Braille Monitor                          December 2018

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Playing Your Hand: A Blind Songwriter Doing What It Takes to Live the Life He Wants

by JP Williams

From the Editor: JP Williams is a singer songwriter and accessibility technology professional who now lives in Nashville, Tennessee. Many of us know of JP’s work in helping to craft “Live the Life You Want” and other Federation songs. Here is the presentation that JP made on the morning of July 8, 2018:

So, what’s going on, people? How are you feeling? So if you believe you can live the life you want, let me hear from you. [applause]

What an honor it is to speak this morning. President Riccobono, thank you for the invitation. I’ve been excited about this for a long time and preparing for it, and I’m going to talk about two things this morning that a lot of people have already touched on, but I’m gonna tell you my take on it due to my experience and the path that I’ve taken. That’s expectation and collaboration, and to do that I’m going to back up and start from the beginning.

I was born with limited vision—only in my left eye, none in my right—in Clarksville, Indiana. [cheers from Indiana] At the age of four, fortunately I was introduced to Braille. They knew my vision was fading, and I would become completely blind. So they introduced me to Braille, and at the age of six, myself and my family moved to Dallas, Texas. Around that time, after my second grade year, I was placed into resource classes because of my blindness. It was determined that I would just go on to receive a certificate of attendance. I have to show my age. I’m forty-two. This was the early 80s, and at that time that’s where I landed. I had a single mom, and we didn’t know at that time that you could live the life you want. We didn’t know about the National Federation of the Blind. We didn’t know all of those things.

I’m fast forwarding. By the end of my junior year, I was sitting with my parents and talking about options and realizing, of course, that I didn’t have the credits to go to college. We got together and developed a plan that I would attend the Tennessee School for the Blind for two years. There I got four years of credits, and went to college and graduated. [applause]

So I have to say that I have empathy for the blind students, and I have empathy for the blind parents. I have to say thank God you are here, because now you have knowledge, and now you know the truth. [applause]

After college I moved to Atlanta, Georgia (I moved around a lot). There I was teaching music and playing a lot of different types of corporate gigs and going on the road as an independent artist. In the midst of all that, Nashville, Tennessee, would not leave me alone. So I started taking a Greyhound bus to Nashville—from Atlanta to Nashville once a month. I call what I did intelligent ignorance because I had no idea what I was up against. But I did it anyway because I wanted to go and place myself in an environment where I could succeed or fail, and that’s basically how you define an opportunity—if there is a chance of success, if there’s a chance of failure. The bar is set very high in Nashville; it’s the NFL for songwriters.

I started taking that Greyhound bus and calling publishers, trying to set up co-writes, getting hotel rooms, and in the year 2006 I took the plunge. I said I’ve got to go because I would rather go and get my answer then spend the rest of my life wondering what if.

I moved in, started a life, met my wife who’s with me here today [applause], and she said a cool thing: she said, “This is a cane-vention.” This is her first time here with me, so this is a cane-vention, baby. [applause]

I met my wife and just began the messy road of the music business. Eventually I landed a publishing deal, so for the past seven years I’ve been paid to write songs. It’s been amazing. When you get into expectations, through my experience in placing myself in an environment where the bar is set high, after that you start collaborating. I have to say that the National Federation of the Blind is one of the best places to collaborate. [applause] Think about how in 1940 if sixteen people hadn’t gotten together to collaborate, to develop a constitution, to help blind people, we would not all be here today. They got together, and we are all here, and it’s an amazing thing, and the collaboration continues. Figuratively this is a beautiful song that has been written and continues to be written.

People ask me all the time, “What’s it like as a blind person being a songwriter, a professional songwriter.” People show up in the room (I call it creative dating). My publisher will set up co-writes with other songwriters at other publishing companies. They’ll show up in the room, and a lot of times it’s the first time you’ve ever met. Sometimes it goes well and you connect, and sometimes it’s just, “Let’s go to lunch.” But one of the things that I have found, being the only blind person in the room, is that humor always goes a long way, not taking myself too seriously, but taking what I do seriously—that goes a long way. The idea is king. If it’s a great idea, it doesn’t matter who’s blind or sighted in the room. You’re all working toward a common goal: to write the best song, to create the best product. This is what happens at the NFB every day.

As an example of collaboration, my wife is going to bring me my guitar [applause], and I’m going to play you a little ditty. I got together one day with a songwriter by the name of Bobby Cumberland, and Bobby’s been in town a long time and is a very successful songwriter. We started talking about the roots of country music and how much it means to us. [JP begins to strum his guitar and play] So we got to talking about the roots of the music. We love the new stuff, but we hope that the roots of the genre are never forgotten. And that led us to start talking about the Grand Ole Opry. In the midst of that, we started thinking, what if the Grand Ole Opry was a person just sitting in a rocking chair telling you about his/her life? What would he/she say? This is what we came out with, and I was fortunate enough actually (this was another dream come true) to sing this on the Grand Ole Opry last year.

[There is no way to replicate this performance in writing, so those wishing to hear the song should go to https://nfb.org/images/nfb/audio/2018_convention_highlights/
july_8/am/05_playing_your_hand.mp3
.]

Another dream has come true recently. There are three things you always pray for when you land in Nashville: that you get a publishing deal, you get to sing on the Grand Ole Opry, and you hear a song that you’ve written or co-written on the radio. Well this song is number thirty-eight on the country charts right now. It was released by an artist named Jimmy Allen, it’s climbing the charts right now, and I’m so grateful to be a part of it. I got together with Jimmy and another buddy of ours, Josh London, and we wrote this song. Fortunately he went and recorded it. It’s called “Best Shot.” [He plays the song]

As I’m closing today, I’d like to leave you with a quote I heard recently that really spoke to me. That is, “Diversity is being invited to the party, and inclusion is being asked to dance.” [applause] So let’s all keep dancing. God bless you.

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