Musician of the Month: CHRIS CRUZ

By Matt Kersh

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When playing music is your livelihood year after year, it can get to where you begin to see the stage as a cubicle. It’s not a conscious change, but a gradual one that occurs over time as you spend a couple of hundred nights annually pouring your soul out to rooms of people that oftentimes hardly seem to notice your presence.

Sure, there are really great nights, where the songs seem to touch people listening, but they’re unfortunately few and far between, sometimes for stretches of time that seem to (and do) last for months. The music can lose some of the magic, and when music is virtually what keeps you alive (and for some of us, maybe you’re one of them, it does), when the shine fades, the musician comes to a crossroads in their art. Do you “get bored” or feel sorry for yourself because you feel like you think things “should” be different.
Being around the music scene in the Texas Hill Country for a lot of years, I’ve gotten to know the vast majority of the talented folks that live their lives in the music. There always has to be a time for us to meet one another, and the first time I met this month’s featured artist was a handful of years ago at one of the music spots around in the area that didn’t survive the difficult times in which we’ve been living.

I came in with a few friends, and was looking forward to a chance to hear a fellow musician whom I’d heard much about but not yet gotten to experience in person. Chris Cruz has a cool, calm, and collected demeanor on stage. And I was enjoying what I was hearing, then I heard a lick that I knew was familiar. It was “Barricades of Heaven” by Jackson Browne from the 1996 record Looking East, but refreshingly done in the vein of the 2005 release on the Solo Acoustic Vol. 1 album. All that to say, that version of that particular song means something really special to me… at that special juncture of my life.

This day was very near the end of the period of my life where I was still drinking, and life had really worn me down. This was also the time where the music of Jackson Browne was speaking to me in a truly unique way, specifically through Late for the Sky and that Solo Acoustic Vol. 1. Sitting their listening to Chris pick and sing such a sweet version of that tune on that day felt like kismet.

After the gig, we spoke for the first time, and Chris also knew my name, and it felt strange that we had somehow not known each other before that moment. I was impressed with his graciousness and authenticity. Not to mention, I was struck with how much I enjoyed his brand of music and how he so apparently feels the emotion behind the songs so deeply. For me, there’s no component that brings more life to the music than the ability to express and communicate the emotions of the song, and Chris Cruz does better than most, and just about as well as anybody. I’m going to take a little different path on this column than normal. Chris gave me an incredible amount of material, and though I’m not including all of it, I feel that using a large amount of it does this particular story justice.

“I wasn’t exceptionally young when I picked up guitar. My father is an incredible musician, and had his grand moments of notoriety playing with Dickey Betts and Great Southern towards the end of the 1970s. When Gregg Allman had left The Allman Brothers, and Dickey needed a new B3 player, my dad joined up. I had always heard the stories of the years on the road with Dickey and other bands. Even considering the faraway reach in his eyes, the look of a thousand wonderful secrets only shared within the camaraderie of brothers, as he told those stories it wasn’t hard to gather that it wasn’t the life he had pictured for me.”

“I played saxophone in middle school band, but I feel like I was always waiting for him to teach me piano. A couple of times he would get with me, and excitedly dive into advanced music theory, forgetting my extreme novice-hood, and it would transfer me into an uncoordinated world of notes and scale forms with no foundation for understanding any of it. Eventually, my aunt asked me why I never considered playing guitar. I never thought of it. I had always admired my high school classmates that could strum chords, sit out in front of the school during pick-up, and surprise everybody with their renditions of Metallica or Green Day, but it would still be several years before I decided to try.”

“Being in a musical household, songbooks were fairly common. I remember ‘borrowing’ a contemporary eighties songbook, and set out to learn Elton John and Police songs, based on the small chord charts above the measures of sheet music. The strumming came naturally, and perseverance quickly brought on the muscle memory.”

“Getting into the early 2000s, I was in college, writing songs instead of doing my studies, escaping at the end of every day in the corner of my room, falling in love with the sound of the guitar. I soon reached a level that the church I attended started to let me play in some of their praise and worship bands, During that time I worked on my scales, I was learning to mimic solos from Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, and I still bring in a lot of their tricks and gestures into my playing today.”

“Throughout the 2000s I played in bands, some making some much desired headway, and some falling flat before a strum could ever be spoken of. But I wrote all the time. I didn’t even realize how much I wrote back then until I found my old notebooks while renovating my house a couple of years ago. There has to be a hundred songs that I wrote, never believed in, and put away in a box to see if time could teach me better.”

“My son was born in 2004, and my daughter was born in 2005. After my son was born, most of my guitar playing was just among friends. I took care of the kids when I wasn’t working, and after they’d go to sleep at night, I’d quietly write and learn.”

Now to another interesting element about the connection between Chris and me. Dave Fenley.

“I soon met an accomplished local artist, named David Fenley. It didn’t take much prompting for us to get down to the serious questions about music:

Fenley, “Do you play anywhere?”
Cruz, “No.”
Fenley, “Do you want to?”
Cruz, “Yes.”

Dave Fenley was arguably the main human catalyst for why I started to play full time, so it was fascinating to hear that the same is true for Chris. Dave steadily mentored Cruz for the next four or five months, teaching him the economics of the business, the politics, entertainment tricks, and some useful tips for enhancing cover songs.

“I never really intended to be a cover artist, but I was already accustomed to being “that guy” at house get togethers, playing guitar, and hosting sing-a-longs at the end of the night, so I welcomed the promise of performing live again.”

“At the time I was doing structural design for an electrical engineering firm, moonlighting a few shows, until my mentor added a new concept.”

Fenley told Cruz, “Chris, the only thing holding you back is your day-job. You quit the day-job, you’ll make the money.”

So there it was. Not an ounce of pressure applied, just an acknowledgement there hadn’t yet been an outright, risk-taking commitment made. Fenley would tell both Kersh and Cruz the same exact thing with the same result. Chris turned in his two-weeks notice the next day.

“I continued with the cover shows. I still wrote a great deal, but with less interest in creating masterpieces. Everything that would come out would sound too much like any of the hundreds of songs I had learned for the shows. It left me feeling pretty stagnant, and uncreative. In 2012 I was contacted about a solo-guitarist position on a cruise ship.”
“Cruise ships are a very interesting animal. They’re filled with workers running from something. I met people running from sheltered lives, running from breakups, running from genuine hardships in their homeland. I guess I was running too. The ships will show you a lot about who you are. Sometimes you love what you see, and sometimes you just want to get away from yourself. Whatever I was feeling, and whatever I was going through, I could often find my grace within the guests.”

“Quite often the guests on the cruise ships are on the ship for more than just one cruise. Sometimes they’re on the ships for months. Being a solo entertainer I would have my own club where guests could find me. It wasn’t easy entertaining the exact same guests every single night for months on end, but they’d make it their routine. Trivia, drinks, Chris Cruz, dinner, and then back to Chris Cruz. The songs absolutely had to take a different approach.”

“Just because you know hundreds of songs, doesn’t mean that every song is right for every audience. And when you’re working on a cruise ship, playing for the same audience night after night, you’re going to have to repeat songs, so I had to build several unique shows that would showcase the songs they would hear, but in different and unique ways. I didn’t yet feel accomplished as a musician, and certainly not as a songwriter or vocalist, but living in that atmosphere inspired me. I learned my voice better, and I learned my guitar better, but I more importantly learned that my original songs could be very much approached the same way.”

“When I write my songs, I focus mostly on lyrics first. I figure that even a boring chord progression can be made more interesting with some tweaking. Lyrics are harder to tweak for me. I want them to always mean, with full intention, what they meant when I first put them down. I can love my lyrics, be okay with my guitar work, but then abhor my chosen melody. The vocal-play I learned on cruise ships taught me that every melody can be felt an infinite number of ways.”

“Coming back to the states, I’ve met some remarkable and encouraging songwriters. I think it’s important to have people you feel are frankly just better than you. As long as you respect them, you get to continuously grow. They challenge you, and you challenge them. You create and they create, and it feels like an exciting show-and-tell, but most importantly, it’s satisfying to your soul.”

“In 2016, I had a really lovely couple ask me, ‘What will it take to get an album out of you?’ I told them that it would take time away from shows, money for that time, and a place to get away from the rest of the world. Their reply, ‘Well, start saving,’ and in April of 2017 they offered me a family house on the Nueces River in a small town in West Texas. I wrote for the wrong reasons. I kept locking myself in the past. My songs were stale, and my lyrics were almost too intentional. I wasn’t flowing, I was leading. Another step in the learning process.”

“I came back to San Antonio feeling pretty defeated. I had a close friend tell me, ‘It’s all seasons and bubbles. Sometimes you want to write, you’re just not in the writing season. Sometimes you’re in the season, but you don’t write because you’re in a bubble. Don’t force the season, but break the bubble.’

“That was local artist Zach Carney, a huge influence for putting my defeats aside, and recognizing my seasons. The songs I’ve been most proud of writing have come with that kind of support from well respected artists.”

“When Covid hit, I didn’t imagine the world would be put on pause for as long as it was. I didn’t think I’d be out of a job, and certainly not for as long as I was. I put some considerable money into my home studio and started writing. Breaking through depression, and uncertainty, I had something creative to be excited about. I’ve recorded songs in studios before, but being at the production helm brings a greater thirst for building, and the general how-to.”

“I’m old enough to have sat by a little gray and white plastic radio/cassette player, with a ‘record’ button on it, so I could call in my favorite songs to the local radio station, and be ready to record them when they came on. Several years ago I listened back on some of those tapes, and noticed how often I would record a song from the radio then, immediately after, I had recorded myself singing the same song in my prepubescent uncontrolled shriek of a singing voice. None of it was audibly pleasant, but I vaguely remember making those recordings, and feeling very satisfied despite that.”

Funnily enough, I began to write this column before I had even read Chris’ responses, so it makes this next paragraph even better.

“I always wanted to be a singer and a songwriter, but I don’t think it was really until I saw Jackson Browne in concert with my dad, back in 1989, that I’d say I really noticed the pull that music had on me. I only had a few weeks to listen to the mixtape my dad made for me to get prepared for the concert. Eight years old, sitting on my dad’s shoulders in a packed Sunken Gardens Theater, screaming out every lyric to every song I had heard on that tape. It was incredibly moving, even for an eight year old, and was somewhat the start of an addiction. I listened to Jackson Browne incessantly, and tried to use him as a major influence in my songwriting, lyrically and melodically. I never really shook what stirred me that long ago.”

“After our city was shut down, and venues closed, I took that opportunity to write more, record more, learn more, and in turn I fell in love with music all over again. The shows can wear you down. If you don’t put enough of yourself into it, they’ll feel too repetitive and restricting, and if you let it happen, you can lose your creativity and love for what you do. I’m pretty good at not allowing that to happen. I absolutely love what I do. I’ve noticed certain changes that happen when I’m feeling worn down, but my stepfather once told me that if I’ve always done something the exact same way, and then one day it’s not working anymore, it doesn’t matter what I change, as long as I change one thing. It was a really cool tip to figure out and isolate what was going wrong, and where I was feeling detached.”
Now for a little more of a glimpse into that inimitable sense Chris brings regarding the conveying of emotion, which, again, touches on what I began to write before talking with Chris about his process.

“I used to get choked up several times during my shows. I tried to feel everything that I sang so deeply that it would emotionally almost break me. It helped to emotionally connect with my audiences, even though nobody knew it was happening but me. I secretly loved it. A couple years back, I started to lose that deep connection with my songs, my voice and the way they stirred me. Through songwriting, and having my own self to discover, I get back to those moments consistently. There’s a point in every night I play that makes this job one of the best choices I’ve ever made.”

 

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