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James R. Stout

When The Flavor Ebbs Away

            I used to love to chew chewing gum. I especially liked those big balls of gum that were bursting with flavor. There was a manufacturer that sold them in a pack of 8 gum balls. The flavors included lime, grape, cherry, lemon, orange, strawberry, raspberry, and banana. I also loved the Fruit Stripe Gum sticks, Juicy Fruit, Spearmint, Peppermint, and all kinds of sour flavored gums. Perhaps one of my favorites were the tried and true pink bubblegum. I would take several pieces of Double Bubble or Super Bubble or the pink sticks found in baseball card packages and stuff my mouth full of them. But no matter how much I loved those different gums the same thing would happen after chewing them for a few minutes. They lost their flavor. And it wasn’t because I stuck the wad of gum to my bedpost and left it there overnight! All the flavor just got used up. I haven’t chewed gum for several years now. There’s too much expensive dental work in my mouth to tempt fate, not to mention the big hit to my wallet that would likely be sustained by chewing gum. So, I don’t chew gum anymore and I haven’t for several years. I got over it though.

            My love for music started early. My father played guitar and piano, my mother and both my sisters played piano, everyone in the family sang, and we had a nice stereo long before we ever got a color TV. Dad bought a used reel-to-reel recorder in 1965 and it was put to use recording the family singing church songs or Dad singing the country music he loved so much. I started buying records when I was about 11 years old and I spent most of my allowances, birthday money, Christmas money from my grandmother, and money I earned doing various odd jobs on new records. I wanted to learn how to sound like those records. I made an attempt at playing guitar when I was 12, but the only guitar we had was my Dad’s old guitar. It needed to be properly set-up which would have cost money. The “action” on the guitar was extremely hard. At the age of 12 I just didn’t have the strength in my hands and fingers to overcome that rough action. I already had a working knowledge of music given I had been playing piano for about 4 years. I had a growth spurt when I was 14 and I was suddenly able to press down on the strings hard enough to play that guitar. But it hurt. My fingers literally bled at times but callouses were building up on my fingers. I started writing songs when I was 14. I still have some very rough recordings made on that old Voice of Music reel-to-reel of my early attempts at writing.

            I got my first guitar for Christmas when I was 15. It had much better action and my playing took off after that. By the time I was 16 I was recording my songs and I put to use some rather antiquated ways of making that old recorder do more than it was ever intended to. I wanted a 4-track multitrack something awful, but that was just out of the question. I managed to figure a way to modify that stereo recorder that allowed me to use “sound-on-sound” on it. This resulted in a finished recording that was always in mono, but I was able to play two instruments and sing harmony with myself. I still have some of those recordings, but they will never be heard by other human ears as long as I live!

            By the time I was 17 I got my first chance to record in a bonified recording studio. The recorder was a Studer 4-track machine and I was thrilled to record a 45-rpm record on the same kind of machine that all of the Beatles records through Sgt. Pepper’s had been recorded on. The song was a little song that I had written called, “Happy as Can Be”. It wasn’t great, but when I listen to that record now, I am impressed that a 17-year-old kid was able to write, produce, play the instruments, and sing that song. I kept writing songs and I was getting better all the time. When I was 21, I bought a nice reel-to-reel ¼ inch tape machine that had sound-on-sound on it that allowed me to record several instruments and vocals. However, it was still limited to mono for the finished product and with each new stage of the recording process there was a loss of quality due to the build up of tape hiss. Finally, at the age of 27 I bought an 8-track machine, mixing console, digital delay, and some excellent microphones. It became my home recording studio for the next 3 years. I was finally able to record my songs in stereo on several tracks.

            I had made a trip to Nashville in 1979 armed with some demos that I recorded in a studio in Houston. I was offered a job at a major company to be a staff songwriter. I had to turn it down though. I’ll not tarry on why. It’s not important now. I still dreamed of hearing my songs on the radio and of having “hit” records, but time was ticking away faster and faster. By the age of 30 I was the father of two beautiful kids. They were more important to me than a hit record. I was brought up being responsible and taking my responsibilities seriously. So, I knew that I would likely never hear my music on the radio. When I decided to go earn my college degree at 31, I sold all of my recording equipment and instruments except for one acoustic guitar. I still wrote songs during the next 5 years but recording them was just not possible.

            Then when I was 35, I bought one of those 4 track multitrack cassette machines. It was actually pretty decent, but it was nothing like the professional machines of the day. But it allowed me to record my songs again. When the kids and my wife would go to her parent’s lake house for the weekend and I had to stay home to work on Saturday, I would spend Saturday night recording. Over the next few years I went through several different “Porta-studios”. I still have one of those machines now, but I don’t use it. It’s a 24-track machine. If I had that machine when I was in my early 20’s there’s no telling what I would have gotten recorded! In 2009 I went digital. I started using what is known as a “DAW” software program. The tracks are unlimited. The effects available are unlimited. I started recording my first, and likely my last, CD using that program. I was still working my day job, so it took me nearly a year to record 15 songs. Only 12 of those songs ended-up on the CD. I took the mixed recordings to a professional mastering lab and had them mastered. I paid for 1000 of the CD’s to be made with professional artwork included. That CD is called “Sojourn of Love”. I’m proud of the quality of those recordings but listening to them again it is clear to me that I had been using that recording process as a kind of therapy to work through some of the hard lessons I had learned in life. I sold a few copies of that CD via iTunes and Amazon, but there was no advertisements or live performances to help sell them.

            From 2011 through 2016 I still wrote and recorded many new songs. I’ve never released those songs and frankly some of them are the best songs and recordings that I’ve ever made. But recording them had become a much-loved hobby by that time. The year 2017 was a very difficult year. My father had passed in June of 2016 and my mother’s health was failing. She would pass away in March of 2018. My sister passed away in January of 2018. Although I had retired in August of 2017, I had too much on my plate to record much. But I did manage to record a few songs from 2017 through February of this year.

            Now, here’s the truth. I have all the recording equipment that I could ever want. Several guitars, my DAW and computer, a midi-keyboard to play hundreds of different instruments direct to the software, beaucoup drum machines, percussion instruments, harmonicas, and if I look hard enough there’s probably a kitchen sink in that room somewhere. But there’s a problem now. Remember how that gum would lose its flavor? That’s what has happened with my making music. I still love music but going in that studio and recording has become more like work than something that holds passion for me. Its sad in many ways. I recorded 3 songs in January and February and try as I might, I just couldn’t get that old excitement back. The recording process has become tedious. It is no longer what drives me and to put it bluntly, it is not my passion anymore. I have spent nearly 50 years writing and recording my music and I managed to write about 600 songs and record over 100 of them. But I haven’t recorded anything for 3 months now and I honestly don’t miss it. In fact, the thought of going in that studio of mine and doing what it takes to arrange, produce, and perform the many instruments and vocals necessary for a song just makes me groan. I would much rather write my stories and do my photography now. I’ve changed. I’ll be 64 years-old in September and I haven’t performed live for many years. To spend all that time and effort to record something new and then to have no one to listen to it just makes my brain hurt. I believe in my songs and my music. I believe that it is very good. But I just don’t have the drive anymore. There’s another reason too. Arthritis has begun to affect me. There is a lot of pain in my hands when I play the guitar or piano now. And, the only thing that eases that pain is an occasional shot of steroids from my doctor. But I can’t take those shots anymore because it raises my blood sugar too high. Getting old is not for the weak.

            So, I am hereby making an announcement of sorts. I won’t say never because I learned that the surest way to make something happen is to say never, but I am pretty much hanging up my guitars and moving on to the next phase of my life. I’ll always be proud of those songs and those recordings. They will be something that my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be able to listen to and to know what the old codger was all about in his younger and middle years. How I wish I had some recordings of my father when he was in his 20’s and playing in a band. From what I was told he was a gifted trumpeter and played country music and big-band music with equal abilities. At least my descendants will have a way of hearing what I sounded like. I am going to attach a link to this blog entry that will be for a slide show on YouTube of my last recording. You’ll also be able to listen to several other songs that I have previously posted there. This last song isn’t a new song though. I wrote it when I was 23 years old. I wrote it for my then wife who is also the mother of my two children. It’s in the 50’s style of music. As simple as the song may sound to you, it wasn’t that simple to record. There’s two piano parts, three guitar parts, bass, drums and vocals. I think it’s a fun song to listen to and the kind of song that you end up singing along with. But it’s likely to be my last recording. It’s going to take a miracle for me to see a return of the sweet flavor that I once had for recording my songs.

 

P.S. Just in case you are wondering, I am not hung-up on my ex-wife. I will always cherish those early days and the way we were, but that was over many years ago. I do hold affection for the girl that I once knew, but just as I am not the boy that once was, she is not that girl. We had some good years and the best of it all is the two children and now 5 grandchildren that we have.

 

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