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Essay: Reflections on The Overall Distance
In 1999 I Made a Record that Kept Me From Giving Up
Looking back, 1999 seems like a fantastical number for a year in the same way 2023 seemed like a number best suited to a futuristic movie with flying cars when we were living in that time before the towers fell and climate change was still theoretical.
In 1999 I was 29, a young man beginning to let go of a boy’s dreams and ambitions, and a grown man preparing to shoulder the responsibilities of a grown-up life. I was a husband and a father to a three-year-old. I had my first salary job making $30,000 which seemed like a lot. I was still teaching guitar and songwriting lessons and I was taking on freelance work designing websites. I was still playing gigs, but I was not touring. The scales were decidedly shifting from the creative and possible to the steady and certain.
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I had released one album in 1995 and too many copies of it sat in cardboard boxes in our basement. I didn’t think I would ever make another album or more importantly that I deserved to. Against all odds, I did make another one and it was thanks to one man who was one of my students. Ed Schieblin believed my music was important and he didn’t want me to give up. He was a brilliant writer and generous soul who at 62, was trapped in a life that did not suit him. That life included the money and influence accumulated from a lifetime of toiling in corporate America. He used both to single-handedly help me finance “The Overall Distance.” The money was important, but it was his resolute belief in me that ensured I would never give up my artistic self as he did. Ed was a dear friend and I miss his wry humor and wisdom.
My hope in writing this piece is to reconcile all the experiences that led to the making of this album that was a major inflection point in my life.
In the years after I made the move to Atlanta after college in 1993, I had earned a place on the stage of Eddie’s Attic, which was arguably the most important venue for singer-songwriter folky-type artists in the Southeast at the time. The place was an investment from Amy and Emily of Indigo Girls who were, for all purposes, the godmothers of the acoustic scene in Atlanta. It was owned and operated by Eddie Owen, perhaps the biggest fan of this kind of music that there ever was. I’d seen my heroes play in this small room and met many of them. I’d gotten to share the stage with a young Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings as well as Jennifer Nettles, Kristian Bush, and Kristen Hall on different occasions long before they formed Sugarland. I saw John Mayer and Clay Cook when they played their first open mic at Eddie’s after ditching out of Berklee. I also played regularly with Shawn Mullins and Matthew Kahler before Shawn got his big break with the song Lullaby (Rockaby).
The scene, like most music scenes, was highly competitive but it was also a community of artists. A few of these folks, I considered friends. There was mutual admiration and a willingness to help each other in the struggle as we were all finding our footing as artists, but also as people. John Mayer sat in with me a few times before he quickly started headlining his own shows. He was crazy good already and ruthlessly ambitious. We both went to music school so we had that in common. After shows, we would talk about our musical heroes like Coltrane and Stevie Ray Vaughan. John really wanted to be taken seriously by other musicians. He knew he had the right combination of ingredients to be a pop star even then, but it was very important to him for that not to be all he was seen as. He would break a lot of hearts and burn a few good people in his rocket-propelled trajectory to international fame. But maybe that’s the cost of doing business at that level. I like to think maybe he operates differently as he’s gotten older. Regardless, I still enjoy his music as much as I did the first time I heard him play.
Shawn Mullins and I spent quite a bit of time together and I learned a lot from him about performing. He had a fierceness and will that I admired. When he got on a stage, no matter how small or how noisy the room was, people would shut up and listen to him or they would leave because he refused to be background music. He sang at my wedding and brought us burritos when we were in the hospital waiting for my son to be born. I was one of the first people he played Lullabye for when he came back from one of his relentless solo coffeehouse tours living out of a van with Roadie, his dog. He needed my help with making art for his merch and I was glad to do it, though I quietly held out some hope that he would see me as a peer and not just a friend with computer skills (which were rare back then). I don’t think he did. He saw me as a nice guy who had a kid too young and was in the process of selling out his dream. We mostly lost touch after his big break, but I’ve seen him a few times over the years. On one such occasion as I was lamenting about not being able to play music as a vocation he said, “I don’t know what’s worse Ben, to be a wanna-be or a has-been.” He also said if he had the skills to do anything else, he would. It’s not an easy life for anyone. You can hear more about Shawn in an old interview I did for a podcast I produced called Take Me To The Bridge.
In the first few months of being around the scene at Eddie’s, I quickly gravitated to Kristian Bush, who at the time was half of the duo Billy Pilgrim. The visceral energy and immediacy of the music he and Andrew Hyra were making was like nothing I’d seen up close before. I fell in love with their debut record for Atlantic Records and the exquisite production by Don McCollister. I wanted to make a record that sounded as complete as that. Kristian was kind to me and our lives intersected for a few years as he was coming off the wave of Billy Pilgrim and starting a family. He was looking for a straight job with a steady income so I taught him the basics of computer programming and web development and he worked for a time in corporate America. He never stopped dreaming and scheming about music though. He built the Projector Room recording studio in downtown Decatur with the help of benefactor Bob Ephlin and we would spend evenings there tinkering together and independently. A few years later he helped produce a song for a band I was in called Screen Door. He was nudging me back toward my rock and roll youth and you can hear that in this track:
I remember the first time he talked about starting a country project. It seemed to me like a strange move, but clearly, he was playing the long game. Kristian is and always was a shrewd businessman and I think he would have been the head of a corporation like his father if his love of music had not made that impossible. Within a couple of years, he had assembled Sugarland, the vehicle that would give him the big ride he had been planning on. You can check out a conversation I had with Kristian back in 2007 as part of my Take Me To The Bridge podcast.
I share all of this background because it’s what was happening on the surface for me. These people influenced me at some level and I’m grateful to have had the experience of being around them as their musical identities were forming. Both Shawn and Kristian make guest vocal appearances on this album. But there was much more happening inside me that informed eleven songs that would become “The Overall Distance.”
I was scared and overwhelmed. I was unprepared for the responsibility I had taken on and a big part of me could not let go of my dream of being an artist. Catherine, my wife at the time, and I were so young. In the first two years of our son Ian’s life, I tried to support us financially as a musician. It was laughable. I taught lessons, worked in a music store, and gigged as much as I could, but we were struggling. Weekly there were impossible choices to make. Buy groceries or get the brakes fixed on our ancient Honda Accord.
Catherine shopped for clothes at church sales and thrift stores. We ate a lot of beans and rice. There was a lot of sacrifice and fear. She was regularly mistaken for a nanny when she took our son to the playground. The adult world saw us as kids. Our peers saw us as aliens.
With Ian’s birth, something profound changed in me. Holding his tiny body and looking into his enormous gray-blue eyes, I felt a deep sense of purpose. That sense of purpose and maturity was reflected in the batch of songs I was writing. I’ll unpack each of them in turn later in this piece but for now, it’s enough to say that I was approaching the 10,000-hour mark as a practicing musician and my life experience was giving me something worth writing about. After pretending and posturing like my musical heroes for so many years, I had finally found my voice just as I was about to give up making that voice my life’s work.
The Cast of Players
In the Atlanta scene at the time, there was a network of extremely talented musicians like drummer Kevin Leahy, keyboardist Brandon Bush, and bassist David Labruyere to name a few, who lent their skills to songwriters for live shows and recordings. With my friend Ed’s financial support, I was suddenly in a position to make the album I’d been dreaming about and actually pay the players to do it. To be clear this was barely any money at all, and these musicians were paid far below what they were worth. So many artists including me are in their debt for what they contributed to our music, often receiving little more than the cost of a tank of gas and a meal or two in return.
Glenn Matullo, a gifted recording engineer credited for producing (and personally financing) John Mayer’s debut record “Room for Squares” introduced me to David. David and I cliqued immediately. He was soft-spoken, empathetic, and motivated by great songs, but more importantly, he was and is a phenomenal bass player with a preternatural ability to create a subtle groove so deep and so wide it elevates even a mediocre song. He’d done stints playing with several bands like Vigilantes of Love and Over the Rhine but was in between projects.
I was fortunate to catch David in this brief window while he was a free agent. Before the end of the year, he would become John Mayer’s bass player exclusively as John’s career began to skyrocket. David’s enthusiasm for the collection of songs I was considering for the record was a huge boost to my confidence. After we’d played together for a couple of sessions at Glenn Matullo’s studio, David suggested I might benefit from working with his producer friend Ric Hordinski. It was the right call. While I had a lot of ideas, I had no real understanding of how to produce a record and I didn’t want a repeat the hodgepodge of my first album.
Ric Hordinski & Brian Kelley
Ric was the former guitarist for Over the Rhine and had recently started producing out of his studio in an old rambling house in downtown Cincinnati. He and David were tight and I think it’s why he took me on as a project initially. We talked a couple of times over the phone and I sent him a boombox-recorded cassette of the songs I was considering for the album. He said very little and I would come to learn this was his way. He listened, had strong instincts, and followed them with very little fuss or back and forth.
Ric is 100% responsible for the sound and overall vibe of the record. The lush stereo wash of atmospheric guitars is his signature sound. His passion for old things extended far beyond the drafty Victorian building he lived and worked in. The sounds he was able to produce with his vintage guitars, amps, microphones, and recording gear would continue to surprise me. We clashed over a few things. He believed vocals should be dry as toast and not upfront in the mix. I wanted just a little reverb. He won that one. I wanted the drums to be louder. He wanted them way in the back. I won that one and I’m glad I did. Brian Kelley’s drumming is exquisite and deserved to be heard.
All the drum grooves were masterfully determined between Ric and Brian in their secret language that I think they created in their years of playing together in Over the Rhine. I’m not sure what Brian is up to these days, but I hope he’s still drumming somewhere. He is so talented and this record would not have been what it is without the foundation he laid.
When it came to working with me, Ric was a hands-off producer. His shyness was partly responsible for this I think, but whatever the reason, I was pretty much on my own in terms of creating my performances. He captured them and gave me feedback if something was technically off, but otherwise, it was up to me to figure things out. It was scary, intimidating, and soul-searching. Singing in a recording studio is an extremely vulnerable experience and when I listen back, I can hear my tentativeness and my fear in places. I’d love to go back in time and resing my parts without that pressure and the yolk of self-consciousness I carried around all the time.
I had no money beyond my budget to pay him and the musicians but Ric was kind enough to work with me, even allowing me to sleep on the floor of the studio so I wouldn’t have to pay for a hotel. I remember it was cold on the floor in a sleeping bag as I huddled dangerously close to a kerosene heater. It was a strange feeling of displacement as I tried to go to sleep each night knowing that my wife and three-year-old were sleeping three states away and I would, in a matter of days be returning to them and my day job. I felt like a man stuck between worlds.
In the mornings, after breakfast with his family, Ric would come back over to the studio side of his house and we would set to work again. After I completed all my vocal and guitar tracks I returned home. In the following weeks, I know he put so many more hours than he was ever paid for into making my record. He hired musicians, created arrangements, and played layers upon layers of tracks across every song. It was a huge undertaking and I owe him so much for this kindness. I know he was proud of the record and had hopes that I would become a big deal. That’s the gamble so many working musicians make when they take on a project like this one.
The Bush Brothers
Back in Atlanta, Kristian’s brother Brandon contributed so much to the sound of this album from piano to organ, and the custom drum loop he programmed for “Space.” Brandon is reserved and thoughtful and he has an intuitive ability to find parts for songs that imbue them with color and texture. To track the piano and organ parts, he met me early one Sunday morning in Don McCollister’s Nickle & Dime studio. He had a key and Don owed him a favor so I didn’t have to pay for the time. The studio space was in the old Avondale Estates movie theater and the front room was dusty and filled with piles of gear in various states of use and decay. As the winter sun streamed through the high windows, Brandon laid down these perfect parts in only a few takes. Later in the week, we met up in his brother Kristian’s backyard so he could create the loop for “Space.” He built it on the same vintage sampler he used to create the iconic drum loop on Shawn’s song “Lullaby” in the previous year.
Kristian contributed a lot to my confidence and helped me believe in myself. He has a gift for doing this with people. I played early versions of the songs for him and incorporated his feedback. He ended up lending his voice to “Resonate” and “Running Against Myself.” Hearing Kristian’s raspy vocal later when we were mixing, I remember Ric raising an eyebrow and asking “Is that really how he sounds?”
I flew back to Cincinnati to join Ric while he mixed the album. Sitting behind the console and hearing the playback of the songs, I was overwhelmed by what we’d made together. Sonically, it was beyond anything that I could have imagined. I returned to Atlanta with the reel of final mixes and Glenn Matullo was kind enough to do the final mastering. By May I had boxes of CDs on my doorstep. Having the thing in my hand gave me both a feeling of accomplishment and dread. Part of me knew that even though it was a great record, I did not have the means or the will to make the sacrifices required to take it out into the world beyond the occasional local gig or festival. While I might have been prepared to make the sacrifices for myself, I could not ask the same of my family.
The Best Time
This song was the first one I ever wrote that felt distinctly mine and not borrowed. I wrote it for Ian during that first year of his life when I was imagining the years to come. It’s in Open C, a guitar tuning I fell in love with from my early devotion to the music of David Wilcox. I remember having the guitar part for a long while before lyrics ever came. At some point, Shawn and I tried to write a song together with it, but it didn’t turn into anything. Shawn did come in later to contribute the high background harmonies on the chorus. It was awkward seeing him after his dramatic success with the Soul’s Core album but I was grateful he made the time for me. Fame can introduce such a strange energy between people. I know many friendships and marriages don’t survive it.
A Man Who Has to Ask
I wrote this on the tour I did in the fall of 1995 with Shawn and Matthew Kahler where I was opening for them in coffeehouses and colleges up the east coast. We were in Raleigh and I remember watching a homeless man making the rounds in front of the cafe where we were playing. Like anyone in that position, he had to ask for help so he could make it another day. It struck me that most people if they’re lucky never have to ask for that help. On another level, I was coming to terms with how hard it was for me to get up on a stage and make that same kind of request. The artist must put themselves out there in that same vulnerable way to strangers. You have to be willing to make yourself and others uncomfortable. It requires some combination of confidence and/or desperation that most of us don’t have.
Of all the tracks on the record, this is the one that truly stands out on its own to me. I wrote the song after watching Martin Sexton perform at a benefit show at Eddie’s Attic. He has this incredible presence, ease, and wildness as a singer and performer that comes from his years of busking. I’ve always admired that kind of fearlessness. When a performer transcends that barrier of self-consciousness and gives themselves over to the music, they do seem to resonate, like a vessel or a string. I longed for that kind of courage and self-belief. The big note I hit in the chorus is as close as I’d get in those years. Beyond the powerhouse Kelley/Labruyere rhythm section and Ric’s shimmering guitars, the thing that really makes this track magical is the tabla drum loop that Ric’s assistant Shawn Shively made. It creates such a powerful groove that propels the track.
Light Passes Through
I had a decade-long love affair with the minor 9 chord. It has this melancholy, longing sound that you hear in a lot of Bill Evans’s music. I built this song around an Em9 and a writing prompt that one of my songwriting students shared that started every line with an action: “I’ve been there, I’ve walked there, etc.” It created this spiritual, mantra-like quality for the song that I embraced. Looking back, I think it was also informed by the early hospitalization we had with Ian being premature and severely jaundiced. There is nothing sadder and more desperate feeling than being in the ICU at a children’s hospital.
I missed the mountains. I was still adjusting to living in the city and this song was about that longing for wide open spaces. Things that make this recording special are the wonderfully gritty drum loop Brandon made from old samples and the sitar-like guitar drones that Ric delivered through his magical rig of ancient electronics. Interestingly, this was John Mayer’s favorite track and I remember extending the bridge for a really long time so he could solo over it when he sat in with me one night. As he was proclaiming his love for that song afterward, I remember saying: “I’m glad you like the song, just promise me you’ll cover it one day.” I’m still waiting. ;-)
Running Against Myself
In a strange turn of events, this song I wrote about a fictional love story while sitting in Piedmont Park became real for me all these years later. My beautiful partner has a rooftop apartment in the middle of town, but she’s got no cats, only one incredibly sweet and precocious four-year-old. I love Brian’s tasty drum fills in this recording. I also love Kristian’s raspy harmony always nudging me along in the choruses and brother Brandon’s piano locking in the groove with my guitar. For the record, I think I got it right: “it is a better walk if you have someone to talk to.”
I Lose You A Little Each Day
This is another one I wrote using open C tuning. I am often seduced by a chord on the guitar and the resonance and overtones it produces are enough to inspire a whole song. I remember this being the most difficult song for me to sing in the studio. Long after the session ended and Ric had joined his family next door, I stayed up on my own doing multiple takes trying to get it right. Brandon’s piano part is what really makes this track so beautiful as it supports Ric’s lap steel part during the bridge in particular.
All Works of Light Must Fall
I think this is the only song I’ve ever written from something I dreamt. It was a powerful, emotional dream I had about my brother Hans. He died in my arms and I woke up sobbing. All the imagery in the song came from that dream— the apples, the cabin, the fire. I’m still proud of this guitar part, and how it ranges and supports the song even as it’s pulling against it. Brian’s drumming is also wonderful and varied in color on this track. It sounds so much like Suzanne Vega’s album “Tom’s Diner” which is a record I’ve loved for many years.
If you’ve been around small children, you know they are collectors. There was a period when Ian and I could barely make it home from a walk in the woods without a backpack to carry all of the treasures he found. What I love most about this recording is Brandon’s organ playing, particularly in the outro. Also, listen closely to how deep and groovy David’s bass is as the song rides out to the end. He is masterful. Unlike some of the songs from this record, “Stones” has enjoyed a long life beyond this recording. I’ve included it in my sets for many years. An upbeat song you can tap your toes to is invaluable at a folk concert.
The Overall Distance
This was never going to be the title track. To be honest it was a song I had ambiguous feelings about until it was recorded and the great photographer Michael Wilson snapped the photo that became the cover on his way home from spending the day with us in the studio. Michael was a friend and neighbor of Ric’s and did this shoot as a favor to him understanding that I didn’t have the kind of budget that most of his clients like B.B. King and Lyle Lovette had.
I wrote the song as an exercise during the hour-plus commutes I had to a job where I taught guitar to a bunch of private school kids in the boiler room of the school. There was only a local highway to get there with many stoplights between me and my destination. I wrote a lot of verses at those lights along the way and in the end, selected the best three. Over the years, this song has taken on an emotional energy that propels it far beyond its humble beginnings. I can’t say why. It’s my dad’s favorite song. In recent years I’ve struggled to perform the song without crying. It has packed into it so many memories.
What I love most about the recording is that it’s a full arch from the quiet intimacy of the opening guitar chords to the big ending with everyone playing their hearts out. There is something magic at 3:40 as the bridge transitions into the long ride of the outro. David is doing these busy eighth-note runs on his bass building up tension through the bridge and then he just lands solidly on the root and pedals it until the end. It gives me goosebumps every time. If I have a legacy it is probably this song.
I’ll Be Back For You
In the kitchen of the little rental house where Ian was born, I wrote this song. It was no accident I was in the kitchen. It was the furthest point away from the room where he slept fitfully and I was trying to play as quietly as possible. The string arrangement in this recording was an incredible surprise to me. Ric had engaged a local Cincinnati musician named Paul Patterson whom I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting. I’m told Paul wrote and performed the part in an afternoon and it took my humble little song to another level. The wonderful close to this song and the album is my sweet little three-year-old Ian’s voice saying “night night, daddy.”
Writing this piece has been a cathartic experience. If you’ve read to this point and you’re not my mom, I am surprised and humbled. Please leave a comment so I can thank you personally for your tenacity.
I don’t think I realized when I set out to write this week, how much I had to say. There was so much that happened to me during this concentrated period in my history. My life looks so very different now than I ever imagined it would when I was 29. But that’s the beautiful part, isn’t it? We show up every day and we do the best we can. We are shaped by the fires we survive and the love we give and receive. If we’re lucky we get to grow old and look back on all of it with more fondness than regret. I know I do.