Swallow Hill Music Changed My Life

Swallow Hill Music Association changed my life. No, really. Let me explain why. 

Swallow Hill Music is an extraordinary institution for a lot of reasons. It brings together an informed and enthusiastic community of listeners with musicians, mostly but not exclusively acoustic, both touring and local, both legendary and unknown. It offers high-quality musical instruction for both kids and adults. It provides day jobs for musicians! It allows adults to make creating music a meaningful part of their lives. And, perhaps most of all, it brings people together. That’s not just a platitude – it’s an incredibly important thing in these polarized times. 

The concerts. Swallow Hill is a great midcontinent destination for touring acoustic musicians, and brings them together with an eager, informed, and welcoming audience. It’s particularly remarkable for crossing normally-impermeable generational divides – you’ll see 20-something hipsters listening raptly to grizzled folkies, and plenty of white hair (like mine) checking out the latest group of kids figuring out their own take on folk-rock traditions. I’ve got a head full of memories of astounding Swallow Hill-sponsored shows – the incomparable Roseanne Cash and her band. Greg and Pieta Brown. JOHN PRINE!!! Personally, I love the fact that Swallow Hill also welcomes some of my favorite songwriters a little bit outside of the folkie mainstream. Saint Vincent and David Byrne, with horns, in the pouring rain at the Chatfield Botanic Gardens! The woefully underappreciated Lloyd Cole sharing an acoustic set of literate, heartbreaking songs and wry wit. Psychedelic genius Robyn Hitchcock captivating Daniels Hall with a set of surreal tales of love and death. 

Swallow Hill also is a great resource for families. My wife and I have been bringing our twins to classes there since they were little more than infants. Just recently, my four-year-old son made his stage debut – a crack band featuring Chris McGarry and Trent Nelson, among others, was putting on a Friday night live band karaoke show, and he invited himself up there to sing the choruses of his favorite song, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” I’m not sure I’ve ever felt prouder. 

Swallow Hill brought music back into my life. Like a lot of us, I listened obsessively and played in bands in high school and even college. But then I gave in to the pressures that tell us that music is for kids, or professionals, only. I picked up a guitar occasionally, but music was mostly just for consumption, not creation. Then, a few years back, my wife (perhaps to stop me from playing Dylan covers in the home) encouraged me to take a class at Swallow Hill. In Vicki Taylor’s Core Guitar class, everything changed. I realized that music doesn’t have to stop mattering when you take a full-time job, that there’s nothing to stop us, as adults, from continuing to learn, to create, and to make music together. 

The teachers are extraordinary. To mention but a few, Vicki Taylor, with her amazing ear and profound knowledge of what makes a great song, and how it’s put together. Chris McGarry, who taught me to love Mississippi John Hurt. Aaron McCloskey, who taught me that how carefully you listen matters more than how much you play. The amazing Jeff Rady, whose guitar and pedal steel wizardry is an inspiration. It continues to amaze me that we now sometimes get to share stages with musicians this good. 

I was lucky enough to join a class that didn’t end at the classroom door, but spilled over into nearby bars every Wednesday night, an endless floating jam session. In Swallow Hill classes, and these pub jams, I didn’t just learn songs, but also how to listen more and play fewer notes.  As a result, I was lucky enough to join a caring, supportive community of people united by a love of hearing music and making music. A community that spans generations, backgrounds, and political views. In a world of political polarization and automated social media sorting, Swallow Hill is a rare place where people can (usually) put aside political differences and care for one another a fellow humans and music lovers. 

Swallow Hill is also where the dream that eventually turned into Automatic Iris was born, but I’ve gone on long enough, so I’ll save that story for another time. 

Oh, and we're playing there, Saturday February 25th. It's a little bit hard to believe. As should be apparent, Swallow Hill is a very special place for us, so we're going to do our very best to make it a memorable show. Hope to see you there.


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