another check off the musical bucket list

If you know me, even casually, you’re probably aware of my lifelong love affair with Poco.

If you know me better than that, then perhaps you’re painfully aware…but they’re part of my DNA, they’re responsible for numerous rings at the center of my tree.

I missed out on them during the early days of the band – I heard the Legend album as a 12 year old kid with a clock radio he’d just gotten for Christmas, and the back catalog drifted into my life as I became more and more obsessed with music…and as I made the transition from music fan to musician, they were hugely influential.  The more I learned about music – how it worked, how songs were arranged, what got my attention and what didn’t – the more their music resonated with me. The stuff I’d first heard was just the tip of the iceberg…they’d done almost a dozen albums before then, and they had continued to make records since.

I made an album in 1990 and covered Poco’s Made of Stone on my very first release…later that year, I was in Pittsburgh and picked up a City Paper and saw an ad for a summer concert series in the city, and to my shock and surprise, one of the shows was Poco!  I had no idea that there was still a touring version of the band at this point, and…goddamn right, I was gonna drive to Pittsburgh to see Poco.

I was curious, though – who was in the band at this point?  There was no internet at the time, and the only way to find out was to get on the phone and start making calls…but I didn’t really get a clear answer from anyone I talked to.  But I’d really already made up my mind – I was gonna make the five hour drive and see this show, because my curiosity wouldn’t allow me not to go.

I got there and saw a pedal steel on the stage, so I figured that, at the very least, there was a steel player in the band – whether it would be Rusty Young or not was still an unknown factor.  But when the band emerged from the wings, I immediately recognized Rusty Young and Paul Cotton among the four guys who walked onto the stage. They opened with Days Gone By and went right into the title track from Legend, and I don’t think I moved a muscle during the entire show.  It started raining lightly at one point, but I don’t think I even noticed…the only evidence of it exists on the album cover from the Legend record that I brought with me for them to sign.

with Rusty and Paul on the night we met in 1991

I met Rusty and Paul for the first time after that show, almost thirty years ago, and it was the beginning of two of the longest friendships I’ve had.  I gave Rusty a copy of the album I’d made and told him that “…if I had ever given a remote thought to the fact that you might end up hearing this, I’d probably still be in the studio working on it.”  We crossed paths again about four years later when I opened for them at the Roxy Theater in Northampton, PA – the first of many times I’d share the stage with them over the years, as an opener or a special guest.  (AND – Rusty remembered me from when we’d met at the show in Pittsburgh those years before.)

There’s a much longer love story here that’ll eventually be told in its full, fanboy glory and in all manners of excruciating detail…there’s a pretty healthy chunk of it over here, if you’re inclined to revisit it at some point.

In the wake of our trip to Wildwood Springs Lodge late last year, I got a call from Jack Sundrud right after the new year with a completely unexpected proposition – Lex, their guitarist, was taking some time off for a surgical procedure soon…would I be interested in filling in for him with Poco while he recuperated?

I chuckled and said, “Dude…I’m surprised you actually need to ask me that question.”

Jack took that as a “yes”.

We ironed out the particulars with regard to timing and such – when Lex would be able to schedule his surgery, which dates would be involved…I got a couple of calls from Rick Alter, the manager, as we worked everything out from a scheduling standpoint, and soon we had a plan:  I’d join them for my first show at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, NJ in late February. Prior to that, Jack and I (along with drummer Rick Lonow) would get together here in Nashville for a couple of run-throughs to make sure we were locked in, and then Rusty would come down to Nashville for a full run-through at SIR the weekend before my first show.

Needless to say, work on the memoir came to a screeching halt while I applied CPR to my atrophied guitar chops and got to work learning how to actually play these songs that had seeped into my DNA over the course of the majority of my life.

I had experienced this just a few years ago, when I spent almost two years on the road with Marshall Tucker Band – there were nights that I’d look down in vague disbelief at my hands when I’d play the intro of Fire On The Mountain on the pedal steel and marvel at the fact that it was actually ME playing this song that I’d known since I was a kid.

As I was re-familiarizing myself with some songs and learning others for the first time while I shook the rust off my guitar playing, it became apparent – in a way I hadn’t really considered before – exactly how much of an influence Paul Cotton had been on my guitar playing over the course of my life.  I’d always thought of Opie, Stills, Lindley, Cooder and Buddy Miller as being the framework of what I aimed for when I picked up a musical instrument…over the years, I had come to think of Paul more as a singer and songwriter than as a guitar player, but digging into these songs was something of a slap in the face.  

It took me exactly two passes to figure out the solo for Indian Summer – it was as if I knew it already.

Some of the other songs – Magnolia and Heart of the Night, among others in the set – felt as if I’d already been playing them all my life.  There was quite a bit of mandolin on my docket as well, including the first three or four songs in the long version of the set, but that didn’t need quite as much CPR as my guitar playing.

(I feel like it’s important to point out that I very nearly never get calls for guitar these days.  I’m a utility guy in the eyes of just about everybody, including myself, and I’m not only OK with that, I kinda love it.  So playing a lot of guitar was gonna require a workout regimen.)

I was working through some of the set and actually made an impromptu video to announce that I’d be playing the shows, and I used the intro riff from Indian Summer in the clip – and when I heard it in the video after I’d recorded it…it kinda froze me.  Yeah, clearly Paulie was a MUCH bigger string of my DNA than I’d acknowledged before.

Thanks, Paulie.  Love ya, man.

One of the things I said in the video was that “I haven’t told fifteen year old Tom about this yet, because I don’t know if he can handle it.

Tonight, I sat down to start writing this experience up, and I went through the photos I took during this run of dates to pick out which photos I’d use for the article…and I remembered a specific scene from Almost Famous when William goes back to his hotel room to finish his article, and he pulls out all the Polaroid photos he’d taken during his time on the bus with the band and rolls a blank piece of paper into the typewriter…and he takes a moment to flip through the Polaroids and relive what he’d only just put behind him.

I had a few moments on stage during this run when I’d close my eyes for a few moments and soak in the synchronicity of what was happening around me – but it didn’t feel as much like hero worship as an appreciation for my bandmates.  Indian Summer and Heart of the Night, in particular, were just a joy to play for me. Of course, that might’ve had something to do with the fact that I got to stand next to my absolute, bar none, favorite pedal steel player in the world – living or dead – and I got to listen to him play those songs WITH ME.  ON STAGE.

And then there was Magnolia.

We only played it twice during this run, and I stayed present both times.  To be certain, I gave myself permission to stand in the moment and let it soak into my DNA and appreciate it, but I didn’t let myself access too much of my own emotional perspective while we were on stage.

When I bought my Tascam 244 in 1984 in Iceland, Magnolia was one of the first songs I recorded as a cover when I was figuring out how songs worked.

When Paul had his health scare during the European tour and returned to the band, I went to see them in Lancaster, PA with America – and they played Magnolia as I sat there in the dark with tears streaming down my face when Paul played that song, because it wasn’t lost on me that I came very close to never hearing him play it again.

So Magnolia is a little bit of a hot button for me…but goddamn, it felt good to play it.

I guess what I’m saying is that tonight, while I’m typing, 15 year old Tom is processing what just took place.  It seems like a safe point in time to let him know what just happened.

Jack, Rick and I got together two consecutive days just before Valentines’ Day for our official run-throughs prior to rehearsing with Rusty that weekend, and the only real work was working out harmony parts – we ran the entire set, and it was pretty apparent by the end of the day that we could’ve probably pulled this off with just the one rehearsal.  Not to brag, but we nailed it. Not only that, but…our vocal blend was pretty damned awesome. The next day was even better, but – still, it was just the three of us, and we were missing a big piece of the puzzle. I was really looking forward to the SIR rehearsal with Rusty, because there were some specific elements that I wanted to work through with him.  In particular, there was a dual lead guitar line that I’d worked out from Call It Love that I was intent on nailing, but I couldn’t work on it without Rusty being there. So while I was certainly satisfied with how the rehearsals with the rhythm section had gone, I was still pretty stoked for the Rusty Rehearsal.

I was standing in the shower Saturday morning when I had a strange, oddly timed thought that I still don’t know how to process…

At that point in time, within a month, we’d lost HippieSteel icon Buddy Cage, songwriting great David Olney, and – perhaps most impactful to me, Neil Peart from Rush – maybe all that loss was still weighing on my psyche, I don’t know..I’m not sure, either way, why this occurred to me in the shower that morning, but I remember thinking…

…this band has been around for 50 years and I can’t think of anyone from the band, past or present, who isn’t still alive.  Nobody from Poco has died yet! How crazy is that?

Within the half hour, I got a text from Jack that Rusty was on the way to the ER, that he’d strained something and that there wouldn’t be a rehearsal on Sunday…and that there was “no word on shows yet.”

To say it scared the shit outta me is something of an understatement. 

I was far more worried about Rusty than the immediate fate of the shows, and feeling really unsettled about the fact that I’d had this stray thought in the shower one minute, and the next minute something terrible might have actually taken place.

Thankfully, Rusty turned out to be fine – he had a couple of things to address that he’s taking care of during the break, as we speak.  And I have to assume, because I never bothered to ask, that Jack must’ve assured him – based on our rehearsals – that there was no reason we wouldn’t be able to pull off the first two shows without an actual full band rehearsal…because they decided to keep the shows on the books.

So yeah, I was bummed about missing out on the rehearsal, but – I was too busy rooting for Rusty to be OK to think about it a whole lot.  I was ready, and I knew we’d be able to polish up the edges if we were actually keeping the shows on the schedule.

The first show at Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown was a triple bill with Pure Prairie League and Orleans, so our set for that show would be a shorter, 45 minute set…but the show the following night in Bay Shore, NY at the Boulton would be a full 90 minute set, with ALL the songs in it.

The plan was that we’d do a somewhat longer soundcheck for the first show and make sure we were dialed in for that set of songs, and get to Long Island early for the second show of the run and do a more detailed run-through of the songs that weren’t on the set the night before.

It was a huge vote of confidence in me, and I won’t ever forget it.

I had posted the video announcing that I’d be joining the band for a few shows a couple of weeks prior to the date of the first show, and got some immediate feedback from some of the Poconut family that I’d known for almost as long as I’ve known the band…a bunch of them had bought tickets to the show, so I knew ahead of time that I’d have some supportive friends in the room for my first ever show as a “member” (albeit a temporary one) of the band.

We left before sunrise the morning of the day before the first show, so we could take the scenic route up through Kentucky and West Virginia – and actually see the part that’s always in darkness when we return on that stretch of road.  It was certainly well after sundown when we got to the hotel and got checked in…and Danny sprawled out on the sofa to play games on his laptop while we watched TV for a bit before calling it a night.

Wendy and Danny came along for the first show – Wendy wanted to be there because she knew what a big deal it was for me, personally…Danny (not unlike Jayda and Dylan before him) was completely uninterested in what was happening around him, and entertained himself with games on his iPhone for the duration of our time at the venue.  He ended up dragging Wendy back to the hotel before the show even started, so neither of them were there for the actual show.

Danny into Infinity in the green room at Mayo, Morristown NJ

We’d gotten into town the night before and checked into the hotel, and I had gone shopping for supplies that afternoon before we went to soundcheck at the venue (I had just been in this town – Florham Park, NJ – less than a year ago, when I came for training for my day gig, and I’d stayed right up the road…and in a weird moment of coincidence, I heard Maggie Rogers’ song Leave the Light On in Walgreens’ when I was picking up groceries – a song I’d heard for the first time just a few months before, while staying in a hotel right up the road from where I was.)

guestbook at MPAC – first show
setlist for the first show

I’d never met any of the guys from Orleans, so they were an unknown quantity to me, but I’ve known the PPL guys for ages – they had a new guy onboard that I hadn’t met yet, but the rest of the band were old friends – founders Mike Reilly and John David Call, along with Donnie Lee Clark on guitar and Scott Thompson on drums.

waiting for the house lights to go down, Mayo Performing Arts Center, Morristown NJ

Pure Prairie League were another band that I’d caught on to quite some time after they rose to prominence.  I’d heard the Vince Gill-era version of the band before I’d become aware of their catalog, and there was a lot to absorb there.  I still remember finding a copy of their Bustin’ Out album in the TV lounge in the barracks in Iceland while I was in the Navy, and I must’ve listened to that album a thousand times.  (I covered Early Morning Riser from that record on an album I did in 2006.)

Poco in Morristown, NJ – 2.22.20

The first show was a little unsettled – and it wasn’t just me.  Everyone in the band felt it. We had a solid soundcheck, but it was one of those rooms where it felt like the sound from the amps and the wedges travelled roughly eight feet or so and just evaporated.  It’s a hard thing to describe, really…sometimes you just have to play the songs and make it work, and that first show felt a bit like that.

trading licks with Rusty on Opie’s Stratocaster, Morristown NJ

Not unlike sex, we all want our first time to be memorable and special and – well, for the vast majority of us, it’s not.  This show had turned out to be a little rough for reasons we didn’t really have control over, but…again, not unlike sex, when you’re with the right person, the first time isn’t likely to be the only time, so there’s the promise of the second, third, and fourth time to look forward to, and the notion that it’s going to get better and more comfortable.

I did have one thing that I’d planned for the first show that was important to me, and I made it happen.

When Opie died five years ago, he left a note on a piece of legal pad paper in the case of his Stratocaster, specifying that the guitar should find its way to me if anything ever happened to him.  In the time since I brought it home after he died, it’s spent its days at my house, in the case and unplayed. I hadn’t used it for the entire time it’s been in my possession…I had taken it out and played it on occasion when I wanted to feel close to my mentor, but I’d never used it on a gig or a session.

I love the slight grin on Rusty’s face in this shot.

But this felt like a good time to bring it out for the first time…so I did.

We got through the set without any scars or scratches – it wasn’t great, but we pulled it off.

We played early, but I stayed through the end of the night – Wendy and Danny had taken the car back to the hotel, but my friends Jon and Georgina Rosenbaum (who were running the merchandise table for Pure Prairie League) had offered to give me a ride back after the show earlier that night at dinner, and I took them up on it.  I helped Rusty and Mary load their car after the show and went back inside to hear the last of the Orleans set – they were playing a song called Juliet that I thought for some time to be a cover of Dixie Chicken…but goddamn, they were good. GOOD.

with Jon Rosenbaum and Mike Reilly from Pure Prairie League

I saw John David Call and Mike Reilly in the lobby after the show, and both of them were really happy to see me, and glad that I was out with the band for a bit…while the show wasn’t particularly noteworthy, the hang felt really, really good.  I was surrounded by friends, and there was an element of homecoming to the night that had little to do with the show, other than the fact that we were all there, together.

with John David Call of PPL – an enigma if ever there was one

The next day, we checked out and headed for Long Island – the drive was heavenly.  The sun was shining, we saw some amazing cars on the road during the drive, including a blue Lamborghini Huracan that Danny identified within seconds of looking up from the backseat.  I made a point to take Danny to Friendly’s right up the road from he venue (we don’t have Friendly’s down south, and I’ve heard rumblings that they’re going under, which is a goddamn shame).

We parked and unloaded – the band had played the venue before, and the soundman was truly great.  I didn’t know it until after the show, but we had very similar tastes in mid-80’s UK pop music…he was playing Marillion’s Misplaced Childhood album over the PA during load out, and I hadn’t heard that record in decades.  We started talking and I discovered that he was also a fan of Level 42 and some of the other bands I loved when I was stationed in Wales…it was a nice bonding moment.

Long Island set list, Boulton Center, Bayshore NY

We had gotten to the Boulton Center early, and because the crew was so on top of their game, we had a lot of time prior to doors to run through the set and tighten up the longer set that we were playing that night.  He turned up the monitors and left us to our own devices, and we got in the rehearsal that we’d missed that weekend before the first show right there on the stage, in front of a group of our friends that had come from hours away for the show.  I saw a few folks recording the soundcheck, but I haven’t seen any of that footage yet…but it felt good, to be sure.

It’s also important to mention that the day of the Boulton Center show was Rusty’s 74th birthday.

After our soundcheck, we all went upstairs for a short but spirited birthday hang with the assembled Poconuts – some folks who’d been at the show the night before, some folks that had been at WIldwood Springs that past October, and some folks that I’d known for over 20 years.

The assembled revelers for Rusty Young’s 74th birthday show, Bay Shore, NY

This was gonna be a good show.  I just knew it.

We came back downstairs to the backstage area and I changed clothes for the show.  As fate would have it, Rusty was pretty talkative…and somehow, we ended up talking about Cameron Crowe and the Almost Famous movie, and the fact that Poco was the first band Cameron went on the road with (I knew this, but Rusty didn’t), and how many experiences from that tour made it into the movie.  Rusty remembered Cameron being on the bus, and how much he idolized Richie and a few other memories from that time…and I looked over at Wendy as we were walking away to head onstage, and we made eye contact for a minute as we were all walking away. I’m pretty sure she knew exactly what I was thinking.

“…how the hell is this my life, now?”

The show, that night, in front of the perfect handful of fans and Poconuts, was sublime.

The first four songs were all mandolin songs, leading up to Call It Love – at which point I switched over to Opie’s Stratocaster…I still had it with me, so I used it.  We followed that with Indian Summer, which will likely remain my “is that really my hands playing this song?” memory from this run for eternity. We opened the second set with the first performance ever of Magnolia during my run – as well as a song Rusty wrote called Neil Young, which I used as an opportunity to do my best Neil impression on electric guitar when the time came – and there’s footage of Rusty saying out loud, “that’s hilarious!” after my solo…which was exactly what I was going for.

It was a truly great show, and while there were still a couple of things that needed a little smoothing, it was miles away from the performance we had turned in the night before, and it went a long way towards making all of us feel more comfortable.  Rusty told the crowd, “…one of the reasons Poco has lasted for over 50 years is because we’ve always had great musicians in the band – and tonight is no different!”

I went out and sat with the band at the merch table to sign autographs, shook every hand, and loaded out to head back to the hotel with Wendy and Danny – the hotel was kind of amazing.  I felt like I might’ve walked right past Dean Martin and Joey Bishop in the lounge on the way to the elevator.

waaaay down at the end of the hall there are two twin girls with big hair, waiting for the shuttle to the mall
the most badass Brady Bunch curtains in the world.
with the band and Jon Rosenbaum in Bay Shore, NY

We went upstairs, plugged in to recharge, and I poured adult beverages for Wendy and myself while I texted back and forth with Jon Rosenbaum for an hour or so…we were driving back to Nashville the next day, so I needed to shut off my brain sooner than later to get ready for the drive.

I’ve become somewhat notorious among my musical friends for my disdain for fly dates, but the next show was at the Gallo Center in Modesto, CA, and there really was no way NOT to fly for that one.  So I figured out a somewhat ingenious manner of getting all my necessities onto the plane and off we went. Rick had flown ahead of us because he was making a stop along the way, so this flight was Jack and myself.  Wendy and I picked Jack up on the way to the airport and he and I grabbed some breakfast at Noshville in the terminal after we checked our bags. Of course, I fell asleep not long after we boarded and dozed throughout most of the flight, and it was still daylight when we landed in Oakland – once we hit the ground and got checked into the hotel, Jack and I took a walk down the street from the hotel to the grab some In-N-Out Burger, and Rick ended up joining us soon after. 

I took advantage of the early landing to reach out to Stephen Barncard, on the off chance that he was in the area and up for a hang…we talked for a good long while, but he has moved out to Sebastopol since we last saw each other and was geographically out of the loop. I got a phone call from Tom Fitzgerald just a few minutes later, who told me that I might be meeting some friends of his at the show tomorrow night…after we finished eating, we headed back to the hotel and slept off the time zone difference.

preparing for the aftermath of the DoubleDouble at In-N-Out burger…
scene from an Oakland hotel room

The next day, when I came back to the room after breakfast, I got out my iPad and began recording a cover of John Moreland’s song Gospel – with notions of posting it on my YouTube channel if it turned out ok.  I’d played through it a couple of times and there was a knock on the door – and it was Rusty.

Turns out, he was in the room next door and heard me playing, so he came over with his 12 string acoustic to run through a few things – a new transition arrangement to get us from Rose of Cimarron into Good Feelin’ To Know, most specifically – and after we played for a while, he went back to his room, but he left behind some very kind words about the job I’d been doing, with emphasis on the vocals.

working through transitions with Rusty at the hotel in Oakland

That was really kind of him, and it meant a lot.

The show that night was in a great venue – it was another triple bill with the guys from Pure Prairie League and Orleans, and everyone seemed to be in pretty high spirits.  A jam erupted in one of the PPL dressing rooms after soundcheck that went on for a long time…Scott and Donnie from PPL, Chip, Brady, Fly and Lane from Orleans, and myself on mandolin representing the Poco guys.  I stopped playing for a bit to catch a video clip of the chaos for a minute, and went right back to work until I had to leave to step on stage.

Because Poco was playing first, I didn’t bother getting too comfortable on stage – I only had the two instruments to deal with, so I took both of them onto the stage and left them in their cases right next to my amp – that way, all I had to do when we were done was to toss a handful of cables and pedals into my bag and carry the cases off the stage with my bag over my shoulder.

When we’d finished our set, I went over to carry my stuff off and the Orleans guys had left a dollar in my mandolin case, in the same fashion as one might leave for a street performer – and we all laughed our asses off.  

Chip actually said to me after the set, “you’re starting to get comfortable, aren’t you?”

I had to admit that yeah, it was starting to feel really good.

onstage at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto, CA
lots of photos of me from this tour with my pick in my mouth. cool, cool.

We made our way back to the motel and I took a short walk over to one of the nearby gas stations to grab a snack and learned in that moment that gas stations in Oakland don’t sell beer after 10pm on Saturdays, apparently – NOT what I’d expected to hear, but that was OK.  I was ready to sleep, anyway.

The next day, everybody seemed to be flying out of the same terminal, on the same flight back to Nashville.  Even John David Call, who was connecting to Columbus, was on our flight. JD and I had a great conversation in the terminal waiting area, and I got to know Chip from Orleans a little better, as well.  

Turns out, he and I were in the same boat – John Hall is returning to Orleans soon, and Chip will be out of a gig when he comes back.  The difference between his situation and mine is that I knew when I came onboard that I’d only be here for a little while, and I think Chip’s situation was expected to be more of a long-term thing.

That’s the nature of this life, though.  Any random gig that you play could well be your last, so it’s important to try to live in the moment and be grateful for whatever spot your shoes occupy on a given day.

I got home late Sunday night, and got up Monday morning and went to work, just like I typically do.

There was nothing typical about Monday night, though.

Needless to say, most of that week was spent largely distracted and preoccupied, and I didn’t take either of my instruments out of the case for the entire week.  Not because I was comfortable or settled, but because I was just completely absorbed in what my neighborhood had just gone through.

The next gig would be the final one for me – closing out this set of shows in Weirsdale, FL at the Orange Blossom Opry.

I’d never heard of the OBO, but they’ve carved out something special there – it’s a great room with a spacious stage, risers in back, curtain that opens into the kitchen.  They had a house band that played every show that was pretty great. They were almost all, to a man, Nashville veterans who’d “retired” to Florida to relax and wind down – including their leader, Bobby Randall.  I used to see Bobby on TNN years ago when he hosted several shows for the network – he’d been an original member of Sawyer Brown and had played in Confederate Railroad as well, among others. His first gig was playing steel guitar for Charlie Rich in 1978…he asked me if I wanted to come sit in with them on a couple songs, and seemed surprised when I agreed.  We’d eaten up most of their soundcheck time, and it seemed like the least I could do to offer an olive branch for eating up all the time before doors – so I played acoustic guitar on a pair of Eagles songs (I told Rusty before I went out that I felt like a traitor playing Eagles songs with another band while I was out with Poco, but he said “I won’t hear it from backstage, so we’ll just go with ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.”)

Green room at the Orange Blossom Opry, Weirsdale, FL

The Poco set that afternoon was a 70 minute affair, so there was no intermission, but we got a good long one in.  I knew it was the last one of the run, so it was a little bittersweet, but I wasn’t going to let that keep me from soaking it in and burning it into my brain.

All my favorites were in there – I played the harmony lead part along with Rusty at the end of his solo in Call It Love, we did Magnolia, Indian Summer, Heart of the Night, Rose of Cimarron, Kind Woman, Crazy Love…it was a pretty epic performance, if I say so myself.  The time we’d taken with the monitors during soundcheck paid off, I could hear everyone exactly the way I needed to. Rusty repeated his sentiment from a couple of weeks ago yet again, about how “today was no different” – so it dawned on me that his statement was probably a blanket statement about the band in 2020, and not as much of a compliment for me as I’d thought it was the first time he said it, but – there we all stood when he said it, so I’ll take my piece of the cake.  I’m good with it.

We closed with “Good Feelin’ to Know” and it was over, just as we were really starting to get truly comfortable with one another…but that’s how things go in this life.

Another stint at the merch table, meeting some Poconuts that I’d known online but had never met in person, signing autographs on T-shirts and bumper stickers, and…it was load-out time.

I packed Rusty’s steel to bring back to Nashville with me, as it needed a little TLC and I had a guy now, thanks to David Pinkston.

Mary wanted to go out to dinner, and we found a place called Eaton’s Beach barely a mile or so from the venue.  Rick was planning on going there anyway to meet up with a buddy, so he and his old bandmate Doc were there either way (Doc had been at the show, he played with Rick together in the Bellamy Brothers decades ago), and since it was my last night, I wasn’t about to sit it out.  

It was the perfect time of day, the weather was perfect (a bit cold for some of us, but you no doubt know already where I fall on that scale) and we got there long enough before the sun went down to have eaten dinner before the sun started sinking into the trees on the other side of the lake.  We drove back to Orlando (everyone was flying out of Orlando the next day, but I was driving…still, I had a room for the night) and Jack came down to my room to hang and watch TV for a bit (I plugged in the laptop and we watched the Tom Dowd documentary from some 20 years ago, which he seemed to enjoy) – Jack retired after that and I put something else on while I noodled for a bit in one of my notebooks before I went to sleep.

I made a point of going down for breakfast before I left, and ran into both Jack and Rusty – who again went out of his way to tell me what a great job I’d done.  I assured him that I was always a phone call away if he ever needed me, but I’m sure they’re ready to return to some semblance of normalcy soon.

There’s a lot of uncertainty around our collective livelihood right now as we’re trying to exist in the midst of a historic health crisis, and maybe none of us knows what “normal” is for the short term.  Just tonight, the NBA shuttered the remainder of the basketball season – schools and colleges are closing, the Viking Cruise line has cancelled all cruises for the next six weeks, and the NCAA tournament will apparently be played in empty arenas.  Here in Nashville, my neighborhood is still in splinters in a lot of areas, and the world feels as if it’s in the midst of a slow-cooking apocalypse.

I got to spend a few weeks playing in a band that I’ve loved for most of my life, alongside friends, and feeling for a little while that the world was normal, even as the crazy was escalating around us all.

I’m rooting for “normal” to make a comeback, but if those shows were the last shows I ever play, I’d be ok with that.

#NashvilleStrong

I had just come home from a west coast Poco show in Modesto, CA late the night before, and got up to go to work on Monday – so I was tired, but I stayed up in front of my computer screen writing anyway. Danny had been asleep for a couple hours already by then, and I was uploading photos from my phone onto my laptop and replying to messages. It had been raining, and there’d been quite a bit of lightning as I was considering calling it a night.


But when the alerts went off simultaneously on the phones, I picked mine up to see a tornado warning on my screen.


As I was opening Twitter to scan the Nashville Severe Weather account, I heard the siren go off – the one that blares on the first Saturday of every month at noon, the one that we’re all so collectively accustomed to ignoring.
But…the phone…the siren…and the ominous feed from Twitter were conspiring to relay a pretty sinister message.


Shit was about to get real.

I don’t know that we even debated going to the basement, I just said that I’d go get Danny out of bed…that might’ve been the comic highlight of the night: waking up a ten year old after midnight to tell him that we were going to the basement. He didn’t verbally ask if I’d been drinking, but the expression on his face as it sank in that I’d jolted him from a deep sleep to report to the basement in the middle of the night…that kinda said it in so many words.


When we went downstairs, Carley (Dylan’s girlfriend) was still awake as well – she actually had the window open in their basement apartment, and it was immediately creepy to me how still it was outside, considering what I’d observed for most of the night.


This was real. This was happening.


We were hiding in the basement underneath a tornado that was sweeping across our neighborhood, ripping houses open, depositing the splinters of houses it had already destroyed into other people’s yards, tearing open buildings, leaving dumpsters in the middle of the street, and ripping down electrical poles and tearing power lines loose and leaving them lying in the street.


My work phone began dinging with alerts of various network circuits around the city falling silent – most notably among them a job at ground zero of the tornados’ path in Germantown.


When the damage was done, some six hundred of those poles would fall to the ground (compared to less than 200 in the 1998 tornado), and a path of destruction from Bordeaux and Germantown, North Nashville across our East Nashville neighborhood and through FivePoints and literally right down Main Street – then east to Mount Juliet and off to Cookeville, where the death toll was highest.

Over two dozen people were dead, more physically injured…and even more left to pick up the pieces of what had been a relatively normal life on an average Monday night that was no different than most others – until it was.
Not yet knowing any of this, we came back upstairs to bed – all three of us in the master bedroom where we slept somewhat fitfully, drifting off and then waking up at the slightest sound or flash of light that might indicate that it wasn’t over yet – when the sun came up, our house on Rosebank Avenue, near Cornelia Fort Airpark, looked exactly as it would have on the first Tuesday of a given month – our trash cans were still standing upright and unmolested on the curb, waiting for pickup.


But less than a mile away, a lot of our neighbors had it much worse than we did.


My daughter Jayda, who was my hero long before any of this happened, was on the other end of the phone via text when everything took place on Monday night. But while we tried to sleep to prepare for the next day, Jayda assembled a bunch of her co-workers from Margot Cafe (one of the pillars of the Five Points neighborhood) and marched down there within an hour of the storm to assess the damage – and they stayed there for several hours, cleaning up debris and commisserating with their co-workers – and, in Jayda’s words, “walking around the streets in shock, feeling like we were in a war zone.”


Social media reacted quickly, as did Nashville – word spread to stay off the streets, to make room for emergency vehicles…when I fell asleep a few hours before, I had no real idea of the extent of the damage.

Not long after we crawled out of bed, the picture became much clearer…and quickly.


I got out of bed shortly after 7am, and came straight into my office and booted up my work laptop and logged onto the VPN so I could start assessing our situation – Wendy was scrolling through photos from her Facebook and Twitter feed, and the bleakness of the aftermath was already pretty apparent. The most public beating fell onto Five Points, home to Jayda’s Margot, Five Points Pizza, the bike shop, Fanny’s House of Music, Burger Up, Woodland Wine, and – heartbreakingly, the historic Woodland Sound Studios…the historic room where the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recorded their landmark “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” album, among others. Woodland had suffered some extensive damage during the 1998 tornado, and there was litigation in the aftermath of that storm, over 20 years ago, that almost resulted in erasing its existence. But it was eventually resurrected by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and was open and operational when this tornado swept through last week.


Woodland lost most of its roof in this tornado, but the building and its walls remained intact – and, in Jayda’s words, “Woodland probably saved the building where Margot stands…if that building wasn’t there, Margot might be gone.”


Both my work and personal phones got a serious workout – folks from all over the country were checking on us to make sure we were ok, and as we were reporting to everyone else that we’d survived intact, with no damage or injury, the news was beginning to come in from the neighborhood as to the extent of how badly our neighbors had been hit.

Survivor Guilt – it’s a thing.


I worked mostly from my desk on Tuesday, taking phone calls and going through the motions in something of a daze as I started monitoring the extent of what was happening only a mile or so up Rosebank Avenue or up Porter Road from where I was sitting.


The rest of the week, I ended up in the car – both going to the office and checking on jobsites to survey the extent of the damage. As of this writing, almost a week later, one of our sites is still without internet service and has resorted to using hotspots on their individual mobile phones to work. Still, folks are waiting for electricity, waiting for water – when the sun goes down, entire neighborhoods fall dark.

No streetlights, no traffic signals, no light emanating from the houses that line the streets. Just an eerie, unsettling quiet.


But the folks in these neighborhoods have outpaced the municipal tradesmen and utility workers in their work to restore their town.

Volunteers who’ve shown up in town have been driving up and down the streets of affected neighborhoods with messages scrawled on their vehicles, offering tools, chainsaws, food and water – streets have been cleared by the townsfolk while the authorities waited for municipal workers to get to some of the streets in outlying areas.


Jayda and her co-workers at Margot hosted a neighborhood cookout roughly 48 hours after the tornado came through – she’d been working almost straight through to help folks dig out from under the damage, and she was there that afternoon to help with getting set up for the event. I brought her Danny’s bass amp to use to play music through for the party, and she was a sight to behold – her eyes were tired, but she was a whirlwind. There were HUNDREDS of people in the street, standing and talking to one another in the midst of random wires and shards of glass, downed transformers and the tops of poles lying in the parking lot of the convenience store at one corner of the Five Points intersection that gives that part of the neighborhood its name.


I stayed long enough to say hello to some of the folks that I hadn’t seen since Thanksgiving and to behold the miracle of humanity that is Jayda’s Margot community – and what they were able to give to their neighbors, their customers, and their friends in a dark moment of collective vulnerability.


And this was ONE moment that I saw with my own two eyes, and there’s no doubt in my mind that this was repeated time and time again in the aftermath of a random tear in the fabric of mother nature only days ago.


This city has, out of necessity, built an emotional exoskeleton that has survived floods and tornadoes out of its own stubborn southern willpower.


Nashville rebuilt in 1998.


It rebuilt again in 2011.


It is rebuilding – yet again – as we speak.


I don’t know that living through this week has made Nashville “home” to me…I’ve come to somewhat uneasy terms with the fact that my own personal notion of “home” will likely elude me for the rest of my life at this point. I don’t say this from a place of sadness…I’m a wanderer. I was born this way, and it’s who I am.


But witnessing this has given me cause to feel part of something that’s bigger than me.


Exchanging texts, offering refrigerator space to musician buddies who live a few streets away, picking up and dropping off stuff for folks – it’s what I’ve been able to do between showing up for work, navigating jobsites, and finding my way home to hide from the world when the sun goes down.


Here’s what I’ve learned about myself in the midst of all this.


Watching footage of things like this on the news is a temporary shock in a way that probably only exists for generations of the past half century or so. We see footage on the evening news of a flood like Joplin, Missouri or a hurricane on the scale of Andrew or Katrina or good old Superstorm Sandy (which we lived through in the Philadelphia suburbs – I stayed up all night while Wendy and Danny slept to keep watch, and didn’t even hear the giant tree in our back yard in Havertown splinter and fall to the ground…some sentinel I am) – we see these things as they happen, and they vanish as our attention span banishes them to make room for the next thing that demands our attention.

We consider the death toll, we peruse the images and mourn the dead, we consider the factors around the event (in the case of something like 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombing), but they seldom impact us personally in the same way that something like what’s taken place here, this week, will if it ever happens to you.


Why, you might ask?


How would it come to pass that something like the 9/11 bombings might be less impactful, less consequential than a tornado in a random southern town?


Because we live here.


Because this city is where we live and die, laugh and cry, live out the days of our lives.


The houses where we spent random afternoons are now broken.


There are landmarks that we drove by every day on the way to work or school or church that have been erased.


And there’s no commercial break, no remote to reach for to change the channel.


The Music City Cleaners building just off Rosa Parks? Very nearly leveled.


And it’ll still be shattered tomorrow when you drive past it.


And the next day…and the day after that.


And they may rebuild it, but it’s not coming back – not the way it was.


That’s where the real shock to our systems sets in.


Looking around us at the things we’re confronted with in these situations only serves to drive home the realization that everything around us sits on shifting sands.


In normal times, that can be easy to ignore…but in times of crisis, it’s impossible to ignore.


So – here we all sit, among the ruins of what existed only a few days ago, taking stock of our blessings and considering the basic notion of how fortunate we are to still be here, to be among those who are rebuilding as opposed to those who’ve lost so much more than we have.


But there are warriors and fighters among us who refuse to let us slip away, and Nashville is once again availing itself of the opportunity to lift one another up – and it’s a miracle to behold.


I was born and raised in Tennessee, and turned my back on it as a young man.


I went out into the world and set down roots elsewhere – I started a family a thousand miles from where I was born.


I reinvented myself and left this chapter out of the identity I created within my adopted circumstances.


But I sure am proud of this city tonight.