a month…a week…a day or a year….

It’s been a month today.


It still doesn’t seem real…it doesn’t seem real because, in some ways, my life hasn’t changed a lot with regard to my day to day routine. I get up, I either get in the car and go to work or sit down at the kitchen table and start replying to emails, dialing into meetings…the usual mundane stuff that a workday brings. I sleep a lot, probably a lot more than usual…I sit in front of the TV and watch stuff that I’ve seen before, so I don’t have to commit a lot of actual attention to it.


It’s almost as if it never happened, and yet…it’s never out of sight. It never goes away.


I got a phone call from a buddy today after I got home from work, and he asked me how I’m doing – I immediately thought of the first verse of Jackson Browne’s song The Late Show that closes side one of Late For The Sky:


“Everyone I’ve ever known has wished me well
Anyway that’s how it seems – it’s hard to tell
Maybe people only ask you how you’re doing
Because it’s easier
Than lettin’ on how little they could care…”


So, I figured – fuck it, let me give him an honest answer and see what he says…


“…well, buddy – aside from the fleeting reprieves offered by work or sleep or the occasional phone call, my life is basically an endless wellspring of sadness…not rock-bottom despair, just a deep, profound, perpetual chain around my neck that never completely goes away – and can go from a few extra pounds to bone-crushing and back again at the drop of a hat. That about sums it up.


He was quiet for a couple of seconds, and then he said…

“…well, I actually expected it to be a lot worse.”


Some days it feels like this month has been a year long, others it feels like the phone just rang this morning.


The morning after Rusty died – after Jack’s phone call, I ran away to the office to try to hide from the news – I threw myself into every menial task I could, and I got through most of the day without showing my hand to the folks I worked with. Around 4pm, a friend of mine in HR came by my desk and she knew, somehow, that something wasn’t quite right…and she tried to talk to me about it, and nearly broke me in the process.


It was time to get out of the office.


I drove home and went to the fridge…I already had a plan for the afternoon that I’d concocted in my head as I plodded through the day like a zombie, and it was time to put it into action.


Back in April of 2020, shortly after news got out to the world of my having become the newest member of Poco, my longtime buddy (and bandmate in Idlewheel to Jack and myself) Tommy Geddes sent me a bottle of champagne to welcome me to the band. Tommy knew what a fanboy I was, and he understood the significance of my membership in the band as well as anyone. And while I appreciated the gesture, I didn’t open the bottle.


I opened the package and read the card with a smile…but I set the bottle aside.


I thought to myself that – as much as I appreciated the gesture, I couldn’t bring myself to open it yet.


I felt as though I needed to hold onto it until such time as I’d actually played a show with the band, until I’d made my actual public debut with the band as a legitimate member…I’m not really sure why that was important to me, but with the advent of COVID and our involuntary respite from the road…opening that bottle of champagne and celebrating my membership in a band I’d loved since before I was old enough to drink or vote or get a drivers’ license just felt…premature. I’m not particularly superstitious, but…it just didn’t seem right.


It’d mean more if I popped the cork after my first show with the band, so…I waited.


…and waited. And waited.


And that bottle of champagne sat in my refrigerator for weeks…then months…then almost exactly a year.


The day of The Phone Call, though, I came home and went to the fridge, retrieved the bottle, and went down the hill in the back yard to the dock beside the lake and popped the cork and watched it fly out over the water and float for a moment before it sank to the bottom. I poured the first drink into the water beneath my feet (for Rusty, of course)…and I sat on the dock and proceeded to drink the rest of the bottle as the sun went down on the shittiest day I could remember.


I had put my phone on vibrate earlier in the day, as I knew I wouldn’t be able to form sentences around the news of the day…so it felt pointless to field calls or try to talk about any of this. My voicemail filled up. Texts were coming in, but – I just couldn’t.


I was still in some strange mix of denial, disbelief and rage.


And – truth be told – I think that I’ve learned a lot about grief in the time between then and now. But that’s a longer conversation for later.


I set up my laptop on the kitchen table and worked from that spot for a couple of days, going through the motions and considering the repercussions of what had happened. I hadn’t just lost a bandmate – I’d lost a childhood hero, a friend, a mentor, a teacher, a bandmate, and (by virture of all those things combined) a big part of who I was.


There are a number of things that makes this loss difficult to convey or describe to other people – no, we weren’t related…and no, I can’t really describe my relationship with Rusty in a way that I can tie up in terms that other non-musical people can comprehend.


If you get it, you get it, and…if you don’t, I can’t really help you.


The days after Rusty’s passing are something of a blur – Jack, Rick and I had a vocal rehearsal scheduled for that Friday, as we were prepping for the possibility of a video shoot on the west coast…the three of us got together that afternoon at Jacks’ house anyway, in the spirit of commiserating and remembering our Founder. We sat around Jack’s kitchen table and talked about how certain we’d been that Rusty had another twenty years in him, about how Mary had been posting pictures of Rusty in his rubber boots working in the yards all winter and how he seemed invincible…and yeah, about how completely fucking unfair it was that he was the first of the Poco alumni to go.


I’m not sure if I’ll ever get over that last point…the fact that the ONE MAN who spent over fifty years of his life keeping this music alive and keeping this band on the road – HE would be the first to go.


It’s not fair. It’s not fair…it’s…not…


It’s just fucking wrong.


It’s wrong – not just for me, but for Jack…who’d been the constant in the band for thirty years. For Rick, who’d been an outspoken advocate for bringing me into the band from the days of my first rehearsals as a sub, and – yeah, of course, for me – who’d spent over a year on the sidelines waiting for the COVID cloud to pass overhead so we could unveil this version of the band to the world. All of us, to a man (including Rusty) were really excited about taking this version of the band on the road and showing people what we could do with this lineup of singers and players…but we’d been deprived of that opportunity now. We had a brief glimpse at the possibility of this lineup a year ago, and we’d have to settle for what might’ve been.


Needless to say, all Poco dates that were scheduled from June through the foreseeable future were taken off the calendar. There’s no Poco without Rusty – he was the constant in the lineup of every version of Poco for well over half a century, and it seems blasphemous to even think about going out under that banner without having Rusty on stage. So we set those dates aside, with the exception of the annual Wildwood Springs Lodge booking…which we set aside as Rusty’s memorial weekend. We discussed it, and Mary felt like it’d be the best available point in time to gather to remember him…Wildwood Springs was the place that Rusty and Mary had met, and over the years it had become something of an annual Poco Family Reunion for the most hardcore fans – so we kept that on the books.


Over the course of the next few days, the pieces began to fall into place for a separate memorial of sorts, a gathering of musical brothers-in-arms to testify, to tell road stories, and to remember him…it started out as a radio show, but grew – and kept growing – right up until time to go on the air. It was originally a two-hour slot on a radio station in Columbia, just south of Nashville…but by the day of the show, it was a full audio and video livestream broadcast on well over a dozen Facebook pages and ultimately seen and heard by almost 80,000 people (and charting in the Top Ten in Pollstar Magazine’s Livestream charts for the week).


It feels like name-dropping to list the folks who participated, but the list felt like a who’s who from the liner notes of the record collection of my youth…some in the room with me, some calling in from parts unknown to share Rusty Stories. The assembled folks in the room got together the afternoon before the show to run through a handful of songs that we were to play live over the air, and looking around the table was humbling. I sang the lead vocal on a pair of songs, both songs that were always Rusty’s domain in the set – Call It Love and Keep On Tryin’ – and when Timothy B. Schmit called in afterward, he complemented us on the job we did on his song.


Yet another thing that would’ve been fuel and inspiration under just about any other circumstance…but had only managed to ring somewhat hollow in the moment.


The show was supposed to have been two hours, but the owner of the station – who had attended in person – gave us his blessing to go on for as long as we wanted, and we did. The final caller said their goodbyes somewhere around 9:30, and the total running time was just a half hour shy of being double its original allotted time slot…and could’ve went longer, honestly.


Jim Messina talked about the story of how Rusty came to Hollywood to play pedal steel on “Kind Woman” – a story I thought I knew until that night, but he dropped a bit of a bomb on me in his telling of it during the show.


For those of you who aren’t familiar with the instrument, the pedal steel is essentially a math problem with legs…there’s a network of metal rods on the undercarriage of the instrument attached to a hinged mechanism that either raises or lowers the pitch of the strings, either individually or in tandem with others. When the system was first invented, the combinations of pitch changes were endless and the means of setting up the instrument had very little rhyme or reason until a handful of folks started standardizing the sets of changes into a loose standard. Eventually, two “setups” rose to the top – the “Emmons” setup, named for Buddy Emmons, the recognized and accepted Black Belt of Pedal Steel, and the “Day” setup, named for Jimmy Day – another admired and accomplished player.


Over time, the Emmons setup became the VHS, the Microsoft of the two, while the Day setup became the Betamax, the iMac…superior in the eyes of its faithful devotees, but not as accepted by the market as a whole.


Rusty (as well as John David Call of Pure Prairie League) were both Day guys, although I never knew it until I got to know them both. Rusty once told me he’d been playing the Day setup since he was 11 years old…and this is important to know when you hear the story of the Kind Woman session – although I don’t think Jimmy was aware of the specifics of any of this before the radio conversation that night.


Rusty packed his Day-modified pedal steel guitar and set out for the airport to fly to the west coast for his fateful date with destiny…playing on a Buffalo Springfield record…only to find upon arrival that the airline had managed to mangle his instrument into an unplayable state. Here he was, on maybe the biggest day of his musical life, without a functional instrument.


But wait – all wasn’t lost. Stephen Stills, it turns out, had just bought a pedal steel guitar, and it was available…so let’s just borrow Stephen’s guitar for the session and we’ll be back in business!


Except – as you might’ve guessed by the blatant foreshadowing from earlier – Stephen’s pedal steel was configured in the Emmons setup. A pair of pedals backwards, knee levers slightly different, and somewhat foreign to someone who’d been playing the other way for half their lives up to that point.


I’ve often made the analogy, when I retell the story, that it’d be like opening your laptop and finding that Windows was installed in Spanish…all the icons were in the same place, they did the same thing, but it’d be different enough that you couldn’t just sit down and open up Microsoft Outlook and begin checking your email without slowing down to think about every click you made.

But Rusty sat down and played the solo on Kind Woman on Stephen Stills’ borrowed instrument and changed the course of musical history in a matter of a few passes…and an entire movement owes its genesis to the origin story written in the space of that moment.


And from the time I first heard the full story from Rusty many years ago right up until that Sunday night, that was the story as I understood it.


The next thing you need to know about pedal steel before we finish this story is that – while this has changed in the last twenty years or so, most pedal steel guitars have always had two necks, two sets of strings tuned differently with independent sets of knee levers and pedals assigned to change specific strings on either neck. The front neck has historically been the E9 neck, often called the “Nashville” neck, while the back neck is in a C6 tuning, often called the “Texas” neck…as that tuning is usually used for western swing, jazz, and chord voicings that fall outside the stereotypical chord changes available on the “Nashville” neck.


I’d never for a moment considered that to be a factor in the Kind Woman story until Jimmy’s telling of the story, when he revealed that Rusty played the solo for “Kind Woman”


on the C6 neck. On the back neck.

On the neck that wasn’t NEARLY as affected by the differences in Emmons and Day setups as the front neck was.


Let me tell you…in the decades that I’ve had Rusty’s phone number in my Rolodex, I’ve never, ever wanted to call him as bad as I did when I heard this bit of the story that night.


I wanted to bust his chops for never having told me that, for letting me think all these years that he’d been visited by some genius spirit that allowed him to make split second judgements about the differences between the instrument he was playing and the instrument he was used to, to laugh about the fact that I never figured it out for myself…and to tell him that – really, it’s another kind of genius at work to evaluate a crisis like that and adapt so goddamned beautifully and to make history with one hand tied behind your back.


Then I got angry at myself…angry for all the down days during COVID that I didn’t pick up the phone and check in because I didn’t want to seem like an overeager teenage kid – not wanting him to feel pressured about going back out on the road, to feel somehow accountable for the downtime coming when it did. It seemed more pragmatic to let him enjoy the extended stretch with Mary, to work in the yard and fish the creek – and when we did talk, I always made a point of telling him that this will all be over soon enough – we’ll restore some degree of sanity in leadership and we’ll find out way out of this mess, and…if he feels like it…we’ll all be here and ready to go back out with him.


I know he missed it. I know he was excited about fine-tuning this lineup and going back out. I know it because he told me multiple times, up to and including the week he died, and I’m really thankful for those conversations…and I wish I’d had a few more of them.


There’s a long list of “a few more”s that we can’t go back and collect, and that’s a huge multiplier of grief. Grief is, at its core, a personal inventory of just that…the things we lose by virtue of losing someone we love. That loss manifests itself not just in shows we won’t play or in songs we won’t sing again, but in hotel breakfasts and backstage conversations and soundcheck jams and rides to the airport and phone conversations about tuning and string gauges and memories of shows past, of departed band members…in movies I wanted to watch with him on the road, songs I wanted to try to squeeze back onto the setlist…in endless undailed and unspoken telephone conversations that are lost to the ages now.


One last instance of foreshadowing before I close, if you’ll indulge me:


Rusty used to tell the story of Richie Furay’s exit from Poco from the stage at shows, often to illustrate the rewards of tenacity – Poco was formed in 1968, Richie left in 1973…and they didn’t enjoy their first real chart success for another half a decade, with the two hit singles from the Legend album. But on that day in 1973, David Geffen (yeah, that David Geffen) called the band into a meeting…everyone filed into a conference room, and Geffen pulled Richie out of the room and took him to an office down the hall. They’d been gone for some time, and the band had no idea what was going on – until Geffen returned alone a while later and announced that Richie was leaving the band, that he’d put together a deal for him to make a record with JD Souther and Chris Hillman.


He announced it in a manner that seemed to indicate that Geffen thought he was announcing the bands’ breakup to them, and he went around the room, addressing each of them.


Paul Cotton: “Paul…you know, you sing…you write songs…you’re gonna be just fine.”


Timothy B. Schmit: “Timmy…you sing, you write songs…you’re gonna be fine.”


He then turned to drummer George Grantham and Rusty Young and – with a dismissive wave, said:


“You two – you don’t sing. You don’t write songs. I don’t know what happens to you two.”


The moral of the story, of course, is that Rusty ended up writing and singing the bands’ biggest hit (cue the intro to “Crazy Love” here).


The Saturday morning of the weekend of the livestream, I felt no real immediate need to get out of bed. This isn’t to say that this day was much different from most others in that regard, but this particular Saturday, I doubled down…I woke up a little before 10AM, rolled over and went back to sleep. Woke up again 45 minutes later, rolled over and went back to sleep.


Then, at some point after falling back to sleep, I found myself loading gear into the back of a trailer after a show…it was dark, the show had been over for some time, and I was stacking road cases into a trailer when Rusty walked up to me with a Sharpie and a poster from the show we’d just played.


“…the promoter wants everybody – band, crew, and staff – to sign this. Got a minute?”


he handed me the Sharpie and the poster, and I held it up against the trailer door to sign it and saw that there were already twenty five or thirty signatures on it, but one person wrote the words “I like the trio version better” under their autograph…so I made a point of signing my name as close to that signature as I could, and wrote “THE NEW GUY” under my name.


Rusty saw what I’d done and laughed about it as we both turned to start walking back towards the stage door area of this outdoor pavillion we’d just played earlier.


(Poco did tour as a trio – without a drummer – for a time with Rusty, Paul Cotton and Jack Sundrud on bass.)


I said to Rusty as we were walking back – “I’m a little shaky about this particular trio version, boss. We have to play your memorial at Wildwood, and I know we’ll pull it off, but it won’t be right without you.”


Rusty put his hand on my shoulder and said…“I’m counting on you.”


(“I’m counting on you”…was the last thing he said to me on his way out of my hotel room in California when we were there to play the Gallo Center…right after a conversation about how pleased he was with what I’d brought to the band.)


I didn’t look over at him, but I said…“I don’t see myself ever getting over this, man.”


He stopped walking for a minute and I looked over at him and he said:


“Hey, you know what?

….you sing. You write songs. You’re gonna be fine.”

Rusty Young: 1946 – 2021

Whoever said that you should never meet your heroes never met Rusty Young.


I became aware of Rusty in my teenage years as the maverick pedal steel virtuoso in Poco, a band already on their way to becoming one of my favorites at age fifteen. It was a time when it was still common to become aware of a band in the middle of its trajectory – to have the now-largely extinct experience of going back and discovering an artist’s older works, tracing the path from their own origins up to the point you had boarded the bandwagon. By the time I’d gotten on board, Poco had morphed from their origins as the midwives of Country Rock into a more mainstream sound – and I went on the adventure of going back through their catalog and discovering that they were there – in the room where it happened – when my personal favorite musical movement was conceived.


These were still my formative years – I’d started out as a drummer and had only just begun to pick up the guitar and learn other peoples’ songs. My kid brother and I shared a room, and he asked for a stereo for Christmas – his only demand being that it have both a cassette deck AND an 8 track player. I went to buy my first 8 track tapes and found copies of both Legend and Indian Summer, and bought them both. I’d put them in and let them cycle on repeat while I slept…further engraining those songs and that sound into my musical DNA.


To say I was a fan was something of an understatement…but in those days, the thought of actually meeting any of the guys in the band felt as unlikely as the notion of being knighted by the Queen of England.


I continued buying up the entire back catalog whenever I’d find a copy of something I didn’t have…and that pursuit became a lot easier when I left home and set out into the world. I bought a Tascam 4-track recorder at eighteen and one of the first songs I recorded on it was a cover of Magnolia – which I only knew to be a Poco song in those days, since my cassette copy of Crazy Eyes didn’t have liner notes. My musical aspirations had taken over every ounce of ambition I possessed – I honed in on songwriting, started playing live shows as a one-man act, and recorded my first release in 1991, which featured a cover of Rusty’s song Made of Stone (from the Under the Gun album).


After having made that record, I actually got an opporunity to meet Rusty and Paul Cotton not long afterward. I sheepishly handed Rusty a cassette copy of the album after the show and said, “If I’d thought there was a chance in hell you’d ever be hearing this, I’d probably still be working on it.” He was kind and gracious – and signed the copy of Legend I’d brought with me for an autograph with “Tom – it’s great to meet you! Keep on pickin’!


It was a four hour drive from that show in Pittsburgh back to Reading, PA, where I lived…the sun was up when I got home, but I was still wide awake.


That was over thirty years ago. I’ve known Rusty for well over half my life.


There are a hundred more stories from the years since – as Rusty morphed from a hero to an acquaintance to a friend to a peer, and – eventually – to a bandmate. Time passed and we exchanged phone numbers, occasional Christmas cards, and played together on the same bill many, many times…and he always had a kind word, always had time to talk shop.

There was a show at Sellersville Theater a decade ago that I played with Tracy Grammer, opening for the band…when Rusty made a point of remarking about how much my playing had been improving, my phrasing and intonation. He didn’t have to say that, and he wasn’t exactly known for bullshitting people or handing out compliments for the sake of flattery. As such, kind words from Rusty went a long way.


The one that will stick with me was our show in Modesto, CA last year – I was in my room, using my phone to record a video playing mandolin and singing a John Moreland song when there was a knock on the door…apparently we were next door neighbors in the hotel and Rusty came over with his acoustic to sit down and play a bit, with an eye on working out a specific part for Rose of Cimarron for the show. As he left, he was effusive about what a great job I’d been doing – how the vocal blend was the best it had been in a long time, how well everything seemed to fit musically…


…that kind of praise is inspiring. Words like those become fuel…and that kind of fuel burns a long, long time.


Thankfully, because my phone was still recording, I have the whole exchange as a keepsake.


It made me want to be a better player, to be deserving of that kind of praise from someone who’d been a big part of the reason I chose this path in the first place.


Last night, he texted the band to let us know that a planned event was being postponed from May until the fall…I quipped that “by then, maybe I’d have figured out those 9 mysterious notes in You Better Think Twice that had been eluding me…


He texted back – “I can show you that! G tuning!


I replied with a video of myself playing the lick that I’d figured out with a note about the part that I hadn’t gotten the hang of yet…and I figured that we’d circle back and run through it when we started rehearsals in a few weeks.


Jack called me unusually early this morning – we were planning to get together tomorrow for another vocal run-through, and I thought that maybe something had come up with regard to timing or something of that nature…but I answered the phone and he simply said “Rusty died.”


I told him I was gonna need a minute to process this…I got out of bed and stumbled into the shower, as I had a full plate at work…I guess I figured that if I pretended I hadn’t heard, maybe I’d wake up for real and none of it would be true.


I got in the car to head to the office and Rose of Cimmaron started playing when I turned on the ignition – I immediately turned it off and drove to work in silence…with Rusty’s pedal steel guitar gently shifting about in the back of my car, having just been picked up from the shop the day before.


The loss is compounded by knowing how much he was looking forward to taking this version of Poco back out into the world – he seemed re-energized in a way that seemed to have been missing for some time, and I’m not the only one who noticed it…and while Rusty’s passing wasn’t COVID-related, it can certainly be said that the pandemic robbed us all of what could’ve been if we’d been able to see this phase of the band to fruition.


I suppose that writing this remembrance is an effort on my part to make it real to myself, to try to accept the fact that this has happened, that my friend and bandmate is actually gone, that it’s not something I’m going to wake up from like so many bizarre COVID fever dreams from this past year.


It’s not really working.


I’m not really ready to say goodbye to him.


So for now, I’m just going to say thank you. Thanks for everything you did – whether consciously or otherwise – to help me make my way down this trail.


See you on the other side, cowboy.

IN MEMORIAM

In a year that lasted longer than any other year in my own recent memory, it’s hard to believe that Neil Peart, David Olney, and legendary Philadelphia DJ Gene Shay all died this year.

This year we also lost civil rights era heroes John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, Bruce Boynton and Charles Evers – as well as Chuck Yeager and the Notorious RBG.

The sports world said goodbye to a laundry list of legends: Gale Sayers, Don Shula, Joe Morgan, Don Larsen, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Dick Allen, Tom Dempsey, Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Paul Hornung, Jay Johnstone…and we said goodbye to Sean Connery, Carl Reiner, Chadwick Boseman, Brian Dennehy, Buck Henry, Robert Conrad, Lyle Waggoner…

Behind the desk, we lost some great ears – this year, Keith Olsen, Bruce Swedien, Rupert Hine, Bob Kulick, and the legendary Hal Willner all left us.

Country music took an especially hard hit this year – Mac Davis and Helen Reddy died on the same day. They also lost Kenny Rogers, Hal Ketchum, Jan Howard, Joe Diffie, Charlie Daniels, Billy Joe Shaver, KT Oslin, Justin Townes Earle and Doug Supernaw.

Then there were the folks whose names you might not recognize – Buddy Cage, Pete Carr, Jamie Oldaker, Bucky Baxter, Chris Darrow, Todd Nance, Bones Hillman, Lyle Mays, Bucky Pizzarelli, McCoy Tyner, Eric Weissberg…all great players who left their mark on the landscape for years to come.

Little Richard. John Prine. Emitt Rhodes. Bill Withers.

And because the year just doesn’t seem to let up, we’re still processing the loss of Charley Pride, Leslie West…and Eddie Van Halen.

That’s a herd of huge footprints that’ll never be filled. Fare thee well.

SNS preview: The Road of Diminishing Returns

I got to the venue – Picasso’s in Elizabethtown, Kentucky – about ninety minutes early, and had time to collect my thoughts while I waited for the girl I was billed with.  Her name was Kathleen Roy – she was a talented singer and writer, and we were a good match…she seems to have gotten out of the business, as I did a few cursory web searches and couldn’t find any mention of her.  We were playing both shows together on a co-bill arrangement…neither of us were opening or headlining, it was two sets of equal length, split between the two of us.  As such, we split the proceeds equally as well, but I’d soon learn that I needn’t have concerned myself with that particular topic.

The Picasso’s show had maybe a dozen or so people in the audience – Kathleen had never heard me before, and she was sincerely effusive with her praise, and was full of assurances that the show the next night in Louisville would probably have a LOT more people, and she couldn’t wait to play with me again tomorrow and we said our goodbyes.  I packed up my stuff, and – for the first time that entire trip, it occurred to me that I hadn’t given a single thought to where I was supposed to be staying for this run.  I hadn’t brought it up with Matt once in the time we’d planned the run, and it hadn’t come up in conversation at any point…and now, here I sat in Elizabethtown with no real bead on a place to stay.

Now this wouldn’t have really been an issue in other, more temperate times of year – and I’d slept in the van before, and I wasn’t above sleeping in the van again.  I’d packed well, after all – I had a sleeping bag that stayed in the van at all times, and I had this hooded sweater that I called “Derek” (because it was very much like one that my old manager used to wear all the time – I bought it for that reason on another road trip with Matt and Michelle at a truck stop maybe a year before).  I had the same green army coat that I’d been wearing for years and a few changes of clothes, and I was packed for the trip, so I wasn’t worried about being prepared…but it was fucking COLD at night, let me tell ya.

Leaving Elizabethtown, I hadn’t really given any thought to how far it was from Louisville – and now, it’s kind of comical to think about – but I thought there’d be a rest stop somewhere along the interstate between E-town and Louisville, not realizing that it was barely up the road.  As such, I got to Louisville before finding a place to pull over and sleep – so I’d already arrived in town and needed to find a place to put myself for the night.  I got off the exit for Bardstown Road and started scoping out spots along the route until I saw a cluster of blue lights in the distance in front of me.  My first thought was that it was either an accident or a DUI checkpoint, and I wanted no part of either possibility.  I pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store and circled around back – I backed the van into the parking spot adjacent to the dumpster (it felt important to conceal my “yankee license plates” at the time) and locked it down – then I crawled into the back and pulled “Derek” up right around my neck and zipped the sleeping bag up to the top and dozed off to sleep in pretty short order.  It was probably a little earlier than I’d planned on going to sleep, but I had nothing else to do, so I slept until I woke up to the sound of traffic and general bustling outside the windows of the van.  I tried to sleep through it, but it just wasn’t happening.  If it had been May, I’d have happily slept until noon, but the cold wouldn’t allow for it.

I woke up and started the car – I knew that the expectation that it would heat up was futile at best, so I started up the street until I found an open McDonald’s.  I pulled into the parking lot and went inside to eat something and thaw out for a bit.  I had my backpack with me, so I pulled out my journal and wrote for a while – I ended up going out to the car and coming back in through the side door with my bag and sneaking into the mens’ room to wash up, brush my teeth, and change clothes for the day.  

I had a lot…A LOT…of time to kill between then and the gig.  I read most of “Message in a Bottle”, which Heidi had loaned me before I left…I spent well over an hour at Guitar Emporium, I went up and down Bardstown looking for bookstores and record shops, but I didn’t want to stray too far from familiar territory.  Again, this was pre-GPS, pre-cellphone…and I didn’t want to get lost or have to grope my way back to the gig.  It was a relatively relaxing day of doing nothing, although I regretted not having told my brother Jimmy that I was going to be close.  If I’d known that I was going to have this much time on my hands, I’d have made the effort to track him down, but I thought I’d have been on a straight shot north from Elizabethtown to home from the end of the first show.  Rookie mistake.

The show that night at Twice Told was one of the best shows I’d played in the past two or three years prior to that – it wasn’t a huge crowd, but it was a great crowd.  My voice was in pretty great form, and I’d gotten great reviews from the folks at both gigs, and I was assured that I’d be welcome to return anytime I wanted – which was a big part of the point of doing the shows in the first place…getting my foot in the door and making an impression.  

There’s a political element to forging one’s way through this forest, and I had known this for some time, having played the game locally in Philadelphia – but if I had notions of expanding my base and following my John Gorka blueprint, I had to start working outward.  And this pair of shows had accomplished that – I had return commitments, and it was within the realm of possibility to add venues in Nashville or Cincinnati or elsewhere the next time around.  That’s how the donuts get made, y’know.

I left the show in good spirits with plans to drive as long as I could to try and heat up the inside of the van before I pulled over to sleep – the way I saw it, I figured the warmer I could get it, the longer it’d take for the cold outside to push it out.

I drove for a couple hours and found a rest stop where it felt safe to park and sleep…it was well past midnight at this point, so I figured that it’d warm up a bit when the sun came out – so I was probably looking at six hours or so of real cold before it warmed up a bit, and I felt pretty sure that I could sleep through that like the professional that I was.

I slipped on a second shirt, a long-sleeved henley pullover and put Derek on over the top of it and slid down into the sleeping bag and zipped it all the way up so that the only thing sticking out of it was my face – and hunkered down to get some sleep for the rest of the drive back.

I don’t remember falling asleep – it must’ve been quick.

At some point in the middle of the night, I slipped into a dream…I was outside, and there was a stage – it wasn’t a traditional bandshell, but similar.  There was backline and gear set up on it, and I knew that I was supposed to be playing, somehow.  

Prior to this dream, in real life, Matt and Marlene had been negotiating with an indie label (Palmetto) to sign me – they had an amazing female singer/songwriter named Mindy Jostyn on the label, and I think Matt thought they needed a male contemporary that they could promote and potentially pair up for touring – or at least that’s how they pitched it.

At any rate, this show I was apparently playing in this dream was supposed to be something of a live performance preview of songs from the new record that was coming out on Palmetto – and I was seeing the craziest combination of souls in this outdoor park, gathering for this show.  Steve Wellner was there with his trademark smile, Tom Del Colle from Grape Street was cooking on a grill, a couple of guys I knew from high school were milling about on the grass – my Navy buddy from Iceland, Jay Smalley was there – but all standing somewhat spaced out on the grass, looking in my direction with contented smiles on their faces.

The band was Todd and Bob Stirner on guitar, Lee Shusterman on keys, Garry Lee on bass and Ronny Crawford on drums – every one my first pick if I were able to put together the band of my dreams.  Jayda and Dylan were there with their mom and her new boyfriend, and…

…it was almost as if my subconscious brain had selected a “greatest hits” playlist of sorts to parade past me in this apparition.

So as we’re doing a line check and I’m looking out at this field full of happy, supportive faces and I see a sandy-haired girl wearing denim overalls and a white T-shirt walking across the grass towards the stage and I know immediately who it is.

I take my guitar off and put it on a stand behind me and step down and take maybe ten or fifteen paces in her direction until we’re standing right in front of one another.

She looks directly into my eyes and reaches up to touch my face and she says:

“Tom – just because I couldn’t love you the way you wanted doesn’t mean I didn’t love you.”

I must have awakened at that very moment, because I don’t remember anything from the dream after that.

When I woke up, it was daylight – sunlight was shining in through the windows and I was staring up at the roof of the van absorbing what I’d just heard in my head in this dream I’d had.  As I was waking up, I hadn’t quite left my brain just yet.

“Just because I couldn’t love you the way you wanted doesn’t mean I didn’t love you.”

I didn’t realize how cold I was until I noticed how strange the tears felt on my face – I’d slept until nearly ten o’clock, and…contrary to my assumption from the night before, it had not warmed up when the sun came up.

In fact, most of my face was numb from the cold – there was no real difference in the temperature outside or inside the van at this point, as I’d managed to sleep for nearly ten hours somehow.  But over the course of that ten hour period, the only heat that remained in the van was what I’d barely managed to trap inside the sleeping bag with me – and that wasn’t much.  

That morning, before I started the van to head home, I had to scrape frost from the inside of the windows.  I’d never considered the possibility of that being necessary under any circumstance, but sure enough…I guess the condensation from my breath over the course of a ten hour slumber had created enough moisture in the air to frost the windows from the inside.

Not just a light coating, either…I actually had to use the scraper that I usually used for clearing the outside of the windows on both sides of the windshield before I was able to pull out of the rest stop to start the drive home.   After I finished scraping, I checked the oil and added another two quarts before starting the engine to let the van warm up for a moment while I tried to regain the feeling in my extremities so I could actually drive…again, I’m not someone with a propensity for the cold, but I was freezing that morning.  

The only other times I can remember being that cold was waking up in our house before I was in my teens – when the only source of heat we had in the house was a wood stove that had long since burned down to embers overnight.  My mom would get out of bed before us every morning to start the fire again before she’d wake us and get us up to get ready for school, but the wood stove was often no match for the cold that had settled in overnight.  When I got up, I’d grab my clothes and run to stand next to the stove and get dressed while standing as close to it as I could to try to stay warm.

The drive home wasn’t unlike those winter mornings getting ready for school – it never really got warm…or if it did, I wasn’t able to feel it.  In fact, I don’t think I warmed up until I got back to my penthouse on North Fifth Street and got myself and my guitar inside.  I remember my feet feeling strange when I got out of the van, because it had been so long since they’d touched anything that wasn’t the floorboard.  

Now, you know by now how I felt about my little nest above North Fifth Street – it was home to me at this point, and it was mine…the first place I’d lived that I could truly say that about.  But when I got home from this particular weekend’s shows, I don’t know that I’d ever been so glad to walk up those three flights of stairs and unlock that door to step inside my place.  MY place.  I was glad to be home in a way that felt like equal parts relief and contentment.

I took off my road clothes and took the longest, hottest shower I’ve probably ever taken – I turned on the television in the bedroom after I got out and put on a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt, and laid down on the bed tucked into the corner of the back room and let my attention drift from the dialogue from the TV to the delight I felt in actually being warm again for the first time in what felt like days.

It was Sunday – it wasn’t particularly late, and I’d slept pretty long the night before finishing the drive home, but I was drained.  I had come home from two marginally successful gigs with less money than I’d left home with, and I’d been thinking about all of this for the entire days’ drive and apparently, I wasn’t finished mulling it over yet.

I was staring down the barrel at 34 years old and I was beginning to feel the earth shift beneath my feet a little bit.

I’d had almost two years to cobble together a followup to my 1997 record, and I had…nothing.

(OK, maybe not nothing – but nothing I’d been as excited about as I’d been when I’d assembled this crew of believers to start working on that record…and no, it’s not fair to compare them, any more than it’s fair to compare your children with that kind of expectation, but…that weekend, it had started to sink in that I was ill-equipped to follow up that record.)

I had songs.  I had songs I liked, even.  But I think that the experience of making Mutual Angels with Steve had…well, it had kinda ruined me.  It’s not as though the door at Longview was closed to me, but I think that when someone (in this case, someone in Steve’s position) decides to invest their time and talent alongside your time and talent to create something, they expect you to be as excited about the prospects of your joint creation as they are, and I will never accept that I didn’t disappoint Steve on that level.  Steve stood next to me as we made that record, he believed in that record, and he was proud of that record, and – it came out and my life imploded and I took my eye off the ball.

When the summer of 1997 happened in the manner it did, Derek did the best he could to try and create a space for both that record and for me as an artist within the sphere of where I lived and worked, but I wasn’t present for it.  I didn’t have my heart in it, as I was distracted by the things going on in my life.  But I got another shot, when Matt came along and was every bit as motivated as Derek had been coming out of the gate, but again – other things in my life demanded my time and attention and I didn’t live up to the work I needed to do to give it the same amount of effort that the people around me were putting into it.

If you’re reading this, you likely know me on some level outside my capacity as a long-winded autobiographer, and you already know that there was never any real follow-up to Our Mutual Angels – there have been records in the years since, but they’ve largely been homemade efforts, and in the years after this particular weekend run of shows, my attention shifted largely away from songwriting to other pursuits.

I don’t recall the exact date, but at some point Steve Wellner evaporated into thin air.  For a while, no one knew what happened to him or what became of the studio – he turned up some years later, happy and healthy and living in Southern California with a great gig as an engineer and is doing quite well.

When I was touring with Marshall Tucker Band in 2013, we were playing a show in Woodland Hills, CA and I reached out to Steve to let him know that I was in town – he came to the show and we got a chance to go sit at the bar at our hotel and talk at length for the first time since he’d left Philadelphia, and…to call it a catharsis still feels as though I’m selling it short.

I got to thank him properly, at last, for the work he’d done on that record, for his belief in me as an artist, and for the sacrifice he’d made to give birth to it.  He was gracious and complimentary and convinced me – maybe for the first time – that it was as much a labor of love for him as it had been for me.  I told him how much I regretted that I hadn’t been as present as I should’ve been in the aftermath of the record, and that I felt like I let him down, but he told me that he completely understood – he’d been present for the emotional turmoil that fueled the creation of the record as well as the fallout, and he was a firsthand witness to what had taken place in my life in those years, and he got it – and he told me that he bore me no grudges about any of it and that he was glad to have been a part of it, and…

…and I don’t know that the words are available to me right now to tell you how that felt.

It was like having a regret that you’ve carried around for years liquidated and washed away.

I hadn’t seen Steve in almost fifteen years by then, and it was as if no time had passed when we saw each other that night…and I think the thing I took away from that encounter was the notion that maybe there was a reason that Mutual Angels was a one-time thing.  I couldn’t have made that record with anyone else, and I would’ve measured anything I did after that with the template that I’d created in my relationship with Steve, and I’m not sure if anyone else would’ve lived up to it.

Now, I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of sessions in the time since that record, and I’ve forged some great relationships with producers and engineers in studios all over the place in that time.  I consider myself a pretty flexible guy in the studio and I can work with just about anyone…

…on other people’s music.

Whether I could ever make another record like Our Mutual Angels with anyone other than Steve?

Well, I know what the answer to that question has been for nearly a quarter century.  I guess it could be said that the jury is still out, but whatever might come next, in terms of a Tom Hampton record of all original compositions – it’ll be apples and oranges to the work I did with Steve.

As I lay in bed after that road trip, though – back in February of 1999 – I hadn’t fully processed this yet.  I still had some work to do and I needed to be gently led in another direction.

I needed a creative vacation – a distraction of sorts.  And I’d soon figure out what that looked like.

…another auld lang syne

I feel like I’ve been researching this book for a year…largely because – well, because I’ve been researching this book for a year.

This week has been “open every document on all your old hard drives” week, and I’ve found some great stuff…a song I forgot that I’d written, a handful of saved AIM conversations with old friends, and…this article that I saved from the days after Dan Fogelberg’s passing in 2007.

A great story loves to be told, and this is a great story.


At Woodruff High School, Jill Anderson had a typical teen romance: on-again/off-again with the same boy over several years.

He’d write a lot of poetry and share his insights with Jill. But as they went to separate colleges, things cooled off. They tried to stay in touch, but he moved out West and she headed to Chicago.

And that might’ve been the sum of a sweet memory, if not for a chance reunion one Christmas Eve at a Peoria convenience story – one music fans know well.

Jill’s old boyfriend was Dan Fogelberg, who memorialized their convenience-store encounter in “Same Old Lang Syne.” Since the song’s release in 1980, Peoria – as well as the rest of his fans worldwide – has wondered about the “old lover” referenced in the song. Fogelberg never would say, and only a handful of people knew the ex-girlfriend’s identify.

Jill, now Jill Greulich of Missouri, feels she can finally share the story.

“It’s a memory that I cherish,” she says.

She says she had kept publicly mum because Fogelberg was such a private person.

“It wasn’t about me. It was about Dan. It was Dan’s song,” Jill says.

Further, though she and Fogelberg only rarely had communicated over the past quarter-century, she feared that her talking about the song somehow might cause trouble in his marriage. But in the aftermath of his death – he passed away of prostate cancer Sunday at age 56 – she has been sharing her secret with old friends in Peoria.

“I don’t want this to overshadow Dan,” Jill says. “When I heard the news that he died, I was very sad.”

She and Fogelberg were part of the Woodruff Class of ’69. They would date for long stretches, break up, then get back together.

Often, they would head to Grandview Drive, take in the vistas and listen to the likes of Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Fogelberg often would pen poetry, some of which he gave to Jill.

“I still have some of those in a drawer at home,” she says.

After high school, Fogelberg went to the University of Illinois in Urbana to study theater, while Jill attended Western Illinois University to major in elementary education. They stayed in touch, even continuing to date for a while. But the romance ended for good when he left the U of I early to head to Colorado and pursue his music career.

After graduating college, Jill relocated to the Chicago area, where she worked as an elementary teacher and flight attendant. Not long after college, she married a man from that area, and her connection to Fogelberg faded to memories.

But on Christmas Eve 1975, Jill and her husband visited her parents, who still lived in the Woodruff district. Also at the home were some friends of the family.

During the gathering, Jill’s mother asked her to run out for egg nog. Jill drove off in search of an open store.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away, a similar scenario was playing out at the Fogelberg home, where Dan Fogelberg was visiting family for the holiday. They needed whipping cream to make Irish coffees, so Fogelberg volunteered to go search for some.

By happenstance and because almost every other business on the East Bluff was closed, Jill and Fogelberg both ended up at the Convenient store at the top of Abington Hill, at Frye Avenue and Prospect Road. She got there first, and Fogelberg noticed her shortly after arriving.

They bought a six pack, sipped beer in her car and gabbed away. “We had some laughs,” Jill recalls.

As two hours flew by, Jill’s family and friends grew worried.

“We were like, ‘Where is she?'” says a laughing Eileen Couri of Peoria, one of the friends at the gathering that night.

When Jill returned, she simply explained that she had run into Fogelberg, and the two had caught up with each other. No big deal.

Five years later, Jill was driving to work in Chicago. She had on the radio, and a new song popped on. First, she thought, “That sounds like Dan.”

Then she listened to the lyrics, about two former lovers who have a chance encounter at a store. “Oh my gosh!” she told herself. “That really happened!”

They would not discuss “Same Old Lang Syne” until years later, during a conversation backstage at a Fogelberg concert. Two parts of the song are inaccurate. Blame Fogelberg’s poetic license.

Jill does not have blue eyes, but green. In fact, when they dated, Fogelberg called her “Sweet Jilleen Green Eyes” – a combination of her full first name and his twisting of a song title by Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Fogelberg explained that he took the easy way out for “Same Old Lang Syne.” As he told Jill, “Blue is easier to rhyme than green.”

Also, her then-husband was not an architect but a physical-education teacher. Jill doubts Fogelberg knew what her husband did for a living. She thinks Fogelberg probably just thought “architect” sounded right for the song.

But those are minor details. The heart of the song hangs on its most chilling line: “She would have liked to say she loved the man, but she didn’t like to lie.”

Still, even decades later, she declines to discuss that line of the tune.

“I think that’s probably too personal,” she says.

But the song had no impact on her marriage. By the time of its release, she had divorced.

“Somebody said he waited until I was divorced to release the song, but I don’t know if that’s true,” Jill says.

In 1980, the same year of the song’s release, Jill married Chicago-area native Jim Greulich. Eventually, they would move to a St. Louis suburb, where she now teaches second grade.

A few of her school associates have known her secret about the song. So has Fogelberg’s mother, who still lives in Peoria and exchanges Christmas cards with Jill.

This week, Jill sent e-mails to a few old pals in Peoria, lifting the lid off the “Same Old Lang Syne” mystery. One of the e-mail recipients was Wendy Blickenstaff, a Woodruff classmate of Jill’s and Fogelberg’s.

“I had a big suspicion” it was Jill, says Blickenstaff, now the head counselor at the school. “I’m happy for her. It’s really cool. … That’s a memory that she treasures.”

Jill agrees. Yet her memories of Dan Fogelberg stretch far beyond “Same Old Lang Syne.”

“I’ll always have a place in my heart for Dan,” she says. ” … Dan would be a very special person to me, even without the song.”

Chapter Preview – Connoisseur of Worst Case Scenarios

Nashville looks different to a teenage Opryland theme park visitor than it did to a 30 year old folk singer – when I lived in Tennessee as a kid, the thought of going to Nashville as a pro musician had never even crossed my mind.  What was I going to do, play in Conway Twitty’s band?  My first sights were set on being a drummer, but as I evolved and took up songwriting, the thought of this place wandered even further from my mind.  I never felt a kinship to Nashville in those years.  Now, though, we found ourselves in the deepest throes of what Steve Earle has called “The Great Credibility Scare” – a period in Nashville’s history that found artists and labels stretching the very boundaries of what could be called Country music, signing acts like him, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kevin Welch, Lee Roy Parnell, and a host of other artists who would never in a million years fit the mold of a “hat act”.

And – because it needs to be said and confessed – I never would’ve come to Nashville that year if Matt and Michelle hadn’t set the whole thing up and convinced me to come along.

Once it was in ink and we’d committed to it, though – the prospect took on a degree of excitement.  I was actually looking forward to seeing what things looked like from the “boots on the ground” perspective and getting a closer look.  We’d booked a couple of shows in town, including a writers’ round at a place called Big River (it sat all the way at the end of Lower Broadway where Acme Feed and Seed lives today), and an in-store live performance at Tower Records.

Travelling with Michelle was fine, as long as the wheels of the car were moving.  When the car stopped, she got to be a bit of a handful.  After we’d first arrived in town, she spotted a ring at a shop that she passed over at first – and then suffered an absolutely debilitating case of buyers’ remorse that found us actually going back to the shop so that she could buy the ring she’d passed over the first time.

There are a lot of details that time has managed to blur over the years, and one of them is the name of the woman that we stayed with while we were in Nashville – she was a friend of Matt and Michelle’s, really sweet – Matt and Michelle took the guest room, and she offered me the choice of the couch or sleeping with her.  It was completely innocent at first, or at least that’s what I said to myself to rationalize the notion of sleeping with this woman I’d just met…and she was lovely.  I’ve thought about her a number of times since moving to Nashville six years ago, and sadly, I don’t think I’d recognize her if I were to pass her in the produce aisle at Kroger.

Our first night in town, we had tickets to the Ryman Auditorium to see a band called Jars of Clay, who were recording a live concert video that night.

Now, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Jars of Clay, I don’t know if you have an opinion of Jars of Clay, but that show – that night – was somewhat otherworldly to my eyes and ears.  I had never heard of them, and every song was brand new to me, and I was an instant fan.  I had taken a single seat a few rows over from Matt and Michelle for the sake of logistics, and I was somewhat grateful to be able to sit there and let this music wash over me by myself with no forced interaction with anyone else…

…until I felt Matt tap me on the shoulder about two thirds of the way through the show.

“Hey, man – I’m sorry, but I think we’re gonna have to go.”

I looked up at him and he looked both distressed and slightly panicked – I didn’t ask any questions, I just got up and followed him up the aisle to the exit, where a sobbing Michelle was waiting on the other side.

Michelle had gone to the bathroom and had taken off her new ring to wash her hands, and had walked out of the bathroom without it – and she lost her shit.

Thankfully, someone turned the ring in to the box office and the breakdown eventually subsided and we were able to collect ourselves and move on.

Another early stop after arriving in town was the office of NSAI headquarters – Nashville Songwriters’ Association (International).  They’re an advocacy and networking organization for songwriters with an influential reach into the Nashville community, and into just about every community in the US and beyond with a significant music scene that has a songwriting element present among them.  In town, they offered writing rooms, office space and internet access for their members, and in those days – internet access meant the availability of an analog phone line.  As such, they were a godsend for Matt, who practically lived on his laptop.

While we were there, I did the thing that I did in every city I found myself in, even for a fleeting moment – I grabbed a copy of the local free weekly (in this case, the Nashville Scene)and started flipping through it.  In the listings for live music in that weeks’ Scene, I went to check the Bluebird Cafe itinerary for the week.

“Dammit!” I said, out loud, surprising even myself.

“What?” Matt answered.

“I was just looking at the Bluebird listings…we just missed a round at the Bluebird with Rusty Young from Poco – by two days!”

Matt, being the expert networker and politician that he was, took the story from there and explained to the folks in the office that Rusty had written one of the songs on my album, and that we were on the road and likely wouldn’t have made the show even if we’d known about it.  He was just making conversation, really – there hadn’t been an outburst, I hadn’t made a scene, and I wasn’t irate or emotional about it…and after having brought it up, I immediately pivoted to another round at the Bluebird that we should take in while we’re there with Jeff Hanna from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Marcus Hummon, and Matraca Berg – I knew Marcus’ recording of a song called Bless The Broken Road from a Musician magazine compilation that I’d picked up long before the trip, and I’d heard Matraca’s songs on TNN…Jeff was just Jeff from the Dirt Band – I later found out that he and Matraca were husband and wife, and that Jeff was a co-writer on Bless the Broken Road – so it all made sense.

So, we missed Rusty – bummer.  But this show would be a good introduction to Nashville for all of us, I thought.

While I continued to peruse the paper, the receptionist came over and handed me a Post-It note that read:

Rusty Young (615) xxx-xxxx

“I just got off the phone with him, and he asked you to give him a call.”

Now – let’s just pause here, for a minute, and think about what just happened.

The receptionist had been a party to this conversation just a few minutes prior, and she took it upon herself to pick up the phone and call Rusty.  I’m left to assume that she told him that there was some guy named Tom Hampton in their lobby who had mentioned having recorded one of his songs…and Rusty had told her to give me his phone number.

Now, whatever you might think about Nashville, know this:

That’s never, ever, ever gonna happen in New York or Los Angeles.  Not in a million years.

That was the beginning of the reshaping of my attitude towards Nashville.

And yeah, you’d better believe I called him – said hello, we caught up a bit, I told him that I was in town for a couple of shows.  He asked where, and I told him that we were doing a writers’ round on Lower Broadway, but that I was doing an in-store at Tower Records the next day.  I didn’t invite him outright, but yet he asked what time the show was, and he told me he’d be there.

At this point, I had been playing in front of crowds ranging from a handful of folks to upwards of a thousand for roughly ten years or so, and I felt as though I was past the point of something like stage fright or butterflies.  I had seen bar fights, power outages, fires, floods – once you’ve seen a dude bleeding all over the floor in the middle of a song, it’s easy to assume that there isn’t much that would rattle you.

Now, though, I was about to play a show with a hero in the audience.  And yes, I’d opened a show for them a couple years prior, but there are a number of important distinctions between these two situations – most headlining acts never hear a note played from the stage before they step onto the stage themselves.  

The guys from Poco actually have a great story that they used to tell at shows about all the bands that had opened for them who went on to have successful careers, and talked about this comedian who came out in a white suit playing banjo with an arrow through his head…and they all agreed that there was just NO WAY this guy was ever gonna make it.  (It was Steve Martin, and of course they were wrong.)  It’s also worth noting that some of the only live shows that the upstart Buckingham-Nicks duo played before joining Fleetwood Mac were opening for…Poco.  

The only real reason to take a gig opening for another artist is to play to their audience and hope that some degree of cross-pollination takes place – that some of their fans will also become your fans.  Of course, there’s a fantasy that evolves early on when we daydream about playing on the same stages as the bands we idolize, forging friendships with our heroes and winning their approval…maybe they’ll like my music and, who knows?  Maybe they’ll invite me up to sit in or something and we’ll all hang out backstage and…sure, it makes for a great movie, but real life doesn’t often lend credulity to the fantasy.   There’s seldom anything more than a cursory greeting exchanged between the opener and the headliner.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: I know, I know…just pretend you don’t know the rest of the story and keep reading, OK?)

Still, I’d gotten acquainted with the band some years back and – while I didn’t necessarily think of myself as much more than an acquaintance, they knew who I was…and that, in and of itself, felt significant to me.  Heroes had been a big deal to me from the beginning.  But the thought of actually getting to know them to the extent that they remember your name, or that one of them would extend their phone number to you, and then to learn that they think enough of you to take the time to come hear you play?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but it was a big fucking deal to me.

So, you’d better believe that when I got off the phone with Rusty, I went upstairs to the cubicle where the public computers were and jumped onto AOL to see if Jon was online – I couldn’t wait to tell him what had happened.

Well, sure enough, I found his screen name in the Instant Messenger window when I signed on (Jon was a graphic illustrator, and he worked from home – so he was online all the time) – but before I could send him a message, an IM window opened on my screen:

Jongeorg:  Hey!  I was going to email you!

Hamptontom:  Dude, you’re never gonna believe this

Jongeorg:  You want to go first or should I

Hamptontom:  You go first…no way will yours be bigger than mine

Jongeorg:  OK

Jongeorg:  I talked to George Grantham, and he’s coming to your Tower Records show 

Hamptontom:  HOLY SHIT

Jongeorg:  Right?

Jongeorg:  What did you want to tell me?

Hamptontom:  Well, here’s a plot twist for you – there’ll be two Poco members at my show tomorrow

I proceeded to tell Jon about the encounter with Rusty via Instant Messenger – but now I needed to process this additional information, because I was still wrapping my head around the notion of Rusty being at the show at the moment I learned that George was coming – and I’d never met George before.

There was another layer of potential drama that occurred to me as I was processing all this.

There had been a reunion of the original five members of the band in 1989 that resulted in an album on MCA and a short tour that was rumored to have ended in somewhat contentious waters.  Richie had jumped ship first, then Randy – and everyone ended up splintering again by the end.  

The version of the band that I’d seen that day in Pittsburgh six years prior was Rusty and Paul Cotton with a pair of players they’d picked up in the interim…and of course, it had certainly dawned on me that there might’ve been a reason why George hadn’t continued on with the band after the reunion tour – personal or otherwise.  Certainly, I didn’t know any of them well enough to be privy to any inside information – and for all I knew, there may have been some bad blood between Rusty and George that rose out of the aftermath of that tour.  I was immediately concerned that they’d think they were being set up to arrive in the same room at the same time as some sort of fanboy matchmaker operation, and they’d both leave angry at having been set up to bump into each other.

This is the thing I invented in my head, anyway – I had become a true connoisseur of worst case scenarios, and I’d cooked up a doozy for myself this time.  By the time of the show, I had worked myself up into a bit of a lather – to the point that I’d have actually been relieved if one or the other hadn’t made it to the show.

So I was standing on the stage, playing one of my songs, and I saw them both at almost the same time – Rusty came in through the door next to the counter, and I saw George walking up through the classical music aisle.  They saw each other at roughly the same time and started walking towards one another and met in a bear hug in the middle of the store, and I felt twenty pounds of stress evaporate and leave my body in that moment.

I had an interview to record after my set, but I took a minute to greet them both after the show and set up a lunch date with George before we left town at a Mexican restaurant he liked before saying goodbye to the two of them.  I did the interview and took some time to get to know a friend of Michelle’s named Tiger, a guitarist in town who was as much of a Poco fan as I was, and we got ready to leave for the Bluebird after the show.

I had never been to the Bluebird – but once I had, I got it.  It was a tiny room in a strip mall that most people wouldn’t have noticed if they were driving out Hillsboro Pike for any other reason.  And yet, it had taken on legendary status over the years as a place where songwriters gravitated to show off their work.  

After the show, I managed to strike up a conversation with Matraca Berg – during which I executed a perfect example of my now somewhat commonplace Lindsey Buckingham Sad Trombone maneuvers.

What would that refer to, you ask?

A long time ago, I read in an interview about an encounter that Lindsey had with George Harrison when he met him for the first time – Lindsey was getting to meet someone he looked up to, and he had a ton of questions he wanted to ask him, but he led the volley with:

“Of all the great stuff you did when you were in the Beatles, where on earth did you come up with that amazing solo for Tax Man?”

George looked down at the floor and answered, “actually…Paul did that.”

I’ve executed similar versions of this same gaffe enough times that I’ve come to refer to it as having “Lindsey’d” someone.

For example – the first time I got to play with Dave Van Allen some years later, I told him how much I loved the pedal steel solo in the Last Train Home song Hendersonville – it was perfect, it was understated and melodic and I could hear it in my head without listening to the record…

Dave’s response:  “well, thanks…but that was Pete Finney on the record.”

Lindsey’d.

So that night at the Bluebird, I marched up to Matraca and told her how much I loved the song Easy to Tell from her Lying to the Moon album, how it was equal parts classic country and Roy Orbison rolled into one, and I thought it was one of her best songs…

“I’m glad you like it, but actually…Stephony Smith wrote that one.”

Lindsey’d again.

I actually committed a misdemeanor count of Third Degree “Lindsey’d” with Paul Cotton the night we met for the first time, when I asked him if he played the solo from Good Feeling To Know through a Leslie cabinet.  Paul’s reply?

“I have no idea!  I’ll have to listen to it sometime!”

I mean, it’s a gift – it’s not like this is something you can teach, folks.

I met George Grantham for lunch the next day and had some amazing Mexican food while we got to know one another – he was such a kind guy, and he had a lot of nice things to say about Our Mutual Angels, and believed that if the right person got their hands on it, Brand New Distance could be a number one country song.  We talked a little bit about the old days with the band, and I worked up the nerve to ask him…

“…listen, at some point, I have to start putting songs together for a follow-up to this record – if we can make it work, I’d love to have you play on it if you’d be interested…”

He didn’t even hesitate – he said that if we could figure it out logistically, he’d be happy to.

He’d been playing a bit around town with a band called Hoopla, and he gave me a copy of their CD at lunch, and we traded contact information before we parted ways – I still had one more show to play before we left town, a writers’ round with chairs for both Michelle and I at Big River on Lower Broadway.

Our round was somewhat uneventful, but I’d met a young songwriter from Texas that night named Terri Hendrix who was in town, and she asked if she could borrow my guitar for her round after ours was finished, and I happily obliged – I took advantage of the extra time to take a walk up the street and listen to the folks playing in some of the other rooms along the strip.

Now, admittedly, I had conjured this illusion in my head that – because of the sheer number of people who came to Nashville to try to run their stuff up the flagpole, that competition must be fierce and that you had to be exceptionally good to actually achieve gigging status in a town with so many great musicians in it.  I mean, that would have to be true, right?

Well, my walk up Lower Broad that night altered my perception considerably.

There was a place called the Gibson Guitar Cafe that had a girl at a piano who might’ve only started playing a few weeks prior to that night…another place had a guy in a cowboy outfit in the window, singing the line “Big Boss Man” over and over while he repeated a 12 bar blues riff on guitar – it was actually a little disheartening to see that open mike hackers could work their way onto stages in a town like this, where music was a cash crop.

Still, for my first trip to Nashville that wasn’t a flyover on my way back to my hometown – for my first actual professional trip to Nashville – I left town with a smile on my face as we headed back to Philadelphia.  I don’t know that I actually harbored any thoughts of moving to Nashville at that point, as my kids were still young and I wasn’t prepared to be that far away from them – and my own personal musical blueprint was still very much the John Gorka career path, and even though Nashville had been welcoming to him, I didn’t foresee a scenario where I found myself living there.

The three of us had stayed at my brothers’ house in Jackson for one night of the trip, and in Nashville for the rest – travelling with Michelle, I was learning, was going to take some getting used to.

On the way north, we stopped at a rest stop off I-65 somewhere in Kentucky that was absolutely massive – it was a food court AND a department store AND a gas station AND a rest stop, and it seemed like they had damn near anything and everything that anyone could have possibly wanted to eat, hot or cold, in one corner or another of this place.  Even though I’d been up and down the roads of my corner of the world for years now, I’d never seen anything quite like this place at the time.

So we gassed up the Caravan and pulled away from the pumps to go inside and find something to eat.  Matt and I went inside and made relatively quick decisions and came back out to the van to eat and wait for Michelle – who remained inside until well after I’d finished my food.

I asked Matt – do you want me to go in and check on her?  You think she’s ok?

We both decided that she was probably just poking around through souvenir T-shirts or something and that she’d be out when she was ready, so Matt finished his dinner as well while we waited and talked about what had happened on the trip.

Some twenty minutes later, Michelle emerged from this travellers’ Shangri-La, this oasis of every kind of food one could possibly yearn for in a roadside setting…

…with two hard boiled eggs and a bottle of water.

Indeed – some getting used to.

The Troubador and the Thief

So we had a near-miss burglary attempt a couple of nights ago.

We had all been up late – but upstairs, we had finally gotten everyone into a darkened room to fall asleep by around 1am or so. But – a little after 2am, there was a knock on the bedroom door…my oldest son, Dylan, who lives in the basement apartment, came upstairs to tell us that his girlfriend had heard the back door open, and the two of them got up and opened the door that leads from their downstairs bedroom into the garage/studio area and saw the door cracked open. Dylan said that as soon as he came out into that part of the house, he heard the gate close outside in the yard – the gate that leads from the driveway/carport area into the backyard and ultimately to the door that opens directly into my home studio (which is barely a studio by even the most liberal standards, but it is what it is).

Dylan ran out into the studio carrying a wooden baton that he’d named after my beloved ex-mother in law (although he called it “grum’mum”, logically enough)…he walked out into the garage/studio space and yelled “speak the fuck up!” before running out into the yard and then the driveway. Oddly, the security light that hangs above the garage doors hadn’t come on when he opened the gate. The light is usually very sensitive – it often comes on when cars turn off the intersecting street just off our driveway – but it hadn’t come on in this instance. It is possible to walk up the driveway against the house and not trigger the lights, but it requires some pretty deliberate effort. He had a flashlight and canvassed the entire back yard, the driveway, and checked every direction up and down the streets, looking for any sign of movement…but didn’t see anyone.

He gave us a full report when he came upstairs, once he was sure that whoever might’ve tried to get in was well up the road by then…and it was pretty unsettling to think that some random meth-destrian had just inventoried the Overdub Nook and knew what I had in the garage at this point.

Needless to say, there wasn’t much possibility of going back to sleep after this…I went down and walked through the garage and studio with Dylan as he took me through the whole incident, step by step – he was pretty wound up at that point, and so was I. So – we locked everything down and I came upstairs and took a seat at my desk in the office. I wasn’t about to go back to sleep anytime soon, so I spent the remaining hours of the night editing video footage from a couple of Poco shows that my friend Jon had sent me. The sky started to lighten around 6am, and – as has been my penchant since I was a teenager – the moment the sun started to come up, I started to get tired…I finally fell asleep in the recliner in the living room for an hour or so before my phone started ringing and I had to log onto my “day gig laptop” and start tending to the days’ IT issues.

The knowledge that someone with less-than-amicable intentions has availed themselves of the opportunity to form a mental blueprint of the place where you live, where you work, where you eat and sleep, where you KEEP YOUR STUFF – it’s a perpetually unsettling feeling that takes a while to go away.

And it’s not the first time I’ve felt it.

There was, after all, this one other time.

Now, the story I’m about to tell you is one hundred percent true, start to finish, and I still have the paperwork to back it up…what with being the guy who keeps everything and all.

Return with me to a time, over 20 years ago, friends…

New Years’ Eve, 1997.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………

My first marriage had broken up, and I had moved out of our house into an apartment that I was renting for $275.00 a month in 1997 dollars in the 200 block of North Fifth Street in Reading, PA – it was affordable and…after settling in, I kinda loved it.

It was a third floor walk-up in a row home halfway down a hill, a couple of blocks from the main thoroughfare through the center of town. It was an old, old house…probably built in the twenties, if I had to guess. The style of the woodwork, the staircase and banister, the window fixtures…it was a throwback to what Reading must’ve been like decades prior to the summer I moved into the top floor apartment over the course of a single weekend as my family was splintering.

The apartment itself was perfect – for one person.

The front door had two locks on it – a handle lock and a deadbolt – and the door to my apartment was similarly locked down, with two locks.

When you unlocked the door and walked in, the door opened into the main room that faced North Fifth Street, with two huge windows overlooking the street below.

There were only two rooms, plus a bathroom.


(Forgive my compulsion to get into the weeds in describing the apartment…it feels as though it’s important to give you an idea of the layout of the place. It was the first place I ever lived that was mine, all mine – my stuff hung on the walls, my choices in furniture, my choices in dishes, MINE…and it was a pretty intense period in my life.)


The front room that faced the street had a kitchen of sorts built into the wall that would’ve been on your right as you faced the windows…two accordion-fold doors opened to reveal a stove, a sink, a small refrigerator, and overhead cabinets – everything a newly-minted bachelor needed to fold sandwiches, make ramen noodles and boil eggs. If you weren’t actively engaged in the boiling of the water for the ramen (or the eggs), you could close the doors and the entire kitchen would magically disappear into the wall…along with your dirty dishes.

Facing the “kitchen”, a door to its left opened on the wall facing the street that led into the bathroom – tub, sink and shower. There was a (homemade) wall unit that I built on the other side of the windows that housed CD’s, books, a small TV, records, tapes…all manners of stuff that I’d brought into my new place, and I built a place to put it all. Planks, screws and brackets – boom. Done.

A wall separated the two rooms, with closets built on either side of said wall – I kept guitar cases in the closet in the front room, but the back closet was home to my clothes and a clip-on Nerf basketball hoop and backboard that provided endless entertainment to me and the kids when they’d come over (to the eternal disdain of the militant cat-lady second floor tenant).

The “back room” was a mirror image of the room in the front – with two windows that looked out over a makeshift backyard behind the building…one window – the one next to the bed – covered by the same lush green ivy that covered the entire back of the building, and the other adjacent to the fire escape – but both windows were painted shut. I had tried to open the fire escape window not long after I had moved into the apartment, because I had this romantic image in my head of sitting out on the fire escape, playing my guitar in the dark…but it wasn’t meant to be, because I couldn’t get the damned window open…and I lacked the necessary motivation to force the issue.

Once I’d moved in and settled, I called BerksCable to install cable service in my apartment, and they had to pry the window open – literally – in order to run the cable up the side of the building and drill a hole underneath the “fire escape window” to run the cable into the apartment in the back room so that the kids could watch TV when they were there.

I’ve felt varying degrees of affection for places I’ve lived since then, but that place – it was special. It was transitional, it was solace, it was home.

The girl that I thought I’d spend the remainder of my life with had come there to stay with me a couple of times, I wrote songs at the makeshift multi-purpose table in the middle of the “front room” that I bought in the parking lot of a gas station in Morgantown…these two rooms and a bath were the one constant in my life during a time when literally everything else about my life was in limbo as the earth continued to shift beneath my feet.

So, as 1997 came to a close, the company I worked for had a long holiday shutdown that encompassed the week between Christmas and New Years’ – but even with the company having been furloughed, I still needed to go into the office on New Years’ Eve to complete the month-end reports that had to be run manually from the office. There wasn’t a means to complete this process remotely back in those days, so I had to sit down at my desk in the office and run the reports manually from a UNIX terminal.

It was important, because the very act of running the reports initiated the internal system processes that closed out the production figures for the month, and – in this case, during this final month – the year as well. The reports had to be run in order to compile the numbers, so it was important that I get them done during the last day of the month (or year) in question.

So I went in to the office that day to run said reports – Wednesday, December 31st, 1997.

For whatever reason, I felt the need to call my home phone number and check my messages while I was at work…for those of you who might be too young to remember this particular drill, us old-timers used to have actual machines – standalone recorders with analog cassettes inside them – that functioned as “answering machines”. If you had one of these machines, one of the features they offered was the ability to call your own number and enter a numeric code that allowed you to check the messages left on the tape to see who had called you. This involved calling your own number, waiting for the tone, and hitting the “star” key, followed by the numeric security code that would then prompt your machine to play back the messages that had been left since you’d last checked them.

So, while I was in Morgantown at my day gig, running reports and printing out page after page of worthless paper, I decided to call home and check my messages…and yet, when I called, the phone continued to ring past the customary four rings at which point I’d normally enter my combination of keystrokes to retrieve my voicemails. I called again, and the phone again continued to ring past that point…on and on. No message greeting, no nothing.

So, clearly, this struck me as odd – but not as an emergency. I thought that perhaps there was something wrong with the tape, or the answering machine itself. Usually, my first thought at that stage of my life would’ve been that I’d neglected to pay the bill and my service had been suspended, but on the occasions when that was the case, there was a menacing three-note tone followed by a message that stated that “the number you have dialed has been temporarily disconnected or is no longer in service”. The absence of said message told me that this wasn’t the issue.


I filed the issue away in the back of my mind and completed the month-end and year-end reports required of me and made my way home to my third-floor Fortress of Solitude…parked the car and unlocked the front door of my building and climbed the flights of steps up to my penthouse. I put my key in the door and found that the door was unlocked, for some reason.


I suppose I was too naive or otherwise unaware of the potential red flags that this should have thrown at that point…because it should have been obvious that something was amiss, if I were to consider The Door and the Answering Machine issues in tandem with one another, but I hadn’t put it together – yet.

I opened the door and walked into the apartment, and the first thing I did was to step through the doors between the “front room” and the “back room” and look on the shelf where the answering machine would have been…only to spot the phone cables dangling off the shelf in the spot where the machine had been when I went to work that morning.


I did that usual dance of disbelief that most folks probably do when they find themselves in a situation like that and started looking around the room to survey my situation.

Here’s what I saw.

Immediately after noticing that the answering machine was gone, I cast my eyes around the apartment and saw that the windowshade that covered the window by the fire escape had been severely mangled – the burglar had come in from the fire escape through that window, the one that had been painted shut prior to the visit from the cable company. He had pried the locked window open from the outside and came in through the window from the fire escape – and, in the process of raising the window, had left a perfect set of eight fingerprints from both hands on the inside of the window frame. Once he had gotten into the apartment, the sky was the limit – or so one would think. There were guitars in the closet, a TV, a VCR, various other electronics – but instead of taking the high-dollar stuff, the thief left instead with my answering machine, a portable mini-cassette recorder that lived on the table in the front room, and a shitload of CD’s.

Now, about that wall unit in the front room…it ran the length of the room from the end of the closet all the way across that wall to the window that faced the street. But – even with my meticulous planning, I still had more CD’s than I’d allowed room for on the wall unit. So, the overflow from the wall unit lived in the windowsill of the window in the left corner that overlooked the street. In fact, that became the home of the stuff I listened to the most regularly, as it was within easy reach, next to my desk that sat between the two windows.

As such, those were the most accessible – and those were the ones that my unwelcome visitor took with him.

In retrospect, it appeared that he clearly passed over the more valuable but larger items for stuff that he could smuggle into a backpack or a bag of some sort and sneak out of the apartment without attracting too much attention to himself.

So, of course, I called the cops (upon reconnecting my phone to the cables that reached the outside world) and the patrol officers who showed up to investigate alerted an investigative unit to let them know that they thought they had a set of “live” fingerprints – after which point they had someone show up to dust the windowframe and retrieve said prints. The officers told me that this was a legitimately big deal, as this would place the owner of said fingerprints in the apartment. Many times, they told me, they might catch someone with stolen items, but that alone wasn’t enough to arrest someone for burglary, because possession of stolen property only meant that they had the stuff, not that they stole the stuff. The fingerprints, however, changed that.

So the police stuck around for a couple of hours – they assigned my case to a detective, whose business card they provided me with, and told me to call whenever I wanted an update, or in the case that anything else came to light that they should know.

Aside from the normal feelings that one would expect to encounter in this situation: the queasy, unsettling feeling that an unwelcome presence has walked through your home and helped themselves to your possessions, taken inventory of your stuff, and knows where to find you AND your stuff now – that was heavy enough, but there was the matter of having a newly uncovered Achilles Heel. I had a damaged back window that I needed to secure somehow. I had to think about this for a bit…how was I gonna pull this off?

It was late, and it was New Years’ Eve – and I assured myself that there’d be enough of a police presence on the streets to deter the guy from making a return appearance that night, so that was the story I told myself to get to sleep that night.

The next day was New Years’ Day – just about everything was closed, so I stayed close to home for the day. I called my landlord to let him know what had taken place, and he assured me that he’d have someone there to fix the window the next day (a Friday). I went through my CD collection and tried to figure out what was missing…I wasn’t really that attentive to what I had and what I didn’t have under normal circumstances, but in looking through what I had on the shelves, there were some definite omissions that I knew I’d had before my burglar had paid a visit…I wasn’t entirely sure what he’d taken, I only knew what was missing.

That Friday that followed…turned out to be a big day.

My landlord’s repair guy showed up early – he told me he’d need to replace the windowframe and re-align the locks so that the window functioned the way it did the day before the burglary, but in my mind – I had the unsettling notion that I was no safer with the restored status quo than I’d been to begin with. He assured me that he’d be back tomorrow with the parts and supplies he needed to make it right, but I felt like I needed to find a way to reinforce this past the point of whatever the status quo was…so after the handyman had finished up, I took a drive in to work and retrieved some wooden slats from the shipping area where our guys boxed up large rolls of paper for shipment. I took them back to the apartment and cut them to length with a hand saw and fit them to the exact length they needed to be to act as reinforcement between the top of the closed window frame and the top corner of the sliding window itself. Once they were in place, I drove two small nails into the wood in the top window frame to hold up the slats so they wouldn’t fall inward toward the center of the window for any reason.

I figured that, between the lock itself and the slats, that prying the window open would be nearly impossible with this particular modification.

Once I’d finished that, I felt like I could leave the apartment for a little longer than I’d been comfortable with prior to getting the window reinforced, so I parked conspicuously in front of the apartment (I figured it’d be best to have my car there in case whoever it was knew which car was mine) and took a walk down to Penn Street, a few blocks away, to canvass a couple of the pawn shops along that stretch of the street.

The first place I went was a store where I was already something of a regular – Pawn Plus, right off 5th and Penn Streets. The proprietor was a red-haired guy relatively close to my age named Randy – I didn’t bother to tell him why I was there…I just said hello and started perusing the CD’s.

The first thing my eyes fell upon when I started rooting through the discs were two “sampler” CD’s from Oasis – not the arrogant Gallagher brothers’ flash in the pan, but the CD manufacturing company that had done the printing and duplication for my Mutual Angels album.

In those days, I used to scrawl my initials near the center of CD’s that I’d bought, and sure enough, I opened them up and there was “tom” in my handwriting near the spindle hole in the disc.

BOOM! I had the bastard dead to rights!

I stood there for over half an hour, going through the CD’s on the shelves and stacking discs in my arms…Randy made a crack about how “somebody must’ve gotten a sweet Christmas bonus”, but I just smiled and kept going.

I harvested a stack of about twenty discs and went to the counter and spread them out, opened them up, and told Randy my story – in retrospect, this probably happened more often than I might’ve realized at the time. He sympathized, and…knowing that he was probably acting in the interest of keeping a regular customer…he got a plastic bag for me and sent me on my way. Thinking back on it, he was probably saving himself the trouble of inviting the police into an uncomfortable situation as much as he might’ve been interested in helping me out. I asked all the usual questions – “did he have anything else he was trying to sell?” “Do you remember anything about the guy?” – but he was just another dude in what had probably been a long line of guys who’d come in to sell stuff on New Year’s Eve, and he didn’t have much to offer in terms of additional details.

So I took my CD’s home, put them back in the windowsill where they’d come from, and settled in for the weekend, and barely left the apartment at all the entire time.

Monday came around – Charlie, the handyman, was due to come back on Monday and fix the window…and I had to go back to work.

I hadn’t heard a peep the entire weekend, and I hadn’t expected to – as I left lights on at night just to be safe. By Monday, I had managed to cultivate a bit of a false sense of security regarding the barriers I had put in place to keep the window closed, and hadn’t given much thought to the notion of going to work on Monday. I made a call to the detective working my case to let him know what had happened on Friday at Pawn Plus, which he noted in the case record. He mentioned that they had warrant jurisdiction over the stores’ records, and he’d try to stop by and have a conversation before resorting to getting a judge involved to see what he could find out.

Monday nights, I hosted the songwriters’ night at Grape Street Pub in Manayunk – as such, I left work and went home to get myself together to leave for Philadelphia that night. I did the customary walk up the steps to my apartment and put my keys in the door and…it was unlocked.


“Hmmm…” I thought. “Charlie must’ve left the door unlocked when he finished fixing the window.”

Nope.

I opened the unlocked door and walked in to find the windowshade trashed yet AGAIN, over the same window by the fire escape that the thief had come in before.

My presumably ingenious means of entry-proofing the window had left out one important scenario – the notion that, if the window was struck at the center just so, the slats would come loose and fall straight down, as opposed to collapsing inward.

Charlie hadn’t come back on Monday at all…but the burglar had.

He knew what he’d found in the apartment the first time, so of course, he had a pretty good idea of what would be there if he came back.

So, with a rare stroke of criminal genius rarely possessed by thieves, my burglar came back to my apartment just a few short days after he’d come the first time – and, instead of taking the high-dollar stuff he’d seen in the apartment the first time, he elected…in his wisdom…

…to return to the windowsill, where the CD’s had been stacked on his first visit…

…and he took the same CD’s he’d taken the first time.

The very ones I’d retrieved from Pawn Plus just days earlier.

Now, it should be mentioned at this point – Pawn Plus used those round Avery stick-on labels to categorize their used CD’s. Green was rock, yellow was country, pink was R&B/Hip-hop, et cetera…when I had retrieved the CD’s that had been stolen on his first raid, they had all been “categorized” with the Avery stick-on dots on the spines of the jewel cases.


I hadn’t bothered to remove them when I brought them home.

When the thief came back, the stickers were still on them.

So now, the CD’s were already marked with Pawn Plus’ category labels.

Of course, I called the police – again…then I called the club to let them know what had happened and that I might be a little late getting there that night. I waited for the officers to show up and gave them the report number from the prior break-in so they could correlate the two incidents, and they stuck around while I reinforced the window and locked the place down so I could leave for my gig.

I arrived at the Grape to a barrage of questions about what had happened…both break-ins had taken place in the time since I’d been there last, so I had a lot to tell.

In a crazy twist of serendipity, I ran into a buddy that I’d met there just a few weeks prior – my friend Michael Tolcher was coming back to town to make a record with a producer named Dave “Stiff” Johnson at Tongue n’Groove studios and needed a place to stay.

A place to stay, you say? Dude, I’ve got you. You can sleep at my place for as long as you like, brother, because I would LOVE to have someone around while I’m at work right now.

So “Tolch” came back to Reading with me that night, and I was – for a minute, at least – able to go to work with some degree of peace of mind, knowing that someone was there if anything else happened, if anyone else decided to pop in through the back window.

Still, I called off work the next day – told my boss what had happened the day before, and called my landlord to let him know that I’d had a return visit and that I didn’t think Charlie had been there on Monday, considering what had happened…he apologized and told me that he’d make sure he was there THAT DAY to get the window fixed.

While Tolch caught up on his sleep and listened for various knocks on the door, I took the familiar walk up the street to Pawn Plus, because…well, I had a hunch.

I walked in and caught Randy’s eye almost instantly.

“Hey, man – guess who came back today?”

“I think I have a pretty good idea, because he came back to see me, too.”

Yes, friends…what I’m about to tell you is true.

The dude came back to my apartment a second time, stole the same CD’s he took the first time, complete with Avery color-coded dots on the spines, and took them back to the same pawn shop to sell them to the same guy – AGAIN.

So Randy filled me in – yeah, he came in…yeah, he had a bunch of stuff. But Randy only bought a handful of them and sent him walking with the rest.

“SERIOUSLY!!?!?? You let him walk off with my stuff??”

“Dude, I already bought your shit once, and I’m already out that money…you don’t think I wasn’t gonna buy them a second time just so I could give them back to you AGAIN, do you?”

I had to admit, he had a point.

“BUT – I did get something you might be interested in over here, because…maybe you don’t know this…you have to have PHOTO ID to sell or pawn anything in the State of PA, so I had to see his photo ID to buy your stuff.”

He then reached under the desk and grabbed a piece of paper with a Xerox copy of a driver’s license and waved it in front of my face.

“I could get in serious trouble if I showed THIS PIECE OF PAPER to anybody…THIS PIECE OF PAPER RIGHT HERE – this is privileged information, after all, so you’re not supposed to see THIS PIECE OF PAPER….RIGHT HERE…”

He was literally holding the copy of the guys’ driver’s license maybe eight inches from my face: Reinaldo Rolon, 300 block of South Fourth Street, etc. – I didn’t make any observable motion that would indicate that I was memorizing what was on the page…I just said, “OK, so it’s OK for the cops to see that when they come by, right?”

“Already on it. That’s why the copy is under the desk.”

“Thanks, Randy. I just wish you hadn’t let him leave with the rest of my shit.”


“Hey, man…just so you know, I watched him walk right across the street to Borelli’s with the rest of your stuff, and he didn’t come out with it. You’re welcome.”

Borelli’s was part bodega, part pawn shop, part jewelry store – if you’ve ever lived in a city like Reading, you already know what I’m talking about.


I didn’t know the people at Borelli’s, never really went there, so when I went in to plead my case, they told me in no uncertain terms to take a hike, so – I walked out the door to find a pay phone and called the cops, read them all the case numbers, dropped my detective’s name, the whole nine yards.

Within fifteen minutes or so, a patrol car met me there on the sidewalk and we went into the store together and I watched them confiscate everything that Reinaldo had sold them earlier that day.

So now, at least, my stuff was in an evidence locker instead of sitting on a shelf in a pawn shop, waiting to be sold out from under me – and they had a pretty solid case against the guy.

If he ever turned up, that is.

As it turns out, I didn’t have to wait that long.

A few days went by – Tolch was a great hang and would’ve most certainly been an awesome roommate if he’d decided to stick around. We hung out with my kids, he came to their basketball games with me, we shot hoops in the apartment on the back room closet door, we busked on South Street in Philly…he was such a great guy and we became instant friends.

The Thursday night of the following week, we were sitting at the table in the front room when someone knocked on the door.

It was my neighbor from across the hall, a Latino guy named Davey Santana.

Davey wanted to use my phone.

He explained, in a rather frenetic manner, that someone had broken into his apartment and had taken his TV and VCR, and further stated that “if I find that motherfucker, I’m a gonna go back to jail.”

I told him yeah, come on in, go right ahead and call the cops and let me know when they get here, please…they were there relatively quickly, and when I heard the footsteps coming up the hall, I walked out to meet the officers.

Listen – please – DO NOT leave before coming to talk to me. I need to give you some information that’s directly pertinent to what’s happened here.”

The officers went next door to canvas Davey’s apartment and knocked on my door a few minutes later.

I stepped out into the hallway with the officers as Davey listened from his doorway.

I told them the whole story, with case numbers, names, dates, the whole nine yards, right up to the point where I fingered the suspect by name.

The minute I said the name “Reinaldo Rolon” within earshot of Davey, he erupted…totally lost his shit…and not just in a “I need to see your manager” tone. It was one of those Desi Arnaz half-English, half-Spanish freakouts he made famous in “I Love Lucy” that took a minute to absorb.

So, clearly there must be some backstory there.


As it turns out, Reinaldo and Davey had been in some form of rehab program together at some point, and when Davey got out, he went straight…got a job at a dairy plant and moved into his apartment, got up and went to work every day. When Reinaldo got out, he went to return to his old life, but his girl had kicked him out, he just hadn’t found out yet. So he showed up on Davey’s doorstep with all his stuff in tow looking for a place to crash. Apparently, at some point, it must have become obvious to Davey that rehab didn’t exactly “take” for Reinaldo, so Davey kicked him out as well, and that had been the last he’d seen of him – until he started coming in the windows of various apartments in the building.

The officers found all this information…well, interesting. They gave me an updated case number and said that they’d update my investigating officer’s record, but to call him in a couple of days and make sure that he had everything on file and up to date.

So, OK – the weekend was upon us, and it was the weekend that I’d have the kids – their mom was super-understanding about the situation and knew that I had someone staying with me, but we managed to make it fun. The Saturday of that weekend, we decided we were gonna take the kids to the movies – we had gone to Philadelphia to visit my producer, Steve (it was a social visit, as he and I were very close) and we were planning to go see “Titanic” after the visit, but it was sold out. We settled for a trip to the Manayunk Diner and returned home that night and walked up the stairs to the sight of two large black plastic garbage bags and a paper grocery bag sitting outside Davey’s door, and the sound of Univision blaring from inside his apartment.

I was SUPER curious…I knocked on the door and Davey answered. I said hello and asked him, “hey, man…did they find your stuff? I heard the TV…”

“No, no…television belong to my girlfriend.”

“Ah, gotcha…well, is this her stuff out here in the hall? Because with all the stuff that’s been happening…”


He stopped me mid-sentence.

“No, that shit belong to that motherfucker break into my apartment. I’m tellin’ you, I see that motherfucker, iss’ OVER.”

Davey began the not-so-slow descent back into the Ricky Ricardo dialogue from a few nights before as he closed the door behind him.

I stood there with Tolch and the kids in the foyer between Davey’s door and mine…we exchanged looks…and it was clear we both had the same thought at the same time.

We unlocked the door so the kids could come inside and we dragged the bags from the hallway into the apartment.

We left them untouched until I took the kids home later that night, and when we got back, we tore into the whole stash. The curiosity was killing me.

Michael and I tore into the stuff – there were tons of clothes, ranging from the usual range of T-shirts and pants to some pretty trendy matching denim outfits that were stylish among folks of Latin descent at the time with gold-threaded and embroidered oversized shirts and reeeeeally baggy shorts…without sounding any more judgemental than I probably already do, let’s just say that they were clothes that would make it difficult to disappear into a crowd.

He and I divided up the stuff that would fit, stuff that we would wear…and we actually managed to hold onto quite a bit of it, but there was some stuff that was rather – unique – that we had already hatched a separate plan for.

One of the matching denim outfits went on a hanger that I could hang on a hook on the outside of the back room closet door where it was plainly visible from the window at the fire escape.

Not being a cat burglar, I can’t really make too many assumptions about what might traverse the mind of a thief like that at any particular point in time…but I think that if I were attempting to force my way into someone’s apartment and saw MY OWN CLOTHES HANGING INSIDE, it might inspire some interesting trains of thought.

Moving on, then – the paper grocery bag was even more interesting.

It contained a couple dozen cassette tapes, some photos of what I would assume to be family – girlfriends, perhaps…and a hefty pile of paperwork that included parole violation notices, traffic citations, warrants – just about every form of mail that you don’t ever want to receive.

So we decided to finish rolling out the red carpet in the event that Reinaldo should ever decide to return for the hat trick.

In addition to hanging his clothes on the closet door, I removed the few remaining CD’s from the window that had become his “go to” spot and I replaced them with his own personal stash of cassettes, and also taped the photos from inside the bag to the glass in the window directly above them.

Between the cassettes and the photos, it almost looked like a little shrine of sorts.

At this point, I almost wanted him to come back for a third time.

Alas, it was not to be.

Apparently, he had been picked up not long after breaking into Davey’s apartment on some form of a domestic disturbance, and when the officers ran his name, the computer lit up like a casino slot machine. As such, he was remanded to custody in Berks County Prison on a literal buffet of charges.

When the detective called to tell me that he’d been arrested and bound over for trial with no bail, I told him that I wanted to be notified of his trial date.

I needed to be there.

I didn’t tell him why, but he obliged, and eventually I got a notice of his plea date and made a point to be there when he appeared, in person, before the judge to be bound over at his hearing.

And I got there early, so I could get a seat directly behind the bench.

So when they brought him in to appear, there I sat…

…behind the bench…

…wearing one of his matching denim short sets from the black garbage bag we’d found in the hallway.

I wish…oh, HOW I wish…that there’d been the kind of reaction that one would expect from something like that, but I was disappointed to find that he either didn’t see me or didn’t remember the outfit. Maybe it had been so long since he’d actually had it in his possession that it didn’t register that it belonged to him, I don’t know.

I had this moment in my head where he’d call me out for wearing his clothes and make some kind of a scene, but – it just wasn’t to be.

He ended up getting a combined four year sentence for multiple robbery counts, in addition to whatever his domestic charges were – he started serving his time in 1998, and by the time he was eligible for release I had moved, gotten married, and had put the whole thing behind me.

The total value of the stuff he’d stolen was negligible – he’d left my valuable stuff in favor of nickel and dime items, perhaps specifically to avoid higher charges when he ultimately got caught, I don’t know.

Tolcher stayed on for some time while he worked on his record, and ultimately went back to the Atlanta area – as with so many of my friends who travel the same road as me, we haven’t really done a great job of staying in touch…it’s part and parcel of how this life works, but I try to make a point of reaching out from time to time to check in and see how he’s doing.

And in the basement of my house here in East Nashville, tucked away in one of a mountain of Rubbermaid containers – I still have a pair of shirts that came from the depths of one of those black plastic garbage bags that ended up outside my apartment door all those years ago, in 1997 when I still lived in my magical bachelor penthouse in Reading, looking out over North Fifth Street…where I used to sit at my table and write songs or draw or scribble in my journal. I watched Mark McGwire break the home run record in that apartment. I mourned Michael Hedges’ death in that apartment. I slept listening to the rain on the ivy leaves outside my window in that apartment. Eventually, I met someone else and moved on – sooner than I should have, in retrospect, but hindsight is always 20/20.

But when I think of those days, Reinaldo is my go-to story.

So – for all I know – when Carley and Dylan heard the door open the other night, maybe it was Reinaldo – hoping to take a look through the mass of Rubbermaid containers on the wall to try and find his clothes…who knows?

another check off the musical bucket list

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

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

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

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

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

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

with Rusty and Paul on the night we met in 1991

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

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

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

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

Jack took that as a “yes”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, Paulie.  Love ya, man.

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

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

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

And then there was Magnolia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

guestbook at MPAC – first show
setlist for the first show

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

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

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

Poco in Morristown, NJ – 2.22.20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

with Jon Rosenbaum and Mike Reilly from Pure Prairie League

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

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

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

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

Long Island set list, Boulton Center, Bayshore NY

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…how the hell is this my life, now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

working through transitions with Rusty at the hotel in Oakland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was nothing typical about Monday night, though.

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

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

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

Green room at the Orange Blossom Opry, Weirsdale, FL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#NashvilleStrong

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


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


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


Shit was about to get real.

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


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


This was real. This was happening.


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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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

Survivor Guilt – it’s a thing.


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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


Nashville rebuilt in 1998.


It rebuilt again in 2011.


It is rebuilding – yet again – as we speak.


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


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


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


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


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

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


Why, you might ask?


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


Because we live here.


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


The houses where we spent random afternoons are now broken.


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


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


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


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


And the next day…and the day after that.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


But I sure am proud of this city tonight.

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.