Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Down at the Down Home

After the band I used to be in got over being in an off-Broadway play about Jesse James, we started playing music for a living. This job description means traveling much of the time, unless maybe you live in London like Stephan Grappelli, or New York, or a few other places in the world where there's enough traffic to keep some joint going with a house band. Ocracoke, NC, almost works for a couple of months a year, and Libby and I personally found that out back at the turn of the century.

One of the first road trips we did was in 1976. We got a call from a guy named Tank ("what'd you say your name was, Frank?"). He'd heard about us, I'm guessing, from our appearances at the Carter Fold up in Hiltons, VA. The Smithsonian magazine had done a piece on the Fold that featured photos of us and a description of the gig and the place, which was at that time in A.P. Carter's old country store building. Or Tank might have just heard about us from somebody who'd been to see us up there. Anyways, Tank and Ed Snodderly were opening a music joint in Johnson City, TN. It sounded on the phone a lot like the place we played one weekend a month in Chapel Hill, the Cat's Cradle. We sure knew how to play a place like that, and Johnson City was only about four hours away driving US 321, a fine old road Stonewall Jackson would have loved, a road that taught you what mountains really were by the seat of your pants and the quality of your braking system. We put the Down Home on the list of upcoming events.

When we got there they were still banging some nails, and the final inspection had not happened. Tank, a man with boundless energy and a bit of a temper to season his general enthusiasm, got on the horn with the inspector. They were already acquaintances. Tank got'er done, and the show went on. Thus it was that in the annals of musical history the Red Clay Ramblers achieved the distinction of having opened the Down Home Pickin' Parlor in Johnson City. Now and then we still meet someone who says "I was there that night." I wish I had the old set list.

The Down Home has gone on to build a stellar history and reputation. Many of the very best acoustic singers, players, songwriters, have trod her boards. They probably have a list somewhere official. The most notable of all in my book might be Townes Van Zant, one of the greatest American songwriters to ever have lived, not to mention one of the most reckless and star crossed. We played the place more or less once or twice a year during my tenure in the band, as well as playing the big Down Home Festival Tank started tossing out on his farm after things had got rolling. I think the picture of us on the Twisted Laurel album was taken sitting on the front porch of Tank's cabin out there on the place, and he still lives there today. Often we'd also do the Carter Fold while we were in the neighborhood. That would make the trip well worth while. I think the band continued at the Down Home after I left in '81. Libby and I played the place at the end of our trip to the far southwest in '03, and the Craver, Hicks, Watson, Newberry Combo started booking the venue when we got going in '01. Often we'd combine the Down Home with a Fold night, just like in the good old days, and we'd also play Dave Carter's radio show at the ETSU radio station. We'd stay at the Red Roof Inn.

Ed Snodderly contacted Mike a few months back about booking us for the Down Home's 40th Anniversary Show. It turned out Joe was booked on the Prairie Home Companion radio show in St. Louis that night, so Jim, Mike and I decided to do the Down Home as a trio. What the hell. It's the same music, and we know it pretty good by now. I rented a little car at the Greensboro airport on Saturday morning and drove up the old way, through Boone and out 321. It was a sparkling day, and 321 was just as challenging as it was in 1976. I got into J City with an hour to spare before the sound check, and found our lodgings, this time around the Carnagie Hotel just across from the ETSU campus, a tony joint restored from a hotel built by a railroad magnate in the 1890s, which had languished mostly in memory since it burned to the ground in 1903 or so. (There might have been an insurance story there, as the magnate had fallen on hard times due to the depression of 1893. One never knows, as Fats Waller has said to great effect.)

We got over to the DH for the check, and I took some pics of our signage. That's my fiddle case sitting lonely on the afternoon sidewalk. I cropped the photo because I'd inadvertently snapped my index finger at the top corner of the original shot. Ain't computers great, or what? The check went fine. DH has solved all its sound problems long long ago, and has a great stock of mics, speakers, etc. After we'd got our setup marked on the board, we sat and watched the first band of the night, Bill and the Belles, run through a couple of numbers. They do old-time songs all clustered around one mic, just the way the old-time bands did. Great sound, and they knew how to place themselves. Then we just hung out, figured up our set, had some as usual delicious grub courtesy of the house. I'd personally recommend the rice and bean bowl. It saw me through the night.

The place filled up. Half an hour before start they'd posted a Sold Out sign on the door. Old friends filtered in, including my old pals Steve and Maxine, who live up on the north side of Clinch Mountain more or less across the ridge from Hiltons, in a place that's pretty close to Shangri La. Before we started we got to watch Bill and the Belles. They were inspiring! I think they kinda focused our minds on the task at hand. They have posted a few youtubes. Their sound was even better at the DH on Saturday.

After a quick turnaround we jumped on the stage and got 'er going with Tommy Jarrell's Rockingham Cindy. I love to start a show shouting "Where'd you get your whiskey, where'd you get your dram?" Here's more or less the set list. Jim always just writes "tune" for numbers like Cindy. Tank himself introduced us, with memories of that first night and Uncle Wide Load.

Jim had crafted a very nice flow, and we ended up playing Mike and Tommy's "Merchant's Lunch," and then got an encore and did Uncle Dave's "Rabbit in the Pea Patch," which we probably did that first night at the DH, 40 years ago. Another break and the Brother Boys climbed the boards. Was that ever a treat. The Brother Boys feature the remarkable vocal stylings of Eugene Wolf,and they sound something like this:

The Boys put on a fantastic closing set, with a breathtaking range of material and great harmony singing and pickin', but the center of the action is certainly Mr. Eugene, who not only knows countless great songs, but possesses the ability to sing them with such presence that an audience is simply riveted to their seats. The Boys are a musicians' kinda band. At one point fairly early in their set they did a Bill Anderson song in the manner of Billie Holiday. By that I do NOT mean some impersonation of Ms Holiday a la Sedaris, but rather in the artful manner of singing behind the beat which she made famous in the 1940s, after Louis Armstrong had made it famous in the '30s. It ain't easy to do, and Wolf and Snodderly did it to perfection. The Brothers ended up the night with another Uncle Dave song, Jordan Am a Hard Road To Travel I Believe, and before that a Van Zant song to take note of his faint shadow over by the bar. Mr. Eugene could be the best kind of preacher, if he cared to do that sort of thing, if the profession hadn't been pretty much ruined by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham. Oh well.

The night finally dimmed. There was a nice long time afterwards, of hellos and goodbyes and one last Sweetwater IPA (on my part I should say). It was as good a show as you could hear at the best music festival anywhere, and here we were 40 years after in the good old Down Home, Johnson City. The place should sell out every night, and Ed deserves a medal of some kind for having been there from the start all the way to so far. Music is a tricky thing as a business proposition. It can easily break your heart and your spirit if you let it. But on the other hand, it's the best there is, and it got black people through slavery.

Sunday I retraced my steps back down the mountain to Greensboro. I got better mileage going home, which I attribute to the fact that it's much more downhill in that direction. You cross the eastern continental divide up near Boone. There's not much radio in the mountains, and I didn't hear a word about American politics or the state of the nation, just Ms Garmin occasionally chirping up to take an exit. I turned her off once I'd gotten back to Boone, and rode along in silence, with the faint sounds of the night before still floating in my head. Many Happy Returns to the Down Home! We'll return there this coming October 28, right before the Martinsville race.

Footnote: After our set someone came up with an LP, the 1979 live RCR album "Chuckin' the Frizz." (We came close with that title to a Donna the Buffalo moment, eh?) Here at our home pages there's a bunch of nice photos of the show:


My favorite photo is this one, because it captures a little moment that occurs now and then:

This is kinda like finding the bottle with a message you tossed into the waters 30 plus years back. The guy with the bottle says "I found this walking on the beach at Dover, thought I'd look you up while I was in the States." I signed the cover and dated it June 18, 2016.

1 comment:

  1. Loved this description. Almost like being there. Wish we had been!