It was Halloween 2012 at the intersection of Lake St and Lyndale Ave in Uptown Minneapolis. It's different now but back then it was bathed in purple neon. That evening I had finally gotten off of work, and gone the few blocks down to see some local live music again for the first time in a while. I'd had a busy schedule with work and playing my own music but I had been hearing a lot of buzz from the people around me which is what brought me to this particular place that particular evening. This was the first evening I would meet Rocky Steen, the songwriter that I had been told about all summer long, the person that my colleagues told me I would "just love" and the person who showed up just 3 minutes before showtime with a guitar on her back and no time to meet me when her friends shuffled her over to my table. It was in that awkward moment we met. She was still radiating the already cold Minnesota air into the joint while I fumbled through some stock "nice to meet you" and "I've heard a lot about you" type phrases. I was never good at those arranged meeting type scenarios and this was no exception. Regardless, we obviously did end up becoming friends.
Sometimes I wonder if it was that Mayan calendar doomsday 2012 "Hey! we might all die at the end of year!" thought that was sarcastically on our minds that winter or if it was really just that pure of a connection but Roc and I quickly started to work together and collaborate. By April we were married in a courthouse marriage by a dapper judge who was a huge fan of blues music. It was in his chambers surrounded by his framed photographs of Taj Mahal, Mississippi John Hurt, Bo Diddly, and other blues men, that we were wed. We moved to Chicago by the Fall and started playing out at markets and barrooms as quickly as we came. The next few months are still a blur in my memory. We were running a small business cleaning homes and condos in the Chicago area, playing when we had time off, and still had the time to acquire a puppy and take in a stray dog that we named Penny and Bella respectively. By the time our first summer had taken hold in The Windy City we found ourselves busier than we had ever been before with our work, and playing a few times a month downtown and at a few farmer's markets in the city. It wasn't the performing we missed, it was the time to write that we were starting to want. So that fall, a year after arriving in Chicago, we packed up the carefully decorated apartment with all the pets and brought it down to Arkansas.
We found a cabin home that was secluded enough to keep us in isolation but just near enough to town if we needed anything. Plus, it had that barn we use in some of our promo shots in the backyard, how can you pass that up? (We would later learn that the home used to be owned by the illustrator of Ranger Rick magazine and the barn housed his animals) That first winter there was amazing. We had to learn how to heat a house with a wood stove for the first time, how to keep a well properly maintained, how to live without the internet and most of all we made friends with the animals that would frequent the woodland home. Our favorite of these was the little brown dog that came the day after we arrived. His name was Jr. Brown and he was our first friend in the Ozarks. We later learned he lived about a mile or so down the dirt road from us but was partially raised by his feral dog father in the Ozark woods. He would just run around doing whatever he pleased and would often end up at our place. We took him on as a sort of spirit guardian and he would stop by almost daily to play with our dogs. I remember one morning as winter was settling in I walked to the back porch just as the sun was coming over the hillside. In the distance I saw a shadow bolting through the trees and a tiny speck of brown formed on the horizon at the treeline. Jr Brown came running at a full sprint right for the backdoor, and as he got close I slid the door open. He ran right to the couch, leaped onto it and quickly feel fast asleep. Such was our winter. We would spend the days chopping logs, hiking the hills, running around with the dogs and cats of the woods and the evening tending the fire and listening to records or singing songs until we decided we'd burned enough wood for one evening. Often nights it would be Roc and I, wood stove a glow, lights off, nothing but the glow of the moon, and all our dogs listening to the fire like a radio while the coyotes howled in the hollow. It was one of those afternoons that I set my camera on a tripod to take some photographs. I had it on a timer and Roc and I were hanging out under the giant white oak tree in our back yard. We took 2 pictures that day and the first one became the album cover to "Songbirds and Fog"
Jr Brown started to stop by for 2 days a time, sometimes even 3. He'd bring other dogs too and oftentimes they would wander off after a few hours. We noticed him slowing down a bit too, we learned from his owners that he was 9 or so years old and we suspected he might have been getting too old to make the trip back and forth in the winter time. He became a de facto member of the household, teaching us things like where the paths were the best in the back woods to hike to the next road, or even where the gaps in the fences were from the aforementioned illustrator's livestock fence. He knew every fox hole for miles, and every small pool of water on that hill. Sometimes he arrived with a swollen eye, a limp, or a small cut but he never stopped visiting; it was an amazing life for a dog and I certainly envied it in some ways. As spring began to bloom we found ourselves in a new world. Where there was nothing but brown, yellow, and black there was suddenly pink, orange, purple, and green. We were all feeling the effects of spring as both Roc and I would venture the woods with all our animal companions smelling all the flowers and listening to the songbirds whistle. Roc and I started our garden that year, and we would spend mornings digging rows, cleaning weeds, and prepping the compost pit. We'd brew giant pitchers of cold press coffee and iced teas and work until the sun went down. The dogs would hang out with us in the mornings sometimes digging holes to try and help or they would run off into the woods together only to be seen again at dusk. One day they all ran off into the woods together and didn't make it back until twilight. One by one the dogs ran out of the woods right in front of us as we strolled the treeline looking for them. One by one they emerged, tails between their legs, shaking and yet unharmed all frightened by some unknown terror. One by one they came up to us and nestled onto our legs. One by one, until Roc and I realized everyone had come home except for Jr Brown. We never saw him again. We still miss that dog.
With our little guardian gone Roc and I started to set our sights on the songs we had written that winter. We started to demo a few of them in the house during the evenings which slowly turned into all night recording sessions. As we did so, we started realizing we liked the sound of these recordings. They were written in such a trance like state of isolation, it felt strange to bring them to a studio. We left them that way, home spun, or as they say in the industry "raw". By the time we finished recording we had over 20 songs finished and had to start the process of selecting which ones fit best together and in what order, We had what we thought were high hopes for these songs. We wanted to get them out onto a record, print some CDs, maybe get a music video made, and perhaps get enough exposure with them to get us back out into the world and into society by the summer. We often talked about how nice it would be to maybe see the ocean again, or maybe even get some songs on the radio. It was all just woodland dreams but it was a fun recording process. If you listen to the record you'll occasionally hear a grasshopper in the distance, a bird on the tree outside, or a storm roll in. We recorded most of the album with the windows open which was a choice mostly made by the lack of air conditioning in the studio room and the fact hat it had huge windows. Boy it got hot in there! (the room we recorded the songs in was originally an illustration studio so the windows were for observing the animals!)
The album was formulated, and we decided to call it "Songbirds and Fog". We didn't expect much from it though we had our fingers crossed. We acquired "The Pelican" our trusty Winnebago around then. It's a class C RV with a few issues that became the tinkering pleasure of a few of my newly acquired rural living skills. Solar panels, coffee roasters, espresso machines, water heaters, all got caught in my installation fantasies as we sought to build the perfect rig for 2. We downsized our car to a 2 door Jeep and used the trade value of the downsize to put a few mods on it so it could be flat towed behind the RV. We weren't really planning on touring much, but we wanted to take what we learned from Jr Brown and our time in the woods. We wanted to run around free as a woodland critter wherever we pleased so we decided to take the steps to make that happen. We were able to book a tour to California and back with our yet to be released album and with that all was as we wished. It was on the road that May that our album received radio play and charted. Our video premiered and won several film festival accolades thanks to its talented director. Of course as time passed we were able to book more things on the road, explore more places and now, we're "here". We've been to both coasts several times, many new towns and cities, been to Ireland, met some amazing musicians from all over the world, and of course we're still doing as much of it as possible with our animal friends.
Things are not always so lovely though, we almost died once in Colorado when a semi-truck hub cap sailed at our rig at over 70mph. Due to quick maneuvering it missed us by inches, sparing us from becoming a casualty of the road. OK, maybe we wouldn't have died but it still scares me to think about sometimes. We once had to dodge a wildfire in Nevada too. It was on the sides of the interstate as we sped past. Fire crews were hosing it down and waving us through and we ended up driving 14 miles on a dirt road, RV and Jeep together with a string of cars following behind. Following a map we found a series of rural routes that connected us to a highway on the far side of the fire. As night loomed the desert glowed with wildfire closing in. Obviously it never did reach us but it was certainly not a heartwarming experience. So that's the story so far, we'll try to keep the brushes with death to a minimum but what's life without taking some chances? About a month or so after Jr Brown disappeared his owners stopped by to ask if we'd seen him. It broke my heart as I told them I hadn't seen him in a month. we all stood there in silence as we all took in the information. His doggie mama broke the silence and said "Well, it wasn't the safest life, but it was his life and he loved it. He was always so happy" That little dog taught us a lot. We still miss that dog.