Three Chords and the Truth
April 1, 2003
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We were back on the road in February and March, our annual cold-weather tour, spreading the good word about the excitement of icy roads and drifting snow back home and what a boon it is to enjoy the bitter winds and freezing rains up there. We spend about a month every winter in the balmier latitudes, telling folks how much better off they'd be if they were up north, and of course how much we miss it ourselves.
I am beginning this bit of horse-pucky, the column that is, sitting in the driver's seat, listening to the sounds of the crew behind me pack up the gear, readying it to be rolled on board. The truck is at the broad stage dock of the Cricket Pavilion in Phoenix, where we did an outdoor show. It's Saturday night, the 22nd of February, the windows are down and I'm wearing a short-sleeved shirt. In Minnesota right now the temperature is about 12º and no doubt people are leaning into it with their elbows held close to their sides, clutching scarves around their necks and looking down at the sidewalk for icy patches as they leave restaurants and theaters.
The rig lurches as the cases roll on. Some weigh over 600 pounds. The dock is at exactly the right height here and they roll straight in, first the four house carriages, then the big four-foot-wide wardrobe-sized steel closets full of speakers, microphone stands and bases, amplifiers and cable. The large and heavy go in first, followed by the medium and difficult and ending with the small and easily overlooked. All are secured with load beams and locks, so that when you open the back doors you are not buried under tons of beat-up road gear.
This trip began on February the 11th, the morning starting out with a sunny sky and deteriorating into snowfall by noon. We left the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul into an uncertain Wisconsin, nature looming between us and Nashville. The snowpack began to build on the road around Black River Falls. Being raised above your natural paving by one inch of ice lowers the humor level by about ten feet, but there were very few incidents and just after crossing the Illinois border the snow went away and it was an easy cruise after that, down I-39, sleep in the truck, hit I-74 over to I-57, south to I-24 and on into the City of Pickers.
Took in the Country Music Hall of Fame and what a great surprise; you see it just off Broadway near the new downtown hockey arena, big and grey and serious, a great curved granite wall with a heavy glass lobby leaning into it, and it looks more like a celebration of lawyers than country musicians. But they play a trick on you with the courthouse appearance of the place. The floors of displays are wonderful and I'm not throwing that word around lightly. If you've ever had an affection for country music, even if you've fallen away from it now, you will be moved. As you leave you see the quote from Harlan Howard on the wall: "Country music is three chords and the truth."
(Speaking of the hockey team, Nashville named their new team the Predators, the first sports team ever to be named after the agents.)
I also spent some good time on Broadway, where in one night on one block you will come by more stunning guitar players than you'll hear in five years of touring the country. Twilight brings an abundant dawning of neon and the street is soon filled with music from all directions. Across the street from the Ernest Tubb Record Store, where the marquee says "Serving You For 55 Years," they are playing for tips in Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, Robert's Western Wear, the Stage, Legends and the Bluegrass Inn, none of which have a cover charge; most of the bands get only one set and the stage changes on the break. A few blocks away in Printer's Alley a blues bar is crammed to overflowing with a very mixed crowd, from jeans and t-shirts to suits and silk ties, all rocking and grinning.
Which is what strikes you strongest about Nashville -- just how much fun it all is. People smiling everywhere I went Friday and Saturday night. They know how to have a good time down there and they aren't shy about showing it. We had a good time at the show, too, out there at the Grand Ole Opry, with Suzy Boggus, Tommy Immanuel, Sam Bush and Old Crow.
The drive to Phoenix next morning started with a cushioned cruise on I-40 through the green damp hills of west Tennessee, raining lightly most of the way into Memphis. Drove through downtown hoping to find a place to park the rig so I could get some ribs at the Blues City Cafe on Beale Street, but the town was so full of Sunday traffic I gave up and headed west across that amazing truncated parabolic steel bridge into Arkansas.
Interstate 40 across Arkansas is a lot like I-94 across North Dakota; a permanent construction project. It's construction acting like a farm subsidy, in that it is both seasonal and never-ending. I have never driven across either state in the last 25 years without hitting long construction zones. Across Oklahoma the soil gets red and the vegetation has to get tough to deal with it. Across the Texas panhandle -- does one capitalize 'panhandle'? -- a lot of the vegetation just says forget it, although you see trees along the creek beds and off on the horizon.
But Oklahoma is shaped like a pan and it has a handle, and this stumpy projection up here is no handle to a pan; Texas isn't shaped like a pan or even like a pot, nor an axe nor a pistol, nor door nor drill nor spatula nor anything else that needs a handle. But Oklahoma had one so they had to have one too; it was handle envy that made them call it that. Had nothing to do with the shape. It may have been metaphorical, as in "it's where a person can get a handle on Texas," but that's a stretch.
Anyway, that's what they call it so that's what it is, and an outsider just has to marvel at it and respect it. I stopped there in Amarillo for a steak at the Big Texan and I do recommend it. The exterior looks a little over the top, all bright yellow and blue, but inside it is a big old dance hall with a balcony all around and long tables and a lot of carved wood high-back chairs and an open kitchen with big ranges with flames prancing. In front of the kitchen, out there on the dance floor, there is a low stage whereupon hopeful cowboys can take the 72-ounce steak challenge: if you eat the whole four-and-a-half pounds in an hour, including the side dishes, you get it free. If you don't, you pay for it. The waitress says about 8 or 10 guys try it every day. I was happy to settle for a one-pound ribeye and it was real good and there's truck parking out back.
Before you get to New Mexico the billboards begin and once across the line you get the full treatment, more signs than a protest march, but with better graphics and without the hollering. Names you don't see in Minnesota, like Paseo de Volcan, Rio Puerco, To'hajiilee, Los Lunas. You see Paquet, Cebolleta, Acoma, Quemado, passing through a landscape of black lava that looks like dark chocolate cookie dough; a billboard says: "Land of Fire and Ice -- Next Exit."
You see big gaudy billboards for outposts advertising fireworks, moccasins, Indian jewelry, banana splits, Black Hills gold, sunglasses, wind chimes, hand-carved Kachina dolls, rattlesnake souvenirs, t-shirts, original Nemadji pottery, burger, shakes, beer, ice, leather clothes, hats, jade, agates, onyx, native silver. When you get there you realize the place is one-tenth the total area of all the billboards advertising it; an economic indicator of some sort. On a rising plain a sign invites you to "Visit the Continental Divide," at a place where it's not the high mountain pass you might have expected. A lot of RVs and trailer houses on the flat land near the Divide; something about the ambiguity of the place just draws them there.
There are Beware of Elk highway signs, burly and big-shouldered guys with larger racks and a lot more attitude than the frisky whitetail deer on the signs at home. You pass a sign for Iyanbito, and then for Miyamura Drive and Montoya Boulevard in Gallup, past the Yellow Horse Trading Post and then on into Arizona, past the Dream Catcher RV Park and a lot of cartoon dinosaurs. An exit for Meteor City advertises pieces of the meteor that hit near there. You pass a place called Two Guns, abandoned, and later Twin Arrows, also deserted; an old competition, now forsaken.
Vegetation gets thicker, changing from sage brush to cedars and burr oak, and the land rises and by the time you reach Flagstaff you are 2000 feet higher than mile-high Denver, and you catch the beautiful I-17 southbound through the pine forest, the beautiful jagged mountains, the long views across amazing valleys of solid deep evergreens. Road signs tell each thousand feet of elevation lost: 7000, 6000, on down to below 3000. The names are more direct and less lyrical than in New Mexico: Bloody Basin Road, Dry Beaver Creek, Toozigut, Big Buck Creek, Montezuma's Well, Bumble Bee, New River, Moore's Gulch. The organ-pipe saguaro cactus begin right at the gulch, and suddenly they are numerous and interspersed with smaller cacti, prickly pear and the little barrels and such. Remarkable that they begin so abruptly, just 40 miles north of the city.
If Phoenix is laid out on old cattle trails, like most places, free range cattle probably always walked directly north and south, single-file, in straight lines exactly a mile apart. Nobody knows why they would do that, but the trails all had names, like Camelback, Indian School, McDowell; Central, Hayden and Scottsdale. Our hotel has a couple of clues that this isn't like most places, because there's no B on the elevator and no Weather Channel on the tv. No basements here and not enough weather to sponsor a full-time program about it.
In this great one-story metropolis there are some taller buildings, those who found bedrock, and here a building of ten stories really looks like something; you can see it for miles. And there is an actual downtown with even taller structures, all clustered among tall palm trees, very lush, very pleasant, possibly the shadiest downtown in America. Downtown seems to be here not as an afterthought but simply because a proper city, especially one of 3 million citizens, necessarily has a downtown. Even if 95 percent of the residents never go there.
To properly compare it to New York or Chicago one has to translate the vertical to the horizontal. The strip mall here is like the deli is in Manhattan; they're everywhere and they're easy to get to and you have a pretty good idea of what's in there. The city blocks of small houses and condos are basically apartment buildings laid on their sides, with the street serving as an elevator. In my humble opinion, the automobile gets a bad rap from the thought police, but as a transit system it has its advantages: the clients furnish the equipment, buy the fuel, maintenance and insurance, and supply the operators, who are all non-union and never go out on strike. They cover the scheduling and ticketing and nobody gets frisked or has to worry about connections, suicide bombers, standing in line or losing their luggage. All the system has to do is provide a flat surface, and some signs and some cops. It's really not a bad arrangement, where there's room for it.
You don't see your towering dramatic knife-edge glass statements clawing at the sky here: the mission style has been applied very broadly in Phoenix, and it's an easy style to live with. It's all restraint, simplicity, muted colors and subtle elegance in the details. And it suits itself to updating; there is a modern mission style biker bar over there in Scottsdale, surrounding an outdoor courtyard, and none of the patrons seemed mindful of the presence of irony.
But I wasn't there in search of irony anyway; I was just thirsty.