The Quest For Real Country Music

Archive for the ‘I’ Category

1. Nowhere to be; a quest for real country music

September 8th 2016 8:00 pm

I hit my breaking point.

I’ve independently made a decent living in the Canadian music scene for the better part of the last ten years. Out of high school, I began writing music with the intent to sell. I read every publication I could get my hands on and found that the DIY mentality resonated. Write, record, hustle, repeat. The punk/metal/rock/indie communities championed the innovative, those who could boast sales and remain outside of the industry machine. When the industry came knocking, ‘on our terms’ was the mantra. This worked for many and crushed many more. For indie musicians, the disappointment of being ‘passed on’ wears on a creative mind and financial hopefulness. So one finds themself in a discussion of compromise. A dialogue between the gut and the ‘give a fuck’. “I’m willing to…”.

“I’m willing to sacrifice lyrics to be more accessible to a listening audience.”

“I’m willing to play the game to get to where I need to be, then I’ll be able to do what I want.”

“I’m willing to pander. I’m willing to beg. I’m willing to blow.”

The mainstream country music communities in both Canada and The United States capitalized off of this artistic compromise and fed it to the listening masses like a salty hot dog. Tell them it’s food but it’s nothing but lips and assholes. This isn’t even a discussion about production – a genre needs to evolve and have it’s sonic boundaries pushed. Buddy, Elvis, Waylon. This is a discussion about the acceptance of a lack of quality. Of soul.

Country Sucks.

The Canadian Country Music Awards is an industry event that I’ve been a part of. One I benefit from and like to attend. Sure there are still a few circle-jerk panels where a couple radio trackers are still hustling green artists by feeding them the perfect amount of bullshit based on their “professional opinions” and “personal relationships with program and music directors” but overall, it’s a gathering of friends and a welcoming to artists regardless of operating budgets. It’s expensive. By the time one factors in travel, accommodations, delegate passes, and the copious amount of booze the average attendee such as myself used to take in, it’s a $3000+ tab.

Three-thousand dollars. What I could do with 3G. The music I could discover. The country I could see.

Yesterday morning, what would have been Buddy Holly’s 80th birthday, I jumped in my van and peaced. I headed south. I’m writing this from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Reclaiming the spirit of America’s country music. Real country music. The artists, players, venues, and communities that had the conversation of compromise and said, fuck that. There is an essence and spirit that must to be represented, honoured, and cherished.

Country music can’t even be defined anymore it’s been manipulated so badly through a lack of quality. But there’s a spirit that’s alive and well.

United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stuart described his threshold test for obscenity (hardcore pornography) in Jacobellis v. Ohio as “I know it, when I see it”.

Real Country Music – I know it, when I see it.


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.


Home away from home


3. Lucky Tubb and The Modern Day Troubadours – 09.08.16

September 11th 2016 6:03 pm

Lee’s Liquor Lounge sits as an outcast of downtown Minneapolis. Small but confident, it knows exactly what it is. The Last Honky Tonk of the North.

Ten years on the road builds a grit that helps with saying hello to the Forsaken leaning against the brick exterior. Two speak with each-other, the third speaks to himself. All three say hello. Target Field hosts the .373 Minnesota Twins and arrogantly has it’s back to the venue. A .373 record is decent enough for 5th place in the AL standings and a sure-shot numerological sign that I’m in the right place at the right time.

The same year the original Northwestern League, Minneapolis Millers folded due to financial struggle, a warehouse was erected on the present corner of Glenwood Ave and Royalston Ave N. Serving warehouse purposes for 66 years, owners Lee and Sally Triemert turned the north side into Lee’s Liquor Bar. Widow Sally parted with the premise in ’77 leaving newbie-owners Louis and Carmen Sirian with the vision. Louis dug pool – loaded the joint with tables. Fatefully in 1985, local garage band Trailer Trash were the catalyst to the transformation. No more pool hall. Walls knocked out. Stage put in place. Dance Hall Time.

Lee's Liquor Lounge

I’m greeted at the door by the bartender wearing a ‘The Smalls’ hat. Nice.

‘what can I get ya partner?’

‘not drinking these days – water please.’

‘aight. gotta pay the band too – it’s 5 bucks’

‘no problem, who’s up tonight?’

‘Lucky Tubb – Ernest Tubb’s great nephew’

Are you shitty me. Fort Worth, now Austin’s Lucky Tubb. On stage.

Lucky Tubb and The Modern Day Troubadours

A constant violet stage light remains unchanged and a motherfucker of a feedback squeal is the next to greet my presence. A tight-lipped Lucky glances to his right and locks eyes with upright slapper, Brent Hazard. With Tubb’s touring schedule you know bandmate telepathy is developed. Hazard’s thinking, yep – that’s strike one.

Hazard’s walking bass line gives Tubb a chance to bounce the lyrics out, I make bad decisions when I drink…Well those words are enough for Mr. Dayton Beach Bike Week 2014 sitting to my three o’clock to yell a solid ‘Fuck Yeah’. He wore shorts and boots out tonight. Why not.

What seems like Tubb’s right hand man, as I assume most Tele players are, Sam Whips Allison stands to Tubb’s left. Slickin’ licks and pulling down on his guitar strap to activate the bender. He’s bearded and smiles to himself. You can hear the Roy Nichols influence.


Strike two. Maybe it’s the hat? But it’s short-brimmed. Short-brimmed hats usually don’t trap the sound coming back off the monitors. Tubbs sings a ways back from his mic – could only be agitated but doesn’t sell himself out. Straight-faced continues through. The boys play a slutty shuffle like no other. Everybody in the room is letting this one sink in. Feels good. Even I let an orgasmic ‘yip’ out.

“Ya’ll play something without me” Lucky instructs his guys immediately following the last chord. And with that he adjusts his waist and walks off the stage, across the dancefloor, to the sound-tech. A one second exchange has an uncomfortable sound-tech following Tubb out the side door. What the fuck am I watching right now…quite possibly the most boss move I’ve ever witnessed at a live show. A four minute instrumental garners zero return as the crowd watches the exit.

A 10kHz frequency feedback will slice directly into your abilities to make rational decisions. That, an a microphone in the teeth. A road dog doesn’t have fight or flight response when either of these happen…it’s always fight. The side door opens and a continued conversation moves its way back into the room. You can’t help but feel the mutual respect gained over the course of the last few moments – but this is Lucky’s stage. Nobody’s but his tonight. And that’s how it’s done. I take note – lesson learned.

“Big hand for The Modern Day Troubadours, folks, and to Lee’s for havin’ us in, ya’ll are our family”. And with that Tubb displays his southern charm, removes his hat from his head, holds it too his heart and continues on with the show.

I chat with Sam, Brent and the completion to the quartet, Josh. Josh literally wears a hat that doesn’t match the other three. He’s the new guy. Slide guitarist and unlike root trio of Texans, he’s a Florida transplant that calls East Nashville home. East Nashville, that sounds like the place to be for a bit. We exchange numbers.

Enter Dennis Smothers. Minneapolitan and Twang authority. A communal hang by the merch table during the set break leads to Dennis and I bro-ing out hard over everyone from Jamey Johnson and George Jones to Reckless Kelly and Dale Watson. Then he schools me:

“You listen to Amber Digby? You listen to Pat Reedy? You listen to Virgil Bowers? You listen to Pee Wee Moore? You listen to Unknown Hinson, Linda Gail Lewis? How about KFAI Good n’ Country Saturday’s from 3 till 5?”

He invites me back to his perch and introduces me to his lovely wife, Renee. Dennis spent his years on the road.

“I’ve hauled for them all man, from Pearl Jam to MC Hammer…he called it the too legit to quit tour, we called it the too much shit to fit tour.”

We talk honky tonk between Tubb’s tunes. A second set peppered with classics and his own brand of Texan twang. Mentioning he’s hitting the road with Rev. Horton Heat and name drops Hank III in a tune. Fuck I love this place. No bullshit. They get it.

Tubb encores and closes with his great-uncles tune, “Walkin’ the floor”. Pure class.

Dennis, Renee and I walk out the front door. With there disclosed knowledge, I trust their opinion on whether my parking lot digs will be a safe night of sleeping. Of course. Dennis kick starts his bike and reminds me to call them on my way back through offering a couch, laundry and shower. Gems. He tears off, she tears off, I tear off.

Lucky’s newest record gets me an hour east of Minneapolis. I sleep in a bank parking lot. Mary Kay Baby-wipes.

Lucky Tubb is needed in today’s climate. It’s raw and represented with the same gusto and class as his late great uncle. His brand of honky tonk is produced to honour the era and mixes boogie woogie, shuffle, and twang. It’s early rock and roll and attitude. It’s devout to the spirit and represented with road worn musicianship and a sonic conversation that only brothers can have. Because it’s that age, he compromises and give us 5 of the total 13 songs off his new release Del Gaucho on iTunes.


Lee’s was built on the foundation of people like Dennis and Renee. There’s a reason that Dale Watson immortalized it with his song “Louie’s Lee’s Liquor Lounge” giving love to both early male counterparts of the husband/wife owners and visionaries in its title. Signed to Minnesota’s Red Roof Records, this is Dale’s joint when he comes to town and for good reason. Whom, by the way, is gracing the stage under the stuffed mountain line next Thursday night. September 15. $17.50 advance ticket.

Me? I’ll be down the trail.

Lots of love to Lucky, the Modern Day Troubadours, Lee’s, Dennis and Renee, and the rest of the people that made me their own for the night.

Tubb and The Coyote


4. West Side Chicago, Summer of ’96

September 12th 2016 8:37 am

From the corner of Hiltz Dr and the 48 Highway just north of Kennedy, Saskatchewan, Pythagoras’ Theorem puts Langbank 4.67 km away as the crow flies. Subtle differences between the towns – Langbank has a Co-op, Kennedy does not. Kennedy had a shoe shop, Langbank did not. Langbank has the Cargill. Kennedy had the hockey rink. Farming communities with virtually no reason to get huffy with eachother, but I’m from Kennedy – not Langbank.

Each with a separate school, it was in 1985 that they amalgamated with an agreement that Langbank would whittle away at the minds at the slightly distracted Kindergarten to Grade Sixers and Kennedy would tackle the raging hormones. So when the bus dropped me off in my ‘hometown’ for my first day of high-school (we didn’t bother calling it junior and senior) – that was a big deal.

A few things stand out about that year. Jerry Muir and Jackie Fargo were my senior initiates meaning that for one day the Grade 12’s got to humiliate the new-comers by dressing them up and ordering them around. I would have taken the Dazed and Confused plot over this any day. I was lippy, I knew I had it coming. Drag. Miss Universe – complete with costume instructions; wig and one-piece swimsuit. Walking the halls, completely inappropriately dressed for a public school – Jesus, they gave the busty grade 11’s shit for wear a little-too-low cut of a shirt but enforced my purple regalia riding up the crack of my ass. I said fuck it in the middle of third period computer class and threw on my gym pants to cover up what looked like a hiding church mouse.

That year, I was caught red handed trying to fix a window handle with Elmer’s glue after attempting to open the frozen window in November to see how far I could launch the snow that settled on its exterior. Stupid. I remember Jared Easton not giving me a head’s up that a teacher was coming…I held on to that for a few days. Easton and I were buddies even though he was a maniac Mario Lemieux fan and I constructed a Patrick Roy shrine in my locker – professional rivals that share the exact same birthdate – Lemieux and Roy, not Easton and Berglund.

It must have been a real bitch for teachers to see how much I didn’t care to learn or pay attention as I got off on cutting the girls hair and drawing AC/DC logos on everything but when the time came to hand out who was exempt from writing finals, my marks sat in a percentile that constituted a “full recommendation”. Mom and Dad let it ride on red proving their confidence in my academics and were waiting outside the school the day recommendations came out, picking me up and driving to Columbus, Ohio with a load of foals to be purchased by the Ohio State Veterinarian Program.

We crossed over into the States regularly as children making Minot, ND the family vacation destination. Three nights at the Dakota Inn, couple meals out, and clinging to Dad’s neck in the deep end of the pool. Reminded on entry, that he’ll do the talking, Dad would then instruct us to pretend that we are sleeping – an insurance that someday I will use with my children.

Big days driving. With colts on board we would have to stop regularly to water and feed which meant no time for fun, a b-line to Buckeye State. My brother and I slept and played Gameboy for three days straight, messing up our eyesight and sleeping patterns – so I was wide awake coming into Chicago on the I-90. It was half romance with the idea that I was in the same city as the setting of my favourite movie, Rookie of the Year, mixed with the emotion of “I hate the Blackhawks” due to my perverse obsession with Patrick Roy. Lights and traffic at 1 am – foreign.

“Theresa, where do we turn off?”

Holy shit, what an unfair job to give your wife. Navigation to the I65, analog-style. Lights are on, mom’s flustered, pretty sure I was crying. “Here, here, here!!!!! Take this!!!”


I remember the tension in the silence. Nobody was upset with anybody – but we were in Chicago’s west side before too long in a teal green GMC dually and a load of young, loud, scared horses. No city map. Instinct.

Why dad picked a 2 am car wash to get directions is beyond me but he pulled in, took the truck out of gear, reached for his hat – yep, I wouldn’t have done that – and walked up to a gentlemen washing his car at the ungodly hour. The man, sauntered face to face with my 6’4″ father. One sentence and pointed.

Dad’s reaction was immediate. The man stood motionless. I was crying at this point. Mom suppressed her curiosity and let Dad just drive. He had to maneuver this rig through the narrowest of streets on the darkest of nights. I rarely saw my father scared – once when my brother had a seizure and this. With an hour of heroic turns we were on the I65 – wide awake and silent until South Bend, Indiana.

West side


It’s raining and it’s dusk. I spent the day driving and gnawing on “The Three Pounder”, a pre-made argonaut of of submarine sandwich. Unable to get my only Chicago experience in the summer of ’96 out of my head. Here I am twenty years later with emotion settling underneath my ribs. Dad mentioned at one point before I left, ‘hey, maybe I should come with you?’ – it would be nice to have him as a partner right now.

The Empty Bottle is another dive. The Hoyle Brothers have played here every Friday night for almost 15 years. I choose to leave my hat in the van.


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.


The Empty Bottle


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

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.

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.


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.