Not . . . too . . . hungover. Not bad. Where are we? We are at the Quality Inn in outer Greer, South Carolina. The two Pauls are roomies. They rise in intervals an unknown duration apart. Next door are Rob and his longtime buddy from Duke, the estimable Buck Schall, or Buck Shall as we like to call him. Buck’s wife Liz and the boys drove back to Asheville last night and Buck has bunked down with us in a return to his freewheeling youth, and his quinquennial conjugal visit with Rob.
Miraculously, we are packed, relatively cleaned up, and in the Camry before noon. We drive five blocks, and, what have we here? It’s a Waffle House, the Waffle House of last night’s deliverance from evil. Do we stop? Oh, yeah. Breakfast #2 at the Waffle is just as good as yesterday’s. Pure country rock goodness. We’re surrounded by thick regional accents that give us a warm anti-facebookgoogle glow, and are feeling smothered, covered, peppered, and home free.
Buck takes the wheel. He’s a solid driver, fast and purposeful, and we’re in Asheville in no time. Another bright day, now with poetic clouds that augur whatever they might augur. We hang at chez BuckLiz, play soccer and atonal guitar with the twins, and suddenly, it’s 3 p.m. Time for the foray into town in search of Asheville’s finest espresso based beverage. We scramble down a wooded slope behind Buck’s house, come out on a dirt road shaded by towering trees. Slumbering peacefully, like an alligator after a huge meal, hidden from potentially scandalized neighbors, its beige skin blending in perfect camouflage with the woods, is Buck (and Rob’s) 1968 Pontiac Bonneville station wagon. Purchased for $400 for a cross country drive to San Francisco (where the wanderers ran out of money and got jobs, their fate decided by necessity and their own Visions of Cody), later bored out to 440 cubic inches by a mad motorcyclist mechanic, this beast from the heartland has achieved a patina and gravitas only gained by exposure to the elements and the recklessness of the human heart.
Buck fires up the Bonnie, which rumbles menacingly as we wind down the dirt road onto civilized pavement, Asheville cite bound. Now Buck fully channels Neal Cassady, powering past all modern sensible combustion craft, through glen and parkway and over the French Broad River. There are no seat belts. We are free. We rummage through the rust and back seat detritus, find relics. Buck’s hippie mom’s 1960s owl necklace; a 50 caliber machine gun bullet; an alligator claw; and a tin of Dental Sweet Snuff, in archaic packaging one might have found in Schwabs of Memphis before Beale Street’s Disneyfication.
Snuff. Snuff said. Do we dip? Of course. If you present virtually any mind altering substance to a quorum of Hawks, they will likely give it a spin. Nothing has ever been turned down. We pry off the lid. Paul Marshall leads the exploration. This quiet man will reveal surprising secrets, and only at the appropriate moment. Now he tells us that he was a dedicated snuff dipper for five years. He takes a pinch with thumb and finger, a practiced sniff in each nostril, and enters nicotine heaven; he leads and we follow. Damn, it stings, the eyes water, the back of the throat swells reminiscent of snuff’s more famous cousin, and the buzz is very, very nice. Clarity, optimism, an expansive horizon that is strangely calming. Snuff, where have you been all our lives? Our foursome snorts and sneezes and goddamns as our Pontiac prowls Asheville back streets to our destination. We are in the heart of Carolina’s new mind. Yes. The heart of a new mind.
Which deserves a paragraph of its own, dear reader. The Asheville area is full of grace, a forest hiding houses, no billboards, Broad rivers and bridges, wildflowers everywhere. Asheville has two great music venues, the venerable Grey Eagle and the Orange Peel, and old brick and stone small factories with grassy vacant lots. Up on the main drag all is organic goodness and microbrew, homespun couture, and our destination, the The French Broad Chocolate Lounge. This is an establishment we might have conjured up in a fantasy tour blog. Exotic single source chocolate bars fill a display case, home made delights crowd the glass shelves, and wise young baristas pull first class espressos. These little crema surfaced cups rival L.A.’s best (and make no mistake, SF and Portland, L.A. does have some of the best baristas in this great land). The cinnamon cayenne brownie is solid fuel, the azteca pozole chocolate brew is dense and wicked, and Paul M’s thick black chocolate drink is a lake of black magma. It sucks light from our cozy upstairs table, and the light is that of a total eclipse of the sun. That’s right. A total eclipse of the sun.
We are euphoric. Like the careful combining of psychedelics from an Ecuadoran shaman ritual, our snuff, espresso, and chocolate form a symbiotic golden triangle of altered mind, a specific landscape upon whose ley line we walk in warrior single file. Another unexpected moment that the following of one’s dream occasionally rewards one with. An inexplicable 1999 choosing of country rock has led us to this moment. This is our home.
Why, Carolina? Why Carolina? From the moment in 2004 (exactly ten years after Rob departed Carolina for the golden shores of Cali) that we staggered from the Yukon, this same trio of Rob and Pauls, out into the Carolina night to offer our newly minted music to our musical motherland, at the Garage in Winston-Salem, these hills have offered refuge and a new way out of the jaws of modernity. We did embrace tradition, faltering with fiddles, stumbling with stanzas, doubting with dobros, harmonizing with uncertainty, alt experimenters of uncertain worth courting the Muse of the Carters, Stanleys, Scrugges, Monroes and Coes. We failed, we tried again, we stayed the course, and now we feel at home here like never before. Last night we felt our spot on the spectrum of tradition and innovation, surrounded by musicians doing the same thing, with a dazzling variety of colors emanating. It’s really happening.
We recross the French Broad River in lumbering wagon, stop off at a local homegrown and much cooler version of Whole Foods, pick out blood red steaks, blood red and green chard, green beans, and local Highland beer in a big box, head back to Buck’s, where the Waller/Marshall/Schall team conjures up a grilled feast.
It’s 6 p.m. We load up and Buck drives us northward, on a winding two lanes into more hills and glens, past riverbottom fields with rusting automobile histories lined up at woods edge behind collapsing barns, sinking sun hitting golden trees, truly blue ridges beckoning. We reach Hot Springs and turn off the road into French Broad River Festival grounds. As promised, this is New Hippie Haven. Lovely unshod belles and their new pioneer young men throng the dirt trails. An electric peace sign hangs from the trees. A young country psychedelic folk band, badass musicians, of course, rock the tent and surrounding fields. The audience loves them, and they love right back. We meet festival king Chris and his lovely girlfriend Amy. They’ve got us covered. A Fender Deluxe Reverb amp with working foot pedal, an excellent bass amp, four way monitor mix with a great sound mixer. We take the stage. It’s been four years since we toured the state, but people are hollering out song requests as we tune up.
Drummer Jamie has fully absorbed the songs from our Skunkfest set of the night before, and he takes command. We rock. We’re flying on the love from the crowd, they sing along, we hit a peak, and . . . the crowd drifts away. At first, this is baffling. Then we realize that the festival headliner, Lukas Nelson and The Promise Of The Real, have kicked off their set on a stage 100 yards down the trail. We falter for a moment, then regather our mojo and finish up, to a diminished but energized audience of our diehard followers. We hang with the love, with the other festival musicians, sign CDs for the folks, for a heavy cat from Trinidad who buys three CDs. A golden angel brings us chicken and tater tots from his campsite. He’s a young former (not ex-, which signifies dishonorable discharge) Marine proffering a unique solid fuel pipe delivery system, who has us hanging on every word with tales of his Marine grandfather, father, and mother. When our Marine was eleven years old, his Marine mom was physically challenged by an eleven year old school chum. The mom calmly reached over, took a young shoulder between thumb and finger, and gently squeezed a young punk pressure point until the schoolboy sank to his knees. Way to go, mom.
We’re flying. The moon is shining. We drift to the main stage, and now we understand why our rapt audience deserted us. Lukas Nelson and The Promise Of The Real are a force of nature. It is no exaggeration to compare them to Cream or Led Zeppelin at their peak, if those bands had hailed from America’s heartland. The drummer, the percussionist, the bass player are monsters, raging when they feel like it, grooving when they must, which is all the time, shifting dynamics on a dime and talking with the ESP that only bands touring round the calendar, 200 shows a year, reach. It’s devastating. Lukas Nelson is a flatout star, like Prince or Hendrix or Pete Townshend. His guitar playing meets the collective ghost of the 60s giants as a peer, not as a wannabe or humbled acolyte. Lukas is right there with these guys. If he never opened his mouth this would be a performance we’d remember for a long time. But when he sings he evokes his dad Willie, his tribal elder Lefty, and contemporary cousin Mike Stinson. Country. He sings Amazing Grace and you can weep if you like. Was that a quote from a Byrds song, you good dog Blue? He does a solo Willie song, with nasal behind the beat phrasing and chromatic guitar runs. Yes, I am Willie Nelson’s son. There’s no coyness about this legacy, because this 23 year old holds his own with the old man. This is the big leagues.
Rob and Paul L and Buck wander, not sure what to do with this ephiphany (sic) and its energy, head for the railroad tracks, walk the silver straight line under the blue moonlight. We head back, find Paul Marshall. He’s been hanging with Lukas on the tour bus, just him and the lovely belles allowed access. Paul tells Lukas that he played with the old man back in the 70s. Lukas caught some of our set, tells Paul he dug it. This is music to our starstruck ears. We bid farewells and promises of return to Chris and Amy. Our new drummer, who apparently can outparty all of us combined, is nowhere to be seen. We drive off into the cool Hot Springs night. We stop on a bridge over the French Broad River and gaze over the side at the moonsilvered placid waters and looming dark hills, in silence. This world is still magic.