“Greg McGarvey, when are you gonna write me a song?”
Count The Colors, recorded in my beloved Bucks County, is a ten-song tribute to my late former partner Marcella, one of the biggest champions of my music and art.
I had to raise the bar considerably to create work that was worthy of Marcella’s memory. I didn’t give up on these songs until they felt like little music movies, as emotionally gripping as the moments that inspired them.
Happy Birthday, Marcella.
Keep scrolling and I'll tell you more about the songs.
“Count The Colors”
This one starts in her hospice room. It was right off South Street in Philadelphia. The day before she died, my musician friends Nick Crocker and Righteous Jolly both independently came up to the room to sing to her. Their instincts simply told them it was time.
So we performed two concerts for her that day. She wasn't talking by then, but one of my friends later told me she dreamed that Marcella told her, "tell him I could hear him."
Nick took me out to eat at Ralph’s Italian Restaurant and then drove me home. I left my guitar in Philadelphia.
Her sister was playing a recording of the previous day’s performances when she finally let go the next morning. She made it to autumn.
In this song, I pledge to remember the beauty of her free, artistic, loving spirit more than her dark final days.
How about that fiddle? Frank Burk met me an hour before a performance in Bucks County during which we debuted most of the album for a small crowd. I like people who are not afraid to improvise - it proves they're playing and living in the moment.
I learned harmony at Phil Everly's feet, at the Everlys’ concerts and on their records. I’ll never get to that particular mountaintop, but it’s fun to climb it anyway.
New York City
She always used to say, “text me when you’re home.” She had to know I was OK.
We met on Leap Day, a Wednesday. The previous Wednesday, my house had burned down. My dad had had his second stroke about three weeks before that.
I needed a distraction. I spot a cute Italian chick from a nearby town. She’s wearing a nice hat. I say, “nice hat.”
She deserved a less distracted version of me. And a better opening message.
My friend Pier’s mandolin makes this song even sweeter for me. I want to slowly float down the river of this song in a canoe.
A dual citizen of Italy and U.S.A., Marcella was a born traveler and loved nothing more than being on the road with people that she loved.
I started this song in Nashville, but I kept rewriting it. There wasn't enough heart in it. The Everly Brothers made me feel like it was OK to wear my heart on my sleeve.
A year after Marcella’s passage, I found myself in Nashville with my dad on what turned out to be our last trip together. Dad had slowed down a bit by then, so I spent a good amount of time driving and walking around the city on my own. Something about being removed from the structure of my life back home opened me up and I found myself writing frantically.
I was thinking back to the post-Christmas vacation Marcella and I took two years earlier, from The Everly Brothers’ hometown of Central City, Kentucky to Nashville, where we rented a room from Pete Drake’s son and his wife on Music Row.
We made a game of finding famous gravestones. I think I might’ve found Johnny Cash, but she found Ike Everly and Chet Atkins. She never let me live it down.
She knew there might’ve been bad news coming in the new year and she was determined to give me my dream vacation while she still could.
It was our last chance to be free together. There we were, driving around the south, buying up all the rest stop junk food, eating at great restaurants, wandering around graveyards, making up songs in Jack White's record booth. Just having the time of our lives.
I love when the band kicks in. That’s Joe Falcey on drums, Kyle Perella on lap steel guitar, Mike Kiker on piano, Nick Crocker on acoustic guitar.
For the headphone listener, Kyle’s lap steel is mixed a little more to the left, Andy Keenan’s pedal steel is a little to the right. They couldn't hear each other's parts, but ended up complementing each other spookily well.
Shelby Street Bridge, Nashville, Tennessee
“No Grays And Blues”
"you know I could hear you sing"
I received many gifts in the weeks following Marcella’s passage. The best was my nephew Nolan, born two days after the funeral.
Friends set me up with tickets to see Neil Young at Philadelphia’s Academy Of Music. I got a ticket to see Don Everly sing in Cleveland.
But one of the best gifts was a note that Marcella’s aunt sent me on her behalf. She’d written it in her final weeks. She told me in great detail how much she loved me, and also that I deserve to find love and happiness after she’s gone. She said that to the man she loved. And in a way, that’s all you need to know about the kind of person she was.
I started thinking about the poem she wrote after our first date. I didn’t know what it meant, so I figured I would write a song around it and see if I would understand if I sang it.
I also wrote into the song some of the things she wished for me in her final letter, sort of as a way to make sure I never forgot.
This one gives me goosebumps every single time. Probably because she wrote the words.
“Something So Beautiful”
On our second date, I took her into my partially burned-down house. Set for demolition sometime later that year. I showed her my old bedroom. All the things I had to leave behind. Like some bizarre, semi-charred, water-damaged museum of my old life. All the music made, love made, art made. The many existential crises. All the searching for something beautiful. The unmistakable stench of a place that has recently been on fire.
"You were the sunlight that made the glass shards glisten like diamonds if you looked at them right."
I take words she spoke to me and turn them back on her. “How could you make something beautiful in a place like this?”
I’d been singing at the bar where we used to hang out. I followed her and, on the way home, she suddenly stopped in the middle of the road. She thought she hit a deer, but we couldn’t see any sign of one. Must’ve just missed ‘em.
We just stood there, sometime after midnight, on this stretch of the road where there’s nothing but big fields and big skies, until she stopped shaking. I liked being there to make her feel better. A moment so simple that it could easily be forgotten. I’m taking that moment with me.
It might have been the day of the funeral. I was milling around her back patio alone; my first time at her house after she passed on. All her stuff was still there, but I could never talk to her again. I had one of those intense cries where you become your own extreme weather event for a few minutes and afterwards you’re left feeling cleansed but with a lot of debris to clean up.
It was only a few weeks earlier, on the last day that was able to speak clearly, that she told her aunt, if she could be anywhere, she’d be wandering around Chapel Hill with her family and me. I remember suddenly showing up on the back porch one day when she didn't expect me. I'll never forget how she beamed when I turned the corner.
“We didn’t wait ‘til the sun came out. We’d just turn the key and drive.”
Philadelphia's Magic Gardens
“Specks Of Paint On Your Fingernails”
My nephew does all the introductions on this album. He was only three when this was recorded!
I'm not much of a piano player.
I remember one day in her music room, she sat next to me on the piano bench as I began to play a few bars of some long-forgotten tune of mine. She was in tears within seconds. This lady was a musical spirit. Probably still is.
I wrote this and many other piano tunes in her music room.
I get chills every time her spoken part comes up and she reads the meaning of her name. Of course she was a young warrior.
When she crossed over, she had specks of paint on her fingernails.
Topsail Island, North Carolina
“Layers Of Winter Clothes”
Back to Nashville, Dad’s asleep on the bed next to mine at the hotel. After a multi-year dry spell, my spirit feels renewed after spending part of the night writing songs in the stairwell.
I have a dream about meeting Marcella in a bar. It’s kind of like the one we would go to in New Hope, but it’s different. I sing the song “Wichita Lineman” to her and we both break down in tears, holding each other. Her fever returns and we both know that it means she has to die soon.
We faced her death together, in a way that we hadn’t done in real life.
I woke up and cried those top-shelf, cathartic tears.
Songs Our Daddy Taught Us showed me that it's OK to keep it simple and just tell the people a story.
This song has my favorite Kyle moment on the whole album. We just kept turning that guy up.
Lambertville, New Jersey
“Knit Hat Girl”
On our first date, we drove to a few places in Philadelphia. During this drive, she asked to hear my latest songs, songs that flowed out of me one snowy night in New Hope. She liked all of them, but “Knit Hat Girl” was the one she’d ask about the most.
Putting this song cycle together, I saw an opportunity to reimagine the lyric for “Knit Hat Girl” and give it to its biggest fan.
This one had such a journey from its first demo in January 2012. Woozy, nonsensical, pretty far off-the-rails. I love where it ended up once I decided to make it good enough to give to Marcella.
The coda gives me goosebumps. Frank Burk's fiddle!! And that mysterious Italian cellist. They left the studio so fast that I never even caught their name.
Yes, Gabbi and Tommy - this song is about Chellie.
“Here In The Future”
It’s the future now. I’ve lost a lot of members of my team, but I’ve gained just as many. I’ve got a lot to be thankful for.
Sounds like another band song, but the band is only Joe Falcey and me. There's me playing two acoustic guitars, singing two vocal parts, playing two piano parts, playing bass, and playing slide guitar on my Jazzmaster through my spring reverb and a slightly cranked '59 Fender Deluxe clone. All captured and mixed perfectly by Pier.
Might be more than a little Ben Keith influence in my slide playing.
There's the wind chimes that Bill and Michelle O’Keefe sent me after Marcella's passing.
There's me kicking the spring reverb! Spring reverb is an expensive habit of mine.
There's Penny saying "yay!" You can hear Mom (AKA Grandma McGarvey) in the background.
Carrboro, North Carolina
Well, this album has a song or two that I hesitated to even put into the world because they’re so sad. So I figure, in the interest of balance, Count The Colors can certainly have a really goofy song. Although, if you love gummy bears as much as I do, this song is deadly serious.
She knew I had a gummy problem. She was a gummy enabler. She’d get me them Haribos in bulk. Just like she’d get me my favorite pen in bulk. And piles of classy new clothes each Christmas, each birthday.
If you reverse that one clip near the end... you still won't understand what Marcella is talking about. Something about Betty? Barb? Beats me.
Sequencing is important. A little kazoo goes a long way. Somehow, I don’t feel sad or depressed when I get to the end of this song cycle. It makes me feel excited to be alive and able to use my time doing beautiful things with beautiful people.
Mount Laurel, New Jersey
Vineland, New Jersey
I took my time with this material. I live-tested the songs on stages all around the Delaware Valley and beyond. I played them at her family's restaurant. I played them for strangers in bars who didn't know the story.
Gone now for much longer that I knew her, Marcella still motivates me with her bravery, her selflessness. I love telling people how she donated much of her hair to Locks of Love during one of her periods of good health. This lady was no joke. To be loved by her was intense, and a privilege.
During her final illness, I documented our changing relationship through prose. The writing gave me a sense of purpose and a way to maintain my sanity. I captured the darkness but also the humor and love that transcended the sad scenes we were experiencing. The messages I received from others showed me that it was a good idea to filter these events through my creative prism.
The hospice concert and the performances at her funeral and burial were healing for me and showed me that music would play a big role in moving on with my life without leaving her behind.
I first told our story through an art show called A Few Moments with Marcella at a coffee house in Bucks County. Then the songs came.
Initially funded by the generous support of my fans, this project was delayed by the death of my parents, budgetary constraints, and COVID-19. My parents saw to it, though, that the work would be finished.
I hope these songs will mean something to you, too, and maybe even inspire you to build your own monument to someone you love. Or even just hit Record on your smartphone the next time somebody starts telling stories from the old days.
“Be with me when I sing.”
Lawrence, New Jersey
August 21, 2020