Is there anything in this world better than stand up comedy? Not for me. What a privilege and honor it is to make a life doing something so silly as trying to create laughter. Thank you to everyone who has ever made this crazy dream survive as my reality. I am forever in the debt of every single one of you and will be until the end of time. Even if it all ends tomorrow, I’ve been the luckiest person I’ve ever met. Thank you for helping the dream of a young boy melt into his living realm. I love you for it, unconditionally.
After nearly 15 years of performing stand up comedy in clubs, bars, coffee shops, empty warehouses, the backs of Indian restaurants, college rec rooms, and surprisingly well-lit backyards, I have had so many people and things influence me that it would impossible to list them all. But, alas, I am writing this to thank the 10 musicians/bands/artists that have had a major impact on what I believe is the best stand up comedy album I have recorded to date. We have to believe that we keep getting better or why else continue on. The sounds of these beautiful minds have gotten me through breakups, misunderstandings, neverending-sleep-deprived drives through rain storms, torturous writing sessions when I just didn’t feel like there was anything left in this stupid head, and hundreds of hikes getting lost in the wilderness. They have tickled my imagination, helping birth strange ideas and creatures that I now happily call my family.
To limit this list to 10 is painstaking, but I’m going to do it anyway. It has long been my goal to make the stand up comedy equivalent to the Smile album by Brian Wilson. A lofty goal? Uh, yea. But, why not shoot for the moon because even if I fall short (which I have/will/will again) I am still hopefully floating high in space.
THIS LIST IS IN NO RANKING OR PARTICULAR ORDER
10. Elephant Revival – Thank you to Bobby Jones, a beautiful soul and man I met at the Occupy Dayton protests a few years back. He and I have remained in contact ever since, proving that even in protest people can find those they will continue to draw inspiration from long after the trash cans have stopped burning. I have a tendency to fall in “vocal-love” quite a bit. Bonnie Payne’s voice drives me to think there is nothing in this world I would not do if she asked. I love when a new voice makes me believe in love again. In those cases it is like when reading a book before it has been turned into a movie, the idea of who they are in your mind is almost unfair to the real life representation. But, that is okay. What good is an imagination if it doesn’t jump over the fence from time to time and run wild? This awesome compilation of musicians has two albums that I cannot stop listening to: ELEPHANT REVIVAL (2008) and BREAK IN THE CLOUDS (2010). The song entitled “Sing to the Mountain” off the self-titled album is magic and I love the mountain, so songs with the mountain in them trigger my imagination even more so. The song entitled “Feathers Rise” off BREAK IN THE CLOUDS is such a beautiful song, filled with waves of strings and fanciful picking.
The line “We gaze into the stars, bodies on the ground. Our minds and hearts, they leave, become part of the sky. Now we can go and live forever. And if we die today at least we’ll know the secret.” How do you not believe in the magic of life and love after this? Their spirit and the spirit of this song has forever woven its way into my process.
9. The Band – the greatest band of all-time? Maybe. Probably. If you knew how much I loved Levon Helm you might tell me to seek professional help. The documentary “The Last Waltz” available on Netflix streaming is required viewing for anyone that believes they can create something in the world of audio arts that is capable of moving people. Do you dream of becoming as great as you can possibly be? Then please watch this. Their story is as compelling as their music is genius. Their influence on musicians to follow and their collective and individual brilliance is likely unparalleled in music. “I Ain’t in it For My Health” is the documentary that focuses on Levon Helm later in life and is heart-wrenching, beautiful, and although it quickly ushers into your mind the harsh realities and ugly truths of being a creative in this mortal realm, somehow there is an undefinable optimism simply in the continued pursuit of art in spite of it all. Their music and their tragic personal stories remind me that in a world that can be dark, void of hope, and unfair to even those most-deserving of fairness, even amongst all of this the passion to create art is of paramount importance. Even if it costs us every thing. To believe in something, even if we are unaware of how much we believe in it, is one of the rarest gems that unfortunately only those from afar can sometimes see shine. And shine on they do. Thank you to the men who will never know how much they mean to me.
8. Drive-By Truckers – my favorite band for the last 5 years or so. This band has special meaning to me for a couple reasons, but mostly because the late-great Tim Wilson told me about them when we working together on Easter weekend years ago. Tim was the only stand up comedian that I know of that was signed to Capital Records. That’s pretty damn cool, man. We were in the green room between shows discussing music and I told him that I wish I could find a modern day band that was playing that classic rock sound. He quickly said, “You need some Drive-By Truckers in your life.” I went home and and immediately bought two of their albums – GANGSTABILLY (1998) and BRIGHTER THAN CREATION’S DARK (2008). These albums owned my ears for the next couple years during a time when I was just starting to really hit the road hard as a comic. My life was filled with late night highway drives, truck stop meals, rest stop naps, and DBT when Coast to Coast AM wasn’t on the radio. This was a god damn band, man. They made me believe in rock n’ roll again. I got the chance to see them live a little over a year ago and I haven’t hard-danced that long in a long time. They groove me. They move me. The rotating lead vocals speaks to me of a band that just wants to play music – you wrote it, you sing it.
Patterson Hood’s vocals are juiced with the raw and unrelenting truth of the stories they tell and they make me believe in the truth of his words. It may be too difficult for me to properly explain, but when he sings I believe it…all of it. Mike Cooley has that kind of smoothness in his voice that makes me wish we grew up together because he could’ve got me to do anything and gotten me through anything. If Cooley was over my shoulder, encouraging me on, there’s nothing I couldn’t achieve. “Come on, man…just talk to her,” Cooley would say and I’d have to approach the woman I was brooding over. Jason Isbell, although no longer in the band, but was on the album I first hear, so I won’t expound on him here as he’s on the list later. Same goes for Shonna Tucker. The heart and soul of DBT remains even if their members change. The road, the hard life, the grind, and the keep on keepin on of their storytelling is epic and taught me that sometimes you gotta go deeper than the chest to get to the heart of it all.
7. Sturgill Simpson – One of my oldest buddies, Geoff Tate turned me onto the album METAMODERN SOUNDS IN COUNTRY MUSIC (2014) and am I damn thankful he did. Before playing it for me, he said something like, “This is what I imagine you’d sing about if you were a musician…lizards and aliens and the mountains.” Of course, with that kind of endorsement before even hearing it, how could I not love it? Sturgill has the kind of singing voice that transports me backwards in time. I can feel myself getting sucked into the tunnel and sitting next to a campfire watching a young Willie Nelson play guitar next to a spry George Jones, with Hank Williams filling up tin cups with what’s left of the hooch. It may be cold outside, but the booze and the songs are going to keep us up all night. I can specifically remember driving in the middle of the night, totally exhausted, the rain pouring down like God had been waiting in too long a line after $2 pitcher night at his local bar. Hell, it was somewhere in Oklahoma I think, not a state known for having any good rest stops to take late night naps. Sidenote: Oklahoma Highway Patrol are the worst – they will pull you over for no reason at all as I was stopped twice within 15 minutes simply for out of state plates. Anyway, there was nowhere to stop in sight and my eyes were barely staying open during the downpour and I needed some music to keep me going, to keep me on the road, to keep me alive. This is the album I went with because of the song “The Long White Line.” In case you didn’t know, that is in reference to the white line painted on every highway on the leftside. The line in the song goes,
“Lookin’ for the end of that long white line…” and I’ll be damned if I wasn’t. I needed nothing more than to get somewhere, somehow, and soon to rest…to get to the end of that long white line. That song and the others on the album kept me going. Sometimes albums become so entrenched in our minds that they become intimate friends, even lovers. This album is with me everywhere I go and it always will be. And if that wasn’t enough, how about this:
“I’ve seen jesus play with flames on a lake of fire I was standing in. Met the devil in Seattle, spent 9 months inside a lion’s den. Met Buddha yet another time and showed me a glowing light within. But, I swear that god was there everytime I glare in the eyes of my best friend.” This is how the album begins and I say, hell yes.
6. Magnolia Electric Company – The live album TRIALS AND ERRORS (2005) is as close as any live album has ever come to being my soul. The hauntingly beautiful vocals of Jason Molina rip my heart to shreds every single time I hear them. Much like the others on this list, this album is one of the ones when people ask me, “Is there something you want to play?” while driving and I say, “Yes!” It is hard not to get emotional when writing about a man I feel so connected to even though we never met and we never will. Sadly, Jason lost his battle with the dark and he died of alcohol-related organ failure in 2013. He was an Ohio boy who went on to inspire so many other artists and a large part of this Ohio boy really loves that. I play a fun game with people when they’ve never heard the music – I have them guess if this is a studio album or live album. I play them the live album and it takes them longer than you’d think to figure it out because his voice is so pure sounding and the band is so damn smooth. The sound guy is referenced on this album as “our best friend” at one point and it is a worthy shout-out. I love every song on this album and it is probably one I have listened to almost at least once a day for the last 18 months. It was very soon after I discovered his music through his Songs: Ohia project that he died. If I had a time machine, I would most certainly use it to go back and see him perform live. Selfish of me? Sure. But, this album means so much to me. From the song “North Star” there are so many lines that ring my soul’s bell.
“You used to say I had what it takes. I think I did if you meant too little too late. By the looks that I’m getting I made some big mistakes. I thought you said I was great. Shoot straight and give it my best try. I’ll make my heart as hard as nails. That might be the way you live your life, but it almost got me killed. Darling, I’m not giving in – that happened miles ago. I heard the north star saying, Kid you’re so lost even I can’t bring ya home.”
“I didn’t know how blue I’d get. I didn’t know how I’d get blamed for it. I didn’t choose to go down this road. No one chooses to be sick. Saying everything is fine by the look in my eyes. But, you know, darling half of what a man says is a lie. It’s your last chance to forget me now then its done for good. You always said I’d make it out. Somehow, darling I knew I never would.” The darkerst parts of my mind try not to latch to strongly onto the imagery here and in some of his other songs, as an artist who is struggling to find tangible, financial success it can be easy to give in to the dark. At the end of this song, if you keep listening and I’m not sure what is happening on stage, maybe a guitar string change, but Jason whispers into the mic, “Watch the singer die.” And it breaks me every time I hear it, especially after his death. I wonder if he was telling us something, it seems too dark to entertain it for too long. Like I said earlier, for some reason I feel a connection to Jason and it is not explainable to me outside of just being in love with him and his work. The music is sprawling and feels like it resonates with the lonely life of being on the road. That sprawl definitely wove its way into the fabric of my comedy.
5. Jason Isbell – where do I begin to speak of a man who almost single-handedly got me through my last true heartbreak? Two men have gotten me through two of the most difficult periods of losing love in my life and the other one is also on this list. I first discovered Jason and his velvet vocals from the BRIGHTER THAN CREATION’S DARK (2008) album by The Drive-By Truckers. He has since left the band more than a handful of years ago, but me and many other fans of DBT followed him. The song “God Damn Lonely Love” off of the album THE DIRTY SOUTH (2004) may be the song I have played the most in the last 7 years. If you looked at my iTunes play count and saw its count in comparison to every other song you will be alarmed. The last live show I saw was Jason at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles, right before I went work a week in Seattle this past summer. I am not a religious man anymore, but what I experienced that night was nothing short of spiritual and holy. When a large group of people come together because of a genuine love and adoration of something or someone, it is a powerful force that contributes to the enjoyment of that thing or experience. Everything in life is connected and the song “Danko and Manuel” from THE DIRTY SOUTH definitely contributes to the overall love I have of the The Band as it references the life of a musician through Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. It is a song that will break your god damn heart and I love that. But, with the synchronicity of all things in this life, the God Damn Lonely Love song, according to certain sources was written about his ex-wife, Shonna Tucker.
“Stop me if you heard this one before, a man walks into a bar and he leaves before his ashes hit the floor. Stop me if I ever get the far, the sun’s a desperate star that burns like every single one before. I could find another dream, one that keeps me warm and clean. But, I ain’t dreamin’ anymore, girl I’m waking up. So, I’ll take two of what you’re having, I’ll take everything you got to kill this goddamn lonely, this goddamn lonely love.”
Imagine that poetry with heart-wrenching electric guitar and you have the song that helped me move on with my life after believing there wasn’t going to be any brighter days. But, in fact, those days came when it would become brighter than creation’s dark. There’s no way to say it other than feeling the pain in this song helped me confront mine and decide that feeling it was worth trying again. This affected my comedy in a way that is immeasurable and you’ll know what jokes I’m speaking of if you hear the new album.
4. Shonna Tucker – Shonna first crept into my ears from the BRIGHTER THAN CREATION’S DARK (2008) Drive-By Truckers album. I love songs that take me into a world, hold me there, and then expect me to do some of the exploring once I’m there. The song “I’m Sorry Huston” broke my heart before I was 10 seconds into it. There is something smokey about this song, I feel like when I’m listening to it, because of Shonna’s voice, and the guitar, the room fills with fog, the moon is full and bright, and something magic is within grasp. Almost like a cemetery right before sunrise, the ghosts of past lives and past loves are floating just out of reach. There is something about telling a story musically and letting it flow and then grabbing your heartbeat and stopping that really rattled me when I first heard it and loved it ever since. She left DBT a few years ago and I followed her after her departure, too. Her band, Shonna Tucker & Eye Candy released A TELL ALL (2013) and then I got binge properly on that voice that had captured my imagination years earlier. God, she’ll break your damn heart and I love that. I want music that makes me feel all the emotions that I may be too busy to be able to get in my personal life. I cannot tell you how many times I have listened to the song “Lonely People.”
“All the lonely people working way too hard. It’s hard to tell sometimes who you are. No one there to hold you tight, tell you that you do all right. All the lonely people working way too hard. All we want in life is just a break. Someone there to call our own and tell us everything’s okay. All the lonely people driving in their cars. It’s hard to tell sometimes who you are. No one there to hold you tight and tell you that you do all right. All the lonely people driving in their cars. All we want in life is just a break. Someone there to call our own and tell us everything’s okay.”
When I can live experiences in your mind that you may be missing out on in real life through beautiful music, I embrace it and at times have to remind myself that “not too tight, kid.” I’m not sure why certain voices resonate with us, but they do. Listen to “You Went All the Way” and it is reminder that there are no bounds to what our mind’s eye can do with another’s creation. I always imagine the characters involved in the writing of a song and then after that though experiment, I shift to how does this song apply to my life? This song relates to multiple things for me, but mostly my relationship with the craft of stand up. Going all the way is the only way to make it work, I suppose.
“You didn’t have to do it. You did it anyway. You didn’t have to prove it. There was nothing to prove anyway. You went all the way. You went all the way. You went all the way and I fell right in love with you.”
When I listen to this song, I cannot help but think of the art of stand up comedy singing it to me. I love to think of it as a love song. There are times in my life when the point of view switches from me to it and back to it to me. Does that make sense? Sometimes, I do feel as though I should be singing it to stand up comedy, but others and usually it is stand up singing it to me. This may be a sign of conceit, but I think to devote your life to something is the same as devoting your life to someone. They must love you back. This song helps me stay connected to stand up comedy and believe that in fact, it does love me back. There is no way to really quantify how important that is to me when I’ve been worn out, beaten down, and lost most hope. I think this album, whether it is clear or not, at least I know in my heart is a representation of believing in love. Specifically, I know that I believe it is possible for love to exist and even for stand up comedy to be in love with me.
3. Shrug & Motel Beds – I should not be grouping these bands together because they are not the same band. They have one common denominator and that is Tod Weidner. He was in Shrug and is in Motel Beds. But, to keep the list at a clean “10” I am going to because they share a geographical base that is my hometown of Dayton, Ohio. As you can tell by now, my list is heavy on the country and/or southern rock music, if you must decide on labels for such things. Shrug and Motel Beds are a departure from that, surely, but they hit that same groove inside my ears or my brain or my mind or my musical soul. I just feel like dancing. I am listening to them right now. Motel Beds have released a new album recently that did not come out until I had already recorded my most recent album, but their previous works that are a sort of compilation album entitled THESE ARE THE DAYS GONE BY (2014) has so many great songs that have gotten me up the mountain on days too hot to hike, through 3am drives through sprawling, empty deserts, and with lyrics that have made me re-evaluate my own life’s experiences. Shrug’s album WHOLE HOG FOR THE MACHO JESUS (2005) has 8 songs, all of which I absolutely adore, but Laughter Tax hits me because of comedy for obvious reasons.
“Back in the last days of Rome, they went for Nero, man…Nero wasn’t home. He was playing sax and violins for all the slackers styling alone. It was a major affair. All the major movers and the networks were there. Waiting for something to happen through the smoke and noise and crap in the air. He gave them something that they’ve never seen. Kind of like what you did to me. Give me laughter tax for my sins. Burns at first, but it feels so nice when it begins…when it begins. Laughter tax for my sins.”
I could go through the entire album and talk about a deep, emotional connection that I have to each song. A song entitled All Around the Underworld is one that I could not stop listening to when Robin Williams passed away.
“I am not the boss of me. At least as far as I can see. I’d like to bleed across the sky, a comet age has passed me by. And left me in the underworld. Fame is just a pretty girl. So sing her songs. But, not too long. And I wouldn’t want to be here when they pull the van away. To see this world for it is and what it means today. And isn’t a pity that you never forever till its not. And this is not. This is not forever. This is not forever.
And there’s an old friend that I had. Who just got tired of being sad. She packed and moved this afternoon, from Jackson Street up to the moon. Looking down upon the underworld. Fame is just a pretty girl. So sing her song. But, not too long…not too long.”
I can remember driving around the city of Dayton after hearing about Robin’s passing and crying listening to this song on repeat over and over and over. The man had taught me at a very early age, even without me really realizing it until later on that there were no rules in what stand up comedy could be. When our heroes pass, we are confronted with the harsh reality of theirs and our own mortality. I don’t think we even consider that our heroes can die. They tend to be immortal in our minds. This moment probably more than any other I’ve experienced in the last few years urged me to deeply understand that Robin’s comedy will always be immortal, at least for now. And in this way, I think that death can be viewed in a beautiful light because what a life to lead that could cause a stranger to experience such deep emotions. The music of Shrug helped me transition from deep and dark grief to the acceptance of death as a joyous occasion to celebrate influence, impact, and bliss that was brought into my life from a beautiful mind. It is interesting to me to think that a group of beautiful minds creating art helped me during a time when I was mourning a beautiful mind. I guess the lesson here is that when we lost one beautiful mind it is necessary to rely on the others that remain to help us celebrate them.
2. Matthew Ryan – I’ve been traveling with this man’s voice in my ear’s for years now. There’s probably no voice alive that can bring me back to my days of smoking and drinking coffee like this man’s. I was turned onto this guy by one of my oldest stand up comedy friends, Heath Galley. Ryan’s album MAY DAY (1997) single-handedly got me through my first true heartbreak. Maybe that it is why it will always have a special place in the heart it helped heal. The words just go so goddamn deep and you can feel that this man means what he is singing even if he doesn’t. I am all too often a solitary man. I have many friends and yet I spend more time than you may guess alone. Does it come to me naturally? I do not know. I do know that although there aren’t other people around me for the majority of my time, there is always someone with me and the person I’ve spent most of my time with the last 8 years is Matthew Ryan. These lyrics from the song Irrelevant resonate with me, propped up against the backdrop of driving drums and heavy electric guitar:
“Outside a bar Hank’s straddling a police car. His fingers purple and numb from circling a crowbar. Twenty-four years have made it clear things are what they appear. Nah oh nah oh you say – I won’t be going easily. I won’t be going lightly. I won’t be going peacefully. I won’t be going innocently.
A sweet drink spiked with a speedball. A twenty foot ladder and a ninety foot wall. Dark shadows are gathering, swearing down the hall.”
I love and have latched onto the idea that “I won’t be going easily. I won’t be going lightly” in regards to this life, this career, this passion I have embraced. It is dark, yes, but it is encouraging to me to find comfort in company as they say. The song Chrome from this album will always be my mantra for
“It’s not the things that I can’t change that bother me. And it’s not the things that I don’t know that undermine me. It’s not the thing that I can’t hold or the balancing wire that broke that throws me. It’s not the fact that you walked out that bewilders me. It’s not the sleep that I can’t steal that wires me. It’s not the coffee or the pills, it’s not the space that I can’t fill that kills me. Well, in case you didn’t know I’ve got a heart made of chrome its been bent ’til it was twisted. Well, in case you didn’t know I’ve got a heart made of chrome it’s been burned but it’s still willing to try and shine.”
How many of us can relate to the idea that we have hearts that have been hardened or are already made of chrome and they’ve been twisted, burned and yet, they still yearn to shine? There is no difference between beautiful poetry and beautiful lyrics. It may come as no surprise that Matthew Ryan is a fan of the poet Raymond Carver, who is known for dark beauty as well. There have been times in my life when the line between my reality and the “reality” or world of his lyrics has been incredibly blurry. So much so, that at one point after the advent of twitter I reached out to him to ask when the next album would be coming out. I told him that I needed to know what would be happening in my life and wouldn’t know until I heard his songs. He wrote back, “get some comfortable shoes.” And what would you know if that following year was not the busiest travel of my life. I’m not saying his music is predictive of my future and that there is some deeper, cosmic connection between the lyrics he writes and the outcomes of my personal and professional lives, but I’m not saying there is not, either. What came first – Matthew Ryan’s songs or Ryan Singer’s experiences? Maybe just like our names, where one ends the other begins.
He has released 12 albums and is probably one of my biggest influences when it comes to being prolific. I look to his production, his passion, and his desire to share his inner-most feelings and stories with the world as major inspiration to keep putting the pen to the paper. A million coffee shops and a million more cheap pens, scribbling the pages of slightly faded legal pads have the soundtrack of the at times brutal honesty of his songs. The song Disappointed gets me moving regardless of who is watching me:
“So me and my sugar we’re on a road trip. From Hollywood to East Village and I don’t know maybe Midland Texas. So when this ship eventually sinks, when this ship finally sinks. When all this shit don’t mean a thing, ah it’ll be all right.”
I laugh every damn time I sing these lyrics. It brings me some kind of immeasurable joy to know that none of this “shit” means a thing. And yes, it will be all right when it does not mean a thing. It already doesn’t mean a thing the more I think about it. Stand up comedy is such a luxury. It’s need could be argued, sure. But, don’t let me or anyone else tell you that it is one of the necessary components of survival for you, me, or anyone else. There is beauty in knowing this truth. There is freedom in believing it.
The song Hey Kid off the album I RECALL STANDING AS THOUGH NOTHING COULD FALL (2011) has been my fight song as I go hiking on and off since I first heard it 4 years ago.
Your story’s not dead yet
I know it’s all fucked up
I know it feels hopeless
Your heart is a weapon
Against the fools of armageddon
The static’s getting thicker
I hope you can still picture
A world without tears
We need you here
We need you here
We got soul on command
We got sex on demand
We got everything but nothing’s really real
We got hyper confession
We got constant compression
We got fatigue and violence
A war against silence
When all we need is something we can feel”
I wanted that one to be presented as the beautiful rock poem that it is. That is only an excerpt, but you get the drift. Stand up is often times in my mind as this battle against the fools of armageddon. We have a microphone and our thoughts and it is possible to say, do, and express anything. I try to remember that it is a profound gift to be able to do so and that song reminds me of this.
His latest album, BOXERS (2014) is a damn masterpiece. That is not to say that any of the albums between ’97 and BOXERS are not because this man makes beautiful music. IN THE DUSK OF EVERYTHING (2012) is an album that helped heal me and the song “Amy, I’m Letting Go” is largely responsible for that. A song that reminds me that even when heart-broken, that relationship gave so much and helped me become who I needed to become. Without that person, although gone now, I would be worse off than I am now.
“There’s freedom up ahead, but it’s a hard curve. And there’s a reverb in our hearts that speaks louder than our words. Where do you go when the cold wind blows? I told you a hundred times, it’s no trouble you’ll be fine. Just don’t make me read your mind.
Real love is letting go. Is letting go.
Real love is letting go. It’s letting go.
I’m letting go.
Are you letting go?”
I don’t know what his next album will be comprised of, but I’m certainly eager to find out what in this world I will be doing next.
1. Brian Wilson’s SMILE (2004) – this whole album takes me, transports me, melts me. There is nothing in my life or in mind that cannot be rememdied by listening to, soaking in, and experiencing this album. I cannot listen to just one song off this album. It is much like the movie Shawshank Redemption, once it begins I must consume it in its entirety. There is magic within these musical walls and I feel as though the Muse herself resides here – she may have a summer home elsewhere, but this is her home address on file at the cosmic post office. It is my stated purpose in my comedic life to try to create the stand up comedy equivalent to this album. I will die trying.