The fall of 1976 was a cold one in Millinocket, Maine. By November, it was a little too late for the baseball gloves and a little too early for skiing. I remember hanging out one particularly chilly weekend afternoon with a childhood buddy named Jamie. We spent our time commiserating about the fact that there was nothing for a kid to do during those gloomy, late autumn months in northern New England. After hours of boredom, Jamie finally had an idea.
He had heard through the grapevine that a local Catholic Nun named Sister Millie was offering group guitar lessons every week down at the church. Without hesitation we signed up and by the following Monday night, Jamie and I were sitting in a large circle of aspiring musicians all of whom were armed with semi-out-of-tune acoustic guitars. All, that is, except me.
In my small northern Maine hometown, there was no place to buy a guitar. So for the next several weeks I faithfully attended guitar lessons, sat in a circle watching Sister Millie teach everyone how to strum “"Michael Row Your Boat Ashore"”, and did my best to participate by nodding, smiling, and memorizing chords in my head. Finally, after the fourth week, Sister Millie approached me to kindly and gently say that if I didn’t have a guitar I really shouldn’t be attending guitar lessons. Truth be known, I think she had a point.
The holidays were fast approaching, so I threw myself at the mercy of my mother and begged her for a guitar for Christmas. I’ll never forget the day she came through the front door with a beginner’s acoustic guitar that she mail ordered from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. Years later, she told me that the guitar cost a whopping $25.
And so it started. I began learning songs from my parents’ 8 track tape collection…--John Denver, Eric Clapton, Simon and Garfunkel, etc. Anyone who has owned an 8-track tape player knows that this is a particularly challenging endeavor given that there was no fast forward and no rewind. I had one chance to listen to each song and figure out the chords. If I missed something, I had to wait 40 minutes for the song I was learning to come back around. I think this is why guitar players my age can figure out songs pretty quickly!
When I turned 18, I moved to Portland to attend the University of Southern Maine. What a great city and what a great college. It was the place where I had my first taste of true musical inspiration. There is nothing like new friendships, novels, heartbreak, and the ocean to shake lyrics from someone’s head. Writing never came easy, but when it did come I found it to be cathartic and addictive. During those years, I also had the chance to perform the songs that I wrote with my buddies Scotty Huff and Scott Furrow in a band we formed called “Chronicle.”
After college, I moved a lot. In 1992, I took a train from South Station in Boston to Union Station in Kansas City to attend graduate school at Central Missouri State. That was a tough couple of years. I had no money, I was studying constantly, and I seldom performed live. On a positive note, my graduate program demanded that I write a lot and while journal reviews and research papers can be a bit dry, I think they helped my songwriting. Because I constantly had to be reading and synthesizing information, my mind was “warmed up.” So along with the academic papers, songs were pouring out as well.
After a brief stay in New Jersey, I then moved to Stevens Point, Wisconsin to begin a full time “day job” at the local university. It was there that I met a songwriter named Jim Flint and we started an acoustic band called “Barnaby Creek.” It seems like we performed at every venue in the Midwest; bars, colleges, coffee shops, etc. One fateful night, we performed at a place called “Steep and Brew” on State Street in Madison. A woman dropped a note in our tip jar explaining that she and her husband owned an independent record label in Toronto, Ontario and that they would like to sign us. We called the seemingly dubious number on the note and 2 months later we were on a plane to Toronto to record the first of two albums for Peach Records.
After three years of working in Stevens Point and touring with Barnaby Creek, I then moved to Columbia, Missouri for a new job at the University of Missouri. It didn’t take long to find out that Columbia is a great music town. I immediately began playing bass guitar with a blues band called “The Brass Tacks” and I also started playing guitar and singing in a rhythm and blues band called “The Dynamics.” Both were extremely formative experiences for me. Those bands were filled with salty, experienced musicians who taught me to sing, to play, and to perform. They also taught me that some of the best songwriting and the best music comes from the whiskey-stained, out-of-the-way roadhouses of mid-Missouri.
Three more years went by, and I decided to make another change. I recorded a solo album with Peach Records and went on the road full time with the newly formed and rather non-creatively named “Rob Boyle Band.” We played everywhere we could--Boston, New York, Bangor, Minneapolis, Chicago, Lacrosse, Des Moines, Tulsa, and the list goes on. A year later, we came off the road tired, hungry and broke, but strangely fulfilled. Who knew that a year in a van with a group of vagabond players could be such a spiritual experience?
When the year of touring was up, I packed a U-Haul and moved to St. Louis to begin new jobs at Washington University and then Saint Louis University. I recorded two more records, and did quite a few solo acoustic shows around town. At a local songwriter showcase, I met a country singer/songwriter named Candy Coburn. Candy is one of the most talented and motivated musicians I have ever met, and I had the good fortune of becoming one of the guitar players for the “Candy Coburn Band.”
While playing with Candy, we occasionally shared the stage with another country band called “Spur” fronted by Johnny Henry. When we weren’t playing in our respective bands, Johnny would sometimes sit in with me during my regular Friday night solo shows at a local pub called Donahue’s Bar and Grille. We immediately found a musical chemistry together, so we started doing some co-writing and performing as an acoustic duo around St. Louis.
These days we’re doing shows together weekly, and we’ve started performing around the country in places like Nashville, Indianapolis, and New York. One of my favorite musical experiences happened a few years ago when Johnny and I played at the incredible Sheldon Concert Hall and released a live recording of the show called “One November Night.” It’s my favorite record to date.
I am very happy that I was able to enlist Johnny’s amazing talents on my latest record called “Bent.” He co-produced the project, sang harmony vocals, played percussion, and co-wrote one of the tracks. I’m looking forward to traveling and playing shows to support the new CD!
Somewhere amidst this crazy adventure I met a girl, and she has given me what every person who is cursed as a songwriter hopes for; patience, inspiration, and enough stability to keep me feeling safe but not enough to make me feel stifled. She also gave me the two most mind-blowing little human beings that I have ever been around…. To me, there is nothing like having kids to completely short circuit a writer’s ability to capture an emotion. I don’t think the words exist.
A student of mine who is an aspiring songwriter once asked me how to find lyrical ideas and as expected we had a pat academic discussion filled with words like metaphor and hyperbole. If I could have that conversation back, however, here’s what I would tell him. Go spend a weekend in Duluth watching the ships roll into port. Move to New Jersey during the hottest summer on record and live alone in a tiny apartment overlooking the Manhattan skyline. Read “The Sea Wolf” by Jack London and love it. Read “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac and be confused by it. Sit on the floor and force yourself to listen to every note on a John Coltrane record. And above all, grow old. If there is one truth I have learned, it’s that unearthing meaningful words, thoughts, and ideas is a direct function of years spent searching. What a worthwhile journey.