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Month August 2015

Rockin’ in the USA – Finale

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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).

 

Rockin’ in the USA 7

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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.