Marcus Hummon’s Pilgrimage—Part 1

MusicRow is excited to share a three part essay series by renowned songwriter Marcus Hummon. Among his best known hits are Rascal Flatts’ “Bless the Broken Road,” Sara Evans’ “Born to Fly,” Tim McGraw’s “One of These Days,” and Dixie Chicks’ “Ready to Run” and “Cowboy Take Me Away.” Hummon and co-writers Bobby Boyd and Jeff Hanna won a 2005 Grammy for Best Country Song for “Bless The Broken Road.”

by Marcus Hummon

A letter to a young songwriter Marcus Hummon:

The first cut I ever had in Nashville was Michael Martin Murphy’s “Pilgrims On The Way” in 1988. It was a rolling travelogue of the places and faces I had seen as I made my way to the Mecca of songwriting, Nashville Tennessee. The lines in the chorus read:

You don’t know me/ But I know you/ 
We are pilgrims/ Pilgrims on the way

Fast forward 24 years and I find myself standing in front of a couple hundred or so students from the Berklee School of Music in Boston, asked to speak about the profession of songwriting. As I look into the eyes of these hopeful souls, I tell them that songwriting is not really a vocation in the contemporary sense, that it is more like a ‘calling’. It is a prism through which we refract Truth and Beauty. I am thinking this may sound a bit pretentious coming from a songwriter who has written such luminary lyrics as…

I’m ready, ready, ready, ready to run

Still, it is exactly how I have come to feel about this life I’ve chosen. I came to Nashville as any poor pilgrim might journey to a sacred site, with little to my name, committed to seeing and visiting the holy sites, venerating the saints, facing the brokenness of my nature and hoping to achieve a kind of ‘enlightenment’ through the writing of songs; or as I sometimes refer to them, living poetry.

There are many holy sites for the songwriter. In truth they exist throughout the world, but having come to Nashville in 1986, my options narrowed a bit. First and foremost there was the Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of country music, and home to the Grand Ole Opry. Then to the west was Graceland, home of Elvis Presley, which would have to be seen and while I was at it, cruise the blues bars of Beale Street, stop off at Al Green’s church for a little gospel. Back in Nashville there were famous dives lining lower Broadway, places like Tootsies, where country stars had honed their songwriting and drinking skills for years. One of my favorite little dives was Mack’s Country Kitchen, where Willie Nelson, down on his luck, was said to have stripped naked, walked outside, and begged a truck to run him over. Perhaps these stories were apocryphal, but they were inspiring to the pilgrim.

In concrete terms, the first steps in the ‘stations of the cross’ would take me to the Sunday afternoon auditions at The Bluebird Café, for a slot on the Monday Open Mic Night Show. Anyone with any hope at being the next Nashville singer-songwriter-poet had to stand before the measured gaze of the Bluebird’s owner, founder, and High Priestess…Amy Kurland. The line of applicants was around the corner so I took my place, and when I had my chance I played my song for Amy with youthful exuberance. Amy was gracious enough to give me the thumbs up.

Monday night came and the chosen 12 were given their baptism by fire in front of 100 congregants packed into the little room (the room seats 75 comfortably, and so it was jammed, as it is most nights). Each novice was allowed two songs to play in front of a crowd that always seemed to have a few music biz notables lurking in the shadows. It was about this time that I learned that the open mic performance was not the only part of the evening’s liturgy. Every Monday Open Mic Night also featured the appearance of a ‘Guest Writer’…usually a successful published and/or recorded singer-songwriter. I asked the attractive young hostess at the door the name of the guest writer, and she said, ‘Kevin Welch’ with breathless anticipation. Never heard of him.

I remember thinking that I had done exceptionally well with my two songs. In fact, I was quite certain that I had been the best songwriter that evening, and flushed with self-congratulations I sat back to take a long sip on a well deserved beer, as the guest writer stepped forward. Kevin Welch was this skinny, languid, long-haired Oklahoma boy, with a wry smile and piercing blue eyes. He looked like a portrait of Jesus you might find in some Methodist fellowship hall. As he began to strum his guitar and sing, he seemed both entirely present in that little bar, but also far away. It was as if he were looking across a field, like in ‘Christina’s World,’ Andrew Wyeth’s famous portrait of American yearning. And his lyric began:

O life is like
/ A candle bright
/ Death must be the wind/
 You can close your window tight/ But it still comes blowing in

I put the beer down and felt a tightness in my chest, my mouth was suddenly very dry. The room that had seemed to pulse with restless energy now seemed as still as a tomb. He continued:

Let me watch my children grow/ 
To see what they become/ 
O Lord don’t let the cold wind blow/ ‘Til I’m too old to die young

As he sang my mind left the tomb and was transported to a field far off, the same field that Christina and Kevin were staring across. I could see a house on the hill, and the lights on the porch coming on as night approached. I could see, standing on that porch, my beloved…my wife yet to find, my children yet to be born, and my heart was filled with a great yearning. I yearned for a life full of meaning, full of living poetry.

I left the Bluebird Café that night, scared and excited. Listening to Kevin Welch perform “Too Old To Die Young,” I realized how far I had to go on my journey. At the same time I said a prayer of thanks for having chosen the path of the pilgrim on the way.

 

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