I've been pretty consistent over the decades with the kind of music that I add to my playlists. As a veteran rock 'n' roll keyboard player with a predictable list of favorite rock hits, I also like alternative, grunge, metal, jazz, reggae, funk, and classical standards too. Over the past six years, I've religiously streamed Brookdale Public Radio's 90.5 The Night. Their programming is solid with rock hits as well as upcoming artists from a variety of genres. They have also exposed me to some obscure artists and bands that I missed in my younger years. So just when I thought I had the source for all the music I'd ever need, I was hit like a freight train this summer by something new that I'd turned my back on for years–Country Music!
My teen daughters listen to a lot of bad music that I've become skilled at tuning out. However, they have also introduced me to some brilliant new music. My youngest is a terrific dancer, and her performances have exposed me to some of the most heartfelt songs that bring tears to my eyes each time I hear them. My oldest, with totally different musical tastes, would play Post Malone for me one minute, then Thomas Rhett the next. I pretty much ignored both of these artists as we would smack each other's hands away from my car radio dial, never to find common ground.
In May of this year, when I began my personal growth journey, one that prioritized weight loss, mindfulness, kindness, self-love, and positive habit-forming, I also pushed myself to be open to trying new things. Not long after, my oldest Margot, said that she and her friend Molly wanted me to attend a country music concert with them at the PNC Arts Center in Holmdel, NJ. I had no idea how this one event would ultimately change my life.
I reached out to my Uncle Thom (UT) for help to see if he knew any way to acquire decent seats as he somehow always manages to get decent tickets to shows. My thinking here was, I don't know these artists or their songs, but good seats, I can enjoy the show and maybe find a song or two that might resonate with me.
UT came through, and on August 3rd, we rolled into the venue, cranking Thomas Rhett on the stereo. The massive crowd and tailgate energy was powerful. One might argue that all concerts feel this way, but I can attest that this was more. I felt this energy deep inside, and it was intoxicating.
We were running a bit behind, which didn't bother me because I didn't know any of the warmup artists. Arriving at our seats, Russell Dickerson was finishing his set. This guy was running around waving his hands in the air and behaving more like a pop star than what I envisioned a country star would be doing. He was larger than life and I was bummed that I missed his other songs. By the end of his last song, I was smiling and shaking my head like, "wow, wow, wow." The little bit that I saw was compelling. I looked around at the faces of the fans and saw smiles, screaming, and genuine excitement everywhere.
I walked around a bit, ran into some people I knew, but was cautiously optimistic and not sure what to expect next. As the opening lick to Thomas Rhett's Look What God Gave Her was building, the lights were turned off in the Center. Then came some purple pulses of light, like a slow heartbeat, as stagehands quickly pulled away a tarp revealing his stage setup featuring a high platform with stairs leading down to center stage. As the whole band joined in, boom, Thomas Rhett was launched from underneath the platform, about 6 feet into the air, stuck the landing perfectly, and yelled, "What's up Holmdel!" He flipped his baseball hat backward, and it was GO time.
The entire crowd sang the chorus with him, and it was electrifying. I looked around, and every single person was smiling. Margot and Molly danced next to me without a care in the world as they sang every word. I was still a little out of my element, so all I could do was to tap my feet and try to look cool, while deep inside, I wanted to skip around chest bump, high five and hug everyone around me.
The most poignant part of the evening for me was when Rhett struggled to keep his composure during Die A Happy Man. As the song neared the end, during a pause, the New Jersey audience was screaming their love for this amazing man. He put his head down, appeared to wipe a tear from his eye, and then walked away from the microphone to gain composure. This moment was so raw, I thought to myself, I need to be friends with this guy. What an amazing human that he shows his audience his vulnerable side like this. He raised his hat to all of us, and the crowd just cheered even more. After 50 long seconds of pause, he tried to sing again, but after only three words, he was overcome with emotion still, chuckled, and said, "Y'all are friggin the most amazing people I've ever met in my life." Then the crowd sang the final words of the song with him.
The night continued to get better and better. On our ride home, I couldn't get the smile off of my face. I was so happy and felt emotionally stronger. I wanted more of this feeling, like every day, for the rest of my life.
The days, weeks, and months that followed had me adding two new radio stations to the presets in my car. THUNDER106 out of NJ and NEW YORK'S COUNTRY 94.7 became staples of my daily routine. In addition to the artists mentioned above and dozens more, one man kept popping up on my radio each day with a song that seriously hit home for me.
Justin Moore's hit, The Ones That Didn't Make It Back Home, is a tale about a 22-year-old soldier who lost his life just before he was set to return home to his family and his hometown. Justin injects specific details that make this story relatable on so many levels. The song is dedicated to soldiers, first responders, doctors, nurses, teachers, students, or anyone who's lost someone working in a profession that saves others while putting themselves at risk. I lost a best friend in the World Trade Center attack of 9/11, and this song describes much of the feelings and behaviors I went through after his passing. Regardless of where you're from in America, so many of us grieve and celebrate tragic loss precisely the way this song illustrates. It's hauntingly beautiful.
Another reason this song is special to me is because of a personal connection to someone very close to Justin. His manager, Peter Hartung, who is from my hometown, is a good friend of my Uncle and a great singer/guitarist in his own right, who left a big impression on me as a kid. He and UT used to do a dance routine where both men did a backbend in unison, tapped the ground with one hand, and came back up effortlessly. I probably haven't seen that routine since the early 1990s, but it is unforgettable. Over the years, UT has told me countless stories about Justin and Pete, and I've enjoyed following their success story along the way.
I noticed that Justin was coming to play at the University of Delaware on November 2nd, so I asked UT if we could go see him together. Unfortunately, he would be out of town but offered to reach out to Pete and see about tickets as a 50th Birthday gift to me. Not only was Pete kind enough to arrange floor seats for me, but he also arranged for a meet-and-greet with Justin.
I ended up going to the show alone as a friend was unable to join me at the last minute. I was ok with this because I was so excited to meet this man who I felt in some ways I had already known. The meet-and-greet was a long line of devoted fans grateful for an opportunity to shake his hand. Not much time for small talk, so I wanted to try and make a connection even if I only had 10 seconds to do so.
Upon shaking Justin's hand, I told him that "I'm a friend of Pete Hartung." His eyes opened a little wider, and without expression, he joked, "I'm sorry to hear that." We both grinned. I told him I was Thom White's nephew, and he smiled and remarked that my Uncle is "quite a character." That's all I needed. He was precisely the down-to-earth person I was told he would be. He's that way on stage, in front of thousands of fans, and he's that way in a concrete hallway in the back of an auditorium.
Similar to the concert in August, I stood around in awe of how many people knew every word to Justin's songs. His music and lyrics connected with people on such a personal level. Men and women of all ages, donning old concert shirts, hats, "Justin" slogans, and just loving everything about this man. His humility and humanity touched everyone in the building.
He is known for making sure we always remember our troops during each of his shows and he did it this night so perfectly by accepting a POW•MIA flag from an audience member and holding it while singing his tribute song. He's a phenomenal singer, amazing entertainer, and all around great guy. Major props to his band as well, these musicians are badasses!
I went back to the bar next to my hotel for a nightcap. I met a young couple from Delaware, and we shared our mutual love for our children and country music for a couple of hours. I'm smiling as I write this, because four months ago, "Country" wasn't even on my radar. I was jamming primarily to Johnny Marr, Switchfoot, and Nada Surf.
Country music is good for your heart. It's honest, truthful, and funny. Its simplicity is genius. It forces you to connect with your emotions and your heart. Whether it's about God, our troops, first responders, your childhood sweetheart, your kids, your grandpa, your truck, your boat, your booze, the girl who broke your heart, or the girl that stole your heart, this stuff is powerful. It forces you to laugh and cry. I now see and feel things that I've never felt before, thanks to "Country."
This New Jersey boy is a better man. I recently told my brothers and bandmates in The Haven that I had some devastating news to share. They looked like I was going to say to them I wanted to quit the band. My response was, "I only listen to Country Music now." After I got my chops busted a little, our lead guitar player, Dan, who was tuning his guitar, never looked up, but slowly uttered, "I've heard that happens."
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Bruce Garrabrandt & Jeff White