Hey dear readers,
I thoroughly intended to write you during my long convalescence on my old Albertan stomping grounds, and I did make some small beginnings on the task there. But that sweet stretch of stationary time ran out, as it does, and it came time to hit the road again before it was done. So this Travelogue's fittingly coming to you from the passenger seat, as Melissa steers us toward Kelowna for the second gig of our annual summer ramble around BC. It sure feels good to be back on the road with her and Bram.
It feels like ages ago that I left Australia. It was the 1st of May, which was the first day of autumn on that side of the world, and by the magic of intercontinental flight plus the international date line, I landed back home around the very same time, except that on this side of the world, May 1st is the first day of spring. What a strange feeling, going from samhain to beltane, with a day out of time in between!
Since arriving in Alberta, I spent most of my time catching up on bookings, finances, and general admin, and pouring myself into practice of various kinds: yoga, guitar scales, bluegrass flatpicking, playing with a metronome, learning other people's songs, frailing fiddle tunes on the banjo, taking voice lessons with the amazing Dana Wylie, and going to weekly classes in Lindy Hop and West African dance at Sugar Swing in Edmonton. I also found time for jamming with friends, riding bikes around to the many shows and patios on Saturday afternoons, getting out in the woods, and meeting friends' kids–some for the first time, and some all over again, boggling at how quickly they grow and get more and more to say.
I did take one big break from home in the middle of my stay, flying down to Texas for my third visit to what has gotta be the deepest well of song in the English-speaking world, the Kerrville Folk Festival. It's a sweaty 18-day music marathon on a ranch in hill country, where a few thousand folks gather to share songs. There are shows at night, of course (four or five acts a night in the big theatre on weekends, and one or two each night in the small theatre during the weeks), but plenty of people don't even watch them. The real action's in the campground, where folks circle up and share songs, most of which they wrote themselves.
Some of these folks have been coming for over forty years, plenty of them staying for the whole eighteen days, and their camps are well-established locales: Camp Nash Bill, where Bill Nash welcomes newcomers and holds court forebearingly and beautifully; Camp Cuisine, where plenty of mainstage acts hang out after-hours; the Crow's Nest, where I got to swap songs with Kerrville stalwarts like Chuck Brodsky, Brian Cutean, and Steve Fisher; and Camp Jews Don't Camp, where the song circles go late into the night, and the Bread Man's four bread machines churn out warm loaves, which he wordlessly hand-delivers to other circles-in-progress before ducking back to rejoin his.
One constant gateway of new writers into that community is the New Folk contest, in which 32 finalists are selected from hundreds of entries to sing two songs over the first weekend. Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, John Gorka, Robert Earl Keen, Slaid Cleaves, James McMurtry, Nanci Griffith, Tom Russell, Robert Earl Keen, Jimmy LaFave, and many more luminaries were introduced to Kerrville that way. I sang first out of the thirty-two this year, and was humbled to get a standing ovation, but I wasn't among the six winners. I consoled myself with thoughts of my fellow losers Lucinda Williams, Jimmy LaFave, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett, and Steve Earle. And with our gig the following Thursday night at Camp Cuisine, the legendary Club 7, where the year's losers and losers from years past ("once a loser, always a loser," they say) gather together to sing one song each, to cheers of "winner!" from the campsite crowd.
I signed up for the songwriters' school in the week after the contest, and it was inspiring for my own songcraft as well as for the teaching of songwriting, which I'll be doing again in the week leading up to Sisters Folk Festival in Oregon this September. We had a great group of teachers this year, including Johnsmith (what a beautiful man), Gary Nicholson (who wrote "If The House is Rocking (Don't Bother Knocking)" among other hits), my buddy Connor Garvey, and the amazing Mary Gauthier.
Mary's been writing songs with soldiers these past few years, and recently released an album of those collaborations called Rifles and Rosary Beads. She said she was really intimidated when she first got into it, worried that she'd have nothing in common with these people, never having held a gun, and being a peacenik, lesbian, and former drug addict. They surprised each other. She's made a ton of soldier friends through the experience. And she learned a deep respect for the type of people who enlist, even if they've been misled and used by our leaders. They're brave, and strong, and they want to serve. And when they see that telling their own stories through song can be of service, to help other traumatized veterans heal, well, they're brave and strong enough to share.
Spending that time with Mary and hearing her stories really helped me make sense of the conflicted feelings I'd been wrestling with on landing back in the country of my birth, deep in the heart of Texas at that, with the repeated invocations of God and Country set against the display of flagrant criminality coming from the White House. It helped me check some of my own prejudices, my instinctive thoughts about the type of people who fall for the lies of politicians and clergy–or maybe I should say, people who see things differently than I do. It gave me hope for the great American experiment, for the possibility of saving what's left of the Republic, and what's good in the stories from the Bible.
My last day on the ranch, a conversation in Camp Kerfuffle brought it home for me. The gist of it was that the Lord works in mysterious ways, or if you prefer different language, that Spirit works through us in ways we'll never understand. Sometimes God needs an asshole, one fella said. Sometimes, regrettably, you end up playing that part for others to learn from. And maybe now God's using a particular asshole in the White House to help the country grow up.
The days were dizzyingly, nauseatingly hot down there, around forty degrees (that's a hundred, for my American friends) with ninety percent humidity, but the moonlit nights were lovely, with quiet song circles among the fireflies, bugsong and birdsong. Several nights I feel asleep in my tent to the serenade of a mockingbird running through all the songs he knew.
There's a big sign at the gate to Kerrville that says "Welcome Home," and those are usually the first words your hear when you pull in. I'm so grateful to have found a home among folks like that. It wasn't long afterward that I was back at the festival where I first heard those words, and first found such a home, the North Country Fair. She turned forty this year, and she's looking better than ever. Her children have grown up and had children of their own.
It was my first alcohol-free Fair, and it felt new for that. I still stayed up 'til 7:30 in the morning swapping songs, but my sight was clearer by that hour. And Monday sure felt a lot less dreadful and sad.
The Long Weekends and I hosted the 11th annual North Country Fair Afterbender back in Edmonton on Wednesday, and while it's always a lot of work, I was reminded again of why it's worth doing: to bring folks together for an unofficial last night of the Fair, and to spread a little of that overflowing love around our city. We left town with a heartfull of it, shared some with the kind folks in Valemount last night, and we'll be carrying it around beautiful BC for the next two weeks:
June 29 - Kelowna, BC - Benvoulin Heritage Church with Nils Loewen
June 30 - Vancouver, BC - Jack Garton and the Demon Squadron CD release at WISE Hall with Kitty and the Rooster
July 1 - Chilliwack ,BC - Canada Day at Tractorgrease with CR Avery, Kitty and the Rooster, Salt Thief, Tiger Moon, and the Lonesome Town Painters
July 3 - Victoria, BC - house concert
July 4 - Nanaimo, BC - house concert with Marian Van Der Zon
July 5 - Cumberland, BC - house concert
July 6 - Powell River, BC - Cranberry Community Hall
July 7 - Gibsons, BC - Heritage Playhouse Theatre with the Rakish Angles
July 8 - Vernon, BC - Gallery Vertigo
July 10 - Kamloops, BC - Music in the Park
July 11 - Prince George, BC - Omineca Arts Centre
July 12 - Jasper, AB - Jasper Community Arts Habitat
July 13-15 - Hinton, AB - Wild Mountain Music Festival
All the details, as usual, are on my news page.
After that I'll be spending another month around Alberta, and I'm proud to announce that the Second Chances and I will be appearing at the Calgary and Canmore Folk Festivals for the first time, with a swing back out to BC in between for shows in Revelstoke, Golden, Kaslo, and Nelson. We're also on the lineup for Edmonton Folk Fest, and then I'll be heading up to Grande Prairie for my first time at the new but by-all-reports-amazing Bear Creek Folk Festival. It's an incredible feeling to land all these gigs in the same summer. It's been a long time coming.
If you're around Edmonton and want to catch us in a more intimate setting this summer, you've got one chance. Our buddy Reuben's been wanting to host us for a house concert for ages, and we've finally worked it out, Sunday July 22nd. That'll be your only chance to hear us outside of Folk Fest, and our only hometown show 'til January at the earliest, so if you wanna come, email transfer $20 to email@example.com to get the address and save your seat.
Thanks for staying with me, dear readers. Last I wrote you I was in Tantawangalo, around the halfway point of two months in Australia with Corin Raymond. We were just about to head to Canberra for the National Folk Festival, which hadn't hired us but still managed to give us plenty of opportunities to play, sell CDs, and reconnect with the big Australian folk family. I was overjoyed to introduce Corin to that throng, and to have another chance to make music with our pal Liz Frencham. On Tuesday, before we left the fest, Liz and I started making concrete plans for my visit next March, when we'll be recording an album together in her studio. And I celebrated how far I felt from that Tuesday morning two years ago when I last left the National Folk Fest, with a shaky shame-over after a destructive five-day bender.
From Canberra Corin and I wound our way north through the back country to Queensland, where we played some truly joyous shows in Brisbane, Mudgeeraba, Tintenbar (what a gorgeous spot!), Duranbah, Nambour, and Mooloolaba. Corin started feeling like he was in the Lord of the Rings, proclaiming "I am Nambour, Son of Duranbah! I bring you the Great Sword of Tintenbar!" (at which news, the King would say "Mooloolaba," which means, order has been restored, peace has returned to the Shire).
On our way back down we played a couple lovely gatherings in Armidale and Nana Glen, and were en route to our gig in Kempsey when Skippy started to feel funny. Within a short while, he'd lost power and we were stuck on the side of the road with smoke pouring out from under the hood. Our new friends Pat and Belinda, who we'd just met at the previous night's show, pulled over to help, and correctly diagnosed Skippy's blown head gasket. After some discussion it was decided to load everything except the mattress into their van, and leave Skippy with a tow truck driver, likely never to be seen again.
Corin wrote his own Travelogue about the tour, which dealt a lot with the theme of leaving things behind on the road (if you're not already a subscriber, you can sign up here, and you can read his Aussie travelogue here). As he put it in there, "Anything that isn't essential to the task at hand––in this case, fulfilling a zig-zagging, 40-date tour in two months––might lose its grip and be gone in the slipstream. For instance: your correspondence with family and friends, your list of things that need getting done, the email you're trying to put out to your list, your beloved copy of Helen Garner's True Stories (more on that), your shoes, your vehicle... if it's not tattooed to you, it might not make it. The concept of time itself can't even hang in for long––in fact, it's one of the first things to go."
I guess I've learned that from all these roads over the years. What you can't carry, you can't keep. And it just gets smaller in the distance.
The other big lesson the road teaches travellers, over and over, is that there really are a lot of kind people out there. Singing songs sure has introduced me to a lot of them. This trip was another extended reminder of that. Several near-strangers had already come to our rescue in Taiwan: Thomas Walk, who visited Bram in the hospital, took me up into the mountains to find our motorbikes at the crash site, and did most of the talking at the police station when we found a local with a truck to carry the bike back down to civilization; and Mike and Mary, who loaned us their Austin Mini for almost a month despite not knowing me beyond a couple nights of song and hangs. But the flood of unexpected kindness continued in Australia. My friend Jan, who I barely knew, took care of Skippy while I was in Taiwan, and drove me to the airport. My friend Bronwyn loaned me her house for long stretches of my earlier trip, and it also served as a haven of solace for me and Corin on our next go round, as did my friends Brett and Deb's beach house, and my friends Heath and Laura's house in Tantawangalo, from whence I last wrote you dear readers. Then there's Mitzi, who loaned us her car Busby for a run to Adelaide and back. Pat and Belinda, who stopped to help when Skippy died, and ended up loading all our stuff into their van and driving us out of their way to Kempsey for the next gig. And Colin and Denise in Kempsey! Colin got "Pass It Along" played on national radio a couple visits back, set me up for three amazing shows in the local Odd Fellows Hall over the last couple years, and loaded all our stuff into his vehicle to take me and Corin to find a rental car the next day. Then there were our many house concert hosts, like Peter and Jane Crone, whose Eaglemont living room was the best-paying gig of the whole trip, and who are actually building a theatre beside their house so they can present bigger shows! And of course all the repeat offenders who showed up at several stops along the tour.
One of the greatest and most unexpected gifts of the whole trip, though, arrived in Ararat, our first gig after we moved into the rental car. I told the story of Skip's demise onstage, and after the show an older fella named Tom came up and asked me what exactly the problem was. Unfixable, I told him. A blown head gasket. That's fixable, he said, it's just a lot of work. Turns out Tom's a retired mechanic, and up for the job. While I had a hard time believing him at first, he finally convinced me to let him have a go at it, and got it trucked from rural New South Wales down to rural Victoria where he could tinker on it in the yard. I thanked him enthusiastically, but he just shrugged, "it's good to have something to do! When you get to my age," he said, "you're ready to give back to the world what the world's given you, and I'm happy to give back. Look, I've had a bloody good life, and from the sound of your life story you've done a fair bit too."
Despite, or perhaps because of all the bumps in the road, the home stretch of tour was incredibly redemptive, singing for big audiences at the Upper Kangaroo River Hall (thanks Andy Gordon), the Spotted Mallard in Melbourne (alongside our amazing pals Liz Frencham and Lucie Thorne), the Troubadour in Woy Woy (thanks Mike and Ina), and Smith's Alternative in Canberra (my third visit to that lovely haven on this long trip), and closing it out perfectly with a house concert at Bronwyn's place, where I'd already spent so much time on this trip. Corin ended the tour with just a few CDs left, having sold around 500 copies, which is concrete proof of how well Australia's welcomed him back. Oh, and I saw my first echidna toward the end of the trip, and whaddayaknow, he was waddling alongside the road like a little hobo.
We wrapped up the trip in central Victoria, where the settlers planted plenty of European trees back in the day, and it was a new sight for me, fall colours down under, and my breath in the night air! I figured that meant it was time for leaving. This life has a lot of leaving in it. I feel the bittersweetness of that even more acutely these days. I suppose I'm feeling everything more acutely without the booze, and the vaseline it smears on the lens of life.
Lots of things are coming in clearer without that sedation. My dream life's deeper and richer. My sense of smell's stronger, and it carries long-forgotten childhood memories with it. The veil between the worlds feels thinner.
Sobriety's been such a good teacher that I'm wondering what took me so long to enrol. It's been amazing to see how easily old habits fall away, when they once felt so ossified and immutable. Kind of like how fixed the worldly order of things feels, until somebody changes it. While I was in Taipei, I had a chance to shoot a little video for the first song I wrote after that close look at death, and I think it speaks to some of that:
Oh, and I took a bunch of photos while I was down under, if you wanna have a look!
Well friends, I sure hope this Travelogue finds you flourishing, and enjoying the season, whichever side of the world you're on. And if that's anywhere around here, we hope to see you real soon! With bottomless love from the passenger seat, your fan,