Songwriter etches pandemic survival paths in fifth album


HAHIRA – Billy Bruce is a singular individual with a unique musical vision. He writes songs and he approaches the art with passion and conviction. He sings his songs. He records, engineers and produces his songs, and makes them commercially available.  

Foremost a percussionist, in addition to singing the solo voice on his recordings, he plays drums, miscellaneous percussion, keyboards, bass and guitar. His versatility and knowledge of popular music, both past and present, his poetic vision and sensitivity, and his incessant drive to create, combine to produce a style that is distinctively his own. 

In “Paradigm,” his fifth offering of totally original material, his creative energy is obvious. The 10 compositions show significant musical growth and development.

The lyric, an essential component of song composition, is an element that literally can make or break an artist’s work. With “Paradigm,” Bruce’s lyrics seem to have reached a new level and are possibly the strongest of his five releases.

He was born into a musical home in Miami in 1954 – an especially fertile period of American popular music when a rebellious genre defined culture and was the first youth-driven style. Bruce and rock ‘n roll grew hand in hand.

Comfortably seated in his home studio, preceding a furious downpour on a humid Hahira afternoon, we discussed his life, music, travel, food, musical instruments, the effects of digital computing technology and the evolution of “Paradigm.” Bruce recalled with a smile his introduction to music and the importance it played in his family’s life.

“My dad had a violin, but was not a serious performer, never studied the instrument, but loved music. My earliest musical memories are of our Sears Silvertone Stereophonic console record player in the living room, and my dad playing 'Oklahoma' and 'My Fair Lady,'" Bruce said. "And my mother, oh, I can still remember her beautiful soprano singing voice. She played piano and sang, was a very good player. She could play the entire Baptist Hymnal.”

Bruce was drawn to his mother’s spinet piano, which he now owns. Although he was not formally trained, he began developing the ability to play by ear. At his 10th Christmas, among the glee under the tree was a rudimentary Kent snare drum and cymbal. The following year he was the proud owner of a full, blue sparkle drum set. The die was cast.

Junior high school band followed. It was a stroke of luck that at Jacksonville’s Fort Caroline Junior High School, Bruce’s first school band director held a Ph.D. in percussion performance. The director recognized his student’s potential, took him under his wing and saw that he received private percussion lessons.

His father’s career as a U.S. Steel sales representative led to the family’s Valdosta residency in 1968. Bruce continued school band membership at Valdosta Junior High School as a prominent member of the percussion section (during which time I met and taught him) and at Valdosta High School. 

Following high school, and by then a seasoned rock band drummer, Bruce entered a peripatetic phase of his life courtesy of road band gigging, the U.S. Air Force, completion of an English/journalism degree at Valdosta State and an ensuing journalism career.

But paying road band dues, scribing under harsh deadlines and world travel were not enough. His inner voice had not been captured and he yearned to express himself musically. He began honing his lyric writing skills and assembling equipment for a personal recording studio, which finally came to fruition in the 1990s in his Daytona Beach home.

“As I moved with my journalism career from Daytona Beach to Naples, Fort Myers, Tallahassee, then back to Valdosta in 2007 and Hahira in 2014, my recording studio –dubbed The Links Studios – came with me,” he said.

The technical progress of his recording studio enabled Bruce to begin reaching his goal and his dream of writing and recording his own material. With the earlier albums, “One Lane Bridge,” “Caxambas Pass” and “Future Comes Early,” and the recent “After the Rain,” Bruce has maintained a heated pace that reveals a greatly matured songwriter and producer.

We discussed the genesis of “Paradigm.”

“I had developed a habit of picking up my guitar right at the time my wife had just gotten under the covers at bed time and strumming some chords briefly to serenade her," Bruce said. "Sometimes I’d make up a funny song to make her laugh. But, often, as I was trying to finish the album, I’d be exploring new song ideas.”

Creative individuals have always been challenged by the process of capturing their creative outbursts at the initial moments of inspiration. Bruce solved this with a Dolby app on his iPhone. No fear of losing that idea while scrambling to find pencil and paper, definitely one of the positive points of technology. When song ideas poured out, he could instantly store them electronically. 

“Paradigm,” released in April, features musical journeys, some birthed in those pre-slumber sessions, including “I’ll Be Back in a Hundred Years” and “Whirlwind.”

"'With ‘I’ll Be Back,’ I was using the motif of space travel that artists like Harry Nilsson, David Bowie, Elton John and others have used, in a somewhat cynical, humorous way to escape the 2020 world of COVID pandemic and political chaos by taking a 100-year journey out past the Milky Way to see what else might be out there besides this mess at home,” he said.

Bruce sings, "I’ll be back in a hundred years, But I won’t age a day on my interstellar ride. I’ll pass suns and moons galore. Earth’s really a bore." With a chuckle, he added, “When I get back in a hundred years, none of you will be here."

On “Whirlwind," there is a definite Pink Floyd feel and atmosphere – a slow, drifting, ethereal melody Bruce found while exploring chords on a left-handed Fender Stratocaster, gifted to him from local musician and music store owner Ben Owens. 

“The song just jumped off the frets one night before bed. And the words came simultaneously. I had the whole thing in 20 minutes, albeit at 11:30 p.m.,” he chuckled. 

“Whirlwind” summarized the crazed chaos of 2020: "Life is such a whirlwind. It changes course unexpectedly. Not certain like true math – arriving at an equation’s answer. The mystery’s at the end."

The tenor of this album reflects confidence and cautious optimism, his paean to survival, not only in life, but also in the unforeseen challenges of recent months. He described the process of composing the title track.

“I had started writing the song 'Paradigm' in 2018 on a guitar, and it was my way of expressing how grateful I am to have been able to come this far, surviving everything life has thrown at me,” he said.

A paradigm can be a war, an economic crisis, a family crisis, a health crisis and it can be good things – a marriage, birth, business or career success, or promotion, he explained.

“But I was leaning more towards how we have to face the unexpected – life’s curve balls. Paradigm shifts never stop until life in this realm ends.”

My initial reaction listening to various recorded demos as the song “Paradigm” developed was that it was rooted in a progressive style with a Donald Fagen feel. It hinted of Steely Dan more for the mood and ambience, than the harmonic progression or punctuated accents.

Bruce noted that one of Fagan’s goals for Steely Dan was to record smarter, more cerebral music that takes more serious consideration and effort to create.

“That is an issue Frank Zappa spent his entire life attempting to change in popular music,” Bruce added.

Bruce pushed for more difficult progressions on “Paradigm” by using tougher time signatures, like the double-drummed tracks producing the title track’s swinging swagger, the swap between 5/4 and 6/8 time on an instrumental “Infinite Revolver,” and a strange swap of 7/4 and 4/4 time on “Earth Is Flat.” And he entered an unexplored realm with the instrumental “Paradigm Horizons,” a score in which he utilized more than 25 tracks to complete.

He called on a growing stable of musicians to participate. They included ace guitarist Roger Brainard of Atlanta and Valdosta players Paul Guilbeau (sax), Ferrell Moore (guitar), Jerry Newman (guitar), Luke Smith (guitar). Eddie Chadwick played bass on two tracks. Danny McKee, a retired IT tech from VSU, provided the album’s artwork –then assembled by Bruce with graphic design skills he acquired with a VA scholarship at Wiregrass Tech. 

Each of these fine artists added their distinctive voices and greatly contributed to its success.

The songs of “Paradigm” explore myriad subject matter. There’s Bruce’s comical jab at The Flat Earth Society after a street encounter with a few of their members in Jacksonville on the song “Earth Is Flat.” There’s a tender tribute to his wife with a sort of Michael McDonald-Doobie Brothers feel on “Eyes of Hope.”

He wittingly assails the severe ongoing political divide in America about the failure of the Left and Right to communicate with the song “We Could Be Talking.”

“I was attempting a Led Zeppelin-like syncopated rhythm on that one,” Bruce added.

The Paramount Network’s series “Yellowstone” starring Kevin Costner and Costner’s country rock band Modern West awoke Bruce’s own life experiences living in and traveling in the West, which inspired the song “Ode to the Modern West.”

“I really think ‘Modern West’ is my favorite track on this album because it really does evoke so many fond memories of Texas, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and California,” Bruce said.

He compares the music in “Modern West” to a combination of Elton John in his "Tumbleweed Connection/Madman Across The Water" era with a Marshall Tucker feel.

“The music has a Western drama that I was able to raise to a climactic end I was not anticipating. It surprised me. When you witness the Grand Canyon, drive through the painted deserts, walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, stand next to towering cactus in Arizona, visit the O.K. Corral in Old Tucson, look down standing atop the Rocky Mountains outside Denver, hitchhike the Pacific Coast Highway or stroll through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, you cannot go away unaffected.”

His lyric, "Dallas cowboys don’t ride horses. They just drive big trucks. Some are called Canyons, Some are called Rangers," takes a poke at the “Urban Cowboy” period when Bruce frequented the Dallas area while serving in the Air Force in Abilene, Texas.

“Gilley’s was a real place, you know. But I never looked right in a cowboy hat,” he said with a laugh. 

Also on “Modern West,” Bruce explained his own juxtaposition of being a Southeasterner playing music derived from country & western lore, an experience he had playing drums for The Outlaw Summer Band in Abilene, but also shared with Valdosta guitarist Jerry Newman, who traveled with Bruce around the Southeast to as far away as Philadelphia in the Montana band.

Bruce’s childhood musical experiences, schooling, journalism career, and military years, satisfied international wanderlust, curiosity, sensitivity, and unique brand of humor all contributed to the concept and realization of “Paradigm.”

It is his crowning musical achievement. His goal of making his fifth album his strongest was met.

The music can be heard by subscribers to major streaming platforms like Spotify, Amazon Music, iTunes, Pandora and others. CDs are available at Bruce proudly states that the first run of manufactured CDs is depleted but you can find a few copies on sale at Ben Owens Music in Remerton.

Ed Barr is a music educator and leader of the Ed Barr Orchestra which leads the music for the Annette Howell Turner Center for the Arts' "American Soundtrack Vol. VIII" scheduled for 6:30 p.m., Aug. 7, at the Rainwater Conference Center.

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