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.

Making the Most of His Time

Left my home in Norfolk, Virginia,

California on my mind,

Straddled that greyhound, rode him past Raleigh,

And on across Caroline.

So Chuck Berry, the poet laureate of rock and roll, gets to wondering one day that if a poor boy were to set out from Norfolk, Va., headed for Los Angeles, how would he get there?

It was the early 1960s, and Chuck had already hit it as big as a black rhythm-and-blues artist could at that time with such classics as Maybelline (1955), Roll Over Beethoven (1956), Rock and Roll Music (1957) and Johnny B. Goode (1958). But any notion of jumping in his red Cadillac and conducting his own research on the subject was, shall we say, complicated.

For Chuck, at the time, was stacking time in prison.

Stopped in Charlotte, by-passed Rock Hill,

We never were minute late,

We were 90 minutes out of Atlanta by sundown,

Rolling out of Georgia state.

Had something to do with this girl he had met in a Juarez bar called the Savoy, this Apache girl named Janice Norlene Escalanti, to whom Chuck took enough of a shine to carry back to St. Louis to work as a hat check girl in his nightclub, Club Bandstand.

Turns out Chuck had to fire Janice Norlene Escalanti only weeks into her employment at Club Bandstand for, among other things, being bad at checking hats. Also turns out she was only 14, and had been known to turn tricks for a buck or two.

We had motor trouble, it turned into a struggle,

Halfway across Alabam,

And the hound broke down and left us all stranded,

In downtown Birmingham.

Prosecuted under the Mann Act – passed in 1910 to make it illegal to transport any woman or girl across state lines for immoral purposes – his first conviction was overturned after the presiding judge repeatedly referred to the defendant as a “nigra.’’

But the authorities wanted the poor boy badly enough that they hauled him up before a second judge and jury, and this time Berry was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison.

He served 20 months in a federal prison in the Federal Medical Center Prison in Springfield, Missouri.

Right away I bought me a through train ticket,

Riding across Mississippi clean,

I was riding that Midnight Flyer out of Birmingham

Smoking into New Orleans

Berry would later deny, as vehemently as vehemently could be, that he didn’t do this time in question, before finally coming clean. Actually, it wasn’t Berry’s only brush with the law.

Though he came from a middle-class family in St. Louis – his father William Henry was a contractor and a Deacon at the neighborhood Antioch Baptist Church and his mother Martha Bell was a school principal – he broke bad enough at age 18 to serve the better part of three years at the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at Algoa, Missouri for armed robbery and car-jacking.

He also, in 1979, was incarcerated three months for tax evasion and, 10 years later, just missed doing another stretch after authorities raided his estate to find marijuana, firearms and a cache of video tapes of underaged girls in sexual poses.

Somebody help me get out of Louisiana,

Help me get to Houston town,

There are people there who care a little about me

And they won’t let the poor boy down.

Berry, once he finally owned up to his prison past, maintained he did more at Springfield than just cool his heels for 20 months.

“I spent all my off-duty time studying business management, business law, accounting, typing, world history,’’ he wrote in his autobiography, titled, appropriately enough, Chuck Berry: The Autobiography.

So our man obviously knew where the prison library was located. And on that day he got to wondering how a poor boy leaving out of Norfolk might get to LA, he made his way to the library for the atlas  — to plot his imaginary cross-country trek immortalized in the song Promised Land.

Sure as you’re born, they bought me a silk suit

Put luggage in my hands,

And I woke up high over Albuquerque,

On a jet to the Promised Land.

Prison, as they say, can change a man, and according to the Rock-a-billy legend Carl Perkins, the Chuck Berry who walked out of Federal Medical Center Prison in Springfield, Missouri was a different man from the one who walked in.

Which explains the hateful, chronically combative character to be seen in one of the great Rock biopics of all time, Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll. If you’ve never seen it, do yourself an immense favor and find it.

“Never saw a man so changed,’’ Perkins recalled. “He had been an easygoing guy before, the kinda guy who would jam in dressing rooms, and swap licks and jokes. In England (during a 1964 concert tour) he was cold, real distant and bitter. It wasn’t just jail. It was those years of one-nighters – grinding it out like that can kill a man. But I figure it was mostly jail.’’

Working on a T-bone steak a la carte

Flying to the Golden State

When the pilot came on and said in 13 minutes

He would have us at the terminal gate

There would have been rock and roll without Chuck Berry, but it wouldn’t be all it became. “If you tried to give rock and roll another name,’’ John Lennon once said. “you might call it Chuck Berry.’’

Lucky enough to be born in 1952, I grew up on Chuck Berry. You couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing his songs, though most of the time they were covered by white artists such as Buddy Holly, Johnny Rivers and the King himself, Elvis Presley.

Elvis, in fact, recorded Promised Land at Stax Records in Memphis in Dec. 1973, and it was the title cut on an album released in January 1975 on the occasion of the King’s 40th birthday.

Swing low chariot, come down easy,

Taxi to the terminal zone,

Cut your engines and cool your wings

And get me to the telephone.

I was lucky enough to see Chuck Berry live at UNC’s Jubilee in the spring of my freshman year of 1971, and I’ll never forget him duck-walking across the stage at Navy Field. But what I remember best about Promised Land was from attending Grateful Dead concerts during those golden years, when Pigpen was still alive and Garcia, like me, was still a skinny hippie.

Every time I saw them, they opened with Ace Weir singing lead on Promised Land.

There must be a statistic for everything in modern America, and sure enough a website devoted to the Grateful Dead reveals that the band performed the song 428 times in concert.

We can all be happy that the library at Federal Medical Center Prison in Springfield, Missouri stocked an atlas.

Los Angeles give me Norfolk, Virginia

Tidewater four 10 o nine.

Tell the folks back home this is The Promised Land calling

And the poor boy’s on the line.

R.I.P. Rick Hall: You Earned It

Musically, my favorite haunt is the intersection of Williams Avenue and Charles Boulevard – as in Hank Williams and Ray Charles.

And if you really want to see me reduced to a mass of quivering protoplasm (to steal a line from my pal Rico Cavatinni) then just play Dark End of the Street done by anybody who did it. For purposes of this post, I’ll link the version by a rich kid from Waycross, Georgia named Gram Parsons who spent most of his short, tortured life at the corner of Williams and Charles.

See, I grew with the mistaken belief that Nashville was the Mecca of all good music. These days, to direct my prayers of gratitude and appreciation to whatever higher being is responsible for the glory of music, I face further west.

Memphis is the center of my musical universe because Memphis, unlike Nashville, got soul.

Gram Parsons knew this. So did Dan Penn and Chip Moman, the two white cats that wrote Dark End of the Street.

Penn, who also wrote the Aretha Franklin classic Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, was knocking around Florence, Ala., when he fell in with a couple of other budding musicians named Billy Sherrill and Rick Hall to form a band called the Fairlanes. Sherrill eventually headed to Nashville where he had a huge hand in writing and producing such standards as Stand By Your Man by Tammy Wynette and He Stopped Loving Her Today by George Jones.

One of his last projects before heading to Nashville was to open a recording studio with Hall and another investor. They dubbed it FAME studios for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises, but the place became legendary for the small town just outside Florence where it relocated after Sherrill split for Nashvile fame.

A town called Muscle Shoals.

In previous research excursions back through musical time and space, I came across Arthur Alexander, whose song You Better Move On I knew from childhood having worn out the Rolling Stones’ album December’s Children (And Everybody’s).

I wasn’t hip enough as a kid to know Arthur Alexander, but there was a guy a half-generation ahead than me living in Liverpool, England who was.

“We were trying to get that bass sound Arthur Alexander was getting in Muscle Shoals,’’ John Lennon said. “We love his records.’’

He loved Arthur Alexander so much the Beatles covered his Anna (Go to Him). The Beatles version was killer, of course, but check out Alexander’s original.

Muscle Shoals, as the story goes, may not have ever got going without the $10,000 Hall earned off the bat from selling You Better Move On to Dot Records in Nashville. The payoff allowed him to move from Florence to Muscle Shoals and build the low cinderblock building in which so much musical magic was made over the years.

The most famous Muscle Shoals’ story is probably about the time Aretha Franklin came to North Alabama to record. The visit ended with the drunken cantankerous Hall brawling with an equally drunken and cantankerous Ted White, Aretha’s husband and manager.

But thankfully, before it came to blows the visit produced I Never Loved a Man and the first takes of Do Right Woman.

It always blew me away checking out the back of the album to see that the musicians making this deep soul music were for the most part white men wearing crew cuts who looked more like Alabama State patrolmen than the hippest of musicians. Only years later would I learn that one was Spooner Oldham, whose funky stylings on the electric piano opened Aretha’s ears and set I Never Loved a Man in motion. Another was a bassist named David Hood, whose son, Patterson Hood, plays in one of my most favorite of contemporary bands, The Drive-By Truckers.

The story of Muscle Shoals is well-documented, so much so that a basketball coach at Wake Forest named Jeff Bzdelik was all excited one day telling me about the documentary he and his wife Nina had watched the night before called Muscle Shoals. Bzdelik, I have to think, might have known music better than coaching basketball.

Rick Hall was born Roe Erister Hall on Jan. 31, 1932. His mother abandoned the family before Hall was five to work in a bordello. His father was a sharecropper who occasionally found work in a sawmill. The family home had a dirt floor with no running water.

Hall’s wife died when a car he was driving crashed in 1956. Two weeks later his father died after a tractor Hall had bought him overturned.

Hall, grief-stricken, spent the next four years drowning in a bottle, not worth shooting, until emerging from the doldrums to set up shop at the corner of Williams and Charles and churn out hits by Arthur Alexander, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Clarence Carter, The Osmonds, Mac Davis, Jerry Reed and countless others.

Grief couldn’t kill Rick Hall. Neither could fisticuffs from Aretha Franklin’s husband or the heartbreak of losing his legendary rhythm section, The Swampers, to their own studio venture in 1969, at the height of all he had going on.

But cancer finally caught up with him and Hall died yesterday. He was 85. The intersection of Williams and Charles is adorn with crepe, but the music, as always, sounds heavenly.