Carbondale’s Sue Krehbiel captures slices of life on her debut CD
November 19, 2009
CARBONDALE – Sue Krehbiel has been living in the Roaring Fork Valley for 25 years; before that, she had childhood and early adult years in Minnesota and New England. The 51-year-old singer-songwriter is about to release her debut CD – with a CD release party Friday at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale – and the title of the album is “Dusty Cleveland.” Given Krehbiel’s background, the title seems like a feat of pure imagination: She has never lived in Cleveland, and anybody who has wouldn’t think of the city as dusty.
In fact, there is not just imagination going on here. The album takes its name from the opening song, and the song comes straight from real life. “Dusty Cleveland” tells the childhood story of Krehbiel’s father, Jack. He lived on Cleveland Avenue in St. Paul, Minn.; the street petered out into an unpaved stretch where Jack and his friends would play. They called it “dusty Cleveland.” The detail of the story that Krehbiel latched onto was that her father didn’t have an alarm clock; instead, he had a string tied to his toe.
“So Bill and Jack next door would set their alarm, shimmy down the drainpipe, then pull on the string. I said, ‘You slept with a string on your toe?'” Krehbiel said. It was a tale that Krehbiel didn’t hear till relatively recently, but when she did, it struck her instantly as material. “He couldn’t have given me a better story. I ran inside to get a pen and paper, it was so fascinating.”
Krehbiel then worked her magic on the tale, turning “Dusty Cleveland” into a song about childhood and the special bond of old friends, the passing of time and the passing on of stories: “This precious story of another time/ In this man’s heart, my dad’s, now mine/ Of those boys who played,” the song concludes.
The album carries on with similar slices of real life, rather than flights of fantasy. “New Orleans” comes from a post-Katrina news story about a man who tried to commit “suicide by cop,” as Krehbiel put it, mowing down traffic signs and bating the police to kill him. (They captured him instead.) “No Matter What You Do” may be the most direct narrative of actual events ever, as Krehbiel runs down a list of the essential activity of things: “Seeds sprout, trees bud, blossoms bloom, grass grows,” and on and on to the ever-accepting chorus: “No matter what you do I still love you.” (It is a song intended for her 11-year-old daughter, Katelyn.)
“Almost December” and “Rancher’s Life” tell, quite literally, what Krehbiel saw outside her window. The former is about a next-door neighbor who developed Alzheimer’s, and the struggle of moving out. “Rancher’s Life” is about the people, also elderly, who moved into that same house next door.
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“It’s the best thing in the world to have elderly neighbors,” Krehbiel, a Carbondale resident, said. “They have such interesting stories and they love to have people interested in them.”
Locating the stories that surround her is the essence of Krehbiel’s songwriting. “I don’t write songs from imagination. They’re out of my life, or something I feel about life, or someone I’m connected with,” she said.
Krehbiel added that the skill comes with finding the universal elements of a real-life episode, and finding a balance on the emotional end. Too much emotion gets gushy for her tastes: “It gets too embarrassing to let people in that much, when you open up and bare your soul. That makes me a little uncomfortable.” But the songs focus on the most sentimental parts of life: illness, family, the way we speak to ourselves in our private moments. “It’s emotion that’s deep inside.”
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Feats of pure imagination just aren’t part of Krehbiel’s existence. For one thing, Krehbiel, while an artist, is also a practical person by nature. She spent one night last week making soap with Katelyn.
For another, working with the imagination – call it day-dreaming – doesn’t fit into Krehbiel’s busy life.
“I’m not a ‘songwriter,’ like it’s a discipline,” she explained. “It’s not that discipline that I sit down every day and write for a certain number of hours.”
In fact, Krehbiel began focusing on songwriting specifically because it didn’t require that sort of focused attention. Previously, Krehbiel had made visual art. But as her life got busier, with a child, and a business – Signature Framing in Basalt, which she owns and runs with her husband, Ken – she had to put aside making art: “I couldn’t do that with so many interruptions,” she said.
Songwriting, however, was conducive to working in spurts. So Krehbiel – who started borrowing her father’s guitar at age 12, and played sporadically through high school and at Vermont’s Middlebury College, where she graduated with a degree in fine art and a teacher’s certificate – moved her creative energy into music. She is a regular attendee at the Song School, the educational end of the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons. She has been an off-and-on member of local singer-songwriter Frank Martin’s band, and occasionally does opening, solo sets for Martin’s gigs.
Friday, however, is a landmark gig for Krehbiel. It will be the first time she leads a band; her group features Martin, bassist Doug Whitney and drummer Paul Valentine, all of whom played on “Dusty Cleveland.” (Martin also produced it.) And it will be the first time Krehbiel performs a full concert of her songs.
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While teaching art at Lawrence Academy in Massachusetts, Krehbiel became suffocated by the social atmosphere of a small private school. She decided to spend a season in Aspen, and got a job at Highlands. But she was badly injured during a ski race, putting an end to her plan to spend a winter as a ski bum – which meant she needed to spend at least one more year here. “To get it right,” said Krehbiel, who took a job crafting custom-made moccasins, followed by several years running the framing department for a photo print shop.
A good portion of her time in Aspen was spent in the bars, watching other local musicians. “I’d think, ‘I could do that,'” she said. “But I never would.”
The problem was stage fright. On the rare occasions when Krehbiel did play in front of an audience, it wasn’t a positive experience. “I could hardly play,” she said. “The adrenaline hit my fingers, and boom!”
In 1991, a friend brought her to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, known as much for the song-swapping in the campgrounds as for the formal concerts on stage. But Krehbiel was still so shy, she wouldn’t take her guitar out of the tent.
“But my friend took someone else’s guitar and shoved it in my hands around the campfire,” she recalled. “And that became a regular thing – showing up at Telluride with a bunch of new songs. It was an encouraging, welcoming community that made me feel more comfortable.”
Krehbiel even got up the nerve to enter the Telluride Songwriter’s Competition. “My mantra was: Get on the stage, get through the song, get off the stage. And I did – I got all the way through the song,” she said. More often, however, she made sure she didn’t have to get on stage by showing up too late to get into the contest.
In 1996, Krehbiel went to the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, a sister festival of Telluride Bluegrass, and heard people talking about something called the Song School. “I’d go, What do you mean, a Song School?” she said. The school was a workshop that led up to the Folks Festival, and the next year Krehbiel was among the participants. “That changed my life – 140 songwriters all together doing workshops, playing their songs at night.”
Krehbiel was far more comfortable with the writing process than the performing aspect. But all of the workshop attendees had to present their songs. Among those listening to Krehbiel’s performance was Frank Martin, who happened to work at a business that shared a hallway with Krehbiel’s framing shop.
“He heard me play and sing and said, ‘OK, you’ve got to go public,'” she said. “So he got me an opening gig at Steve’s Guitars.” It was a turning point: “It was the coolest thing. I did six songs in a row. Everyone made me feel relaxed and supported. I had never played more than two songs in a row before, but by the third song the adrenaline calmed down and it was fun. My fingers didn’t feel like sausages and it was a whole different experience.”
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Twelve years ago, a local musician, Rich Ganson, gave Krehbiel a wedding gift: the chance to make her own CD. But Krehbiel always found a reason to put off the offer – which ultimately may have been to her benefit. Ganson’s recording equipment and technique got better and better; Krehbiel’s songs became more accomplished and she gained experience as a singer and guitarist. Two years ago, she finally began in earnest the process that would result in “Dusty Cleveland.” The album, engineered by Ganson, features 11 songs, all original.
Krehbiel is still finding her way as a performer. She has had precious few headlining gigs. But she says the days of being nearly paralyzed are over.
“When things aren’t going your way, you get nervous. But I’ve learned to get past that,” she said. “It’s not even a big deal to say, Wait, I need to do that over. The nervousness, I use to my advantage now. To make it fun, not crippling.
“At 51, it’s time to let go: What are you worried about?”
As a songwriter, however, Krehbiel is a cool veteran. She attends the Song School each year, and even gets together with her circle of songwriting partners outside of those annual workshops.
“That’s my time when I go away from being mom, wife, business owner. And I get to be just a songwriter,” she said.
Krehbiel is even assured enough to offer critical insight on the art of songwriting and the world of writing workshops.
On developing her skills, she believes she has gotten way more from the group of writers she is a part of than the formal classes led by better-known musicians. “A lot of the great songwriters have nothing to tell you: ‘I filter it from the atmosphere.’ ‘I’m just the conduit.’ ‘There’s no rules,'” she said.
And when she listens to the radio, Krehbiel finds herself taking the role not of the student, but of the master.
“On the major radio stations, there’s not much good songwriting,” she said. “You hear the song on the radio and think, ‘OK … why did you repeat this line over and over? A lot of them should go to songwriting school.”