Category Archives: music

Who’s never left home? Who’s never struck out? An ode to the Dixie Chicks

“Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about?
Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out
To find a dream and a life of their own,
A place in the clouds, a foundation of stone?”
–Dixie Chicks, “Wide Open Spaces”

Sometimes a song can serve as an anthem or a guiding light. The Dixie Chicks were (are) that way for me.

In reality, the band’s four albums were released over the course of eight years. But I think of them now as a soundtrack to my college experience, as though they stacked upon each other to represent each class of the traditional four-year education.

The Dixie Chicks always take me back to the decisions and risks of early adulthood. Moving from my parents’ house in Jacksonville, Florida, to Dorman Hall, 177 miles away in Tallahassee, wasn’t a risk by most measures. I had a full scholarship, so I knew how my bills would be paid. Mom and Dad pledged another $300 a month for food and gas. I was on their cell phone plan.

But I didn’t know who I would meet when I arrived, besides the girl I’d soon call my roommate, a girl with whom I’d discussed matching comforters, a microwave and a shared disinterest in a television. I didn’t know who I would become.

I’m not certain now whether it’s reality or my memory rewriting history to fit a narrative, but I believe the Dixie Chicks must have been my companions on that two-and-a-half hour drive. I assume “Wide Open Spaces” was a declaration for many 18-year-old women who set their sights on new faces in the late ’90s. It was our anthem of independence.

The Dixie Chicks remained with us throughout college. My best friend and I belted out “There’s Your Trouble” with men in mind. The band’s second album, “Fly,” was released weeks into freshman year, and “Cowboy Take Me Away” became the anthem for love we hoped to find. We choreographed a line dance to “Some Days You Gotta Dance,” unaware that we’d be the only karaoke contest entrants to sing country instead of rap. It didn’t matter; the truth is, some days you do have to dance. The crowd loved us, even if the judges didn’t.

Coming to you live from atop a double decker bus: American tourists! 🙌🏻 #londonbaby

A photo posted by Carla Jean Whitley (@inkstainedlife) on

“‘Cause when the world doesn’t make no sense
And you’re feeling just a little too tense
Gotta loosen up those chains and dance”
–Dixie Chicks, “Some Days You Gotta Dance”

I gave away Dixie Chicks tickets my sophomore year. I don’t remember how I came into them, but it was a street team-esque set up. If you volunteered before the show, your admission was free.

Passing on those tickets remains one of my great regrets.

But I had regrets yet to come. That’s surely typical of decisions made at 19 and 20. At that age, I was convinced I should leave college and set out for the great unknown as soon as possible.

But I couldn’t do it without the Dixie Chicks to send me on my way.

The band’s third release, “Home,” was the only Chicks album that didn’t immediately grab me. There were tracks that did; “Long Time Gone” and “Truth No. 2” had instant appeal.

And as I prepared to leave my college town, just three years after enrolling, another song grabbed me. I know it first as a Dixie Chicks song–my lack of back catalog knowledge is embarrassing–but whether it’s the Chicks or Stevie Nicks singing, “Landslide” brings me back to the transition between college’s adulthood incubator and the rest of my life.

“Well I’m afraid of changing ’cause I built my world around you
But time makes you bolder, children get older
I’m getting older, too”
–Fleetwood Mac, “Landslide”

Through jobs and moves, cross-country road trips and existential crises, the Dixie Chicks’ music has carried me. Each album feels as fresh now as it did on release. I’d argue some songs even improve as I age.

But I still hadn’t seen the band live. The comments that sent them into a tailspin before the United States declared war in 2003 significantly reduced future opportunities. The band toured in favor support of its fourth, and, to date, final, album, but they didn’t come my way. I thought my dance had ended.

But 15 years after I gave up my chance to see the Dixie Chicks, they announced a European tour–and I decided to go.

I had never visited Europe. That, too, was one of my great regrets; if I had a college do-over, I would’ve stuck around for a fourth year and studied abroad. When I bought a pair of tickets for the band’s Birmingham, England, show, I still wasn’t sure I’d see the other side of the pond. But I could always sell the tickets if I had to. How do you put a price on a dream, anyway?

Somehow the pieces fell into place. Thanks to a friend’s Sky Miles and careful AirBNB selections, I traveled overseas with my college roommates for less than $700 each. For them, the trip was about more than a concert. And OK, it was for me, too. But the show was at the heart of my trip.

From Birmingham, Alabama, to Birmingham, UK #dixiechicksbham #londonbaby #theotherbham

A photo posted by Carla Jean Whitley (@inkstainedlife) on

The Dixie Chicks are still as high-energy and spirited as they ever were. It’s as though a decade, births, divorces and public outcry never occurred. Well, as far as their stage presences is concerned, anyway; were it not for the backlash to Natalie’s George Bush comments, some of their best material wouldn’t exist.

It was funny to see them in the country where the incident occurred. I looked around the 15,000-seat arena and wondered how the scene compared to that 2003 performance int he more intimate Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Was the crowd as reserved then as the people gathered in Birmingham? Or did the room ripple with energy?

The quiet Birmingham crowd didn’t stop us from singing every word. When “Ready to Run” was accompanied by a video mocking the U.S. presidential candidates, we joked to the Brits seated beside us that we were on our “Ready to Run” research trip. Later, when we finally rose from our seats for “Wide Open Spaces” and danced to “Sin Wagon,” one of those seemingly reserved Brits leapt to her feet as well.

I’ll see the band again this weekend, and if the North American tour had been announced sooner, I may never have made it to Europe. The trip unwound my two greatest regrets. It was a dream 15 years in the making, even if I took a round-about route.

“Well, I never seem to do it like anybody else
Maybe someday, someday I’m gonna settle down
If you ever want to find me I can still be found
Taking the long way
Taking the long way around”
–Dixie Chicks, “The Long Way Around”

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Sounds of the season: My five favorite Christmas albums

I’m something of a grinch. I admit it (and appropriately, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is my favorite holiday cartoon). Parades and the hoopla around holidays leave me grouchy.

It’s probably not surprising, then, that I’m not one of those people who flips to the all Christmas music, all the time station as soon as it cranks up for the year. I don’t love most Christmas music. But the Christmas music I love, I really love. Like, move-me-to-tears-and-take-me-back-home love.

Today AL.com has a short essay I wrote about one of my favorite Christmas albums, the simply named “Christmas” by the group Alabama. As I prepare to spend the holiday with my dad’s family tomorrow and my mom’s family on Christmas day, my five favorite Christmas albums (listed in no particular order) will accompany me:

  1. Alabama “Christmas”
  2. Amy Grant “A Christmas Album”
  3. Red Mountain Church “Silent Night”
  4. Over the Rhine “Snow Angel”
  5. Vince Guaraldi Trio “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

There isn’t a Sunshine State line in “Christmas in Dixie,” the Alabama track that debuted in 1982 and anchored the band’s 1985 “Christmas album.” Although the album released while we still lived in Alabama, I associate it with gathering around the tree in our suburban Florida home. We would often crank up the air conditioning to balance a blaze in the fireplace, decorating the tree in shorts and T-shirts and running outside to unseasonably warm weather with to play with whatever gifts Santa bestowed. Read more “Alabama’s ‘Christmas’ album has called me home for 30 years” at AL.com

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I screamed so loud but no one heard a thing

My relationship with Taylor Swift began with yoga, coffee and a break up.
imageI met Brooke at a yoga class in June. She approached me after I taught and bubbled over with enthusiasm and encouragement. Later, I asked a mutual friend why she seemed so familiar.

Right. Because she’s on TV and we had exchanged a half-dozen work-related emails over the years.

Brooke and I met for coffee weeks later, and our friendship quickly moved from yoga to heart issues when she asked how I prepared for teaching.

“Well, my boyfriend of three years broke up with me two days prior to the class you took,” I said. “When I planned that session, I focused on maintaining an open hear even after heartbreak.”

Brooke teared up. Her best friend had recently called off their relationship, she said, and Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” became her anthem in the aftermath.

We shed tears in that suburban coffee shop and declared our friendship cemented. And Brooke insisted I buy Taylor’s “1989” as soon as possible.

By that afternoon, I asked a coworker to take a coffee break with me because the one-two punch of “Wildest Dreams” and “How You Get the Girl” bad me welling up at the office. After we returned from that coffee run, I looked up the 1989 tour. I needed to be there.

My therapist OK’ed a bit of retail therapy in the wake of that break up. She said I was doing well, but it was fine to brighten my day with purchases within reason. I took that to heart, refreshing my makeup routine and subscribing to a flower CSA. On that June afternoon, I didn’t think twice about dropping $118 to see Taylor Swift, alone, in Atlanta.

image

It’s been nearly five months, and “1989” is an album that I return to repeatedly. I suspect fame has increased Taylor’s maturity, and there’s much I relate to as a result. The album creates a safe place to process the often-heavy emotions that accompany life and loss. In fact, the dichotomy of Taylor’s upbeat pop and the more nuanced lyrics is exactly why I (think I) prefer her version to Ryan Adams’ beautiful, mournful cover album (and I’m an RA fan girl).

Tonight I’ve donned my red-lip classic look and set out for the Georgia Dome. It’s a pilgrimage second only to seeing Paul McCartney years ago, another show that carried such emotional importance that I didn’t beauty to go it alone. Tonight I’ll sing, dance and cry in a dome filled with thousands of other people who have been moved by this music. Tonight I’m going to party like it’s 1989.

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She needs new faces, she knows the high stakes

This summer has been filled with stress and change, some of it positive, other elements less so. I’ve been seeking positive ways to ease those adjustments: subscribing to a flower CSA, attempting to increase the number of yoga classes I take per week, setting aside more and more time for reading.

Today, inspiration struck.

A song playing over the sound system at Urban Standard reminded me of the Dixie Chicks, and so I spent the rest of the day listening to “Taking the Long Way” (an album I’m still infatuated with, all these years later). I tweeted about my music of choice, and later noticed the band’s account had favorited that tweet. So I clicked through to the band’s Twitter profile–and remembered they’re touring Europe this spring.

Then I did what any normal person would do. I hopped on Ticketmaster and bought a pair of tickets to see the Dixie Chicks in Birmingham, England.

A coworker giggled as I narrated the purchase. (“I don’t even know how much I just spent! How do pounds convert to dollars?”) Several people have already asked if I purchased tickets in the wrong Birmingham by mistake. (I didn’t.) Now, I’m daydreaming about my first-ever European trip.

One of my greatest regrets is giving away tickets to see the Dixie Chicks on their “Fly” tour. My sister and one of my best friends went, while I spent the weekend on a ministry retreat to one of Florida’s least appealing beaches. Fifteen years later, I’m correcting that mistake.

I’m not yet sure how this plan will come together. I’m not positive it will. I have to figure out airfare, lodging in multiple cities, what I want to see and do in England and whether I can justify the expense. Oh, I need to be sure my passport hasn’t expired! But I have time–the show isn’t until April. As many reasons there are to travel abroad, why not make the impetus for my first such trip a concert? It’s something I’ll look forward to for months to come–and likely won’t forget for years afterward.

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Filed under music, Travel

2015 concerts

  1. Glen Hansard, Iron City, Feb. 2, 2015
  2. Triumphant Trumpet: Tamberg Trumpet Concerto, Haydn Trumpet Concerto and Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4, Alabama Symphony Orchestra with conductor Carlos Izcaray, Alys Stephens Center, Feb. 13, 2015
  3. Punch Brothers, Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, Feb. 27, 2015
  4. La Boheme, Wright Center at Samford University, March 13, 2015
  5. Authentic US presents an evening with Josh Vasa and Sanyasi, Desert Island Supply Co., March 21, 2015
  6. Wye Oak with William Brittelle, Alabama Symphony Orchestra Classical EDGE series, Alys Stephens Center, March 26, 2015
  7. The Music of John Williams from the Movies of Steven Spielberg, Alabama Symphony Orchestra, Wright Center, Samford University, May 2, 2015
  8. Garth Brooks with Trisha Yearwood, BJCC Legacy Arena, June 13, 2015
  9. The Watkins Family Hour with Secret Sisters and Buddy Miller, City Winery, Nashville, Aug. 1, 2015
  10. Taylor Swift, Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Oct. 24, 2015
  11. Chris Thile, Alys Stephens Center, Nov. 2, 2015
  12. Damien Rice, Iron City, Nov. 15, 2015
  13. Jeffrey Butzer and T.T. Mahoney perform “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Saturn, Dec. 20, 2015

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I hope we can all live more fearlessly

Yoga teacher training involves a lot of confrontation within a safe, supportive environment. As we’ve read through a variety of books, responded to those with reaction papers and verbally processed the lessons we’re learning on and off our mats, the members of my trainee tribe have opened up to one another. We provide grace when an individual struggles to offer it to him or herself.

But that’s not the environment we’ll teach in. Most yoga classes I’ve attended have been warm and welcoming, but I know I won’t often walk into a room full of people who already know my idiosyncrasies and care for me anyway. It’s just as likely that I’ll encounter students who have never taken a yoga class before, and that they’ll be side by side with those who are plenty comfortable moving through sun salutations with little direction.

Our homework before the next training weekend was to teach two 60-minute classes. That’s a fairly open-ended assignment; we could teach each other, or we could teach a class of only one person. (Our instructor specified, though, that our student must be human. No cat yoga for the purposes of this assignment!) I decided to challenge myself by inviting any of my friends to attend these two classes. I’ve also got a number of friends who have expressed interest in trying yoga, and so offering a free class is a way to invite them to try the practice I so love.

That’s how I found myself in front of a motley crew of yogis yesterday afternoon. The class included a couple of people who have practiced before and a couple who had very little experience with yoga, plus a young child. (He brought a book in case he got bored. That’s my kind of kid!)

I spent the days prior to this class determining what I wanted to include, considering modifications for some of the more challenging poses and building a playlist that would help me gauge time. I ran through the class mentally several times, and practiced it myself before the students arrived. As a result, I was comfortable making some adjustments as I went, removing a particularly challenging pose and substituting something more restorative.

Teaching a group that’s not training to be yoga teachers also brought other issues to my attention. If I teach a predominantly beginner class, I might want to break poses down in even more detail. Little things that I’m accustomed to, such as whether the tops of your feet should be flat on the ground or your toes should be curled under, become challenges for those who haven’t seen upward facing dog before.

I’ve got plenty to learn, of course, and I’m grateful for the friends who helped me process these lessons yesterday. I’m still listening to my yoga class playlist and reflecting on how much fun that first experience was! You can find a modified version of the playlist on Spotify; Atoms for Peace and The Beatles aren’t available through that format, so later I’ll add an iTunes playlist where you can buy each of these songs. The class was a heart-opening sequence that peaked in camel pose, and I tried to reflect that in my song choice, at times through the music and at others based on lyrics.

Join me for another round on 2 p.m. Sunday at Desert Island Supply Co. Can’t make it this week, but want to stay up to date on future classes? Sign up for my yoga mailing list.

 

Today’s subject line is from the Dixie Chicks’ “I Hope,” which appears on their 2006 album “Taking the Long Way.” It’s still my favorite.

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The big city calls and your daughters are smiling in the windows of apartment buildings

As we took in the sound of Gabe Witcher’s bow dancing across the strings of his violin and Greg Garrison’s carefully chosen plunks of the bass chords, I was overwhelmed again by Punch Brothers’ debut album, “Punch.” When I reviewed the album at the time of its 2008 release, I spent six weeks obsessing over it before putting it aside for three months. The music is absorbing, and I needed a beat away from its introspective content.

I had wanted to play this album for my boyfriend since we began dating two years ago; he’s an audiophile and a classical music fan. I knew this album would sound fantastic on his speakers, and I suspected the composition, which takes cues from classical music and jazz, would grab his attention.

After the recording ended, I noted that my interest in attending Alabama Symphony Orchestra performances–particularly the masterworks series–was likely influenced by this album, and most certainly by its primary composer, Chris Thile. Before meeting Put, I attended a handful of ASO special events. But I had never been to what I thought of as a “proper” symphony performance. I wasn’t sure if I’d like it, but I wanted to find out. (Put took me to hear the ASO perform one of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies during our first few months dating. I’ve been hooked.)

In other words, “Punch” was a game changer for me. But it certainly isn’t the only album that holds that distinction. Caedmon’s Call’s “40 Acres” was the first album to make me realize sometimes the best songs aren’t on the radio. It took a while for it to click, but “Abbey Road” was the album that kickstarted my Beatles fan-dom. I don’t know what made me hear the album differently than the first five or six times I played it, but once it made sense, I couldn’t get enough.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, and I know I’m not alone. I want to know: Which albums have been game changers for you?

Today’s subject line comes from Punch Brothers’ “Blind Leaving the Blind: Third Movement.”

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I must be traveling on now ’cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see

We’re one week from the debut of “Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music,” and I can hardly wait! I’m also excited to share the book’s most recent press coverage. Alec Harvey, the managing producer of entertainment, dining and travel at Alabama Media Group, asked me to share my favorite songs recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. It was a challenge, and I couldn’t stop at my original list of five (so you get a bonus song!). But here’s the fun thing: You can listen to these and other songs yourself via the Spotify playlist below. I’d like to know, what are your favorite examples of the Muscle Shoals sound?

Carla Jean Whitley knows a lot about Muscle Shoals.

For the past year or so, the managing editor of Birmingham magazine has been researching and writing her first book, “Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music.”

The book, a history of the famed recording studio in northwest Alabama, details the many superstars who have recorded there, the songs they sang, and, of course, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, a group of studio musicians better known as the Swampers. Read more “‘ Muscle Shoals Sound Studio’ author details her favorite songs recorded there” at al.com.

Today’s subject line comes from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” which was originally recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Learn more about the studio 

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Filed under Audio, Books, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, music, Press

Loving local music

You would think I’d be tired of these songs by now. But you’d be wrong.

I’ve been lucky that my life and career have allowed me a lot of opportunities to support Birmingham, the city I love above all others. This spring, that included judging entries in the Alys Stephens Center’s ASC Commissions Birmingham songwriting contest. Beginning in January, the ASC invited local songwriters to submit videos of their original songs for this contest. Over the course of three weeks in April and May, a panel of judges reviewed the 86 submissions, rating them on qualities such as originality and how much each song reflects the city.

Yes, that means I listened to and rated 86 songs. That task became even more difficult after the judging panel narrowed the list down to 12 finalists. I listened to those 12 songs over and over and over again in an effort to determine which stood out the most.

I was in great company on this panel, which included Chris Confessore, resident conductor of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra; Eric Essix, UAB Department of Music instructor and president of Essix Music Group/Essential Recordings; composer Yotam Haber, director of MATA Festival; Bobby Horton, musical historian and composer; Kimberly Kirklin, director of the ASC’s ArtPlay; Scott Register, host of “Reg’s Coffeehouse” on Birmingham Mountain Radio; and Jessica Simpson, owner of Artistic Endeavors, LLC. It’s a talented group of people with a range of preferences, and so I wasn’t surprised to learn that the finalists reflect a variety of genres.

This weekend, the top three contenders will be announced, and each will receive studio time to record their songs.

Join me and the musicians on June 21 to celebrate LOCAL, a free festival featuring music, food, brews and goods. The event will include merchants such as Oli. O, Green Bottle Candle Co. and Stone Hollow Farmstead Pantry, food and drinks from Steel City Pops, Octane and others and performances by the contest’s 12 finalists. In the meantime, take a sneak peek at the finalists. My votes have already been cast, but I’d love to hear what you think of this talented group.

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Only the curious have something to find

Tonight I revisited the soundtrack to my 20s.

I’m not sure I could have previously pinpointed what that sounded like. But as Nickel Creek performed a variety of songs from their four main albums, I felt as though I was taking an audio tour of my past.

“The Lighthouse’s Tale” took me back to Saturday game nights during my senior year of college. We knew two albums were sure crowd pleasers: a mid-90s rock mix a friend made, and Nickel Creek’s self-titled album.

“This Side,” in hindsight, was the perfect song to carry me into that awkward year after college. The band released that album the month I would have started my senior year (had I not decided to finish early). Life felt foreign, indeed, on that side of graduation.

“When You Come Back Down” is one of several songs that remind me vividly of moving back to Alabama and finally chasing down my dream: a career in journalism. When I enrolled in grad school at Alabama, I wasn’t sure I would make it in this field. I had always been told I was a good writer, but I knew journalism was a competitive, intense industry. I realized how much I had to learn in my first semester, thanks to the Intro to Reporting class (a course I earned a B in, but now teach). I was terrified, but I was taking a chance I believed was worth taking.

It was hard to believe it would pay off during nights when I would lie awake, obsessing over how I could strengthen my resume and skill set in order to get a job. When I couldn’t quiet my mind, I’d return that self-titled album to my CD player. By track three, “Out of the Woods,” I would be breathing easier. By the song’s end, I would usually fall asleep.

My favorite band seemed to change with me, with instrumentals on each album exploring new territory (I love “Ode to a Butterfly,” but “Smoothie Song” and “Scotch and Chocolate” took my growing interest in instrumental music a step further). Every time “First and Last Waltz” begins, I remember again how it seamlessly transitions into “Helena,” showing how a voiceless piece of music can set the tone for what’s to come.

“Doubting Thomas,” and “Why Should the Fire Die?” as a whole, carried me further still. The album came out while I was working my first job. I knew journalism was the right fit–I loved it even more than I imagined I might–but I was also struggling with the adjustment that accompanies working full time and figuring out life on your own. The answers weren’t always easy, and the journey didn’t always look like what I expected.

“Reasons Why” has always encapsulated the struggle of those unmet expectations. There were nights, particularly in 2002, when I would play the song on repeat. It remains my official favorite song of all time.

When I first heard “Hayloft” on the band’s latest album, I was taken aback. It felt jarring in the context of both their previous work and “A Dotted Line.” But the song has grown on me, and seeing it performed tonight reminded me of how much Nickel Creek has matured in the 13 years I’ve loved their music. These songs and musicians have been the soundtrack to my growing up.

Nickel Creek, Alabama Theatre April 16, 2014

Destination / The Lighthouse’s Tale / Scotch and Chocolate / This Side / Rest of My Life / Out of the Woods / Ode to a Butterfly / When In Rome / 21st of May / Anthony / Smoothie Song / You Don’t Know What’s Going On / Reasons Why / Doubting Thomas / Elephant in the Corn / Somebody More Like You / Hayloft / The Fox

Encore: First and Last Waltz / Helena / Cuckoo’s Nest / Where Is Love Now

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