Antlers and Acorns 2022

Antlers and Acorns is a brand new festival – last year was supposed to be its maiden voyage, but it joined the not-even-close-to-exclusive “Things COVID Wrecked” club…so this year would be the first.  I’d made the acquaintance of Shari Smith, the festival director, well before this years’ festival started taking shape, and she initially wanted Cimarron615 to play the festival, but there were too many scheduling factors competing to nail that down, so I asked Jack if he’d be interested in doing a pair of duo sets instead, and we were off and running.

The Tuesday before we left, the band spent the entire day – from just after 8am to sunset – at the Cash Cabin filming a music video for “High Lonesome Stranger”, the first single from our record.  It was a long day, for sure…and while there was plenty of repetition to go around, it felt good to spend the day with the guys after everyone being so busy running in different directions for so long.

Rick said in an email earlier in the year, “I feel like we made a kickass record, but I’m not sure I feel like I’m in a band”, and I felt like he was reading my diary – and I don’t think any of us could argue with him. 

Now, though, things are starting to turn around…we’ve got a pretty solid plan emerging for the rest of the winter up to and including the release date, and a few things are starting to fall into place.  Having things to do that go towards the common good feels like progress, like some momentum is building – and that’s reassuring.

Still, with being gone that entire day for the video shoot, the vast majority of trip preparation for this run to Boone, NC had fallen on Wendy’s shoulders.  Once upon a time, it was easy to accuse her of overpacking, but she’s definitely streamlined her process over the years – when most of our family trips have revolved around my participation in a show of some sort, we have to allow for space for gear AND family stuff, and we seem to have largely figured that out at this point – late in the game as it were.

Luckily, it was a light lift for me for this trip – acoustic guitar, mandolin, and dobro – so we managed to make it work without too much bartering.

It was also our first “pet friendly” trip.

We thought about leaving the kitten in Dylan’s hands while we were gone, but when we found out where we were staying and saw the “pet friendly” caption on the hotel webpage, we changed our minds. 

We decided that it was about time that this cat found out who she’d thrown in with.

Get in the car, Cat.  It’s time to earn your stripes as a road runt.

The trip east was a little traumatic out of the gate – we stopped for gas in Cookeville at the famous (in my mind) “Opie Pilot” at exit 287 (where Opie rescued me off the side of the road on a trip to Nashville almost 20 years ago), and I fetched the cat from the car in hopes of bringing it over to a patch of grass by the parking lot.  But she clung to my shoulder, claws out, burrowing her face into my neck – she wasn’t havin’ any of this noise, not today.  I would’ve been thrilled if I could’ve gotten her to just use my legs as a scratching post, since I’d managed to attract every chigger within a five mile radius of Cash Cabin the night before, and my legs looked like the Monkeypox exhibit at the science fair…but I had to settle for rubbing my shoes against my calves the whole trip.

Still…back in the car and back down the road.  We only stopped for gas twice the whole trip, now that I think of it – once then ($43) and once just over the TN line on the way home (also $43) – we wanted to get to NC early enough to check in to the hotel and make it to the theater in time for Kyle Petty’s set, which was the whole reason we left a day early and brought Danny along in the first place.

Some of you know, but more of you likely don’t – Danny is every bit as enamored with motorsports at 13 as I was with music at the same age.  He eats, drinks, breathes, inhales everything that he can consume on the topic, and has amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of the topic.  He walked into the living room earlier this year and recited every Formula One champion from last year back to the mid-seventies from memory, and would’ve kept going save for the one year he wasn’t positive about.

This is the same kid who charmed a reclusive barn find collector who lived in a trailer on the side of a hill almost half his life ago by identifying a torque converter that was covered in leaves and rust lying near his feet.  SO many Danny Stories like that one.

We got there in time to check in, and got to the theater to pick up credentials while Kyle’s set was just getting underway – I found out when we were picking up passes that backstage was off limits, even to performers, which admittedly blindsided me.  I thought “All Access” meant “All Access”, and I’d shelled out for an extra night’s hotel stay out of my own pocket specifically to engineer a meeting between Danny and Kyle Petty, and I wasn’t really sure what my next move was gonna be.  One of the folks working the desk said to stick around, though – it was early and we’d figure this out.

So we went upstairs between sets and watched the next band, Damn The Banjos – and as they were wrapping their set up, I saw him come from the back out towards the lobby, so I brought Danny back out and introduced the two of them.

“Meet and Greets” have become part of the touring vernacular over the years, and a lot of acts capitalize on them by selling access to the artist.  I’ve played with bands that played that game, and I’ve played with bands that would stay after a show and talk to every single person that wanted to talk to them until we were all asked to leave.  I stood with Rick Willis on the floor of a casino in Boosier City, LA after a show and talked to two Marshall Tucker Band fans who’d driven all the way from San Antonio, TX to see the band – I know how that sort of thing has made me feel as a fan in the past, and I’m here to pay it forward when the chance presents itself.

Often, pre-packaged M&G opportunities are a line for autographs and a group photo and it’s hard to see the appeal in something like that for a fan, but – they show up and they pay their money and who am I to say whether they should or not?

For this festival, there weren’t “meet and greets” – there was a VIP package, but it was built differently than the typical “press the flesh” bit.  There were also opportunities for people to go on hikes with some artists, to go fly fishing with others – they really thought this through, and made those encounters part of what I would imagine will evolve into the overall brand of this particular festival over the coming years.

My ego and I had collaborated to just waltz Danny backstage and introduce him, but that wasn’t on the menu at this point…and yet Kyle came back out to the lobby – I introduced myself and my son, and he shook Danny’s hand and they started talking for a bit.

As a participant in these conversations from both sides of the table, there are typically three kinds of encounters: there are folks who just want to thank you and maybe get a photo or an autograph, there are folks who really want to connect but fall short (they’re usually the ones who talk about a specific show or a specific song or ask elementary questions…they really want to connect somehow, but they just don’t have enough information)…and there’s that one person who knew something about your song or your record that you thought was an easter egg, or asked a really empathetic question about something that touched you, or told a story about what a song or a show meant to them.

That third person is pretty rare, but encountering them makes the other folks worth the trouble.

Anyway – Danny and Kyle Petty start talking about the track at Michigan, and how it used to be a D-shaped oval, until they repaved it, and when they repaved it…and I’m starting to see Kyle’s demeanor shift a little bit.  Danny starts talking about an Indy finish that happened in 2005, and Kyle said, “man…you weren’t even BORN yet!”

As a lifelong fanboy who never grew up, who still holds most of his heroes in some degree of esteem, standing there watching Danny and Kyle talk and connect over their common passion actually choked me up a little.  The guy could not have been nicer, and I think that if he hadn’t committed beforehand to going back onstage for the encore, he and Danny might still be standing in the lobby of the Appalachian Theater talking about the new car and the changes in the tires and how the higher number of crashes this season is to blame on changing both in the same year – Kyle walked back into the theater and as we started to walk back to the car, Danny said, “I could’ve talked to him for another hour, easy.”

We went to the grocery store to grab some stuff for the hotel room, and at one point, Danny said – without prompting – “sometimes…it’s actually cool to meet your heroes.”

So…it’s confirmed, then – I guess some degree of hero worship is hereditary.

I hope he continues to be as lucky as I’ve been for most of my life in that regard.

We decided to grab something at Cookout before we went back to the hotel for good, and I took that opportunity to call Jack, who’d signed on to do the shows with me on Friday and Saturday.  I had collected his badge at the theater and he was in the same hotel as me…and besides, it was still his birthday for a few more minutes.

Thursday, we’d decided beforehand that we were going to drive out to North Wilkesboro where the Speedway is and try to get a look at it, since it had just reopened – but then Wendy found out that there was a press conference happening at noon to announce that the NASCAR All-Star race would be held at North Wilkesboro.  

Sure enough, when we got there, there was a car at the gate, monitoring traffic and a sign on the gate assuring trespassers that they’d be prosecuted, and Danny just locked down…dude didn’t even want to get out of the car.  

So we took a photo and went on our way.

Next time, maybe.

There was an actual, honest to goodness diner just outside town in Boone – Troy’s – so we stopped there for dinner, and it was really nice, save for the bun on Danny’s burger.  I thought that, after our Brown’s success, that maybe his horizons were expanding, but the bottom of the bun was a dealbreaker.  Tough break.  Still, the strawberry shake he brought back for dessert seemed to make up for it.

After Jack arrived, he and I put our heads together and decided on a loose set list for both of the shows – Friday was every bit a perfect day, and we were playing on the rooftop of the Horton Hotel downtown in Boone, and it couldn’t have been nicer.  Performance-wise, there was a thin layer of rust, for me, for sure…too many down days, too much not playing and singing – but the set was safe enough that we got through it.  My old Navy buddy Pat had come down from Illinois (her sister Natalie lives in NC, and they came to the show together – in all the years I’ve known Pat, I’d never met Natalie until that weekend).  There were a couple other friends from social media that I’d never met in person who came to the shows as well.

Don Chapman, who plays with Larry Burnett from Firefall, arranged a dinner meetup for everyone after the show – I had parted ways with Pat & Nat already, but I went back to the hotel and grabbed Wendy and Danny – and Jack joined us for the ride back into town so we didn’t have to take an extra car.

Danny had just eaten only a few hours before, but I ordered him another cheeseburger in an attempt to soften the diner blow from the night before, but somehow, yet again – the bun was just identical enough to the bun from the night before.  So his burger became dessert for his dad, the food janitor, back at the hotel later that night while we were engaging in our ritual viewing of Almost Famous before bed…and we internally christened this run to be known as the “Danny Hampton ‘These Buns Are Bullshit’ Tour 2022”.

We woke up to rain on Saturday and the news that all outdoor shows had been moved indoors, which meant moving down to the bar for those of us at the hotel – Larry and Don played before us, and then Jack and I set up to do our set.

Larry came back in shortly after we started and sat down at the bar right in front of us, maybe ten feet away at most – so I called an audible in the set a few songs in.

“How many folks here remember the first record they ever bought with their own money?”

A bunch of hands went up.

“How many remember the first FIVE records they bought with their own money?”

Most of those hands went down, save for a couple.

Jack then interjected, “How many folks here are named Tom Hampton and can remember every record they ever bought with their own money in chronological order?” and got the exact reaction he should’ve gotten…it’s generally accepted that there’s something amiss with regard to how my brain works as it is. 🙂

After the laughter subsided, I told the story of how Firefall’s “Undertow” album was the fourth record I ever bought, and I bought it because I’d had the 45 of “You Are The Woman” and it had a Larry Burnett song on the flip side called “Sad Ol’ Love Song” and I’d become intrigued with his writing as it compared and contrasted to Rick Roberts’ songs – and I played and sang Larry’s song “Business is Business” from the Undertow album with him sitting pretty much directly across from me.

It was a magic little full circle moment, for sure.

As I had done the night before, I dedicated “Rose of Cimarron” to Shari Smith, the festival director who’s become like a sister to me in ways I don’t fully understand – we’ve lived these parallel lives that are only just beginning to reveal themselves in terms of where we grew up, how we grew up – our stories are eerily similar.

And yet somehow, the entire time we were at the festival, we never crossed paths.

One of the folks who’d come to the Saturday show was a Facebook friend who’d asked if I could show him how to play “Indian Summer”, so I grabbed my guitar and we walked out into the lobby and I had him videotape me playing the song with his phone so he could take the video back and teach it to himself.

Maybe there’s something innately uncool about that kind of thing, I don’t know – but that particular brand of kindness has been extended to me so many times over the course of my life that I can’t not pay it back.

And frankly – I’m pretty OK with being uncool, as it is.

When we got the car loaded, Jack, Wendy and I went over to see Jacks’ friend Mark play and ended up bumping into Steve Conn in the lobby.  I hadn’t seen Steve in years, even though we live in the same town.  We chatted for a bit and he mentioned he had another set coming up at Lost Horizon, right around the corner, at 4:30 – so we all walked over to see him play…we ordered an appetizer plate and a round and settled in just as he was starting.

I have to admit – it had slipped my mind somehow as to just how damned good Steve Conn is.  I’ve always known he was a great player, but his voice is as strong as ever and his demeanor on stage is funny and welcoming as well.  His song Anna Lee just killed me…it started out good and then twisted the knife with two lines in the bridge:

“…I asked if she ever thought of me…

and she said – someday, I will….”

That’s just not fair, man.

Boone is a college town (Appalachian State University), and on this particular day their football team was playing the number six-ranked Texas A&M…and the game was on TV elsewhere around the room.  I wasn’t paying attention, as I was focused on Steve’s performance – but when he wrapped up, I noticed that ASU was leading A&M by three points with barely a minute and a half on the clock, and the vibe in the room was shifting accordingly.  ASU had gotten the ball back and was running out the clock…and when time expired and they had won, the room ERUPTED.

Steve had already started loading his gear into his car so we said our goodbyes and walked outside into a surreal scene – the only thing I could really compare it to was the scene in Titanic where the boat had disappeared under the surface of the water and there were disembodied screams coming from all directions.  There were people shouting from inside buildings down the street in both directions, from across the street – cars were rolling by with people hanging out the windows…Jack, Wendy and I headed straight back to the car and started back towards the hotel and as we were driving out of town, throngs of kids were running towards the center of town where we’d just come from.  

As it turned out, we got on the last chopper out of Saigon – if we’d waited another ten minutes or so, there would’ve been no getting out of there.  It apparently turned into a celebration for the ages, from the news reports that were surfacing the next day.

As for the three of us, we celebrated by going back to the hotel and having Jack join us for a screening of “Battered Bastards of Baseball” on Netflix before calling it a night.

Monza was on the next morning, so we got the race up on TV for Danny while we packed up four days of hotel room clutter for checkout…the final Indy race was going to air at 3pm Eastern, so we hatched a plan to find a spot somewhere along the road home to try to catch the race, and if that wasn’t an option, we’d hit a rest stop and hotspot the laptop so he could watch it there.

As it turned out, we were passing through Knoxville at just about that time, and thanks to Google, we found a place – Calhoun’s On The River – that was not only pet friendly, but they had an outdoor patio right on the river where we were able to harness the kitty and let her roam about a bit, grab a bite to eat, and a really nice guy named Adam diverted one of the TV’s on the deck to the race so Danny could watch it before we got back on the road.

It was raining hard on the outskirts of Nashville when we pulled into the driveway, so we unloaded what needed to be pulled out of the car when we got home and most of us collapsed into bed not long afterward.  

I really can’t think of a thing that could’ve gone better for the entire run, and I’m surprised I didn’t need the GPS to find my way back to the office for the day gig on Monday morning…it felt like I’d been gone forever.  After a few months of going back and forth on the seesaw, wondering whether I should even be doing this at all for a while there, it was good to gather some steam and stock up for the months to come.  Validation and redemption are hard enough to come by as it is…especially these days…and it felt good to be back home on the road.