Sound of Mettle: How to make a record when you can barely hear

In the fall of 2009, my wife, singer-songwriter Marty Winkler, and our friend Michael C Steele, a multi-instrumentalist and record producer, persuaded me to start work on a CD of some of my songs. Tunes of mine had appeared on Marty’s albums, and her renditions of “Gotta Stop Breaking My Own Heart” and “Heavenly Bodies” had even gotten airplay on stations like New York’s WNYC and KCRW in Los Angeles. But I had balked at recording myself because, well, it seemed like the height of self-indulgence. I wrote lyrics, sure, even whole songs sometimes, but I saw myself as a professional journalist with a musical hobby.

Wheedled and dared by Marty and Mike, though, I finally went into his studio. It was going pretty well. Mike got me to loosen up and take some vocal chances. But then, one morning just a few weeks later, with three tracks almost done, I woke up to discover my hearing had deserted me. I couldn’t hear a door slam, much less a F sharp. It took three years, assorted Hail Mary treatments and two cochlear implant operations for me to be able to hear again, kinda-sorta, but my pitch was still MIA. I couldn’t sing “Happy Birthday” without making the other party goers cringe.

The musical project fell by the wayside. I focused instead on a memoir that was eventually published in 2019 as Life After Deaf, meanwhile hoping I would someday be the beneficiary of a miracle, be it scientific or supernatural. Finally, as 2020 rolled around, I recognized that wasn’t going to happen. I decided to accept my fate and take advantage of the wonderful community of musical friends Marty and I had made in Athens, Georgia, since we moved to the Classic City in 2005. I asked for help.

The result is Better Late, a collaboration of Athens singers and instrumentalists whose performances of my compositions humble me and make me glow with joy — even if I can only imagine how they truly sound. I trusted Mike and Marty’s ears to get the mixes right.

The tracks include Marty’s sexy, Julie London-esque version of my song “Liquid,” soul man Adam McKnight’s take on “Promised Land” and Rick Fowler’s rendition of “Maybe It’s the Snakes,” featuring Michael Doke’s fire-starter slide guitar.

On “Thanks for Leaving,” I am ridiculously fortunate to have the services of most of the great Randall Bramblett’s crackerjack band — bassist Mike Steele, drummer Seth Hendershot, lead guitarist David Causey. “The Immortality Song” is brought to celestial life by Maggie Mason Hunter, Susan Staley, SJ Ursrey and Madam Winkler, four superb vocalists collectively known in these parts as the Georgia Sirens. Keyboard wizard M. Lee Davis’s gospel piano uplifts “Unclaimed Jewels” and “You Are My Religion.”

You can hear all 12 tracks via — for free.



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Noel Holston

Writer, photographer, horticulturist, international music icon. Lives in the South. Email Noel at