“100 Happy Days” a worthwhile challenge

A few months ago, I noticed a friend of mine in Louisville, Kentucky taking a different approach to Facebook. Instead of complaining about politics or venting about something else that bothered her, like so many of her friends were doing, she thought she’d focus on the positive, challenging herself to post something upbeat for 100 straight days (#100HappyDays). The first couple of times I saw it I thought, “what a great idea!”
Writer Kurt Vonnegut once said, “It’s a terrible waste to be happy and not notice it,” so I took my friend up on the challenge, beginning May 1. The first post was about coming home from work to my beautiful wife, Kari. At the time, we hadn’t been married a year (our anniversary fell on Happy Day 49. We celebrated by staying in a yurt in Flathead Valley, which very well could be the highlight of the 100 days). Kari was the reason for many of the happy days.
Once I got in the groove of posting happy thoughts every night, it became pretty easy – even natural. My general attitude and approach toward life started improving. I didn’t let myself get bogged down by the negative, and, if something unpleasant happened, I didn’t let it dictate my mood.

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Kari and I celebrating our one-year anniversary in Flathead Valley

As I continued the challenge, it turned out I wasn’t alone. Kari joined me, too, striving more toward happiness and not letting things get to her. Facebook friends from all over supported me, some commenting or liking nearly every post, encouraging me with comments like, “Really enjoying these posts. Reminds me to breathe and appreciate the minutes of each day” or “I hope you will continue to enlighten us with your optimistic comments. You may have started this to remind yourself how wonderful life is, but you’ve reminded the rest of us as well. Your posts are a refreshing change from all the weird stuff that seems to find its way to Facebook.”
I was never obsessing over how many likes or comments I got, but I always appreciated the feedback, and I was enthused to see people getting into it. I had people stop me at the grocery store and thank me. People stopped me at the gym and elsewhere around town, too, saying they appreciated seeing something positive on social media and enjoyed the perspective.
There was the occasional complaint.
“Your happy days are making me sick,” a friend in Brooklyn joked, adding that he was glad to hear things were going well out west.

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Playing with my band at the “I love the ’90s” skate park benefit show

One of my favorite parts of this challenge was how it coincided with the progress of Big Spring Skatepark. On Happy Day 13 my band played the “I love the 90s” concert to raise funds for the park, which had its grand opening on Happy Day 101 (I had to do an extra day for this reason). Jeff Ament, Pearl Jam’s bass player and founder of Montana Pool Service, matched funds raised for the skate park. He came to town for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Kari and I got to meet him, which was an exciting way to end this journey to joy, especially considering how much we love Pearl Jam.
If not for Ament, my last post would have been the video of Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” which I used for Happy Day 100. Although sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek, that song – like Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” or Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds (don’t worry about a thing)” are mood enhancers and, ultimately, that’s what I was hoping to do with this challenge. During these 100 days, music was often what lifted me up. I had a lot of shows, be it at Jack’s Hangar, on the Charlie Russell Chew Choo, at church or on the street. Performing – or writing songs – made for some of the best moments. Phone calls and visits with good friends were also uplifting, as was getting out in nature with Kari, especially hikes, long walks or visits to hot springs (or even Warm Springs). Reading, too, and writing pieces from the heart, got me smiling.

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Kari and I with Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament at Big Spring Skatepark grand opening

Days spent with family were some of the best, whether playing a show with my dad or taking my mom out for dinner. My dad and I saw the “Godfather” on the big screen. My mom got a ride with a friend to Lewistown and got to see me play in the gazebo during the Central Montana Fair. Kari and her mother came with me to see my mom at one point, and we all made dinner and shared so many laughs. These were all remarkable days, as were days spent hanging out with my stepson, brother-in-law or taking the “weimarmonster,” Buster, for a walk.
While taking this challenge, I also appreciated my job more. I appreciated life more. I appreciated every day more. Happiness became a habit, as did living a good life. I started living with a focus on resilience and optimism. I made it a goal each day to become aware of the present moment and appreciate what I have, which helped lay a foundation for genuine progress toward sustained joy.
Why not live like this all the time? Sure, there will be challenges, there will be curveballs, but there is so much out there we take for granted. Look around. Take a breath. Joy runs deep. If you’re happy, don’t waste it, embrace it; not just on social media, but that’s a great place to start. I challenge you.

(as published in the Lewistown News-Argus)

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Learning to live with a cat…again

Despite growing up with a cat named Phil, I’ve always considered myself more of a dog person. Don’t get me wrong: Phil was great (rest in peace, buddy). However, I found myself bonding more with our Labradors.
Phil and I were cool, but the dogs were always up for attention and always excited to see me when I’d get home. Phil was hot and cold. Sometimes he liked to cuddle, sometimes he liked to hang out on the couch, too, but usually he did his own thing, and would get a little annoyed if we gave him too much love.
That’s one of the big differences between cats and dogs: dogs are tremendously loyal and caring while cats are too cool for school. They usually play it down if they are excited about something, just like a teenager receiving an award or scoring the winning basket. Emotion? That’s optional.

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Last fall, I started living with a cat again for the first time in years, inheriting one when my wife moved in. Moonlight, a male cat, had to get used to a new home, a new male and kitty litter (he used to be more of an outdoor cat). I won’t lie: the beginning was rough for both of us. One day the basement door was shut and Moonlight peed in my duffle bag. That was ugly.
“He did it to send a message,” I told my wife.
“No, he didn’t,” she said. “He just wasn’t able to get to his kitty litter so he assumed the bag would do.”
Moonlight is a very vocal cat. Before getting his food in the morning, he spends a lot of time meowing. In fact, he’ll keep meowing until he gets his food. Sometimes he’ll continue meowing even after we give him his food.
My wife and I both have said “Shut up, Moonlight” on a number of occasions, usually after already giving him what we thought he wanted.
But, I must say, Moonlight is also a very loving cat. He knows how much we do for him, and he seems to appreciate it, snuggling up with us pretty much every chance he gets. In fact, we usually have to kick him out of the bed at night and send him downstairs (where he sleeps). Then, in the morning, he’ll often jump onto the bed with us after he’s had his food (on weekends, of course. During the week we don’t get the opportunity to get back into bed after feeding him, although it would be nice).
Although at first it was frustrating, I’ve warmed up to living with a cat again, and have bonded with Moonlight. Even my wife’s daughter (who is the rightful owner of the cat) noticed when she was back in town from California this summer.
“He likes you,” she said.
“You know,” I said, “…I like him, too.”

(as published in the Lewistown News-Argus)

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Why I Love the NBA

Editor’s note: Yesterday, Indiana Pacers star Paul George was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder for former IU standout Victor Oladipo and Arvydas Sabonis’ son, Domantas. This is the end of an era for the Pacers…again, and, sadly, one that only brought us to the Eastern Conference Finals a couple times (against LeBron’s Heat, and we had no chance). It’s days like today when it’s fun to get nostalgic over the most exciting Pacers era, one that made me an NBA fan for life. Enjoy!

When I was in middle school in the suburbs of Indianapolis, Reggie Miller was the talk of the town. The Indiana Pacers were making noise, mainly thanks to what we all now know as “Miller Time.”
There was no greater clutch performance than Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, when Reggie shocked the New York Knicks – and the world – by scoring eight points in the final eight seconds, winning the game by 2.
Everyone in Madison Square Garden that evening was blown away. Silence. Shock.
“Did he just did that?” Knicks guard John Starks said afterward, completely dumbfounded.

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“This is for Indiana,” Reggie said in the post-game interview. “Indy, this is for you!”
Reggie brought Naptown together that night, and my family was right there in the mix. We’d been watching that game from home earlier in the day, but it didn’t look like the Pacers were going to pull it off. They were behind all game and their body language made us worry they were going to throw in the towel and save themselves for Game 2.
So we went to Damon’s, a rib joint off 96th Street. We tuned in to the game every once in a while, but it wasn’t pretty, especially when we saw there was a 6-point deficit with eight seconds to go.
“Time for plan B,” my dad said.
That’s what we always called it when we knew the Pacers were going to lose (honestly, I don’t know how much faith we had in then-coach Larry Brown).
Paying attention now, we watched Reggie hit a three, but we didn’t think much of it: too little too late.
Then Reggie stole Anthony Mason’s poor inbound pass and had the presence of mind to step behind the three-point line and drill one from downtown.
“Boom Baby!” Slick Leonard yelled ecstatically on Pacers radio.
We loved how he’d call the games so much we usually muted Marv Albert.
“He’s a Knicks fan, anyway,” my dad said of Marv. “He has great pauses, but he wants the Pacers to lose.”
Slick – a local favorite and former Pacers coach – was blasting at Damon’s, and the room erupted. Reggie had tied the game, and we’d all counted our Pacers out. None of us could believe it.
Neither could Starks. And, unfortunately for him, he had to shoot two free throws.
Starks bricked them both, and guess who grabbed the rebound? Reggie.
“I hated Reggie Miller,” Knicks center Patrick Ewing said in an interview years later. “I really hated him.”
One of the best free-throw shooters in NBA history, Reggie made both easily. As usual, he was calm and cool under pressure, living for such a moment, embracing it and delivering.
The crowd at Damon’s went wild, as fellow Hoosiers hugged and gave high-fives. Many of them didn’t even know each other. Some, like my mother, even cried.
I’ve loved the NBA ever since.

 

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The Challenge

Sometimes there are more than bargains in the Walmart clearance carts.
For Trevor Golden, there was a challenge, right there in front of him; one he wanted to share.
As he looked in the $5 DVD clearance cart, he saw two movies side-by-side that he considered too ironic to dismiss: “Unfaithful” and “Men of Honor.”

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“Seeing those movies together was just too much of a coincidence,” Trevor told me. “I had to do something with it, so I thought it’d be a fun gag gift.”
For years, Trevor and I had given each other ridiculous gifts on birthdays and Christmas. Trevor usually had the upper hand here. On my 18th birthday, he got me a Jar Jar Binks inflatable chair.
These DVDs, however, were more than gag gifts: they represented a challenge, and one not to take lightly. These titles represent a challenge we’ve all had to deal with at one time or another. Infidelity – whether physical or emotional – can creep into your life if you invite it, and the choice to invite it lies solely on you.
Trevor presented these movies to me in the summer of 2006. He was finishing up school at Ball State and I was interning for the Star Press. As he watched me open them, he laid out the message.

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“The choice is yours,” he said. “What’s it going to be? Are you going to be respectable and loyal or are you going to cheat on Richard Gere like Diane Lane?”
Considering both movies were off the radar pretty fast. “Unfaithful,” released in 2000, starred Gere as Ed Summer and Lane (who received rave reviews for being a mature bombshell) as his wife, Connie. Lane cheats on Gere with Paul Martel (a winsome young Olivier Martinez), whom Gere kills in a moment of rage.
As for “Men of Honor,” Robert DeNiro stars as Master Chief Billy Sunday and Cuba Gooding Jr. stars as his remarkably courageous diving student Carl Brashear. Based on a true story, Brashear climbed the ranks quickly but faced remarkable obstacles. It’s a story about commitment, loyalty, pride and hard work.
But Trevor’s challenge was mainly about the moral choices obvious in the movie titles. You didn’t have to watch either film to catch his drift (to be honest, neither movie is really that memorable). The challenge is about loyalty, integrity, honesty and being a decent human being.
Having just celebrated my one-year wedding anniversary, this challenge is no contest, and I am proud to say I’m a man of honor. I will continue to strive to be a man of honor, just like Cuba.
I’d like to say, also, that Trevor, too, is a man of honor, and I’m proud of him for who he’s become.
How about you? Are you a man of honor? Or are you struggling to fit that description? There’s always time to change, and it’s possible to change. Take the challenge, embrace it and be your best self. And, remember, watching these two films is not a mandatory part of the challenge.
Thanks, Trevor. I think I’ll look for a challenge for you next time I’m at Walmart, instead of sending you a Fergus High School athletics calendar.

 

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Learning from love: celebrating my parents’ 40-year anniversary

On Monday, June 5, my parents celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary.

This major milestone has particular significance for me, as I approach my own very first wedding anniversary.

Although Kari and I dated nearly five years, we didn’t live together until saying “I do.” We had a lot to learn.

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been with someone: marriage changes things. It hits you with a weight you can’t anticipate, and it’s a weight you carry together, one of great significance and great power. The ring is always a reminder, and so are the vows.

When my parents married, they were much younger than Kari and me. My mom turned 21 on her honeymoon.

“I can’t believe how young we were,” my dad said recently. “We were practically kids.”

By the time I came into the mix, my parents were six years in, fast approaching the seven-year itch, making it through, continuing to strengthen their relationship and their individual characters.

“In those early years of marriage, I learned you can’t change your spouse,” my dad said. “You must accept them for who they are.”

Mom and Dad

It’s that acceptance, that love, that makes a marriage wholesome and keeps a marriage going, and that’s one of the greatest things I learned from my parents.

One thing I really admire about my parents’ relationship is how well they know each other and how well they know their strengths and weaknesses as a couple. They always look out for each other and always work to make each other better. They do this through reflection, meditation and open and honest communication. They also spend a lot of time traveling and genuinely enjoy each other’s company. They put much focus on family. As a result, my sister and I had the good fortunate of going on many trips with them.

Another aspect of their relationship I’ve always enjoyed is their playfulness. When I was a senior in high school, they celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary, and I was in love for the first time. I was in love with love. They went out to dinner that night. I actually got home before them, and, when they walked in the door, my dad teased me by being overly affectionate with my mom and loudly proclaiming his love for her.

I admit I was ridiculous with my high school sweetheart, but who wasn’t? We’ve all been there. But now, at 33, I look at my dad’s antics on that 25th anniversary and celebrate it. It’s stayed with me because of how much it says about his joy of being with my mom, and his sometimes over-the-top sense of humor, which I also feel is essential to a successful marriage. Don’t be afraid to be silly. Don’t be afraid to be sappy. Embrace love. Pour it out. Don’t hide your feelings.

Through the years, my parents had their share of trials, especially recently, as my dad’s health suffered and he almost died in a horrifying car wreck in Yellowstone last fall, but, as a result of their strong bond, they overcame. Seeing their devotion demonstrated countless times has helped me appreciate the beauty of true love.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. I’m not perfect. Sometimes I feel like Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor from “Home Improvement.”

I told Kari recently that wives should expect men to do at least 10-15 really stupid things a year. We can be ridiculous. Usually, though, it’s small things. If there is conflict, it’s often a result of ineffective communication. As long as we are direct with each other, we are pretty good at finding resolution, and I know that’s something that will only improve.

It will take work, but it’s work we’re not only willing, but are excited to do together. It’s work I’m proud of. As American writer/journalist Katherine Anne Porter once observed, “Love must be learned, and learned again and again,” and I’m glad my parents never quit learning.

(as published in the Lewistown News-Argus)

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Disappearing One: Chris Cornell says hello to heaven at 52

“If you don’t want to be seen
you don’t have to hide
If you don’t want to believe
you don’t have to try
to feel alive”
– Superunknown

“I woke the same as any other day
except a voice was in my head
it said ‘seize the day, pull the trigger
drop the blade
and watch the rolling heads’”

“…Words you say never seem
to live up the ones
inside your head
the lives we make
never seem to get us anywhere
but dead”
-The Day I Tried to Live

“Safe outside my gilded cage
With an ounce of pain
I wield a ton of rage
Just Like Suicide”
-Like Suicide

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1995 – one year after Superunknown’s release
My father, a Presbyterian pastor/motivational speaker, was disturbed to know his 12-year-old was receiving these messages through an intricate, melodic, alternative/prog/metal band from the Pacific Northwest. Soundgarden, whose vocalist, Chris Cornell, outshined the rest, were on the rise and entering homes all over the world, namely through teens and young adults. Why? They rocked! And Cornell could sing! He was a singer, not a screamer. At times he rivaled Robert Plant.
But what was his fascination with death? Superunknown reeked of depression from beginning (“Let Me Drown”) to end (“Like Suicide”).
I’ll never forget that night in the living room of our home in the suburbs of Indianapolis when my dad sat me down with the Superunknown CD jacket in his hand, going through song to song, amazed by the melancholy and despair.
“What do you see in this? Why do you like it?”
“I just like the music,” I said.
And that was true. I wasn’t depressed. Yeah, there was things I didn’t like about school. There were people I didn’t like. There were things that brought me down, but I was still a pretty happy and pretty typical suburbanite Hoosier adolescent. Some of my early songs had lyrics, and, perhaps some of it was a coping mechanism, but nothing was a cry for help or cause for concern.
As far as I was concerned, the lyrics of Soundgarden songs were secondary. I didn’t really pay much attention to the words, and, from interviews, it sounded like Cornell felt the same.
“I don’t know if I would say I was in a particularly dark or moody headspace more than other times. I feel the lyrics have to be born from the music,” Cornell said in a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone. “ Or if I had a lyrical idea, separate from Soundgarden music, I knew if it would work with the band because it tended to reflect what the music was and what the feeling of the music was – which was usually somewhat dark and somber or moody, or over-the-top, visceral, aggressive angry.”
Cornell also admitted in the interview that he’s always struggled with “depression and isolation,” so perhaps, like many of us songwriters, some of the lyrics were used as a coping method.

Making his mark
How long was he struggling? How much of that quintessential “complaint rock” was in his soul and how much was just riding the wave of Sub Pop Records and the grunge scene? As the scene blew up, Cornell knew he had to step up, and he delivered. Soundgarden’s Superunknown was their most artistic and ambitious album, and it hit at the right time. In 1994, Nirvana’s Unplugged released to massive success, Pearl Jam released Vitalogy, Alice In Chains continued to explode with Jar of Flies.  More and more bands influenced by the alternative rock wave started to surface. But, most significantly, on April 5 (not even a month after Superunknown released), Kurt Cobain killed himself.
Soundgarden was a powerhouse, and they kept climbing. In 1996, they released Down on the Upside, which, in my opinion, is right up there with Superunknown. Badmotorfinger, released in 1991, is also a staple of the era, and is the favorite album for many Soundgarden fans. It has more edge, reflecting their earlier years, rocking out heavily and being more of a testament to the shifting from 70s metal into what ultimately became the 90s grunge sound. Soundgarden were pioneers, dropping their guitars for a deeper, heavier sound before the others. They had a Black Sabbath and King’s X feel, but despite a familiarity, their sound was richly original, like Black Sabbath suddenly stepped into the 90s. There was something familiar yet uniquely original. That’s what made Cornell, lead guitarist Kim Thayil, drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd’s musical bond so special.
But Cornell accomplished a lot without Soundgarden: Temple of the Dog (“Say Hello to Heaven” and “Call Me a Dog” in particular), “Seasons” from the Singles soundtrack, “Sunshower” from Great Expectations, his 1999 solo album Euphoria Mourning and his super group Audioslave (“Like a Stone,” “Show Me How to Live”) are a few of his most notable works. He even did a song for the James Bond film, Casino Royale (an underrated Bond song. Check it out).

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“Mourning” at the Murat
I had the opportunity to see Cornell on the Euphoria Mourning tour at the Murat Egyptian Room in Indianapolis on Nov. 21 of ’99. Toward the end of the show, an audience member kindly delivered a gift to Cornell, placing three joints under his mic stand. It was his reward for responding to crowd’s request for “Steel Rain,” an underrated dark ballad that closes Euphoria. Cornell liked to end albums with such a mood. “Like Suicide” had that feel, as did the closer on Upside, “Boot Camp,” a haunting song about escape.

“There must be something else
there must be something good
far away…”

I’ll never forget that image of Cornell smiling wide with the three joints in his mouth after the show, taking in the applause. There were no signs of depression. He was laughing and waving to the crowd, grateful people were listening and not moshing. He was in his element. Whether it was a glimmer in his eyes or the sincerity in his tone, you could tell he was proud and you could tell he gave it his all. I feel fortunate more than ever to have witnessed that performance.
Reflecting on that night, I went back and checked out the Indianapolis Star article promoting the show. The headline struck me: “For Chris Cornell, the words matter now.” As a newspaper reporter and a songwriter, I’m curious what Cornell would have thought of that as the hook for readers. Would it be insulting? I would imagine the words always “mattered.” But, looking back on it, I hope it’s right. I hope the words from Superunknown weren’t an insight into his soul. I hope the last song he performed in his last concert May 17, 2017 at the Fox Theater in Detroit, “Slaves and Bulldozers,” wasn’t used as a cry for help or cryptic suicide note:

“Every word I said is what I mean
Everything I gave is what I need

…So bleed your heart out
There’s no more rides for free
Bleed your heart out
I said what’s in it for me?”

And I especially hope his transition into the old blues standard, “In My Time of Dying,” known best from Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, was not literal.

“In my time of dying
I ain’t gonna cry, I ain’t gonna moan…
All I need for you to do is drag my body home
Well, well, well, so I can die easy
Jesus gonna make up my dying bed.”

Some truly believe “In My Time of Dying” was Cornell’s way of saying goodbye, but the band had covered it before and much of their material was dark, so it’s a safer bet to consider it coincidence.
The question remains, however: how much of a message did Cornell convey about himself in his lyrics? How much of the despair in his songs was sincere?
It’s hard to say, for sure, but it’s easy to argue Cornell used very powerful and often disturbing words and images, especially for a 12-year-old in Indy. I don’t blame my dad at all for asking me about the lyrics and asking me if I was depressed.
Did anyone do that for Cornell?
With Cobain, there were cries for help there, but it was too late before anyone realized. Cornell was 52. He was at a different stage in life and he’d lived plenty past 27, but there was something disturbing him. Was it a combination of drugs and Ativan? Or was there something troubling his soul? Or was it everything and more?
Let this be a lesson for all of us. If you have concerns about someone, don’t hesitate. If you are in a dark place yourself, get help, whether it be a counselor or – if it’s an emergency – call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.
If you are looking for “something else, something good,” change your life. Don’t end it.

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Meet Sean Devine

If you see him, say hello.
Because if you’ve listened to Sean Devine’s album, “Austin Blues,” you know him. You know him through the sincerity of his voice, the honesty of his lyrics, the openness of his melodies. “Austin Blues” is a naked, unabashed look into Devine’s unfettered soul. Devine proudly proclaims in the title track he’s “feeling pretty free,” and it’s evident throughout the album. But like Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks,” this is an album about heartache, an album about divorce and loss. However, it’s mainly about hope, as Devine is “putting himself back together.” “going home,” “gettin’ even (closer to the way he was before, gettin’ even wiser about the things he must ignore),”  and “getting along.” All these tracks embody the blood, sweat and tears of Sean’s last few years. They provide an insight into the life of a dedicated, passionate artist living in a society that struggles to support such men. It can be hard to feel the love, it can be hard to make a go of it as a songwriter, but Devine is doing it, and he’s doing it the way Texas singer/songwriter and Americana icon Steve Earle told us artists to do: fearlessly and uncompromisingly.

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Devine isn’t alone on this album. He gets a lot of help from fine Austin talent. Austin natives Rob Ramos and Travis Woodward are flawless on bass and drums, Phil Hurley enhances each song he plays on with tasty, melodic lead guitar and Bill Payne adds touching, tender piano. Others also contribute to the wholesome, haunting sounds of Devine’s first LP in more than 10 years.

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“Austin Blues” is more than just a great album; it’s a remarkable achievement. It’s Sean Devine saying, “this is who I am, and I’m going to live my dream no matter how hard the road is.” And why not do it in Austin, “carried by the hands of fate, drinking whiskey in the morning, doing all those things you hate?” Like Guy Clark, one of Austin’s finest, or the legendary Townes Van Zandt, Devine bleeds his heart out in his songs. You believe him.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Listen to “I’ll Leave Anything Behind But You” or “Change Me.” “You can change your own picture/of the person you want to be/Change the face in the mirror/But you can’t change me.”
No, you can’t change Sean Devine, but when you listen to “Austin Blues,” you can understand him, and you can damn sure appreciate him.

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