RIP Bill Withers

april 3, 2020

i’ve been an obsessive music fan since I was 16 or so, but didn’t pick up a guitar and try to start playing in earnest till I was 22. Up till that point I’d told myself any number of excuses and outright lies: “all my friends learned music as kids; it’s too late for me now.” “playing music is reserved for a select few talents.” “listening to music is magical to me; by learning it, I feel like I’ll spoil the mystery.” a bubbling stew of complete, utter bullshit!

Bill Withers was 27 when he started learning guitar. Before that, he’d served 9 years in the navy, and lived a wholly different life. His hauntingly beautiful music and his understated style touched me deeply and still does. As a strident collector of facts about my musical heroes, I clung this one hard: If Bill Withers started playing music at 27, can I start now? 

What warped my brain to make me feel I had to be “allowed” into this world of music playing? By simply being himself, Bill helped shatter that notion. The secret is that there is no secret: all you need to do is enjoy playing. You may not achieve the level of songwriting success and mastery as Bill. Who cares? Success was never and should never be the point; learning a simple yet incredibly moving song like “Lean on Me” or “Ain’t No Sunshine” on guitar… the joy that brings alone is worth buying an instrument and going at it.

I’ve talked to a lot of people on airplanes, in rideshares, at shows that say they have a keyboard, or guitar, or harpsichord gathering dust in their basement that they’ve been meaning to learn. I’m extremely quick to get on a soapbox, almost to the point of grabbing their cheeks and shaking them: “IT’S NEVER TOO LATE!” Because it truly isn’t! If you haven’t, give yourself the gift—the simple, ecstatic bodily joy of singing and playing a song you enjoy. By doing so I often feel this deeper connection to the artist who made it, and learn more about myself too. And when we’re done social distancing, you can explore the even deeper joy of playing that song with others, or take a group lesson at a place like Denver’s wonderful Swallow Hill, which I highly recommend.

Many people have the free time to learn an instrument now. I can’t of a better time to pick up the instrument and look up guitar tabs for a song you love or YouTube tutorials on basic chords.

Bill Withers — thank you for your inspiration and beautiful music.