“Speaking Freely” show recorded Sept. 19, 2003, in Nashville, Tenn.
Marcus Hummon: [Plays guitar and sings] “/ I want to touch the earth. / I want to break it in my hands. / I want to grow something wild and unruly. / I want to sleep on the hard ground / in the comfort of your arms / on a pillow of bluebonnets, / a blanket made of stars. / Oh, it sounds good to me. / She said, ‘Cowboy, take me away. / Fly this girl as high as you can / into the wild blue. / Set me free, oh, I pray, / closer to heaven above and closer to you, / closer to you.’ / I want to walk and not run. / I want to skip and not fall. / I want to look at the horizon / and not see a building standing tall. / I want to be the only one for miles and miles / except for maybe you and your simple smile. / Oh, it sounds good to me. / Yes, it sounds so good to me. / Cowboy, take me away. / Fly this girl as high as you can / into the wild blue. / Set me free, oh, I pray, / closer to heaven above and closer to you, / closer to you. / ‘Cause I want to touch the earth, / and I want to break it in my hands. / I want to grow something wild and unruly.”
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free speech in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest this week is the accomplished songwriter and playwright Marcus Hummon. Welcome.
Hummon: Thank you, Ken. Good to be here.
Paulson: Of course, that was a number one record for the Dixie Chicks, one of a couple you’ve written for them.
Paulson: You had, I guess, five number one records and dozens more in terms of big hits. I have to ask — you know, there’s been so much discussion about the Dixie Chicks and Natalie Maines making some remarks that led to boycotts and backlash. We’ve heard perspective from politicians and from the Chicks themselves. But a songwriter —
Paulson: — has got to have mixed emotions about all that. You’re losing royalties when they start pulling out bulldozers and crushing Dixie Chicks CDs.
Hummon: Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, I always — I figure I’m so far ahead of the game in the sense that when you work as a songwriter, to have something like what happened with the Dixie Chicks in terms of their career — to be a part of that, that’s like lightning striking you. I mean, it has that kind of — the mathematics are astounding, you know? So, I’ll always feel — certainly from a financial — that I’ve been very, very fortunate. But it’s been very strange, to be honest with you. My kids, my children — I have three — Becca and I have three boys, and they’ve never really understood that idea that those are not daddy’s songs. I mean, the Dixie Chicks just do daddy’s song or Tim McGraw. They don’t really think of them as that particular artist’s song. So, I remember — gosh, it was a few months ago, you know, and I remember coming downstairs for coffee, and our eight-year-old, Caney, came up to me and said, “Daddy.” He says, “You know, they’re burning your records.” And I said, you know, “What?” And he handed me the newspaper, and there was, you know, there on the Tennessean was a picture of, you know, some adults with their children and a bulldozer and, you know, and a Fly album in flames, and I was just — I was very surprised, you know? I was surprised by the reaction and, I mean, overall, really saddened by the reaction — the radical nature of it.
Paulson: And, of course, people, they have a First Amendment right to protest and to boycott.
Paulson: But they probably don’t see — I mean, they think they’re hurting Natalie Maines if they don’t buy a copy of the new CD, but they’re hurting somebody like Radney Foster, who finally got a Dixie Chicks cut on that album, “Godspeed.” They released it as a single, and it didn’t do very well compared to other — other songs.
Hummon: Well, yeah. I mean, I mean, we just — you have to call it like it is, too. I mean it — you’re absolutely right. It’s one thing for individuals to suddenly realize that this act that they have followed has this — has politics of this type and to be upset, outraged. It’s a very different thing, to me, for a corporation like Clear Channel to, you know, decide, basically, to boycott, you know? Radney’s wonderful song, you know, really — I don’t think it, it barely dipped in the top 50. You know, that’s just not — that’s not an appropriate response, in my opinion. I thought — I saw them do that song live here in Nashville, and I was — the Chicks actually pointed him out in the midst of, what, 15 — 20,000 people. He was there with his son that he wrote the song about, and I thought that was very classy, yeah.
Paulson: It went to the extent of — I understand that a CD produced by Lloyd Maines, Natalie’s father, radio stations were sending back, saying that, you know, he’s related to the Dixie Chicks.
Hummon: Yeah. That’s just very sad, yeah.
Paulson: Well, you are a tremendously successful songwriter, but you didn’t begin that way, did you? Didn’t you intend to be an artist initially and —
Hummon: Yeah, well, I like to think that, you know, that part of my life has never really left. Um — I’m still doing records. I’ve done a number of records and kind of looking at performing again next year. I — I thought what I wanted to do was to be a major-label act, and, so, I showcased, gosh, for every label in town. I mean, it’s one of those stories. There was almost nobody who hadn’t signed me in some capacity, you know? I had — people used to call me to ask about, you know, folks that did lighting for showcases, you know, because I’d just done so many of them. And I finally got a deal in 90 — um,’93 or ’4. There’s an old adage that you finally get a deal when your friends become the presidents of record companies. And Scott Siman, a dear friend of mine, and Paul Worley, a guy that I’ve worked with and, of course, produced the Chicks records, they got into power at Sony, and they signed me. And I had the opportunity to do this major-label deal and got out there on the road, and, you know, I just — I had — I’d come to it kind of late. I was in my 30s and, by then, had kids, and it’s just a very different experience when you’re that age, you know?
Paulson: Well, you had, actually, very positive reviews for that first record, and a lot of people spoke very favorably about a song called “God’s Country, USA.”
Paulson: And, uh, you know, at a time when so many Americans are talking about patriotism and it — it’s a very uplifting song, but you wouldn’t describe it as jingoistic.
Hummon: No. And in some ways — I — I grew up — much of my life as a kid was — my father worked in the Foreign Service, worked for A.I.D. and, later, for the Department of Treasury, and we were primarily in the third world. And when we would come back home, we had a wonderful family life, and we’d go to reunions. So, I think, in some ways, I had kind of a idyllic view of an America which, I’m sure, exists for many people. In a lot of ways, it didn’t exist for me, and that song — my father, you know, was brought up on a farm. Whenever we’d get out in country and just, you know, smell manure or whatever, he’d go, “Mmm,” you know, “God’s country.” So, that song had — had those qualities for me, you know, very hopeful. And it’s how I, it’s how I feel about America today, I mean, as a writer, as a playwright, as a songwriter, but not at the expense of other people, you know, and other cultures.
Paulson: Do you bring those other cultures to your music now?
Hummon: I do, uh, particularly in theater. I mean, theater is where I’ve gone to, you know, to be more diversified. If — if I had one thing — if there’s one aspect of country music which I’m most uncomfortable with, it would be sort of lack of diversity. I’m not sure that’s historically accurate, but I think it is the portrait of the industry that we have now, and I’m not very comfortable with that. And I realized I wasn’t comfortable with that about five, six years ago, and I began to write theater. And, in theater, I could create — I can talk about subjects and use Nashville craft technique, but at the same time, I can talk about an African-American. I can talk about Jim Thorpe. I can talk about, you know, really any subject. Uh —
Paulson: That almost suggests, though, that as a commercial songwriter — and there are many of those —
Paulson: — in the city of Nashville — that there are some topics you can’t cover or there are things you can’t say. Are there unwritten rules about what you can’t write about in, especially in country music?
Hummon: Yeah, well, it’s a funny thing. I mean, I take them with a grain of salt. I mean, there are all kinds of unwritten, you know, rules. When I first came to Nashville in the — in about ’86, we were going through a period — it’s a little bit like now, where folks would talk about, “Well, you can’t use certain chord progressions.” Or — um, there was, to me, a tendency to downgrade our audience, to imply that, you know, these are folks who are not very sophisticated. And I just never really fully bought into that, to be honest with you. And the first song that I ever had that was a hit — I mean, a really big hit — was a song I wrote with Roger Murrah for Wynonna — Wyonna Judd called “Only Love.” And, I mean, I still don’t know what the chords are in that. In fact, I got to play on the record because they weren’t really sure. I was using an open tuning, and they weren’t sure either. So — and I found right away that, you know, it was sort of a fallacy, this idea that, you know, you can’t — you can’t do a song that has sort of — that song sort of leaned into soul music, you know, “black music,” or it had diminished chords or this or that. You know, we put that record out — she put that record out, and it was a huge success and great fun.
Paulson: And not only did it break some rules; it also established you as a — as a major songwriter. Could you talk about the moment you realized she was gonna cut that and that your life was about to change forever?
Hummon: Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, and there’s an old adage, too, that if it doesn’t kind of work for you in about five years, you know, and, uh, you probably need to go home and get a job or whatever. I was reaching that point, you know, in the business and still writing a lot. And I remember it was right around Christmastime, and we got a phone call. My wife and I were doing something in the house, and we had an answering machine, and it was, you know, “Hello, this is Wynonna Judd.” And my wife, Becca, she said, “Come here.” You know, “Marcus, come here.” And we got around, you know, the telephone — the answering machine — and we were afraid to pick up the phone, you know? And it was this voice, and she was going on and on, you know, “I’ve heard this song. I’m out here in Los Angeles. Your publisher, Debbie Dill, has played this song for me, and I love it, and I want to cut it for my new record.” Well, at that time, I didn’t have any success like that. I mean, Wynonna was, you know, arguably the preeminent artist — female artist at the time. And we just — we literally just froze. And when it was done — Wynonna had kind of gone on, as is her — you know, she’s such a sort of affluent person, you know? She’s really very sweet and will talk to you and is very gracious. But I thought — because she’d gone on so long, I thought — I turned to my wife, and I said, “Which of our friends is cruel enough and talented enough to do this to us?” But it turned out it was for real, and I did get to go in and not only got that song cut; did get to play on it. It was, I think, nominated for a Grammy. It was a number one record. And in its own way, it did, you know, it was different enough, too, that I think — I suddenly — I did, in fact, begin to get phone calls. You know, “What else does he have?” which was great, you know?
Paulson: Did they pull things from your catalog, or did you begin anew? I mean, in other words, did you find something with Wynonna — with that record that ignited the rest of your career, or were you able to adapt what you’d been writing for years?
Hummon: Well, it — you know, nothing really happened overnight. I think during that period, I was still really pushing the artist button, which means that most of the songs that I had that people probably would cut, I was basically holding them.
Paulson: I see.
Hummon: One other one, “The Cheap Seats,” a song about baseball, Alabama got and did, and that was a hit. But I really didn’t let much go until about ’95 or ’96 after being out on the road. I was out almost 200 days per year for two years. And, you know, it was kind of clear at that time that, barring Sony spending an enormous amount of money, I was perhaps a little too hybrid for the industry, and, you know, we parted ways very, really, amicably. But at that point, I finally, I finally just said, “You know, just pitch them. Let’s see what happens.” And it just happened that a bunch of them got cut.
Paulson: There seems to have been a little bit of a liberating effect for you when you went to an independent label, began putting out your own material. And one of the things that shows up in your music later is your faith.
Paulson: Your Christian faith shows up in the music. Is there anything about the recording industry today that prevents people from being both Christian and commercial?
Hummon: Well, hmmm — tough question. I mean, it requires so much unpacking. The way I look at my faith is that it’s just — it’s just a part of who I am, and to be an honest writer — and that’s the only kind of writer that’s worth anything — is to bring, to bring some of those aspects out. It happens that the way that I express my faith as a Christian is, I’m not — I’m not very evangelical in the classic sense of, you know, really wishing for everyone to perhaps believe what I believe specifically. I don’t really look at my faith that way.
Paulson: I think about somebody like Amy Grant, who seemed to be — had been stuck in this difficult position where she had a wonderful career in Christian music, but that music, by and large, would not be played on radio, —
Paulson: — popular commercial radio. On the other hand, when she would go and do something that was viewed as overtly pop, the people in the Christian community would say she’s selling out.
Paulson: That seems to me it’s a very, very hard line to walk. The First Amendment involves the right not just of speech, but of religion, and yet almost irreconcilable in the field of commercial pop music.
Hummon: Yeah, well, you know, as a country — as someone — as most of my success has been in the country music field, of course, you’re more than willing to express your faith. I think the tough thing about that is, you may not be willing to — it may not be — you know, if you’re Buddhist, you may not be, you know, you may not want to be writing a song about the noble eightfold path or — my background of living in Saudi Arabia is not something, you know — a big flag to wave, you know, these days. I mean, I think it’d be marvelous if people could express themselves and their respect for other traditions, other religious traditions, which is something which I also feel and also hold as a central belief. I wouldn’t — I don’t think that’s gonna come out in country music. It does come out for me in theater. In theater, I’m able to say whatever I want to say.
Paulson: Before we move away from your music career, could we hear another one of your — uh, another song that pays the mortgage?
Hummon: That pays the — [Laughs] puts jeans on the kids. [Plays guitar and sings] “/ I been telling my dreams to the scarecrow / of the places that I’d like to see. / Said, ‘Friend, do you think I’ll ever get there?’ / He just stands there smilin’ back at me. / So, I confessed my sins to the preacher / about the love I been waiting to find. / ‘Is there a brown-eyed girl in my future?’ / Said, ‘Son, you got nothin’ but time.’ / How do you wait for heaven? / And who has that much time? / How do you keep your feet on the ground / when you know / that you were born, / you were born to fly, / born to fly, / you were born to fly? / My daddy is grounded like the oak tree. / My mama’s steady as the sun. / And, you know, I love my folks, / but I keep starin’ down the road, / lookin’ for that one chance to run. / Oh, I will soar away like a blackbird. / I will blow in the wind like a seed. / I will plant my heart in the garden of my dreams, / grow up where I wander wild and free. / How do you wait for heaven? / Who has that much time? / How do you keep your feet on the ground / when you know / that you were born, / you were born to fly, fly, fly, / born to fly? / ”
Paulson: A number one record for Sara Evans.
Hummon: Yes, it was. That was — she’s just one of my favorite, favorite artists, and just a sweet soul. It’s interesting, too, in this — speaking here, ’cause we — we come from very, very different sides of the political spectrum, and, you know, we talk about things, and it’s really — really marvelous, I think, to have diversity of opinions and to be able to express it and still be creative together. That’s the thing that I really yearn for, and she’s — she’s really brought that to my life in a neat way.
Paulson: You know, a lot of people in your shoes who’ve had the kind of success you’ve had as songwriters, they invest their time in, oh, golf, things like that. And you, instead, have become this playwright, I had a chance to attend a fund-raiser a few months ago in which all of your work was showcased in a very special evening, and I was struck by the range, uh, musically, the range thematically. And I — and “American Duet” is — was that the first piece you had —
Hummon: Yeah, it’s the first piece. A buddy of mine, Bill Feehely, this artistic director of Actors Bridge, he kind of got me into working on some Edgar Lee Masters “Spoon River Anthology” pieces and musicalizing, and as soon as I, you know, the hook got in me — I mean, there’s nothing — the theater bug is a serious virus and does not go away. And right away, literally the night that we closed that show, I told him — I sent a little thing on a napkin saying, “I’m gonna write a play about a black country singer and a white kid who grows up — a missionary kid in Africa. Gonna call it the ‘American Duet.’” And a few months later, I came to him with about 40 pages and five songs. And that’s the one play where I have a co-writer. Bill jumped in on the book with me, and we’ve done it twice, and we’re putting it up — we’re gonna do a producer’s audition in New York in February, it looks like, so —
Paulson: So, this could be Off Broadway before too long.
Hummon: I hope so. I mean, you know, I’ve tried to be clear with myself as to why I’m doing it. You know, at this point, nothing’s really made any money for me, and I — although I had a lot of productions. But it really was like a kind of oasis for me, because I realized that I could go, and I could speak about whatever I wanted to, and I could put all the passion and do as, you know, really express myself as a musician, not just on guitar, but on piano, and do different things rhythmically and chorally. It’s been — it’s been an absolute joy in my life.
Paulson: And it’s got to be, again, very freeing to go from a three-minute format to, literally, an hour-and-a-half.
Hummon: That’s right. Although the one informs the other. I mean, one of the things that I lean heavily on is that — and I, you know, I think Nashville has given this to me more than anything else — is, the level of crafting that you are, you know, that the Nashville kind of approach to songwriting brings is very, very effective. You know, there are so many times when, in a theatrical work, you suddenly — as they say, you have to park and bark. You just set your feet, and you sing the moment. You sing the emotion. And to do that — it’s like the human mind seems to want to accept music and certain ideas in certain forms. And there’s a type of an expression which occurs to me: it seems to be best done in about three minutes.
Hummon: You know? And — and you can just — you can really kind of illuminate an idea in about three minutes. You push five or six, and people are — [Yawns]
Paulson: How do you decide what to tackle? You’ve got — “Francis of Guernica” was the next play and an opera, and then you’ve also done “Warrior: An American Tragedy” about Jim Thorpe.
Paulson: You’re all over the parking lot. What inspires you? What — what turns the creative force loose?
Hummon: Uh, I just — one of my directors says that I’m just — I’m just going around catching every ethnic group and trying to have some — I’m ethnically confused. You know, I try to be really attached, real passionate about whatever the work is. You know, for “American Duet,” I have strong feelings — a love of country music. I have a real dislike of musical stereotyping, particularly racial stereotyping and compartmentalization of music. I am a kid that grew up in — partly in Africa and developed some of my earliest — stylistically, as a player and the way I sing comes more from African pop and African folk than it does from anything else, and I’m real proud of it. I love that music. You know, things — I get real attached. “Guernica” is my favorite painting. My mother — we had a poster that — I grew up with that image. That image was just a central image to me. And I think, you know, when I was in college — I was at Williams College — one of the things that was most deeply ingrained in me was that, you know, the critical issue, perhaps, of the 20th century is the holocaust and that there is no answer to it, but the place that artists need to be is right smack in the thick of it. And I felt that that play was my entry point and my way of speaking. And Thorpe — I’m a football player and a coach, and my dad coached me, and a lover of Native American culture and a huge admirer of that man, of Jim Thorpe. And I think what he did for this country — I believe that Jim Thorpe forced America to think of the Native American as fully human at a time when they were not disposed to do so.
Paulson: And — and yet a tragic end to a heroic life.
Hummon: That’s right, yeah, which is the very nature of our play. Our play is set — the backdrop for the play that I wrote, “Warrior,” is that Jack Warner at Warner Studios is bringing in a fictional young screenwriter to tell “the truth” about Jim Thorpe, to interview everyone who knew him. But the thing that he adds as a little caveat is that it must be a happy ending. And if you’ve seen “The All American,” done in 1950 with Burt Lancaster, of course, it was a very positive, happy ending, and in truth, he died relatively penniless in a mobile home three years later in Lomita, California, you know, of ill health and — so, as you say, both an absolutely glorious American life but certainly a tragic life, too.
Paulson: Our guest today has been Marcus Hummon. Please join us again next week for “Speaking Freely.”
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