How embracing vulnerability formed my musical identity

Last month we traveled to New Orleans for my daughters orientation/registration for college classes at Tulane this coming fall. We love the school and we love the town, but I want to talk about my first impressions of New Orleans and how it relates to my musical aesthetic.

First thing that struck me when I got off the plane was how the weather felt. And, since I grew up just down the Gulf Coast from New Orleans in Corpus Christi, TX, the weather felt VERY familiar. That made me feel much more at home.

Gulf Coast map

And it made me think about how my identity as a musician developed. A lot of that is simply the traits I was born with, but a fair amount of it is attributable to where I grew up.

Most folks know me as a kid who grew up in the suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area, but I only moved there when I was 9 or 10. A lot of my tendencies were locked in before that, growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas. There are a couple of tendencies I picked up there that are very important to who I am now as a musician.

First off, I grew up with Country music all around me. I don’t remember having any opinion about it one way or the other when I lived there, but there was no escaping the influence–it’s a big part of the culture in Texas. And I’ve learned that it’s a big part of who I am, especially as a musician. This may not sound like a big deal, but when I was growing up, Country music was definitely NOT hip—especially among musicians—so it took some doing (and great artists like Dwight Yoakum, and REM) to bring me around to embrace this part of my identity.

This next idea is a little technical, but just as important. As a musician your ‘feel’ is a very important part of your musical personality. And, as a drummer, the feel of your beat is very important. I’m a drummer that naturally plays ‘behind’ the beat.

When you’re playing music, the feel of the beat isn’t always right on top of (or in the middle of) the beat–you can also play on the front part of the beat, or on the back part of the beat. Playing on the front part of the beat feels more edgy; playing on the back part of the beat feels more laid back. And my natural tendency is to play on the back part of the beat.

This has a huge impact on my ‘feel’. It is also really valuable for me in certain types of music (Rock, Blues, R&B, Country, etc.) and it works against me in other types of music (Jazz, Fusion, Progressive, etc.). This type of feel is more common in places like the Gulf Coast where I was born, and less common in places like California where I grew up from age 9 or 10 through college.

There is nothing good, bad or indifferent about having Country music ingrained in my musical DNA, or playing on the back side of the beat. It just is. But…trying to deny that such things are part of who I am as a musician–that won’t work. (As they say in Texas, ‘that dog won’t hunt’.) While I was developing as a musician, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what singular, or unique thing I had to offer the world. Things didn’t really ‘click’ for me until I figured out that these two tendencies were important and I needed to embrace them.

So, I needed to embrace these parts of my musical personality before I could begin to reach my potential as a musician. I had to get past being embarrassed about loving Country music, and I had to accept the idea that some types of music were going to be more challenging for me with my natural behind-the-beat feel.

(This last part is very important to me: I felt at the time that you had to be great at Jazz in order to be a great drummer, and I really struggled at playing Jazz. When I say ‘struggle’ I mean at the core of my musical being. I could get my hands and feet to do what was needed in jazz, but I couldn’t ‘get it’ deeper down.)

I’ve written before about how being vulnerable can lead to breakthroughs, or really connecting with other folks. And this is definitely one example of that—in embracing my love of Country music, and accepting that Jazz would be a struggle for me because I’m a behind-the-beat player–I felt that I was really opening myself up to criticism, at least at that time.

And these two things are a big part of what makes me unique as a musician. The Country music influence is there not only in the types of music I love (artists ranging from Sheryl Crow to Ryan Adams, etc.). but also in my love of songs, since Country music is a song-driven genre.

The ‘behind-the-beat’ feel is apparent whenever you listen to me play. Listening to me, you may not understand that I play behind the beat, but that tendency often manifests in a beat that simply feels good, and sometimes also feels relaxed. And because of my love of the songs, my playing is all about serving the song. So, at my best, I have a groove that feels good, and drum parts that truly fit and enhance the song.

So there you have it, two big parts of my identity as a musician that are traceable back to a place I haven’t lived in since I was 9 or 10. But, both are a VERY important part of who I am as a musician, and a person. And I wasn’t able to really leverage my strengths and blossom as a musician until I learned to embrace these traits of mine.

What parts of your personality were formed early in your life? Can you trace them back to a person or a place? Did you ever resist a key part of your character because it wasn’t cool, or it embarrassed you?

Thanks for reading–cheers!

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