Here in Nashville this week it’s Americanafest 2017, the annual live music festival and business conference staged by the Americana Music Association, who’ve made great strides in exposing this music (though it’s a wide spread of options) to the “mainstream” public. I look forward to playing for those of you in town four times during the week, all “unofficial” showcases but frankly I don’t give a damn, darlin’; it’s always seemed to me like the whole point of this music I’ve been working on for 30 years now (that has endured five or six genre name changes) was to NOT be official, sanctioned, approved, whatever. Or at least that such validation was not necessary. To let the music be free, and to try to serve it well, whatever that might mean. And yes, to hope a lot of people will pick up on it somehow. Anyway, a sincere tip o’ the hat to those who are indeed “showcasing officially.” Hope to see you at least once this week; if you’re visiting, or if you live here, come say hello:
Saturday, 9/16 Bobby’s Idle Hour (6:45-7:15pm) The good folks from Green Room Music Source invited me to be a part of their Saturday bash at this legendary Music Row watering hole. Here’s the full schedule for the day there:
Thanks to all of you who sent your condolences regarding the recent loss of our longtime family companion, Apollo. He’s been my spirit animal (now only in spirit), my inspiration (“Black Dog”), and the daily motivator for a good walk, just when I needed it. We’ll find another four-legged friend at some point; just not quite yet. Meanwhile, his ghost lurks—I think I see him in the corner of my eye when working in the backyard; sound of his paw-knock at the storm door; I swear I heard him bark a couple of nights ago. He’s a friendly spirit, and I’m happy to have him around, in whatever form.
Things like losing a friend will send you running. And I did. Drove down to Mississippi to see my mom and my sister, my niece and nephew. Picked up a couple of pieces of art I’d bought a week before, made by Mary T. Smith(1904-1995), a woman who lived along Highway 51 down in Hazlehurst, Robert Johnson’s birthplace.
Often discounted by locals as a “hoodoo woman” or a freak, for years she maintained an outdoor art environment, beginning at around age 75, basically doing what Walt Whitman did in poetry—she declared herself. As a person, with as much right to be here as you or me. Many of her images, which blur the visual distinction between the figural and the abstract (often figures or busts of people, some with arms raised—“praise” figures–she was very religious) are accompanied by text, and a common phrase is some form of “I am here”. She was real, as is her art. At her best, she made great work, some of which is now in the Smithsonian and other museums around the world. I am quietly humbled and challenged by the presence of her art; over the years I’ve collected several pieces. It’s not easy art to “get”—but I don’t care. I get it, and love it, and am inspired by it. And feel lucky to be surrounded by it.
After Jackson, I drove down to New Orleans, to see my friend Markus, who lives in the lower 9th ward. A good place to spend a little time, drink a little bourbon on the porch, and get some thinking done. There is, supposedly, a ghost who appears in the kitchen on the side of the house where I stay; fortunately, I didn’t see her–an old woman who sits at the table and smokes cigarettes. One night I Uber’ed over to the Quarter to attend a benefit for Houston flood relief, at photographer Frank Relle’s gallery. Though I knew absolutely no one there, it felt good to support such an important cause.
At my mom’s, I started two new songs, and continued to work on them during my trip. It felt so good to come back with some new stuff, at least one of which will likely end up on the new record.
It’s always nice to see yourself mentioned in the press, especially when your latest record has run its course and you’re layin’ low, prepping the next one. Peter Guralnick brought up my name in his recent online article, Memphis Blues Again, for the Oxford American:
” . . .listen to the music of new champions of the old and new, like the North Mississippi Allstars Luther and Cody Dickinson, who learned at the feet of such legendary champions of the hill country style as R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough and Otha Turner; listen to no less dedicated disciples like Dan Auerbach or Paul Burch or Colin Linden, or poetic practitioners like Kevin Gordon—and who knows how many more?”
I also make a visual appearance, via tintype photograph, in Frank Hamrick’s limited-edition handmade book, My Face Tastes Like Salt. The image was taken just as a formidable thunderstorm was closing in on our location, near our mutual friend Jim Sherraden‘s home in White’s Creek, TN. Go to http://frankhamrick.com to order a copy, and see a short video on the making of the book, featuring a song by someone you know . . . .
(The In Case You Were Wondering Department): What I’m Reading–
Dispatches from Pluto, Richard Grant
Collected Poems, Wallace Stevens
Fast, Jorie Graham
Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
Songlines In Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems, Michael S. Harper
You might be relieved, or perhaps disappointed, that this post has nothing whatsoever to do with my music, (only a significant influence on it, and on my life) and that there are no special offers on merchandise within. I’m going to tell you straight away that what follows here is, I suspect, much more for my benefit than yours. Though I hope you’ll read it. Yes, there are 2000 words, in eight paragraphs that follow this one. I wouldn’t put that many in if I didn’t think them important to the story. Hang in there with me. We’ll get back to songs and shows and the rest of the circus soon enough, and more in brief. But please understand: I had to write this–
If you know me, you know that I’m not much into the “woe is me” mindset. Especially when it comes to writing. But something about putting this experience into words helps ground it for me, and provides a place from which I can project my grief (i.e. get it OUT). Which at this point is still frighteningly spontaneous and body-shaking powerful. Though the details never get too morose, I understand why you might not want to read so many words about my companion, whom most of you didn’t get the chance to know. And Boo, the kids, and I sincerely appreciate the overwhelming expressions of sympathy/empathy that we’ve received since yesterday. You can make fun of Facebook all you want, and Lord knows I do, but at times like this, having such a large community gather around you, even virtually, means more than I can express or even comprehend fully. I’d never had to go through this ordeal before, and I hope it’s a long long time before I face the responsibility of doing it again. I’m brittle and fragile as a piece of broken eggshell. Our kind neighbors across the street brought a vase of flowers over yesterday, silently leaving it on the front porch with a sweet note. When I was leaving to run an errand last night, we found it and I almost lost my sh*t completely again. Every thing, every gesture, is amplified and charged with meaning.
On the morning of August 14, we noticed that Apollo, our canine family member for nearly thirteen years, wasn’t putting weight on his left back leg. I took him to the vet, thinking it was arthritis or some other minor age-related malady. Dr. Corwin felt of his leg, and verbally confirmed with me the dog’s age (fourteen). Then he looked at me with a flat, somber expression and didn’t say anything. I thought to myself: not good. The x-ray of the leg unfortunately proved me right: Bone cancer. Which is one of the most painful forms of the disease, and can spread with the cruelest speed and intensity. The vet gave me pain meds for him, and we went home. Later that day my wife took him back to the vet and had his chest x-rayed—(after getting the bad news that morning I just wanted out of there)—which determined that the cancer had not yet spread beyond the leg. Still, even in a younger dog, the combination of chemo and amputation provides only an 80% success rate, extending the life span by perhaps a few months. And our “boy” was fourteen. Grim.
So for the last two weeks we’d tried to prepare ourselves as best we could for the inevitable, which happened yesterday(Tuesday) morning. He lay on the floorboard behind the front seats of the van. Boo drove; I was already a mess. (Talk about a crazy week: I’d spent 4 hours in the ER on Monday evening, after having a brief episode of chest pain on my left side that afternoon. The news was good: all is well; just a muscle cramp.) I sat in a back seat beside him, and fed him, piece-by-piece, a quarter pound of extremely fine beef jerky on our way to the vet. He had had several good days, acting damn near his normal self with a minimum of medication. Then last Sunday he and I went for our daily walk, farther than the half-mile I planned(our usual post-diagnosis distance), but, stubborn ass that he was, still not as far as he wanted to go. We covered about a mile that evening, which had been, over the years, our normal distance. Monday morning he had a terrible time getting around, which continued through the day—we upped his meds, but he could not use the diseased leg at all, and by Monday night Boo and I were carrying this 70 lb. being clumsily down the deck stairs so he could take care of bodily functions, then hefting him carefully back up again. He was at a point where he could barely move on his own. For a creature once so strong and agile, this was heartbreaking to witness. And because of that last walk, I cannot help but feel at least partially responsible for his rapid decline. But that was his way: go, go, and go some more. Which, even as he became this sick “old man”, his sweet black face gone to white, I tried to pay allegiance to that “way” of his, going a little farther that Sunday, out of simple love for the dog and his restless spirit. And he had seemed fine, putting weight on the weak leg, and moving smoothly. Two nights before that I had let him out back, and he immediately ran down the steps, and around and under the deck, chasing something and making all kinds of racket among the scrap lumber and gutter parts laying around under there. He focused on one four-foot-long piece of downspout, going from one end to the other, sniffing, pawing, trying to get at the unfortunate something inside. One end of the pipe had rusty sharp edges–so instead of undertaking a trip to the emergency clinic for a sliced-up snout, I decided to interfere–I picked up the pipe and shook it up and down til “it” fell out–a small possum. Hunter that he was, he made quick clean work of it. Yes, I could have thrown the downspout over the fence, saving the animal, but something inside told me to let the dog have it–what would be this hunter’s last kill. I had not seen him so obviously pleased with himself in a long, long time.
We met Apollo in late 2004 or early 2005, at a kennel in the neighborhood that took in strays and abandoned litters, etc. He was a “Shelby Park rescue”, one of a litter that some jackass left helpless on the roadside in our neighborhood park. He had been briefly fostered by our friend Amanda Beatty, who owns the Wags & Whiskers pet supply store here in the neighborhood. He was the third dog our family visited with that day, and was just an outstanding, beautiful animal—smart, playful, and intimidatingly strong; he was the alpha male of the entire kennel, which at that time housed about 60 dogs, most of whom roamed freely in a large fenced yard behind the building. Joann, the kennel owner, brought him inside and he came over to us and promptly dropped the tennis ball in his mouth at my feet, as if to say, “come on, let’s go.” Then we watched him scale a six-foot high chain link fence to get to a bowl of food on the other side like he was stepping over a log. We have a five-foot fence around our backyard. Somehow this did not enter into our decision-making while considering the three candidates. I think I woke up the next morning pretty much declaring that he was “the one”—so Joann brought him to our house for a visit, and he stayed. He was the first dog I’d had since I was in junior high, and that one had vanished after living with us for less than a month. So she didn’t get stuck in my heart like this guy did.
It was a rough start—he was still very much a creature of the wild; smart, and impulsive. So yeah, that fence thing proved to be an issue. We’d let him out at his request at some ungodly dark hour, and you’d just stand there helplessly and watch him: he’d trot down the deck steps, turn his head to look you in the eye as if to make damned sure you were paying attention, then haul ass across the yard towards the alley, 80 pounds of zero body-fat, pit and black lab mix momentum, with the mad desire for escape to freedom on the other side coursing through that body, his up-and-over gymnastics dimly lit by a buzzing streetlamp on the pole in the next yard over. And then: gone. And so would begin the random search. After a few episodes of corralling said fugitive animal in strangers’ backyards in the middle of the night, (given the local firearm ownership quotient, that’s never a good idea in this neighborhood), we thought about taking him back to the kennel. Too much dog for the house, for the property. But I couldn’t do it. And he was gentle with, and tolerant of, the kids, who were then both still under 10 years old. We loved him, ironically for that same spunk and energy that repeatedly drove him over the fence.
Some fellow dog-owning friends had had a similar issue, so I took their advice, borrowed their equipment, and did something I’d never thought I’d do: I electrified our fence. (Which, I found out much later, is illegal in this county.) Ran a single strand of “cattle wire”, which was connected to a power source, across the top of the yard’s perimeter. The first time we let him out after the installation, I was there with him; I was pouring gas in the mower. As soon as I looked away from him he made a run for it and connected with the hot wire, making sounds I haven’t heard since: of anger, dismay, confusion, and yes, some pain. (I know that from backing into the damned wire more than once myself.) I confess that I laughed out loud (with sympathy) because he sounded so utterly pissed off, defeated, in such a human way. It took only that one time; he didn’t try it again. So I disconnected the power, but left the wire up for years as a visual/psychological deterrent. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but our street is busy enough that I knew he’d likely end up getting hit by a car if we weren’t able to control him. The wanderlust did continue, just via different route: after the fence episode, for years his trick was to run out the front door, anytime someone forgot to firmly and quickly shut it behind them.
Monday night we got up when we heard him trying to move, and carried him out that very same front door so he could pee. And while outside he actually made a motion towards the street, as if we were going on a walk at 3:30 a.m. But he could hardly stand. Came back in and put him back on the sofa, and I lay there with him, me fully clothed under a Mexican blanket, not sleeping, silently weeping off and on, as the floor fan in front of us monotonously repeated its rattling half-circle cycle back and forth and the occasional swell of headlights from a passing car ran around the walls chasing what was left of the dark. He put his front paws against the back of my calves and kept them there as he slept till daylight.
Though your own beloved animal companion may have taken this route when passing on, I don’t think Apollo is crossing any fancy-ass unicorn-infested “Rainbow Bridge.” He’s running through the dark, down alleys we never made it to during our walks, scaring up any unlucky rodent or rabbit in his path. Pissing on every fence with a dog on the other side, just to make it mad and hear it bark in protest. Jumping any fence he pleases. He’s out there running forever now, loving every second of a wild and timeless abandon. You might see him and try to lure him back with some kind of treat or smooth talk. But I’ll bet he’ll just look at you as you walk closer, and closer, you thinking you’ve got him, holding out that curled-up piece of lunchmeat in your hand. Then he’ll turn and run like hell, always getting away, and ever nearer to those wild free woods, where all the good ones go.
Happy Tuesday, friends–hope your weekend was a good one. I watched the scorching local heat mostly from indoors; amazingly the A/C kept up with heat indices a few degrees over 100. Boo and I did venture out Saturday evening to hear Chuck Mead & the Grassy Knoll Boys tear it up at the 5 Spot, where […]
Happy Friday! I hope it is, for all of us. Apollo is at least very comfortable; he’s asleep next to me here on the sofa; his paws are kicking at the side of my leg while he apparently dreams of running after some unfortunate animal there in the deep woods of his imagination. A few things to […]