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.
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.