Garrison Doles is a broken shard of sea glass that washed up on the beach. Shattered and jagged and tossing in the ocean, tumbling against the sandpaper bottom until it rolled out smooth and hard and not quite transparent.

It took a lot of hard work and determination to develop a world class drinking problem. Afternoons hustling nine-ball at pool tables in the corners of 7th Avenue strip joints. Nights picking out home-made songs on his battered Martin D-28 in saloons from Key West to St. Augustine. “I wasn’t gettin’ a lot of vegetables back then. Unless you count Marlboros and Jack Daniels.”

Coconut Grove wasn’t a bad place to start out. Coffee houses where Joni met David Crosby and began her long run. Where Jimmy Buffet worked the kinks out and legends like Michael Smith and Gamble Rogers and Steve Goodman traded forty minute sets in rooms with audiences of fifty or sixty or maybe a hundred on a big Saturday night. “I’d see Fred Neil and Vince Martin on a tiny stage in a tight spotlight and think that was just where I wanted to spend my whole life. I didn’t know anything. I thought there were places like that all over the world. I barely got to play any of those joints at all and then they were gone and I found myself working dark, smoky bars; playing for people who showed up to drink and get lucky and to definitely not listen to original, acoustic soul songs. I did that for about fifteen years before I figured out it wasn’t what I’d signed up for and that it was killing me. So I quit.”

He quit playing in bars, quit drinking, quit smoking. Moved to Orlando and got a real job. Got married, had a kid and got divorced. Got himself involved in some local drama - he was co-founder of Theatre Downtown, a way-off-off-Broadway style theatre that’s been around for about twenty years now, where he has produced, acted, directed, designed and written for the theatrical stage. He can’t seem to stay out of trouble. And he just keeps on writing songs and somehow the audiences find him.

Garrison has recently won major songwriting competitions in North Carolina, Texas,  Florida and Massachusetts and he’s on the move, touring nationally and performing at all the best festivals, coffeehouses and house concerts. He makes his home in Central Florida with his wife, the author and artist Jan Richardson.

He is a true singer/songwriter - a songmaker and a storymaker. Listening to these songs is like running the pad of your thumb around the edge of that smooth, green sea glass. You can sense the raggedness beneath the surface. You can feel the textures of life’s abrasion, the swirling imprints of the forces that polish us down to our essential selves and there is a comfort in that and a complex sort of pleasure.

What I can tell you about Garrison Doles

I first met Garrison Doles in Miami. I’d just gone through a pretty intense period,engineering a Kenny Loggins record and I was mostly just hanging around in the lobby at Criteria Studios a lot and hoping nobody would come along too soon and offer me another gig. Tom Dowd wandered down from his office looking for coffee and mentioned that if I wasn’t doing anything I might want to step into Studio C, cause there was some kid in there trading songs with Bobby Caldwell and it sounded like he was holding his own. Bobby had just had his big hit go to number one and he was under contract for two more records but not moving too fast, like maybe his muse was taking some time off. I thought it was probably a good thing that he had somebody putting him through his paces.

Looked like most of Criteria was hanging around in C, with Garrison in a folding chair in the middle of the studio, hunched over that beat up old D28. One of his simple, haunting ballads was in the air and nobody moved or even seemed to be breathing. When he came to the end of the song he looked up and was kind of surprised to see all these people standing around. He reached over and grabbed that lit Marlboro that was always stuck in the head strings of his guitar and took a hit and blew it out, saying “let’s go get a beer.” So we did.

I found out he was scratching out some kind of a living hustling nineball in the afternoons at the pool tables in strip joints on 7th Avenue, and playing bars in Coconut Grove and Islamorada and Hallandale at night. He wasn’t sleeping, wasn’t eating, smoked too much, drank too much. He was writing a lot though, he was always working on honing these powerful songs till they were sharp enough to shave with and then taking them into some smoky bar and trying to win over a crowd that really just came in to drink and get laid. I hated to see his stuff getting wasted like that cause he’s always been such a great player and such a great songwriter but back then it just seemed like there was nowhere for him to go and no way to get there. I was able to bring him in, from time to time, to fix somebody’s lyrics or tighten up the structure but he never got any credit for any of that and he hardly ever even got paid.

I got called out to L.A. to produce a Crosby, Stills and Nash album and ended up moving here permanently. But any time I get back to the east coast or really anywhere in the country where Garrison’s playing, I always gather up a few folks and take them out to see him do that thing he does. He plays a lot of private house concerts and some of the cooler listening rooms and every now and then he breaks out on to a bigger stage. His show is always a rare and wonderful event, just him and his guitar and harmonica. People just know something special’s going on - a lot of laughing and crying and being real still in the moment. It’s like in these years of traveling and writing and playing he’s settled deeper into the mastery of performance, the mystery of songmaking. The turn of phrase, the pulling tempo beneath the dragging beat, the telling of that small important moment of your life. Each song, each story, is its own time and place and then you find they’ve worked together to describe a larger time and place, like DNA or quantum mechanics. But I think I’ve gone too far now, for sure.

 Steve Gursky
reprinted by permission