2. On the Ground and Walkin’ the Floor

September 11th 2016 2:24 pm

Packing is survival. One duffle bag including six snap-shirts, two t-shirts, three pairs of jeans, ten pairs of socks with an equivalent amount of undergarments (boxer-briefs with an emergency pair of tighty whities).

I wear a brown leather belt, however, included my brother’s 2008 CCA Championship buckle for tie-down roping in the option of dressing up with a suit jacket I keep in my brown leather suit-bag. A ruby as the buckle’s sole gemstone – a talisman of protection, passion and prosperity. I left wearing my silver-belly felt Resistol and have since switched over to straw. Cooler for the mugginess of the mid-west and tends to elicit much more passive personality traits.

My new second-hand levi jean jacket has quickly become the lifer. I left the tattered at home. The Levi’s only patch, an all-seeing eye, is my first attempt at stitching – prick free. It’s placement between my shoulder blades has proven initiated conversations coming up from the rear. ‘You’re not from here, are you?’ – No Miss, I’m Canadian. Two pairs of boots – each gifts, mouldy cheese blue, pointed toe with replaced heal, re-gifted from Leeroy Stagger after spending a day in his old basement studio and a pair of Ostrich skin leather – the back of the leg that’s easily mistaken for large reptile skin. Flat toe – good for riding. Re-placed heal and sole. My dad wore out the first underside, I wore out the second underside, here’s to number three.

The van is clean. Relatively. A foamie picked up as my first American Walmart purchase. One night in a truck-stop on the bare van floor left my eyes looking like two piss-holes in a snowbank. Christmas present sleeping bag and a pillow that my aunt jean set by the door after having breakfast with her before taking off. Pillow accompanied by a roll of paper-towel, a rolled bath towel, a roll of toilet paper, Mary Kay baby-wipes. Four used to replace a shower – face to neck to armpits, two for groin and one for feet.

One Rebel T2i and tripod – still don’t know how to use it but shitty pictures taken beat shitty pictures not taken. I’ll ween myself off the iPhone’s ease sooner than later. My food cooler is empty and hot.

No issues with getting my guitar across the border. Committed to honesty. I left albums, business cards, and any other inferences that I would be hustling my wears sans working visa in a storage locker in Regina’s industrial area off of Macdonald. No risks of refused entry. ‘yes miss, no miss, thank you miss.’

SiriusXM. No fucking around. Channel 60. I’m gonna hang out with Buddy and Jim – this hasn’t been arranged yet – but I’m gonna hang with Buddy and Jim, discuss the renaissance of Kristofferson, the Chicago country music community, and the rise of funk-country. I repeat Mojo Nixon’s signature tag howl every-time. Elizabeth Cook’s voice, singing and speaking…speaking…Jesus. I wonder if I’ll tell my buddy Jonas’ “Oingoboingo Joke” to Roger Alan Wade and Johnny Knoxville? Probably not, my band says it sucks. I still think it’s funny.

Books stashed in the stow-and-go. The Holy Bible as the new-found flashlight. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as it’s predecessor. The New New Journalism by Robert S. Boynton. Fucking Blood Meridian – I’ve read it from the front cover coming on six or seven times, each time getting further into its grasp – a movie will never be made. How do you show a scene of hanging burned babies? How do you leave it out? Who plays The Judge? Not even Daniel Day-Lewis would touch that son-of-a-bitch. Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces – reference – hand in hand with The Bible, it gives a little piece of mind with the outcome of the mission – temptation, tests, allies and enemies. The Elixir and Return. A Prayer for Owen Meany called by my drummer-to-bassist as the most powerful read he’s ever settled into. And finally, my Saskatchewan home-boy, Guy Vanderhaeghe’s Daddy Lenin and Other Stories – departure gift from Melanie. My first night off the highway in Carrington, ND, I open it to find:

“Blake, Watch the signs. xo Mel -”

Will do, Sweetheart.

I’m guided by light. My intuition has been proving itself successful – and uses much less data. $5/day roaming package, 100 mb/day – unlimited texting and calling within and outside of The United States. Leaving the interstate with a visual of what one is looking for only to lead oneself directly to it builds cosmic-confidence. It left me in tears on the side of a highway mere moments ago. I’m blessed and grateful for this upgrade.

East until Chicago on the I-94 then south on the I-65. This is the route.

Peace.

Home away from home

 

43. Tyler Childers and The Food Stamps

November 15th 2016 7:49 am

“You lucky son of a bitch, I’d kill to see Tyler Childers again for the first time.”

I move back to my previous position between Thomas and Stanley. It’s been occupied by a man, dark-skinned and twice my size, handler of yet another flavour of the ever-flowing local liquor. His grand status is less intimidating as it enchanting and, he too, has been possessed for the endorsement of Childers, envious of what I’m told I’m about to experience. Stanley’s wife, Emily, is at my ten o’clock, having replaced the Bud Light Balancer, front and centred for the headlining set. She flashes me a smile, eyes wide in anticipation for my reaction. Countless Kentuckians have sung high praise for the native, confidently. Being beyond his years, a confounding presence, and innate musicianship are descriptions marking the man as some type of godhead. My personal interaction with Childers was no more extraordinary than wonted, simple and pleasant. He comes off as genuine, personable, but there is evidently a connection I oversee. He assumes his position to a brief introduction by Roberts, an element of respect directed from the crowd, a hush that has moved in. He associates himself with his predecessors, opens with a tranquil cut of “Rock, Salt & Nails” – Utah Phillips’ weary lyric and Childers somber delivery. He opens his throat and his chords distort, without amplification the notes would soar to the hill’s reaches. Two women watch him from the tops of their eyes, brows raised and faces angled towards the dirt. For every man shaking his head up and down, out of rhythm to the performance but in accordance with their own flow, another is moving his side to side – as one responds to a lofty sermon. Agreement with the word. The solo waltz like gospel. Childers ends on a single chord and a moment of silence separates his completion and the audience’s approval. There is a fixation between the two parts, Childers and not Childers. One watching the other as intensely as being returned. How a collection so outwardly expressive minutes ago is now completely centred in their higher selves like a calming universal energy rested itself upon the collective consciousness. Childers brings peace.

He inflicts a vocal break prior to phrases customized to his own style but reminiscent of Hank. This distinction bends into the words ‘Charleston Girl in a darkened room’ and once fans in reverence are popped like a shaken bottle of Ale 8. Line by line, communal vocals – the educated, singing in harmony. Emily has her eyes closed with an arm accenting the syllables, releasing her pep like carbonation. With the set’s third piece I’m drawn closer to the devotion, Childers sings of West Virginia and Kentucky, the hills, their austerities. He wears the hardships on his arm and is vulnerable, representing the collective through his own experiences. ‘Harlan Road’ is another group effort, complete with reference to pines, cotton, clover, and tobacco fields. Childers is a regional voice.

As a writer I pick up in his word usage. Subtleties in options, choosing a lyric ‘I used to ride a mustang’ in reference to a car, breathing life into the subject. He ran that thing on high hopes, till they raised the price of dreams so high he couldn’t pay. His words, a pallet, colours specific to the region. He’s a student of a greater english language beyond local slangs and dialect but stubborn to the territory. Rhyming patterns tampered, expecting a closing word and receiving another, strong practice. I rob him blind. Childers is a poet.

photo by Melissa Stilwell

photo by Melissa Stilwell

A Shel Silverstein cover and he calls The Wooks back to the stage, his band, The Food Stamps, step off. A tag. Childers writing translates and his songwriter-honkytonk is now embedded with bluegrass. His comrades lending a capacity for interpretation further evolving their distinct sound, not to mention their collaborator. A thirsty and married man, Childers’ wife delivers the drink and as he partakes encouragement eventuates, all onlookers reaching for the nearest mason jar to emulate their darling. Once again, I challenge my temperance and am convinced – the moment is one to be engaged in. It would be more rewarding to drink the ‘shine with my newfound community than to be able to say I’ve been three months sober. I strain my eyes and neck into the dark searching for the hooch, at peace with my decision. A hundred jars rampant, no longer. A jug sits empty, desperate thoughts of sucking the bottom dry to get a hit. I resist. I want a pull, a good pull, two with a breather. I look to Stanley, he stands without. Thomas, without. As I can see, Childers drinks the last of the communal bond and then averts my hankering. A meditative guide in real-time speaking my story. Lyric: ‘My mind’s a mile a minute, my mind it barks like hounds, I’m focused on my breathing and the Universal Sound. I think about my darling girl sleeping all alone, I pray the stars’ll shoot’er all the wishes she can hold, on the day that I return I aim to lay her down but right now I’m focused on the Universal Sound. I think about tobacco juice and mason jars of shine, I think about the vices I let take me over time, I recall when I’s a baby I didn’t need nothin’ around but a little-bitty rattler and the Universal Sound. I close my eyes, it was all so clear, it was all right then, it was all right here. I been up on the mountain, and I seen his wondrous grace, I sat there on a barstool and I looked him in the face, he seemed a little haggard but it did not slow him down, he was humming to the neon of the Universal Sound. I focus on my breathing and the Universal Sound, I let it take me over from the toenails to the crown, the body that I’m in ’till they put me in the ground, and I return to the chorus of the Universal Sound.’

Childers is a Sage.

Unattended campfires and cookpits smoulder, flickers of light burn in and out along the treeline. Rising embers against the dark backdrop are eyes, the interdimensional, crossing planes to watch the wonder of our own. The malevolent mollified by the muse, an alternative crowd hidden just enough. Cryptid Cats sitting high in the bows of the oaks having crossed the balds of the meadowlands. The White Things of West Virginia with their sheep-like wool, ram horns and saber-teeth. The Yayho, its reek, the bipedal humanoid crouching on a slope with its relatives the Wood Booger and Wildman – in from Tennessee, their brotherly Sasquatch unable to attend. Monstrosities with mice at their feet. Squirrel, rabbit, weasel, and ‘munk. Beaver, bear, ‘possom, and skunk. Sapsuckers, flycatchers, ‘peckers and hawks. Copperheads, salamanders, turtles and frogs.

This rarity of The Food Stamps line up is due to a guitarist, stage right, twice Childers’ age. And as introduced, he foresaw the talent as an early enabler. David “Chico” Prince, a Lawrence Country teacher fostered the vision of Childers and joins him tonight loaning licks and providing leads. In classic country fashion his partner, Teresa, intervals a harmony. The collaboration is class. Childers beams as he creates with mentors. The Prince’s mirror. Teresa leaves the stage, and myself with an affection for my teachers. A trio, I’m indebted.

Barbara Bruce, Jeanette Cross and Lynette Kaminski.

42. Wook Out America

November 8th 2016 8:00 am

Where the barks and bellows for Angela Perley and The Howlin’ Moons end in round vowels, The Wooks have the crowd stretching hard ‘Es’ through yips and yaps. What seems a much more regional tone to appreciation. If there’s been a doubling of filled mason jars, there’s been a tripling. Personalized gallon jugs of moonshine have been included in each bands compensation, one per member, and are all being opened simultaneously, shared among the collective, as well. A dedication to sobriety is weakening as the cherry and grape fragrances taunt my decision. A bottle of the clear elixir sat as a forgotten gift in the freezer at the family ranch rediscovered in the early stages of my alcohol usage. I remember taking a pull of the homemade booze as a primer resulting in a night of haze. Recalling a taste of fossil fuel, the current fruity redolence in smell could only salvage the memory and replace the experience with the real thing. The adage of Rome couldn’t ring truer to the moment and I’m seeing the importance of sharing it with my new brethren – passing on my abstinence to bond and celebrate with drink. I give the possibility a Catholic perception as one would share in a chalice of the blood of Christ, passing it onward in the communion. Nathan Thomas takes another pull from The Horse Traders gifted gallon jug, passes it to me. And with Catholic guilt, decline.

Arthur Hancock wears Muck boots on stage. Ideal for feeding cattle in the softening spring-time combination of manure, frost, straw and dirt, walking winter distances through the Canadian prairies, and apparently, playing the banjo. I kept Muck’s Arctic Pros in the old diesel band van for winter touring, a broken heater system sent the engines temperature to the floor vents in the front passenger seat only creating ‘the hell seat’, the rest of the vehicles occupants would freeze. My Mucks became part of the touring identity, not without ridicule from techs during load-in and sound-check. My personal connection to Hancock’s attire makes me love his approach that much more. The Wooks are trucker hats and flannel. Galen Green, mandolin, flannel. Roddy Puckett, doghouse bass, flannel.

Wookies Unite – The Kentucky Flag Bearer, The Duck Strangler, Ash Punk, Neck-tat Irishman. New characters emerge including the Bud Light Balancer. Shirtless, front row engaged in a full-body bluegrass thrust all while intricately balancing full cans of beer on Hancock’s monitor, releasing his hand from the alcohol once it’s placed to stay – this seems to not bother the banjo vocalist. The Balancer grabs both sexes, dancing ferociously, breaking to reach for his beverage that defies the laws of gravity – now lighter, he sets its contents back on the top ridge of the monitor wedge and rejoins the movements of his fellow Wookies.

Roberts is among us, we make eye contact and in true fashion checks in on my experience. ‘Incredible, isn’t it?’

“…I read it in the paper fifteen years ago. We’re all driving rocket ships and talking with our minds and wearing turquoise jewelry and standing in soup lines.” The Wooks on Prine.

Winners of the 2016 Rockygrass Competition outside of Boulder, Colorado, They defend the award with a stage presence that is unparalleled. It’s a kitchen stomp that goes instrumental – originals as strong as the material interpreted. Hancock expresses worry for remuneration from Cousin Byron if they don’t play any Grateful Dead and start into a groovy southern delivery of “Franklin’s Tower”.  This explains the skull on the festival signage en route through the hills, The Grateful Dead image appearing on their “Steal Your Face” album in the mid-seventies doubling as a logo for the Appalachian festival – minus the lightning bolt. With one rendition comes another, a crowd erupting with the opening lines from Springsteen’s “Atlantic City”. As the festival sings along to the anthem of organized crime I leave my post and make my back to the van for another quick fix of pork rinds. The Wooks have taken Angela Perley’s elevated crowd and furthered it into its euphoria.

Photo by Tim Benko - www.benkophoto.com
(photo taken by Tim Benko at 2016 RockyGrass Band Competition)

I reconnect with an early welcomer, by chance, at the back of the grounds, a dim luminance from the peripheral of campfires light the face of Zack Walker. Without hesitance we throw our arms around each other’s shoulders and continue in stride. I feel safe in my reasoning that he’s had his share of the moonshine being passed so freely, and as it does all of us, the indulgence of alcohol brings out a philosophical tone to Walker’s response when asking how I found myself in his neck of the woods. He declares it the work of God. I refrain from the pretentious correction that in the Book of John the crowd asks Jesus what they must do to do the works God requires – Jesus bluntly states that ‘the work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent’…but I feel what Walker is saying – I’d argue it’s a little more Blues Brothers than Biblical, but a mission developing into a spiritual quest. A freeness, open to signs, constantly rewarded through synchronicity, thoughts manifesting into realities instantaneously – Walker pushes the concept as if he needs to convince me, so I agree. Yes, the work of God.

It is in this moment I’m struck. My journey is a pilgrimage. My experience in December has left me in an upheaval of beliefs and until now do I realize I truly am doing the work of God as stated by Christ…or more like working towards the work of God, working at believing in the one he has sent. I cannot be told otherwise that I experienced his wonder first-hand last winter, as real as the day is long – and yet I continue to search. After preaching in Galilee, Jesus was approached by a royal official with a sick son. The father begged Christ to perform a healing, Jesus responded: “Unless you people see signs and wonders you will never believe.” Do I need more proof or was my experience enough? Then again, proofs only give way for more questions.

Under what’s become a clear Appalachian sky, deeper questions attack like a mob. I’m feeling forced to look at myself with a rational mind. I stand in disbelief that I simply told my loved ones I was leaving, length undetermined. No push-back. Maybe they saw the underlying truth clearer than I did myself – is it the Spirit of Country Music I am on the hunt for or a sense of the Spirit within myself? Country Music considered, how was this sacral outlook on the genre even instilled in me? Why does its perversion find its way under my ribs to a point that I am so infuriated with the lack of respect to a sound that I’m willing to drive half way across the country to prove its purity still exists? Why do I care? Maybe it’s been foolish to not be more willing to play the game, write to accommodate to a larger listenership and once a foot is in the door then ‘make the album I always wanted to make’. The industry is good if one is willing to dumb down the lyric and formulate the writing, follow the conceptual fads and have touchstones throughout a song – checking them off the list: whiskey, party, booty-call, more alcohol, truck…fuck me, truck – like, since when did that honky-ass cliché reintroduce itself as stereotypical fodder? Part of me feels defeated as an artist fighting for mainstream appeal but refusing to compromise. I wonder if that old mentality of ‘doing in on my terms’ is still a possibility.

And the inner search comes to surface. Fellow worldly Spirit hunters have criss-crossed the globe destined for Bodh Gaya in India where Siddhartha Guatama sat beneath the fig tree meditating for seven days towards enlightenment; Lourdes, France, where the Holy Virgin appeared to three children at the Massabielle grotto; Stonehendge to watch the sunrise above the rocks on the summer solstice; Machu Picchu, the centre to the Andean vision of the cosmos.

And Irvine, Kentucky, where a sold out crowd awaits the appearance of Tyler Childers.

41. Angela Perley & the Howlin’ Moons

November 7th 2016 7:46 am

Where dusk would be an hour away outside the holler, the sun drops for a shadow cast. It’s remnants falling behind the mountain top give the festival vibe no transitional period. Where Angela Perley and The Howlin’ Moons would be a band at dusk in any other geography, here, they are the first act of the night. Fittingly so, the coincidence of her band’s namesake is shared by Luna’s full glow appearing opposite Sol’s decent, her white light arguing the satellite is luminescent in itself. A rain that teased the day away has committed. Pop-up canopies have neighbours squeezing underneath escaping the chills. Stay dry and stay high, icy pelts are sobering through clothes. I saved my outfit change in anticipation of the temperature drop, enhanced by the precipitation. I wait it out, uncovered, while Byron rouses his congregation. ‘Love God’ and ‘Kentucky Proud Y’all’. He continues his appreciation, again, honouring veterans in attendance.

The brim of Perley’s hat flops in waves and long brown hair hangs below. Ankle length dress. An acoustic guitar would assume folk, it’s a Joni Mitchell meets Stevie Nicks vibe given, but her orange Fender Thinline says heavy. Chris Connor plays a red 335 directly in-front of himself, outwards, arms stretched like one would place an instrument in that of a zombie form. Trucker hat covered face. His guitar returns to a more rhythmic and comfortable positioning, low. Ed Davis is the metronome, a Sun Studios t-shirt. William Zehnal dunks, his p-bass is beat and his stance is wide. If The Horse Traders, The Strange Constellations and The Jenkins Twins had their influences, individually, Perley has all styles honed in collectively. She’s a Loretta Lynn fronting a David Gilmour side project, a Janis Joplin that chose Robby Krieger over Jim Morrison, a spun-out Stevie Nicks wrangled by The Dirt Band – She brought the moon to the party, its craters more prevalent, begging for a ritual. The conservative front rowers have ditched their lawn chairs, dripping wet, in crucifixion pose allowing Perley psych to pass through them to me at the back of the site.

photo by Chris Casella

photo by Chris Casella

The downpour has ceased and I swap out clothes, boots and hat. My liberties of walking in and out of the backstage entrance are honoured and I choose side-stage to remain for the duration of the Howlin’ Moons set. An extended jam is successfully decreasing volume and increasing intensity, delays saturate Connor’s tone and he’s manipulating his pedalboard while Perley opts for an instrument change. She crouches with the wooden handle of a saw locked between her kneecaps, holding the tip and forcing the blade into an ‘S’ – bow in her left hand. Pulling the horse-hair across the edge opposite teeth, she swoons pitches to float around a melody. It’s ethereal. Theremin-esque. Her vibrato matches the strobe of the laser show that kicked in on the tree-line minutes ago. Sacred geometry spinning, adding to the psychedelic tone of Perley’s ritual. I’m reacquainted with Patrick Stanley, as wide-eyed as myself in the witnessing of mastery. Under Perley’s guise, her band simply plays well together. Each lost in their execution with the onlookers. A true performance. I reassure Stanley that we can share my first Childers performance as The Howlin’ Moons bring themselves to a close. Their lunar counterpart beams brighter.

Wook Lives Matter. Insensitive at the very least given today’s political climate, but homemade merchandise for upcoming bluegrass entities, The Wooks, fill the crowd. Signs: Wook Country, Wookie, Wookie, Wookie, In Wooks We Trust. A cheer is bleeding over from the desire for Angela Perley to continue playing and The Wooks first appearance to set-up their stage. A local stature gives celebrity status around these parts – where usually the opposite is the effect. There’s a purgatory that an artist can sit in within his community where their successes outside a home region doesn’t translate over to local attendance, never a star in your own backyard mentality. The welling, grand from afar and then everybody at home ‘knew them when’. I have a feeling The Wooks annihilated this concept and were propelled to their Billboard charting status as a result of their local support. A rally song begins their set’s stomp – ‘…all you Wookies’. The crowd knows their vocal role.

Call it presumptuous to a stereotype but The Wooks combination of flat-picking, fiddle-sawing, mando-chunking and bass-slapping has me reaching for an unopened pack of Red Man I jammed into my hind pocket when changing into my jeans. I’ve been substance free for three months and that’s about to come to an abrupt end. A vice to assist with continuing to pass the mason jars and jugs of Kentucky Wine by me every time they circle through. Nathan Thomas takes a pull of a brown jug labeled ‘Apple Pie’ and releases it on its journey among the twenty-odd side-stagers. Never once a mouth piece wiped clean as it’s undoubtedly sterilized by the white lightning. I replace the smell of cinnamon in the air with that of raisins, tearing the foil and dipping into a cheekful of tobacco. A repulsive alternative to a high both for reasons of hygiene and cultural appropriation. But like memories of the catholic church, purest at its lowest rung of the ladder. I’m ambushed with memories as my tongue goes slightly numb and I orally fumble my way through finding a comfort zone, a stream of juice down my throat. Goddamn, odious and appeasing. A rush like I rubbed a leaf into my mind’s eye – directly in the center of my forehead. My first spit and the roof of my head tingles as if my crown is opening, my second is combined with the attempt to expectorate. Throat’s cleared and the familiar wooziness cascades like an uncomfortable body high. My focus shifted between remembering hauling round bales with my brother, sitting in baseball dugouts, rodeo cabarets and beholding one of the coolest fucking bluegrass bands I’ve ever seen. I’m two songs in and my ignorance to the genre is confronted. I’ve been turned off by its bastardization, I share this confession with Stanley along with the option of a dip. He blames my past dislike on what he calls ‘newgrass’ and declines a pinch. A mason jar comes his way and he indulges. An understatement.

Since my departure, there’s been a desire to define country music. I gave the recognition of it a relative stance saying that I’ll know it when I see it, which, for the most part, is its truest ally but considering the longevity of its core proponents, a key factor is evolution. The genre will undoubtedly transform through its conduits, artists with tools so sharp that their talent is a tool in itself to the Spirit. This evolution and sharpened craft is a priority of The Wooks.

40. The Equestrian Ouroboros

October 27th 2016 10:37 am

The Jenkins Twins summon a roar from the crowd with a lyric; “Nashville…I can’t trust a word you say.” The epicentre of aspiration fraud lies 245 miles due southwest, close enough for a quick-fix yet easier avoided. However, there’s no denying the symbiotic relationship between Kentucky’s talent and Nashville’s machine as proven at the Hall of Fame days ago.

The harmonies of Trevor and Trenton Jenkins shared a womb and they’re keeping me from being fully present in my conversation with Emily and Mooney – every line is sung together and I can’t tell if their interval choices are from innocence of no outside assistance or conscious dissonant decisions. Either way they are spot on and causing me to twist my neck in interest. They take the liberties of rendering “Mama Tried” – an homage to the original but with the half-time feel that The Grateful Dead incorporated into the chorus, throughout. Haggard covers are two for two today.

Our trio conversation has evolved to a tetrad and the new contributor is approaching Canadiana. As if I were being set up for a prank reality television show, my reactions are in kind. Yes, I’m a Hip fan; yes, Gordon Downie’s condition is heartbreaking; yes, he’s a warrior; yes, I dig the Weakerthans; Yes, Jian is fucked. Nathan Thomas is the music director at 88.1 FM out of Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia and a remarkable hub of passion. He’s unassuming, charming and an obvious resource to pull regional music knowledge. Like the jar in Hesiod’s Works and Days opened by earth’s first woman, Pandora, the localities escape Thomas like evils. West Virginia: The Fox Hunt, Coyotes in Boxes, Sean Knisely. Kentucky: Nick Dittmeier and The Sawdusters, Quiet Hollers, John Moreland. Canadian transplant: Kaia Kater. Oh, and obviously, Tyler Childers.

Tyler Childers. Both Emily and Mooney interrupt at the mention of the name. I’m asked if I’ve heard, heard of, Childers. A similar familiarity to that of The Horse Traders but nothing that can be pinpointed. I answer with a no and am responded to with shock. My ignorance to Childers’ music releases a flood of adjectives from all parties in listening distance of my answer describing their own takes on everything from his voice to presence. He’s elevated quickly in the insights. The personal connections are obvious but the praise comes off as unbiased. Emily, Mooney, and Thomas are laughing amongst themselves in disbelief that I’ve never been exposed to Childers’ sound and are calling dibs on who gets to stand beside me as I take in his headlining set in a couple hours. Like the devil, He appears.

Somber and with swagger. I suss two obvious particulars from Childers appearance: Seattle fashion circa 1993 is analogous to Appalachia 2016 and The Red Headed Stranger causing excitement outside the Sturgill concert in Ashland is standing before me. He imparts wisdom spurred by the green bottle in my hand opposite the one shaking his and suggests a couple shots of Evan Williams bourbon in my Ale 8. Kentucky Mouthwash. The adoration for the man continues as Emily’s husband joins our circle, again, in disbelief towards my naivety and furthers the personal connection to Childers with pride that the young songwriter stood in their wedding party. Expectation, high.

I’m wanted at the stage. Confused by the random request from birthday boy, Kenton, I hear a ‘where is he’ from the speakers opposite side of the homemade bandstand, see a few side-stage volunteers point in my direction and, out of nowhere, am hustled to the back steps. Unbeknownst and confused, I take one step at a time as a festival crowd applauds. Byron Roberts is a man to give recognition and through an appreciation for my distance travelled and mission committed to, upholds his gratitude publicly. It’s surreal. Like a scene from a medieval revelry, I’m centre-stage. ‘All the way from Sas-kat-chew-wan, Canada,’ Roberts’ annunciation of the syllables are strong through his southern delivery, finalized by an endearing rhyme with ‘yawn’. The acclaim is welling and felt in my throat – complete strangers in a rite of adoption.

My journey to hunt out the Spirit of Real Country Music. A pathway that continued to present itself with every mile travelled and pliant with the flow. A commitment to the wind and being open to guidance, relying on intuition. It culminates with an unknowing cast of celebrants playing into a storyline of importance to nobody but myself. I overlook a mass of proponents in a place where the soul of country music arguably originated and if I were to pay heed to the instinct and knowledge that has presented itself throughout my journey, I could confidently claim the Spirit was undoubtedly conceived in these hills. I found it, the heart. Roberts is pursed-lipped and gives all respect through his eyes, nodding in his clutch. The sentiment and setting is larger than anybody understands and in this moment I award myself a victor.

Roberts meets me back at my previous perch with a continued appreciation for my attendance and in the same manner as Patrick Stanley was informed, is told that I am a virgin to the sound of Tyler Childers. Roberts is lavish.

“He’s got Dylan and Prine beat, unlike anything you’ve ever heard. He’s a walking legend to be.”

I’m filled with pulled pork, beans, Ale 8s and gratitude. Digestion and decompression from the intake, I excuse myself. The collective hail for Childers alters my view of him as we cross paths on my way to spend a few minutes alone – if anything, a testament to his family, friends and fanbase. As I approach my vehicle I continue to be welcomed to Kentucky, singled out mere minutes ago. My pork rind supper replaced by an opposing quality cut, I indulge on a few salty dry wafers and finish off the last of my jugged water. Having only visited half the artisan tents I move towards completing the round and am drawn to a jeweler.

The canopy covers a collection of homemade trinkets, charms and totems. An amulet stands out and calls to me like Frodo’s ring. A bracelet, leather strapping with a horse head locket. In its completion, an image with a striking resemblance to the eternal snake. Another spiritual symbol offered in my travels. The Equestrian Ouroboros of Gnosticism and enlightenment. Egyptian in origin and a predecessor to Christianity. I purchase the talisman as my symbolic Holy Grail and have it placed around my wrist.

This signals my return.

Equestrian Ouroboros

39. The Hospitality of Byron Roberts

October 21st 2016 9:52 am

Tents line the holler. Artisans hawking goods. A stereotype that one would expect in the Kentucky hills is overshadowed by tone of the metaphysical. Crystals, smudges, pendulums, and skulls are prevalent on multiple displays. Quartz, found in The Columbia Mine in Crittenden Country, used in the amplification of energy and thoughts, healing, channeling, meditation and overall spiritual protection. Agate, Kentucky’s official state rock, found exposed in the Borden Formation, gives courage, self-confidence, emotional strength, connects the body to the earth. Geodes, found at the formations of Warsaw-Salem and the Fort Payne, bridging communication with a higher Deity and assisting in astral travel. Fluorite, found in East Faircloth Mine in Woodford County, increases intuitive abilities and links the human mind to the universal consciousness.

The largest of the tents inhabit a corner plot acting as home and hang to Fire Pranksters, a more accepted nomenclature than Ash Punks. A loving hodge-podge of rope-darters, flame-whippers, and fire-eaters incorporating movement and dance into a spiritual testing of limits. Mastering the art of harnessing centrifugal force when in action and passing a blunt around on their downtime, mentally preparing for tonight’s ten o’clock performance. I hold a blue kyanite rock (mineral) and talk to a dog.

From stage the MC is polling the crowd in hopes of finding the oldest veteran attending the gathering. He identifies him as George MacIntosh and approbates the eighty-something year old as a personal hero. He continues by affirming the two rules of the festival; to treat everybody as a brother or a sister and have the time of your life. He introduces West Virginian William Matheny, complete with band The Strange Constellations. They hearken to brit-invation. The Hold Steady meets Bobby Bare. I have a soft spot for a Gibson Flying V and guitarist, Bud Carroll, runs a natural finish with black pick-guard through a Kentucky made Hall amplifier. His tone is defining as it resonates through the holler.

All four Horse Traders are peppered throughout the crowd as the MC walks into the mass and is stopped one person after another. Hands to shoulders, sincerity in face and ending almost every interaction with a hug and another in line. I’m holding a piece of fluorite, my intuition names the MC – Byron, buddy of W.B.’s. I set the fluorite down and continue poking around the artificers. Another West Virginian, poet and renegade graphic designer, Jimbo Valentine draws me in with his prints, pictures, and comic book. Issue One, $5.00, Coordinates Unknown – an Anthology of Space and Time. Heck yes. It’s neon pink cover has a singular eyeball with splashes of stardust, cosmic rays and underlying star maps. The more I open up and accept the ride, the more universal symbols appear in my day-to-day and synchronicity rewards the progress – all a challenge to conservative spiritual views I was initially raised with. Valentine’s abilities are unparalleled. A quick discussion about freelance work and I immediately dive into the comic book on the grass while The Strange Constellations interpret a Tom T Hall classic.

“That’s how I got to Memphis, that’s how I got to Memphis.”

Valentine’s vision is brilliant and I can’t deny finding his work is playing into a larger plan. His poetry spells out memories of formlessness and the transition into the physical world, innocent. His views challenging organized religion and science giving way to atomic destruction. Visuals of the crucifixion collocating World War I. Part Two; Epochs, dives into the concept of infinity, the alpha and the omega. His work in blues and pinks as an homage to anaglyph or stereophonic work of the 1950s.

“That’s how I got to Memphis, that’s how I got to Memphis.”

Moose Jaw Eric has kept and eye on me and approaches with an IPA, a southern gesture which I decline. He accepts my reasoning as trying my damnedest to keep it on the straight and narrow. If I change my mind, to find him. The end of the Strange Constellations set has The Horse Traders wandering, all except drummer, Wood Roberts. I hit the nail on the head with identifying singer, Patrick Stanley’s wife as they walk side by side in my direction – she’s as receptive to the compliment as he when expressing my enjoyment of their set. I’m enamoured by her as much as him. I repeat my small-talk to guitarist Travis Egnor and as indie musicians do, insists on giving me an album, feet away from the festival merchandise booth.

The most successful indies tow the line between ruthless hustlers and generous providers – it’s reading the expectations of the recipient and counter-offering. If they think they are entitled to free merchandise you hammer them for every penny they have, the opposite at times applies as well, however the ideal exchange at said value leaves both parties satisfied…well, the artist usually feels guilt for charging. It’s the new business of undervalued art seeping into the transaction. I have two types of “supporters” – unfortunately better described as “clients”, the ones who expect free tickets because they are your friend and the ones who insist on paying double because they are your friend. I’ve come to disclose these types to the initial that buddies-up and with a “c’mon, put me on the list man, I’m an old friend.” You know who’s on the list? My mom and pops. Which is funny – she insists on paying and he expects to get in for free. The ten-thousand dollar loan warrants his expectation.

Bryon is back on-stage.

Photo Credit by Senora Childers Photography

“We were drinking and I told Chris Stapleton, he’s my second favourite singer in the world to my Ma.”

William Matheny and The Strange Constellations are followed by The Jenkins Twins. Identicals, acoustic and banjo fronting a rhythm section. Their banter on the microphone discloses Byron as Uncle. It’s obvious at this point that this is whom W.B. has sent me to see.

A self-introduction, catching him between other attendees lining up to shake his hand. Thank yous and congratulations. Byron is soft-spoken and genuine – he immediately extends his appreciation for my presence. Word has reached him at this point that a lone Canadian has found his way to the celebration on his land – this celebration being a gift from father to son. He scans the area over my shoulder in search of his boy, Kenton. A twenty-fourth birthday celebration in the hills, bands and a thousand in attendance. The love between the two is paramount. Kenton is as sincere in his welcoming as his father. I’m pointed towards the house behind the stage asking if I’ve eaten – anything I need. It’s insisted that I’m family and with that, further introductions begin en route to the house. ‘He’s come all the way from Canada for Kenton’s birthday.’

I’m overwhelmed and comfortable. Family friends, volunteers and strangers are extending hospitality as we all make our way backstage. I find a camping chair beside Horse Traders bassist, Mooney, and singer’s wife, Emily. I fill a plate with beans, coleslaw and pulled pork. Mason jars labelled with their contained flavour of homemade moonshine available for the swigging. Emily assumes role as hostess and puts an Ale 8 in my drink holder calling it Kentucky’s nectar of the gods. That it is, I have two.

Kenton joining in on conversation is interrupted by his father pointing at him from across the yard – ‘son…son…’ – ‘I love you son.’ It’s a heartwarming moment that encapsulates the tone of this celebration. I feel I’m at the centre of it both physically and emotionally.

“I love you too Dad.”

Let the celebration begin.

38. The Horse Traders

October 19th 2016 9:08 am

It’s Kentucky fashion to complete a hello with a ‘y’all’ and as my East Nashvillian roommates have been making sincere efforts to incorporate ‘eh’  into their dialect, I’ve been reciprocating by honouring local slang as well. It’s a thin line between acceptance and offence, where an accent can throw the tone of the greeting in either direction. As a species we have an innate ability to detect cynicism and sarcasm but a genuine smile will crush any view of insincerity. My greeter’s display of the small Saskatchewan city has me beaming through my usage of the southern vernacular. Hoping to bond geographically, my expectations fall short as the Moose Jaw shirt reveals no recollection of purchase and is worn based on its hip design. It does look good, well done Moose Jaw. The departure of my assumed Moose Javian is replaced by a brotherly welcome from an individual I recognize from the entry gate.

Zack Walker has a spring in his step and is headed back stage, a loose rope barrier separates hundreds of attendees from a handful of guitar pickers and porch swingers. The stage’s rear steps exit onto the front yard of a home. A house tucked into the baseline of the trees; a backyard, seemingly endless national park. The abode is quaint and hospitable – musicians coming in and out as a wedding party would. I break my walk with Zack as my liaison to the entrance and find where I belong. I am back stage, therefore I belong backstage.

Since the dawn of celebratory Rock n’ Roll status, “getting backstage” has been the conquest. An elusive lair of misconduct, debauchery, and special treatment where societal norms do not apply, illicit drugs spur stories of legacy and all sexual fantasies are granted upon mere suggestion. But mostly, just an area that ensures peace and quiet. The unwritten rule that if you make it backstage you are welcome backstage. A realm of respect and conscious action. Don’t drink the band’s beer unless offered. Don’t fan-out, don’t request pictures, don’t ask for autographs. Just be. If you are backstage you belong backstage. The harder the entry, the greater the conquest – dodging security, lining up inside access. However, slyness will always come second to confidence. My backstage acquisition is consistently achieved by walking directly up to security, thanking them for a job well done and asking if I can bring them anything back, walking in immediately as they answer and heading directly out of view. They teach visualization in sport. This is a sport – visualize.

Kickin’ It On the Creek is slightly less stringent. And by slightly, I mean substantially. I nod a hello to a group of bearded brothers who are clearly the upcoming act and walk side stage as they resume up the steps. An introduction that is nothing short of loving refers to the band as family, again supporting the communal vibe throughout the festival. A master of ceremonies in a ball cap, relaxed and off-the-cuff. I experience a subconscious recognition as the band is introduced, at some-point some-where I’ve heard the name The Horse Traders.

Patrick Stanley stands centre stage attracting a motley crew of enthusiasts. With the opening measures, listeners that were once sitting, rise and gravitate towards his energy. From the casual to the emphatic. The characters of the festival are exactly that – unique in their attire and personalities. One can only assume it’s exaggerated through alcohol consumption. A couple bear a sign warning onlookers of ducks. A comedic display complete with costumes; wigs, an orange Stihl chainsaw cap counteracting a forrest green floral dress.  She drags a fowl hunting decoy on a rope and he wields a Commonwealth of Kentucky Flag tied to a branch twice his height. Stanley takes pages from The Drive-By Truckers, Gin Blossoms, and Ozark Mountain Daredevils – he’s an intentional writer. The melodies are what should be on the FM dial and the content connects. I moved away from writing about love due to its complexity and mundane representation; Stanley approaches it head on.

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A couple mid tempo rockers lead into a hit, unofficial, but none-the-less. If what preceded “Hey Carolina” in the set urged a 90’s mindset, it is now further back in the chronological influence two more decades. Travis Egnor runs a telecaster through a Fender Tweed and sits his vocals a fifth above Stanley’s. Snaps undone half way down his chest and sunglasses atop his head, Egnor is more loose in appearance than performance. Jeremy “Wood” Roberts pushes snare/symbol, snare/symbol, matched by Brandon Mooney’s low end – Stanley sings of the crowds in San Antonio. Solo. Big Chorus. The Kentucky Flag Bearer and his Duck Strangling better-half are leading the dancing charge, now joined by an Ash Punk; a member of a group of travelling fire spinners from Louisville.

Roberts counts in the Bluegrass standard, “No Ash Will Burn” – the congruency as the fire spinner sways to the 6/8 swing. His black denim is covered in soot, he bums a cigarette off of his fellow dancers. It burns just like West Virginia coal. The Horse Traders control the flow of the festival furthering into their show. Stanley writes songs for his wife – in a crowd of a thousand, it’s obvious who she is. Sitting on a blanket forty feet from the front, fixed on her husbands delivery. He receives the reaction he anticipates as he calls the lap steel a cry stick, Egnor sits and whines underneath the lyric: ‘We’ll be home soon’.

The tempo picks up and more Kentucky characters come to their feet. Short brimmed tan felt hat with a pom pom, beaded band, a resemblance to stoner piano rocker Leon Russell. Four leaf clover throat tattoos, t-shirt tattered removed of sleeves and sides draped like a poncho, muscular and strung out. Elderly, netback cap and overalls, crippled and cane in the air. Halter-top bare back, devil horn hand sign, vine-like “tramp-stamp”. Tie dye upon tie dye upon tie dye, joints to cigarettes. Volunteers in peach orange. Straw-hats, hippies and hoola-hoopers. Bandanas and beer-bongers. Shirts: ‘Heaven Must Be a Kentucky Kind Of Place’, ‘Got Agriculture Hemp?’, ‘Wooks’ and ‘Colter Wall’. Fellow Saskatchewan Songwriter, Wall, is amidst a perfect storm of successes and making home in Bowling Green, Kentucky – yet to have seen him, his merchandise beats him to me. The black shirt with a coyote smoking a cigarette, his name and ‘Imaginary Appalachia’ – I request a picture.

The Horse Traders come to a close. A new song as introduced: “Watch Your Speed”.

Ian Thornton of William Matheny and The Strange Constellations meets Mooney on stage. Mooney’s skull and crossbones bass strap is badass, Thornton is right. The MC returns to the mic, not after hugging Stanley. Quick strip of the stage and the crowd is still applauding. It sits in my gut – knowing that my departure from home was meant to lead here.

Patrick Stanley, Travis Egnor, Brandon Mooney, and Wood Roberts have lured the Spirit of Country Music. Rocky Tonk. It approached them like a mare to foal, gentle and willing. The band is blatantly rock but refuses to reject the southern accountability, bending licks and drawl delivery. Their content is simplistic and digestible, what we want of the mainstream – an accumulation of Wilco’s Summerteeth, Neil Young’s Harvest, and The Trucker’s Southern Rock Opera. Everyday-man emotion and humility rooted in quality. The Horse Traders are what should dominate radio waves. And will.

The Ash Punk puts his cigarette out on his own pants.

37. Through the Hills to Kickin’ It On The Creek

October 13th 2016 8:55 am

I jotted quick directions down as Kelli gave them but succumbed to her information of the green dots. A homemade brown plywood guitar scribed “Kickin It On The Creek” sits on highway 89 headed south into the hills. My first landmark. The drive is pretty, it goes from farmland to brush quickly, the rain continues to come down, I set my windshield wipers at half speed. I notice a string of vehicles lining up behind me as the brush turns to forest and the roadway inclines. Again, hesitant on speed at the recommendation of both my gas attendant and Kelli, I pull into an approach to let a quarter ton pick-up speed by me. I push the van but soon lose the pickup’s lead into the beginning stages of a winding labyrinth. Neon green cardboard dots show up intermittently with homemade signs as a payoff. One, a large skull. Paint on plywood.

The state and structure of the homes have changed considerably since entering the hills. For every home in good shape are two that push the limits of habitable. Slanted tin rooves with plywood patches. Steep embankments with trailer hitch dwellings parked in the bottom, small with wheels. Interm wooden crate patios. Residents working in the yards, harvesting gardens. Scrawny and shirtless. I gain altitude.

The width of the highway has narrowed. What has been referred to as hills by locals would be more properly labelled as small mountains. Birch for-sure, Maple maybe. The road is slippery from the shower and I decrease speed even more. Homes without windows and tenants looking through, as if they awaited my passing. A tin wall erected mere inches from pavement bearing an American flag tattered and torn. Off the front of the house another deck complete with swing – a young girl pets her dog as her father stands shirtless watching me pass. I stare back. Deer sheddings collected on the exterior of the house, ceramic and glass jugs upside down as if dripping dry on nails angled into the tree off the front step. Broken window.

As I climb, the worse the housing conditions become and the harder the rain comes down. Shanties constructed for the bear minimum shelter, dogs on the road. I recall the sound of the gun shots back in Irvine, miles downhill behind me. Habitually, I open up Google Maps and my anxiety is fed. A small red triangle with a white exclamation mark has “No routes found” underneath. In blue, Try again – there’s no point.

I make it too a communal settling before reaching the summit at a clearing in the trees. I grab my notepad to recall as many reference points as possible, visualizing my turns and documenting them backwards to avoid confusion when trying to get out. Next left after white church, right after American flag – tin house, masks on trees, left at “new” log house. I record my mileage with the intent of doing so again at other features.

A plateau opens a view that is breathtaking. The sun is completely blocked creating a multitude of texture. Charlie Russell would have added purple to convey the depth but the bleakness of greys and blues are saddened by the rich green hills. Open pasture with single donkey, slate coloured hide. Paths forking off the main route, or what I’m assuming is.

My decent is done at half the speed of the incline. Steeper. A roadway that cuts back on itself like an avoided commitment. One would be days attempting to exit without neon green dots – which at this point are few and far between. I’ve found myself lost where a loyalty to a general direction is usually a sure-shot resolution but that logic would not apply in this geography. My skill-set would come up short. I continue downward.

A man stands, a reflective highway vest with a pleasant demeanor. I feel safe in slowing to a stop and asking for directions. He calls me Bubba. I give him my name and he says he’s been expecting me, The Canadian. Standing on the corner of the last turn-off, sent by Kelli to make sure it wasn’t missed. As the turn cannot safely be made coming from the direction I am, I head up the path and turn around at a small clearing in the trees – my friend has since jumped in a small red pickup and went ahead of me. I already have a sense of intimacy about this festival – the host’s extended efforts in assuring my attendance, without a ticket and sold out. My vested friend not wanting me to damage my vehicle instructed me to take a “straight shot” down the hill. The pathway is of a white shale and slightly washed out at points, I laugh at my decisions in disbelief. Nervous and courageous at once. The kudzu vines reappear, destructive and calming – they’ve eaten the area and assumed the general shapes of the vegetation like a python ingesting a goat. I’ve fabricated them as protective entities and again, regardless of the vine’s nature, I’m placid.

I’m clearly late to the party. I reach the bottom and am among hundreds of vehicles parked in no particular fashion, some paralleled, some angled. Another group of people stand alongside the entry, again, expecting me. I’m given my wristband no questions asked. A young girl is taking donation for the local fire department, I give what would have been my entry fee and am told how welcome I am. Acres provide parking that feels more like a rural wedding on the home quarter than music festival. Aunts and Uncles cooking BBQ, second cousins sitting on the tailgates having an afternoon beer in the drizzling rain, extended relatives playing frisbee, and friends of the family introducing themselves to the subgroups as they meander. Hundreds upon hundreds of family members in what I am told is a holler.

At the base of the mountain is a stage. Covered, homemade, and epic. Practical and artistic. Semi stripped tree trunks as side pillars increasing in height from rear to front. A slanted covering faces lawn chairs and umbrellas. The base covered with garden lattice and the woodwork, neat. A reinterpretation of Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues” comes from onstage – upbeat and hard, almost punk. I park the van and change into more appropriate attire – jean cut-offs, Nathaniel Rateliff tee, Bass Pro Shop ball cap and chucks. Wardrobe chosen solely by not wanting to get my straw hat wet – with the hat goes the boots, with the boots go the jeans, with the jeans goes the snap-shirt.

Kickin' It On The Creek Stage

I made it. Kickin It On The Creek. A vibe of familiarity fills the air, zero tension, and a warmth that is juxtaposed by the light rain. Vendors line the side of the trees. Food trucks, tents, and coolers; libations and nosh. Again, more like a heroic family gathering than indie festival. A celebration opposed to financial endeavour. Deep in the hills of the Appalachian Mountains.

Deep in the hills of the Appalachian Mountains a man in a Moose Jaw shirt says hello.

36. Wandering into the Unknown

October 9th 2016 6:26 am

Obama loves bees.

In June of 2014, the United States government established a Pollinator Health Task Force as a response to the rapidly declining numbers in honey bees and other pollinators. As an immediate threat to the agricultural economy, sustainability of food production and environmental health, each state was required to establish a plan, however complying with Obama’s executive memorandum remains voluntary. With the Kentucky economy heavily reliant on agriculture and hence, their benign buzzing friends, two-hundred thousand plus acres of state-owned right-of-way was transformed into protection habitat zones for pollinators.

The native grass grows high south of the I-65. A diamond sign with butterfly and bumble bee characters pokes its head above the blossoms looking like it was transplanted from a Disney themed park. A grassland refuge taking me towards the Daniel Boone National Forest.

Usually my desire for attending festivals as a music lover is outweighed by my lack of desire for public debauchery and camping. This leans more towards the superstar headlining stages and cover band beer gardens – I have a feeling that Kickin’ It On The Creek, my festival destination in Irvine, KY, won’t be that. A small town turn-off Shell station displays an IGA Express Station sign – a quick grocery fix for the night so I’m not reliant on a nine dollar hotdog supper. The burning sweetness of stale cigarettes greet me upon entering, immediately taking me back to my grandparents abode across from the high-school back at home. I’ve only once in my life inhaled a drag, accidentally at that. Del would hollow out the beginnings of a smoke and I’d replace it with my own tobacco of choice, aggressive with the hauls my spliff went from smooth to igneous on my virgin lungs. The lack of cigarettes in my youth, first hand, was filled with the much more pleasurable Red Man loose leaf chewing tobacco. Spitz sunflower seeds being the gateway drug. A high school party habit that was once again used for its male bonding capabilities when moving to Medicine Hat. Sitting in the ball diamond dug-outs at 2 am complete with cigars, Pilsner beer and Clamato Juice. I haven’t bought the stuff in years. And so I do. The straight-edge life no more. It is more in inability to pass on the price, four U.S. dollars versus the thirty Canadian at home.

Red Man, two granny smith apples and a two dollar bag of Baken-ets $2 Only Hot n’ Spicy Chicharrones – my fifth of the trip. My pork rind fixation passed down to me by my mother. This meal not being a healthy alternative to a hot dog – but to be much more enjoyed.

I’m slightly intimidated by the heavy accent and for the first time, mask my own. Weak attempt at that. An offensive, “Aaumph” replacing a “Thank You”. The inside of the door headed out bearing a “No Smoking” policy. I peel the strategically placed sticker off a Granny Smith as I’m down the road, to reveal a rotting hole – I bit the other side to taste the rotten contents. I’m diverted from my path as I pitch the apple by a sign giving direction to a Bluegrass Music Hall. I have no schedule and follow its coaxing. The well kept yards surround an unkempt mansion – eerie and deserted. A yard resembling a newly instated pollinator habitat zone. Past it a sign for the Meadowgreen Park Bluegrass Music Hall, I’m met by a disclaimer to enter at my own risk. A combination of my instincts and time of day have me turned around in acknowledgement of the warned risk, ignoring the abandoned  mansion and making my way back to the highway to Irvine running parallel the the Kentucky River. Where the bluegrass kisses the Smoky Mountains.

The overcast is darkening. The overload of the last four days has been an adventure in its own and I begin to toy with the idea of checking in to this festival, catching an act or two and making it back to Nashville. It’ll be late but the Quest has thrived on late night driving and this means filling up the fuel tank at my next stop. I pull into the Go-Time station that sits on the edge of Irvine and top up the tank with twenty.

“Excuse me miss, where will I find the festival in town today?” I ask the attendant.

“The Mushroom Mountain Festival, son you’ve missed that by five months – I don’t know of any other festival in Irvine.”

“Hm. Kickin’ It On The Creek? Apparently it’s just outside of Irvine.”

“Oh thaaaaaat one? Hun, that’s way out there in the hills. You be careful if you aren’t from here.”

Slightly discouraged, I think what I hear is a gun shot. With the second, undoubtedly. As if the hillbilly stereotype couldn’t have come on stronger. And another shot. Three separate pumps ringing through the air. Jesus Christ, you’ve got to be kidding me. Another. Knowing this will be a story for my return I rush to grab my phone and in the process the perpetrator unleashes, firing shot after shot into what I assume is the sky. If I hadn’t made my decision to go immediately back to Nashville with the well wishes from the gas attendant, I most certainly was headed back now. I hit record on my iPhone and catch another two shots for proof. Loud and clear.

I’m an alien. This terrain is menacing. The hills are the unknown and the locals are warning me of my safety. The coincidence of me entering the Appalachians with impetuous gunshots is almost too much for me to believe. It’s beginning to rain and I’m feeling like I’m at the base of Mordor. Hollywood has succeeded in shaping my expectations. I let this judgement run wild and start seeing the locals at the pumps with physical differences than me. The Kentucky accent is strong and I’m actually feeling fright setting in. I pull away from the pump and hang in limbo at the exit back onto the road – head left across the bridge or right back to Nashville. A four hour trip and the comfort of my own air mattress serves multiple desires – I can enjoy my Lovers and Leavers download that came with the Hayes Carll vinyl and process meeting Sturgill and my time in Ashland over a nice cheek-full of Red Man. I’ve come accustomed to the long driving days, today’s two hour jaunt makes me wanting more. I can get a head start on my preparation for a couple weeks in Music City. I won’t be rushed for the Opry with Craig on Sunday. All arrows point right.

But all signs point left. W.B. suggesting its attendance, using his relationship with Byron to get me in. Shawna at The Kentucky Music Hall of Fame & Museum having Irvine as a hometown. “Mountain Music” by Alabama on Outlaw Country. Fortuity to most but serendipitous to me. Adventure. I’m almost sixteen hundred miles from home with a public declaration of attaining the Spirit of Real Country Music. It would be a gut-wrenching shame to return having chickened-out on the possible grasping of the Holy Grail. Gun shots and warnings be damned.

I’m on the verge of completely losing signal, again having been informed about by the attendant, but my phone chugs through the ether to bring up information on the festival. A single page website offers directions and a contact number. I ask for Byron. There’s no way of reaching him but I’m passed off to his wife Kelli. The idea that a Canadian musician heard of their festival randomly and is looking to “write a piece” on it is beyond her with the initial description. I admit knowing the festival is sold out and use the fact that I’m sixteen hundred miles from home as leverage. I drop W.B.’s name.

“You know W.B.? Well parking is slim we might have to put you down by the barn, there are green dots posted the whole way, there’s absolutely no cell service, its about thirty miles into the hills. Please be careful.”

And with that my decision is made. I make a last phone call to my love that awaits my return and head off into the hills.

Road to Kickin' it on the Creek

35. An Elderly Man and a Tree Fort

October 7th 2016 7:05 am

We grew up on the backs of horses and in the branches of trees.

Left over building material from barns, tractor and hay sheds was kept in “the wood pile”, a neverending supply of plywood, two by fours, two by sixes, and scraps. Jarid, Jody, and I would root around to find the desired lengths of lumber and drag them into the bush of the edge that it sat. We straightened bent nails. We found a way to pry the metal banding off the edge of an old wagon wheel, chip at the perimeter and pull the hard wooden spokes from the hub. Club-like, the pegs were round reaching the outside of the wheel and squared to connect to the center. Rock hard, they served as hammers.

Early constructions had five by eight sections of chipboard connecting trees. Looking more like a holding pen for imaginary cattle than shelter, roofless. An old barn ladder was spared for its material and seen for its original function. Four trees as corners, we nailed two by sixes to make a parrallelogram raised six feet off the ground. Two by fours, a deck planks to finish the platform that sat up off the ground. It beared the weight of three children under the age of eight. So there we would sit.

A series of these platforms popped up wherever tree formation could accommodate. This elevated sight prompted us for greater structures. Even though we graduated to actual hammers reclaimed by my grandfather with hockey stick handles, sawed off, nail usage was damaging to the living foundations of our forts. We scouted the bushes scattered throughout the farmyard and found four beauties in a copse west of the shelter-belt and east of the dugout. Each about nine inches in diameter with strong branches ten feet up. We were about to consolidate all barnyard materials to create our magnum opus. And that we did.

Summer days filled with brainstorming and building, working into the fall. Hiatus for winter, reclaim in the spring and expand in the coming heat. Our youngest sister, Casey, at an age to take delegation. Get us this, get us that. Nails used within the structure but using the structure’ s own weight to wedge itself into the corners of the boughs, strengthened with bailer twine, three strand yellow rope and old halter shanks.

An old house couch hauled from the ‘back room’ up into the trees. We were ready to furnish. Another Costco purchases mom and dad brought home from the city, a dart board. A bunk bed built above the couch. A box made in woodworking 4-H, holding hockey cards and McCormick’s five cent candy. We were inclusive, having sleepovers and allowing friends to do there part in the tree-forts construction and renovations. If a friend had a vision we’d go for it. This lead to a roof top patio and a bailer twine canopy above that. A rope hanging from the edge of a branch – intended to jump from the roof and swing, never used.

Our farm is special. Hundreds of horses once filled its pastures. My aunt would bring the Esteemed down from the city to get a quick fix of ranch-life. High-status friends excited to see a horse and get a country meal. As children, we’d do our performing – on command piano recitals which would eventually lead to a comfort with the company to constitute showing off. Drawings, homemade hockey cards, and our fort.

On one of these Sunday visits we took my aunt and uncle’s single companion through the trees. He was reaching eighty years old but a sport. We latched on to him quickly, besides not everybody got an invite beyond the shelter belt, trip wires exposed. Careful, we invested in protection. We spread the branches through the Caraganas and held his arm coming down the embankment. Unmowed quackgrass and rhubarb. Our pride in full view. We wanted him to come inside, we were proud of the fact we had a couch, bunkbed. He remained on the ground looking upwards. We’d scurry up the barn ladder and jump down, practiced when called for meals.

We grew out of our building phase. One of the most defining of my childhood. That spare time erecting forts was replaced by being old enough to pull our weight with the horses. When we’d once fill a summer in trees we filled summers in the field. The elderly gentleman that we were so proud to show our fort to, passing away. Him and I, one encounter together.

On the eve of my grade twelve graduation I was asked if I recalled that day. I did. Following it, the man made a change in his will and at his death had a sum of money placed in a mutual fund that would grow to pay for my post secondary education. Entrusted to me on my eighteenth birthday. A number I had never seen on a bank slip before, modest.

Against my mother’s will I walked into a car dealership and bought a brand new 2002 yellow Ford Mustang. A peacock display for nineteen year old values. A vehicle that has been a sentimental consistency in adult ups and downs. Guilt-ridden and held onto but unlike an education, has seen its end.

I will sell the car. I will use the money for an education…some kind. Then again, I don’t think anybody can refute that that little yellow mustang has seen me through ten times the education that any post secondary institute could have provided.

Mustang

34. Father David Banga, A Single Drop Of Rain

October 4th 2016 2:08 pm

The small town church is the fabric to a strong community. If allowed to be. If its leader recognizes the truths beyond the institute and grows the fellowship in harmony with his continued study. If he leads through selflessness and inclusion. If his followers challenge his teachings and are open to truths brought about by other faiths in the community. This interconnectedness gives rise to discussion. In a perfect world, a discussion that would take the place of coffee row rumour talk. Appreciation for prayer of thanks in school. A tone to a populace of acceptance, compassion. The atheists, agnostics, and spiritually rich all entitled to their opinions and respect. This is idealism. In reality, the small town church does its best to house a collective of love.

Father David Banga was one of my best friends. He was an example of all the previous ideals. He was a disciple of Mother Theresa. He was a horseman and a farmer. He was the Catholic priest and my open book.

Sunday mornings included feeding horses at 6:30 am. If mass was at 9:00 am we’d feed hay after, if mass was at 11:00 am, we’d feed hay before. If mass was at 7:30 pm on Saturday night, as Father Banga oversaw St. Anne Parish in Kennedy and Kipling, St. Francis Xavier in Wawota and St. Pius in Windthorst, we’d go straight from evening mass to wherever a house party was being held. Catechism was prior to Sunday mass, from there Jarid and I would dawn our robes and assist as alter boys. My piano studies made me a candidate for church organist so from thirteen to eighteen I assumed the responsibility. I loved having control of the musical volume, was ok with drowning out the choir and found humour in playing hockey arena standards as the congregation filled. Father Banga enjoyed it as well.

Jarid, Father Banga & I

He assisted me with three of the seven holy sacraments and hauling grain during harvest, The Eucharist, Confirmation, Reconciliation, and oats. I would do the driving and he would guide me. Everything was easier with him in my rear view mirror. No accidents.

A harvest night would have me grinding through gears. ‘Were Adam and Eve actually two people or did they just represent humanity?’ ‘How can creation be supported when we have scientific proof of evolution?’ ‘Did Jesus actually rise from the dead?’ – The basics. His answers included the metaphorical strength in the Word of God, the inception of the human soul, and a blunt yes. It fascinated me. The more questions I could throw at him the more he gave me answers that pandered to logistics but were rooted in faith.

It was special when he’d say grace. Even more special when he brought the meal. Hungarian dishes of paprika chicken and cabbage rolls. ‘Bless us, Oh Lord’ he’d stop and smile, glancing overtop his glasses. A large man with the daily sweat adding sheen to his side part, ‘and these thy gifts’ said slow and with heart. ‘Which we are about to receive…’. ‘…From thy bounty…’. It was as if every line had dire importance to his being and the love he had sharing them, ‘…through Christ, our Lord. Amen’. He would slowly open his eyes and single out one of us four children and give special acknowledgment. ‘…and Bless Chickie,’ as he called my youngest sister, Casey. He’d slam his hand on the table following the most thoughtful and powerful short graces. As if he was striking the force of God into table top. I always saw it as a blessing in itself. To this day, I will replicate the shocking motion if asked to say grace and not give any back story to its importance.

Father Banga and my Mother worked as a team to give me all the tools I needed to move forward in life knowing I had protection in every situation I found myself in. The power of the rosary. The summoning of the Virgin Mary. God’s Holy Angels. If I disappointed mom in not wanting to go to church, I disappointed Banga by not wanting to be a councelor at his beloved Kenosee Lake Boys and Girls Camp. Each of them because of rules.

If a circumstance wouldn’t allow us to attend mass, mom would gather us four kids on the floor of my sisters bedroom and we’d say the Rosary. Hail Marys, Our Fathers, Blessed Be. Father Banga would usually pay a house visit that night.

I woke up on Friday, December 14, 2012 to the word of his death. A heart attack building a boarding school with his life savings in Kharsala, West Bengal, India. They buried him on the spot. A broken deal on him marrying me.

My mother continues to be a staple in the development of my belief system. My friendship with Banga is the other that keeps me titling myself as Catholic. Believe me, I see the corruption up the chain but sometimes you need to appreciate and devote yourself to the bottom where the purity still exists. Hold pride in a place that was so important to others, that they devoted their lives to passing it on to you. My ideologies have changed through my experiences – experiences so profound they prove my Catholic teaching wrong. However proving teachings of Christ as fact.

Banga didn’t need another trip around – he got it right this time. But if for some reason he wanted one more physical experience it would have been of such a subtly that it could have gone unnoticed.

“I’ll fly a starship across the Universe divide and when I reach the other side, I’ll find a place to rest my spirit if I can, perhaps I may become a highwayman again…”

“…or I may simply be a single drop of rain, but I will remain and I’ll be back again, and again and again and again and again…”

A single drop of rain.

Removing the Veil; Insecurities, Vulnerabilities and Creativity

October 4th 2016 12:19 pm

Real-time.

Allow me to bring down the fourth wall.

I left home on September 7 with a simple goal in mind. Go with the flow. I have a brand new album in my back pocket that I spent months working on. A challenge in its own rite – a ton of material scrapped weeks before stepping into studio with my producer and now even closer friend, Jason Plumb. Months of preparation, playing songs on the road, the boys knowing there parts, only to have me break the news that we were going to go in a completely different direction. A concept album about the breadth of the human experience – some of the songs able to translate over but essentially start from scratch. A cosmic and spiritual event on December 9, 2015 left me with a world turned on its head. Still searching out explanations for the experience I felt the best way to find answers was to have my art imitate life. Everyone involved in the project gave me their trust and I will forever be grateful – our time spent together with an overall common goal and truth in that process has made myself, The Vultures, Melanie and her trio a tight family – and like any family, dysfunctional at times. But they all followed my lead and vision. The all managed my insecurities and recklessness, especially Melanie. A search that she remains by my side in.

Any other producer would have seen their role to get the product completed but as an artist, Jason understood my torment. We spent hours recording players and parts, only to scrap them – late nights and bunting heads. Arguments that put me in tears at the end of the day. I had never been a part of such a draining process. I tapped into the depths of my emotions, parental relationships, family issues, and personal dependancies to lay all vulnerabilities on the line, and out there for judgement. For as cathartic and healing as it was, it left me dry. All this, in and around parameters to stay true to a concept, sub-themes, and artistic integrity. It is my most truthful self-representation.

I’ve developed a map of how to release a record over the years. It isn’t perfect, in fact, it’s riddled with flaws. But throwing it all at a wall, seeing what sticks and having my nose to the grindstone has blessed me a modest support group, ticket purchasers, and a network of industry people that support my moves – but outside of my joint efforts working with Melanie, I’m still a lone dog in the game. For the fist time in years I chose to use my recording as leverage in building a team to take everything to the next level, share a vision, support vulnerability in art and day-to-day decisions. The years of hustling door-to-door has me confident in approaching people, so by relying on this I felt it was time to build that team. A contact event like Americanafest in Nashville seemed like a good place to start – I received the masters a week before leaving.

With a lull in our touring schedule, having started an intense summer on May 7 and working the road until the end of August – part of me wanted to take my five weeks off and help my family harvest. Fill the creative well and spend time with my mom, dad, sister Jody, brother Jarid, his wife Britt and two adorable nephews, Tucker and Clyde. But something was just eating at me inside to honour and instead of heading home for harvest, taking a weekend to fly to Nashville for Americanafest, and heading home, I allotted five weeks of freedom. I had Americanafest as an anchor but weeks before and weeks to follow I would find my creativity again through osmosis and see as many live shows as I possibly could.

As independent artists, we are programmed in this day and age to report back – Tweet, Instagram, Facebook, etc. Part of this is driven by ego – I was ‘here’ and you are not. However, it is an outlet for the growth of any artist’s brand and should be treated as such. With my decision to drive around the states, I was excited to unplug. But no indie artist can afford to neglect that instantaneous fix their followers desire so I thought I would commit to a few blogs. Take some notes in a couple of the live shows and share a vein of country music that is dear to me. Sacred, if you will. Then the first blog got shared.

For as confident as I am with songwriting, I’m extremely insecure about other forms. Longhand, essay, creative, blogging. It’s been instilled in me that I’m ‘too wordy’. My grammar is weak and I make up words. After suppressing this side of me for years I felt it needed to be approached head on so four years ago I began reading. An intense workout for that side of my brain. As many different styles and authors as I could take in. I had yet to still put myself out there with writing.

I followed up with a second blog on September 11. The intent, to pay attention to detail – a prevalent attribute to McMurtry, McCarthy, and Irvine. But nobody did it better than Donna Tartt in The Goldfinch. Little did I know that by developing this story about a conquest for Country Music and approaching my writing insecurities it was becoming a massive creative outlet. A side I hadn’t tapped into since March. I brought my guitar on the trip with the intent to write – it was replaced by my laptop. As the blog gained traction I also found its evolution into reading like a book with backstories and memoire-esque entries. All which I welcome and am excited about.

The Quest is still a thing and is being honoured. I’ve been frantically taking notes and attending amazing shows, meeting influential entities and still going with the flow as much as possible but now the responsibility of keeping up on the story in blog format is shaping my decisions in the journey. Where art imitated life, I find myself making decisions for the sake of how the story will play out in blog format. I’m three weeks ahead of the storyline and filling my time with typing in a coffeeshop in East Nashville before having to leave on Sunday for responsibilities with my band and partner, Melanie. I guess this is a small spoiler to the story, conflict with self.

I’m jumping back on the wind, friends – I have one more week in the state of Tennessee and will be astounded if it plays out wilder than my last few weeks. There are major developments in the Quest for Country Music, characters that have changed my life, truths I have recognized within myself.

I am committing to a dedicated amount of blogging time to continue the exercise of writing and moving through creative insecurities. I am committing to developing these entries into book format – I never saw it coming – these original entries will remain but an editing process and additions will find their way into a publishing. All based off this blog. This entry included. You are all getting my first draft in real time, uncensored and honest. Lastly, I am preparing the release of a record that I’ve never been more proud of – who will be a part of the release is still undetermined but regardless, its content is devout to the Spirit of Country Music, its my songwriting at its best. Its Bryce’s guitar, Steve’s drumming and Melanie’s voice in their truest form. My brother Chris Henderson and sister Megan Nash give the album texture. And Co-creator Jason Plumb proves why he is one of the most forward thinking producers in the country. We have local players from local bands – Saskatchewan being the most vibrant scene…well, internationally.

The Quest has become Spiritual. It’s become a battle and I recognize my role. Actions that I stand by may have been skewed from the original message and undoubtedly have affected my career and maybe even the career of others – namely my outspokenness about the quality of today’s songs driving the mainstream market – but I will remain true to my belief that no matter who has taken the hit, myself included, it can all be fixed with one thing.

A well written song.

Coffee-shoppin'

33. Six Songs & a Yellow Mustang

October 3rd 2016 10:59 am

“…TILL THE NIGHT CLOSES IN…DUH DUH DUH DUH…TILL THE NIGHT CLOSES IN…”

I have a tummy full of Timmys and I’m belting out my guilty pleasure song at the top of my lungs along to the radio. It’s a moment of rejuvenation.

This morning’s shower returned me to my original state. I’ve interacted with hundreds of people in my Quest thus far, full contact and personal. My openness to beliefs and ideologies has me vulnerable and influenced. Encounters with all levels of others’ good and bad energy. It’s liberating and contaminating. The rain sent it all back to where it came from. I’m a new version of clean.

Outlaw Radio on SiriusXM with Hillbilly Jim, six songs in sequence:

Exile – “I Wanna Kiss You All Over” – Kentucky superstars. The simple progression of the one chord to the four chord repetition is all that’s needed to put lyrics to. I think it’s melodically perfect. That first bass “ba-doop” gets me every time. An enjoyable period before they go to the five. And of course the big ending. Damn. Every time. I nice musical tie to my whereabouts geographically.

Alabama – “Mountain Music” – I’m about to drive into the Appalachian Hills, hopefully to get a taste of just this. Mountain Music, like grandma and grandpa used to play. Alabama sits in a similar place as N’SYNC for me. Remember “God Must Have Spent A Little More Time On You”? Nonetheless, I sing along, like “Bye, Bye, Bye”. Bass shots at the end…ba-doom, crash, ba-doom, crash, ba-doom, crash…snare, snare, snare.

Waylon Jennings – “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out Of Hand” – Big bass notes, bow-bow-bow. This song says it all. The online pissing matches and self-proclamations of being an “Outlaw.” I sit beyond it – a Truther. Allow me to let the cat out of the bag, the unwritten rule is you can refer to others with the word, but never yourself. I thought everybody knew that. Qualities held by iconic individuals referred to as “Outlaws”: Compassion, truth, loyalty, devotion, artistry, spirituality, courage, authenticity, encouragement. The ability to fully dedicate to and honour these qualities comes with the recognition of duality. We all have a dark-side and its a difficult battle to live a passionate life by suppressing the evils. The indulgence gives a sense of balance and can easily run amuck. This is where the ‘bad-boy’ fasçade originates from. An “Outlaw” will always stand up for the underdog and empower others. Hopefully in the journey, overcome demons. The “Outlaws” also championed God – Cash’s rebirth in the cave to Nelson’s sense of spirituality. Jenning’s disclosure in “I Do Believe”, Kristofferson’s gratefulness in “Why Me Lord”.

John Hiatt – “You’re All The Reason I Need” – With his usage of the word ‘baby’, this song is about a woman. A devotion to a woman. I allow myself to interpret the word to suit my thoughts as I drive through the Bible belt. I’ve scanned XM radio I found myself curious in the content on the Christian stations – I can appreciate a positive message but wow, cookie cut fodder. “You’re All The Reason I Need” speaks to me deeper about my connection to Christ than anything on those other Christian music channels. I’m genuinely moved by this song with the reimagining of the message. I pass three crosses on the side of the road – another synchronicity.

Margo Price – “Tennessee Song” – The phase on that lead. Sha-wing. Considering my direction of travel, southwest out of Ashland, I am doing as Margo suggests – going back to Tennessee. We went to see Sturgill in Winnipeg this summer to suite our touring schedule. The coming Saturday we were to play the “Rock the Harvest Festival” in Austin, Manitoba. Six Shooter Record’s Interstellar Rodeo happened to be the same weekend in Winnipeg so as a band we made a live-music listen/play/work trip out of the whole ordeal. Margo Price played Interstellar on the Saturday night alongside Wilco. The Saturday that we had to miss to head west of the city to play “Rock the Harvest”.  Double disappointment, Wilco and Margo. She rocks – seems cool, collected and vibrant in her own sound. Hardcore. I dig.

Sturgill Simpson – “Brace for Impact” – All the other songs have held their own cosmic message, I can only assume it’s time to buckle up. The Apotheosis has spoken.

three crosses

I’ve made my way back onto the freeway and am passed by my yellow mustang. Same colour, make, model, year. Tinted windows – maybe replaced bumper, who knows. Not enough time to see if the hind driver side rear panel has the paint scratched off in a three inch chuck where their brother ran into it with the front end loader. Or if the rear drivers side quarter glass was shattered unexpectedly while they were driving around pissed off one evening. New clutch, windshield, and mustang emblem. Someone tore mine off the first week I had it, drove around for thirteen years without one.

That car has done me well. Like my Catholicism. Sometimes tough to be seen in as it doesn’t properly represent my character. Like my Catholicism. But room needs to be made for greater things to come in. With the news that my landlord was selling my place of residence on September 1st – I held a garage sale. Again, very sporadic. One day I was packing a couple items into boxes and then next, everything must go. It was a success and cathartic. Vehicles were up for sale as well – The Whitebear, my diesel touring van with 440,000 kms and my 3.8 L 2002 yellow Ford Mustang. 240,000 km. Highway miles. Medicine Hat to Regina and back. It ended up being an efficient little acoustic touring vehicle, tough sleeps though. I’d arrange gear, pull down the backs of the read seat and lay half in the trunk, still unable to stretch out. A reclined driver’s seat gave for more zzzz.

I took pictures of it before I left with the intent to go through the avenues of sale. Bill of sale already signed, sitting on Melanie’s kitchen table.

Sometimes you have to part with emotional attachments to make room for greater things.

Mustangs, for sure. Maybe even Catholicism.

32. A Gift From The Gods of Canadian Iconicism

October 2nd 2016 8:13 am

An elderly couple sits to my right. He’s mumbling over a crossword and she’s reading the Daily Independent. She’s excited for tonight’s show at Poage Landing Days.

“Travis Twitty plays tonight, he’s one of those overnight sensations.”

I can’t help but eavesdrop after that just came out of her mouth.

“Was his daddy that famous singer?” She asks her now engaged husband.

“No,” he replies, “his mama is from Conway, Missouri and his daddy is from Twitty, New Mexico.”

Solid gold.

She accepts his answer and goes back to thumbing through the morning paper.

“I can’t stand those brown people either,” she breaks the silence.

Jesus.

Obviously inaudible to the morning barista, she is coincidently brown and yells ‘Lord Jesus, help me.’ She spilled milk.

“If that Hillary wins, she gonna be in the White House, dead within a year. All kinds of health problems. She is a woman you know.”

This woman is just spitting them out this morning.

On the opposite side of the coffeeshop one is being harassed by another twice his age. How he’s dressed.

“You’re wearing a puffy shirt,” pointing. “You have eighteen pockets in the vest. Boys, he’s wearing a puffy shirt like a pirate and has pockets like a fisherman.” They are all erupting with laughter. “You have the same problem as Sheldon on that T.V. show my wife likes.”

The subject shows his nineteenth pocket on the inside of his vest. Let’s his hecklers know the jokes on them.

I’m cruising around the Farm Aid website yet allowing W.B.’s weekend suggestion to unbalance my decision in attending the Willie Nelson festival. Something isn’t sitting properly. For as willing as I am to making the six hour trek to Bristow I’m being pulled by a much less glamorous event. I committed to a journey to find the Spirit of Real Country Music – everyone knows Willie is it, that doesn’t need discovering. I’m looking for the unknown. That, and the core identity of Real Country Music. It makes more sense to travel to Abbott, TX as the birthplace of Willie than to Bristow to see him live. As far as Margo and Nathaniel go – I’m sure we’ll cross paths in the future somehow. I send W.B. a text and let him know that I didn’t end up driving out to Irvine yesterday. The little festival is sold out. If I head in that direction today, what are the chances that I can even get in? He replies telling me to ask for Byron, that Ol’ Dubya Bee sent me.

Aye.

Decision made. I grab my book and leave. I look forward to returning to this little Starbucks in Ashland.

My first red light has a vetern standing on the corner. His cardboard sign lets me know, that, and he’s hungry. His left foot doesn’t exist, a bandaged stump does. He stands upright on it, slightly leaning into crosswalk pole. Just heartbreaking. I drove the I-65 S from Chicago on September 11. The overpasses had single bearers waving or draping the starts and stripes. Displays of patriotism; anger, hurt and pride. America will come out strong on the other side of this. The image I see in this moment is heart-wrenching.

I battle giving all I have – it would be a grand gesture. I settle on dollar bills and all my apples. He’s grateful, blessing me like many of the other Kentuckians I’ve encountered during my stay in Ashland. An unhealthy but effective stimulus; guilt triggers commitment. I want to make a change, is this my fight? I’m not American. It’s not about being American, it’s humanitarian. The light turns green and I sit there. The cars behind me are patient as I give my friend more money.

I turn onto 13th St to eventually connect with the I-64 E and I cannot believe my eyes. The paradox couldn’t be any more uplifting. A gift from the Gods of Canadian Iconicism. As if my longing for home couldn’t have been cured any quicker; I’m stunned. I drive smack dab into the revelled and iconic. In the heart of Kentucky, ready to puke with homesickness and there it is. I’m immediately transported to Cranbrook, Taber, Weyburn, Virden, Vermillion Bay, Iroquois Falls, Sherbrooke, Moncton, Truro and Baddeck.

A Tim Hortons. In Ashland, Kentucky.

Tim Hortons

I can’t pull in quick enough. I bust through the front doors and I’m in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

One regular medium coffee, boston cream donut, sausage breakfast sandwich on an asiago bagel – toasted. Four ketchups. The usual. My excitement is shared with the staff. They tell me they’ve never heard someone speak like me before and ask for a picture. I return the favour and snap one for my own memory. I’m revived and craving the coming adventure.

Back driving with my knees I eat my donut in four bites and move on to the corner of a ketchup package – lost in the moment. I have someone exited the 65 and am driving on the more scenic highway 60. No worries, it connects down the way.

Hillbilly Jim on Outlaw Radio is talking about September 11. It’s a somber recount of overlooking the remains from his hotel room – he’s not one to get too sentimental over the radio waves but is sharing a personal moment.

Again, my life is being filled with this synchronicity that cannot go unnoticed. The connection between my thoughts and how the road is unfolding is enough to make a guy pinch himself.

“Anyways, I thought I’d just share that,” Hillbilly Jim concludes, “Here’s Kentucky’s finest – Exile.”

“I Want To Kiss You All Over.”

31. Harvest Moon & Kentucky Rain

October 1st 2016 2:10 pm

The late afternoon heat makes breathing difficult. The air has a water quality to it and condenses in my lungs. By this point in the day it’s too late to leave for Irvine, I more-less expected it to slip away on me. I make a lap through the carnival section of the Poage Landing Days. The dings and whistles are tiring. I’m told to throw a dart for a chance at “winning” a piece of garbage in the shape of a plastic alien. I just flash the peace sign and continue to my vehicle. I don’t think I’m going to stay for Travis Tritt tomorrow but am going to spend the night tonight. The heat is making decision making more difficult than usual. I’m hungry but have let perishables parish in the heat of the cooler. A bag of carrots turned to mush, hummas hot and overpowering, strangely my last Walmart tomato is not only cool but rock hard. I come to the conclusion it isn’t a tomato and garbage it along with the other spoiled goods.

The Starbucks has become an unexpected place of Zen and its air conditioning is comfortable if prepared for. I put on my jean jacket and root around for my Rebel T2i owners manual. I’ve avoided this part of my learning, relying on the easy of the iPhone. Boisterous Big Pharma and his skite side-kick have vacated the Starbucks premises – I return to nobody having experienced the earlier drama. I’m board by my reading material and make for a Contigo supper. Requesting hot water, my barista counteracts the offer with decaf coffee, I lie and say sometimes I just like to drink hot water. A free Contigo full of hot water and a make my way back to the van. Pouring a little out I break a bag of Itchiban noodles in half, and place one half on top the other in the mug – a save a small chunk to eat raw. Add half the seasoning, twist the lid on and let sit. Sprinkle a touch of the flavouring on the raw chuck and crunch on it 90’s style. I let the vehicle run to cool it down and listen to Mojo Nixon hype up Farm Aid. No hyping needed – it’s Willie and Neil. John and Dave. Sturgill, Nathaniel, Jamey, Margo, Lukas. Holy Shit, when is this. Tomorrow.

A mega line-up, four-hundred and ten miles east of Ashland in Bristow, Viginia. I’m going. I have to. Six hours, that’s nothing. Margo Price and Nathaniel Rateliff – how could I pass that up. They’ve each become two of my favourite artists this year. I’ve never seen Neil. Done. I’m on a high waiting for my noodles to cook in the vacuum-container. The broth is my favourite. The noodles are cooked perfect. Quick supper fix.

I can’t sleep in the Starbucks parking lot. So I go up the street to the Bob Evans parking lot. A restaurant chain with decent evening lighting. The sky moves from clarity to cloudy. A hot sun is replaced by a hidden moon. A hidden harvest moon. The last one for the next eight years. Since being more vocal with spirituality through my online mediums I’ve attracted and reacquainted with friends of similar experiences. One being an old Medicine Hat golf course co-worker, Jessi. She’s guided me through changes and shown support in areas that I felt relatively alone in. Even if completely psychologically based, I’ll keep a couple rocks around for good measure. The van holds an orange calcite. My jean jacket pocket, a rose quartz, breast pocket a citrine. They were gifts with good intention. My friend, Megan Nash suggested a blue kyanite for throat blockage – sure, I tense up when I sing, why not?

I reach for my calcite, it accompanied my Guy Vanderhaeghe book from Melanie before leaving.

I lay on my back, stripped for comfort and fall asleep.

Harvest Moon

Harvest Moon

I isn’t a dream. It’s of a lucidity that I’ve experienced very few times in life, if ever. It more of a memory playing out or ridding itself. It doesn’t even completely feel like my memory. I’m of the opposite sex and confused. Hovering as if floating on water, two densities, in to one and back into the other. It isn’t pleasant. I’m back into the heavier density and in a room, walking to overlook the space from the top of a stairwell.

Awake. The moon as clear as a bell cutting through the open window. What in the living shit did I just experience. I’m shaken and stay up for another hour or so reading. I slip under again into a dream world – Unlike the last experience this is clearly a dream and I’m myself. Wild sexual escapade. One that brings me to a 5:30 am wake-up.

It’s raining outside. I skipped out on the baby-wipes last night so begin the four napkin process. One for my face…wait. It’s raining.

Barefoot, shirt off, jean cut-offs. I open the side door and stand in the downfall. This is more than just a cleaning. I can feel every drop on my scalp, shoulders, back, tops of my feet. I just stand there with my head hung, water running off my nose. The early morning work commute watches from a red light. Bob Evans breakfast staff pull into the lot. I undo the button on my jeans to allow water flow, subtle move. The moon has shifted in the dark morning sky as the rain continues. It lets up. I give thanks. And feel one last single driving drop of rain.

I use the towel my aunt gave me and dry off in the drivers seat. One more Starbucks coffee before bidding farewell. A quick Facebook fix lets me know today would have been Hank Williams’ 93rd birthday. I wonder how Ethan is doing.

One, one-dollar refill, slightly salty from last night’s supper. I map out my route to Farm Aid.

30. “He’s Studying People, Nick”: The Jehovah’s Witnesses & The Republicans

October 1st 2016 7:42 am

Kentucky

Three couples stand under a tent. A television playing images of people looking distraught, head in their hands. Two in black suit jackets, a third with sleeves rolled up and the women in dresses. Flower print patterns. Middle aged, they look eager. All six watching me walk in their direction. A woman walks from behind her post, around the table, holding her hands beneath her breasts and above her navel. Crossed, content and smiling.

I’m intersected by a balding gentleman with a small orange book. Psalms and Proverbs on its cover backed by vine looking vector images. A stock design. With the self-reflection Proverbs has provided on this trip I accept his gesture but not after letting him know I already have a Bible. ‘I bet it doesn’t fit in your pocket’, again, I accept. It’s the size of my iPhone so i tuck it the back of my jeans.

I express how happy I am to see the group of six, a mixture of being genuine and throwing them a bone. With my past connection to the Jehovah’s Witness religion, I admire their hustle and judge their ideologies. However, in a current search of enlightenment I am open to any tidbit of spirituality that can move my journey in a positive direction. They ask who I am and what I do. I answer with a pompous description rooted in humour. ‘I’m a twang warrior on a journey traversing the nation with light and love in search of authenticity and the Spirit of Real Country Music.’ It garners a genuine laugh, my welcomer, Grace, blesses me.

“Are you a follower of Christ, Son?”

“Ummmmm…yes. well…yeah, I am. I’m a version of Christian – still shaking it all out. But yes, I believe the teachings of Christ.”

“Are you a believer in the Word of God?”

“Ummmmm…yes. well…yeah, I am. I’ve found truths in the Bible. I question its history but I think its all there. I’m a traveller and its given some guidance for sure.”

Grace quotes Psalm 84. “…blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.” “That’s for you, young musician.”

I’ve always been impressed by the ability to quote the Bible. The most Badass in Westerns seem to do it flawlessly. My desire to do so, however, could be ego driven. A display of intelligence opposed to its true worth. This is a nice opportunity to ask questions. I’ve allotted myself a couple hours before possibly making my way to Irvine. Yet to decide, influenced by the fact Travis Tritt is playing tomorrow night.

I’m asked if I ever wonder why God allows bad things happen to good people, this feels like a text-book approach to connecting with me on a humanistic doubting level. She points out the key word ‘allows’ and offers that it’s not ‘makes’.

I imagine it’s due to habitual practice, Grace assumes I’m a lost soul. I did give that impression with my choice of the words ‘journey’ and ‘searching’. I retaliate with a synopsis of my upbringing, my years as an alter boy at St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Kennedy, my dedication as organist following that, what the Catholic Church instilled in me. She snagged the Catholic point and re-established her connection admitting her Catholicism at one point in life – she quotes Matthew 23.

“…and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethern.”

Another literal biblical point. How could you call one Father, when there is only one Father; God. Not Father or Rabbi, but Brother. Grace continues. This kinda works for me. The usage of the word Brother has become my most sincere form of connection. Yes, I agree, we are all brothers. Now I have them.

I challenged the updates of the Bible. They say we no longer speak in old english and the King James Version accommodates to modern linguistics. I take them back further to a time when the translation of the Bible left omittance. They ask how the Word of God could possibly be changed. I ask if we can still communicate with beings of love such as angels, they ask why would we need to if all the answers are in the Bible. I admit marijuana usage, they condemn its inhaling but condone its strength for rope. Graces husband enters at this point and begins to re-quote her already quoted passages. They follow up with alcohol consumption being acceptable. I verbally recount Rennebohm’s experience and attest for his core beauty. Members in his meeting hall living dual lives, the hypocrisy in his dismissal. They quote repentance. Through this rally, I am becoming fond of Grace, also a fellow Canadian. London, Ontario. I demand a critical mind and a compassionate heart in religious practice. Non-judgement. I’ve found seeds of beauty in all Faiths and more ties that bind than points of contention. Grace held her own in our discussion and wishes me well. Her husband is passionate in his mission, he pokes me in the chest in our engagement and shakes my shoulders. I appreciate the physical contact.

I make my way past a wood workings and crocheted dolls. To the Donald Trump cardboard cutout.

Two ladies manning the booth. Sweet in appearance, one wearing the revolting Make America Great Again cap. I have a short fuse for any Canadian that wears that cap out of irony. It disgusts me. An uneducated opinion attempting to snag attention, supporting an embodiment of racism, homophobia, corporate interest, male bigotry, and the objectification and degradation of women. Fuck them.

Phoebe on the other hand, actually wants to make America great again. Trump has successfully tapped into America’s fears implanted by past government and is perceived as a saviour to the desperate. His lies resonate as blinding truths that give hope. The issue with American complacency is controlled by Trump’s ice-cold stainless steel snaffle bit; giving into its direction, trusting the controller. Prejudices and racism live in all of us, it stems from the biological instincts of protection. Trump feeds this wolf making compassionate, hardworking, accepting people turn vile. A plethora of degrees.

Phoebe and Diana call me Love. Their southern charm is beautiful. They speak to me in a gentle calming tone. They’ve worked their whole lives and have been manipulated by the man. They disclose their Christianity and remind me I’m in the Bible belt. I’m so enamoured by their pleasantries that I don’t want to leave. They were Democrats, Kentucky has been a Democratic state since the mid-sixties. No more. I’m assured that Donald Trump will become the next President of the United States. I work my best at challenging their beliefs. I ask how a Christian could refuse refugees. I advocate my Nationality.

I’m introduced to Phoebe’s husband. Another good ol’ boy, Nick. He asks what I’m doing – strange question. Phoebe answers for me and says I study people. What a wonderful reply.

I’ve been in Kentucky for two days. The people have a soul that is unique to them. Accepting and talkative. Intelligent in conversation and proud of their beliefs. A sense of social progressiveness is awakened in conversation, a paradox to their Republican and Fundamental Christian titles. The ones that call me on my accent are thrilled it’s Canadian. It’s as if they have some unconscious connection to my homeland, almost stereotypically Canadian themselves.

I’m filled with their love but miss home. I missed home the first night in North Dakota but the sense of adventure overcame it.

My longing has returned.

29. Selling Albums Door-to-Door

September 30th 2016 2:34 pm

door to door

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, nothing ain’t worth nothing but it’s free…”

I was homeless for the better part of the year. This was another advantage. I’d bounce from relative’s basements to buddy’s couches. Pit stops at the family farm and back on the run. I changed my vocation title from Door-to-door Salesman to Hustler. Same job description, just a redefined attitude. I knocked on virtually every door in every residential area of Medicine Hat and Lethbridge, Alberta. One in ten doors answered resulted in a sale. Crescents with homes built in the early seventies had thirty year owners, mortgages paid and good jobs – extra money to support a hustlin’ artist. New development had quadplexes, doors closer together, tenants with debts but a higher quantity to hit with less foot-work, one in twenty answered doors resulted in a sale but twice as many doors knocked per hour.

I’d swing deals. I’d leave albums with tenants for the day, sometimes overnight. I printed flyers with my phone number to allow residents to do their homework. My Friday, Saturday, Sunday focus turned to every day of the week. Beginning at 2 pm and going until 9 pm. five or six days a week – once, twenty two consecutive days. At least 45 weeks a year. Three years. A quarter million doors. The experiment became an education.

A Saskatchewan blizzard was my best friend. Nobody would go to work, every home occupied. A mixture of admiration and pity. I wore two pairs of gloves, a scarf covering my face, toque and hood up under a full body, one-piece denim Skidoo suit. The faces of the jewel cases would fog upon being invited into a home. People asked if I was crazy. And they’d buy an album. I’d stay moving, warming up inside a house would only make for a more discomforting cold when leaving. It would get dark at 5 pm and I’d continue to knock on doors until 9 pm. Didn’t care.

Thousands upon thousands of rejections. They all affected me – some were empowering and some were crippling. I told people off in their own homes. Some days I was entitled to the sales, a denial would infuriate me. Usually I reflected their sentiments. A polite refusal would be accepted. A rude refusal flicked a switch – I never once keyed a car. Spit on a door, yes. I moved through this period and kept grace at hand.

I was cornered by a man that went out his back door and backed me up against his front door. He said he wanted my shirt – I was confused, he repeated his request. I laughed. He didn’t think it was funny and grabbed me, I pushed him back and dropped an album. He went for the CD, pushed me out of the way and disappeared into his basement suite. I was shaken and left. I walked back to his house that night and repeated my actions from earlier in the day, knocking on his door. He answered. I told him he had no right in stealing my wares and demanded it back. His basement resembled a rainforest. Misting and plants covering the walls. He counted out ten dollars in nickels and tossed them at me. I grabbed my disc and left. He let me know I was lucky he didn’t kill me.

I made lifelong friends and supporters. Bob Edwards called CTV News, we reenacted our first door-to-door meeting for the cameras. He hosted an impromptu house concert, family and friends, tv cameras – the story aired that night at 11 pm. Everyone in attendance as part of the magic. I remained close with him and his wife, Nora.

I was invited in by a wealthy Japanese businessman. All I understood were the words “Michael Bublé” and “Celine Dion” – I said yes. We feasted on whale, raw fish, and fried SPAM. I drank warm sake with him into the night. No english. We watched Celine Dion concerts on Blue Ray.

I was bitten by dogs.

I declined a threesome.

I returned to a woman drinking wine, house-sitting for a friend.

I went one for one with an oil worker. For every beer I drank with him he purchased an album. He gave me ten dollars each time he went to the fridge. I handed an album over in return.

I called an ambulance for a man having an attack. Alone in his house he answered the door and looked through me blankly, began stumbling backwards towards the basement stairs. I jumped in the door and grabbed him as he went head first into the closet. 911. I got him up and said there was help coming, he fell down three steps into his living room – I stayed by his side and got him water. Ambulance on their way. Matched his last name on a wall plaque to a last name in his address book by the phone, ended up calling his son. The randomness was overwhelming for him and he rushed over to meet the ambulance coming up the driveway. His father, a severe diabetic, credited me for saving his life.

I finished every residential area in Regina, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw and Swift Current. Took on Calgary.

‘No Solicitors’ signs were irrelevant. I was hustlin’.

I had two rules: Never walk on anybody’s grass and if the Jehovah’s Witnesses were out, give them the area.

As far as their belief structure, I was tainted by what the religion did to Rennebohm. He was exiled by the faith. He stood up to the elders in a meeting and called out the hypocrisy of members.  I couldn’t get behind the technicalities of the practice but they were pounding the pavement for something they believed in, and being in their proverbial shoes, I respected the mission. By spreading their truths it would better their lives. They were well dressed. At least I wasn’t dealing with societies preconceived opinions on my mission. If a J.W. was in an area, I marked it off on my map as such and would drive to a completely fresh spot. I treated them with respect – we were both getting doors slammed in our faces, unwelcome. Each of us telling a perfect stranger what they needed in their lives to make it better. Each relentless in the pursuit.

For these reasons, the J.W. are my hustlin’ brothers.

28. Knock, Knock.

September 30th 2016 2:23 pm

I lived on the corner of 3rd St NW and 5th Ave NW in Medicine Hat, Alberta with two sisters from Coronach, Saskatchewan. Courtney and Pisser. Pisser wasn’t her real name. Courtney was. I was fortunate around all the difficulty to have a nice roof over my head. Courtney worked hard and cared about furniture. Living in a band house is difficult in your early twenties – appreciation for order doesn’t necessarily get shared among tenants. Dirty dishes and pissy toilet seats really affect me. Courtney valued order. I moved in with her and her sister the spring of 2009. Living with two sisters, tangled in a torn heart love interest and wanting to marry a woman six hundred kilometers away. Enough to mess up any lizard’s brain.

Courtney never said anything about the boxes of unopened albums lining the walls of the house. She took out a loan to purchase furniture and art, I donated the cardboard end-tables.

I was walking up the neighbours driveway in an act of desperation. Five albums in hand. An album that cost $2000 to make. The band donated their time. I had nine-hundred copies in stock and no visible way to have them sold conventionally. I was working full time with The New Weapon – drummer Derek, still couldn’t understand why I needed to have another “band”. I could see where he was coming from. It did look like a lack of commitment to everything we built. I knocked on the door and stumbled through an introduction. Face to face was its own beast. I could convince any venue owner to book my group through a cold call introduction over the phone but to have someone buy my record having no idea who I am seemed impossible. Zero flow, a cracking voice, sweaty palms and no real confidence in the throw-together project. They bit. My first introduction had my neighbours offering the ten bucks. I moved on.

House number two. Another neighbourly guilt purchase. Twenty dollars in under three minutes. House number three. Sale. Thirty dollars. Unbelievable. I felt like I accidentally made a fortune, mind you I was only a hundred feet from my house and obviously couldn’t determine whether the sales were due to vicinity of residence or ability to sell. It was soon proven. The fact purchasers could see my house, aided in the sale. House four, decline. Five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, declines. The remaining south side of 3rd St NW up to St. Patrick’s Parish on 2nd Ave NE was a hit and miss of unanswered doors, yappy dogs, demeaning responses, laughs, and shut-downs. They could care less that I was from Medicine Hat, let alone living on the same street as them. I tried to overshadow disappointment by appreciating the thirty dollars but the door-to-door tactic was a flop. ‘Hi, I’m Blake, I recorded an album, its good, would you like to buy it?’

I skipped the returning side of the street and walked directly home. Eight-hundred and ninety five records sit against the wall. I put the remaining two back in the opened box. Eight-hundred and ninety seven.

It was a Thursday night. I bothered people during supper. I had an unrehearsed pitch. I was borderline unpresentable. No confidence. Loser. I hopped in my mustang and spent the thirty dollars on a case of beer and a few groceries.

Friday had me still thinking of the previous evening’s attempt. Courtney and Pisser laughed but encouraged me to give it another shot. What could be different, what could stay the same? Introduction and residency was key. I needed to amplify my excitement in being at a stranger’s door. A once in a lifetime opportunity to purchase my first solo record, right? I needed to up its worth – I’d pre-sign the albums. I’d smile. I needed to make a complete stranger feel like if they turn this down it would be a regret.

Saturday at 11 am, I took the cellophane off of thirty albums, removed the inserts and Sharpied my John Hancock in the bottom left corner, large. Threw the discs into my side-satchel and swapped out cowboy boots for an old pair of runners. Comfort would keep my mind on the goal. I committed to staying out for five hours. Lofty and ambitious timeline but it would force me to experiment, not let refusals bring me down. That’s what this was, an experiment. Again selling a couple albums to houses which could see my front door, I took a side street, 5th Ave NW to 4th St NW. Nobody could see my house from here.

Shoulders back and shirt tucked in. Clean jeans and belt. Three albums in hand and the remaining twenty-something in satchel. I knocked and introduced myself with excitement. I showed gusto, ambition. I used gestures and handed a record to the stranger as I was talking. I included ‘only ten dollars’ instead of ‘ten dollars please’. They were sparked.

“What’s it sound like?”

The conversation developed and was personal. I would ask who they listen to and connect through a style of artist that had influenced my writing. Mapping the pitch was spotty but at least I felt confident. I quickly pinned the four encounters I would have. The supportive with no sale, The supportive with a sale, The irritated with no sale, and the irritated with a sale. The second being ideal, the last being dumbfounding. But a sale was a sale. Regardless of the outcome I saw myself as a sewer of seeds. Confidence propelled the sales of all thirty albums that Saturday afternoon. Thirty became every Saturday’s goal. Sometimes achieved in three hours, sometimes in six. I finished the city of Medicine Hat, keeping track of every street hit by blacking it out on a city map I kept in my satchel.

I ordered another thousand copies and redesigned the artwork to include a message on the inside paralleling my door-to-door efforts. My cheapest pressing options would make for less overhead. I’d put a hundred copies of the record in the trunk of my mustang, pack an overnight bag and head to my buddy J.R.’s place in Lethbridge. I met him working at a golf course in The Hat, he was taking New Media at the University of Lethbridge and offered his couch. I’d arrive Thursday night and be on the streets by noon on Friday. Working each street and marking it off. Going door-to-door until 9 pm. It wasn’t about selling thirty a day anymore it was about selling a hundred a weekend. This was usually achieved by supper time Sunday. I’d drive back to The Hat.

My relationship with Rachel came to a climax where the feelings constituted infidelity. It was an abrupt and ugly end. Karma hunted me down like a Blood Meridian Apache and Savanna ruthlessly broke me with a phone call. With no room for discussion, she ended our five year courtship. I was devastated. Remnants of the heartache still exist. The hurt hung around strong for years. My life was defined by pre-Savanna break-up and post-Savanna break-up. I quit sleeping in my bed, would just fall to the floor for the night.

I called Rachel to fix it. I moved out of Courtney’s and moved in with Rachel. No healing process allowed.

Jealousy ensued. Either of us looking in the wrong direction resulted in a fight. The fights were physical. Rennebohm was living with us, caught in the middle as a referee. Broken dishes and door hinges. He was trying to clean up his own shit in and around mine. For as separated as Rennebohm and I had become through the music we were connecting as support systems in a volatile environment. I begged Rachel to stay but she disappeared. I began dating a blonde news anchor. I suspected her of sleeping with her camera guy, caught them out together one night, tore him out of his vehicle, he wasn’t quick enough locking the door. Started making an example of the guy in the parking lot of The Silver Buckle, pulled off by Rennebohm. I woke up to the bumper of my mustang smashed in.

I quit booking The New Weapon. If a gig would come in we’d take it but I wasn’t chasing that dream any longer. Rennebohm and I were on different pages and we all stalled in the writing. It almost came to another parking lot fisticuffs with management after my bassist was accused of trying to bang my his girlfriend. The dynamic was changing for everybody. Rennebohm chose going to a Stone Temple Pilots concert over playing a show with us, that was the icing on the cake for the break-up. He recognized a dire drinking issue and committed to leaving The Weapon and turning things around. I couldn’t fault him for it. He disappeared for a year.

I was in a worse place emotionally than before starting to sell records door-to-door. But I least now I had cash. With nothing to stick around for and my house up for sale. I moved into my van. Two failed bands, both on the cusp of national success, as heartbreaking as my love life.

Now I had nothing.

27. The New Weapon

September 29th 2016 8:58 pm

I was just coming into my own as a guitarist. Still with a main focus on writing I did what I could to incorporate an Angus Young lick in here and there but we were playing balls out rock and roll and the sound required more than my mediocre pentatonic runs. I was hesitant of giving Rennebohm the chance to play, my last memory of him was being passed out for a complete ten hour drive only to disappear into the night and never be in contact with again. It wasn’t the level of dedication my project demanded. But with the invite, Rennebohm was found in Calgary and made his way to the Medicine Hat bus depot to be picked up by Mitch and Myself. They sparked a jay together. Trav was initially my contact and friend but in the disconnect he chummed up with Mitch. We spent his first and second nights in town staying out. Mitch would spend his days fracking for Trican Well Services and reconsidering his musical future, unbeknownst to us, while I played rhythm guitar to Rennebohm formulating solos overtop. The work was being put in and Rennebohm slowly being incorporated into our sound. Mitch was elsewhere.

In talks to being granted our first Canadian tour supporting a chart-topping act, Mitch quit. No convincing otherwise. Done. Time to move on. I remember bawling my eyes out in Tyson’s bedroom/office. That prick, all this work. Agent options, dropped. Label options, dropped. Momentum, killed. Done. We worked away at salvaging its remains, I stayed true to Tyson, Derek, and Harris for as long as I could before admitting it was time to move on.

I called my long distance love, Savanna to tell her I was moving even further up the road to Calgary. Rennebohm had a lead on a drummer that turned out to be crazier than coon-shit. He rented us his basement suite and we lived on scraps. We’d take macaroni from Rennebohm’s parents house, still in a gray area of whether or not he was welcomed, and mix it was mushroom soup. We worked for a Temp agency picking up odd construction jobs and living off of what wasn’t spent on beer. I never bought weed and Rennebohm enjoyed sharing. Or, he never complained about it. We auditioned a bassist and entered a Medicine Hat college battle of the bands. Our big return. A handful of new originals, we bombed it. No congruency and unrehearsed. Tyson and Harris came for support but Derek and Mitch didn’t show. Poor losing bittered the drummer, he was also in the beginning stages of divorce. He kicked the three of us out of my band and closed the door to our basement suite accommodations.

I maintained a good relationship with Tyson. He would touch base every now and again about ‘getting us all back together’, ‘talking to Mitch’, ‘working with Derek’. We had a special connection through the years and complimenting styles. His harmonies were strong and he was a stable character. My relationship with Mitch weakened as the one with Rennebohm grew. We were out of a band and a place to live. I spent my last thirty dollars  on fuel to move back to Medicine Hat, everything I owned packed into my yellow Mustang. Calgary bassist, Dan Rose, was originally from The Hat but taking post secondary education in Calgary. I had a way of convincing my peers to quit school and join my musical journey. He put his psychology degree on hold and moved back in with his parents.

The New Weapon. Named after a nickname Rennebohm and I created for a 7%, dollar-a-can beer made by Bow Valley Brewing Company and a staple in our diets. We started from scratch. It was liberating. Being in the same room with the best of both worlds. My chemistry with two brothers I played with for years and the newfound dedication of Dan Rose. We met every night in the dingy basement of Café Caprice – a bistro/sushi shop, given the full-reigns of the place. Free beers and meals. We came from the basement with a new identity. It was hard and it honoured metal sensibilities. My voice was stronger than ever and characterizing into a guttural harshness. Tyson was smooth with the back-ups and rhythm, Dan locked in and complimented Derek’s beating. We gained back management. As much as I was at the bottom again, it felt like the rise would be quick.

The writing process was group based. Every element was a defining importance so it became virtually impossible for me to create a completed work on the acoustic and bring it to the table. My songwriting was becoming influenced by old Nirvana and Kristofferson. The muse needed to be honoured and I began throwing around the idea of a simple acoustic album. Something to separate my creative ego from The New Weapon’s writing process. I borrowed two-thousand dollars from Savanna, her having stayed true to me for four years at this point. I booked a week in studio.

It was a transitional period. I was still drinking a lot but moved away from marijuana usage. Sexually pent up and being paid attention to by a girl that worked at a print shop in Medicine Hat, Rachel. She supported The New Weapon movement, showing up at shows, printing tickets and posters for free. I was receiving phone calls from Savanna’s aunt asking how much longer I was going to do this music thing – in hindsight, she knew something and was looking out for me but they weren’t her feelings to express. I was crazy in love with Savanna but being worn down by Rachel. I’d shoot her straight that nothing could happen but would still manipulate her attention. I needed her affection but couldn’t give anything in return and she was quickly seeing the game I was playing. We’d meet at Ralph’s Country Bar and Steakhouse and dance every song until 2 am. She’d invite me in for tea to sober up after I’d drive her home half in the bag and fall asleep on the couch. It just couldn’t continue. We agreed to move forward in a platonic manner.

She sang. Nothing that was pursued but something that was there. My solo recording date was nearing, using The New Weapon minus Derek as the backing band, there was room for a female vocalist and lead guitarist. I knew damn well the tension it would create but sadistically invited Rachel to perform on my record. I knew damn well the tension it would create but called on Rennebohm. We drove from Medicine Hat to Regina, I was slowly falling in love with another woman. The recording process was rushed, semi-written songs and underproduced. Self gratifying initiative. I pressed a thousand copies.

It continued. Rachel and I found ways to spend time together, loopholes in ‘not cheating’ but allowing an attraction to grow. I told myself whatever I needed to hear. The New Weapon was still victim to my lead guitar and the idea of having Rennebohm make us a five piece was discussed. I could focus on being a front man and he could take care of the flash. Having just recorded on my solo record he once again accepted the invite into another denomination of my musical endeavour. I asked Rachel if he could rent out her extra room, this way going over to her house was to visit Trav, not her. Rennebohm again, took the bus to Medicine Hat. I picked him up and we sparked a jay.

the-new-weapon-2

Our sound evolved. Rennebohm wanted to focus completely on originals. I wanted to build our account to be able to do so. I continued to book nightclubs where a setlist would require songs to keep a crowd moving. Our original sound did this but couldn’t fill a three hour slot. We’d fill the space with everything from Steve Miller to Velvet Revolver. It wasn’t fun and Rennebohm was of a different vision. This was the beginning of another blow-out. Creative direction. That bled into the performances, I’d turn his amp down in the middle of a solo, he’d threaten to kick my ass if I ever tried such a thing again. I’d try such a thing again. We’d go toe to toe in parking lots. We’d hurt each other something fierce but we’d keep plugging away like an ending marriage.

I received my first outside cut from Canadian Idol contestant, Tyler Lewis, rerecording my track “Jesus Christ and Johnny Cash”. It brought in a little money but nothing to relieve the hardships.

I was the most financially unstable I’ve ever been. Laying it all on the line broke me. I was fighting with band members due to the stresses and juggling three hearts. Missing my long distance relationship and toying with another’s emotions. I sold under one hundred copies of my debut solo album. I sat on my living room floor with my life in shambles. Broke and alone. Album boxes lining the walls. Nobody to blame but myself.

I got up and walked over to the unopened boxes. I grabbed five albums and went outside.

Down my walkway to the sidewalk and up to my neighbours door. I had yet to have met them but we’d said a hello once or twice. I knocked.

They answered assuming I needed something. I assumed they did.

I introduced myself and let them know why my new record should be a part of their collection.

26. Me & Trav

September 29th 2016 7:39 pm

The Bacherts, Mitch and Myself performed under the name Spent. It came from an anticlimactic moment at a Boston Pizza expressing how we were feeling post performance. I had a handful of songs written withs sexual overtones – it was the AC/DC and Sum 41 influence. I know.

Mitch’s dad gave us a late-eighties Dodge Ram. We loaded it with our gear and an incoherent lead guitarist and drove up to Calgary to record for the first time. Tyson awaiting our arrival he gave us the heads up that engineer Matt was gay. It was a defining moment as I had only been exposed to closed-off, small-town notions of homosexuality.

We approached recording in the traditional bed track layering approach with Matt at the helm. We did more partying and drinking than recording. We loaded the van up with alcohol and drove head on into shopping carts, launching them out of the Forest Lawn Shopping Centre parking lot. We headed back to the home studio to record bass tracks. Travis and I went to get grass. I had only taken part in the recreational drugs once at this point at a grad party with Grant Dubé – thought I saw a mountain lion and broke into Nathan Barbour’s grandma’s house to sleep in the downstairs bed. I was a relatively innocent farm kid – weed had yet to become my thing.

We procrastinated leaving to get Derek home for school having already skipped two days and found ourselves making the red-eye. I was driving, Mitch and Derek were drinking and Trav was again comatose on top of the gear in the far back. That was the last I saw Travis for years. He just disappeared.

Our Calgary demos paved the way for actual studio time, we released a five song demo and filled Regina venues. We put 104.9 The Wolf’s logo on our album release posters without permission and sold out The Exchange. We played Savanna’s high school dance and met a new Travis. Trav Harris. A pleasant slender computer wiz. Dabbling in live sound, website design, circuit building, logo creation, and loyalty. One of the most important people to come into my musical career.

Shit was feeding back. At this point we were still doing our own guerilla sound, a muffled vocal underneath an overpowering drum kit. Derek had yet to discover dynamics, breaking snares and sticks at almost every show. Tyson’s harmonies over powered mine so I had to learn to scream. I played an Epiphone SG out of a Fender Reverb (an amp I wish I’d have never pawned) but Tys had a Custom Les Paul and a Mesa Boogie Stack. He overpowered my guitar as well. We accommodated to Mitch’s heart by setting up a microphone but never having it only come through the monitors, never the front of house. Harris was present at our load-in for the Greenall High School Dance as he was working on the school’s computer system after class and offered assistance in our set-up.

Sound checks continued to give me anxiety. The combination of honouring our start time, being up against the clock and not having a clue what we were doing was the catalyst. Harris was calm and collected, he took control of the runaway frequencies and dialled us in. My voice was crisp coming through the monitors, the bass was punchy, and the electric guitars were at a complimenting volume. Derek still bashed his kit above it all. I replaced Travs, offering Harris the opportunity to replicate the sound the following weekend.

Spent took every gig that came our way. We were quickly becoming the go-to entertainment in our corner of the province. I fulfilled managerial duties. Buying Mark Makoway’s Indie Band Bible, I started to see an art to the business and was enjoying marketing my group as much as writing for it. Cold calling venue owners, shaking hands and moving everything forward. Harris was making us a website and we were playing as much as possible around Tyson’s parent’s willingness to book him flights. Rodeos, Nightclubs, Small Town Bars, Acoustic Patios. Drifter’s Bar and Grill, Kendal, Saskatchewan.

“You boys available for our Coyote Ugly Night?” A call I received to my first Rogers flip-phone.

Coyote Ugly Night. Sign me up. Letting Derek know almost gave him a hemorrhage he was so excited. For whatever reason we saw playing for strippers as hitting the big-time. Tyson booked his flight home from Calgary and I called up Harris. He and Derek were both underage but we kept that to ourselves, as we always did.

The night was degeneracy. The band made up for Harris’ sobriety. He had never drank and was committed to the abstinence. Not only did we have a full time sound-tech we now had a full time driver. The dilapidated bar housed rock and roll fuelled nudity. Free pouring tequila down farmers throats after a good harvest. Old boys with their shirts off, dance floor grinding, public urination, and ham sandwiches. I was screaming Def Leppard covers. Derek drummed with a girl on his lap. Mitch didn’t even care to play the correct notes anymore; just slamming away at his four strings. Harris was composed, unaffected by the lechery. I traded an autographed 8×10 photo for a girl to flash him. He was immune. He was there to do a job and that he did. I kicked my mic stand over, he rushed to the stage to have it prepared for the coming chorus. The crowd was jumping onstage, he was ushering them off. He was in his glory and we were a runaway train.

Me & Trav
(Derek Bachert, Myself, Trav Harris)

This style of performance management continued for years. Tyson and Mitch enrolled in Global Marketing and Tourism in Medicine Hat College, joined by Derek following his graduation. I quit my job at an air seeder manufacturing plant outside of Regina to join them. Harris had us as a new corrupt family and followed the trend. Finally, for the first time in four years we were all living together in the same city. A band house gave rehearsal space, Derek continued to juggle girlfriends, and Harris co-managed the project with me. We found official management and began running in circles with the who’s who of the Canadian Rock Scene. Finally the years of slugging it out was paying off but something was missing, musicianship wise. We needed that flash to take it to the next level. Mitch knew just the guy, whom he remained in contact with. Travis Rennebohm.

25. Tyson and Derek Bachert, Mitch Hassler, and Travis Rennebohm

September 29th 2016 2:56 pm

My brother was my first bassist, kind of. I taught him single grooves along to “Closing Time” by Semisonic and we met with The Bacherts for the first time in their parents basement. It wasn’t Jarid’s thing, he lasted one rehearsal. I still fantasize about having him on this path with me. Bassless, we continued.

Windthorst had a good feel about it. Making the evening drives from Kennedy, thirty minutes away, to rehearse I became quickly acquainted with The Bachert’s family friends, school mates and past graduates still hanging around town. Having always had back-up with my brother, we also did our fair share of recreational fighting. Jarid more on the ice, and myself more off the ice. The latter, usually spawned from young lust finding its way through the loose concept of commitment.

Mitch was a loose cannon. A mother of a hockey player and everybody’s best friend, except mine. He caught me warming up my hands with his on again off again girlfriend at a late autumn outdoor bonfire and formulated his opinion. There was contention between us until he finally moved away to work in the mountains at a ski resort making snow. And learning to play the bass. Whether it was an effort to patch bad blood or strictly the dire need for a complete rhythm section, Tyson issued Mitch an audition upon returning to Windthorst for Christmas break. I was unnerved but knew that it was nothing more than him showing his investment in our collective wellbeing. Mitch arrived, instructed to learn “Closing Time”. We never spoke, Tyson assumed leadership and moved through the motions of the trial. I had years of piano training under my belt and musically knew there was nothing there, besides, the guy lived ten hours away in the mountains. In fact, I should have given him credit knowing damn well who’s band he was auditioning for. Mitch left and I said the decision was up the the other two-thirds of our trio. Again, knowing a ten hour commute wasn’t plausible for rehearsals. The idea of Mitch on bass would fade out and my class remained in tact.

The crazy bugger made rehearsals. Ten hours. One way. Scheduling six to eight hour Saturday marathon practices followed by a three hour Sunday jam. Every weekend. I pandered to the concept and filled my role but we were becoming a tight-knit group despite my hostility. Mitch was the guy, a dedication I’ve never experienced from someone in all the hockey, baseball, volleyball and band teams I’ve been a part of. He had zero formal training and was slowly weening himself from a full time job.

I graduated and Mitch quit his job. He took a gig running late night pizzas around Regina and moved in with his on-again girlfriend, whom I continued to be mighty attracted to. I did a year of studies at the University of Saskatchewan and would catch rides home for rehearsals, as I had yet to purchase my yellow mustang. I began writing and demoing on a four-track Tascam. Mitch and I both patiently waiting for Tyson to finish high school, his brother drummer two years younger.

Spent

Tyson graduated and was accepted into Business at DeVry Calgary. I transferred credits to the University of Regina to be closer to a budding love, Savanna, and my bassist, Mitch. Derek was only in grade ten but a playboy. We had him playing nightclubs and hooking up with bar servers years before his eighteenth birthday. Always having multiple girlfriends, we jointly made up lies and covered Derek’s ass as the rock and roll lifestyle kept him practicing.

I took a job serving tables at Moxie’s Grill and Bar, hooked up through Savanna’s brother’s girlfriend Robyn. Lame. Restaurant manager, Kerry, got off on riding my ass about everything from the length of time I’d return to a table after delivering the first drink to check if there was the perfect amount of rimmer on their signature caesars to how I rolled utensils in a napkin. I’d intentionally not ring in well-done steaks on a jam packed Friday night to a table of ten just to see him lose his shit. He’d be forced to give a massive discount, free desserts and wine to a group that would never return. Fuck him.

Starting my shift around four in the afternoon, I was greeted by a new bartender on a random weekday slot. He loosely resembled Iggy the Iguana from Under The Umbrella Tree but with a mushroom-y swoop haircut. A transplant from Calgary due to discord with his family’s religion.

“My name’s Travis Rennebohm, I’ll be your new bartender for this evening.”

Weird son of a bitch, I thought. But personable. We soon bonded on the grounds of a mutual distain for management. It floated around that I had a band and Travis informed me that he was a, quote-unquote, lead guitarist. I was stringing single quarter-notes together and filling our instrumental sections for three years by this point, handing off that responsibility was welcomed and I asked if I could hear him play – we were headed up to Calgary in a couple weeks to “record” with a classmate of Tyson’s that had a keen intrest in becoming a producer. Following our shift, I followed Trav to his apartment – drugs and booze everywhere. He played a Fernandez and had hammer-ons and pull-offs cased. He indulged in what was laying on the coffee table. He showed up late, drug induced, for his shift the following day and was fired on the spot. A well used “Fuck You” and Travis was no longer my co-worker. But he was now my lead guitarist.

24. A German Exchange Student and a Tireman’s Daughter

September 28th 2016 7:34 pm

For the most part, minor hockey meant partying. A Friday night home game was followed by a players parents house commandeered by a load of on’ry teens. With any luck, master bedrooms were vacant of the house’s owners and debauchery could ensue. We’d fill ovens with marshmallows and freezers with shaving cream filled condoms. I’d get a case of Bohemian/Pilsner/Kokanee Gold for Friday night and another for Saturday. This lasted years.

Not one to pull out the guitar and impose my newfound passion on a wee-morning listenership, a Kipling/Kennedy home game had sixty kids filling my parent’s kitchen, bathrooms, hallways, decks and ‘back room’. An extra space in the house that connected the garage to the rest of our home. Once a rec-room for us four kids, it’s utility shifted to my make-shift rehearsal space. Fender Squire plugged into a 10 watt Fender Frontman sitting in the corner. Being a closet picker, I was planning to erase the stigma attached to being late for hockey practice because of Thursday night piano lessons.

Dad bought home a Fender Combo Pack from Regina the winter of 1998. It included everything needed for a to-be electric guitarist. Not having an iota how to dial in tone, I went for the gain knob and played a power chord. Our parish priest, Father David Banga, was in the kitchen visiting and responded with ‘Good God’.

The Fender leaned as a corner fixture at our post-game house party. I should had put it away before anybody arrived but decided to leave it out hoping it would go unnoticed. I had once rattled off Great Balls of Fire on a friends upright piano in the dying hours of a party. It was an attempt to get a cuddle in with the German exchange student that my best buddy was dating. The second time it worked but I declined the opportunity due to a conscience. Those were my piano skills, my guitar chops were pathetically elementary. An embarrassment ready to happen. Unable to risk the humiliation, I decided to pack the guitar and amp into the bedroom attached to the ‘back room’. All denominations of friendships, from loyal to fair-weather, crammed in a room to comfortably seat ten, I made my way through to the corner, unplugged the axe. Looking to avoid a performance, I achieved the opposite by drawing attention to its possibility. Dammit, I was being set-up for a disaster. To revert attention I set the guitar down and dolled out a few free beers. No success. I was pickled.

For whatever Godforsaken reason “Wild Thing” popped into my head at that moment, is beyond me. I had never even attempted it before let alone make it my coming-out performance. My dexterity was better than expected and the three chords needed didn’t sound too bad. In fact, the song choice was genius as I didn’t even have to sing, my peers did it for me. German Exchange Student included. Hot damn.

The impromptu performance was a success and was repeated at a Kipling High School dance a few weeks following. A member of the student council had their cousins band set up in the gymnasium. We were drinking in the parking lot. I was ushered onstage half in the bag and had the gym singing along. Some going for the ‘Wild Thing, I think I love you’ and others ‘I think you move me’ in a harmonious tension with each other. The “Wild Thing” Thing became a thing.

Young Blake

During this period I began free noon hour guitar lessons with two others from the fill-in band teacher, Mr. Gibson, a discovered distant relative through marriage. My guitar repertoire expanded from Wild Thing to Matchbox Twenty’s “Push”, Pearl Jam’s rendition of “Last Kiss”, Bush’s “Glycerine” and the opening lick to Orbison’s “Pretty Woman”. Hearing of a local talent night in neighbouring town, Windthorst, I convinced fellow guitar student to ditch the strings and accompany me on drums as he played with a local church group. I would break into St. Anne’s Catholic Church and borrow Father Banga’s pulpit microphone and XLR cable. With the help of Kevin we jerry-rigged a PA system in my parents dining room and would rehearse David Lee Murphy’s “Party Crowd”. Adopting Kevin’s volleyball nickname we entered the talent show as Blake and Chuck. My first “band”.

I was caught somewhere between trying to win over a German exchange student and the local tire-man’s third daughter. This was enough fuel to practice my ass off. I still can’t recall the outcome of the talent night but a spontaneous encore, without a second song rehearsed with Kevin, had me asking my hockey goalie, Alex Runions, if he’d jump up and take a verse in “Dust On The Bottle”. He complied. The local Ford dealership owners eldest daughter watched from the wings, who would become my first girlfriend. And heartbreak.

Chuck and I snagged volleyball teammates Neil Cook and Mark Gravener. We formed the group Blowing By Daisy, named by a dial-up internet connection and a ‘band name generator’ website. Mark’s dad had a local dance DJ outfit, complete with microphones and front of house. No more stealing from the church. Mark sang as it was his father’s microphones, Neil and I played rhythm guitars and Chuck on the drums. First full band performance had us playing “Last Kiss” at the local junior drama night. Chuck and I switched instruments and followed up with “Glycerine”.

More high school parties. Closer hangs with goalie, Alex Runions. I was about to jump ship and leave the Kennedy boys for neighbouring town Kipling. I would take my parent’s 1989 Chevy Diesel Van and load it to the nines with friends and ‘go to the drive-in’. This wasn’t exactly lying…while mom and dad thought ‘drive-in movie’ 25 minutes up the number 9 highway, I meant drive-through burger run two hours up the number 48 highway. Cases of beer, a sober driver, and Alex and I singing Brooks and Dunn tunes. We formed “Green Angel”, named by pulling a random book off the library shelf. The progression continued to out perform the previous line-up. We developed a song-list, played the local pool and regional band competitions. I performed my first original, written for the tire-man’s third eldest.

Once again, I jumped ship. Up the 48 highway and found Windthorst, Saskatchewan brothers, Tyson and Derek Bachert. Sons to the local case dealership owners.

That’s when it all truly started.

23. Losing my Cool on Corporate America

September 28th 2016 2:57 pm

I’m back to my Starbucks to meet the morning staff. A complete turnover includes a couple handsome twenty year olds, one singing his orders and the other telling him to stop. A curly haired red head mops the floor by the washrooms…sorry, restrooms (that’s been causing confusion) – ‘what’dya need to wash, son?’ Another twenty-something female is making breakfast sandwiches like nobody’s business. It’s a youthful environment filled with jabs, burns, pokes, and giggles. Yet to catch up on business, I selfishly claim a table that seats four and organize myself. Notepad, Owen Meany and Blood Meridian, cell phone into computer, two Granny Smith apples, Contigo mug, two pens – ink-flow and ball-point, legal pad. I’m doing my best to keep as many jot notes to assist with recollection; I’m on my second little black book, transcribing into a word document. I’ve allotted a few more days on the road that remain to be filled but touch base with some contacts in regards to my Nashville return Sunday night. I’ve been invited to an independent awards show at The Opry by fellow Canadian songwriter, Craig Brooks. The Opry is one of those things that I’ve yet to form an opinion on having never stepped inside the building. Some soulless members have influenced my opinion on the modern establishment. I find a Facebook event for the festival in Irvine that W.B. suggested. It looks pretty throw-together and as expected, an unrecognizable line-up. Something rings familiar with a band called The Horse Traders but nothing more than possibly having heard their name before in a music suggestion…the type I tend to forget about.

I’m an hour into my catch-up. Procrastinated emailing interrupted by studying the surrounding geography, googling ‘real country music venues’ and dragging a file at a time across my desktop into the Trash – seeing a clean digital workspace as a productive digital workspace. A couple suits make some repugnant order at the till complaining about this specific Starbucks location unable to accommodate their beverage modifications. I’m already judging, something I’ve been making an honest effort to cease. They sit in the sofa chairs directly behind me. I’ve been feeding of the natural hum of the room and they soon bring this to a halt. They take up all the real estate. What seems to be a conversation had in private, they discuss marketing of pharmaceuticals and the transition needed from print to digital. The phycology of convincing an American citizen that ‘something is wrong with them’. Jesus, here we go. Another boisterous drawl. He oddly resembles Sturgill. Stubble, short hair, suit, similar frame. But a real piece of shit.

My attention is diverted with last night’s barista walking in to say hi to her co-workers. I overhear it’s her day off and she’s just doing running around, maybe catch tomorrow night’s concert. I felt a little guilt in attending last night’s show alone outside of my intuitive decision. I need a break from boastful corporate shit-head and approach her outside.

“Thanks for the coffee yesterday. I feel like I skipped out on my reciprocal duties by not giving you the extra Sturgill Simpson ticket I had.” Idiot thing to say.

“Are you kidding me? That show’s been sold out for weeks – I’d have done anything to go. Aw, you dummy, we’d have had a fun night…I guess it’s the thought that counts.”

Right decision.

I welcome the slightly inflated ego. A little too inflated. A solid rush of testosterone, headed back to listen to Captain Corporate America conspire his fucking. My return finds him a braggart. Money this, money that. Interest, gain, worth. Garbage. He’s unaware but directly manipulating my mood. My little ‘king of the jungle’ moment outside has me imagining his beating. It’s the first time on this trip that passivity is suppressed by this side of aggression I have the ability to conjure. His business parter almost seems like he’s trying to avoid the direction of the discussion but Johnny Fuck-the-little-guy is just getting more blowhard. He’s loud and laughing at the misfortunes of others.

“How the fuck do you sleep at night?” – there.

I caught him off-guard. His business partner answers with ‘we sleep just fine’.

“I wasn’t talking to you”

Shit-head asks what I mean.

“You know exactly what I mean, listen to yourself.”

I made myself the focal point of the room. Nobody talks as I pack my bag. First my computer, then my books. Legal pad, notepad, pens. For whatever reason, I take a bit of an apple, put my hat on and leave.

I don’t know how I feel getting to my car. I feel like I was rude to somebody. I’m trying to approach life with a more loving experience and that was the furthest thing from. Whatever. If I didn’t say something, what’s that say about me. Besides, it was time to get a jump on the rest of the day – W.B. suggested getting to Irvine in good time, better my chances as getting into the sold out festival. I need a walk-around to slow the heart down. I head down to Poage Landing Days. Counteract my aggression with some people watching.

The scene is vibrant. A sound company is setting up a PA large enough for a open-air rock concert. A stage takes up the width of a side street and white folding chairs are lined up the block. Tonight are a couple local acts and tomorrow night, Travis Tritt. Excellent option in the quest. Tritt called out Brantley Gilbert for being ‘disrespectful’ last year. I like his attitude but it’d be nice to see what his sound has evolved to over the years.

Poage Landing Days has vendors and crafts. Large tents fill Winchester Avenue. A dog jumping competition fills a parking lot complete with runway, launching pad and pool. I walk past the cardboard cut-out of Donald Trump and the Republicans tent and say hi to a couple sitting to it’s immediate right. A Center For Change is a psychotherapy group that’s flying a rainbow flag. I let them know I appreciate the irony of their placement in the street. They agree. His tone help bring me back to a place of compassion. I’ve been heavily affected lately by my surroundings, vibes. I’m back on the level.

America

I made eye contact with a Trump supporter. I feel confident in my arguments but am not looking to get riled up again. I move on.

Homemade brooms and pickles. Barn-wood art in the shape of the state of Kentucky. Characters carved out of golfballs. Doilies and cross-stitch. Beef Jerky, Cotton Candy, and Popcorn. Free pocket bibles. Trump supporters and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I have a soft spot for the Jay-Dubs. My years of selling my albums door-to-door gave me a taste of how society treats the unannounced solicitors of good news. Selling something you believe in so much that no amount of belittling, insolence, or dismissal can shake its foundation. Me believing in myself, the J.W. in salvation. We truly are brethren.

I go say hello to my hustlin’ brothers.

22. Sturgill Simpson @ Paramount Theatre, Ashland, KY 09.15.16

September 27th 2016 2:09 pm

I’m six feet from the stage left front of house speakers but the sound is a pleasant volume and crystal clear. The generosity of the gentleman to my right has me transplanted from the back balcony to third row floor. His name is Judd and his wife was unable to attend. With the opening song the crowd immediately jumps to their feet; Sturgill is in his home state and tonight’s attendees see him as their own. Being on the outside edge of the seating, Judd is conscious of obstructing the view of a gentleman in a wheel chair behind him and sits. I check my proximity and am given the go ahead to remain standing. I acknowledge Judd’s compassion with a fist bump. He excited to receive the hip gesture and pounds back with force. He pulls my arm down so I’m leaned over level with his sitting, he points through the clear pathway to Sturgill. Judd’s a considerate and content man.

Simpson’s opening number “Life of Sin” is followed by “Living The Dream”, another Metamodern cut. He goes back a record for “Water in a Well”. Another recognizable guitar lick has the crowd screaming. “Long White Line” becomes a long wild jam. With a stage plot resembling the fermata music symbol, Sturgill is the dot and his seven-piece band makes up the semicircle that hovers above it. The band is in a full on musical moment and Sturgill is at it’s epicentre tuning his Martin. Melanie echoes Carolyn Mark when tuning on stage, ‘I tune because I care’. Sturgill cares.

Simpson’s guitar brings in a 4/4 shuffle, The Lefty Frizzel hit, “I Never Go Around Mirrors”, later repopularize by both Whitley and Haggard. Again the crowd recognizes the first line keeping them on their feet. Judd bursts out with his approval of ‘a waltz goin’ on’ – I don’t have the heart to tell him it isn’t a waltz. He’s emotional. It tears me up to see a grown man cry. I’m feeling the moment and look to the ceiling. Brass lighting fixtures amid painting of bounding gazelles and what seem to be Aztec designs. A visual that distances itself from the more expected regional motif…say horses, or hills. An Egyptian Deity is center above the stage looking into the crowd and surrounded by other forms of Egyptian art. Sturgill wants to ‘play some bluegrass for y’all’ and does so with “Railroad of Sin”, his flat-picking holds its own among the chosen group of musicians.

Judd loves the covers. Sturgill gives us Willie Nelson’s “I’d Have to be Crazy”, finishes and asks how everyone’s phones are doing. I love well placed cynicism. “Sitting Here Without You” and “Some Days” from High Top Mountain. The hit, “Turtles All the Way Down”. A stumble on the song’s third line, a wince.

Brad Walker has had much opportunity to flaunt his saxophone. “A Little Light” gives him this chance. Again, with a Metamodern favourite “The Promise”. Simpson admits not taking music too seriously when on Joe Rogan’s podcast months ago, even poking fun at the Metamodern album cover. The blazing saxophone solo in “The Promise” paralleled with a Sturgill smirk convinces me it’s an effort of irony. It’s over the top and frankly, quite great. The crowd is split between jaw drops and outright laughing. “It Ain’t All Flowers” is reworked for the live show.

Sturgill’s ear for the interpretation of cover songs is an art in itself, with the most recent, “In Bloom”, off of Sailor’s Guide, he’s played When In Rome’s “Promise” and my favourite, the unrecorded, “You Don’t Miss Your Water”. The later being his choice for the fourteenth song in his Ashland setlist. A bridge into the eight-piece group finishing the show by playing A Sailor’s Guide to Earth in its entirety. He responds to a fan expressing their love with a ‘thumbs up’. “Welcome to Earth” is excecuted perfectly, the opening key tones to the new record and the soul transition half-way through.

He’s come to my side of the stage and I lift my hat off my head and give him a nod. To my best of knowledge, he responds. Is this all a dream? I’m thousands of miles away from home following instinct, being true to a quest – it doesn’t feel real at all. I’ve witnessed Lucky Tubb take a soundguy out back, met a bizarro version of myself in Chicago, had a bible passages fingered into the dirt on the back of a FedEx truck as an answered prayer, found the perfect place in East Nashville, hung with Sturgill in a Starbucks, and by attending the concert alone have been rewarded by being moved to third row in a seat that has BB on a golden plate. This is all a dream.

Sturgill sings “Breakers Roar” repeating the final line of the song at the top of his lungs.

“I’m telling you it’s all a dream, it’s all a dream, it’s all a dream, it’s all a dream…”

He introduces his band. “Keep it Between the Lines”, “Sea Stories”, “In Bloom”. Following Judd’s lead as he’s just returned with a couple LPs from the merch table I make off to grab a print of the show poster to take home to Melanie. I listen to “Brace for Impact” from the exterior lobby. Big brass chandeliers everywhere. I make my way back to my seat past the Art Deco stylings. “All Around You”. “Oh Sarah”.

Reiterating BJ Barham’s sentiment, Sturgill finishes the night with a song about American complacency. Truthfully, a national quality I’ve seen since crossing the border. It’s easier to be blind to the issues than face them head on. It’s taking Real Country Artists to drive the point home.

“Call to Arms”.

“…son I hope you don’t grow up believing you’ve got to be a puppet to the man…
…nobody’s looking up to care about a drone, all too busy looking down at our phones…
…Bullshit on my TV, Bullshit on my Radio…the Bullshit’s got to go.”

Sturgill means business and he’s recognized his calling. Final point made. No encore. Lights up.

Judd is up and out. He offers a fit bump and I spare him my force. W.B. stretches and lands his arm around his buddy Justin. I’m introduced to Melissa, a photographer friend of W.B.’s and a fan of mine through his radio show. She snaps a few pictures and follows the crowd out of the building.

Concert goers are swarming outside the front entrance of the Paramount. The street is lit by the marquee. The tilt-a-whirl is almost assembled. W.B. and Justin make way for their return to West Virginia. The pony-tailed red-head is back to having his picture taken. I bounce from group to group making small talk and having my accent pointed out. ‘Where y’all from’ even though there’s no ‘all’ just ‘me’. With no plans come morning W.B. suggests a small festival outside of Irvine, Kentucky. “Kickin’ It On The Creek”. It’s sold out. W.B. says to ask for Byron and mention he sent me. Hm, could make for a good venture.

The van is hot and muggy. I sleep on my back in my underwear.

“…it’s all a dream, it’s all a dream, it’s all a dream”.

Marquee

 

21. W.B. Walker To The Rescue

September 26th 2016 12:43 pm

I like Sturgill’s new record. I put myself in his creative shoes before listening to it. How would I follow up Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. The only option is to make something totally different. There are a few tracks that harken to past releases but for the most part he went with ‘fresh’. Incorporating horns as a tying thread, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth sounds nothing like its antecedent. The Beatles followed up Revolver with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Willie Nelson followed up Phases and Stages with Red Headed Stranger. Waylon, Lonesome On’ry and Mean with Honky Tonk Heroes.

Metamodern Sounds in Country Music with A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.

With W.B. coming in late I take care of myself for eats. I’m three Pike Place Roasts in and level the buzz with a couple Granny Smiths. My barista is finishing her afternoon duties and I’m going over the pros and cons of asking her to the concert. I’ve put myself in this position in the past, mind you copious amounts of booze won’t be involved and my decision is more leaning towards a reciprocated appreciation for the free coffee but I let her walk out the front door. Smart move.

Ashland hosts Poage Landing Days paying homage to their settlers, The Poage Family. A street carnival, food trucks, crafts market and concerts start tomorrow, set-up begins tonight. Winchester Ave is shut down with barricades as the tilt-a-whirl is erected southeast of the Paramount entrance. I walk up to the early crowd and begin to put my people study skills to work. It’s a sold out show so the prospects of finding a hopeful rogue attendee should be high. I’m choosey at first, vying for a good-timing brother. The crowd grows larger, reducing my chances of spotting a candidate. The closed avenue harbours drunkards, hippies, bikers, professionals, teens and the elderly. There’s a small bustle around a pony-tailed red head, signing a couple autographs and posing for pictures. Simpson has truly succeeded in attaining a diverse crowd. The power of a well written song. W.B. is still behind and I’m making small talk. Everybody has their ticket. The crowd is moving inside, I meander out front. Southern Barista and I would have been discussing who could have been the opening act if there was one. A gentlemen gives his tickets generously to will call requesting they be given for free to anyone looking to purchase, he can’t find a buyer either. I walk up the street and offer my freebie, its strangely declined numerous times. I recognize W.B.’s hat above the crowd – we make our way towards each other and embrace. He’s a fellow fighter, we give reverence. W.B.’s Old Soul Radio Show has introduced me the up and coming as well is the unknown staples. I’m grateful for his vision.

I accept my single ticket destiny and make my way to my balcony seating. W.B. makes his way to the second row.

I’m asked to remove my hat. Usually this makes me huffy where I egotistically rebuke with ‘are you kidding me, I’m the only cowboy at this country show’. The request was polite so I apologize for the obstruction and give my hat a seat to itself. I have a direct line of sight to W.B.’s seats. He came with fellow West Virginian songwriter Justin Payne, both sitting right up front. W.B. is chatting with a surrounding crowd, he’s obviously recognized within his community and treated accordingly. Following a conversation with an older gentleman behind him, he’s up out of his seat and walking towards the back of the room. Into the balcony seating, past me, chatting along the way. Talks to a person at the far back and returns to his seat. My phone dings with the request for me to flag him. I do so. He waves me out of my seat into the main floor isle.

“It’s your birthday Berglund, buddy behind us has an open seat. C’mon.”

Third row. I look down, BB on a golden plate in front of me. My initials saving my seat.

The old boy beside me is cool. He’s happy to have me up front. So are W.B. and Justin. The light’s go down and the crowd jumps out of their seats. Sturgill’s seven-piece rupture into “Life of Sin” following his count…Two, Three, Four 

W.B. and Justin Payne

20. Starbucks with Sturgill Simpson

September 26th 2016 10:51 am

I make little efforts of consistency. So far, restless sleeping has been the only entry on that list. I’d harass Melanie and her bassist, Beth, when on the road, as they brought their own coffee making supplies into someone else’s home. I saw it as almost a rude gesture. I was wrong – it’s consistency. It’s the most attractive aspect to settling yet a vital factor to success…and sanity. Waking up in the same house, with the same schedule and the same cup of coffee. We don’t have this luxury as easily, it must be adapted. I find my consistency in allowing reading time and now admittedly, with my foot in my mouth, coffee.

For the intake I’ve become accustomed to over the past couple weeks I thought that purchasing a jar of instant coffee and using free hot water at truck stops would be my most financially conscious decision, possibly saving a hundred dollars a month. After its inaugural testing, I committed to quality over quantity. A quality road coffee costs four dollars and time.  Like hunting out relatively unknown Real Country groups and their residencies, I was eating up data searching for a bold java across America. Driving around centres treasure hunting for a brew was becoming tedious, so I chose to make coffee consistency more accommodating. This decision left me with two options, McDonalds or Starbucks.

I’m sure one could get into an ethics pissing match but as how they are sold to me without much research, I settle on Starbucks.

I still stubbornly order ‘a big black coffee’ but that always leads to me conceding with ‘grande, black, pike place, please’. ‘No room for cream’ is then answered after the barista inquiry. I thought I covered that with the word ‘black’. The first couple Starbucks sit-downs revealed the one dollar refill. I can now walk into a Starbucks, with my dented ‘Carson Energy Services Ltd’ Contigo mug, specifically ask for a refill and I’m rewarded with a decent one dollar cup of coffee. Consistency.

My barista in Ashland, KY is a southern belle. Pleasant, attractive, and a wonderful drawl. She jokes with the old boys, is kind to the punk teenagers, has the manager under her spell. She is the bubbling epicentre of the Ashland Starbucks Experience.

I’m only a couple days back on the road but attention from a pretty girl makes me self conscious about my lack of shower the night before and now that I think about it, skipping out on brushing my teeth with my quick transition from van floor to driver’s seat this morning. She calls me sweetheart. I request a refill. She winks and says it’s on her. I have an extra Sturgill Simpson ticket. She would be the perfect date. I don’t need to put myself in that position. She gives me my free coffee. I tell myself it would be a harmless platonic offering and karmic return. She calls me Doll. I go sit in the corner.

My coffee and book are giving me the consistency I’ve been needing over the past few days. Patrons come and go and a couple hours pass. I touch base with W.B. about the possibility of a pre-concert supper but he’s running a little late and will be arriving at show time.

The Ashland Starbucks is 330 ft by Google Maps to tonight’s venue for the Sturgill concert, The Paramount Arts Center. Three’s. The mid afternoon lull has my possible date wiping down tables and me coming to an end with reading. A businessman sits in the corner opposite me and thumbs through the paper. A student is typing away on her mac while highlighting a textbook.

Sturgill Simpson walks in the door.

Having toured for ten years, I’ve been in countless positions meeting successful acts. I rarely get ‘star struck’.  This isn’t ‘star struck’. It’s more a recognition of a life event. An opportunity that was meant to present itself, allowing me the choice to move forward on it or not. This recognition is cutting off a bit of air and tightening up my throat. Still one to get nervous before stepping on stage, my heart is beating and palms sweating in a similar fashion. Nobody else in the room is paying any attention to the event. Sturgill is with his trumpet player Scott, whom I met at Times Change(d) in Winnipeg following the Manitoba date. They walk past me to wait for their order, I stop Scott and reintroduce myself. ‘Oh yeah, hey man, that was a fun night’ he recalls, not connecting the distance between crossing paths again. The interaction is over.

Sturgill’s cosmic and philosophical approach to his music can only make me assume he sees all as equal. We’re all here, we all die, we are all a speck in the cosmos. This thought immediately puts us on the same level of universal worth. I walk over an extend my appreciation for his music and excitement for the show. His thank you is genuine. I’m vulnerable and open up about my search. I take the opportunity to let him know it took someone in his position to rock the boat, it encouraged me to do more in the fight. I thank him. We both appreciate the serendipity of the moment.

“I know what He would have thought.”

Knowing he was talking about Merle.

“If I didn’t say something, what’s that say about me?”

There it was.

Every journey has that one important piece of information given to the hero. This moment with Sturgill is the Apotheosis. ‘If I didn’t say something, what’s that say about me?’

There’s the risk of burning a bridge, of judgement passed, of standing alone in a situation against a room or industry of people, but what’s that say about you. Knowing something is to be said or someone be defended. Having the power of a voice to make a difference but choosing to live among the quiet. Understanding that as artists our duty is to spread light and make change. What does complying with the way things are say about you? In the worst case scenario your voice will quiver but your gut will be satisfied. Truth will always build courage.

If you don’t say something, what’s that say about you?

I’m a changed man in this moment.

Our conversation moves to a more casual tone and a genuine connection is made. There’s flow. Scott, Sturgill and I walk outside with our Starbucks, laughing at the setting of the engagement. Scott mentions how when you recognize synchronicity you have no choice but to go with it, be open and release expectations. We chat about music and being on the road. Sturgill asks if I already have my tickets to the show and I disclose I actually have an extra. He gives me a back pat and says he’s sure a lone road cowboy like me won’t have a problem finding a date. We both gesture the obvious. An appreciation for having met, Scott and Sturgill walk back to their bus and I head inside.

I thank my greater power for the moment and pay for another refill.

Sturgill

19. Kentucky; Unbridled Spirit

September 24th 2016 9:35 am

In a La Quinta parking lot in Loudon, TN, I had the best half-assed sleep yet. I could feel a change in the weather as a thick morning dew gives me a little extra privacy on the windows. It’s my quickest transition from sleeping quarters to driver’s seat, as well. With plenty of time until needing to be in Ashland, Kentucky, I do have to get to the FedEx building in Huntington, West Virginia to pick up tickets to tonight’s show.

A few month’s back, with the release of my double-single, Word’s Gettin’ Around/Funny Thing About You Leaving, I received a direct message on Twitter from W.B. Walker. W.B.’s Old Soul Radio Show podcast is a testament to a fight for Real Country Music. Walker discovered me through Melanie, he discovered Melanie through her collaboration with Colter Wall on his 2015 release, Imaginary Appalachia. Wall’s relocation to Bowling Green, KY had W.B. backing his success and strengthening the close-knit Kentucky/West Virginia music scenes even more. It’s a wonderful support system to watch from the outside. The #ListentoColterWall hashtag has a cult following raising Wall into the mainstream and W.B. is a part of this.

I touched base with him after seeing a post a few weeks ago announcing the arrival of his Sturgill Simpson tickets for the September 15th concert date at Ashland’s Paramount Theatre. With the loose plans of being in Chattanooga the night before, attending the Sturgill concert would take me six hours northeast on the continued Quest. Slightly hesitant at first, having seen Simpson at The Burton Cummings Theatre in Winnipeg, Manitoba five weeks prior, it was an opportunity to get to know W.B..

I put on yesterday’s jeans and a fresh snap-shirt. I have a rejuvenated wardrobe. I keep the air mattress filled and jump into the drivers seat with my bare feet, clean socks in hand. One swipe with the windshield wipers clearing the morning dew satisfies the same personality trait that had me straitening people’s door matts when doing door-to-door sales. A perfect visual order fulfills me. The crisp view gets me back on my route and I’m driving at 6:30 am.

The area is mountainous through a transitional geography between The Great Smokys and The Cumberland Plateau. To the east the mist is a weighty ornament hanging in the bottom of the hills like unstirred cream in a morning coffee. Knowing a picture could never do it justice I still try, passenger window down, blindly snapping shots with my iPhone while staring straight ahead at the road. I come into Knoxville to catch early morning traffic but exit on the 640 to pick back up with the I75.

“…here’s a song I wrote on a plane between Dallas and Austin…going to El Paso. Oops” Waylon intros over the Outlaw Country waves.

In my quest to find the Spirit of Real Country Music I cross the Kentucky state line. A motto written on a vibrant blue welcoming sign; Unbridled Spirit. Of course it is. A chill runs over my skin identical to the one when passed by the FedEx Proverbs Truck. I’m on my way to see Sturgill Simpson in his home state and I can feel a climax to my journey.

I keep music recommendations in my back pocket. Childhood friend, Eris Roth, hunts for music’s soul and will consistently send me her finds. I mentally catalogue them and let her know how right she was when I finally discover the treasures on my own. It’s a strange process, almost pretentious. Sturgill built a career on word of mouth. ‘Have you heard of Sturgill Simpson?’ was coming at me daily in the summer of 2014 following the release of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Like everyone else able to recall where they were, I was in the bathtub the first time I heard “I’ve seen Jesus play with flames in a lake of fire that I was standing in.” Everyone knew it when they heard it. They knew what was to become. It was something that hadn’t been embodied in country music for years. It was authentic, intelligent, and credible. It flowed with a production we had never heard in the genre. It was psychedelic and rooted. It came from Kentucky. Unbridled Spirit.

The Daniel Boone National Forest meets you immediately at the Kentucky border. And so do the Tree People. An evasive Asian perennial vine introduced at The Centennial Exposition in 1876 is known as “the vine that ate the south”. For as destructive as the Kudzu is, canopied over the forest, it personifies the trees. Like an afternoon cloud can resemble a child’s teddybear, the Kudzu creates the Kentucky Tree People. My own imaginative tribe of protection. They overlook my travels into Renfro Valley. After ignoring roadside attractions to stay on course I’m lured by The Kentucky Music Hall of Fame & Museum.

An early turn lands me infront of the Renfro Valley Barn Dance. Originally a stage and broadcast radio show carried by WLW-AM in Cincinnati, OH, it manifested into a live show bearing its name in Renfro Valley, KY and hosted in the monumental Renfro Valley Entertainment Centre. An immense yet visibly worn barn announcing “REAL COUNTRY MUSIC SHOWS” across its face in yellow and black. I find a bench and enjoy its presence.

Real Country Music

The Kentucky Music Hall of Fame & Museum is extensive. I’m welcomed by Shawna, a native of Irvine, KY, a town of a few thousand and a gateway to the Appalachian Mountains. I pay admission. An array of memorabilia from 90’s country hit songwriters to bluegrass godfathers. Black soul quintets to Arian sell-out duos. It honours the evolution of the Kentucky influence and its geographical connection. Great religious movements; The Second Great Awakening, a camp meeting at Cane Ridge, in Bourbon Country, KY attended by eighteen preachers and more than twenty-thousand worshippers. The “brush arbor” movement; hymns at revivals held under makeshift shelter to protect the saved from the hot Kentucky sun. Contributions to blues and jazz, black minstrels coming in on the Ohio River, strumming and stomping travellers. The instrumentation and the influence of industry, Mandolins and Coal songs. The rise of Bill Monroe, his place in the rock and roll movement, his introduction of Flatt and Scruggs. More bluegrass memorabilia, more 90’s double-platinum records. Merle Travis’ Super 400 Gibson and a Billy Ray Cyrus life-size cutout, propped up against a wall in a room with the lights off.

As a child I would call into Gold Line, a late night request line on 620 AM and ask for “I Wanna Kiss You All Over” by Exile with a tape-cassette ready and finger on the record button. I loved hearing my own voice on the radio followed by my favourite song. First time hearing it, Adam Sandler singing into an intercom. The largest display in the museum if for that of Exile. Richmond, Kentucky.

The lobby is selling Elixr polyweb guitar strings for $11.00 – I’d sooner have nanowebs if using Elixrs but the price is right to settle. I stock up and make my way back onto the I75. I ignore the turnoff of Kentucky Folk Art Centre and connect with the I64-E, making the FedEx in Huntington, WV to pick up my two tickets to Sturgill Simpson. I backtrack twenty minutes into Ashland and look for a coffeeshop to spend the afternoon.

A block away from The Paramount Theatre, I bring Owen Meany into a Starbucks. The book is foreshadowing the concept of destiny, everything happens for a reason.

If my day played out any different than it did, I wouldn’t have been in that Starbucks at that moment in Ashland, KY. I wouldn’t have been given a crucial piece of advice. It wouldn’t have come from who it had.

18. New Year’s Eve 1979; I Am My Father’s Son

September 22nd 2016 6:30 pm

My father doesn’t fly. Obviously he has. Once sitting next to me as a chaperone on a grade twelve grad trip to Edmonton. The slightest turbulence caused groans of possible death. I fly, but if time allows would much rather drive. As a family, Dad and Mom loaded us up in a 1989 Chevy Diesel for a vacation to Disney World. Sixty hours and a six-piece family. I was old enough to purchase alcohol so I snuck a case into the van at a truck-stop – Jarid and I dipping into it while my parents switched night driving duties. The driving gene was passed on to me by each parent, very dominant trait, however mom will gladly board a plane and always offering to buy us flights if in need. Dad pushes vehicles. My 2002 yellow Ford Mustang was more-less his decision, my money. The 1989 Chevy Diesel became my fabled Oceanman. He helped with the purchase of my last touring van, The Whitebear.

In the winter of 1979, He and Mom jumped in her 1976 Chrysler Le Baron and headed to Florida. Meeting with friends, Linda and Vern, the foursome was then set to fly to The Bahamas. Dad taking a month vacation time from his job as a provincial brand inspector and Mom, taking her time as a speech pathologist from the health region. After a few days driving and audible squeal came from the front passenger side that left them in need of a front wheel spindle. At 5:30 pm on Monday, December 31 they found themselves walking back a mile on the Interstate to a small fuel station. Owners celebrating the coming 80’s with liquor and poker in the back. After a declined request for assistance an ex-employee and Good Samaritan offered help. Desperately, Jack and Theresa jump in the front seat of a pick-up and are off to a local wrecking yard. Mom recalls the driving as unhinged. With the needed part purchased, the Good Samaritan installed it on the side of the road and furthered his southern hospitality by inviting the valentines home for supper.

Eager to leave, Mom initiated the idea following their meal around 8:00 pm but with darkness set on the back country hills, hosts, Keith and Nadine, thought otherwise. Dad, one to pack a bottle of whiskey, offered his new American friends a drink of Canada’s finest and left his hat hanging by the door. The whiskey was a foreign as the currency and after sharing a little of each, Mom and Dad made their way to the floor in the living room.

“Jack, see these two pictures here?”

“Yes.” My Dad replies to his host.

“One’s my parents and the other’s Nadine’s.”

“Ok”

“Jack, you see this gun?”

“Yes”

“It’s loaded. If anybody other than the four people in these two pictures come to this door in the night. You kill them, understand?”

Mom kept an intricate journalling of their trip. Her entry for January 1, 1980 reads: “I won’t even record yesterday. Jack and I will remember it forever.”

Thinking through the story I’ve heard since my youth, I put myself on their Interstate. Although I’m headed north to Kentucky, this is the general geography that their Le Baron broke down. Tennessee has a split time zone, where if I’m an hour ahead of home when in Nashville, I’m two hours ahead of home coming out of Chattanooga. 9 pm in Kennedy, Saskatchewan. Dad will just be having a tea and reading the Western Producer. I pull over and give him a ring.

I get him to retell the story about New Year’s Eve 1979. He remembers every detail. Slightly more elaborate than Mom’s version. He is my father. The last couple years have been tough on him between passing the farm over to my brother and sister and becoming reliant on alcohol. Drying out has each of us more open about our love for each other. It’s quicker to resolve the differences and easier to forgive the mistakes. The phone call lasts forty-five minutes and he understands my need to leave like no other. He’d do the same. We excite each other about possibly driving down to Texas with the truck and fifth-wheel in the near future. He did it with his dad when he was my age and is vocal that it’s something he’d like to do with me. He also left for New Mexico at my age – alone and out for a drive. It’s what we do. There are a couple loose ends between us, so we tie them up by simply saying ‘I forgive you’. Done. We express our love for each other and say goodnight.

I pull into a parking lot of a La Quinta Inn & Suites southwest of Knoxville, TN and crawl into the back of the van. La Quinta directly translating to The Fifth, I realize the synchronicity in the Ten Commandments. Number 5: Honour Thy Father and Thy Mother.

Dad and I

17. Hayes Carll @ The Revelry Room, Chattanooga, TN 09.14.16

September 21st 2016 10:00 am

The Revelry doesn’t work against the acts they bring in. They understand how to set the tone of a performance and play music between acts that compliment the styles of the evening. When a venue panders to the few in a room and plays today’s pop country hits in between Real Country Artists sets, it doesn’t “keep everybody happy.” It’s an act of disrespect to the artist and their fight for authenticity and quality. It creates a missing piece in an environment that could otherwise be complete. It’s like keeping the TV’s on during a performance. It’s the difference between a live music venue and a venue that wants to have live music but doesn’t have the guts to properly pull it off.

The Revelry is playing Haggard.

The gaps in the standing crowd are filled. To my left are Alex and Laura, another couple I’ve just finished having the pleasure of sharing my story with. Like a taxi-driver that learned to speak english by listening to the White Album, Alex knows about Alberta and Saskatchewan through listening to Corb Lund. Corb’s consistent pursuit of America has educated a southern listenership and opened major doors for players such as myself. He returns the favour by bringing acts such as Hayes, American Aquarium, and The Turnpike Troubadours to perform his sold out shows across Canada. The perfect formula. Alex asks if I know Corb, rethinking my 2012 CCMA experience, I say yes. Kelly and Lily are at my six o’clock and Stumbling Mary with her mean-mug hubby are to my right. A double-date has pushed themselves in-front of me, the boys rather reserved in the move but their lady-friends unapologetic. A brunette with a bob-cut and a blonde in a pony-tail. The brunette’s man has a nice white collared shirt tucked in and the blonde’s is in a camo hat. Seeing his back pocket Skoal-ring, I want to tap him and request a hit for the show. The girls are taking pictures of themselves with my cowboy hat popping over their shoulders.

Carll’s stage is quaint. A tele player will split duties on pedal steel. No bassist. A percussionist, stage left. A looming Hayes Carll steps out with his band to the approval of a crowd. He’s wearing our national outfit of a denim snapshirt and jeans. Straight from the cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s Sundown album.

Fan favourite, “Beaumont” begins his performance. A pocket groove with percussionist using a string of seashells on the snare creating a washy accent. Carll admits the over-romanticization in his writing on the town. They bust into the duet “Bible on the Dash”. Corb fan, Alex, looks back and gives me the thumbs up. Stumbling Mary departs her husbands grip and charges through to the stage to slap the ass of the photographer shooting the night. He jumps and doesn’t know quite what the make of her. I don’t either. A broom head is being used on the snare and Carll sings “…let the world worry, ’cause you and me won’t.” “Love is So Easy”, the first song performed off his new record Lovers and Leavers.

Carll became synonymous with wit. A few albums where the material was less a serious nature but an intelligent display of wordsmith storytelling. Lovers and Leavers is a statement. Hayes made himself a songwriter’s songwriter with it. For any that didn’t “get it”, it became a songwriter’s favourite Hayes Carll record. There won’t be a stronger 2016 release.

Hayes won’t deny a type of crowd he shares with the worshipped, Ray Wylie Hubbard, playing the sing-a-long of the evening written with Mr. Hubbard, “Drunken Poets Dream”. He then gives me what I came to hear. “Sake of the Song”.

A title-homage to Townes Van Zandt’s opening track on his self-titled release, Carll’s ability is alongside his Texas Songwriting Compeers. His best, puts him in fighting distance within Nelson and Kristofferson, Van Zandt and Earle. A swing away from Guy Clark. It was Carll’s songwriter lineage that was my first initiation into the craft to later find Ray Wylie Hubbard, Rodney Crowell, Jack Ingram, Waylon Jennings, Robert Earle Keen, Lyle Lovett, Roger Miller, Billy Joe Shaver, Jerry Jeff Walker and the gem that remained hidden for so long, James McMurtry. All from the great state of Texas.

“Sake of the Song” could have been written by any one of them but the Spirit chose Hayes Carll and Darrell Scott, another songwriting great. It’s flawless, giving support to any path in the industry a songwriter chooses as long as it’s in the name of Truth. It’s the song on Lovers and Leavers, that whenever comes on I stop whatever I’m engaged in and simply listen. Carll plays it to me.

“Wild as a Turkey”, crowd stomps. “The Magic Kid”, crowd imagines. “Live Free or Die”, crowd chuckles. “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” and the pounding “KMAG YOYO”. I smell baby powder and realize that the harder the woman in-front of me thrusts herself in dance, the more the dry floral scent dries out my nostrils.

We’re enlightened with the yet to be recorded, “Jesus and Elvis”.

“I Gotta Gig” and Stumbling Mary breaks her husband’s grip. She creates a bubble at the front of the stage, turns her back to the band and drapes herself backwards over the monitors. Hayes’ expression defines the moment. He finishes the song by saying that’s one of his favourite moves, that, and people turning their back to him with a camera taking a picture of the crowd. Humour and Truth. No sooner does Stumbling Mary return to her mean-mug hubby, she’s rubbing my back during “Chances Are”. I’m a sucker for a back scratch. She doesn’t quite fulfill my needs but offers what I find depraving yet motherly. Kind of like a heifer licking the wrong calf. Harmless. Some guy takes the silence following the applause and dedicates the song to Guy Clark. That rite is reserved for Carll and again, his expression defines the moment.

“Girl Downtown”, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”, “Willing To Love Again”. All Trouble in Mind cuts. Jonas would dig. “Hard Out Here”. Yes it is.

Ironically, “Wish I Hadn’t Stayed So Long”. No, Carll enjoyed himself tonight. We all know the drill but Carll skips the motions and remains on stage following the set’s last song to move into the “encore”. He now dedicates a song to Clark. A co-write with the great, himself. “Rivertown”. Covers “Dublin Blues” and finishes with “Stomp and Holler”.

My trip has become spiritual and Hayes honours it by refraining from playing his hit “She Left Me For Jesus”.

Half the room clears and the other half hang around. I make my way to the back with my vinyl copy of Lovers and Leavers. I saved it’s purchase for a time when Carll would be present. I offer my appreciation for the writing and the stripped production. We chat about the night Stompin’ Tom Connors died, jarring his memory about me. I indulge him with his importance in my Quest for the Spirit of Real Country Music and we part. Barham lets me know of his showcase at Americanafest in Nashville and I let him know I’ll make it out.

Sitting in the van, I consider spending the night. It’s a safe little parking lot in a good area of town. I’m valid until 6 am, my usual time of departure. This notion is enforced by a childhood story told by both my mother and father about their Chattanooga experience on New Year’s Eve 1979. It included a wheel bearing going on my mom’s 1976 Chrysler Le Baron north of Chattanooga while en route to Tampa, Florida. Driving would have been my Dad’s influence. It ends with them sleeping on a strangers floor in the hills with instructions of who and who not to kill if there’s a knock at the front door in the night. My dad would have slept soundly and mom, without a wink. She wanted to leave but their hosts advised them it wasn’t in their best interest.

I have yet to listen to BJ Barham’s new album and it’s best done in transit. Notions aside, I hit the road into the night. I have two tickets to Sturgill Simpson in Ashland, KY tomorrow night and need to find someone to go with me.

Hayes

16. The Day Stompin’ Tom Connors Died

September 20th 2016 12:05 pm

Canadian Legend, Stompin’ Tom Connors, passed away on March 6, 2013. That morning had a similar tone to the previous five. Petty arguing, frustrations and jealousy. In a long distance relationship, as the majority of them seemed to be in my life, I was the one that couldn’t trust. She was pretty and I was far away. She was social and was reclusive. If I wasn’t out all night on the road, I was in all night wondering why I hadn’t received a phone call, what she was doing. I could mentally string together the most wild prurient events with her as a character and a cast of booze-filled muscle-thugs. This was best dealt with by pouring a mug of rye, warm, and hanging by my window. The same window that inspired Del Barber’s “Farewell, God Bless You, Goodbye”: “There’s pigeons sitting on a windowsill, I think I’ve finally had my fill…” 

I was in the last months of my twenties and figured it was high time I began to experiment with marijuana. Yet to have ever purchased, my buddy Trav would pitch me a bit of shake or the odd bud for “when the time was right”. Stemmy weed and warm rye-whiskey seemed to do the trick. Starring out at another apartment wall caked in pigeon shit.

The morning Stompin’ Tom died was the night after another numbing. It was late in the day when Trav let me know of the death – he was a newfound country fan but understood the cultural importance of the news as well as my connection. Stompin’ Tom was almost everyones first array into Canadiana. Connors sang of the localities, the people and their stories. Wilf Carter was changing his name to Montana Slim to have more commercial viability south of the border and Connors was singing about Tillsonburg, ON. Coincidently, the hometown of my heartache at the time. Both Trav and I were bummed so he came over with some better grass and we listened to Connors educate us on the landscape of our nation. We proceeded to transform into alter-egos and hit the town.

Regina’s Artful Dodger is a room that holds a talkative crowd on the left side by the bar and an attentive crowd to it’s right. Tables at the stage front, benches along the wall and bleacher-esqe sitting to the roof along the back, separating the performance space from the front entrance. The vibe is good if the bar crowd can appreciate someone is on stage.

As a Texan, Hayes Carll has toured Canada for years, a feat I’ve always respected. Introduced to his music through my buddy Jonas. Jonas’ wife and my current girlfriend at the time, growing up best friends. A couple prairie boys running to southern Ontario. Jonas was living in Winnipeg and Carll was making a hit out of Manitoban, Scott Nolan’s, “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart”.

The night Stompin’ Tom died, Carll played The Artful Dodger. The night Carll played The Artful Dodger, Travis and I were on a tear. We were bouncing between Little Scrapper IPA’s and Harviestoun Old Engine Oil Beer. Hopping outside for “fresh air” prior to the openers set we came back in to sit halfway to the stage. I was wearing my felt hat, had a pocket full of booze-cash and taking it upon myself to tell the “talkers” to shut-up.

Carll dug into his “Trouble in Mind” track listing with swagger. He was loose. With just a lead guitarist they were playing everything I was hoping to hear. A new tongue-in-cheek tune about three bottles of wine, two girls and one bed had the besties ahead of me squirming. Now they’re loose. I’ma buy them a beer.

Trav’s girlfriend met us at the show and they left following the encore. I stayed to hang with the after crowd. More Little Scrapper IPA’s. I introduced myself to Carll at the merchandise table and fellow twangster, Corb Lund’s name came up. He asked if I know him and I mentioned we had crossed paths over the years. One good hang if you include heading back to his hotel room with our evening dancing partners after the 2012 CCMA’s in Saskatoon only to play Neil Diamond covers until 3 am and ignore the girls. I finished the night off with a Kristofferson cover and drove the red-eye back to Regina. Keeping the story to myself, Hayes and I decided to get a drink at the casino.

Felt hat on and jean collar cutting the wind, I made off on foot. I switched to Pilsners once getting to the casino. Conversation was casual. The night became morning. Carll hit a couple tables and I walked home. My apartment is freezing because Travis and I left the window open – snow on the inside of the kitchen. I swept it up and poured another warm rye. I put on Stompin’ Tom’s “At The Gumboot Cloggeroo” and proceeded to stay up for another couple hours.

Connors was one of our last Real Country Icons. He educated himself by hitchhiking across the country, he returned six Junos, he declined his induction into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame. He self produced tv specials and stayed true to his style outside of the passing trends and fads. He told stories of our nation and worked the road right up to his death. Before passing Connor’s once again said it like it was.

“I’ve been looking for thirty years for a young guy who’s proud to write songs about our country. I’d like to pass the torch to Tim Hus.”

Stompin Tom

15. BJ Barham @ The Revelry Room, Chattanooga, TN 09.14.16 – Part II

September 20th 2016 9:53 am

With Kelly’s advice to pay attention to the lyrics, I wait for Barham to walk onstage. He does so modestly. Scattered tattoos on his strumming arm and what seems a more organized collection on his fretting side. His Gibson J-45 is sharp. A 1968 reissue with a cherry finish, unnamed. He fingerpicks a two-note alternation and throws a 2/4 measure in to give space to digest the lyric. Kelly warned me. Barham is weaving a tale of devout love and heartbreak. I recognize the hook from when I was looking his album over at the merchandise table. I commit to purchasing the record before the first verse is through. His approach of playing a solemn singer-songwriter tune to kick the evening off is a ballsy move, establishing his performance values. It’s gradual but by the end of the final “ain’t it funny how every now and then, the unfortunate kind get lucky sometimes” a crowd is in Barham’s control.

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He takes advantage of the tone he’s set and exposes vulnerability and strength announcing two years sobriety. I connect with his decision and applaud with the room. As it dissipates a Tennesseean displays his ignorance and denounces that nobody likes a quitter. Barham takes stand and is shaming.

“There always has to be that guy.”

I find justice in the deserved scolding of an elder. Barham is abrupt. Smart asses and hecklers are useless. The arrogance of throwing the flow of a performance isn’t only disrespectful to everyone engaged in the moment, it displays a lack of confidence. A heckler has been overlooked their entire lives, from birth to adolescence to adulthood. Quipping in with an unintelligent disruption perversely gives them the spotlight they need and the most pathetic amount of control. Barham plays honky tonks and shows that he’s dealt with these aloof shitheads since the get-go. It’s in his eyes. He plays “Wolves”.

As recorded by American Aquarium, the grit of the guitars is replaced by the grit in Barham’s voice. His rendition is sang along to by the Revelry crowd. Through the course of the song I begin to recognize the intensity that Kelly spoke of. Barham eyes up the center of his microphone as he pulls away between lines. Moving back in to deliver. Retaliate.

The Spirit of Real Country Music is rooted in Truth. Barham’s grandfather served his country and returned home uneducated, spending the remainder of his working life with the American Tobacco Company. The subject is dear to Barham’s heart and he expresses his disgust.

Politically charged, “Nobody gave a fuck about veteran’s back then and they don’t give a fuck about them now. The American Dream failed my grandfather, he worked his ass off everyday and couldn’t barely keep his head about water.”

Another hook I recognize from the backside of his newest release. A track listing in what I assumed was Barham’s handwriting overtop a picture of his younger self staring at the camera. What looks like a load of foliage being pulled down the dirt road behind him; corn or hay. Barham’s a rural North Carolinian, he understands his calling to represent and does well in metaphor. A folk song:

“you can’t call yourself a farmer just because you plant a seed,
you must bargain with the dirt, your hands must blister, they must bleed
only then will you find beauty not in the bloom but in the weeds
O Lover, love is not the only thing from you I need…”

I’m grateful this is my first experience to BJ Barham’s craft. I find themes that crossover in our work and parallels to style. When Barham digs in he means it. His face contorts and his shoulders raise. But just when you think he’s the lion, he’s the lamb.

American Aquarium was touring Europe last November when Paris was attacked. Performing in Brussels, they completed their show to texts and calls worried for their safety. Beating the closing of the borders, the band was rushed into Holland and held up in a hotel for two days. Barham wrote his Rockingham record. He wrote songs of home and the people he loved. He wrote songs for his unborn. He’s soft and delivers advice as if his blood is before him. I’m still enthralled by the Southern Accent and appreciate his pride in a lyric to “Madeline”.

“Those long vowels oh they’re a beautiful thing…”

Barham has charm in his self-deprecation. He humours the crowd by calling Olive Garden a fancy Italian restaurant he worked at while living in a storage container. His comment hits me in the gut thinking of how I moved my life into the same type of space before leaving. A little more passive of an interaction, a girl in the crowds lets him know it’s better than sleeping in his vehicle. Now I’m really feeling it. He agrees, sleeping your vehicle is worse than a storage container. There you go.

“Losing Side of 25” is followed by Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman”. Barham’s version sits somewhere between the Boss’ and Johnny Cash’s. It’s haunting and sold.

Barham ends with a final Aquarium song. “Casualties” once again plays out my anxieties before me. A couple solid screams to peak the microphone and the set concludes. I’m immediately summoned by my Corbin, KY state trooper, Kelly. He asks me if I’ve ever seen anything like it. He affirms the passion. He asks me if I saw Barham’s death stare. Who didn’t?

Kelly and Julie love what BJ does. They remind me they drove three hours for the show, I take the opportunity to tell them I drove almost thirty.

I’m slapped on the back of my arm asking if I’m an agent or manager or something. Or from Texas or something. The rude koozie buyer from earlier at the merchandise table has quickly gone from sober and boisterous to slurry and social. She introduces herself as Mary and let’s me know I’m distinguished. I’m appreciative but sure she could have used a more suitable adjective. Her husband mean-mugs me as I shake his drunken wife’s hand.

I make my way to the back of the venue and purchase Barham’s new record. Open it and thumb through the inserts. There’s a familiarity to the pictures opposite lyrics. Barham and his younger brother. One slender, the other catching up. Matching outfits. Two buddies. Reminds me of Jarid and I.

BJ and Brother

Blake and Jarid

I find Kelly and he picks up where we left off.

“I’m telling you, BJ Barham, Hayes Carll and Tyler Childers – that’s where it’s at.”

BJB

14. BJ Barham @ Revelry Room – Chattanooga, TN 09.14.16 – Part I

September 19th 2016 2:15 pm

A year old, The Revelry Room is Chattanooga’s newest five-hundred capacity venue. The south Station Street entrance advertises fellow venue, Track 29’s, upcoming performances. Both venues a part of the historic Chattanooga Choo Choo, an epic brick structure once destined for destruction. The early 70’s saw a group of local businessmen, inspired by the building’s railway history, invest in a four-million dollar action plan. The renovations transformed the, then, Terminal Station into a new destination complex, naming it after the original wood-burning train that ran from Cincinnati, through Chattanooga and into the south. With another four-million plus dollars put into the building in ’89, a third development began in the summer of 2014 which included plans for a modest yet premiere venue.

I’m among the first to get into tonight’s show and go directly to the merchandise table. Hayes Carll has released 2016’s strongest collection of songs and having streamed the record consistently since it’s release, I’ve yet to buy the album. Matching the writing, the vinyl is weighty. In conversation about the record’s contents with the merch-boy we are interrupted by a woman pushing her way between us, throwing a five and grabbing a Hayes Carll Koozie, proceeding to stretch it around a Coors Banquet tall boy. A forceful fit much like her southern accent pushing its way into my head. I love the southern accent. The long vowels. But it’s the tone that either makes it or breaks it. Elizabeth Cook – makes it. Lucille Bluth look-a-like here – breaks it. The corners of her mouth are in a permanent scowl as she says ‘here’ for the money/koozie exchange.

At a time when I was spending one-hundred dollars per week on CD’s as my only means of mass music consumption I will forever be grateful for streaming. Now spending one-hundred dollars a month on vinyl, I’m allowed selectivity as well as affordable mass consumption. I accumulated years of neglected CD purchases and consolidated the works before leaving home. Replacing cracked cases, finding inserts, assessing damage, pitching the scratched. A selective process that left me with a collection of a couple hundred, donating off as many, and garbaging as many again. Immediate release day streaming has built me a beautiful tangible collection of music, allowed for a larger live music budget, and transformed me into a responsible consumer. It’s made my writers heroic and reintroduced the idea of song celebrity. This modern accessibility to artists via social media is convenient but it sure doesn’t help needing to see someone in the flesh.

My merch table hang has me picking up the opener’s new release. I move in and out of listening to and ignoring new artist suggestions. For the most part, prominent fellow twang-fighter, Saving Country Music, has me following his lead but somehow I missed this one. The cover art of BJ Barham’s Rockingham is what looks like a cherished photo. My parent’s doppelgängers look back at me. Mom with her short black hair. Dad with his shag and shirt off, moustache and cigarette. Leather belt. Arm around Mom’s waist. I almost buy the CD but unless it’s going to be for usage in the van – I’ll give it a stream and get the vinyl down the road. I set it down.

Rockingham

My ma and pa.

Dad and Mom

Dad and Mom at Disneyworld

A year and a week to the day younger than me, BJ and I are both BJBs. I, a Blake John; He, a Bradley Justin. I’m named after my dad. BJ, a term of endearment that people in my life either always call me or never call me. My mother and younger sister Jody, do; father and younger siblings Jarid and Casey do not. Best buddy Travis does. Best buddy Jonas does not. Second cousin once removed Danielle does, all other extended family members do not. Melanie has through this whole trip – I battled a lack of confidence for three years thinking that she only did so when needing emotional space. I don’t think that’s the case.

Past the merchandise table is the more dimmly-lit concert room with a second bar on the left hand side. Its decor is a myriad of speakers stacked like Tetris blocks to the roof. A design that graced the cover of SaskMusic’s 2010 InTune compilation designed by my late friend Derek Bachman. My belief system continues to settle, change and evolve. Maybe D has been ripping across the country with me. At the very least come to check out Hayes and BJ tonight.

The Revelry Wall

InTune 2010

Blue LEDs colour the back draping and red LEDs will backlight Barham.

I’m singled out by a husband and wife from Corbin, KY that drove three hours pledging the allegiance to Barham. Kelly, a state-trooper and ex-meth lab buster has seen Carll fifteen or so times but came for Barham. It’s his stories and intensity, his wife Julie adds. Kelly worked with Sturgill Simpson’s dad on the highways. Growing their beards out and kicking ass. Kelly busted Meth labs for years, now the drug of choice in Kentucky is heroin. Good guy, that Sturgill is, he lets me know. Yeah, a good guy that lit the fire under my ass to accept this quest with his epic ripping of the ACM in a Facebook post weeks ago. I heard him. His words spoke to me like very else-few have. I’ll thank him someday and let him know what he got me into. This journey has been riddled with the unexplainable – strange synchronicity. I step back at times and wonder what I’m truly experiencing. Sturgill’s Metamodern album initiated this belief that it’s all just a dream. Sometimes, I have no other explanation than to whole-heartedly agree. Hey, D?

13. Conspiracies & Kombucha

September 19th 2016 1:18 pm

Marina Street has character. The characters have character. I’ve been in town hours and already helped the neighbour load furniture into the back of his pick-up out the front steps of an old brick house. Plywood where there should be a window. A seven foot plank fence separates my backyard from the open street. A garage sits on our property with a mural facing the back door coming off the laundry room. My renovated kitchen is separated by a granite top prep-counter; it holds Ramen noodles, Triscuits, sun-glasses, keys and half a forty of Jameson Irish Whiskey. Where there is usually a dining room table, on the other side of the counter, the room is bare. Christian is a musician as well, so I assume it’s a decision in acoustics. A room resonates better without dampening furniture.

The living room is communal and shared by three men on Macbooks. I catch up with emails and try and place an order to Staples for business cards. Christian catches up on American Horror Story and Marshall reads Craigslist ads word for word. The humour isn’t in the situations people get themselves in but the amount of information they are comfortable disclosing. Wanted: one bedroom, husband living double life, I said I wouldn’t go back but this time it’s for sure.

I leave the house to get a feel for the area and coffee-shop-down. I finish designing business cards and buy concert tickets from a third-party site. Considering the whole Tragically Hip ticket debacle, I override my morals and move on whatever means possible to get into sold out shows. One in Chattanooga tomorrow night and another in Ashland, Kentucky the evening after. Chattanooga still had tickets on the venue site. Ashland’s however, requires some serious effort. I finally speak to a human. Rita suggests purchasing two tickets side by side as it will be cheaper than one by itself. Seems like a strange ordeal but I oblige. She asks what I’m going to do now that I have the extra ticket. Her call center is in Nashville. She moves past professionalism expressing how fun it would be to go for a road-trip. Business card designs are finally sent for pick-up at the Staples on Highway 153 north of Chattanooga. I show Christian the design as his girlfriend is in the graphic arts and he makes suggestions. I resubmit.

Marshall bums a cigarette off of Christian and we spend the remainder of the night hanging on the front step. I seem to move from trio to trio. Chris and Jess. Mel and Bryce. Del and Quinton. Christian and Marshall. The fridge is filled with IPAs and they make it outside – tempting. I’m quiet to start but begin to open up once I recognize the progression of the drinking conversation. Music, Politics, Conspiracies, Illuminati, Google Research. My morning of second departure is coming quick, I say goodnight an hour after Marshal bring up 9-11. Its interesting how opinions differ on the subject between Ethan and my new brothers. Ethan champions firefighters. Not that Marshall doesn’t, he just comes from an architectural background. I reside on my floor and get trapped in click-bait, reading an article on how Hillary’s ears have changed since her pneumonia and there’s been a Hillary switch-a-roo, William Campbell/Paul McCartney style. I wake around 3 am to the boys chanting the word “Money” on the front steps. Laughing, I fall back asleep.

My van has been unpacked for two days and I’m back arranging my possessions into it first thing in the morning. At least now there’s an air mattress to include. I leave my felt hat and suit jackets in my room closet. I’m digging the passiveness that the straw hat elicits but it’s more a practical decision. I experienced a similar humidity in southern Ontario, one that prompted cutting my shoulder length hair. I clip my hair to the scalp and cool down with a shower. It’ll be another five days until I’m “home”. Christian makes me a strong brew and Marshall gifts me his electric air pump.

The drive to Chattanooga is mountainous with the constant reminder to “See Ruby Falls”. The marketing is effective. I want to see Ruby Falls. I feel spacey from the altitude and lack of food, the van is running low on fuel as well. Committing to refrain from Cracker Barrel I weaken at the sight of a sock monkey telling me it brakes for Country Fried Steaks. I turn off the I24, pull into a Love’s gas station and put half a tomato on a slice from the french roll. I splurged and bought some whole grain dijon when purchasing the air mattress. A strawberry is on the pavement and dried flat. It was probably abandoned fresh, twenty minutes earlier.

I grab my business cards. A few came out off-centered so I’m given the option of a discount or a reprint. Fiscally minded, I chose the discount. Thirty-three cents change, my little sign that I’m on the right track.

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I park on a street that reminds me of Moose Jaw. Both the fourth largest cities to their regions, Chattanooga is five times superior. There’s a farmers market down the way, so I load up my satchel with a couple books, notepad, pen, tickets and a crisp twenty dollar bills from my stash. What I thought was a Granny Smith is disappointingly a Golden Delicious. It’s mealy but I continue eating it on my way to the market.

Melanie would talk Kombucha recipes if she was with me. A brewer between a cheese maker and a tomato farmer has some interesting concoctions. I look for the sake of Mel’s interest but can’t stomach the smell of the stuff. This, coming from a guy with a bag of used baby wipes in a congested van that he remembers he forgot to dispose of. It’s 95 degrees Fahrenheit. I complain of the heat to Rudd, operator of Area 61 Art Gallery. When Americans complain about the cold in Canada, more often than not I feel the same way – something tells me that Rudd and I are on the same page. He lets me know it will start cooling off in the evenings sooner than later and locks the door behind me. The street art leading to the venue are that of a copper dress, a wooden man and a mosaic saviour. The latter, caged and rising from a bathtub. The man a Hayes Carll character accuses of being left for and upon meeting, plans to pummel.

Bathtub Jesus

I arrive at The Revelry Room as the doors are opening. The Spirit of Country Music is going to be strong tonight as American Aquarium frontman, BJ Barham, will set the stage and Texan, Hayes Carll, will shut it down.

12. Three Paths & Proverbs; The Road to East Nashville

September 18th 2016 2:43 pm

I wake to a phone call from my sister, letting me know that Jessica Moskaluke was awarded the top consolation at The Canadian Country Music Awards for the third consecutive year. Deservedly so.

In the winter of 2011, fellow road-dog, Chris Henderson and I agreed to splitting tour administrative duties. Sharing databases, contacts and tactics. Nothing too serious. Some anchor dates and a few fillers; we’d hit radio and hustle our wares as best we could. Both spending time with engineer/producer, Brad Prosko he would also have Jess in to do back-up vocals in and around her jet-setting. Regina to LA, upload to YouTube. Regina to Nashville, studio. Regina to LA, upload to YouTube. The proximity of the three of us naturally led to slingin’ a couple guitars and working out vocal ranges. Jess extending YouTube love, Chris and I booking shows. We tested the waters infront of a wine-soaked crowd in a Fillmore, SK basement and worked out the kinks on the fly. A power-study of each other’s originals and a Gordon Lightfoot cover for good measure. Prairie shows that were sold out and others that were as desolate as the surrounding area. The first leg consisted of red-eye drives, minus thirty-five degree weather, and Henderson and I getting wasted. For as business as we were, Jess was Business. Monitoring YouTube stats and planning future releases. All chasing the dream, Jessi was being chased back. If it happened once, it happened repeatedly, Jessica defending her direction and Henderson and I challenging it. The second leg, in early 2012 consisted of red-eye drives, minus forty degree weather and blowing a tire north or my family farm. Jess showed her grit and walked in high heels, bag in tote, a mile to the warmth of my parents kitchen. Raw talent and grit.

Blake, Chris, Jess

Sleeping on the floor of the van in Indiana, I wouldn’t have wanted any other news.

Upon disbanding, Jess and Chris would continue to insert themselves into the Nashville mechanics. Co-writing with the who’s who and attaining radio play. I’d do my thing. Mainly, hustle CD’s door to door. Three paths. One yet to go to Music City.

At seventeen, I argued I didn’t need school and wanted to go to California. My parents roof said otherwise. At twenty-six I disclosed my plans to move to Austin. My bank account said otherwise.
At thirty-three I shut my mouth.

My version of chasing The Dream was a basement floor in Pilot Butte, Medicine Hat, Calgary, Medicine Hat, and Vancouver. The floor of a 2001 GMC Savana. My old bed at my parents, cheap Regina apartment solo, Toronto, cheap Regina apartment live-in, my old bed at my parents. The floor of a 2001 GMC Savana. Regina bungalow. The floor of a 2012 Dodge Caravan.

I slept in my snap-shirt and throw the remainder of “The Three Pounder” in the bush. The mustard/ham combo left an acidic goo in my mouth. I catch early morning Louisville traffic and catch an I65 Cracker Barrel. I could get right used to being called Sweetheart, Doll, and Hun. Maybe that’s half the reason I stop. That and the grits. Like my old man, I twist the top of the pepper shaker. Mix in both pods of butter and eat the biscuits dry. Fried apple on top of the hash-brown casserole. Cholula over Tabasco, mood depending. Small pieces of the country ham in the gravy. Biscuits in the gravy. More gravy. Finish it with the spoon. Black coffee and Owen Meany. Parlour guitar hanging on the wall that I consider haggling with management over. Check out the Jayhawks apparel, run back into the restaurant to leave a tip, finish the last mouthful of cold coffee.

Saskatchewan songwriter, Colter Wall is in Kentucky but another cosmic opportunity came his way that sees himself and manager Mary Sparr back in Saskatoon. Opening for Ian Tyson. My young contemporaries stars align. A text to Mary lines up a loose plan to cross paths upon their return. I cross the Tennessee line.

Last minute planning gave way to an East Nashvillian bending his full-time tenant plans to accommodate my need for a temporary home-base. I send him a text that I’m behind and it’ll be closer to 3 pm before I pull in. He’s relaxed and happy to help. Even though it’s only been a day, the southern humidity has my pores wide open. The full stomach is good for my mental state but is passing. I can spend months on the road making money – it’s a different story spending it. Carefully spending. Not making. Post gig cash always lifts a travelling spirit. Post gig cash, a couple beers and a toke can keep you running on full until the next post gig cash, couple beers and a toke. Months can pass. The idea of pulling into Nashville is and isn’t a big deal. Maybe indifferent to a version of me that knew sooner or later I’d hang there. A big deal to the version of me that’s now doing it. Mom brought me back a personalized Nashville key chain from a conference she attended years ago – meaning to bring it along as an amulet, it’s probably in that storage unit off of Macdonald street. Mildly superstitious, I’m surprised this bothers me. Catching the anxiety early, I breathe.

Another attempt at road tranquility leads to turning to an outside source for direction. A FedEx truck passes. I’ve been good with staying off my phone while driving, I can’t help but pick it up to snap a picture of what I think I saw.

Proverbs

An immediate reply. I follow it into Music City, past the Trinity Lane Exit. Past an add for The Devil’s Dungeon Haunted House attraction. I take the Cleveland St exit. I acquaint myself with my temporary landlord. His name’s Christian. I leave to buy a bed. Try life-hack internet trick to blow it up without a pump and eat a french roll and Walmart tomatoes for supper. Christian offers olive oil and balsamic. Second tenant, Marshall offers an electric air pump.

As I lay down for the night, I check my phone. Jess replied to my voicemail with an ‘I love you too’ and I missed a call from Chris. The internet lets me know that the day I arrive in Nashville is the thirteenth anniversary of Johnny Cash’s death.

I’m back to sleeping on the floor. A new version of the dream.

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11. “When you lie down, you will not be afraid…” – The Supernatural Aid

September 17th 2016 5:31 am

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We drive Peters’ guitarist home. John Huber spends the majority of his time working with The Wandering Boys, Hideout regulars. We debrief the night. I reiterate to John my Canadiana lecture and he educates me more on his city. The topic of brick buildings brings up poet, Carl Sandburg. I’m still visualizing Lawrence Peters’ set and Huber coincidently quotes Sandburg’s Chicago.

“…the city of big shoulders.”

Before dropping Huber at another overshot address, he directs my travels to St. Louis reminding me that legendary Chuck Berry still has a Sunday night residency at Blueberry Hill. No question. I redirect my original plan from Louisville, KY to his recommendation.

Ethan’s been a mother of all hosts. Offering to split the last tall boy PBR in his fridge, I decline and he taps in. The night is relatively young with Peters’ final snare cracking at 11 pm. Kinsella is humble and needs to be prodded to put on his five song EP. As we settle in for the night, I call him out on not being able to finish another tall boy. He begins to prove me wrong as the first track plays.

The earworm!

The song I couldn’t place from his performance at The Friendly Tap begins.

“Honey let me call you babe, Babe let me call you Hon, Honey Babe, Baby Honey, I don’t know what else to call you, alls I really wanna say is…”

What I assumed was a standard is not. My aspirations of beginning an indie label are only strengthen by this track. The EP progresses with a story-line. A mini concept album about pursuit. I imagine The Friendly Tap’s bartender, Amanda, as the pursued. The album doesn’t dictate a happy ending. Sorry brother.

My wheels are turning and keep me up for a couple hours past the lights being shut off.

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I’m surprisingly rested and have the three day old “Three-Pounder” as a quick breakfast. Wrap the remaining third and throw it in the cooler with the ice-cold freezer-pack. Kinsella hears my bustle. An appreciative hand-to-hand and I’m out. The van is ticket-free. I’m as clean as a whistle with all batteries at 100%. Chuck Berry’s Blueberry Hill residency has been on hiatus due to health issues. I revert back to Plan A.

The day is uneventful. I alternate between Outlaw Radio and Willie’s Roadhouse. Prime Country gives me my George Strait fix and the new Garth Channel is surprisingly captivating. I sing along to it as much as the next. A destined Cracker Barrel breakfast-supper keeps me going for another couple hours. The road begins to kaleidoscope and an unexpected sign for Nashville, Indiana triggers instinct. I accidently take the exit to end up in an abandoned, mid-Indiana parking lot. Not ideal for a worry-free first night back on the van floor but accommodating.

I go through the actions. Mary Kay baby-wipes. Teeth.

Frugal with data, I’ve given my best efforts to stay outside of my phone but the screen light is a companion. For the considerable amount of well-wishes, they don’t quite suffice the desire for Melanie’s bed or Mom’s salmon-loaf.

My childhood imagination begins to welcome itself the parking lot. I build stories that aren’t matching well with the Cracker Barrel coffee refills. I’m wide awake and deep into my data plan. Like The OC, I binge-watched Netflix’s Stranger Things before taking off. I fell asleep during the pilot, waking to 3 am Melanie regretting her decision to continue watching without me. I laughed at her. And here I am in an abandoned parking lot with the Demigod. I return to being ten years old and hearing the Unsolved Mysteries theme playing in the living room. Robert Stacks voice narrating my Facebook messages.

Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ describes the Dark Night of the Soul, The Supernatural Aid and The Belly of the Whale. Happenings and assistance in a protagonists quest.

From my day’s as a youngster I was taught to repeat a few Hail Mary’s and you’re made in the shade. It helps. I continue reading Facebook messages and come across a quick note of support from our Premier, Brad Wall.

Brad’s been good to me. It’s a professional relationship that has developed into a personal friendship. I’ve asked to crash on his couch and he’s welcomed my request. I continue to lean more politically left as I grow into my own ideologies and worldly beliefs but there’s absolutely no argument in one area. Real Country Music.

His message is complimentary but more importantly offers Supernatural Aid. Proverbs 3: 23-33. Again my 3’s are present.

“Then you will go on your way in safety, and your foot will not stumble.
When you lie down, you will not be afraid;
When you lie down, your sleep will be sweet…

…for the Lord will be at your side and will keep your foot from being snared.”

I put my phone away. Give a peace sign to the side window and fall asleep.

10. Devil in a Woodpile & Lawrence Peters @ The Hideout 09.10.16

September 16th 2016 11:10 am

The Hideout is its own unique brand of honky tonk. A house upon entrance. Walking up on its porch you pass under a lit-up Heileman Old Style Pilsner Sign. Every honky tonk has one in Chicago. If it isn’t hung outside advertising Chicago’s Beer, it sits as a backdrop on stage – like it back-lit Dan Whitaker at Coles earlier. Past the 90’s black and white 8x10s a church pew is opposite a long bar top counter. Knick-knacks line the walls. Posters of days gone by. Early Devil in a Woodpile prints date back years. PBRs are on special and it’s a buck for a water. In tension with the good vibes you can feel the manifestation of old heavy dark energy. The patch on my jean jacket keeps it from piercing between my shoulder blades and through my chest. It gets as far as my skin – and itches. My neck blotches up.

The woody back area of the bar reminds me of The Vultures old jam space. Wood paneling makes the room feel warm. Its nostalgia harkens to old family photo albums – Pops sitting on a tweed couch smoking a cigarette. Baseball T with his hair in his eyes. I follow the mounted Marlin, Jack, and Salmon on the walls to a table that sits underneath a Tuna fish. It’s carved up with obscenities. More than a doodle, a fifties cowboy greaser steps a Dame.

Greaser and Dame

Devil in a Woodpile is a trio. Resonator guitar, stand up bass and washboard. A washboard? Alright, however this goes. I beat the rush to fill the room. As sardines crammed in a can, we all feel at home with the mounted fish.

No sooner do I discount the bands percussion, I’m hooked. It’s like strange rag-time delta mishmash. Then it’s blues hillbilly. Then it’s 30’s style clarinet country. Another Hideout residency project that Bloodshot Records couldn’t pass up. I can’t tell who’s the brains to the movement – vocalist, Rick Sherry taps into a new character with every song while guitarist, Joel Patterson, makes us all want to sell our instruments. They throw each other melodies like a pigskin in the park. Bassist, Tom V. Ray doesn’t even crack a smile – he’s seen it before and his job is to keep the possessed heartbeat thumping. Sherry ditches the thimbles and washboard to play to play the harp, to play the clarinet, to return to the washboard. He’s between sitting and standing. The Spirit of Real Country Music has a yang to its ying and The Devil in a Woodpile summoned it. It sleeps in the Louisiana bog and Sherry taunts it. It makes up the Appalachian mist. It came through in the blue cigarette smoke speakeasy’s. Sherry bridles it. A rehearsed outro plays with tempos, dies off and is countlessly resurrected keeping a us cheering for coming on five minutes.

Woodpile exits. I need a rosary.

Devil in a Woodpile

The room gawks at the towering Lawrence Peters four-piece. Peters has nothing but a snare drum. The vibe left by Woodpile is caught and saddled by him counting in a “four on the floor”. What was Blind Willie Johnson is now Ray Price. A young acoustic player isn’t a part of Peters’ regular line-up. The Honky Tonker lets us know that nobody on stage is. He’s casual and confident. As The Hideout’s full-time bartender he’s heard all the country bands cross that stage – stealing what works. Like I’m going to steal his stand-up snare playing. I’ve never seen a lead snare and it’s aesthetically pleasing and the most important instrument to his sound. Songs of classic content. Break another heart why don’t ya? Peters’ was crowed Chicago’s king of country with the city’s best of  music awards. It’s a no-brainer. Like Jones or Price, Peters can croon. It’s rather effortless. Now I want to see Peters at The Palomino, The Times Change(d). I wanna see a split bill with Andrew Neville and the Poor Choices. Calgary’s Mike Dunn can open the show. It would leave The Jasper Legion unrecognizable and dry.

A final snare crack ends the night. The crowd meets the dissembling of the outdoor stage and hangs around to reminisce. 20 years of indie, rock, experimental, blues, jazz, songwriter, funk, and Real Country Music. Lawrence is among the smokers. He seems like a brother to the turnout and treats me in kind.

A quick excusal back inside and I’m in line to use the washroom before taking off. A faint glow to my right is a shrine. Pictures and a dim light.

Paul ‘Sterno’ Baumann. July 31, 1961-August 8, 2006.

Daniel T Blue. October 4, 1957 – January 2, 2013

Here’s to you boys. And to another 20 years.

Lawrence Peters

9. The Hideout 20th Anniversary Party – Chicago 09.10.16

September 16th 2016 5:28 am

Balloon-framed, The Hideout has the history you’d expect of a hundred year old Chicago hangout. Built and run by the undocumented. Carpenters that didn’t exist and bootleggers that only few knew, did. The devil is in the details and The Hideout kept theirs in a separate set of books. Ten cent drinks and ladies. The hardworking and hustlers, commiserating in the Elston Avenue industrial district. Built by Ethan’s Irish ancestors, it’s now overlooked by the hefty Chicago Fleet Management Facility. Physically, not managerially. This anniversary celebrates its stage. A stage where hush-Wilco, “The K-Settes”, tested out songs that became Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. A stage where Billy Corgan spent nine consecutive Mondays developing Zwan. The stage, singer-songwriter, Neko Case, transformed into the primal entity. The stage where Bobby Bare Jr. plays a cover show. I don’t find out it’s haunted until leaving the outside Rager for the fabled inside back-room.

Our hosts are “Mr. and Mrs. Wednesday Night”. A character driven, 70’s style duo that has an ironic Tuesday night residency. To a crowd of hundreds they improvise funk grooves with sexually charged lyrics. Her hair is enormous, his moustache matches. Kind of an Anchorman based Frank Zappa that likes to hump a Solid Gold performer. I like them. A lot. They welcome The Hideout owners onstage for a version of Happy Birthday followed by cheesecake. No hands allowed. Mrs. Wednesday Night prompts the ownership trio to dive in.

A clamorous introduction has JC Brooks and The Uptown Sound hitting hard from the first beat. A black storm cloud comes up from behind the venue to cast the outdoor stage. People have made their way onto the roof of the neighbouring warehouse. JC is expressive. In a beautiful act of declaration, he removes clothes to ultimately expose his body. As a transgender it’s powerful. With songs of love, the spirit is tearing through the crowd.

I’m dancing. Mainly heavy head-nods and weight shifting. A baby is bouncing on the shoulders of his young father, Ethan’s crushing a PBR and I just caught an eye. Ethan sees it too.

“Dude…”

“I know.”

If you’re gonna act, it’s gotta be from first contact or it hangs around like one of those Blood Meridian babies. A charred opportunity just dangling. The longer one waits the more rotten it turns. I ain’t acting.

I ain’t uncrossing my arms or turning my shoulders to open up body language. I ain’t tilting my head to express interest. It is possible to say hello, offer a quick backstory and maintain friendly discussion for the course of an evening – but not when a glance becomes a gaze. I would probably learn that she’s a Maroons fan and finishing up her BA in Science. Moved to Chicago from Michigan, it was the second option to MIT but just needed to get away from home for a bit. Met a guy and stayed. They just broke up a week and a half ago. Resembling Marissa Cooper from my first box-set binge-watch, The OC. I shamefully put Ethan’s side profile between us.

She’s justa hangin’ out on the rocks. Singin’ away. Let some other guy jump ship and swim over. I stay with my eyes on the prize. Real Country Music.

I finally acknowledge with pressed lips, a nod and an ‘excuse me, Miss’. Bloodshot Records’ Devil in a Woodpile is going to be on the inside stage before Lawrence Peters, Chicago Music Awards recipient for best Country and Western Artist.

Marissa tucks her hair behind her ear and mouths a goodbye.

Mr. Wednesday Night

8. Slipping into Bizzaro World

September 15th 2016 2:44 pm

In a mighty slow return, I beat Ethan to the morning and having slept with my feet towards the east window, awake to the brightness of the room before opening my eyes. As a traveller its regular to expect one setting and shake morning disorientation to find another but I can tell I’m not on the van floor and lay still in the sun yet to lift my eyelids. Maybe it’s an effect from the light coming through but I take a moment to recognize what seems like a psychedelic vision. It’s blue and symmetrical. An intricate pattern resembling some sort of spiderweb spreading outwards from its center. It feels peaceful and seems to be connected to my state of contentment. It pulses for a minute and fades away. I open my eyes.

The room is as bright as expected. Records and a turntable under the east window. Quadrant shelving to its left completing the vinyl collection. The south wall of the living room has a built in bookshelf made to hold a small library but contains only five pieces. I take hosts up on ‘making myself at home’. My version of this is looking through the fridge, not necessarily because I’m hungry, but to get a read on what type of place I’m at and taking books of the bookshelf. Rarely do I have the snooping pleasure of a vinyl collection. I hit the fridge already in the wee morning hours while Ethan was showering. Cottage cheese, salsa, a strange fruit. Condiments. Tortillas sitting out.

The vinyl is sorted by artist. Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams, Towns Van Zandt, Marty Robbins, Waylon. The usual second-hand collection. We share an appreciation for Zandt’s “Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas” – a gift I bought for Mel during one of Dave’s long weekend sales at X-Ray Records. A split Daytrotter Sessions catches my eye, Doc Watson/Delta Spirit.

The bookshelf has two major titles. Confessions of St. Augustine and synchronistically, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass – the classic I brought with me. I leave them untouched and return to the couch to put a few minutes into Owen Meany. 

“Let’s Eat!”

From down the hall Kinsella interrupts my flow.

We depart on foot. He gives me his word that my van is good where it’s parked. A voice from an above balcony politely lets me know that if I don’t move my van from the bus lane it will be ticketed. I u-ball it to the other side of the street.

After a couple Google Map overshoots we find Longman & Eagle. A farm-to-plate breakfast joint. We eat up our wait to get a table by snagging a fresh brew of Jo in the building’s attached donut shop. Our tables ready inside. I let the server know that if someone’s excited to clean one of the tables on the closed patio, we’d be excited to sit out there. We move and through default, force them to open the patio. It fills. Two, eleven dollar classic breakfasts turning down the one dollar, PBR, add-on. Half way through the pan-fries, Kinsella takes the add-on. 11 am. Completely through my meal, I take the add-on. Kinsella drinks it. 11:30 am. Two in the tank. Life is good.

Any spare time outside of driving has been spent on throwing together routing and possible shows to attend. A Starbucks off the interstate in Wisconsin gave me the research time that led to attending The Hoyle Brothers show. Of the local groups I skimmed, a duo named after a prominent Chicago street prodded a little research as it shared a similar name to that of my partner, Melanie’s, stage name. Belle Plaine and Simple. Really, not that strange considering the local geography. I took a screen-shot to show her upon my return.

fullsizerender-13

Waiting for Kinsella to finish up the second PBR we continue conversation about national identity, politics, and music. He’s genuine with his Canadian interest. It’s always safe to start with the stereotypes and evolve from there. Yes, we’re generally polite and lean slightly left. I tell the tale of the Trudeau’s and character develop Tommy Douglas. Hockey is something we all grow up doing but the more intelligent move towards baseball. I talk the Jays up. We’re both fans of real country music but that only comes from being fans of punk, metal, and hard rock. I tell him about my work with Belle Plaine, he tells me about his work with… Belle Plaine. I’ve slipped into Bizarro world. I go back to the screen shot on my phone – whoa, sure as shit.

On the walk home Kinsella lets me know he’s from South Chicago, Irish decent. Where Firemen are their Cowboys. A romanticized profession, always saving the day.

Our night is going to include the 20th anniversary street party for The Hideout. He’s a Lawrence Peters fan and let’s me know that Lawrence is the country guy in town. We’re both tired and agree that the next hour is best spent sleeping. I’m kept awake by a repeating 8-bit sound loop from an ice cream truck circling the block. I spend the whole hour trying to figure out the time signature of the damn thing. I record it to attempt later.

Tacos and a pit stop at Coles to check out Dan Whitaker. We pull up to The Hideout. A club that calls Neko Case and Kelly Hogan vet-bartenders. A club that hosts Americana heavy-weight, Robbie Fulks, every Monday night. Chicago’s most loved small venue.

7. Ethan Kinsella @ The Friendly Tap 09.09.16 – Part II

September 13th 2016 1:59 pm

Ethan is appreciative. We finally get to have a good chat in following his second set. He introduces me to his boys. Connor Ostrow is a sixteen year old prodigy, with a first love of bluegrass he’s recently immersed himself in Honky Tonk to understand the styles of Kinsella. I know the importance of hanging on to young guys that not only want to play but can play. Ostrow is one of these players. I joke that he should quit high-school and hit the road and he takes me seriously. So does Kinsella. I think it’s funny so I play it up a bit. Eli Broxham has a BM in bass performance, not obvious, I’d have guessed a Master. Broxham is hanging with the fourth member of tonight’s line-up that finished teaching lessons and rushed down to catch the second on third set, Chris Kimmons. Groovy cat, plays left handed on a Les Paul but remains true to what Kinsella is trying to sonically achieve.

One of the old boys has been going back and forth between PBRs and an unmarked clear liquid as his White Sox take The Royals. Good night for Chicago sports fans. The Americans even take my team in the World Cup match. Balls but kudos. He steps through my conversation with the band and begins to display how bent out of shape he’s getting. Dropping a cigarette and using it to light another, not wanting to put it back in his mouth after hitting the ground.

I began my day an hour east of Minneapolis with another half-assed van sleep. Arching one out the side door before hitting the hay, I tossed and turned until deciding to get a start on the 400 mile day sooner than later. It’s 11:30 pm at this point and I’m fading hard. Not too excited about spending another sleepless stir in some Chicago hood, I let Ethan know that it was a pleasure to meet him and that I best be on my way.

In a similar jousting I’d receive from one of the boys back in Saskatchewan he says I’m staying for the final set. I made it a rule to not subtly pry for couches/floors/showers on this trip – I got myself into this and can’t expect anybody else to accommodate my decision. With insisting that it’s time for me to go, Ethan offers a couch. I’m torn between accepting and upholding my independence.

“You don’t look like you’d murder anybody,” he projects.

A shower would be a pretty solid recharge at this point and it probably wouldn’t be too much to ask to throw that freezer-pack in the top half of his refrigerator. I’m pretty fucking tired but pushing through for a good rest would beat an immediate slumber spooning my guitar case.

“Wanna PBR?” Ethan offers.

“I’m good man. Yeah, I’ll hang tonight. Thanks, eh?”

You can tell he picked up on the ‘eh’. With that, Amanda, our bartender comes for a quick cuddle up to Ethan. He’s cool. A little smitten because, frankly, she’s a babe and at the present moment, the only female in the room. Ethan isn’t drinking on-stage but you can tell he likes to put them back – not in a problem-esque way, but because, like me, he understands that life is better with a couple in the tank. A couple. Not a full tank like I had at my vinyl release party in May, prompting this choice to stay off the booze for a bit.

Amanda is a diligent worker among the late night crowd. Another turn-over gets fresh faces listening to Kinsella’s style of Alabama influenced twang.

…And in walk Ron and Pam from The Empty Bottle. Happier than pigs in shit to see, they don’t let it go unrecognized that I skipped out on their recommendation to catch Hodie Snitch at the Irish American Heritage Center. I bring it my absence and they give me an ‘Oh we know’.

The Cubs at this point swept the Astros with that two run homer and to stay true to the baseball metaphor, Ethan steps to bat with Amanda. She watches him from behind the bar as he begins taking requests from the crowd and successfully at that. His listenership is educated regardless of the confusing setting. He’s giving me a long awaited, live, in depth introduction to Hank in both his originals and interpretations. Even though the crowd is considerably quieter from when the ball game had started, Ostrow’s study of Honky Tonk reminds him to play that fiddle loud.

Pam and Ron must have two-stepped to a hundred songs by this point tonight but they have no intention of slowing down. It’s late and they aren’t spring chickens anymore but the spirit of the music is rooted in their love for each other. They have an hour drive to make tonight back to Homewood, Illinois for a big day of smoking meat, but Ron likes to keep Pam out late. I could play their night out if I wanted to.

Ron and Pam

Johnny White Sox is stumbling more than ever and starting to talk about how happy he is to be white.

Kinsella is just rocking at this point. It doesn’t matter that the late night crowd has transformed to a racist and lovebirds. If old Hank hadn’t decided to hang in this realm anymore, he sure has shit has returned as Kinsella. Both Amanda and I see it.

“…honey let me call you babe, babe let me call you hon,” – by telepathic request.

Ethan, Amanda, and I chat following the show while the band goes for late night deep-dish. Upon returning, Kinsella points out how good it looks to watch them all hanging out. I know this feeling. As a newly formed line-up, it’s proof of the chemistry. A beautiful thing. Kinsella and I are shooting the shit like old buddies. I’m sober and have my arm around him at points. Teasing the idea of taking off, Amanda mentions that her shift is over at 3 am. I ain’t gonna last that long but like us guy-friends know to do, I let Ethan invest in the possibility of a post-close hang and take off to the address he gave me. No attempt at memorizing. Google Maps the whole way.

I get it. I’ve had buddies do it for me. I let Kinsella know I’m at his place and will be snoozing in the driver seat. No reply. I sleep and wake. Still no reply. Well shit, I shoulda hung around – hopes of a shower diminish. I sleep.

I wake to a window knocking and missed texts/calls. This Ethan Kinsella’s a good guy.

My 4:30 am shower washes off the longing for home I had the night before. It washes off the unsureness of my travels and the fear of being left without a pot to piss in, so to speak. It washes off worry and doubt. I dry myself, change underwear and sleep in jean cut-offs and a Bros. Landreth tee. It smells like Mel.

“Get some rest buddy,” Kinsella instructs, “I don’t know what time you gotta take off tomorrow but I’m free all weekend to hang, chat in the morning.”

They ended their third set with an encore of “I Saw The Light”This quest to reclaim real country music is becoming more spiritual than I expected.

And no spiritual quest is complete without Temptation.

6. Ethan Kinsella @ The Friendly Tap 09.09.16 – Part I

September 13th 2016 12:12 pm

I don’t make it two turns without needing to revert to google maps. After years of my complacent ‘I’m bad with directions’ I now make effort to be good with directions. Lock the shape of the route in mind and make up a nursery rhyme that includes the streets. In tandem, it works quite well, but I’m in Chicago and a touch scarred from an adolescent experience.

I take few minutes outside of The Friendly Tap A pull off my four gallon water jug and a couple bites from “The Three Pounder”. Re-wrap, stow n’ go. 

This ‘Friendly’ theme continues. I see a sign that reads “The Friendly School of Folk Music”, then “The Friendly Coffee Lounge” and finally enter the door to the bar that possesses the same adverb. It’s loud. A large group of millennials are at war over speaking levels. One moving in on the other and crushing them with decibels. Like a playground, this battle is boys versus girls. Girls are winning. It doesn’t seem to bother the old boys watching the Cubs game by the jukebox. Somehow I beat Ethan to his own load-in so I make a rare effort to follow the National League. This is a year for The Loveable Losers. Loveable yes, losers, no. Coming off a tough series with the Brewers, they tap into their condition that stomped the Pirates (and the Giants) a week prior. The fourth ends and nobody on either team has crossed home.

The flashy digital jukebox on the wall announces it “top country picks of the week”. This will give me a sense of the room. Blake Shelton’s “Bet You Still Think About Me” followed by Jon Pardi’s “Head Over Boots”. The latter is a sign of the turning tide.

I’m hard watering with an eye on the second and third televisions. Not really a Sox fan so I’m between the USA vs Canada World Cup match and Dexter Fowler stepping to the plate . With rumours earlier in the year that Fowler is headed to the Orioles, he continues to wear and Cubs jersey and gets on base. Baseball zen can block sound, so I tap into a meditative place of statistics and ignore the boys with their collar’s popped on the other side of the bar.

The back of the stage is open to the street and Kinsella appears with guitar in hand. Avoiding the door, he hops through the missing wall and into his workplace for the night. Kris Bryant steps to the plate. Kinsella is followed by a young wrangler-wearing fiddle player. Bryant ignores a slider and a fastball for a 2-0 count. A big ol’ bass fiddle is heaved up on stage. Bryant should have swung, 2-1 count. Instruments are out. Bryant pops an easy slider into left field, high and over the wall. Two runs in. Line check.

Kinsella’s youthful appearance looks aged in comparison to his fiddle player and upright bassist. As a trio they must have an accumulative age of under 60 but with the first chord I question if their birth-years are that within The Great Depression. A percussive chunk from Kinsella’s Taylor has the low-end rolled off. Stage left is sawing hard, cutting over the “oh my Gods” and “as ifs” coming from the valley-girls flirting with the buff studs. Bull-fiddle slaps and plunks. I feel a fool for not recognizing the opening song. It’s gotta be a standard.

“Honey let me call you babe, Babe let me call you Hon, Honey Babe, Baby Honey, I don’t know what else to call you, alls I really wanna say is…”

A chord progression and instrumentation that throws to Hank. Wow, a voice that sounds like Senior himself gave tips and pointers to. Kinsella jumps through vocal breaks in and out of a falsetto. He ends phrases coming up from underneath in a modern-classic way.

My love of country music started with The Highwaymen, not the band but the line-up. First Willie, then Kris. I know Hank Williams folklore and standards but have never allowed it in to my writing process. If I’m looking to manipulate a style I’ll ask the Spirit for Waylon before Hiram King.

“…Honey let me call you babe, Babe let me call you Hon, Honey Babe, Baby Honey, I just wanna hold and love ya, I don’t even know your name, but Honey, I just wanna Honey to call Babe.”

The gaggle at the front missed it. The old boys and I all clap. Tough room. I would have found myself reminding the crowd to at least attempt to give a shit. I don’t mind talking but there’s a difference between conversing at a show and corrupting a show. Shit, guys, give the boy a chance.

Boom. “Hey, Good Lookin”. Young Ethan knows better than I do. He takes his nonexistence and commands presence. The boys are singing, the girls are singing and my sensibilities are correct; he’s a Hank fan – it oozes from him. Intelligently placing originals amid Lefty and Hank shapes a tone to the show. He has the room. I’m watching an embodiment, slightly tripping out at the eerie sense of having seen or felt this guy before.

“Where are you from?” pipes a girl with poorly placed hair extensions.

“I’m on vacation from Neverland,” answers Kinsella.

I fully trip out.

He recognizes my existence following the first set and we give each other Dio’s devil horns with our second and final fingers.

The Cubs continue to hold their lead, Single’s Night continues their bar-hop elsewhere and Kinsella starts set two. I leave the ball game at the back of the room and sit along the wall closer to the stage.

“I saw the light, I saw the light, no more darkness, no more night, now I’m so happy no sorrow in sight. Praise the lord, I saw the light.”

Ethan Kinsella

5. The Hoyle Brothers @ The Empty Bottle 09.09.16

September 13th 2016 10:17 am

“Hey man, you playin’ tonight?”

I give a scrawny pencil mustached smoker a once over. He’s going for a Freddie Mercury look or something so I thought it was a shoe-in. He answers only with a gesture, shaking is head from side to side. The door is scrawled with chalk listing the entertainment line-up for the next couple days – Hoyle Brothers taking up a fifth of the real estate. The awning wraps around the south-west corner and aside from its name, the words ‘Music’ and ‘Friendly’ face the west and ‘Dancing’ looks to the south. I’ve been shaving my head lately so the rain runs off the side of the building and onto my scalp as I walk in the front door.

She’s black in there. As my eyes adjust I trace the south wall where a collection of seven or eight nude photographs line themselves. Average people, plump and nonchalant, sprawling out on beds posing their everyday lounging for the camera. I like it – it leans towards tasteful. Opposite the nudes are two bartenders fully clothed. Both hip and rather attractive. Green hair is friendly as she smiles and her counterpart follows suite. The room is holding 20 or so post-work bodies, I imagine a handful have been there since noon. Ties, ballcaps, stringy hair, well dressed – a community that gathers outside of social status, the sure sign of a honky tonk. No cowboy hats. I’m comfortable enough at this point to change that.

I exit and return, where Freddie Mercury now requests my ID and stamps the image of an apple on my inside right wrist. Comfort level eight, this is good. I take another stab at guessing the band and approach a viciously bearded metalhead hanging by the Dig Dug/Centipede/Millipede three-in-one Atari arcade machine.

“Hey man, you playin’ tonight?”

“Nah man, I’m sound.”

My introduction is welcomed and he’s genuinely stoked that I’m a Canadian in the hunt of real country music. He ensures I came to the right place. The Hoyle Brothers have been playing every Friday night at The Empty Bottle for 15 years. True twang. Shuffle. Honky tonk and Classics. As the five-piece cracks into Ray Price’s ‘Invitation for the Blues’, my new sound-tech friend, Jeremy, introduces himself and points to a couple nodding their head at the corner of the bar. Pam and Ron Williams are travelling two-steppers – and Ron will talk your ear off. Sweethearts. Much like Jeremy, Freddie Mercury, and the two bartenders, Pam and Ron further support the bars decision to include the word ‘Friendly’ on the outside of the building.

I’m closest to Pam and she let’s me know that it isn’t the original Hoyle line-up but it is Steve Doyle on lead and Brian Wilkie on pedal steel. I’ve already made my mind up that I won’t find a better lead guitarist or steel player while I’m in Chicago. It just won’t happen. Pam’s planning out my next couple days.

The Hoyle Brothers

“After this you can go to the Irish American Heritage Center for Hodie Snitch and then over to The Friendly Tap for Ethan Kinsella, he’s wonderful,” she continues “then tomorrow stop by Coles, that’s C-O-L-E-S for Dan Whitaker and off to the Honky Tonk BBQ to finish the night off, we won’t be there, Ron’s smoking meat tomorrow night”

“14 pounds” Ron chimes in.

He leaps from his chair and grabs Pam. There’s no way in hell they are going to sit through ‘My Heart Skips a Beat’. One, Two, Three, Five…One, Two, Three, Five…Fast, Fast, Slow, Slow.

I’m acquainting myself and the room is filling. Before long an early evening crowd is mix-matching themselves. Obvious long time partners. Confident invites. Unfortunate shut-downs. Green hair pulls a pretty dope move by bouncing a beer bottle off the freezer and into the waste. The Hoyles pay homage to the late Harlan Howard with a slow swing of ‘Busted’. I’m approached from the left.

With the hair transformation I’ve experienced over the last few years, it tends to be the first attribute I’m drawn towards in an introduction. His coiffure is impressive and demeanor, gentle. Word gets around quickly as he commends me on my mission. A young songwriter, the Ethan Kinsella suggested by Pam. He has a touch of a Dylan resemblance and converses as if we are old buddies. I’m already using slang that I would usually only use with Del, or Jonas, or Trav. I mentally commit to checking out The Friendly Tap following the next few Hoyle Brothers songs. Ethan has to leave to touch base with his boys and make a bit of a game plan before his load in a few miles away.

Brian Wilkie’s pedal steel tone is crisp. Emmons through a Peavey. I stumbled on a Chicago mainstay and am grateful for it. These boys refuse to compromise. The crowd is eating every lick that Steve Doyle puts out there and showing appreciation by packing the dance-floor. It’s the next best thing to Wood Mountain Rodeo in here. Buried deep in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village, real country is thriving.

The gold stencilled stars on the ceiling guide me to the washroom. In and Out. Follow the stars, past the thousands of stickers dating back to The Bottle’s opening in ’93. Goblin Cock. Snow Burial. Oozing Wound. Flameshovel Records. With 40+ indie releases under their belts, Flameshovel made the upstairs their headquarters.

The Empty Bottle Washroom

I try to interrupt Pam and Ron’s dance-floor rhythm with a goodbye but have to settle by flashing a peace sign – nothing lost, I’ll see them later tonight. Thanking Jeremy for their introduction he lets me know that The Hideout is having their 20th anniversary bash tomorrow. Bands from noon until midnight. There’ll be everything but if I want country, Lawrence Peters is closing the night out. A can’t miss.

I get to the van, jot some notes. I bought a freeze-pack but haven’t had the opportunity to freeze it yet so the stow n’ go is my best option to keep things cool – namely “The Three Pounder”. Lettuce is starting to get a little soggy but the two minute power supper gives me my second wind. Sparing data, I get a mental picture of my route to The Friendly Tap. Windows down, post-rain brings a smell to this part of the city that sits on my tongue. I round the south-west corner of The Empty Bottle and as Freddie Mercury pops out for another cigarette I get a final Wilkie/Doyle harmony line.

Friendly.

The Empty Bottle