COLUMN SEVENTY-THREE, JULY 1, 2002
(Copyright © 2002 The Blacklisted Journalist)
RED DIRT DIARY
Huntsville, AL 02/22/02 -
- After the Kaffeeklatsch (the hippest joint in Huntsville) I get to sit down
with my notebook.
Soulful trip, the flat
red dirt cotton bottoms flashing by so frequently under an immense Confederate
gray steel bowl of a sky that I still see them when I close my eyes, still
seeing winter in Northern Alabama.
I get into Huntsville on
the dogbus, after listening to some dude muttering rap lyrics for two hours,
Ronnie Baker meets me. We go
looking for Lew. Don't find him and head out to Ronnie’s place on Cherokee
Ridge. Ronnie has a studio, and he
and his friend Mike Ford on bass help me begin to get my shit together.
Ronnie's got a great wife
in Marilyn, some kids mostly nearly grown, and an absolutely shameless little
licky-licky lapdog named Buckwheat...a complete baby of a spoiled dog.
My favorite kind. Buck and I bond immediately. Two great wussies meet.
After my fingers begin to
say duh, oh yeah, guitar, Ronnie and I set out for Muscle Shoals so I can sing
at the songwriters showcase hosted by Jerry McGee and Mickey
After the gig,
hospitality suite coming with the invitation to pick and thereby being assured
of a place to fall over, I set out to drink Muscle Shoals, Sheffield and
Florence dry, or die trying, which damn near turns out to be the case as far as
the next day goes.
Years ago our band Bethlehem Asylum made two records for Ampex via
Capricorn...on the same deal was Sundown, Cowboy, Wet Willie, I think, and a
coupla other bands. We each made
two albums for Ampex. In Sundown
was Chuck Leavell and in Cowboy was Scott Boyer, whom Lew takes me to say hello
to at Somethin's Fishy after the songwriters thing.
Great to be among these other young faces grown older, and to be among
these other green players now seasoned (but still whiplike quick, if I do say so
myself). This has been my first
ever foray into Muscle Shoals as a player, though I know some of these guys from
Nashville, two hours away by geography.
I manage to score a pint
and Ronnie and I go back to the Holiday Inn, and drink moderately until we pass
out. Daniel Pearl is dead says CNN; another journalist paying the supreme price.
Consumed with this thought I fall over into a strange sleep, lonely
without Patty...I wake up prematurely at 7:30 am, Ronnie is dressed
watching TV, ready to head out because he has a day ahead of him.
doing?" he asks.
"Wow, man I had this
weird dream. Wyker was supposed to
be in it but he didn't show up."
After we fall out over that Ronnie takes off and Lew Wear shows up. Lewie
takes me on a whirlwind
tour of Muscle Shoals, which in my weakened, unfed, poorly slept state soon
takes on the character of a goddamned Fellini movie.
First Lew took me to the
Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Here's a partial list of people I didn't know were
from Alabama: Nat "King" Cole, Candi Staton, The Delmore Brothers, Sam
Phillips, Country Boy Eddie, W.C. Handy. Lewie introduces me to David Johnson,
old-time record producer and current director of the Hall of Fame.
They talk about Sun Records. I
stare at death's face, feeling very nutrition-deprived.
The Inuits have a saying: "Food is sleep."
By now my metabolic processes are so slowed that I'm starting to run on
ADP. I can feel my muscles and
bones giving up calcium and phosphorous, not to mention magnesium...it is a very
strange deal. I've progressed from
Fellini to William
The Hall of Fame is an
outward and visible sign of an inward and soulful cultural presence.
Whether you know it or not, a great deal of RocknRoll consciousness has
been shaped in this mecca which seems to my slightly queasy reality to be now a
cultural ghost town, the soul music business now having been co-opted by New
York and L.A., even the locals who still produce go to other places to work.
Yesterday a little chick
at Ronnie's had said, "Where's Muscle Shoals?"
We had cracked up, she meaning geographically, we thinking in a cultural
sense, as if she'd said "Who's Elvis?"
There is a street here
where in a few blocks one encounters half a dozen little dumpy joints where so
much rocknroll was made, but most of the locals seem oblivious to it.
Lewie points out, this is
where Cher recorded, the Stones cut here, George Harrison there.
Lewie finally drags me to
the Smokehouse Pool Hall, as I am now beginning to hallucinate.
On the way we drive past Helen Keller's house, actually there are two
houses here: one that the family lived in and a smaller house off to the side
where Helen lived, back in the days when the shame of an infirm family member
was kept hidden. At the pool hall I finally eat beef stew and, though I'm
still half-dead from sleeping drunk, I begin to think my body may stop consuming
itself. The prices here are right
out of l970. Across the street is a parking lot where used to stand Spar
Studios, Spooner Oldham's place.
I had scheduled a
rehearsal with Ronnie and Owen Brown, but I now begin to think of the old Inuit
saying "Sleep is rehearsal". Lew takes me out to his place, which looks like Frank Lloyd
Wright Discovers Barnwood. Inside
is a staggering collection of recordings, all destined for the Hall of Fame when
the day comes that Lew stops walking around.
A long time ago I had a
band, a bunch of cool guys, Owen Brown, David Pace, Ladd Henderson and Lee Roy
Parnell. Owen now has a studio in Town Creek, halfway between the Shoals and
Decatur. The sweetest setup you
could want, poplar trees falling away to live oaks and a golf course, the studio
building being built in 1824. Owen
is a solid bass player, brings that tonic down on the one, slim, and tonight
we're going to get to play together again after twenty years, at the
Kaffeeklatsch in Huntsville.
Owen lets me crash on the
studio couch. I wake up ravenous,
eat a can of salmon left over from Will Thomas's sessions. My body has decided to come home. Owen and I set out for the
Whenever Owen and I get
together we get giddy with player humor and tonight many of the old Panama Red
routines surface, Owen feeding me lines to say to the audience, which tonight,
as always in Huntsville, consists of my friends from Mighty Field of Vision.
I say, "damn. it's
amazing how many people came from Alabama:
I've noticed for the
first time this trip how close to the surface is the water table.
This area around Muscle Shoals and Huntsville and Decatur is of course
delta: cotton growing country.
People who know about such things have told me that they can go into a
warehouse with thousands of 800-pound bales of cotton from all over the world
and easily pick out the local variety, known as Belle Mina, by its light and
fluffy color and texture.
There are numerous confluences of the Tennessee River where alluvial deposits result in superb cotton-growing country. Did the preponderance of
in musical forms
of those they had oppressed
farming and the slaves so necessarily densely compacted result in a cultural
undercurrent that would a hundred years later produce Donnie Fritts, Felton
Jarvis, Eddie Hinton? Obviously yes.
Placing Muscle Shoals at
the epicenter of some hypothetical construct, at a hundred miles east an echo of
Piedmont blues begins to overlap and thirty miles to the west the Mississippi
River steamboat and cotton culture begins. Look at a map: from the western
slopes in Georgia and Carolina the country falls in gentle plateaus of riparian
flatlands to the Mississippi a third of the way across the continent.
And cotton is still king.
The Civil War brought a
sense of defeat and resignation, the essence of the blues, to a population of
whites who found expression in the musical forms of those they had oppressed,
the Africans...it is a strange observation but a true one that The Alabama
Leaning Man, as Donnie Fritts was known in Nashville, is a cultural descendent
But the real shit is still played here in Muscle Shoals at the Holiday Inn. ##
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