Being self-employed on any level – whether it’s a creative pursuit or not – is often a “feast or famine” proposition…there are long periods of idle anxiety punctuated by frantic scrambles to accommodate everything that comes at you. I’ve had a friend for years who alternates between worrying whether he has enough work in the pipeline to pay his bills and not being able to answer the phone out of fear of distraction because there’s so much work to do.
I’ve almost always had a “day gig” of some sort to relieve those extremes in my own life, although it’s largely been an exercise in self-delusion…just because one has a regular job, it can often create a false sense of security. These days, though, it’s been a blessing – working for the company I work for has given me a lot of freedom to say no to things that I’d otherwise have to do in order to pay the bills.
But then there are months like this November, when it’s just plain hard to say no to the things that came my way.
I had agreed some time back to a show in St. Louis with the Poco next-of-kin, but in pretty short order I found myself with a Boneyard Hounds show the week after that in Philadelphia and was asked to fill a chair up front for one of the “Songwriters and Storytellers” series that I’ve participated in as a sideman in years past…so this year, I’d be participating in the rounds as well as doing my usual “utility” work when the others were playing. A lot of heavy lifting, but – I mean, I couldn’t say no to that…any more than I could say no to a Dan May show in Sandusky at the Maritime Museum on the 6th, before the real roadwork kicked in.
All of this meant a weekend trip to the Great Lakes region of Ohio, coming back to Nashville to work for part of a week before heading north for that run of four shows, then back to Nashville in time to leave for the St. Louis show with the band, then coming home in time to leave for Philadelphia again – but mileage has never been a deterrent for me. If you’ve been reading these missives for a while, you already know this.
Just the mileage associated with these runs would add up to a combined total of around 5200 miles.
Sandusky, Ohio is home to me in ways that I can’t really associate with places where I’ve actually lived.
And that’s all Dan May’s fault.
We came to the realization – during this particular show, in fact – that Dan and I have been collaborating for fifteen years. “Musical Years” are much like “Dog Years” in the sense that one of them counts for more than a typical 365 day unit of time in a lot of ways, and Dan has been one of a handful of folks that have made my life richer for having been a part of that particular collaboration…but with Dan, it goes a little deeper. Dan has adopted me and his family has taken me in as one of them, and – well, Dan has a large, extended family in both the accepted biological sense and the broader definition of the word.
I’m an honorary citizen of Sandusky, Ohio – as declared by Dan and – from what I can tell – the majority of the population of the city. And every time we go there, the relationship deepens somewhat…I could pack my car and drive to Sandusky tonight and there’d be a dozen places I could go, where I could knock on the door and be welcomed in.
I don’t think that’s true of my own hometown, really.
So these shows, when they present themselves, are pretty much a given for me. Playing with Dan is just a layer of the cake…getting to spend time with his extended circle is a fringe benefit that’s become truly special to me over the years.
I left home right out of high school and the disdain I had for the place accompanied me everywhere I went for many, many years. It never felt like home to me then, and even now it really just serves as a figurative storefront for a place that doesn’t really exist anymore – family has splintered and scattered to the four winds, and that’s probably the main reason I can go back now without a sense of uneasiness…the pins on the map I have in my memory have mostly fallen away after all these years, to the point where it’s largely just another town.
Sandusky doesn’t have the burden of carrying all my mental baggage from my formative years, though, and the town has been a blank slate for me to write my own stories – along with the help of this swath of humanity that’s adopted me.
Going back there is “a gig”, to be certain – but the “hang” is the attraction for me. And this show was no exception…a highlight, even.
Dan’s band of supporting musicians has taken on a new member over the past couple of years (and yeah, that sounds like a long time, until you consider the COVID sabbatical) – she came to us as a student of Anthony’s who’d graduated to an instructor role at the School of Rock. The first time Claudia and I played together was at Sellersville Theater back in 2019, and the connection was pretty much instantaneous – we started playing The Glory Years during soundcheck and she was playing my part as if it were me playing it, and a circuit developed within just a few seconds of that first song. I thought the first show was just a fluke, maybe – based on some of the other things in the air that particular night – but every time we’ve played together since, it’s been there…and I gotta admit, I struggle to describe it.
As a musician, most of us recognize these connections when they present themselves – it’s not a tangible thing that fits into a social construct (friend, family member, co-worker, spouse, et cetera) that most people recognize. I mean, anyone who can play three chords can pick up a guitar and play those three chords with anybody else who has the base ability to operate the instrument – but the thing that separates those two random “three chord” folks from the musicians that stand out to us are the people who transcend the mechanics of the process and connect on the next level. It’s playful and intimate and telepathic and satisfying on a level that’s – again, hard to describe. But Claude and I landed in that place almost instantly, and it’s been there every single time we’ve played together since, and I treasure that.
This show was just the three of us – Dan, Claudia and I – and the show was pretty great for three people who’d only played together twice, but the part that I’ll remember long after I’ve forgotten the details of the show was…well, everything that happened after the show.
We went back to Jerry’s house afterward, the guitars came out and we played until…shit, I don’t know what time it was, honestly. Pizza was ordered, nachos were served, and we passed guitars around and played and sang until literally everyone else had gone upstairs to bed except Claud, Kevin (Claud’s dad) and I. Kevin plays as well, and towards the end of the night someone had mentioned that a riff I played sounded like Leader Of The Band, so I played it and that opened the portal into the Dan Fogelberg Wormhole – and Kevin started playing the opening chords to The Last Nail and that sealed the deal. It was All Fogelberg, All The Time until everyone just ran out of gas.
After it was over, I got a text from Claud with a video attached of her dad and I playing The Last Nail from the night before, captioned: “my dads”.
I packed it in after everyone retired for the night and drove over to the Opfers’ house (I’ve been Team Eddie for some years now, and that’s my home base whenever we’re there) and – predictably – they were long asleep, but I got a nice long breakfast hang with them when I woke up the next morning. They’d been at Jerry’s the night before for the jam session, along with all the usual suspects, but the hang at the breakfast bar with Eddie and Julie – the quiet time to connect – is really priceless to me.
After a stop along the interstate to take photos of Kentucky Speedway to text back to Danny, it was back to Nashville for a minute before taking off for the Northeast.
I was looking forward to the drive, having gotten a taste of the beginnings of the descent of autumn along the interstate driving south from Ohio.
I realized, though – after only a few miles on the trip north that this musical pilgrimage had fallen at a nearly perfect point in the trajectory of autumn for this year – the Sandusky run was a warmup, but the mountain ranges in southwest Virginia were particularly colorful on the trip northward, and I left early enough in the morning to burn off most of the pre-dawn hours traversing The Nothing (the stretch of I-40 between Nashville and Knoxville that Jayda nicknamed for the void that swallows up everything in “The Never Ending Story”) and I watched the sun come up through the windshield just as I was leaning into the northward stretch of I-81 towards Bristol. I couldn’t have timed it more perfectly if I’d actually made an effort to line it all up.
The first show was in Bridgeville, Delaware and my phone took me across 66 and through Washington DC, across to the stretch of route 50 that crosses from Annapolis into Delaware just as the sun was dipping towards the horizon – seriously, I couldn’t have planned the timing of this trip more perfectly if I’d tried. I got to the venue and hauled my gear in for the first show and crossed my fingers.
I’ve done a bunch of these shows by just plugging the mandolin (or whatever other acoustic instruments I might have along for a particular show) into the same signal path I use for electric stuff – for quieter shows, I’ve managed to get away with it for a long time. But after that disaster of a show in Wisconsin a while back, I made up my mind to start taking that signal path more seriously – so I bit the bullet and started putting together a pedalboard for the acoustic instruments (banjo, dobro, mandolin, and such) and got a separate amplifier to run those instruments through. Since I’d be playing acoustic guitar during my turns in the round, that’d be a factor as well, so – I brought ALL OF IT for this trip. It made for a long load-in and load-out, but the truth is – it made everything easier during the show. I had discrete signal paths for each instrument, all run off a true-bypass loop pedal – a ToneBone PZ-Pre for acoustic guitar and mandolin, a FIshman Jerry Douglas Aura for the dobro, with delay and tremolo thrown in for good measure. I’d bought a Boss EQ that I was going to add for banjo, but it was so noisy that I bailed on it. It made my whole rig sound like it was next door to the airport – I’d assumed that Boss gear was solid enough not to have to worry about that sort of thing, but…well, lesson learned. I wasn’t really using banjo for this run, so it wouldn’t be an insurmountable issue for these shows.
For the shows, I had a volume pedal in front of me for each pedalboard – those being the only things I really needed real-time access to…I’ve never really been a tap-dancer, I usually set the signal path before the song and run with it…both volume pedals fed their respective pedalboards and amps, pedalboards off to the side and amps well behind the stage. I’d select the proper path for whatever instrument I was using and roll with it, and it was as close to painless as could really be possible for this array of stuff. AND – the acoustic instruments sounded pretty great. No feedback issues, the tremolo actually sounded great on both the dobro and the acoustic guitar when I saw fit to use it, and changing out was as simple as unplugging, replugging, and stepping on a button or two. The only way it could’ve been easier would have been to have brought a tech along…it’s about as manageable as it gets for one guy.
As material went, I did the usual thing and didn’t really bother to rehearse or re-learn anything…I had a few songs that I knew I’d want to do, but I wanted to just react to what was happening on the stage with the other performers and I didn’t want to lock myself into anything where material was concerned – I did listen to a couple of my older songs on the drive up, just to refresh my memory and brush up on lyrics, but that was pretty much the extent of my preparation. I knew I wouldn’t need a ton of material to begin with – the most I’d have to do would likely be six songs if we did two rounds of three songs each, and I could play six songs in my sleep. I knew I’d end up doing two Poco-centric songs for sure, both “Crazy Love” and “Where Did The Time Go” would be in the bag – but I gave myself plenty of rope outside those two.
I did a couple of songs from “Our Mutual Angels” over the course of the run – Brand New Distance and Is That Enough – just because they popped into my head at specific times. But I also did Craig Bickhardt’s Giant Steps and Craig Fuller’s Sure Do Miss You Now from the Friends and Heroes collection…I did Tom Petty’s Southern Accents one night, as well. Nik Everett surprised me by showing up for the second night of the run, so I pulled out Uncle Tom’s Cafe for that show, and I did Bitter And The Sweet for another – but those were the only new-ish songs I bothered to do…since none of that stuff was available at the merch table yet.
Seeing Nik was a welcome sight – we both tried a hand at doing the math, and neither of us could remember having seen one another since before I moved to Nashville in 2014…and that it might have actually been at one of the Bob Dylan Birthday Bash shows at Rembrandt’s back in the day…which would easily be ten years. Nik was the last person I saw before I drove away from the Smyrna Opera House that night on my way back to Sol Knopf’s house, where I stayed the first two nights (as did Jesse Terry and his family).
I’ve known Sol for years, but in all that time I’d never had an opportunity to spend any real time with him, other than at shows – but we got a chance to connect during this trip that we hadn’t really had before. A couple of great post-show hangs with long conversations, including the story of the night he met his wife and how her father factored into it…I won’t tell it here because I likely won’t do it justice, but…it’s a great story.
Sol connected me with a writer for an interview not long before I made the trip, and he used nearly everything from our conversation – which was surprising, because usually it’s a matter of bits and pieces – but we’d talked specifically about Sol during our conversation, and I made some unsolicited observations about him that I thought were just part of the banter, but that he ended up using in the article. I told him that one of the things I always admired about Sol was how evident his love for his home state was in his work, how it was clearly part of his identity, and the only other songwriter I could really think of who’d managed to pull off having that same sense of place in their work was Springsteen – that to me, Sol was just as synonymous with Delaware as the Boss was to New Jersey. Not in a heavy-handed, Jimmy Buffett fashion…but with a modicum of actual grace.
And honestly, after spending some actual daylight driving around the state a bit that weekend…I get it.
If you’ve spent any time there, you get it as well…you don’t need me to tell you.
Three of the four shows were in Delaware, save for a show in suburban Philadelphia that had JD Malone subbing for Sol (he had a previous show on the schedule) – Claudia came to the show and she and I went out for dinner with JD and Tommy after the show before I headed over the bridge to spend the night at Casa Del Tearson before the last show of the run the next night. Cindy Pierson (widow of legendary soundman George) and Carolyn Miller came over the next morning with breakfast for a nice hang before I left for the final show.
After we wrapped up the final show of the run, I went back to Sol’s in Smyrna and we stayed up with the family and had pizza before bed.
I got up the next morning at a much earlier hour than I’d normally get up and set out on a slightly different route home. I decided that, since I was already so far south, I’d deviate from the typical Interstate path home…I was going to follow route 13 all the way south through Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia – across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and into Norfolk and across Virginia to connect with I-81 around Wytheville and home from there. It was several hours longer than the typical drive home, but I had hoped it’d be worth it…and it was, largely – although I found myself wishing I’d done it during the summer when the days were longer and I had the extra daylight.
I got home in time to dump my gear from the northeast run and re-tool for the acoustic Poco gig in St. Louis and leave some 36 hours later – Jack, Rick and I had decided to rent a minivan for the run and drive up and back together.
The first thing I noticed when I got to Rick’s house to load up was that our rental van had Colorado plates.
I see you, boss. I see you.
This set was essentially a reprise of the set we’d played at Wildwood a month earlier – a short set of Poco songs for a lifelong fan who was retiring from his position as director of the St. Louis Zoo. He turned out to be a wonderful guy. It was also convenient, in that there was a seller just outside St. Louis who’d listed a Source Audio programmable EQ pedal that I’d been looking for – to use on my acoustic pedalboard and he was nice enough to drop it off at the hotel for me. I got in a nice walk through Clayton in suburban St. Louis (I could see the arch from my hotel window) and Mary (Rusty’s wife) and I closed the bar the night before we left to return home to Nashville.
Another down day at home before reloading the car to head back to Philadelphia for a show with Michael Braunfeld and the Boneyard Hounds – our first post-COVID show as a band. It was a loud affair, to be certain, and there was a pretty stubborn layer of rust to shake off, but that’s a journey that begins with a single step, and we definitely took it that night. There was a great crew of friends who came out to the show to support the band, and we did our best to make it worth their while.
Another night at Casa Del Tearson after a nighttime drive through Philadelphia to reacquaint myself with the skyline…and left the next day to cross the river and do a little shopping for the family before returning to Nashville. I picked up some V&S fries, some Hippies’ ring bologna, some Chicken Pot Pie and some block swiss cheese (which appears to have gone extinct here in Nashville for some reason) to bring back to the kids to jog their memory. I felt my stomach sink when I drove by the now-empty building where Queen City operated for over a quarter century…I knew to expect it when I turned the corner, but the knowing didn’t do much to quell the impact of the sight of it. But I stocked up and made it back to Nashville in the dead of the night, leaving a bag of groceries on Jayda’s doorknob in the dead of the night…it was cold enough that I knew it’d keep ok.
Thanksgiving came not long afterward, and I made a point of assembling myself a Pennsylvania Dutch charcuterie plate full of what I’d have expected to find on the long table at Maplewood avenue back in the day – ring bologna, cheese, and kettle chips. I’d put thousands of miles on the odometer over the previous couple of weeks, but it had been fulfilling on multiple levels…personally and musically…and I was thankful for new memories to add to the archive.
So why not celebrate with a plate full of processed meat and cheese, huh?