A few years ago, at The Whispering Beard Folk Festival, which is held in Friendship, Indiana, I was introduced to this guy who had a thick Alabama drawl, an epic beard, and wasn’t wearing any shoes while working a hammer and I thought “now this is somebody I need to know.” Sure enough, four to five years later we have become great friends, have shared many a laugh, and we’ve had some great conversation. A few weeks ago, we met up in Ludlow, Kentucky at The Folk School Coffee Parlor to amongst many other things talk about the Whiskey Chronicles, a songwriter’s round that is held at The Crow’s Nest every other month, and how it has been going so far. Always with Stephen you are welcome with his signature “What’s up mane?!” coupled with a hug and the positivity of someone who I’m not sure has ever looked at the glass as half empty.
Stephen grew up in Munford, Alabama with parents that have supported him through all of his adventures. When he was about four years old he gave his first musical performance standing under the Christmas tree. He sang the country classic “Momma Don’t Let Your Babies Grow UP to be Cowboys” not once for everyone to then say aww, not twice, for THREE hours. Until finally his father said, “That’s enough.” His mother has been his biggest supporter though. Stephen said that every time she hears him play his songs she always cries, and that in turn makes him feel like Elvis. Stephen moved here to Cincinnati in 2012, and misses her a great deal. Not being there to fix things, or mow the lawn, or to simply be there is hard to deal with at times, however when she comes to visit and he gets to play her some songs that is extra special for both of them. Back in November at the premier show she was sitting there front and center watching her son sing her song. To quote Stephen “I love that woman more than she’ll ever know.”
This relationship with his mother translates into his songs, the stories that lie beneath and in-between all tell a tale. These songs I have had the pleasure of hearing. He has about a box set-of material in his brain because Stephen does not write down any of his songs. By box set I mean, roughly forty to sixty songs, somewhere in that neighborhood. I, being someone that couldn’t dictate back to you the first sentence of this article no matter how many times I tried; his memorization has always boggled my mind. Stephen is a storyteller at heart, and he has many. He told me that there is “something in the lyrics of ballads and the condensed emotions of music just sits right with my soul. Not to mention, a great song is like a good pair of boots – they’re much more comfortable once you’ve worn them around for a while and get em’ fitting just right.” As the years have gone by, he approached me about this idea of the Whiskey Chronicles.
The idea is simple and straight to the point: it’s about sharing songs. Behind every song, typically, there is a story. A song can be and mean many different things, but it is the story behind the song that intrigues Stephen. Again, Stephen’s words “It’s a ‘you show me yours, I’ll show you mine’ type of deal.” In regard to, staying up late around a bonfire passing around a guitar, or sitting in a living room passing around a guitar both typically requiring a particular amount of alcohol as well as the participants doing their best to stay up at least until the sun comes up. It is the story behind the song being played, whether it is your own or somebody else’s. The ideas being for The Whiskey Chronicles again from Stephen “came about through experiences from first encounters and old reunions with fellow songwriters” and “since it’s one of your peers listening, you don’t perform the song so much as simply share the thing.” These experiences of sharing songs and The Whiskey Chronicles in general is much like when his uncles would get together and jam at the family reunion, and again Stephen’s words “there was something very personal and raw that existed there and I wanted to try and bring that atmosphere to the fine folks of Cincinnati.” He went on to say that the best fans of music reside here in The Queen City, they know the songs, and they can sing most of them right along with the musicians playing. He simply wants to bring that vibe to everyone.
The Whiskey Chronicles is happening every other month, and it calls itself home at The Crow’s Nest which is located on the west side of Cincinnati. For Stephen, The Crow’s Nest holds a special place in his heart. It was where he had his first gig as a musician with fellow Alabaman and dear friend Casey Campbell. It is where he, along with many others myself included, met “most of the folk that I now consider my Ohio family.” In regard to The Nest, Stephen said “I think of it like my grandmother’s house. The door’s always open and the people love you no matter what kind of fool you’ve been. Actually, they may love you more if you’ve been a big enough fool.” The one recommendation Stephen had in terms of booking a gig, which is both funny and was a learning experience, was in what had transpired during his first gig. In which, he played with Casey, and the beloved Reds were playing a playoff game. This was 2012. He said that “I poured my heart out to the backs of the heads of a dozen or so loyal Redlegs fans.” This taught him a lot though. He realized he needed to practice more and really sharpen up his skills if he were to be able to hold his own with the caliber of talent that resides in our fair city, and if the Reds are in the playoffs don’t book a gig that night. That first gig for him led to a realization while playing a few songs with Casey “I felt for the first time that special kinship and brotherhood that can only come from sharing the stage with someone.” I believe Stephen has come a long way as a songwriter from that night back in 2012.
For Stephen, the Whiskey Chronicles is simply about “good times and memories shared with the talented artists that agree to join me on stage and (with) the fine folks that come out to see the shows.” He had some more choice words which rang like a call to action “F*** Trump. F*** Korea. F*** work. Come on out to The Whiskey Chronicles and hear some pure original music made right here in Cincinnati.” Yes, there are some messed up things happening within our government and around the world, but these Whiskey Chronicles are supposed to be an escape from all that. To leave all that stuff wherever you leave that stuff and listen to some songwriter’s share some songs and stories. For when you pull back the veil of a song you realize that “there’s some hard living behind some of these tunes. Loss and addiction. Love and Lust. Long nights and heavy mornings.”
I closed out our conversation with the question I ask everyone, but before I do that I want to make sure that these three sentences get included. Stephen had said something in regard to the folks that support the music “I want to bring that family feel to them because they damn well deserve it. They’re the best and none of this would be possible without them. You guys are the reasons we do this thing and I love you all.” I could close it there; however, like every “Lord of the Rings” movie I am going to prolong the ending. I asked Stephen why music? Of all things to do why this, and I will let him close this out, and his answer basically sums it up.
I often ask myself the same question. Especially when loading out of a darkened bar at 2am while staring down a drive home that couldn’t be short enough if it were just across the street. Contrary to the popular belief, music is not easy. It’s long nights and longer rides. It’s underpaid and sometimes unappreciated. It’s countless solitary hours in the practice and creative processes. It’s a lot of sacrifice of time (away) from the ones you love and the ones that love you. Why did I choose music? It would be complete speculation, but I would guess my feelings on this question are the same as most of the artists that join me during The Whiskey Chronicles - I didn’t choose music, it chose me; and it just won’t let me go.