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.

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?

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.”

Wild(wood) weekend – Poco in Steelville, MO

the extended Poco family lost one of our own recently – Claudia Upton. I made Claudia’s acquaintance online at first, as I did with most of this particular extended family, but then eventually met her at a show in the mid-nineties – although I don’t remember specifically when, or which show.

At my age, they all start to run together after a while.

Claudia was always dressed in black, usually with a camera around her neck, and has been responsible for some of my favorite photos from the time I’ve spent around the band over the years. She was, as was well known within “the family”, especially fond of Paul…as were a few other gals who turned up in the extended collection of folks who were often recurring characters in the extended “Poconut” gang. She adored my youngest, Danny, and was there at Danny’s very first Poco show when he was less than a month old (in King of Prussia, when Poco and Idlewheel appeared on an outdoor double-bill).

I got word that Claudia had passed via a Facebook message from a mutual friend as I was getting into my car in a parking lot outside the Mercy Lounge in Nashville…I think it came as a shock to a lot of us, even though those dark visits seem to become much more regular at this point in ones’ life. Her mother (who survives her) lives in an assisted living community and Claudia never missed a days’ visit – so when she hadn’t shown up for a few days in a row, folks became concerned and initiated an investigation and discovered that she’d passed, presumably peacefully, in her sleep at home.

Photo by Claudia – Tommy Geddes, myself, and Paul Cotton a decade or so ago

When word finally got out, someone had posted online that there’d be a memorial for her at the bands’ annual weekend of shows at Wildwood Springs Lodge in Steelville, MO this year. I commented on the post and tagged Jack Sundrud (Idlewheel bandmate, Poco bassist, and Nashville neighbor) and jokingly said that “if you need a ride north, I’ll drive” (most folks aren’t crazy about riding with me for some reason…can’t quite wrap my head around that)…but to my surprise, Jack messaged me back and said that if I wanted to come along, they could use some stage help…would I be interested?

I had worked this gig before with the guys, when Poco split a few Loggins and Messina dates back in 2009 or so. I had to change a broken E string on Richie Furay’s hollowbody Gibson, and got it done in just under two minutes…which won’t qualify me for anybody’s Roadie Olympics, but I thought it was pretty good for a rookie. I know how long it took because I clocked the time from the moment I took Richie’s guitar until I brought it back out on a YouTube video of the show someone had posted.

So I had the necessary experience, I guess.

I replied and said sure, I was game for helping out any way I could – so he circled back with Rusty & company and we confirmed everything for the weekend and it was written in pen.

I had just lost my ex-mother in law, and had made a trip to Pennsylvania the weekend prior, and had done the best I could to help my kids through that – so once I was back from that excursion, I swapped out the clothes in my bag and met Jack and drummer Rick Lonow at the car rental counter and we saddled up to head north. I volunteered for the first (and what I figured would be the only) shift behind the wheel…I fully intended to drive the whole stretch, but after managing to catch a speeding ticket in Metropolis, Illinois, the guys voted me out of the drivers’ seat for a spell.

(Fun Fact: If you get a speeding ticket in Metropolis, IL – you cannot just plead guilty and pay your fine online. You have to either show up for a court date or hire a lawyer to appear on your behalf. It’s easy to dismiss the stuff we hear about how corrupt and ridiculous the state of Illinois is, but there’s plenty of evidence that they’ve earned their shitty reputation.)

We got to Steelville just as it was getting dark and went to the venue to unload gear, meeting up with Rusty and Mary Young when we got there…it’s been a few years since I’ve seen either of them, and I was thrilled to see the two of them and catch up for a minute. I’m not unconvinced that Rusty doesn’t have a Dorian Gray oil painting aging away in the attic of his house…he’s managed somehow to steer this band through the past forty years and a full 80 percent of their lifespan and somehow appear outwardly to be none the worse for wear. I’ve been through a fraction of a fraction of what he’s been subjected to by this business, and I’m one of the most cynical bastards you’ll ever meet…but he still manages to remain gracious and kind and I’m honored to call him a friend.

Jack, Rick and I went to a BBQ joint in Cuba, Missouri that was right up the road from the hotel we were staying at before turning in for the night – we had a noon load-in at the venue, so we decided to try to get there a little before then, to wrap up getting the stage together.

I met Lex Browning in the car on the way to the show – Lex is the new guitarist/multi-instrumentalist who replaced Michael Webb, the departed keyboard player. Once we got to the venue, we got down to the business of getting the stage in order.

Not long afterward, though, the special guests showed up.

I hadn’t seen George Grantham’s wife, Debbie, since driving to Nashville almost fifteen years prior when his daughter and I were helping to set up a fundraising effort to generate cash for George after his stroke…Jack and I had gone to lunch with George here in town not long after I moved to town, but it had been a few years since I’d seen him at that point.

Not only was George getting up to sing during the show, but he was going to play drums for one song as well (Child’s Claim to Fame) – so that was something to look forward to.

Then Paul and Caroline came in.

The last time I saw Paul was in New Jersey in 2010 when I backed him on pedal steel, mandolin and dobro for a set he did at the first (and, to my knowledge, only) NationalRockCon event there…I had tried to coordinate a tour with Paul when I released Friends and Heroes in 2013 where I’d assemble a band, we’d open for – and then play behind – Paul as the headliner, but we never managed to get it off the ground. I ended up moving to Nashville the following year and we fell out of touch.

After landing in Nashville, 800 miles and a time zone removed from my old Northeast Corridor Poco family, I fell out of touch with the band for a while as well. I still did the occasional shows with Idlewheel (and Jack), and living in the same town as Jack, I’d occasionally try to connect with him as well, but I ended up hunkering down and shunning society for the past three years or so…OK, so not entirely, perhaps, but…I don’t get out much anymore.

So, flash forward to the present day – here was the current band with all my favorite members of the band over the years in the same room, getting ready for soundcheck. I assured Paul that I was behind him and that I had his back for the weekend – I don’t think he was expecting to see me, and certainly wasn’t expecting me to be there in a working capacity, so I think he was (at the least) relieved on that level. I won’t make any assumptions about whether he was happy to see me or not, but he sure seemed to be.

Rusty and I went over the technical particulars for the weekend – instrument changes, tuning, signal flow and the like – and reviewed the setlist. There’d be an initial set with the current band, and then after a short intermission and stage plot change, then Paul would come up, joined later by George who’d be playing drums on one song…we got all our traffic control details worked out, and they started soundcheck.

Why steal a setlist when you can just take a photo?

George and Paul both hung in patiently while the core band worked out monitor levels and the like, and then Paul came up to work through some of the songs he was doing: Indian Summer, Magnolia, Heart of the Night, Legend, Under the Gun, Bad Weather – it was as if I’d made the damn setlist myself.

As they played through the set, I remembered sitting in the audience in Lancaster, PA at the American Music Theater – it was a show they’d done with America right after Paul had come back from his health crisis during their then-recent European run, when we were all legitimately worried that Paul might not be coming back at all. They played Magnolia as I sat there in the audience, in the dark, with tears streaming down my face – thinking about how very close I had come to never hearing that song again the way I’d always heard it. That moment was some fifteen years past now, and there sat Paul Cotton right in front of me…again, after all these years, reminding me of two very important things:

  1. Never say never.

2. Don’t ever take things for granted that may not pass this way again.

Claudia’s ghost was hanging heavy in the air for me the entire weekend, alongside Naomi Elkins and several other folks who’ve fallen off this plane of existence in the time since I came into this eccentric group of music loving geeks over twenty years ago. As such, it was hard not to think on an almost constant basis – how many more of these do we have in us? Will this be the last time I ever hear these songs from these people again? Paul and George, specifically, who’ve had pretty public health issues over the years – how many more shows could they have in their tank?

Grantham, Sundrud, Young and Cotton – Friday night show

After Friday nights’ show, we went back to the hotel to a dining room full of Poconuts, and I stayed up until the last of us left at around 2am – the Leavys, the Behlkes and myself. I got to my room and couldn’t sleep…I had my laptop and a couple of notebooks in my bag, so I started scribbling in one of my lyric books. I thought of the notion of mashing up as many Poco lyrics as I could into a brand new song, just for fun – TV in central Missouri at 2am doesn’t exactly capture the imagination, and I was completely distracted by everything I’d been thinking all day long. Russell Hammond’s words to William Miller in Almost Famous came back to me:

“…This is the circus. Everybody’s trying not to go home.”

The first four lines were pretty easy:

In every day that passes us by
Indian summers, come and gone
I can still hear that nightbird’s cry
Singing straight on through until the dawn

The next four, though, came from somewhere else:

Now, none of us are young men anymore
Can’t ignore the writing on the wall
Maybe that’s what the stories and the songs are for
A chance to take our eyes off of the ball

Now this had turned from a fun little exercise into an actual song…

So many years have passed, but I still wanna hear that sound
I wanna make it last, another time around
Sing a picture of the days gone by, with a gentle aging hand
Because tonight, my friends, all of us are living in the band

This much of the song had taken maybe ten minutes. I didn’t have an instrument with me, I was writing words for a melody in my head at the moment…but the words started writing themselves – a healthy dose of outright theft of Poco lyrics, tied together with whatever I needed to add to clarify where I was going with this love letter to the band and to the friends I’d met along the road who shared this irrational love for these musicians, these records, these songs that bound all of us together.

In the beginning, not so long ago
For a thirteen year old kid from Tennessee
There was just a little magic in that music they were singing
And I could hear them calling out to me

They left a trail of love and glory
As they crossed the southern sky
My life would be a sadly different story
If that harmony had somehow passed me by…

I added a slightly amended repeat of the chorus and a tag line…a repeat of the last line of the last chorus –

“..because tonight, my friends, what’s left of us – are living in the band.”

It’s both deceptive and disingenuous to take credit for writing the song, as the majority of the lines of the song are either direct lifts from Poco songs, or heavily – HEAVILY – paraphrased versions of lines from Poco songs…my job was essentially to put them in order and add what I needed to add to tell my story.

Lex Browning, George Grantham, Paul Cotton, Rusty Young and Jack Sundrud at soundcheck

I was absolutely certain that I’d forget how it went by the time I woke up the next day. We stopped for a bite to eat on the way to the venue the following afternoon and once I got the stage set, I grabbed Rusty’s acoustic guitar and hunkered down in the green room and recorded a demo of it so I’d have a record of the song (while Lex busily went about working on his pedalboard next to me).

They didn’t play Bad Weather the previous night, and I wasn’t sure whether they’d bother to add it the second night or not – the first night had been a little ragged in spots in the second set, and I wasn’t sure how that would end up informing the set on Saturday night.

I saw Paul briefly before we dropped the house lights and made sure he had everything he needed, checked off everything I needed him to know – your guitars are tuned, your pedals are powered up, your amp is all set, and I’m ten feet away if you need me. Caroline, his wife, handed me his glasses (which he hates) and I gave him a hug and told him I loved him and we took a photo together before the show started.

Rusty and I had gone over the set – there’d be a couple of changes from the night before, nothing major, just be alert and ready for whatever might end up happening. We double and triple-checked the signal from his acoustic guitar, which had dropped out during the Friday show…it was fine a mere 30 minutes before the show, but we ended up losing the signal again on Saturday night (happy ending: we figured out what the problem was).

The current lineup’s set at the beginning of the night was just plain badass. There’s definitely an alchemy with this group of guys, and it makes me happy to see it. We broke for the second half, I moved the pedal steel into place, struck the dobro and got everything ready…Paul came out and did Magnolia, Indian Summer and Under the Gun in a straight shot. I thought they were going to bring George up next for Child’s Claim to Fame, but Rusty called me over to ask where the clipboard was (I had put it on top of one of the speaker columns to keep fans from stealing the setlists) – he had made a chart for Bad Weather as a safety net (he hadn’t played it in well over a decade by this point, so that made sense)…

….they were gonna do Bad Weather. Just Rusty and Paul.

I checked in with Paul – he was originally going to play it on acoustic when we ran it at soundcheck, but he decided to stay with the Gretsch…I patted him on the back and got out of the way.

I walked over to the side of the stage and got my phone out and recorded it from my vantage point at the side of the stage and tried to hold the camera still without letting everything I was feeling wash completely over me. The first time I opened for the band (over twenty years ago), we all went back to the bed and breakfast that the band was staying in, and Paul played that song in the hotel bar while I sang harmony with him at God-knows-what-time in the morning. That song is in my DNA, and while Paul maintains ownership of it…it’s not complete without Rusty playing steel on it. For years, it was Paul’s solo moment in the set, and I understand that. But that song, in my mind, will always be the sum of those two parts. And again, I couldn’t get out from under the notion that had hung over my head the entire weekend…

…this could be the last time.

Could this be the last performance of Bad Weather with Rusty and Paul? Could this be the last time George sits in on the drums for Childs’ Claim to Fame?

George Grantham – the backbone of the group – as Rick Lonow looks on from the wings.

I know how fatalistic all this sounds. And this is something of a new outlook for me that seems to have descended on me within the past year or so – perhaps as a result of the rash of tragedy that’s passed by my window in that time. I typically don’t dwell on these things. Certainly, fate could well dictate that this could be the last time I post anything on my journal…tonight could be the last time I watch my youngest son dress up for Halloween. The unfinished songs on the hard drive in my studio downstairs could be the last songs I record. None of us knows how long we’ll be here, and we don’t get to know the answer to those questions. Faced with all this, though – I choose gratitude over some morose preoccupation with the darker side of it all. I got to be in the room for all this, and I’ve lived over half my life in the company of this band, this music, and these people.

Curtain call: George Grantham, Paul Cotton, Rusty Young, Rick Lonow, Jack Sundrud

I can’t help but feel like Claudia was tapping me on the shoulder the entire weekend, reminding me to soak this in, because you just never know.

You just never know.

George Grantham and Jack Sundrud after the Saturday night show at Wildwood Springs

After the show that night, I said my goodbyes to Paul and Caroline and we packed up the stage and loaded everything to get ready for the drive back the following day and we went back to the hotel…

…to another dining room full of Poconuts.

Keith Leavy, Rick Lonow, and Bob Behlke

And no, there was no way I was going straight up to my room. I was gonna stay there with George and Debbie, with Jack and Rick and Lex and the Poconut family who’d travelled from Seattle and New York and Eastern PA and any number of places in between and celebrate the weekend. Jack had brought his guitar inside, so I asked him if it was OK for me to play a song.

I got out my notebook and played “Wildwood” for the first time, for the absolute perfect audience…the best of all possible debut scenarios for what I’d co-written with my unwitting collaborators.

“…sing a picture of the days gone by
these crazy lovers understand
because tonight, my friends, all of us – are living in the band…
yes tonight, my friends, what’s left of us…are living in the band…”

Mugging with Paul before starting the second set

May we all someday arrive back here…at the beginning…not so long ago.

Dan May at Sellersville Theater, Friday July 5th, 2019

anybody who has a passionate pursuit in their lives has an ideal – a mental picture of what their passion looks like when it manifests itself in its purest, most perfect form. for a surfer, it’s catching the perfect wave and riding it to the sand. bowling a perfect 300. pitching a no-hitter. a hole-in-one.

for musicians, there really isn’t a consistent answer, though, is there? nailing a difficult instrumental passage or playing something that was once impossible, maybe…or getting a gig you’d worked hard for, or maybe playing a show with a personal hero – there are probably as many definitions of “perfect” as there are folks who’d be willing to answer the question.

but i think it’s safe to say that for us creative types, the pursuit of our own personal definition of “perfection” is the consistent thing that keeps us coming back – the thing that drives us – the reason we get out of bed.

and let’s face it…it’s the pursuit itself that drives us. the desire to be the best we can be at whatever we’ve chosen. because nobody wants to feel like Brian Wilson hearing from Paul McCartney that “God Only Knows” was the greatest song he’d ever heard – as the story goes, when Wilson heard that from one of his songwriting heroes, he hid in a closet and cried because he took that as a sign that he’d never be able to surpass what he’d already done.

so maybe the pursuit of perfection is a lofty goal, but catching it is another matter altogether.

but boy, let me tell ya…when you get as close as we collectively came at Sellersville with Dan May last week, it’s intoxicating.

and when you’ve been at this chase long enough to know how rare it is to dance that close, and you can realize the significance of that fleeting moment in real time, maybe you’ll be lucky enough to soak it in as it’s happening.

i sure did.

it had been almost exactly a year since the last time i played at Sellersville (a solo acoustic show i did opening for Paul Barrere and Fred Tackett from Little Feat, which you can actually see in its entirety here). as stages go, it’s the place i feel most comfortable, the most at-home…the easiest place to play in the world for me. i’ve played some amazing shows there over the years, and there have been a lot of capital-M “moments” – it would take another entire post to catalog them properly and do them justice.

one of those moments in particular came up during dinner this night, in fact – we were playing an opening set and our long lost, lamentedly disappeared fiddle player, Lainey Wilson, was on the show. during the final song, our bass player (Kurm the Shoeless One) leaned over to her and said “Go Off!” his intention was that she take a solo over the end of the song while Dan was walking offstage, but she took her cue from Dan when Kurm told her to “go off” and left the stage instead.

i brought my friend Chris with me to the show, which meant that she had to endure load-in AND soundcheck, as well as suffer our collective company for the night – but she epitomizes the notion of “easy people” and took it all in with a smile…i had prepared her somewhat for what to expect so she was armed with distractions, just in case.

Dan’s band has never had a consistent stage plot, as there have always been different folks on different shows – but the band has solidified somewhat of late, with regard to the core. Tommy and Dan Faga have become the default rhythm section, and they’ve developed as a unit instinctively over time. Dan was a friend long before he outed himself as a bass player, and having him at eye level has been a gift. His wife (and fellow ST94 alum) Aly came out with their two girls during load-in and they came bearing gifts (a cake plate full of cupcakes). I remembered the fact that they had met there in that very room years before, not yet a couple…then a couple in secret, then all these years later married with children and – in my mind – fully inseparable from that room itself.

Tommy is my champion – the other half of The Tommys, my bandmate in almost a dozen bands over the years, and often the air that holds up whatever craft we happen to be flying on a given night. his presence is buoyant and he makes damn near everything better just by being there to laugh at it…unless there are avocado wraps involved. don’t ask.

Anthony Newett became an instant soulmate the first time we played together. Ant and I are the musical equivalent of one of those old married couples you see at the diner who can sit together and have a meal and pass condiments and dishes across the table without exchanging a word and always seem to innately sense what the other is about to do.

One of the things that makes our relationship (musically, anyway) special is that there’s something of an unspoken understanding between us of what our personal strengths and weaknesses are, and Ant has a way of reacting to what I play in an almost telepathic sense. he’s a much better musician than I am, and he uses that ability to read my thoughts and play parts that complement what I’m doing in a way that – hell, maybe only I end up noticing, I don’t know. but when we play together, he totally takes advantage of this ability and will play something that commands my attention (often multiple times a night), and will – as soon as I react and look over at him – will look back up at me momentarily, raise one eyebrow (a la Belushi), give me a momentary smile and continue doing what he was doing.

I wish I could put into words what playing with Ant does for my spiritual well-being, but I don’t know that I can. Musically, he is inseparable from who I am – he’s my missing part.

But wait…there’s more. Get a load of what he’s done now.

I started hearing this name crop up relatively recently, and I wasn’t sure what the story was because I was on the outside looking in – her name appeared first in a couple random posts by Dan, and I found out a while back that this Claudia Terry would be joining us for this show.

I hadn’t met her, didn’t know anything about her, and wasn’t sure what to expect – I didn’t know if she’d be primarily a harmony vocalist like Heather had been, or if she had something else to contribute. Once I heard she was there on Ant’s recommendation, I immediately felt at ease, because Ant’s not about to bring someone into this orbit who couldn’t pull their weight.

Still, my acoustic guitar parts are pretty specific, and have a certain feel to them that other far superior musicians to myself haven’t really been able to cop in the past, so I was prepared to play my parts alongside the New Girl for the duration of the night, just to make sure that foundation was there.

Well, you ain’t gonna believe this shit, but lemme tell ya…

We had loaded in and were in the process of gravitating to our respective spots in the stage plot for this particular night, and we were discussing songs from the set during line check and she started playing the intro to “The Glory Years” – MY intro to “The Glory Years” – and SHE FUCKING NAILED IT. It was perfect!

Now she had my attention.

Claudia is 19 years old. That’s significant.

It’s significant because – even in this era of YouTube Geniuses – there’s a feel, a grasp of timing, a comfort level with an instrument that some douchebag with a British accent can’t teach you during the course of a video on the internet. And yet, here’s this girl with pretty limited experience in this setting just KILLING these parts that she’d only learned prior to this show.

And she SINGS! Holy shit, she sings – and her innate ear for harmonies blew my mind. It was as if she’d prepared for the fact that I’d be there to sing the middle third and she just automatically went to the high fifth on damn near everything – and that’s just not something that you can prepare for, really…you either hear it and sing the part reflexively or you don’t, and she reacted in real time to where she needed to go and landed there…

every. damn. time.

I fell in love with this kid on this night. I wanted to bring her home with me and get her a room and give her free reign over my record collection and the studio and stand back and watch her blossom and let her head explode all over the living room floor and stand back and see where she goes from here – and it only got better from this point through the end of the night.

When I was a teenager, I played drums with “the” band in my little hometown, the band that got all the good gigs in town, that everybody came to see…and this Friday night, I remembered something that Jerry “Opie” Opdycke said to me after a gig one night when I was 16.

“Tom, man…you’ve got the best chance of any of us to make something of yourself in this business because you’ve got your whole life in front of you. You’re damn good, and somebody, somewhere is gonna notice that sooner or later.”

Now, decades later, I found myself watching this girl barely old enough to vote and not yet able to drink or buy cigarettes at a convenience store standing across the stage from me and just slaying everything she played.

Maybe you’ve had a similar experience watching a kid play sports in high school or something to that effect and feeling like you were witnessing something out of the ordinary – the potential for greatness that maybe only you saw at the time?

Claudia is something special. I knew it the first time we played through an intro together on that stage, that night.

I was already elated when we wrapped up soundcheck and went next door to dinner – we ordered food and everyone fell into comfortable conversation..Ant sat on one side of me, Chris and Dan Faga on the other, Tommy, Dan and Claudia across from me – with occasional visits from Lisa and Adam (Dan May’s wife and son) and a few other folks who’d come to the show (Dennis Whelan and some of the May clan from Ohio, among others)…it was becoming clear to me that this was going to be a special night, whether it turned out that way musically or not.

I was struck there at the dinner table that this was once a pretty regular stop for me – that I’d sat at that table with a ton of musicians in the years past – and that being able to be here for this wasn’t something I could take for granted the way that I’d perhaps done in the past…I made an extra effort to look around the table at my bandmates, my friends, my fellow travellers and to appreciate the moment…Dan and Chris discussing parenting on my right while I interrogated Claudia about her musical background and introducing the concept that maybe she was adopted if her parents weren’t musicians, while Anthony told me their story and Tommy was busy being Tommy…then we broke out the cupcakes that Dan’s daughters and family had made for us and we FaceTime’d the girls and raised the cupcakes in a toast to them, back home at Faga Manor, before we settled up and prepared to head across the parking lot.

I think it’s fair to say that the seeds for what happened on the stage at Sellersville were sewn at the dinner table that night.

When we left to head next door to wait for showtime, there was already something in the air.

We parted ways with Chris, who went out to take her seat in the theater, and we all circled ’round the bench seating in the green room – there was a bottle of bourbon in there and someone opened it and I poured a little in the bottom of a plastic cup and filled the rest with diet soda while everyone else poured themselves a little and we raised a toast. We talked for a short while and after a few minutes, a folded piece of paper fell onto the floor just inside the stage door.

Dan Faga picked it up and saw that it had my name on the outside fold, and handed it to me. I opened it up and read what was written in pencil on the inside of the paper….

“…do you know Free Bird?”

So I explained to the rest of the band how some 22 years ago, Chris had come to the CD release party for an album I’d put out in 1997 and had asked the doorman to hand me her business card with the same thing – “do you know Free Bird?” – written on the back of it.

It wasn’t long before Lizanne Knott and her daugher Ciara came in, accompanied by Glenn Barratt (who played bass behind her for the show) – so Tommy and I accompanied both of them for their sets as well.

There wasn’t a ton of time between when Lizanne came off the stage and when Dan went on…or at least it didn’t feel like it. We were back on the stage within moments of having walked off – Tommy and me. Me and Tommy. The League of Extraordinary Sidemen. The Tommys.

“Ladies and Gentlemen…please welcome – singer, songwriter and freelance Supreme Court Justice – Dan May!”

OK, I’m going to be perhaps painfully frank with you here.

I don’t remember a lot about the set.

I don’t remember the order of the songs we played, I don’t remember who took solos on which songs, I don’t remember which stories Dan read from his books…it all ran together in a blissful cloud in my head.

That might sound ridiculous, but it’s true.

On nights when shit ain’t happening, I can tell you every mistake I made, and every mistake that everybody else in the band made in EXCRUCIATING detail.

this night, though…oh. my. God.

It was an orgy of amazing harmonies, of stoic raised-eyebrow glances from Ant, of sheer exuberance from Tommy, of flawless rock-solid bottom from Dan Faga, and…

Dan May.

I don’t even know if I’m able to talk about my relationship with Dan without getting emotional. I’ve been playing, singing, and riding shotgun with him for over a decade, and I’ve given him more than enough reason to abandon me for greener pastures and he’s stuck with me, and as such – he’s stuck with me. I love Dan in a way that I’m incapable of putting into words. He’s been a musical soulmate from the moment he sent me a copy of “Once Was Red” in the mail in response to a Craigslist ad that I answered a lifetime ago and I put the CD into the player in my old Isuzu Trooper and heard the strains of “Lights Out In Tupelo” blaring out of the speakers. He’s brought me on the road, he’s put me up with his family (who have, in turn, become my family), we’ve played shows all over the continental US and I consider him a brother – no, really, a Brother.

This show, on this night, was a blur.

It felt as though it was over before it started, and I was outside my body wondering what had just happened.

The house lights came up and shook me loose from whatever wave I was riding, so I walked down front and started talking to folks who’d come up to say hello.

What with hanging my hat in Nashville now, I didn’t get to see these folks as often as I once did, so tonight was A Thing.

Mike and Judy Morsch. Al and Carol Bien. Jack Leitmeyer. Dennis Whelan. John Woolley.

And those are just the folks who bothered to stick around…I know from aftershow reports that Frank Friestadt (the custodian of my old Fender Deluxe Reverb), Liz Miller, and several other folks who needed to leave without saying hello were in that room on that night as well.

So I stood down in front of the stage after the lights came up and Alex turned on the background music and had a receiving line of sorts for some time…all the while, listening to what was playing overhead…

“Well I’ve been looking for somewhere to go
You’ve been looking for a place to roam…”

There were a few folks still wandering about the floor, some of them ushers and some of them friends who were still chatting with the folks preparing to start tearing down the stage.

“But I’ll be steady in your hand
If you’ll take me as I am
I’ll be your rock, if you’ll roll me on home…”

I finally said goodnight to the last of the folks who’d come down to say hello and saw Chris, sitting at the corner of the first row of seats. I walked over to sit down for a minute – she was beaming. I remembered having looked out over the audience at shows some twenty years ago and seeing that same face, and I sat down next to her and looked back at the stage for a short moment – now fully lit, with folks tearing down equipment as if nothing had happened there that night…

“We’ll build a house outta broken dreams
And find our way back to reality…”

I looked around me for a long, long minute…and I looked over at Chris…

and I just nestled my face into her shoulder and cried like a baby. HARD.

I’m sure I probably made some folks uncomfortable. If I did, I’m sorry.

But it was just too much.

Now, this is the point at which we should probably recap, a la Rob Gordon from High Fidelity:

“So, how did Tom go from being the gregarious guy in the band to being a blubbering emotional minefield in the space of a few minutes? Well, it’s probably the result of at least two, or maybe all four, of the following points coming to the surface…”

ONE – mortality.

When you’ve been doing this for an expanse of time, for a large portion of your life, chasing that momentary perfection that we talked about a bit at the top of this endless trope, you learn a few things. You learn that it doesn’t happen often. You learn that when it does, it’s usually fleeting. And, if you’re lucky…RIDICULOUSLY lucky…you learn to recognize it as it’s happening and try to commit as much of what’s happening around you to memory. AND – you realize over time that these moments are precious and that every time you experience it might be the last time.

TWO – comeraderie.

On this night, I was surrounded by exactly the right people, on stage with exactly the right people, and felt every ounce of the love that was in that room – from the audience, from my fellow players, from my artist, from my people in the audience…that room was awash in love from the moment we stepped onto that stage, and it was palpable.

THREE – the show itself.

I can’t even, really…it was just amazing. I got to put down my acoustic guitar and play other instruments, thanks to Claudia and Ant, I got to hear this amazing band play its ass off in front of an audience that loved us on a musical AND personal level, and we gave them back every ounce of energy they sent towards the stage.

FOUR – nostalgia.

Sellersville is my Home Stage.

It’s always been my home stage. it’s the room where I had my CD release for “Friends and Heroes”, it’s where I played with Marshall Tucker for one of the first times, it’s the room where I recorded Craig Bickhardt’s live record, it’s the place where I watched Dan and Alyson Faga’s friendship grow into romance, then matrimony, then a beautiful family. I played there with Robert Hazard, with John Lilley, with JD Malone, with Craig Bickhardt, with Pure Prairie League, with Poco, with Blake Allen, with Skip Denenberg, with Tracy Grammer, and with Dan May…

It’s a sacred place for me.

And what better place for a transcendental experience like what happened this night?

So, yeah…I lost my shit. Sue me.

I gathered myself long enough to start asking questions about this music that was playing in the background, and found out it was a Canadian singer/songwriter named Ken Yates – his 2016 album, Huntsville, had been playing ever since the lights came up, and EVERY FUCKING SONG WAS AN ARROW THROUGH MY HEART.

Ken Yates – Roll Me On Home

After I’d managed to gather myself a bit, Tommy and Dan came down and hung with us for a bit – Tommy had miraculously found a bottle of white wine and a few cups, so Chris took my car keys and we drank wine and talked while they finished tearing down the stage….until ultimately they turned off the music and it was time to go home.

Chris drove us back to Phoenixville and stayed up with me until after 3am talking about what had just happened…I think that what had happened in that room hadn’t been lost on anyone that night – least of all either of us.

It’s a rare friend who’ll forego five-plus hours of sleep to experience something like this with you, and to those friends you should hold on, folks.

Reaction on social media was swift and intense…those who were there, they know. Those who weren’t…I’m sorry.

I will forever be grateful that I was one of the ones who stood on that stage that night, with that group of musicians on the stage and that group of folks in the audience.

Solo Acoustic show, opening for Michael Martin Murphey at Sellersville Theater

for those keeping track, this would be show number 37 for me at Sellersville Theater – but who’s counting, right?

soundcheck - longer than usual, even - before the MMM show at Sellersville.
soundcheck – longer than usual, even – before the MMM show at Sellersville.

one thing that had been unbeknownst to me prior to walking into the theater was that WHYY (the philly PBS affiliate) was there that night, taping the headliners’ show for their series, On Canvas – which made me chuckle somewhat, since i had been looking all over the house earlier that day trying to find my videocamera so i could record some footage to put up on my YouTube channel.   (turned out, that wouldn’t have gone over very well, anyway…under the circumstances.)

there were going to be photos taken that night, and that inspired a truly comical exchange between dylan, christie and i before we’d ever left the house – over what combination of shirts i should wear for the show.  we settled on something that dylan had fetched from my closet that wasn’t even initially in the running…and it was actually a good call, in retrospect, but good as i might’ve looked in it, it mattered not – because due to the whole “TV shoot” situation, darrell (the photographer) wasn’t really able to move around during the show, and could only shoot from his seat – which was right down front…and didn’t make for the best angle to photograph a dude with a thick neck who looks down a lot while playing.  🙂

as it turned out, darrell got all his best shots during soundcheck – as i stood there on stage wearing one of my favorite old ringer t-shirts with my hair flopping down around my shoulders – but they were great shots.  not necessarily transformative, but they looked like me.  darrell’s photos of me are some of the only photos i’ve seen of myself that don’t make me uncomfortable.  i’m as aware – maybe more aware – than most anyone else of my assets and shortcomings, and i certainly know what my attributes are and aren’t…and darrell’s photos aren’t overly flattering, nor are they hard for me to look at.   i’m not terribly fond of looking at photos of myself typically, but i don’t mind his so much.

(i know that might not sound like an endorsement, but trust me – it is.)  🙂

listening intently to the front-fill wedges...soundcheck at Sellersville
listening intently to the front-fill wedges…soundcheck at Sellersville

anyway – because of the TV taping, there was a lot going on on the technical side of things, Dan Faga (the soundman/technical director) asked me to keep playing well after my soundcheck was finished…so i ended up playing most of my set and then a few more while they worked on levels, got the signal out to the truck and such.  in fact, i think my soundcheck was actually longer than my set was – but i kept playing while darrell snapped away and they worked out the kinks behind the scenes.

i finally stopped playing around fifteen minutes before the doors opened, and went upstairs to the green room – my friend rob nagy had arrived and was listening to my soundcheck, and my buddy skip bellus (a friend from the MTB run) had driven down for the show as well…so we all gathered in the green room for a visit, and bruce ranes (the talent buyer/agent) stopped up for a visit as well, and darrell came up and shared the soundcheck photos with christie.   it was good to have a handful of friends around, almost as much as it was to have a sizable crowd to play for.

i’d left everything on the stage, so when i wandered up to take the stage, everything was in place, plugged in and ready to go – i wandered up,

hey...had to get the shirt in here somewhere, ya know.
hey…had to get the shirt in here somewhere, ya know.

did my five to six songs (which seemed to fly by, as they typically do for opening sets), and quickly stowed my stuff behind the curtain so i could get out to the lobby and take advantage of the intermission face-time with the folks in the crowd – we sold a few CD’s, got a few names on the mailing list, and shook a lot of hands before the headliner came on…and while i was tempted to head down into the theater to listen for a while, i ended up heading back up to the green room to hang out with rob, skip and christie for a big chunk of the rest of the night.  we wandered downstairs at one point to find that there was some sort of impromptu intermission that had come up…we both initially thought the show was over, and that we’d totally screwed up our opportunity to press the flesh after the show, but it turned out not to be the case, so we stayed downstairs for the rest of the show (and got to know the On Canvas folks, who were very kind and encouraging as well).

by the time everyone had filed out to head home, it had gotten rather late – nearly one in the morning by the time i’d gotten home, and poor christie – she had another nearly two hours to go yet, and got home around three or so.

good night, though, overall….for number thirty-seven.

with Craig Bickhardt at Deer Creek Coffeehouse in Darlington, MD

 

so i called my hetero life mate – tommy geddes – to see if we could carpool for this one (since we’re down to one car at my house these days, it would be a load off my mind not to have to worry about being gone all day and leaving the gang without transport…it’s been interesting, to say the least, coordinating life these days where commuting and such is concerned, but that’s a whole ‘nother story. ) – we decided to leave around 4:30 or so, and i brought TG & the guys copies of the rough mixes from the record that i’d completed up to that point.

neither of us had played this room before (nor had craig, so far as i knew), so we weren’t sure what to expect from the room or the audience – and since i was a guest of tommys’ for the ride there and back, i chose to travel somewhat lightly…i brought the mandolin, the dobro, and the weissenborn, and decided i was going direct for the show and left my amp (and the baritone guitar, and the lap steel, etc) at home.

i LOVE playing the weissenborn – but i’ve always struggled a little with it in live settings…and i could wonder aloud about that endlessly, but i’ve settled on a theory of sorts.

if you’ve heard the instrument and you’re familiar with the sound of the weissenborn, then you probably recognize it immediately – it sounds like an acoustic guitar, but it doesn’t…it sounds like a dobro, but it doesn’t.  the fact is, it doesn’t really sound like anything but itself.  BUT – it sounds enough like an acoustic guitar that it’s very easy to have them conflict and overlap with one another when one is accompanying the other – so you really, really have to tread carefully with the weissenborn when you’re accompanying the acoustic guitar.

i’m sure david lindley figured this shit out ages ago…but we all gotta learn our own way, i suppose. 🙂

i was pleasantly surprised with how well everything translated through a single channel of the PA, where those three instruments were concerned – i had the Fishman Jerry Douglas Aura pedal for the dobro, but had it running through the effects loop built into my active DI box, so i could bring it into the circuit when I was playing the dobro and bypass it for the other instruments…i was also a little blown away by how good the mando and the weissenborn sounded through the same channel, with the same EQ chain.   that was especially odd to me since one had a piezo pickup and the other had a magnetic soundhole pickup…but you wouldn’t have known it from listening to it through the wedges.

craig was still struggling a bit with his voice – and had been for some time – but it seemed as though he was on the other side of it, when he sang.  he still had a bit of a cough, but his throat held up for the show just fine.

tommy had posted something on facebook about the show, and had tagged greg and jen keller in the post in a lighthearted attempt to shame them into driving over from mount airy (in the vicinity of frederick) – and i’ll be damned if they didn’t come out.  they were the only faces in the crowd that we knew, which was interesting – it was a small room, maybe a capacity of 55 or 60, and it was roughly two-thirds full, but most of the folks who were there were regulars of the coffeehouse who’d come out because they were affiliated with the church that ran the coffeehouse or perhaps because that’s just what they did on weekends – but they were very kind and welcoming.  we played two sets with an intermission, and had a solid night, all things considered.

tommy and i rode back listening to the rough mixes from the record – some of them are verrrry close to being finished, others are still a little perplexing…but i’m workin’ on it.  🙂

 

at Sellersville Theater with Skip Denenberg

show number 36 for me at Sellersville Theater, in both headlining and support capacities, either solo or backing one of nine (!!) different artists i’ve appeared with there.

it’d also be the first time on the bill with the Marshall Tucker boys since we parted ways back in September – although i’ve been in touch with a couple of the guys via text once in a great, great while – but haven’t seen any of them since the York Fair show.

skip had submitted himself as an acoustic duo, but added dan faga on bass after the fact – and had tried to sneak a drummer onto the bill as well, but was predictably met with the obligatory stop sign.  i had tried to tell him when the subject came up that the stage was too small for support backline with all the MTB stuff set up, but sometimes ya just gotta find these things out for yourself. 🙂

we hadn’t had an opportunity to rehearse prior to the show, but most of the songs in the set were songs we’d played together before – so it was just a matter of running them in the green room prior to the show, really.   no sweat.

we coordinated transportation with our Sargeant-at-Arms, Mark Shultz, and drove up together – and got there well before we were expected, and certainly well before they were ready for us…so we walked upstairs to the green room and unpacked and ran through some of the songs while we waited for someone to come retrieve us for soundcheck.   the customary sandwiches came in and we had already run the set through once before it was time to head down to the stage.

we headed down and i ran into Keith and Daryl almost immediately, but barely exchanged small talk during soundcheck – Dibby came up behind me after we’d all but wrapped up and gave me a bear hug and asked if i’d brought my steel and my amp…and i said no, of course i didn’t – i hadn’t heard from anyone and i wasn’t going to chase anyone down – he seemed to be under the impression that i was going to be joining them that night, but it was literally the first i’d heard of it.

oh, well.  shit happens.

onstage with Skip Denenberg and Dan Faga in Sellersville, 2013.
onstage with Skip Denenberg and Dan Faga in Sellersville, 2013.

at any rate, we went back upstairs to wait for the call for showtime and hung out with a few friends who’d come up to visit, but we were back downstairs on the stage in a few minutes.  for this set, i was playing mandolin on every song but one…and that one was a dobro song.  i was travelling light, and it made for a quick tear-down after we were finished.  in fact, i was probably packed up and ready to walk out the door within five minutes.  the only other person i saw the whole night was chris hicks, who poked his head up the steps and waved at me for a moment in between songs and was gone just as quickly.

after we finished up, i was back upstairs in the green room in less than ten minutes.

back upstairs, we sat around and talked for the entire length of the show…i walked downstairs right after the first song at the point in the setlist where “fire on the mountain” usually is, but they went straight to “take the highway” and i walked back upstairs for the rest of the night – a buddy had brought me brownies that his daughter had made for me for Christmas, and i didn’t want to pull him out of the show, so we hung out until afterward….we were on the road by 11:30 or so.

on the road and in the round: craig bickhardt, don henry, michael johnson and lizanne knott

y’know, i can still remember the very first time that craig bickhardt and i played together.  it was at chaplin’s in spring city, pa – we were doing a songwriter’s round, and i was there because skip denenberg and jim femino brought me along.  at the time, jim was developing an artist who was also on the bill named kassie miller, and he’d recruited me to back her instrumentally.   when jim was doing the rounds, he set the room up bluebird cafe style – with a table and a large lamp right in the middle of the floor, with everyone around the table…and tables and chairs were actually set up on the stage to minimize the impact of the stage and make the whole space feel like a stageless room that could’ve passed for someone’s den.

at chaplins' with craig bickhardt, jim femino, skip denenberg and kassie miller, 2007.
at chaplins’ with craig bickhardt, jim femino, skip denenberg and kassie miller, 2007.

craig and i kinda latched onto one another at that point, and we’ve worked together ever since – both with me backing him instrumentally under his own name, and then later as a full member of a side project he’d undertaken with poco bassist jack sundrud called idlewheel.

craig’s songs are understatedly elegant, and while they’re not terribly complex, they are a challenge to play properly – which is to say, there’s definitely a line of delineation between overplaying and playing what’s appropriate for the song.  his music requires a certain understanding of how much is enough, and how much is too much.  it’s not a gig for everybody…but that’s one of the things i love about playing with him.  if you understand that simple concept, you’ll look like a genius playing next to him – whether the description is accurate or not.

craig has also opened some doors and there are relationships that i’ve formed as a result of my association with him that would not have come about otherwise – many of them through the “On The Road and In The Round” shows we’ve done.  stellar writers and performers like don henry, julie gold, thom schuyler, jim photoglo, and others have done these shows with us – alongside great local talent like jd malone and lizanne knott…and i’ve gotten a lot of opportunities to join the crew and back everyone on the bill for a lot of these shows, and while the “trial under fire” aspect might be scary at times, it’s also a bit of an adrenaline rush.  and, thankfully, thus far there’ve been no complaints.

for this show, there was some new blood along for the ride – michael johnson, of “bluer than blue”, “this night won’t last forever”, “give me wings” and “that’s that” fame.  (fun facts:  michael johnson was the first guy in nashville to give jack sundrud a gig as a bassist.  also, “give me wings” was my ex-mother-in-law’s favorite song for many years.)

back row: tommy geddes, michael johnson, don henry front row: tom hampton, lizanne knott, craig bickhardt
back row: tommy geddes, michael johnson, don henry
front row: tom hampton, lizanne knott, craig bickhardt

i had never met or played with michael, but don henry was joining us along with craig and lizanne knott, so michael was the only unfamiliar face on the bill – and i was pretty sure that we’d all be ok…and i know when to play and when to sit back and fold my hands in my lap, so i had that going for me too – along with the fact that i was on my home turf, on stage at sellersville theater.

craig, don and lizanne were their usual entertaining, funny and brilliant selves – and michael was a great fit in every one of the same categories, as well.  he’s a great player, for one thing – sticks to nylon string guitar, a wonderful fingerstyle player…and played some funny parodies of standards like “you make me feel so…so” – and to the tune of “blue bayou“, he did a song about a toupee called “blew by you“.  but i did get to sing the high harmony to “bluer than blue“, and i got to play “beautiful goodbye” with don henry with his co-writer, mike moran, in the audience, as well as don’s song “all kinds of kinds” (a recent number one for miranda lambert) – and the usual assortment of awesome bickhardt songs, closing the show as we often do with “this old house” and “if he came back again“.

i don’t think i’d ever brought the pedal steel out to one of the OTRAITR shows, but i fixed that for this gig – it was lap steel, pedal steel, mandolin and baritone guitar…and ran it all through the princeton reverb, turned with the speaker pointed towards the curtain behind us.  it would be this particular night that the reverb would decide not to work, though.  (note to self:  stop procrastinating and get the new pedalboard worked out yesterday.)

with jd malone and the experts, steel city coffeehouse, phoenixville PA

so it had been, as they say, a while.

 

the steel city gigs have always been jd malone‘s hometown shows – and we’ve always done well there, and this show was no exception.  a great crowd with lots of friendly faces – oh, and it was carolyn’s (jd’s wife) birthday, so that didn’t hurt, either.

the opener was a young guy from north carolina named sam lewis – usually, the opener gets drowned out by conversation and laughter in the green room…only because that’s inevitable when this crew is all in the same place.  now, i’m not saying there wasn’t plenty of both, but sam was an undeniable talent, and i sure did enjoy his set.  super nice guy, as well.  he was actually touring via Amtrak – taking whatever form of transportation he could get to the gig, which had to have been an interesting twist…i can vaguely remember being young enough to have the gumption to try something like that, but it seems so very long ago now. 🙂

dylan and jayda both came to the show, as did wendy – who cut a deal with carolyn’s kids to hang out with danny so she could get a night off to come out and hang out with grownups.

now, it’s been quite some time since i’ve bothered to update my perpetual life story, here – and to say that much has happened in the time since would be an understatement akin to calling World War II a “territorial conflict”.

a lot has happened since we last spoke.  a LOT.

and, frankly, it’s only been a few weeks since i had largely resigned myself to the notion that i might not be speaking with either of my older children again for quite some time, if ever.  things had soured that much.  i’m not certain right now to what extent the ship has righted itself, but it was good to have them both there that night, to say the least.  even if all the debris from the summer hasn’t washed away yet.

ANYway…

the last time we played this room, i brought “the toaster” – my ’57 gibson GA-20T amplifier.  i was promptly washed out and almost inaudible for the show.  i had it turned up waaaay past its’ sweet spot, and it didn’t respond particularly well.  i was thinking about bringing my deluxe reverb this time around, but with everybody riding together, space was at a premium.  so, i figured, the princeton did so well on the denver shows with boris garcia last year, maybe it wouldn’t be completely out of line to give it a crack at this gig.  plus, with the space issue being what it was, i didn’t bring the banjo, the 12 string electric, or any of the other toys – it was lap steel, baritone guitar, and mandolin and that was it.  so you could say i was travelling uncharacteristically light for this gig, and i figured that if worse came to worse, i could use one of the backline amps from the green room…which i always seem to forget about until i go downstairs to stow my cases and see them there. 🙂

JDjaydaSCCH3
jayda hampton onstage with jd malone and the experts, november 2013

well, the princeton made its daddy proud – i had it on 5 most of the night, and it sounded amazing – especially on the lap steel.  that’s definitely its’ sweet spot for that instrument.  the band was, this time as it was last time, pretty loud for a room that size.  i don’t know how many other acts that play that room are as loud as we are/were, but we shook the rafters, for sure.

jd debuted a few new songs during the show, with my personal favorite being if you pray…but we also shook up window painted blue quite a bit, as well.  i had made up my mind that there really wasn’t going to be an arrangement of that song that both he and i were gonna be happy with, but he proved me wrong.  and of course, jayda got up with us to sing black yodel and leave us alone…i couldn’t hear her vocal at all on the latter, and for a while thought that maybe she’d been doubling my part until the bridge came around and the dynamic died down enough that i could actually hear her voice.

jayda and JD singing "black yodel"
jayda and JD singing “black yodel”

next gig i have on the books with the guys will be burlap and bean later this winter.