Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tennessee Road Trip, pt. XII (Coda)

I'm writing from the Nashville airport. In two hours I'm flying home, leaving the van behind me at the garage in Lebanon for a replacement of a timing belt, a water pump (that they didn't discover had gone bad until this morning, so the part will have to be ordered) and potentially a new motor. The nice folks at the garage had never heard of thesamba.com as a parts source for VW stuff, so I told him about the $800 motor I found there, and how that beats the living hell out of $3000. I believe he'd be okay with me ordering that and having it sent to them (with its new timing belt and water pump), if we get to that point. Right now I'm trying not to think about the worst-case until I have to tomorrow.

I missed an appointment with my therapist in Raleigh. Slowly trying to read his suggested book, Feeling Good.

Smart Wife booked me a flight (yet another reason why she's smart) and promised to pick me up at seven when I get in. I finally broke down in tears on the phone to her when it all seemed completely out of hand, but recovered when she offered to pick up the kids and drive to get me in Tennessee.

My dear sweet friends Mike Mayeux and Mike Costanzo got me to the airport. Mayeux, engineer/producer who I've worked with since the dB's recorded in New Orleans, picked me up at the hotel, took me to the garage to rescue some of my belongings from the van/bedroom/dressingroom/paperweight and then took me to Nashville for my flight. We got to visit a little, which was great since he was in New Orleans when I first came through Nashville last week. We bought our house in Arabi from Mike and his family, and he was, in my estimation, the finest recordist in the Crescent City; he co-produced Vermilion with the Continental Drifters. Finding work in Nashville has not been an easy task for him as it is a somewhat closed community, but Mike has such good ears that I'm not worried too much about his future.

The final insult was the T.S.A. taking my blackberry jam from the Loveless Cafe away. It was a gift for my family, especially for my five year old who loves blackberry jam. I cannot begin to tell you the loathing I have for that agency, but I know, somewhere in my heart, that we are all safer in the skies not having a jar of homemade jam flying with me. "The T.S.A./took my jelly away" to paraphrase a Ramones' tune.

Oh yeah, and Antoinette K-Doe passed away this morning, all on a Mardi Gras Day. She will be sorely missed, as will her contribution as an ardent supporter of the New Orleans music scene. Who's gonna trot the Ernie K-Doe mannequin around now? Very sad.

I'm so ready to go home. What a trip. I'm fine, my life is fine, this is just a series of small setbacks that can easily be dealt with in the bigger scheme of things; they're irritating, expensive and inconvenient, but not insurmountable.

Thanks for riding with me, and I hope you dug the posts.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Tennessee Road Trip, pt. XI

I was going to say that, other than sitting in the back of a Fayette County police cruiser this morning for half an hour while my van was being searched for contraband, the trip home was easy and nothing special. The officers did not find any materiel and let me proceed with a stern admonition and my promise to always be a good boy.

That was before it broke down outside of Lebanon and was towed to a garage. This time, at least I was somewhat close to an exit on Interstate 40 than before, so I walked up to the BP station and asked about a garage as I fished for my wallet in vain. The lady at the register said there was none. I was out of breath and slightly exasperated, so I hissed something under my breath like "what, do your cars never need repair?" which went right by her fortunately. She gave me the number of a towing service, and the truck showed up just as I walked back to the dead van/bedroom/dressing room/paperweight at the side of the highway. The driver saw me clawing at the door as the Eurovan rose to its towing position and said "You lookin' for a wallet?" I nodded, and he told me he'd seen one between the seats. Losing my wallet would have been the coup de grace, all this having happened before noon.

The trip home is conspiring against me to take far longer than it was supposed to. All I want is to be with my family at my house in Durham, decompressing. Instead, I'm waiting to spend more money that I didn't make to fix my car so that I can drive all night.

I hope there is no f*cking Day 12.


Diagnosis: out of coolant, but more importantly, a bad timing belt that has to be ordered, which will arrive tomorrow morning at 10:30. Installing it will cost around $700. So there is going to be a Day 12 after all, and an expensive one.

There is also the possibility that, new timing belt be damned, I might need to replace the engine. The nice mechanic guy said that he could get one for just under $3000. What a bargain. I found another one in New Jersey for $800, and I'll have to see if these people will let me get that one sent to them instead, if I need it. Doesn't sound like it though, as they have one specific place they order parts from.

I am staying at a motel near the garage. I'm trying hard to keep my attitude happy, or at least productive. Really, though, I feel like crying and kicking a wall, so I will do my level best to keep that in check.

I'm going to try clicking my heels together and saying "there's no place like home, there's no place like home." With the luck I've been having today, I'll probably have security down at my door for disturbing the other tenants.

Tennessee Road Trip, pt. X

All right! We did a good job tonight at Otherlands. What a relief!

I guess I was sweating it a little. The Folk Alliance convention was not exactly what I'd expected, and I wasn't sure by the end of the day yesterday whether we actually did belong at that confab, being old pop rock guys and not modern Woody Guthries. It's not that what we do is anything less than sincere; but we have never been the most portable of rock bands over the years, and this is our new step into uncharted territory that practically requires portability. Will our songs make the leap into the Quiet Realm of Folk?

Apparently so. It sounded good to me, and the audience seemed well pleased with what they heard.

Uncle Monk opened the show. That is Tommy Ramone (of THE Ramones) on mandolin and Claudia Tienan on guitar. Both of them sing, and it's very pure and rustic and pretty bluegrass they write and play. It ain't "Blitzkreig Bop" by a long shot.

Chris, Ilene and I plugged in, and she started the thumpy rolling riff of "Lord of the Manor", a wonderful Everly Brothers song we've played together since we toured for Mavericks (we're big on those guys, could you guess?) From there, we went straight into "Early in the Morning" and then our take on "I Am the Cosmos" by the late Chris Bell (of Memphis and Big Star). We try to play that song more like the flipside of the single that Chris Stamey's CAR Records put out in 1978, "You and Your Sister", much more delicately and without the Beatley bombast of "Cosmos"'s original version. I think it's a great and reverent tribute to one of our influences, and I hope the Memphis audience found it that way as well.

We rolled through a lot of songs. Ilene nailed the bass lines to everything and kept the rhythm incredibly accurate, as though there was some invisible, inaudible drummer that we were playing to. Lots of stuff from both Holsapple/Stamey records. A couple of dB's songs. The usual panoply we try to deliver. The singing was tuneful and easily accomplished, which was nice; sometimes it can be a strain to sound good.

The audience was full of Folk Alliance stragglers and a lot of my ex in-laws, who were all very sweet to me and stuck it out to the end to hear Ilene play with us. I was very happy to see them after all this time.

As Chris has an early flight, we left Otherlands fairly early and got home before midnight. I'm still a little revved (what I refer to as 'the second set', that downtime after a gig when I'd still love to be playing) so I'll finish this up before the long ride home tomorrow.

Yay! Home! That sounds so good....

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Tennessee Road Trip, pt. IX

Not much to report. Chris and I rehearsed a few more songs from the new album, and he tried to show me an Everly Brothers song he wants us to learn, but my head was not in the right place to concentrate on learning it. We touched on "Fall on Me", the R.E.M. song we will be playing at Carnegie Hall in a couple of weeks and finally decided who would sing what parts.

Chris went back over to the convention with Robert, who had a gig. They both returned fairly early, and everyone hit the hay long before the festivities at the Folk Alliance had run their course. I'm so grateful we got to stay here with them rather than bunking in over at the Marriott Hotel, where I believe I'd be serenaded to sleep (or awake) every night after two.

In other places around the globe, specifically Brazil and New Orleans, people are celebrating Mardi Gras. My host and hostess here in Memphis have been putting the finishing touches on their family costumes, in anticipation of the six hour ride they'll take today to return to New Orleans, former home to many of us. Candace and Vivian are dressing as dinosaurs and Robert will be the paleontologist whose backpack will store supplies for the day. I hope they have a great time, catch a lot of beads for Vivian's class and that they stay safe on the way and back.

This has been a long time away from home for me. In times past, when I found myself riding a bus across the country with Hootie, nine days didn't seem so great an amount. The solitary nature of this journey has been good for my head, I think, but it's hard on my heart. I long for my kids and wife and home, and to be out of the van for a while. I believe I've done the right thing by my career to make myself known around the Folk Alliance crowd, as best as I was able to do. But it's almost time to go home, a long trip by myself back across Tennessee and NC, listening to music and losing myself in thought about the future.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Tennessee Road Trip, pt. VIII

The big day.

It began with all sorts of great motivated thoughts like washing the car and my laundry and changing strings in the morning that eventually dissipated into drinking a bunch of coffee and reading the Memphis Commerical Appeal over a bowl of Robert's homemade granola. Much more appealing, although lazier, too.

My stupid cel phone, the highly-touted but ultimately not very convenient Sprint Instinct, has a GPS system. It's the first GPS that I've used a lot, so I don't know if this is really the way all of them work. The directions I first get are usually completely wrong. I follow the little lady's voice and try to do a u-turn with my van as I am ordinarily instructed (difficult to believe that I'm always pointed the wrong way, but I bet there are some people I know who would concur with the GPS); once I'm headed in what I believe to be the right direction, new instructions pop up with alarming regularity. I drive for a while and it settles in, only to have it freeze up with the voice crying softly "GPS signal is weak". It's tempting to pull over to the side of the road and weep along with it, but most of the time, I just trundle along in the last direction I was pointed. Then, God help you, when a phone call comes in, you have to either take it or ignore it at a potentially critical juncture in the journey. Most of the time, to its credit, I do get to where I'm supposed to go via its directions, but it being in the phone and using a tiny display and a small whispery voice makes for more involved driving habits on my part. Now that I have the cigarette lighter all re-fused, I guess I'll be taking the standalone unit that Smart Wife bought for us after my disastrous journey from NC to camp to Atlanta to Wilkes County. The concept of GPS is great, but I guess the execution is better with a different unit other than my phone.

So I did actually get to the airport in time; it was a pretty straight shot down the 240 for me. Chris' flight got in slightly early, and he had checked bags this time. So I did three loops around the baggage pick up area, getting shooed away each time by the parking police. They REALLY don't want you to stop your car there; ideally, the arriving passenger would launch their baggage into an open door in your vehicle and then swing in through the window to their seat.

We rolled back to the Maches' house. I couldn't remember if Robert and Chris had ever met, but apparently they did at one of the Drifters' alcohol-soaked performances in Chapel Hill. Chris got the quarter tour of Robert's renovations, then it was off to practice with Ilene.

When we were done, we ate at Bogie's Deli, which is off of Overton Square. That area used to be a really busy place, with nightclubs and restaurants up and down both sides of the street. When I lived in Memphis briefly in 1978, there was a Strings and Things guitar store there, and Solomon Alfred's (where I saw John Hartford play) and the Friday's restaurant where Big Star had the back cover picture of Radio City made. All that's gone (Strings and Things got torched during the firemen's and policemen's strike of that fall), and there seems to be life creeping back in around the area but nothing conclusive or earth-shatteringly interesting.

I showered and shaved, and then we ran some of the songs again with Robert on mandolin. It was interesting to think that I'd have members of both of the bands I was in the longest playing together.

We followed Robert over to the convention, parking the van and leaving Ilene's bass amp in the car.

A pair of glass doors on the mezzanine floor opened ahead of us, and we were surrounded by the denizens of the Folk Alliance convention. All shapes, all sizes, mostly strumming guitars or plucking bass viols and singing. There was a grand assortment of hats, from porkpie to bonnet, in evidence. Chris picked up his nametag and we left a day pass for Ilene's husband Ben.

Lots of activity there on the mezzanine, and lots of people we knew: Greg Trooper, who had a showcase the same time as us, was the first to stick out his hand and welcome us. Ilene and Ben got there, and Ilene thought she'd had a Jack White sighting outside the hotel (we saw the guy later and realized it was not him). Susan and her band arrived and checked in. David Hirshland from Bug Music was strolling around, so we told him we had our new record coming out. Ebet Roberts, a talented and well-known photographer who had shot the dB's many times in the 1980's, was wandering around. Kim Carson, New Orleanean country singer deluxe, with whom I've played in her band The Casualties, was there too. Victoria Williams was there to see a little of Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion who were playing next door to us. Louis Meyers, who runs this whole shebang, gave me a big end-of-the-day-for-him hug. 'It was just star after star after star,' a la J&H Productions.

Our set started late because one of the acts who shall remain nameless decided to go well over their allotted time. So by the time we reached our fourth song, the PA guy was signaling for us to stop. We whined about it a little, having been promised a set's worth of time, and went right on playing for a few songs more. The attendance was spotty for us, mainly because (we found out later) people were starting to go up to the hotel room showcases at ten, when our show was starting.

We did play well. Ilene was solid as a rock on bass, and Robert twisted some mandolin lines around the songs. Chris and I sang nicely, and the people who were there seemed to like it. We packed and started the trek up to the Duo Coop room, having been warned that elevator service was slow, limited and crowded. Johnny and Sarah Lee's manager showed me the route to the unoccupied freight elevator, having lost track of Chris. Rode up with them (and their sleeping daughter Sophie, draped over Sarah Lee's shoulder) and found myself on a floor littered with cases and performers and signage.

I found Susan in the hall of the 19th floor, and she invited me to play on "The Rain Song" with her band and Robert. We jokingly referred to it as rehearsing for the Drifters' reunion gig. It was fun, sounded great, felt very natural.

We played right after Stacey Earle and Mark Stuart, who are long-time adherents to this part of the music business apparently. They sounded great; she's got a percussive guitar style like Nic Jones, and Mark's acoustic was just about the most present instrument I've ever been around. Stacey's mom was in the room that night, and they sang a beautiful song about Stacey's dad. Very moving.

Chris and I did "Early in the Monring", "Nothing is Wrong", "Something Came Over Me", "Taken" (requested by, I found out later, the brother of an old friend of Smart Wife's and mine with whom we worked for years at Borders) and "Angels". Lots of smiling faces. "We'd like to play at your house concerts, and if you don't do house concerts, we' d like to play at your house" I told the assembled group. "Well, it depends on what you're having for dinner" was Chris' riposte. I think they liked us, let's see what happens next.

It was nearing two in the morning, and since we'd both been up for a long time, we decided to leave.

I wish I'd had GPS to find my car. For the second night running, I could not remember how to get to the parking area where I left it. Tonight, it took an excruciating forty-five minutes of scanning spaces and walking up ramps and seeking help from hotel security who were watching us on closed-circuit tv as we caromed around the bowels of the hotel.

Got back to the Maches before Robert, and Chris and I hit the hay. I guess it was a successful first step into this new demimonde we hope to inhabit, although I'm really growing tired of losing my car at the end of the day.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Tennessee Road Trip, pt. VII

Today is my fifty-third birthday, and here I am in a meeting room at the Marriott Hotel in Memphis, getting ready to watch Chasin' Gus' Ghost, a documentary film on Gus Cannon and jug band music, after which John Sebastian will get interviewed. I can't think of anything much better for a birthday present.

The Folk Alliance convention began yesterday, but I was too busy running out of gas and having flat tires to attend anything. This is what Chris and I are here for, to promote ourselves as viable entertainment for 2009. Just like all the other folk here. It's big business, this folk world. At least I'm not the oldest guy in the room.

(John Sebastian has just sat down in front of me to autograph a couple of Gretsch guitars. Dear lord in heaven.... Should I tell him we tried to borrow his autoharp from him once at Bearsville, reasonably raising his ire? No, maybe not.)

I rode over here this morning and registered. Suddenly it occurred to me that this was supposed to be a place where I should shake hands and make new friends and promote our new record. (That kind of stuff was a lot easier with a cocktail in my hand, honestly.) I feel like I've gladhanded at these conventions for years, but I know that this one is really an important one. The face of the business I've been in for years has changed drastically. We have to rethink how to make professional music making, of our style, as a profit-bearing experience. The traditional channels have gone by the wayside. Record companies and hit music seems to not really exist anymore, not the record companies whose release parties could feed a destitute rock band for a week.... I know they're still out there, putting out 'product' that's aimed at the moneyed teenage audience; but their interest in older fellows like me has largely waned. So we get to try to put stuff out on our own, or on tiny concerns that leave much of the groundwork to the artist. I'm certainly fine with that, not that I know how to market a record myself--although I would have to say that some of the labels for whom I've recorded were approximately as qualified.

(Dick Waterman, Bonnie Raitt's old manager, is chatting with Sebastian. Lots of history in this room.)

I got a visit in with my old bluegrass pals from New Orleans, Jeff and Vida, who have been living in Nashville for the last few years. They explained it not so much as living there as having a place there for when they're off the road. Jeff and Vida tour incessantly and are supremely tight musically for all that work. We talked about independence and the new ways to make a living in the business of music.

After seeing them and poking around, I decided to make my way down to the trade show floor and collect information and business cards. Guitar makers, graphic designers, house concert bookers and tourist trade organizations are all scattered around the floor with their wares. I found Jody Stephens from Ardent there, and we chatted for a while until I was tapped by Sally Spring to help bring some cases of beer to the duet showcase room (which will host Chris and myself early early Saturday morning). Sally's a Winston-Salem singer/songwriter/treasure who I grew up admiring; she later married Ted Lyons, another local I'd known since I was a kid; he used to play drums in Mitch Easter's teenage band Sacred Irony. Ted's gone on to painting and playing guitar and mandolin with Sally and generally being a character. I went with Sally and helped bring the beer up to the right room. Boy, the showcase rooms are... well, rooms. Hotel rooms that have had the bed replaced by a dozen folding chairs and a small area for the performers in front. Talk about intimate. I guess if it works in a room like that, it'll play in a house concert. I'll tell you how it goes from the performers' point of view once we have done it.

This morning I got serenaded for my birthday by my teenaged daughter and her mother from New Orleans. It was so nice to hear from them. And speaking of New Orleans and Mardi Gras (which is right around the corner,) when I came back to Robert's house, I was presented with a king cake/birthday cake by Robert, Candace, Vivian and Farmer Jason Ringenberg, an old acquaintance from the 1980s who has gone on to find his fortune as a childrens' performer (he had just been informed he'd won a regional Emmy for his PBS kids' show). Three candles--I asked Candace if it was one for every twenty years, give or take, but Jason said "three after fifty, maybe?" That sounds more like it.

For the rest of the evening, I went back over to Ilene's house and rehearsed some more, making sure we were all ready for the Big Performance Day, er Night on Friday.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Tennessee Road Trip, Pt. VI

I woke up in the nearly complete darkness of the Maches' upstairs apartment to a call from my family back in NC. All was well, and it was a nice way to start the day, thinking of the folks back home that I miss so dearly (cue Stephen Foster music).

Robert and I went over a couple songs of mine that he's going to lend his mandolin talents to this weekend, and we drank coffee and talked about our kids and lives and the impending Continental Drifters reunion in May.

Somewhere in the early afternoon, I called my wife's grandmother in Little Rock and asked if I might come and pay her a visit. She said to come on, so I backed the Eurovan out of the driveway and sped toward I-40, as Little Rock is a straight shot west from Memphis.

It was a pleasant, easy drive for about an hour and a half. I had thought about getting some gas at the last exit at which I stopped. That thought floated back to me as the van made a familiar sound, like an air bubble in the gas line. I rolled to a halt about forty miles outside of Little Rock on the side of Interstate 40. No amount of gas pedal pumping was going to make the VW think it had fuel in it, so I began to walk the road in search of a service station. It was evident that there was nothing within walking distance, so I called AAA; I used to be a member, and Smart Wife suggested that I might rejoin now to get some help.

The nice lady at AAA said that I wouldn't be able to use a new membership for a service call like this, but she did give me the number of Harvey's Service and Exxon in Des Arc. I called the dispatcher there and talked to her as countless rigs rolled by right beside me. Had to walk through mud and wind to see the sign for the Biscoe exit to give her a location for the mechanic to come. He got there in about twenty minutes, nice guy named Charles who filled my tank with his gas can and then took my credit card info for the bill. He said to go up to the next big exit, that there was a gas station there 'that's owned by another bald guy'. Ha ha. I thanked Charles and rolled up the road to fill the tank.

When I was pumping gas and patting myself on the back for getting underway again, I heard a hissing sound coming at me from the front left tire. Well, looky there. I found a big flap of rubber on the side of the tire rapidly letting air out. I got back on the phone, called Harvey's again (one of their old roadside assistance vans was parked beside this gas station) and told them to send Charles back, which they did. I went in the convenience store, got my four hundredth cup of coffee for the day and waited for my savior.

Charles came back, shook his head, told me after he'd left me that a big rig had lost a big chrome pipe that he drove right over. We looked at each other with that desperate traveler countenance and decided that it was not our day for either of us.

Charles also told me he was a demolition derby driver, a job I've always wanted. He called himself an 'outlaw' driver, who filled his 1961 Chrysler Imperial full of extra metal, which seems crazy with a big heavy car like that. But I guess it keeps him in the derby longer, and he promised to send me a DVD of this weekend's derby if the dispatcher hadn't already sent me my repair receipt.

With the tire changed, I headed on to Little Rock where I visited with my wife's grandmother for a couple of hours. She's a fascinating person, with much travel and academia under her belt; being married to my wife, I find her grandmother to be one of the biggest side perks of that marriage. I showed her pictures of her great grandchildren and we talked books and Europe and politics until I had to go. It was two and a half hours back to Memphis, so I left her with enough time to get back and not be rolling around Arkansas after midnight when I doubted Charles would be available to help me out again.

Tennessee Road Trip, Pt. V

I woke on Mike's couch, patted his dogs and went to shower myself. Then I quietly repacked my stuff in the van, now featuring a thin film of dog hair, and hit the road again.

Full tank of gas and I was searching for a Cracker Barrel down the road, but I kept passing them by. In mind was a stop at the Loveless Cafe which I didn't expect to find. There to my wondering eyes appeared a sign with the Loveless as the food source at this exit, so I took it. Four and a half miles off I-40 at the start of the Natchez Trace, the Loveless is renowned for its secret biscuit recipe and country breakfasts. On the weekends, which is when we inevitably would come through with the dB's, there is a long line to get in. Today, however, I was seated immediately; my memories of a heroic meal there on an ancient morning was confirmed as not just consigned to history. I bought some preserves at the store, and began heading toward Memphis.

I lived in the city for several months in 1978, before I moved to New York to join the dB's. They were not easy months. I worked at an unairconditioned t-shirt printery across the road from Crown Electric (for you Elvis completists); and I spent a lot of time in the public library to beat the heat and to keep up with the doings of Chris and friends via ads in the Village Voice. While I lived here, I recorded at Sam Philips Studio on Madison Avenue with Richard Rosebrough, staff engineer and drummer. Richard was about the only person I met that took me seriously, and we cut a bunch of songs that ended up as demos for the first dB's album. The police and fire departments went on strike at the same time toward the end of my sojourn here, which meant National Guard armed troops on the corners of downtown roofs and a sunset curfew. It was actually an eventful couple of months in Memphis, but I was ready to head to New York.

When I got here today, I killed a little time in a Barnes & Noble Bookstore out East. It was a B&N without any music or DVDs, a bookstore that only sold books, how about that?

My host family is that of Robert Mache who live in a beautiful home that Robert has done a lot of renovation work on since they moved here after Katrina. Robert played lead guitar in the Continental Drifters, and he's stayed musically active here in the Bluff City; but he also commutes for gigs back in NOLA when he gets called, it's just downriver after all. The Maches have a nice apartment upstairs which they offered to Chris and me for the duration of the Folk Alliance shebang.

After Candace cooked a delicious vegetarian dinner, I headed over to Ilene Markell's nearby home to rehearse songs with her. Ilene played bass with Chris and me on the Mavericks record, and she also toured with us to support that record. She is the finest, most soulful and intuitive bass player I've ever gotten to work with, so it was great that she wanted to do these gigs with us. Ilene had obviously done her homework, and the songs, new and old, sounded just fine. It's nice to have a bass player who has that unerring sense of rhythm, especially when it's one of only three instruments up there.

I hung out for a little while after we finished rehearsing with Ilene and her husband Ben, and then I trundled back to my garret at the Maches for sleep.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tennessee Road Trip, Pt. IV

Day 4 began packing my stuff at Skeet's and trundling it down the steel staircase to my van at 7:15 in the morning. I had a breakfast with a friend at the Pancake Pantry, a fine Nashville establishment that usually sports a line around the block on weekends. We were there on Presidents' Day so our table for two was pretty instantaneous at eight. I trust any restaurant that brings maple syrup to your table automatically, and the buckwheat cakes were made all the better with it. After breakfast, I got the music landmark tour of Music Row. Lots of places to record your hits. I saw McGhee Entertainment's facade and Blackbird Studio but the most exciting thing was seeing Ray Stevens walking up to the gate of the Ray Stevens Building as he was beginning his business day (you better take care of business, Mr. Businessman). Ray was my only star sighting while in Nashville, unless you count meeting Daniel Tashian at Brad Jones' Alex the Great recording studio. Brad I know from Will's involvement with Matthew Sweet (they were his rhythm section), but Daniel I know only from reputation. He was mixing some of his new band Silver Seas' new album with Brad, drinking coffee and telling tales. My friend had to get to work so we let them get on with their day, and I rejoined my van and guitars, in search of what to do next.

I had planned to call Bill Lloyd about writing a song, but I got stuck in gear with the idea again. My co-writing fears rose in my throat and I didn't call him until late in the day after his phone was off.

Next stop turned out to be a Starbucks for eMail and IM catchup time.

We got the sequence hammered out to something we all liked. That procedure is so difficult since there's no specific criteria that seem more important than others in your attempt to put songs in order for their eventual presentation to the world at large. It was different, to say the least, when there were two sides to think about. But they've always had to start and end, and you try to work with the illusion that people will hear all the songs on the album at least once. Shuffle them around, what sticks? Chris is very careful especially about the transitions between songs in terms of their keys and their energies; I get antsy about tempos. Does the 'single' go at the front? Do you put the cover as the first track? (We are.) Ballad glut? Are the lyrics of the chorus of one song too close in form to the lyrics that begin another? Now that people can make their own playlists and buy individual tracks, does it matter even? You want to put your best foot forward and give your record every chance to succeed, and you don't want to cringe every time you play it for someone else. We went through about twenty different sequences, batting them back and forth like a badminton birdie over our inter-net until we reached some form of compromise that we both liked and the record company liked and that we though you all would like. My internet connection on the road being either nonexistent or prohibitively expensive to stay on too long, and my present iTunes/cd burning woes have made checking these things out for the jots and tittles much less easy for me. I tried to listen to a sequence on a part of the ride down, but the cord that goes from the cd player in the car to the headphone jack of the laptop is about eight inches long; I was going to have to have the computer on the edge of the seat to reach, so I junked that idea and tried to swing around on a disc of many of the mixes I made when my burner was cooperating. Now I'm just listening to a collection of Bo Diddley's instrumental treasures, courtesy of my pancake pal who provided me with a lot of listening for the ride. The record's sequenced, and I think all's right with the world.

I called Mike Costanzo, my guitar tech from Hootie and presently co-producing Susan's new album with Mike Mayeux. He said to come by, and I set the phone GPS to his address and was there.

Mike is an amazing technician. He kept my guitars and the Hootie Hammond organ running for many years before he decided to try his hand at engineering and producing. We had many laughs and close calls on the road over the years, and I have missed his company the last couple when he was in Nashville trying to establish himself in his career.

It was fortuitous for me that he had Mayeux's mobile recording truck parked in his back yard. He wanted to hear my new record, and I wanted to hear it over real speakers in a sonically appropriate location, so we plugged in my laptop and listened over his Yamaha NS10s, speakers I'm very familiar with. Sounded great, of course, and Mike was very impressed, I think.

Chris called and asked me to go through the song transitions one more time, so thanks to my timing with Mike C., I was actually able to do that for him on the fly.

Mike played me some of the remix of Susan's first album, and it sounds very good.

My host made spaghetti and sausage, and we drank iced tea and talked about the shitty economy and family. It was a nice visit that ended with me trying to sleep in the van but freezing myself back in to crash on Mike's couch.

Tennessee Road Trip, Pt. III

Knoxville at the Tea Room was wonderful fun with Tim and Susan Lee. How many years have I known Tim now? Seems like forever. They are two-thirds of the Tim Lee 3, and they got up and did acoustic versions of songs they usually thrash through with electric, bass and drums. Great songs like "Saving Gracie (From Herself)". Tim loves him some minor chords, and he admitted to me that he has no use for passing chords; his songs are strong, simple and direct. Susan wasn't a bassist/singer/rock star when I first met her, but she's eased into the job with precision, like it was simply the later destination for her many talents--she does the graphics for the TL3 records, among other clients.

There weren't a whole lot of people at the show, but that's okay since about half of them bought cds from me afterward. I was pretty good, I think. Wrote out a setlist so I wouldn't be stuck, but I ended up shuffling the songs anyway.

After the show, I drove about forty miles and stayed the night in a Days Inn. Bought a bag of popcorn and some cookies when the desk clerk let me in after I complained how hungry I was--probably could have just as easily gone up to Waffle House in the front end of the parking lot, but the concept of scattered, smothered and covered seemed a little on the heavy side for that time of night.

I fell asleep with my computer on my lap, like a warm little kitten... sort of.

I woke and went down to the office for the free breakfast which turned out to be a bowl of Fruit Loops and some deadly weak coffee. After I checked out, I went up to Cracker Barrel for breakfast number two, Uncle Hershel's favorite, which was much more satisfying.

As I drove towards Nashville I realized that I had no fixed destination and no game plan for the day, other than hopefully hearing from Kim Richey which didn't happen. Kim is moving, so she's completely exonerated from a last-minute social obligation which wasn't really obligatory. I found a Starbucks after tooling around the city for a while, admiring their Parthenon and some other park objets d'art. There, I had some real coffee and a blueberry muffin, and I was able to charge the computer and the soul at once.

I mad a couple phone calls to friends in town, and I found my old PRASB bandmate Skeet Hanks at home. Skeet is also a talented singer who also co-fronts (is that a word? it is now) Beatin Path with Mike Mayeux. We decided to go have Indian food for dinner, and he told me I could crash at his pad, which I'm about to do now. Dinner was fantastic and filling. When we got back to his place, we pulled out the acoustic guitars and played a bunch of Beatle songs before looking at one of Skeet's songs that he wanted to mess around with. I made a couple suggestions about relative minor chords that he took seriously and implanted into the song, and I think we made some headway.

Tomorrow morning, I'm having breakfast with a friend at the Pancake Pantry. Then I try to hook back up with Bill Lloyd to try and write a little.

In the van today, I decided to try to start writing a song while I drove. It's called "My Bad, It's All Good" and features lyrics like "The death of the English language at the hands of its users/make the rest of us trying to stop the hemmorhaging look like a pack of first-class losers." I don't know if I can show that to Bill and expect him to want to still sit in the same room with me, but I might.

Tennessee Road Trip, pt. I

Please forgive the bulk of postings here as I catch up. I'm only a couple days in, and I promise I will be more punctual about posting.

Without further ado, Part I:

I started out this morning (Friday, the 13th) for Nashville, first stop on a week-and-a-half trip through Tennessee's larger cities.

Tonight I'm playing at the Bluebird Cafe with Bill Lloyd, Kim Richey and Tim Krekel in a songwriters-in-the-round deal, the kind Robbie Fulks decimated in his song "Fuck This Town". I'm so new at it, comparatively, and such a stranger to Nashville that it doesn't bother me to get to hang with some friends and play some tunes for a night. Last time I did it at the Bluebird, it was Bill, Tim, Marshall Chapman, Darius and me. Al-Jazeera was filming, too. Tonight should be lower-keyed.

I'll need to see if I can pull my van/bedroom into someone's driveway for the night. Because it's an hour later here, I suspect I'll wake up at my usual time, as if I was being called from the kids' room. I can make my drive to Knoxville for my Time Warp Tea Room gig semi-early and find a state park to camp in for the night on Sunday. I assume they let guys with van/bedrooms camp, that you don't have to be pulling a 25-foot camper with hookups. All I need is a nearby bathroom and maybe an electrical outlet somewhere nearby. I just want to read and write and play guitar for a while before I head to Nashville again for a breakfast date on Monday.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Tennessee Road Trip, Pt. II

Nashville songwriters in the round was great fun last night.

We had guests Thom Schuyler and Fred Knobloch, who it turns out somewhat began this tradition years ago. I was in the dark about this significance, but my compadres knew. Thom did a great song about Hummer ownership, and Fred and Tim picked a song they'd written for Delbert McClinton.

Even without these guys, I found myself completely mesmerized by Kim, Tim and Bill's songwriting. All three of them are so versatile and have such deep catalogs. And they're all really articulate on the guitar as well. I listened on the way to Nashville (it's a few hours from Durham) Bill's Slide Show collection, Kim's 1999 album Glimmer and Tim's Soul Season--very VERY different from each other stylistically, but you can see where the circles overlap.

I played a few songs from the Holsapple & Stamey record, a Drifters' song and a couple others that I can't recall right now. Every so often, I noticed that I was gripping the top of the guitar for dear life, and that my shoulders were neatly tucked up under my earlobes. Too much coffee on the ride out? Possibly. Nerves and Nashville.

I'm going back to Nashville on Sunday to see if I can write a song, but today (Saturday, Valentine's Day) I'm playing at the Time Warp Tea Room in Knoxville, behind which I'm sitting at the wheel of the parked van/bedroom/dressingroom, listening to songs from the new album in relative quiet and typing this. "A loooonnng... time coming."

The Time Warp I described in an old blog--it's a English racing motorcycle-themed coffee shop that also offers live music like me (and Tim Lee tonight!) There are old bikes parked throughout, the walls are papered with ads and articles, posters and signed photos and the mantle is festooned with old fuel tanks in various states of damage. There is a bike between me and the piano tonight; maybe I can sit on the saddle as my stool? Doubt it. S'okay, I wasn't going to play piano anyway.

I played the Richard Thompson song "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" last time I was here and probably will again, because if not here, then where? I saw a huge poster of the Vincent line. The first picture of a Black Lightning that caught my eye featured the rider, completely horizontal from the handlebars back. That just says 'fast'.

It is my sincere hope that some people show up for this tonight. There is the distinct possibility that they won't, as it is Valentine's Day and money's tight and I'm not usually a lovers' destination unless you're having a break-up.

The nice thing about a solo gig (vs. a songwriter klatch) is that you have enough time to acclimate yourself to your surroundings. Last night, we four basically sauntered in, said our hellos, plugged in our guitars and started going around with an audience in the room. Tonight, I will stand in front of however many people are there, not really up from them either as there's no stage at the Time Warp, and I will ease into it gradually.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch:

My five-year-old was sent to my bottom drawer to distribute the Valentines' Day chocolates to his mother and sister this morning under my directives on the phone. Everyone was given their Whitman samplers (Hershey's Kisses for the one-and-a-half year old) and he was a happy aide-de-camp for his dad. I miss them, even found myself choking on a tear today which has never really been the norm. My gigs have always taken me away from my children, and I've been lucky enough that the little ones (and my Smart Wife) have dealt with that reality very soundly, I think.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ed Bumgardner

From the Winston-Salem Journal, February 3, 2009:

Winston-Salem Journal cuts two workers in newsroom

Two journalists in the Winston-Salem Journal's newsroom were let go yesterday as part of the newspaper's cost-cutting moves. One was on the newspaper's design team, whose members create graphics and lay out and design pages. The other was Ed Bumgardner, a longtime music critic and features writer.

Like many newspapers and companies in other industries, the Journal has been trying to reduce costs as revenues drop during an extremely difficult business environment.


(Oops, sorry, that was the title for the next section of corrections...)

In an effort to streamline the costs of running a print newspaper, the Winston-Salem Journal has fired Ed Bumgardner, the long-time music writer and an old friend of mine.

Ed has been the consistent source of music reportage in town for many years and has been a distinct, informative and original voice at the Journal. His interviews inevitably show his conversance with the subject of popular music in the quality of his questions. In his reviews, especially, this reader finds much drollery, mirth and enthusiasm, the kind of 'rock criticism' that Ed and others of my generation grew up with and enjoyed, from CREEM and the early National Lampoon through Musician and New York Rocker magazines. Our passion for the music was confirmed through passionate writers like Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, John Mendelsohn, Peter Guralnick and Richard Meltzer, whom we adored and absorbed like the great musicians to whom they exposed us.

Ed is not afraid to go against the popular flow of culture in order to preserve and defend what he sees and hears as imperatives in music: high standards in song, performance and image, and the ability to see past the folly of grown men with guitars getting older and maybe not wiser. Part of this comes from his own bass-playing and record-buying background, but much has simply developed over years of toiling for the Journal, confronted with editors, deadlines, shitty-but-grossly-popular new albums, interesting near-dead blues guys and the latest country music sensation's dietary habits when in the Camel City.

Now he's confronted with ad revenue and the dying stature of the printed newspaper, and Ed gets to sacrifice his gig to help the Journal turn into a newswire compendium that bears little resemblance to the local paper it used to want to be.

I sort of wish he'd barricade himself in his office, like some apocryphal WTOB disc jockey, splattering out wildly yawing reviews and general yammerings that he slips under the door or faxes to the printing department to be entered into type by sleight-of-hand, as we feed him junk food and cheap drinks via carrier pigeon through his window. But I also think that won't happen, that the brass at the Journal will merely pave over his splendid tenure's legacy with glorified press releases and Articles of a General Nature, the end of the paper's local music writer tradition will be at hand, and Ed will find another outlet.

I dug getting to grow up with Ed, playing and talking rock music with him; but I guess his prowess as a writer completely surprised me in that I just didn't realize he had it in him. Sometimes, when I've talked with him in one of our lazy, you-won't-believe-this kind of phone calls that we've had over the years, I wonder if Ed even knew he 'had it in him' before he got hooked on it. What he has done with 'it' is an inpiration for me, personally, as someone who likes to write; he developed a voice before our eyes, and it did not take long before it was a good strong natural one, too. In a city with a storied past and active present and future in music, the sense of Ed's writing reflects his love and understanding of his locale, as well as his ability to see beyond the city limits--which could very well be where he must look next. Ed's years at the Journal kept Winston-Salem informed and entertained, and whether you agreed with him or not on his take on Bob Dylan, likely as not, he piqued your curiosity on something else you didn't know you might love.

I'm positive we have not read the last of Ed Bumgardner, only in the pages of the Journal. Losing this identifiable voice for the arts will lose the paper readership and good local content, even if their management's sole concern is with the former as it applies to generating the almighty dollar.