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Simplicity in Song and in Life: Lessons from Edward David Anderson October 02, 2018 15:03

Interview by Brett Hutchins

Photos by Kim Anderson

Simplicity in Song and in Life

Lessons from Singer-Songwriter Edward David Anderson’s Trek Through the Appalachian Trail

My mind’s been playin’ tricks

When I’m out here in the sticks.

It’s like everything is right

And nothing’s wrong.”

-EDA, Only in My Dreams - Release Date: 10/19

There’s an independent streak that runs through everything you do - whether it’s the nomadic lifestyle or the “pick up and play wherever you want” attitude of your music. Where’s that come from?

EDA: Well, I've never been a fan of being told what to do and have always liked the idea of controlling my own destiny. It could have something to do with my dad not really digging his career choice and being around that scene growing up. He certainly never dreamt of being a union plumber in city of Chicago, but he did what he did to take care of his family. I've never really thought about it, but looking back, I'm thinking I decided at a young age that I was going to do something that I loved.

And now, being solo has allowed my wife and I to experience a whole new level of independence. We're able to spend winters on the beach, play/travel as much or as little as we desire, we've started our own Black Dirt Records label, we handle my management and bookings; we're actually completely self-contained!

So my father, who taught me the chords on guitar, showed me what I did and didn't want to do.

What initially sparked the idea of leaving the snows of the Midwest for the shores of Alabama. It had to have been more than just the weather. How many years have you been doing that now?

EDA: This'll be our 6th year migrating south. First and foremost, we didn't want to face the brutality of another Midwestern winter. Period. It gets in your head. For real. It's psychologically debilitating.

And we were looking for a change after losing both of our mothers within a year of each other. Kim quit her job, we sold our Rock School, I made my first solo record, we bought a 1986 Nu Way Hitchhiker (the Cadillac of RVs in 1986) and headed to Lower Alabama.

Was Alabama the desired destination or was it more of a “let’s see where we end up” kind of trip?

EDA: Yep. I had visited Gulf Shores many years before while on tour with Backyard Tire Fire. We had a couple of days off in between Tallahassee and NOLA, so we stayed with a friend and discovered the beaches of LA. We also found that there was a lot of music happening in the region, lots of venues, writers, pickers, etc.

So we were very aware of our destination when we set out for that RV park in Elberta, AL 6 years ago. That said, I had no real contacts for shows, so it was a hustle from the get go. I hit open mics for the first time in years, took all sorts of gigs all over the place down there, and figured out how to make it swing. We were lucky to meet great folks within the first week that are still our friends today.

What’s so special about Alabama? Both Muscle Shoals and Lower Alabama have been good to you.

EDA: The people. Lower Alabama was welcoming from Day 1. We arrived on a Saturday that first year and went out to the Frog Pond in Silverhill on that Sunday to see South Memphis String Band (Jimbo Mathis, Luther Dickenson, Alvin Youngblood Hart). The music and vibe were amazing and the people were genuinely interested in who we were and what we were doing in LA. We were overwhelmed (and still are) by how accepting folks are down there.

And then in Muscle Shoals, again, the people. I've always wanted to make a record there, but it needed to be the right batch of tunes and it needed to be with the right players. I wanted to record with folks that live and work in the Shoals. I wanted the personalities and experiences of the musicians to come through in their playing on the songs. Jimmy Nutt and I were fast friends and the folks he brought in to play on the record were awesome people and musicians. 

Listen to Edward David Anderson's "Only In My Dreams" here:

One of my favorite lyrics off the new record is from “Only in My Dreams”:

My mind’s been playin’ tricks

When I’m out here in the sticks.

It’s like everything is right

And nothing’s wrong.”

It seems to point to your Appalachian Trail adventure. How did that journey come about?

EDA: Ah yes. That tune is actually about a dream I had where my mom was still alive, and smiling and talking. And shortly after we embraced in the dream, I woke up, and wrote the song. So "out here in the sticks" is actually referring to the back woods of my mind/consciousness.

As for the Appalachian Trail, we first set foot on it shortly after we were married in 2000 and living in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Hot Springs, NC. We would do day hikes with our doggy, but never really understood what it was to spend weeks out there.

Flash forward 18 years. I was laying on the couch reading something about the AT and as I stood up and walked to the kitchen, I handed my phone to my wife and said something like, "You wanna do this?" And she said, "Hell yes!" So we decided to postpone the release of the record and began researching and reading and acquiring gear. I think we both were craving the challenge, the change, the isolation, the detox, etc. The never-ending hustle of the music biz, the dangers of travel, and the partying had all worn thin and we needed a reboot before launching Black Dirt Records and releasing Chasing Butterflies.

What kind of planning did you do for it and how much of the trail did you tackle?

EDA: We read tons, talked with folks that had done it, and did a few shakedown hikes. That's really about it. We had no real experience backpacking or remote camping and we were in the worst shape of our lives, but we are both notoriously head strong, and that worked to our advantage.

The original plan was to take 3 months and try to hike the first 1,000 miles to Harpers Ferry, WV. Pretty lofty, but you gotta think big, right? We ended up completing the first 200 miles over the course of a month, when I got a text from my friend in the band The Record Company asking if I wanted to come out and play some shows with them. At that time, Kim was going to continue on and I was going to hop off, do the shows, and meet back up with her.

But the Smokies were crowded with weekend warriors and the rain was incessant, so we decided to "tap out" at Clingman's Dome with a feeling of great accomplishment as we stepped off at the highest elevation on the AT. We went out on top!

We're hoping to pick it right back up where we left off at Clingman's Dome next May.

What are some of the most important lessons the trail taught you?

EDA: First, I'm capable of a whole lot more than I thought. I hadn't exercised in 20 years and went out there and climbed up and down mountains with 35 lbs on my back, 10 miles a day, through heat & rain, sleeping on the ground, hanging my food in a tree, eating tuna & mashed potatoes, pooping in the woods, pushing through blisters and general ongoing pain. It took about 10 days to get my lungs and legs back, but I felt relatively strong after the initial shock, and began to thrive.

It is beyond liberating to simply focus on walking. Just putting one foot in front of the other. Block everything else out. You get into a groove; a rhythm. All you have to think about it how far you're going to hike that day, where you're going to sleep, what and when you'll eat, etc. I loved it and have said many times upon returning that if we had stayed out there for the 3 months, I may never have come back.

We have always been aware of the fact that we have more than we need and have discussed downsizing at length. The AT experience really drove that home. We survived with next to nothing for a month. Do we really need this 3-bedroom house? I carried two pair of underwear, two t shirts, two pair of socks on the trail. Do I really need this dresser and closet full of stuff I don't wear? So I think we came out of it wanting to live more of a minimalistic life and eventually I think we'd like to live in the woods.

How do you see that experience influencing your songwriting?

EDA: There is a journal full of stories from our time out there. I've talked about turning it into a book. At the very least I'm certain some of those experiences will become songs. I've always subscribed to the "less is more" approach to writing and music in general, and I think the AT really hammered that ideology home. I'm feeling like my next album will be a more stripped down, bare bones recording; and the songs are some of the simplest I've written.

One thing that backpacking and hiking has taught me is the truth of the less-is-more philosophy. This comes through on your records. Is that a conscious effort by you?

EDA: I think my natural musical tendency is to want to "trim the fat" as my friend and Grammy winning producer and member of Los Lobos would say. It's not really a conscious effort, it's just how I want to hear things. I grew up on Tom Petty, Stones, Neil Young, etc. When you listen to those tunes, they are perfection. Everything is in its place and serves the song. It's all about the song.

Whether you know it or not, we first chatted years ago on Pensacola Beach about the Grateful Dead and all things in between. It’s interesting to me that a fan of the most gloriously meandering band of all-time is so invested in artistic simplicity. Where’s the connection?

EDA: Ha! I love the Dead. In fact I was just stuffing envelopes and listening to them yesterday. It may as well have been 1996. I've been stuffing envelopes while digging the Dead for more than 2 decades. Some things never change.

I think what originally drew me to the Grateful Dead was the improvisation and freedom of play between the musicians. I was 17 and my sister took me and a friend to Alpine Valley in 1989 and I was changed forever. First, I had never seen a scene quite like that. I don't think I knew what I was getting in to. It was a time warp and I dug it. And then the jamming and improv blew my mind. We didn't listen to jazz in my house growing up, so I wasn't really familiar with that kind of energy. I went home and started listening to Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk and it opened up a whole new world of music.

So it was initially the improvisation that turned me on, but ultimately it's the songs that always bring me back. They have great songs. Simple tunes with melody and message. And there is a looseness that is endearing and human. I think that's what it is that gets me with the Dead; those songs and that loose vibe. They resonate with my heart and soul.

Watch the official promo video for 'Chasing Butterflies' here: