Gillian Welch and David Rawlings were schedule to play the first-ever WinocaFest in Wilmington yesterday. As you might have noticed, there was some inclement weather. The organizers of the festival must still be heartbroken. On Friday, I got a text from my brother, "Gillian Welch. Saxapahaw. Saturday. ticket on sale now. maybe sold out." Thanks, Gray. Gillian and Dave's management had called Frank Heath, of the Cat's Cradle, about the canceled date. He turned them onto the brand new Haw River Ballroom, a post-industrial mill space converted into an acoustically gorgeous 700-capacity venue by Wes Lachot Designs (weslachot.com).
I went online immediately and bought tickets, assuming I could find a babysitter. My mother, who prays for my soul every day and has suffered enough of my bullshit to drive any lesser mortal to infanticide, agreed to keep Rowan overnight last night, which was also her 70th birthday. She's going to heaven. Guaranteed.
My wife loves Gillian and Dave as much as I do, maybe more. I somehow managed to keep it a secret almost all the way to Saxapahaw. She was torn between loving the surprise and being mad at me for spending the money. Mary has been unemployed for two years and I am a touring songwriter, not one of those career paths that parents push their kids into for financial security. But there are some things, as intangible as they seem, as hard as they are to justify, that are worth the investment.
The Dixie Yarns mill was damaged by a tornado in 1994 and never reopened. Slowly, with an eye for quality, reusing the old materials, the mill has been rebuilt as apartments and businesses. It is amazing to see this community come back to life with their own farmer's market, a general store with biodiesel, a new restaurant, and now one of this area's coolest music venues, housed in the old dye room.
We wormed our way shamelessly to the front of the crowd. Mary is 5' 2" in heels, and a friendly, tall guy recognized her mission right away and helped us get even closer. The floor was all standing room. The show was sold out. We stood for two and a half hours on the hardwood floor, five feet from the stage.
Gillian and Dave were as good as they ever were. No monitors on the floor in front of them. Mics on their guitars, no DIs. Quiet, acoustic music. Great songwriting and musicianship is all they were armed with and they killed.
Honestly, I was only half there. As soon as they started playing, I started thinking. I sorted out a good many things last night. Soundmen, and women, almost never run microphones on guitars these days. Why? Because plugging in your guitar allows it to be really loud without feedback. It doesn't sound at all like an acoustic guitar, and usually terrible, but it's loud. An inexperienced engineer doesn't have to sweat moving the monitors, eq'ing, and doing all the subtle things that make a microphone work. Inexperienced musicians can crank their monitors until they are as loud as the house speakers, without their guitars feeding back. It's kind of a fast-food solution, where you make the product so easy to make that anyone can do it and you can sell millions. It's not very good, in fact it's awful, but it's easy. And I've been thinking lately, you know, maybe I should figure out my pickup situation and stop being such a pain in the butt. I've even perused the reviews of various models and the guitarists who use them.
And there's Gillian and Dave. Thank you for sticking to your guns in every rock club and on every festival stage you ever walked on. Last night, they played to 700 people in a big brick room and they sounded great. With microphones.
Then there's the eight years that I've spent in Nashville, trying to move my songs out beyond me. I've met a lot of great people, a few knuckleheads, listened to terrible and mediocre bands, and spent my own dime to hang out there, because that's where the business is. I have about a dozen songs that are great songs and would totally kill on country radio. These songs send CDs flying off the table every night. These songs fill my facebook feed with questions and accolades. People cover them and post their own versions on youtube. Great songwriters, who have their own great songs, cover these songs in their own shows. They took a lifetime of experience and years of practice at this craft. But no one in Nashville has listened to one of them and said, "I want to record that." Not once. So, and it's hard to admit this, I've been tempted to write more towards the market, to write songs that sound like what's already out there. I would never actually play those songs, just try to get somebody with a big hat to play them. Fast-food songs.
And there's Gillian and Dave. Up there, rocking those great, five-star gourmet songs that have been recorded by Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and Alison Krauss. Thank you. Thanks for setting me straight and giving me the moral support to stick with my artistic vision. I barely know you, but we are in a community and we need each other. You even gave me a song idea last night.
We saw many friends after the show. Everyone was happy, glowing, talking about new ideas and hopes. As we drove home, Mary confessed to me that she had spent most of the night thinking, as well. Which reminded me of an email from a house concert host to a friend of mine.
I am a capitalist when it comes to small art. Obviously, large-scale public projects, like those pretty highway overpasses in Texas cities, need a big chunk of public support and one way to make that happen is through our tax dollars. But if you are a painter or a musician, and you can't make money making art, maybe you're not ready to make money making art. "Support the arts," to me, means "spend your money on art for the good that it does your soul and community," not "form a government agency to disburse funds to artists who otherwise can't figure out how to make money." However, I have to confess that it is hard to explain to someone why even great art is worth your money. What do you get for your 25 bucks?
The email: "I know that when you're here we tell you how much we enjoy the music, how special we think you are & how we appreciate you talent & skill. In thinking about it though, I don't believe that "Thank you" conveys what it really means. You've flitted through our lives so briefly, that I don't know if you understand the impact you've had.
When we signed on for Home Routes, we thought it would be a way to be surrounded by great music, meet some interesting people & that it would force us out of our routine - force us to do something different; be social. It's done that & so much beyond.
You weave words & images in a way that I could never hope to. You create pictures in my mind & pull my emotions from one end of the spectrum to the other. Not only have I been forced out of my routine- you've re-opened my mind & my spirit.
When you're a 9 to 5'er (or in my case a 3am - 5'er) you get stuck. In spite of ones creative abilities & desires you become mired in the mundane & the routine. I find myself dumbing down my vocabulary & concepts in order to communicate the necessities on a daily basis with those around me. It stopped being frustrating so long ago that I've long since realized that that is what's been going on.
Over the years both my vocabulary & imagination have suffered. It took having you here to make me realize it. As much as I enjoy your music; it was the time with you both that made such a difference. Hearing your stories, your views, and your outlook helped me to climb a little way up the side of the rut that life has become. I could feel my brain stretching - and it was wonderful!
One more thing to pass along - a couple that attended the last house concert told us that "it was the most intimate time we've had in ages". They seemed to be expressing that the relaxed setting and the music/imagery wove themselves around the two of them so that they could connect with one another again. Nice! I think that's a very special thing you do."
Even the doctor needs a doctor sometimes. Thanks to Gillian and Dave for the soul journey. Worth every penny.