Larry Garrett's music comes from the long tradition of folk music in Kansas City. Pulled from everyday experiences of family, childhood, "old dogs" and growing older, the Independence, Missouri, resident's songs paint a picture of life that is personal yet steeped in a musical lineage. Garrett performs regularly, usually with a guitar and harmonica, though you'll also occasionally find him with dobro, banjo, dulcimer or ukulele. It's a pleasure to welcome Larry Garrett to Listen Local.
Introduce yourself. Where do you live and work? What does a typical day look like for you?
I'm Larry Garrett. I'm a folksinger/songwriter. My wife and I live in Independence, Mo. We're both retired and spend quite-a-bit of time running around together, watching our grandkids, and when we can, relaxing. My alone time typically consist of me working on my music. Either writing or playing an instrument. I usually play a guitar (sometimes using a harmonica with it), but can also be found at times with a dobro, banjo, dulcimer, or ukulele. I'm at home with the guitar, but know just enough of the others to get myself in trouble. Just recently began spending some time with a keyboard.
I also play a lot of music around town at coffeehouses, churches, festivals, parks, and at outdoor markets when time permits. I play some covers too if the venue allows them, but mostly my own songs about my family and friends. I started playing music in public places in the mid-80's. Did folk music programs for Mid-Continent Libraries in the 90's. Songs about grandma and grandpa, aunts and uncles, old dogs, misfits, and neighbors are typical of what I write. Seems like I'm busier now than ever before. If someone had told me back then, "When you're in your 60's you're going to be a folksinger/songwriter and performing numerous times each month," I'd have laughed at them. But, here I am. You never know what life has waiting for you around the next corner, so keep walking.
Can you point to one time in your life where you knew you wanted to be a songwriter? Who or what inspired you early on to create music?
I don't think I can point to just one time when I knew. It's been an on-going process. I started-out writing poetry and short stories, years before I wrote my first song. Actually, my very first songs were poems I had written years before. When I first got the bug to write my own songs I figured some of my poems were already a good start, so I'd add a chorus and a bridge to the poem. Maybe re-write part of it to make it more song-friendly. That's kind of how I started writing songs. For years, most of my songs were very wordy. It was almost as if I was trying to sing one of my short stories. However, I finally learned how to keep only what's necessary to tell the basics of the story in a 3-4 minute song and let the listener add the rest with their own imagination.
Although songwriting wasn't my first interest in writing, it gradually moved to the forefront and now it's most of what I write. It's not so much that I have to write. I want to write. I feel I've got something to say and express in what I call my "slice of life" songs. I’m kind of doing living a dream. I’m singing folk songs about folks all over the KC area.
In regard to who first inspired me to write music, I believe it was the songwriters of the late 50's thru the 60's. I've always been a big folk music fan. While I liked The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, etc., I really focused on people like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Joanie Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, and Judy Collins. They're all storytellers and I had an interest in that even before I started writing songs. My songs tell stories about people I’ve known and situations I’ve been in.
Describe your creative process with songwriting. How do you move through creative blocks or struggles?
I typically write the lyrics before I come-up with any music. Don't believe I've ever written the music first. After I've got a few lines written, I might start thinking of a melody for what I've got so far. That's what works for me. Each songwriter, at whatever level of expertise they've attained, has his/her own approach. Everyone is different.
My own creative process involves routines that keep me in the "slice of life" mode. It's tied to what friends call my theme song: "My Old Neighborhood." Literally everything I've written has some kind of link to that song. I'm looking for a song that has a life lesson about it and I'm looking to connect that with something from my own life. Something my parents did, or my grandmother said, or maybe something about a neighbor from my childhood. Some of my songs, like "Grandma's Prayer" and "Grandma's House" (I've got a bunch of grandma songs) come directly from my childhood. The content of the songs is something I personally know. That's the kind of material I look for when I write. I just finished a song called "Grandpas and Old Dogs." Got the idea from one of my granddaughters when she asked me if all grandpas have old dogs. Turned-out to be one of those songs where everything falls easily into place.
Another thing I find helpful is to go outside on our back deck at 2-3 in the morning. The solitude, darkness, and silence are relaxing and help clear my mind. Just me and my ghosts. Not trying to sound dramatic, but it is a good time to put some thoughts together.
Every now-and-then I run into a real mental block. Can't get anywhere on a song. Maybe I can't even get a song started, or perhaps I've got 3-4 lines and can't find my way to the next line. Or perhaps I've got a "killer" chorus that I can't build anything else around. Sometimes I've just got to walk-away from the song for a while. Maybe when I come back to it I'll think of a new line or find a different direction. Then again, maybe I won't. I've got several songs that are years and years old that for whatever reason I haven't finished. At times I'll go back and look at them to see if anything new shows-up. At other times, I might pirate a couple lines or get an idea for another song.
One thing I do to avoid writer's block is to not waste a lot of time with it. If I'm truly stuck on a song, I put it to the side and move to something else. The "something else" might be one of the unfinished songs mentioned above or it might be just taking the dog for a walk. Also, when I've hit a wall, I might start looking at old family photographs. Many of my songs were inspired by photos that are decades old. Again, the "My Old Neighborhood" theme. That's the kind of inspiration I look for. Whatever I do, I just don't let myself get bogged down on one song. I keep moving, even if the moving has nothing to do with writing.
I don't follow a specific set of rules when songwriting. I'm trying to tell a story with my songs and I just go where the story takes me. I'll try to make room for a bridge and a chorus, but there are times I don't use them.
You have cited artists like Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris and Townes Van Zant, among others, as influences. What do you admire most about these artists?
I think artists like these connect with people on a human level. Their music cuts-through all the hype and noise. I can listen to the lyrics and feel I have a personal link to them. What they’re saying in the song makes me feel like I’ve “been there and done that” too.
What most excites you about music and creativity in Kansas City?
I really enjoy and benefit from the songwriter community in the Kansas City area. It helps create venues for performing and gives local songwriters opportunities to expand their craft, connect with other songwriters and musicians, and offers local business the chance to bring "live music" to their location. My contacts with other Kansas City songwriters has led to what I do today. I play venues all-around the area. I've been playing at Gusto's Coffeehouse in Lee's Summit every Wednesday at Noon for almost three years now. Been playing at Foo's Custard in Leawood every month for over five years. I'm part of The Kansas City Songwriters Circle and I host a Songwriter Circle event every month. My good friend David Hakan is the co-founder and this group and has kept it vibrant and active for almost two decades now. It's a great way to meet other songwriters while you perform your original songs. My good friend Jim Abel and I have been playing the Missouri Town 1855 Folk Festival for eight years. Jim and I met at a Songwriters Circle venue. My buddy Duane Woner, and I played Lee's Summit Farmers Market for seven years. We met each other at a Songwriters Circle event. I met Kathy Forste, one of the owners of KC Cafe Internet Radio, at a Songwriters Circle venue many years ago. Kathy and I have shared the stage at numerous music venues throughout the years. I'm even a board member for KC Cafe.
Several years ago, I started sending-out emails to a couple of dozen songwriters I knew as a way for us to stay-in-touch and be aware of each other's gigs. More and more local folks started sending me info on other area music, so the email list grew. I started calling it my "Weekly Bulletin." I've now got nearly 300 people on that email list. Most are songwriters and musicians. The rest are people who like to attend "live music" venues. They'll show-up at festivals, churches, and coffeehouses. I send out this bulletin once (sometimes twice) each week with information on who is playing where, etc. It's just something I started doing and it's grown. All this comes from the creativity in Kansas City's songwriter community. Once you get involved, there are lots of opportunities.
Larry's recommendations from the Johnson County Library catalog:
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. First read this in High School. An American Classic and story about doing the right thing when everyone is against you.
The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. Great story about surviving against all odds.
Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell. Aside from a good story, it’s also a good lesson on The American Civil War era.
Watchers by Dean Koontz. This guy could frighten The Devil.
Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy. Interesting perspective on the world.