Saturday, February 20, 2010


There was a time when I thought I wanted a career writing country songs. This was before I joined the Saltwerks writer’s circle, my group of loved and respected friends who are also songwriters. I’ll write about them later. Merlyn and I made regular trips to Nashville, to record and perform and pitch. Sometimes we went for songwriters seminars. We recorded some of the album Out of the Blue there, with Robby Matson at the soundboard and my brother John producing. Such sweet memories of Nashville: of ordering milkshakes in a drive through and singing our order opera style into the speaker; of making demo’s in Tom Pallardy’s studio and hearing first rate Nashville musicians sweetening my songs; of walking up and down Music row from one publisher’s door to another; of rubbing my brother’s feet for a full hour while we mixed recordings. Singing at the Bluebird Café and other writers nights all around town. Driving the back roads to Franklin, under the canopy of trees and beside the snakelike boundaries of rock walls lining farmland. I was a better mother when I returned from Nashville. I was a better writer, too.

Merlyn was the perfect performing partner for me. The perfect friend, and such a fabulous sounding board. I knew we were true, deep friends the first time we were working on songs in my family room and we both fell asleep. You know someone is a true friend when they see you doze off and they decide to doze off, too.

At least once a year we tried to get away to work on songs. Sometimes it was to Nashville. Sometimes it was to Park City, where we borrowed a friend’s condo for a weekend. We’d take our sound system and set the whole shebang up, just for us, so we could hear ourselves as we might sound performing. She would give me space if I wanted to write. She understood me. I ma not a public writer, and I don’t generally share what I am creating until it is pretty much where I want it to be. I think I am pretty possessive that way. That’s probably why I generally don’t co-write. This is not always a good thing.

Stone on Stone was written on one of those weekends. At least it was started. It takes me a long time to write songs. If I spent as much time organizing my house as I do organizing words and notes, we would not live in this mess! Oye, that is the truth! I was focused on the motto, Show-Don’t tell. I was remembering the lines of rock walls all around Nashville. They were all around Williamsburg, too, and my home state of Pennsylvania. I remembered that from my childhood. I imagined farmers gathering stones every spring, after they had rumbled out of the earth and interrupted their planting, and piling them at the sides of their fields. The walls grew every year, until the farmland was sold to developers, then they began to fall over or sink back into the ground. I was also remembering the images of my childhood in Pittsburgh, of working in the steel mill the summer I got married. Pittsburgh is a beautiful city, where three rivers meet. The steel mills sprawl along the rivers.

I love songwriting. And I hate it. It has such limitations with meter and rhyme and timing and prosody. But it also facilitates pondering, and imagining, and being aware of things non-poets forget to notice. Everyone, if they would let themselves be, is a poet. But you must be still for a while.

So Merlyn let me be still for hours on end. What a gift she was, and is, to me! It was probably 10 pm before I was willing to show her the song. She listened, and then listened again, then lifted her mic to her lips and gave the song its harmony.


For thirty-seven years my grandpa labored in the mills
That sprawl along the rivers in the Pennsylvania hills
And anything he needed he would build with his own hands
And it all fit on one small plot of land

When I was only thirteen it seemed all the world had changed
And most of what I'd trusted had been somehow rearranged
My dad, he left our family, and mom she fell apart
And I was left with pieces of a heart

That's when grandpa hired me to clear a piece of ground
He armed me with a spade and with a hoe
And the more I tried to clear the soil, the bigger rocks I found
And I swore that not a thing would ever grow
Then Grandpa laid those stones down in a row

And one on one, he showed me what to do
Stone on stone we built a sturdy wall
He said, step by step if what you do is true
It's gonna stand against the weather and it's never gonna fall

Eighty years of struggle finally took the old man down
And we sang Rock of Ages as they laid him in the ground
And the only stone that ever left the wall we had made
Is the one that bears his name upon his grave

Now I know a house can crumble, and the hills could tumble down
And all that I can hold will soon decay
But if the measure of a man is in his soul and not his hands
Then the ones we love will never pass away
And I can feel him standing here today

One on one he shows me what to do
Stone on stone we build a sturdy wall
He says step by step if what you do is true
It's gonna stand against the weather and it's never gonna fall
It's gonna stand against the weather and it's never gonna fall.

I never knew my grandfathers. They died before I was born. But I knew then that the power of a grandparent is unique and mighty. And I know now, firsthand, how precious the relationship between a child (or an adult), and his grandparent can be. I hope my grandchildren will learn that true things never fall.

If you'd like to hear this song, scroll down to the entry entitled THE BUILDER and click on Stone On Stone in the red music box.


  1. I love this song- It has moved me to tears at times. Nice to hear the story behind it and what a great relationship the two of you have. I think noone can understand how complicated it is to write music unless they have tried it. So sad that people cheat musicians with things like file shariing and pirating. Miss you.

  2. If you used the time to clean your piles instead of writing music then we wouldn't have all this wonderful music and stories. Keep writing - life is too short to sweep and dust - it just returns anyway! And anyone can clean if they've a mind to. But to be able to put words and notes together is a rare gift. Thank you for writing instead of cleaning. The world is a much better place for it.

  3. I have to laugh. As I read these things, I think I know why we like each other. My grandfathers both died before I was born. I feel that loss - that lack of dimension in my life. I love having created things, while I rarely appreciate the process, (sheer plod makes plowdown sillion shine- Hopkins). I wonder if, once we have stepped through the veil, we will find that all the songs and all the quilts and all the books and the knitted horses and felted lambs - all of it was somehow just trying to be what we are; that it was the order of our spiritual beings - that we are, in fact, the song.

  4. I also wanted to write about the stone walls. We saw them in Wales, also thrown up by farmers, working a shallow bit of earth that covers a multitude of stones. There, the roads stand after hundreds of years, auto traffic defined by the past, and all the more dangerous because of it. So long have the stones stood, that hedges have grown on top of the walls, and sometimes trees, and stones themselves are hidden by the root systems and the loam. You feel that you travel in a ditch, looking up at the crust of the earth - but it's only because you are traveling between limitations so ancient, they seem like the walls of reality.