A wonderful organization called MusiCares sent me on a thirty-day trip to rehab about two and half years ago. It was an amazing opportunity to be able to clear my head and get sober. That’s given me the clarity to write the songs that I’m writing right now, to focus on the music, to re-learn the business side of everything, and just to really buckle down.”

photo: Brennan Wesley

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