All the stories he could tell…

Hank Williams Sr

“Stared at that guitar/At that museum in Tennessee/Nameplate on the glass/Brought back twenty melodies”

A musical pilgrimage. That’s what I called my trip to Luchenbach, Texas nine years ago.

Today I still pine for seeing Sun Studios in Memphis, Abbey Road, LaGrange and for standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona. I’ve a road-tripped to see U2, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Jimmy Buffet, Bob Dylan, Robert Earl Keen, Willie Nelson and The Rolling Stones. I’ve stood in the presence of Merle Haggard and a host of country stars because I was country when country wasn’t cool. One evening I walked around downtown Athens and heard the haunting melodies of REM float over the town from a concert at Legion Field. Once upon a time I even took my mama with me to see Hank Williams Junior. And I’ve listened to Americana under the stars at Luchenbach.

art in hall of fame

A journey isn’t just a beginning and an end. The in-between is crucial.

This latest adventure—to check The Rolling Stones off Nolan’s bucket list—started in the Upstate of South Carolina and led us all the way to The Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  But a journey isn’t just a beginning and an end.  The in-between is crucial.

This epic road trip to see The Stones was also a musical pilgrimage, with the principal detour being a visit to Nashville, two nights spent under Todd Snider’s East Nashville skyline, nameless musicians in honky tonk bars and a visit to The Country Music Hall of Fame. Add a quick trip to Bass Pro Shops and it’s staggering what you can cram into two days.

The essence of Nashville is to be found downtown on Broadway. Honky tonks with bad bar food and good cover musicians who don’t stand a chance of making it are interspersed with boot and hat stores and retro clothing boutiques. Every fifty yards or so there is a street musician busking for bucks, everything from one-man bands to traveler kids to Johnny Cash lookalikes to drum acts.

Johnny Cash's black suit

“Do you wonder why I always dress in black?/Why I never wear bright colors on my back?”

Up the street The Country Music Hall of Fame was packed on a Thursday morning. Curiously we arrived at the same time as a large group of excited but well-behaved black children. I happened to stand before Dwight Yoakum’s nudie suit with them and listened to their teacher point out details of the costume.

“See these pockets?” She said, gesturing to upper chest pockets. “They are called smile pockets because they turn up at the corner.”

Darn. Learn something new every day, I thought.

The children sat on the floor and filled out worksheets.

“This is, well, I’ll let you read it. Can you write down his name?”

* * *

art at Country Music Hall of Fame

“If Hank Williams was alive today/I can tell you where he wouldn’t be/Hanging around that Hall of Fame/In Nashville, Tennessee.”   Marshall Chapman, “A Thank You Note” from the album Jaded Virgin

Greasy and Nolan blew through it and I felt like I did as well. There is simply too much too see in one quick visit. Season passes and frequent trips are what it would take to absorb this museum.

Besides Dwight Yoakum, I worshiped at a few displays: Hank Williams’ guitar, Mother Maybelle’s guitar, one of many man-in-black Johnny Cash suits, Gram Parsons’ pills-and-cannabis nudie suit, Elvis Pressley’s Cadillac, Earl Scruggs’ banjo, the cornfield set of the television show Hee Haw. A wall of portraits of country music’s power couples: Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash and June Carter, George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Web Pierce’s nudie Cadillac, obscene with tooled saddle leather and steer horns on the front. Little Jimmy Dickens’ display of tiny boots and lime green nudie suit. George Strait’s everyday Western shirt and Wranglers. Actual blue suede shoes.

Bob Dylan, Johnny Cast and the Nashville Cats

“Rock and country, they flow back and forth between each other.”

The current exhibit of note is Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats. I’d known that Johnny and Bob were friends. This huge exhibit was a testament to their sense of awe at each other and to the behind-the-scenes individuals that make Nashville tick. Session musicians and sound engineers.

nudie suit

Cannabis-and-pills nudie suit worn by Gram Parsons

It’s also an affirmation of the fact that music is plastic and fluid. Rock and country, they flow back and forth between each other. To me this is a huge paradox: I grew up thinking that you either liked country or rock. Not both. And this couldn’t be further from the truth. To hearken back to my biologist’s training, country and rock are mutualists, locked in a symbiotic relationship.

Right before the museum’s inevitable exit-into-the- gift-shop is the Rotunda. My glimmer twins walked right past it and sat down in the lobby to wait for me.

Whispering, a docent gestured, her voice reverent, “This is the actual hall of fame.”

A small fountain and wishing well were just inside the entryway, full of coins. The rotunda was magic. Holy. Quiet. I circled clockwise, reading the brass plate of each member. I was reminded of my emotional overload experiences at The Alamo and The Astronaut Memorial at Cape Canaveral. There were souls there with me. Souls.

* * *

 

Nashville Tennesse honky tonk

Nolan takes in Nashville from a honky tonk

We walked from the Hall of Fame to Broadway, where we stood on the corner and

Nameless musician in Nashville

“This city is slam full of broken dreams.”

Nolan eenie-meenie-minee-moed over where to eat. He selected a three-tiered honky tonk that boasted a different band on each level. We ascended to the third floor and the view was amazing. A trio of musicians played cover songs that reiterated the flux between country and rock ‘n roll.

“This is incredibly sad,” I said, still feeling all those souls, though this time I was thinking of the non-famous ones.

“What?” said Nolan.

“This city is slam full of broken dreams.”

One only had to look to the stage before us: three men holding guitars and two girlfriends making up the audience.

I put a twenty in their tip bucket as we left, leaned over and whispered conspiratorially to them, “We’re on our way to Indianapolis to see The Rolling Stones.”

“Aw, man, you’ll love ‘em. I saw them a couple of weeks ago when they were here and they were awesome.”

Thank you, sir, I thought.  In case nobody ever tells you, you are, too.

A musician huddles in a doorway in Nashville

“With a million dollar spirit/And an old flattop guitar/
They drive to town with all they own/In a hundred dollar car.”  ~Thom Schulyer; performed by Lacy J. Dalton.

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Yes, I am a pirate.

OK, so if I'm not a pirate, at least I've got a tugboat named after me.

It’s safe to say I’ve been aware of Jimmy Buffett since high school—from his initial hit, “Come Monday.”  I can even remember being in Mrs. Keith Oakes’ English literature class my senior year.  Someone had a guitar there for some official reason and between classes,  class clown Mark Burke picked it up and began to play and sing “Margaritaville. “

That’s all well and good, enjoying those two radio hits in the 70’s, but like many now-middle-aged, college educated middle-class men and women, there was a time when I was called to Buffett, surely as I received a call from the Lord to come down front while heads were bowed and the pianist quietly played “Just As I Am” .   It was, I remember, some ten years after that alter call, in a car with some college friends on the way to Florida, mingled with some Fleetwood Mac, Kenny Rogers and even David Allen Coe.

Mother, Mother Ocean, I have heard you call.

There was an intense period of immersion that followed my conversion to Parrotthead:  Son of a Son of a Sailor, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, A1A, Living and Dying in ¾ Time, Havana Daydreamin’ and A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean.  I listened to them over and over and over and memorized every line.  I played them on the old turntable and was careful to run, jump and pick up the needle so my parents wouldn’t hear me play “Why Don’t We Get Drunk (and Screw)” or any parts on the live album You Had to Be There where there was cursing .  The irony is that nowadays my mother loves her some JB and you can bet she and my daddy knew, knew we played “Why Don’t We Get Drunk (and Screw)” when we thought they couldn’t hear.

Known for sculpting his own genre and elevating it to cult status as well as for  his diversified marketing genius, Jimmy Buffett never enjoyed a lot of Top Forty airplay.  It’s just as well.  He’s done more to influence other musicians and keep his fans boogieing than just about any other public figure I can think of.

Last week I read a blog by a blogger called Preacher Mike.  Mike lists his top ten and ties them into his Christian belief system.  Inspired,  I have come up with my Top Ten List of Jimmy Buffett songs:

10. Incommunicado (Coconut Telegraph)  With a tip of his hat to Travis McGee and a palpable moment of silence for John Wayne, JB captures the essence of times when we all need to retreat into ourselves, go away and just be non-communicative.  This song actually inspired my visit to Cedar Key, a sleepy Gulf hamlet way off the beaten path—where I enjoyed the local delicacy, smoked mullet—and, as always, it’s not a waste of time “taking the long way home.”

9. The Wino and I Know (Living and Dying in 3/4 Time)  I’m on the right track with this obscure JB song because when I posted a few lines from it on Facebook yesterday, people I’d never thought of as Parrottheads answered my post with more great lines from the song.  Distilled down to its meaning, the song illustrates that there are intangibles in life that can be grasped and appreciated by children, drunks and even songwriters. And I hope one day to make it to Café du Monde for coffee and beignets.

"God bless Johnny Cash"

"I got a Carribean soul I can barely control/And some Texas hidden here in my heart."

8.  There’s Something So Feminine About a Mandolin (Havana Daydreamin’) –  I strongly considered the title song for this list.  Strongly.  But this song paints such a vivid picture–a pasture in central Texas, a graceful young woman bent over her instrument, the high lonesome sound of the mandolin.  It reminds me of the time I saw a young bartender, a fit brunette in hiking shorts, finish her shift and pick up a guitar to belt out songs by the potbellied stove in Luchenbach Texas.  This tune’s  message is of simplicity, feminine grace and of the things we love that we hope to pass on to our children.  “When I get older and I have a daughter/I’ll teach her to sing/And play her my songs/And I’ll tell her some stories I can barely remember.”

7. Migration (A1A) How many of us have gone introspective, “Looking back in the background/Tryin’ to figure out how I ever got here”? There is the bashing of Yankee tourists in “mobile homes that cover the Keys/I hate those bastards so much,” somewhat of an ecologist’s rallying-cry for sending them back up north towards Disney and preserving the keys habitat and vibe.  This song also deserves to be on my list because it contains the very definition of JB’s public persona “I’ve got a Caribbean soul I can barely control and some Texas hidden here in my heart.”

6.  He Went to Paris (A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean)  Simply epic JB.  A human life well-lived is full of ups and downs. Yes, you can boogie your ass off until you die.  In fact, it’s the only way to consider living.   “Some of it’s magic and some of it’s tragic but I had a good life all the way.”

5.  Tie:  If the Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me (Last Mango in Paris) and  Coast of Marseilles (Son of a Son of a Sailor)  They’re essentially the same song, odes to love and loss.   “Would you be remembering me, I asked that question time and again?” I’m pretty damn sure the answer is yes, and yes, the phone isn’t ringing, so I know it’s you. We move on, but there are wistful times of remembrance for all of us.

4.  Captain and the Kid (Down to Earth) I sure wish I could get the chance to climb on my grandfather’s knee again and talk of things he did.  This song captures the essence of a child’s relationship with a grandparent.  Someone who wows them, fills them with wonder.  My Papa Julian sat in front porch swing and blew smokes rings for our amusement, made up silly songs and told stories that would never pass inspection by the politically correct.  In my head I have rearranged Mr. JB’s lyrics to fit my papa: ” I never used to miss the chance/To climb upon his knee/And listen to the many tales/Of life in Enoree.”

3.    A Pirate Looks at Forty (A1A) I’ve heard my teen-aged son say this was his favorite JB song and I understand why.  “Mother, Mother Ocean/I have heard you call.” The ocean draws Homo sapiens to her just like moths are drawn to a flame.  The hypnotic crash of the waves, the sure and steady rhythm of the changing tides—embody the circadian rhythm of life,  life which is full of adventure and uncertainty.  Even if we were born two hundred years too late, there is a pirate in each and every one of us.

2.   Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season (A1A)   Every now and again, we in the landlocked upstate of South Carolina experience what I call a squalls out on the gulfstream day, a day where it is overcast and not too hot with a balmy breeze.  There is some kind of front coming through, a low that’s just right—you can feel it in your inner barometer.  ” It’s time to close the shutters; It’s time to go inside.”   You have to confess, you could use some rest, and this is the perfect day to do it.

1. Cowboy in the Jungle (Son of a Son of a Sailor)  “I don’t want to live on that kind of island/I don’t want to swim in a roped off sea.” Buffett is really for everyone.  Everyone has a longing to chuck it all and go sailing, to end up somewhere when the money runs out and live in the moment.  It’s almost Christ-like to think of giving up worldliness and know that some way, somehow, your daily needs will be met and your life will be richer.  What JB offers Parrottheads is a slice of redemption, the idea of escape from daily pressures that sets our spirits free.

I’ve asked my son Nolan to write up his own JB top ten list, so stay tuned for his list and maybe his comments.  And check out Precher Mike at :  http://preachermike.com/2011/04/19/top-10-jimmy-buffett-songs-caribbean-soul

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Editing the Bucket List

Nolan at Disney's Animal Kingdom Park, 2011

I worked on my bucket list a little bit this morning.  Its changes over the past six or so years reflect little accomplishment and a lot of mellowing out.  The thing about a list, you see, is that it is ever changing.

  • See my son graduate; live long enough to be a grandmother
  • Go trekking in the Himalayas Mongolia!!!!  Sleep in a yurt, ride those little horses and drink fermented mare’s milk
  • Remember my father every single day of my life and appreciate my mother every single day.
  • Ride a horse across some Godforsaken Western landscape…alone Teach my son to ride a horse; he can fish, shoot, hunt and play guitar.  Learning to ride is the only essential life-skill I think he should have that he has yet to master.
  • Raft the Snake River in Idaho Finish rafting the rest of the Chattooga after almost drowning there last year.
  • Fly over Alaska in a tiny little plane and then set it down somewhere to hunt moose  I’d settle for killing a really big whitetail
  • See a black bear in the wild  (in South Carolina)
  • Bungee jump—Well I did a bungee tower, not quite as high as a bungee jump, but close
  • Take my son and husband to the Outer Banks.
  • Read all the classic (again) from Beowulf to Jayne Eyre to Silas Marner to The Sun Also Rises to The World According to Garp
  • Run a marathon Not so important anymore.  I do want to do more triathlons, maybe up to Olympic Distance.
  • See Hamlet in an off-off Broadway play or college theater group; See Godspell again
  • Learn to scuba dive What was I thinking!?!
  • Go to a cooking school
  • Catch a rattlesnake Accomplished May 2009.  Pin and pick up a venomous snake with my hands Accomplished May 2010.  Catch an alligator (again)
  • Visit New Orleans during Mardi Gras; have coffee and beignets at the Café du Monde
  • Hang my clothes on a clothesline again, on  a regular basis.
  • Work a humanitarian mission, mission trip or field research project in a Third World nation
  • Deliver a calf again
  • Go to a tent revival and really get in the Spirit
  • Go to the Super Bowl!
  • Nude beach?  No, private beach, nude
  • Remember hearing my grandmother giggle
  • Have a really great garden again ; freeze and can things for winter
  • Finally see an Ivory-billed woodpecker  Should I can this?  I’ve made two attempts already that did not go well!!??
  • Take my son to Disney World Accomplished April 2011
  • Go to an Irish Pub and close the thing down, singing too loud
  • Learn to do basic carpentry, and minor to moderate home repair—or learn to sew, which is basically carpentry with cloth
  • Attend La Tomitina, that tomato-throwing festival in Spain
  • Run the Peachtree Road Race again  Set to do this a week from tomorrow.  Pray that I finish!
  • Walk through a street market in a Third World Country and not worry about what (or who) I am eating
  • See a Jimmy Buffett concert again with friends and family
  • Go to the Kentucky Derby  wear an outrageous hat and drink mint juleps
  • Finally get one of my book manuscripts published; I have  five languishing in drawers
  • Spend a month in Mexico, immersion-learning the language
  • Tour Switzerland with my mother (her ancestors came from there) Not looking too likely; her health is not great
  • Take my family on a tour of the American West—Rushmore, Devil’s Tower, Yellowstone.   I hear the Grand Canyon is nice.
  • A day at work where EVERYTHING goes right
  • Watch or re-watch all the movies that won Best Picture at the Academy Awards; Well, maybe not all of them; gotta figure some are boring.
  • And my ultimate:  hitch-hike, take a train, walk, ride a horse, sail, etc, etc, from here to Tierra del Fuego Paddle my kayak across the Okefenokee Swamp and ride my bicycle back (accomplishing my first “Century” on the bike and so much more!)

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