Guest written for ABOUT by Robb McCormick
Phil Higdon’s small frame was relaxed and, though, he walked with a cane he seemed chipper and spry, hardly relying on it at all as we hugged and found a quiet corner in a busy restaurant for lunch. His silver hair and Gandalfian beard was shiny and well groomed, a trademark for those that know him around the River Valley. Phil is a soft-spoken man. He always has been, at least since I’ve known him, which impossibly adds up to about 20 years now.
Phil, now 64 years young, started playing classic rock before it had the word “classic” in front of it. “It was just called rock back then,” Phil jokes. What do you call a man who’s been playing music for over 50 years? What do you call someone who never held any notion of making it big but whose love for music, passion for people and history have kept him on different stages throughout the past five decades?
I’d start by calling him a troubadour.
“Where did it all begin, musically, for you?” I asked. Of course it began where so many children find a lasting love for music, in a classroom with a great, encouraging teacher. “My most influential teacher was probably Mrs. Sanders, my choir teacher,” said Phil. “She taught me from first grade through the 12th. When I was 15, she asked me to play the guitar with the choral quartet.” This was Phil’s introduction to the stage and spotlight.
In sixth grade Phil played both piano and his dad’s Harmony Archtop guitar with Black Diamond strings. Black Diamond Strings, Phil recollects, could also make excellent survival saws. “Especially that big E string,” he said with a Santa Claus wink and smile.
Phil was finally given his own electric guitar when he was 15. He played folk music and loved finding an audience in the assemblies at school. “In 1967 The Ballad of Springhill [a song about a coal mining disaster], made famous by Peter, Paul and Mary, was one of my favorite songs to play. I was attracted to the storytelling from the beginning.” The same week Phil was to play it for a talent show, there had been a similar disaster in the Kentucky mines. Phil changed the words at the last minute to fit the current news and his classmates and teachers loved it.
Phil grew up in the sixties, when folk music was becoming mainstream. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, John Prine, and other voices resonated in that era. They were writing world-changing songs. And it was songbirds like Phil Higdon that brought this new music to northwest Arkansas. At the time, folk music was considered dangerous because it carried hippie ideas, crazy ideas like peace, love, and equality. Phil was pushing borders before most of us were being pushed in strollers. Barry McGuire’s prophetic Eve of Destruction and Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin and Blowin’ in the Wind, have been in his playlist over the years, and we talked as music fans about the relevancy of those songs even today. We came to the conclusion that those songs are still relevant because the times are still’a-changin’ and the answer is still blowin’ in the wind.
I first met Phil after wandering into Higher Grounds Coffee Shop and seeing this silver beard behind a microphone, singing and playing these old songs. I was intrigued. This is when Higher Grounds was still upstairs on the corner of Commerce and Main Street, and Pam Burns, the owner and a music lover, brought live music into her coffee shop. I distinctly remember the smell of roasting coffee when you’d reach the top of the stairs and Christmas lights glowing in the window, silhouetting performers against the cityscape.
I sat there, in the soft worn fabric of the couch that would sink in so low you needed a buddy’s help or an armrest to get up out of it, countless nights. It was like the world slowed down for little bit when Phil played. His soft, hushed tones forced us to listen. His playlist was very different from other performers at the time. Phil included histories about each song, how they maintained their relevancy, some even beyond the composer’s life. He didn’t realize it, but that was our classroom. Phil and other seasoned performers, like John Cotton, were our teachers. He wasn’t just teaching us to be a performer on a stage, he was teaching us how to write songs that would outlive us. From the coffee house seats I heard Don McLean’s “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” and John Prine’s, “Sam Stone” from Phil’s lips and for the first time. These are songs that hold powerful, profound lyrics dealing with mental anguish and PTSD.
For 33 years Phil worked in mental health services, serving others primarily as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor. Music had a cathartic power for Phil. He listened patiently to people’s problems, helping them move past trauma, all day long. Then he would come home and unwind. “Zachary, Eva, and Jesse [Phil’s children] definitely have memories of me strumming songs from the 60s and 70s as they drifted off to sleep in their rooms,” Phil said. “It was the soundtrack to their youth.” During his lengthy career, Phil has had to deal with the death of clients. Many were self-inflicted. So many, in fact, that he had to stop counting. But Phil used music to help him cope. And while he doesn’t call himself a songwriter, inspiration has forced pen to paper more than once. “Twisted Minds” was a song he wrote about suffering the loss of his patients and trying to cope with grief and guilt.
Another song, “Grace,” was written for his wife of almost 40 years, Diane. Phil met Diane in his second year of graduate school. Diane’s dark hair and brown eyes are what first attracted Phil, and we shared a laugh about brown-eyed girls being our kryptonite (my wife, Jeri, has brown eyes, too). In just a few months, Diane and Phil will celebrate their 40th anniversary. When asked about the secret behind 40 years of marriage, Phil replied humbly, “Compromise and forgiveness. Don’t expect the other person to change into who you want them to be. Love them as they are.”
Wise words from a wise friend.
Phil has been involved as a political performer as well as an activist with his music for over half his life. In rural Arkansas, perhaps in the whole state, he was one of the first people to form a community band of mixed ethnicity back in the 60s. “Music,” he said, “is transcendent of race, age, creed, or sex.”
Phil’s playlist today includes an eclectic mix of works ranging from the ancient to the contemporary, from the 1400s to the 1980s. When I asked which songs spoke to him in more recent years, he was quick to mention Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. “Really it’s so beautiful,” he said thoughtfully. “It was too good to pass up playing.” Phil doesn’t miss a beat when I reference the original Nine Inch Nails version of “Hurt” versus Johnny Cash’s. He’s even quick to note that Cash’s interpretation of that song was much like Jeff Buckley’s version of Hallelujah, in that it became the definitive version.
Phil has always given back to the community. “Throughout college, I volunteered at a hotline for drug abuse and suicide prevention. And for a year I volunteered as a teacher for kids who dropped out of high school.” He has also been a faithful guitar player at his church, Grace Fellowship, for 35 years, where he still plays today.
In 1999 Phil started suffering from painful diverticulitis, which led to his first surgery in 2005. The ailment became more complicated when an autoimmune disorder attacked his surgery wounds, putting Phil back into the hospital to undergo emergency operations. He spent eight days in ICU and three months total in the hospital. When I visited him in the hospital after that last surgery, his long silver beard and white hair were the only part of Phil I recognized. His arms were bruised and swollen from needle pricks and medicine. Phil became depressed. He feels that he was given a choice, there in the hospital, to live or die. He chose to live. And after recuperating, he continued working at Counseling Associates in Russellville until 2009 for total of 31 years.
Eventually, as is bound to happen with all musicians, our conversation turned to gear. Phil has a nice collection of instruments, but the one that he is most proud of is the Taylor 712 CE. He said it’s because of how it was acquired. An old friend was writing a painful autobiography, and due to Phil’s work experience and their close friendship, the friend asked Phil to act as sounding board for some raw segments. As a gift for his time, and as an act of appreciation, the friend offered to buy Phil a nice guitar. Money was no object. Phil could choose the one he really wanted. Phil was unsure at first but his friend reassured him that it was going to happen regardless of whether Phil made a choice or not. Phil, who describes himself at this point “like a kid at Christmas,” took his time and finally found the guitar of his dreams and a small amp to go along with it.
Phil is a humble man. He never expected a soaring music career with big lights and fast cars. He’s never demanded things from people. His shows are almost reminiscent of a college professor teaching his class regardless of whether students show up or appreciate it at the time. He has learned from life and now he is giving back the way he always has, through the joy of music and storytelling. Phil was the last person to think he would ever end up on the cover of a regional magazine like ABOUT, though, I can’t think of anyone more deserving of recognition. Phil is a troubadour, a bard who marches to the rhythm of the voice he hears guiding him, a man with no pretense about him, a straightforward, faithful, honest, hard-working, music loving, some would say, ol’ hippie of a man.
After lunch, we leave each other with a selfie and a hug and smiles on our faces. Both of us looking forward to another day of music and the blessings that comes with it.