Brighter Things is Steven Jackson, an Alabama-based songwriter making music and words fit together so life might make more sense.  Music released here, free, weekly-ish. Sign up to get notifications of new songs & videos.

Jim Croce is My Spirit Animal

Jim Croce is My Spirit Animal

In the late 60s, believing his career was headed south, Jim Croce moved east, from NYC, to a small Pennsylvania farm town. Away from the fast pace of city life, Jim did anything but slow down. At a kitchen table in a late 1700s farm house he penned songs you likely know by heart: "Time in a Bottle," "I'll Have to Say I Love You in a Song," "Don't Mess Around With Jim" and so many others.

But Jim's surprising success story had little to do with why I was standing in front of that same farmhouse in Lyndell, PA sweating my ass off.

A couple months before I made this pilgrimage in a bright yellow Airstream trailer, I sat in my therapist's office and listened as she tried to make sense of my ramblings. Our conversation continued to the notion of "meaning" and "balance," or more accurately, why I couldn't seem to find it in my day-to-day. She suggested I get away to the woods ... to take some alone time away from my job and health that had nearly killed me a couple years before.

I was finally healing. I had gained 30 pounds and the inside scoop on suffering and joy. So, then how could I be expected to walk about the days just "making ends meet" when they clearly were frazzled ends?

Could I live a mindful, artful, fulfilling life as a mortgage-holding father of two and emotionally present husband? I tried to recall a time when I felt unbridled and "in touch" with that feeling and it transported me back to being 14 or 15 and learning to play and sing every song on an old cassette tape. 

That's when I learned that a 3-minute Jim Croce song could could pack more punch than an entire novel, that it held more emotional data in the pluck and beat and bellowing than any other medium could do with such sweet succinctness.

I needed a place to get away to. And I felt like I needed a theme to focus on. Maybe Jim's spirit was my theme. I Googled and Wiki-ed "Where did Jim Croce live?" I sleuthed-out who owned that old house he lived in and I booked a campground in the town. Maybe there would be something in the air there that might clear my clutter. On August 16, 2016, I hit the road. 

I made a mix tape and yelled victoriously as Jim's words took on new meaning for a 40-year-old who had been through the wringer: "It's been so long since I have felt fine. That's the reason that I've gotta get out of here ..."

I had never idolized Jim Croce (OK, maybe the mustache) or even knew much about him. But, clearly, his music is a user's guide to a life I'd like to live. It's human and humorous, and peppered with a soothsayer's insistence that we say what we need to say because life and love can come crashing down in an instant. Indeed, Jim Croce is my spirit animal.

So ... here I was, standing beside the iconic stone outhouse Jim was photographed in for one of his album covers. I was there to re-record those songs from my youth not as a tribute to the songs themselves, or the man who wrote them, but to a more in-tune time in my life.

Now, here I was. Guitar in hand, microphones, preamps, mobile recording enabled. But I found myself at a crossroads. Literally.

This used-to-be farm country is now at the epicenter of what the locals called a "tech boom" that sent property prices soaring and was now putting the sounds of relentless trucks and motorcycles into my mics louder than I could sing. The noisy intersection of home-to-work was now 30 feet from where Croce got the idea for "Time in a Bottle."

I had planned for every detail of the trip up 'til now (stopping by to sing at A.P. Carter's grave, sitting, quieted, at Gettysburg, buying plums from the Amish, camping by the Brandywine Creek,) What I did not plan for was 100 degree temps and this roar of the road. (Google Street View does not reveal either of these two critical factors)

I unloaded the recording gear. My bass stopped working. The AC in the Airstream stopped working. It basically became a Yeti cup on wheels holding the soup of heat and humidity that I, foolishly, hadn't associated with this part of the country.

Starting at 7:00 am, I recorded a couple uncomfortable tracks accompanied by the hum and growl of SUVs. By noon I chucked the overheated equipment back into the Airstream, took off all my clothes except my boxers and began the drive home four days earlier than planned.

I was dejected. Pissed really. It felt worse than if I had stayed home. I came looking for catharsis and uncovered cancer. I drove in silence and full-blast air for hours. My mind raced about our failure. It also saw the absurdity of what I had set out to do alone. (Did I mention this was also to be a multi-camera video documentary?) L.O.L.

Anyhow, around midnight, something broke the silence and I picked up my phone and began singing new words into the voice recorder. I wrote 10 songs, end-to-end, between Lyndell, PA and Bristol, TN. Some sucked and some were OK. Nothing groundbreaking, but they were new pieces of energy released out into the world. And that felt fine.

All the money I spent on the trip and the trailer, all the ways I pushed my still fragile body were side notes. I was writing songs for myself again. They came because I needed to feel them coursing out from some place ripe with the emotion built up by a 15-year-old in his bedroom learning to play "Rolling me down the highway. Moving ahead so life won't pass me by."

Here I was at 40, on the mend, finally understanding Jim Croce as mental health counsellor: "I've got a song, I've got a song. And I carry it with me and I sing it loud. If it gets me nowhere, I go there proud." That lyric puts a melody to the words Glennon Melton writes so well on her Momastery blog >

That was the moment I decided to create the Brighter Things song blog and begin writing every day to cultivate this crucial balance that can not be bought with wages, supplemented with medicine or drank away with wine. 

Thank you Jim Croce for inspiring us with the words you sang. And then for haunting me away from your old stomping grounds to find my own writing place safe from the noise and forces that try so hard to stop the music.

Peace, brother.

So, I made a couple shirts for myself but I keep getting asked if folks can buy them. Now you can!  Just click here >

So, I made a couple shirts for myself but I keep getting asked if folks can buy them. Now you can! Just click here >

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How will it ever be "just tea" again?

How will it ever be "just tea" again?