Dreaming At The Speed Of Life
For the most part, extended tours all share the same basic arc. You kick off, you're excited and revving to go, energy through the roof and a desire to take it all in with a deep double-lungful each and every morning.
By the time you reach the end of tour, you're sleeping in, taking rainchecks on those fanciful side trips and operating in "energy saver" mode until called upon to perform or teach. You're ready to head home, no matter how incredible the journeys or the adventures that await around every swoosh of the highway, there's always home. More than a few times this summer, I woke up in the back of my motorhome, Imua, thinking "what state am I in?" Often, that was purely an existential question.
Doesn't matter, though, how tortuous the touring schedule can be when you are standing at the front of a workshop or performing music somewhere where people are present; that's the reward. All the gauntlet of surviving the road is worth it for those precious moments of interaction. That's where past, present and future all combine in The Moment and each Moment is a gift.
Truly, a gift!
Behind each moment is a thunderous tale of a hard road traveled. From dusty strings through tortured graspings and scrapings to melodious exploration up through chordial conversation and into heavenly harmonization, it's a lovely ascension of spirit trails that flow behind our efforts like dazzling streamers of sparkling, twinkling pixie dust. We are the results of our ongoing research and development. We planned for the future and the future is here, hanging out with us and drinking coffee with stroopwafels. What's next? The horizon is wide open, as far as the eye can see.
Driving through the United States is the best way to take the proper temperature of the country. Walk along the ground levels of most American cities and towns, counties and hollers, and you'll find that what's being said by the people isn't being reported by the press. There's a savage disconnect when you pay attention to what people around you are actually saying. Unquestioning minds will just allow the media to submit their own data, but it's not what you're hearing on the ground. All of this racial re-hashing of differences and spinmaker punch stories involving guns, cops and unarmed people of color, that's not what most people are fuming about. Maybe people are fuming about it because if you say something enough times, maybe some people will believe it. All along the highways and byways this summer, I ran into people from regions great and small, in their hometowns and at their places of employment to their destinations of leisure. People are generally not as effed up as the media makes them out to be. Or maybe I'm just fortunate and don't meet up with too many of the "other" ones, though I do meet my fair share.
I hate living in the city. Orlando's not even close to being the Crazy that Los Angeles was, but still enough to make me happy to get the hell out of there come tour season. Memorial Day weekend, when the three burglary suspects all hid out in my motorhome and were extracted by police with guns and dogs, was the launch of summer tour and a perfect reminder of why I was very much looking forward to getting out into the country.
And Jae deals with it every year; she's a strong woman and knows that touring is part of the job. There are specific months of the year where I won't do anything outside of the state of Florida, it just seems like I'm on tour because the gigs are constant during what used to be my "off" season. This is my first year with a car payment (and considering the cost of the "car", it's more like a "house" payment) since the 80's. No lie. Been driving the same blue convertible Geo Metro LSi convertible since 1991 and I bought that outright for $9650, brand new. My mom found it for me; knew I'd been looking for one. That was right after my father had died and she passed away two years later. I had moved to Florida when she'd been in the later stages of chemotherapy. My ADHD-riddled brain grudgingly led forward into a plan that, eventually, led to the road that brought me to where I am right now.
I never toured as a young musician. Didn't get my shit together until I was in my late 30's and am still trying to perfect the presentation from writing to performance, but most touring people my age have a library full of stories about crappy gigs, boozy hotel room parties, amorous groupies, crazy forest people and loads of drugs, those from the rock side anyway, and yeah, some of the folkies too. Okay, a lot of the folkies. Who knew?
So, this touring thing, especially with a motorhome, which I've done since 2011, is the shit. There's a code phrase that pops up often amongst campers in general and it's always said with the sort of gravitas that usually accompanies deep pearls of wisdom.
"Living the dream."
What does that mean, exactly? And why does a sly smile always seem to accompany the phrase when someone offers it up as a mantra or an existential statement of being or as a response to "how ya doing?"
So, for me - it's not just about going out and making music, teaching workshops, presenting, learning, stretching, but it's also about seeing different parts of the country and enjoying the extraordinary wonders of nature that are everywhere you look. It's getting off of the interstate and seeing what real America looks like. It's the tonic to a bittered spirit. It's a balm for the rashy heart. Drive straight off the grid, into a state park, roll up somewhere on a butte overlooking the valley and drop a big chill pill for a few days with the sounds of nothing (hopefully) but nature and whatever you're liable to get up to. Recording sessions often spring out of these kinds of environments. There's a peaceful madness that happens when you ditch the city for the wide open calm of the country.
Our bodies, electrical in much of its operating system, react to large doses of magnetic energy, of which there are mass quantities in the cities considering all of the electro-magnetic fields being used in so many different areas of tech. When you get out to a place that's devoid of those waves and frequencies, it's almost deafening; the silence. It can freak some people out but, man, I love it. "Faarm livin' is the life for me..."
And then you pack up camp and go to a music festival or teach a workshop or present an educational program and meet with all of these wonderful people who are there to learn and appreciate, collaborate and share the gift of music and it's all so very surreal. It's easy to forget about all of the craziness going around, which is another one in the column of hitting the road. While barreling down the highway, the music is usually off so that I can let my mind relax as much as possible. I think about the nature of being, my purpose, troll the cosmic frequencies for spiritual messages all while being a total driving machine.
I don't brag about much, and you've never seen me brag here, alright? But I'm gonna brag now. I'm a hell of a driver. Have always had the knack for it and have a stellar record of accident-avoidance, with my only accident being that elderly relative of Buddy Rich who ran a blind intersection and tagged my Geo on its carefully creeping nose. I held Commercial Drivers Licenses in both California and Florida, driving everything from box trucks to trams, to rental car shuttles and airport courier services (my most famous passenger? Dean Cundey, Spielberg's cinematographer for "Hook" - I was taking him and his family to the airport so that they could fly to Hawaii and work on the berg's next project; "Jurassic Park." I geeked out at him so badly and he loved it. Son said to mother, "oh no, dad found a fan.")
Anyway, I can drive, son. And sonnette. I've pulled some outright Indiana Jones moves with Rita on the interstate when semi-trucks have blown their tires right next to me, sending shrapnel every which way. Or having to maneuver at the last moment when the Big Green Egg grill shows up in the middle of your lane, or dodge the high-flying tractor tire tread that's doing the 3-point swoosh towards your windshield. Or seeing the impending travel arc of Assicus Holicus as it makes the sudden, invasive swing into your lane and scooting out of the way just in time. That's one of the most taxing things about driving anything. Driving a motorhome puts you in a particular spot on the vehicular food chain and you just have to suck it up and get used to it.
Be honest. Bugger a motorhome! I hate being behind 'em too, what kind of hypocrisy is this? Seriously, anything that blocks your view could be considered a hindrance to your ability to drive as safely as possible, I get that. It's not good enough to see the car in front of you. You also want to see what's going on ahead of them and, if possible, what's going on ahead of that as well. No sudden braking necessary because you couldn't see the field of brightened, blazing tail lights further up the highway due to the big STINKING motorhome or SEMI-truck and you just want to shoot around them and get your good view back. I try to combat that by choosing one speed that's median to everyone else's but faster than the speed limit (I'll admit to five over. It's good for gas and for this method of driving.) People spend their time passing me on the left as I chill in the right lane. I get over when I need to, which isn't often.
Imua's 25' long and about 14' high. The sticker on her dash says 13' 5" but we found ourselves in a situation that was either clearly marked incorrectly or we cleared it no problem. She can be a handful in places that are older and tighter in terms of street layout. Lots of slow turns in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where no-one in the post-civil war era had anything remotely as big as a class C motorhome ambling from town to town. It had been a rough year, transportation wise. Imua was purchased used in December of 2015 and immediately exhibited problems with the fuel pump. February, March and April saw trips to once again, fix the fuel pump ($813.66), holding tank water pump ($526.11), another fuel pump at $1,070.31 on the first day of spring tour April 19th in Shreveport, LA. It's holding up splendidly, considering the load we've carried and the roads we've shredded. The V-10 is a monster; no problem getting up those hills. If you would've told me seven years ago that I'd be touring full time out of such a beast, I would've shaken my head at you and said, "I dream about that."
Sometimes, when I'm driving, that thought floats out there and mingles along with scenery just at the end of hood. Dreams do come true. The dreaming is easy. It's the follow-through that sometimes breaks the illusion. Still, it's easy to be amazed.
Hard to see that when stuff doesn't go quite right and no amount of putting on a good face and sucking it up can totally free you from the funk that comes with everything from little hiccups to major upsets. I'm guilty of "first world problems" as much as anyone and try to play that stuff down, be more grateful about things. But, I think you're allowed a little bit of fallen grace if life throws you another curve ball entirely.
The weekend of June 10th, 2016 - I was in Illinois at the Gebhard Woods Dulcimer Festival. Friday night, Christina Grimmie was shot at a theater near my house. Two nights later, a gunman opened fire inside the Pulse nightclub, also by my house, killing many and lighting up international social media. Suddenly, everyone who talked to me was asking about it. I hadn't yet processed it yet. I'd performed at The Plaza and seen shows with Jae at the venue. Pulse was once Dante's and I ran an open mic there for a while and shot scenes from a short film there. These were both close to home and, here I was, very far from home.
September of 2001, I was in a band called Naked Head and drummer Gary Swedo went to China with our friend John Coker. While they were over there, the World Trade Center came tumbling down and they suddenly found themselves American, on foreign soil, dealing with the fear, paranoia and reality that their home country had just been brutally attacked. We worried for them, prayed for them and were exhilarated and relieved when they called us. We huddled around the phone and talked to them and cried. The distance was tough. There is no comparison of the events other than the helpless feeling of being far from home when such tragedy strikes in your neighborhood. Jae and I talked through it, we polled our friends to see if everyone was alright, and I spent the very surreal next week going everywhere, from Best Buy to El Potrero, seeing my home town on every news channel, with the big name reporters all standing on blocked-off streets in front of where I'd usually be turning to enter the parking lot for Target. Hadn't even begun to process the senselessly bloody weekend when news dropped on June 14th of boy taken by a gator at Walt Disney World. This coupled with the usual onslaught of news from around the world and across the country, was just too much at one point and I remember thinking, "I need to go ride a rollercoaster in the dark."
When life is feeling out of control; make your counter-move and give it some out-of-control that hopefully doesn't involve getting so drunk that you can't enjoy The Moment. Or the morning after the Moment. Or the whole day after The Moment. And you sure as hell can't even remember The Moment. But, a rollercoaster in the dark? Yeah, bring it.
I didn't do a lot of theme parking this summer. Ever since taking over finances for J.O.B. Entertainment Inc. this year, I've been tightening the budget all around in order to make way for improvements, upgrades, investments, development, and, eventually, savings. It really came down to, "do I really need to go in there and spend that money?" and often I talked myself right past a park, and there were a lot that I passed. However, towards the second month on tour, I happened to be in Ohio and decided to go extreme one night, bought an after 4 pass to King's Island and rode The Beast AND The Banshee in the dark. Yep. There's nothing like that one-two punch to re-calibrate your world. It was so good, I went back for a full day later in the week. Later in the summer, I'd go to Dollywood to ride the new Lightnin' Rod rollercoaster, which was a situation of such comic and cosmic perfect timing that it felt like a heist of some sort.
People ask me what I do on the road in between gigs and that's largely administrative work. I park in a Walmart parking lot after traveling for the day and read e-mail, respond, send forms, work on promotions and marketing, book shows, fill orders, somewhere in there comes the playing, writing, recording and shooting that I do for both "Dulcimerica" and DittyTV.com. If I know I'm going to have a few days, I'll hole up at a state park and make it a blend of work and relaxation. I've tried handing over elements of my business to other people, and no-one works for free, so I had to balance my returns versus my expenses on that, figured together with savings of pure time.
Some time ago, I handed my shipping and fulfillment over to Folkcraft Instruments, since they're already set up for that kind of thing. When people would purchase items from my online store, or I need to ship wholesale to retailers, I just entered the info on a website form and it was all done. Steve Ash, Folkcraft master luthier and system programmer, developed the interface, so we talked almost daily about how it was working, what I wanted to see in the forms and we connected a lot on special orders. A big special order was the MIDI mountain dulcimer that I talk about in this blog. I was on my way to Evart, MI for a week, and working with Steve on some shipping as well as the dulcimer, which was finally almost finished, when my laptop crashed.
So not good timing. I hadn't even printed out masters of my resource material for the three-day intensive that I was hosting along with Stephen Seifert prior to the ODPC Funfest at the Osceola Fairgrounds in Evart. It turned out that I was able to use his printer. Still, I was conducting all of my business that week through my iPhone. Steve passed away on July 11th. I've been told that he was working on the MIDI dulcimer in the shop when he died. At the beginning of a most intense week of music, instruction, jams and all-out dulcimer nuttery, this was a big bomb dropped into the world. I got in touch with my friends at Folkcraft, Richard, Tiffany, sent love to Jim and Ellen, promised to visit after Evart, kept tabs on them and encouraged folks to pray for them in such a difficult time. There was so much going on that there was never truly time to grasp what had just happened on so many levels. And witnessing the effect that Steve's death had on so many people was both heartbreaking and inspiring and incredible all at the same time. I used part of my concert set at the funfest as a memorial to Steve:
Steve had been an instant friend since I signed on with Folkcraft as an endorsing artist in 2008. He had been more than just an ace builder of instruments and I'm terribly proud to own many of his creations; he'd been just an all-around great guy. Over the years, we'd excitedly talked about this project and with e-mails sent back and forth with schematics photographed from napkins, it had been a slow-boil dream for both of us to make the shallow-body electric MIDI dulcimer a reality. Steve had just written to say that the FX-1, as we had dubbed it, was almost ready for a test drive. As I processed the personal side of my thoughts and feelings over his passing, I found myself looking at the truth. And if Steve were alive and somehow couldn't make it work (highly doubtful), then he would've encouraged me to find someone who could. Steve was a believer in dreams and, if he could make your dream come true, he would delight in designing it so that you would be delighted in receiving it, no matter what it was. It took about a month of letting it all sink in and then I contacted Dwain Wilder of Bear Meadow Mountain Dulcimers.
Another chapter in that particular crusade has begun, but that's another blog altogether. This one's long enough, amirite?
Imua's alternator ($413.85) went on July 29th along with the roof a/c fan ($250, luckily I knew a guy in Nashville) and then, after an oil change, got a low oil pressure light which led to a mobile RV doctor diagnostic and spark plug change ($355), which made things worse and prompted me to drive my hiccoughing rig over the North Carolina mountains and back into Nashville where I was informed that I'd need a rebuilt engine ($12,350.20.) Where's a rollercoaster when you need one?
I spent a week in a Nashville hotel room with all my gear and took a huge leap right into the music. Recorded a LOT of new material this year and that's something that I don't usually get to do. There was plenty different about my mindset this year. I wanted to stay focused, cut spending, write more, practice more, relax more and accomplish more. Work harder, go farther, give more, push the limits. Since winning "Best Guitar" in the solo/duo category at the International Blues Challenge in January, I've been riding a bullet train of a wave and it feels like it's just about to crest with this fall tour coming up. By existing within the music to this degree, with it being a daily pursuit, something that informs my well-being as well as my financial security. Something that is soulful at the same time that it's marketable. Practical yet entertaining and something of a splurge if taken that way, my quest for 2016 has been one of value, again - what can I offer that's of some value to others?
I'll tell you what's really valuable to me; it's The Moments. Those tiny little fractions of a second where you get a big establishing shot of your situation and you say to yourself, "holy crap, this is happening." When the big cheesy grin on your face could be mistaken for a great buzz or some inner joke, but you're really just amazed that this is the life that you get to live. Every purple sunrise and every tangerine sunset, those late-night bull sessions with the brewery crew, sounds of a million leaves singing in the wind and the sound of a string band as you approach it in the night. The smell of fresh fish on the market docks and the burbling wash of happy giggles coming from the theme park kiddieland. The sound of mountain strummers played en masse and amplified through a killer system and the seemingly random visits with people that always contain great pearls of wisdom and human knowledge if you know how to hear. The Moment before you begin to play and The Moment when it's no longer audience and performer but "us" in The Moment. When it's no longer teacher-student and it's "us" in The Moment.
Wouldn't it be great if all of the barriers could disappear if we could simply find peace, joy and promise in appreciating the beauty of those singular Moments?
That's a dream. And Dream is the theme, so I'll remain cautiously optimistic about where our many tribes are heading, but I won't let some media outlet tell me how I should feel. I've unplugged largely from that and if I need to know if it's raining, I'll stick my head outside the door. If the world is crashing down around my ears, then just give me a three-day start to grab the loved ones and high tail it. If destruction is a-comin', let's ride the rollercoaster together and enjoy the ride. As I've been singing since 2007, "this is what going crazy feels like, I think I like it."
I'm blessed to have this ride. Blessed to have dreamed this ride and dreaming always of where it will take me, and us, next.