Friendly advice on just about anything by the Hill Country’s happiest songwriter

By Al Barlow

(LSM Jan/Feb 2011/vol. 4 – Issue 1)

Dear Al,
I read on your Facebook page that you’ve kicked your cigarette habit. Congrats! I’m trying to chuck that monkey off my own back (and not for the first time). It sounds like you’ve got it figured out. Can you share any secrets? What finally made you “butt” out? — Smokey Joe, San Antonio

Dear Smokey Joe,
It wasn’t nearly as hard as I figured it would be. I just made up my mind that I wasn’t gonna be a slave to tobacco, and I gave it up. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I LOVE tobacco, and I’ve been addicted to it since I was born (my mother smoked the whole time she was pregnant with me). But, I’ve really enjoyed the freedom of not smoking, especially since I got over the physical addition. Hope all my friends will at least give not smoking a chance. You’ll see it really ain’t all that hard.

Dear Al,
My 10-year-old daughter has been dropping hints that she REALLY wants a guitar for her birthday. Should I surprise her with one, or would it be better to take her shopping beforehand so she can pick it out herself? Also, I don’t want to break the bank here, but I would guess that a better quality instrument increases the chance that she’ll take to it. What should we look for in a guitar, and how much would you budget for a starter guitar that may help her become the next Taylor Swift? — Rita in Round Rock

Dear Rita,
I’m happy to hear that your little girl is wanting a guitar, and now is a great time to buy her one. All she needs to get started is a strong desire to play guitar, the willingness to practice playing the guitar, and, of course, a guitar. A good acoustic guitar need not be expensive. Personally, I’d go to New Braunfels Music and look at their selection. They are specialists when it comes to training beginning guitarists. There are others — Mazak Music in San Marcos, for example, offers a fine selection of introductory guitars. Most music stores also offer guitar lessons, and you can pick up “how-to” books there, also. My favorite beginner guitar is a small Sea Gull, made in Canada. I’ve got one that I still play all the time!

Dear Al,
By far one of my favorite days of the year is Superbowl Sunday. It doesn’t matter who’s playing; I just love, love, love the thrill of a championship showdown. Problem is, for the last three years in a row, I’ve had to watch the game at my in-law’s place, because her side of the family treats the occasion as an excuse for a big get-together. It’s not that I don’t love my wife (or even mind her family, for the most part), but none of them ever seem to care at all about the actual game. Instead of getting to immerse myself in the game with real fans, I have to strain to even hear the play calling over everyone gabbing and yakking all around me while all of my wife’s nieces and nephews run wild through the house like it’s a playground. Last year I tried to find some peace by watching the game in a guest bedroom, and boy — you would have thought I said something insulting about the mother-in-law’s cooking. Oh, and speaking of that — yes, it’s the exact same scenario on Thanksgiving, when I’m lucky if I can even sneak a peek at the Cowboys score! Anyway … shy of divorce or having to sleep on the couch for a month, how can I go about scoring some “me time” at game time? — Benched in Boerne

Dear Benched,
You should first let your in-laws (and your little wife) know how much the football game means to you. Then, give them two reasonable options: 1. Tell them that you’d love for them to quietly watch and enjoy the game with you, and to please join you for the breathtaking excitement of an NFL game! Or: 2. Grab an ice chest full of beer and head on over to a friend’s house who’ll have the game on and enjoy it there. These methods are virtually foolproof. You’ll get to see the game either way. Hope your team wins!

Dear Al,
I love writing — or at least, I used to. Lately, I don’t know if I’m blocked, or if I’ve just lost the drive and I use “writer’s block” as an excuse for being lazy. But it really does just seem harder than it used to be. What used to come so naturally to me now feels like pulling teeth. And what I do write, I find I criticize to death. I know I’m not the only writer who’s ever experienced this, but I’m curious if you ever feel the same way. There’s something about your songs that makes me think they were all as fun for you to write as they are to hear you sing. Everything I’ve been writing lately just feels and sounds over-labored and, well, just not really “true” to me, if that makes any sense. I feel like the pilot light on my muse just went out. Do you have any advice on how to relight it? — All-Wrote-Out, San Marcos

Dear All Wrote Out,
The trouble may be that you’re trying TOO hard to write a song. It’s been my experience that I seem to produce better songs when I’m not even dwelling on writing one. Believe me, I know how you feel. I’ve gone months and months without writing one, and then, all of a sudden, BAM! Out one comes! Don’t be critical of your songs, either. There are plenty of critics anxious to do that for you. When I introduce a song for the first time, I tell the audience that it’s new, just to get them prepared. If they like the song, I keep it. If they don’t, well … Let’s just keep writing more songs, amigo.

Dear Al,
Have you ever had any supernatural experience in Gruene Hall? Also, how are you feeling? — Love, Shelley King

Dear Shelley,
How great it is to hear from you again. It’s been WAY too long! I’m feeling much better since my surgery, and I’ve been trying to take better care of myself. When it comes to supernatural experiences in Gruene Hall, the first time I ever played on the big stage, Robert Earl Keen had asked me to “open” a show for him there. I was simply exhilarated to take the stage that so many great and legendary musicians had performed on. The audience’s roar of approval after my first song was, for me at least, truly supernatural.