In the spring of 1992 I was a freshman at East Carolina University. After my friend Jane dragged me to a meeting of the coffeehouse committee of the ECU Student Union I decided to volunteer for a couple of events to round out my freshman year. One of them was for a coffeehouse concert by some guitar picker I had never heard of. Now, all of our coffeehouse events were held in this small, dingy part of the ECU Student Union long since razed for renovations. The location was small with low ceilings, there was a corner stage and there were a couple of pool tables, a row of video games, some old couches, a big screen television and low light. It was always dark and cool in the location.
The coffeehouse set up must have come from college coffeehouse central casting because it was a series of small round tables with short and wobbly wooden chairs. We placed these square table clothes on them, decorated each on with a menu of coffee options, a napkin or two, and a single carnation in a small vase. The stage was flanked by two standing JBL speakers and a rather robust 16 channel mix position. It was my first concert production and little did I know it would draw me into a career that stretched nearly two decades.
When he took the stage I had never heard of Willy Porter. He looked every bit the part. A troubadour look with a 12 string guitar (I think). He liked to pick his guitar and not strum as much. He had this way of using the neck and base of the guitar as his percussion. His songs were reflective, whimsical, beautiful, and soft. He told great stories in between each song that gave us all insight into the singer. And the show was intimate to say the least with only about 40 people there. I cannot remember how long he played but it felt like hours. We would listen, chat with each other, get another cup of coffee (well, not me, I preferred the hot chocolate), and after the show Willy stayed for a long time to talk music and to continue to play and talk about songwriting.
I purchased his CD after the show for $10 and I still have it to this day. The case is cracked but the liner notes are still in great shape. I think I listened to this album dozens and dozens of times in my dorm room and I now listen to it on Spotify. I have to admit, I have listened to his other albums and they are, in some respects, better than his debut album but this is the one that changed my life. On the CD there is a two part composition called Zak’s Tale and it is an instrumental. I cannot tell you how many stories of spring and fall I have created in my head as I listened with my head phones on. The guitar playing is magnificent. I remember during the show his fingers moved at a million miles per hour and was able to play and engage the audience at the same time. It was so exhilarating.
The title track The Trees Have Soul is, in my opinion, worthy of the title track treatment. The song has lyrics that make me think of my father, of how he used to tell these stories that was full of symbolism, specific, and gave life to ideas in ways you did not expect. When I played the CD for my dad one weekend back from school we sat there and talked about the great singer songwriter, guitar players like Arlo Guthrie, Cat Stevens, Donovan, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor. We discussed how so many other great singer songwriters like Willy Porter are just as worthy of that honor but who knows how fame and success happens.
This album is like an old friend. There can be years that elapse and I forget about it for a while. Then a memory hits me and I cue it up. As soon as the first note off of the first track Cool Water begins I am taken back to that time. When the most important thing I had to do was to setup a coffeehouse and listen to music and my job was to make a traveling singer feel welcome on campus. It was really great and I am glad the music has kept that moment and feeling frozen in time.
As all of you know my father has long since passed away but the memory of us listening to this album, the windows open, the cool Eastern North Carolina breeze filtering though will never leave. It is what I loved most about that time in my life. I was a college student, figuring it all out, but also only 25 miles from my dad’s house. Every Sunday, I would wake up, drive to Pinetops and we would watch football or basketball, work a little in the yard, grill out some food, talk about whatever came up and we listened to music. Willy Porter is a gateway to that.