(This began as a short answer to a post about the Americana Music Awards, but grew to a blog. Oops.)
Reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem ‘Johnny Nolan has a Patch on his Ass‘, the barracks hot because of the furnace; outside, snow is falling so hard you can’t see. B-52 bombers are rumbling on their pads nearby, shaking the earth, straining at the bit to be sent back to the Philippines and on to Vietnam. A lonely Hispanic boy sits between foot lockers with a little plastic record player listening to Stevie Wonder – “There’s a place in the sun, and before my life is done…..”
He plays the song over and over.
(A friend, stationed in the Philippines as an Air Police grunt during Vietnam told me of a night there, as he was on solitary watch guarding the back side of a B-52, keeping in mind now that they’d been converted to computer guidance during that war, listening to a click-click-click as he walked his rounds at the rear of the plane. He walked and heard the clicking. He stopped walking and the clicking stopped. Irritated by the sounds, he finally looked up to realize that somebody had left the computer tracking system on. That meant the big machine guns in the tail were still active, and they were trained on him. No human being in that plane, just a computer. Big bullets, the size of your thumb (maybe just a little larger), loaded and waiting. Steel jacketed shells that could rip a man’s body apart. The guns following him along his path back and forth on that lonely jungle night, as though he were the enemy. Tracking his steps for hours through the steamy darkness.
“Click-click-click,” my friend said. “All night long.”)
One tour of duty and I was out and gone. The military isn’t for everyone.
Sitting here tonight watching the 2012 Americana Award show that I recorded last night. Glass of Jameson’s whiskey in my hand, my guitar propped up against the arm of the couch. Music has taken me, literally, almost around the world; and it has opened that world up to me.
A couple of months ago, on the home leg of our 4500 mile tour, Maggie and I stopped in to spend time with friends in North Carolina. A great duo, and she’s one of the finest songwriters I’ve ever known. Lyrics that will move you, and she has a beautiful voice from another planet. She told me she’s begun to worry that success will always elude her, that she’s thinking maybe she needs to write that one ‘fantastic‘ song to get her back into the running.
How do you explain that Trace Adkins’ song Honky Tonk ba Donkey Donk will make more money in a day than she’ll make in her career? How to say “Your music kills me, it’s so good. You don’t have to search for that one ‘GREAT’ song. You’ve already written it more than once.”?
There is no way to say it. Her songwriting is exquisite. Nashville has the ‘formula’ for success. It’s that simple.
Guys are being shipped out to Vietnam on this cold Illinois morning in 1966 as I pace the floor in the barracks, listening to the Stevie Wonder song, the roar of the furnace. A guy downstairs is playing something on his record player that sounds like jazz. I wander down the stairs to talk to him, and he tells me it’s a song by Cal Tjader, from an album called ‘Several Shades of Jade.’
I was just back from a weekend in Chicago, staying in the Roosevelt Hotel and walking all night, leaning into the wind, the freezing rain coming off the lake like bullets. Into Old Town, watching a night life I’d never dreamed of growing up in my little dirt-road Southern town. The Paul Butterfield Blues band blasting away, and, somewhere, a young guy named John Prine was learning his craft.
Thinking about the young Navy recruits drinking with us in those Chicago clubs on an icy night, showing off their new tattoos as we walked the wide sidewalks. They were in full uniform, but Airmen could shed their uniforms for civilian clothes before leaving the base.
Later, back at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois, sitting in the NCO club, hearing a local band play The Animals’ song, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” as hundreds of desperate young men sing along, drinking cheap beer by the pitcher with the feeling that we’re all going to die; I remember Winter in Chicago. I remember Country Joe and the Fish later, singing,
“Ain’t no time to wonder why
Whoopie! We’re all Gonna Die.”
There at Chanute, listening to news of Vietnam, to the ‘Ropes’ telling us we were all headed there, telling us we’ll all die in that foreign land.
Maggie and I played in Jersey City on that 4500 mile tour this last summer, August of 2012 – a house concert on the fourth floor with the Statue of Liberty just outside the window, then we were up at 5 a.m. and on the road like maniacs. Played the week before in Nova Scotia, stood on Halifax Pier and thought of Stan Rogers, the great singer/songwriter who was killed when his plane caught fire while attempting to land in Kerrville, Texas, where he was scheduled to play at the folk festival.
“God damn them all
I was told/ we’d sail the seas for American gold
We’d fire no gun/ Shed no tear
Now I’m a broken man on the Halifax Pier
The last of Barrett’s Privateers”
The week before Nova Scotia, we’d played a house concert in an old brownstone on Massachusetts Avenue, downtown Boston – stayed at the Royal Sonesta overlooking the Charles River.
Worn out now, Boston a memory, a long drive down from North Carolina, stopping for the night just outside Savannah, thinking of home and the dozen lobsters we’d shipped back from the coast of Maine, waiting for us and a group of friends back in Panama City, Florida, the next night.
A puzzle piece in the life of Lucky Mud. That’s us – Maggie and me. And I want to belong. We want to belong. Forty plus years of carving a path, trying to conquer the world one bar at a time. It takes a toll as years begin to pile up. But, if you don’t start out with an overload of piss and vinegar, you’ll never make it.
Last March I had two heart attacks. We played our first road gig nearby four days after I got out of the hospital. If I’d sat home I would’ve died. Playing music is what we do, what we love.
Listening to Bonnie Raitt last night, strutting her wonderful self across the stage with John Hiatt, singing with Emmy Lou Harris (who sang harmony on The Band’s song, The Weight). That wonderful woman from Alabama Shakes and all the rest. I wish them well.
Two years ago Maggie and I hosted a twenty five concert series at a local art-deco theater, and we brought in singer/songwriters from across the country with high hopes and a pitiful budget. I still can’t believe they came, and we would sweat it every Sunday: will the artist get here, will an audience show up, will we remember the words to our own songs every week as we introduced the artists?
We brought in Florida singer/songwriters and folks like Beaucoup Blue from Philadelphia. There was Sally Spring and Rebekah Pulley – Kamm and MacDonald came all the way from Northern California to our little Florida panhandle town to play the most amazing concert I’ve ever been part of, stayed with us and became our friends. We were very proud of the series and will never do it again. Ever.
The only cancellation was Eric Taylor, who got iced in after his gig in Atlanta the night before. He called to apologize.
A group of Nashville staff writers, on the payroll of some of the music publishing companies there, was bused in to play a singer/songwriter series out on the beach not long after our concert series was finished, and we heard the producers might be interested in talking to us, so we called. They offered us the chance to drive these songwriters around, make sure they had water and snacks. We said no thanks. Nashville always has a ‘formula.’
We know, because we spent six and a half years in Nashville on the fringes of the Music Business. Our son was born there. We knew lots of staff writers, lots of session pickers. Maggie worked for a star, during the time he won the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year award. We hung out, watched and listened, and then we left. Nashville isn’t for everyone.
A few years ago at the Kerrville Folk Festival we overheard a young independent producer telling someone, “You shouldn’t go to Nashville unless you’ve been invited.” The formula.
So, we’re back on the road, with our one-bar-at-a-time plan intact – starting the first week of the new year at the Woodview Coffee House in Inglis, Florida, back to what we love…..making music. It’s our formula. I wouldn’t trade places with that CMA star, not for his money and his fame. The path we’ve made is very long and very narrow, but after forty years we still love playing, still love traveling and still love each other. Not a bad plan.
from my writer’s blog: