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.
The journey to Memphis was uneventful.