When Brady Earnhart celebrates the release of his new record, Last Time I Promise, on Saturday night, it will be more than just an artistic achievement for the local singer-songwriter. Some may even call it a miracle.
Earnhart’s story begins in 1992, when, after earning a master of fine arts degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he moved to Charlottesville, enrolled at the University of Virginia and began pursuing a doctoral degree in American literature. With a lusty appetite for socializing, folk music and exquisite lyrics, he rapidly found himself neck-deep in the local arts scene.
“I’d been writing songs since 1989, was performing them live with my guitar and was working on getting them recorded,” says Earnhart. “When I first got here, I didn’t really realize Charlottesville was such a great musical town. I started going to Trax to see the Dave Matthews Band for five bucks and that led to me getting around and being introduced to people pretty quickly.”
Which is how Earnhart met his longtime musical cohort, producer and close friend Jeff Romano.
“I was at an after-party playing my guitar on the porch when Jeff heard me and introduced himself,” says Earnhart. “At the time, his band, Nickeltown [a poetic, acoustic folk duo fronted by Browning Porter], was fairly well plugged in around town, and when they started covering my songs that got me in the door.”
In fact, Romano was so enamored with Earnhart’s lyrical craftsmanship he wound up producing the new arrival’s 1998 debut album, After You. Despite its limited production budget (way indie), the album won stellar marks from folk aficionados across the country, with notable music writer Elizabeth Papapetrou of Acoustic Guitar magazine calling it “…one of the ten best contemporary folk CDs of the 1990s.”
Steeped in literary reference, devilish wit and poetic sensibility, Earnhart’s songs may not be fodder for the masses. But for listeners capable of deciphering the lyrics’ intelligence, his music is strikingly original.
By the early 2000s, having established himself as a fixture of the Charlottesville songwriting scene, Earnhart and a number of close friends began putting on a music series dubbed (after one of his songs) The King of My Living Room.
“Back in ’99 I was frustrated because Charlottesville didn’t really celebrate Mardi Gras,” says Earnhart. “So I threw a big Friday-post-Fat Tuesday party. By the time midnight rolled around, maybe 15 people were left—all of them songwriters and musicians.”
That night the group stayed up until sunrise, passing guitars around the living room and performing for one another. When the night was done, reflecting on what a strange, oddly powerful experience it had been, Porter suggested they try to replicate the thing live and stage a living room party for the public.
Over the next decade, the group—always an ever-shifting membership—would descend upon a venue in Charlottesville or the surrounding area, transform the stage into a homey reproduction of the original living room (Persian rug, leather sofa, Tiffany lamps) and take turns sharing songs and stories. Selling out the majority of its shows, the series was wildly successful and won Earnhart and his collaborators a cult-like regional following.
Then came the interruption.
In early 2011, while teaching a literature class at the University of Mary Washington, Earnhart was overcome by a sudden bout of dizziness. Sitting down, he realized his vision was alarmingly blurry. Over the coming weeks the symptoms intensified. Worried, Earnhart visited a series of doctors.
“No one knew what it was or how to treat it,” he says. “They’d tell me it was some kind of unidentified neurological disorder and that was it.”
Within a year, Earnhart lost his mobility and was bound to a wheelchair. Two years into the physiological onslaught he’d become completely dependent on his companion of 14 years.
“I was out of commission,” says Earnhart. “I couldn’t sing, couldn’t play guitar, couldn’t even read. I didn’t care about anything, I just wanted to sleep. Then, in 2014, just as inexplicably and mysteriously as it had come, the sickness started to dissipate.”
Earnhart says he “came back with a vengeance.”
“All of a sudden, I had all this energy—I don’t think I was sleeping more than three, four hours a night,” he says.
Resuscitated and returned unto the world of the living, Earnhart began piecing together various musical ideas he’d had while incapacitated—conceptions he’d then believed he’d never have the opportunity to realize, much less explore.
“I didn’t think of it as an album at first,” explains Earnhart. “But the ideas sort of coalesced, and within two months I realized I had enough stuff to go into the studio.”
Inspired by his longtime friend’s return from the cusp of what had very recently seemed like imminent bodily demise, Romano was quick to offer studio space and musical assistance.
“As my recovery took shape, I thought of the process as building a new house I wanted to live in,” says Earnhart. “And I think that’s what songwriting is—constructing a new space to exist in.”
–Eric J. Wallace