Buried in Alabama: Winter '93
March 17, 2001
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Our show is back in town, resting, like shows are supposed to after a triumphant European tour; so now comes time to lean back and talk about the olden days.
Eight years ago a big storm hit the U.S., right about this time. It wasn't quite a Perfect Storm but it was close enough that most people wouldn't question the difference, and we got buried in Alabama. Zero degrees and snowdrifts up to your belt buckle; we expected to do a show in Birmingham but it felt like Bemidji, the very thing we tried to escape. The blizzard moved in Friday morning, as we were loading into the Alabama Theater, and we ended up frozen into downtown that night.
...Talk of your cold-- through the parka's fold, it stabbed like a driven nail.
The red and blue neon sign in the window of the pool hall across the snowbound street from our hotel looked like a beacon of hope in a bitter frozen wilderness: warmth and sanctuary against nature gone berserk, and all that business. Five or six of us slogged over there and had hot dogs for dinner at the bar, and at that point hot dogs were good enough. The word "hot" was good enough. We were grateful the electricity was still on. You couldn't help but think of Robert Service:
...When from out of the night, which was fifty below, and into the din and the glare,
There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear.
I recall that there was a fight in there that night, perhaps driven by the fact that most of the city's finest were off preoccupied with the blizzard. We never heard what ignited it, but it would not have been out of place in a Service poem. There were a couple of young ladies standing by and it was a competitive event, the pool shooting was, and two young men were suddenly flaring at each other like banty roosters.
... I want to state, and my words are straight, and I'll bet my gold they're true,
That one of you is a hound of hell. . . . and that one is Dan McGrew.
One suggested that the other's mother walked on four legs and the other responded with a vulgar reference to the first's entire family, and the first challenged the second to repeat that observation which of course he did and there followed a brief but vigorous tussle in which a few awkward but enthusiastic punches landed, before spectators jumped in and brought it under control.
...Pitched on his head, and pumped full of lead, was Dangerous Dan McGrew,
While the man from the creeks lay clutched to the breast of the lady that's known as Lou.
Well, nothing as dramatic as all that. But it piqued our interest to the point where we actually ordered a second glass of beer, thinking we might see another free sporting event. It was a sparkling finish to a dramatic day; when we had pulled into town Thursday it was warm, the sun was shining, everything green and peaceful. No sign of snow, no hint of animosity.
There is a singular lack of snow machinery in Alabama- a dearth of plows- which is of course why people from here move there. Saturday the broad assumption in town was that our show would be cancelled: no buses, no taxis, almost nothing moving at all, houses and stores buttoned up under great drifts. Precious few local crew members showed up for work at the hall; one who did asked if we brought the weather with us. Emmylou Harris made it down from Nashville in a custom bus, incredibly, and as show time approached I took the truck out and around the city to track down our guest vocal quartet, the Birmingham Sunlights.
It was our last year in a straight truck and it was a good thing we had it there; the big rigs just aren't cut out for rescue work. No traffic anywhere and I tore hell-bent across a long four-lane bridge there, over railroad yards and a river, and at the center of the span the left duals somehow straddled a steel rail, unseen under all the snow, and it threw the truck into a spectacular spin, a full 360º circle, and it ended up facing the right way without losing too much time in the process. I had a city map and the addresses and once the first of the Sunlights came aboard there was a guide as well, and off we went for the others; I only needed to fetch three because one had made it in on his own. Heading into a nice wooded suburb we came down a shallow hill and at the bottom a good-sized tree lay all across the road, but it was the top of the tree, not the main trunk, and it was apparent that if we stopped and backed and went the long way around we'd never get to the show in time. With nothing to lose I laid on the coal and we tore through the crown of that tree like it was tumbleweed.
The second singer was in a bind; his wife was with child and ready to deliver any moment and he couldn't leave her there alone. We brought them all aboard and they took it pretty well, considering they faced the possibility of having a child delivered in a snowbank by two singers and a truck driver, and off we went for the third man. He lived out where the phone lines were down and was taken by surprise when we showed up at his door; he got his stage clothes together and we set off, four guys and a woman and a child about to make it's appearance to the world, six souls crammed into a truck cab designed for two. (Shifting gears with the floor shift was a real delicate exercise in respecting personal boundaries.) We blasted back into the city and went scrambling into the stage door a few minutes before sign-off, just in time for them to get on the air; they did one tune and then everyone got together for the big closing number, and then, off air, they treated our tiny brave audience to one of the remarkable encores in show business history, considering. We heard that the baby arrived a couple days later, a girl.
I found out at the hall that we were so short on help we had to get a volunteer from the audience to run the spotlight, and in an audience that small you hated to lose even one. Probably about as close as you can come to running no show at all, but with all that excitement how could you not see it through. I wished later that in doing the credits at the end we could have named everyone in the audience as well; it wouldn't have taken much longer.
Anyway, we are getting about a foot of snow right now in Minnesota, and I say, "This? This is nothing. You want a snowstorm, you shoulda been in Alabama in March of '93. Now, that was something."
The wild weather wasn't over, either; on May 7 of that year there was a huge tornado outbreak across the United States, with touchdowns from Texas to the Canadian border. Someday old-timers will talk about '93.