Donovan Howard Takes "Time" Out During Pandemic to Produce His Most Memorable "DIY" Album to Date.
Written by Renee Collins Cobb, M.Ed. and Warren Cobb, B.A., Listen Locally
Benjamin Franklin once said "Do not squander TIME...because that's the STUFF life is made of". In the most difficult of "times" which has left most of us with plenty of it, Livingston, KY's Donovan Howard has done everything BUT squander TIME in his latest album release. A collection of masterpieces which represent what I feel to be the absolute best of his most prolific songwriting style while capturing a lot of great STUFF from the Hall of Fame of what LIFE tends to not only throw our own way, but to also challenge us to make the best of what we do with it....while we still have TIME.
Not only has he authored the words and created the melody to every single track on his album, he has also managed to produce this album by playing every...single....instrument. Over the past decade or more, advances in recording technology have made do-it-yourself albums a relatively uncomplicated proposition to envision at least. Actually taking the TIME to do it right is another story. This process is the musical equivalent of putting together a 1,000 piece puzzle from very delicate and intricate shapes.
The album was recorded, mixed and mastered by Donovan in his home studio "Highway 490" and he is the only musician on the album. The purpose of this project was described by Donovan as "just a part of me keeping my sanity" during these difficult days of pandemic.
"Writing and recording has become the glue that holds me together - Especially with limited opportunities to perform live being what they are. So I write daily and record weekly and after I have a certain amount of material - it's time to release it."
Donovan has released several albums prior to TIME, however, this album differentiates itself as a country electric album compared to his last two albums that were more acoustic in nature and genre. He loves both approaches to the presentation of his music but writing so many songs over the years that he felt called for a "band" sound propelled him into swift action in creating that sound for his latest output of songs - and taking it one step further - he accomplished this band sound all by himself. He had actually held off on moving forward with this concept for four months before taking purposeful action towards accomplishing it. In late 2019, he had released a single from this project when a fan from Georgia emailed him and was desirous of hearing much more from this talented singer/songwriter. With an internal belief that one moves forward and risks becoming stagnant - Donovan said "what the heck" after this email and after realizing he already had written enough for his DIY album - it was just "TIME".
And as it turns out.... all he really needed was "TIME"
"Time can change most anything...take a young man's jet black hair and turn it solid gray. Time can mend a broken heart, no matter how bad it hurts, time will do its part.
The title track is by far Donovan's favorite cut from the album as he has had a lot of positive feedback and response from this introspective song. He has had people approach him after performing the song and tell him how much they have lived and experienced this story from their own lens. He is quick to say that he has not lived much of anything in his songs but that it is truly a blessing to connect with any individual on any level. Donovan has figured out one of the most critical aspects of songwriting and that is this - songs are most effective when the song is able to cross the imaginary line between the creator and the listener. Many songwriting experts suggest that writing music all about yourself all of the time can actually have a negative impact to one's own craft. Taylor Shuck, of Mama Said String Band, has explained that some of his songs are so sad and about difficult topics - his own mother calls him to make sure he is alright. Donovan describes his songwriting style as "influenced from folks like Darrell Scott, telling stores he has never lived- with just an ounce of his own life thrown in for flavor- like pepper, not salt. Salt is a must and pepper is purely flavor. I think every song I write has a little pepper of me or my life in it."
"Humans do some pretty interesting things if we just take the time to watch and listen"
In the very entertaining and memorable track titled "He's Just Cool" - Donovan outlines this very aspect of how humans are just by nature - incredibly interesting. With a honky-tonk feeling in the musical arrangement, Donovan describes that 45-year old man who always wanted to hang out with the high school kids and all of the characteristics of this man who compels us to just take the TIME to watch and listen. In the funny chorus, he proclaims this man to be not right...not wrong...just cool. And just like that we all take a trip back to that memory of the one person we knew who was "just cool".
In the song "Bible and The Gun" we get another musical taste of how important it is to watch and listen and to experience life just as it comes to us - infinite with possibilities especially with a taste of cognitive dissonance. Describing a man who always had "one hand on the Bible and one hand on the gun, until the Lord's work was done - the perfect oxymoron of phrases.
"Another huge part of writing for me is listening. A fool talks to hear himself where a wise man listens to learn"
The precautionary tales and what we lose and gain from them are clearly articulated, fully understood and even harshly realized in "Hard Lessons to Learn" and "The Last Alcohol". Stories about how a "desperate man is a dangerous man - when there is no where left to turn" and a journey about "thirteen days on the wagon being gone again" with one single decision.
"No matter where I lay my head at night - You are always in my heart"
In the opening track "Always In My Heart, we hear the prophetic tale of the doomed relationship when one loves a "ramblin' man" and all of the things that can go wrong in that relationship - being a coward not to want to stay while someone is begging them to do so but being brave enough to proclaim that "no matter where I lay my head at night - you are always in my heart".
In the closing track, one of our favorites makes an appearance titled "Was It Just a Lie" with a true country sound and driving beat carrying the story while describing many of the things we have been TOLD over the course of our lives that may have or may not have been true - things like "the world is round", "eat your veggies- drink your milk", "finish what you start" and "Superman always wins when he gets in a fight" and challenges us to look at all of these "rules for success" by asking the simple question - was it ever the truth or always just a lie. Another entertaining and wonderful way to end this incredible overview of the best of what Donovan Howard has to offer the fan of the Music of Kentucky.
"I am a storyteller who is a hobbyist anthropologist who loves music...all music"
Photo by Jim Cundiff of Off The Trail Photography
We asked Donovan a question reflective of what we inevitably challenge all musicians we have the honor to interview to dig deep to answer and the question is this: What does music do for the soul? Donovan described music as something that touches him deeper than any feeling he has ever felt.
"It is so engrained in our daily lives that I cannot imagine life without it. Think about it. Go to the store - it is in the background. In your car or at work, it is on the stereo or piping through speakers. At the doctor's office, it is subconsciously calming the nerves. We celebrate a marriage with it and we mourn a loved one with it. It's the fiber of our existence."
"The remaining tracks of "Time" - "Living in a Small Town", "Lonewolf Cry", "Old, Fat and Country" and "X's and O's" just further demonstrate to the audience just how Donovan's self-described statement of purpose of being a storyteller who digs deep into the fiber of mankind and the fabric of life to truly seek alignment in what we say with what we ultimately do. This album reminds us that it is perhaps TIME for us all to pack up our own bags and take a trip back to what is truly important. Hans Christian Anderson said "when words fail - music speaks". The music of Donovan Howard has truly spoken and is clearly heard and understood in "Time". While this concept of an album of this nature had been marinating in his mind for awhile - it seems all he really needed was.....TIME. This may be an unexpected positive consequence in the form of a gift from the pandemic given to Donovan at just the right moment to be paid forward to the rest of us who call ourselves fans of his songs and presentation of those songs. We are just thankful that we all have "TIME" now to enjoy... not only for ourselves...but for those from generations to come.
Renee and Warren Cobb are the Co-Presidents/Owners of Collins Consulting Group, Listen Locally, LLC and Co-Executive Director of Room 17 Productions, a nonprofit organization that promotes music education. Renee is the former host of Red Barn Radio and radio shows titled "Overtones" and “Gray Matters” - a show about unconscious bias” which airs weekly on WLXU, Lexington Community Radio. Warren is the former Assistant Producer and Talent Manager for Red Barn Radio and now serves as the Executive Producer for "Overtones LIVE from Austin City". They are also the project managers for The Sara Holroyd Oral History Project, The History of the UK Cheerleaders Project, The Greg Austin Story and I Am Diversity at the University of Kentucky Louie B Nunn Center for Oral History. Renee has also served many years in the organizational effectiveness, diversity/inclusion and human resource development fields. She serves as an executive coach, keynote speaker, organizational consultant, facilitator of change and team development coach.