January 18, 2008
I spent the last week of the old year and the first week of the new out on the prairie, in one of the most distant places a person on this planet can get from an ocean beach. Minot, North Dakota, population 35,567, near the geographic center of the North American continent. Close to Canada. I was playing in a four piece bar band at a place called the Rockin' Horse. A good job for a trucker with some free time.
A father and son from northern Minnesota, bass player and drummer, were the core of the group. Dan Lund had taken the gig and when the other guitar dropped out he said they had been booked as a foursome and did I want to sign on. I figured anyone who wouldn't want to play alongside Lund would have to be crazy so I went. And I knew what I was getting into. Four sets a night, two one-hour and two 45-minute, and two more on the Saturday afternoon jam sessions. Fifty-two sets in twelve days and no time off. Rooms provided in a rundown one story shop across the parking lot from the bar. No free drinks. I did manage to finesse getting out there two days late because it was Christmas and I had just driven the semi back from our New York and Bethlehem shows.
The North Dakota trip was a chunk of the road life musicians are supposed to suffer just before they hit the big time. I've done this sort of business before with my own blues band and we're going out to Montana this summer but you get a different perspective on it as an everynight working sideman.
They say blues is simple but it ain't easy. The same is true for country. With tunes you don't know in blues you at least know when the chord changes are coming and what they'll be but in a country tune you don't, or I don't. Sometimes you can hear a change a yard away, as in Dwight Yoakum's "Guitars, Cadillacs" or "It Won't Hurt," two of my new favorites, but jumping blindly into a tune like Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty" will quickly punish ineptitude and uncertainty.
If you lean down into your amp and it sounds like crap, I soon discovered, it's not an equipment malfunction. That's a wrong chord, and even though you know the trail will quickly change directions you're not confident of what the right chord plans to become. And with chords, close don't count. Close is uglier than way off. Way off can maybe pass for jazz.Close sounds like your new car scraping a high curb. So on the first nights I spent some stage time grinning and cluelessly strumming muted strings as if I knew what was happening around me. Fortunately the patrons had alcohol available. Fortunately also did the band.
We didn't use a set list and Dan doesn't mess around between tunes; he might occasionally mention the key, but mostly he just launches. It was like being thrown off the dock ten times a night. On a complex tune like Dire Straits' "Sultans of Swing" I didn't bother with sham. I just stepped down and pretended to be checking the PA speakers for subtle anomalies inaudible to the average listener. After learning that tune, though, I looked forward to it. I'd hit that big F-major change in there like it was my own.
The Rockin' Horse is a big place with no cover charge and a wide stage and a wide dance floor, chairs and tables on either side and the bar straight ahead. Off to one side of the bar is more seating and on the other side are blackjack and pool tables for those who were not there out of a love for fine music. It was full on the Fridays and Saturdays and on New Years Eve; lots of dancers. On an off night there'd be maybe twenty or thirty patrons, and even then a few would get up and dance.
We met good people, including the manager, and the common folks you'd expect to come to a place like that. It was clear that what is generally called folk music is a misnomer. Folk music is generally sought out by college people. Today's common folk, those out there roughnecking in the oil fields or waitressing along the highways, and the nurses and mechanics, they mostly prefer tunes like "Brown Eyed Girl" or "Willie and the Hand Jive" and "Folsom Prison" or "Mustang Sally" over "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow." Or "This Land Is Our Land."
Hank Williams and Muddy Waters changed Woody Guthrie's old folk music. They put the juice to it and the folks drank it right up. Blues and rock and country took over. The four piece band replaced that harmonica and beat up flattop guitar, which of course is still music and it's still out there. But it's got the wrong name, the way I see it. (Not that anyone would change it. A name's a name.)
It wasn't a blues crowd but I sang a few anyway, like Oreo Cookie and Built For Comfort. One couple brought us, on the last Saturday, a baggie full of Oreo Cookie truffles they'd made for us and we sang it again and they danced to it again. The truffles were good, the insides of dark chocolate and the crunched cookies with the unmistakable flavor. You get to know people when you hang around that long, to the point of thinking they might be getting a little tired of your act. The truffles may have been a charitable way to tell us it's been good to see us and now it would be good if we cleared the stage for a new bunch.
It was a good trip, in spite of the humble accommodations. Even though the furniture sagged and the duct tape on the carpeting needed replacing and the shower curtains were splotched with circular colonies of blackish organisms and the window curtains hung in tatters and my room was crammed with a coin-operated washer and dryer and a noisy water heater and the ceiling tiles hung akimbo exposing the dustballs up there in the dark void; all this, and it still was a whole lot better than the average musicians' ward. The walls were flimsy but the plumbing worked, the showers were good, the fridge and microwave were okay and the big tv with eighty channels was in fine form. There was a DVD player. The guys watched movies or car auctions every day. While I mostly sat in my tight little unheated room and tried to learn new tunes.
Minot itself is an interesting place. A tough winter in 1886 caused the Great Northern Railroad to stop construction of its trestle across the Gassman Coulee and a tent city of stranded workers and what might be called supporting personnel sprang up overnight, as if, they said, by magic. In five months it was a city of 5,000 souls. A Magic City, and it's been called that ever since. Henry Davis Minot rhymes with why not was an investor and friend of Jim Hill, who owned the railroad, and I have no problem with naming a town after a guy who risks a ton of money to open land to settlement and is a pal of the main man. Whatever other myths you may have heard about the breaking of the western frontier, it was not a WPA project. Fortunes were made, but a lot of guys also lost some heavy cash on it.
During Prohibition they were a smuggling port for liquid imports, brought in to slake cowboy thirst and farmer angst by the well-known benefactor and anesthetist Al Capone. They called the place Little Chicago and not because of the architecture, and tunnels still run under parts of it. In the 1950s federal money arrived and built the Minot Air Force Base, now one of the last two B-52 bases in the country the other is in Barksdale, Louisiana. If you live here in a structure with walls like those on a milk shed, a B-52 taking off will deliver to you a roar like you can never hear anywhere else. It's a blowtorch the size of a steel mill. It's new mountains erupting from the plain.
Federal money also built the Garrison Dam on the Missouri River, fifty miles south, so the feds introduced not only Air Force uniforms into the county but also the colorful apparel of fishermen, boaters and water skiers. Locals can now catch walleyes and northerns without driving 500 miles to Minnesota. Sometimes they'll catch a pallid sturgeon there, a cool looking fish from way back, and sometimes trout, salmon or even a paddlefish.
Most bar bands aren't tourists, and we were like most. We found the truck stop, the cafes and diners, the Dollar Store, Walmart, and a couple of music stores. Never got to the dam or the base. When we left we got paid in fistfuls of twenties and fifties. Amazing what a handful of cash can do for one's disposition and sense of well being. Back pains and sore feet are greatly relieved and the level of one's alertness is immediately raised. Medical and mental problems among the general public might be more cheaply and efficiently treated if instead of all the X-rays and sanitary rigamarole they simply handed the ailing victim a nice wadded handful of Jacksons and Grants. Broken bones and bullet holes would of course still need setting and treating under this health plan, but it might eliminate a lot of other stuff.
Our rhythm section stayed over after the last gig Sunday night but Dan and I loaded right up and took off. Drove all night across the dramatic flat-snowed frozen moonlit fields and prairies to join the Monday morning rush hour traffic into the twin cities, from 560 miles away.
Since then we've recorded most of the demo CD tracks for our band we're taking west this summer, the Mudcats, which will be an allstar lineup joined by yet another guitar virtuoso, our friend Mick, and the topnotch bass and drums from our old days as a downtown blues jam. This plus a diva, Mary, who has been out there with previous incarnations of the group, and our usual Harley escort. First week in August. We expect to have a good time even without the blessings of the chattering water heater and the duct tape on the floor.
© R.Ringsak 2008