Dear Switchback fans,
David Bowie’s song “We Can Be Heroes” touches on the idea that all of us have the capacity for doing something large in our lives. Some of us do that without ever realizing that we are. More than any other celebrity or notable figure of the past, I have found my own everyday heroes.
According to Wikipedia the word hero comes from the Greek ἥρως (hērōs) meaning "hero, warrior." I would like to add that I consider a hero one who obtains a doctorate degree from Adversity University. They manage to triumph, though they might not necessarily win.
The first hero that I want to laud is my father. Within a month of my mother’s death, my dad was in the hospital. It turned out that he had complications that arose from a stomach operation 62 years earlier. And, of course, just when he is reeling from the death of his partner, adversity comes to pay a visit. So my father spent over three weeks in the hospital, unable to eat solid food. His weight dwindled to 109 pounds. While I would have been an angry, whining man, my father was patiently enduring the slow process of determining just was wrong with him. Then the word came from the doctor that he had a choice to make. He could either have a surgery that had a 50-50 chance of his dying on the table or palliative care. He could have taken the easy way out and gone into hospice. He chose to fight and underwent the surgery. The recovery has been painfully slow. Our family had to go through the eerie familiarity of being in the ICU where Mom had died just weeks before. My dad, who has cheated death several times in his life, managed to succeed with the operation. He is now recovering, gaining weight and beginning to get his strength back.
Tom Hutchcroft and his wife Maureen have been long time Switchback fans. They had traveled to Ireland with us and, in fact, spent their honeymoon touring with us in Ireland! When we would come to play around Keokuk, Iowa, it was Tom and Maureen that would volunteer to come out and help sell merchandise. When we got word from Maureen that Tom had leukemia, we were worried for his health and the battle he would have to face. Maureen was right there with him through the battle and the roller coaster ride of finding a marrow donor and going through the procedure. It was heartbreaking when word came that the marrow transplant didn’t take. In spite of this he made the effort to come see us when we played at Music Under The Water Tower in Donnellson this past spring. He had to wear a mask as his immune system was weakened. It was a great honor to have him make the effort to attend the show. I thanked him and cheered him on in his fight. When word of his passing came, it was right during the death of my own mother. Maureen, who could have retreated into her own pain, decided to reach out and comfort me. I was struck by her faith and her determination to honor Tom by doing the things they both loved. Maureen will be joining us for our Songwriters Weekend and will be traveling to Tuscany with us. I consider them both heroes.
Another good friend, Cathy Osmundson, fought ovarian cancer for 20 years. We met Cathy when we played a BMW bike rally out at Money Creek, Minnesota. Cathy stood out at that event as she was the only one to come riding in on a Harley. It was obvious that Cathy was a rebel. We watched as Cathy earned her nursing degree and we played her graduation party out near Fairmont, Minnesota. Around the same time, Cathy’s long battle with cancer commenced. Through all the various treatments, Cathy stayed strong and reported through Facebook where her health was. When my friend Roger developed cancer, it was Cathy’s phone number I gave him. I knew she could encourage him and help him in his own fight. That was the sort of person Cathy was. Never retreating, she helped organize musical events and venues from Minnesota to Colorado for us. She made wreaths for the holidays and I bought one for our home last year because they were so beautifully done. Her energy was positive and always focused on reaching out to the other person. Many folks in the WayGood world came to know Cathy by her riding her bike out to shows. A couple weeks ago, I wrote her on Facebook. It seemed that the doctors had run out of treatments to assist Cathy in her long fight. She now was saying goodbye to all of us. I couldn’t think of anything other than writing “I love you, Cathy,” and her reply was “Love you more.” Cathy passed last week and we lost another hero.
There are many more heroes that I know. Being in Switchback and part of the WayGood world has put in me in touch with “ordinary” people who inspire me. Who make my everyday troubles, the sideswiped car, the popped veneer, the paying of the bills, all seem small and insignificant. Most of these heroes walk a path that constantly calls for courage and faith. They do not wear their suffering on their sleeves. To meet them you would not know you were in the presence of such heroes. But when you get to know them, you are in awe. And like Bowie’s song, they encourage me, remind me that quite possibly I can be a hero “just for one day.” I encourage you to share with the rest of us whoever you would consider a hero and write about that in the comment section below.
Annie and I wish to thank everyone who responded with beautiful notes of support and sympathy at the passing of “Mini-mom.” It has been wonderfully overwhelming, and in the course of reading cards and emails, the intention of personally responding to each has given way to this general “thank you” from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for such inspirational insights and in some cases, sage advice about the steps of dealing with the loss of a mother. It is a WayGood World that we all have created through The Music and it is deeply comforting to find that world supporting myself and my family through this sad time.
The hard part for our family has begun and that is the adjustment to life without a loved one. A long time ago, Brian and I wrote the song “Loneliest Road” which described a widow adjusting to life without her soldier husband. I am now able to watch first-hand my own father adjusting to the loss of his wife of 64 years. It is hard to see a man I hardly ever saw cry during my whole life, weep.
And it is hard to see how a two-and-a-half-year-old adjusts to losing her grandmother. The other night Annie put Áine to bed and told her about wishing on stars, a new concept. Aine looked up at the one star that can make it through the Chicago glare and said, “I wish... I wish Mimi could come back.”
And yet, in spite of all the sadness, the love and support from the WayGood World has been a mainstay in keeping my spirit afloat and focused on the triumph my mom’s life has been. My continuing mission of touching people’s souls through music is part of her legacy.
Thank you for being my musical family.
Dear Switchback fans,
I was five years old. My mother and I were sitting at the piano. The room was dark except for the light of the lamp that illuminated the music. As mother to 10 children, she didn’t have a lot of time to play, so it was a rare moment; one of the only moments, in fact, that I can recall when I alone was with her. As she played, I watched her delicate, small hands move over the keys.
Suddenly, I was moved to tears as a thought that I had never had before came into my head: I blurted out, “Mom, I don’t want you to die.” She stopped playing, surprised to see me crying and let out a little laugh. “Oh, Marty, I don’t either.” She then held me there, comforting me. That moment haunted me for years, for I knew that inevitably, like Grampy, Grammy, Uncle Frank, Aunt Margaret, Aunt Ida, Uncle Bill, Grandma and Grandpa and countless other people I loved, my mother, too, would die one day.
Two major gifts my mother gave me were the love of music and the love of the Grand Tetons of Wyoming. My siblings and I spent many summers out in Wyoming and it has placed an indelible mark on all of us McCormacks. Our family might have grown up in Woodstock, but Wyoming was the spiritual hub, the Vatican of the family soul. When I wanted to propose to Annie, I knew that the best place would be in Wyoming. When I needed to get somewhere to be grounded, there was no better place than standing on the foothills of Sheep Mountain, looking across the valley at the grandeur of the Tetons. If I was to die today, I would have to be cremated and spread part in Wyoming, part in Ireland, and probably a teaspoon sprinkled in Brian’s food when he isn’t looking. And so, Wyoming has always been part of that “inevitable.” My grandparents rest in Aspen Cemetery, the headstone in line with the Grand Tetons. This autumn, my mother will rest next to them. Someday, my father will join them.
Perhaps I should have taken note of all the signs that her passing was coming. Being Irish, I have an almost primal need to be affirmed by signs -- a year of great people exiting the world stage, a young woman in Sweden sporting a tattoo of the state of Wyoming at our last show there, followed by the appearance of a moose.
There is also synchronicity -- that my dad was hospitalized right before I left for Europe and I was able to see him recover, then return to the States to be at my mother’s side for her passing. And of course, the text message from my brother Peter right before our show in Herefordshire, England, that he was with Mom and Dad and they wanted to wish me a happy birthday. I was able to call and have a great conversation with them and thank my Mother once again for bringing me into the world. I described for them the beautiful countryside and of course, Mom threw in some advice about my music for me. In a lot of ways, things could not have progressed more perfectly in the passing of my Mom. We parted as always, with a lot of unspoken love.
The time leading up to her death was unfair. Prepping for her operation on her hip, Mom had to stay at a rehab center. It had an outbreak of the scabies and so was quarantined, which stripped us of the chance to visit her. Luckily her physician was able to get her out for appointments and we used those times so she could visit with Dad. That last time I saw Mom alive was prior to heading to Europe. I drove Dad to the Woodstock City Park and set up a chair so he could sit with Mom for a while. My sister Cecilia, driving Mom to her appointment, drove to the park. Probably one of the most tender moments was seeing my Dad, leaning on his cane, bend over and gently kiss my mother sitting there in Celia’s car. Like forbidden lovers, my parents were denied that chance to be together for the last two months of her life.
And perhaps, her final passing was also so unfair. Those who have lost a partner or a parent, and been there to witness death -- I know you know. And in spite of years of preparing for this separation, the thought that, as a traveling musician, I could easily die first in my family from a road accident, my mother's death caught me totally off guard.
My mother was a fighter and though she was scared, I knew she would fight. When I arrived with Áine last Tuesday, all seemed OK. Mom’s signs were stable. I spent the day with Dad, having Áine distract both of us. My brother Tony, a physician, arrived as word came that they had to intubate my mother. “You better get here to see Mom,” Tony said. And so, Áine and I came over. “What’s wrong with Mimi?” Áine asked. Her Aunt Cecilia and Uncle Robert, my two youngest siblings, explained. It was good for them to explain to a two-and-a-half-year-old the reality. “She may go to heaven,” Cecilia said. Áine seemed to understand. “Mimi is sick and may go to heaven,” she said. We drove home.
I was still feeling jetlagged from Europe and woke up at 5 a.m. to texts from my family urging me to head back to Woodstock. I woke up Annie. “Mom is dying,” I said. Annie hugged me and asked if she and the baby should come along. But I said I should just get out there as quickly as possible.
Miraculously, Interstate 90 was light of traffic and construction. I arrived in Woodstock in under an hour. The mood had changed. My brothers Fran, Joseph, and Peter were there. Tony was home with Dad, who had visited Mom during the night to say goodbye.
She was still hooked up to all the gadgetry to keep one alive. The fluids and medicines had swollen her, made her look not herself. She was not “herself” anymore. “Let’s try to make this beautiful.” I suggested. I reached down to her and started to sing some of the songs she taught us as children. Fran joined me and we wept as we sang.
When your hair has turned to silver,
I will love you just the same
I will only call you sweetheart
That will always be your name
Through a garden filled with roses
Down the sunset trail we’ll stray
When your hair has turned to silver
I will love you as today.
The Irish also need humor. It is a weapon we have in our arsenal, perhaps put there from all the grief that has been pounded into the DNA through the centuries. We teased Mom that we might have to bury her with Sheevra, the goat who was buried out on the back hill at the farm. It was a longstanding joke that Dad started years ago. One of us noticed that another patient was in the ICU alone in his room. “What if we all walked over and stood around his bed?” my eldest brother Joseph said. Little jabs of humor to ease the pain.
Finally, it was obvious we needed to say farewell. We all told Mom, “Go and be with Grampy, Grammy, Uncle Frank, Aunt Margaret, Aunt Ida and all your friends. We are OK. We will take care of Dad.” I said, “Mom, if you wish to stay, that’s fine too. But the decision is yours. We will miss you.”
At 7:40, the nurse said to my brother Fran, “Her eyes are not reacting to light.” Fran took out his doctor penlight and flashed it by Mom’s eyes. I pulled back her lids and looked as well. Empty. Gone.
“This is not Mom,” I said. “This is now just her shell.” We all joined hands around her and took her hands as well and prayed. We wept. We apologized that she had to die this way, when everything looked like it was going well just two days ago. The “would’ve, should’ve, could’ve” talk started. We stepped out of the room and allowed the nurses to take the tubes and needles and gadgetry away. Finally, we stepped back in as more family arrived. It still wasn’t Mom. It was just what was left of Mom. That wonderful shell that had carried us and still had those delicate little fingers, the elfin ears, the grey curling hair with bits of black that she would never go to the hairdresser for. We cut some of the locks. Joined hands again and prayed. Good solid Catholic prayers that are like salvos out of a battleship.
It was time to head back to the farmhouse and to see Dad. I looked one last time at Mom and walked out firmly believing that Mom made her choice and left.
From there, it has been a walk in pain, remembrance, laughter, meetings on the funeral, obituaries, taking in flowers, taking calls from friends, trying to reach the extended family and the flurry of activity that helps bury the loss. The house was filled at Rose Farm with grandkids running around, in-laws and the sort of activity Mom would have reveled in and would have ruled over. “It’s as if she’s in the next room,” Annie said. And she is.
Now, 48 years from that evening at the piano, I think about my mother and myself. In life, she was dubious at best when it came to her approval of my career. “If only” would be the preface to a lot her conversations with me. In many ways, her familiarity with me, (for she was responsible for starting my path in music), clouded her ability to accept that perhaps when one is acting to the best of his ability, the rest is up to a higher power to decide on what being successful looks like.
There is no sure-fire path to “the top” in music. And I personally reject what society considers “the top” in the music business. Mom could have been a performer and she had the goods to be one. Her mother and she were both models at points in their lives. She could have pursued the path. But her calling was to be a mother and for that she succeeded wonderfully.
But music, unlike all of the other arts, is not a business, after all. It is a calling. Success in music means a complete surrender to music. Although we both loved music, we didn’t share a common language of the practice of being a musician. So, Mom didn’t want me to be Bono, but the blonde haired “Rolf” from the Sound of Music Stage Tour? Yes, that would have been OK for Mary McCormack.
If I have any regret over our relationship, it would be that she could have seen that in so many ways, I did meet her expectations. Her own doubts about herself, I had to subdue and not claim as my own. My own embracing of the calling and surrender was reward in and of itself. Still, it would have meant the world to have heard that she understood and approved.
My mother was the inspiration behind the Switchback song "The Fire that Burns." The refrain goes, “The fire that keeps me warm, is the fire that burns.” And in the end, I was able to let go of that burning and embrace the warmth. And that is the part of my mother that truly shined, not only for us kids, but for so many people as well. And that is why she is and will continue to be an amazing, living, guiding force.
Two days after Mom died, Brian and I had to play an outreach performance in Evanston. At the end, I asked if there were any requests. A man waved his hand, stood up and waved frantically. “Wyoming!” he said. “Play something from Wyoming.”
Immediately, Brian said, "That's a sign from your mom." We played "Why Oh Why Did I Ever Leave Wyoming" for the gentleman, who hailed from that great state that my mother so loved. A sign indeed. Mom, your requests from the audience will always go straight to the top of the list.
Dear Switchback fans,
I brought Áine to the St. Louis Center for Head Injury a couple of weeks ago. This is a place that serves the metro area of St. Louis and its collar counties. They are there to help rehabilitate, encourage, and nurture people who have suffered injury to the brain. The reasons for injury are myriad but unique to the individuals there. The clients of the facility are of all walks of life, all colors and creeds, united in a common reality that they are in need of care, the ability to heal and embrace their challenges. The brain injuries are from mild to severe. I was curious to see what Áine as a two and a half year old would do and how the people would react to her being there. Would she be aware that these folks had such injuries? Would it matter?
When I carried Áine through the door, both she and the group lit up. Áine did her “I am so shy” wave routine that she does when she sees unfamiliar people for the first time. One client came over in her wheelchair right away and reached out for her. Áine backed off at first, but then allowed her to shake hands and be hugged by the lady. The staff was equally beautiful, making sure Áine was safe while we played and really winning her over with some Sweet Tarts.
Brian and I started playing our song Swingin’, Rockin’, Rollin’, and Áine began to dance in front of the band. I have loved her spontaneity to music, that fantastic subliminal soul-driving reaction that I believe all of us have. The group at the Center quickly followed suit and soon we had a nice party going on, with dancing, hand clapping, and shouts of laughter and joy. Áine was happy to be in the midst of it all, stopping occasionally to head back to some of the staff for more Sweet Tarts.
Later that day, Áine came along to Friendship Village. This was the second of our outreach programs that day, this time for a group of independent living seniors. It was Áine’s first show of this kind. Again, she took to the stage and waved to the audience. “Hi, I’m Áine,” was what she said. She gestured to me. “That’s my Poppa.” And then she looked at Brian. “That’s my Uncle Brian.” The audience loved that introduction, and they really started clapping when she began step dancing to our Irish music.
I also learned that the old showbiz adage never to have kids or pets on stage can ring true as well. Áine was getting tired. She decided to stop dancing and go through my bass case at one point. Out of the case she pulled a thin screwdriver needed for repairs. Of course, it was in the middle of a song. She started to wave it like the baton she has seen on her favorite cartoon, “Little Einsteins.” However, to Uncle Brian and Poppa, it was she was going to take on one of the Jets in West Side Story. We quickly wrapped up the tune and I took the screwdriver and locked the case. “Good thing that wasn’t a Bowie knife,” I nervously chuckled to the audience.
Uncle Brian came to the rescue with a huge coloring book. Brian raised his daughter Siobhan, now 20, on shows and she was able to quietly work on coloring while he and Maggie entertained. Not Áine. She indifferently whipped (and ripped) through the coloring book. All the crayons were examined and then dropped on a little table we set up for her. And then Áine put her head down on it.
A full day of playing at parks, dancing and hanging out with Poppa and Uncle Brian had taken their toll, but there was still 15 minutes left in the performance. Áine got up and walked over to me. "Poppa, we go home now?"
And soon Brian and I were “two men and a baby.” Áine broke into crying so I put down the bass and picked up my little daughter. We did the rest of the show with her resting on my shoulder.
She punctuated some of the more tender parts of “Danny Boy” with her tired sobs. Fitfully, she fell asleep.
At this point, I thought folks would be fairly put out by a crying kid during a concert. But it was just the opposite. A lot of folks came up and commented on how much they enjoyed having her there and that it made them think of their own families. One lady came back after the show was over and it was just Poppa, Uncle Brian and Aine in the room. “I want you to know how wonderful it was to see how much love you have for your daughter,” she said. "It was amazing to see how you showed so much grace under pressure." I laughed and thanked her.
It was always my hope that my daughter would have the chance to meet people throughout the WayGood World. And it is nice to be reminded that in a child’s eyes, we are all the same. That the world is a great place. Music is meant to be danced to with as much gusto as possible. And that 7:45 p.m. is pushing it for bedtime.
Dear Switchback fans,
2016 has turned out to be a strange year thus far for our tours. While we had a blast in Costa Rica back in January, we have decided to wait a while and see what happens with the Zika virus before planning for next year. Seems to be the prudent thing to do as our experts cope with a strange new disease.
However, Ireland has become something completely different. For the first time in a long time, we may not have enough fans joining us to justify a tour. And that, I think, has more to do with a more threatening element than any virus-laden mosquito can offer. One family that withdrew from the tour was honest enough to say that they were afraid. Terrorism was the reason they gave, the idea being that away from home they might be more exposed.
And I suspect their fear is probably something that we all have to some degree. And it might be making people hesitate about traveling.
As a traveling musician and one that has to travel outside the United States, the odds of something happening ramp up. The odds of getting hit by a semi-truck are equally enhanced in our business. Or electrocuted on stage. We've dodged three tornados in our career. Bad things happen.
The point I am making is that this year is one of great uncertainty. The election cycle in the United States isn't at all reassuring for anyone it seems. The violence that just devastated Orlando, the vacation mecca of the United States, certainly makes one think it might be better to hunker down on the farm. And the senseless killing of a young musician is just that, senseless and beyond the capacity of understanding. Can one come out to a show and not have to dodge bullets? It makes the mind reel.
And so it seems that Ireland, one of the most benign places in the world, might even be giving people a chance for pause this year.
Franklin Roosevelt said, "The only thing we need to fear is fear itself.” And ultimately he was right. As someone explained to me, the people of Lockerbie, Scotland, probably thought they were in the safest place in the world until one night a terrorist act brought a whole plane crashing down on the village.
Nowhere is completely safe. And our thought that things were safer in the past might be just as illusory. Things have always been dangerous, probably not just as well-covered and excessively detailed as in today's media-hyped world.
So what to do? We can stop traveling, stop going out to shows and just order in, but again, that doesn't make things any safer or really lessen fear.
As much as I am afraid of dying, I know that I have to keep on living. As much as I am afraid of the bad guys, I know I have to be a good guy and continue to give joy to the world. And Brian and I offer you, our fans, an opportunity to celebrate life by joining us in Ireland this October. We are running out of time to make this trip a reality, but my hope is that our fans will rally and truly help us keep it a WayGood World.
Dear Switchback Fans,
2016 seems to be God’s idea of a clearinghouse for musicians. David Bowie, Prince, Glenn Frey, Merle Haggard, Paul Kanter, Maurice White, and Phife Dawg have all exited the stage, and we’re not even half way through the year. And who was going to tell me that Frank Sinatra, Jr. died? Who have I missed? As someone said to us, “Just wait, we aren’t over yet.” Indeed. It is enough to make a bass player a bit nervous.
Now in the case of about half of these guys, they lived to a ripe old age for the type of lifestyle that musicians have typically led. Aside from the Stones, with whatever Faustian bargain they have made with the guy they have sympathy for, and Willie, who shows proof in the efficacy of the medicinal qualities of a certain organic substance, all these guys did have their moments in the sun and we are all the better for it. But one can imagine that they all had one heck of a rodeo ride in the process. The life of a musician, especially an independent musician, is filled with a lot of temptation, pitfalls, and setbacks. Then there is the bad stuff that can happen as well.
In the case of several of these musicians, I can, like most people, take a song and remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard it. “1999” was being blasted on WLS AM through a radio (boom boxes had not been invented yet) as we detasseled corn out in the back fields of Hughes Hybrids. We would dance to it as best as we could in our metal baskets, our faces wet with sweat and flecked with corn pollen. The beat of the song pulsed with the grinding noise of the power steering as the behemoth of a detasseling rig lumbered its way over the swells of corn. A long way from what Prince had in mind, I guess. And 1999 seemed so far away at the time. Like I had all the time in the world to reach it, too.
With “Take it Easy,” well, I was being chased around the Woodstock City Pool by Suzy Draffkorn. I was just nine years old and Suzy had a crush on me, I think. She would run after me and try to pull my swim trunks down. Since the trunks were hand-me-downs, I am sure they had a head start already, and Suzy was determined. I was afraid of the deep end, and so I would seek refuge in the three foot deep section of the pool and dog paddle like crazy to escape. I never had any other woman chase me like that since, even when I became a musician. (One would think all these famous guys would have lived a lot longer if they were being chased all the time. Good for the heart!) Suzy’s affection always comes back to me as soon as I hear those first three chords of the song. Yes, I only got as far as Pollywog in my swim class, but I did go downstate in Cross Country. So thanks, Suzy.
“Let’s Dance” was one of two big Bowie moments in my life. That song came along as I was in college. I was totally taken by the guitar solo, and it was little wonder that the player was some young guy named Stevie Ray Vaughan. It was spring and the smelt fishermen were lined up along the breakwater of Lake Michigan. I was dating a girl named Maria at the time, and we walked along the water at night and the fishermen would have their lamps out, pulling in the fish and grilling them right there on the concrete. School was coming to an end, and life seemed wide open and frightening at the same time. “Space Oddity” was a 45 we would listen to over and over again when we were out in Wyoming. My brothers and sister would do interpretive dance to the song, play-acting Major Tom “floating on my tin can.” It was a song that a five year old could easily memorize. The funny part would be that the cut would fade out on side one. One of us would flip it to side two and back into the song. Those were the late 60’s and early 70’s and not one of us ever stopped and said, “Hey, that’s lame!” You just accepted the limitations of the technology. I miss those limits, too. The sharing of a song was so important. Today, we can plug in our earbuds and tune out everyone around us.
“September” was one of those songs that even the melody was happy. To this day, I can’t repeat all the words. It was one of those songs I would think I knew all the words to, but didn’t. I would start in singing it with the radio and end up mumbling happily along to the chorus. I knew the inflections, the chorus, the joy that was Earth, Wind and Fire.
And Merle? “Okie from Muskogee” was in the bar in Pell Lake when Dave Heuvelman and I were treated to our first beer by his grandpa. Um, we were 14 at the time, but that day Grandpa decided Dave and I were men. We had been out on the farm, working hard to help him put up his shortwave radio antennae. Part of the wire had to cross a two acre pond. I had capsized a boat filled with the wire spool in the process, resulting in an aquatic salvage operation, but finally got the wire across, strung up on telephone poles and the shortwave working. Grandpa saw something: he saw us work like young men and felt we deserved a beer. So we got in his big Cadillac and drove to Pell Lake, over the border in Wisconsin. The bar was a tiny building, with several good deer heads on the knotty pine walls. Smoke from cigarettes filled the air and tinged it a hazy grey color. It was magical, sitting at the bar on the cracked deep red vinyl stools, with the music playing, lights dim, a burger on the plate and a beer sitting in a tall frosted mug in my hand. My life had changed.
Yes, we all die. And really, it is not about a famous musician dying. With musicians, especially songwriters, the song is what matters. And for all of us music becomes something very personal. Prince, Bowie, Lennon, Rodgers and Hart, Carmichael -- it doesn’t matter. They were just the vehicles to deliver the goods. The songs make our lives, who we are. The song for the first kiss, the birth, the death. It is an honor when the Good Lord allows us to write a good one.
And yes, big successful musicians who are lucky enough to get the airwaves and their songs pounded into our heads have a good chance of having their songs remembered. The music business is not a level playing field. It is more like a minefield. It is a rarity when a songwriter is lauded before his or her death. Carole King comes to mind as an exception. She has a musical out about her life and she deserves it. But there are lot of Caroles out there, juggling a kid and a part time job while pursuing a full-time dream.
There are a lot of songs to take and make your own. A lot of beautiful songwriters out there. We should remember, appreciate, and honor those songwriters who have died, but do us living songwriters a favor too. Get out there and enjoy us while we are around. Allow us the honor of you taking one of our songs and making it your own. And let us know about it. I have a feeling Prince would have appreciated feeling all that love while he could still smile and savor it. No amount of fame or money can take the place of love.
Dear Switchback fans,
With Mother’s Day approaching in just a few weeks, I thought I would focus on writing about my Moms. That’s right, my many moms. Of course I have one mother and that is Mary Virginia Lang McCormack or “Mini-Mom” as I like to call her. She is only five feet tall and now that she is approaching the age of 90, she seems to be shrinking, but her personality seems to grow.
My mother was the one who inspired me to explore music. At our house out in Woodstock, there was a vast collection of records. Probably the most important to me were the 78s that came along with an old Victrola record player. My mother would allow me to play these and the other LPs of her collection. It was a way of finding out who my mother was, because although she wasn’t a musician, she was musical. And her musicality, her deep love of music, was something that resonated with me. My mother was not one to be on stage, although she could sing and play the piano. She recognized that I had an ability to sing and play. So, in spite of having nine other kids to look after, my mom began my career by bringing me to a nursing home at the age of four to sing “Silent Night.” I was so small, that I was placed on top of a table so that the residents could see me. That was my first stage.
My mother wasn’t a stage mom. She did not hover over any of us and push us toward music. However, we were a musical family. We did enjoy singing and ultimately that led us to performing as a family singing group. We sang for various functions around McHenry County and usually would perform for retirement homes as well. It was not that we did this with an eye toward being famous or even the idea of it being a career. There was a sense of service and the idea “to whom much is given, much is expected.” We did rehearse a bit for these shows and the rehearsals themselves would be a tedious affair, as most of us kids would rather be anywhere but working on songs over and over. Eventually, everyone in my family had a call to become something other than a musician, while it became clearer to me that I needed to pursue music.
And over time, I started to meet my musical mothers, the women who helped shape my career. The first was my guitar teacher, Eunice Mast. She was part of “folk royalty” and was close friends with Pete Seeger. She and her husband, Don, lived in Woodstock and converted their home into “a house of music,” literally opening up their second floor in the living room into a balcony and having visiting musicians present shows. I would visit her every week to learn a guitar song. Eunice taught me the importance of accepting that just being a musician was enough. I didn’t have to obsess about becoming famous. Her own joy at being a musician and creating joy was enough. She showed me how to take matters into my own hands when it came to creating a musical show. Over a bubbling pot of potatoes she was cooking for a dinner concert at the Masthouse (the name folkies gave their home), she explained how the business end of music worked…that the playing field was not level and instead of waiting for permission from others, take the power to make your music available in the present. When Eunice was diagnosed with cancer, she showed the same determination in how she wanted to live her remaining days. She participated in her own farewell party, surrounded by musicians who were nurtured and encouraged by her.
When I had graduated from college, I knew I had to find a good voice teacher. And somehow, I connected with Wilma Osheim. Wilma was an “Iowegian” (a Norwegian-Iowan) who did not learn English until high school, her town speaking the native tongue with English the second language. She went on to become one of the best voice teachers in the Midwest, teaching at the American Conservatory of Music. With Wilma, she taught me to see my voice as an instrument and to use it to master all styles of music. She would tell me how the singer is like a ship at sea, from the outside it looks like it is one complete majestic entity, serenely sailing along. But if one was to see what was going on inside, one could see all the work that was being done to propel the vessel forward. So, under her guidance, I developed my voice. She would have me dissect songs, breaking down lines and phrases so that I could sing with meaning and in the moment physically and mentally. She was a great drill sergeant, pushing me to be the best and use my ability to go from Irish ballads to rock originals to opera. When Wilma passed, I felt I lost the person who turned my voice into an instrument.
It would be a while later when I found another musical mother. Her name is Sheryl Rak and she probably is the best known musical teacher and coach in the Chicago area. I came to Sheryl to further my voice studies, but I found that what I really was seeking was the spiritual connection to why I was called to do music. Sheryl helped me fine tune the instrument, with exercises and a self-awareness in delivery that Brian and I still use today. But it was the time I spent with her, talking about music being a calling and how it directly applied to my life that I will always treasure with her. To visit Sheryl’s studio on Irving Park Road in Chicago was akin to entering a Himalayan shaman’s mountain temple. Everything was decorated in purple, her favorite color, including her clothes. Sitting next to the piano, Buddha-like, Sheryl pushed the spiritual training of the musician through affirmations. Her affirmations about singing, about accepting the musician’s path, helped me through some pretty rocky times. “I am music, I am flexible and flowing,” still comes into my mind when I step onto a stage. Now retired from teaching, Sheryl still has many musicians around Chicago who owe their survival and sanity to her wisdom. Brian and I are two musicians who directly benefited from her teaching.
There are many people who come into our lives that have an impact. But each of these women in many ways took me and brought my music to a deeper level. As only a mother can, they created, nurtured and weaned me when the time was right. I don’t know if I will come across another musical mother in my career. But I am grateful for the ones I have been blessed enough to receive. Happy Mother’s Day, Moms.
One of the amazing things in our line of work as musicians is that by the nature of this work, we have the opportunity to rub shoulders with all sorts of people. And if you embrace the concept that there are no coincidences in life, then almost all the people you meet are there because the good Lord wanted you to meet them.
That seemed to be the case for us when we were out in Arizona this week. We were staying with our friend and keeper of WayGood Southwest, Norm Weitzman. We had several St. Patrick's shows to perform and with a small window of free time, we debated on whether we should run to the Grand Canyon and get some video of us playing or stay around Scottsdale and rehearse some new songs. We decided on the latter and spent a good day working on music.
"I know a good place nearby to shoot video," said Norm. "Let's head up to Cave Creek. It's a cowboy town and I am sure we could get some great shots there."
So that evening we drove down Scottsdale Road and past some beautiful scenery to the town of Cave Creek. The town itself is an interesting tourist trap town full of curio shops, hamburger joints, biker bars and, well, cowboys. One place, Hogs and Horses, caught my eye as it had some longhorn steers in a rodeo pen behind the bar. We walked into the establishment. Inside were several folks in cowboy gear and a table of happy people who turned out to be the band for that night.
"Hey!" they called out to us. "Glad to see you here!"
We got to talking and when they found out we were musicians from Chicago, they insisted we get up on stage and play. There was no bass guitar so I made do with an acoustic guitar and pulled up the low frequency on it. There was also no guitar strap and so I had to hoist my leg over a bar stool and I realized that in my shorts I must have looked pretty stupid. Brian grabbed a guitar and Joey settled in to the drums. There were no sticks for Joey, so the band, who were feeling pretty happy with their beers, improvised and broke two pool cues into a rough approximation of sticks. And with that, we launched into several numbers, culminating with "Pour Me." The band went wild and soon we had some new friends.
We then listened to the band get up and play and one woman leaned over to me. "Just want you to know that that man on stage is Elvis Presley's son." Now, when a lady tells you that you are looking at Elvis Presley's son, you start squinting your eyes to see if there is any kind of resemblance. So I was doing that as he sang. Son or not, I thought he had a pretty good voice.
Afterward, we all talked for a while. One of the group, Jay, motioned over to the longhorns. "These are part of the bar. We have bull riding twice a week here. And here comes the owner of the place, T.C." In walked this lanky man wearing a baseball cap and in one look I could tell that this guy was the genuine article when it came to cowboying. Turned out that he was none other than T.C. Thorstenson, the famous buffalo rider.
If anyone knows anything about me, they know I have this connection with the West. My grandmother was born in a log cabin in Lothrop, Montana. All of us McCormack family kids spent our childhood summers out West. And out West there are buffalo. After moose, the buffalo is one of my favorite animals and truly embodies the spirit of the West.
T.C. started riding his first bison up in South Dakota when he was nine. He trained the famous bison, Harvey Wallbanger, who not only could beat racehorses, but was part of movies, commercials and even the latest buffalo design for the nickel. Along with Harvey, T.C. appeared in two of my favorite Westerns, "Dances with Wolves" and "Lonesome Dove," along with Harvey and several wolves he raised from pups. Remember the flying buffalo in the Buffalo Wildwings commercials? Yep, T.C. and Harvey. (Click here to see video of the great Harvey Wallbanger and T.C. Thorstenson).
T.C. told us of all the injuries that he had received from riding buffalo as well as handling wolves and longhorns. One longhorn actually gored him through the nose, tearing off part of his face; he lost an eye. A great plastic surgeon sewed him up after the trauma doc gave him one look. Brian said, "You must have a high threshold for pain." "Yeah, I guess so," said T.C. dryly.
This was turning out better than the Grand Canyon at this point. With Elvis's son and a cowboy who rides buffalo, how could it get any better?
"C'mon," said Jay, pointing to a big black tour bus out back. "Want to see one of Madonna's tour buses?" Norm went off to check it out. Brian, Joey and I turned to T.C. and asked almost in unison, "Any chance we can see the buffalo?" T.C. agreed and we set up a time to meet his new three-year-old bison-in-training, Harley, the next day.
After a tour of the tour bus, which incidentally was my first time on one, we bade our goodbyes, shaking hands, handing out Switchback stickers and promising to meet at the bar the next morning.
We pulled up at the bar the next day around 10 a.m. and there was T.C. sitting at the bar wearing a straw cowboy hat. Next to him was another cowboy, with big grin and a quick wit, named Keith. They were laughing and drinking Coors in the Switchback beer koozies we gave out the night before. Keith told a joke in honor of St. Patrick's Day:
A Mexican and an Irishman are sitting at the pub, each describing their culture to the other.
"In Mexico, we take life easy. Whenever something needs to get done, we just say 'mañana' and that way nothing happens."
He leans in to the Irishman. "Do you have such a word?"
"Eh, we might," says the Irishman. "However we would never be so urgent as ye."
We hopped in our van and followed T.C., his girlfriend Holly, and Keith and a dog in their white pickup truck. Passing two life-sized sculptures of buffalo, we drove down a saguaro-lined drive up to T.C.'s ranch house. There, waiting out in the shed next to a white buffalo and some beautiful horses (several of which belonged to T.C.'s friend Steven Seagal), was Harley.
At three years old, he was already pretty big, weighing over 1700 pounds. He looked like any other kind of buffalo that I had seen in Wyoming, but this time it was different. T.C. got into the pen with Harley. I noted the three-inch steel pipe that made up the corral and was grateful to have that between myself and Harley. T.C. grabbed Harley's halter and proceeded to snap on a lead. He tethered Harley onto a steel post and Harley did as most bison like to do when tethered to a post: untether himself by trying to pull down the corral. With some quick commands Harley was back up and a variation of a rodeo saddle was fitted around him. Into his mouth went a snaffle bit and bridle. T.C. unhooked the halter.
While T.C. was getting ready to mount Harley, Keith whispered to me, "You know, T.C. lost his dad to a bison. Gored him and he bled to death before they could make it to the hospital."
T.C. started riding around the pen, his head barely clearing the steel girders that made up the roof. Later I found out that bison don't rear up like horses can. But at the time, I was thinking that I was witnessing either the bravest man in the world or the craziest man in the world.
T.C. calmly rode Harley in some tight circles and Harley would every so often see us and charge the gate. It took all of T.C.'s strength, it seemed, to rein him in. We all found ourselves involuntarily jumping back about three feet every time this happened. T.C. got Harley to kneel and then roll down on his side, just as if he were a trained dog. We all marveled at it, as T.C. gently scratched Harley's head. But quick as a flash, all 1700 pounds of Harley was on his feet and bolting away to the end of the pen, T.C. getting yanked along on the lead reins. "Down! Down!" yelled T.C. And Harley, grunting and snorting, finally kneeled back down again.
While this was going on I thought about walking down to pet the friendly white bison down in the other pen. He looked much more docile than Harley. I was about to make my move when T.C. invited us to all head over to see him.
The white buffalo was six years old and he sort of bellowed and grunted as we all approached. "I just couldn't get him to ride," T.C. said. "Turned out that he was just too mean."
The bison's horns curved way high in evil arcs, almost as tall as his head and he shook this shaggy mass right at us as if to say, "If only that fence wasn't here."
I tried to act nonchalant, summing up all my "Aw shucks, just another day at the bison ranch" swagger and leaned in to get a picture of the white buffalo.
"He likes to reach through and try to hook you," T.C. said. "Better not lean too close."
And sure enough, the bull quickly cocked his horn right through the fence and went for my nose.
We talked about how fast bison can run and how, for all their size, they are more agile than a cat. Bison carry most of their weight in their massive skull and shoulders. T.C. explained how unlike a rodeo bull that swivels its shoulders and spins its back haunches, a buffalo can spin 360 degrees on his front hooves. They can use that speed and mass to knock a competitor from here to eternity. Humans a bit farther.
"Once I had some bison here that got out of the pen," T.C. said. "My father-in-law at the time decided to come outside the house after I told everyone to stay in. He wanted to see me round up the bison. Well, he placed himself between the bison and a dumpster, thinking he would be safe. I was trying to pen one when the other saw him and went right after him. He got between him and the dumpster and swung his back haunch on him knocking him seven feet. As my father-in-law got up the bull was right back and this time knocked him 20 feet in the air leaving his shoes behind. He met him as he hit the ground and danced on him for about six seconds before I could even reach him. We had to Medevac him out and he was in critical care for about three months and rehab for about six. He still likes me though."
The whole time T.C. told this story, Harley was grunting and looking at us three rubes from Chicago.
We decided that we wanted to be photographed with Harley and at least get some video of T.C. riding him. We scouted out a good location and figured that Harley could be posted to an ironwood tree and we would sit with our instruments in front of him. We decided to reconvene at "Hogs and Horses" and head over to do the shoot at the ranch the next day.
Norm had missed out on the exploits from the day before, but shaking his head, he agreed to accompany us to be the staff photographer. We brought along some video cameras and some tripods and set up the shot at the ranch, pulling a rustic bench out in front of the tree and situating our instruments for the shoot. Keith pulled up in his pickup and he sauntered over to where we were. We cracked some jokes as T.C. went to get Harley.
In the meantime, Harley was peering down on all of us from on top of a trailer that attached to a ramp in his cage. Norm took some video of Joey playing the washboard as Harley ate some hay and eyed us with a look of disdain. We headed down to where the pen was and T.C. led Harley out.
We stood a safe distance when Harley took one look at the set up and decided to make a run for it. He took off and now we had three musicians, one photographer and two cowboys versus one upset bison. We all started heading toward a stack of hay that was high enough to get us up on the roof. Harley, snorting wildly, bolted past us with T.C. in pursuit. The father-in-law story came to mind and we all realized that Harley had a lot more targets.
"I'm going on the roof!" said Joey, and started climbing up the stack. Norm took refuge in a golf cart. "Norm!" yelled Joey, "You can't hide on a golf cart, that bison is going to get you!" Brian and Keith were also looking for places to hide as now all the animals were racing around the pen, cheering Harley on.
Harley ran to a back pasture, T.C. patiently following him. The bison squared on him and T.C. calmly reached again for the lead. Harley bolted again and Keith, sizing up the situation wisely, said, "I think we all should lock ourselves in the corral." So all of us scurried into an open pen and locked ourselves in next to the horses and Mr.-Angry-Gore-You-When-You-Least-Expect-It white buffalo.
T.C. yelled, "Ya better move that tripod and bass guitar." I looked over at Harley, who seemed like he had the better of the fight at this point. I figured if I moved fast enough I could grab the bass at least. Visions of Harley running around with half the guitar on his head went through my mind.
T.C. had managed to now trap Harley and was not messing around. "Keith, get the pickup truck," he said and grabbed a stout rope from the shed. We were back in the pen, me having run out to get everything out of the way and then running back.
"Harley 3, Switchback 0," I joked to Joey and Brian as Keith turned the truck around and T.C. tethered Harley to it. Slowly Keith let the truck out in first gear and Harley reluctantly left his brief bid for freedom and was led to the tree.
At this point T.C. finally had Harley tied and called us over. We walked up and stared at the bull who now was only a few feet from us.
"Let's move the chairs closer," said T.C. and so we dragged them to within a foot of the bison. I took a quiet breath and exhaled, thinking to myself that this could be one of the dumbest things I had ever done in my life.
We all sat down, our backs to Harley. Joey jumped when Harley turned his head and breathed on him in big panting snorts. "Look ahead, Joey," said Norm, taking pictures as we sat rigidly for the camera. We proceeded to take a bunch more, eventually moving the chairs and getting close to Harley.
At this point he seemed to mellow a tiny bit. I reached over to touch his horn. "Don't do that," said T.C. "That is like pulling on a kid's ear. He don't like that." I left the horn alone. Harley looked at me with one eye and decided to slime me, reaching out with his purple Jabba-the-Hutt-Licks -Princess-Leia tongue. I had about the same reaction she did.
We next set up some shots of T.C. riding Harley. T.C. changed into a cowboy shirt, untethered Harley and led him to the shed. We were still setting up when out he came riding. There was something about seeing a man on a bison that is both jaw-dropping and bizarre at the same time. Comical never entered my mind as I knew what risks T.C. took.
Harley appeared in the 4th of July parade the year before with T.C. and everyone loved it. However, they did not know that earlier Harley had rolled on T.C. and had broken his foot. Riding through the pain with a great sense of caution and showmanship, I admired T.C.
"He's the modern day Buffalo Bill," said Brian.
"No," said Joey. "He's Evel Knievel on a buffalo!" They were both right.
Harley would obey most of the commands from T.C., but every so often, he would decide to go his own way. T.C. was amazing at controlling Harley and in spite of my earlier fear, I slowly gained cautious confidence around the bull. We finished our shots and T.C. rode Harley into a paddock. There, he put Harley through his paces. For such a huge animal, I could not get over how graceful both man and bison appeared. It seemed natural to me and almost as familiar as a cowboy on a paint horse.
The corral piping clanged when Harley's horn hit it. He was trying to rub T.C. out of the saddle. But the cowboy was able to get him to obey, kneel and lie down. T.C. turned and doffed his cowboy hat to us all.
We took final shots with Harley and I planted a big kiss on his nose for his hard work. And he looked like a young juvenile bison at that point, unsure of his strength and a bit played out. Perhaps he knew the shoot was over.
T.C. traded stories from the road with us and we talked about him heading to Ireland with us and our setting up some sort of show at Hogs and Horses. We gave him, Holly, Keith and some others some CDs and t-shirts. T.C. gave Joey his straw hat, which was a real honor. I decided I would keep the bison slime on my boots to get me through St. Patrick's Day.
We all have a calling in life. That calling, I believe, is our responsibility to the Creator to mirror back to Him the image of Himself. Therefore, we are all called to do different things and once we choose our role, we pursue it with passion, patience and in almost every case, pain. Ultimately it is to bring joy to people and get us in touch with the Divine. Some are musicians, some are garbage collectors, some ride jet fighters and some sail around the world.
But one and only one rides a buffalo. And I am honored to have met him.
~ Martin McCormack
Dear Switchback Fans,
Last week, we were down in Phoenix playing several resort communities for folks who have decided to leave winter behind. It just so happened that one of our good friends and Switchback supporters, Norm Weitzman, was celebrating his 70th birthday. With us being in town and staying at Norm's, it made perfect sense to play his party. So as we prepared to leave Chicago, we decided to pack up one of our powerheads which we use for a sound system and fly it down with us to Phoenix. After wrapping it thoroughly in bubble wrap, we were able to fit it into a suitcase. It weighed right in at 49 pounds, which was perfect for the airline. We added a pound of clothes in for extra padding and then set up another suitcase with some CDs, stickers and the like, as well as clothes, cowboy boots, and one suit jacket. Finally we had Joey’s drum case, which ended up being over by about 10 pounds. So we had to redistribute everything there at the airport. We planned to purchase a hi-hat, drum seat, and speakers once we got to Phoenix.
We did that the next day, heading over to a music store that carries everything and found two perfectly good used speakers that we purchased, as well as a hi-hat and drum seat. All this along with some cables we put in our rental van. Norm watched all this with a bit of amusement as we haggled with staff over costs and played the speakers to make sure we were satisfied that they were in good shape.
The day of the party began and Norm was excited. Turning 70 was a milestone, and so he was being congratulated by everyone at the resort where he lives.
That’s where the trouble started. One lady got very excited and decided to push Norm fully dressed into the swimming pool. Norm’s cell phone shorted out in the pool, which we needed since his phone number was the number for people to call for a concert the next day. People who were invited to his party were now left clueless if they had to call Norm for directions. It was a study in restraint, watching Norm not swear or totally lose his cool while dripping wet with a shorted-out cell phone.
I have a theory that such events trigger energy that has the ability to ricochet around. It requires a little while to settle down, and until it does there's nothing but pure chaos. Chaos now started coming out in force. We went over to the hall for Norm’s party and Joey unpacked the hi-hat stand to find out that it was broken and repackaged. Now Joey was mad, we had no hi-hat, and we were looking at Norm’s party starting in an hour. So we jumped into the rental vehicle and ran back to the store. I wanted to call Norm and tell him what was going on, but we couldn’t call Norm because Norm had no cell phone.
So now we were driving on Highway 101 as fast as we could. I got a phone call from Norm (using his girlfriend Audrey’s phone) to call our friend Beau who was flying in from Chicago. Norm was supposed to give him directions to the party. So I got on the phone with Beau, and Beau told me that he had been dealing with, you guessed it, some chaos.
It turned out that Beau was going to use Uber to head over to Norm's. The driver told him that he was outside Terminal 3, and so Beau headed over from Terminal 4. He got to Terminal 3 and there was no Uber driver. He called the driver and told him he was now on the second floor of Terminal 3 looking for him. The driver was a bit confused now and suggested that Beau might be actually in Terminal 5. This continued on for some time until Beau realized that the driver was back at O’Hare in Chicago, and he was in Phoenix! So he hailed a cab and headed out to Norm’s party. Chaos was having a field day.
Meanwhile, we got a new hi-hat stand and were roaring back down Highway 101 to set up for Norm’s party. We got into the hall and were about to plug in the powerhead when we found out that one of the pins that goes into the socket had snapped off! Now we had a problem. Joey and Brian found the broken pin and gently inserted it into a power strip with the rest of the plug. It managed to work but was only taped to a small cardboard box to enable it to stay steady.
Finally, it seemed like chaos had run its course. People showed up, and we got ready to play. Joey settled down into his brand new drummer seat, only to find out it was not working properly and was the most uncomfortable seat ever created. He soldiered on for Norm’s party. The next day, we once again headed down Highway 101 for our fourth visit to the music store just to get everything right.
In my book, chaos is usually present right before everything goes right. It is the way that Adversity challenges us to see how committed we are and how much we are able to "rise above the moment.” Though never welcomed, it does always make for a good story. And ultimately, that is what life is all about.