As I drove into Nashville, I couldn’t help but notice that it was with a lot more confidence than I had left the city, eight weeks earlier, unsure at having to drive on the wrong side of the road and sitting on the wrong side of the car. Driving for 10,500 miles will do that to you.
It was week 10 of 11. There had been the two initial weeks in Music City, eight on the road, and now this final week back in Nashville. It felt like I was completing the circle.
I was staying with Nashville songwriter, Tucker Bouler. Tucker was the latest in a line of Americans to show me immense kindness by inviting me, and making me feel welcome in their home.
The week was spent in business meetings, meeting songwriters and co-writing, and attending evening songwriter showcases.
The co-writing sessions were arranged by a music publisher who wanted me to write with a couple of up-and-coming artists they were working with. I usually write alone – but like a lot of other things on this trip, I embraced this new opportunity. Tucker had told me that it is best to arrive at these sessions with something in your arsenal, such as a melody line, a hook, some lyrics or an idea at the very least.
I met with a young artist from Lincoln, Nebraska names Ty James. There was some initial chit-chat as we found out a little about each other. I’m sure that it must get easier, the more you write with someone, learn how they operate, and start to feel comfortable putting forward ideas. I decided that the best approach would be to throw myself into the session, and I offered up a complete chorus I had written on the road. My partner liked it and we moved on from there. Two hours later we had a song called Travelling Man which we were both happy with.
For my second session, I brought a chord progression to the table; my new partner – a ball of energy called Nolan Neal – jumped on it, and we bounced ideas back and forth; a couple of hours later, we felt we had nailed a good one – a ballad called Home.
Tucker and I went to see several Songwriter Circles during the week. One that stood out for me involved veteran writer Dave Gibson. Dave has had his songs covered by the likes of Reba McIntyre, Alabama and Tanya Tucker. His songs were deceptively simple, beautifully crafted, and memorable. It was a master class in songwriting and how to present them.
After eleven weeks in the US I am ready to go home. I am missing my family; I am missing my home. But this has been the most amazing trip.
As a musical adventure, this tour has been a complete success. Not only have I played to enthusiastic audiences (and sold a lot of CDS) but I have also connected with venue owners, promoters, musicians, radio DJs and music journalists. I have laid some great foundations for the future.
During my eight weeks touring the country, I have passed through 17 States and laid my head to rest in 24 cities. I have seen the most beautiful sights – deserts, rivers and mountains. I have driven through cities I had only read about in books or seen in movies and on TV; places with names that have been celebrated in memorable songs – songs which I would break into prompted by a road sign.
There have been many highlights along the way. The gigs in Nashville, Des Moines, Colorado Springs and Phoenix; playing guitar in Muscle Shoals; finding Robert Johnson’s grave; standing in the spot where Elvis first sang That’s Alright, Mama; the reaction that my song Kansas City Won’t Let Me Go received from my friends in KC; seeing the Rocky Mountains come in to view; crossing the Mississippi. All these things will stay with me.
But it is the people I will remember the most. The friends that I have made along the way – those that opened up their homes and their hearts to me. The citizens of the US have been the most welcoming, generous and kindly people I have ever come across. Wherever I went, I was accepted and embraced. They understood what this crazy foreigner was doing; I was taking the American dream and running with it.
I will never forget the kindness of strangers: Brad in Tennessee, who gave a ride to a lost troubadour on the highway; the truck driver in Texas who gave roadside assistance when my car broke down; the gang member in Mississippi who cut me some slack for inadvertently wandering on to his patch.
I have met Republicans and Democrats; Christians and atheists; blacks and whites; conservatives and liberals. Some with entrenched (and in my opinion, often misguided) views but there was always a deep moral fibre, a strong sense of fair play. I think that I have been granted a unique perspective of the US psyche as I watched it come to terms with some contentious issues such as gay marriage and the Southern flag fiasco. I have found a country that is polarised. Next year’s Presidential election will be interesting and the result will have a profound effect on the country. I heard an interesting fact on NPR (National Public Radio) that where there is a proposed government bill which is unpopular with 70% of the population, if the 30% in favour are made up of any corporate interests, then that bill will be passed. The people need to get angry about this in the way they did about taxation without representation all those years ago.
Things might get worse before they get better but I have such faith in the tremendous spirit of the American people that I know they will get there in the end.
America has been an inspiration to me. Its cities, people, powerful rivers, majestic mountains, beautiful sunsets, and evocative train whistles have all resulted in songs I’m bringing back to the UK and look forward to recording and performing. And the stories that go with them.
I know that I will return to the US.
Thank you America. As we say in Ireland – beannacht libh go bhfeicfidh mé gris thú (blessings until I see you again).
Memphis doesn’t feel like it’s in Tennessee. It feels more like Mississippi – which is just a few miles to the south. Maybe the difference is not just a geographical one due to the somewhat arbitrary drawing of State lines but because many of the musical greats who made their names in Memphis are from other southern States; people like Sam Phillips (Alabama), Johnny Cash (Arkansas), Jerry Lee Lewis (Louisiana), BB King and Elvis Presley (Mississippi). It certainly feels very different from Nashville.
There is much to see in Memphis; but the absolute must for me was visiting Sun Studios. It was very exciting being in the room where rock and roll was born. There is a photo on the wall of the ‘million dollar quartet’ – Elvis, Jerry Lee, Cash and Carl Perkins – taken in that room in 1956. Not forgetting that before Phillips started his label, he recorded the likes of BB King, Howling Wolf and Rufus Thomas.
I went to visit Graceland. If you go to Memphis you have to visit Graceland.
The Graceland tour is a well-oiled machine. Every aspect of it has been scrutinized and timed. You buy your ticket at an office across the road from the house, queue up, are given an iPad and headphones for commentary, and herded aboard a bus. There is even a traffic light to ensure a quick crossing for the bus. You go in the main door and the commentary starts. I felt a little uneasy and voyeuristic, making my way round a dead man’s house. I was strangely unmoved by the decor and artefacts. The disembodied tour guide reels off a myriad of facts, all of which I’ve forgotten. The number of awards lining the corridor walls is impressive but you learn nothing about the man behind the stage persona. The dreadful movies are glossed over, and the 1968 Come Back Special is highlighted. Suddenly, you are in a room where there is a piano. The voice tells you that Elvis played this piano on the morning of August 16th 1977, went upstairs to prepare for the evening’s performance – and died. It finishes with the assertion that Elvis is even bigger now in death than he was in life. I think it is disingenuous not to talk about his final years, his struggle with drugs, junk food, and his ballooning weight. Those times are well-documented, and are no secret, and his fans deserve better than this Disney re-imagining of events. It’s as though Colonel Tom Parker is still pulling the strings.
After my last three grave visits (Arthur Alexander, Hank Williams Sr, Robert Johnson) where I had the time to sit and reflect (and play a song or two), having to queue up to see Elvis’s grave was a little disappointing. Not to mention, the fact that the Spinal Tap scene was playing in my head (too much f*ckin’ perspective!). Wasn’t it Lennon who said: “Elvis died the day he went in the army”?
I had to be in Phoenix in three days’ time. It was just shy of 1,500 miles taking 20 hours. I made two stops along the way. First was Broken Arrow, Oklahoma – because I liked the sound of it. I booked into a motel and drove into Tulsa. I sat with some bar flies hoping that one of their sad stories would make a good song.
The following night, I stopped at Tucumcari, New Mexico, purely because it is mentioned in the Little Feat song Willin’. It was the date of my wedding anniversary, the first one that I’d been away for in 26 years. I was feeling a little sad, so I bought a pack of six beers, drove out to a lake, and watched the sun go down. I wrote a song called Tucumcari Sunset.
Northern Arizona is surprisingly green, the mountains covered in foliage. It’s only as you head south that the scenery turns brown, and I see the first of many cacti. The temperature gauge in the car starts rising. It reaches 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius). Before I leave the State it will reach 115.
I was staying with environmental lawyer David Johnson and his lovely family. David is a New Yorker. He says that Phoenix is a great place to live – apart from the summer. “When it’s snowing in New York in December it’s 75 degrees here – but in July and August – you just can’t stay outdoors!”
Despite the heat, I drove to the town of Sedona to see the most beautiful range of giant red rocks.
My gig was at the Fiddler’s Dream Coffee House situated in a Quaker Meeting House. The evening is run by the lovely Nia Maxwell who made me feel very welcome and very special. People in the venue go there to hear acoustic music. And it is truly acoustic; there is no PA. The acoustics in the place are so good that you don’t actually need one. You just stand on the stage and belt out your songs. I loved it. The audience listened intently, and applauded enthusiastically. I’m sure that if I’d had any CDs left, I would have sold a few that night.
The drive to California was a beautiful one through deserts and mountains. As I neared the Pacific coast the temperature dropped. After the heat of Phoenix, 95 degrees is suddenly tolerable.
I was staying with my old friend from Ipswich, Nigel Cooke, who has been living in San Diego for 10 years. It was great to see him, and I think he enjoyed having someone from home around for a few days. It rained that first day and we both loved it! We enjoyed being two lads from Ipswich, England out on the town in a US city. There is no trace of an American accent other than his pronunciation of garage (sounding like barrage, instead of sounding like marriage) and he has dropped the ‘s’ on maths for a US math.
He took me to a beach so that I could paddle in the warm Pacific Ocean. It felt very good.
I played Lestat’s Coffee House. The crowd were receptive and enthusiastic but it felt somehow different in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. Californians, or at least, San Diegans, seem different from the rest of the US.
It was good to spend three nights in the same bed but it was time to move on. It was time to see Texas.
The next gig was in Amarillo. It was a long way so I stopped the night in El Paso in the El Paso Motel. It was a challenger for ‘seediest motel award’. I sat in my room and played and sang the Marty Robbins song which commemorates that town.
I left El Paso and crossed back into New Mexico. I passed through Roswell, looking for aliens. Back in Texas, I passed through Friona which claimed to be the cheeseburger capital of Texas. How true, and how hotly contested a title that is, I have no idea.
I was about 50 miles from Amarillo, when an uncontrollable urge came over me. Despite having a large and efficient map of US State highways, a top-notch satellite navigation system, and adequate signage on the roads, I couldn’t resist pulling over to the side of the road, winding down the window, and asking a passer-by: “Excuse me, sir, but is this…….?
In Amarillo, I paid a visit to the city’s famous Cadillac Ranch – a public art installation – ten old Cadillacs half-buried in the earth by some hippie architects back in 1974, situated in an old wheat field off interstate 40. People go there armed with spray paint cans; every day the colours change. 40 years later, the piece is still a work in progress.
My gig in Amarillo was at the 806 Coffee House. Also on the bill was Austin resident Devin James Fry. We decided not to do the usual opening act and headline and shared the night, playing five songs each and then swapping. It worked really well; it meant neither of us was sitting around for a long time, and the audience were constantly introduced to a change in style every half-hour or so.
After the cafe closed at midnight, Devin and I found a bar. He introduced me to a Texas ritual of drinking Jameson whisky and Lone Star beer together. The bar had an open mic night in full swing and we both ended up getting up to play. The end of the evening got quite messy.
Although Dallas wasn’t that far a drive (a mere five and a half hours) I stayed the night in Wichita Falls where a friend of mine runs an Irish bar. After a few pints of Guinness, I tackled a Texas steak. It was a fine piece of meat.
I hummed the theme tune to the 1970s television show Dallas as I entered the city. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember who shot JR.
For people of a certain age, the Texas School Book Depository is synonymous with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It was the location where Lee Harvey Oswald supposedly took the shots which killed the 35th President of the United States on November 22nd 1963. I say supposedly, as conspiracies abound to this day as to who killed JFK.
The building is now a museum. The famous 6th floor corner window has been preserved as it was on that day that shocked the world. Despite its macabre subject, the museum is a tasteful affair. The events are handled in a thoughtful manner. In the three hours I was there, I learned a lot about the man, his presidency, the reasons he may have been targeted, and his legacy. Graceland could learn a thing or two from the Dallas museum.
The last night of the tour was a gig at the Opening Bell; an artsy coffee shop with a wonderful vibe to it. I shared the stage with a great duo called Brent and Kate whose stunning harmonies were the icing on the cake of thoughtful songs which were presented with grace and humour. It was a good end to what has been an amazing experience.
Before heading back to the UK, I had a week planned in Nashville, where it all started ten weeks ago. Dallas to Nashville is 675 miles and takes at least 10 hours, so I decided to stop en route. I was hoping to make Memphis but weariness caught up with me while I was still in Arkansas, so I pulled into a motel in the small town of Brinkley. After checking in, I went to a Mexican restaurant. The waiter asked what I would like to drink. A beer, I said. “No beer,” he said. “We have beer tomorrow.” I’ll come back, tomorrow, I lied. I tried another restaurant. “No beer,” came the reply. Thoughts of Monty Python’s Cheese Shop sketch came to mind. The young lass in the pizza parlour said the same thing. No matter, I said, I’ll have a take-away, buy beer in a shop and dine in my motel room. The girl looked at me, strangely but said nothing. She took my order. It would be 20 minutes.
I went to the liquor store; it was shut. I went into the gas station (please, that’s what they call it!). I took beer from the fridge and took it to the guy at the cash register. “Sorry, sir, I can’t sell you beer on a Sunday.” What? “No beer sales in this town on Sundays.” After asking for confirmation of this distressing news, I jumped in the car and headed to the next town. But alas, I was told: “It’s against the law to sell beer anywhere in the State of Arkansas on a Sunday.” I was gobsmacked. Had I travelled back in time to 1955? I just wanted a bloody beer! I went back to pick up my pizza. Pizza girl was wearing a wry smile; it cost her a tip.
Fortunately, I had a single bottle of beer that had been rattling around in the boot for days. I patiently waited for it to cool in the fridge in my motel room. It was quite possibly the best tasting bottle of beer I have ever raised to my lips.
A propos of nothing, you can buy a gun in Arkansas on a Sunday. Of course, you can.
I was very keen to get back to Kansas City, Missouri. A bit too keen, according to the Kansas State policeman who pulled me over in Lawrence County, Kansas. I thought I would be able to sweet-talk my way out of the 180 dollar fine but the humourless ‘County Mountie’ was having none of it. It’s also hard to blag when the blag-ee has a gun. He told me, quite sternly, that if the fine wasn’t paid by a certain date, and I didn’t appear in court on August 8th an arrest warrant will be issued with my name on it. I would be a fugitive from justice – an outlaw! How cool is that?
I was heading back to KC to spend Independence Day with all the friends I had made in my three trips to the city.
July 4th started for me and my good friend Matt with pancakes, as I thought this was a terribly American thing to do. To hell with King George, I said, let’s eat pancakes. There must be something in the constitution about the inalienable right to eat pancakes.
The pancakes were very good.
It was time to start celebrating. Several bars were visited, and one private redneck drinking club. There is a sign outside the club which states: ‘No guns’. I wondered how they enforce this, as the miscreant breaking this rule will be carrying a gun! It’s probably by producing a much bigger gun!
It was as this point Matt said to me: “You need to meet Mr Piggles”. This is by no means the strangest thing Matt has said to me in the little time I have known him, so I just said, okay.
Mr Piggles is a black pig who lives in a recording studio on the fifth floor of a converted warehouse a couple of blocks from where Matt lives. He was very friendly and I’m glad I got to make his acquaintance. I don’t know what his role at the studio is.
The main event was taking place at Jay’s and Jenny’s house. There was a pool and a barbecue which are prerequisites in my fantasy of a perfect Independence Day party. Somehow, most of the guests were people I had met in my time here, and all were people I wanted to see again. People like the charming and affable Schep, his lovely wife, the smoky-voiced Rita, and their charming neighbours, Jack and Patrick. Schep and I bonded during my last visit to KC. He is a gambling man, and when I told him about the only time I ever gambled in my youth, we realised we had a shared love of, and owed a debt to the jockey Stevie Cauthen. Schep even has a tattoo on his back in honour of the great American horseman.
Americans take barbecuing very seriously. There is a tremendous dedication needed to ensure the perfect burger; I would feel under tremendous pressure but Jay casually inspected and flipped the meat as he talked about the prospects of the local baseball team, the Kansas City Royals for the upcoming game against the Minnesota Twins.
At dusk, and after much eating, drinking and larking about in the pool, the entire party was moved to the roof of the three-storey building to watch the fireworks display. This was not an official event, as letting off fireworks in Kansas City, Missouri is illegal, but it is a pyrotechnic panorama put on by the public which the police turn a blind eye to. For three hours or more, the sky was filled with non-stop, colourful explosions as far as the eye can see in all directions. It was a truly remarkable spectacle. There was a rather tatty-looking house nearby whose inhabitants let off a small fortune in noisy rockets; but I don’t think you can buy the bonding experience between the father and son of that house as they carefully prepared to ignite their precious booty.
The final event of the evening was my debuting the song that I had written about Kansas City, MO called Kansas City Won’t Let Me Go. The song is peppered with locations and references that only locals would appreciate. I was a little nervous presenting it to them but I was emboldened by the fact that I was quite pissed (that’s UK pissed, not US pissed). Drunk as I was, I managed to perform a reasonable version of the song, and it went down a storm. It even made Schep cry; while I don’t like to upset people, I was thrilled that, as a songwriter, I had hit the nail on the head.
The next day Matt and I went to the Royals game. This was my first baseball game. I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite not having a clue about what was happening down on the pitch. I cheered and I applauded and I looked concerned in all the right places, taking my cues from the crowd around me. The games go on for quite some time. The heat was such that I had to go and find some shade to cool down in.
The Royals ran round the diamond thingy more times than the Twins, so they won.
I am now, of course, a dyed-in-the-wool, full-on Royals fan, for ever.
There was just time to visit Matt’s wonderful mum, and to have supper with Schep and Rita. Schep presented me with a photo to remind me of our horse racing bond; it was his turn to make me cry.
The next morning, I said goodbye to Matt and Anders. I know that I will see them again, but it was with a heavy heart that I left Kansas City.
As soon as you cross the State line from Tennessee to Alabama, you start to notice the plethora of churches. They seem to be every quarter of a mile, each one a different denomination or a variation on a name. I think that I’d found the buckle in the Bible belt.
My destination was Muscle Shoals, a small city on the banks of the Tennessee River. The Native Americans call it the ‘Singing River’. Muscle Shoals is famous for being home to two recording studios which, between them, are responsible for some of the greatest records ever produced in the 1960s and 1970s. At the FAME Studios (Florence, Alabama Music Enterprises) I stood in the room where Etta James and Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett had once sung; where a young Duane Allman found his sound.
The next day, I visited 3614 Jackson Highway – the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, set up in 1969 by the musicians known as ‘the Swampers’ (“Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers, they’ve been known to pick a song or two” – Sweet Home Alabama – Lynyrd Skynyrd). It’s not a recording studio anymore but as they just closed the door on the place in the late 1970s to move to bigger premises, it’s as it was when the Rolling Stones went there to record Brown Sugar and Wild Horses.
There were no other visitors in there when I arrived; I had my guitar with me because I didn’t want to leave it in a hot car. The custodian of the building said to me: “Do you wanna go in there and play?” So I sat on the sofa where Mick and Keith once sat and I played Wild Horses. I also played as many songs as I could remember that were recorded in that room – and there were quite a few. I also got out my digital recorder and recorded some of the songs I’d written during the tour. Just so I can say, “Here’s one I recorded at Muscle Shoals”. Can you blame me?
My gig was in the Marriott Hotel in a bar, appropriately called, ‘Swampers’. As well as my original songs, I played some covers – all songs recorded in Muscle Shoals. The audience appreciated my homage to the area.
Two local musicians took the time out to speak with me. We were enjoying the chat so much that we agreed to meet for a late breakfast the following day.
Malcolm and Eddie play in a band called the Wildwood Ruminators. They told me about life in Muscle Shoals. They told me that the Swampers are just regular guys; keyboardist, Spooner Oldham even played on one track on their album.
They took me to the grave of local singer-songwriter, Arthur Alexander – the only man to have his songs covered by The Beatles , The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. His success paved the way for the FAME Studio. Without Arthur, there would be no “Muscle Shoals sound’ and yet there isn’t even a plaque recognising his contribution to music.
I was sad to leave Muscle Shoals and the friends that I had made but it was time to move on. I made my way to Selma, AL I wanted to see the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River where the Civil Rights marchers were attacked on ‘Bloody Sunday” in 1965. I then travelled to Montgomery, which the marchers took 4 days to complete. Martin Luther King Jr was among them.
I had been following the news concerning the Southern Cross flag which had been removed from Government buildings. While I was standing admiring the State Capitol Building I got talking to a Southern Democrat and a liberal named Sharon McClendon Price. She asked what I, as an outsider thought of the situation. I told her, honestly: a man walks into a church in South Carolina and kills seven people. The focus is on the fact that because on his jacket there was a patch of the Southern flag, that the flag should be banned. Perhaps, but in all the rhetoric about history and culture, they seem to have lost sight of the fact that the guy went in to the church with a GUN! It wouldn’t surprise me to find that the gun lobby had manipulated the media to deflect from the gun issue to one of racism.
My next stop in Montgomery was to find the grave of Hank Williams Sr, my favourite songwriter of all time, and pay homage. There was no one around, so I got my guitar out and sang a couple of Hank’s songs at his graveside. I thanked him for the music and left.
I drove to Greenwood Mississippi; I was on another grave hunt – this time it was legendary blues musician, Robert Johnson.
I knew I’d made a mistake the moment I got out of the car. I was in a black neighbourhood and this was a gang hangout. There was a group of six men, ranging from late teens to late twenties in age, the looks on their faces, ranging from bewilderment to annoyed that a white dude would have the temerity to stop on their turf. It was too late to get back in the car. My natural inclination in situations like these is always to bluff.
There was one big chap who was wearing more bling than the others; I figured he was the big dog, so I approached him. In my finest clipped English accent I asked him if he knew where the Little Zion Baptist Church was. He looked at me for several seconds, and said: “You Irish?” I thought about correcting him, but decided that this was perhaps not the time for a lecture on phonetics and accents. I am, after all, from an Irish background, so he was pretty close…. and thought better of it. Yes, I said, I am. The ‘I am’ had a little lilt in it as my accent made the trip from London to Dublin just to hammer home the point.
He pointed at a flunky: “Go to the car and get me my phone,” he said. I was relieved that that last sentence didn’t end in gun. But then he probably had that on him, already.
We were joined by an elderly black man. Big Dog turned to him and said: “You know where Little Zion Church is; this dude wants it”. The man looked at me and said: “You want Robert Johnson?”
Yes, I said a little too eagerly. The man then told Big Dog very precise directions. “Left at the lights. Head out of town. Over the river twice, drive for a mile, bend in the road, just before the town of Money, church is on the left.” Big Dog nodded and turned to me. He repeated the directions to me; I nodded and pretended that I was hearing them for the first time. I thanked Big Dog and said it was very kind of him. “You know it,” he said, and strutted away.
I went back to my car and tried to get my heart to stop beating so fast.
The church was exactly where the old man via Big Dog had said it was. There were no cars in front of the wooden building. There was a board at the front of the drive that marked this place as an historic site, it being the resting place of Robert Johnson. There was no indication of exactly where the grave was. Somehow, I knew it would be in the far corner under the shade of some trees, and I wandered that way. And there he was. The man to whom blues musicians and fans the world over owe so much. With the mythology that had been built up around Johnson and his supposed deal with the devil, selling his soul for his prestigious talent, I’d expected it to be a little creepy standing at his grave but it felt very peaceful. The sun was setting behind the trees, and the deafening cacophony of the cicadas’ chorus had yet to start up. I got my guitar out, and sang and played my favourite Robert Johnson song – Love in Vain.
I set my Sat Nav for Memphis. A few minutes later, I’m on a dirt road. Ten minutes later, I’m still winding my way down a dirt road. I thought that, any minute now, I’m going to come across a couple of good ol’ boys cooking up moonshine on an illegal still, and that’ll be me done for. I started to drive a little faster. All this did was make a huge plume of dust rise up behind me. It was like I was announcing my arrival. I drove a little bit faster. This made pebbles jump up and hit the car; the car rental people would make a meal of this and keep my deposit for damaging the car but I didn’t care. And at least the noise of the engine helped drown out the sound of banjos in my head.
After 20 minutes, I saw the lights of the highway up ahead. Before I hit the main road, I stopped to relieve myself in some bushes. The cicadas were in full swing. I looked around and noticed that I was in swamp land. Alligators live in swamps, I thought. No, I’m too far north in Mississippi for alligators. Comforted, I carried on with my business. But a thought struck me. What if an alligator was more lost than me? I hurried back to the car.
I hitched up my wagon – well, I put my suitcase and guitar in the boot of my Buick La Crosse and headed out west. My destination was Colorado Springs but it was too far to travel in one day, so I looked at the map and chose Ogallala as an overnight stay for no other reason than I liked the sound of it. I like saying Ogallala. It’s fun to say Ogallala. Try it. Don’t you feel better for saying it? It’s fun. However, saying Ogallala is a lot more fun than being in Ogallala. I’m thinking that the word Ogallala is probably Arapaho or Cherokee for ‘bugger all happens here’. But to be fair to the Nebraska town, I didn’t get to see a lot of what it had to offer because I was stuck in my hotel room for the entire time I was in the city limits, due to the mother of all storms taking place. The television warned of hail stones the size of tennis balls, just before the electricity cut out for the night.
Speaking of my motel room, it was straight out of a 1950s B movie, where the protagonist is hiding out from the law. The sign – in Spanish as well as English – which requested that you don’t flush your toilet paper down the loo but place it in the bin provided, kept me mentally occupied for quite some time.
I went to a local diner for breakfast. “Do you have anything that’s not been smothered in either syrup or cheese?” I asked the waitress. She looked at me, blankly. I had coffee and left for Colorado Springs.
After the humid heat of the mid-west, and the flatness of the landscape, the State of Colorado was a welcome change. The Rocky Mountains slowly come into view, and then take an age to reach. Once they are upon you, they are awe-inspiring. I heard myself saying, ‘wow’.
The area of Colorado Springs where I was performing in is called Black Forest. Unfortunately, the forest was living up to its name as, two years ago, the area was subjected to one of the worst forest fires in US history. I saw acre after acre of charred woodland; it was a very sad sight. How the wooden structure of the Black Forest Community Centre survived no-one is quite sure – but survive it did.
The Community Centre is home to the Black Rose Acoustic Society – which is dedicated to the preservation and presentation of acoustic music.
It’s a great-sounding venue; the natural acoustics of the room are enhanced by a quality sound system which is in the hands of a sympathetic sound engineer. My sound-check lasted about two minutes. As soon as I plugged in my guitar and strummed it, I knew it was going to be a good gig.
There were about 150 people in the room, who were all there to hear acoustic music. That means they were a listening audience, who hang on every word from the artist. I knew they were on my side the moment I opened my mouth – once again, the accent helped. Every song was greeted with enthusiasm but I could feel that two songs in particular were touching a nerve. I could sense the emotion in the room intensify as I played Judgement Day, which deals with the death of a loved one. And the finale of Restless Celtic Heart (see video on music/links page)complete with a preamble about Irish history and my ancestry, had the crowd cheering along by the end of the song. I sold out of EP CDs, with almost every customer checking that either of those two songs was on it.
Prior to my performance, I had booked into a motel online. After the show, I found an email requesting I confirm my reservation within an hour (which was now three hours ago). I contacted the motel to be told my room had been let. I rang every motel and hotel in Colorado Springs to be told that due to the White Water Rafting Festival in town the next day, there were no rooms to be had. I went into a nearby bar and drank till they closed at 2am. I watched from a distance as the barmaid I had been chatting with earlier, interacted with her boyfriend who had turned up; she a delicate and thoughtful flower, he a stereotypical football ‘jock’. She had confided in me that she wasn’t sure about them as a couple. After he left, I told her she could do better. I think there’s a song there, somewhere.
I settled down in the car behind the bar for the night. An hour later, a visit to the bathroom (a nearby bush) was quickly curtailed by a coyote howling. I might have swore as I quickly adjusted my clothing and hurried back to the car. I lowered the seat back and wondered if coyotes could open car doors.
I didn’t sleep much.
I had breakfast in a diner at 6am: “Can I have that without cheese?”
I cruised the main street of Colorado Springs. I saw people leaving a motel and thought that maybe rooms would be available today, so I took a chance and pulled over. I was in luck. The owner kindly rushed house-cleaning to prepare my room, and I was asleep in a nice clean bed within the hour.
I spent the weekend being a tourist. I went to the White Water Festival (I forgave it for stealing my motel room) and saw a great Celtic-punk band from New York, went to the jaw-dropping Royal Gorge (a sort of mini Grand Canyon) and also to the beautiful Garden of the Gods (an amazing rock formation millions of years old).
I headed south for New Mexico, the Rocky Mountains giving way to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the green of Colorado giving way to the rusty brown of New Mexico, stopping at the Coor’s Inn in the town of Pueblo to eat a “slopper”- an open hamburger sandwich covered with chili and onions, and the inevitable cheese. It was delicious.
My destination was the town of Taos (pronounced Towce) where the following night I was due to play at the Historic Taos Inn. The Dalai Lama once said that God inhales in Nepal and exhales in Taos. It is regarded as a spiritual, mystical place.
I was staying with Keith McHenry, a political activist and founder of Food not Bombs who have been feeding the homeless for over 20 years. When I’d contacted him to say I’d like to meet him and could I stay with him, he’d said, “Sure, you can sleep in my tepee, anytime”. I thought that was just a phrase. It wasn’t; as I approached his farm, I could see this ruddy great tepee rising up out of the land. This was a bit of shock because I like my creature comforts, but I thought, like so many things on this trip, I would embrace it.
There were some personal belongings in the tepee. Keith explained that they belonged to a young man called Adam who came and went. He wasn’t there at the moment. Keith said that this was just as well as Adam was “Well… he’s a little strange”. As Adam wasn’t going to be there, I didn’t pursue the matter.
Keith and I headed into town for a drink at the Taos Inn. During the evening, we got separated, and I made my own way back to the farm. There was a light on in the tepee. Adam had returned. He wasn’t happy about having his space invaded. He rocked from side to side and said, “Keith didn’t say nothing about nobody staying here, man”. I asked if it was a problem. He relented and offered me a sleeping bag and pointed to a space, saying, “You can sleep there”. He plugged in earphones into his phone and watched a movie. There seemed to be a lot of screaming involved. I curled myself up into a ball and cried myself to sleep. In dark moments, when I might have imagined my demise, I’d never thought it would be in a tepee in New Mexico.
I woke up early. I was just glad that I’d woken up at all. The fears of the night evaporated; Adam turned out to be a nice lad; he was just different, living off the grid. I felt guilty for doubting him.
Keith took me to the Taos Pueblo – a nearby Native American reservation belonging to a tribe whose name I can’t pronounce, and as they have no written language, can’t be written down anyway but translates as ‘the red willow people’. They were there before the Spanish Conquistadors came in the 16th Century, and of course, long before the white settlers came and stole their lands. Our guide around the reservation was Jaro, who was born there, and after he graduates from college will work for the organisers of the reservation. He was a gentle soul, and he told us of how the tribe’s traditions hadn’t changed throughout history, of how in-tune with nature they are, and how spiritual they are. It made me wonder what so-called civilisation brought to that continent. It was a very humbling experience.
Back in the tepee, I reviewed my contract for the gig that night. There in the small print was a clause that offered the artist the use of a hotel room. Before you could say ‘Geronimo’ I was in the car and heading into town. Within the hour, I had showered and was fast asleep in a comfy bed.
The gig consisted of three 45 minute sets. That’s a long time to play original material, and as there were quite a few tourists in the audience, I decided to throw in some covers (songs by British and Irish artists – I would feel odd playing American songs to US audiences). Original and covers were all well received.
There is an American tradition of tipping musicians at small venues. I am not comfortable with this. I like a contract, and to know what I’m earning. If I’m honest, I find it demeaning. However, as I was playing, the bar manager put out a tip jar. Before I could protest, someone came up and put a 20 dollar note in the jar. Okay, I thought, let’s go with it. 75 dollars later, I’m glad I did. On a tour like mine, that’s the difference between a seedy motel and a decent one.
The following morning, I left for Santa Fe, calling in at the spectacular Rio Grande Bridge on the way.
Santa Fe is a beautiful town with wonderful Spanish-style architecture. I viewed the cathedral and the Native American Arts Museum.
There is an area of Santa Fe called Agua Fria. It was once a town but so much has been built up around it, that it is more of a district now. The town is mentioned in a Marty Robbins song called Big Iron, which tells the tale of an Arizona Ranger’s gunfight with a notorious outlaw. It was one of my Dad’s favourite songs, and it had a profound effect on me as a songwriter with its lyrical and poetic storytelling and its wonderful rhyme and metre.
I found what I considered to be the centre of Agua Fria; I got my guitar out, and sat on the street corner and played and sang Big Iron, much to the bemusement of people passing by.
My gig was at a Belgian beer house called Duel. Three 45 minute sets of all original material (they were very adamant that there be no covers). With all 10 songs from the album, five from the EP, and a couple of new ones I’d written since being in the US, plus my elaborate story-telling, this was no problem at all. And I was offered a house concert next time I’m in Santa Fe.
I sampled the Belgian beer. After three beers, the waitress refused to serve me anymore. “It’s too strong,” she told me. “It might be if you’re used to Bud and Miller Lite,” I protested, “but I’m used to drinking British beer – and Guinness.”. I stared at her. She thought about it for a moment, and said, “Okay”. I mean, really.
Once again, I set my Sat Nav to avoid going on the Interstate and I headed for Omaha. I think the navigational device is annoyed at having to work so hard. It’s probably used to saying, “drive straight for 300 miles”. At one point, it suggested I take a left turn which would have taken me in to the Missouri River; another time, if I had not questioned it, I would have crossed some rail tracks and gone in to a ditch.
The radio station I’m listening to issues a tornado warning for southeast Nebraska. I pull over and consult my large map of the US to see exactly where I am. I am in southeast Nebraska. The tornado does not materialise but rain like I have never experienced before does. I cannot see the bonnet of the car. I concede defeat and pull over until the rain has passed.
When I reach Omaha, I decide to check out tomorrow night’s gig venue, the Barley Street Tavern. It’s in a once-rough neighbourhood called Benson that is being regenerated. I meet Dan the sound man. He has just come back from gigging in Ireland and we find common ground. He is also in love with an Italian girl; me too, I say. Not the same girl, I add.
I am pleased with the venue. The stage is in a room off of the bar but where people in the bar can still see and listen to the act on stage. There are tables and chairs in the music room, a good-sized stage, a good PA system, and Dan sounds like he knows what he’s doing. I start to look forward to the gig.
I spend the next day checking out Omaha. My favourite part of the day was crossing a bridge over the Missouri River, which connects Nebraska and Iowa, and standing with one foot in each state.
Whilst browsing in a pawn shop (I nearly buy a 1969 Yamaha FG10 acoustic guitar but think better of it) the storeowner notices that my wedding ring has a kink in it. He offers to straighten it; he takes it over to the jewellery section, taps out the kink, and polishes it, too. How friendly is that?
First on the bill at the Barley Street Tavern that night is a very large gentleman wearing a straw boater hat. His songs are very long and wordy. There was one that mentioned all 43 US Presidents; it seemed to go on longer than a term in office. At the end of his set, he asks Dan, the soundman, if he can do one more song. Dan considers what he has just heard and says, “Have you got a short one?” No, says the portly troubadour, and slinks off stage.
I consider my performance to be the best of the tour, so far. For the first time I feel comfortable playing the Martin guitar (it has a smaller neck than I am used to). I also think that the set list is coming together – which songs to play, in what order, when to tell a story, when to shut up and play the song. I get a great response from the crowd, and sell a lot of albums – I may run out of them in a gig or two! Dan immediately plays the EP over the sound system; he particularly likes Restless Celtic Heart.
I stick around to hear the band on after me. The Blake Byrd Band are a young indie band from Dallas, Texas – great songs and a wickedly funky drummer. We chat afterwards and they promise to come to my show in Dallas in July.
I’m up early the next morning and drive back to Kansas City for a festival called Porchfest. This is a neighbourhood near the Missouri-Kansas border where a number of house front porches are given over to bands playing acoustic music. You can wander down a street and hear myriad different genres: classical, jazz, bluegrass, and several different types of country (blues, swing, americana). By the time you come back down the street (pulling your beer trolley behind you) the bands will have changed. The event is well supported by the locals and the hot streets are packed with music lovers. The heat eventually gets to me and I retire to a friend’s house where the guitars have come out and a jam is in session. It would be rude not to join in.
We head out to Knuckleheads to see The Mavericks. The band consists of two guitars, drums, double bass, keyboards, accordion, trumpet and sax. Everyone but the drummer sings backing vocals. The musicianship is outstanding. Their infectious Latin-tinged country is perfect party music and the place is swinging. One of the best gigs I’ve seen in a long time.
It’s too early to go home, so we go to the American Federation, a club that has been hosting jazz on Saturday nights since prohibition. I am not particularly enamoured by the modern jazz being played on the stage but I’m happy to be in a room where the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Charlie Parker have performed.
My friend Matt seems to know every down and dirty bar in the city, and the names of the bartenders, too. We cruise a few of them including the Shady Lady, which lived up to its name.
We call it a day at 4am with breakfast in a Mexican restaurant.
The next day there was a blues jam down at Knuckleheads. The musicianship was so good that I couldn’t resist getting involved. Once again, the bemused crowd’s interest was piqued when they heard my English accent. Whilst they are rooting for me, I always feel there’s an element of, ‘okay, show us what you got’. The band knew both my blues staples of Unchain my Heart and Before You Accuse Me, and the crowd got behind me. I was thrilled to have played on the stage where only the night before I’d seen The Mavericks.
I head north for the gig in Des Moines, Iowa. I knew two things about Des Moines. One, it is the insurance capital of the US. Two, it’s home to rock band Slipknot. I like to think that the two are related. I think that’s why the band wear masks – by night they are rock stars but by day they are middle management loss adjusters for one of the big firms and want to keep their identities secret from their bosses, and keep their job options open just in case this rock star thing doesn’t work out. While I’m not a fan of their music, I admire their prudence.
My gig in Des Moines was a house concert – a gig in someone’s house. They are very popular in the States (perhaps because they have bigger houses) and work like this: the host books an artist they like and invites friends to come and see the artist perform, for which they pay an entrance fee. They get to see the artist up close and personal, and interact with them before and after the show. The host gets the kudos of having introduced friends to a new artist; the artist gets to perform to a new audience, is paid the entrance money, sells merchandise, and is also fed and watered and put up for the night. It’s a win-win situation that, in the fractured business model that is the music business, can be the difference between a tour losing money, breaking even or actually making money.
My host was Scott Stillwell, a songwriter I’d met in Nashville last year; we wrote a couple of songs together. When he heard I was touring the US, he insisted that he put on a gig for me in Des Moines.
There was no PA amplification; just me and my guitar sitting in the living room of Scott’s apartment, in front of about 20 people. It was very intimate. It was very laid-back. The audience listened intently. During certain songs you could feel the intensity heighten. As an artist you respond to that and your performance of the song builds and the audience responds to that; it’s very organic.
I also enjoyed that I was able to take my time telling the stories that set up certain songs.
I played two 45-minute sets with an intermission of 20 minutes. I only usually play one set, so I had spent a long time mulling over the set lists. I like to think that I got it right, in terms of light and shade, different keys, major and minor, happy and sad, fingerpicking and strumming, fast and slow.
I loved every minute of it. Thankfully, Scott’s friends did, too. I insisted that Scott play a couple of his new songs he’d played to me earlier. He’s writing the best songs of his career, and his friends hadn’t heard them, so it was nice to shine the spotlight back on him.
The people were very generous; not only did they pay a minimum of $15 dollars admission, but everyone present bought either an album or an EP as well. It was my best payday of the tour. And I didn’t even have to drive to a motel.
I spent a couple of days in Des Moines. Scott invited me to a meal his son was hosting because it was Father’s Day. I am far away from my own children and was missing them terribly, so it was nice to spend some time in the warmth of a family environment; we toasted fathers everywhere.
The next day, with thoughts of the intrepid pioneers of long ago, I set out for the west.
I drove west out of St. Louis, heading for Kansas City. I knew nothing about Kansas City other than that the Beatles covered a song titled Kansas City on their 1964 album Beatles for Sale. And I knew that there are two Kansas Cities – one in the state of Missouri (the one where I was playing) and another in the state of Kansas. The two are separated by the great Missouri River. I was warned not to get on stage and say “Hello Kansas” – I was in Kansas City, Missouri.
The Missouri River eventually flows into the Mississippi, but for over 2,000 miles it is very much its own entity, starting its journey in the Rocky Mountains in Montana. There is a scene in one of my favourite Clint Eastwood films, The Outlaw Josey Wales, where the river has a starring role. I pull over to contemplate the importance of this body of water and try to put myself in the place of explorers such as Lewis and Clark and try to imagine how they must have felt when they first traversed its length.
I’m staying with photographer Matt Mayfield on the 7th floor of a converted warehouse. The living room is massive. There are four motorbikes in it – one of them is a Harley Davidson, another is a 1970s Honda. There is also a canoe and some guitars. Oh, and some guns. Lots of guns. Coming from the UK this is something of a shock. Matt and his amenable roommate, Anders, note my discomfort at seeing so many guns and try to reassure me that they are not loaded. Well, apart from the handgun they each keep by their bedside in case of intruders. I make a mental note not to go to the toilet in the middle of the night.
The warehouse is located in an industrial area of Kansas City MO. There are train tracks very close by. As I was exploring the area the next day, I saw a train approaching. I took refuge in the shade (it was 90 degrees – a very humid heat) and watched it trundle by. There were two engines pulling and two pushing; I counted 135 trucks. It took 15 minutes to pass me, blowing its evocative whistle to warn drivers that it is coming through. That night I wrote a song about trains whistling and rivers flowing.
Kansas City (Missouri, don’t forget) has a great musical legacy. During the prohibition era of the late 1920s and early 1930s, political boss Tom Pendergast (an Irishman, I note) allowed alcohol to flow into KC. As far as Tom was concerned, it was as if prohibition wasn’t happening; the city was seen as “wide open”. And where there was drinking, there was music, and musicians flocked to the city. It was blues-based swing that would eventually be called jazz. For many of the jazz greats such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, KC was where they honed their talents. Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus would follow in their footsteps, taking jazz in a daring, different direction. I spent a couple of hours in the splendid American Jazz Museum. They have Charlie Parker’s saxophone on display; I stare at it in awe, wondering what events it was a witness to, and was a part of.
Housed in the same building as the Jazz Museum is the Negro Baseball League Museum. It tells the story of a time in US history when black athletes were not allowed (and in some cases, wanted) by teams in the major leagues, so they formed their own. This situation only started to change after World War II when it was pointed out how absurd it was that blacks and whites could stand side-by-side to fight and die (to combat racism) but couldn’t play sports together. By the mid-1960s there was no longer any need for a separate league. I think it’s good that there is a museum like this where the country can come to terms with its own dark past.
Two floors below the apartment where I’m staying, there is a public attraction dedicated to a well-known American poet, famous for his tales of the macabre. It’s closed for the summer but I’m told that it is quite a scary walk through, with ghostly noises and theatrical effects such as a blood-spurting guillotine.
I was returning to the building one evening, and the lift (sorry, elevator) wasn’t working, so I took the stairs; the lights were out on the stairwell and unfortunately, I took a wrong turn and wandered deep into this museum of mystery. It is pitch black; I am stepping forward, gingerly, for fear of coming to some stairs. I am already sweating profusely. I have my phone with me, which has a pitiful light on it, but it is all I have so I fumble in my pocket and light up the phone. Close to my face, I see the contorted skeletal face of a wax woman who has had her throat cut. I let out some choice words that I’m pretty sure the poet, himself, did not use in print.
Matt’s roommate Anders has the ability to retain an amazing amount of information. I’m pretty sure that when Google doesn’t know something, they come to him. He tells me about the speed of bullets and ratios and something or other. He sees my blank face and decides that I need to go shooting with him.
I accompany Anders to a gun range. On the way there, we stop to buy ammunition. In the shop there are more guns than I’ve ever seen in my life. A salesman is telling a prospective customer the merits of a certain pistol in the same manner as a washing machine salesman. I balk slightly when the customer reveals he is purchasing the firearm for his 10 year-old daughter; it comes in pink – my little pistol.
When the owner hears I’m English, he gets a kick out of showing me all manner of weapons: an AK47, a Tommy Gun as used by gangsters in the 1930s, and an Uzi. I can’t resist saying, “Come with me if you want to live,” in an Arnie voice.
At the gun range, Anders lets slip that I have never fired a gun before. The Range Master (he’s carrying a pistol just in case someone goes renegade in the range) looks Anders sternly in the eye and says: “I did not hear what you just said.” Anders corrects himself: “Tony is very experienced in the use of hand guns.” We proceed to the range.
Anders very carefully instructs me in range etiquette and how to behave around loaded guns. Only when he feels that I am ready does he hand me a gun.
He deliberately starts me off on something small; it’s a Ruger Mk II .22 calibre. I aim at the target, breathe in, breathe out, and gently squeeze the trigger. Despite wearing ear protectors, the noise still startles me, and the kickback surprises me. The target has a hole very close to the bullseye. Nine out of ten shots are all on target. Anders high-fives me: “Way to go,” he says. I grin at my beginner’s luck.
The next gun I shoot is a Walther P99 .40 as used by Daniel Craig’s James Bond. My jaw tightens as I aim it. The kickback is substantially more than with the Ruger and I feel my heart racing. My first 10 shots are fairly wild, my second 10 are a little better, and by the third 10 I’m getting close to the bullseye.
We finish the day by firing a replica Colt 45 “Peacemaker” (no one seems to know how it obtained this moniker). Firing one of these is completely different (I really want to fire it from the hip!) and my shots are all over the place.
As with the other two guns, Anders shows me how it’s done – and proves he is a very fine shot.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time at range, and found the experience very exciting. I’m still not sure, however, that I could fire a gun at another human being; I hope I never have to find out.
My gig in Kansas City MO is at a venue called Davey’s Uptown Ramblers Club. As I am setting up, the soundman informs me that Stevie Ray Vaughan once played this room.
Matt and Anders have put the word out about tonight’s gig and I’m pretty sure that between them they know everybody in the room. I think Matt is more nervous than me.
As it happens, his nervousness is unfounded and the gig goes well. People are coming up to buy copies of the album and the EP. Matt is pleased that he has introduced his friends to a new artist but confesses that just before I started, he was worried. “What if you’d been shit, man?”
We celebrate by hitting a few bars on the way home.
I spend a couple of days visiting museums and seeing the sights of KC. I really like this town. Matt takes me to a great venue called Knuckleheads, a sort of outdoor club, which has hosted acts such as John Prine and Steve Earle. Despite me having to leave the next day for a gig in Omaha, Nebraska, on the Friday, we drunkenly purchase tickets to see The Mavericks on Saturday night. “Now, you have to come back to Kansas City,” says Matt smiling. I’m smiling, too.
I left Nashville in a big old Buick La Crosse and headed north for Chicago. I had programmed my Sat Nav / GPS to avoid the Interstate highways. I figured that if I wanted to meet and interact with the good people of the US, it was better to go through the small towns and counties, stopping at diners and cafes along the way. I meandered through Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana, taking in the countryside. I saw quite a few barns. At one point, I passed a wind farm that took an age and 20 miles to pass; there were hundreds of blades, twirling away like a nightmarish collaboration between Philip K Dick and Busby-Berkley.
In Huntsburg, Indiana, I got talking with two guys in a diner. They were fascinated with my story and bought an album each. I felt like this validated my reasons for not going on the interstate.
It was dark as I approached Chicago and the night-time skyline looked amazing.
The next day I went out to explore Chicago. It’s s a bold confident city; there’s a bit of a sassy swagger to its manner; but the people are friendly and eager to assist.
I stood on the shores of Lake Michigan. You can’t see the other side; it’s not so much a lake – as a small ocean!
Chicago has been used as the location for so many Hollywood movies. I think it’s safe to say that Chicago is Gotham City.
Some locations have appeared in more than one movie. The bank that The Joker robs in The Dark Knight, is also where Ferris Bueller’s Dad worked. I also spotted locations from Harrison Ford’s The Fugitive and John Cusack’s Hi-Fidelity. And of course, The Blues Brothers – it’s everywhere. I just had to pay a visit to Richard Daley Plaza where the authorities chasing Elwood and Jake finally catch up with them in spectacular style.
My Chicago gig was at Reggie’s on South State St. As I pulled up outside, my heart sank. There was a line of about 30 young men, all in black, sporting mohawks, and with more metal in their faces than a car scrapyard. I wondered “what have I been booked into”? Turns out, there are two Reggie’s – the Rock Club (where the young men were headed) and the Music Joint (where I was headed). I breathed a sigh of relief – I’m pretty sure those kids didn’t want to hear an English singer-songwriter.
It turns out that local ice hockey team, the Chicago Blackhawks, were playing in an important game that night, and Reggie’s was showing the game on a large TV just above the stage. The owner called all the bands together, saying: “Listen guys, if I turn the TV off, there’ll be a riot.” The bands agreed that it would be sensible to each cut our set short and go on later. So I ended up watching the game, rooting for the Blackhawks; not because I have any affinity with them – but if they were to win, I knew I’d be playing to a happy crowd. Thankfully, they won.
On stage, I made a big thing out of it being my first ice hockey game, saying that I would now forever be a Blackhawks fan. The crowd cheered. They were a good audience – and they were up for the cup – in more ways than one.
I got to hear the punk-metal band playing in the club – through the wall. I decided not to play my quiet introverted finger-picking songs.
I said to the club owner afterwards, you need to soundproof that wall. He had a pained expression on his face. “It is soundproofed. You shoulda heard how loud it was in the room.”
I got talking to the guitar player in The Streams, the band that was on before me. He told me that there was a great band scene in Chicago at the moment. Other than the tourist clubs, he said no self-respecting musician would play covers. He told me to watch this space as it wouldn’t be long before a Chicago band hit the big time!
Of course, you can’t go to Chicago without hearing some blues so I went to see the Shirley Johnson Blues Band at Blue Chicago. Think Mahalia Jackson and Etta James, with a hint of Ruth Brown thrown in for good measure, and you might have some idea of what this powerhouse of a woman sounds like – and with a kick-ass band to back her, it was without a doubt, the best blues I have ever heard.
The next day, I left for St Louis.
The State line between Illinois and Missouri just happens to be the Mississippi River. And it is magnificent. Just the mention of it makes me think of a dozen or more songs. I savoured the moment as I crossed the bridge. But I know our paths will cross again on my journey – this river practically runs the length of the country.
St Louis is very green. And because the authorities want you to be able to see, from all over the city, the magnificent arch which the city is famous for, there are very few high-rise buildings, which sets it apart from many US cities. It’s really more a collection of neighbourhoods.
The people are very welcoming and friendly. I hooked up with Leo, a bartender from one of the many bars in the downtown area known as the Delmar Loop. He’s a thoughtful, engaging young man, and very laid back. He showed me round the city, where to go – and also where not to go after dark.
Unfortunately, St Louis is a much divided city, racially. Where I was staying was about 10 minutes from the town of Ferguson, which you may remember was on the news last year, when rioting took place after the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer – who was later acquitted. I’m told that tensions are still high. I hope that changes.
One of St Louis’s most famous sons is Chuck Berry. And he stills lives here, occasionally still performing at a restaurant called Blueberry Hill. No one person can claim to have invented rock and roll but if you made a list of contenders, Berry would be near the top. As Keith Richards has said “We all owe Chuck”.
I discovered him as a teenager, and it was his lyric-writing that first fascinated me. The poetry, and the meter of his lyrics, and the way his words run together has always been an inspiration to me.
St. Louis has a great blues tradition. And I was lucky enough to catch local artist Leroy Jodie Pierson playing at BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups on South Broadway. He looks like a bank manager (or how I imagine a bank manager should look – I’ve never met one!). But the way he plays his National Resonator Guitar (that’s the steel one) and with his wonderful soulful voice, you know that he is blues down to his core. Check him out!
My own gig was in a trendy neighbourhood full of bars and restaurants in North Euclid at a place called Evangeline’s – which boasts music six nights a week – and original music, at that, as owner Don Bailey wants to give his clientele something new and different. It can be slightly disconcerting performing to an audience of people eating but I find that if you talk to them so that they realise that you’re not background music, they respond in a positive way. In Evangeline’s they were very attentive, laughed at my jokes and were enthusiastic in their applause. Whenever I play my song Crazy, to prepare the crowd for my mouth-trombone solo, I explain that on the album there is a trombone solo, and I ask if there are any trombone players in the house. At Evangeline’s a hand went up; I ask the gentleman if he has his instrument with him. He doesn’t. After my trombone solo, he applauds me, and after the show he comes up to congratulate me on my performance. He introduces himself as Jim Tyler – a retired Los Angeles session musician from the 1960s. He has some wonderful stories. It just goes to show that you never know who is in the audience.
I have enjoyed my time in both Chicago and St. Louis. They are two very different cities, both with lots to offer both socially and musically. I would have liked to have explored both in greater depth but the tour must go on. Kansas City is calling.
After months of planning and talking about it, it’s finally here – the Tony James Shevlin US Tour 2015.
My flight from Heathrow was due to leave at 8.30am so I was at the airport for 6am. It’s a great time to drive through London; the city was calm but I was very excited!
I had a couple of hours’ stopover in Newark. In the airport bar, you can see the big cranes that Tony Soprano drives by in the opening sequences to The Sopranos. If I’d had more time, I would have paid a visit to the Ba Da Bing Club but ‘what you gonna do’ (shrugs shoulders).
I chat with a local who is flying off to Florida. When he hears my accent, he shakes me by my hand: “Da Bridish are the only ones of our so called ‘partners’ who have always stood by us.” He slags off most of the European Union and a few other countries. On behalf of the nation, I gracefully accept his commendations as though I were personally responsible for British foreign policy for the last hundred years. “Yes, we’ve always stood together,” I say, piously. He thinks about this for a second, and says: “Well, there is the little matter of the Revolutionary War but we won’t go into that.” No, let’s not.
I arrive in Nashville at 6.30pm but my body is telling me it’s half past midnight.
I’m greeted by two beautiful Southern belles who whisk me off to dinner in downtown Nashville. I’d been to Puckett’s before so I was very wary of the portions that would be served up. They didn’t disappoint – my plate of Southern fried chicken could have fed a family of four.
From there it was a short walk down to Broadway; the girls had some friends playing a bar called Honky Tonk Central. Downtown Nashville – especially Broadway – is a party town on a Friday night. I was content to sit back and watch the amazing musicianship on display. There are so many great musicians in Nashville – drawn from all over the US.
The music starts in Nashville at 10am and runs till 2am. Bands work in 4 hour shifts; the first band will play from 10am – 2pm; the second from 2pm – 6pm; the third from 6pm – 10pm; the last band from 10pm – 2am. On my first Saturday night in town, I spoke to a bass player who told me he’d done eight gigs since Wednesday night – that’s two gigs a night! Two of the gigs were consecutive, so he had to hotfoot it from one venue to the next; fortunately, all the venues have a house bass rig so all he had to do was pack up his bass … and run!
I had elected not to travel with a guitar but to buy one in Nashville; there are many music shops to choose from. For no other reason than it was the only one open on a Sunday (and I missed not having a guitar to hand, feeling I couldn’t wait till Monday!) I went to The Guitar Center (their spelling, not mine!). A sales assistant named Barrett treated me like I was the most important person in the world. He sat me down in a soundproofed booth and brought me guitars in (and just above, I noticed!) my price range. I tried Martins, Taylors and Gibsons. I must have tried a dozen or more. I narrowed it down to two Martins. At one point, a young lad came in and started jamming along with me; no matter what I played (and I was playing my own songs) he played along. Never said a word – just played guitar; it was like something from Deliverance!
Having made my choice of a mahogany Martin (000.15M), I needed a pickup fitting to it. Barrett swore that a Fishman Matrix was the best to have. While guitar tech Taylor fitted it, I looked around the store (check out the video on my Facebook band page). A grizzled old (and, quite frankly, crazy) ex-roadie offered to tour with me – and also to send me a gun – piece by piece – back to England, so I could “take out any ‘mofos’ who want to mess with you and yours.” I declined both offers.
I am in love with my Martin guitar.
It was three days before I felt like I was on Tennessee time. This was just in time to play at the famous Bluebird Cafe. It’s a very intimate venue with a listening audience. I was very pleased to debut a new song there called Nashville State of Mind that I had written after my trip to Music City last year (you can hear it on the Oh Mercy Records Soundcloud page). I’m pleased to report that it was very well-received.
I had been invited by talented singer-songwriter, Annemarie Picerno, to play at the Spring Fling Festival at Smitty’s Bar and Grill in the town of Lebanon about 30 miles east of Nashville. It was something of a shock when I walked in; I was the only male in the place who wasn’t sporting either a stetson, bandana, beard, tattoos, cowboy boots or a mixture of all five. If you remember the scene in 48 Hours where Eddie Murphy walks in to a redneck bar, you’ll know how I felt.
Once on stage, my English accent silenced the crowd. I thought it best to flag up my Irish ancestry, saying that the early Irish settlers brought their folk music to the fledgling US and it eventually became country music. Thankfully, there were some heads nodding in the crowd. I played Restless Celtic Heart from my new acoustic EP which salutes the need of Celts (and in particular my Grandfather and my Dad) to travel the world. It has a bit of a Johnny Cash feel to it, which got feet tapping.
I reminded myself that the clientele in Smitty’s were no different to the people I used to play to in the working men’s clubs back home where I cut my musical teeth as a young man; ordinary people looking to be entertained after a hard week’s work. I chastised myself for my initial fears. Some very good musicians came up and complimented me on my performance.
On the way back to Nashville, Annemarie suggested we call in at Papa Turney’s Smokehouse Restaurant in nearby Hermatige. The barbecued ribs were reputedly the best in the State. There was also a blues jam going on. The house band led by Kevin William Ball was as good as the ribs. Papa Turney himself turned out to be as good with a guitar as he was with a cooking pan. Annemarie got up and belted out some old blues tunes. She has a powerful voice and is a consummate professional.
When the band heard that there was an English musician in the house they were keen to get me up to perform. Now, I am no blues player but I have a couple of blues songs in my musical arsenal that I keep tucked away for just such an occasion. Kevin kindly lent me his lovely old Gibson semi-acoustic. I joked with the audience that I had travelled 4,000 miles just to play at this jam. I sang and played the Ray Charles / Joe Cocker classic Unchain My Heart, and the blues standard Before You Accuse Me. The crowd loved it, and there were high-fives all-round from the band.
As great as the shows at Smitty’s and Papa Turney’s were, the gig I was most looking forward to was my slot at the Commodore back in Nashville. The Commodore is a regular hang-out for Nashville songwriters so I knew there would be a few in the audience. Plus, many of my Nashville friends had never seen me performing my own material, so there was a lot riding on this particular show. I kicked off with Nobody which had served me so well in the past. I was also keen to perform Nashville State of Mind because the Commodore is mentioned in the lyrics, so that was a must.
After my set, I received lots of good comments from members of the audience. It’s always good to get positive feedback from the crowd but knowing the talent in this town, it’s doubly important. Comments such as “great songs,” “very professional,” and “good stage presence” were all gratefully accepted but my favourite was from songwriter Tucker Bouler who said of Nashville State of Mind: “You nailed that one brother!”
I finished off my stint in Music City with an impromptu performance with the house band down at Tootsie’s. The bar is famous for being where Hank Williams Sr would sneak across the alley from the Ryman Auditorium whilst playing at the Grand Ole Opry, and where Willie Nelson sold the rights to his song Crazy to pay his bar bill. All the kings and queens of Country Music have frequented Tootsie’s. In honour of Hank I sang a rocking version of Your Cheating Heart, and because I wanted to sing an English song, Honky Tonk Woman.
I have enjoyed my time in Nashville immensely; the kindness of strangers and the warmth of friends, but it is time to move on and see some new places. Next week it’s Chicago and St. Louis, the week after that it’s Kansas City and Omaha. Further down the line there’s Des Moines, Colorado Springs, Phoenix, Amarillo, Dallas and others.
It has been a year since the recording sessions for Songs From the Last Chance Saloon took place. I have played those songs live many times since, either as a solo performer, in an acoustic trio or in a full-band line-up in intimate venues and at various music festivals. Having such constant contact with the songs meant that I hadn’t listened to the album for quite a while. When I played it to a friend the other day, I was struck by how much I enjoyed the contributions from musician friends whom I had invited down to the studio. Without exception, they provided a freshness to the proceedings, a distinctive feature to each of the songs, and yet a subtle understanding of what I was trying to achieve….
My sister, Jules (A.K.A. Tiny Diva) provides harmonies on many tracks but it is her vocal solo on Faith in Myself which still gives me shivers when I hear it. My instruction to her as she entered the vocal booth was “loneliness, despair, desperation and finally, madness.” If she was fazed by this, she hid it well. “Okay,” she said, as if I’d just given her a list of groceries to pick up. She didn’t even roll her eyes. We ran the track, and from somewhere she conjured up the spirit of Clare Torry on Pink Floyd’s Great Gig in the Sky. I got loneliness, despair, desperation and just a hint of madness. Marvellous.
The genus for the flute on Heartand the High Moral Ground goes back to last year when I was rehearsing for an appearance at a Suffolk Songwriters Open Mic session alongside my current guitarist and sidekick, Shane Kirk, and Helen Mulley whom I had last shared a stage with back in France in 2003 (both are guiding lights in the wonderful Songs From the Blue House). During a run-through of one of the planned songs, La Mulley ran out of the studio, crying: “I know what this needs. I’ll be back in a mo’”. She returned with her flute in her hands, and proceeded to play a solo that would make angels weep. Later, when I decided that Heart was to be included on the album, I knew that it was going to have a flute motif. In the studio, Helen was so efficient we even had time to coax some heavenly harmonies out of her. Bliss.
Heart is also the first of three tracks which features the effervescent Cad Taylor on violin. She also appears on Paradise South Ealing and Crying for 15 Years. Not only did she have to learn the signature riff to all three songs but Paradise is in two keys, and Crying is in three! I love the thoughtful Celtic-infused flourishes she brought to each track.
I have always loved the sound of the trombone – probably since seeing the Glenn Miller biopic starring James Stewart. I had never had occasion to use one on a recording, but freed from the shackles of band politics I thought it was just what a song like Crazy needed. I only had one trombone player’s phone number – Don Lusher (Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Bennett, Streisand) who had been very kind to me as a young musician starting out in the business but he had sadly gone to play with that great swing band in the sky.
I had only known Richard “Gibbon” Hammond as a bass player but I was assured he knew his way round a ‘bone. We met, I hummed him the sort of thing I had in mind, he wrote it down, and we arranged a recording session. He turned up at the studio and played it just as it had been rehearsed; job done… or so I thought. “Would you like some ad-libs on the final chorus?” he asked. Very much, says I. What he played was perfectly suited to the track. Job done… or so I thought. On the way out, I mentioned that I planned to double-up the bass line in the solo with a tuba to beef up the part. He looked at me and said: “I’ve got a euphonium in the car”. I thought this something of a non-sequitur until he explained that a euphonium and a tuba share a series of low notes which meant that on Crazy, a euphonium could do what a tuba would. He became very excited at the prospect of adding euphonium; for me, the session had gone into uncharted territory but, what the hell, if I didn’t like it, it could be erased once Gibbon had left the building. Thankfully, it was exactly the enhancement that the solo needed, and it is loud and proud in the mix. I love it when spontaneity turns up for a party.
I had been aware of blues harp player Giles King for many years. He is the ‘go to guy’ when a number of US blues players are visiting the UK and need a harp player. I knew that he would be good when I invited him to play on Champagne Taste on a Lemonade Pay, what I didn’t expect was a master class in professionalism. We had agreed that the song needed acoustic harmonica and not the distorted Green Bullet mic through a Fender Champ amp sound, so Giles turned up with just a couple of harps in suitable keys. We ran the track and Giles tried several approaches until he came up with a riff that I liked enough to make it a signature hook. The rest of the song was embellished with lyrical licks which complemented the vocal. Then came the solo. “What do you want?” he asked me. Whatever, I said. This is you. And he nailed it. You can hear why he is in such demand. And with that, he left. I doubt if the engine on his car had had time to cool down. Absolute genius.
Adam Whyatt and I have done hundreds of gigs together. From across the stage, I have marvelled at both his Hammond organ and piano-playing abilities. When my songs need keyboards, there is no-one else I would trust in the studio. There were two songs which needed ivory elaboration. The first – Run Until we Drop was a routine affair. I was after the kind of thing that US session keyboardist Paul Harris had played on Bob Seger’s Against the Wind. Adam is a very instinctive player, and the years we had notched up sharing stages brought a certain simpatico to the proceedings and the session was a walk in the park. Until we started work on the second song – Cut me.
Cut me (I’ll bleed like any man) had once been chosen by Amnesty International as the charity’s International Anthem of Peace, a fact of which I am very proud. I had recorded it several times over the years but had never ever been completely happy with it. Adam and I had performed it – ad hoc – at a few gigs but it had never had the feel I wanted (there’s a film of Sinatra performing the sublime Harold Arlen / Johnny Mercer song One for my Baby and One More for the Road on his television show in the 1950s – that’s how I’d always heard it!).
To give Adam the feel I was after, I had recorded an acoustic guitar track for him to play along with. The only problem was that, with Adam being such an intuitive player, he reacted to the guitar track and “accompanied” it. When we took the guitar track away, it sounded odd and slightly dislocated. What he needed was a rhythm track to play along to. So I went into the vocal booth, and as I sang a guide vocal, I tapped out the rhythm of the track with all its delicate accents. Without the distraction of the guitar part, Adam was then free to elaborate on his playing while having a path that he shouldn’t stray too far from. It was a weird way to put a track together, and I really put him through the mill that night but the end certainly justifies the means. That piano part inspired my vocal performance – I sang that song like I hadn’t done in years. After 25 years, I finally had the version I had always heard in my head. Thank you, Adam.
I enjoy being in the recording studio. It’s always challenging but great fun. But when you sing and play on your own songs, it’s very easy to get lost in your own musical milieu. I am so grateful to all the musicians who gave their time, talent and expertise in agreeing to perform on Songs From the Last Chance Saloon. They gave it a vitality and a viridity that was the icing on the cake.
I look forward to working with them all again on the next album.
Having put the clocks back and turned on the heating for the first time at TJS Central, Tony reminisces about all the gigs he’s played this summer…
I enjoyed taking the songs on the album Songs From the Last Chance Saloon to Nashville, the home of songwriting. It was exciting presenting them to a new audience – one that is used to the best that Music City has to offer; for that audience to accept me as one of their own and take me to their heart was an added bonus. One of my proudest moments was having two Nashville songwriters come up to me after a gig and invite me to a writing session on the famous Music Row. Fast-forward a few months and the Nashville Songwriters Association International has recognised me as “one to watch.”
But as rewarding as playing those songs solo with just a voice and a guitar is, I couldn’t wait to put a band together for many of the gigs this summer. Performing has always been a communal event for me; I love the camaraderie of a band. But experience has taught me that it’s not just musical ability that should be taken into consideration; that your band mates are good musicians is a given – but you need to like them as people. I can remember one weekend gigging away in Scotland with a band where we were together for 70 hours but only three hours of that was on a stage. If we hadn’t got on well, we would have killed one another. You need to like being in the company of each other.
My sister, Jules, was in from the get-go. Her voice is all over the album; sometimes her harmonies are so close I get claustrophobic. And she shakes a mean tambourine!
I didn’t have to think long about a guitar player. I have known Shane Kirk for 17 years. We have been in many bands together, shared many stages and have the same battle scars. He is a fine wing man; Harrison to my Lennon, Miami Steve to my Bruce, Fancy to my Top Cat. I knew I could trust him to listen to the album and work out which guitar parts he knows I would want to hear coming from alongside me, and what would work best in both acoustic and full band set-ups. He is also possessed of a razor-sharp wit.
So then there were three. Such was the calibre of the recruited two that after one rehearsal we headed to our debut at the Ipswich May Day Festival.
At the last moment, I invited along a young lass named Carly Ryder who plays in my new favourite band – Busking for Breakfast – to add some cahon to the proceedings. When one of the sound crew heard me introducing Carly to Jules and Shane seconds before going on stage, he remarked: “They’re meeting for the first time and now you’re doing a gig? That’s taking a chance, isn’t it?” Standing nearby, was stage compere and storyteller extraordinaire, John Row. Moments later, he introduced us with, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Tony James Shevlin… and the Chancers. Now we had a band name!
After our slot, I bumped into Richard “Gibbon” Hammond, who had played tuba and trombone on a track from the album called Crazy. He had been in the audience and enthused about the songs. “Thanks,” I said, “do you want to come out and play some bass”. He thought for a second and said, “Yeah, why not?” So now I had a bass player (with the added bonus that he could switch to trombone when required).
Jules, Shane and I cemented the trio’s sound with a couple of gigs. One was at Grandma’s Porch, a Sunday lunchtime market in the local seaside town of Felixstowe. Years ago, as I drove through Asbury Park, New Jersey, I remember thinking it looked just like Felixstowe. Reinforcing the Springsteen theme, the gig was situated in a closed down funfair. Aided by a sympathetic sound engineer, the sound of the Chancers really came together. The years of having been in various outfits with Jules and Shane (sometimes both at the same time) meant that there was immediate simpatico, a familiarity that enhanced the ensemble. Already, it felt comfortable; sometimes it can take a band years to reach the kind of rapport that was evident that day. And I think the audience felt it, too.
By the time we played Costa Coffee as part of the Ip-Art Festival, it felt like we had been playing these songs together for years. For this gig, we were joined by the lovely Helen Mulley on flute for Heart and the High Moral Ground. Her performance was as flawless as the one you can hear on the album.
It was time to finalise the line-up for the full band. We needed a kick-ass drummer who could replicate the subtleties of the album. Step forward Dirk Forsdyke – another veteran of the local music scene whom Jules and I had worked with before. At the first rehearsal, Dirk and Gibbon immediately hit it off as a rhythm section (an absolute must if a band is to click). Shane dusted down his old Fender Telecaster and after the first run-through of Nobody – I knew I had my band.
A week later we performed two full-band gigs. One back at Grandma’s Porch as part of the celebrations for Felixstowe Carnival and one in the GrapevineTent at Ipswich Music Day – the largest, free, one-day music festival in the UK. It was a great feeling hearing songs from the album belting out of large PA systems, and the icing on the cake was that harmonica virtuoso Giles King turned up at Ipswich Music Day to help us blast out Champagne Taste on a Lemonade Pay.
It was back to playing as a trio as part of the line-up of the Living Room Stage of the prestigious Secret Garden Party hidden in the agrarian wastelands of Cambridgeshire. It’s a wild, hedonistic affair – like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory mixed with Mad Max’s Thunderdome. We nearly lost Jules at the entrance to the festival as her pass was deemed invalid. There were frantic negotiations, phone calls to promoters, and the eventual emailing of a new pin number to Jules (whatever happened to laminated backstage passes?).
In amongst all of the madness of SGP is the relative calm of the Living Room Stage, a stage made out to look like, well, a living room. The audience had copious comfy sofas to chill out on and despite looking like they hadn’t slept for several nights were a very attentive and appreciative bunch.
We scrawled our names on the back wall alongside Living Room alumni Newton Faulkner, Ed Sheeran and Jake Bugg.
After our performance, I was keen to catch the set from Martha Reeves and the Vandellas but Shane was desperate to see the ladies’ mud wrestling, so I went along, just to accompany him, of course.
I took in the delights of Paris, France to perform in the city’s Highlander pub. I had misgivings that, due to the language barrier, the locals wouldn’t be able to understand my songs. Far from it, the audience were a lively, welcoming bunch who understood every word, and were very quick to pick up on the choruses and sing along. Viva la difference!
Next up, was the delightful Folk East Festival, to date, one of the friendliest festival I think I’ve ever played at. The crew were as warm as the Suffolk sunshine, and the audience were friendly and very enthusiastic for a Sunday afternoon. On the team sheet that day were Dirk on cahon and other bits of percussion, Gibbon on bass, and Jules on backing vocals. And because Shane was AWOL at another festival, Jules made her bass debut on Crazy when Gibbon switched to trombone.
I was invited to take part in the annual pigeon-plucking contest. I declined.
Our summer swansong was a trio line-up at a bijou festival in the wilds of Northamptonshire. Well, festival was how Shane sold the Acorn Fayre to me. It was in a barn. And not the biggest barn you’ve ever seen, either. Still, a gig’s a gig and there were music lovers in attendance who just might like what we do and want to buy a CD or two.
On this occasion, we were again joined by Helen Mulley, who was looking forward to flying solo on flute once again and adding in the odd harmony. Unfortunately, Jules was taken ill at the last minute and had to cancel, so Helen went from being third spear carrier to principal boy; she was the harmony. Being the consummate professional that she is, she didn’t bat an eyelid at this promotion, other than request we play the album CD en route. This we did, and from the back of the car came all manner of lovely ooh-ing and ah-ing, which was calming, reassuring and a little bit exciting. As expected, La Mulley was marvellous, so much so that one punter commented that it must’ve taken years for us to perfect our harmonies to that standard. Yes, we said. We then partook of some excellent home-brewed beer and some much needed barbecued food, courtesy of our host. And then we sold some CDs.