the back story of backroad benevolence- robert bryant
"As a child, I was destined to be a professional baseball player. Baseball became a big thing for me in the spring of my fourth grade year when I went to a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. I was captivated by the green grass of the field, the red dirt of the base paths, the bright white of the pinstriped uniforms, the pop of the fastball reaching the catcher’s mitt, the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, and the singing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch.
After that, I could see myself rounding third and headed for home. I knew in my heart there was already a place for me to play at second base. The dream was on.
I dedicated my life to all things baseball for the next six years as though nothing else mattered. I made my way to an All-Star game, witnessed an unassisted triple play from the box seats behind the dugout, attended inductions at Baseball’s Hall of Fame, and watched a grand slam in a World Series game. I collected over 7000 baseball cards and got the autograph of nearly every famous professional ball player from the 1960’s era.
I most certainly had the desire and the commitment to play the game. My work ethic was unbeatable. However, my talent was limited. Later, I would discover why.
During the summer of my ninth grade year, I got hit in the eye by a pitch. That was the third time I had been struck in the face by a baseball. I was ordered to see the eye doctor.
The doctor was a very “matter of fact” sort of character. He said, “Your problem is simple. You can’t really see a moving baseball.” He explained that my lack of depth perception was caused by eyes that did not agree on what they were seeing. This could not be fixed by glasses. He determined that it was no longer safe for me to play baseball. His lack of understanding was striking as he suggested to me, the baseball lifer, “Why don’t you just start playing golf?”
I was devastated - Lost at sea without an anchor. For the next twelve months, I was lifeless. I became isolated and deeply depressed. FM radio was all that kept my head above the water.
Finally, my mother insisted that I must get out of the house and try some new things. She convinced me to spend a day at a folk festival. She drove me to the gate and left me to explore another world. By the time she arrived to collect me at day’s end, I had been miraculously transformed.
The folk festival was in its first year at the newly constructed Wolf Trap Farm Park in Vienna, VA. In small workshops in woodland settings, I spent quality time with the masters: Taj Mahal, John Fahey, and John Hartford. My musical interests were suddenly on fire. I would not look back. After that, music was my muse. A new soundtrack was emerging for my life.
A negative elementary school experience had discouraged me from ever singing. I was one of five students left out of the upper grades chorus because of poor vocal ability. So, I went underground. In the back of my mind, I was always a singer despite the unsolicited opinions of others.
There were years of listening intently to the recordings of folk, blues, and rock stars, before I began to hear my own music playing in my head. The scraps of lyrics and short riffs were just a hint of what was waiting in the dark for a chance to be heard. I collected a few simple songs in my head, sometimes on paper. Notebooks and boxes held the rough sketches of other songs that would come later.
I could always find plenty of reasons for why I should leave my music in the box. Perhaps the initial experience of being embarrassed by my apparent lack of early talent prevented me from exploring what might have changed over the years. So, I sang to myself at times and places where I was alone. I was free to sing out in the safety of my own world where I would not be overheard by uninvited critics.
With no formal lessons, I began to write whole songs that had some promise. My youngest sister was the only fan of my early work. My accomplished friends with their extensive classical training were “surprised” when they learned that I was actually writing music. I was an anomaly in many other ways, so I just kept singing my songs to myself.
A few years later, I worked up the courage to try again. I began to show up at open mic nights in local bars to explore safe venues to sing. I became a regular audience member. Eventually, I stepped right up to the microphone to tell a story and sang some unaccompanied versions of the songs that had lived in my head for years. Some people listened and liked what they heard.
Then, I was married and had a daughter. I spent the better part of my free time at work trying to make ends meet and had little left over for non-lucrative musical pursuits. So, my songs were left on the back burner waiting for later. Much later.
Two decades past and I was diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer. I was advised to put my affairs in order. The mortality discussion really gets your attention. My invincibility card was canceled and I was forced to face the reality at hand. My bucket list was created with a sense of urgency. With no more time to hesitate, I began to work on some of my most essential unfinished business.
I jumped right in on all those projects that were waiting for another day when it became apparent that there might not be much time left. My health was crashing and my capacity began to dwindle. My ability to focus and deliver was rising and falling like the tides. My physical range was greatly diminished.
After months of the “beat down” of treatment, I became acutely aware of what was no longer possible, but I also entered a time of discovering new talents that were rising to the surface. There was no time to sulk about what was lost because what I was about to find would give me new life.
Music was always in my head. My original songs had secretly helped me to manage the mood of many moments and survive all kinds of misadventures in this life. Whether I was a real musician or not was still up for debate. I heard entire songs that lived in my creative imagination, but translating those thoughts to finished recordings was a long shot at best.
After more than forty years of absence, I finally went to another festival. FreshGrass was a bluegrass inspired, folk roots extravaganza in North Adams, MA. I talked with banjo master Alison Brown, who gave me another round of hope. In an atmosphere that generously celebrated the creative spirit in all, I got the spark again.
I wrote a bunch of letters to musicians that never responded. I contacted musicians that didn’t have time or interest in my project. I kept trying long enough to get a “Yes” to a first conversation. An award winning bluegrass songwriter and virtuoso performer named Bob Amos took the time to respond to me.
Bob invited me to a discussion about my musical goals. I explained that I was only looking to produce a demo recording of my songs. At our first meeting in the hallway of an old opera house, he instructed me to just sing what I had in mind. My hesitant voice echoed through the twelve foot ceilings before I realized that the whole building could hear me. He said, “Your voice is certainty good enough to sing your own songs.”
Bob’s generosity and kind support helped me to get started. His guidance helped me to quickly put together the first four basic tracks of my bluegrass inspired songs. At the time, I thought that was as far as I could go.
Next, soulful bluesman Dave Keller responded to my letter. Dave invited me to sing one of my songs in his living room studio. He took me on as a student. The lessons evolved into a songwriting collaboration. Still, I thought that I had taken my songs as far as possible.
Another positive experience working with master fiddler Patrick Ross produced a few weeks of hopeful progress exploring more possibilities for my songs. He kindly referred me to Kristina Stykos, a mysteriously gifted producer with a small studio on a back road Vermont hilltop.
When I met up with Kristina, we tried out a new singer songwriter version of one of my previously recorded songs. I wasn’t completely sold on her first take. This was more a result of of my own lack of vision. Later, I would come to recognize her essential role in my musical journey.
My health concerns seemed to disappear into the distance. I lost my sense of urgency. So, I stopped for awhile to focus on work related activities just like before. Four months later, an oncologist let me know that there was some biochemical evidence of recurrence. My cancer was back.
I had to get serious again. It was time for me to decide if I was going all in on the music or get out altogether. I gave the songs another shot with a renewed commitment to reaching for a sound that was really right. Music had saved my life once before. I embraced this opportunity with great joy and found myself immersed in a process that kept me going forward.
Kristina and Dave quickly made time for my project. We worked together at the music with a different kind of intensity for the next six months. I was blessed by the level of excellence that came through with their contributions to the music that was beginning to emerge. The songs and my performance got stronger as I became more familiar with my musical partners. The real victory was producing Back Road Benevolence, a most satisfying rendition of my own music with fifteen songs that have been transformed into a collection that exceeds my expectations.
In a field dominated by hard driving masculine energy, women producers have been frequently left out of the show by design. Most recording artists still get produced by males because the music industry, at the inception, was the creation of men. In the business today, only 5% of the producers of audio for music, movies, and other media are female.
My performance was captured by Kristina, an independent female producer who helped to shape my sound and deliver a fine recording. In the modern music world, women are too often type cast into the role of delivering only the topline vocal melodies and harmonies, while the men take care of everything else. On my recording project, we reversed those stereotypical roles with excellent results.
Kristina’s Pepperbox Studio was the birthplace of my own recorded music. The off grid, back road hilltop location added some authenticity to the “Made in Vermont” Thunder Ridge Records label. For my project, Kristina served as a sessions musician, producer, and recording engineer. Her many talents have helped me to write, arrange, record, release, and distribute a representative collection of my own songs that serves me well. She has generously elevated my sound through the practice of her own craft. Her gentle soul became a driving force in my musical evolution. Our uncommon partnership delivered an extraordinary experience.
Dave assisted in building my blues infused tunes from the ground up. He applied his masterful sense of rhythm and lively guitar style to dynamically shape the sound of these songs. Together, we walked through various changes until we found the right groove. He respectfully helped me to grow from a wordsmith into a true songwriter. Dave brought his own rich experience to help me fully develop some of my rough cut ideas into the polished gems on the final recording.
Gratefully, the music gave me more life to live. Now, the music will begin to look for a life beyond my own. The release of the album creates a new world of possibilities for others to hear my songs. If they speak to the right folks, they may be sung by others and travel to places where I can no longer go. As I toss my songs into the wind, I am already fulfilled."