The Long Road to Sunday’s CD Release Show at Muddy Creek

Looking back a half-century, I started writing songs when I was around 16 years old – back when I could barely play guitar and long before I could play one even passably well.

Looking ahead four days, none of the songs I was writing those days will be on the setlist Sunday in the CD Release Show for CDC: A Lifetime in the Making.

And that should come as a relief to any of my friends and family (F and Fs, as Skip Prosser used to call them) who gather at Muddy Creek Music Hall at 5 o’clock for the grand occasion. What they don’t hear won’t scar their eardrums.

As I mentioned in the, to my mind, fabulous profile Lisa O’Donnell wrote in last week’s Winston-Salem Journal, if there’s an artist around who bloomed later, I haven’t met them. Though I played guitar and wrote songs over the years, few if any of the songs I wrote in my 20s, 30s and 40s are anything I would want anyone to hear today.

Then came my midlife crisis, about the time I turned 50 and realized that the two kids (Nate and Rebecca) that my bride Tybee and I had devoted so much time to had matured to the point they had their own interests and aspirations – leaving me to feel almost superfluous around the house.

But instead of trading in the family van for a fancy, red sports car to tool around town in, or buying a stupid rug to cover my rapidly balding noggin, I addressed my midlife crisis by throwing Buckshot, my 1967 Gibson J-45 in the back of the van and scouring Winston-Salem for Open Mic Shows in which I could perform.

That was around 2002, and all but one of the songs I’ll play Sunday were written since then. The exception is Trail of Tears, the one I wrote on the removal of the Cherokee from their ancestral homeland that I dedicate to my mother, Frances Cooper Collins.

A couple were written when I was playing the Open Mic at the late-great Rubber Soul on Burke Street, until that place closed in 2007. Some more were written during the 4 ½ years I ramrodded the Open Mic for Richard Emmett and Kim Lawson at the late-great Garage before our show ran its course in January 2012.

But most came along in the 5 ½ years I’ve been ramrodding my current gig, the Open Mic at Muddy Creek Music Hall. Making Sunday’s show all the more poignant is the realization that the current Muddy Creek will also be closing down in a month and a half and moving its operation, lock, stock, guitars, sound system and barrel to its new digs in Old Salem.

Which is why I debated over the acknowledgment found on the back of my CD: A heartfelt thanks to all my friends and family down at Muddy Creek Cafe and Music HallMuddy Creek Cafe and Music Hall in Bethania, N.C. Should I really, I wondered, be looking backward instead of forward at the outset of this new and exciting endeavor?

What sold me eventually on doing so was the realization that so many of the songs I’ll be playing Sunday may not have ever been written in the first place without the support, encouragement and inspiration from so many of the regulars I’ve played so much music with these past 5 ½ years. I’ve told my fellow Open Micsters that if they listen carefully enough to these tunes, they can hear themselves – or at least their contributions – in them.

Regardless of how many people make the scene, I know it’s going to be a day I’ll never forget. My younger brother Joe, the lawyer whose lawyering over a Workman’s Comp claim financed the recording and production of the CD, will be there from Franklin, along with his bride Pam and other assorted members of his family. My older brother Tom and his bride Jenny, who have made Dexter Furniture a thriving concern in Raleigh, will be there.

And barring hell and/or high water, The Whippersnappers, the band I put together for the grand occasion will be there backing me up. It promises to be a star-studded assemblage, with Geoff Weber (who engineered and mixed my CD at his Fireside Studio in Winston) on keyboards, Will Huesman on his telecaster guitar, Lucas Moomaw on drums, Jeff Shu (of the Bo-Stevens fame) on pedal steel, Dennis “Bubba” Spear on harmonica and the one and only John “Hootie” Hoots on electric bass guitar.

Here’s hoping that you will also be there as well. So many friends and family have rallied around this old boy from the time I first envisioned this project that I know Sunday will be a day to remember.

In the words of James McMurtry from his timeless tune Choctaw Bingo, we’re going to have us a time.

CDC: A Lifetime in the Making

While trudging – and I do mean trudging – through a Florida airport, I took a tumble.

The fall was a hard one, hard enough to tear a couple of tendons in my bicep as well as my rotator cuff.

The date is easy enough to run down. I know it was Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016 the morning after I had watched Wake Forest lose at Florida State for the 14th time out of the 16 football trips I made to Florida’s state capital as the Deacons’ beat reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal. This time I was flying out of Jacksonville because the Tallahassee airport had left me stranded too many times and the Tallahassee hotels always shook you down so bad on football weekends.

Going on three years later, I can see what a fortuitous fall it turned out to be. I was 64 at the time, and, though I tried hard not to let it affect my performance, I was done with being a sportswriter. The industry was imploding under my trudging feet and I was so dog tired of the travel. And since my junior year of college, 1973, writing sports was all I had ever done for gainful employment.

Workman’s Comp handled the bills, and for all the pain of the resulting surgery, it was probably less than what I would have endured covering another season of Danny Manning coaching Wake’s basketball team.

Here’s where the hero of the story emerges. After I had recovered enough to return to work, my brother Joe asked if Workman’s Comp had settled my claim. I didn’t know what he was talking about.

Joe just happens to be a lawyer well-versed in Workman’s Comp litigation. And without his expertise, I wouldn’t have realized that I had money coming in the form of what is called a Clincher Agreement – struck to prevent any further claims on my part should the surgery not be successful.

Like manna from heaven, I received a goodly chunk of change I never even knew I had coming.

So lo and behold, I finally had the kind of money (and eventually, upon retirement in August of 2017, the time) needed to fulfill a lifelong dream. Since taking up guitar at age 16, I have written songs. In fact I learned guitar so I could write songs. Here was my opportunity to get in a studio and record my original songs, and do it right.

The key was finding the right studio and right engineer, and through the sage advice of my long-time buddy and bassist John “Hootie” Hoots, I was led to Geoff Weber.

Geoff, a fairly recent Wake grad who works at Salem Music, turned out to be the next hero of the story. Not only is he a sharp, even-keeled guy who knows his stuff, he also happens to be an ace musician (bass, keyboards) who plays in a hot-as-fire local band, Bad Cameo.

He even enlisted his band mates, Will Huesman (guitar), Lando Pieroni (guitar and banjo) and Dan Mead (drums), to contribute their considerable skills to the project.

It all took about a year. There was no deadline, and I wasn’t paying Geoff the entire amount of my insurance claim. I am, after all, married with bills to pay. And there was also so much I had to learn about the recording process besides just showing up at the studio with songs written and arranged.

For one, I had to learn to play with a metronome to make sure we were on time. On time and in turn became our motto.

Along the way, other buddies rallied to my cause. Jeff Shu, long-time member of the par excellence Honky Tonk band, The Bo-Stevens, brought his pedal steel to the studio. Bubba Spear, a pal I’ve played music with for years, brought his harmonica. And Hootie, of course, brought his bass. We weren’t doing this without Hootie.

By the time we got down to production, I needed a cover. I had this wonderful photo taken by a good friend named Mike Anderson from a gig I did at Second and Green, and my daughter Rebecca took time from her day job with Eversource Energy in Boston to handle the graphics and design.

So it’s with great pride that I announce the result, titled CDC: A Lifetime in the Making. As of yesterday, it became available on Spotify, Itunes, Apple Music, and pretty much all the other streaming sites I never even knew existed.

Feeling really good about what we got down. And we’re putting together a band called the Whippersnappers (because the members of Bad Cameo who will be included are all young enough to be my sons, if not grandsons).

And on Sunday, Nov. 3, at 5 p.m., Country Dan Collins and the Whippersnappers will play the CD front to back at the CD Release Show scheduled for my favorite haunt in its final days, the Muddy Creek Music Hall. Hope you circle the date on your calendar because I know it’s going to be worth the trip to Bethania and the $10 cover.

In my dreams, the CD will launch a new career as America’s next great songwriter. But, truth be told, I’ve already thanked my lucky stars so many times over for the opportunity to spend a year doing what I’ve always wanted to do.

And if the CD doesn’t sell anymore than my last great dream gone poof – The ACC Basketball Book of Fame published by Blair Publishing in Winston to far less-than-overwhelming reward – then that won’t hurt my feelings a bit.

Because, thanks to a fall, and the advice of a brother who happens to be a lawyer, it’s already been paid for.

One Door Closes. . .

About a month or so ago I was swamped with sympathy.

The sentiment was appreciated, as misplaced as it might have been.

News broke that the Bethania Mill and annex housing Muddy Creek Cafe and Music Hall had been sold, spelling the impending end of the Open Mics we’ve been staging there since our launch in June 2014. And indeed the five-plus years we’ve spent in Bethania making music the way it’s meant to be made among fast friends has been one of the favorite chapters of my life.

But it got so I couldn’t show my old bearded face anywhere in this town that someone didn’t say “Oh sorry to hear about Muddy Creek. What a shame. I know how much it means to you. How you holding up?’’

Truth is, strange as it might seem, I was holding up right well. The news hadn’t really rocked me the way most folks seemed to think it would, for at least two reasons.

The first is that everything in life runs its course. Everything begins and everything ends. I felt the same way when the first bar where I began to play music, The Rubber Soul on Burke Street, closed its doors around 2005. And I felt that way when our run of 4 ½ years of Open Mic at the late, great Garage finally wound down to a close in early 2014.

I’ve been told five years is an eternity for an Open Mic scene, and I can testify that’s true. There have been signs that we’d done what we set out to do in Bethania and, in fact, had done it over and over again. We’re still filling up the sign-up sheet and we’re still having great fun, but I’ve played more than 200 three-song sets at the Cafe and all the regulars who have made the scene what it is have pretty much heard all I had to say or sing.

The other reason I didn’t despair over the news was that I suspected Shana Whitehead, the owner of Muddy Creek Cafe, and Bill Heath, the musical mover and shaker of the operation, would have something else in mind to move the kind of energy around this town it takes to get folks up off their behinds and out the door.. Bill had been giving me hints that another idea or 20 were bouncing around their fertile imaginations.

And sure enough, just last week the glad news broke that the Muddy Creek is moving its scene to another Moravian site in Forsyth County, venerable Old Salem. Come late November a new Muddy Creek scene will be up and running in the space formerly occupied by Flour Box Tea Room and Cafe, beneath T. Bagge Merchant at 626 South Main.

Bill, knowing a good thing when he builds one, has been adamant from the start that he wants a Thursday night Open Mic to anchor their weekly schedule, and I’m proud to say he wants this old boy to do in Salem what we’ve been doing these past five years in Bethania.

So I’ll be ram-rodding the Open Mics at Old Salem, and I could hardly be more excited.

It’ll be a new scene, a new chapter, a new canvas on which to paint. There will be new ears to play to, and hopefully catch.

My great hope is that we can coerce all the regulars who have kept Bethania roaring down to Old Salem to continue doing what they’ve been doing so well. And I also suspect that we’ll get the influx of a new and more diverse crowd, it being a downtown venue more accustomed to a younger and slightly more, shall we say, energetic clientele.

Salem College is down there, and The School of the Arts is a spud’s throw away. I love old folks. I should, being one myself. But it’s the young folks who can turn a scene into a happening, and it’s the young folks who, with the right breaks and right ability, might even turn what we all love doing at a Thursday night Open Mic into a bonafide career.

So look out downtown, Country Dan’s Open Mic at Muddy Creek is headed your way.

And I’m bringing reinforcements.

A Sweetheart of a Show

It’s a good thing that guitars, being inanimate and all, can’t read.

And I can only hope that no one mentions what I’m about to write in earshot of Buckshot, my vintage 1967 Gibson J-45. She’s a beautiful old girl, but she can be a bit jealous.

I love her sunburst hue just fine, and wouldn’t want her turning green on me.

But truth is I saw the guitar of my dreams last night while attending an unforgettable show at a fabulous venue, the DPAC, the Durham Performing Arts Center. My compadre, Lenox Rawlings and I made our way down to Durham to catch the 50th Anniversary of Sweetheart of the Rodeo Tour, and anybody who knows me knows just how down my alley that kind of music has always been.

The billed stars were two of the original Byrds, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, along with Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives. From the moment I heard McGuinn’s infamous 12-string Rickenbacker, I knew I was at the right place at the right time.

We loved every note of the show, one of the best I’ve seen.

By the end, however, I had concluded there were two more stars that weren’t on the bill and didn’t sing a note.

One was Gram Parsons, a special hero of mine whose inherent knowledge and reverence of country music convinced the Byrds in the first place to travel to Nashville and record a country album.

Gram’s rocky ride through life, tragically, ended in a low-budget hotel at Joshua Tree in September of 1973, at the tender age of 26. So he was there in spirit only last night, but his presence was pervasive.

As I written before, the Gram Parsons story is the great biopic yet to be done. I wrote a song that could serve as the theme, titled the Kid From Waycross, so hopefully somebody will get around to the project in time to make me rich and famous.

Joined the Byrds for Sweetheart of the Rodeo,

Was hanging around with the Stones in the south of France

Next thing you know,

And for the Kid

That was a long, long way from Waycross.

There have been two biographies of Gram that I know of. The first, Hickory Wind, written by Ben Fong-Torres in 1991, was not bad. The second, Twenty Thousand Roads, written by David N. Meyer in 2008, was much better.

Want to see the Kid in all his splendor?

Check out the cover,

Of the Flying Burrito Brothers,

Gilded Palace of Sin,

The Kid From Waycross.

I heartily recommend Twenty Thousand Roads for anyone interested in how that meld between country music and rock came down in the late 1960s (Sweetheart of the Rodeo was released in 1968) and early 1970s. That was along the same time the Band was in full swing and the Grateful Dead was putting out two of my favorite albums of all time, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.

I was late teens and early 20s.

I was single.

I was living in Chapel Hill.

And that was the soundtrack of those best of all possible days.

The other star was Marty Stuart’s bender guitar, which, like Buckshot, has a name. Marty calls him Clarence, in honor of the original owner, the inestimable Clarence White.

Clarence, like Gram, died way too young. He was only 29 in 1973 when a drunk driver slammed into him while he was loading an amplifier in the car following a show by The Kentucky Colonels, featuring Clarence and his brothers Roland and Eric.

I was never lucky enough to see Clarence White play, but those who did swear he was as good as it gets. His recordings bear that out. Thankfully Andy Griffith was prescient enough to capture the talents of Clarence and Roland on the Andy Griffth Show, the greatest show in the history of television.

And Gram wrote about him in the song, In My Hour of Darkness.

Another young man safely strummed his silver-stringed guitar

And he played for people everywhere, some say he was a star

But he was just a country boy, his simple songs confess,

And the music he had in him, so very few possess.

Clarence left behind a wife, two kids and one of the most famous guitars in history. What made Clarence, the bender guitar, so famous, was the amazing sound that came from the modifications made by Clarence, the guitarist, and a friend named Gene Parsons.

They were striving for a steel-guitar sound from an electric guitar, and accomplished that with mechanism that raised the B-string a whole step when downward pressure was applied to the strap. Marty bought Clarence, the bender guitar, from Clarence White’s widow, and last night those of us at DPAC had the great pleasure of hearing what he sounds like in the hands of a real guitar god.

Dozens of people had told me I just had to see Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives live, and all of them were right. Two people I’ve always considered the personification of music are David Hildago (of Los Lobos) and Buddy Miller. After last night, I’ve added Marty Stuart to that list.

And on the list of greatest guitars, I’ve finally seen one I might even trade Buckshot in for.

But let’s keep that just to ourselves.


Since the late 1970s, I’ve rarely listened to commercial radio. By the time the Saturday Night Fever disco craze had scrubbed the Top 40 clean of all its heart and soul – and it all became about your clothes, and what you have to put up your nose – I couldn’t find anything on the radio I found worth listening to.

But I’ve been lucky in life, in so many ways. And I’ve always had more than my share of musical benefactors, people who made sure they saw to my growth and development as a lifelong music lover and aspiring musician.

Looking back, so many of my benefactors weren’t actually musicians. My most important benefactor of all, my mother Frances Cooper Collins, was not a musician. But she was what I like to call a carrier. She was so totally infected by the love of good music (i.e., Hank Williams, Ray Charles, Charley Pride, Jerry Lee Lewis, Flatt and Scruggs, Mahalia Jackson) that she was highly contagious.

I’m sure you know folks like that.

You might even be a carrier yourself.

Two carriers who helped me through the lean times of the late 70s and 80s were Bruce Winkworth and Don Henchel. Both worked at the North Hills Record Bar in Raleigh, and both had well-tuned ears. A package would show up in the mail and it would contain a half-dozen or so burned cassettes of some bands or singer/songwriters that they were convinced I just had to hear.

And invariably, they were right.

Eventually the cassettes became CDs, but thankfully, they kept coming. Without benefactors like Bruce and Don (and later another buddy named Billy Armour) it would have taken me way too long to get hip to the really good music that’s out there if you know where to look – music that informed my own songwriting the deeper I got into it.

One day a CD from Bruce showed up titled Blaze Foley, Live at the Austin Outhouse. He cautioned me that it was a little ragged and unpolished, but he felt sure I’d like it.

And he felt right.

So I thought of Bruce yesterday when my compadre Lenox Rawlings and I made our way down to Aperture Cinema on Fourth Street in Winston to see the biopick about Blaze Foley titled, appropriately enough, Blaze It’s a movie getting some buzz, directed by Ethan Hawke and featuring cameos from such luminaries as Kris Kristofferson, Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri), Steve Zahn (That Thing You Do) and Hawke himself.

The title role was played by Ben Dickey, who I was unfamiliar with. And playing Townes Van Zandt was Charlie Sexton, known more for his musical and producing abilities than his acting chops.

I’m here to say I really like the movie. It’s not the kind of film my bride Tybee is apt to enjoy, because Tybee is one of those folks who gravitates more toward light upbeat movies that make her laugh. She’s a teacher who works hard, and when she sits down in front of a TV or movie screen she’s looking for escape and chuckles, not life’s lessons and tears.

There were some really funny scenes in Blaze, particularly when Blaze and Townes start telling the kind of stupid cornball jokes only a drunk cowboy singer could ever come up with. And some of the movie was happy and upbeat, especially when Blaze was living sans electricity or running water in a tree house with his true love Sybil (Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development).

But I knew enough of Blaze Foley’s life story to know it would not end well. And of course, it didn’t.

The movie is mostly about that harsh, cruel and unforgiving hinterland on the edges of society – filled with addiction, rage, heartbreak and deep, deep sorrow – that the true artists among us go to find the kind of truth and level of consciousness essential to any art worth producing.

Blaze and Townes are incorrigible drunks. They snort cocaine and they screw over their friends. They’re totally unreliable and not good for anything other than raising hell and making music the way they themselves feel it has to be made.

Commercial? No way.

Authentic? All day and all night long.

Honest? As honest as it gets.

I was lucky enough to see Townes Van Zandt at the legendary Cats Cradle on Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill circa 1978. I was drinking. Townes was drunk. But he was lucid enough to blow me away.

And I knew his story pretty well from having watched the documentary on his life, Be Here to Love Me a number of times. As he recounts in Blaze, Townes lived his life knowing that if one wanted to write songs and really do it the way it should be done, they had to be willing to blow off everything else – money, security, health, love and any semblance of a normal nourishing relationship.

That’s what the two of them spend most of the movie doing, blowing off everything but their music, everything but their art.

As grim as it sounds, the movie does have a heart. Blaze has a heart hidden deep in all that gruff, hairy, sodden, hidebound exterior. It certainly comes out in his music, most notably in the song If I Could Only Fly, famously covered by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson.

And Lucinda Williams clearly saw into Blaze’s heart when she paid homage to him with the song Drunken Angel.

Blaze, by all accounts, could be a mean drunk. My sense is that Hawke and those he worked with softened Blaze’s persona some to give Ben Dickey (and the viewer) a break.

But I’m not a movie critic and never professed to be. I will say, however, that watching Blaze in a cozy, hip downtown cinema was a wonderful way for two retired sportswriters to spend an Autumn afternoon.

Catching Back Up With Steve Earle

Steve Earle is playing the Stevens Center downtown tonight and this old boy will be in attendance, third row balcony, with my bride Tybee and our long-time compadre Lenox Rawlings.

And as the song goes, if you think I’m happy you’re right.

Steve has meant a lot to me for a long time. We have so much in common other than talent. We both worship the written word. We both can’t help but raise hell over what’s going haywire in this country. And we both play guitar and write songs.

The difference, of course, is that his songs have been heard all over the world. To hear mine you have to make it out to Bethania on a Thursday night.

That, and the fact he’s been married seven times to my one.

Tonight will be the first time I’ve caught a Steve Earle show in about 25 years, dating to a time that I was lucky enough to make Nashville pretty much an annual destination as the Wake beat reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal. Wake played Vandy regularly back then, in both football and basketball, and as a paper we still had the will and resources to follow the Deacons everywhere they hit the gridiron or court.

A man needs a plan, and mine was always to check in the Hampton Inn in West End, across from Centennial Park. Used to cost only a hundred and change to stay there, enough of a bargain to get it past the bean-counters when I turned in my Expense (make that Suspense) Form to be reimbursed.

I knocked all around Nashville in those days, making it out to Green Hills to the Bluebird Cafe whenever I could. Saw some shows well worth seeing, including one with Russell Smith, the songwriter and front man of one of my favorite bands from the 70s, the Amazing Rhythm Aces.

And as an aspiring songwriter, I made the rounds of Music Row dropping off a cassette tape of my latest song to anyone who would deign to accept it.

All these years later, I’m still waiting to hear back.

Ed “Fast Eddie” Hardin, my compadre with the Greensboro News and Record, was along a time or two or three, and, again, as the song goes, we were bad for each other, but good at having fun. Ed sat with me down at Muddy Creek Cafe when I announced my retirement last August, and we recounted the afternoon we spent in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge that I immortalized in song.

Another time we made our way to the deck out back of Tootsie’s, where we found two characters named Gary Bennett and Chuck Mead who were putting together this band that would eventually become BR-549.

Good times.

One good reason to stay at the aforementioned Hampton was that there was a Longhorn Steakhouse right next door, and, in those days, I was big-time into the Longhorn Steakhouse. And to my great delight, I come to find out that songwriters from nearby Music Row were known to haunt this particular Longhorn Steakhouse, often in the afternoon when they really didn’t have anywhere much else to go.

So one afternoon I stumble in for a late lunch, and I notice two or three ne’er-do-well types sitting down at the other end of the bar. And the jukebox kept playing the same song over and over, something about a Big Dog. Problem was, it really wasn’t that good of a song.

But by sliding closer and closer down the bar, long-neck beer by long-neck beer, I come to find out that one of the songwriters sitting there had written the song, and he was celebrating by playing it on the jukebox at Longhorn Steakhouse all freaking afternoon.

It turns out, though, that he was a really good guy. His name was Michael Grady, and he said he was from Shreveport. He had been in Nashville doing what most songwriters are in Nashville doing, trying like hell to keep a roof over his head and food in his belly.

He patiently answered all the questions I had about how a rube might become Nashville’s next star songwriter. But whatever I asked, his reply was pretty much the same.

Go home. Get the hell out of Nashville. It will only break your heart.

He said it with a smile, but he meant it.

His eyes grew wide, though when I mentioned that Steve Earle was playing in a club downtown off Broad Street, and that I was headed that way after dinner.

“Steve’s in town?’’ he asked. “Didn’t know that. Steve’s a good friend. Could I catch a ride?’’

Driving to the show, he filled me in on Steve’s current state, of which I was only vaguely aware. It wasn’t until later that I found how just how deep an abyss Steve had fallen into, and how he was pretty much on the streets during those days hooked on the customary forms of addictions.

But I wasn’t worried about any of that. I was headed to a Steve Earle concert with a good friend of Steve’s in tow, and I could just see myself heading backstage with Michael Grady and hanging around with one of my favorite songwriters.

Upon arrival at our destination – which if memory hasn’t failed me, was called the 321 Club – I found out how the red-headed stepchild feels when he has taken the belle to the ball.

We get through the door and I look around and Michael Grady is nowhere to be found.

I’d been ditched.

I don’t know if Michael Grady made it backstage or not. I know I didn’t.

Steve was fighting all kinds of demons back then – and, from best I can tell, still is. But I remember he put on a great show. I also remember how he bit off the head of a the poor dude who had the temerity to yell “Play Copperhead Road.’’

Steve was savage, saying something to the effect of “I’ve been doing what I do for 20 years now playing these shows and I think I know more about what to play and when to play it than anybody sitting in the #%&@%* audience.’’

Well then.

Sobriety saved Steve Earle, unlike so many other of my favorite artists over the years. And in the time since he sobered up and got straight, he has given us all so many reasons to be thankful.

I’ve got a big reason to be thankful today. Steve Earle is playing the Stevens Center and I’ll be attendance, third-row balcony with my bride and one of our best friends in the world.

The show is billed, in part, as a commemoration of his Copperhead Road album released 30 years ago.

Just the same, I’ll let somebody else yell for Steve Earle to play the title song.

Merlefest and Me

Years back, in a pathetic display of petulance, I swore off Merlefest.

Oh I had always had a great time at the four-day wall-to-wall roots festival just up Highway 421 in North Wilkesboro. Who doesn’t? Music has magical properties, which makes Merlefest one of the most magical extended weekends of the year.

But when my heart said go, my pride said no. I had entered the songwriting contest so many times with great hopes, only to have those hopes dashed into fractured 16th and 32nd notes. With each passing rejection I turned ever more bitter.

I even made the sojourn one April with the expressed purpose of listening to all the songs that beat mine. I perched alone above the Hillside Stage as one winner after another promenaded up on stage to sing their songs, which, as I was forced to admit, were pretty good after all.

The one category that seemed, to me, to have the weakest entries was Gospel. So I decided then to enter a Gospel song. And for someone who had drifted away from the Methodist Church once I left home for college, that required a bit of research.

And when that song, The Long And Rugged Road, also failed to scratch the next spring, I took it personal. That’s when I decided Merlefest would just have to get along without me.

Judging from all I heard from all the great friends who went year after year, Merlefest got along pretty good.

So finally this year I swallowed my old foolish pride. My long-time pal Doug Roberts of the Ski and Tennis Station here in Winston had some VIP tickets, and two people I couldn’t do this life thing without – Tybee, my bride of 36 years and Lenox Rawlings, my closest compadre over my 45 years in the sportswriting business – were all fired up for the occasion.

What really got me out the door and up 421 though was a chance to see one of my heroes, Buddy Miller, who was playing Saturday night with Jim Lauderdale and the North Mississippi All-Stars. Lenox and I had caught a show by Buddy and his wife Julie about 10 or so years ago in the Library of Congress Auditorium in D.C, and I came away convinced the man is music personified.

Also, I listen religiously (that word again) to the Buddy and Jim Show on Sirius Radio, which I have to say is radio at its very best.

Knowing that Buddy and Jim were going to close the show at 9:30, we didn’t make the scene until early afternoon. Didn’t want to burn out, and all that.

I can’t say I enjoyed being in such a crowd, which was even bigger than I remembered it. And not all the music I heard was the kind I would rush out and buy.

But all in all we had the time of our lives. It’s a really beautiful event, organized and pulled off as well as possible for a show involving that many people. And I wasn’t surprised when I bumped into some folks I make music with here around Winston.

The high points soared into a sunny spring mountain sky.

I was well-aware of Rhiannon Giddens, and had even caught a show (with Lenox) at the Muddy Creek Music Hall featuring Don Flemons, her former band mate with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. If you ever get the opportunity to see Don Flemons, you’ll do yourself a disservice by passing it by.

But I wasn’t prepared for how monstrous Rhiannon’s talents are. It’s so gratifying to see a gifted artist doing so well what he or she was demonstrably put on this planet to do. And she’s one of us, hailing from nearby Greensboro, which I found to be especially cool.

April nights get chilly in North Wilkesboro, but we carried coats. And as the full moon rose over Merlefest, Buddy and Jim launched into a tight, spirited set. You get the feeling from watching folks like Buddy and Jim, not to mention Luther and Cody Dickenson of the North Mississippi All-Stars, that it’s really not about the money or the fame.

It’s about making music the way it was meant to be made.

My day was really made though when late in the set, everyone left the stage except Buddy and Luther. That’s when Buddy played my favorite song of his, Wide Wide River to Cross. If I had traveled to Merlefest for nothing more than that moment, it would have been well worth the effort.

Pride is probably essential to a happy human existence. Without it, we wouldn’t have the requisite gumption to even get out of bed, much less do what we’re here to do.

But as I was reminded this weekend, it sure can get in the way of a great time. My only complaint is that as hard as I looked, I never saw a banner exclaiming “Welcome Back Country Dan.’’

June 7: Don Gibson Day

So what is it with our fascination, as humans, of remembering the lives of famous people on the day they died?

Maybe I’m a bit over-sensitive on this issue given my birthday, August 16, is best remembered for the day two famous people died. Granted that the famous people, Elvis Presley and Babe Ruth, were really, really famous.

But wouldn’t The King’s birthday of Jan. 8 be a better time to remember all he did during of his 42 years among us? Or how about July 5, the date in 1954 that Sun Records impresario Sam Phillips finally heard out of a shy but decidedly weird truck driver the first strains of a new and exciting musical form  known as Rock and Roll?

And instead of remembering John Lennon on Dec. 8, the date in 1980 he was gunned down by a twisted punk across the street from Central Park, shouldn’t he be celebrated on his birthday of Oct. 9 – the day aunt Mimi dodged Nazi bombs falling on Liverpool to rush to the hospital to welcome her nephew into the world?

Or how about Feb. 9, the date that the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show ensured that Lennon and his fellow band mates would be remembered as long as humans make joyful noise on this planet?

To that end, I’ve made an executive decision to celebrate a particular hero of mine not on Nov. 17, the day he died in 2003, or even April 3, the day he was born in 1928. Instead I’m going to proclaim Don Gibson Day to be June 7, the date in 1957 that he all but answered a question I’ve grappled with my whole life.

Could there have been great country music without acute alcohol abuse?

We all know that the great Hank Williams rarely drew a sober breath over the final five years of his tormented life. And we’ve laughed along with the stories of how George “No-Show” Jones laid drunk for so long that his wife hid the keys to all the cars – prompting the Possum to ride his lawn mower eight miles to the nearest package store.

But if there has ever been a testimonial to the contributions of John Barleycorn to the art form of country music it would have to be what Don Gibson did on what I have now proclaimed as Don Gibson Day.

Don came up hard. Born in Shelby, N.C., he was two years old when his father, a railroad worker, passed. Don barely made it through the second grade before deciding that formal education was not for him.

He was gifted musically, and made some noise locally before he moved to Knoxville and began recording for Columbia. And he appeared to be on his way to stardom when both Faron Young and Patsy Cline hit big with his tune Sweet Dreams in 1955.

Acuff-Rose Publishing was impressed enough to sign Gibson to a songwriter’s contract and MGM added him to its roster of recording artist.

But whatever money Don got from that breakthrough was apparently long gone by the first Don Gibson Day of 1957, when he found himself living alone in a trailer just north of Knoxville.

Earlier, the knock on the door had been that of a Repo Man, who relieved Don of his vacuum cleaner and his television.

So Don, as the story goes, got good and drunk enough to spend the afternoon writing two songs that made inevitable his induction, 44 years later, into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

One was Oh Lonesome Me recorded by everyone from Bing Crosby to Neil Young. The other was I Can’t Stop Loving You, the smash hit off one of the most important albums of my lifetime, Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds of Country and Western Music.

If Don Gibson had never written another song in his lifetime, he would be remembered forever what what he accomplished that sad, whiskey-sodden afternoon in a trailer park in East Tennessee going on 61 years ago.

Some fast friends and I gathered yesterday for a guitar pull down Liberty Arts Coffee House, the one ramrodded monthly by two pals Richard Boyd and Billie Feather of The Bo-Stevens fame. I made bold enough to proclaim June 7 to be Don Gibson Day, and to celebrate the occasion on the date that falls most closely to the first Sunday of the month.

So this year, Don Gibson Day is set for June 3, when all those in attendance will be asked to at least consider favoring us with a song written by the great Don Gibson. Thankfully Old Don stayed right busy after that fateful day in the trailer in East Tennessee, busy enough to pepper the charts with such standards as Blue, Blue Day, Who Cares, Sea of Heartbreak, Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles, Just One Time, Legend in My Time, Lonesome Number One, Woman (Sensuous Woman).

Or instead of remembering Don Gibson, maybe we should celebrate the Repo Man who, after confiscating Gibson’s vacuum cleaner and television, had the foresight to leave Don with his guitar and his bottle.

What Can Become of a Mid-Life Crisis

Today, Thursday, is the day I wake up with a big grin on my face, for I know in a matter of hours (I’m retired, so I get up late) I’ll be headed down to Bethania to make music the way it was meant to be made with a dozen or so of my closest friends.

Most of these friends were folks I didn’t know until June 6, 2014, the fateful day we launched Open Mic at Muddy Creek. And now, going on four years later, I count many among my closest friends in the world.

Shared experiences draw people closer, and we’ve had our share – and then some – of wonderful experiences since Bill Heath, the music mogul of Muddy Creek Cafe, agreed that we should give an Open Mic a go down in the historical Moravian settlement some dozen or so miles northwest of Winston.

You’re always among friends, we like to say, down at Muddy Creek Cafe, where everybody is somebody. And that’s the ambience we’re after from 6:15, when we congregate to draw for the picking order until we conclude the graveyard shift sometime usually between 9:30 and 10.

We’re talking old-folks’ hours, totally befitting a man of my advanced age.

A good number of the regulars are long-time fixtures of the Winston musical scene I’ve known since my mid-life’s crisis of the early 21st century.

After spending a good dozen years concentrating almost totally on my career and helping to raise Nate (born in 1986) and Rebecca (1990), I woke up one day at 50 years old realizing I needed something new to wake up to.

So instead of buying a flashy red convertible to tool around town in, or maybe buying a rug to wear on my balding head, I tossed Buckshot, my 1967 Gibson J-45 in the car and began scouting around Winston to find places I might play these old songs I had spent the previous 35 years of my life writing.

I fell into a totally happening little bar down on Burke Street called The Rubber Soul, which had a rocking Open Mic every Wednesday night. I started haunting the bar week after week to play, and thankfully, as bad as I was during those days, nobody ever ran me off.

The scene at the Rubber Soul finally died around 2005, though thankfully the three people shot in there the Monday Night the Charles Greene Band had the place packed and pulsating all survived.

To keep the good times rolling, I talked my good buddies Richard Emmett and Kimberly Lawson into letting me ramrod an Open Mic at the Garage. And what a great run we had there from July of 2007 until 2011 gave way to 2012. We always had plenty of musicians on hand ready to play, but when the number of patrons who’d show to watch us – and drink adult beverages – began to dwindle we all decided the scene had run his course.

But I was still writing songs, and I still needed a place to play them. To me, it’s hard to say I’ve actually written a song until I’ve show-tested it, and gone out and played it in front of people.

So it was a happy day when Bill Heath decided to see what we could get going down at Muddy Creek Cafe. And it’s been a happy day pretty much every Thursday since.

What I found in the downtime between the Garage and Muddy Creek Cafe is that if running an Open Mic were easy anybody could do it. I couldn’t find anybody who could do it the way it had been done at The Rubber Soul and the Garage, so I decided to do it myself.

One lesson I learned off the top is that you treat everyone the way they should be treated. Getting up in front of people is a harrowing experience, especially when you’re baring you soul by playing your own songs. So you strive to make everything as comfortable as possible for everybody that plays.

Again, you’re always among friends at Muddy Creek Cafe.

I also found that the three-song set is the way to go. It’s as perfect to an Open Mic show as the 90-foot base paths are to baseball. It just works.

We allot everyone 15 minutes, and as it turns out, some people run long but others run short. If we limited it to strictly 15 minutes, people would have to cut off a song before it was finished, and we wouldn’t want that.

We don’t care what kind of music you play or what instrument you play it on. It’s your 15-minute set, so fill it up anyway you want. If you want to pull out a cello and saw off some Rachmaninoff, we’re all ears.

We do, however, give extra credit for originals. You deserve a gold star for showing your soul.

Everybody who comes regularly is a part of the scene, whether they’re musicians or not. The experience at the Garage taught us that if nobody came to listen to us play, we wouldn’t be able to play for long.

But the biggest lesson I would give anyone thinking they might like to ramrod an Open Mic is to make sure you find you a trail boss you can work with.

I use the term ramrod because running an Open Mic through a night of music and mayhem is not unlike driving dogies to market. And if you’re, like me, old enough to remember the Classic TV Show Rawhide you can remember a young Clint Eastwood playing the role of a ramrod named Rowdy Yates. In this production, I’m Rowdy Yates.

But it’s Bill Heath who plays the role of Gil Favor, the trail boss ultimately responsible for getting those dogies into tin cans. Like Rowdy answered to Gil, I answer to Bill. It’s his establishment.

What I’ve come to learn is that if the ramrod and trail boss are simpatico, if they get along, then there’s no problem too big that can’t be solved. But if the ramrod and trail boss are at loggerheads, then there’s no problem too small to derail the whole scene.

Bill and I get along famously, so Open Mic at Muddy Creek Cafe keeps flourishing.

Bitter winter weather has kept us cooped up inside the cafe these past number of weeks, so I’m so happy to look outside at the spring sunshine and realize we’ll be tumbling out onto the deck for tonight’s show. It doesn’t really work inside, but we make it work because everybody looks after each other. But it’s outside, on the deck that Bill keeps upgrading and improving, where you’ll find the best of Open Mic at Muddy Creek Cafe.

If you play, come on down at play with us. Signups, like I said, are at 6:15. If you’re just a music lover, you’ll find plenty to love at Open Mic at Muddy Creek Cafe.

A Hard Day’s Night: The Proper Story

It was April 14, 1964, when the final touches were being put on the first movie starring the Beatles.

United Artist even had a title, A Hard Day’s Night, one of many malaprops from the twisted, if unwitting wit of drummer Ringo Starr. The director, Richard Lester, had been driving the boys hard over the whirlwind seven weeks spent filming in and around London, and he needed to get the low-budget production in the can.

But one problem remained, a big one. The movie needed a theme song.

I’ve often thought how cool it would have been to have met John Lennon, one of my many heroes. But I also know that on that one particular date, April 14, 1964, I wouldn’t have traded places with Walter Shenson to have done so.

For it was left to Shenson, the producer of A Hard Day’s Night, to bring up to Lennon that a theme song would be required. It needed to be an upbeat tune, and it was needed soon – as in yesterday.

Those who know the story of the Beatles know that Lennon, at least before he met Yoko, was one of the angriest humans to ever walk the planet. I’m no psychologist, but I would hazard to guess that had something to with abandonment issues.

For as the story goes, his ne’er-do-well father Freddie sailed off to sea, his free-spirited mother Julia dumped him on his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George and his best friend Stu Sutcliffe died in Hamburg from an aneurism or some other nerve disorder. And oh yeah, Julia died as well, after getting hit by a car on a Liverpool street.

There was a darkest of dark side to Lennon, which came out in full fury during a party celebrating Paul McCartney’s 21st birthday. That was the night Bob Wooler, a regular on the Liverpool hip scene, chided Lennon for a holiday trip he had made to Spain with manager Brian Epstein.

The insinuation was that Lennon, like Epstein, was gay.

Flying into Wooler, Lennon started pounding him with his fists and kept pounding until he was pulled off and held down long enough to regain his senses.

This was the same John Lennon who, 10 months later, Shenson had to approach to request – no, make that require – that a song be written posthaste.

The scene in Bob Spitz’ biography, titled appropriately enough, The Beatles, is totally predicable. It describes a Lennon all put upon, muttering and brooding and chain-smoking while riding in the car from the studio back into London.

Can’t you just see him?

I can.

So next morning when Shenson was told Lennon wanted to see him in the Beatles dressing room, we can all imagine how apprehensive he must have been. Only 10 hours had elapsed, so Shenson probably expected nothing more than a progress report.

“He and Paul were standing there, with their guitars slung over their shoulders,’’ Shenson recalled. “John fiddles with a matchbook cover on which were scrawled the lyrics to a song – A Hard Day’s Night – which they sang and played to perfection.’’

Lennon, still seething, fixed Shenson with his glare.

“OK, that’s it right?,’’ Lennon demanded.

“Right,’’ Shenson replied.

“Good,’’ Lennon practically spat, “Now don’t bother us about songs anymore.’’

A Hard Day’s Night is one of my favorite movies, one that gets better every time I see it. And I can’t help laugh when I hear the Beatles launch into the theme, opening with that idiosyncratic chord George Harrison produced off his 12-string Rickenbacker 360.

“It was an F with a G on top,’’ Harrison once revealed during an on-line chat. “But you’ll have to ask Paul about the bass note to get the proper story.’’

And that, music lovers, is the proper story of A Hard Day’s Night.