THE LONG HAUL: Tour Gods and Tour Gifts
There is a little piece of magic that happens when you throw yourself into the arms of the chaotic and unpredictable world. Maybe we can call it the balancing scale of the infinite road; there is some rightful equilibrium that seems to constantly attempt to restore itself. On the heels of misery comes unthinkable wonder, and on the heels of prideful achievement comes a mean humbling. If you dare to think yourself in control of your days, the road will show you just who’s in charge. And just when it gets a little too rough, and none of the gas stations will let you pee, and you hit a snowstorm and have to carry all your gear through brown slush into a dirty motel and you think you might miss the only good paying gig on the whole tour, just when the going feels impossible, somebody offers you a tour gift.
A tour gift is an unexpected miracle, a reward straight from the tour gods, as I like to think of them. Tour gifts don’t have to be grand, or happen on a large scale. They can be small moments and still make an immense difference in your psyche. Sometimes a tour gift is physical: a bag of lemons from a backyard lemon tree in California, a set of string-changing accoutrement, or a perfect jacket on a cold day from someone’s moved-away daughter. Sometimes it’s experiential: a tour of Memphis’ state-of-the-art listening library, a giant bathtub flanked by heated floors, or a long, parched run along a cactus-studded trail in New Mexico. My personal favorite tour gifts are the ability to experience an entirely different life for a day or two: three bedrooms in a Manhattan penthouse apartment, where the elevator opens directly into the unit; a round-trip ticket to Hong Kong, where you sit in an infinity pool and stare at skyscrapers; or a week spent shivering in the bohemian apartment of a small-town artist in Wisconsin, feeling sad, cold, and infinitely inspired.
Music draws us out onto the road, but it is the road itself that keeps us inspired. Every town, every venue, every new character has some kind of song within it, waiting to be discovered. There are days when you feel that making music is some kind of vanity project, when you feel that you’re begging people to come and indulge you with their presence at your shows. You drive through some big city and see a million humans milling about, none of whom care a bit about Ola Belle Reed or Dottie West or Nina Simone or any of the art that gets you out of bed in the morning and forces you down the road with bleary eyes and cramps in your legs. And you might think, Who am I kidding with my silly songs, my ridiculous assumption that I should be taken seriously?
Music draws us out onto the road, but it is the road itself that keeps us inspired. Every town, every venue, every new character has some kind of song within it, waiting to be discovered.
But then you meet that one person for whom your music has made some difference. And this is the ultimate tour gift. Nothing can make the experience more worthwhile than somebody saying, “You were there when my mother died, you got me through my heartbreak.” “You helped me leave my toxic church.” “You made me start playing the fiddle.” Maybe they invite you into their home and treat you like their own, fussing over snacks and clean towels and asking you a million questions about where you come from. And if you’re lucky, you get to see the hard work that they are doing. Maybe they are driving a UPS van, maybe they are working on refugee resettlement. Whatever it is, your music has made their day a little better, a little brighter. That desire for beauty and meaning is getting them through.
So you dig your heels in, pull your credit card out, and fill up the van with gas once again. The stubborn belief that creation is the only thing worth a damn in this world dies hard. And when you’re a dreamer, even the slightest hint of that dream being realized is enough to keep you up at night, scheming over possibilities. There is reason and economics, but there is also climate change, world war, and freak accidents, capitalism, police shootings, and a million other moments that defy all sense of reason and justice. So when nothing makes any sense, and you’re wondering what you’re doing in the middle of Nevada desperately searching for coffee on a Wednesday morning, take some deep breaths and wait for the next tour gift to arrive.
And remember — the road gives, and it takes away. You are merely a speck of dirt along the endless road of human pain and suffering. But your music may just be that much needed gift for somebody else, and at the end of the day, that’s enough.