For music lovers, 2016 has been a brutal year. David Bowie, Prince, Glenn Frey, Merle Haggard, Guy Clark, Maurice White (Earth, Wind, & Fire), Lemmy, & Beatles producer George Martin have all left us since we turned the calendar back in January.
But this post isn't about recognizing those immense talents or the artistic and personal losses we feel in their passing. Instead, I'd like to take a different tact.
When Guy Clark passed away earlier this week, I found myself watching a video of The Highwaymen, a true super group comprised of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. They were singing Guy's "Desperadoes Waiting On a Train" and it took me back to a warm summer's evening in the mid-90's when I had the privilege of seeing these four men share the stage together, sing each others' songs, and remind everyone at the amphitheater that night what it means to truly celebrate music.
Then I realized that half of the Highwaymen have long since left us. Waylon in 2002, Johnny shortly thereafter in 2003. Meanwhile, Kris turns 80 this year and Willie is a couple of years ahead of him. We've mourned those who have passed on, but after the shock of legends like Bowie, Frey, and Prince dying seemingly out of the blue, we often find ourselves wishing we had been a bit more attentive while those artists were still here. Sure, we listen to their music, but there's a sense of taking their presence and their artistry for granted.
I remember when Bowie died, someone posted a thought that went viral. It went like this:
If you're ever sad, just remember the world is 4.543 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.
There you have it. We may have missed out on sharing time and space with Robert Johnson, Billie Holiday, and Hank Williams. But there are a whole lot of sources of joy, wisdom, and light still burning bright. Can we really afford not to say "thank you" while they can still hear us do so?
Here's my incomplete list...
Thank you, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and Van Morrison. I love a lot of voices, but yours are the ones that have come closest to tearing down the invisible curtain between us and whatever is Divine in this universe. You are shamanistic. You are sonic healers.
Thank you, Bob Dylan. I mean, come on.
Thank you, Jack White and Dave Grohl. In an age where music seems to require a lot of wizardry to catch people's ears, you keep it raw and real. Analog. Homemade instruments. Straight ahead rock and roll. Balls the size of church bells.
Thank you, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Led Zeppelin. I know you’re not all still standing, but the music still stands for itself.
Thank you, U2, REM, Elvis Costello, and The Replacements. What started in the 1980’s still sounds mighty good from where I stand in 2016.
Thank you, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. Two of the last authentic songwriters and troubadours. Two left-wing mercenaries who somehow make the right-wing country music base stand up and cheer. Two Pilgrims.
Thank you, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal, Wayne Shorter, Ellis Marsalis, & McCoy Tyner, & the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. You're the last of an era of jazz musicians who know what it was like for jazz to rule the world. You carry that legacy forward, for people as young as my son, so they can carry the mantle forward.
Thank you, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, & Cassandra Wilson. You are now the veterans, the young upstarts who survived with clear heads and clearer visions. You saw the dangerous detours that the legends of jazz took with syringes and spoons and bottles. You took a different road, and we get to listen to you as you grow old and share your wisdom.
Thank you, Radiohead, Beck, and Wilco. I'd follow your daring musical explorations almost anywhere. You keep it interesting. You give me music that says, "just close your eyes and listen" instead of "play this in the background."
Thank you, Brian Fallon & The Gaslight Anthem. You understand the fabric of rock and roll resides in short bursts of adrenaline and imagery that is as romantic and iconic as a 1960's movie poster. Long live the '59 Sound.
Thank you, Michael Franti, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Indigo Girls, and Dave Matthews. Your music makes me happy. Is there any greater gift?
Thank you, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, & Paul Simon. You set poetry to music, and then you set my world on fire.
Thank you, Tom Waits. Your music takes me to other worlds, dark and delightful worlds I could've never imagined.
Thank you, The Saw Doctors, Dropkick Murphys, The Pogues, & Flogging Molly. You make my not-so-Irish heart sing.
Thank you, Don Henley. We have a complicated relationship. You're difficult, but your soaring, gritty voice and your carefully crafted lyrics make your prickly ways worth it. Hell, "Wasted Time" alone was worth the $100 I paid to see The Eagles back in '94.
Thank you, Paul and Ringo. We really have enjoyed the show.
Thank you Elton John, Billy Joel, Barry Gibb, Jimmy Buffett and The Monkees. You were all a part of the tapestry of my childhood and youth at various stages. I learned a lot about laughing, smiling, and feeling good by listening to your music.
Thank you, Bonnie Raitt. You're authenticity personified. And you seem like you'd be a joy to have a cup of coffee with.
Thank you, John Fogerty and Bob Seger. You taught me what it means to drive with the windows down, the radio up, and my foot leaning a little too hard into the gas.
Thank you, Tom Morello. There's not enough politics in music these days. Your music is so infused with revolution, righteous anger, and hope, you make up for that absence. You rage against the machine more boldly than anyone since Mr. Guthrie & Mr. Strummer.
Thank you, Eddie Vedder. I love that, somewhere along the way, between "Even Flow" and "Jeremy", you became an accomplished balladeer. A grunge pioneer who makes a solo ukulele album is a true rock star in my book.
Thank you, Neil Young. Long May You Run.
Thank you, Buddy Guy, Keb Mo, Eric Clapton, John Hammond, and Joe Bonamassa. The Blues are alive and well, largely thanks to your commitment to keeping that flickering lantern lit.
Thank you, John Hiatt, Rodney Crowell, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Ryan Adams, Dwight Yoakam, Jay Fararr, Rosanne Cash, and Mary Chapin Carpenter. You are the keepers of a unique flame. Smart songwriting, authentic emotion, no frills, just a helluva lot of heart and cosmic wisdom.
Thank you, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. What, you thought I forgot? No one has ever connected with me, spoken to me, or inspired me as much as Bruce and his band. Emotionally, intellectually, politically, and spiritually. Your music is part of my DNA.
I know I've left out more than a few. I'm sure I'll circle back and edit as I realize I've done so. In the meantime, I'd love to know who you would say "Thank You" to. Who are your Living Legends?