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.

Laziness…Luck…or something else?

unidentified junior high-age hillbilly kid with makeshift drumkit (including homemade parts and broken cymbals) in undisclosed rural house with no indoor plumbing, circa 1979

Driving back to the house last night, Danny volunteered from the back seat:

“I don’t think I can be a Formula One driver.”

I immediately asked the obvious question – why? – and his response surprised me a bit.

“I think I’m probably too lazy.”

That sparked a conversation about why he perceived himself in that light, and a pretty lengthy discussion about the roles that talent and opportunity play in the arc of a persons’ life, and whether it’s fair to self-identify as “lazy” when the truth is probably closer to the notion that he lives in a world mostly devoid of opportunity to pursue such things.

Wendy (Danny’s mom) has often said of herself that she’s intimidated by trying things if she can’t do them at a certain level of proficiency right out of the gate…it’s not a fear of failure as much as a fear of humiliation, and Danny certainly shares that.  His frustration boils to the surface almost immediately if he doesn’t meet his own standards in pretty short order, and if he falls too far short of his expectations, it can get ugly.  

None of this is to say that I don’t fall on my own sword on a regular basis when I don’t live up to my own expectations…I’ve never exactly been a bottomless well of self-confidence at any point in my life.  I think that the difference might be that I channel that frustration into anger and use it as fuel to push myself to get as close to my own standards as I can (with some things, anyway…fiddle – as fate would have it – was not one of them).

As we were talking last night, though, I think I realized two things that had never really occurred to me before.

ONE – there’s literally zero reason I ever should have had ANY degree of success whatsoever in the music business.

(and yeah, the whole “definition of success” wormhole is right there, waiting for whoever wants to descend into it to take that leap…for the purposes of this conversation, I define it as “learning to play several instruments, training my ear to the degree that I’ve been able to play in bands, write songs, record in studios and make records that I love for artists I love and for myself”, yada yada…” – seriously, none of those things should have been available to me.)

I was born in Savannah, Tennessee in 1965 and spent my formative years there…other than being just across the state line from Muscle Shoals, there was very nearly NO musical community there.  A few bluegrass pickers and hobbyists here and there, but it was very nearly non-existent.  By the time I reached my teens, I’d managed to find a few like-minded folks here and there, but there were a total of maybe three bands in my hometown…even then.

When the band Alabama played at the football stadium in my hometown in 1980 or so, I think every local band within an hours’ drive was also on the bill as an opener.

My transformation from a comic book-and-baseball obsessed kid into a radio-addicted pre-teen and teenager was one hundred percent internal.  I would stand at the magazine rack at the supermarket and read Circus and Creem and Hit Parader while my mom pushed the cart up and down the aisles.  I listened to the radio incessantly, formulating hundreds of questions in my head about why this band sounded different from that band, I formed allegiances at junior high school based on music and…well, not much else, really.  It’s pretty much all I gave a shit about, so I didn’t really want to be bothered hanging out with kids who didn’t love it as much as I did.  Thank God I found a few.

The fact that I managed to overcome all that and learn what I did and put that information to use is…well, the more I think about it, the more it kinda blows my mind.  I’ve thought about it quite a bit, into the wee hours this morning and throughout the day today as I’ve mulled it all over.

There’s no rational reason it ever should have happened for me.

And, yet…

OK, TWO – in my formative years, I was literally too naive NOT to take wildly unlikely and ridiculous chances.

I had a relative – Loyd Stricklin – who worked in radio as an announcer, and when my mother told me about him, I wouldn’t shut up until she introduced me to him…and I became a pain in his ass.  This is not up for discussion, and I won’t be convinced otherwise…there’s just no way the poor bastard didn’t groan inside when he caught sight of me.  Yet, to his credit, he must have seen something in my boundless curiosity and enthusiasm…because he answered all my questions, he suffered my hounding with a great deal of patience, and he even brought me a box of 45’s from the attic of the radio station.

Later, when he opened WKWX, he’d allow visits while he was on the air…and after the other announcers got to know me, they’d let me watch over their shoulders while they worked as well (well, except for Mel Carnal…I don’t think he disliked me, but he certainly didn’t have the patience for my bullshit that Loyd had.

One morning, I was at the radio station when two guys came in – both with long hair and beards, one blond and one brown – bringing copies of a record they’d just made at their brand new recording studio THAT WAS IN MY HOMETOWN.

I couldn’t believe that there was an actual rock band IN SAVANNAH that wasn’t a bunch of old guys in cowboy hats playing Flatt & Scruggs songs or country gospel quartets that played at church on Saturday nights…and here these guys were, in the lobby of the radio station, hawking their new record.

Did I have questions?

I had questions.

And again, they couldn’t have been nicer.

“So do you guys have a drummer?”

“Well, yeah…his name is Korgy.”

“Korgy?”

“Yeah…it’s actually a box with buttons on it…it’s made by Korg, so we call him Korgy.”

The TL:DR version of the conversation – they weren’t actually playing live shows, so for the time being they saw themselves as a songwriting and recording entity more than anything else…they were trying to get the studio going as a profitable entity, and they were making their own records both to promote themselves and their music AND to try to get the studio on the map.

But I was too young and too green not to go ahead and ask:

“So do you guys hire session musicians?”

They both looked at each other, then back at me and said, “Sure – when we need them.  Did you want to audition?”

So these guys gave me their phone number, the address to the studio, directions, and told me what nights they were usually there, and to call when I’d be able to come by and we could play a few songs together and see where I was.

Now, at the time, I was a drummer.

I was a drummer who didn’t really own a legitimate set of drums, but as far as I was concerned, I was a drummer.

These guys didn’t have to give me the time of day, but they did.

I guess they figured that if I had the balls to ask, that they weren’t gonna piss in my cornflakes and tell me I couldn’t…that’s what I tell myself all these years later, anyway.

But, I mean…not only did I not own a gig-worthy set of drums…I didn’t really know how I was gonna get to the studio.  We didnt’ have a car.

But again, because I wasn’t really capable of shame, I suppose…I got my mom to ask my Aunt Betty to drive me from Walnut Grove to Savannah at the appointed hour and she sat and waited for me while I was inside.

I knocked on the door and Frankie Briggs invited me in with his trademark giant smile and re-introduced me to Pat Durbin, who’d accompanied him to the station – and to their guitarist, Jerry Opdycke…who seemed a little irritated at the time at the disruption, but cordial enough. 

Jerry “Opie” Opdycke playing his Ovation acoustic and sportin’ his Gruhn Guitars t-shirt

It was the first time I’d ever been inside a recording studio, and it seems quaint now to think about how awestruck I was by what was essentially an exercise in floor-to-ceiling carpeting with mic stands hanging from overhead and XLR jacks in the ceiling…but I didn’t want to leave.

the control room at Savannah Sound Studios

They sent me into the drum booth and we played three of their original songs and a cover of “Two More Bottles of Wine” and my life was both saved from an inevitable impending mediocrity and irreversibly scarred at the same time.

I already had an inkling of where I wanted to go, but after that night, I was all but certainly useless to whatever academic pursuit of a “career” might have been forced onto my plate later on in school.

nowadays, you can do the work of this equipment with your phone or a laptop. then…totally different story.

Now, I hear you asking yourself already…and I appreciate your indulgence…

“Did I ever get a call from them for a session?”

Well…no.  No, I didn’t.

I went on to play drums in my friend Jeff’s family band and toyed around with a few garage bands in my early teen years, but they never called me for a session.

They called me and invited me to join their band.

It was several years later, and they’d run the studio as best as they could, but they’d decided that they wanted to start playing live shows…and they wanted to hire a drummer and a keyboard player.  

They still had my name and number on a card on the wall of the studio.

So they read me off a short list of songs to learn over the phone, and I went down and got the gig.

Opie, the disgruntled guitarist, became a lifelong friend, hero, role model, confidante, and – later in life – my head cheerleader as things started to go well for me.

When he died almost seven years ago, I learned that he’d left a handwritten note in the case of his beloved Fender Stratocaster leaving the guitar to me.

When I went to his house to help his partner clean out his belongings, she gave me a bunch of his other stuff as well…books, photos, notes…but before I left, I asked her what she was planning to do with the stuff hanging in the closet.

She mentioned that it’d probably end up going to Goodwill, so I grabbed a dozen or so of his shirts from the closet and kept them.  

I don’t think a week has gone by in these past seven years that I haven’t worn one of Opie’s shirts over the course of a Sunday-to-Sunday span.

I actually wore one to work today, and I’m wearing it as I finish scribbling this story down.

If there’s anything to be taken away from listening to me recount all this, hopefully it can simply be that opportunity comes in a LOT of forms.  Sometimes disguised, sometimes accidental, sometimes created out of nothing because we have no idea what the hell we’re doing.

If I hadn’t been green and naive enough to create those opportunities out of those random, serendipitous moments, I’d never have had the life I’ve had.

But if we put ourselves out there and prepare as best as we can for the moment when talent and luck intersect, you never know what will come of it.

Fingerprints and B Sides

The great thing about 45RPM records was that you were getting two songs for the price of one – or at least that’s what it often felt like if you were inclined to flip the record over.

Being a redneck welfare kid for whom records were scarce, I made a habit very, very early on of flipping them over to see what had been thrown in for the price of admission – I didn’t get the chance to buy records often, but when I was old enough to keep a little money that I’d earned from working on my Pop’s farm, I’d prowl around and see what I could find…there was one record store in Savannah, and it didn’t last long, so it was whatever was available at the department store, when I was allowed to go. Otherwise, the occasional yard sale or maybe trading with friends who were sick of their copy of Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son” (still have it).

It was by flipping over my copy of Firefall’s “You Are The Woman” that I heard Larry Burnett’s “Sad Ol’ Love Song” and started figuring out the difference between their songwriting and storytelling styles. I had bought a copy of “Barracuda” by Heart in a yard sale batch and discovered “Cry To Me” on the flip side…I don’t remember where I got Nicolette Larson’s “Lotta Love”, but her cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “Angels Rejoiced” on the flip side remained my mother’s favorite song for years and years.

As I got older and found my way around, I started building up a little collection, and I might’ve been exceedingly lucky – I don’t know, because I don’t know many people as weird as I am when it came to this kind of thing – but I often found B-sides that were just as impactful, if not more so, than the flagship song on the record.

I remember over 15 years ago, doing a short tour in the northeast with Jim Photoglo and sheepishly admitting to him that when I bought “When Love Is Gone”, I ended up listening obsessively to “Faded Blue” from the B-side, to the extent of lifting the record changer arm and pulling it over and away from the center of the turntable so the song would repeat, over and over again…if it made him uncomfortable, he never said so – and we’re still friends, so I guess it wasn’t too terribly ill-received.

When I reached my mid to late teens, I started pushing my boundaries – I was never going to be content to work with my hands, and I knew it before anyone else did. I had a cousin who was a partner and on-air announcer at a radio station in town, and when they’d have some reason to go into town, they’d drop me off at the station for a visit – I’d sit, quiet as a mouse against the wall behind the turntables and watch him work, listen to him talk, learned the logs…the whole bit. Later, I finally got a weekend gig working for a competitor in town – the comically-named WORM-FM.

Yes, I’m serious. Here’s a stolen copy of a 10CC 45 with the station stamp on it:

The great thing about WORM (to me, at the time) was that it was a country station that had BEEN a Top 40 station, and there was a bounty of records in the attic that no one had bothered to lay claim to. Sure, all the Grand Funk Railroad stuff was long gone, but I found a ton of records up there that I still have to this day…my copy of the “Half Moon Silver” 45 by Hotel came from an attic raid at WORM, and that song has legitimately left a mark on my life. I found Florence Warner’s Epic records debut in a stack without a sleeve – it had covers of Kenny Loggins’ “Till The Ends Meet”, Todd Rundgrens’ “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference”, Dan Fogelberg’s “Song From Half Mountain” (I hadn’t even heard his version yet, that’s how long ago it was)…as well as an unreleased-to-this-day Fogelberg song called “The Lady Loves The River” and a piano interlude on side two that I’m convinced is his work.

I didn’t have the cover, only the vinyl itself – I used to fantasize about what she looked like…what kind of face that voice came from, and why I never heard anything else about her. TO THIS DAY, there’s almost no information about her anywhere on the internet, I’ve Googled the shit out of her as recently as a few years ago…I did finally find another copy of the album with a sleeve, but no liner notes.

The WORM Attic was a wealth of undiscovered gems, though…and as you might guess, a lot of B sides that I probably wouldn’t have been remotely curious about, were it not for the fact that I’d formed a habit of routinely flipping them over because I had so few records to listen to as a fledgling, obsessed music junkie.

I started to put a few things together – sometimes there were great songs on the flip side, and sometimes it turned out to be something of a contractual fulfillment. If there were two primary songwriters in the band, you could count on the flip side being written by someone other than the person who wrote the single. Sometimes they were filler – songs given to a singer who wasn’t the primary vocalist, instrumentals (“High Sierra” on the flip side of “Ghost Town” by Poco, “Tramontane” on the flip side of “Double Vision” by Foreigner)…but I listened anyway.

One of my favorite B-side bands was Little River Band. THEY DID NOT DICK AROUND WITH B SIDES.

You bought “Lonesome Loser”? Congratulations, you also got “Shut Down Turn Off”!

You bought “Cool Change”? Awesome, you also got to take home my second favorite LRB song of all time, “Middle Man”!

(My favorite song remains “Too Lonely Too Long”, which was never a single, but you can find it on the “Live in America” album…but I digress. Still, listen to this badassery right here…)

I remember being at a friends’ house who had a copy of “The One That You Love” by Air Supply and flipping it over and dropping the needle on a song called “I Want To Give It All” and falling in love with this four note descending arpeggiated guitar part that’s still one of my favorite songs.

The achingly beautiful “Hearts and Crafts” by Dan Fogelberg was a B-side to a single from his Greatest Hits album and didn’t resurface until his “Portrait” box set well over a decade later. Likewise with “Along the Road”, the flip side of “Longer” from the “Phoenix” album – never would have been a single, but was a gift to folks who bought that record.

It’s important to note, however, that for every gem you unearth from the rubble, there are some truly, truly TERRIBLE B-sides out there, as well. If there’s a worse song that “I’m A Marionette” (flip side of “Take a Chance on Me” by ABBA), I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it.

OK, that’s not true. There’s Nicki Minaj.

ANYway…

When I started working in radio, it was still – in my hometown, anyway – very much a vinyl-driven enterprise. The songs you heard on the radio were records, because that’s what we played. It was very much pre-digital, and even though we used cart machines for commercials, we didn’t use them for on-air music like many stations had begun to do by then. But I also found that the records that were sent to radio by major labels DIDN’T HAVE B SIDES! There’d be a mono version on one side and a stereo version on the other, and that was a disappointment, to say the least. I remember getting the white-label MCA copy of “Sea of Heartbreak” from Poco’s “Cowboys and Englishmen” and sure enough…mono and stereo. The only redemption was that not every label cared to service small-market radio stations in towns the size of Savannah, Tennessee, so we’d often have to go out and buy stuff that was charting in the major markets – because HEAVEN FORBID we not be playing what was charting in the towns we looked to in order to reinforce our inferiority complex…so now and then, a retail copy of something would come across the desk.

The last year I spent in town before leaving to join the Navy and never come back, I ended up back at WORM after having left there to work for WLIC in Adamsville and WKWX through the end of high school. My old boss, Tom Wood, had asked me to come work middays for him when he took over at WORM, and I jumped at it…I was out of school and in the DEP (Delayed Entry Program) but Tom welcomed me on anyway.

The cool thing about working for that station at that point in time was that while we were only serviced by a few of the majors, we’d get stuff from indie labels ALL THE TIME…and being a fledgling musician myself, I’d listen to everything that came in the door, and if I liked it, I played it. I played a song called “Music Machine” by a guy on Handshake Records named Mark Gordon Creamer until I started getting requests for it…I don’t know if it ever charted nationally or not, but there were a handful of folks in Savannah who seemed to like it. I’m sure there were other songs that I played that never turned up elsewhere, either – but I learned much later in life that Q-107 in Florence, Alabama did much the same thing…music recorded in Muscle Shoals got priority treatment and a lot of songs that I’d grown up thinking were national hits were a big question mark to people who’d grown up elsewhere. I was just playing songs that I liked…and that Mark Gordon Creamer record had an a cappella intro, and I love me an a cappella intro, so I played the shit out of it.

There was a weird metamorphosis going on, as WKWX was trying to edge into the country market without making a full-on format change, so WORM began creeping towards the middle as well, to the point where both stations were very nearly playing the same songs. You wouldn’t hear George Jones on K-93, but you wouldn’t hear Duran Duran on WORM, either…but there was a lot of shared territory.

As if to illustrate just how far they were willing to go in that direction, Tom comes in one day with a picture sleeve copy of “Physical” by Olivia Newton John.

I thought he was nuts.

He was dead serious, though…he put it in rotation.

I thought “Physical” was bullshit – I’m not gonna lie. Seemed like a gimmicky song recorded by someone who’d largely had their day, and was using a sexy video to rejuvenate her career…so I refrained from playing it.

But I flipped it over.

I’m willing to bet there are folks in Savannah to this day that never want to hear “The Promise (The Dolphin Song) again as long as they live…and to those fine folks, I apologize. Still, that was the song that I gravitated to from that record (that, and staring at the picture sleeve).

When I heard the news today that she’d finally lost her battle to cancer on the day after losing David Muse of Firefall to his own battle with the disease, that song was one of the first to come to mind (as well as “Suspended in Time” and “Whenever You’re Away From Me” from Xanadu – both contenders for B sides in and of themselves).

She’s not prone to repeating this particular sentiment, but I attribute it to her nonetheless when it crosses my mind – Wendy’s notion of “how lucky are we that we ended up here at the same time as this person, or this sports team, or this TV show” and how, at some point, all this will be lost to all but the most voracious historians…but we were here when it was all around us.

In a lot of ways, this post has nothing to do with Olivia Newton-John, but it’s also all about her…and what you might discover if sometimes you’re willing to dig even the slightest bit.

We’ve all lost a lot these past few years…and it seems like I’m saying goodbye to someone every time I sit down to leave a thought here. I guess that’s the cost of growing older, and I have no doubt that it’ll get worse before it gets better, but they’re worth remembering.

This is how I’ll choose to remember her…hopefully sharing a dance with Gene Kelly somewhere tonight.

the difference a year can make…

Facebook won’t remind me, but it doesn’t need to.

A year ago this week, I was riding back to Nashville from Oshkosh, WI after playing a one-off show with some of the folks I’d just gone to Joshua Tree with the month before to play – and pay – our respects to the musical thread that tied us all together, Rusty Young. We were still watching and waiting for this blurry notion to materialize – the notion of what a band that included us all would look like without him.

We had a great weekend, truth be told – our hosts were wonderful, I’d never been to Oshkosh so I availed myself of the opportunity to walk around downtown where our hotel was located, took photos and enjoyed my “alone time” at the hotel as I typically do – watching movies from my laptop and scribbling in a notebook. The Gin Blossoms were playing in town that night, and I spotted a couple of the guys from the band in the lobby but I didn’t bother to introduce myself. I remembered having seen them in Reading, PA at the Bollman auditorium in 1995 with my buddy Todd and sneaking “backstage” to introduce ourselves and pretend we belonged there…pretty sure I still have pictures from that night.

Having remembered all that, I availed myself of the opportunity to NOT be that dude who comes up and recounts details of a show that the band couldn’t possibly remember…but I did wander back to my room that night and posted an IG video of Found Out About You, one of my favorite songs from their most notable album.

This post isn’t about any of that – but this, my friends, is how my brain works, and you likely know this by now.

This particular outing was the trip between Joshua Tree and the Wildwood memorial show for Rusty that would take place later that fall, and we were only a band in the theoretical sense – save for the fact that we’d been offered a record deal by the label that Rusty called home, and had committed to the notion of making an album of new music as the entity that survived the 53 year lineage of the band that essentially invented country-rock. Still, we’d really only just begun to wrap our collective heads around what that would look like.

We didn’t even have a name yet.

In fact, the thing I’ll likely remember most about that trip – over and above the Gin Blossoms or the fact that I showed up with a knife for a gun fight, in terms of the gear I brought for that show – was the drive home, with Jack riding shotgun, trying to think of a band name. We were taking in the scenery and grasping at every straw imaginable, trying to shoehorn the name of an exit or a phrase from a billboard into something tangible – but it became pretty obvious early on that it was more or less an exercise in absurdity. One of us would say a phrase out loud and the other would nod – “yeah, that could work” – and Jack would use his phone to Google the phrase, plus the word “band” or “music”…

…and almost every time, Jack would then ask: “what kind of band do you think (insert band name here) is?”

So I’d reply: “well, I think that ‘Desert Motel’ is a….western swing band from Billings, Montana.”

Jack would then reply with what he’d turned up in his search results:

“…actually, as it turns out, ‘Desert Motel’ is a self-described ‘high energy post-new wave synth pop’ band from Luchenbach, Texas.”

When I tell you that there’s literally no limit to how long you can play this game and still crack yourself up, that’s not an exaggeration. I told my 13 year old son about it, and he STILL comes up to me out of the blue on occasion and says: “Dad…what kind of band is Chezburger Cat?

It might be the best road game EVER.

We did finally find a name. And at first, I was largely lukewarm and ambivalent about it.

But after it settled in, it was hard to deny that it was perfect.

Cimarron 615.

Taken from one of the songs Rusty was proudest of (Rose of Cimarron) and combined with the Nashville area code, it felt more perfect as time went by and it started to sink in.

It’s still a little crazy to think that a year has gone by, but – here we are.

There were details of the contract to sort out, and a million little things in the aftermath – things like opening a bank account, like setting up an LLC, like reserving a URL for the band website and setting up social media, and a million other little things like that to take care of – before we really got to the good stuff: rehearsing, finding out what we sounded like as a band, selecting songs, starting to figure out who would occupy what roles within the band. The truth, if we’re willing to admit it to ourselves, is that on a few levels, we’re still working some of that out.

But – we’ve done it.

It’s taken a year, but we’ve done it.

Between surgeries and COVID and broken bones and budgets and indecision and everything that’s thrown itself in our path, we’ve actually fucking DONE it.

We’ve booked the studio, we’ve rehearsed and learned each other’s songs, we’ve recorded and overdubbed and sang together on the same microphone and argued about arrangements and who to hire for photo shoots…we’ve drank each other under the table at ML Rose and Brown’s Diner and hugged each other after mixes and talked on the phone and texted at all hours of the day and night and put songs under the microscope and we’ve bickered about the sequencing and had photos taken in the most outrageous pink-assed East Nashville hipster house on the planet and we’ve celebrated under a friendly sun in the pool as the record played, in its final form, while we all smiled and acknowledged – maybe without saying as much out loud – that we’ve actually fucking DONE it.

Today, we all submitted our lyrics and writer/publisher/PRO information for the liner notes – we’ve got a respected Nashville artist putting together the artwork and layout as we speak, and we’re preparing our bio/press information for what happens next, and – MOST importantly – we’ve approved the final master to submit to the label.

It’s taken a year, but it’s THIS CLOSE to being in the manufacturing pipeline…

…and it’s starting – after a year – to feel real. To feel tangible. To feel like something less conceptual and more concrete.

And yeah, I might be the greenhorn in this band, but I know how this process works. I know that the ACTUAL work is only just about to begin – but tonight, a year after that road trip back from Wisconsin, and a few days after taking an afternoon to celebrate with the band and our friends and families, it’s worth taking a minute to reflect on what we’ve managed to do over the course of this year…this weird year, bookended against a year of trauma and tragedy.

Maybe, for a minute or two, it’s ok to be proud of what we’ve created.

Maybe, for a minute or two, it’s ok to take stock of the work we’ve done in the aftermath of losing the person that represented the thread that connected us all in the first place – in the midst of a global pandemic – and to exhale and take stock of what we managed to accomplish.

While none of us were paying attention, we became – A BAND.

We’ve become aware of each other’s quirks and we’ve made (sometimes uneasy) peace with each other’s eccentricities.

Catchphrases have evolved:

“…they almost killed Jack!”

“…that’s adorable.”

We’ve learned to play off each other’s strengths and to cover for each other’s (mostly MY) weaknesses.

This late in life, every one of us – to a man – knows what we’ve stumbled onto, and I don’t believe that any of us take it for granted.

In just a few days, we’ll be meeting again to discuss and approve artwork and talk about layout and singles and writing bios and press releases and jump back into the grind of the cycle…we’ve opted to put the record out this fall instead of next February, so that means we’re going to have to really bust our asses to make this pre-release cycle work.

But the decision to put it out this fall was near-unanimous among the members of the band, and we can’t wait for you to hear this record.

Stay tuned, friends.

antisocial media


A couple of recent inquiries as to why I haven’t been posting on social media lately gave me cause to give it some thought…and I don’t really have a short answer.

(…and yeah, it could be said that I never have a short answer for anything, and you’d be right – but I digress…)

I was a classic over-sharer on Facebook for a long time…I cultivated my friends list, made sure that I didn’t let too many crazies into the fold to avoid inter-list bickering, and the truth is – I was a fan.  I loved it.

For some time, it was like having a party with every conceivable corner of my life represented in the same room. 

Old Navy buddies, bandmates…even the folks I could count on the fingers from one hand that I went to school with that I’d kept any interest in remaining in touch with – I could carry on a conversation with ALL of them, instantaneously, in one place.  It made certain things easier – when something happened in my life that I wanted to share with folks, I could post it in a single forum and know that (at least a majority percentage of them, up until recently) would see the post and I wouldn’t have to repeat myself via phone or email until I’d told enough folks for word to trickle out.  AND – even BETTER – they could all participate in whatever conversation came of it…not just with me, but with each other.  Several folks I can think of became friends with one another through having gotten to know each other from my friends’ list, and – I mean, how cool is that?

When the alternator in my old Isuzu Trooper started dying on my way from Nashville back to Philadelphia in the mid-2000’s, I posted about it on Facebook and got great advice from folks who wouldn’t have otherwise had any input whatsoever into my situation, and I would’ve been forced to rely on AAA or whoever they towed me to.  Instead, I got a ridiculously accurate diagnosis from a buddy in Kennett Square, coordinated a ride from the airport in Nashville from my old buddy Opie, and managed to find a mechanic in Christiansburg, VA who’d come to me on the road and replaced the part in the parking lot of an Advance Auto Parts store.

When Wendy was pregnant with Danny and things went off the rails, I was able to keep everyone in the loop via Facebook, including my buddy Jon and his wife Georgina who were vacationing at Disney in Florida at the time.

It’s helped foster countless musical friendships and helped me gain a significant chunk of new fans, as well as keep in touch with old ones.

So no, I can’t quit you, Facebook.  You’ve made yourself indispensable.

But Goddamnit, you suck.

And if we’re being honest here, a lot of the benefits of “social media” have been either innovated into irrelevance or watered down to the point of being unusable.

As I’ve said a hundred times in the past, I just cannot believe that no one has MySpaced this outfit into oblivion, but no one seems willing to create a platform that allows the users to moderate their own feeds, manage their own advertising views (if I see one more goddamned Keytruda ad, I’m gonna find a kitten to punch) and let us decide if we want to see our friends’ posts or not.  I mean, seriously – that’s beyond the realm of possibility?

But, listen – I know I’m tilting at windmills, and there are words I use to describe that little weasel that runs the operation that even I won’t write tonight, as you’ve listened to enough of this already.

What I’m beginning to realize, though, is that there’s a larger effect that’s at work from where I’m sitting, and I need to figure out what to do about that.

At my day gig, we recently had to set a minimum of three “goals” for our evaluation process, that fell into specific categories…my company puts a high premium on interpersonal interaction, and they love creating these “team building” opportunities for people to socialize outside of work:  softball leagues, Sounds games, happy hours – and I fucking HATE it.  HATE IT.

Forced revelry is bullshit, and I don’t have the patience for it.

Conversely, there’s a daily Zoom call that I participate in consisting of the folks in the Southeast region who all have the same job titles and responsibilities I do, and I’ve grown to enjoy interacting with them, and would consider all of them friends, to varying degrees – but that’s a result that’s happened organically, without feeling forced, and it feels genuine.

That said, I submitted a “goal” for my review that stated that I would actually attend one non-mandatory after-hours work event by the end of the calendar year, so I’m gonna have to pick one and bite the bullet and leave my house to do something to accomplish this goal…

…and that has become work in and of itself.

(there’s a point, I promise, and it’s approaching quickly…)

What I’m realizing as I’m considering these things I’m bringing up here is that the slow, near-unnoticeable arc from the letters and phone calls of thirty years ago to the present day Meme-and-Emoji LOL-ness that’s enveloped most modern communications in nearly every circle has thrown up a layer of interpersonal insulation that maybe most of us don’t even notice.

IN my own case, there are multiple layers involved – it’s not just the platform for interaction, whether it be in person or on social media – it’s my place in it.

I’m a man in his mid-50’s who doesn’tt even really consider “socializing” the vast majority of the time, where it involves leaving my house and spending time in the physical presence of other people.  With the exception of an abysmally small number of places within driving distance – I can probably count them on my fingers – there’s generally nowhere I want to go that isn’t my home studio or my living room.  It just doesn’t appeal to me anymore, and that’s a complete reversal of who I was when I was in my thirties and still felt as though I was carving out my place in the world.

Facebook made me lazy, for sure  – text messages have made it somewhat easier to feel like I’m not infringing on someones’ time with a phone call.  But even with texting, I generally need to feel like there’s a legitimate need for a specific discourse or I don’t bother.  

When Facebook was serving an actual social need, it certainly helped me to feel connected to folks I didn’t always have access to…but as that platform has swirled the toilet bowl in recent years, it’s unwittingly created an awareness of this growing layer of cellophane that I’ve created around myself.

I seldom initiate contact – I’d say “never”, but I’m not quite there.  Yet.

I’ll opt for sitting at home with a refillable pint glass of George Dickel and Diet Dr. Pepper and watching old TV reruns or documentaries over going out a solid 985 times out of a thousand.

ESPECIALLY in this town.

I’ve actually tripped over a few places that I feel comfortable here  – my favorite these days being Brown’s Diner – but I still generally have to talk myself into going…and unless there’s an occasion, I seldom do.

I’m not offering any of these observations up for pity, and I’m trying to avoid coming across as an old man yelling at clouds – but I do feel as though I’m probably not alone in this slowly eroding social shift.  For me personally, the nagging notion of my own increasing irrelevance seems to bring it into a clearer focus, but – I don’t know.  It feels bigger than that, and I don’t think it solely afflicts the get off my lawn demographic.

Things that I used to do out of kindness in public are off the table now, for fear of being perceived as “creepy”.

I don’t offer to take shopping carts from folks in the supermarket parking lot on my way into the store so they don’t have to return them, as I’ve gotten repulsed facial expressions as a result for the last time.  Don’t need it.

I don’t compliment strangers on ANYTHING, ever.

(Funny story – was shopping at Wegmans’ in Philadelphia with a friend who offered up an endorsement of a vegan muffin/cake mix to someone who’d picked up the box and was reading the back…she had told him that she loved it for a particular recipe she’d used, and his response?  “hmmm…well, thanks for that unsolicited advice.”)

I’m accepting my role in creating this distance, for sure – even going so far as to cultivate it in some cases…but like I said, there are a lot of layers.

I’m not sure what comes after this two year COVID exile, or whether I’ll bother to accept that it’s over – right now, that Warren Zevon song Splendid Isolation has become something of a signpost around here.

But it’s not the isolation – in and of itself – that has me pondering all this.

It’s the fact that I’ve not only accepted it, but EMBRACED it.

So if I go missing for a few days and you’re wondering what I’m up to, take some solace in the fact that I’m either tinkering on something down by the lake in the Overdub Nook, or sitting in front of the television – either rewatching Almost Famous or binging through a handful of old episodes of SOAP or Barney Miller or a Ken Burns series or an episode of a PBS serial with an adult beverage.  And yeah, I know there’s life out there beyond these walls, but – there’s life in here, too.  I’ve managed to shrink it to a manageable size, and – while I tend to waver on my stance at times, I’ve made a restless peace with my place in all of it.


“…when the shadows start to stretch outside my window

Across the photographs that cover these four walls

With the fading of the light

As the stillness settles into night

Right before I wander off to bed

Could be a song I heard or something someone said

Starts the old home movies playing in my head

Every sight and sound

When the sun goes down…”

When The Sun Goes Down, Tom Hampton 2022

2021: OBITUWEARY

To paraphrase Jerry Maguire‘s Rod Tidwell – “…that’s MY word!” I’m taking ownership of it, here and now.

Death has been the thread that’s tied together the hours, days, weeks and months that have made up this year, more so than anything else.

Sitting down to take stock of the souls lost over the past 365 days is pretty staggering – it certainly feels like more than a year has passed since we lost Tommy Lasorda and Hank Aaron and Don Sutton…and Ed Bruce and Jamie O’Hara…all the way back in January. A lot of us are still processing John Madden and JD Crowe and Joan Didion and Bishop Desmond Tutu from the past week or so.

Every year brings the loss of folks across the spectrum – media, politics, music, literature, sports – and all of us can probably point to one (or likely more) people we’ve lost this year that affect them especially deeply. I don’t think mine will come as a surprise to anyone:

“the end of an era” doesn’t quite seem impactful enough – but if you visit this particular corner of the internet even semi-regularly, then there’s not much I can add to what I’ve already said about these two and the impact they’ve had on my life.

2021 took a particularly heavy toll in our world this year (musicians and the music industry). In addition to Rusty and Paul, Marc Phillips from the band Hotel passed from COVID complications earlier in the year – Marc and Tommy Calton from the band became friends years ago, and Marc appeared to be in good health until the virus came calling. Nanci Griffith and Tom T. Hall were both huge to me as well – as songwriters and storytellers.

We lost Rupert Neve this year – a giant in the audio industry – at age 94. Lou Ottens – the subject of a documentary telling the story of his invention of the cassette tape during his years at Philips – was also 94 when he passed.

Elsewhere in the industry, there was Walter Yetnikoff (former CBS records head), Phil Spector (I know, I know), Ken Kragen (artist manager, man responsible for USA for Africa/”We Are The World”), Kal Rudman (FMQB publisher/editor), Herbie Herbert (artist manager, Journey/others), Mick Rock (photographer), Richard Cole (road manager for Led Zeppelin) – and, perhaps most senseless, Jacqueline Avant (wife of Clarence Avant) was murdered by an intruder in her own home.

“The business” took a beating this year, for sure. I mean, there were certainly losses elsewhere…

We lost Larry King, Willard Scott, Neal Conan from NPR, and Roger Mudd.

In addition to Lasorda and Hank Aaron, we also lost Ray Fosse, Leon Spinks, David Patten, and the irreplaceable Jerry Remy – NESN’s Voice Of The Red Sox.

We lost Eric Carle (“The Hungry Caterpillar”) and frontier storyteller Larry McMurtry.

Whether they’ll be missed is debatable, but we lost Donald Rumsfeld, G. Gordon Liddy, Sheldon Adelson, Larry Flynt, Ernest Angley and Bernie Madoff this year…elsewhere in politics, there was Colin Powell, George Shultz, Bob Dole, Harry Reid, Max Cleland – as well as F. Lee Bailey and civil rights leader Vernon Jordan.

On screens large and small, we said goodbye to a number of legends: Hal Holbrook, Cicely Tyson, Ed Asner, Charles Grodin, Cloris Leachman…also Gavin McLeod, Olympia Dukakis, Ned Beatty, Dean Stockwell…Tawny Kitaen, Tanya Roberts…as well as Johnny Crawford from the Rifleman and Tony Hendra – the manager of Spinal Tap. Peter Ackroyd, longtime writer for SNL, also passed this year.

But on our side of the fence…the list is kinda crazy.

DMX. Biz Markie.

Stephen Sondheim.

There was BJ Thomas, Don Everly, Michael Nesmith…as well as Lloyd Price, and – within the Nashville orbit, there was Rose Lee Maphis, Stonewall Jackson, Gary Scruggs, Randy Parton…Ed Bruce died early in the year, followed later by his wife, songwriter Patsy. The songwriting community also lost Les Emmerson, Dwayne Blackwell, Charlie Black, Larry Willoughby…Jamie O’Hara, who had some success as a recording artist with his band, The O’Kanes. Tommy West, Randy Parton.

Chuck E. Weiss passed, as well as stalwart touring folksinger Bill Staines of “Roseville Fair” fame.

We lost reggae pioneer Bunny Wailer, Gerry Marsden of Gerry and the Pacemakers, Ralph Tavares of Tavares, Mary Wilson of the Supremes, Wanda Young of the Marvellettes, Sarah Dash of LaBelle, Paul Mitchell of The Floaters (“Float On”), Jay Black of Jay and the Americans, and David Lasley – longtime touring vocalist with James Taylor.

There were a few instrumental giants that left us this year – jazz greats Chick Corea and Pat Martino, bluegrass greats JD Crowe, Byron Berline and Sonny Osborne…Peter Oshtroushko as well.

Robbie Steinhardt from Kansas – there won’t ever be another one like him. Buddy Merrill – who introduced a ton of folks to the pedal steel guitar who wouldn’t have heard it otherwise from his chair on the Lawrence Welk Show also passed this year.

Canned Heat alone lost Gene Taylor (keys) and Frank Cook (drums) – the drums themselves lost a TON of seats. Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, Graeme Edge of the Moody Blues, legendary Swamper drummer Roger Hawkins, Don Heffington, Kenny Malone, Ronnie Tutt – Billy Conway of Morphine, Marcus Malone (Santana), Ron Bushy of Iron Butterfly. Keyboardists? The great Mike Finnigan passed this year, as well as Ike Stubblefield and Dave Lewis from Ambrosia.

Bassists?

Dusty Hill of ZZ Top, reggae giant Robbie Shakespeare, Nashville sessioncat Bob Moore, and of course – Tim Bogert and Phil Chen.

Guitarists said goodbye to Hilton Valentine from the Animals, Robin LeMesurier of Rod Stewarts’ band, Keith Allison of Paul Revere and the Raiders and Billy Hinsche (touring guitarist for the Beach Boys).

This garbage year will be over in a few hours, and every year I find myself pausing to take stock of what we’ve lost, even if just to say goodbye in my own personal “thanks for the memories” fashion…certainly, this year has taken more from me than most.

But this year I want to take a look around me at the folks who’ve made my life more bearable – the ones still walking among us – and offer a little gratitude for the fact that they’re still here, still walking on this plane, and in many cases, still participating – still contributing – still living.

Dick Van Dyke. Betty White. Mel Brooks. Vin Scully. Chubby Checker. Willie Nelson. Dan Rather. Loretta Lynn. Joni Mitchell. Gordon Lightfoot. David Crosby. Stephen Stills. Carole King.

David Lindley. Emmylou Harris. David Nelson. Bill Halverson. Stephen Barncard. George Grantham. Sam Cutler and Phil “Mangler” Kaufman. Michael Tearson.

I’m forgetting a few dozen, I’m sure – most of these missives are stream of consciousness, and a lot slips through the cracks.

But we all have a similar list, and it seems like a good day to take inventory and breathe a little gratitude out into the world for what we have as we’re saying goodbye to what we’ve lost.

(BREAKING: no sooner had this gone up than word hit the wires that Betty White came up 24 hours short of making it to 2022. As such, I’m giving Betty the final word on this dumpster fire of a year.)

Queen City Diner – and the unseen effects of aging

Aging is another of those things that no one can teach you about… you have to learn it firsthand, from your own experience.

What I can tell you, though, is this: it’s a multi-layered experience.

I suppose it’s easy to focus on the deterioration of the physical aspects, because it’s apparent to anyone paying attention. We bear witness to it all our lives: first our grandparents, then our parents, then our elders, and later – in our friends and in the mirror.

The less-discussed aspect of aging that no one ever bothered to tell me about is coming into much sharper focus these past couple of years…the process of watching bits and pieces of the world you’ve known all your life fall away into the ether.

Similar, maybe, to a polar bear wandering a giant glacier that continually chips off into the sea over the years until he’s left standing on a small patch of ice, surrounded by water… the change is gradual until you notice the water creeping toward you, and once you see it – it demands your attention until it’s impossible to ignore.

I’ve been on the road in fits and starts for most of the past three weeks, and after playing my last show of the month, I decided to pick up some goodies to take back to Nashville with me for the family… Dylan’s favorite ring bologna, Jayda’s favorite chicken pot pie, and a paper sack full of french fries from V&S sandwich shop. Unlike most french fries, the toaster oven loves them – and so does Wendy.

My daughter had told me about the closing of Queen City Diner, and I had no reason to doubt her – but I was still holding out an inkling of hope that I’d turn underneath the overpass onto Lancaster Avenue and find cars parked in the parking lot, just as they had been for as long as I could remember.  I’d been going there since the sign went up, and probably ate a thousand meals there (and that’s a conservative estimate).  I remember walking down the hill from where we lived on Belvedere Avenue with Jill and the kids in the aftermath of a snowstorm to eat during the holidays years ago – I remember taking a handful of the Marshall Tucker crew there in the middle of the night after the band played the Reading Air Show (this was right after my 48th birthday…there was cake and Crown Royal and Fireball and vomiting and photos on my cell phone that I don’t remember and waking up in my car in the parking garage of the Abe Lincoln Hotel and not remembering how I got back there) – and more late night stops after gigs than I could possibly count.  In particular, stopping in with my buddy Mitch Deighan (who I’ve always affectionately referred to as “America’s Last Living Legitimate Hippie”) after Stone Road shows for soup and a plate of “chicken supreme” – grilled chicken with onions, peppers, rice and a light gravy.  And yeah, I could probably make that myself, but – that’s not the point.

Queen City sponsored my kids’ T-ball team the year I coached for the league…the folks who worked there knew us when we came in (especially the night crew), and Wendy loved the way Sayed made home fries…not sure if she’ll get over this one.

Queen City is one of a handful of places in that area that had transcended the passage of time since we’d left – first to Philadelphia and then to Nashville – always very near exactly the same as they were when I last left them.  V&S sandwich shop, Screpesci’s sandwich shop, Boehringer’s ice cream (SINCE 1949) and several others…I know that COVID has changed everything, and I know that nothing stays the same, and yeah, I see the kids and grandkids of the owners behind the counter at Screpesci’s now when I stop there, but I thought QC was as well positioned as anyone might’ve been to ride this thing out.

There was an invented scandal in the aftermath of 9/11 when a rumor started that federal agents had swept in and arrested a handful of people working in the kitchen – unfounded, stupid shit that hillbillies tell each other to stir up old pots of resentment.  I actually had to refute this from a friend who insisted that he heard it from someone who was a restaurant supplies guy who heard it from…I finally said, “Dude…don’t you think that if something like this happened, that it’d be in four inch high letters on the front of the Reading Eagle?  Don’t you think Jim Gardner [news anchorman in Philadelphia] would’ve been talking about this every night for the past week?  You really think that the only people with the scoop are the guys who drop off paper napkins and plastic straws?”

Still, it gained enough traction that a handful of business owners took out a full page ad on the back of the A section of the local newspaper with bold black print:

UNITED WE STAND – WITH STEVE ELMARZOUKI

Then, it seemed unbelievable that something like that would be necessary…now – well, of course it was.

I have no idea what effect COVID might’ve had on the place, or whether perhaps the family just decided to move on to other, greener pastures…maybe business fell off enough that they didn’t want to keep it going.  If they were in Nashville, my first assumption would be that the building was bought by developers for an unnecessary, mixed use eyesore…I mean, in the time since I was there last, a WAWA sprang up across from Screpesci’s that takes up almost the entire block, so maybe it’s not out of the question.

A hasty Google search says that they sold the building, but they’ll continue to operate another restaurant the family owns a few towns away – apparently, the location will become a medical marijuana dispensary.  No formal announcement was made as to why they pulled the plug.

But whatever the cause, another chromosome of my DNA has fallen away.  

This is the thing they don’t tell you about aging.

Features may soften, joints may stiffen, hair may lose its color and fall away (or worse, start growing from awkward places that require constant attention) – and we’re conditioned to expect these things as we get older.

For me, the physical aspects of aging have been largely manageable – but watching the world as I’ve known it all my life fall away has been a hell of a lot more unsettling than the occasional ache and pain here and there.

Ironically, the only place I ever had a conversation that contained any wisdom or insight about this subject was at the counter of this very restaurant… With a gentleman named Frank McCracken, who I knew from his frequent visits to Fred’s music store, where I used to work part time (also permanently closed).

It still bothers me that I can’t remember whose passing we were discussing, but Frank was very resolute in his thoughts about death at that point in time… He talked about how we come into this world as children, surrounded by people older than we are – and how over time, the seedlings eventually become the oldest trees in the forest.

 A lot of folks have a hard time discussing death without interjecting spirituality and the prospect of an afterlife into the conversation, but Frank didn’t even go there – and the part of the conversation that’s haunted me the most to this day was his assertion that once you reached “elder tree“ status, nothing around you was the same as you remembered as a kid…and that by then, you don’t really recognize the world anymore and that the prospect of death was less scary than living in an unrecognizable world.

It was unsettling – both in terms of the subject matter and the fact that I was considering these things for the first time, and in the sense that it sounded like Frank was speaking from his own experience and that he was preparing to say goodbye himself…but Frank is still alive and kicking and leading the Frank McCracken Trio back in Reading, despite his observations that night – so there must still be enough of a resemblance to the world he’s known to keep him tethered for a little longer.

I catch myself wondering, now and then, how much of the loss I’ve experienced over the past two years would have landed in the same way if COVID hadn’t been a factor – I haven’t come to any solid conclusions there yet.  Rusty and Paul’s passings weren’t COVID related, but my ability to play shows with the band and interact with them in these past 20 months certainly is. My ability to travel in the fashion I’ve been accustomed to – shows I haven’t played, people I haven’t seen – feels a little like thievery some days.

And yet – I have to accept the gist of what Frank and I talked about that night at the counter at Queen City…that the world doesn’t stand still for anyone, and we have to make our peace with that as best as we can, and that one day we’ll be gone as well – and that when that time comes, it won’t be as scary because we likely won’t feel as tethered to this world in those days as we once did.

Which makes me wonder whether I’m mourning the loss of these landmarks of my youth as much as perhaps the hastening of the hour at which I’m going to have to come to terms with the approach of this particular milestone.

Feels like the same thing, really.

November

Being self-employed on any level – whether it’s a creative pursuit or not – is often a “feast or famine” proposition…there are long periods of idle anxiety punctuated by frantic scrambles to accommodate everything that comes at you.  I’ve had a friend for years who alternates between worrying whether he has enough work in the pipeline to pay his bills and not being able to answer the phone out of fear of distraction because there’s so much work to do.

I’ve almost always had a “day gig” of some sort to relieve those extremes in my own life, although it’s largely been an exercise in self-delusion…just because one has a regular job, it can often create a false sense of security.  These days, though, it’s been a blessing – working for the company I work for has given me a lot of freedom to say no to things that I’d otherwise have to do in order to pay the bills.  

But then there are months like this November, when it’s just plain hard to say no to the things that came my way.

I had agreed some time back to a show in St. Louis with the Poco next-of-kin, but in pretty short order I found myself with a Boneyard Hounds show the week after that in Philadelphia and was asked to fill a chair up front for one of the “Songwriters and Storytellers” series that I’ve participated in as a sideman in years past…so this year, I’d be participating in the rounds as well as doing my usual “utility” work when the others were playing.  A lot of heavy lifting, but – I mean, I couldn’t say no to that…any more than I could say no to a Dan May show in Sandusky at the Maritime Museum on the 6th, before the real roadwork kicked in.

All of this meant a weekend trip to the Great Lakes region of Ohio, coming back to Nashville to work for part of a week before heading north for that run of four shows, then back to Nashville in time to leave for the St. Louis show with the band, then coming home in time to leave for Philadelphia again – but mileage has never been a deterrent for me.  If you’ve been reading these missives for a while, you already know this.

Just the mileage associated with these runs would add up to a combined total of around 5200 miles.


Sandusky, Ohio is home to me in ways that I can’t really associate with places where I’ve actually lived.

And that’s all Dan May’s fault.

We came to the realization – during this particular show, in fact – that Dan and I have been collaborating for fifteen years.  “Musical Years” are much like “Dog Years” in the sense that one of them counts for more than a typical 365 day unit of time in a lot of ways, and Dan has been one of a handful of folks that have made my life richer for having been a part of that particular collaboration…but with Dan, it goes a little deeper.  Dan has adopted me and his family has taken me in as one of them, and – well, Dan has a large, extended family in both the accepted biological sense and the broader definition of the word.

I’m an honorary citizen of Sandusky, Ohio – as declared by Dan and – from what I can tell – the majority of the population of the city.  And every time we go there, the relationship deepens somewhat…I could pack my car and drive to Sandusky tonight and there’d be a dozen places I could go, where I could knock on the door and be welcomed in.

I don’t think that’s true of my own hometown, really.

So these shows, when they present themselves, are pretty much a given for me.  Playing with Dan is just a layer of the cake…getting to spend time with his extended circle is a fringe benefit that’s become truly special to me over the years.

I left home right out of high school and the disdain I had for the place accompanied me everywhere I went for many, many years.  It never felt like home to me then, and even now it really just serves as a figurative storefront for a place that doesn’t really exist anymore – family has splintered and scattered to the four winds, and that’s probably the main reason I can go back now without a sense of uneasiness…the pins on the map I have in my memory have mostly fallen away after all these years, to the point where it’s largely just another town.

Sandusky doesn’t have the burden of carrying all my mental baggage from my formative years, though, and the town has been a blank slate for me to write my own stories – along with the help of this swath of humanity that’s adopted me.  

Going back there is “a gig”, to be certain – but the “hang” is the attraction for me.  And this show was no exception…a highlight, even.

Dan’s band of supporting musicians has taken on a new member over the past couple of years (and yeah, that sounds like a long time, until you consider the COVID sabbatical) – she came to us as a student of Anthony’s who’d graduated to an instructor role at the School of Rock.  The first time Claudia and I played together was at Sellersville Theater back in 2019, and the connection was pretty much instantaneous – we started playing The Glory Years during soundcheck and she was playing my part as if it were me playing it, and a circuit developed within just a few seconds of that first song.  I thought the first show was just a fluke, maybe – based on some of the other things in the air that particular night – but every time we’ve played together since, it’s been there…and I gotta admit, I struggle to describe it.

As a musician, most of us recognize these connections when they present themselves – it’s not a tangible thing that fits into a social construct (friend, family member, co-worker, spouse, et cetera) that most people recognize.  I mean, anyone who can play three chords can pick up a guitar and play those three chords with anybody else who has the base ability to operate the instrument – but the thing that separates those two random “three chord” folks from the musicians that stand out to us are the people who transcend the mechanics of the process and connect on the next level.  It’s playful and intimate and telepathic and satisfying on a level that’s – again, hard to describe.  But Claude and I landed in that place almost instantly, and it’s been there every single time we’ve played together since, and I treasure that.

with Dan May and Claudia Terry at the Sandusky Maritime Museum

This show was just the three of us – Dan, Claudia and I – and the show was pretty great for three people who’d only played together twice, but the part that I’ll remember long after I’ve forgotten the details of the show was…well, everything that happened after the show.

We went back to Jerry’s house afterward, the guitars came out and we played until…shit, I don’t know what time it was, honestly.  Pizza was ordered, nachos were served, and we passed guitars around and played and sang until literally everyone else had gone upstairs to bed except Claud, Kevin (Claud’s dad) and I.  Kevin plays as well, and towards the end of the night someone had mentioned that a riff I played sounded like Leader Of The Band, so I played it and that opened the portal into the Dan Fogelberg Wormhole – and Kevin started playing the opening chords to The Last Nail and that sealed the deal.  It was All Fogelberg, All The Time until everyone just ran out of gas.

After it was over, I got a text from Claud with a video attached of her dad and I playing The Last Nail from the night before, captioned:  “my dads”.

I packed it in after everyone retired for the night and drove over to the Opfers’ house (I’ve been Team Eddie for some years now, and that’s my home base whenever we’re there) and – predictably – they were long asleep, but I got a nice long breakfast hang with them when I woke up the next morning.  They’d been at Jerry’s the night before for the jam session, along with all the usual suspects, but the hang at the breakfast bar with Eddie and Julie – the quiet time to connect – is really priceless to me.

After a stop along the interstate to take photos of Kentucky Speedway to text back to Danny, it was back to Nashville for a minute before taking off for the Northeast.


I was looking forward to the drive, having gotten a taste of the beginnings of the descent of autumn along the interstate driving south from Ohio.

I realized, though – after only a few miles on the trip north that this musical pilgrimage had fallen at a nearly perfect point in the trajectory of autumn for this year – the Sandusky run was a warmup, but the mountain ranges in southwest Virginia were particularly colorful on the trip northward, and I left early enough in the morning to burn off most of the pre-dawn hours traversing The Nothing (the stretch of I-40 between Nashville and Knoxville that Jayda nicknamed for the void that swallows up everything in “The Never Ending Story”) and I watched the sun come up through the windshield just as I was leaning into the northward stretch of I-81 towards Bristol.  I couldn’t have timed it more perfectly if I’d actually made an effort to line it all up.

Serendipity.

The first show was in Bridgeville, Delaware and my phone took me across 66 and through Washington DC, across to the stretch of route 50 that crosses from Annapolis into Delaware just as the sun was dipping towards the horizon – seriously, I couldn’t have planned the timing of this trip more perfectly if I’d tried.  I got to the venue and hauled my gear in for the first show and crossed my fingers.

I’ve done a bunch of these shows by just plugging the mandolin (or whatever other acoustic instruments I might have along for a particular show) into the same signal path I use for electric stuff – for quieter shows, I’ve managed to get away with it for a long time.  But after that disaster of a show in Wisconsin a while back, I made up my mind to start taking that signal path more seriously – so I bit the bullet and started putting together a pedalboard for the acoustic instruments (banjo, dobro, mandolin, and such) and got a separate amplifier to run those instruments through.  Since I’d be playing acoustic guitar during my turns in the round, that’d be a factor as well, so – I brought ALL OF IT for this trip.  It made for a long load-in and load-out, but the truth is – it made everything easier during the show.  I had discrete signal paths for each instrument, all run off a true-bypass loop pedal – a ToneBone PZ-Pre for acoustic guitar and mandolin, a FIshman Jerry Douglas Aura for the dobro, with delay and tremolo thrown in for good measure.  I’d bought a Boss EQ that I was going to add for banjo, but it was so noisy that I bailed on it.  It made my whole rig sound like it was next door to the airport – I’d assumed that Boss gear was solid enough not to have to worry about that sort of thing, but…well, lesson learned.  I wasn’t really using banjo for this run, so it wouldn’t be an insurmountable issue for these shows.

For the shows, I had a volume pedal in front of me for each pedalboard – those being the only things I really needed real-time access to…I’ve never really been a tap-dancer, I usually set the signal path before the song and run with it…both volume pedals fed their respective pedalboards and amps, pedalboards off to the side and amps well behind the stage.  I’d select the proper path for whatever instrument I was using and roll with it, and it was as close to painless as could really be possible for this array of stuff.  AND – the acoustic instruments sounded pretty great.  No feedback issues, the tremolo actually sounded great on both the dobro and the acoustic guitar when I saw fit to use it, and changing out was as simple as unplugging, replugging, and stepping on a button or two.  The only way it could’ve been easier would have been to have brought a tech along…it’s about as manageable as it gets for one guy.

As material went, I did the usual thing and didn’t really bother to rehearse or re-learn anything…I had a few songs that I knew I’d want to do, but I wanted to just react to what was happening on the stage with the other performers and I didn’t want to lock myself into anything where material was concerned – I did listen to a couple of my older songs on the drive up, just to refresh my memory and brush up on lyrics, but that was pretty much the extent of my preparation.  I knew I wouldn’t need a ton of material to begin with – the most I’d have to do would likely be six songs if we did two rounds of three songs each, and I could play six songs in my sleep.  I knew I’d end up doing two Poco-centric songs for sure, both “Crazy Love” and “Where Did The Time Go” would be in the bag – but I gave myself plenty of rope outside those two.

I did a couple of songs from “Our Mutual Angels” over the course of the run – Brand New Distance and Is That Enough – just because they popped into my head at specific times.  But I also did Craig Bickhardt’s Giant Steps and Craig Fuller’s Sure Do Miss You Now from the Friends and Heroes collection…I did Tom Petty’s Southern Accents one night, as well.  Nik Everett surprised me by showing up for the second night of the run, so I pulled out Uncle Tom’s Cafe for that show, and I did Bitter And The Sweet for another – but those were the only new-ish songs I bothered to do…since none of that stuff was available at the merch table yet.

Seeing Nik was a welcome sight – we both tried a hand at doing the math, and neither of us could remember having seen one another since before I moved to Nashville in 2014…and that it might have actually been at one of the Bob Dylan Birthday Bash shows at Rembrandt’s back in the day…which would easily be ten years.  Nik was the last person I saw before I drove away from the Smyrna Opera House that night on my way back to Sol Knopf’s house, where I stayed the first two nights (as did Jesse Terry and his family).

I’ve known Sol for years, but in all that time I’d never had an opportunity to spend any real time with him, other than at shows – but we got a chance to connect during this trip that we hadn’t really had before.  A couple of great post-show hangs with long conversations, including the story of the night he met his wife and how her father factored into it…I won’t tell it here because I likely won’t do it justice, but…it’s a great story.

Sol connected me with a writer for an interview not long before I made the trip, and he used nearly everything from our conversation – which was surprising, because usually it’s a matter of bits and pieces – but we’d talked specifically about Sol during our conversation, and I made some unsolicited observations about him that I thought were just part of the banter, but that he ended up using in the article.  I told him that one of the things I always admired about Sol was how evident his love for his home state was in his work, how it was clearly part of his identity, and the only other songwriter I could really think of who’d managed to pull off having that same sense of place in their work was Springsteen – that to me, Sol was just as synonymous with Delaware as the Boss was to New Jersey.  Not in a heavy-handed, Jimmy Buffett fashion…but with a modicum of actual grace.

And honestly, after spending some actual daylight driving around the state a bit that weekend…I get it.

If you’ve spent any time there, you get it as well…you don’t need me to tell you. 

Three of the four shows were in Delaware, save for a show in suburban Philadelphia that had JD Malone subbing for Sol (he had a previous show on the schedule) – Claudia came to the show and she and I went out for dinner with JD and Tommy after the show before I headed over the bridge to spend the night at Casa Del Tearson before the last show of the run the next night.  Cindy Pierson (widow of legendary soundman George) and Carolyn Miller came over the next morning with breakfast for a nice hang before I left for the final show.

After we wrapped up the final show of the run, I went back to Sol’s in Smyrna and we stayed up with the family and had pizza before bed.

I got up the next morning at a much earlier hour than I’d normally get up and set out on a slightly different route home.  I decided that, since I was already so far south, I’d deviate from the typical Interstate path home…I was going to follow route 13 all the way south through Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia – across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and into Norfolk and across Virginia to connect with I-81 around Wytheville and home from there.  It was several hours longer than the typical drive home, but I had hoped it’d be worth it…and it was, largely – although I found myself wishing I’d done it during the summer when the days were longer and I had the extra daylight.

I got home in time to dump my gear from the northeast run and re-tool for the acoustic Poco gig in St. Louis and leave some 36 hours later – Jack, Rick and I had decided to rent a minivan for the run and drive up and back together.

The first thing I noticed when I got to Rick’s house to load up was that our rental van had Colorado plates.

I see you, boss.  I see you.

This set was essentially a reprise of the set we’d played at Wildwood a month earlier – a short set of Poco songs for a lifelong fan who was retiring from his position as director of the St. Louis Zoo.  He turned out to be a wonderful guy.  It was also convenient, in that there was a seller just outside St. Louis who’d listed a Source Audio programmable EQ pedal that I’d been looking for – to use on my acoustic pedalboard and he was nice enough to drop it off at the hotel for me.  I got in a nice walk through Clayton in suburban St. Louis (I could see the arch from my hotel window) and Mary (Rusty’s wife) and I closed the bar the night before we left to return home to Nashville.

Another down day at home before reloading the car to head back to Philadelphia for a show with Michael Braunfeld and the Boneyard Hounds – our first post-COVID show as a band.  It was a loud affair, to be certain, and there was a pretty stubborn layer of rust to shake off, but that’s a journey that begins with a single step, and we definitely took it that night.  There was a great crew of friends who came out to the show to support the band, and we did our best to make it worth their while.

Another night at Casa Del Tearson after a nighttime drive through Philadelphia to reacquaint myself with the skyline…and left the next day to cross the river and do a little shopping for the family before returning to Nashville.  I picked up some V&S fries, some Hippies’ ring bologna, some Chicken Pot Pie and some block swiss cheese (which appears to have gone extinct here in Nashville for some reason) to bring back to the kids to jog their memory.  I felt my stomach sink when I drove by the now-empty building where Queen City operated for over a quarter century…I knew to expect it when I turned the corner, but the knowing didn’t do much to quell the impact of the sight of it.  But I stocked up and made it back to Nashville in the dead of the night, leaving a bag of groceries on Jayda’s doorknob in the dead of the night…it was cold enough that I knew it’d keep ok.

Thanksgiving came not long afterward, and I made a point of assembling myself a Pennsylvania Dutch charcuterie plate full of what I’d have expected to find on the long table at Maplewood avenue back in the day – ring bologna, cheese, and kettle chips.  I’d put thousands of miles on the odometer over the previous couple of weeks, but it had been fulfilling on multiple levels…personally and musically…and I was thankful for new memories to add to the archive.  

So why not celebrate with a plate full of processed meat and cheese, huh?

“I’m just an open stage singer…”

I’m all but certain that Ray Naylor was younger than I am now when we first met, over a quarter century ago.

That’s an important thing for me to realize today, because it helps me put my respect for him into a perspective that I couldn’t fully understand back then, when Ray would come to the Monday night hangs at the Grape Street Pub – I mean, I had met Ray some years before when I was hopping from one open mike to the other, trying to figure out how this whole thing was supposed to work, but “The Grape” was a different animal for a number of reasons.

Grape Street Pub on a Monday night in the mid-nineties was probably the closest I’ll ever come to the Troubadour Experience of the late sixties and early seventies, when a horde of artists I’d come to love and look up to were all hustling, getting their thing together and figuring out who they were.

Monday nights were the one night of the week that most of us weren’t gigging somewhere else, and the Grape became a hot spot – songwriters came there for the hang first, and for the opportunity to play second…or maybe third or fourth, depending on who you might ask. It was an exciting time to be an artist in Philadelphia, and all the stars aligned for our little ragamuffin community.

Of course, whenever something becomes hot or trendy, all the tasteless and talentless wannabes line up to crash the party, hoping that some of the mojo will rub off on them, and there was plenty of that as well – but cliques tend to drive out folks with any degree of self-awareness that can sense when they’re not wanted, and you had to put in the work to become part of that family…and that’s exactly the way we wanted it.

Ray Naylor was easily older than most of us were at the time, and I remember thinking that there was something innately awesome about this guy who’d come in and get up and play Phil Ochs songs, peppered by his own compositions that were proudly and unashamedly carved from the Macdougal Street/Village tradition…because, Goddamnit, Ray was who he was, and he was defiantly uninterested in pretending to be something other than the sum of his own parts.

At the time, it was just a modicum of general respect on my part – but now that I’m likely older than he was then, I’m able to appreciate it in ways I never could’ve at the time.

I moved to Nashville almost ten years ago and realized – far too late to change course – that for me, there comes a time in ones’ life when it really is too late to start over. I couldn’t see myself going to the Five Spot or the Wash and becoming the East Nashville Version of the Steve Buscemi meme (“what’s up, fellow kids?”) and pressing new flesh and trying to navigate an entirely new musical community – aside from the fact that every possible manner of crazy shit befell us during that first couple of years, I just felt any motivation to try to do that, to be that guy – it just ran down the drain.

But at that same age, Ray was coming to the Grape and getting up in front of a room half-filled with Villanova Douchebags who couldn’t decide if they wanted to be Kurt Cobain or Dave Matthews and topped off with a bunch of self-absorbed folks staring up their own asses and complaining that they didn’t get to play because they were too cool to write their names on the damned sheet.

Everyone was trying to claw their way up the food chain, but Ray Naylor didn’t give a shit about any of that.

I don’t know that he ever aspired to anything more than what life ultimately revealed to him, but he never hung it up – he wrote songs, he made records (I got to contribute a few instrumental parts to one of them at Daoud Shaw’s studio years ago), and he ultimately found a home in radio, hosting his own folk show for some time.

The last Facebook post I saw from Ray was only a couple of weeks ago, when he announced that he was turning the reins of his show over to new hosts, and my first thought was – why?

I didn’t know anything about Ray’s health situation, as we haven’t really stayed in touch (Ray has that in common with a great many people, and it’s both a regret and a safety mechanism for me, it seems. I’m at a loss to explain it.) – but this afternoon I saw a post as I was leaving the office that he’d passed away during open heart surgery.

I feel like this little corner of the internet has become nothing more than a perpetual last stop for friends shuffling off the mortal coil, and I’m using the term “obituweary” a lot this past couple of years – it’s a thing.

Ray – thanks for showing all those roomfuls of kids what it means to be who you are without getting caught up in the trappings of nonsense.

It took a long time to rub off, but I think I understand it now.

Requiem For A Legend

A photo from the “Legend”-era lineup of Paul Cotton and Rusty Young displayed at Sunday’s memorial service

Like most people, I suppose there are a number of things that I tend to believe selectively…when it’s convenient, or when it suits my narrative.

Probably at the top of that list would be the old adage that “everything happens for a reason”.  Seems solid enough when it works to ones’ advantage, but I haven’t found much use for that one for a good long while…

…until this past weekend, maybe.

George Grantham (original Poco drummer, 1968-1977 and 2000-2004) had planned on making a “road trip” out of the sojourn to Wildwood Springs Lodge for Rusty Young’s memorial shows and service with his wife Debbie, so they’d have their own transportation available while they were there…Debbie isn’t big on depending on other folks to get them from place to place, and she felt up for the drive – but fate intervened in the form of a transmission issue that ended up quarantining their car at the garage well past when they’d have needed it back in order to make the trip.

Most of you know that George suffered a stroke onstage during a show in Springfield MA that effectively retired him from the road, although he’s made a number of appearances at special shows – he got up and played drums and sang “Pickin’ Up The Pieces” with the band at Wildwood in 2019, even.

If you stop by to read these missives on even a sporadic basis, you know that I’ve known George almost as long as I’ve known Rusty and Paul – nowadays, we live in the same city – so I wanted to do what I could to make sure the Granthams were able to be in Steelville for this last Wildwood Weekend if I could.

We hatched a plan to bring two cars, since Wendy and Danny were planning to come anyway – gear in one, luggage in the other – and Debbie rode along with Wendy while George rode shotgun with me.

I loaded a few decades’ worth of Poco and Buffalo Springfield MP3’s onto a flash drive and brought it along…and once we got everyone loaded up and said goodbye to Dusty (the Grantham’s fierce, man-eating attack dog), we started up Interstate 24 headed north to Missouri.

We started out making small talk here and there, but when the lulls between dialogue started to get longer, George started singing along to the Poco archive I’d been playing in the car since we left.

Half an hour or so up the road, Paul’s “Bad Weather” came on, and it froze both of us for a couple seconds or so, but then George went back to singing…and I took a harmony part right along with him.

Me being me, I immediately thought that “I’ve gotta get a snippet of this.  For me.  To remember the drive and the moment.”  I pulled out my phone and held it up to the drivers’ side window and recorded thirty seconds or so of the two of us singing along with Paulie – George was blissfully unaware of what I was doing.  But before I put my phone away, I held it up to my ear to listen to what I’d captured, and…

…I’ll be damned if George didn’t sound like…well, George Grantham!

I rationalized it in my head as I was doing it – “there are a ton of folks who want to be there this weekend that can’t be there, and they’d get a kick out of this.  Maybe it’ll make them feel like they’re along for the ride” – and I uploaded it to Instagram and cross-posted it to Facebook with the hashtag:

#countryrockcarpoolkaraoke

My phone started buzzing on a regular basis as folks commented on the post on both platforms, so I kept recording us, and we kept singing…and singing…for damn near the whole six-plus hour drive.

I almost got away with it for the entire trip – that is, until we stopped for a bathroom break less than an hour from our destination.  Debbie had no reason to think that I was doing it without George’s knowledge, so she mentioned it to him before we got back into the car to finish the trip and…well, I had to come clean.

George was all for it – and when we’d gotten checked into the hotel and went out for dinner, I showed him the dozens and dozens of comments people had left on the videos and he was clearly moved to see how many people were passing along well-wishes and love from various corners of the world.  He even got the chance to listen to a couple of them, in between torrential blankets of rain that threatened to drown out whatever conversation might’ve been taking place at the table.

GG reading social media comments on my iPhone

After dinner, I had planned on making good on my promise to screen a showing of “Count Me In” for George, but the WiFi was on the fritz, so we had to settle for a rerun of the Muscle Shoals documentary from my laptop’s hard drive instead…thus ended the first of three consecutive nights of post-midnight bedtimes.

Watching Muscle Shoals in the room at the Wagon Wheel Motel with Madison Thorn, Wendy, Debbie and Danny (sleeping)

Jack, Rick and I had spent some time discussing and curating the setlist for the Wildwood shows – trying to be sensitive to EVERY consideration possible, pacing the two sets and setting the theme for the first set as a tribute to Rusty – the reason the three of us were there in the first place, founder of the band and keeper of the fire for 53 years.

There were half a dozen videos that had been selected for the shows, plus a pair of videos that Richie Furay had sent in – one with some reminiscences about Rusty and Paul and another with a solo acoustic performance of “Bad Weather” and “Crazy Love”.  I spent several days writing a script, recording voiceover, soliciting recorded input from friends and band members, editing audio and video for a tribute film we showed at the very beginning of the first set – the video ended with Rusty playing the chorus of “Where Did The Time Go” and I was to be seated with my guitar in hand when he hit the final chord and would start the first verse of the full-length version of the song just as he finished…then Mary walked onto the stage and put Rusty’s trademark hat onto the headstock of his guitar as Jack started playing “Old Hat” (a song that he and Rusty had written together that – coincidentally, Rusty played as his solo acoustic offering at the very first Poco show I ever saw) – from there, we’d play “Us”, the first song Rusty ever sang on a Poco record…you get the picture.  We had some flexibility in the second set, but the first set was pretty solidly written in stone.

On Friday when we went to load in and soundcheck, I asked Jack and Rick how they felt about having George up for the first three songs of the second set – we had already planned on him doing his traditional appearance on “Pieces”, but he was in pretty great voice, and I knew that he was familiar enough with the three songs at the top of the second set that it’d be pretty low risk to have him up.  We conducted the world’s quickest unanimous “yes” vote and it was on.  

We ran through a few things to make sure everything was working – I had to improvise a pedal board on the spot, as I hadn’t had any time the previous week to get it together (I spent literally every non-working waking hour on finishing Rusty’s tribute video…the one I had done the year before to launch the Poco YouTube page was a solo effort with practically zero input, but this one was very much a communal effort, which quadrupled the time factor) – but I cobbled together a workable setup to get me through the weekend.

I felt that if I could just get through that first song both nights, I’d be OK.

night one of Wildwood Weekend – playing “Rose of Cimarron”

Thankfully, I actually DID get through the first song without a hitch both nights, but my brain was so scattered that I managed to forget lyrics to a song each night in mid-sentence…once per show, a different song for both shows.  I reversed verses for “One Tear at a Time” on Friday night, and my brains just ran down my nose during “Call it Love” on Saturday night.  

We got through the first set – the Rusty Set – and I went and got George and brought him up for the three songs that kicked off the second set:  “Child’s Claim to Fame”, “Kind Woman”, and “Pickin’ Up The Pieces”, and he sang his ass off.

GG doing his thing during the second set, night one

When every other memory of last weekend has faded, the one I’ll cling to will be George walking off to a round of applause after finishing those songs, and taking his seat in the front row…then noticing that people hadn’t stopped applauding yet, at which point he stood up and turned around to the sight of THE ENTIRE HOUSE ON ITS FEET.

Watching George from my vantage point a few feet away as he turned around and looked around the room, soaking in all that love…that, my friends, was a moment.

Final bow, end of the Friday night show

Saturday morning, Michael Webb dragged himself out of bed after having played the Ryman with Amanda Shires the night before and drove all the way there to be a part of that night’s show, and to be there for Rusty’s memorial service the next day.  He gave me an impromptu tour of the “Poco Wing” of the lodge, where they’d come to take care of overdubs for “All Fired Up” and told me about moving the furniture around in the rooms to accommodate the band’s recording hijinks. 

in the “Poco Wing” of Wildwood Springs Resort with Michael Webb – who remembers where all the bodies are buried

 There was a lunch get-together that afternoon at an AirBnB rented by longtime friends Marc and Sharon…we got up and got ourselves ready to head out that way and very nearly got lost, pulling into the driveway of the host – who was apparently pretty accustomed to having to take folks by the hand and lead them to the property, which he happily did for us.  We stayed for a bit, but left earlier than I’d have liked, because we hadn’t gotten back to the hotel until almost 1AM the night before, and I wanted George to have a chance to rest up for the show that night, as it was almost certain that it would go at least as late as the night before had gone.

For that night’s show, we kept George up for the original three songs at the beginning of the second set PLUS “Keep On Tryin’”, and I made sure he knew the queue to come back up for “Good Feelin’ To Know” at the end of the night…a couple of people had needled me about playing “Wildwood” during the set, but the night seemed long enough as it were without getting too carried away with solo stuff.  And sure enough, it was again well after midnight when we left to return to the hotel on Saturday night as well.

Saturday night show, with Maestro Webb on accordion

Sunday morning, Debbie had a predictably tough time getting George out of bed and ready to go to the church for Rusty’s service, but he pulled through.  I’d talked to him on the way there about whether he wanted to say anything during the service or not, and he had somewhat mixed feelings about it…I told him that he didn’t have to if he didn’t want to, and that nobody expected him to if he wasn’t up for it, but – that if he did, I’d walk up with him if he wanted…and he said he’d decide once he got there.  I went back to where he was sitting after I’d gone up and spoken and he seemed a little intimidated by the notion of going up (Debbie told me later that she’d had to nudge him a couple times to keep him awake, and I felt bad that we’d kept him up so late the past few nights…but I can’t imagine he’d have had it any other way.)

Everyone from the band had great stories – Michael talked about playing a B3 part for a song on “All Fired Up” on the day Jon Lord from Deep Purple died, and about getting the call from Rick Alter, asking if he “knew anybody” that might fit what Rusty was looking for when he had to replace Paul Cotton in the band.  Jack talked about being taken out for all manners of food he’d never had before when Rusty brought him into the fold, and about hearing from Rusty when he’d decided to move to Missouri to be with Mary.  Rick Lonow talked about the difference between the “Poconuts” and the typical hangers-on that so many other bands attracted and how the ‘Nuts have eclipsed that stereotype to become a huge extended family, bound together by this music.

That, after all, is why we were all there.

Post Saturday night group Poconut photo, courtesy of Madison Thorn

This music drew us all in at some point in our lives, and upon being drawn into this family, the people within the family itself came to mean as much to us as the music did.  Yeah, I would’ve still loved the music if I’d never gotten to know the band and the extended family, but – maybe not quite enough to drive all night to a show on the other side of the state or up the coast…or make a trek to a mountainside in the Ozarks every third weekend of October for decades to be a part of “Wildwood Weekend”.

I talked to more than one person who’d driven fifteen hours – twenty hours – a day and a half – to be there this weekend.  Others who’d suffered through some odd flavor of airline torture…and one poor soul who stepped through the front door during the final song of the night on Friday night and missed the entire show.

There was a woman who sat in the front row and sobbed while we sang “Crazy Love” for the last time.

These are folks who’ve made this trip faithfully, year after year – and weren’t about to miss one last chance to come say goodbye to their favorite band with the rest of their family.

Sweet Tooth Potluck at the Super8 in Cuba has been a Wildwood tradition for some time…and George had to be there.

The music was the main course, but it was about so much more than that…and Rusty kept that fire burning for half a century.  We played Rusty’s songs, we played Paul Cotton songs (“Heart of the Night”, “Indian Summer”, among others) and we celebrated the music…because that will outlive them both.  But we celebrated more than just “the band” – we were taking stock of the fact that we’re all only here for a short time, and every goodbye may be The Last Goodbye.

They were there to mourn the losses of Rusty and Paul, but we were also mourning the loss of this unique thing that had grown up around the music, around the band and the personalities involved – as people have come and gone, as the band has changed, as we’ve collectively grown older and as we’ve lost some of our old-timers (Naomi, Zog, Claudia, and a host of others), the family has persevered.

None of us really know what any of this looks like moving forward, but The Last Wildwood Weekend felt like a good time to confront the fact that what we’d always known it to be was over…and we were saying goodbye to that, too.

George was pretty drained when we left the service, and Debbie had to work the next day – so we bowed out of an invitation to Mary’s afterward so we could get on the road.  But everyone was hungry, so we ended the weekend where it started: at Frisco’s in Cuba – home of Danny’s New Favorite Chicken Nuggets.

George and Debbie at Frisco’s on the way home – EVERYBODY had the nuggets during the last visit.

The place was very nearly empty, so we were thankfully in and out in pretty short order…but while we were sitting there, the faint strains of the piano intro from “Tiny Dancer” wafted in from somewhere, and (with the exception of Danny, who does NOT sing in public) the rest of us all started singing along on the chorus, right there at the table.

And yeah…no one needed to tell me….

“You ARE home.”