Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Reflections on the first-ever 2010 House on Christmas Street tour, one year later.

It was just about a year ago that I set off on a remarkable journey to promote “The House on Christmas Street.”  I’d gotten the bright idea in May that it would be really cool to travel around the country and perform at the homes of Christmas decorators who use the song in their displays. I hoped it would be a fun treat for them and it would be beneficial to publicizing the song as well.   I did not want to charge them my regular performance fee, but I did ask that they provide me with lodging at some sort of motel, hotel or the like for the night that I would be there.  I also asked that they work to get as much publicity as possible, and that they collect for a charity.  I posted on a couple of the Christmas Decorator networking sites and soon had several emails from folks who invited me to come to their houses.  I began to plan the route.
When I first began planning, my husband was very concerned.  He couldn’t imagine how I could cover the cost of such  trip, even if the lodging were free.  We are not well-to-do people, partly because I have spent so much of our married life working as a musician, which is an up and down life.
But almost as soon as I began planning, amazing things happened.  First, I got a message from Paul Toole in the UK, asking if I would come to England on the tour. I laughed and said I didn’t think I could drive across the ocean, and maybe another year I could afford it, but he replied and said he would cover the cost of the entire trip.  I was floored.  My trip to England was so much fun and it bowled me over that it was all because of a song.  Paul and his friend Chris and I became fast friends, and now, here I am a year later, back in England courtesy of Paul.  This is the first WONDERFUL thing that happened because of the decision to do the tour.
The second thing that happened is that some of the decorators I’d corresponded with came forward and said that, although they could not host on the tour, they would like to donate money to cover the gas expenses.  Again I was bowled over. One guy, named Roger, asked me to set up a PayPal button on my website so people could make donations, and I set up a reward system for different contributions.  In the end I raised almost exactly the amount I needed to cover the gas.  Another miracle.
The first stop on the tour was England, and I flew out of New York.  My daughter lives there, so she dropped me off at the airport and kept my van for the time that I was gone.  The very last day I was there (here) I found out that I’d gotten nominated for a Grammy Award for my latest children’s CD.  Another miracle. 
My flight back to the States was delayed because of snow, and this would really put a jam on my tour plan, but when I got back to the USA my daughter volunteered to drive me to Tennessee, so I could sleep in the car and still perform the next day.  She was wonderful.  We had a great time and it was really good for me to spend that time with her, as I miss her so much now that she is grown and on her own.  She came to the performance and had lunch with Mr. and Mrs. Chuck Smith and me, and a good time was had by all.  I got her on a plane back home and the rest was up to me.
I know I don’t need to go into detail here about every aspect of the tour, because, if you read the blog I kept while touring you know most of what went on.  But some people have asked me about my reflections, and so I’m going to do my best now to tell you what is in my mind and heart about the whole experience.
First of all, it ended up to be more fun, more uplifting, more amazing and more exciting than I ever could have imagined.  I would do it again in a heartbeat.  And, in fact, I am planning on doing again in 2012.  And this year I am doing one concert here in England, and a little mini tour down south by "popular demand."
I have to backtrack a little to give you some history in order for you to really understand how much this whole experience meant to me.
I have been a working musician all my life, but didn’t go into it full-time until 1997.  I have built up a good reputation as a childrens musician and love what I do, but everything came to a crashing halt in 2004 when I was diagnosed with Temporal Arteritis. 
Don’t know what that is?  Neither did I.  But my doctors were astounded because this is a disease that is usually found in the elderly, and I was 45 when diagnosed.  This disease causes swelling of the arteries in your head and can make you go blind, and after that it can spread to your heart and kill you. It presented with a giant lump on the side of my head, and when the surgeon cut me open to biopsy it, he actually said, 'Oh my God!"  That was reassuring.
The only treatment is long-term high doses of,  Prednisone, which is a steroid.  This is the stuff that Jerry Lewis was on for some time, and why he looked all puffy and strange one year on the telethon.
I don’t want to go into too many gory details, but I was on that stuff for over three years and had just about every side effect that goes with it, especially during the first 14 months or so when the dose was at its highest.  I got high blood pressure, mood swings, “moon face”, gained weight and got cataracts in both eyes. The stuff affected me so badly that I couldn’t do a concert without breaking into a sweat, and if I did do one I could do nothing the rest of the day but lie in bed.  Plus I looked so weird that it was disconcerting to some.  So I stopped doing concerts for much of the first year, until they started to taper off the Prednisone.  I have no disability insurance, and we used up most of our savings during that time.
 I lost bone density, and in January of 2006 I slipped in my driveway and broke my ankle.  I was pretty much housebound for six weeks.  I got the cast off early in March, and one week later I was back in the hospital with a blood clot in that leg.  I had to stab myself with needles in the stomach for two weeks until the oral blood thinners kicked in.
This was the lowest point of my life. It seemed that just as I'd made it to the light at the end of the tunnel, the light went out again.  
I’ve been a Christian all my life, but I have to admit that at that time, in my bed with all of those medications on my nightstand, I began to question my beliefs.  Why was this happening?  My family was suffering from my illness, our finances were getting desperate, and my career was at a standstill.  I kept asking God what the point of all this was.
My Pastor came to visit me at home during this time and prayed with me, and one of my friends gave me a mustard seed in a little case on a chain that I could wear as a necklace.  She said all I needed was faith as big as a mustard seed, and that’s about all I had at that point.  It was really rough.  Everyone close to me said that God was preparing me for something, but I couldn’t see that at all.
I finally got off the medication at Christmas time 2007, and have been able to resume a normal life, but it took a long time to get back on our feet financially and to revive my career.
However, I do believe that going through that gave me the ability to appreciate the good things in life so much more.  I thought of that time a lot while I was on the tour; how, when I was sick, I could never have imagined that one day I would be doing such a crazy and wonderful thing.  People were right…I think God was preparing me for something, because you know what? It made me braver, and more aware that every single day needs to be lived to the fullest.  I believe the experience made me more able and willing to embrace what's out there in life.  So when I got the idea to do the tour, I wasn't afraid at all.  I didn't even think about being afraid....and it surprised me when people asked me how I could go traipsing around the country by myself, because I hadn't even considered that it might not be safe.
In the end, the number one thing that I took away from the tour was an uplift in spirituality.  Everywhere I went people welcomed me with open arms and said they had been praying for me.  And when I left they said they would continue to pray for my safety and success on the tour.  I got a great send-off at my church, and encouraging notes from church family and friends throughout the trip. Just about every time I heard from somebody they said they were praying for me, and I felt it.
Even at the times when I was driving in the dark on slippery roads through mountain passes I could feel the power of the prayer that people were putting out there for me.  I felt uplifted into the Lord’s hands.  I from the tour returned stronger in my faith and more trusting that God knows what He is doing.
Another thing for which I am grateful is the friendly way I was received into each family who hosted the tour.  People went out of their way to make sure I was comfortable and well fed.  Here were strangers who knew me not one bit, really, who were so happy to see me that they hugged me the minute we met.  People cooked wonderful meals for me,  took me out to eat, and constantly expressed their happiness that I was there and that I’d had a safe trip.  I remember each and every family fondly and with great gratitude that you would take a stranger into your hearts and homes and treat her with such kindness.  I was brought to tears receiving an official “town brick” in Texas and a key to the city in North Carolina.  I was delighted to share my music with folks in a nursing home at one stop and to sing with a back-up chorus of children at another.  The Charpiats of Pilot Mountain made sure I got a tour of “Mayberry” and even got to visit the jail and see the sheriff conduct a wedding.  Z-Man in Woodinville, WA surprised me with a special duet partner…the one and only BOB RIVERS!  Everywhere I went I met people full of love for each other, for Christmas, for music, for God.  I was constantly infused with happiness and joy and I pretty much flew through the miles.
So many memorable things happened it would be difficult to list them all, but I hope everyone knows how very much I appreciated your hospitality and kindness, your prayers and your laughter and your generosity.  I also owe a great debt of gratitude to all the people who came out to see the shows.  In some places it was so cold we hardly had an audience, but in warmer climes there were people jamming in the streets.  I think it is safe to say that at each concert a good time was had by all.
I am grateful for the friends I made along the way and I hope you know I will never ever forget you.
Several people have asked me if I was scared at all on the trip.  Not really.  Even when I ran out of gas one early morning (I think I wrote about that here?) and was stuck on the side of a major highway I was not scared.  I felt the power of God taking care of me and I was actually pretty calm.  The time the Garmin took me off the highway and across two hundred miles of desolate Indian reservation land in the middle of the night was very eerie, but I was never really concerned for my safety.
I saw the whole thing as a big adventure, and it was fun to share my thoughts and photos of the trip with folks through the blog and Facebook.  The feedback that I got from friends all over was so encouraging.  I felt that you were all with me; and so I was never really alone.
I did miss my family a lot while I was gone and wished they were there to share the adventure.  I missed my daughter dancing in The Nutcracker, but I am thrilled that I will be home this year to see her dance the part of the Snow Queen in this year’s production.  Everybody in my family was very supportive of the trip, so that made things much easier.  I am blessed to have a husband who believes in the dream, who understands me and how much I love to perform, and who has faith in me.
I didn’t miss my house, however.  I’m not a homebody.  Home for me is wherever my family is.  I would much rather be out on the road, like a traveling minstrel, than be at home.  I know some people will think that’s weird and I can’t really explain it, it’s just the way I am.  Taking off in my van gives me a feeling of excitement and boldness and a thrill that is beyond explanation. 
Some interesting observations from the tour:

To a family, every single host had a bigger and nicer house than I do!

It’s not always warm in Florida.

Most decorators have some sort of a pet, mostly dogs.

Women can do great displays too….and even get Santa up on the roof!

It’s good to have Triple A

Christmas decorators have big hearts 

There are lots of supportive spouses out there who put up with a lot of nuttiness during the season.

Christmas decorators are really proud of their displays!

If there’s a display on the outside, chances are the inside is also decorated…many with little villages and train sets…

It’s not a good idea to take the keyboard outside in December in Indianapolis

Christmas decorators support each other…at many of the stops our audience included decorators from other towns who had made the trip to see the display and concert

In closing, I want to once again say a GREAT BIG thanks to Richard Holdman, who called me at the last minute before I left on the tour, and very humbly asked if I might stop in Utah so he could do a video for the song.  I had no idea who he was or his reputation for amazing displays and videos.  I found out that not only is he the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet, he is generous to a fault.  If you’ve seen the video he did, then you can obviously tell it is a high quality production.  It looks like it cost a million bucks, but Richard and his partners did the whole thing for free for me.  It’s been vastly exciting to watch it grow in views last year and now this year, and I owe all of that to Richard Holdman.  As far as I’m concerned, he’s the best.  I hope someday that I can do something for him to repay his kindness and generosity.

In the end, I’m not sure the tour really accomplished what I’d set out to do.  I’m pretty sure I didn’t get any more radio airplay for it, but that’s okay.  I gained much more personally than I ever expected I would.  My life was enriched beyond measure by meeting and interacting with so many wonderful people, and that’s why I agreed to a couple of "mini" tours this year and am planning a large tour next year.

When I lived in Nashville in the 80's I belonged to the Nashville Songwriters Organization, whose motto was "It all begins with a song."  Boy!  Is that true!  I was blessed with the idea for that song and continued to be blessed by the wonderful response I've gotten about it.  “The House on Christmas Street” continues to grow in popularity, and for that I am grateful.  But I am more grateful for having been taken into the hearts and lives of so many people who have added their spirit to my life experience.  I hope you all know that you’ve changed my life in so many great ways, and I have a special place in my heart for you.

Maybe I’ll see you next year?
Before I go, I do want to invite you to post your thoughts and memories of the tour if you were one of the hosts or came to any of the concerts.  I know people would be interested in your perspective as well.
Merry Christmas!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Here We Go Again!!

Merry Christmas!  I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving with people you love and that your plans for the Christmas season are going smoothly so far. It's exactly one month until Christmas, so I thought it was time to come back to The House on Christmas Street blog and begin documenting once more my quest for a Christmas hit.
Last year's tour memories have stayed with me in my heart and mind throughout the year.  I just had so much fun being on that adventure, that I've decided to do it all over again next year!  So many people have contacted me and asked me to come to their homes for concerts that I've started an "exploratory" list of people who are interested and I'll begin planning in earnest in January.  So, if you think you'd like to host me for a concert at your place during the Christmas season of 2012, shoot me an email on my website and I'll put you on the list.
During the past 11 months or so I've brainstormed and explored ideas for promoting the song, and I started thinking about maybe hiring a record promoter.  In case you don't know, a record promoter usually works for a record label, and is responsible for contacting radio stations to try to get them to play the records released by that company.  In the past several years I've heard of independent record promoters who work with people like me who are not signed to major labels, so back in May I started looking around for someone who worked with music like mine.
I did a lot of inquiring and vetting potential people, because, as you can imagine, it's not cheap to do this.  I finally settled on one outfit that came highly recommended, and who made me a very reasonable offer to promote the song during October, November and December.  So far progress is slow...they send me weekly reports of the stations they are talking to....and in the next post I'll list the stations that are considering adding the song to their playlists.
Right now I want to get back to talking about touring....because, although I had decided I would stay put this year, some things came up that managed to lure me away!  So this Sunday I am getting on a plane and flying back to the home of decorator Paul Toole in the UK to once again sing at his annual light switch on.  After we'd made the plans, Paul was approached by Channel 4  to be a subject of a documentary on Extreme Decorating.  He was so excited he called me and told me they want my performance to be part of the program, which will be shown in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales in mid-December!!  Then I got a call from an assistant to the producer to get all the clearances and to inquire about getting some clips from Richard Holdman's wonderful video that they could use to promote my appearance. It's all unbelievable! I'm so excited...but, I'll admit, a little nervous. This could be a huge break for "The House on Christmas Street," so I don't want to blow it by looking stupid or forgetting the words or something!
When I come back from England I'll be home for a couple of days and then I'm hitting the road in my Sienna and heading for Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina for some concerts with the the folks who hosted me last year and one new host.  I'll try to write more about those plans within the next couple of days.
Right now I'm kinda tired....droopy-eyed.  We traipsed all over NYC yesterday watching the parade and hanging out with our beautiful daughter Emma.  I gotta get some rest!
Thanks for reading this!  And PLEASE keep watching the Holdman video and sharing it with your friends!!
I'm convinced that if it goes viral that will be THE key to it's success...and I need all the help I can get!