A taste of the Ray Charles classic "Drown in My Own Tears". The subtle D7 tuning came at the suggestion of AJ Ghent, who knows what he is doing. (Video by Dave Chamberlain.)
The doctors have me back on steroids again. That means that every night around 4:00 I’m wide awake with a new song in my head. The title rarely makes sense. That's okay. I imagine a groove and the lyrics come. I don’t worry at first about them being any good, but they often ring true.
The songs come to life and flit around the room. It’s my job then to catch them. Often around 5:00 the bedside light comes on and the notebook comes out.
Here’s a quick sketch of a true story I call “Goat Killer.”
Old Jack was a black and white goat
Lived in my Dad’s barnyard,
Cleared the hill of poison ivy
Till his face grew sore and hard.
Hunters came down from the mountain,
Hadn’t shot a thing all day.
They killed old Jack as they rode by
and left him where he lay.
That was a brave, brave man.
No meat for the larder.
No goat’s head soup tonight.
“Darling, was it fun?”
“I guess so, hon, but I’m coming home one round light.”
That was a brave, brave man.
Late 1990s. Unknown cat, Jack the goat, my son Jim, and my dad (also called Tom Gray).
Who could have foretold that this first grader in the homemade shirt (you can tell by the McCall's-style collar) would have such a fantastic life in music?
I'm a lucky guy. I have a wife of 37 years who loves me and friends all over North America and Europe. As my sister Helen Roman says, "We get to eat the good food, so we're rich."
Am I still that same kid? Absolutely, 100%.
"But," the old joke says, "enough about me. What do YOU think about my music?"
Thanks for reading. I welcome your comments and hope you have a wonderful day.
In the mid-1990s I read a magazine article about a Hawaiian steel guitarist named Ralph Kolsiana. The article included Ralph’s address. He was selling cassettes of the Waikiki Swingsters recordings he had made on RCA in the 1930s with his brother Johnny on guitar. So I wrote to him. To my surprise, Ralph called me up. A few months later I was in Los Angeles and made a date to meet Ralph at his home in the Silver Lake district.
Ralph met me at the door saying, “Tom, can you comp on guitar? Everybody I used to play with is dead.”
Well, I could fake it. Ralph set me up with an archtop and sat down to his 1950s Fender double 8-string steel in front of me, calling out chord changes over his shoulder. We played Hawaiian songs for hours.
In between sets of music Ralph regaled me with stories from his long career. In the 1930s he played the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, on the club car of the Orange Blossom Special and in Al Capone’s “boudoir balling band.” In the 1940s he did five years at the Chi Chi club in Palm Springs, a favorite hangout of Hope and Crosby. In the 1950s he worked at Disneyland.
I slipped out of a tentative dinner date, and we played into the evening until my fingers were too blistered and bleeding to continue. Then Ralph started pulling out instruments.
One was a custom 1930s Rickenbacher frypan lap steel, factory-painted red with gold flecks and with rhinestones set for fret markers. The frypan had been left to Ralph by a friend, Kale Kaleiali’i, who had played the guitar in vaudeville and in a circus. A dealer in a far-flung LA suburb had made Ralph an offer for it, but so far he had not been able to get a ride out there.
I said, “Ralph, I can write you a check right now, and you won’t have to go anywhere.”
The next day I flew home to Atlanta with the red Rick in the overhead — not only a unique instrument, but a souvenir of a wonderful afternoon and the making of a new friend.
Ralph Kolsiana passed away in 2002, at the age of 90.
(The first three photos are courtesy of Dave Chamberlain. The fourth is of Ralph Kolsiana with a Knutsen harp guitar, 1994, photographer unknown. The black-and-white picture is of Kale Kaleiali’i with the red Rickenbacher, a theremin and several other instruments, from Lorene Ruymer's book The Hawaiian Steel Guitar and Its Great Hawaiian Musicians.)
A couple months ago I started posting a song every Wednesday to Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. I had hoped, as my health improved, eventually to expand to livestreaming once or twice a week. Instead, the cancer symptoms have returned in yet another form and are forcing me to take a break. Maybe I celebrated too early. Thank you, everyone who has expressed support. I’m not really sure what is going on, but I have tests and appointments scheduled all this week. I’ll let you know more as I learn it and will try to pick things up again as quickly as possible.
I enjoy hearing from everyone, but please don’t expect me to respond to many comments for a while. Reading and writing are difficult now. My wife, Janet, is helping me type this. I love you all and promise to stay in touch.
Thanks for your patience.
I owe you an apology. I promised to do many things this year, but it has turned out that battling cancer is a full-time job. Everything else has pretty much fallen by the wayside. Fortunately, I feel surrounded by the love and support of family, friends and fans. Thank you all for your kind thoughts, wishes and prayers.
The good news is that, after a full year of treatment, the stage-four lung cancer is down to almost nothing. The bad news is that I’ve found something I’m really good at, and that is getting cancer. I’ve now developed another type, unrelated to the first. Counting the two bouts of colon cancer a decade ago, this means I’m fighting round four even before the bell has rung on round three. Fortunately, they caught it early. The doctors seem confident an aggressive program of chemo and radiation should knock it out.
But aggressive chemo and radiation are no fun, and this will take some time. Meanwhile, projects like the Brains reissue album and a Delta Moon Christmas sale are just beyond me right now. I hope you understand.
Here’s wishing you happy holidays. Let’s hope that 2021 is a better year for all of us. I’d like to see you in it.
As many of you may know, in the fall I was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. I want to thank everyone who has written or called with their support. I think you never realize — or at least I never realized — how much that means until you are on the receiving end.
I’ve had a new CT scan, and here’s the report. Since September 24 all the cancer nodules have shrunk by 50% or more. A few have disappeared completely or are close to it. I’m not out of the woods yet. But the oncologist said this was a good start. In fact he called it “phenomenal.”
So I’m sticking with the program. Delta Moon is not booking any new gigs yet. This is still my number one job. But things are looking good.
I think there are several reasons, and the first is you. Every day I hear from people around the world offering well wishes and praying for my recovery. That’s done more than anything else to help me keep a positive attitude.
I have much to thank from modern medicine. You might have read about the new science of immunotherapy that uses the body’s own immune system to battle the cancer and keep it from growing. This is a real game changer.
And I’ve been following the doctor’s orders, doing all I can, through diet, exercise and meditation, to win this fight.
If there’s any bright side to cancer, it’s that it throws a clear focus on what is really important in life. Samuel Johnson wrote, “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
Or as Flannery O’Connor’s character the Misfit says in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
But the Misfit’s closing pronouncement, “It’s no real pleasure in life,” is a mile off. I can disprove that with a single video clip of a live radio jam with my friend, sacred steel guitarist Dante Harmon, from “Sagebrush Boogie” on Atlanta’s WRFG-FM last Thursday. (Thank you, Vincent Tseng.)
Last Friday night at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta was a fantastic experience. I’m not sure what the night started out to be — a Drive-By Truckers show, a benefit for restoring old movie theaters or exactly what — but my friend Kevn Kinney from Drivin N Cryin stepped in and decided to curate a sort of variety show of Georgia music, and then the thing started snowballing. Kevn originally asked me to play a couple songs with Drivin N Cryin but called back a few days later and said, “You’ve been stolen from me!” Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry of REM were going to play a short set (shhhh!) and wanted me to sing “Money Changes Everything” with them. Of course I was up for that. But I said to Kevn, “Can I still play with you?”
“Sure,” he said. “We’ll do ‘Straight to Hell’ and maybe another.”
So Thursday I drove over to Athens, Georgia, for a rehearsal with the R.E.M. guys. They had done their homework, even calling me the day before to find out if they should study the single or the album version. The single, of course. We made a few arrangement tweaks, but they pretty much had the song down. By the time I left we had it cold.
I got down to the Fox early Friday afternoon, because I had sound checks with two bands. The day just kept getting better and better. Every few minutes another old friend would walk in, and we’d both say, “I didn’t know you were on this show!” Rick Richards from the Georgia Satellites, Vanessa Briscoe Hay from Pylon, Michelle Malone and my old buddy Phil Skipper, playing bass with Michelle. I was introduced to Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, who invited me to join in the gang chorus finale at the end of their set. It was good to see several friends in the crew too. The whole day felt like a homecoming.
The show was a blast. Everyone had done a serious job of keeping a lid on the R.E.M. factor, so when the lights came up for a set by “Kevn Kinney and Friends” the audience did a collective double take and then went crazy. Peter Buck told me they used to sell out the Fox for five nights in a row. Kevn sang “Fall on Me” and a duet with Mike on “The One I Love”, as Rick Richards and I watched from the wings, stretching, pacing and cracking jokes. Rick went on and sang “Battleship Chains”. Vanessa followed with “Crazy”. Then it was my turn. It was a tremendous experience. The band closed with “Texarkana”.
How to follow that? Well, I went out front and watched Michelle Malone not only do it but kill it.
Then Drivin and Cryin came on. This time Peter Buck and I sat on a big road case in the wings, waiting for the last two songs. Rick and Michelle joined us on the closer, “Straight to Hell”, with the whole audience singing the chorus.
Drive-By Truckers played a full ninety-minute set. I watched about thirty, then went backstage to hang with the others. The party was in the “Kevn Kinney and Friends” dressing room. When I say party it was mostly sitting around with glasses of wine or whiskey, joking and telling stories. There was a good, comfortable feeling in the room, and a lot of laughter.
L-R: Tim Nielsen, me, Mike Mills, Rick Richards, Peter Buck, Kevn Kinney.
We were all supposed to join the Drive-By Truckers for the last song. Somebody kept asking, “So when does the last song come? How will we know?” The answer was always the same: “You’ll know because it’s the last song.”
Then the word came: “This is the last song.” We trooped out on stage. People strapped on guitars. Vanessa borrowed a tambourine from the drummer. My gear was already packed up, so I clapped along to Neil Young’s “Rockin' in the Free World.” Everyone joined in on the chorus. Halfway through, Jay, the Truckers’ keyboard player, caught my eye and said, “You can play my B-3 if you want.” Well, sure. “But you won’t hear a note because the Leslie is way over there.” He was right, but it was still fun.
Hats off to Kevn Kinney for putting the whole extravaganza together and acting as MC, and to the staff and crew and especially R.E.M.’s head tech, DeWitt Burton, for putting in a long day and making sure everything ran smoothly.
Everybody left saying, “We should do this again.”
Photos: Top: Tom Branch. Middle: Kevn Kinney. Bottom: Kevn's granddaughter and, sorry, I don't know her name but she deserves many thanks.
Last weekend Mark Johnson, Franher Joseph and I retreated to a palatial “cabin” in the North Carolina mountains to write songs for Delta Moon’s next album. Mark’s wife Jennifer and my wife Janet came along to prepare the meals and keep us focused. We had a great time and came back with three finished songs and lots of promising bits and pieces.
It was a pleasure to get the guys up to the part of the country I think of as home. For all of Delta Moon’s travels, this was the first time I was able to show them around the family farm where my sister now lives, with her dogs, sheep, cattle, horses, peacocks and yaks. This was where I celebrated my sixth birthday, where I picked blackberries and fished and shot Prince Albert tobacco cans with a .22. Later my grandfather sold off most of the land, but several years ago my parents, siblings and I were able to buy much of it back. In the time since, this farm has played a huge role in keeping our family together — not just the immediate family but cousins, uncles, aunts and a new generation of kids. When the band decided to rent a place to write, I knew exactly where to look and found a secluded house just ten minutes from the farm.
Mark, Franher and I played music in the afternoons and evenings, batting around titles and chorus ideas. The verses I mostly slogged out in the mornings -- the kind of work I love to do. Since each of us has his own strengths, the three of us working together came up with things that no one of us could have created. It’s a great way to work. The weekend ended all too soon.
I guess we’ll just have to do it again.
Cyndi Lauper’s album “She’s So Unusual” has been named to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress as an essential American recording, along with Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil”, Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man”, Richie Valens’ “La Bamba”, Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” and 20 others. Congratulations, Cyndi.
Cyndi told me that when they needed a couple cover songs to round out the album, producer Rick Chertoff made a cassette of five or six songs he thought might work for her. She chose Prince's "When U Were Mine" and my "Money Changes Everything", which she still performs today. Thanks, once again, Cyndi. I'm proud to have played a small part in this.