I found the phrase "birdlight" in David Abram's book Becoming Animal; it refers to the edge of twilight dawn, really just before sunrise, when all the wild birds of a particular place start chiming in and singing together -- it would seem they are compelled, expressing whatever they have to express in an exuberance that crescendos into symphony. On the farm where I grew up, I live in a little former tenant house, which sits near the edge of a steep bluff that leads to the river and right by the woods...Marginal places foster wildness, and I get to hear and see more birds these days than I ever have in my life. Many mornings I have experienced birdlight, and it is always a gift.
The making of the album, Birdlight, has truly been a gift to me as well. It began with an offer from my good friend and musical collaborator Jon Estes. He grew up in Nashville and now lives there again with his wife Liz (Elizabeth Estes). When they moved into their new house last year Jon was getting his home recording studio set up, and invited to me "come make a really good record, weekend by weekend, no pressure".
At the time if felt like a lifeline, because it was the only way I could make a record at that point -- to just steadily put it together over a season or two, crossing the plateau from East Tennessee to Nashville one weekend at a time, when I could get away. I knew Jon would assemble a super-talented group of players to join us, which of course he did. Liz, who is a stellar violinist, added a great deal -- all the beautiful string parts -- plus drummers Dave Racine and Tommy Perkinson, clarinetist Steve Pardo (who lives in Boston), Evan Cobb on tenor sax, Imer Sanitago on trumpet --- all contributed such beauty and spark. Jon himself is responsible for all the arrangements and pedal steel, guitar, keys, bass parts -- something that always kind of blows me away. Jon is one of those rare musician/ producers who doesn't feel like he has to push his weight around -- for a really long time I thought he was JUST a bass player!
As for me, this time round I played my old acoustic Gibson LG2 throughout (except for on Nightbird, which I recorded with Scott Minor in Knoxville back in 2010, with Bob Deck accompanying me on guitar. On that song I was playing an old electric Harmony, a guitar with a lot of story and which was just loaned to me for the recording). Almost all the songs on Birdlight were written on my LG2, the guitar I learned to play on, and it seemed appropriate for the mood of this record.
I wrote "What Wild" when I was still living in Nashville, almost six years ago now, but the other songs came from living back here on this land that means so much to me. I think I was simply chronicling the struggle, in a way, of living in the middle of such exquisite beauty and harshness -- seeing sacredness everywhere -- as well as that relentless trail of desecration that is so ubiquitous it becomes something we ignore.
I find the outer struggle often mirrors the inner struggle, and vice versa.
We started on Birdlight in the Fall and finished in early Spring. The entire process with Jon was a pleasure and something I attribute to helping me find my way back into the heart of music in general. Making Birdlight was kind of like an invitation back into the dance. Needless to say, I am very happy to be back here!