BRADFORD—I am doing a show in a small Pennsylvania town in an old theater. We are recording our 100th podcast. I have never been this far north in my life. It was so cold when we flew into New York that I saw Lady Liberty place her torch inside her dress.

There is a band playing. And I am playing music, too. And this is ironic because—not that you care about this—I was once rejected from a major university where I once hoped to study music.

It’s sort of a long story, but I feel like telling it.

It all starts with a guitar. A cheap guitar. Much like the kind I am playing tonight. I began playing when I was a child. I was god-awful. But I practiced a lot.

I tried to teach myself, though I had no idea what I was doing. I tried strumming, plucking, picking, patting, flicking, smacking, etc. Anything to get a sound out of the thing. Finally, my uncle was kind enough to put strings on the guitar. That made all the difference in the world.

So music was important to me. I started playing piano at age nine. And I loved all music. I enjoyed the country music that my grandfather’s generation two-stepped to. Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, and Lefty Frizzell.

I like other music, too. Namely, old-time jazz. When I was a young man, I was obsessed with jazz. I taught myself to play “Laura” on the piano, and “Satin Doll,” and “Georgia On My Mind.” These songs were important to me.

I also liked classical music to some degree. I’ll never forget when I was in community college. I was a grown man who felt out of place being surrounded by so many teenagers. I felt sort of stupid, actually.

I was on my way to an ethics class when I heard singing from a nearby classroom. I peeked into the window. All that singing looked like fun, so I signed up for this class.

It was Music Theory I. The first lecture on music I ever heard was about the similarities between Louis Armstrong and Bach. It blew my mind. And every class was like that.

I never learned how to read music, but I learned enough to fake it. So I joined college jazz band. I had never been in an academic band before. In fact, I had never done anything academic before except get a $100 parking ticket in a school zone once.

The truth is, I dropped out of school when I was in seventh grade. It’s one of the shameful things in my life, and it’s hard to talk about. My education didn’t come easy for me.

But there I was! Playing a grand piano in the COLLEGE JAZZ ORCHESTRA! This calls for triple exclamation points!!!

How about a few more exclamation points just because?


The music director would place charts before me and I would pretend to read them. I’m sure the music coming from that piano sounded like the instrument was being demolished with a sledge hammer. But this gave me confidence. Enough confidence to decide that I wanted to study music, maybe even make it my life.

Big mistake. I enrolled in a large university, one I won’t name here—but I will tell you that the campus is located at 600 West College Avenue, Tallahassee, Florida, 32306, and their team colors are garnet and gold.

I rented an apartment near campus. I was in my thirties, and for the first time in many years I was hopeful.

Then came my music audition.

I walked into a room of stiff professors who all wore turtlenecks and tweed jackets. Many of whom looked like they hadn’t had a satisfying bowel movement since the Kennedy Administration.

They asked questions like, “Who did you study piano with?” and “What do you hope to gain from this academic program?” and “Were you a natural birth or a C-section?”

I played one song on piano. I had been working on it for weeks. I did pretty good. They even clapped. But then one professor placed sheet music in front of me. Classical music. I couldn’t read the first note. I almost started crying.

“I can’t read music,” I admitted.

You should have seen those professors. They couldn’t even finish their caviar and white Zinfandel.

I was rejected from the school. The university basically told me not to let the door hit me where the Good Lord split me. I went to my apartment and I sulked.

I watched students through my window, wandering all over campus. And there I was, too slow to be accepted into a major univeristy.

I played an old Hank Williams song on my radio. In a few seconds, the little apartment was filled with Hank’s moaning:

“Hear that lonesome whippoorwill,
“He sounds too blue to fly,
“The midnight train is whining low,
“I’m so lonesome I could cry…”

And after I cried a little, I wiped my face and decided I would write something. I don’t know why.

So I removed a portable typewriter from its case. I started typing. It was just for fun, you understand. It was nothing serious. And in a few years, through some stroke of weird fate, that typewriter turned into my career.

And on this evening, when we recorded our 100th show, I just wanted you to know that when a kid gets a cheap guitar it can change his entire life.

It just takes some of us a little longer than others.


  1. Sharon Lawson - October 18, 2019 7:28 am

    Wonderful article!!!

  2. Ruth Ledyard - October 18, 2019 8:36 am

    Sean, I love you!

  3. Barb - October 18, 2019 10:23 am

    It makes me wonder what the purpose is of a “school” who closed a door in your face rather than to teach you to read music. However, it was a turning point, perhaps in the direction that you were meant to go, exchanging keyboard types. Maybe if not for that painful closed door, you would not have had the success you do today. You have many talents with which you have blessed and encouraged so many of us with, particularly with the keys of your typewriter. Thank you for sharing your life with us.

  4. Elizabeth - October 18, 2019 10:25 am

    Oh Sean, life can be so so hard but look at where you are, who you are, the life you have now, and with Jamie, and the beasts:-) God works it all out exactly right. I’m sad for the pain being rejected caused you but damn grateful you are where you are and writing every day. Selfishly because it brings me great joy each day. I would not have it if your life had gone any other way!

  5. Meredith Smith - October 18, 2019 10:45 am

    Sean, Welcome to The North!

  6. LeAnne Martin - October 18, 2019 11:32 am

    Way to go, Sean! I’m one among many who are so glad you’re using your gifts of writing, storytelling, and making music. Keep up the good work.

  7. Maw-maw Becky - October 18, 2019 11:59 am

    I am a dropout too. I have made it fine. I am 83 yrs old.

  8. Steve - October 18, 2019 12:21 pm

    Sean, maybe it’s not so common now, but a generation or two back; dropping out of school early was not uncommon. My grandfather finished 3rd grade. That was all. They all went to work. Cotton mills, factories or the family farm. Not all, but many, became highly educated; because “ schooling” is only a part of the equation. Education is a lifelong endeavor. They read books! News papers lead to discussion and conversation added knowledge. And more books! Books expanded vocabulary. They, at least similar to you became “self educated”. We learn everyday, increasing our knowledge. Some of us even learn from a 7th grade dropout, from a Florida bay, who read books and banged on a manual typewriter. Thanks for never learning sheet music.

  9. Diane H. Toney - October 18, 2019 12:43 pm

    Having worked with teens for many years, as an English teacher and Principal of a high school, I can attest to the validity of your experience. Kids need to experience success, but oftentimes to do that, they must first experience failure. It’s called character.

  10. Janis - October 18, 2019 12:49 pm

    If we’re paying enough attention when those fortuitous forks in the road that ‘hit us where God split us’ (I’ve never heard that phrase, but it’s more socially acceptable than the version I have heard), magic can happen. Thanks for following your magic, Sean. Way to go!

  11. Shelton A. - October 18, 2019 1:13 pm

    Congratulations on 100 shows! Wow!! Seems like you’ve found your calling. Jazz pianist on a typewriter. Good stuff!!

  12. Keloth Anne - October 18, 2019 1:24 pm

    What a wonderful article and how amazing that you didn’t let a few stuffed shirts squelch your focus—we are so thankful ♥️♥️

  13. Keith Whitfield - October 18, 2019 1:29 pm

    “…my uncle was kind enough to put strings on the guitar. That made all the difference in the world.” Nearly spit out my coffee on that one! (only one exclamation point)

  14. Richard - October 18, 2019 1:48 pm

    Have not heard you on guitar, but Glen Campbell didn’t read music either and he was one of the best. Good jazz, in my opinion, is mostly improv anyway, so Rock On!
    You are required reading for our grandchildren and the discussions after reading, are wonderfully interesting, insightful, and humorous.
    Thank you.

  15. Jewell Wray - October 18, 2019 2:16 pm

    I enjoy your writings and also excited that I got to meet you a few years ago God Loves You and is using you to spread His word and encouragement I enjoy reading your books I have most everything you have written ready for your next novel when is it being published hope you are writing another one ❤️

  16. charliestsimons - October 18, 2019 2:25 pm

    Anyone who can learn to play multiple instruments without benefit of instruction is a natural and is gifted. Humans have been playing music for about 50,000 years without benefit of written music. They’ve been telling stories for about the same amount of time without benefit of books.

    Your gifts are auditory, not visual. Like Albert Einstein said , “If you judge a fish by his ability to climb a tree, he’ll always seem to be an idiot.”

    Play on, Sean and tell your stories. You are in good company!👍

  17. Harriet - October 18, 2019 2:40 pm

    Yes, play on. You sound great to me.

  18. blindpigandtheacorn - October 18, 2019 3:33 pm

    The power of music! The girls (pressley) were dissed at college too because they couldn’t read music. Great post!!!

  19. Linda Moon - October 18, 2019 4:05 pm

    I love your podcasts. They almost make me feel like I’m at an actual Sean of the South Event. Way up north, Bay Village, Ohio will make you want to put torches inside your pants or dress. Did Hank go to University to learn his music? Heck, No! I have many music lovers in my family with lots of stories about musical journeys on long and winding roads. I’m glad you felt like telling your long story. It, and you, deserve THREE EXCLAMATION POINTS!!! I will be thinking about your story when I listen to that 100th Podcast!!

  20. Ala Red Clay Girl - October 18, 2019 4:53 pm

    When God shuts the door, He always leaves a window open. I am grateful that you found a way to incorporate both your writings and your music. Thanks for the inspiring story!

  21. throughmyeyesusa - October 18, 2019 5:37 pm

    So….universities failing our youth ISN’T all that new a phenomenon!

  22. throughmyeyesusa - October 18, 2019 5:39 pm

    So…..universities failing our youth ISN’T a new phenomenon!

  23. Edna B. - October 18, 2019 5:42 pm

    I agree, you are right where you were meant to be. But what fun to be able to play music on both the piano and the guitar. I would love to be able to do that. You have a wonderful day, hugs, Edna B.

  24. Ann - October 18, 2019 7:01 pm

    Ahhhhh…proof that one should never give up….just shift the direction…..and you do it well.
    👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻 !!!

  25. charliestsimons - October 18, 2019 7:12 pm

    By the way, Frank Sinatra couldn’t read music either. And Louis Armstrong learned to play a coronet from the junk yard entirely by ear! You are in good company!

  26. Maureen Sudlow - October 19, 2019 1:14 am

    Brilliant – and some of the best musicians I’ve ever listened to play by ear…

  27. jackl - October 19, 2019 3:05 pm

    My sister was a good pianist, all by ear. t 79 she finally got apart in a band playing the accordion and singing. He life ended on a high note. Yeah some are later than others. At 80 I am still waiting@! LOL I did play the trumpet for a few years, but Armstrong made me look pretty bad!
    Good one,
    Sherry & jack

  28. Tony Howell - October 19, 2019 3:40 pm

    Sean, I’m a songwriter in Nashville (transplanted from your neck of the woods) and know a lot of musicians. From session players on major artist’s recordings or travelling road bands maybe one out of a hundred can read music. Everyone uses the “numbers system” where music notes are assigned a number from one thru seven. Stopped by a friend’s one day-he was trying to play electric bass to Beethoven. He said “lts all 1 4 5”

  29. Kathryn - November 12, 2019 4:44 pm

    Once again, great read, Sean. I’m sorry you were not admitted to one of the best music schools in the country, but it is, and has always been, highly competitive. You have managed to find your true calling anyway, you are a gifted writer. And it’s not too late to learn to read music – it’s not hard, children can do it and it will open a whole new world to you. I often lament the fact the reading music, like driving a stick shift and many other skills, is becoming a lost art. I admire those who can play by ear, that’s a gift as well. Next time you’re in Tally, why don’t you check out one of the concert halls on campus, you know where they are; there’s probably a concert, choral or instrumental, scheduled. There’s nothing like sitting in the darkened space and letting the music fill your soul. You’ll be glad you did. Go Noles!


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