December 8-14, 2013
After five weeks of intensive touring throughout Britain, we’ve come to this craggy, windswept island off the west coast of Scotland to rest. We are tired in a deep way that’s difficult to gauge. After so many consecutive days and nights of being continually “on” we’ve learned that it’s best to just go somewhere, shut down, and allow our bodies and minds to unwind and recover, as they will.
From our final gig near Glasgow we drove three hours north to Oban
to meet our dear friends from Yorkshire, Jim and Ros, at the ferry with whom we’d share the week. The crossing to Mull takes about 45 minutes. Then it’s a short hour north to Tobermory, partly on a single-track road. We arrived in the early evening dark to the quiet little harbor town, street lamps glowing, water lapping at the shore right outside, below our cottage window.
At this northern latitude this time of year, the line blurs between day and night. The light is fickle and emanates from somewhere unspecific low on the horizon. Depending on what the clouds are doing, dawn occurs somewhere around nine. Noon seems to strike around eleven. By two the light is already waning, and by three you would swear it’s after six. By four it’s pitch dark and time to pack it in. Then it’s either off to the pub, to the Co-op for groceries, or to start a bath.
Sue says that Scotland is more beautiful with the sun playing second fiddle to the clouds. It’s basically wet all the time – at least that’s the way it should be. The clouds here are ruthless, teasing, and dramatic. They are the most active and entertaining feature of the landscape (skyscape!),
forever changing, always moving in multiple layers forever tearing apart and re-knitting together.
As I sit in a large window overlooking Tobermory Bay
I can see barren hills of the mainland far across the water. Occasionally, a break in clouds near the horizon occurs to reveal the glowing colors of burnt bracken and deep green heather. I make a dash for my camera, but mere seconds later before I can frame and focus, the light has moved on. Light plays like a warbler in the bush with a snatch of a song and a fleeting flash of color before it flies away. Gets the senses fired up.
In all the time we’ve been here the sun appeared but once. During a walk on the hills above Tobermory, unexpectedly the sun sank below a bank of heavy slate-dark rainclouds and shot light out against the wet hills. It lit the gorse, the bracken and grass, assaulting our eyes, and startling our senses. Then it was gone, back to normal, the sun I've not seen again to this day that I write.
At night, rain on the roof is nice. It’s one of the best sounds in the world. I would never build a house or live in a home where you couldn’t hear the rain when it’s falling. It’s a gift from the gods, as it were. People pay good money for various forms of therapy and to learn relaxation techniques. I say sit or lie down where you can hear the rainfall. It’s perfect. There’s rain on metal roofing, rain on asphalt shingles, rain on window glass, but here in Britain, the sound of rain on slate is the perfect medium between hard and soft surface. I have not yet experienced the sound of rain on a thatched roof. That would be interesting….
And the wind
– being an island in the middle of the sea, Mull is continually raked by ocean winds. Wind is the voice of the island. It rattles trees, shakes shingles, buffets wall and fence, snaps ropes, disturbs water, and tosses boats in the bay. Crack a window open ever so slightly and you create a valve for the wind to whistle through – and it will
Tobermory, a town of 900 year round residence, is unique in that it is located in a sheltered harbor on the leeward side of the island. Take a drive inland and over to the west coast and it’s apparent how little actually grows here besides the grasses, bracken, heather, and gorse that cling low to the hillsides. It’s only in valleys and ocean lochs where you’ll find shelter enough for small farms and cottages to assemble and take root.
We’ve been to the Isle of Mull
before. On a couple of occasions we were hired to perform at An Tobar
, the arts center and performance space in town. In the late 90’s An Tobar
was built from the shell of an old school house and it sits in a beautiful location atop Tobermory overlooking the harbor and sea islands around the bay. Artistic director, Gordon Maclean
, suggested years ago that we were welcome to use his recording studio if there ever was an opportunity. So, during a couple of afternoons while it was pelting rain out of doors, we took him up on it.
With thick stone walls, tall narrow windows reaching up to a high ceiling, wooden floors, soft theater lighting, and a nice selection of gear, Gordon’s recording studio was an ideal setting for a relaxed session. We considered these run-throughs of songs and tunes to be demos of demos – compost for works to come, if you will. Gordon’s mixing room was around the hall and up a narrow staircase. We loved hearing him come clomp, clomp, clomping down the stairs if there was something to adjust in the room. (He said it helped keep him thin.) A lovely man, and a delight to work with, I would recommend Gordon to anyone interested in doing a bit of studio work on a far flung Scottish Island.
On the morning of our final day I took a stroll around the harbor and found the Tobermory distillery
in full production. The air smelled of barley mash and whisky. Steam rose from a pipe at the back of the building and, visible through a window from the road, a massive copper still shone golden bright. It was Sue who educated me about single malt whisky when we first met. And Tobermory is where Sue had her first definitive whisky tasting. She tells me about entering the Mishnish, the local music pub, and sitting down at the bar. Guided by the barkeep she then learned the single malts by way of the alphabet: Ardbeg, Bunnahabhain, Cardhu, Dalwhinnie, Edradour, Glenfiddich, Highland Park, Inchgower, Jura, Knockando, Lagavulin
… you get the idea. Must have been a long night! (Sue says she doesn’t remember details!)
The day we were to depart the island, high winds were forecast with sustained gusts of 80 miles per hour. I don’t think I’d like to be on a boat in the sea with the wind blowing that hard. We left Tobermory with the threat of our ferry being cancelled. We had an eleven o’clock booking changed to nine o’clock with the thought that we’d miss the worst of it. We made our ferry fine and crossed back to Oban on choppy seas. We later learned that ferries later that day were cancelled. Happy we made it too, because our flight back to the States was leaving from Manchester, seven hours south, the day after next, and we probably wouldn’t have made it in time.
That’s the gift of the island, and what we came there for in the first place, I guess: To spend a few days subject to a different set of rules, to slow down and be a little closer to nature. It felt good to not have to go someplace different every single day. To sleep as late as possible. To sit in the Mishnish
and play some tunes and talk to the locals. To be a tourist. To not have to look at the clock for a few days, and to allow my mind to drift on an island in the ocean somewhere in the sea.
We are departing California, driving east on I-80, full up to the brim with everything we’ve experienced over the last week. We are full of almond orchards, olive oil, and fog rolling over brown hills... full of redwood trees
, Tule elk
, and breakers crashing on Point Reyes
… full of The City
and its new, magnificent single-mast suspension Bay Bridge, sailboats in the glittering bay below… full of the embraces of friends, and so many lovely folks met at our concerts as we worked our way through the week. Rising into the foothills of the Sierra-Nevada now, past elevation markers, 1000, 2000, 3000 feet and up, we feel as though our beings could not possibly contain any more. Our cup is full.
We crest the Sierra-Nevada above 7000 feet and soon find ourselves accompanying the Truckee River on its descent towards Reno. Here the resinous smell of pine gives way to the drier and emptier vibe of sage and desert. As we drop onto the flats the rhythm of the road asserts itself, the fullness of California subsides, eventually to be replaced by the empty vistas we now find ourselves in. As a bulkhead of mountains diminishes in the rear view mirror we discover the Great Basin
spread out before us.
But hold on, I’ve gone too far. I was intending on lingering in the land of plenty a bit longer…
Our first gig of the week was at the Mudpuddle Shop
– a renovated barbershop and funky one room storefront in the Niles District
of Fremont. The shop was crowded with musical instruments, art on the walls, a pie-eyed assortment of chairs, and a sofa – being the exclusive domain of Clancy, a big ol’ black lab, and our host, Michael McNevin
. Michael, the unofficial “mayor” of Niles, is a singer-songwriter, storyteller, and Etch-A-Sketch artist extraordinaire. A native of Niles, Michael toured and travelled widely before returning to help create a vibrant music scene in his hometown neighborhood.
Tall palm trees and the Fremont Hills frame Niles Boulevard. It's a rare slice of pre-Silicon Valley, California. Strolling past the soda fountain, antique shops, Essanay Silent Film Museum
, restaurants, and biker bar, one feels transported back in time. Charlie Chaplin
filmed five of his movies and Bronco Billy
made the first westerns here between 1912 and 1915. This is where silent films were born. Across the street is the Niles Canyon railway station
, which in 1865 was the terminus for the transcontinental railroad and was where the transcontinental railroad met the San Francisco Bay.
That night, Nashville songwriter Laurie McClain
had just arrived in town for her California tour and was looking for a place to play so she opened our first set. After the intermission a local sister duo, Red Shoes
, opened our second set. With three acts in this tiny room filled to capacity of 24 people, it felt like a folk festival “Mudpuddle-style.”
The following nights brought us to play a series of house concerts. First, high atop the hills of Berkeley – next, out to the Sacramento Valley for a show in Davis at Bill Wagman’s
place – and finally, back to the Bay, to the Haight in San Francisco where from out the window where we stood to play I could see the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, glowing as the sunset. Each of these evenings was simply magic, spent in the company of good friends, good food and good cheer…. Our time together is always too short.
Our ultimate motivation for being in California this week was to have a “do-over” of Sue’s 50th birthday. This was in fact, Sue’s 51st, but her actual 50th was marred by an unfortunate encounter with a copperhead snake that landed her in the ER – hence the do-over. One of Sue’s top three places in the world is Point Reyes in western Marin County north of San Francisco. So I booked a B&B in Point Reyes Station and on her 51st birthday and we hiked the full 10+ miles out to Tomales Point
Marin felt like our touchstone, our place of peace on our day off, and it symbolized the fruition of our journey West. It takes an additional hour and a half driving north and west out of San Francisco to reach the trailhead at Pierce Point Ranch. Past Fairfax it’s nothing but slow and winding roads through redwoods and hills. By the time you’ve made it out to the western edge of the county it feels like you’ve walked a labyrinth. There’s a certain psychological clearing that takes place, which quiets the mind and makes one receptive to the subtleties of the natural world.
As one drives onto Point Reyes a visual phenomenon occurs where the shapes of the horizon, and hills, the road, fence posts, ocean, and sky all come together to create a profoundly beautiful effect. I’ve tried to photograph this, but it’s difficult to capture. Perspective changes every few feet as one moves along so delight in the unfolding is continual. Here the cliffs are close, so occasionally while rounding a curve or cresting a rise in the road, you feel as though you’re flying or suspended in mid air.
This was the feeling we carried with us as we left California to begin our long-cut toward home.
Our arrival in Wendover marked the end of the day driving 540 miles across Nevada. Wendover is a windswept casino town that straddles the Nevada/Utah border. Perched on the edge of the salt flats it’s where folks from Utah and Wyoming come to gamble and see shows. It was Wendover’s great neon cowboy “Willy”
that inspired my song, “One Way Ticket.”
The 1980s version I knew looked like a carnival barker looming large in a casino parking lot, paint peeling, colors faded, cigarette dangling from the edge of his mouth, and a sputtering neon arm waving up and down in greeting. Today’s Willy is a newer, cleaner, spruced-up version that greets tourists from his place on the median of Rt. 58 as they arrive into town – something of a cowboy concierge. I much preferred the older Willy.
The next day we arrived in Rock Springs, Wyoming
for our concert at the home of Chris and Sue Kennedy whose home sits about 75 feet from the Union Pacific railway. As we’re doing our show, a line of freights rumbled and screeched by, all but drowning us out playing acoustic in the living room. Chris says, “It’s as close as you can get to sleeping near the tracks without being a hobo,” (and another time) “I know where the hole in the fence is, so either escape or suicide is not far away.” Chris also explained that in the original mapping out of Wyoming’ s infrastructure, the state government decreed that Cheyenne got the capitol, Laramie got the university, Rawlins got the prison, Rock Springs got the miners hospital, Green River got the switching yards, and Evanston got the mental institution.
As September turned into October and our concerts brought us east to Colorado and Illinois, visions of Marin, San Francisco, and the Bay lingered. It’s a long way across the country, and truth be told, we don’t make a lot after expenses. But one thing is for sure – the journey and the privilege of experience are well worth the cost. To ride a wave of consecutive nights of folks in their most gracious and generous creates a reverence to the whole process of being a musician.
Thank you all so much for yet another great tour!
Dana and Susan
Occasionally, from an observer’s point of view, I find this work so interesting. In my years of making a living playing music I like to think I’ve gained some perspective on its ups and downs, but sometimes it still feels like a bull ride.
We’ve been out twice this month for ten days at a stretch. First up to New York, Vermont, Maine, and Virginia, then after a few days back home in North Carolina, it's out again and up to Ontario through Indiana and Michigan. Canada really does feel like a whole ‘nother country. From our first concert at Debbie and Bill’s home in Goderich
where we watched the Maitland River
flow into Lake Huron
under a brilliant sunset, to our final night in the little burg of Baltimore where our dear friends Steafan Hannigan
and Saskia Tomkins
have settled to raise their family. We had a joyful time of catching up, sharing stories, and supping on Saskia’s curry as midnight rolled around.
The day we were to play in Toronto at Taivi
and Garth’s place, we were informed that someone very beloved to the folk music community there had just passed away. For thirty years Susan Lawrence
had organized the weekly song circle and helped further the musical lives of countless people. Since most of the folks attending our concert that evening were close to Susan we turned the second half of the show into a singaround
. A half dozen singers sang a song they knew Susan would have loved. It was an emotional and moving night, one that we felt privileged to be a part of.
These kinds of evenings sum up this work. Musicians are like mayflies who alight upon a place for a day and then are gone. In that one day an entire life is lived. The cliché is that if it is Thursday then we must be in Belgium, but we sure did live in Belgium while we were there. Every concert is a rebirth and an opportunity to witness something new, fresh, and good in a stranger’s eyes. It’s pretty wonderful. Then we pile back in the van and go. We drive quiet for a while, recalibrating our thoughts and catching up internally. Soon enough the hum of the road and familiarity of our confines restore us to the point where we can prepare for our next encounter. We may as well be space travelers aboard our ship to a new planet.
Ours is a gypsy life but with a mortgage and car payment. Sometimes we’re out a long weekend, other times for several weeks. We have friends that stay out for months on end. They lock up home and look ahead with trust it will still be there when they return. I know of others who have not a home at all. After so many years of doing this they have friends and family in so many parts of the country that they don’t need to own four walls, a roof, and a garden. Home consists of four wheels, a chassis, and window. Home is where the heart is.
As any traveler will tell you, most difficult are the transitions between the leaving and arriving home. Notably, coming home is an alternate reality hangover from a road-trip binge that really only hits when you reenter into the oxygen-rich atmosphere of civilian life. Ask any musician who has crashed and burned. Motels, road food, and road miles have a way of breaking down body and mind. As sure as an orbiting satellite eventually must fail and plummet to earth, weariness, ignored and denied in the focus of travel, will surface. This is where the phrase, “Safe Home
,” comes in handy.
Perhaps what makes departure a bit easier is the promise of Fiddlers Green: the legendary place of perpetual mirth, a fiddle that never stops playing, and dancers who never tire. Its allure attracts and behaves like a drug. In the name of doing good works, catching up with old friends, intent of inspiration, and the deepening of our trade, we set sail. Maybe our friends have it right: less frequent departure and re-entry is better. Less crash and burn.
The professional traveler regularly passes through a gate between these two diametrically opposed worlds. One faces out upon a glorious and endless highway. The other gazes inward toward sanity, health, and repose. It’s like Narcissus and Goldmund
, the novel by Hermann Hesse
that I loved as a youth, which addresses the innate duality of the creative existence. It’s not so much that the grass is greener on either side, but it’s more about living amid the continual ebb and flow between the polarities – a sort of Bay of Fundy
of the mind.
This is Easter weekend now, Equinox, and the temperature is just warm enough to allow the woodstove to die out overnight. In the morning Sue digs through the kindling and rips apart some brown paper bags to fire up the remaining embers. It takes the edge off. Nothing creates a sense of deep rest better than the slow rhythm of home where movements from one thing to another are effortless and automatic. A cup of coffee and a bowl of oatmeal in the morning occur without discovery or thought, and are taken blessedly for granted.
This morning in the damp of early spring the lichens and moss on the trees are stunning to behold. The silver maple tree in the yard wears it like a suit of clothes. The Green Man
lives! Before they are upstaged by emerging leaves and colorful flowers, this seems to be their time to shine. They say a rolling stone gathers no moss, but I rather like moss, and perhaps it’s a good thing if a stone sits still for a time. Hmm…
After a couple of days at home, with a walk around the park and a visit or two to the YMCA under my belt, I’m back to the office. Next comes the ritual of removing instruments from their cases and hanging them upon stands for easy access. I recognize how fortunate I am for being able to do this for a living. I’ll soon begin to scan the calendar, looking for our next departure date.
The Old #18
is a massive, 100-year-old beast of a locomotive. It’s a hot, black, patched up and steaming, greased up and gleaming jumble of nuts, bolts, pipes, valves, levers and fire brick, topped with a bell to ring and a cow grate. A brakeman and engine-woman drive this hunk of iron that is so alive and vital that, even if it were to be cold and quiet, one still might fear it would awaken upon approach like a slumbering dragon. Carcasses of other old locomotives rest upon disconnected rails in this Alamosa, Colorado train station. I think about wanting to photograph these upon return at the end of the day, but right now, with a rattle and shunt, our club car, coach, and dining cars pull out of the station behind The Old #18. Her great throaty whistle wails and steam shoots out over the embankment, sending a gale into the weeds along the ditch.
Ed Ellis, president of the Iowa Pacific Holdings Company
and owner of the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad
, tells me that this Pullman car, the Mardi Gras, was the very car that Steve Goodman
wrote “City of New Orleans”
in back in 1971. Indeed, this Pullman and a host of other coach and dining cars that make up this train were amongst those that worked the City of New Orleans line of the Illinois Central Railroad
back in the day. Ed told us he fell in love with trains riding in this very car as a twelve-year-old boy growing up in Paducah, Kentucky. So here we were now, part of this wondrous continuum. On the way up the mountain Sue and I took out our instruments and sang “City of New Orleans” for the passengers on the Mardi Gras. As the sagebrush desert of the San Luis Valley
passed by our window, the train rocked us back and forth, and a sense of timeless connection welled up within me.
This weekend we’ve been hired to perform for Mountain Rails Live
, a summer concert series held in a natural amphitheater at 9,200 feet at the crest of La Veta Pass in the Rocky Mountains of south central Colorado. Our job specifically was to play an hour-long opening set for western singer-songwriter Michael Martin Murphy
(remember “Wildfire” and “Geronimo’s Cadillac”?). I recall enjoying his music on AM radio when I was in high school in the `70s. Now, “Murphy,” as he’s known, is a veteran entertainer and it was a great pleasure to see him work – a master at his craft. Murphy brought along his long-time bass player, Gary Roller,
whom we persuaded to play a couple of songs with us at the end of our set. We also had local cowboy singers Jim Garling
and Fred Hargrove
, who also acted as our MC, to round out the bill.
The only way up to the concert site is by rail – one line travels east from Alamosa (the train we were on), and another that travels west from La Veta. Everybody gets on the train in the morning – audience, performers, crew, food service, and security alike. Worldly cares seem to fall away as we ascend in altitude. Sue remarked that it’s kind of like rail therapy on the train spa. And there really is nothing more for this captive audience to do but enjoy the ride – the music, clean air, scenery, abundant conversation, and good vibes all of which contribute to a feeling of wellbeing. Upon arrival at our destination known simply as “Fir Junction,”
several hundred people disembark and settle in for three hours of music, stories, bar-b-q, dancing, and relaxing.
The scenery is incomparable. Mount Blanca and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains make a jagged profile on the western horizon. The air so crystalline clear that the pines and aspen across the valley appear as though you could reach out and touch them. They say it’s not unusual to see elk, bear, mountain lion, and turkey. Because electricity is needed to run the PA system, lighting, and kitchen, Ed and company installed solar panels and a small windmill to power the site. I particularly enjoyed our green room. Usually green rooms are like closets or dungeons, dank places that smell of neglect. But the view from my wicker chair
out the back door
upon the hill covered with delicate grasses, blue spruce, and pine was peaceful. It was the best green room ever!
On the way up Ed told us a story about a freight train he had hauling a load of barley that lost its breaks and overturned on the La Veta side of the pass. Having no other option they covered the barley over with dirt and left it there to compost – and compost it did. Before long all sorts of wildlife were attracted to the warm and steaming mash – especially bears! Bears dug into the soil for the intoxicating pulp and even went so far as to carve winter dens in the balmy dirt. It practically became a tourist attraction to see drunken bears lolling about. Though it happened years ago now it’s still not unusual to see bears and wild turkeys scratching at the dirt, attracted still to some vestige of malted pleasure.
After dropping us off at the concert site
, The Old #18 continues east to La Veta where it gets greased up, water tank filled, and turned around. Its arrival back to Fir is a dramatic event. With the audience below and tracks above, whistle blowing, steam hissing, and iron on iron sounding out through the valley, The Old #18 upstages anything else going on. Now Murphy, who has done this show a few times before, tries to time his encore with the arrival of the train, and on our Saturday performance in front of 400+ people, he did just that. With all six of us on the stage, running through a medley of tunes – “Life is Like a Railroad,” “Man of Constant Sorrow,” “This Land is Your Land”
… by the time we get to “This Train Is Bound For Glory,”
The Old #18 pulls over the rise and blows her whistle so loud that the crowd bursts into cheers. Our diva has returned to take us home!
With the gear packed up, lawn chairs stowed, and the last CD sold, we all climb aboard the train and settle in for a ride down the mountain. Everybody is loose now, happy, buzzing, and pleasantly tired. Back in the club car Ed and Fred take out their guitars and start up a jam session. I grab my mandolin as Sue does her banjo, and we begin running through folk standards, train songs, cowboy ballads, and novelty numbers. As the train pulls into Alamosa, Ed launches into “Good Night Irene” and everyone sings along. By the time we step off back onto terra firma our world has essentially shifted. Every one of us has in some way had a transformative experience. Whether it was the clean air, the cathartic stories, or simply the joyful music in the high Rocky Mountains, I’m sure our experience was catalyzed by surrendering to the movement of the train.
Note: To view a photo album of this trip upon the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad go to our Facebook site: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Dana-and-Susan-Robinson/245400750541
We toasted Bill Morrissey
tonight at The Windmill, a friendly, working class pub on Windmill Hill in Bristol, England. I write this with the peaty taste of Lagavulin in my mouth. I’m thinking Bill would have approved. After we clinked our tumblers and before our first sip we each dribbled some whisky onto the well-worn pine floor for the angels’ share. We figured that by now Bill might be thirsty up there and surely would welcome a drop.
Bill had an influence on both our lives in different ways – an effect very much like our dram of whisky: small yet potent, affects insight, and not unlike an American Robbie Burns
, Bill’s words served to warm the chill like a fire of birch wood on a cold winter’s night.
Sue mentioned that we might not have met had she not first attended a Bill Morrissey concert at Sweetwater in Mill Valley, California. That night Bill opened the door for Sue to the world of traveling songwriters. The dog, he tried to talk her up and invited her to go out drinking with him after the show. (She declined, but now says she wishes she had!) It was after that night she began seeking out more concerts and more performers who would weave that magical mix of lyric and stories with music and humor. Bill was a master at that.
I was green in my craft and still cutting my teeth on the New England open mic scene in the late 80’s when Bill was becoming popular. Stories would filter down about his cutting wit, and his ability to brilliantly turn a phrase. His black and white glossy promo photo would stare back at me from backstage green room walls. Bill’s photo, alongside every other major singer-songwriter of the day: they were doing what I aspired to do, but then it all seemed unattainable, unreal and impossible. In time since, I’ve discovered that this life exemplifies the practice of continually stepping into the unattainable, unreal and impossible – it’s where songs come from.
I shared a round-robin stage with him once at a festival in New Hampshire in the late 90’s. It was Bill, Geoff Muldaur
, Lui Collins
, and myself on the stage. I remember feeling out of my league and I over-compensated with some long, rambling, up-tempo song that didn’t get the response I was hoping for. They were waiting for Bill. He followed with a love song he had just finished. It was simple, quiet, poignant, and half as long as mine. He said more than twice as much with less than half the words. The audience went nuts. The applause was deafening. They loved him and he owned the room that day.
All through that set I remember him smelling of beer. I remember wondering how could he do that? He clearly had a good buzz going. No wonder he was so relaxed. Afterwards, sitting on the back steps of the hall in the mellow afternoon light, Bill, with a Budweiser in hand spoke gently about this and that - world weary, relaxed, and pleased that the audience seemed to like his new song.
I had a similar experience at a festival round-robin stage sitting next to Dave Van Ronk
who blew the top off the house with his barking wail of a voice and effortless command of the room. I literally had to avert my ears his singing was so loud. I noticed the soundman leap for the dials on the board. I learned a lot sitting next to Dave as I did Bill. These singers, these boozy, bluesy, guitar-picking players, were of another time and culture than I. Still, whenever I’m in the presence of someone from that league of elders I try to glean as much as possible by watching and listening.
As I write this, details are not in yet about how Bill died. Only that he expired in a hotel room in Atlanta after a gig. Ultimately, I would say, it was the drink that done him in. This traveling songwriter job is a strange combination of the working class and the glamorous (glamorous only because we get our photos in the paper!). Our egos are alternately engorged and deprived; we swing between adrenaline and depression, energy and exhaustion, surrounded by adoring fans one moment and alone in a hotel room the next – between being all knowing and totally clueless. There is nightly cause for either celebration or consolation. Those who would rather lead lives of balance and calm need not apply. The trouble is that alcohol is the drug found in the places where we work, and is doled out cheaply or for free, and is the substance that addresses our immediate need to find balance. My doctor does not approve of my choice in lifestyles.
Bill is one in the line of a dying breed – a species that is becoming extinct. If a singer-songwriter behaved now like they used to it would not be tolerated. No more showing up drunk to a gig, no more speaking one’s mind to a heckler, no more debauched tales of excess and nights in jail. No more gritty tales of life close to the bone. No more firsthand accounts of an America that is quickly fading from memory. Folk music has frankly lost its teeth, has become suburbanized, milk toast, and numb to the real struggles of our people. This deeply upsets me and I wrestle with how to find that pissed-off voice within myself. We need legions of young songwriters to write like Billy Bragg
, Ani DiFranco
, and Steve Earle:
wise and potent with a pen, guitar, and stagecraft – like Bill was.
Bill lived a life cut from the cloth of Jack Kerouac
, Woody Guthrie
, Hank Williams
, Jerry Jeff Walker
, and Mississippi John Hurt
– a deeply literary and American bard he was. Bill Morrissey sung his life. Sung it real. Wove his magic. Told the truth.
Thanks a lot, man. It was a privilege meeting you.
In the shadow of Ben Nevis
Beneath the hulk of stone that is Britain’s tallest mountain
At the top of the garden is the painting shed
Which is accessible by going around the pond
Or rather, one may choose to cross over Monet’s bridge
Otherwise known as Spike’s Folly
Reeds grow inward from the edge of the pond
Lily pads grow outward from the center
“Every once in a while I have to don my wet suit and spend hours
Pulling these out by the roots
And the bridge needs painting”
Spike cleared the rhododendron
Nearly torched the house burning the stuff
Got a digger in to make the pond
Built a shed for his daughter
Stocked with watercolors, brushes, and paper
Fashioned an arch over the waist of the pond
An arch of wood – delicate, lithe, graceful and loving
Stocked the pond with trout until the herons came to dine
In the shadow of the Ben
Stonington – Fort William 18/7/11
I don’t know if this happens to anyone else – and it mostly only occurs after arriving home after a long period of travel – but when I wake up in the middle of the night or early in the morning I have no idea where I am. Perceptions are suspended and reduced to a simple consciousness. The bed is comfortable. I just don’t know whose bed it is. I lie there and wait until it comes to me. This place is reminiscent of our agent’s house in Bristol, a hotel in Edinburgh, or home hospitality after a gig. But I literally haven’t got a clue where I am right now.
Sue says…. “It’s a feeling of consternation: where the hell am I! where’s the bathroom – what side of the bed am I on?” Thus ensues the frantic race to recall the last few minutes before falling asleep – what did we do tonight? Where did we eat? What does the room look like? – before panic sets in.
Mind you, this all occurs in what amounts to less than a minute of time.
I attribute this momentary confusion to the disappearance of “psychic roots,” – those invisible tendrils that reach into the ground and root us to Place. It’s through these roots that we exchange nourishment, and as we invest ourselves in a place the stronger they become, and the more rooted we feel. When we’re away from home they dissipate and weaken – much like a muscle which entropies when not in use. Nowadays, all it takes to feel my roots again is to get out into the garden and pull a few weeds, mow the lawn, and walk around the trees. At home I can plug in and submit myself to being receptive and porous – like roots.
After having been away for more than eight weeks it’s a shock reentering the atmosphere of home. I have to direct my attention downward and remember that I live here. This is what the birds sound like here. This is where the insects are raucous at night when it’s hot, and this is where we leave the windows open and the ceiling fans on at night long to cool the house by the morning. I’ll take it any day over an air-conditioned hotel room.
When the night is still and the moon lifts over the hill in back of the house, Place eventually creeps back in to my being. Here in Western North Carolina, in late August, the broad assortment of night scratchy, chirpy things are going with the full force that the summer heat tends to bring out. Mix with that the sound of cars on the distant overpass, and the occasional train of coal cars passing through the valley and you pretty much have the mountains of western North Carolina. It’s the birds, the bugs, the cars, trains and trucks.
I know where I am now.
(I was asked to write this by intern journalist May-Ying Lam to be used as an audio essay for the Lincoln Journal-Star. May-Ying attended our house concert in Lincoln and to take photos. Here is the link to her audio slideshow: http://journalstar.com/entertainment/music/article_57524716-9187-54c2-9560-c518bebfed95.html
Today, Sue and I departed the town of Wray upon the high plains of eastern Colorado. With the wind at our backs and gravity on our side we drove the six hours to Lincoln for tonight’s concert hosted at Tim and Nancy Anderson’s house for the Lincoln Association for Traditional Arts. Along the way we stopped for a while to watch the migration of snow geese along the Platte River, and I realized that our own tours follow what can be seen as migration routes back and forth across the country. Through the years Nebraska has been one of my favorite places to tour. I always look forward to the quiet drive alongside the Platte and the railroad – to take in the tawny colors of the Plains, and the big sky vistas.
We didn’t know Nancy and Tim before today, but as soon as we met they made us feel at home. Sue and I soon began going through the steps of preparation for our concert. We brought in our instruments, our stands, CD’s, and duffel bags. We then went upstairs for a catnap to allow the vibration of the highway to dissipate. After twenty-minutes or so we emerged refreshed, and ready to sing.
Soon, people started to arrive, and the momentum of the night began. The whole evening of the typical house concert has this marvelous arc. It begins with the hubbub of folks arriving, greeting, and nibbling on hors d’oeuvres. It peaks in the applause and cheering and singing along during the show, and gently winds down with goodnights and goodbyes at the end of the evening.
And every night is so very different. Each room is unique and no two audiences are ever the same. We are always trying out new material and choosing songs and stories that are relevant to where we are. Sue and I play around one hundred concerts a year in all sorts of venues from big festival stages to clubs and coffeehouses, but I think what makes house concerts so unique, and the reason why they are becoming more popular, is that they are so intimate and provide an opportunity for the audience to really connect and talk with the artist and share their own stories as well. House concerts more than any other type of venue are able to create and offer community and bring these sublime experiences into people’s homes.
We love these tours and we love to travel, but from the moment we head out on the road it becomes a challenge to maintain our energy. We say goodbye to regular healthy meals and the daily exercise we get while home. It’s hello to strange beds, stuffy motel rooms and to always having the need to make up sleep wherever we can find it. Life on the road wears one thin around the edges and down to the core. I know this is true for all of us performing songwriters to one degree or another, and I find myself admiring the most those musicians who have longevity in the business.
So I think it’s ironic that just as I’m bone tired and at the end of my rope the most beautiful song will come to me – or we’ll stay with some people who are just so wonderful – or we’ll visit a place that is inspiring and nourishing in a deep and satisfying way. All of a sudden balance is restored and we can keep on with what we love to do. I think it’s these contradictions that give the gift of what is ultimately grist for the mill, and real world experience to give our songs and stories credibility. Sue always says to me, “Give me an experience over a possession any day.”
After the show we unwound in the kitchen with some quiet conversation and a glass of wine with Nancy and Tim. But soon it was upstairs to retire for tomorrow we had to be up and out by eight in the morning and on our way for an afternoon concert in Iowa. Away like the snow geese in our white mini-van along our own migration path to the next destination.
To get to Lupus, Missouri
from the south, one must travel through the Ozarks
upon many narrow state highways. Roads like threads sinew through the muscle of the hills. Roads that steeply rise, curve, and fall precipitously according to the shape of the land. These are roller coaster roads, the kind where your gut drops out in the swale and one might catch a little air by accelerating at the crest. “End of the world!” Not a good idea in a mini van full of instruments and sound gear. These roads have not been cut into the Ozark soil, but rather like a ribbon of asphalt, rolled out on top of it. Given a few of years of neglect, weeds and trees might take root and break into it, eventually leaving no sign that a road ever existed in the first place. The land would remember its own shape, its history intact.
Arriving for our Sunday afternoon concert, we were greeted by a pack of small mutts
lying in the middle of Main Street. They did not yield as we drew closer in the van, but simply lifted their heads. When I stopped short, and whistled out the window, all they did was raise their ears. We drove slowly around them and parked in front of the general store where our gig was to be held. They then came running over to us with tails a-wagging: our welcoming committee. Lupus
was built upon a stretch of the Missouri River back in the early 1900s when the railroad came through. It sprung up virtually overnight – a small boomtown with saw mills, hotels, banks, city hall, houses, and general store. The day we got there all was quiet. There were no hotels, banks, nor sawmills to be seen, but there were a few foundations with trees growing from inside them. The few remaining houses were set upon stilts, elevated ten feet in the air. We later learned about the big flood in 1993. FEMA came in and said they would give grants for folks to either relocate or raise their houses up. So with the exception of the cinderblock “City Hall” and the Lupus General Store all the houses got lifted up – a new garage or storage place for everybody!
We took a stroll over to the river and found the water was running high. My thought was it wouldn’t take much to breach the banks, and not much more to send the water over the railroad tracks and into the streets of town. Every time the river floods the effect is like the stroke of an eraser wearing down the town: mortar releasing brick, and nail loosening clapboard. It is the river’s nature to meander and flood. The Army Corps of Engineers can build all the levees they want, but the fact of the matter is, as the river becomes more streamlined and channeled it only builds more weight and momentum to break down the levees that attempt to contain it. Ultimately, one can only accommodate the river.
I like a forest’s way of living with a river. A river will meander to cut new paths and abandon old ones. The forest yields to the will of the water. Old trees are consumed where the river wants to flow and young trees emerge from the new rich soil where the river has departed. The population of trees remains the same – a net wash, as it were. If I had a home here I’d like to be up high to observe it all unfolding in time lapse, and I would welcome the drama of a good flood.
Our host, Doug Elley, soon arrived to greet us, and when I complimented the stately bald cypress trees
in front of the store, he said that he had planted them some thirty years ago. Doug related that he had been canoeing down the Missouri and drew his canoe upon the banks of the river at the edge of town wanting to see what was over the other side. He said right there and then he fell in love with Lupus and decided to move there. The next day he returned and offered a man $1,000 for a home he was selling and the man responded that $800 would do.
The Lupus General Store
where we were to play is an alluringly funky structure and to my mind contains the DNA of its namesake. Brick-a-brack and antique-y memorabilia inhabit nook and cranny. Photos, books, second-hand clothing, a piano, strings of Christmas lights, a stage for concerts with a sound system bought from a garage sale, and a little kitchen in back. The store is like an elderly person who in their day has seen an awful lot, and if one were to sit at their feet and listen to their stories, life in the heyday of Lupus, Missouri would begin to come forth.
I commented to Doug about the posters of John Hartford
up on the wall. He said that John loved this area, and played in the towns up and down the river here in his day. John Hartford was also a riverboat pilot, and he knew the people of the river and the river’s ways. For me, a kid from suburban California, John made a big impression when I supported a couple of concerts for him in the early 1980s. That experience opened doors that I’ve had access to ever since. It fostered an appreciation and a connection to this vulnerable part of American culture.
Doug started the concerts in the general store in 2003 with Jack Williams
playing the first show. The archive book of who has played there over the eight years is a representative cross-section of the national folk circuit. I was allured to play here after reading a wonderful little essay written by Violet Vonder Haar, then a young singer-songwriter and high school student. Violet attended our show and introduced herself. She is now an elementary school music teacher. Here’s a link to her essay: http://blogs.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendId=298588349&blogId=346329624
Doug served fifteen years as the mayor of Lupus and owns several properties including the general store, but what impressed me most were all the trees he’s planted. Not only the countless bald cypress and various species all over town, but some ninety pecan trees that after many years of maturing are now beginning to bear fruit. A man after my own heart: foresting the landscape.
After the concert Doug gave us a tour of his stately and weather worn turn-of-the-century house. Fine and large kitchen windows overlooking acres of pecan trees blended with native forest, and the house’s interior plaster cracked by the trauma of the house being jacked up on stilts. The thought then came to me that after the last wooden plank of the General Store has become driftwood downstream, after the last cinderblock has melded with the mud of the river, the trees that Doug has planted will lend their root, wood and canopy to whatever fauna live here. The earth will remember its shape, and for a very long time to come the hills will be painted by the descendants of the trees that Doug has planted.
Boarding the Virgin Atlantic Airbus on our way to Britain is a bit like entering the proverbial rabbit hole. From the moment we step into that thin aluminum tube with wings and fly – 30,000 feet at 500 miles per hour – we fall, in a sense, and things begin to feel just a little bit different: the light, the sounds, the air… This suspended state of animation created by limited elbow and leg room and a small TV screen before our faces with complimentary drinks…. We are not quite asleep, yet we are not quite awake, but when we come to, we’re in a different country.
We land at Heathrow, step into the terminal, and enter into the well-rehearsed dance of immigration, customs, baggage, car rental, then at last the bon voyage from airport territory all the while thinking, “left, left, drive on the left.” At this point it’s 10 in the morning and we’ve been awake for about 20 hours. We’re soon driving on the M4 west to Bristol where our agent lives and who we’ll meet with warm greetings, then go directly upstairs to sleep until dinner. After dinner we do no more than go back upstairs and sleep again until morning. This is the ritual. We are now down the rabbit hole.
In this landscape, space is at a premium. Small cars drive fast on narrow roads. Narrow houses host narrow stairways. Petite kitchens are fitted with compact appliances. There’s even a system for naming smaller bed sizes. Portions of food and drink are also generally smaller, except for pints of beer where the Imperial pint is 20oz! More people fit onto less land than in America where we take our luxurious distances for granted.
Driving in Britain can be compared to delivering a thread through the eye of a needle without touching the thread to the needle itself. Such is negotiating any urban street. Woe to the side view mirror of any parked car that hasn’t been pulled inward lest another car smashes it with its own mirror. Cars routinely drive up on the curb or sidewalk just to be able to pass down the street. Rural driving is not much different as the lanes often have tall hedges on either side that give the road a tunnel-like effect. These lanes are barely wide enough for two cars to pass let alone a truck or some joker in an American SUV who believes their car is too precious to touch the hedge thereby causing the oncoming driver to go into the hedge himself. Driving is just a commonplace insanity.
We kick off the tour in south Wales where the British springtime is just beginning. Walking down the lane you can hear two sounds coming from over the hedge, one low and throaty and the other a high warble-bleat: ewes are lambing in the fields. We see them at a break in the hedge, frolicking. What young lambs do in green English fields is the very definition of the word frolic! It is early March and whilst there are no leaves on the trees the grass is lush and the first flowers, snowdrops and crocuses, are appearing. That night at Cuffern Manor
, Jules, who hosts these concerts with his wife Jane, made a point of planting the seed of writing an essay about this tour. He reminded me that I had not written a UK tour essay since 2005. (Very well, Jules, here you go!)
Then the gigs begin ticking off – Corsham
, then the Red Lion in Birmingham
. Birmingham was one of my favorite nights and we did not even headline the show. We opened for Spiers and Boden
, a much-loved British duo that might be better described as a five-piece band. At 180 people the room was standing room only. John Spiers plays a melodeon on two channels – one, running from the bass plate and another running from the treble plate so he sounds at once like a bass and a melody instrument. While Jon Boden plays fiddle, sings and plays a drumbeat on his “stomp box” at the same time. The stomp box is basically a plywood platform with a microphone beneath it. Thing is, it’s been EQ’ed to a very low frequency which makes it sound like a bass drum. The combination of all these sounds is stunning and it makes me try to imagine ways of importing this sound to America.
After the gig, cast and crew hastened back to our promoters Della and Chris’s home, and partook in the ritual sup at a table of soup, bread, cheese (many good stinky cheeses) wine (many bottles of the Co-op’s finest) and boisterous conversation. The lasting image of that evening in my mind is Della and Chris sitting side by side in matching wicker chairs, tatty with age and cushioned with hand knitted blankets, looking like wise and benevolent monarchs who nod approval to their wayfaring, vagabond subjects. By two in the morning the company dispersed up to third floor bedrooms to sleep in single beds under ancient and colorful quilts.
The gigs continue to tick off: Sussex
– where we opened a show for the legendary Dave Swarbrick
. “Swarb,” a co-founding member of Fairport convention and cohort of Martin Carthy, is a magical fiddle player and an absolute fount of stories. His recent lung transplant has enabled him to keep on living, playing, and making mischief. To say Dave smoked a lot would be an understatement. It took many benefit concerts and operations to bring him back to his current chops. He made a big impression on me when I first saw him play now 25 years ago at a club in Massachusetts. I was so happy to have the opportunity to tell Dave myself how happy I was to hear him play again.
Next gigs: Llanstrisant
in Wales, Otterton Mill
, and Hazelwood House
in Devon, where we had a day off to walk in the quiet countryside. (“Ah, lovely Devon, where it rains eight days out of seven.”) Then Warwick
, Wakefield, and the Barnsley Folk and Roots Festival
where we got to listen to Jez Lowe, Emily Slade
and the Demon Barbers
. Then a long drive south to Bath for a double header the next day: first, at the American Museum in Britain
then that evening, a house concert in the Cotswolds town of Dursley
By this time we are three weeks into the tour and our batteries are running on empty. What we most need is a couple days of quiet and sleep. Wiith two days off before our next gig in Scotland we decide to stop halfway north in the Lakes District. There we find a hotel in the quaint village of Ambleside
. As we drove into town a huge rainstorm had just passed through. The entire town was drenched wet and everything the air touched sparkled in the setting sun. Later, walking the narrow streets and perusing the restaurants, an evening chill was setting in and the air smelled of coal fires. Ambleside is eye candy, really. What with every structure made almost entirely of stone, and a crystal clear brook running under arching stone bridges, this old market village set in ancient glacial mountains looks like it stepped out of a fairy tale.
Later that week, after our gig at the Edinburgh Folk Club
, we had two more days off and we decided to stay in the big city. The first day we could barely see 50 feet in front of us it was so foggy – another good day to have permission to do nothing. This is when we saw the new Alice in Wonderland and I began thinking of this tour in those terms. On the second evening the fog lifted just enough that we could actually see the buildings – the magnificent, masculine, hewn-of-stone city that Edinburgh is. For dinner we chose a French restaurant, “Le Sept,
” where the waiters, while casual in jeans, t-shirts, and days-old beards, nonetheless possessed a manner totally in step with the French-waiter stereotype. I wondered out loud to Sue if a prerequisite for being hired to wait tables at a restaurant such as this is to be ever just so aloof with a touch of surly. Truth be told, it only added to the ambience of the room with its small tables too close together, vintage French posters on plaster walls and high ceiling. The food was spectacular.
Our final gig was the String Jam Club
in Galashiels in the Scottish Borders region. Noted as one of the best clubs in all of Britain, the String Jam is run by Allie Fox
who is also both a musician and a booking agent. To me that’s the perfect trifecta because Allie understands the business from all points of view. Indeed, Allie knows how to cultivate an enthusiastic audience and made our work ever so easy that night.
By this time there’s a palpable sense of cruising downhill for the remaining days of the tour. From Galashiels south we had beautiful weather skirting the Yorkshire Dales to a party at our friends Tony and Rahel’s house in the midlands. The next day found us back again in Bristol, settling up business with our agent Lorraine
, raising a glass of champagne together to the end of a successful tour, and preparing for our departure back up through the rabbit hole. Then sooner than you can say “Jack Rabbit,” we are driving in our (what feels like a not-so-mini) van in some very wide lanes of traffic on our way through Virginia toward home. The air is different, the light is different, the sounds are different – I am awoken as if from a dream. Though that’s probably just a relapse of jetlag.
I am left with a residual feeling of warmth and generosity for all the people who have been very kind to us during this tour. So many people go out of their way to open their homes, make our beds, fix us tea and meals, tell us their stories, and send us upstairs with a nightcap. They give us places to play concerts and to celebrate our shared love of this thing we call folk music. They give us experiences and friendships that we continue to treasure as we continue on down the road.
Thanks for reading!
Cheers, Dana & Sue