Thursday, December 21, 2006
Photo by Michael Kanemoto. From our Liberty Hall Holiday Hoedown, December 2006.
Thanks, LVJ, for the inspiration for a new post from me.
LVJ mentioned a couple of new fiddle tunes of mine that were played at Liberty Hall:
Christmas Eve -- which is NOT mine, though I wish it were. It comes from Jim Bowles, a fiddler of whom I know little. Well, I just did a little search for him and found out more... he was from Kentucky. Even cooler is that "Christmas Eve" is mentioned in this article... the link is in the blog title here, for those who are interested. Now, why that tune is called Christmas Eve, I can't imagine exactly. But it is a great tune and I'm trying to learn it a little better for next year.
[So far I have 3 seasonal fiddle tunes which only get played for our holiday shows. For a while all I had was "Breaking Up Christmas" -- you can find great versions of that by Benton Flippen and Tommy Jarrell. Then last year I got turned on to "Christmas Time Will Soon Be Over", which was recorded by Fiddlin' John Carson way back in the day... he was one of the first stars of the Grand Ole Opry. That tune/song (it does have a few lyrics -- "country haiku", as Ike calls it) also appeared in the film "Cold Mountain", and Jack White sang it. I notice when I do a search for it that some sites credit it as BY Jack White... interesting, and just a note on how traditional tunes sometimes do end up getting copywritten by someone much later. Is this a good or bad thing? I am not here to judge that right now, just a side topic for later consideration.]
The other tune was Douglas County. A funny thing about that tune. It's not a new one; we've been playing it for a while, maybe almost a year. I originally gave it a temporary title: "Bob Holt Meets the Crooked Jades". That's a mouthful, at least! Plus the confusion of folks thinking I was talking about Bob Hope made it not such a good title. Not to mention there are a precious few who know of the Crooked Jades (if you are not one of them, look them up - we think they are awesome). So shortly before we set out to record, Phil suggested (strongly suggested, you might say) that I come up with a REAL title for the tune. Good idea.
[If you want to hear this tune, you can find it on our listen page -- on the left column, with the title "BHMTCJ"]
So... it's really hard to name a fiddle tune, sometimes. My first tune ever, January Waltz, was a gift from the heavens and was easy to name as it came to me in January, several years ago, and is a waltz. The first dance tune I came up with was inspired by Art Stamper's playing, but I was bound and determined to give it a GOAT-y name. Thus, Goat Creek.
However, there's a more specific reason for giving it a watery name.
Many years ago, while attending the workshops at Augusta Heritage Center (man, I love that place... hope to go there and teach some day), I was bowled over by a lecture/demonstration given by Alan Jabbour. Now, this fellow was the founding director of the American Folklife Center at the Smithsonian. He also is a dedicated fiddler and before he was all official, he spent a lot of time in West Virginia hanging out with the old fiddlers and such. Doing what I wish I had time/money/ambition to do my own self. Anyway. One of the things that Jabbour spoke of was river/creek fiddle tunes. He said that those tunes tend to start out high, jump around some, and that the B part was almost always low, or lower, than the A part. Case in point with a very common tune: Cripple Creek. See what I mean? So that was one of many things that got me all excited during Jabbour's talk/play session. My students get to hear about other things from time to time when I'm really geeking out.
GOAT CREEK was written without a title in mind. It starts high, jumps around a lot, and then goes low for the B part. Once I realized that, I had my title!
Other tunes I have had trouble naming, too. The tune now called "Old Dirty Boot" didn't have a name for quite some time. We even performed it nameless... we'd usually play it at the beginning of a show so I wouldn't feel compelled to talk on and on about it without a name, etc. You know how I can be. We had to name it eventually when it was included in the music we chose to have available for that Merlfest live download deal earlier in 2006. I sat and thought about it for a while and for whatever reason, that's what popped out. Well, kind of. I had "Old Dirty Boots" in mind, and Ike suggested making it just one boot. Good idea! I love that title now.
"Rock in the Woods" is potentially mistaken for Rockin' the Woods, so can be problematic. I told the story of that tune for a while on stage. We were at the Hiawatha Festival in the U.P., Michigan, summer of 2005. I was alone at our campsite for a while. It was a beautiful wooded camping grounds, with very tall evergreens and plenty of shrubs and plants and places for little things to live. As I sat messing around with this melody, a chipmunk appeared about six feet from me. It was munching away on something, moving around, and totally unconcerned. Some of you know how fond I am of almost all animals, especially the really cute ones... one of my very girly qualities. Well, I kept on playing and that chipmunk kept on hanging out. It was a very cool few minutes for me. All of a sudden, the little guy took off, going 100 miles an hour and right by my left foot... I could almost feel him. (maybe I played a sour note...) I was sad to see him go, but you know what? He came back! After a while. By then I had the tune finished and I tried really hard to name it after my little friend. But the character of the tune is not chipmunk-y or cute. It's a rocking tune. And it was written in the woods. I started out calling it Rocking the Woods, which has a cool double meaning when you think about our wooden instruments. However, I ended up with the Rock because I like tune titles that bring about imagery, or questions, or those that are a statement in themselves (Hawk's got a chicken and flew into the woods, anyone?).
So... back to BHMTCJ. This tune was directly inspired by the playing of Bob Holt, from Ava, Douglas County, Missouri. Then we added a funky chord partway through that gets played twice, on one full A part. That's the Crooked Jades influence. But the main thing for me is the melody, which is, to me, very Bob Holt-y. There is precedent for naming fiddle tunes after counties... Robinson County, an Ozark tune, being one good example. So, I thought maybe I'd name it after Holt's native county. We just recorded the tune for our upcoming album. I gave it that title for the recording. Then, when I announced it on stage at Liberty Hall, everyone cheered and Phil mentioned to me that we were IN Douglas County. Oh, yeah.
I love Lawrence and the people of Douglas County. But I don't want to have a fiddle tune with a name that references a specific geological spot be confused with a spot of the same name but different place, especially one so close to our home. Yeah, there's probably a Douglas County in most states, anyway.
So... guess what. This tune starts high, jumps around a lot, and then goes low for the B part!
I'm currently doing some research on rivers and creeks in the area around where Bob Holt lived. I even wrote an email to one of his friends, Jim Nelson, a St. Louis guitar player (who happens to be one of my favorite all-time old time guitar players). I asked Jim if he knew of any waterways that Holt was fond of. Sadly, there is nothing conclusive to report from that query. However, I am sure Bob Holt got around to many of the waterways in his county. I'm going to choose one of them and then that tune will have its final, hopefully long-loved, name.
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
I ask the clerk for rooms on the second floor (this Motel 6 only has two floors). Although it's more of a pain in the ass to climb stairs with all your gear, at least you won't have an early bird walking around on your head in the morning. I also ask for rooms that are NOT next to each other. Noisy neighbors are a common hazard when you stay in motels, but for some reason. knowing your noisy neighbors is intolerable. I put the band credit card through the bullet-proof glass along with my driver's license. As usual, the night clerk has to run it as two separate transactions even though I'm paying for both rooms on one credit card. This inefficiency is typical of the entire Motel 6 chain. However, there have been a few times that I've been checked in by a star employee- one who has advanced training in Motel 6 computer ops. So I KNOW its possible to put two rooms on one charge card. Tonight's clerk is no star, and so I have to sign two separate charge slips, and fill out two separate guest information sheets. When I get to the vehicle line, I grumble and have to walk out to the parking lot to get the plate number. You'd think that I would have memorized it by now. But, I still have our old van license, HYF-493, cemented in my accessible memory. I am always surprised by the actual license number 382-YHT, and vow to remember it the next time. But I never do.
I return to the office and finish filling out the forms. The night clerk asks how many keys I want for each room. I answer two. Somebody always loses their key, or locks themselves out, no matter how short a time we spend in the motel. I finish up the transactions, and glance up at the floor plan map taped to the bullet-proof glass. I look for our rooms in relation to the office on the map. I can't figure it out. I never can. I decide to just drive around the motel and look at the numbers instead. I drive around the motel, looking at the numbers. I spot our rooms, slam on the brakes, and then everybody goes into immediate action. Like a swat team, we pull everything of value, instruments, microphones, computers, iPods- anything that somebody might steal, out and into the parking lot. One of us from each room grabs a load and heads up the stairs- while the other continues to grab luggage. This tag-team approach insures that the van is never left unattended. Nate and Ike have their load-in down to a science. Each of them purchased back packs at Wal Mart last year just for this purpose. Inside, they keep extra socks, maybe a clean shirt, pajamas, and their toiletry bags. Ike always makes his load in one trip. Sometimes Nate tries too. He looks like an overloaded camel as he lumbers up to the second floor with his backpack, bass and amp. Betse and I prefer the multiple trips approach.
Once everything is safely moved into our rooms, I move the van to a parking place that will accommodate the trailer. Sometimes this is impossible, and the trailer must be unhitched and parked in its own space. Tonight there's room against the curb, but I have to go around the motel once to get a better run at it. I turn off the van, pull all the shades down, and lock it up, then walk around the van, double-checking that all the doors are secure. I check the trailer too, yanking on the padlock to make sure. Then I head up to the room.
The rooms at Motel 6 come in one of three configurations. Betse has classified these as "A", "B" or "C". "A" rooms are usually older motels that have been bought, renovated and reopened as 6's. Their unusually shaped rooms are large and comfortable. "A" rooms have a table with chairs, and (sometimes) an easy chair for lounging. And the beds can be as much as 15 feet apart in these palaces of economy. We check into "A" rooms once in a blue moon. "B" rooms are slightly more common, and are smaller as a result, but still have plenty of space to move around. The beds in "B" rooms are 9-10 feet apart. Commonly, these types of rooms are at Motel 6 locations that are laid out on a single level, like a military compound. They are truly "motor inns" and you can park right outside your door making it easy to load in. And, because they only have one floor, there's never anybody walking on your head in the morning. Hands down, "B" rooms are my favorite.
I put my key card into the slot and open up the door. I groan because tonight we have a "C" room. I know it immediately because Betse is standing on the other side of the room by her bed unpacking her stuff. She is no more than 15 feet away from me, and I haven't even come into the room yet. There is only enough space for one person to walk between the foot of my bed and the poorly designed all-in-one shelving unit/desk/chair/TV stand. Betse's bed is against the bathroom wall and mine is on the opposite-jammed up against the heater next to the door. There is maybe 3 feet between our beds (think Laura and Rob Petry from the Dick Van Dyke Show). All other available floor space is taken up by instrument cases and our 2 suitcases.
It's now after 2:30am, and so we choose not to turn on the TV. Betse readies herself for bed in the bathroom, while I unpack my pajamas and toiletries. The room is freezing. Betse turned the wimpy wall heater on high heat, full blast when she first came in, but I still have my coat on. I hear a whimper of pain through the thin bathroom wall. Betse comes out in her PJ's and Robe shivering. "I hate to put on cold clothes before bed," she says as she jumps under the covers with a "hmmmmphh." I grab my pajamas and toothbrush and head into the bathroom for a hot shower. I prefer to wash off my filth at night before I go to bed. Betse is the opposite. She relies on a hot shower to wake her up. And she hates going to bed with wet hair. I haven't had to worry about that problem since my hair fell out in the 80's. The standard "C" room Motel 6 shower design looks like something from a Star Trek episode. The stall is round, and the shower head is above you when you walk in, pointing at the back wall. I turn on the water and wait for it to heat up before stepping into the transporter bay. The standard Motel 6 shower head is ball-shaped and sends out an uneven blast of water. Nate calls this type of nozzle a "horse piss shower". This is a particular pet peeve of his, and he often threatens to bring his own shower head with him on tours. So far, he hasn't.
Now nicely warmed, I turn off the water and step back into the cold bathroom. I put on my PJ's and brush my teeth. I walk back into the room and the chill begins to overtake me. Betse is reading in bed. I grab my own book, and jump beneath the covers. I check the heater- high heat, full blast. I put my hand over the vent, located right next to my bed. The air coming out is slightly warmer than cold, not an encouraging sign. I glance over at Betse, already lost in her book. Without fail, she reads before bed every night to get sleepy. Tonight, she is reading the new Charles Frazier novel, "Thirteen Moons". I open up my book, "A Riot of our Own-Night and Day with The Clash 1976-79". I read maybe three pages before I hear Betse exhale and shut her book. It's late and we both need to sleep. We wish each other a good night, and I reach up and turn out the light.
I am a crew member on an interplanetary space flight to venus. We have achieved orbit and are beginning our descent into the outer layers of the gaseous planet's atmosphere. As we begin to skim the upper mesosphere, a warning signal begins blaring. I flip open the control panel, and see that the exterior temperature gauge indicates a dangerous heat build up. I am worried that our heat dissipation panels might have been damaged during our long flight. My throat is scalding as the air becomes too hot to breathe. I fear we are not going to make it...
I awake in a pool of sweat. It is 6am, and apparently the wall unit is now working- high heat, full blast. It's easily 100 degrees in our room. I get up and crank the thermostat knob to "cold". I have to go to the bathroom, and I'm careful not to make any noise as I walk past Betse's bed. She is notoriously a light sleeper. I do my best to shut the door behind me as quietly as possible, so as to not disturb her from her delicate slumber. I pee and then drink 10 plastic cups of water from the tap. I open the door carefully and listen for a moment. I hear Betse's breathing, slow and steady, and gingerly move back toward my bed. As I pass by her, a joint in my foot cracks and she stirs with a gasp. She rolls over and groans.
The morning light is already spilling into the room from around the edges of the curtain. I pull off my bedspread and hold it up against the window, standing on my bed. I tuck the edge of the spread over the upper left corner of the curtain. Then, moving to my right, I work the bedspread over the curtain rod sealing out most of the light from the room. I then carefully tuck the bottom of the bedspread into the small gap between my bed and the the heater. It's still about 98 degrees, but at least cold air is now blowing out of the vent, and this makeshift barrier keeps it from blowing on my head. I lie back down, covers off, and wait for my body temperature to equalize. We don't have to check out of the motel for another 4 hours and I desperately need to go back to sleep. Thoughts begin to race through my head and I know sleep may prove to be elusive. I come upon an idea for a new blog entry. I go over various ways of telling it in my mind. I'm pleased with myself, but then begin to worry that I might forget some of this genius by morning. I briefly consider getting up and writing some notes. But Betse's breathing has steadied again, and I decide not to risk it. I'm not sure how much time passes before I finally drift back to sleep.
Betse's alarm goes off. At first I'm not sure where I am. I open my eyes and reality rushes back into my groggy brain. I am in Iowa City. I am on the road again. I am at a Motel 6. I am in a "C" room. And I am freezing again.
Dedicated to James Frey
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
In the early spring of 2006, I got an email from a young man in the Washington DC area who expressed interest in working with us. He told me he was starting a new label, Free Dirt Records, and he wanted us to be one of his first artists. His enthusiasm was compelling, and we met with him several times over the summer working out the details. This week we have finally inked a deal which not only includes the release of our next album, but also the re-release of "Wings of a Dove", "Spring a Leak" and "Throw Down" on the Free Dirt label. Each of these back catalog titles will be professionally re-mastered, and will feature bonus tracks and a new package design. The reissues will be available sometime in February of 2007. The new album will be slated for release in the early fall of 2007 (think Winfield!!!)
So you got signed, so what? Well, because of retail distribution and marketing, for the first time in our 10 year history, people who have never heard of us will be hearing our album FIRST, before they see us live. This is significant. We can't rely on having a kick butt show to get people to buy our records. This record has to stand on it's own. And it most certainly will. I expect that a very small percentage of our old fans will walk away, scratching their heads when they hear it. But I also expect a much larger percentage to hear it and tell 40 of their friends about it. I also expect it to get a lot more attention from radio stations. Dirk Powell has acquired several vintage microphones since we recorded "Throw Down" and the warmth and quality these mics delivered was unbelievable. Then, with the separation we were able to achieve by isolating all the instruments, the resulting sound quality will be crystal clear and LOUD. And ultimately, the songs are great- full of pain, desperation, loss, love, sacrifice and resignation. Dirk and I were talking one very late night in his studio. He told me, "This album is going to be world class..." I believe him. Other bands may shoot to the top of the mountain a lot faster, but sometimes their momentum carries them right off the other side and they ultimately break up. We've always taken the "little engine that could" approach. Each year we grow a little bit. This album will be a major step up.
I'll go into the actual making of the record in more detail later. In the meantime, be patient and put some money aside so you can buy the reissues in February. They will sound and look fantastic too. And for those who still thirst for our live sound, there are two new live shows on our "listen" page. Check them out at wilderscountry.com/listen.asp
Friday, November 10, 2006
The scene: Pop's Blue Moon Tavern, "on the hill"- St. Louis, Missouri
It was a small, warm feeling room that, if packed (which it was), would hold about 100 people before the fire marshall would object. The bar ran the entire length of one wall, and there were a few tables on the opposite. We were next to the entrance, playing our hearts out in an effort (for once!) to have a decent show in St. Louis. Although we'd played at least two other times in our sister Missouri city, our past experiences had been less than stellar. This time, we thought, we would go to a place where people already hang out, a place with a neighborhood feel, a place small enough, that even if not that many people were there, it would FEEL like we had a great crowd. Then, if we played well, word of mouth would seed our future success.
Only problem was, the St. Louis Cardinals were in the World Series. And they were not just in it, they were WINNING it. And they were not just winning it soon, they were going to win it TONIGHT. The glow of the TV in the opposite corner of the bar was an irresistible draw to the crowd. We did have some fans in the room, but even the diehards in the Wilders T-shirts had their backs to us. Don't get me wrong, everyone was glad we were there, and very supportive. It was just funny because no matter how much they liked us, there was something else very important happening at the same time, in the same room, and their attention was divided at best. Luckily, we were situated so that we could see the game too. As the game moved into the late innings, electricity began to build. You could feel it, it was palpable.
Bottom of the ninth- St. Louis needed three outs to win. They had a decent lead and, short of a rally by the Detroit Tigers, all signs pointed to a victory within a few minutes. Ike looked at me and said, "Let's play Higher Power." This is an old Louvin Brothers gospel tune that we used to do a lot. It's the one we try to get the crowd to help us out with on the choruses, "AMEN! AMEN! THERE'S A HIGHER POWER. AMEN! AMEN! THERE'S A HIGHER POW-WEEEEER".
I kicked it off and the whole room vibrated. The crowd's attention turned to us for a moment, then back to the TV, then back to us. The first chorus came and they jumped right in, "AMEN! AMEN! THERE'S A HIGHER POWER. AMEN! AMEN! THERE'S A HIGHER POW-WEEEEER".
St. Louis got the first out, and the crowd roared. They began to jump up and down, dance and grin. When the chorus came around again, they sang louder, "AMEN! AMEN! THERE'S A HIGHER POWER. AMEN! AMEN! THERE'S A HIGHER POW-WEEEEER". I think everybody in the room thought the same thing...that in our own way, we were HELPING- that if we could all just sing loud enough, and believe hard enough, we could get the next two outs OURSELVES.
Ike finished singing the final verse. He looked at us and said, "keep PLAYING". He started the whole tune over again. It was just too cool. The feeling was electric. "AMEN! AMEN! THERE'S A HIGHER POWER. AMEN! AMEN! THERE'S A HIGHER POW-WEEEEER" . He doubled the chorus as the Cardinals got the second out. The crowd roared, "AMEN! AMEN! THERE'S A HIGHER POWER. AMEN! AMEN! THERE'S A HIGHER POW-WEEEEER". The energy was dizzying. They were locked into it, they sang and watched and sang again, "AMEN! AMEN! THERE'S A HIGHER POWER. AMEN! AMEN! THERE'S A HIGHER POW-WEEEEER".
With only one out to go, it was hard to stop. We so badly wanted the game to end with everybody singing with us. But then things slowed down, as the next batter began to hit foul ball, after foul ball. The St. Louis pitching coach came out to talk things over, and the TV station went to a commercial break. Ike had already sang all the verses twice, so, like it or not, we finished the tune. With sweat dripping out from under my hat, I gazed around the room. Everybody looked like they had just stepped off a roller coaster.
Ike looked at me and said, "Now what?" Then somebody in the crowd yelled out "BUCKET!"... Without batting an eye, we launched into Hank Williams' familiar lament about not being able to "buy no beer". This was St. Louis after all, home of Anheiser Busch, and people in this town take their beer seriously. The crowd began to sway and shimmy as the game resumed. The Detroit batter hit another foul ball. Everyone continued to divide their attention between us and the TV. Our playing was automatic. It was like we weren't even in our bodies playing the instruments. It felt like it was all a giant hallucination. And then it happened, a fly ball hit right to the center fielder. It was over. The St. Louis Cardinals were now World Series champions. The crowd went into hysterics jumping up and down, screaming, and singing "Yeah my bucket's got a hole in it, yeah my buckets got a hOOOOLe in it, yeah my buckets got a HOLE in it, I CAN'T BUY NO BEEEEEEEEER!"
We finished the song triumphantly, and Ike suggested to the crowd that we all take a short break to grab a beer and join in the celebration. It was amazing. People were hugging, kissing, crying. I felt like my face was going to break, I was smiling so wide. All of us in the room had momentarily become one. Our tribe had conquered. It was dizzying. We hugged, and screamed, and danced, and jumped for joy. A round of high fives went down the bar. Everybody cheered, and toasted, and basked in the afterglow. It was a chemical reaction- a unification of feeling occurring at the same moment. The music, the crowd, the game- all of us bonded together at the right time, in the right place, with the right people.
It was one of the most memorable experiences I've ever had playing music.
And I'm a ROYALS fan.
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Up to this time, out of respect for our shy and venerable Tick, I had only scratched the surface.
SO, NOW LET THE FLOODGATES OF TICK LORE BE THROWN OPEN WIDE!
My first Winfield was in 1994. I arrived late on the first night in a Volkswagen van filled with two non-musician friends, a cheap Kay mandolin, a no-name resonator banjo and Fender Catalina flattop guitar set up dobro style. Although I watched a lot of music that weekend, I participated in none of it. I was too intimidated by the level of those playing all around me throughout the entire weekend, and I never opened any of my numerous cases even once. Humbled, I was nonetheless so excited by the experience, I vowed to vigilantly practice at home, and to bring another musician with me to Winfield the next year.
That second year, Betse and I camped out by the softball diamonds, and spent the weekend huddling around "The Fiddler's Fake Book". Betse had bought this wonderful spiral-bound bible from a vendor underneath the grandstand not long after we arrived. Inspired by the fancy fiddling of Tim O'Brien and Nickel Creek (the preteen version), she would flip through the pages, sight reading the strange, yet somehow familiar tunes, while I looked over her shoulder, holding on to the guitar chords for dear life. Although clearly we were out of our element, we knew we had something going for us when people kept stopping in the road next to our camp to listen.
So the next year we brought Ike with us. Now we had a guitarist AND a singer who actually knew all of the lyrics to some Hank Williams songs. We camped in our same spot, (stretching cheap K-Mart tarps over an old soccer goal to keep out the wind and rain that pelted us that year) and, not only attracted the attention of our neighbors in the campground, but several others wanderers who actually came OFF the road and INTO our camp to listen. By a stroke of luck, Betse signed us up for our first Stage V performance that year on Saturday night at 1am. You can see evidence of that important, first Wilders performance. as a special feature on our Live DVD. Nobody is arguing that we were short on talent, but long on potential.
Enter the Tickmeister:
I think it was Friday night of that year, that I heard Ike telling Betse, "Hey, I ran into Patrick Frazier's dad, Dale. He invited us over to his camp. I'd love to go play a couple of songs with him tonight." Ike had met Dale earlier in a the year at a jam session in a friend's basement in Kansas City. Betse and I sort of shrugged our shoulders and agreed, but I have to say, I had a little trepidation stepping so far out of my comfort zone. I had still never jammed with anybody at Winfield- choosing instead to hand-select my own musical partners and drag them down there with me. So, it was a big step for me to grab my dobro case and follow Ike and Betse into this strange territory.
Dale had given Ike pretty good instructions on his location, and I was astonished when I saw his encampment. As I remember, there were at least three diesel bus-to-RV conversions parked at 90 degree angles forming an impenetrable barrier to the surrounding campground. We moved past one of the buses' bumpers into the inner sanctum of the camp- where no blade of grass was visible due to the bus-to-bus blue astroturf carpet stretched out inside the perimeter. I remember thinking, BOY these people know how to CAMP. Anyway, Dale was there with his mandolin. After a few introductions and pleasantries were exchanged, we pulled our instruments out and started to try to jam. Dale was clearly the alpha jammer, and we all deferred- me secretly hoping to hell that he didn't throw me a solo. So far, so good. Then Ike sang a couple of his Hank Williams tunes and I got to see the Tickmeister in full flight. When a solo came his way, he didn't duck it. He grabbed it up with a bluesy gusto that was not only appropriate to the tune, but stylistic to boot. Even though I might have seen Chris Thile playing something onstage beyond my imagination earlier in the day, Dale's gutsy performance literally blew my mind.
And there was something else about him that made my night. He was FUNNY. There was a special comedic chemistry between Ike and Dale that laid me out in stitches for long painful moments. I don't have any recollection of what crap they were going on about now, but I know that, at some point, I begged both of them to stop before I hemorrhaged. In short, the whole evening was perfect. Betse got to play some new fiddle tunes she had learned from her fiddler's fake book, Ike got to sing some Leadbelly and Hank Williams songs, and I got to play a few rudimentary solos on my dobro. Best yet, nobody made fun of me. I had made it. I had successfully jammed. And Dale was the catalyst.
In subsequent years, Dale has been a mainstay to my Winfield experience. He's generally the first person I seek out when I get in the gate, and he's often the last person I say goodbye to before I leave. I've followed him throughout the Pecan Grove campground (where the jams go all day and all night) and said a ridiculous "good night" to him as the sun was coming up. I've learned from him how to find the best "action" in the campground, and when to move on when it's clear the life is dying out of a session. I remember the first year the Freighthoppers appeared at Winfield. Dale and I were both so stricken by Frank Lee clawhammer fever, that it was nearly a race between he and I, to see who could figure out how to do that crazy thing on a banjo. Well, within a year, we both figured it out on our own. But in recent years, Dale has eclipsed me on the banjo, as well as buck dancing, beyond my wildest imagination, and still remains humble about it (and will, I have no doubt, deny this praise to anyone who reads this).
So all hail the Tickmeister! He was there at our beginning. And he continues to inspire us today. He has often told me in private that WE did as much for HIM musically, as he did for us. I don't know about that. I guess you will have to check his blog to know his side of the story. I'll suffice it to say that without Dale Frazier, we would be a very different band- and maybe never a band at all. All hail the Tick!
Friday, September 01, 2006
It was our final night of performances in the La Gayola tent, at Spiegel Gardens, in Edinburgh, Scotland. We were all in high spirits because, earlier that morning, we had accepted a Herald Angels award for our performances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This award, presented on a weekly basis by the Edinburgh Herald newspaper throughout the 3 week festival, is a huge honor. Basically, we were picked as best band at a festival featuring about 2000 bands. In addition to that, we had a near sellout audience inside the antique La Gayola tent, who were just as excited as we were. We were approximately halfway into our performance, when Betse asked to do a solo. Nate, Ike and I were happy to oblige, and went backstage. We were joking around with members of the band following us, when the night turned from triumph to terror... That was the moment when Ike said, WADE, throw the WHIZZER!"
As some of you know, I was a wrestler in middle school and high school. Coach Elder, my middle school coach, used to yell that phrase at me while I was getting my head squeezed off by a more powerful opponent. He would wait for my foe to reach over my shoulder, at which point he would scream from the side of the mat, "WADE, throw the WHIZZER! THE WHIIIIIIZZZEER!”. I’ve told that story on countless occasions, and Ike loves it so much that he often asks me to throw the whizzer in non-wrestling situations. I might be having a hard time tuning my mandolin, or fishing my keys out of my pocket, and Ike will shout, “WADE, throw the WHIZZER!".
So, we were joking around with the other band, when the subject of band wrestling came up. We all laughed about how we often kill road boredom by spontaneous wrestling and Ike, of course, told them about my old coach- the way he would scream, “Throw the WHIZZER!". We all laughed amongst ourselves when the bass player from the other band asked, “Just what, exactly, IS the whizzer?
Ike dangled his arm over my shoulder. I reach up, grabbed it high on the bicep and bent over. That's when I heard a pop, and the sickening sound of splintering wood. I turned around, and Ike's guitar was completely smashed in on top. He was still wearing his guitar, and it had been between us when I demonstrated the move. We were both in total shock for a moment, and I thought I was going to throw up. It had happened so fast. Ike was pretty cool, and said, "It will be ok, we will call Mass Street Music and get it glued when we get back." His nonchalance was hardly calming to me, however, and were it not for a complete ban on handguns in the UK, I would have gone out right then in search of an instrument of my own demise, in retribution for my stupidity.
By this time, Betse had finished her solo, and we skulked back into the La Gayola tent. She turned around, looked at my pale face, and said, “Is everything ok?” I just shook my head, eyes fixed to the floor while Ike held the guitar up, like a dead rooster at a cock fight, for the wall-to-wall crowd's revulsion.
He finished the show on a baby grand piano that was luckily onstage, and we have been borrowing and renting guitars ever since. I still feel horrible about it, but I’m going to follow Ike’s lead and just try to keep positive thoughts about its possible repair.
Mike Horan, if you are reading this, we will see you first thing Wednesday morning. Get extra glue...
Sunday, August 20, 2006
Didn't get a chance to do any writing in the few days I had home. We are leaving for Scotland tomorrow. If possible I will write some updates while we are there. If not, hang on, I'll try to get some stuff posted when we return. Regardless, take care and enjoy the last of your summer.
Sunday, July 30, 2006
Wednesday, July 5th- Travel day
Betse, Nate and I drove the brown clown as far as Colby, Kansas. The air conditioner in the van had died before the Alaska tour, and we lacked the sufficient funds to replace it before leaving this time. Thus, it was a hot and loud drive across Kansas with all the windows down. We checked in to our Motel 6 around midnight.
(More on the Colby, Kansas "field roaches" in another post...)
Thursday, July 6th- Denver, Colorado: The Bluebird Theater
Picked up Ike from the airport around 3pm. Opened for bluegrass up-and-comers, Chatham County Line. Not many in attendance. We Wilders were rusty after our post Alaska break. The highlights of the night were tunes we don't normally do. Otherwise, it was a bust show for all concerned. I think Denver is like KC, it's a heavy metal town. We just can't get a crowd there to save our lives.
Friday/Saturday, July 7th & 8th- Buffalo, Wyoming: Bighorn Music Festival
Neat festival situated at the county fairgrounds. It reminded me of the old Iowa days-dust blowing in your face, the smell of manure, and bluegrass fans in lawnchairs, sweating it out in the sun. We reunited with our old pals, Sweet Sunny South, as well as Pete and Anne Sibley. Also had a couple of funny conversations with Tim O'Brien. Later, I was blown away by an exuberant Missouri/Arkansas band called the Arkamo Rangers. Had to split right after our show on Saturday to drive halfway to Salt Lake City. Saw more deer on the side of the road than I've ever seen in my life. White knuckles and tired eyes were the result.
Sunday, July 9th- Snowbird Ski Resort, Salt Lake City, Utah: Founders Festival
This was a big tent show at a very swanky ski resort. One hot night followed by one hot day just to get there, resulted in an explosion of energy from the band. We played our best show in a LONG time. Also got to celebrate our pal, April's birthday, in ski resort luxury.
Monday, July 10th- driving day en-route to Jackson, Wyoming
Split the driving/ riding between April's Subaru and the Brown Clown. Stopped at a roadside bar, and had a beer and a few games of pool before heading on into Jackson.
Tuesday, July 11th- Jackson, Wyoming: Harvest Cafe'
We sold out this funny little show at the local natural food store. They converted a grocery store into a concert hall in about an hour. Being so close to the crowd was a nice change of pace.
Wednesday, July 12th- Gardiner, Montana: Gardiner Community Center
It was a pretty good crowd for a Wednesday. the audience was made up of a lot of Yellowstone National Park employees. Everybody came to dance and sweat.
Thursday, July 13th- Bozeman, Montana: The Filling Station
We hadn't played a stinky bar in awhile. The crowd was psyched and we picked up on their energy and delivered it back. I get the impression that people in Montana like to dance. The sound was horrible but we persevered and everybody had a great time.
Friday, July 14th- Great Falls, Montana: Bluegrass by the Bay Festival
Left early but arrived late due to a blown trailer tire. Luckily we got 2 new tires, and replaced some bad lugs at a Sinclair Station in Sulfur Springs. This festival had the largest attendance we've played to in awhile. People seemed to like it, but we were too besieged by bugs, heat and humidity to really get it going. That night, we stayed at a motor lodge downtown with a 2nd floor bar which looks directly into the 3rd floor pool. Sadly, the mermaid that usually swims for entertainment on Friday nights called in sick. The next morning, there were several regulars sitting at the bar watching kids swim in front of the glass. Sort of creeped me out.
Saturday, July 15th- Helena, Montana: Mount Helena Festival
We've played events like this in Helena several times, so we knew exactly what to expect. People hung out in the shade and enjoyed the music. Our set was early and we got back to the hotel before the sun went down. Still, I stayed up too late watching cable. Then I got up early the next morning and climbed up a mountain trail just outside of town. It took me an hour to get to the top and then I was attacked by gnats. Still, the view was more than worth the effort and the misery.
Sunday & Monday, July 16th & 17th. Travel home
A heat wave of hellish proportions tortured us the entire way back. We took turns driving, so that at least the driver and copilot could have direct hot air blowing on them. At one point south of Sioux City, Iowa, I woke up in the back, delirious and basting in my own juices. I realized Nate had overdriven his shift by about a half hour. I yelled from the back, "DUDE, its time to pull over and let ME drive! This turkey is DONE!" I made a mental note to call the mechanic and get an estimate on the A/C repair as soon as possible.
Thursday, July 13, 2006
There's no place like Nome...
We took off from Anchorage in the late afternoon, and quickly the landscape beneath us changed from mountains to wide open rolling tundra crisscrossed by hundreds of shallow river flood plains. Roads are almost non-existent in the Alaskan interior, and it was really weird to see so much open land with virtually no human development. We flew northwest for a few hours, landing briefly north of the Arctic Circle in Kotzabue, a tiny island settlement hanging by a thread to the continent under constant assault by the ice and winds of the Bering Sea. As we took off again, I could see the sea ice still floating just offshore. From above, it looked like somebody had emptied a giant bag of flour into the ocean. The short flight across the Seward Peninsula to Nome was amazing. There were miles and miles of green tundra, divided by meandering rivers fed by snow-melt from the interior mountains. From high above, the rivers writhed across the tundra like long giant snakes. These were rivers still in their natural state- free to flow this way and that, seeking the most advantageous route to the sea without the Army Corp of Engineers meddling to straighten, dam, or impede their progress in any way.
We landed in Nome around 8:30pm, and were greeted in the tiny terminal by our host for the weekend, Carol Gales. Carol was dressed in tie dye and sensible shows, and had the spare, thin and hardy look of someone who could easily survive in the harshest of landscapes. We threw our stuff in her van and took off to the Forest Service bunkhouse- our lodging for the next few days. Each of us tossed our bags in our rooms, and then we piled back into the van rolling up the roller coaster road above the permafrost to a welcoming party hosted in our honor at a fishing camp/cabin 20 miles outside town. Several Nomites waited there for us, and we were immediately made to feel at home with cold beverages and caribou barbeque to satiate our thirst and hunger. We broke out the instruments, and played a good hour or so of tunes for our hosts. On a break, I walked outside the cabin for my first walk on the tundra. Everything I had read or heard up to this point was confirmed when I got about 10 feet outside the cabin. The experience of walking on tundra- being a thin skin of living vegetation and soil delicately perched atop frozen land that never thaws (thus it's name permafrost), is the equivalent of walking on top of giant car wash sponges. The vegetation seems to grow in clumps, and as I walked, I had to be careful to not twist an ankle as the tendons in each of my legs tensed with each unsure step. I tentatively made my way to a rock outcrop about 200 yards above the cabin. It was after midnight, and the sun still hung on the horizon as I looked over the incredible treeless terrain stretching before me on three sides, and the vast Bering Sea darkly cutting across the horizon to the south.
The next morning we were awakened, from too-little sleep, for a series of morning radio performances on various stations in Nome to promote the Midnight Sun Folk Festival. We were to be the "host band" at the festival, and we sleepily played a few songs at each station-inviting the residents of Nome and beyond, to abandon their mining and fishing and come hear some music. After the radio shows, Carol took us to the Nome Elder's Center to play a few more tunes for the lunchtime enjoyment of Nome's senior citizens. Alaskan natives pay great respect to the elders of their community, and I was fascinated by the large portraits of these honored citizens hanging on the walls all around us as we played. Many of the smiling faces were native- a term I heard much more than the culturally imprecise "Eskimo" (there are many tribes, and quite diverse languages in this part of Alaska). However, there were some lighter faces represented on the walls as well- leading me to assume that respect for your elders is not culturally exclusive. We played a few tunes, and then sat down with some of the elders for a lunch of cold cuts and lemonade. One older white gentlemen, seated across the table, struck up a conversation with Carol about his vocation- gold miner. I eavesdropped as Carol questioned him about his success at this precarious occupation.
Question: How are you making out?
Answer: Well, last year I panned on the beach for the entire summer, but I didn't really know what I was doing. It was the greatest experience of my life.
Question: What are doing this year?
Answer: I bought a new floating dredge. I'm waiting for it to be delivered on the next barge. I also bought a new dry suit and I'm learning how to fit it properly. As soon as I get the dredge up and running, Then I'll be in business.
Question: How does that dredge thing work? I thought the only "claims free" area was on the beach?
Answer: Well the law states that you can dredge mine from the beach 100 feet out in the water at mean tide level. But I'm planning on keeping my distance well under that 100 feet. There are a lot of people with claims that shoot first and measure later.
Question: Wow, you must have done pretty well last year if you bought a new dredge. They don't come cheap do they?
Answer: I cashed in my IRA. I'm not going to live that long. The doctors tell me I have diabetes.
Question: So you're betting on gold for your retirement?
Answer: It's not about the gold. It's the adventure that I love. Gold is just the reward for the exercise in adventure.
At this point I excused myself, searched for a pencil, and wrote this last comment down so I wouldn't forget it. Something struck me as sad and wonderful about this guy. He knows he is going to die soon. He's chucked the whole idea of retirement and is cashing it all in to pursue a lifestyle he loves. "Gold is just the reward for the exercise in adventure." In my opinion, that's Alaska to a T.
After lunch, we caught a nap and then headed over to the Nome Elementary School for our sound check. The Midnight Sun Folk Festival is different than any festival we've ever played. As the "host band", we were to play a full concert on Friday night, then a second short set on Saturday night amongst a full roster of performances by volunteer musicians from within the community. Our final performance would be an all gospel set scheduled on Sunday evening. Because we had to fly to Alaska, Nate had to borrow basses in each city. Now, in the past, Nate has had to deal with this situation several times with varying results. Thus far in this tour, the loaner basses in the Yukon, Juneau and Anchorage had ranged from very decent to barely playable. So I wasn't that surprised when we were in the middle of a smoking fiddle tune during our first set in Nome on Friday night, and I suddenly noticed there was something sounding very wrong in the bass department. It sounded like Nate had started playing the tune in a different key, and Betse quickly put it out of its misery before we embarrassed ourselves any further. I looked behind me to see Nate examining the neck of his borrowed bass, which now had a huge gap between the body and the neck. The strings had slackened due to sudden release of pressure and Nate looked at me and said, "dude, this bass is done." We took a break to try to figure out what we could do. This was apparently the only acoustic bass in the entire town, and there was a frantic rush to acquire anything else that might work. The patient crowd waited expectantly, and within a half hour, a Fender electric bass and amp were liberated from a local bar a few miles away. Now, this wasn't the first time that Nate has had to use an electric bass (he played an electric after breaking his own bass during the first set at the Winfield festival in 2004). So, without batting an eye, he tuned it up and adapted to it like a champ, and we made it through the rest our set without a hitch.
On Saturday morning, Carol picked us up in the van to participate in the annual Nome Midnight Sun Festival downtown parade. This was Betse's first ever participation in a parade, so she wants to tell that story in another blog. After the parade, we waited around for about an hour for the annual Nome Midnight Sun Festival bank robbery. Apparently, every year there is a bad posse of dudes that, like a foul-smelling wind, blow into town to loot the bank. Luckily the local sheriff (portrayed this day by the dreadlocked owner of the java shack across the street from the bank), foiled the heist and the lucky children of Nome scrambled for a share of the spilled bank booty of hard candy and chewing gum (which was "accidently" dumped into the street during the gunfight). Another hour passed, and we piled back into the van again, to head out to the beach for the annual Nome Midnight Sun Festival polar bear swim. Pretty much the whole town turned out- arriving in various states of undress, and The Wilders fielded a team of two for the event. Nate came to the beach dressed in fashionable red-stripe-on-blue trunks, while Ike arrived in his beautiful tahitian-blue, extra-long surfboard jams. In short, they represented the "host band" fabulously. There was a huge bonfire built on the beach, and everyone huddled next to it, preparing for the 43-degree surf of the Bering Sea that lay just beyond. Then, someone unofficially yelled something, and everyone moved down to the edge of the surf. Then a group yell filled the air, and what seemed to be the entire town of Nome, plunged into the icy water. I stood just out the water, and snapped photos of the ensuing melee. Screams of delight and shock rang out and, as quickly as they had jumped in, the masses ran back up the beach in terror to warm themselves by the fire. I had lost track of Ike and Nate during the initial plunge and, as I turned back toward the fire, I saw them sprinting down the beach for a second dive into the freezing water. Ike dived headfirst into an oncoming wave and then leaped back up like a jack in the box, shaking the water from his beard and screaming in the high pitch of a terrified little girl. He and Nate paused for a moment, whooping and hollering in the water, and then lumbered back up onto dry land to warm themselves by the fire. I snapped a few more photos, and then Ike said to Nate, "come on dude, one more time", and they were off and back in the water again. The cold water must have felt pretty good, because they repeated this process over and over while everyone else watched with amusement by the fire. I lost count after 5 times.
We played our second set on Saturday night, with Nate still on Fender electric bass- and finished the show with a rousing "Amazing Grace" sing-along with many of the performers who had played during the evening. Then it was back to the bunkhouse for a short break, and then we were rushed down to the Bering Sea Bar, to lead the after hours "jam". As you can see, the Nome Midnight Sun Folk Festival really gets their money out of their "host band". I'm not complaining, I mean, how many people get paid to visit Nome, Alaska for crying out loud? But, by the end of the jam, we had been participating in, or observing one event after another for over 15 hours. Regardless of how tired I was though, I still ended up getting into bed just after 4am.
It's almost impossible to describe how weird it is for it to never get dark at night. Alaskan residents basically have the luxury of getting used to it. Each day past the winter solstice, there is more sunlight, and more sunlight, until the summer solstice, when it is all light, all day, AND all night. So, it is a cycle that happens over a long period of time. For us, however, we were used to it getting dark, like, YESTERDAY. The result of this relentless midnight sun on us "lower 48ers", was that our bodies still thought they were supposed to be awake far later than they should have been. Then, after finally crashing, we couldn't sleep late enough to catch up, because it's unnatural to sleep in the daytime. After two weeks in these conditions, we were beyond tired. We were The Zombies, reformed as a bluegrass band. Since I got back home from Alaska, I find myself unable to stand in direct sunlight for very long. And my eyes have become much more sensitive to the sun. Sunglasses have become more than a fashion accessory too, and I recently spent some of my hard earned Alaskan dollars on a pair of good polarized sunglasses to put more of a barrier between me and that blazing orb. It isn't like I despise the sun, I just feel better when its under clouds, or setting, or better yet, SET. This is untrue for Ike, who the lack of darkness affected more than any of us. He has gone on record several times since Alaska, bluntly saying, "I HATE the sun." He now glares back at it in defiance and, once or twice, I think I saw him shaking his fist at it when he didn't know I was watching.
Sunday's schedule was more loose, and, after having breakfast downtown, Carol took Betse and Nate to observe the annual Nome Midnight Sun Festival's river raft race. I decided to stay behind to catch up on some email, and make a few phone calls while Ike did laundry. We reconvened in the late afternoon and enjoyed a meal of muskox stew, moose barbeque and grilled Dolly Varden (a delicious fish reminiscent of trout), before heading back to the elementary school for our gospel performance- which was a wonderful way to finish up the festival. We had been told that the gospel show was to be broadcast on the powerful AM radio station in Nome, and that the signal would be quite audible across the Bering Strait in Russia. Luckily, the radio station had a russian language interpreter on staff, and Betse asked her if she might give out a greeting to our Russian listeners. It was a really cool experience to hear her speaking russian on our microphone- understanding none of it except "The Wilders". We pulled what little energy we had left into the show, and I think the audience (many of whom had not attended any of the other festival events due to religious convictions), really enjoyed it. After the show, we hung out for awhile, said some goodbyes, and then headed back to the bunkhouse to pack our bags for our early flight back home the next morning.
I had already packed my crap earlier in the afternoon, and so I decided to take one of the forest service interns, Monique, up on her offer of a guided midnight bike ride up to Anvil Mountain- which overlooks the entire Nome area, and the Bering Sea from the north. We pedaled out of town for about 5 miles until the steepness of the road forced us to ditch the bikes and walk the rest of the way. Muskox herds were grazing about 200 yards ahead, and we stepped off the road into the low-growing willow bushes to pick the fur that these remarkable animals shed in the summer time. Monique told me that muskox fur has been collected by the natives for thousands of years, and is the lightest and most warm wool on the planet. The herd was just off the road, and we were able to get within about 20 feet of them for a few pictures before moving to a safer distance. Apparently, muskox were hunted to extinction in Alaska until conservationists relocated a few small herds from Siberia to the the Seward Peninsula. The animals have short legs, mountain goat-type curled horns and a powerful and squatty body that looks like an american bison. We left the Muskox to their grazing, and trail-blazed across the tundra toward the summit of Anvil Mountain.
Monique told me that the snow had only melted in the last two weeks, and I was astonished to see the explosion of vegetation under foot. There was a layer of fragile flowers and succulents as far as the eye could see. With so little time to grow, the tundra flowers grow and bloom only a few inches above the thin layer of thawed soil. It was now about 1am, and the twilight made the color of these fragile blooms all the more beautiful. Protected from the wind, we were suddenly assaulted by swarms of mosquitos, and decided to move back to the road for the rest of the hike up. Near the summit of Anvil Mountain, are four monolithic parabolic radar receivers which once functioned as America's first line of nuclear defense during the cold war. If Russia had attempted to launch missiles over the Bering Sea, these receivers would pick them up within seconds, allowing for a potential counter-strike. Monique told me that the two story structures used to be staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and that the crews actually had living quarters inside the radar receivers. As we approached these huge structures, I realized that they were sheathed in rusting corrugated tin. They looked like giant drive-in movie screens, and standing next to them, I felt really, really glad that Russian never launched anything. We walked past the monoliths up a steep outcrop of volcanic rock, and were finally at the summit. It was just after 2am, and the sun was finally setting in the northern sky. I took a few more panoramic pictures, and then we bushwacked back down- stopping again to watch the muskox herd, then grabbing the bikes for the ride back into town. The five miles back were very cold, as the wind was whipping in off the Bering Sea like an icy wall right in our faces. We arrived back at the bunkhouse just before 4am, and the sun was rising back above the horizon as I climbed into bed.
Carol picked us up just a few hours later to take us to the airport. Our flight was scheduled to leave at 10:30am and after boarding, we were flying or in airports for the next 31 hours. I've expended more than enough words here, and I won't bore you with more stories of air travel discomfort. I'll just finish by saying that we were very fortunate to be able to play in Alaska. There are so many more stories to tell. We met so many quirky and cool people. We made a lot of new fans and a lot of new friends. We will definitely be going back. But, I have to say, it felt really good when I looked outside my house in Kansas City, and watched the sun go ALL the way down.
Friday, June 23, 2006
After takeoff, I quickly set about taking pictures of the surrounding mountains. Off to the east, the coastal ranges seemed to go on forever, and below us, I could see a huge cruise boat making it's way up the inner passage. About a half hour into the ride, I noticed our pilot, Chuck, was veering off toward the mountains to the east. Soon we were flying over the Juneau ice sheet-an enormously deep reserve of compressed snow, which feeds most of the glaciers north of Juneau. Previously, we had seen the sheet off in the distance on our flight north to Haines, but now, on the return flight, Chuck was taking us right over it. Suddenly, the high mountain peaks surrounding us on all sides. Ike sat in the copilot's chair, Betse behind him and Nate to her left. I sat behind Nate and, to my right, sat a young man named Jeff. He leaned over to me and shouted over the din of the engines, "I've flown this stretch about 100 times and I've NEVER done this." Jeff told me he is a Sergeant-At-Arms for the Alaska State Legislature in Juneau, but lives in Haines. "This is a total TOURIST flight!" he shouted in my ear with joy. Chuck motioned out the right side of the aircraft, and word was passed back to us that there was a dogsled camp immediately below. I tried to see, but I was on the wrong side of the plane to see it. Chuck suddenly banked hard to the left and pulled a tight 360 degree turn so that we could all get a look. I heard Betse yelp (she hates roller coasters), but we all got a good picture of the camp from our new vantage point. Then Chuck straightened the Cub, and headed right down a deep glacier valley. In a few short and glorious minutes, he shot us out right over the Mendenhall Glacier, which terminates right at the city limits of Juneau. Before we could stop our gasping, he lined up the cub, and brought our plane in for a perfect landing at the airport. We piled out, shook Chuck's hand, and thanked him for the special unannounced tourist excursion.
Our hosts from Juneau, Liz and Greg, were waiting for us inside the airport, and we piled our stuff in the back of a pickup for the ride back into town. The view from the ground was equally beautiful, as we made our way up the channel to the Alaskan Hotel and Bar-our lodging destination for the next two nights. As I said in my previous post, the Alaskan is a historic and aging hotel right in the thick of downtown Juneau. We checked in, lugged our stuff up to our rooms, and then walked to a nearby restaurant for some badly needed breakfast. After eating, we were scheduled to do a radio show, and, since it was a "talk" only appearance, Ike and I agreed to go do the radio show as a duet, to let Nate and Betse catch up on some rest. After the interview, he and I took Liz up on her offer to see the Mendenhall Glacier up close. She stopped off to show us an area where bald eagles are plentiful, and we gawked at our nation's birds as they flew from tree to tree all around us. Then Liz took us on a short hike into a flower filled meadow in hopes of seeing more of the birds, and other possible wildlife. The snow melt from the mountains above us cascaded down the valleys, and we crossed over several small, and completely clear streams as we walked. Liz said, "You know, there's no development between here and the snow above us. There isn't enough wildlife to pollute the streams. This water is completely clean. You can drink it." Ike and I looked at her skeptically as she leaned over one of the creeks and scooped up a handful to her mouth. "Oh, that's sweet!" she said, "You should try it." Now, I was an eagle scout, and Ike was raised in the country, and both of us instinctively know that there is no such thing as drinking water from a stream without vomiting and potentially dying from the experience. But this was Alaska. Ike stepped over to the stream and inspected it closer. " It sure looks clear," he said. Then he looked at me and announced, "I'm scared, but what the hell?" He took a handful and raised it to his mouth. "That's good." he said. I figured I better give it a try too. That way, if there was going to be sickness and suffering, at least we would have each other to thank, blame, and hang out with at the hospital. I leaned over and cupped my hand, and, lifting it to my mouth, let the ice cold water pool at the back of my throat. It tasted fresh and sweet as I let it slide down. Ike looked at the stream and pointed out some tiny fish swimming in the area where we had quenched our thirsts. "Are those minnows, Liz?" he asked. She answered,"No, those are salmon fry. They were just born, and are trying to find their way down this stream and out to the ocean." I looked at the tiny fish and imagined what they would look like about 20 pounds heavier- fighting their way back up this exact stream to spawn in about 4 years. This was indeed a strange and wonderful place.
We hiked back to the car and drove a few more miles out to Mendenhall Glacier Park. Tourist busses and cars filled the parking lot, and Liz ( a long term resident of Juneau) was clearly upset by the number of visitors. "I hate the tourist season," she said as we walked through the crowd, "In the winter, we have this place all to ourselves," Ike and I sort of chuckled at this, since we had just played in Branson, Missouri a few weeks before. This was the kind of crowd you might find in Branson, during the off season, on a rainy day, with half the attractions closed and a good football game on TV. However, as is the case at most state parks, the visitors were content to cluster at the first available scenic overlook, taking a few pictures, before heading to the snack bar for some calories and souvenirs. Liz led us down a trail, and soon we left the crowds far behind. Up ahead, the face of the glacier loomed large over a shallow outlet pool of melted ice. It was a nice hot day (unusual for Juneau- which has over 200 rain days a year), and the locals were basking in the sun, testing their new swimsuits in the frigid water. The sun had heated some of the shallower spots, and, in those areas, kids laughed and splashed while their parents soaked up the sun's rays on the banks. We continued on, finally stopping where a gigantic waterfall of snow melt from the mountains above poured into the pool just a few yards from the glacier's terminus. The air next to the falls was easily 20 degrees cooler, and Ike just stood there gazing up the falls while I scurried around taking pictures. It was quite an experience. After a half hour or so, Ike and Liz headed back toward the car, while I reluctantly followed behind examining some glacially-smoothed rocks on my way. We stopped for some water at a grocery store (the sanitized and bottled variety), and arrived back at the Alaskan Hotel with enough time to catch some rest before our sound check.
That night, we played a couple of high impact sets in the Alaskan Hotel Bar in trade for our haunted hotel rooms. The sound was horrible, but none of the crowd of Juneau locals seemed to mind, as they danced and screamed and made us feel quite welcome. When I returned to my room around 2am, light was still pouring through my window as I finally lay down and drifted off to sleep with thoughts of glaciers, ghosts and this strange state of Alaska wobbling around in my head.
Thursday, June 15, 2006
Everyone is trying to recover from our experience at the Klaune Mountain Bluegrass Festival. My last post left y'all at the city limits of Haines Junction, Yukon Territory, Canada. Without going into a play-by-play of the entire weekend, I will suffice it to say that we made an serious impact on the Yukoners, and the Yukoners made an serious impact on us. It was one of those places where the spectacular scenery was only eclipsed by the warmth and kindness of the people who live in it. Like all great festivals, Kluane Mountain is staffed completely by volunteers, and our hosts outdid themselves to make us feel comfortable in their home. We were fed, chauffeured around, and generally treated like 3 kings and a queen for the entire weekend. This was the festival's fourth year and, although it is primarily a BLUEGRASS (emphasis intended) festival, it's audience of about 250 showed this old timey honky tonk band that they appreciate a Wilder kind of music. Although we were seriously sleep deprived, we gave the folks our best and they ate it up. We played a concert on Friday night, and then another Saturday afternoon. I was told by one of the volunteers that the standing ovations we received after both shows were the first in Kluane Mountain's short history. On Saturday night (NIGHT???- the sun was still on the horizon at midnight), we attracted a packed house in the old community center as the last dance band of the evening. Anyone who was able to squeeze into the 90+ degree metal building was treated to the sight of a pulsating frenzy of two steppers, cloggers, and free form dancers jumping up and down at the front of the stage as we rocked, sweated, and rocked some more. Outside the mosquitos hung thickly in the air, waiting patiently for the overheated to come to the dinner table.
Sunday morning (MORNING???- the sun came blazing up above the horizon around 4am), we played an unamplified set in the Haines Junction log cabin church. The church was packed to it's log rafters, and it felt really good, for once, to be free of the microphones. We continued the gospel theme at our final show, back on the main stage, with at spirited version of "My Times Done Come" by the Golden Gate Gospel Quartet.
After the finale (featuring all the members of the bands who performed throughout the weekend), we packed up our crap and stuffed all our luggage into a van, a Subaru Forester and a pickup truck with a camper shell, for the three-hour ride back to the U.S. 19 people from the three American bands, (Alecia Nugent, The Steep Canyon Rangers, and The Wilders) had to share the cramped space in the vehicles. Ike and I knew it was a going to be uncomfortable, so we jumped into the pickup truck with Graham from Steep Canyon. We enjoyed the scenery and listened to our driver, Harvey, tell us stories about the freezing cold winters in the Yukon. He told us that Yukoners always try to park their cars so they don't have to turn the steering wheel immediately when they pull out. " At 60 below celsius, (-140 fahrenheit), if you turn the wheel to fast, eh?", he explained in a classic Canadian accent, "you'll rip out your CV boots, and then you won't be steering anywhere eh?" We rode on, and suddenly the van in front of us pulled over. Multiple band members spilled out, and I saw a short line of women forming outside the outhouse just a few yards from where we pulled over. Likewise, the men streamed into the surrounding brush, each apparently taking in the scenery for a few moments before heading back to their respective vehicles. Graham, Ike, and I got back into Harvey's truck and, as he fired up the engine, I saw Nate walking towards us from the big van. He came to the window and said, "hey, do y'all have any room for me in there?" We all shook our heads no and hoped for the best. "Come on!" he said. " I can't GO BACK in that VAN." Hey pleaded, "They've been playing BLUEGRASS the whole way, I'm SICK of bluegrass. I want to hear some AC/DC!!!" There was only a small area between Ike and Graham in the back seat of the pickup, and we all said in unison, "sorry dude, no way." Nate's head drooped, and he shuffled back toward the van. He was just a few yards away from it, when it suddenly pulled back out onto the highway leaving him in a cloud of gravel dust. He turned around and we knew our comfort level had just taken a turn for the worse. Ike cursed him from the back seat, "you son of b$@&h!, you PLANNED that!"
Nate climbed into the center seat, and after defending himself for a few minutes, he pulled out his cd, and we settled back in for the ride. AC/DC blared from the speakers, and we all had to yell for our conversations to be audible over the music. Although we were cramped, Nate's arrival brought with it an energy that was lacking before. Everyone in the van was over-tired, and the small talk and dreamy scenery had lulled us all into a state of near unconsciousness. Now, with Nate squeezed into the mix, we all perked up for the rest of the trip, laughing all the way. We arrived back in Haines, Alaska about 11pm. Everybody grabbed their gear, and we bid our Yukon hosts farewell. George, our chauffeur for the festival, had a few tears running down his cheek when he hugged Betse goodbye. Everyone shook hands and we all agreed that we really need to do it again next year.
Saturday, June 10, 2006
When we arrived back at the Juneau International Airport, Nate pointed out the window to the tarmac where our next plane awaited us. It was a 6-seat Piper Cub. Our luggage took up the entire rear, and the back two seats of the aircraft. A Piper Cub is the equivalent of a Volkswagon Bug with wings. Its the type of plane I've seen hundreds of times on TV, but never dreamed I would actually climb into. Due to the lack of space, Ike volunteered to wait behind and take a second Cub, who's cargo consisted of the pilot, our venerable bearded band leader, and the town of Haines' daily mail delivery. We were taken out onto the tarmac by our pilot, Jody, and after securing us in our seats, this friendly veteran flyer put us at ease immediately with a few jokes regarding his impending license "reinstatement" and a few instructions on the safety features of the aircraft. Without much more preparation, the bug with wings was speeding down the runway. Just before we ran out of pavement, Jody pulled back on the controls and we lifted up into the sky. Almost immediately, I was struck not by fear, but by awe. I've always been a reluctant flyer and consider air travel a claustrophobic experience endured only out of necessity. But this was something very different. Nate and I sat in the back, me behind Jody, and Nate behind our acting co-pilot, Betse. As we climbed above the city of Juneau, we were treated to a 260 degree close-up view of the surrounding mountains and inner passage below.
Jody pointed out (unnecissarily) some sights of particular interest, and we shouted our approval over the roar of the Piper's engine. Regular readers of this blog know that I am the ultimate armchair geology geek. So you can imagine my delight as I drank in the scenery all around me. Snow-covered 10,000 -15,000 foot peaks stretched to the east as far as I could see. Intermittently as we flew, a giant glacier field would appear and, although I had studied them in college, I was unprepared to see the real thing from such an advantageous vantage point. Cody told us that these glaciers were all connected to the gigantic Juneau ice sheet, and had been scouring these mountain valleys for over 5000 years- since before the recession of the last ice age. He also pointed out that the ice was thousands of feet thick toward the center, and moving at a rate between 20 and 100 feet per day. From above, the ice appeared an intense florescent blue in places, and stripes of mountain gravel scrapings were visible in parallel bands indicating both their direction of movement, and astonishingly efficient and powerful erosional power. At one point in my revery, I looked over at Nate and said, "Dude, I am SO glad I quit my job!"
The flight was over way too soon, and as we slowed and approached the Haynes, Alaska airstrip, Jody set our bug down as easy as pulling into a parking lot. The runway was situated right next to an extremely large drainage of shallow water to our left, and, as we slowed, I spotted a bald eagle resting on a tree stump 100 yards away. Apparently, Haines has one of the largest populations of bald eagles anywhere in the world, and is literally overrun with them in the fall. Once we got all our junk out of his plane, we posed for a few pictures with our pilot, and gave Jody a copy of "Throw Down" so he could hear what we do for a living. A few minutes later, our hosts from the Yukon Territory pulled up in two vans. After introductions were made, we loaded our stuff up for the drive across the Canadian border to Haines Junction. Ike's plane landed soon after, and we all jumped into the vans for a trip into town for a delicious meal of salmon eggs benedict. We stuffed ourselves silly, and then it was off to the minivan with our driver/tour guide, Gordon.
After crossing the Canadian border, we began to climb in altitude, stopping at the summit of a mountain pass for a snowball fight and a few pictures. Gordon stopped a few more times on the way- one for a photo opportunity at the Yukon border, and again, at a beautiful park called Million Dollar Falls. We stretched our legs with a short trail walk, and, as we neared our destination, the sound of the falls grew louder and louder with each step. The snow in the peaks all around us was rapidly melting in the June sun, and gravity dictated that it would flow downhill- seeking the shortest path to the river below. In the case of Million Dollar Falls, that path was through a narrow canyon. We walked down a wooden staircase and felt the mist from the falls moistening the air just before seeing water, turbulently rushing down the canyon at a velocity that was hard to imagine without seeing it for ourselves. We paused for a few more pictures, and then walked back up to the parking area where we shared a local Yukon beer before climbing back into the van. Rarely do have the luxury of this kind of travel, and we relished the opportunity to actually see the sights of the country as we moved through it. Another hour or so passed before we reached the city limits of Haines Junction. It was about 2pm, and, after almost two days of travel, and only a few precious hours of rest, we had finally arrived at our first festival destination of the tour.
Friday, June 09, 2006
I wake up in a panic. Its 2:02am. I've been dreaming.
The alarm is set for 3:00am, but there is no use in trying to go back to sleep now. I switch off the alarm, get up, turn on a light and get dressed. I brush my teeth, then pack the brush away in my suitcase. I zip it up and drag it downstairs clunking over each step- too tired to pick the damn thing up all the way. My drowsy elderly cat awaits me at the bottom of the steps, confused by the schedule change, but interested in it's possibilities. I put on some coffee and check email for any developments that might have occurred in the few hours I slept. There is nothing. Then I go outside and back the van into the driveway. I pack the instruments first, then the behemoth case of cds, and finally, my own overstuffed suitcase. I go back inside, give the cat a very, very early breakfast and shut out the lights.
Its now 3:30am, and as I pull out of the driveway, I call Ike to make sure he's up. He reports that he is up physically, but not mentally. I notice there's not much traffic at this time of the day as I make my way through the darkness to his apartment. I call him when I arrive, and quite a little bit of time passes before I finally see him. When he comes out, I'm surprised at the lightness of his load. Ike comes from the "I'll do laundry on the trip" school. With only a two week tour however, I have chosen to take the alternative approach- packing, no, STUFFING my suitcase as full of clothes as possible. Of course, three suits, 9 dress shirts and a pair of cowboy boots only complicates the matter. Ike gets in and I start off to pick up Betse. No wait, Ike has forgotten to pack his dress shirts. I throw it in reverse and he runs back upstairs. He returns with multiple shirts on hangers and says, "I don't know WHERE these are going to go." I inquire as to the stuffing possibilities in his luggage, but he too, has overcrammed his smaller bag to the limit. His solution is to go back and get a smaller computer bag that he can pack full of shirts, and carry on to the flight as a "personal item".
Its just a few blocks to Betse's. She is waiting outside with bags and fiddle ready to go. Like me, Betse is also of the "cram it full, and then cram some more" school. She loads it in and we head out onto the highway to the airport. On the way, Ike carefully rolls his dress shirts and places them in his bag while I fret and worry to no one in particular about the cd suitcase. I'm afraid it is overweight. The night before, I had looked up weight allowances on the airline's website, and the max they allow for a checked bag is 100 pounds. On the way, we stop by and pick up my dad, who will be baby sitting the Brown Clown while we are away. I drive to the airport and park outside the terminal. A Sky Cap is on hand to receive our bags. I tell him, "watch out for this one, it's definitely overweight". He grins at me and yanks it up on the scale. I hold my breath until he says, "Ok, yeah, it will check. You'll have to pay extra, but it will check alright." I exhale and look at the scale. It reads 99.5 pounds.
It is now 5:30am, and we are on our way to Alaska.
Thursday, May 25, 2006
Wish I'd taken pics at the festivals, but just imagine us playing 3 shows on Merlefest on Friday, thus building up 3 layers of sweat (we had a great time, but too short!), and then jumping in the Brown Clown for 16 hours of close personal Wilders time. We had just enough time to roll in to Lafayette, check in to the hotel, nap for an hour, SHOWER, and then run to the Festival International to play our first set. That set was delayed by rain... we waited on stage (one of those huge sound stages they move in for an event, which had a movable cover, moved down to keep the rain from coming in. A few stauch fans waited out the storm under rain parkas and battered umbrellas. Then the staff said, "okay, you guys can play now", so that's what we did. And a few hundred Louisianans showed up! They must have been hiding under various shelters downtown.
Thank goodness for the tough spirits of these folks! I really believe if we'd done the show almost any other place, we would have only had a few waterlogged fans. In Louisiana, the rain didn't stop these folks from having a good time.
The next day was a weather opposite. Sunny, warm (no, it actually got hot), and festive. We started the day at a funky place near the fest, where our friends Curt & Cloud (who live in Portland, but used to live in Asheville for a while), and Lindsey and Tim (who live in Asheville) had a brunch-time gig. They played killer old time fiddle tunes and some songs.
At the fest itself, we played a different stage, following a Dewey Balfa tribute set that featured our friend, hero, and producer Dirk Powell, and some of his Balfa Toujours bandmates, and other cajun musicians of the highest order. Next you can imagine Dirk joining us on stage during our set, for some fine fiddling (on Jenny on the Railroad, of course!) and fierce accordion-ing (can you say Honky Tonk Habit? Not like Dirk can!)... the crowd was more than wild that day and we all felt no question that the trials of our overnight trip were more than worth it.
Our friends The Red Stick Ramblers were part of an after-fest party at the Blue Moon Saloon (for you history buffs, that was the location of my birthday show in 2005, where we played following our week of recording at Dirk's)... it was a huge party and man, those Ramblers are awesome. I was sad that we missed the set from the Pine Leaf Boys, though, who are part of this huge revival of cajun & creole music taking place in Lafayette. It's one of the most vibrant music scenes I've ever witnessed in our travels. Hey, check out these bands:
Red Stick Ramblers
Don't be fooled by their seeming apathetic or angry looks!
Pine Leaf Boys
Don't be fooled by their seeming innocent or happy looks!
I only wish we'd been there longer... if it weren't for the extreme heat/humidity of the place, I could almost say I'd want to live down there. A place can be beautiful, and this one is, but it's also the people that make the place, and they really are beautiful.
Speaking of beautiful, here are some pics of our day at the swamp (The Atchafalaya Basin, to be specific, but don't ask me more because I don't remember)... this was Monday after the festival, and it was a rare day of respite for us. Us Wilders rarely rest!
Is this what you thought a swamp looked like?
Our most excellent and generous tour guide, D.D. Fluke
There are a lot of folks living right by, or on, the swamp
Cypress trees and swamp grass
D.D. says the gators won't bother you, but I'm still not going swimming here!
Perhaps the best part of the swamp tour was that after a while, I got to drive the boat! Yes, I am an excellent driver! Thanks to my Dad, I also have excellent sea legs. Helms-a-lee!
Tuesday, May 09, 2006
Just a quick post to let you know that you can now purchase a recording of our main stage set at Merlefest-2006. The price for an MP3 download is $10.95. You can also purchase a cd for $17.95. Here's the link.
If you are broke, you can listen to two more new live shows for free on our "Listen" page at:
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
I'm sitting in a humid Motel 6 in Goodlettesville, TN trying to dust off the cobwebs that generally accompany only a few hours of sleep. You see, we played last night at the stalwart mecca of Nashville bluegrass, The Station Inn. It was our sophomore appearance at this amazing little road house where everybody who was, or is anybody in this music has played. And you know what folks? We did pretty dang good. There was no opening band, but people started to hoot and holler as soon as we came onstage. Even though we've been on a break for the last month, from the get-go, everything still seemed to be in fine working order. Ike started the crowd out with some old favorites, followed by some obscure relics from his country archive. Betse fiddled her fingers off for the audience, breaking bow hairs and dancing a hole in the carpet. And throughout the set, Ike snuck in a few of our original tunes while the crowd responded with swells of appreciation.
We were happy to see a few familiar hometown faces in the crowd which helped immensely. Standing in the back, like a Nicaraguan death squad, was Outlaw Jim, and his band, The Whiskey Benders. Jim Eaton, the leader of the bunch, is a tall drink of water, and with his black cowboy hat on, he cut a menacing silhouette in the dim light at the back of the bar. Although you wouldn't want to mess with him, the truth is that Jim is one of the nicest guys you'd ever want to meet, and it was great seeing him back there. Besides, I knew he would be on our side if any trouble broke out.
Jim is originally from Kansas City, but a few years back, he made the move to Music City to try his hand at breaking into the country music business. Check him out at http://www.myspace.com/outlawjimandthewhiskeybenders.
Sitting a few tables closer to us was Nate's old band mate, Matt Brahl and his lovely wife Amy. The Wilders played for Matt and Amy's wedding reception about 6 summers ago. Coincidentally, they were in Nashville for another wedding and saw us listed in the local paper. It was great to see them sitting out there grinning at us the way only old friends can.
All in all, it was a fine evening. We made a little money, sold a few cd's and, I think, we sent some new Wilders fans out into the Nashville night.
After the gig, we parked the van down down near lower Broadway where country music history still hangs in the air like smoke from a hundred thousand cigarettes. Outlaw Jim and The Whiskey Benders were playing at the Layla's Bluegrass Inn- a stinky, smoky, honky tonk played on multiple occasions by The Wilders ourselves in past trips to Nashville. It was after midnight, and the on-street crowd was thick with scenesters, hipsters, drunks and tourists. Rather than try to elbow our way in the front door, we decided to go around back and use the secret entrance where all the old country stars playing the Opry on Saturday night would sneak across the ally from the Ryman Auditorium for a quick drink between sets.
Jim and company were onstage tearing it up. Although the crowd had thinned a bit due to the lateness of the evening, Jim had the dancers in the front of the stage wound up like yo-yo's taking requests and grinning like the cat who swallowed the canary. Matt and Amy were sitting in the back too, and we had a great time catching up and hooting, hollering, and goading Jim into playing our favorites. Nearing the end of the night, Jim and the Benders cut into "Amos Moses" by Jerry Reed, and Ike and I fell out of our chairs.
I guess we were just wound up, because when 2am came and closed down the Bluegrass Inn, we all jumped in the van and headed up the highway for an after party at Jim's house in northern Nashville. Jim's got a music room filled with instruments and soon Nate had strapped on a Fender electric bass and was playing some serious funk grooves. Betse followed suit, grabbing up a telecaster and plugged in. Soon there was a full scale acoustic/electric late night garbage jam in the works. It was a rattle-trap affair, but it felt good to let loose. Before long, I looked at the clock and realized it was after 5am. Ike had already ditched the set to sleep in the van, so I went back inside to scrape everybody else up and out and back in the van to head back to the motel. As I was driving, the sky was lit ever so slightly by the soon-to-arrive sun. I figured if we hurried, we would get to sleep before it peaked its head over the eastern horizon.