Prelude: As I waited to interview Tracy Richardson I noticed that, inside the Conservatory of Music building on the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College campus, relief sculptures of angels adorn the top of the doorways. Tracy is an amazing woman: wife, mother, musician, teacher, music therapist, performer, songwriter and author. As I drove away after the interview, I thought to myself that those angels are surely watching over her, and that is a blessing for us all. You can learn more about Tracy Richardson at tracyrichardsonmusic.com.
Brian: Where did you grow up?
Tracy: Just outside of Bridgeton, Indiana, on a farm.
Brian: I read that you started playing the piano when you were nine years old. Was being a musician your dream at nine years old?
Tracy: I don’t know. I just always loved music. When I was even younger than that, about six or seven, my grandpa had an old upright piano (which I now have in my house), and he played by ear. He would let me sit on his lap and put my hands on his hands as he played. I felt like I was playing, and I loved that feeling. The first album that was given to me when I was 10 was Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman! There was something about the piano that drew me to want to play it. Before I even took my first music lesson, my parents bought me a piano when I was nine, and I took music lessons immediately.
Brian: You played in a band at the age of 15. What was the name of the band and what kind of experience was it?
Tracy: Yes, it was my first bar band. The name of the band was Arizona. Kevin Mattingly was lead singer. I was a high school sophomore, and the other guys were out of high school. We had a garage in Rosedale where we practiced. I remember our first gig was just down the road from here (Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College) at a place called Dick's Northlake Tavern. It was a little shack bar out in the boonies. My parents were there almost all of the time, and the guys in the band were like typical big brothers always watching out for me. I played keyboard and sang. The neat experience about that was that it helped me as a musician. Playing in those bar bands really develops your ear, because you don’t get the sheet music. Musicians are poor; they don’t go out and buy the music, and they wouldn’t even buy the record. I would sit with a tape player by the radio, and then I called the DJ and requested the song I wanted to learn. When the song came on the radio, I would record it and then listen to it over and over and try to learn the chord changes.
Brian: How long were you in that band, and were there other bands?
Tracy: I was in the Arizona band probably a year and a half or so, and there was another one, just like other musicians who go from band to band.
Brian: Did you upgrade bars?
Tracy: Well, maybe a tiny bit (LOL). I went to one called Break Point, a Clinton-based band. After that I was in the Don Morris Band for about five years. We played all over the place; around here and then we would go up to Chicago and down to Nashville, Tennessee. We were kind of all over the place for a while.
Brian: Were you going to college when you were playing in those bands?
Tracy: Yes, I was a full-time student here at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College for much of that time, playing in the band on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and sometimes on Sunday, and then getting up to go to music classes at 8 a.m. on Monday morning. It was hard. After my freshman year at college, I thought, “I don’t really need college. I’m just going to do this roving musician thing,” and I didn’t come back for registration for my sophomore year. My advisor, who was a nun, called me at home, and she said, “Honey you’re not here for registration.” I said, “Oh, I’m just going to do the musician thing for a while.” She said back to me, “Nope, you need to at least take one class at a time and keep your foot in the door or you will never finish. It will be too hard after you start making money. You’ll get married, and you’ll have kids. It will be too hard to come back. Just take one class at a time.” So for two years that’s what I did. I just took one class at a time. It took me six years instead of four to get my bachelor’s degree. She was right! I probably would have never finished without her advice. My advisor was Sister Laurette Bellamy, and she was completely supportive. She is one of those people who has been at the fork-in-the-road for me on several occasions. She is the one who got me back to teach here. I went to practice as a music therapist in town, and then when they needed someone to fill in for a semester, I came back. I filled in for a semester 25 years ago, and I’m still here.
Brian: You have had such a diverse career. Who were you most influenced by?
Tracy: Well, I have to say my parents influenced me by supporting my love for music 100%. Then Sister Laurette was a huge influence on me just because I don’t think I would have finished college without her. She also got me my very first interview as a music therapist in Terre Haute. I had just finished college, and I was going to move to Nashville, Tennessee. She told me there was a job for a music therapist. I said, “In Terre Haute?” She said, “Yes.” So I interviewed for that job and got it. And then she is the one who asked me to come back here to teach in 1995.
As far as musical influences, there are so many, but I always fall back on Carole King, The Eagles and Karen Carpenter. Those are my foundational influences.
Brian: How did this little girl from Bridgeton, Indiana, achieve such an amazing career as a musician, writer, educator, therapist and author?
Tracy: Oh, that’s really sweet. Well, I don’t know. I just feel like I have just been putting one foot in front of the other. When I was young, before I came to college, I wanted to be a Nashville star. I wanted to be a singer, songwriter and tour. I thought I wanted that life. And then, as things happen when you put one foot in front of the other, when I came to college there were no classes called Becoming A Star 101. So then I thought, “What am I going to do? Well, I am going to study music because I love music,” and in the process the college was just starting a music therapy program, and I stumbled upon it. When I was in the band with Don Morris, he told me one day that he volunteered over at Devaney Elementary and played music for the kids with special needs, and he told me I needed to go with him to see what happens. So I went with him one day, and Don pulled out his guitar and started playing songs the kids loved to hear. The kids had special needs including physical limitations, and some were non-verbal. But they started to open their hands to clap and started singing. I came back to my advisor, Sister Laurette, and asked her to please tell me there was a profession that does this. She told me, “Oh there is, and it is called music therapy, and we are starting a program.” I told her, “Well, I want in.” And that’s when I started studying music therapy.
I have never stopped loving being a musician and songwriter, but I got married, started having kids, and my focus was on my marriage, my kids and work and things like that, so my music was set aside a little bit. Now my children are 27, 24 and 19 years old. About six years ago I started thinking it was about time to do more with my music, and I started writing more and getting back into that part of myself, and it feels really awesome.
Brian: That was your AH-HA moment for becoming a music therapist. What was your AH-HA moment as a musician?
Tracy: I really don’t know. I think it is just in my DNA. I think I have just always known that was what I would do, and it is who I am.
Brian: Was there a moment in your life when you felt like you weren’t going to be as successful as you thought you would be?
Tracy: There have been lots of moments in my life where I have had to shift. When I got married in 1989, I knew I wasn’t going to do the traveling musician thing anymore. It was a choice. My family became my focus. I felt like whatever I was going to do in music was not going to be central. I was working full time, had a young family. and I had to go back to school to get more degrees to improve my situation at the college. Things shifted.
Brian: But you never lost your confidence?
Tracy: I think I have gained confidence in music and songwriting over time, because I came back to it as a seasoned human being. I never did feel super confident as a young musician. I always felt that I had way more to learn. I am gaining confidence. I feel like I am a musician and that every musician has insecurities and things that they feel more confident in. You just keep going. Every day I put energy into music, because it’s what I love. When you put time and energy into something, you are naturally going to gain some confidence. But I still have a lot to learn!
Brian: As a writer is it the same thing?
Tracy: As a writer it is just putting in the time and being open to studying great songs. I joined a songwriting group in Nashville about eight years ago. We meet online and in the summertime there is a conference in the Nashville area that we all go to. What has developed through that is a daily discipline of writing. Even if it isn’t songwriting, it might be just sitting down for 10 minutes doing free-flow writing and tapping into my creativity. The leader of the group challenged us to write every day. That’s actually how my book came about was from writing every day and writing about things I knew about.
When you write songs every day, you start to get better. There is a saying, “10,000 hours to mastery.” Putting in that time and writing as much as possible will make you better at whatever you want to do. I feel like all of those experiences are never lost when you are putting it toward something creative. I really feel like every human being is creative. Everyone has a creative need. Some people do art and media, ceramics, painting, music, theater, and other people like to do dance, cook or woodworking. Even though I didn’t get to go to Nashville when I was 20 and become a big star, who’s to say that that’s not for the better, because all of these experiences that I've had have helped me be a better musician.
Brian: As a songwriter, what do you write about and what inspires you?
Tracy: One of the things that inspires me the most is nature. I don’t always write about nature, but somehow being out in nature inspires me to write. Every morning I walk. This morning it was beautiful; pitch black, but the moon and the stars were out, and that kind of experience just wakes my brain. I do put nature into some of my songs, but not all of them. I have a song titled, “Pine Needle” and another one called “Moon In The Morning.”
Brian: What inspires you as an educator?
Tracy: That was fortuitous. That was Sister Laurette asking me to come and fill in as a teacher for a semester. I had no desire to be a teacher. It was the thing that kept me from doing music education as a career. I didn’t want to teach music. I wanted to be a musician. However, I agreed because it was just one semester, and I was pregnant with my second child, and I would be staying home anyway, so this was a good way to make a little extra money before I had my baby. I didn’t think I knew how to teach. I read the whole textbook before I started the class. It was a small class, and we just worked through the chapters. I was just kind of dorky sometimes! I had my Gumby collection and that was my illustration to the students of an important aspect of being a music therapist. On the final exam, I asked them, “How is a music therapist like Gumby?” The answer, which we had talked about in class, was “You always have to be flexible.” A music therapist might walk into a session and might have a specific plan for how to work with this little boy with autism, but that little boy might be in completely different place than he was the week before. And, we have to go with the flow and be willing to throw away the plan and go with what that child needs today and how we can use the music to help that child today. That’s how I learned I was a decent educator. The students gave me good remarks, and the college asked me to stay. I thought, “Okay, everybody thinks I’m a teacher now, so I’ll be a teacher now!” A lot of times, musicians are very self-focused. As a musician, it’s all about promoting yourself, promoting your music and putting yourself out there, and that’s all well and good, as that’s a part of it. But when you are an educator it’s really about helping the student go as far as they can.
Brian: What about your students, do you have many that have been successful?
Tracy: Certainly, we have undergraduate and graduate students that are doing amazing work. They are doing research, and some are working with children in pediatric hospice situations where children many times don’t survive. They do songwriting and other amazing things with them. Many of my former students inspire me with their work.
Brian: You have done all of these great things in your life, and now you have written a book and recorded a CD. Tell me more about that.
Tracy: The songwriter group from Nashville that I belong to has an online forum, and I posted comments about some of the things I was writing about in my life. And the group kept telling me that I had to make it into a real book and had to publish it. I really didn’t think it would happen, but I just kept working on it. I had a sabbatical this fall, and that allowed me to finish the book and my CD.
Brian: The first line in your book titled, Who Moved My Cape, reads, “I won the spitting contest at the County Fair…no not the watermelon seed spitting contest, the tobacco-spitting contest.” Seriously, you did that?
Tracy: Yep, the Parke County Fair in 1979, and I was the first girl to win the tobacco-spitting contest. I was dared by the girls in my 4-H group to enter it.
Brian: What about your CD?
Tracy: The woman who encouraged me to write the book (Amanda Williams) knew I had this song called “Superwoman Blues.” I started writing about all the things women have to juggle and all the messages we get, and how we have to fight those messages. She told me that she thought I had a packaged deal going on. I didn’t really believe it until I just kept writing, and it started coming together. I had Bryan Bromstrup design the artwork for my CD cover, and I ended up branding both the book and the CD to have that superwoman theme.
Brian: How many music albums have you done?
Tracy: I have done three. The first one I did in 1997 was titled Tracy Richardson. The cover on it is a photograph of the inside of the Bridgeton Covered Bridge. That CD is all original songs except for the last one. It is “Desperado,” which is one of my mom’s favorite songs and has always been one of my favorites to play. My publishing company is called Bridgeton Raccoons Music, because a raccoon was our mascot when I went to Bridgeton through the 8th grade! The next album was in 2016 and it is titled Live At the Cecilian, which is the name of our auditorium here at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College where I recorded it. All of the songs on that album are songs I wrote or co-wrote.
Brian: Do you play any other instruments besides the piano?
Tracy: I play the guitar a little bit. As a music therapist you have to become well versed in piano, guitar, voice and percussion.
Brian: When I called you about arranging a time for this interview, you were in Nashville. What were you there for this time?
Tracy: Usually when I go down, it is to have writing sessions with a couple of people. The main reason I went this time was to be part of a celebration of 50 years in the industry for the gentleman (Ron Oates) who produced my new album, Superwoman Blues. So I went to help his wife put together the party for him, and to go to the party. Talk about full-circle experiences. Back when I was 15, 16 and 17 playing in those bands, we were learning songs by John Conlee, Earl Thomas Conley, and Dolly. I listened to all of the wonderful country songs, and I was always with my little tape player trying to learn the songs. The piano parts were sometimes beyond me, and I would get so frustrated trying to play those parts. Long story short, Ron Oates, the gentleman who produced my Superwoman Blues album, was the piano player playing those parts all those years ago. I just happened to meet him in Nashville a couple of years ago, and I was just immediately exited to meet him. It is something we don’t think about enough as listeners. In other words, who are we listening to? I have a lot of friends (and a husband) who read the album liner notes carefully. My husband is a drummer and will be like, “Who is the drummer?” on an album. Then he will say, "Oh yes, they played on so and so album.” I never thought like that. I’m a big picture person, and I didn’t always notice who the musicians were on the albums, other than the lead artist. What you realize is that they are using some of the same session musicians on many songs, and those musicians don’t always get much attention.
Brian: The love for music just showers from you. What do you think your next step is?
Tracy: I don’t know. I am just going to keep writing, and I would love to do another album soon. Maybe a Christmas album? I have written a lot the last few years. I think I have some good songs and hope to write some even better songs! I always say there are two things that hold you back from doing things like recording an album and it is time and money.
Brian: I am really interested to see what your next body will be.
Tracy: Me too, I have no idea what it will be, but I am still writing, so by the time I get around to making another CD, I’ll have enough to choose from.