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.

Blame It On a Bad Movie About Hank

Funny how in life sometimes the highest good comes from the lowest of places.

For me the inspiration that launched a lifelong fascination with writing songs came from one of the worst bio-pics to ever make its way to the movie theater in my hometown of Franklin. My only excuse for not knowing how bad it was is that I when I first saw it, I was only 12.

The year was 1964 when MGM released Your Cheatin’ Heart, with George Hamilton playing Hank Williams. I saw it with my mother, Frances Cooper Collins, who, despite not being a musician herself, carried the musical gene that infected me to the core of my being.

To Frances, there has never been a country music singer/songwriter she loved half as much as she loved Hank Williams. Today, going on 65 years since Hank passed away, the same could be said for me.

Thankfully, discernment, in this case, didn’t come until many years had passed. For it was only after watching the movie as an adult did I realize had ridiculously bad it actually was.

Colin Escott, who wrote the definitive Hank Williams: The Biography had one word for Your Cheatin’ Heart, and that word was execrable.

Just to be sure I went back and watched it again today. I’m here to testify under any oath anyone might want me to take that Escott was right.

The first tipoff for why it was such a piece of horse dung could be seen in the opening credits, which listed as a “technical adviser’’ none other than Audrey Williams, A.K.A. Mrs. Hank Williams.

Problem one, she wasn’t Mrs. Hank Williams when Hank passed away on or around the date of Jan. 1, 1953. She and Hank had divorced for the second time after one of the most notoriously rocky marriages Nashville has ever known – which for such a Sodom and Gomorroh as Nashville is really saying something. Furthermore, Hank, by the time he died, had already taken up with and married a sweet young thing named Billie Jean Jones.

Let the record show that Hank actually married Billie Jean twice, once before a justice of the peace in Minden, Louisiana and again, for the price of admission, on stage before an audience in New Orleans.

So problem two, the big problem, was that the movie was seen through the heavily distorted prism of Audrey, known not-so-affectionately around Nashville as “Big A.’’ Hence there was nothing in the movie dealing with the extramarital affairs, nothing about the nasty drug choral hydrate fed to Hank by a quack doctor named Toby Marshall – which along with the alcohol is what probably killed him – and certainly nothing about anyone named or remotely resembling Billie Jean Jones.

In hindsight, the movie was a fraud propagated on tender, highly impressionable young mind of one 12-year-old Country Dan Collins. And to this day, I’m so glad it was.

For there was one scene in the movie that provided the inspiration I have carried with me ever since, the inspiration to start writing songs of my own.

The scene came early, right after Hank met Audrey and joined up with the Drifting Cowboys. The band is crammed shoulder to shoulder in a 1950s model convertible cruising down the road when Hank, sitting in the back, starts riffing a verse about sitting around waiting.

“I’ve never heard that before,’’ said Shorty from the front.

“It would be kind of spooky if you did,’’ Hank replied, pushing his cowboy hat back on his head. “It just came to me.’’

Talk about your epiphanies.

Until that magical moment, pretty much all I knew about music was how much I loved it and how complete and wonderful it made me feel. I had never really thought about where it came from. I had to know, subconsciously, that there were people who actually wrote the songs, but until Your Cheatin’ Heart came to town, I would have associated the fine art of songwriting with alchemy.

Profoundly inspired, I picked up the guitar my older brother Tom put down and began learning how to play. And I learned for one reason, and one reason only.

I was going to write songs. I had to write songs. I was destined to write songs.

And fifty-some years later I’m still writing songs. I tell people I’ve been writing songs longer than I’ve been writing sports, and I’ve been writing sports forever.

The story of Hank Williams, I’m convinced, is the great bio-pic yet to be made. Hollywood took another crack at it in 2016 starring Tom Hiddleston in I Saw the Light, which, to my mind, was a little more honest in its portrayal.

But how good can a movie be with a guy from England playing Hank Williams?

Maybe just good enough to inspire some other 12-year-old as profoundly as the execrable Your Cheatin’ Heart inspired me.

Lowman Pauling: Hero of My Hero

Everyone, I imagine, would like to think they live in a cool place, that is, if the word cool is even used anymore.

But I didn’t know just how cool Winston-Salem is until a few years back, upon learning that the hero of my hero grew up here.

My hero, for the record, is Steve Cropper. He’s one of many to hold that distinction, but he’s pretty high on the list – and has been since my best childhood buddy, Bruce Young, and I discovered those righteous riffs coming out of Stax Records in Memphis.

My kids’ generation were introduced to Cropper as the bearded guitarist playing with Elwood and Joliet Jake in the Blues Brothers. But Bruce and I, just as we were really coming of age musically, couldn’t get enough of that Stax sound of Booker T. and the M. G.’s, Sam and Dave, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd and the Big O himself, the Man from Macon, the King of Soul, Otis Redding.

We came to learn that laying down those spare, bright, clean and ever so tasteful guitar licks was a lanky, white dude named Steve Cropper. And then we came to learn that Cropper also wrote or co-wrote so many of our favorite songs like Knock on Wood, 634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.) and (Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay and, the one that really brought the house down at our dances up at the old Slagle Memorial, In the Midnight Hour.

The Lorraine Motel achieved infamy for what one of the worst among us, James Earl Ray, did in assassinating Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968. But I like to remember it as the place where, in 1965, Cropper, a white man originally from backwater Dora, Missouri and Wilson Pickett, a black man from Detroit sat down and wrote In the Midnight Hour.

See what can come of it when we all work together?

Bruce, along the way, overdosed on life and died and I grew up, but I never lost my fascination for Cropper and the Stax Sound. So imagine my amazement when, one night in surfing the internet for all I could find about Cropper, I learn that one of his first, and perhaps greatest, influence was a cat from Winston-Salem named Lowman Pauling.

Lowman, as Cropper recalled, played with his guitar slung way down at his knees. So when he got home, Cropper linked his strap with a belt so he could drop his guitar way down low as well – just like Lowman Pauling.

The more I learned about Lowman Pauling, the more I learned there was to learn. I was fascinated to find that he and his brother Clarence Pauling (who would shorten his name to Paul and go on to mentor and produce Stevie Wonder) co-founded the Rhythm and Blues’ pioneer-band, The “5” Royales.

There really was no R&B scene, at least not as we came to know it in the 50s, until the Paulings, along with Jimmy Moore, Obadiah Carter, Otto Jeffries, John Tanner and Eugene Tanner, began shaking their tail feathers with such tunes as Think and Tears of Joy and Dedicated to the One I Love.

Would there have been a James Brown if not for The “5” Royales? Probably, but it was this band from Winston-Salem who showed The Hardest Working Man in Show Business how it was done.

It has often been said that life isn’t fair, and if you don’t believe it just ask those black artists of early rock and roll and soul who were exploited artistically and financially before eventually being cast aside. But I’m happy to say that the story of Lowman Pauling didn’t end when, working as a janitor in a Brooklyn synagogue, he passed away in 1973.

Cropper, to his credit, was among those who kept the memory of Pauling and The “5” Royales alive. The efforts were rewarded in 2015 when, along with Lou Reed and Ringo Starr and Bill Withers and Joan Jett, The “5” Royales were inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

My compadre and good friend Lisa O’Donnell did herself proud, as usual, in memorializing the occasion in a series of articles for the Winston-Salem Journal. But what brought me back to Lowman Pauling and Steve Cropper and this riff you’re reading now was Scott Sexton’s column in the Journal how the Forsyth County Historic Resources Commission had declined a proposal by Darryl Pauling, Lowman’s son, to approve a historical marker honoring The “5” Royales.

Sexton, being the professional he is, did make mention that the city has named a street after the band. But it’s a side street, running only two blocks, and to be honest, I’ve never, to my knowledge, been on it.

Come on Winston-Salem. Step up and recognize – no celebrate – the rich musical heritage of our fair burg, a heritage that would not be the same without the contributions of Lowman Pauling and the “5” Royales.

Prove that you’re as cool as the place you live, you members of the Forsyth County Historic Resources Commission.

That is, if the word cool is even used anymore.

Music from the Heart

Music, for the luckiest among us, is rhythmic, melodic and harmonious thoughts we carry around in our head which are far best expressed through the heart.

Sad to say, but too much of the music I hear around me doesn’t come from the heart.

Instead it sounds like product – not unlike soap or canned goods or beer — to be packaged and sold.

A few years back I attended a three-day songwriters’ workshop at the Community Arts Cafe downtown, which featured professionals from all facets of the Nashville music scene. There were songwriters, producers, performers, even song pluggers who made the trek up I-40 from Nashville to inform aspiring songwriters willing to shell out $300 how to make it the business.

Their main message was how hard it is to make it in the business, and what was required to do so. Yeah, they said, talent and ability might come in handy, but nobody makes it in Nashville without patience, perseverance, pluck and most of all, luck.

What they were selling was a dream, a dream I’ve had since I first recognized that my favorite musicians – giants like Hank Williams and Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly and the Beatles – were those who wrote their own songs. I learned to play guitar at age 15 for one reason only, and that was to write songs.

But here I was 45 years later being told that if I wanted to make it in Nashville, that, along with my house, I would also have to sell my soul. The only songs Nashville was interested in were those that would sell X-amount of units – again, not unlike soap, canned goods or beer.

Looking back, what they were telling me made total sense. The music industry is, after all, a commercial endeavor that requires a return on investment.

Besides, there are already thousands of songwriters who have chased their dream now starving on the streets of lower Broadway. So these fine folks from the industry – several of whom I got to know fairly well and like — weren’t really looking for anything new and fresh.

By the third day, with most of the Nashville players on stage wrapping up the workshop, I experienced an epiphany. I asked myself, would I change my life as a sportswriter for the Winston-Salem Journal with theirs, a songwriter in Nashville writing songs for the sole purpose of making enough to eat and keeping a roof over my head?

If you wonder about my conclusion, go back and read the first graph of this post.

Music has to be about more than making money or it’s not worth the bother of tuning a guitar. And when it’s good, you don’t know it in your head or even your bank account. You know it in your heart.

Susanna Clark, the long-time wife and muse of one of my favorite songwriters, Guy Clark, might have penned it best in the song she wrote with Richard Leigh.

You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money,

Love, like you’ve never been hurt,

You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watching,

It’s got to come from the heart,

If you want it to work.’’

This past Sunday I cruised downtown to the monthly open jam at Liberty Arts Coffee House ram-rodded by two good buddies, Richard Boyd and Billie Feather. Richard, who sings like I sing in my dreams, is the front-man of the killer rockabilly outfit The Bo-Stevens band which features the multi-talented Billie on bass.

For two glorious hours about a dozen of us, old friends like Jeff Wall and Cindy Taplin and brand-new friends like Mike and Lisa and Debbie and John and Dennis, sat in a circle and passed songs around like a bottle of the best brandy. Billie had her bass, Lisa played a dobro, Mike a banjo of some sort, John a mandolin, Dennis a harmonica and Richard and Jeff and Cindy and I strummed along on our guitars.

A couple of originals were trotted out, but most of our time was spent playing the good old-time songs everybody knew.

Nobody was there to sell a song, or even sell themselves. We were there to make music with friends and celebrate the opportunity to do so.

It was the same kind of celebration you can experience weekly down in Bethania at our Thursday Night Open Mic at Muddy Creek, one that has me waking up every Thursday morning with a smile on my face.

So if you want to hear the best music that can be made – music that comes from your heart – don’t bother with Nashville or any place dependent on a recording industry. Head on down to Liberty Arts Coffee House at 2 p.m. on the first Sunday or the month, or down to Muddy Creek Cafe any Thursday at 6:30.

Thank the ghost of Hank Williams that there’s real music to be heard.

Anyone looking can find it all around them.

Homage to The Garage

Back when I traveled regularly for the Winston-Salem Journal, covering Wake football and basketball far and wide, my most dreaded times were spent alone in hotel rooms with the walls closing in around me.

I had to get out.

More often than not, my refuge was any club, bar or honky tonk in town known for cold beer and hot music. I’d scour up a local entertainment guide, maybe do a little due diligence on the internet, hail a cab, pay my cover charge and take my chances.

To me, genre has always been a lame word contrived by marketing types for those who don’t realize that all good music flows seamlessly into all other good music. (And besides that, it’s French).

But my rule of thumb was, when in doubt, go with the blues.

You rarely go wrong with the blues.

There were many nights I would love to remember every magic moment and there were nights I’d just as soon I could forget. But it dawned on me one time coming off the road that my prevailing opinion of any given town was shaped almost entirely on what kind of scene I happened to find on that given night.

Case in point: Anyone who has made it to the Tractor Tavern, up north in to the university community of Ballard, knows that Seattle is one rocking town. Any establishment that has a weekly Hank Williams Tribute Night is all right by me.

Conversely, I never found Tallahassee to be much fun until about my 15th trip when my compadre Lenox Rawlings and I drove about 10 miles north to this cinder-block dive with the tin roof stuck way back in some field called the Bradfordville Blues Club. Turned out to be one of my favorite haunts of all time, and had me looking forward with bated breath to the next trip to the capital of the Sunshine State.

To peer through the other end of the telescope, any working stiff passing through the Piedmont from mid-2007 through 2011 lucky enough to fall into the Garage on a Wednesday night we were having our weekly Open Mics had to return to Peoria or Hicksville or Flagstaff or Kalamazoo absolutely certain that Winston-Salem, N.C. was a mighty cool place to be.

What wild and rollicking times were to be had down that long, narrow hallway off Seventh Street. The beauty of the Garage was it never tried, or needed, to be more than what it was, a warm, happy, naturally cosmic space with the comfortable vibe you seek in such places, one that lets you know you’re welcome.

We always made sure everyone who showed up to play felt like they belonged, because they did. And by we, I include the whole family, owner/managers Richard Emmett and Kimberly Lawson, sound engineers Jeffrey Paul Irving and Brian Doub and servers like Sarah E. Smith and Erin McCully-Davis.

The music was amazing at times, a bit hard on the ears at others, but what mattered most was that we had gathered as a community to show and tell and celebrate the music and art and each other together. As I’ve written before, Open Mic done right can be downright holy.

None of which is to say Wednesday was the only night magic could be found down at 110 West Seventh. There were so many other evenings I danced myself silly to the Emma Gibbs Band or the Red Elvises or the Bo-Stevens or the Near Strangers or Lonesome Bob or Possum Jenkins or Vel Indica or the Band of Heathens or the Red Lipstick Society or the Felice Brothers or the Liquor House Soul Revue or the Solid Citizens or whatever groove a local icon like Mitch Easter might happen to be in at the time.

Best show I ever saw there was the Gourds sometime back around 2000 when Kevin Russell and his cohorts were in all their glory. It was mandatory attendance for the Collins family, though Nate was only about 15 and Rebecca around 11.

I feel almost guilty in saying I didn’t make the scene much after Tucker Tharpe took over the bar from Richard and Kim five years ago. We got the Open Mic up and going out my way at Muddy Creek Cafe, and it wasn’t the getting downtown that impeded me as much as the prospects of getting back home.

Truth is, I got older. I also got spoiled by having what I wanted – cold beer, hot music – five minutes away.

And now the sorrowful news comes down that the Garage will suspend operations come the New Year. Richard and Tucker are, from what I gather, holding out hope that somebody with deep enough pockets will come forward to keep the door open and the music and adult beverages flowing, but that obviously remains to be scene.

I wish that somebody could be me, but that would require me winning the lottery. Anyone with a love of live music and all the good times associated with it will attest that the town needs places like the Garage to get folks up from their easy chairs and out of their apartments and homes, and, lest we forget, the hotel rooms with the walls closing in.

Open Mic

It makes you scared,

It makes you numb,

But it’s the price you pay

If you want to become

The Star of Your Dreams.

From Open Mic Night at The Rubber Soul

If there really is such thing as a mid-life crisis, I experienced one along about 15 years ago.

It was the dawn of a new century and I’d just turned 50. I’d been in the same profession doing pretty much the same thing for 30 years. Our kids, Nate and Rebecca, were old enough to get in and out of the bathtub by themselves. And, considering their mother, Tybee, is a teacher and way smarter than their dad, they rarely came to me for help with homework anyway.

So around the house, I was starting to feel, shall we say, superfluous. I needed some juice in my life. I was bored and getting more so every day.

But fear not. I didn’t go out and buy a fancy red sports car to tool around town with the ragtop down. And if you’ve seen me anytime since, you’ll know I didn’t start wearing some stupid rug on my head.

What I did, instead, was to toss Buckshot, my 1967 Gibson J-45, in the car and scoured around town to find an Open Mic scene where I could play the songs I had been writing since I first learned to play at age 15 or 16.

And sure enough, down on Burke Street near the intersection with First Street – at the top of the hill – I stumbled into a bar called the Rubber Soul, which featured a thriving Open Mic Night on Wednesdays. And I give thanks to this day that Kent Dunn, the wide-open owner of the establishment, and Neal B. Goode, who ram-rodded the Open Mic and operated the sound board, never ran me off.

I kept coming, week after week, until sadly, the Rubber Soul closed its doors sometime around 2006. The scene died, but thankfully the three patrons shot in there on that tragic Monday night all survived.

But the hook was in pretty deep by then, so I talked the owners of the Garage – two good friends and even better folks, Richard Emmett and Kim Lawson – into letting me run an Open Mic at their bar on Seventh Street downtown. We had a really good thing going there for 4 ½ years, a show on that wonderful big stage that started at 8 and ran until 12.

We kept tweaking the format until, in the later years, we offered 15-minute sets for singer-songwriters the first couple of hours leading into two 45-minute sets for bands from 10:30 to midnight.

I’ve been told by folks who might know this kind of thing that 4 ½ years is an eternity for any Open Mic scene. I do know we had us quite a time until our show finally ran its course and ended. We always had plenty of performers to fill the bill, but when the number of folks there to listen and buy adult beverages slowed to a trickle, Richard and Kim weren’t making enough to keep it going.

By then, I was pretty much done with hanging around until the last note died at midnight. So I was cool, and then some, with how it all went down.

But I was still writing songs, and I still needed a place to play them. You see, playing a new song live is, at least for me, essential to the process. I don’t even feel I’ve written a song until I’ve show-tested it, to to speak, in front of live human beings other than my bride Tybee.

I kept hunting around town for another happening Open Mic scene, but could never find one to suit my purposes. I fell into a couple of scenes where there were Open Jams, but if you’re a songwriter, nobody you’re playing with at these shows is going to know your songs.

It just didn’t work.

And perhaps you’ve heard the saying about how if you want to do something right. . .

So finally, early in 2014, I wrote out a proposal introducing myself and explaining what I had done at the Garage and what I was willing to do elsewhere, and dropped it off at every bar, club and venue in town that featured live music. And for months, I heard absolutely nothing.

Then in the late spring of 2014 I got a call from a guy named Bill Heath, who was interested in maybe getting an Open Mic going at Muddy Creek Cafe in Bethania. Right away I was interested, especially considering the Cafe is about five minutes from our hacienda.

We launched in June of 2014 and have been going great guns ever since. Befitting my age, it’s an earlier scene. We start at 6:30 and wrap the night up by 10, if not sooner.

Over all these experiences I’ve become more and more devoted to the concept of Open Mic.

On its worst nights, its time well-worth spending.

On its best nights replete with amazing music and even better communal fellowship and fun, it can be downright holy.

And at Muddy Creek Cafe we take great, great pains to ensure that our Open Mic is totally open. Being a musician myself, I recognize how harrowing getting up on stage to play for people can be – especially when you’re laying your soul bare by performing songs you, yourself, wrote.

So our motto is that You’re Among Friends at Open Mic at Muddy Creek Cafe. And we always welcome newbies with open arms.

What I’ve found is that relying on the same core of two or three dozen people will carry you only so far. Eventually life catches up and the numbers start to dwindle.

I attribute our longevity to being able to expand the circle with newbies every week. Besides, the larger the circle, the more fun for everybody. And we happily include all people of all ages, genders, races, attitudes and tastes.
Why not? Good music is good music, good people are good people and good times are good times.

Every week I leave my house before six knowing I have absolutely no idea what to expect. Every week is different but every week has been a blast.

I wake up every Thursday morning with a smile on my face, knowing there will be an Open Mic that night. And I’ll have the same smile on my face when I leave the house tonight for the show.

So if you’re a musician looking for a place to play, or if you’re just a music lover looking for a happening scene, we’d love to have you drop by. For those wanting to perform, just know that at 6:15 we draw numbers to determine when everybody plays.

The real fur begins to fly with the first chord at 6:30.

We’re having too much fun to miss. Hope to see you there.

The Big Bad NRA

Nobody in their right mind is advocating the prohibition and confiscation of guns in American.

There are, studies show, more than 300 million guns privately owned in our country. Think about it. Nobody could get rid of that many guns even if they tried.

Nor should they.

In addition to those who are willing to fight to the death to own firearms, I’d hazard to guess that there are millions of Americans who feel about the say way I do. Guns are deeply embedded in our culture and besides, if someone wants to keep one in their home for protection, or likes to hunt, or maybe just enjoys collecting firearms for a hobby, more power to them.

I repeat. Nobody in their right mind is advocating the prohibition and confiscation of guns in America.

But next time you catch a guns’ rights advocate make their case, check how quickly they raise the specter of prohibition and confiscation Watch how they go from reasonable and sensible gun control to the abolition of guns in America faster than a Lamborghini can accelerate from 0-to-60 miles an hour.

Because without that tired, overused canard, they have nothing to defend their extreme position, a position that there’s really nothing legislatively our elected officials should – or even could — do about guns to stem the epidemic of mass shootings raging in our land.

Twenty five good folks were gunned down this week while at worship in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. A month ago 58 were slaughtered and 546 wounded at a country music show in Las Vegas.

It’s hard these days to turn on the television without being bombarded by more breaking news of another mass shooting in America.

Let’s concede every sane and responsible citizen has a right to own a gun in America. For that, I have no problem. But don’t I have a right to attend church or go listen to some good music without being gunned down by some crazy with a weapon of war in his or her hands?

We elect our politicians to solve these kinds of problems. Our president certainly didn’t waste any time advocating the policy solution of tighter immigration when a deranged soul originally from Uzbekistan plowed over bikers and crashed into a school bus in New York City.

But the next time there’s a mass shooting – and I’m conditioned to expect that it won’t be long – check out the reaction from the politicians currently in power.

First they’ll maintain that it’s “too early’’ to comment, and by doing so would only “politicize” the tragedy.

Then, of course, they’ll offer their “thoughts and prayers’’ to the victims and their loved ones.

Not to say there’s anything whatsoever wrong than extending thoughts and prayers – as far as that goes.

The problem is, then they do absolutely nothing

If they were to follow up by advancing reasonable and sensible solutions to the problem – and here we’re talking about expanding background checks, closing the loopholes that allow the bad guys to get guns, keeping weapons of war such as high-powered, rapid-action assault rifles out of the hands of the general public – then all that would be well and good.

Instead, the powers that be just keep on keeping on accepting and cashing their checks from the NRA and other extreme guns’ rights organization and doing nothing to stem the epidemic.

But I have to think that at some point, either here or in the hereafter, they’re going to have to answer for their deafening silence.

And good luck with that.



 By nature I’m not a materialistic guy. The only two possessions I own that I would bother to chase somebody down the street to take back would be my Bolivian Sombrero and my 1967 Gibson J-45, affectionately known as Buckshot.

I love my Sombrero, partly because it’s a great show hat but even more for knowing that my fearless daugher Rebecca lugged it home from her post-undergrad back-packing hike through South America.

But I love Buckshot even more. We’ve been partners in music ever since I liberated her from a music store in Galax, Va. about 30 years ago.

Now’s the time I should mention that I’m not a patient guy either. But the one instance when I managed to control my impulses came following a heaven-sent financial windfall of around $900. I knew I finally needed a good guitar, and I knew I couldn’t spend the entire largess on one.

So I budgeted half the amount — $450 — and spent the next year looking for the guitar of my dreams. Not being all that confident in my musical abilities, I wanted a name brand, the kind of guitar that people would take note of when I pulled it from the case. So I knew I’d have to go the used route.

On every trip I made while covering football and basketball for the Winston-Salem Journal, I’d scour every music store and pawn shop I came across. I came close to pulling the trigger a couple of times. There was a Guild in Atlanta I almost convinced myself was the right guitar.

But I knew it really wasn’t, so I waited.

Then one day my cousin Rick Morris from Cherokee — an accomplished guitarist in my own writ — called me to say my search was over. He had gotten to know a couple of brothers who vacationed regularly up on the reservation, and they had mentioned how they had a guitar hanging in their store up in Galax with my name on it.

With great alacrity, I sped across Fancy Gap to find Jennings Music. And there, sure enough, was the guitar of dreams, just hanging there waiting on me. I knew she was the one as soon as I strummed the strings. And when I asked the price, I knew the search was successful.

She cost $450, of course, which proved to be the best $450 I ever spent.

All this reminds me a bit of the wonderfully haunting song by Guy Clark called “The Guitar,”  but I swear it’s all true. For the past 30 years we’ve been through thick and thin together as I chase my dream of making some kind of mark in music.

Our son Nate grew up to be a professional musician. He’s a classically trained percussionist living in Dallas who teaches on the side when he’s not playing with all kinds of orchestras, symphonies, musicals and ensembles throughout the Lone Star State. And Nate, like so many fine musicians, is particular about his instruments. He’s not big on others playing them, and I respect that.

In that regard — like in so many ways — I’m different. My take is that a guitar was made the be played, and the more people who have played Buckshot over the years the happier both she and I have been.

For 4 1/2 years I coordinated an Open Mic down at the Garage in downtown Winston-Salem. For the past 3 1/2 years I’ve ram-rodded an Open Mic at Muddy Creek Cafe down in Bethania. I’m partial to Open Mics. To me they’re communion.

Over all those years, whenever somebody showed up with a busted string, a dead battery on their pickup or maybe without the ax they conveniently forgot at home, I’d shove Buckshot in their hands and say “Play her.” She’s never happier than when being played, and she comes through every time.

Buckshot and I will be back at it tonight down in Bethania at our weekly Open Mic at Muddy Creek Cafe. We have a time every week, and would love for you to come be part of it.

And if you ask just right, I’ll even let you play Buckshot.

The Kid From Waycross

Of all the great bioflicks never made, right at te top of the list is story of one of my heroes, Gram Parsons. He never found fame, never had a hit, but if you love music honesty compels you to admit how much you owe — how much we all owe — the Kid from Waycross. He also discovered Emmylou, and for that alone he deserves Sainthood.