(June 28, 2015) – The band laid into a thick swampy vibe. The drummer put down a groove so hard, you “can drive nails with it,” the singer said. The young guitar player closed his eyes and cradled into his aging Telecaster, wringing out stinging notes between vocal lines.
Susan leaned against a post, swayed to the beat, and sang along.
It was Ray Wylie Hubbard’s second and final encore for the rowdy east Tennessee crowd, and the ageless Texas icon was singing about a “Chick Singer, Bad Ass Rockin’.” I looked over at Susan and thought, “Yep.”
A little over 24 hours earlier, I’d watched her from across the stage at the Basement in Nashville, admiring the way she swayed to to the beat with her beloved ’72 Precision Bass strapped around her neck while laying down a groove that was deeper than deep. I love to see her plant her feet and dig into the low end, occasionally dipping her left shoulder in time with the music. I love watching her sing, the way she cocks her head to the left and occasionally looks over at me from the corner of her eye. I really dig her voice, especially when lets a little growl creep in at certain moments.
All of that’s reason enough for me to put up with the bullshit that sometimes goes with playing music.
But this was Saturday, we were off the clock and the two of us were out for two kinds of r n’ r: rest and recreation, and rock n’ roll.
We’d gotten into town mid-afternoon after two days of gigs. Free Saturdays have been at a premium lately, so we felt like going to watch some music. We were fortunate enough to score a couple passes to the Hubbard show (thanks Jimmy and Josh), so we cleaned ourselves up and made the 30-minute drive to the Shed in Maryville, just south of Knoxville.
The Shed is a great music venue attached to Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson. Owner Scott Maddux is a big music fan (and a good guitar player), so the Shed features state-of-the-art sound, lights, and video. It’s an open-air, covered pavilion with a large stage on one end. There are clear sight lines to the stage from nearly anywhere on the premises. In other words, it’s a great place to see live music.
We’ve played some great shows there over the years with the likes of the Bottle Rockets, the Gourds, Beth McKee, Drivin’ n’ Cryin’, and Jason and the Scorchers. We’ll be back out there to play in a month or so.
Susan and I are both Ray Wylie Hubbard fans, particularly of his more recent work. The guy just gets better with age. Known to many as the author of the early-’70s Jerry Jeff Walker outlaw country anthem, “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” Hubbard is much more than that distinction implies. These days, he’s more country blues shaman than country crooner. He channels Lightnin’ Hopkins with his fingerstyle acoustic guitar picking and his lyrics are the match of anyone’s when it comes to grit and panache.
On this night, his three-piece combo was really killing it, despite occasional monitor problems. Minus a bass player, they had a great Tony Joe White-type groove going. I love that simplistic thing that’s more about feel than virtuosity, and Hubbard’s band’s lean approach was perfect for his songs. Hell, he even did “Snake Farm” twice.
It was a good time, and a good way to wrap up three days of music and fun.
The road to Saturday night began on Thursday, when Susan, Chris and I loaded up the stealth van for a sortie to the Motherland. Our destination was Oxford, Mississippi, where we were set to play a show at Proud Larry’s with our fellow Knoxvillain RB Morris.
But first, we had a stop to make along the way.
Earlier, when the show was announced on Facebook, Shane Brown contacted me and said he was coming. I’d only met Shane once, about eight years ago during the Oxford Book Conference, right after the release of Just One More, a CD I’d produced dedicated to his father, Larry Brown, the recently deceased author of many of my favorite books.
Like Shane, Larry was a big music fan. He routinely mentioned his favorite artists in his books, and in turn became friends with most of them. Larry loved musicians, and musicians loved Larry and his work. Susan and I knew Larry when we lived in Oxford during the ’90s, which was a privilege considering I was a giant fan of his books long before we met him.
After Larry died of a heart attack at 53, it occurred to me that there should be a compilation of the great musical artists that either knew, worked with, or admired him. I guess I assumed someone else would do it, because it took me a while to get after it. Once I realized it wasn’t happening through someone else’s efforts, I took on the project with gusto.
Just One More eventually came out on Bloodshot Records right around the time of the 2007 Book Conference, which was dedicated to Larry. A show was put together that featured several of the artists from the disc, including Cary Hudson, Robert Earl Keen, Vic Chesnutt, Alejandro Escovado, and others. I met Shane that night in front of Proud Larry’s (the club’s name is not related to Larry Brown).
My online conversations with Shane eventually led to his invitation for us to stop in and visit the piece of property his dad had bought in the community of Tula. On that seven acres, Larry spent days and hours expanding the little pond, shoring up the levee, and building “The Shack,” which was to be his new writing space, replacing the “Cool Pad” he’d established in the storage room of the family home in nearby Yocona.
We looked forward to the side trip, and the drive over from Knoxville was an easy one. Some days, traffic and construction just work with you and this was one of those days. We took our favorite convoluted path across Alabama to north Mississippi. There are a lot of ways to get there, and we’ve tried pretty much all of them over the years, but we prefer the circuitous route through Huntsville, Decatur, Russellville, and Hamilton, where you finally meet up with highway 78 (AKA I-22) that takes you into the Magnolia State and on to Oxford.
RB and our buddy Greg Horne were traveling separately, so I knew we’d need to coordinate everybody in order to meet Shane at Tula.
As we approached Tupelo, I made the executive decision that the TL3 required ice cream. It was 96 degrees out, plus I needed to send some texts and make some calls to get everyone on the same page.
Unable to find anything better, we settled in at a truck-stop McDonalds for soft-serve cones. After determining that Greg and RB were probably 45 minutes or so behind us, and that Shane was home and ready to meet us, we got a plan in place and got back on the road.
After passing through Pontotoc on highway 11, we turned westward on 334, through an area that Susan and I know pretty well from visits to Living Blues editor Brett Bonner’s house in Tocopola, our friends Ron and Joe’s place in Yocona, and Tyler Keith’s pad near Shane’s brother Billy Ray’s dairy farm.
Once we got there, we turned into a long dirt driveway through an open iron gate that read “A Place Called Tula.” Larry wrote extensively about this land in his book of nonfiction: Billy Ray’s Farm: Essays From a Place Called Tula, so I felt like I knew it, although I’d never been there before. I have a photo that Larry’s wife, Mary Annie, sent me along with a nice letter after Just One More came out. In the picture, you can see Larry from behind as he sits on the dock he built overlooking his little pond. I’ve got both framed in my living room.
Arriving a few minutes before Shane, we got out, stretched our legs, and took a look around. There’s a cabin that was built after Larry’s death, with an outdoor cooking area, next to the pond. That’s where Billy Ray’s and Shane’s kids gather nearly every weekend to play, fish and “just be kids,” Shane said. Thick stands of pine trees surround the property, and there’s an old barn up on the hill to the north.
It is very quiet there, and it’s easy to understand why someone would choose this as a place to write.
Shane showed up, and immediately dug out a beer from the cooler in the back of the Toyota pickup that once belonged to his father. Larry always had a full cooler in the back of that truck, too.
At 35, Shane looks a lot like his daddy, talks like him too. He’s also showing great promise as a writer. I’ve been reading his posts on Facebook in which he writes about family, friends, and the memories of his father. It’s good stuff, and on the day we were there, he’d just worked out a deal to start publishing his stories on a local website.
We walked up a small incline to the spot where Larry is buried. The back of the tombstone is engraved with the names of his children and grandchildren, as well as the phrase, “The Road Goes On Forever …” in reference to a Robert Earl Keen song of which Larry was particularly fond.
Shane walked us around the pond to see the Shack. The construction of the small building is covered in great detail in Larry’s piece “Shack” from Billy Ray’s Farm. Larry did nearly all the work himself, with some help from Shane, and took great pride in it. Sadly, he only got to use it briefly, to write his unfinished final novel, A Miracle of Catfish, in long hand on a legal pad. He hadn’t even moved his typewriter.
Big bullfrogs jumped off the shore into the water as we walked across the levee on the south end of the pond. “You should hear it out here at night,” Shane said. “The bullfrogs and the bugs are so loud, it’ll about run you off.”
There’s not a lot in the Shack right now. A few kid toys and Larry’s guitar amp are stored there, but you can pick up on the vibe, why this place was so important to him. A car battery is hooked up to a power inverter for a little bit of electricity, but a chandelier with a couple dozen small candles that can be lowered with a rope provide the overhead light. In the center of the ceiling pitch is the beam that Larry fashioned from a tree he cut down on the property.
Shane had recently come across Larry’s typewriter in the barn and had placed it in its rightful spot on the small desk facing the crank windows that looked out over the pond from the east. There’s also a deck on front of the Shack that Shane and Billy Ray built after Larry’s death.
After the tour, we settled in under the cover of the outdoor cooking area, a spot that looks like it gets a lot of use. Shane told stories about growing up around the place, expressing pride in the hard work Larry put into the place. He’s a natural-born storyteller. I looked up and saw a sign that read “Life is Good” nailed to a tree on the edge of the pond.
I walked over and took a picture of it. Shane later reminded me that those were Larry’s last words to Mary Annie before he died.
In time, Greg and RB showed up so I followed them for the tour a second time while Susan and Chris opted to hang out under the ceiling fan.
The heat and humidity were oppressive, but it felt good to be there.
Shane was gracious with his time, his memories, and his stories. It was a special side trip, one that we all greatly appreciate.
As dusk approached, we made our goodbyes and hit the road into Oxford and to Proud Larry’s to load in and grab a bite to eat.
Oxford is a special place for Susan and I. We lived there for much of the ’90s, and still have a good many friends there.
When we got to the club, there was an acoustic duo playing for the dinner crowd, and we knew we had some time before load-in so we took a table in the side room and ordered dinner. Larry’s has good food, and they were kind enough to feed us, which really comes in handy on the road.
Leigh, the long-time sound man, came over and we chatted a minute, coming up with a plan for the evening. We reminisced about the time several years ago when a version of my band was playing there, and one of the vocal monitor speakers went up in flames mid-song. It’s pretty wild to see a two-foot orange flame shoot out of the center of a monitor wedge directly in front of you. Leigh proudly pointed out that he’d repaired both the speaker and the electronic crossover and that both pieces were still in use.
I love to play in Oxford, but sometimes you just get those dead nights where nobody is really out and about. This particular Thursday was one of those.
Although there wasn’t a big turnout, it was definitely a quality one. Local man-about-town Chico Harris greeted us when we arrived, and he hung out for the show. Jay Watson, an English professor at Ole Miss and longtime music fan, was out. Another friend, Anne Scott Barrett, chatted with our good pal Laurie Stirratt.
I first met Laurie and her twin brother John back in the mid-1980s when their band the Hilltops played in Jackson. I reconnected with them during our tenure in Oxford. John and I had a couple bands together, and we interacted a bunch with Blue Mountain, the band that Laurie and Cary Hudson were just getting off the ground. She and John are still two of my all-time favorite people.
Shane came out with a couple friends, including Elizabeth Ledford who was a fifth-grade student of mine some 20 years ago. They showed up as we were loading in, and he and his buddy stepped in and helped us carry gear from the van to the club.
Good folks, those Browns.
RB kicked the evening off with an acoustic set accompanied by Greg on guitar. He played some songs and read some of his excellent poetry. The folks on hand dug it much.
RB’s kind of a renaissance man: a singer of songs, a poet, a playwright, and author. Artists such as John Prine, Steve Earle, and Lucinda Williams have publicly professed their appreciation of his work. Marianne Faithfull, Webb Wilder, Prine and others have recorded his songs. And while he’s a good friend, a marvelous happy hour compadre, I also consider him one of my absolute favorite songwriters.
He helped establish the James Agee park in the Fort Sanders neighborhood of Knoxville, and produced a one-man play about Agee called “The Man Who Lives Here is Loony.” Being a literary type, RB had long wanted to visit Oxford, with its tradition of great writers, so it was fun to be there with him.
Greg is also a native of the Knoxville area, but Susan and I got to know him when he lived in Oxford for a short time while we were there. When we landed in Knoxville around the turn of the century, we reconnected and have collaborated on various projects over the years. He’s a versatile sideman who can play a variety of instruments, but he also fronts his own band which is a role at which he is equally adept.
After RB’s set, we took the stage and tore into a batch of our songs. The onstage sound was weird (Leigh had largely left matters in the hands of an intern), and I was having trouble with my pedalboard shorting out, but we managed to pull of a decent set.
The thing is, everything can go wrong on stage, and pretty much nobody in the audience is going to be aware — or even care. They just want you to play, not complain about your situation. So you have to force your way through whatever issues confront you. You gotta put your head down and charge on.
One of my favorite shows was a Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3 set in New Orleans several years back. It was a hot, sticky summer night, and lots of things did go wrong, but it didn’t slow them a bit. Steve’s guitar strap breaks? Look at each other, laugh about it, and keep going. Dave’s fuzz pedal bites the dust? Shake it off, grin, and play harder. Linda breaks a drum stick? Grab another and don’t slow down. Jason breaks a string? So what, there’s rock n’ roll to be played. Just go harder.
It’s really the only way to do it.
At the end of our set, we brought RB and Greg up to join us for a short set of RB’s songs, which is always a blast. His tunes are a lot of fun to play, so the three of us always enjoy the opportunity. RB’s a great front man who digs deep into himself when singing, “getting off” he calls it.
When it’s on, it’s amazing. And it’s rarely off.
He made some new fans that night.
When it was over, we took our time packing up so we could visit with friends until the Club was forced to run everybody off. Around 1 a.m., we loaded out into a night that was still pushing 90 degrees with air so thick you could cut it with a knife. Every piece of gear that traveled the 50 feet or so between the air-conditioned venue and the van was covered in moisture before it ever made its way into the proper place in the Tetris maze that is a band’s van pack.
Laurie was gracious enough to put us up for the night at the house she and her boyfriend Carl share just outside of town. We followed her out and settled in for a nice visit that lasted into the wee hours.
When we awoke on Friday morning, Laurie and Carl were both gone to work and their sweet dog Pete was on the bed with Susan and I.
Eventually, everyone got up and moving, and we made our way into downtown Oxford for breakfast at the Bottletree Bakery, which is a regular stop for us. Cynthia Gerlock’s long-standing establishment has great coffee, outstanding pastries, killer bagels, and tasty sandwiches. Between the five of us, we sampled most of those categories.
As much as we wanted to hang around and visit Square Books (the best bookstore on earth, in my humble opinion) and the End of All Music (the record store where money mysteriously disappears from my pockets every time I walk through the door … on the upside, though, my music collection does grow), we realized we were facing an early load-in and Friday afternoon rush hour traffic in Nashville, so we needed to hit the highway.
We headed north out of town, up highway 7 through Holly Springs, the home of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, a couple of my heroes who we saw play several times at Junior’s Juke Joint. A rough little shack on the edge of a cotton field on highway 4, Junior’s was one lively place on Sunday nights. The first time we went with then-Living Blues editor David “Fuzzy” Nelson, there was no cover charge and they sold $1.25 Busch beer out of a refrigerator behind the bar (They eventually went to a $2 cover when it started getting more popular outside of the local community). A small bandstand sat in the corner, filled with a variety of drums, guitars, and amplifiers. Around 8 p.m. Junior and his sons took the stage and started playing their hypnotic version of the hill country blues.
Eventually, Junior wandered off to tend bar, and R.L. and his sons/grandsons (including adopted son Kenny Brown) took over. The regulars danced and played pool while the music swirled around through the air. The atmosphere was electric, but not in a dangerous way. This was fun distilled to its purest essence.
As we passed through town, we passed Junior’s Juke Joint #2, which was recently opened by David Kimbrough, Junior’s son. The spray-painted sign announced an appearance by the Holly Springs Rhythm Section. Sounded like a ton of fun, but Nashvegas was calling and the clock was ticking.
We had NPR on the box (Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me … of course), and traffic was light for a Friday afternoon.
Once we’d crossed into Tennessee, we drove through Jackson, the home of Carl Perkins. I noticed a new sign for the International Rockabilly Hall of Fame and made a mental note that a future trip in this direction might require that side trip.
We hit Nashville at the peak of rush hour, and the interstate was like a parking lot. After a few moments of little or no motion, we took to the surface roads and followed the GPS directions to the Basement, arriving a full 30 minutes ahead of the designated load-in time (always early, never hurry).
Getting there early was extremely helpful, as I was able to set up my pedalboard and track down the problems from the previous evening. Damn expensive cables; I should’ve stuck with the more affordable ones that have served me for the past several years.
I switched out a couple cables and bypassed one pedal that I wouldn’t have used anyway and was ready to go.
For the Basement show, the TL3 was to play a 30-minute opening set, while RB would close things out with a band consisting of Greg, Knoxville upright bassist Daniel Kimbro, and Nashville drummer Paul Griffith. It was an early show with a tight time frame, as there was a later show booked for 9 p.m.
Several of our friends showed up as we prepared to play. Camilla Akin, who made the excellent 25-minute film, “We Didn’t Get Famous,” as a grad student at Ole Miss, came in. Cathy Hendrix, who was the publicist for the 688 Club and subsequent label in Atlanta when we lived there in the mid-’80s, showed up, as did Miles Goosen, a teacher and music fan who we’ve befriended lately, and Joe Wolfe-Mazeres who writes the Ear to the Ground music blog. Our pals John and Mary (the recent Knoxville transplants from Austin) were in town and came over for the show. Mary Sack, who books some of RB’s shows, and others filtered in as well.
Nashville singer/songwriter Jon Byrd came out. Jon’s another friend we met in Atlanta in the ’80s. He toured as a member of the Windbreakers and the Primitons before eventually settling into Music City, where he has carved a niche out for himself in the local scene.
Being the prompt sorts that we are (I never did buy into that ridiculous stereotype that musicians are always late), the 3 took the stage at 7 sharp and roared through an eight-song set that went exceptionally well.
It was a lot of fun, the crowd was receptive, and it was a great relief to play through without monitor issues or pedalboard problems. We were in our zone and played a smokin’ set. Sometimes, having a limited amount of time forces you to lay it all out and leave nothing on the table.
RB and company followed with a great set, and I joined them for the last couple songs. Good fun.
Afterwards, a bunch of us went up the road to M.L. Rose for burgers and beer. It was a relaxing end to that part of the evening.
When that gathering split up, Susan, Chris, and I followed Jon back to his house in the Inglewood section of town, where we sat up for a while visiting before calling it a night around 1:30.
On Saturday morning, we went with Jon for breakfast at the Biscuit House, a traditional diner in east Nashville. Following a brief wait outside, we were seated and soon disposed of our fair share of coffee, eggs, grits, and bacon. The meal set us up for the three-hour tour back to Knoxville. The drive was relatively easy, despite a handful of torrential downpours that caused us to slow down considerably on occasion.
Driving through without stopping, we got back to town a little before 3 p.m. (thanks, time change and your damn loss of an hour), got the stealth van unloaded and Chris on his way home. I went to the grocery store and to Happy Yap, the kennel where the dogs stay when we’re gone (if you ever need an endorsement or a recommendation, I’m your … um … dog).
From there, it was the aforementioned trek to see Ray Wylie Hubbard before getting settled in at home around 11. Ready to relax, I turned on the television and flipped through the channels. On PBS, Jeff Tweedy was playing that Doug Sahm song about getting back the keys to his heart with his solo band. His kid’s a shit-hot drummer, by the way.
I remembered the times that Laurie’s brother John and I played that Sahm tune at Sid & Harry’s in Oxford, back before John was the bass player in Tweedy’s more famous band.
Everything that goes around, comes around, I suppose.
We’re pretty much home for the summer now, but we plan to record new material in the coming weeks, so there will be stuff to write about.
Thanks for reading.