Fri., 10/21 • 8 p.m.
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
He did spend afternoons sitting on the porch steps with his great-grandfather, listening to tall tales. Cross, who will play Thalian Hall on Friday, October 21st, reasons those experiences are why he enjoys writing and hearing stories so much today. Still, music was a gift that only happened to fall in his lap, thanks to his college roommate.
“I just sort of turned to music as a fascination because when somebody tried to show me a couple of guitar chords, I realized that I had absolutely no idea how to manipulate a musical instrument,” he recalls. “I’ve been fortunate that most things I’d gotten into before, I had some kind of idea how to approach them—but music was just totally alien to me. I thought, Gosh, anything that I know so little about, I really think I ought to pursue.”
In his inquisitive nature, Cross found excitement in ritual-like practicing. Though it wasn’t an easy process, his patience paid off.
“I had to apply a lot of hours every day for a long time,” he says. “When I first started out, it was fun to explore the tactile possibilities—can I make my fingers do this particular motion or make this particular shape?”
He owes the fascination of challenging himself to the sports he loved as a kid. The focus, discipline and concentration applied in the long hours of learning the guitar as an instrument, too.
“Although we see [sports] as simple physical activities, the reality is mental concentration and analysis of what needs to happen next are a critical part of performing well on the athletics field,” he says. “I understood the more sprints I ran, the better shape I’d be in; the more times I threw the football, the more accurately I’d throw it. I approached the guitar the way an athlete approaches a new skill for their sport.”
Eventually, Cross learned the difference between major and minor chords (he says his musical sense of pitch was “infantile,” now citing the difference is as clear as that between red and green). He was then able to set music to his own stories, with folk-style picking and a scruffy voice bringing it all to life. His stories are often humorous, quirky ditties about backwoods families, and, sometimes, bluesy tunes of love long lost. “The songs and the stories are the characters and the action of the play,” he explains, “and the music is part of the scenery. It sets the context in a way.”
Cross picked up the fiddle in a similar fashion as the guitar: on a weekend trip home with nothing better to do. He bought the instrument for $50 from a pawn shop and set down to learn.
“The first week or so I played, the sounds coming out of it were so horrific that I actually put cotton in my ears,” he jokes. “But I did that to muffle the sound so that I could practice the physical techniques.”
He wonders what life might be like if he’d learned these instruments through standard lessons. Yet, his self-taught approach came most natural to Cross.
“One thing I’ve always had a fascination with in this world is the source of things, ideas, creativity,” Cross says. “I love to explore it from the perspective of a primitive who’s never done it before. Part of it is, I love solving the riddle of how to make this particular thing occur. Secondarily, I feel like that’s the way to find the essence of what’s natural and instinctive for an individual.”
Although the process might have gone a little quicker through traditional methods, his thirst for self-attained knowledge proved greater. “It’s only when you go traipsing through the wilderness that you discover things nobody else has ever seen,” he says. “It’s sort of a ‘Daniel Boone’ complex. I love the idea that even if I stumble upon something, and every other guitar player on earth has already thought of it, it’s a brand new discovery.”
Complex? Maybe. Or is it diligent creativity? Either way, Cross transformed himself into a respected artist, traveling North America and playing folk festivals throughout. He’s recorded 13 albums and, to this day, entertains audiences with convivial panache.
“It’s so amazing to me to listen to a recording from when I was a teenager—just a goofy guy who finished a football game and going to the Friday night dance,” he quips. “I can hear subtleties and nuances I’d never noticed before. I marvel that all that stuff could’ve been going on, and I was unaware of it. It would be like walking across the desert and not noticing the Pyramids.”
Mike Cross will play Thalian Hall Friday night, with proceeds from the show benefiting the purchase of a life-size bronze sculpture called “Comedy & Tragedy,” by Bets H. Lundeen, to be featured in Thalian Hall’s main lobby.