Idaho Arts Quarterly » North Idaho

Little Performer on the Prairie (Home Companion)

Singer-songwriter Charlie Sutton on writing and singing songs

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Scores of singer-songwriters dream of performing live on Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion, and joining the likes of Greg Brown, Randy Newman and Mark Knopfler. Most never make it. This October, Moscow, Idaho, musician Charlie Sutton did.

How it happened sounds almost like something out of a farce. When Northwest Public Radio announced in late August that the wildly popular radio show would broadcast live from Washington State University's Beasley Coliseum on October 7, Sutton's fiancée sent his demo recording to PHC, and told him about it later.

"I had wanted to do it but she actually got it done," Sutton said. "They responded that they'd get back to me in a few months, so I figured I didn't have a chance."

Keillor and crew arrived in Pullman a week before the Saturday show for their rehearsals, after performing in Missoula, Montana, the previous week. On Wednesday, October 4, they called Sutton and asked him to be on.

"Only having three days' notice worked out fine in the end," Sutton said. "If they'd given me a couple of weeks, I would have been a lot more nervous."

As it was, Sutton performed two easy-tempo originals, accompanying himself with harmonica and guitar on "Old Friend Levi" and "Cattail Mornings," sounding oh-so-professional with backup from PHC musicians. He played smoothly and easily, his sweet and natural voice--reminiscent of James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Sting--never betraying his nerves. Both songs were requested by the PHC crew, probably because they reflected the rural Palouse theme of the show, or maybe because they highlight Charlie's lyricism so well. Sutton and his music provided a welcome contrast to the other musical guests--over-the-top yodeler Wylie Gustafson and Montana country crooner Stephanie Davis (both were wearing cowboy boots)--along with a refreshing dose of reality. Not everybody out West lives on a ranch and sings about livestock, thank you very much.

The packed house at Beasley listened to Sutton in rapt silence, and then erupted in applause for the previously unknown local boy done good. He'd already won the audience's heart with his response to Keillor's introductory inquiry about how Moscow compares with Pullman.

"It's the better half," Sutton deadpanned, drawing half a coliseum of cheers.

"They rehearse everything but it's also off the cuff," Sutton said. "Garrison was around me all morning the day of the show but didn't look at me at all, and then, on stage, during the show, he shakes my hand and looks me right in the eye for the first time. Whoa. I think he does that to get a spontaneous reaction."

The show was a "surreal" and welcome milestone for this 28-year-old artist, who's been playing gigs at open mics and bars since he was a teenager.

"With this audience, you could hear a pin drop," Sutton said. "It was a highlight for me, to be able to actually hear myself play."

Sutton grew up in Moscow but has lived in Coeur d'Alene, Sandpoint, Vermont, St. Louis and on the East Coast. He's been singing since choir in grade school, and started playing the trumpet in fourth grade. But he later gave up the trumpet and taught himself to play guitar.

"You can't sing along with a trumpet," Sutton said.

He got serious about singing and playing when at age 16 he moved to St. Louis, where his uncle had a guitar shop.

"I started a band there called Spud, with Andy Myers from Moscow, and we played around in St. Louis for a couple of years, mainly in bars. I played the same style I play now, only on an electric guitar, so it was called 'rock.'"

Sutton's first on-stage experience came at The Focal Point in St. Louis, when he was just 16.

"They had jugglers and comedians, a talent show kind of thing, and I went up and sang a couple of songs. I have a friend in St. Louis who has a recording of that, and I remember it well because I was so nervous."

Another thing Sutton remembers: how hard it was, even then, to figure out the best way to make a living as a musician, and how to keep a band together.

"I like playing solo but I like having a band, too, It's great to have people behind you. But back in St. Louis, I played everything really slow, I mean extremely slow, and it was hard to get bass players or drummers to not want to kill me when they played with me. I finally picked it up a bit, but still, it's hard to work out schedules when you're in a band. If we knew we could make good money at it, it'd be different," he said.

Sutton took guitar lessons in St. Louis from "a really good jazz guitarist," who helped Sutton with basic skills and scales. Sutton also listened to a lot of blues in St. Louis, especially John Hartford, who is one of his favorites.

"Like a lot of songwriters, I listen to a wide variety of music: jazz, folk, blues, some punk, all kinds of stuff," Sutton said. "I tend to like songwriters like Greg Brown, Taj Mahal, Bob Dylan, and some newer ones like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings."

Sutton also took voice lessons from an opera singer in St. Louis. He didn't care much for the lessons, but his excellent breath control shows that he learned something, somewhere: maybe from the opera singer, maybe from playing the trumpet.

"I have a unique sound, but I can't hit a huge range," Sutton said. "I know there's a difference between a nice voice, and a good voice. I hope I have both, but sometimes I have to change the key on my guitar to get my voice right. Some days are better than others. I learn to go with it."

Sutton met his fiancee, April, in St. Louis, and they tried living in several places ("I loved Vermont") but in the end, they missed the West, and Sutton decided this is where he wants to be. They moved back to Moscow early in 2006, choosing the Palouse over that hotbed of Pacific Northwest culture, Eugene, Oregon, because his grandfather in Moscow was in ill health. He plays down that side of the decision, though.

"I'm not too keen on clouds all the time," Sutton said. "I like it better here. And my fiancee loves it, even though she's a city girl."

You can hear the longing for home in his song, "Green Mountains," which, even if it wasn't written during his sojourn in Vermont, sounds like it was.

I'll be a broken back pony, to guide you through the hills/And what I'm saying isn't phony, I'm not feeding you baloney, pumpkin pie/You know I will

I'll dance a jig for you, smile like a clown/Jump in the snow like puppy dog, and roll around/I'll do the hula hoop, and the pogo stick, pull a bunny from a hat/You know that I could do magic tricks.

Because time crawls by here in Green Mountains you know/We ain't got no buses to catch, no papers to fetch,/We got no places to go/We got no places to go/Here in Green Mountains you know.

If you could dig a hole to China, then you could dig a hole to Mars./I say we dig a hole to Idaho, forevermore,/And dance beneath the stars.

I'll fill a boat full of flowers, and paddle you for a ride./We'll stop once to kiss, through all of this you know I shall abide.

Because time crawls by here in Green Mountains you know/We ain't got no buses to catch, no papers to fetch,/We got no places to go/We got no places to go/Here in Green Mountains you know.

The lyrical quality of Sutton's songs is no accident. As he's been writing poems since elementary school. Teachers and role models take heed: that he's still doing it shows how influential a little encouragement can be for young artists.

"My fourth-grade teacher found my book of poems that I was working on when I was done doing math," Sutton recalled. "She told me she thought I had talent for writing, and I loved music so the two kind of melded."

Keillor and his crew could just as easily have chosen any of the songs from Sutton's self-titled CD, available from www.maryjanesfarm.org, the Moscow Food Co-op and, eventually, from his Web site, www.charliesutton.com. It's a remarkable collection of seven pieces that Sutton recorded with a friend's help. He finished it right before going on PHC.

"Rod Sherrell, who does a blues radio show in St. Louis called Midcoast Mania, has a studio in a Greyhound bus, and he's a fan. He's been recording me since I was 17," Sutton said. "Most of the songs are just me and the guitar."

Which sounds simple, but don't be misled. Sutton's compositions contain complex rhythms, melodies and chord changes that take his first effort gracefully beyond the basics. Still, the songs feel simple. They are easy to listen to, again and again, and you might find yourself humming the lyrics to yourself at odd moments throughout the day, which is a good thing in this case. And if you don't live in small-town Idaho, you'll probably find yourself wishing that you did, just so you could live the life that has inspired Sutton's music and outlook on life.

Sutton isn't a dark personality, if his songs give any insight into his psyche. Rather, he has an appreciation for the small things, a gentle sense of humor, and a talent for writing about daily life without trivializing it. His stage presence is a quiet, serious one, but when he spots someone special in the crowd, he flashes a rare, light-filled smile. It's dangerous to assume songs are autobiographical, but the tender "Move On" would indicate that Sutton has known, and lost, love.

We had solitude and an open yard/A shaggy old doggy and some Christmas cards/But these things didn't matter/'Cause we weren't satisfied/And all I can say is at least we tried.

I think I smoked me a cigar/So I can make up my mind/'Cause I'm so tired of wasting all our time/'Cause I'm so tired of wasting all your time.

Move, move on/Gotta move/Move on.

We hung on by the coattails but our love got away/Secretly we knew it had to happen someday/These days and nights together/I'll keep them close to my heart/'Cause baby I know it's not easy/When you're drifting apart.

I think I put out my cigar/'Cause it seemed we'd made up our mind/That we are through with wasting all our time/'Cause me and you have got to leave our love behind.

Move on/Gotta move/Move on.

So hard to move, move on/Gotta move on.

"Singer-songwriters," said Keillor into the microphone while introducing Sutton. "They're the ones you see in the back of the airplane, with their guitars."

Keillor made it sound impossibly romantic and just a little sad. Either way, the life of a full-time musician is something Sutton can take or leave, now that he's a little older and more philosophical about success.

"I used to be really intense about my goals. I used to think that if by age 25 I wasn't on my seventh album that I basically sucked," Sutton said. "But that didn't work. And the more I've let go of the dream, the more it is happening. It's a long process and I'm taking my time."

Meanwhile, Sutton works full-time in the landscaping and horticulture profession, for a company in Moscow called Green Side Up. He practices his guitar as much as possible, at least an hour a day, and spends much of his weekend time hiking, fishing and camping, all of which provide the inspiration he needs to be creative.

"Usually, my songwriting stems from solitude, like when I'm fishing or driving. I love to think about songs while I'm fishing," Sutton said.

He's optimistic that some of the good wishes from the PHC crew will come to pass.

"Hopefully, something will happen. They were all so nice and complimented my songs, saying, 'Maybe if you do a good job, we'll have you on again,'" Sutton said. "It was great to have people that talented be so encouraging, so who knows. I like it that things take time, because after Prairie Home Companion, I needed a week or two just to get back to normal."