Music has been a source of therapy and comfort to Dr. Andrew Silver throughout his life. The Mercer University English professor’s songwriting has given him a way to access and manage painful experiences with death and illness.
Right now, Dr. Silver is working on an album that addresses illness from the perspective of patients, parents, spouses and children. In May, he and several bandmates recorded the first seven songs in the historic Capricorn Sound Studios, which is part of the Mercer Music at Capricorn complex, and they will lay down the remaining tracks during one or two more sessions.
Dr. Silver first picked up the guitar as a teen when his mom was terminally ill, and he was helping his dad care for her. He saved his tips from his job at Pizza Hut, so he could buy an Alvarez acoustic guitar.
“It’s a sort of meditative thing to learn guitar chords. You’re kind of hugging the guitar like a friend. The guitar is vibrating into your body. There’s something so incredibly soothing about that,” he said. “There’s a triumph in being able to shape trauma into some sort of beauty.”
He discovered that playing music allowed him to step outside himself and feel all of his emotions without becoming completely overwhelmed. Dr. Silver was private with his music for a long time, playing by himself or occasionally allowing another person in the room, until his son, Noah, was born in 2004.
He and some other Montessori of Macon parents, including philosophy professor Dr. Charlotte Thomas, formed a band called Good Country People to play for a “forgiving audience” — schoolchildren. From there, Dr. Silver and Dr. Thomas began writing original music, created another band called blueskyblue, and started performing live at local venues and learning along the way.
Since then, Dr. Silver has continued to digest his life experiences through songwriting and music.
Dr. Silver’s first wife, Dr. Anya Silver, was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer when she was pregnant with Noah. A Mercer English professor and accomplished poet, she lived with this illness for 14 years before passing in 2018 at age 49.
A few months after her death, Dr. Silver began interviewing women and men with metastatic breast cancer for a documentary theater project called IV: Our Lives. From those 116 interviews, he wrote a play and assembled a cast of metastatic patients to perform it.
“These two-to-three hour interviews were difficult, but they were also very healing for me and often for the interview subjects,” Dr. Silver said.
The songs on Dr. Silver’s upcoming album are inspired by these interviews; his firsthand experiences with Dr. Anya Silver’s illness; his mother’s death; and the ongoing health struggles that his wife, Mercer Law professor Sarah Gerwig, has faced as a result of long COVID. The songs are written in the voices of people who are ill as well as the spouses, children and parents of people who are sick.
“I’ve tried to create a short story collection that works together and takes people into a series of different vantage points,” Dr. Silver said. “For me, sad songs have kind of kept me going in the worst times. If the songs can reach somebody who is experiencing trauma or pain and help them through it, I’ll be doing some tiny thing like these pieces of music have done for me over the years.”
“Sweet William” is about an inconsolable father trying to care for his young son after his wife’s death; “Save Your Girl” is about a spouse’s anger, despair and then recognition of his wife’s illness; “Pills and Bills” is about mounting medical bills; “Evening Sun” is about a wife’s wishes for her husband to find love again after her death; and “Burial Ground” is about a child who has lost his mother.
While the subject of these songs may be heavy, their tempo and tones are often the opposite. For instance, the album’s first song is upbeat and features three horn players.
Dr. Silver said this album has been a collaborative process. His longtime bandmates — Tim Gardener, Bray Carr, Erica Carr, Lola Carr, Nathan Whatley and Aaron Rubinstein — have helped him refine his songs and recorded live with him in Capricorn Sound Studios for this project. A few other local musicians also lent their talents on some of the tracks.
“They care so deeply about these songs. They’re kind of possessive about them. They’re helping me shape the production as well,” Dr. Silver said. “Macon is splitting at the seams with musical talent. It’s such an advantage to play in a place like Macon that has such a rich music heritage.”
Dr. Silver said it was daunting to perform in Macon’s famous studios at first, as he felt the weight of its history. In the end, he and the band decided to record the album live to ease those pressures and capture a more authentic sound. Capricorn sound engineer Rob Evans coaxed great performances out of the band with his expert ear, gentle touch and relaxing presence.
“Capricorn is a phenomenal space in a beautiful building, and I’m so proud as somebody who teaches at Mercer that Mercer has invested in one of the most culturally important places for American music in the last century,” Dr. Silver said. “It’s a fun place to be able to assemble a group of musicians in this hallowed space. It’s like playing in a rock ‘n’ roll church.”