To Feedlot to Feed Alot, or Not to Feedlot At All? That Is My Question.

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I feel like the man who was tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail. To the man who asked how he liked it he said: “If it wasn’t for the honour of the thing, I’d rather walk. ~Abraham Lincoln’s response to a friend who asked him how he liked being President.

 

How much food could a feedlot feed if a feedlot could feed food? ~ Jill Riley

It was the summer of my junior year of High School – 1983, when my grandfather called me into the dining room of our ranch-style house and pointed to several green ledger books which were opened and spread out across the table for eight. I’d never seen a green ledger book in my life.  “Start here and look at these.” he instructed. “What do you see?”

Numbers is what I saw and I really hated numbers. But, I knew this exercise wasn’t going to end until I cooperated in the search for the point he was determined to make. I saw numbers – numbers with dollar signs on the front end of them. Then I saw it. These numbers were declining over time, drastically and fast. My grandfather was a cattleman and wheat farmer. “This is what happens when democrats are no longer in the White House.” he said as he pointed his weathered and aging index finger toward the ’81, ’82 and ’83 ledgers. He was determined to sear this – like a brand, onto my brain, and it worked. In my mind, farming was food, and it was more than alarming to me that he suddenly couldn’t afford to do it anymore.

Of all the grandchildren, why he had called me in to see this was a mystery to me back then. I was terrible at math and couldn’t care less about raising cattle and farming. I now believe my grandfather, Joe Davidson “Pike” Cluck, was an extremely intuitive, deeply intelligent, and in some cases, to his own detriment, stubborn man.

It has taken a while but I finally came to believe that what he wanted was for me to tell his story through songwriting someday, and that is just what I’ve done on my upcoming album, “Common Ground” – slotted to be released late fall, 2017. He saw that I was very serious about songwriting as a teen and he even paid for my first recording sessions.

Pike’s story differed from his five brothers. He was the only one of the hugely successful brothers that stood adamantly opposed to the idea of feedlots.

As a matter of fact, his brothers were instrumental in introducing and launching feedlots in our region of the great state of Texas. But, as I could see by the glaring green ledgers, he was also the only one of the bunch about to go belly up.

I was around cattle all of my life – or, I should say they were around me – like literally all around me. I drove through them on the way to school, walked through them on the way to the barn, rode through them on the way to my favorite set of canyons.

Still, I’ve never once raised even a single cow myself.

So, how could I possibly know who was right and who was wrong in that debate? I understand that the claim was, and still is, that feedlots are necessary and beneficial in our efforts to feed the ever increasingly, over-populated world we live in.

But, knowing this about my grandfather – that he would stand so strongly opposed, even unto bankruptcy and near financial ruin, coupled with a little cancer scare of my own in 1999, a journey to find the truth about this has beckoned me for years and this blog so begins that journey.

This question has actually opened a floodgate of other related questions. I have much to say – or ask, on this matter and the related topics. I am clearly NOT the expert! I am the student and I more than welcome the voices of other students and especially experts. My commitment to you is to do my best on this little adventure to stay unbiased, do my homework, get educated, and share with the world what I learn along the way.

Along with the release of the Common Ground album, I am currently scheduling live concerts and public speaking engagements. I am publishing this Common Ground Album Blog, as well as the Common Ground Album podcast, and eventually, with the right support, I plan to launch a Common Ground Magazine and Common Ground TV. Through these various avenues, I am platforming the question, “Are we doing the right thing the right way in food production, food distribution, and water stewardship?”

In this first blog I’m simply asking the question:

Are we doing the right thing the right way … in how we raise cattle in America.

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Writing in Angel Fire

{10 min read}

If you’re going to write, you should try writing in Angel Fire. With snowfall in your focus, fire in your peripheral, and a hot cup of coffee in your hand, a certain kind of miraculous, creative provision unfolds. This made attempting one of the most challenging writing projects of my life, a certain kind of special, for which I will forever be deeply grateful.

I drove up to the snowy mountains of New Mexico last week to finally finish something that I’ve been working on, off and on, since 1993 – before I ever moved to Nashville. I tried to run from this writing project for a good ten years but then I moved to downtown Fort Worth and found myself unable to avoid it any longer. I have felt led, I guess you could say, all these years, to write a “story record” – an album of songs that tells the story of my West Texas cattle ranching family.

Just before I moved to Nashville, in 1994, in order to more seriously pursue songwriting, I lived in Irving, Texas – a suburb of Dallas. I purposely spent some time there before making the big leap, to give sincere consideration to a choice between Austin or Nashville. I first knew I belonged in Nashville when, at about seven years of age, I drew a line, in ink, inside my mom’s World Atlas from Gruver, Texas to Nashville, Tennessee. Austin held very justifiable reasons for me to personally stop and consider relocating there. I am a songwriter from Texas which makes me a “Texas Songwriter” – which is a breed all of its own.

This was a crucial moment for a single mother with a nine year old boy in tow. While I was trying to give my attention to this critical decision, a whole other idea kept demanding my time. It would not go away and I humbly gave it the attention it deserved – even though it was an idea that I wasn’t the least bit interested in. It just kept playing out in my head, over and over, beckoning me from out of nowhere. I won’t give it all away just yet but I will tell you it involved me wearing boots and possibly chaps. Now that was laughable to me because I had just decidedly spent my later teenage years impatiently waiting to get as far away from the cowboy culture and farm life as quickly as I could. I was convinced that I was destined to be an artsy-fartsy, semi-hippy songwriter chick. I’d had all the cow town life I would ever need for one lifetime. So I thought.

After a near decade in Nashville, I moved into the downtown of the cow town of Texas – Fort Worth, in 2003. The idea came back with a vengeance. This time it almost haunted me, so to speak. Visuals danced across the screen of my mind almost non-stop. Pictures played out like old movies of my West Texas cattle ranching family boarding the train back in the day, which would take them directly to the Fort Worth Stockyards where they would exchange cattle for Cadillacs. The stories I’d heard and even lived as a child came flooding back to me. I even had a jolting dream about a wagon wheel flying out of the sky – an experience that is now (as of last week) chronicled in the opening song of the album.

Plotting the concept out in my head, I once again ultimately ignored it. That is, until I moved to Los Angeles in 2007. Before I moved to L.A., I was back in the Dallas / Fort Worth area and had decided that it was time to get very focused on songwriting again. I had entered in to a new publishing deal and was obligated to twelve songs per year. Once I got settled in L.A., I sat in my living room with guitar, pen and paper in hand, and along came a song called Adrian Elaine. That’s when I knew this beckoning was never going to leave me alone until I gave in to its urgent plea. Adrian Elaine, tells the story of an amalgamation of characters – namely my first cousin, who is in search of something that outsiders don’t, at first, understand. The song was undoubtedly the centerpiece of the story record. I had written a song about the last days of my grandfather’s life. He was one of the eleven children in the 2nd Texas generation of the family. It seemed to be a possible fit for the story record. I had also written a song about my time growing up on his ranch. It was a definite fit.

In January of 2016, I camped in Joshua Tree National Park for the first time in my life – a pilgrimage for many 70’s west coast songwriters and artists including The Eagles. Three days after returning from this trip, Glenn Frey died. It was one of those bizarre coincidences that makes you stop and wonder. A song called Common Ground immediately came from the peculiar experience. While this song seemed to be a total misfit for the story record, to my surprise, it became a fire starter for a much greater vision than the original thought of a simple story record. It sparked the concept of a public platform and coming movement to be birthed through the record, which pointedly poses the key question:

ARE WE DOING THE RIGHT THING, THE RIGHT WAY, IN FOOD AND WATER?

These are the two life-sustaining factors “we the people” simply can not afford to get wrong. Through much prayer and meditation, I began to see the importance of producing this story record. It quite possibly explains the beckoning that has tapped on my shoulder for so many years. In other words, I have finally fully realized the importance in the retelling of this story. The story is a micro look at a macro situation in our world – which is the dire need to humbly recognize and respect that …

WE ALL HAVE ROOTS IN COMMON GROUND.

I came into Angel Fire with four possible songs for the record. I sat down under the cloudy skies and watched seven songs fall onto the pages of my writing journal like the snow falling onto the ground outside. This week I will write the final song – one that deserves an entire week to itself. I will then have completed the twelve-song story record that has been calling my name for almost a quarter of a century.

I’ve been wondering for months where I would find a quiet place to myself to give the required focus it would take to finally face this project. My husband’s step father, Ted Powell, along with his father, built a chalet-style house in Angel Fire, NM in the 1960’s. Ted was a friend of my grandfather and the two were mutually-respectful farming cohorts – one a staunch republican, the other a died-in-the-wool democrat. Togetherthey “marched” on Washington in the famous Tractorcade of 1979.   The Evergreen trees you see in the picture were planted by Ted’s grandchildren. This is a place of heritage and I can not think of a more honorable place for me to have finished the writing of this record.

Production of the album is slotted for late winter/early spring of this year. Visit www.commongroundalbum.com for more details.

The Voice of The Mother

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“I was ten years old when I stared into the cover of Mother’s Jessi Colter record droppin’ down”

After I wrote this lyric, I stopped and pondered two things. Why did I stare into the cover of that Jessi Colter record when I was ten, and why was I the only child of my mom’s that called her “Mother?” I pondered long enough to finally get the answers to both of those questions.

I stared into that album cover because I couldn’t keep from staring into it. But why? Was it her long, black, back-combed hair, or that thick silver bracelet against her dark skin, that fantastic dress she was wearing or that gorgeous upright piano she leaned against? I never realized it until I stopped to really ask myself this question, but I pondered long enough to truly reconnect with my thoughts and feelings back then. As I stared and studied her while listening to the deeply evocative sound of her voice, I recognized, even as a 10 year old, that I was to be a part of something this mystery woman was part of. But after recalling all of this, now at 50, I had to ask myself what that thing actually was. I was to be a part of what? And had I missed the mark?

I’d already done the whole Nashville thing in my twenties. There was such a rich and tangible history that, for me, was still so alive on the streets of Nashville’s Music Row – in my mind at least. I used to sit out back of the old RCA building where I worked. I was a smoker back then and I would take a couple of quick drags while my imagination would watch Patsy drive up 16th Avenue, looking for Randy. Loretta would be on her way to WSM with Do Little. I’d watch Waylon and Jessi pull up to record in Studio A. And Dolly would be secretly dropping off suprise 1970’s Christmas Cadillacs to all the execs on The Row who’d helped her the past year. 

In real life, I once climbed up into the echo chamber of Studio B and stood there for a long, stunned moment, just thinking of the sounds of Roy Orbison, Floyd Kramer, Carl Perkins and the like that had bounced off and around the inconspicuous four walls that surrounded me. But those sounds, and most of the people who created them were dead and gone by that time. So, what was it that I was to be a part of? There was so much of “Country Music” and its “industry” that I simply didn’t jive with and I never could quite find my place in it all – and as it turned out, didn’t really want to. But I got some clarity that day by asking myself these two questions – especially when I got to the second question about the deeper reason for me calling this woman “Mother.”

My mother was not a “mom” per se. She was a Mother! More specifically, she was a “Voice of The Mother” …as was Jessi, and Emmy Lou, and Dolly. The wisdom that was packed into this one woman who ruled over my household was almost more than a young girl cared to take in at times. But, she spoke, no matter the cost.

She is the “she” referred to in the Proverbs. She is wisdom and as I grew up, I observed people from all walks of life become drawn to this wisdom in her. When I was eighteen I called to ask for some of that wisdom. As always, she shot it straight. I got upset. In total frustration she said, “Jill, I don’t know why you ask me if you don’t want to know the answer!” I thought for a minute and shot back. “I want you to tell me what I want to hear and I want you to be right about it!” Then I laughed at my own ridiculousness. In that moment I realized, at least partially, how exhausting it must have been to walk in the level of valor and vigor this woman walked in. 

As I wrote the lyrics to Common Ground, I came into crystal clear focus about “The Voice of The Mother” call on my own life and gift. People too often have this same delusional hope. We want to be told what we want to hear and we want it to be right – a form of laziness and complacency.

There are two critical topics that we simply can’t afford to be lazy and complacent about.  The purpose of the Common Ground Album Project is to stir the question,

“ARE WE DOING THE RIGHT THING THE RIGHT WAY IN FOOD AND WATER?”

It is the job of the mother to nurture and take care of her loved ones. With this album project my aim is to unleash my own “Voice of The Mother” regarding these two topics – at whatever cost – and whether we want to hear it or not. 

Visit the official site  CommonGroundAlbum.com