THE ACT OF MANIFESTING ONE’S TRUE DESIRES TRANSCENDS MERE ENVISIONING; IT NECESSITATES AN UNWAVERING “SURE-MINDED AND RESOLUTE PERSPECTIVE.” TO BECOME AN “AGENT OF YOUR OWN DESTINY” REQUIRES A “PERSISTENCE OF VISION.” CERTAINLY, GREAT MOTTOS TO LIVE BY, AND WHILE THEY MAY RING FAMILIAR, SUCH WORDS ATTAIN MORE PROFOUND LEVELS OF WISDOM AND ELOQUENCE WHEN DELIVERED BY THOSE WHO EMBODY THEIR ESSENCE.
MICHAEL NASH, MILL VALLEY LIVING’S FEATURE RESIDENT THIS MONTH AND AUTHOR OF THOSE WORDS, DID NOT COME BY THOSE ATTRIBUTES WITHOUT YEARS OF INTENTIONAL DEVOTION TO HONING HIS CRAFTS AND, IN TURN, HONORING HIS BELIEFS BY ACTING UPON THEM.
By Tami Larson
It’s been one year since we first sat down with Nash, founder of the non-profit Roots and Branches Conservancy and Sound Summit, the annual music festival held at the Mountain Theater on Mt. Tamalpais. He was then preparing for what ended up nothing short of a smashing success, Sound Summit 2022. We realized during that first interview, intended to help promote the upcoming event, we had a much bigger story on our hands. We’ve since had several opportunities to speak with and learn more about Nash, which recently included witnessing him work non-stop backstage while the audience enjoyed the fruits of his labor; another remarkable Sound Summit 2023.
As you will discover, Nash would have it no other way. Honoring the proverbial wisdom of “let the wise do the talking,” we tell Nash’s story here by sharing excerpts of our recent conversations with him. We hope you enjoy learning about his fascinating journey to the Summit.
MVL: So Michael, here we are, the second day after Sound Summit 2023, the 7th Sound Summit. Wow! Just when you think there’s no way this year could top the last, you did it again. I can’t remember the crowd ever being that loud embracing all the bands, especially the ones many haven’t heard about or, at least, never seen live for the first time. Anyway, congratulations! As you know, we’ve been excited to finally tell your story despite it being a little hard based on your humility and wanting to stay “backstage,” so thank you again. Let’s start with you sharing a bit about your upbringing and influences. What led to some of the decisions you’ve made over the years in choosing the music for the festival? It’s obviously very eclectic.
Michael: I think it starts with choosing something that you love or think would resonate with the audience. I’d say it’s really important if you’re a good promoter – and I don’t really even fancy myself as a promoter, more a producer of this singular event – to keep your ears open to what’s happening everywhere. Not just heritage acts that you know a certain demographic may love, but also what’s going on now. There’s a lot of fabulous music out there. Some of us are constantly exploring, and some stay in their comfort zones, which is cool, too.
Michael: I love so many different types of music. Jazz, soul, funk, folk, blues, roots, rock, and beyond. So what’s fun about this event is that it allows a certain freedom to mix things up a bit. Back long ago in San Francisco, as you well know, Bill Graham used to have iconic blues and jazz artists open up for rock and psychedelic bands of the day, and it exposed those young audiences to a heritage of music that’s deep and rich and resonant. I always thought that was a very cool thing. A lot of people I’ve talked to said they learned about older bands and other genres from going to these shows back in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. I think Sound Summit is an opportunity to play with that in some small sense, since we’re not doing this year round, we’re not in the business of being music promoters like so many others that we know well in the Bay Area. So, it’s not the same type of headspace. And I always say the venue is the star. My thinking is let’s have a party, a great backyard party, and this is the best backyard you are going to find anywhere.
MVL: You got that right! So, what about your upbringing? Any standout influencers from early on in your life?.
Michael: When I was young in the ‘60s the soundtrack was everywhere. On your transistor radio, on the car radio, on television, and of course performed live. And no matter how young you might’ve been, you couldn’t escape having this revolutionary music be the soundtrack of your life. It was off the hook – enchanting, animating, inspiring. And so I sort of became addicted to my transistor radio. Late at night when I was supposed to be asleep, I would pull the covers back over my head and listen until I literally fell asleep to whatever stations were playing – and eventually to underground FM radio, which had a whole different vibe than the pop charts. There was a famous radio station in LA that every week had their Boss 30 countdown, and I would take my little Craig cassette recorder and record that from the radio so I could listen to it again and again.
The radio was just a source of constant nourishment for me. And when I learned about these FM underground stations, where you would hear everything from John Coltrane to the Grateful Dead, I started getting a very liberal education in music. That was the great thing about that format. It was free-form radio. DJs could play what they wanted to.
I also started playing guitar with friends and learned to play a lot of the tunes of the times. And then I began going to concerts when I was 14. I’d seen Woodstock when it came out and the whole film blew my mind. Richie Havens, among many others, had a big impact on me. He was so very powerful. I saw that he was playing down at the Santa Monica Civic, not far from where we lived. I had to go, of course, and that was the beginning of a whole new agenda for me. I started seeing other artists from Stevie Wonder to Neil Young to The Who and many more while I was still pretty young.
MVL: Not to get off subject but didn’t Neil just have a concert celebrating 50 years of something?
Michael: Neil’s been doing his thing for so long that I’m sure he’s always celebrating 50 years of something! (laughs) But, yes, he just recently played a pair of shows at The Roxy on the Sunset Strip commemorating the 50th anniversary of the venue, which he opened by playing six shows there in September of 1973. I went to the last of the shows when I was 16 and still remember it like it was yesterday. My best friend and I slept overnight in the parking lot at The Roxy weeks before to get tickets. We actually didn’t sleep at all, taking turns to go dance down the block at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go.
MVL: Really? You were at that show 50 years ago? So you must have been 6 not 16 right? (laughs) No, seriously, that is beyond cool and probably just as cool as being a guitar player.
Michael: (laughs) Yeah, 6. Thanks for reminding me. Around that time I also started working in a record shop. Everything the labels saw fit to release was there to be seen and heard. There was also a used record section with all sorts of out-of-print treasures we might otherwise not have known about. We played whatever we wanted. It was like being a kid in a candy store. And that just broadened the frame.
A jazz drummer who also worked there turned us all on to the titans of jazz. That’s where I began to develop a love for that music. And once you understand how to listen to jazz, the sky’s the limit in terms of how you hear music, its subtle connections and counterpoints, and not just what’s played but what’s implied. It’s like learning another language and listening in on amazing conversations.
By the time I was in the middle of high school, I was just infused with music. I loved it. The combination of all those elements – the radio, the record store, playing guitar, going to live concerts, watching shows like Soul Train, American Bandstand, and more – offered glimpses into the different worlds of music, including worlds gone by, which were and remain an endless well of discovery and inspiration.
MVL: What about your family? Any musicians or influencers?
Michael: We weren’t like a professional musical family, but music in the home was definitely something that gave me joy. My dad liked to spontaneously sing phrases of old tunes he grew up with. We had a piano in the living room, and he, my mom, and my sister all played bits of this and that.
My father was a lawyer. He went to Harvard Law School long ago, but he also invented things and was sort of an eclectic jack of all trades. He was very literate. If I asked him how to spell a word, he would never tell me. He’d say, “See that?” and point to the dictionary. “Go look it up.” I think he knew if I did that, then I was likely to explore further, seek definitions, nuances of language. He was always promoting my own explorations of things.
My mom was wise and nurturing and provided a lot of love in the household. She let me be me, for which I’m forever thankful. So, whenever I get a compliment from somebody about something that involves kindness or social skills, my answer is always “Thank my parents, they raised me well.” In terms of siblings, I have an older sister, another strong influence. I’m glad you brought that up. She’s 12 years older and she played music all the time, had her collection of 45’s and used to spin those at our house. Unique, offbeat things that influenced my thinking that music, in general, is just cool. Music is bonding. My sister and I are still really close, and we still talk about those days and songs.
MVL: I know you went to college at Berkeley. Tell us about that.
Michael: Sure. I studied English Literature at Berkeley, which was really where I wanted to go. I fell in love with it when I used to visit my sister there in the ‘60s. I also fell in love with Marin at the same time. I was young, but it made an impression on me. So I actually first moved to Mill Valley when I was 18, living with my girlfriend and two dogs, and commuting to Cal for classes for a couple of years before I eventually moved there. It was a great time to be here culturally, and the “backyard” was beyond belief.
I ended up getting a Master’s degree in Creative Writing. I always wanted to be a writer. That’s really how I self-identify. I was offered a teaching position, but I didn’t want to teach, so that’s when I started in journalism, working as a freelance writer, writing about music and literature, primarily. I started out writing about artists, reviewing and previewing concerts, but my orientation was more about wanting to turn people on to things I thought were cool and nourishing, as opposed to being a critic. That never appealed to me. I kind of just bounced around doing all sorts of freelance journalism for local papers and national magazines and then, honestly, just stumbled into the music business.
MVL: MVL: (laughs) Stumbled or fell?
Michael: Right? I guess that all started close to 40 years ago. I was playing in a band and writing about music. Around that time I met Bob Weir from The Grateful Dead through an article I wrote about the Dead for The Daily Cal in Berkeley. I met Dennis McNally, who was their publicist at the time, and he asked “Are you the Michael Nash that wrote that article about the band?” He was very complimentary and liked the piece because he said it was about the actual music and their musical sources and not about, you know, tie dye and LSD. It was about music because that’s what fascinated me. I ended up meeting Bob because he also liked the piece and we became friendly. He invited me to gatherings at his house and what have you. Not all that long thereafter, he asked if I was familiar with a baseball player named Satchel Paige, who was an iconic, folkloric African American athlete. I was because I also loved sports as a kid. To cut to the chase, Bob wanted to write a song about Satchel Paige and sing it with the band. He had me take a stab at the lyrics. So I penned “The Ballad of Satchel Paige,” and he dug it and started writing music to it. He eventually got this idea that we should blow it up into a stage musical. He brought the idea back to me and I thought, why not, right?
MVL: Uh, yeah.
Michael: I spent probably a couple of years, on and off, traveling around the country interviewing dozens of old Negro League ballplayers in the Deep South, the Midwest, the Northeast, and beyond. Men in their eighties and nineties, who had seen a lot of life through a distinct cultural lens. It was an absolutely fascinating and nourishing experience.
MVL: MVL: OK, I was going to ask you to tell us something fascinating most people don’t know about you. I’d say this qualifies. Please continue.
Michael: (laughs) Needless to say, I came back with a treasure trove of content. Bob and I then decided we were really going to do this and brought in a couple of musical collaborators – Taj Mahal, who’s a veritable walking encyclopedia of roots music, and David Murray, a prolific jazz saxophonist and composer who founded the World Saxophone Quartet long ago. And then another colleague, Carey Williams, came in on the writing front. Our new collective started the process of writing a musical. Ultimately, it was during a recording session for the play where we met a young artist, an acoustic blues renaissance musician. I recorded some of his songs in Bob’s studio during a break because they were amazing. Carey and I went to New York the next week with that five song demo tape in our hands and dropped it off at the office of an executive at Epic Records, an offshoot label of Sony, who was launching a new imprint focused on roots music. I got a call from him two days later saying he wanted to sign the artist right then. As you can imagine, it was kind of mind-blowing. And he, this artist, had no management or producer, and Epic wanted to do an album. So that’s how I ended up “stumbling” into music management and production.
MVL: Ok, let me get this straight. You went from listening and getting addicted to music to studying, writing, and playing it, then “stumbled” into management and production? I would imagine the wealth of knowledge you gained by then made you one badass manager.
Michael: Well, I’m not sure I was a badass anything, but it did lead to producing his first two albums and in turn an opportunity to manage bluesman John Hammond, work with Tom Waits and numerous others, and so forth and so on. But there was no real design or intention there. It just happened, and then became learn-as-you-go. Management is its own thing; production is entirely different. So I managed different artists and projects, produced albums, etc., but just couldn’t see myself having a career in any of those sectors, and I suppose the threads just go forth from there. I don’t really think of my life in terms of a career but more as a series of opportunities and experiences.
MVL: So we are approaching that pivotal moment?
Michael: Right. So a decade ago I got a call from someone in a local environmental organization about producing a concert on Mount Tam. He reached out saying I was recommended by a friend, Dawn Holliday, who used to run the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass music festival. That is what eventually led to Mount Tam Jam in 2013. The show sold out. It was the first time they allowed that type of music on Mt. Tam since the Magic Mountain Festival there in 1967, a week before Monterey Pop. Music historians consider it the first rock festival in America. California State Parks was very reluctant to do something there like that again. There were various presentations of folk and jazz but nothing that was in any way rock and roll or revolutionary. So, after producing this event in 2013, I thought, “this needs to happen…you know, this should happen all the time.” The venue is unbelievable. William Kent, who bequeathed that land to the state around the turn of the 20th century, wanted it to be a place of ongoing recreation and entertainment. So, in short, this became my new mission. I formed a nonprofit, Roots and Branches Conservancy, and then rebranded the event as Sound Summit, which is a double entendre, you know?
MVL: (Laughs) that’s right!.
Michael: A musical gathering and also a strong, whole mountain.
MVL: Love it.
Michael: And then, it kind of rolled forward from there with a lot of different energies and took on its own life.
MVL: I know it took the next year, 2014, to form the non-profit, so this brings us to 2015. The first official Sound Summit. You’ve now had 8 years of success. What do you think helped fuel you to keep going and get past some of the obstacles obviously others couldn’t, to finally get this done and music back on that mountain of ours?
Michael: I think we all have an interior life that even the people closest to us don’t fully realize in a sense. I’m very passionate about the things I love, as are many people. That’s not unique. But what might be is that I definitely have a persistence of vision about things I want to manifest, and that’s 100% true about Sound Summit. You know, it’s a challenging thing to do, to architect this thing up on the hill, and also convince State Parks that we could do this and make sure the Park is safe. I’m happy to say we’ve done that and also given quite a bit of money to Mount Tam that’s had some meaningful impact on the mountain, All told, Sound Summit is a labor of love for me. It’s a creative way of giving back to this special place in the neighborhood. And being able to do so in the form of a festive community gathering driven by great music makes it feel as much of an adventure as it is an endeavor. And so when I hear, for instance, the audience react and see joy in people’s faces, and the artists express how nourishing it is for them – it’s not like an ego thing in any way – it’s more like a validation that the intuition was right, that the persistence paid off, so to speak. That this should happen because it’s moving to other people. That’s the ultimate goal. When I say “persistence of vision,” I mean it in a good way, not a demanding one. But I think this is true for anyone. If you really believe in something and want to manifest it, you have to have that. I think the people who really know me know that it’s the same way with our stage musical. For me, this needs to happen, not because I want to have a play out there, but because the music and the story are resonant. I’m all about narrative, whether it’s musical narrative, literary narrative, or just being in the moment of experience. And I’m always nourished when the tale is told, no matter how hard the path. If I‘m not challenged, I tend to get bored. I have what I’d call a sort of positive restlessness.
MVL: You brought up the play. Is this the same project you started years ago with Bob Weir?
Michael: Yes, it is. A couple of years ago, a number of us recognized that the world had changed dramatically, which it, of course, had. And that the play, which we had introduced around the country in different places through workshop productions, staged readings, etc., needed to be contemporized. So we’ve now launched a revision. Carey and I have finished a revised first act and are in the second act right now. I’ve recently written four new tunes with David Murray. Everyone’s busy with touring and more, as you can well imagine, but dialed into the fact that we’re moving forward and feeling really good about where this is right now. More to come.
MVL: That’s very cool and helps me understand the evolution of your eclectic mind.
Michael:Well, certainly the play is very eclectic musically, too. There’s been a lot of opportunity to work with both old and very contemporary music forms. So it has a bunch of everything, genre-wise, and it’s another platform to stretch and explore.
MVL: Do you think the work and research you’ve been doing for this project inspired any of the recent choices you’ve made in terms of the eclectic mix of musicians that you’ve brought on stage to Sound Summit?
Michael: Probably in some form, but I was already inclined towards those types of music. For example, we had Herbie Hancock one year. I grew up listening to him and Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter. So that was kind of like a dream in a way. And he was brilliant. It just deepened my appreciation, but I already had a fairly deep knowledge base of various genres because I was always very inquisitive about the musical past.
MVL: Going back to “persistence of vision,” I like that. It seems sort of a gentle, non-intrusive way of saying “aggressive,” I suppose.
Michael:It’s interesting you say that. I think it’s more about being resolute, which is to find ways to accomplish what you want without being aggressive, but rather very sure-minded and hopefully inspiring confidence along the way. It’s an interesting dialectic between being aggressive and not giving up. And that’s hardly news, you know, not giving up, but there are different ways to approach the goal. And I think I’ve learned to do that differently as I’ve gotten older. Even my son has, in recent years, kind of shed light on subtle ways I can do so.
MVL: Well, it all seems to be working. I can definitely attest in working a little with you supporting our Tales From The Green Room podcast at Sound Summit, and watching you in action, that you exude just the right balance of grace and persistence of vision.
Michael: That’s very kind of you. Grace under pressure is a constant goal. I’ve told my son, ”You have to be an agent of your own destiny.” You have to be proactive and understand that things don’t just necessarily fall from the sky. They might sometimes, but you have to envision and actualize, if you can. I do believe in that.
MVL: Let’s talk more about your son, Ryan. Is he taking your advice or maybe you are taking his? (laughs)
Michael: I know, right? A bit of both, I think. Ryan is a really interesting and ambitious person to me. He’s at once an old soul and very in the now. In a lot of ways he reminds me of myself at his age, but he’s distinctly different in others. He’s just begun his senior year of college at a small school in Boulder called Naropa University. It was founded in the early ‘70s by a Tibetan monk. It’s an intentional contemplative learning school that’s very Buddhist-inspired. A number of the Beat writers taught there early on. A pretty cool and fascinating place.
So he’s forging his path, creating an Interdisciplinary Studies major that combines music, psychology, creative writing, and art. Naropa is a small place, but he says he’s made the best friends of his life there. Before enrolling he took a year off during the pandemic to contemplate, explore, and see what he wanted to do. And that was ironically a strange silver lining.
It was the most creative, generative year of his life. He started pursuing his own knowledge, curating his own education. He studied music online with Berklee College of Music. He read voraciously, began writing, meditating, and just started reinventing himself in numerous ways. Earlier this year, he completed a concurrent two-year Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification program with Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach and received a credential to teach through the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. I admire him just as much as I love him.
We also share a love of music and turn each other on to different things all the time. Thankfully, he turned me on to this year’s headliner at Sound Summit, Lord Huron! Your classic, reverse generational influence!
MVL: Well, very true but it starts with being exposed to it and I have a feeling growing up in your home, there was no escaping being surrounded by great music. Speaking of home, when did you first meet your wonderful wife, SoYoung?
Michael: Long ago. I was just finishing graduate school and as many graduate students do, got a job as a waiter, you know, because the reason I went to graduate school was to become a waiter. Right? (laughs)
MVL: Of course!
Michael: The restaurant was right in the heart of the Performing Arts district in San Francisco. A very energetic, creative scene. SoYoung was hired as the new head chef. She impressed me from the moment I met her. I was living in SF at that time and she, ironically, was living in Mill Valley. She grew up there and ran cross country for Tam High, ran the Dipsea, the Old Railroad Grade, and knew all of the trails, so a lot of her youth was informed by being on the mountain. She was also clearly interested in culinary pursuits. Long story short, she asked me out for a drink one night, (laughs) and we’ve been together ever since, nearly 40 years. And through our relationship I circled back to Mill Valley, And, perhaps not surprising, we got married on Mount Tam. At a breathtakingly beautiful spot on a truly stunning day. That was decades ago but remains a very personal and resonant part of my connection to the mountain.
MVL: That is very cool. I had no idea she started out as a chef.
Michael: Yeah, she eventually opened a place here in Mill Valley called Tiger Rose, where she effectively fed the community for a decade. Her focus was eclectic international cuisine and she made everything under the sun. She had a pretty passionate following and for years after she closed the place, people would come up to her whenever we were in town. So, her love of food kind of moved its way into a community experience and expression. Eventually, she herself moved into architectural and interior design. She’s a maker. Same creative impulse, just different forms.
MVL: Right, and built yet another incredible following of her work.
Michael: She was very inspiring when I met her. Super creative, self-possessed, and focused, able to conjure up what she envisioned. So she was kind of a muse to me and an example of how to get things done. Nature or nurture, our son seems to combine many of her skills as well as mine. Go figure.
MVL: I was just going to say that. What a beautiful balance and a perfect way to sum up this conversation. Thank you so much Michael. We can’t wait for the next Sound Summit.