“Y’all come,” they’d said, those mountain musicians who were themselves far from home and chatting it up with the cute young folksingers. “Here’s how to find my house.”
It seemed like a good idea, and what’s more, I had just borrowed money from my mother to buy an old vehicle. It was nothing like Joe Maphis’s motor home—okay, it was a VOLKSWAGEN KOMBI—but still I figured I had a home now. It didn’t go much above fifty—fine, I was a lousy driver. It was an empty, windowless shell, horrendously noisy. But I’d soon have it fixed up nice and homey.
And the bus drove weird(ly): every time you changed gears, you were supposed to wind it up to ear-splitting revs before your shift, which I obediently did while disbelieving it. Clarence looked anxious: “Shouldn’t you be shifting down p’etty soon?” “Oh no, no, this is right.” “If you say so.” “That’s what the dealer told me.” “It doesn’t sound good, though.” “Well, then, you drive it.” “Okay.” So there’s another important thing I learned from Clarence: You drive with your ears, not by the instruction manual. From that day on I drove the bus by ear—for what seemed like hundreds of thousands of miles.
You might wonder, at this point, why I would decide to cross the country again when it kind of looked like Clarence and I were getting a bit warm and cozy. In fact, I just talked on the phone with a friend who knew all of us in the old AG days and who’s been reading this blog; she said, “But weren’t you guys a couple? for about two minutes?”I laughed. Yes, and a lot more than two minutes, but ‘couple’ is an odd description for two people who never asked each other about their past, their future, their opinions or their feelings, who in fact almost never spoke at all, who never held hands in public or shared a meal, who inhabited completely incompatible worlds and had no interest in changing that situation. And truthfully? I don’t even like ‘Black Mountain Rag,’ never did; it may be fast and impressive but to me it’s jerky (especially with me playing it) and unmelodic.
Well, you’ll just have to take my word that going away was the right thing to do. Love, even true love, appears in many forms, few of which end in Love and Marriage and a Baby Carriage. Sometimes you just want to wish the person well; sometimes you want to learn from someone; sometimes—you just have to wait until the next life. At our journey’s end, I choose to believe, every love we ever felt for anyone will be fulfilled in every way without injury to anyone else. Why not?
Before setting off on my quest, I stopped in Santa Barbara for a little gig at the RONDO. While there, I met TONY TOWNSEND, a gentle, willowy guy with a smooth playing and singing style, and DON ROBERTSON, whose exceptionally strong voice and right arm made him just the opposite. Not that they were teamed up, but where one was playing the other tended to be also. And they both were balladeers.
RANDY SPARKS, who had founded the NEW CHRISTIE MINSTRELS a couple of years earlier, was in the audience one evening. I spoke to him about my impending trip to the south, and he wanted to know, in what? So I brought him outside and showed him my bus, and he said I absolutely couldn’t go unless I had two better tires. Then he took me to a late night tire place and bought me two tires, and he said, “This isn’t charity, it’s a gamble. If and when you write a song that would be good for the Minstrels, I want you to give it to us.” Well, Randy, dammit, I never thought about it again. But now I have a bunch for you if you still want them.
That’s when I met PETER FELDMANN, who I liked right away though not suspecting he’d soon play a role in my life. He was a pleasant, friendly kid who had cut his instruments down to two guitars, banjo, fiddle and mandolin to save space because he was renting a tiny trailer from GENE MCGEORGE, who I also didn’t know was going to play a role in my life. Peter, who expressed great interest in my picking ruses, was the person who first introduced me to the concept that flatpicks were obtainable at music stores, six for a quarter.
I hated saying goodbye to this delightful lot, but I had to go to my mother’s house in San Francisco; my aunt had arrived there with my son, and my cousin Sally had arrived there after working on a dude ranch for a while, and I suddenly remembered that I did have Family.
And lo, Sally had some money in her pocket, and I had some in mine, and she loved the idea of just taking off in my bus and rambling across the U.S. No motels, we agreed, just camping every night under the stars. No restaurants, we’d bring a Coleman stove. No bars, we’d bring six jugs of California red, a dollar a gallon, that oughta last us. No contact with anyone we knew because we wouldn’t have an address or a phone number for weeks and months.
And, for me, no worries about not being On The Circuit. The highway, yes; the superhighway to success, no. I could leave my ambition behind, a thing I hadn’t managed to do for more than fifteen seconds, till I felt like I was losing my soul. And I had my son—who now needs a name: Christopher. (His middle name, Dowland, was after the Elizabethan composer.) He was no longer a baby; he’d be four in the fall. A companion—one with strong opinions and desires of his own.
We took route 40 out of San Francisco. It was summertime, and the livin’ was easy. We would drive as far as we felt like, and in the evening we’d ask someone if we could camp in their field. (“Just so you don’t start a grass fire,” they’d usually say.) As we sat around our safe Coleman flame, drinking our dollar-a-gallon red, I would practice ‘Black Mountain Rag.’ One night Sally said tentatively, “It almost seems like you’re getting a little bit better on that.”
Eventually we got to Tennessee. Nashville! The GRAND OL’ OPRY, in the old RYMAN AUDITORIUM. The temperature was about 137 degrees and the line was about 2 hours. Hard on us, harder on Christopher who didn’t know what we were waiting for. When they finally let us in, the temperature inside was even worse–138 degrees, give or take a little literary license. We sat in the balcony, fanning ourselves with the flimsy programs like everyone else was doing. The whole air was rattle-rustle-rattle, perspiration flowed freely through cotton dresses and blue work shirts. It seemed incredibly hokey even to a couple of Vermont girls.
I don’t remember who was on the bill, except of course for STRINGBEAN, GRANDPA JONES and BILL MUNROE, who I’d come to hear. We had to leave before Bill came on because Christopher was worn out and miserable, but I think that night was possibly notable for the introduction of SKEETER DAVIS singing ‘The End of the World.’ It rang in my head for days, and even now I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for Skeeter, who looked brave, tough and small on that far-off stage.
At last, Kentucky. The sacred soil—which I knelt down and kissed. An extravagant gesture, but I’d waited and wanted for so long. Now we were here.
And out of gas. We stopped at a small crossroads service station up in the mountains where we were told that they also were out of gas, and the gas truck was usually late, but hit ought be long in a few hours. And the restrooms? Thet’s thetair outhouse yonder, hih hih. So we waited. I tried not to need the outhouse because I was timid about it, because I thought they might only have corn cobs, you know, and suddenly I wasn’t a Vermont girl but a Los Angeles girl.
Meanwhile the resident gents served up some moonshine–in a Mason jar, I’m not kidding. It was pretty eye-watering at first, but if you sip it all afternoon it grows on you. One gent had a big ol’ pistol which he brandished for a while. They stuffed Christopher on crackers and ketchup, and they praised him in the Kentucky hills way, “Bet you’re a real hard worker.”
The man with the gun gave it to him to play with. “Oh, don’t—” I started to protest, but I didn’t have enough will to prevail. “Whoo,” the feller opined to Christopher, “bet you’d like to have you a big ol’ guuun like this’un of yer own, son, ain’t thet right?” I don’t think Christopher had any idea whatsoever about guns, since he hadn’t even seen any movies let alone hunted any squirrels. But he brandished it anyway. “It isn’t loaded, is it?” I asked. “Wal, course hit’s loaded, what use is a unloaded gun?”
To finesse this growing debacle, I decided to ask if any of them knew any old ballads. Shure ‘nuff, one bearded beanpole in overalls jumped to his feet and hollered one out. I didn’t think it was worth collecting. I mean, how? I didn’t even bring a tape recorder. D—n, I wisht I’d thought of that.
The outhouse did not have corn cobs. It had newspapers, from Lexington. Christopher didn’t shoot himself, nor did anyone else die. The moonshine didn’t poison us and did make us a lot more laissez-faire. The gasoline truck arrived and we filled up and bade farewell. Hit was a long way to Hazard.