A Conversation With Blues Master Toby Walker

By Steven Brodsky

At what age did you first pick up a guitar?
I was nine, but baseball got in the way. I picked it up again when I was 14 and was off and running.

Toby Walker Photo by Larry Sribnick

You started learning with an instructional book, yes?
I just learned chords from a chord chart and started to write my own songs with them.
Were there people locally who also taught you?
Many of my friends also played guitar and we all wound up constantly learning from each other. One of my early influences was a local guy named Mike Zuchlich, who was several years older than me. He played some wonderful blues and turned me on to some artists that, as a kid, I had never heard of. That would be John Mayall, among others.
When did you start to develop an interest in performance?
When I realized that the girls in my neighborhood liked guitar players!! We, meaning the guys I hung out with that played guitar, would try and out-write and play each other in order to impress those girls.
Which musicians did you most want to model, at first?
Jerry Garcia, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin, David Bromberg, Robert Johnson, Johnny Winter, Jorma Kaukonen, Michael Bloomfield, Jimmy Reed, Keith Richards, John Hammond, Merle Travis,… the list goes on and on.
What fueled the intensity of your desire to master the guitar?
It was a way out of my neighborhood and a neat way to earn a living.
What sacrifices did you make in your pursuit of blues excellence?
The kind that any artist has to make in order to master their craft. While other folks were going to college, getting married, having kids, getting the mortgage… starting “real” jobs, blah, blah, blah , I honed my craft.
Did you ever question whether the personal costs were too high?
Not once. Ever. What was too high was NOT going after my passion.
Some of your training took place on the porches of blues masters in the Deep South. Share a few of your memories about those times and tell us about some of what you learned.
The most important thing I learned was to develop your own sound. Every one of the folks that I visited and learned from put their own, unique stamp on any song that they played. The stories are numerous. Check out this link on my site: http://www.littletobywalker.com/learning-from-the-masters1.html.
You have won international acclaim for your skills in a variety of music genres. Where did the diversity of your expertise come from?
From following my heart. If there was an artist, a song, or a particular genre that turned my head around, I did everything I could to find a way to bring that into my playing.
Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna and the Jefferson Airplane is quoted as saying about you, “Flat out… you have to hear this great musician…I’m blown away.” (Toby is a down-to-earth guy.) How do you maintain humbleness after receiving that kind of praise?
I try not to think about that, or at least not let something like that go to my head. Jorma was one of my main influences and I have to keep pinching myself knowing that I get to teach at his guitar camp and actually hang with the guy while I’m there. That’s pretty heady stuff.
You’ve taught for years at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp. Do you love teaching there?
I love teaching anywhere, but that place has its own mojo. I can’t explain it, other than everyone that goes there comes away with something special, students and instructors alike.
You are highly in demand as a music teacher. How and where do students learn from you?
Well, in camps like Fur Peace, private lessons in my studio and digital lessons. I’ve put out 8 DVDs with Homespun Instructional Music, as well as dozens of my own downloadable lessons that folks can find on my web site.
When teaching, do memories from those front porch years sometimes arise?
You bet, especially when I’m teaching the songs I learned from the folks that I studied from like James “Son” Thomas, Eugene Powell, Jack Owens, Etta Baker and R.L. Burnside.
Of the awards that you’ve received, which ones are particularly meaningful to you?
I’d have to say the very first one, that I won back in 2002. That was the International Blues Challenge award. It was real nice to be recognized nationally like that. But… equally saying, the one I was awarded from my stomping grounds of Long Island… the Long Island Sound Award from the Long Island Music Hall of Fame was just as rewarding. It’s nice to be recognized by your “homies” as well.
If it were it possible to bring to life, for a couple of hours, any of the now deceased blues masters who you never had the opportunity to meet, who would you most like to bring back and why?
I think I would’ve liked to have met and studied with Gary Davis. I missed that opportunity because when he was around I was too young. Everyone that studied from him said that besides being such a great player, he was a wonderful teacher as well.
What primes your own music creation pump? Do lyrics and tunes generally come easily to you?
Lyrics never come easy, but music always has. I usually start listening to whatever happens to catch my ear at the time and take if from there. Inspiration usually happens when you open yourself up to it.
How do you protect your singing voice?
I never thought about that. I suppose I don’t.
Do you sing in the shower?
I’d get too much shampoo in my mouth.
Do you sing in your vehicle while en route to performance venues?
You’ll be leaving shortly for an overseas tour. When does the tour begin and end?
I leave the day after Labor Day and come home October 7, 2016.
What countries will you be performing in?
Germany, Austria and Cyprus.
Of all the concerts you’ve given, which one is most memorable to you and why?
I think it was a club in Wales many years ago. Those folks go nuts for any type of music and their energy is incredible. They’re already primed long before I show up at the venues. After this one particular gig, I was invited to join everyone at the local pub across from my hotel. When I showed up the whole place cheered. One of the folks came up to me and asked me to walk over to a wall where there was this stuffed bird on a shelf. I had never seen anything like it. The thing was part pheasant and part duck. Then I noticed the little sign underneath it, which read ‘This is a Phuck.’ When I turned around the whole room exploded into laughter.
What’s most gratifying to you about your life in the blues?
It keeps me off the ledge.
Posted 8/26/2016

A Conversation With Radio DJ Michael Tearson

By Steven Brodsky

Michael Tearson is one of the most admired radio DJs of all time. Many readers know him from his years at WMMR, WMGK, and Sirius XM. About his time at each broadcasting venue, Michael told me: “I liked best what I could do on my own to create the content, when I could create shows entirely out of my imagination and without the station telling me what the content would be.”

You started on FM radio when there was a golden age of freedom for disc jockeys; they had far greater latitude in choosing the music that was aired. Where were you working and what did that freedom mean to you and to your listeners?
I started at WXPN where my very first show in October 1967 was the first album rock show at WXPN. Then in January 1968 I was first to do album rock on their FM. At the time the form was brand new and without history or rules, so I was making it up as I went along. It was entirely new and uncharted territory.

What caused the erosion of freedom?
The success of the format in drawing an audience led to the establishment of the Superstars format which skimmed off the album rock hits and boiled it down to a more predictable and even format–all hits all the time–and frankly that cleaned WMMR’s clocks for a while and caused management there to reel in their own format.

What did you most enjoy about your work at WMMR?
I most loved the idea that every night I would take listeners for a ride and that it was never the same twice. I loved that I could tell stories whether obvious or subliminal by selecting, sequencing and segueing. I loved the trust that was placed in me to do this, to not be unnecessarily self-serving, to deliver a balance of all the threads that made up the big picture of what the format was. These days DJs have not selected their own music since 1984 when the computer program Selector came on the market and made it simple for PDs and MDs to program a full day’s content with the push of a button. In an instant an entire generation of DJs skilled at creating shows had that forcibly removed from what we did. I submit radio has gotten nothing but worse and ever less imaginative and engaging/involving ever since.

The Saturday Morning 60s show was entirely my baby. I did it on my own and delivered the complete self-contained show. On the other hand I came to loathe executing the format when doing fill-in shows. At the end of 5 hours I’d feel my soul had been forcibly sucked out of me.

What are you currently involved with?
Currently I do two weekly webcasts Michael Tearson’s Marconi Experiment and The ATTIC which are both available free and on demand Monday to Monday at www.iradiophilly.com/podcasts.php. Here I am granted total artistic freedom to create shows as I see fit and possible. It is likely the last work I will do as the fences have been set up to rein in the Internet. In 2010 through 2015 I did nearly 300 shows at www.radiothatdoesntsuck.com, the best platform I ever had as I was NOT held to a 60 minute length and was free to allow the shows to find their own lengths. RTDS went dark along with thousands of other small webcasters when at the beginning of 2016 the royalty rates for such as we were hiked 517% essentially to drive as many of us as possible away and off the web. It worked.
I also have returned to being a performing folk performer, something I did back in the 1960s before I did radio, and this has been wonderfully satisfying.
I do not miss broadcast or satellite radio in the slightest. And they don’t seem to miss me either. They do NOT want DJs who care at all about the content of their shows. They want people who will go in say what they must and leave without creating ripples.

Posted 9/27/2016

A Conversation With Tamara Saviano, Author of ‘Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark’

By Steven Brodsky
Congratulations on your new book, Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark. It was years in the making. What surprised you most about the journey of getting the book written?
The biggest surprise to me is that I actually finished it. I didn’t believe I would until the day I turned it in to the publisher. If I hadn’t told so many people I was writing this book, I would have quit. It was a massive undertaking and I felt overwhelmed during the writing process.

You first heard a Guy Clark album, Old No. 1, when you were fourteen. How did that listening experience affect you?
It started my love affair with Texas songwriters and of Texas in general. I grew up in Wisconsin, in an industrial town where my family and most of my friends’ parents worked at factories. Guy made Texas sound romantic to me. “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” immediately became the theme song for my teenage angst. “She ain’t goin’ nowhere, she’s just leavin’.” Man. That’s what I wanted to do. Just leave.
Was exposure to Guy Clark’s records a factor in your choosing music journalism, production, and publicity as your profession?
Maybe. I loved music from an early age and I believe that music overall had a big hand in it. When I was a kid I wanted to write for Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated and Playboy.

Guy Clark supported the biography. He did not want a hagiography. You did not write one. Tell us about his support.
No one was more surprised than me that Guy agreed to my terms. I asked him to cooperate fully and introduce me to all his family, friends and colleagues and ask them to cooperate without Guy having approval on the final manuscript. When we started, I didn’t believe he’d give me anything but our first interview he told me about his girlfriend Bunny’s suicide and how he then married Bunny’s sister Susanna. He was not afraid to talk about the hard stuff and we talked about it over and over and over again.
Did Guy indicate discomfort about any of your research?
No. He was surprised at some of the things I discovered but seemed happy when I brought him new treasures that I found at his family’s home in Rockport or from research libraries.

You wrote: “Guy Clark was never one to wear his heart on his sleeve. He was taught from a young age to be stoic; to observe the West Texas credo,‘stand up and be a man.’ He learned one should put up a strong façade no matter what he is feeling inside.” Was this reflected in his responses to your interview questions?
No, and that was the most surprising thing about working on the book. Guy and I had intimate conversations. At first it threw me because that was not the Guy I knew. We started working on the book after he was diagnosed with lymphoma and I believe he was feeling mortal. He told me it was time to set the record straight.
You included some very tender diary entries of Susanna Clark, Guy’s wife. Tell us about those.
Guy handed me a box of Susanna’s journals after she died. I asked him if he had read them and he said no. I asked if he was sure he wanted me to have them and use them. He said: “Yes. I’m not out to rewrite the truth, Tamara.”

Was Guy jealous of Susanna’s love for Townes Van Zandt?
He may have been jealous at times but for the most part I believe he just accepted it as part of Susanna’s and Townes’s personalities and he loved them both. They annoyed him sometimes and he didn’t understand their collective sensitivities but he loved both of them more than he loved anyone else.

Were you always comfortable being privy to highly personal information about Guy, Susanna, and Townes?
No, I was often uncomfortable. I tried to comprehend it but never got to that place. I think about my own marriage and how tight my husband and I are…no one else is getting into our marriage, you know? Yet, Guy confessed that Townes took some of the pressure off of him to have to be the husband Susanna wanted. Guy’s stoicism was difficult for Susanna. And, of course, they all drank and took many drugs. I’m sure that shit didn’t make things any easier.

How difficult was it for you to decide what is appropriate to include in the book?
Difficult. A reviewer already called me out for not explicitly saying whether or not Townes and Susanna were involved sexually. I decided that the story is compelling enough without sensationalizing it. People can read between the lines. In the end, I just remembered that it was my book and my story to tell in the way I wanted to tell it. And I knew I was doing it with Guy’s full consent and that’s what mattered most to me.
Susannna famously served as muse for some Guy Clark songs. For those not familiar with Guy’s music, speak about one or two of those songs and how they came about.
Susanna was a muse for Guy, Townes and many others including Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle. I came to the conclusion that half the writers in Nashville and Austin were in love with Susanna. Guy wrote about her often, the most recent being “My Favorite Picture of You,” the title track to his last album, which won a Grammy. Guy’s co-writer Gordy Sampson came to Guy’s house with the title and the minute Guy heard the title he turned around and pulled a Polaroid picture of Susanna from the wall and they wrote about that picture.
An early song Guy wrote about Susanna is “Coat From the Cold.” Guy stopped singing that song long ago because he said it was paternalistic and he couldn’t believe he actually wrote it. “The lady beside me is the one I have chosen to walk through my life like a coat from the cold.” Guy said: “What the fuck was I thinking? Like Susanna didn’t have any choice in the matter.”
A photo of a strikingly beautiful Susanna taken around 1957 appears in the book, courtesy of Guy. If the lyrics of “My Favorite Picture of You” are fully true to life, this photo wasn’t Guy’s favorite of Susanna. What photos (whether of Susanna or others) in the book are most significant to you?
I love the photo of Susanna in the yellow turtleneck and the debutante black and white photo the best. I think it’s because I’ve sort of romanticized the young Susanna. I try to imagine what she would have done had she not gotten involved with Guy and Townes. In some ways, I think they ruined her. Not that it wasn’t her choice, it was, but, she may have reached greater heights personally and professionally without them. Even with them, she was a successful songwriter and painter but I do believe Susanna’s love for these two men held her back. She jumped into a relationship with Guy when she was grieving her sister’s suicide. Maybe with a little time and distance before doing that, she would have made different choices. Of course, we’ll never know and that’s just me romanticizing what might have been.

Guy had the highest regard for quality of artistic expression. What instilled this in him?
His young life in Rockport, Texas was the start of it. Guy and his family read poetry around the kitchen table after dinner. He participated in poetry invitationals, read monologues, wrote essays and fell in love with the written word as a young man. As he matured he read beat poets and literature and dictionaries and thesauruses. Seriously, Guy would pick up the Dictionary of American Slang and just start reading from page one. When he went to Houston and met Townes Van Zandt and Mickey Newbury, that inspired him to start writing songs and his quest to write, read and hear quality literature and songs stayed with him until the day he died. Guy is famous for saying to young songwriters “Do you want to be an artist or do you want to be a star?” He didn’t think there was anything wrong with wanting to be a star but it’s a different approach. Artists are not willing to compromise in the way stars have to compromise with their material and their images.
Guy was very helpful to other songwriters. Cite an example of this that appears in your book.
Lyle Lovett is probably the most famous example. Someone slipped Guy a demo tape of Lyle’s and Guy copied that tape and handed it out to everyone he knew in Nashville. And he had never met Lyle. He thought it was that good and that someone needed to pay attention and give Lyle a publishing and record deal. And that’s exactly what happened. Guy gave Tony Brown at MCA the tape and Tony signed Lyle.
What song written or co-written by Guy, was Guy most proud of?
Guy’s favorite song he ever wrote was “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” He said it just came out easily and he loves the message of it.
Of his songs covered by others, which were his favorites?
Slim Pickens’s spoken word version of “Desperados Waiting for a Train” was Guy’s favorite cover of one of his songs. He also loved Terri Hendrix’s cover of “The Dark.” Those are two that stuck with him.

Which song most meaningfully reflects the person you came to know as a result of writing Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark?
“Stuff That Works.” It fits Guy perfectly.
Posted Oct. 12, 2016

A Conversation With Scott Weidensaul

By Steven Brodsky
Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Peterson Reference Guide To Owls of North America and the Caribbean. You’ve authored over two dozen books on natural history, have been a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and are renowned as a field researcher. Your writing has appeared in many major publications, including Audubon and National Wildlife. You are a popular lecturer and one of the world’s most highly regarded authorities on birds. Your first visit to Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania was a formative event in your life as a naturalist and author. Tell us about this.
I was 12, and had been campaigning pretty hard for several years for my folks to take me to Hawk Mountain, which was about an hour south of our home on the edge of the anthracite fields in northern Schuylkill County. By luck, the day they finally relented was a perfect migration day in mid-October — blustery wind, ragged clouds, hawks peppering the sky. One sharp-shinned hawk, about the size of a blue jay, dove down in screaming rage at a papier mache owl decoy the hawk watchers had placed on a high pole, and it swept just a few feet over my head. I’d never seen raptors with such intimacy, and that day I became hooked on three things: birds of prey; the Appalachian Mountains, which formed this annual flyway; and migration. Those three elements have shaped much of my life and work in the 45 years since.

When did you decide that ornithology was going to be the primary focus of your life’s work? Why birds?
I was actually much more focused on herpetology, especially snakes, when I was a kid, and right through the start of college I planned to study them. But birding was always a big part of my life, and an ornithology course I took in college really got me hooked on the science of birds. With the love of raptors I already had, that steered me into field research, starting in the 1980s when I began helping Hawk Mountain’s research team with hawk-trapping and banding to study their migrations. Within a few years I was a federally licensed bander, working first with hawks and falcons, and later with songbirds, owls and hummingbirds. Why birds? Because they perform some of the most incomprehensibly difficult journeys, across immensities of space and time, that any organism undertakes.
Does your involvement with nature entail a spiritual component?
In the traditional sense, no. In the sense of awe and humility in the face of something greater, absolutely.

Are you most at home in the field?
Without question. I am definitely not a city boy.
Your work has taken you to some of the most incredible natural settings. Tell us about some of your favorites.
Hard to narrow it down. I’ve been returning almost every year for three decades to Alaska, and have traveled all over that state, from the outer Aleutians to the North Slope and interior, but spend a lot of time there in Denali National Park. For the past several years I’ve been working with several friends and colleagues on a project to use miniaturized tracking devices to follow the migration of many of the park’s birds, which travel to Central and South America, the southeast U.S., Asia and New Zealand. It’s hard work — we’re in the field by 3 a.m. most days — but to look up and see that 20,000-foot mountain looming on the horizon with the colors of dawn makes it worthwhile. (Especially if the mosquitoes aren’t bad and you don’t piss off a grizzly bear or a momma moose.)

Other favorite spots — the coast of Maine, where I teach for Audubon every year at their Hog Island adult camp; the Peruvian Amazon, where I spent a lot of time in the early ’90s and again more recently; the pristine rain forests of Guyana; the sea islands on the coast of Georgia; the Gulf Coast in springtime, when millions of Neotropical migrant songbirds are flooding back with spring migration.
Field work has its frustrations and disappointments. Describe times they’ve been present. What kind of harsh field conditions have you encountered?
Weather’s often the most frustrating, because there’s nothing at all you can do about it. You sometimes have a relatively narrow window of time you can be in the field in a particular location, and it’s hard to be stuck in poor weather that keeps you from doing what you need to do.

Maybe the most challenging conditions weren’t in some remote location, though, but tracking northern saw-whet owls all night some years back. We were working in teams of three, using radio receivers and directional antennas to track the birds’ movements by triangulating their positions. These owls come off the roost, catch a mouse, eat — and then just sit there for three or four hours in quiet, happy digestion. Meanwhile, we humans are trying to keep warm in a December snow squall and icy winds, hopping from foot to foot trying to stay warm, taking a new directional bearing every 10 minutes only to find that, as had been the case for hours, the owl has moved not an inch. Finally, about 3 a.m. or so the owl would start hunting again, and we could finally start moving, too, working a little warmth and life back into our feet and hands..
Have you been exposed to dangerous circumstances involving animals?
Occasionally, but usually the most dangerous part of field work is getting there — the drive on the highway, or to the airport, is vastly more dangerous than anything that’s likely to happen with an animal. That said, I’ve had some close calls with grizzlies, and once with a black bear, and I’ve had some near-brushes with venomous snakes. But the single most dangerous wild animal I’m likely to encounter is a tropical mosquito or sand fly carrying a disease like malaria, dengue or leishmaniasis.

If you had to choose one geographic area to confine your future field work, which one would you pick and why?
If I had to make that choice, it would be the Appalachians, since they’ve been the anchor of my life since childhood. If I had to pick beyond that, probably Alaska, for many of the reasons I mentioned earlier.

How many birds have you banded personally and how many in association with others?
I couldn’t begin to guess — many, many thousands, from hummingbirds to eagles, of hundreds of species and on multiple continents.

What kind of data does banding yield?
To paraphrase another ornithologist, almost everything concrete that we know about the lives of wild birds comes from marking them as individuals in some way, and the simplest and safest way is with a lightweight numbered leg band. This goes back to 1804 or ’05, when John James Audubon tied silver wire to the legs of eastern phoebes at his father’s estate at Mill Grove in Montgomery County, to see if the birds nesting in an old mine were the same ones each spring. (They were.)

Banding tells us where birds travel, how fast they migrate, how long they live, whether they come back to the same place to breed or to winter, whether they have the same mates from year to year. We would know precious little about the details of the lives of wild birds without banding and associated techniques like radio-tagging and color-marking.

You’ve studied bird migration extensively. What are some of the longest nonstop migratory flights that some species take?
The longest nonstop migration that we know of is made by a pigeon-sized shorebird called the bar-tailed godwit, which flies nonstop from Alaska to New Zealand and Australia every September, a journey of 7,200 miles across the widest part of the Pacific. Satellite tracking shows that the birds are in the air, beating their wings continuously, for seven to nine days. In March and April, they head northwest some 5,000 miles to the Yellow Sea in China and Korea, then make a final 2,500- to 3,000-mile flight back to Alaska. All together, they travel 18,000 miles a year, averaging 22 days of flight. And because they can live up to 30 years, they may travel most of the distance from here to the moon and back before they die.
Even tiny songbirds make incredible flights, although most are still too small to track in real time like the godwit. Blackpoll warblers and a number of other tiny songbirds make nonstop flights in autumn from the northeast coast of Canada and the U.S. across the western Atlantic to northeastern South America, a trip of some 90 or 100 hours — again, beating their wings continuously for about five days.

How is this possible? 
Birds are built for flight, and they are exceptionally aerodynamic and efficient, but it comes down to fat. Before a bar-tailed godwit takes off, it more than doubles its weight in a two-week bout of binge feeding, so that when it lifts off it is more than 50 percent fat deposits. A little warbler flying across the western Atlantic goes from 10 or 12 grams to 17 or 18 grams. By one calculation, if they were burning gasoline instead of fat, they would get 720,000 miles to the gallon.<br> There is much more, of course — their ability to orient and navigate using the night sky, the Earth’s magnetic field, ultra-low sound frequencies, polarized light and even smell; their ability to go days or weeks without sleep, often by employing nanosecond micro-naps or “hemispheric sleep,” where one half of their brain shuts down for a fraction of a second at a time.
Of now extinct bird species, which one would you most like to have had an opportunity to observe?
In terms of spectacle, it would be hard to pass up a flock of several billion passenger pigeons roaring overhead for days like a feathered river, or a flock of green-and-orange Carolina parakeets whirling in a loud, squawking mass through an East Coast forest. But the one I’d love to see the most was the great auk, a flightless, goose-sized relative of the puffin and razorbill that lived in the North Atlantic, including some of my favorite places on the Maine coast. It was the original “penguin,” since the Welsh term “pen gwyn” (“white head”) was first applied to this bird, presumably in its winter plumage, in the 1600s, and only later transferred to the unrelated birds in the Southern Hemisphere.
Who knows, I may get my wishes. There’s a project at Stanford University to resurrect the passenger pigeon, using genetic manipulation of the DNA of its closest relative, the band-tailed pigeon, and supported by the Long Now Foundation; they are also working to do the same with the heath hen, the form of prairie-chicken once found on the Northeast coast. And now a British team has announced they will similarly try to “de-extinct” (in the jargon of the day) the great auk, using DNA from old bones and eggs, and tinkering with the genome of its closest relative, the razorbill. Only time will tell.
Had you not focused on ornithology, what other career path might you have taken?
Hard to say. Probably something involving history or archaeology, which are two longstanding interests of mine.
When and why did you start to develop an interest in owls? 
The interest has always been there. I got involved in owl research in 1997, starting to band northern saw-whet owls in Pennsylvania — this is our 20th season of fall migration banding these small raptors, which only weigh as much as a plump robin and migrate through the East by the thousands each autumn. More recently, I helped start a huge, collaborative study of snowy owls known as Project SNOWstorm www.projectsnowstorm.org that uses cutting-edge tracking technology to learn more about their winter ecology.
“Wise” is the appellation that many accord to owls. How do these raptors rate on bird-brained intelligence?
Compared with birds like ravens, crows or parrots, not especially high. The “wise old owl” thing probably has more to do with the fact that they look vaguely human — round head, large forward-facing eyes — than their intelligence level. But they are exceptionally good at being owls.

How are owls equipped for their nocturnal activities? 
The most obvious adaptation are their extremely large eyes, which are even bigger than they appear to us. If we had eyes proportionately as large as an owl’s, we’d have eyeballs the size of grapefruits. The large eyes, with an abundance of light-sensitive rod cells, give them good night vision — though not as well-developed as some nocturnal mammals, which have a reflective layer at the back of the eye called the tapetum lucidum (that’s why many mammals’ eyes shine in headlights). They also have excellent hearing, which in some owls may be more important for hunting than their vision.
Many people are surprised to learn that owls’ ear tufts don’t assist the birds with hearing. Why do they possess them?
The tufts are primarily for camouflage, and may also convey mood and emotion. The ears themselves are simply holes in the skull, usually at the lower edge of the round facial disk of feathers that gives owls their characteristic appearance. The facial disk, including muscular flaps below the feathers, act like parabolic reflectors to direct sound waves into the hidden ear openings. A few owls, like northern saw-whet owls, boreal owls and great gray owls, have highly asymmetrical ear openings, one high on the head and facing up, and one low on the head and facing down. This creates slight time-lags between when sound waves reach each opening, allowing them to very precisely pinpoint the source of faint noises, like those of small mammals.
What else surprises the general public the most with regard to owls?
That most of them sound nothing like our stereotyped assumptions. A few owls hoot, but there are owls that scream, whinny, toot, bark, meow, hiss, roar, click, snap and growl.

Which owls are Pennsylvanians most likely to see?
See? Probably none, unless you go looking for them at night. You’re better off listening, which brings me to your next question..
Readers of the book can download a companion album of 86 representative vocalizations for the 39 owl species you’ve described and range mapped. What vocalizations are Pennsylvanians most likely to hear in the outdoors?
The two most common are the great horned owl, which gives a string of five to nine deep, resonant hoots; and the eastern screech-owl, which gives either a high, descending whinny or a monotone trill. Juveniles of either species, in late summer and early fall, make a grating, harsh begging call demanding that their parents feed them. In some places, the most common owl is the barred owl, whose whooping call is usually rendered as “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you aaaaallll?”

The one “owl” call that isn’t is the somber, four-noted call of the mourning dove: “Whoo-OOO ho, hoo-hoo.” If you hear what you think is an owl in the daytime, it’s probably the dove.

Is it difficult for photographers and other observers to get close to owls without eliciting fright and flight reactions? 
Depends on the owl. Many species can be approached carefully if they’re found in the daytime, largely because the owl would rather trust to its camouflage and remain hidden than risk a daytime flight when crows, hawks and other potential hazards might spot it. But some of the boreal and Arctic species, like great grays, snowy owls and northern hawk owls, seem to have little natural fear of humans, and will allow a close approach (though it’s always a good idea to give the owl plenty of space).
Why is the population of barn owls declining in many areas of their range?
Probably several factors. They need barns, old structures of some sort or hollow trees, and such places are harder and harder to come by. Because they feed on rodents, they are especially susceptible to rodenticide poisoning. Although barn owls nest in barns and the like, they hunt in meadows and open grasslands, fewer and fewer of which remain in many areas — and the landscape is more fragmented now with woodlots and backyards, creating good habitat for great horned owls, which prey on them. And finally, barn owls hunt by coursing back and forth low above the ground — meaning that they’re at great risk of vehicle collisions along roadways.

Which species do you take the most satisfaction in finding in Pennsylvania?
After 20 years, and more than 10,000 banded, I’m still not tired of saw-whet owls — and we’re still learning a lot about this small, beautiful owl.

Of all the species described in your book, which one do you find to be the most beautiful?
Tough question. Owls in general, because of their complex, cryptic coloration, are beautiful. Some, like the pygmy-owls and saw-whets, are simply cute to a human eye. Some of the tropical species, like black-and-white owl and crested owl, are strikingly attractive. But snowy owls have both the size and regal presence to go along with their stunning plumage — plus they’re fast, powerful and agile.

Are you working on another book?

I am — a book on global bird migration and conservation, which will have me occupied the next three years. I’ll be all over the map — India, China, Korea, sub-Saharan Africa, South America, the Arctic and the high seas. And also in the lab with scientists, writing about the latest advances in our understanding of migration science.

Posted Oct. 27, 2016

A Conversation with Paul Heil, Host of ‘The Gospel Greats’ Syndicated Radio Show

By Steven Brodsky
One of the finest radio voices ever belongs to Paul Heil. His voice has graced the airwaves since 1980. That was the year that The Gospel Greats began as a syndicated radio show. Based in Lancaster County, PA, Paul’s show has aired continuously and is now carried worldwide on many radio stations, Sirius/XM, the internet, and international shortwave. Paul and the show are beloved by fans of Southern Gospel music and the performing and recording artists of the genre. Paul and The Gospel Greats have been recognized by being awarded an abundance of major industry and fan awards. In 2014, the Southern Gospel Music Association inducted Paul Heil into its Hall of Fame. It’s an honor to bring this conversation with him to you.
Please describe the show for those who aren’t regular listeners.
The Gospel Greats program is a weekly two-hour program of and about Southern Gospel music. Its “signature sound” is that it includes brief artist interviews throughout the program, allowing listeners to get to know the artists and drawing them into the meaning of the songs.
The Gospel Greats has retained many of its original features. In 1980, how confident were you that the format would stand up to the test of time?
I’ve always believed that “good radio is good radio.” And good radio is something that people find interesting to listen to. So I try to make the program interesting, as well as unique, while maintaining a spiritual dimension that is often missing in such programs. When I started the program, I applied those principles, hoping it would hold up over the years — not knowing, of course, how many years that would be. And the Lord has surely blessed in that regard.
Are all the interviews on The Gospel Greats in-person?
With very few exceptions, all of the interviews on The Gospel Greats program are recorded in-person. More often than not, this is in a back room at a concert somewhere, but with quality equipment. Probably three decades ago I had someone at a radio station marveling to me that it sounded as if we had all the guests right there with me in the studio. Occasionally, when it’s impossible to get together with a particular artist that we want to interview, they will set up in a recording studio. We’ll interview them by phone, but they’ll record the answers and send them to us, so it still sounds in-person. Also, an exception is that we will use telephone interview clips on the program’s news segment (the Headline Update).
Why do you do you them that way?
In-person interviews are easier to understand on the air, for one thing. That has always been the case, but cell phones sometimes are terribly difficult to understand on the air. I want to do everything I can to make what the artists are saying as clear and understandable as possible. This usually involves considerable editing, too. I had one artist tell me just the other day that I did such a great job of cleaning up his interview that he’s convinced all I would have to have from him would be a collection of vowels and consonants and I could make him say anything I want.
It says much about you and the show that the major artists of Southern Gospel music come to your studio to record their interviews. How difficult is it for most of them to do the interviews in-person in light of busy touring schedules?
While most of our interviews are “in the field” at concerts, the National Quartet Convention or other such venues, we’ve always had at least some interviews recorded here at the studio. (Hopefully, the studio interviews are nearly indistinguishable on the air from the remote interviews.) But in-studio interviews have increased considerably in recent years. A few years ago, we wanted to interview Greater Vison about a new CD, but they didn’t have any concerts scheduled anywhere nearby for several months. They were heading from Tennessee to some dates in New England, but they would pass through our area about 2 a.m. So they agreed to stop by the studio at 2 a.m. and we did the interview in the middle of the night.
Tell us about your early exposure to Southern Gospel music.
As far back as I can remember, my dad had Southern Gospel records. The Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen were especially prominent. Also, the Couriers promoted concerts regularly in nearby Harrisburg, so our church group attended a few of them. But what actually got me involved professionally was the convergence of my love of radio production, radio syndication and the fact that my brother had a local singing group. He got the Singing News (this was in the 1970s) and, since it included a top-tunes chart, that inspired the idea for the program. Unlike other countdown shows, The Gospel Greats has just one countdown per month. The reasons are twofold: First, the chart changes only once a month. Second, it allows much more week-to-week variety than a weekly countdown would.
Were there concert performances that were especially influential to you? If so, when did they take place and how did they affect you?
I don’t recall any one specific concert that was especially influential. But I do recall several concerts by the Cathedrals, including one at our home church. Getting to know them personally, especially Glen and George, became something very special for me.
Please tell us about a few of your most memorable guest interviews on the show.
Well, I just mentioned George Younce. Shortly after the Cathedrals retired, I asked George if he would co-host our 20th anniversary program (February of 2000). He did. We traveled to his home in Stow, Ohio, where we set up our equipment in his home’s sun room and we recorded there. Another interview I recall was with the late J. D. Sumner. He always had a gruff demeanor, or at least it seemed that way to folks. But he had a big heart. When I asked how he would like to be remembered, he choked a bit and said, “I would like people to remember the real J.D.”
Your listeners are familiar with: “The Greatest Songs about the Greatest Message, the Gospel.” Speak about what those words mean.
When the name was originally chosen, it was primarily for the alliteration in the wording. Easy to remember. But I soon found out that many in the music industry at large use similar terms to refer to the artists, such as the “country greats.” That was not my intention. So, in relatively recent times, I came up with that slogan as a subtitle to try to make clear that we’re referring to the “greatest songs about the greatest message,” which, of course, is the Gospel message. That puts the focus where it should be.
What kind of listener feedback do you value the most? 
I value any listener feedback. I am blessed and encouraged by people who write to me or tell me at a concert that they listen to the program every week. Some say they plan their weekend around the time the program is heard in their area. Wow. But to know the program is touching people with the Gospel and to know the program is encouraging people in their Christian walk is the kind of feedback that encourages me the most. It is truly an honor to be invited into their homes or cars each week.
What are some of the favorite Southern Gospel recordings that you enjoy most during the Christmas season?
Wow — there are many. During the 2016 Christmas season, because of the way the calendar worked out, we had four weeks of all-Christmas music (that’s more than usual). And we were blessed with a larger than usual number of outstanding new Christmas recordings. I thoroughly enjoyed everything I had a chance to play. I do enjoy the new Christmas songs, as long as they point to Christ as the reason for the season. But I especially enjoy vibrant new renditions of traditional Christmas carols that have stood the test of time.
Information about The Gospel Greats is available at: www.thegospelgreats.com.

Posted Dec. 22, 2016

A Conversation with Loudon Wainwright III

Loudon Wainwright III. Photo: Mark Garvin

By Steven Brodsky
Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter Loudon Wainwright III wrote the words and music for Surviving Twin, recently performed at People’s Light and Theatre,  January 21 – February 5, 2017. Not one to avoid artistically drawing upon challenging aspects of his own personal history, this Loudon here addresses his relationship with his father, Loudon Wainwright, Jr. Millions know Loudon Wainwright Jr. from the long-running column he wrote for Life Magazine. You likely know this third Loudon through his many records, performances, and acting roles in movies and on television (including a few episodes on M*A*S*H). And, yes, Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, and Lucy Wainwright Roche are his children.

If you’ve ever passed a dead skunk in the middle of the road and sung out the words to “Dead Skunk,” you’ve another connection to him. He wrote that novelty song in 1972.  Enough with the introduction or reintroduction. You’ll get to know him better by attending Surviving Twin and, hopefully, with this interview.

Was there any reluctance on your part to share emotionally charged family and personal history in creating Surviving Twin?   
None whatsoever — emotionally charged family and personal history is a waterfront I’ve been covering for almost 50 years.

Was the scriptwriting process much different than what you experience when writing songs that touch upon similar autobiographical elements?
There are 3 elements to the show: my songs, selections of writing from my father, and the visual component (2 short films). The job has been to connect and combine the elements.

The opening scene begins with you performing the song “Sur viving Twin.” Was this song written for the play?
No, the song originally appeared on my 2000 album, Last Man On Earth.

The song raises the question: “Can a man’s son be his twin?” What similarities to your dad do you most regret? What similarities are you especially happy with?
My father was too tough on himself. Occasionally I fall into the same trap.

Issues of personal identity and parent-child rivalry are at the core of the song. At what age did you find yourself grappling with those matters?
I’m a fan of Sigmund Freud, so in my mind the grappling started early. Age 3 or 4?

Has writing and performing Surviving Twin helped you resolve some residual angst about your relationship with your father? (Loudon Wainwright III’s father passed away in December of 1988.)
Yes. My father and I are closer now than we’ve ever been.

These words are in the script: “…Even if we’re late, we can still reach out for fathers, and find good moments for ourselves in what they left behind.” Please speak of how you experienced this in connection with the play. 
The words are from my dad’s column “The Sum Of Recollection Just Keeps Growing”. They are self-evident.

I’m fond of “White Winos.” This song is performed in the play. What can you tell us about the song? 

Got some Oedipal stuff going on in this one. More Freud, I’m afraid.

Do you ever find yourself backing off from content in your songwriting, due to feelings of vulnerability? 

The script includes a recollection of being in a hospital room, awaiting the birth of your son Rufus. It’s a powerful and moving telling, concluded with “… I hadn’t realized how close all life is to sorrow.” Was there any dramatic  license in the depiction of what transpired? Please don’t divulge the story. I don’t want to spoil the impact of the scene for readers.
You’ve jumped to an incorrect conclusion. The recollection of the birth in the hospital is my father’s. It’s from his column “Father’s Day.” The baby is me, not Rufus. I don’t think there was any dramatic license taken. It’s a straight ahead account.

What went into the decision to name your son Rufus and to not name him Loudon IV?
Three was enough.

The song “A Father and a Son” is in the play. If you are comfortable answering these two questions, go ahead. Has Rufus commented to you about the song and about the play? If so, how did he respond to what he heard and saw? 
All my kids have seen Surviving Twin and they seem to like it.

You’re not the only family member to take to song with emotionally charged family content. Rufus wrote “Dinner at Eight” and Martha wrote a song with an obscenity-containing title. Both songs are said to be about you. How difficult did  you find it to listen to those songs when they were released?
Not particularly difficult.

Have these songs furthered reconciliation? 
Don’t know.

When you first emerged onto the music scene, you were straddled with the label “the next Bob Dylan.” How’d you handle that?
Ignored it. It’s a stupid label.

Has songwriting gotten easier for you over the years? You’ve long been prolific. 
Songwriting is a bit like sex. Easy and constant at first. When you’re older songs come less frequently, but it’s still exciting.

What song of yours do you consider to be your artistic best?
I don’t pick favorites.

What song of yours is the most fun to perform?
Depends on the night.

Is there a fan favorite that you are tired of performing?
“Dead Skunk” — pretty much stopped playing it 30 years ago.

Is there a song that you wish you had never released?

Are you contemplating writing any other theatrical material? 

Is it likely that you will write a memoir or pursue other literary forms?

What do you most enjoy about performing in Surviving Twin?
Combining and connecting my work with my father’s.


Posted Jan. 3, 2017