Tony James Shevlin

Tony James Shevlin

Judgement Day

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Here’s another video from our BBC Radio session last month. This is Judgement Day. It features Shane Kirk on guitar and my sister Jules AKA Tiny Diva on backing vocals. You can hear the recorded version of this song on Spotify by typing in Restless Celtic Heart.

Nashville State of Mind

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A few weeks ago veteran broadcaster and all-round good egg, Stephen Foster invited me into the BBC studios in Ipswich, Suffolk to record a live session of five songs.  This is the first of them.  I am joined for the recording by my sister Jules on bass and backing vocal, and by Mr Shane Kirk on slide guitar.  Filming by Unity in Music.  Sound recording and an excellent cup of tea by the wonderful David Butcher.  Enjoy!

Let me tell you all about the new EP…

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So, the new EP Restless Celtic Heart has been released and is available on all the major digital platforms.  I say new, it was actually recorded just over a year ago.  As I was planning my 2015 US tour to promote the album Songs From the Last Chance Saloon, I realised that I had incorporated five new songs into my set and I was concerned that I didn’t have copies of them for any willing audience member wanting to purchase them.  As usual, Oh Mercy! Records supremo Pete Thompson came to my rescue with his innate problem-solving skills.  “Why don’t we record an acoustic EP of the five songs?  We could print up some ‘white label’ CDs to sell at gigs”.  Brilliant! So we did.

On the first of two consecutive afternoons, Pete and I settled into Black Monk Rehearsal Studios and we recorded all of the guitars.  It was meant to be just one guitar and one voice for each song but whenever I get in a studio environment I get ‘studio fever’ and end up overdubbing extra parts.  I used my trusty Takemine acoustic for the main parts in all of the songs except From the Look in Your Eyes;  my Yamaha Folk guitar provided the main part for that, as well as many of the incidental lines on all the other songs, only stepping aside for my dobro for the slide parts on Nashville State of Mind and the later riffs on Restless Celtic Heart.  And just to give the recordings a warm bottom end, I added some bass lines courtesy of my Indie acoustic bass.

The following afternoon, we set up shop in the CSV Rehearsal Studio, where we added a lead vocal on each song, and my sister Jules came in to provide vocal harmonies on three of the five tracks.

Pete and I gave ourselves a few days away from the tracks, reconvening at the end of the week to listen back to what we had recorded.  As we were after a ‘live’ feel, there was very little to mix;  with a little bit of EQ here and a bit of reverb there, we were done and dusted in time for last orders at the local pub.  As with Songs From the Last Chance Saloon, we sent the mixes over to the wonderful Pete Maher – skilled magician in the dark art of mastering!  He took no time at all to make the songs sound shiny and bright.  The whole enterprise from entering the first rehearsal room to mastered tracks took less than a week. Outstanding!

Just over a week later, the record label took delivery of boxes of CDs.

Let me tell you a little bit about the songs on Restless Celtic Heart.

Nashville State of Mind

After finishing the recording of Songs From the Last Chance Saloon, I wanted to go out and play the songs in an acoustic environment to see if they stood up in such a naked state.  Where should I do this?  I know! I’ll go to Nashville, the home of great songwriting!  Despite having no music connections in Tennessee, I was lucky enough to secure some spots in many of the city’s songwriter venues and so I booked a flight and a hotel and off I went.  I had the most amazing time; the welcome from the locals – songwriters in particular – was wonderful.  I wrote the first two verses sitting in my hotel room;  it was right alongside the AT&T building – known locally because of its resemblance to the caped crusader – as the Batman Building;  the final verse was added when I arrived back in the UK.  It’s my salute to the city and the indomitable spirit of the many musicians and songwriters who are its life blood.

Next Big Mistake

I’m standing in a bar, a couple of beers in, with a recently divorced male friend.  He spies an attractive young lady sitting at a table nearby.  Another beer later, they make eye contact.  He smiles at her;  she smiles back.  Flirty smiles are batted back and forth.  I suggest he might let the ink dry on the divorce papers.  “No” he says, “She might just be my next big mistake!”  My songwriting radar goes through the roof.  While I ask the bartender for a pen and paper, he asks the girl if she wants a drink…

Judgement Day

I lost someone very dear to me.  The pain was so raw that I couldn’t even draw upon the cathartic powers of songwriting.  Some years later, I had a dream in which this person came to me and simply said:  “It’s okay.”  The next day, I wrote the first verse and the chorus of this song.  It probably would have remained unfinished but that weekend, both my beautiful daughters were home.  As usual, they persuaded me to take them out for a meal in a posh restaurant.  A waiter took a photograph of us.  He didn’t know it but he had captured perfectly the love and warmth between us.  When I viewed it back later, it occurred to me that this was a photo they would look back on when I was no longer around.  In this somewhat sombre mood I wrote the second verse.  Finally, in an effort to rescue the song from being so morose and melancholy, I wrote the final verse, a manifesto for how I thought my girls should live their lives – with vigour and verve and vitality!  So it’s a song about death but it’s also about life, too!

From the Look in Your Eyes

It has been many years since I had my heart broken but you never forget that moment, when you know, deep down inside, that it’s over.  No words are needed.  A look can say it all.

Restless Celtic Heart

The Irish have always travelled.  Not always because they wanted to – but because they had to.  The further that I travel away from Ireland, the more Irish I become, so it’s no surprise that I wrote this song in Nashville.  The parallels and connections between traditional Irish music and Country music (by way of Bluegrass) are fairly obvious;  and there are many ballads that were brought across the Atlantic by Irish immigrants.  I’d been listening to a lot of Johnny Cash when I wrote this – the intro riff is a not-too-subtle-salute to the man in black.  It’s also a personal tribute to my grandfather and father who personify the spirit and enduring image of the Irish rover.

Restless Celtic Heart is available from Oh Mercy! Records

Download available at: http://www.musicglue.com/oh-mercy-records/

iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/id1093198912?app=itunes

See below for video of title track

New EP Released

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The new EP Restless Celtic Heart on Oh Mercy! Records is available now from iTunes, Amazon and Music Glue.

Tracks

  • Nashville State of Mind
  • Next Big Mistake
  • Judgement Day
  • From the Look in Your Eyes
  • Restless Celtic Heart

Check out the video for the title track on Youtube:

 

 

Restless Celtic Heart

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God, I love Ireland.  And I don’t think it’s just because I have an emotional and historical connection to the country.  I think if I was from Kazakhstan, Tahiti or the Central African Republic, I would still fall in love with Ireland – its landscape, its people and its culture.

So it was with a wistful smile that I headed off to Stansted Airport in Essex with the request of Oh Mercy Records label boss Pete Thompson ringing in my ears: “Why don’t you go over to Ireland and film a video for the new EP Restless Celtic Heart?”

As it happens, my nephew, Sam, runs a media company;  he and his business partner were easily talked in to a long weekend traversing Erin’s sacred isle.  Was it the culture, the landscape or the history that drew them over the Irish Sea?  “I hear the Guinness tastes so much better over here,” said producer Alex, as we drove into Dublin city centre.  We had barely checked in before I was whisked off to the first pub we could find.  It just so happened to be Mother Reilly’s – the bar I was playing in that evening.

That first pint did taste bloody good.  Actually, so did the second and the third.  I realised that I was going to have to be the sensible one on this trip – which was a new departure for me.  I insisted we eat and freshen up before the show.  We all ate but I was the only one to return to the hotel; the other two decided they could wait no longer to try out the 18-year-old whisky they had spotted earlier in the bar.

The gig went well.  My songs were well-received, particularly Restless Celtic Heart.  The song is a personal celebration of all the Irish who have left home to travel the world.  It alludes to events in history which the mere mention of (and I didn’t realise this when I wrote the song) would cause such a swell of patriotism when played to an Irish audience.

Sam captured my performance to use in the video, as well as lots of shots of me drinking and chatting with other performers on the bill.  Our first evening in Ireland ended sometime around 1.30am

The next morning, we headed into the city centre’s Temple Bar district and filmed me performing the song to an audio track.  Faced with bemused stares from passers-by, I had to put any inhibitions I had to one side and just go for it.  It was actually a lot of fun.  Unfortunately, rain stopped play and we had to take refuge in a bar.  Where there was Guinness.

Suitably refreshed, we braced the cold weather and filmed me walking along the banks of the River Liffey and over the iconic Harp Bridge.  We ended up in the grounds of Trinity College, whereupon a rain of biblical proportions forced us to find shelter – in a nearby pub.  Where there was Guinness.

Sometime later, we headed west for the town of Nenagh in County Tipperary (and yes, it was a long way).  I was hoping to hook up with Damian, whom I knew years ago when he was a barman at an Irish pub in Ipswich.

At Clare St B&B we were welcomed by James and his wife Bernie who cemented their bid to win the award for ‘Best B&B in Ireland’ with tea and biscuits on arrival, and when James heard we were planning a visit to Figgerty’s (Damian’s pub) insisting on driving us there.

It was great to catch up with Damian;  the Guinness flowed and the craic followed shortly after.  We got talking with two female London black cab drivers visiting the area (Alex ruefully remarked  “We could have done this in Fulham and saved ourselves a lot of time and effort”).  Once the guitar came out, the locals joined in the fun.  Once again Restless Celtic Heart was given the thumbs up.  At 2.30am Damian called a taxi for us but not before offering me a gig in the summer.

Next morning, we sampled our first fried breakfast before heading off to the rugged west coast known as the Wild Atlantic Way.  We stopped to film at the stunning Cliffs of Moher in County Clare.  Ignoring warning signs concerning the precariousness of the cliff edge, Sam set up the camera close to the edge and asked me to stand even closer to the edge.  I played along to the track.  The second take was interrupted when a sudden gust of wind threatened to send my guitar case off into the cold Atlantic Ocean.  Unfortunately, my heroic body-dive onto the fast-moving case while masterfully holding my Martin acoustic up out of harm’s way – was just out of shot and won’t make the final cut!  Take three was curtailed when the expected precipitation arrived, er, unexpectedly.

We took refuge in a café in the small enclave of Doolin.  Just after we ordered food, the rain stopped and the sun shone.  “Can we get that to go?”

Once we felt we had enough stunning backdrops of cliffs, coastlines and castles we headed for the town of Castlebar in County Mayo.

Sam and Alex couldn’t wait to head into the town centre and sample the hustle and bustle of a Saturday night in rural Ireland.  The first bar we came across was called the Irish House.  It’ll be great craic we told ourselves.  The bar was empty.  It seems the whole town was at a nearby GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) match between Mayo and Dublin.  If you forced me to describe to those who are not familiar with GAA how it is played, I would probably say, it’s as if a football team – ‘soccer’ for my US readers – and a rugby team turned up on the same pitch and decided they’d give it a go, anyway.  We watched on a large TV screen and tried to figure out the rules of the game.  The more Guinness we drank, the more it seemed to make sense.

Within minutes of the final whistle being blown, the pub filled up with people who had been at the game (they were the ones soaked or suffering from mild hypothermia).  Whether they were supporters of Mayo or Dublin it did not matter – they were up for the craic.  I had been joined by my young cousin Doreen who lives and works in Castlebar whom I hadn’t seen in years.  Doreen is a lovely, friendly young woman;  she chatted away with Sam and Alex like they were old friends.  This took the lads a little by surprise and they bathed in the warmth this charming colleen brought to the proceedings.  The fact that Doreen is drop-dead gorgeous didn’t hinder the situation, either.

I would have been quite happy to sit and chat all night but Alex was on a mission.  He wanted a sing-song.  He asked the landlord if he would turn off the juke-box and would he mind if his friend got his guitar out and sang some songs.  “Alright, no bother,” came the reply.  I perched on a stool and sang my heart out.  The Dubliners (that’s the people who were from Dublin – not the band) were quick to come over and join in.  When their self-appointed leader, Tom, heard the words to Restless Celtic Heart, he cajoled his friends over to our corner of the bar and made me sing it again.  “Isn’t that feckin’ great?” he asked of no-one in particular.  His friends nodded their agreement.  Each and every one of them bought me a pint of Guinness.  I was starting to think that song royalties in Ireland might be paid in the black stuff.

Next morning (after another fry-up) we headed further into Mayo.  Both Sam and Alex are seasoned world travellers so it was with great relish and pride that I enjoyed their vocal appreciation of the scenic Mayo countryside.  I always have an emotional response whenever I’m home.

Why home?  I didn’t visit Ireland until I was an adult.  It was something of an epiphany.  So many things from my childhood suddenly made sense;  among them were sayings, attitudes and humour.  It was like a missing piece from the jigsaw puzzle of my DNA was slotted into place and I found out who I was.  Someone asked me on that visit, “how long are ye home for?”  It took me a moment to realise that the ‘home’ being talked about was Ireland.  Yes, I thought, I’m home.

Just before the small town of Bangor Erris, there is a small collection of houses known as Brisca where my father was raised in the 1920s.  He had often told stories to me and my siblings of the happy times he spent running wild in the surrounding hills.

Sam filmed me walking past my Dad’s house.  I smiled to myself and wondered what the auld fella would make of me making a music video in his home town.

We headed out to the coast, to the town of Dohooma.  On arrival we were greeted by my cousin Edmund, brother of Doreen and his mother, May (whom I also refer to as my cousin – one day I will have to work out the exact lineage of our dynasty but for now I just refer to all my Irish relations as cousins).  Edmund is the original Irish scallywag;  a sharp wit, a wicked sense of humour and a garrulous gift of the gab.  My crew of two were once again amazed at the warm welcome and the ability to make strangers feel at ease.  Whilst Edmund regaled us with wondrous tales of life in Mayo, May prepared enough food to feed a small army.  It is an Irish mother’s mission in life to first fill those around them with tea, sandwiches, biscuits and cake, and then to follow this with a huge meal – normally a roast of some kind.

We left May cooking, and Edmund took us down to Holmes’s pub.  I walked into the bar to find myself singing and playing guitar on a huge TV screen. “When we heard ye were coming we thought we’d check you out on YouTube,” said Seamus the barman, cheerfully.  “Have ye bought your guitar with ye?”  Proper introductions were made and drink was partaken of.  We met Michaell the landlord, artist and ex-policeman. His credentials were enthused upon with:  “He was the best Garda ever – he never arrested anyone!”

We also met the legend that is Pat.  The fittest 70-year-old you will ever meet.  He tried to convince us that he designed the local golf course and had caught the huge fish that hung over the pub fireplace.  The golf course bit was true.  We drank some Guinness.

I promised to return an hour later with my guitar and sing some songs.  “I’ll be waiting,” assured Pat.

After a 3 course meal, I decided to put on my diva parts and insist that if I was to be the evening’s entertainment that I be allowed to sleep for half-an-hour.  The lads acquiesced and I put my head down.  They let me sleep for an hour, bless them.

Time waits for no man but Pat had waited for us.  The fact that we were three hours late was not mentioned.  Time is different in Ireland.

About another hour later, it was suggested that I pull the guitar from its case and issue in the craic.  Pat was an enthusiastic listener with a comprehensive knowledge of popular music from the 1960s and 1970s.  I took great delight in having him mention an artist or a song and then being able to play it.  Pat, Edmund and Michaell all contributed songs.  The latter sang some very old traditional Irish songs and yet all the young people present knew the words and sang along;  that the younger generations in Ireland have such a good grasp of their musical history never fails to amaze me.

Sam intimated that he would like to film me playing Restless Celtic Heart so I moved from jukebox mode into independent artist mode.  The song got the best response of the weekend, so far.  Every time a new group of people entered the bar, I was asked to repeat the song:  “Listen to this song, will ye. He wrote it!”  It became the most requested song of the night.  And it was a long night.  Pat left at 2.30am but only because his wife came to take him home.  She was good-humoured despite having to get up for work at 7am.  Pat had been in the bar for 15 hours and still walked out unaided – what a legend!

At 3.30am I called time.  I had no more songs and too much Guinness in me.  I do recall being offered a gig there later on in the year.  Our leaving did not put a dent in the enthusiasm of the rest of the assembly to carry on the craic.

Our 9am breakfast became a 10am breakfast but May didn’t bat an eyelid.  We had plans to visit the beautiful Achill Island but we spent far too long in the company of Edmund, May, and popping in on Pat for a cup of tea.  None of which I regret.

The car was dropped off at the tiny airport at Knock.  I could see that Sam and Alex were sad to be leaving.  These two London boys had lost their hearts to Ireland.  By the time we landed in the UK they were already planning a return visit.

I’m always sad to leave Ireland, too.  Perhaps I can pop in on my way back from the US later this year.  Or is that just my restless Celtic heart talking?

 

Tony’s new EP Restless Celtic Heart will be released on Oh Mercy! Records and all the usual digital platforms such as itunes etc on Thursday 17th March

Goodbye 2015…

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Well, what a year that was!

2015 started with a recording session.  Oh Mercy supremo Peter Thompson and I spent two days recording a five-track acoustic EP.  On day one, I recorded acoustic guitars and acoustic bass (and I couldn’t resist a bit of slide on dobro).  On the second day, I recorded the vocals, and was joined by my sister, Jules, who provided some very tasteful harmonies.  The five tracks were mixed in an evening.  All that was left was to have them mastered by the brilliant Pete Maher (U2, Rolling Stones, Katy Perry).

I wanted to record these songs before I flew to the United States as they had all become part of my live set.  The idea was to have a white label CD to sell at the gigs.

At the start of May, I popped over to Belfast to do a few warm-up shows.  It’s one of my favourite cities.  I always love going back to the land of my fathers.

On the 15th May I flew to Nashville, Tennessee.  I spent a couple of weeks there, catching up with friends I’d made on my previous visit and meeting with publishers.  Oh, yes – and I bought the most beautiful Martin guitar!  I had a few shows in and around Nashville, and then on the 1st June, I picked up a Buick LaCrosse sedan and headed out on an 8-week tour that would see me lay my head to rest in 17 States – as far west as San Diego CA, as far north as Des Moines IA, and as far south as Montgomery AL.  It was an amazing time and I met the most wonderful people in places such as Chicago IL, Kansas City MO, St. Louis MO, Omaha NE, Phoenix AR, Colorado Springs CO, Santa Fe NM, Dallas TX and Muscle Shoals AL.  The American people were incredibly warm and generous;  I sold out of CD albums and acoustic EPs.

After driving nearly 11,000 miles I finished off with a week back in Music City, co-writing songs with Nashville-based writers.

I had hoped that on my trip I might be inspired enough to write a couple of songs.  As it turns out I’ve got more than enough for an album.  Since coming home I’ve spent the last couple of months working on them, either editing or demo-ing them.

In 2016, I plan to record a full album of those US-inspired songs.  In the meantime, there’s the release of the acoustic EP to finalise, and a video for one of the songs on it  – Restless Celtic Heart – to be filmed over in Ireland.

And who knows, maybe a return trip to the US to play those new songs?  I’d like that.

Voices

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Suffolk Soul Singers and Friends:

St Peter’s by the Waterfront. 6th December 2015

I love the sound of voices singing in harmony.  It moves me in ways that hearing musical instruments doing the same thing does not.  It’s probably some primeval hangover but I find that there is a sanctuary in the sound of voices bonding and blending, a tranquility in the resultant tone when humans accommodate each others’ vibrations.  Much of the music that has inspired me has contained great harmonies;  the sixties, particularly, was awash with it – the Beatles, the Who, the Hollies, the Beach Boys, CS&N.  When I’m in the recording studio, adding vocal harmonies is the one area where I have to be reigned in and told that there are enough harmonies on the track.  “Oh, just one more,”  I’m often heard to cry.

So it was with much excitement that I answered in the affirmative to a request from my good friend, Andi Hopgood, when she asked if I would like to be a guest vocalist at the Christmas concert of the choir she is musical director of – Suffolk Soul Singers.  I had never sung with a choir, so the chance to sing with 30 voices behind me was too good an opportunity to turn down.

I have known Andi for over 20 years.  We met when she was playing tenor saxophone in a school band and the band that I was playing in was so impressed with her and her two friends (playing alto sax and trumpet) that we asked them to sit in for a few numbers when we were playing locally.  Andi went on to study at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama and is much in demand these days as a well-respected jazz singer.

Andi sent me a list of the songs she wanted me to sing lead on.  The first was a reggae song made famous by Jimmy Cliff called Hard Road to Travel.  It is a joyous number where the verse in a minor key leads to an exuberant chorus in the major key.  The next song choice alone would have persuaded me to take part; Marc Cohn’s Walking in Memphis.  I was constantly humming this song to myself as I walked the streets of the Tennessee city as part of my US tour earlier this year.  The song meant much more to me now that I had walked “on Beale” and I visited “the Jungle Room”.  Sadly, Muriel no longer plays piano “every Friday at the Hollywood” but they do make a mean fried dill pickle that is worth a visit.

Andi then gave me free reign to perform a couple of songs of my own.  I opted to sing one original composition – Crazy from my album Songs From the Last Chance Saloon (available on Oh Mercy Records) – and in the spirit of Christmas, a solo rendition of the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s Fairytale of New York.

My penultimate song would be the Beatles’ Hey Jude, in the hope that the audience would by this time feel like joining in with a rousing outro.  The final song would be Band Aid’s Do They Know it’s Christmas with me playing the part of Paul Young and Bono.

I met with Andi and fellow guest vocalist Gemma Cunningham for a run-through and we checked that the keys suited our voices and that we had been listening to the same versions with the right song structure.  Andi had scored Hard Road to Travel a tone and a half higher than the Jimmy Cliff version but by singing it in the lower octave it sounded fine.  We kept Walking in Memphis in its original key of ‘C’ which is how I have always performed it when I’ve added it to my set list.  Hey Jude, however, was a problem. The Beatles’ original is in the key of ‘F’.  As a young man, I had no problem singing it in this key but as the years have gone by, I have dropped it – first by a semitone to ‘E’ and now another whole tone down to the key of ‘D’ (some unkind critics reviewing Paul McCartney’s performance at the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics suggested it would have been wise for the ex-Beatle to have done the same!).  This key gives me a fighting chance in the screaming outro section “Judy, Judy, Judy” etc.

Prior to the choir getting together,  Andi will have been beavering away in preparation for the rehearsal.  Once the tracks have been chosen, she transcribes the music and then arranges the parts for the three vocal sections – tenors, altos and sopranos.  She then teaches each section their part and brings it all together and conducts them.

A few days before the concert, I attended a full choir rehearsal.  The mainly female members (there are only two men in the line-up) come from all walks of life and varying musical experience.  What they all have in spades is enthusiasm for singing.  Andi castigates and cajoles them in equal measure until she is happy with their performance.  With all the hard work done, I just simply add my voice to the proceedings.  I also meet our instrumental accompanists Simon Brown the pianist and percussionist Pearl Gibson.  It was such a thrill for me to sing with so many voices and it was a bonus that they were such lovely people.  Andi seemed pleased with the results.  I left the rehearsal buzzing and looking forward to the concert.

The venue was the historic St Peter’s Church down near Ipswich’s Waterfront.  The church is mentioned in the Domesday Survey from 1086.  The current building dates from the 15th Century and was used by Cardinal Wolsey as his College chapel.  Like most old churches, the acoustics are wonderful for a largely acoustic show.  The only nod to modernity were the microphones for the lead vocalists plugged into a small PA, which also accommodated my acoustic guitar’s hidden pre-amp.

The concert was sold out.

The choir kicked off with their renditions of the Isley Brothers Harvest for the World, Stevie Wonder’s Love’s in Need and Chaka Khan’s Ain’t Nobody.

Next up were the 18 children who make up the youth choir.  They had elected to sing Meghan Trainor’s Your Lips are Moving.  They were terribly cute. I’m glad I didn’t have to follow them.

That was the job of the adult choir with a spine-tingling version of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s You’re All I Need to Get by.

Then it was my turn.  I have to confess that I was a little out of my comfort zone as I made my way to the front, plugged in my guitar, introduced myself and started to play the opening chords to Hard Road to Travel.  Having established the tempo, Simon and Pearl joined in.  Andi nodded to the choir to start singing.  The difference between a rehearsal and a show never fails to amaze me.  With massive amounts of adrenaline clearly kicking in, the power of the choir behind me took me by surprise. Such energy!  I could sense that their nerves were abating and they were starting to have fun.  That first song was over way too soon for me.

Gemma upped the ante and, accompanied by Simon, she proved herself a very classy singer by belting out a jazzy version of Winter Wonderland.  The choir kept the Christmas theme going with a spirited Deck the Halls.

The mood changed a little for a moving rendition of Sam Smith’s Stay With Me (or should that be Tom Petty’s?).

Gemma came back to the stage to finish off the first set with the John Farnham eighties anthem You’re the Voice.  This is not an easy song to master – but the choir and Gemma – absolutely nailed it!

The second set started with soulful intent with Gemma singing Whitney Houston’s I Go to the Rock.  This set up my rendition of Walking in Memphis rather nicely.  I told the audience of how I had spent time in Memphis and was thrilled to be asked to perform this song with SSS.  Once again, the choir rose to occasion;  their energy transported me back to the banks of the Mississippi and in the words of the song “I sang with all my might”.

The choir left me alone on stage and I sang my song Crazy (complete with a rambling tale of how I came to write the song after a disastrous tour of Ireland).  It went down well and I even had the audience singing along in the chorus by the end.

I have to say that I relished singing Fairytale of New York (again, accompanied by a tale of epic proportions of how I came across the song before its actual release).  It contains the most beautiful melody and heart-rending lyrics that I think are often overshadowed by its boozy bravura.

The choir returned with another Whitney classic Your Love is my Love, and followed this with a great version of Adele’s Rolling in the Deep.

It was time to bring the kids back and they had chosen Olly Murs’s Up.  I didn’t know this song but I’d bet that the X-Factor puppet won’t have sung it any better.  The young ones reminded us that this was a Christmas concert and gave us a swinging version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

Now, it wouldn’t be Christmas without hearing Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You – and Gemma has the pipes to dispatch that one beautifully.  Then I was back on stage to sing Hey Jude as part of our finale.  It was very hard for me not to grin inanely when the choir joined me on the bridges of the song.  And the na na na’s at the end were just out of this world.

Do They Know it’s Christmas was a fitting way to end the show with a rousing a cappella middle section.

I’m pretty sure the audience went home happy;  I know I did.

And the event got me thinking. Next Spring, I’ll be recording a new album of songs I wrote whilst on tour in the US.  One of the planned songs is a tribute to the great musical heritage of Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  It’s called The Singing River, and there might just be room on it for a soulful choir….

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.

 

Rockin’ in the USA 6

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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.