The retired Army man drove me back to the hotel with more stories from his days in the Royal Guard. He apparently had them timed. "There's a story I want to tell you, but we don't have quite enough time for that one. Let's see, how about this one?" The shuttle had 15 seats, but it was just me and the driver. I sat in the front seat with him and enjoyed the sleepy streets. I had a head full of Morris dancers, children's parades, and meat pies. Shrewsbury smelled like a breath of warm ale. Baskets of bright petunias and begonias hung under the street lights along the river. My heart was raw from too little sleep and too much beauty.
I've been sober for six years. There's no relief from reality. It's ultimately rewarding, but I spent most of the evening trying not to cry.
Back at the Hampton by Hilton, I pulled my guitar from behind the seat. I shook the driver's hand and wished I had a couple of days to sit with him over coffee and listen to stories. He should write a book. It would have to be posthumously released, maybe even after most of the living royalty are dead.
A car swung into the parking lot of the hotel. A familiar tune was rumbling inside. The car turned around in front of me and stopped short of pulling into a parking space. Kai Welch opened his door and my voice came blowing out. Abigail Washburn sat in the passenger seat with a styrofoam takeout box of fish and chips. They were listening to the copy of The Law and the Lonesome that I gave them.
"It's great!" Kai said.
"You want some of this?" Abigail asked.
"No thanks. I'd be up all night."
Inside the Hampton by Hilton, the Sweetback Sisters were having a beer at the bar. I chatted with Jesse, the fiddle player, for a while. I told Zara I'd send the song I wanted her to sing, as soon as I got back to my room.
I bid everyone good night and went back to my room to work. It was 1am. I surfed around for a couple of songs that Maddy Prior suggested we do together. She emailed me with a couple more ideas and links to them. Youtube wasn't cooperating, so I bought the songs from iTunes. I sent Zara the duet and then sketched out the chords for the songs Maddy had sent me. None of them were simple.
Before the 1960's, it's hard to find any examples of guitar accompaniment on fiddle tunes from the UK. Ballads were sung a cappella. Even now, no one agrees on what the chords are. It's up to accompanists to arrange their own chords. Many use this opportunity to put their own stamp on a tune, coming up with new arrangements and chord substitutions that update the harmonic content of the ancient melodies. When two guitarists show up to a session, there has to be a negotiation over the chord changes. One of them might just sit and drink for a while.
In American roots music, most songs have standard chord changes that apply to many other songs. Thousands of blues songs have the exact same chords. It's a simple language. The meaning is in the tone. Bluegrass is only about 70 years old. It's been recorded since it began. Country music began with a recording session in Bristol, Tennessee in 1927. No one disputes the chord changes in American roots music. You get them off the album.
I had no doubt that the Sweetback Sisters could play my songs as if they already knew them. Maddy's songs were a different story. I charted out Long Shadows and played it until I nodded off in my chair. I laid my guitar in the case and crawled into bed.
The Sweetback Sisters had a 10am soundcheck. Jim Moray taught them the first and last songs of the set. We all met at noon and rehearsed what was left in an upstairs room on the festival grounds. We only had an hour. Maddy and I came early and worked on Long Shadows until the others showed up. I played my songs once and the band said, "Done." Rua had their own thing going on; no one would sit in with them. Caroline Herring had no time to rehearse. She would just show up and play her songs. The whole show would be an hour and a half long. Jim kept massaging the set until it seemed just barely possible for us to pull it off.
I had one more meat pie for lunch, my third one of the long weekend. They poured brown gravy on top and heaped a scoop of mashed potatoes on that. It was soul food for a drizzly day.
The Sweetback Sisters played their last full set on the Main Stage. I went backstage and listened. They're so damn good. Traditional southern music meets western swing at a backroad honky-tonk. Jason Loughlin is one of the best guitar players I've ever heard, and I've heard some doozies. If you like instrumental music, check out his solo record "Peach Crate." The drummer came out from behind the kit and the whole band sang an a cappella number about moonshine. I almost cried again. It was everything I love about America in under three minutes. The pioneer spirit. The proletarian pride. The sense of humor in hard times. Even a biblical reference.
I hustled over to Main Stage Two to meet up with Jim Moray and the other artists who were playing this collaborative set. Rua and Nick Cooke were trying to figure out if they knew some tunes in common. Faustus was on stage. Backstage was cacophonous. I had to go out back and hide behind someone's car to tune. I still barely knew Long Shadows. I put earbuds in my phone and played along with it. I had to turn it up to hear it above the backstage rumble. The aluminum tone was violent at that volume. Earbuds and mp3s are God's way of making it easier for me to accept my inevitable hearing loss.
The Sweetback Sisters came in from Main Stage at the last minute. They hauled their gear back up on stage and set up again, all smiles. There were four mics across the front for vocalists. No one knew exactly which mic they were going to use. They were there for whoever needed one in whichever configuration happened to be on stage at the time. There was a microphone for my guitar and no one was sure if they'd be able to hear me when the whole band was playing. Everyone had sympathy for the soundman. There was no time for more than a line check.
Jim Moray kicked it off with The Sweetback Sisters backing him. I looked around for a schedule to see when I was playing. There wasn't one. Jim was the only one who knew exactly what was happening.
Rain started falling, dripping in the doorway between the backstage and the stage. Everyone had to pass through the running water to get to the stage. I was standing backstage with Maddy when she turned her palms up and looked up at the ceiling. Little drops were making their way through the back wall. My guitar was not happy about the moisture. I looked around outside to see if there was a place I could retune my guitar out of the rain and away from the noise of whoever was on stage. The sound system was broadcasting to two thousand people. Try tuning a guitar over that.
There were a couple of portable toilets in a half-trailer in the lot behind the marquee. Most of the time that I wasn't on stage, I was in the toilet with a tuner.
Singing with Zara Bode was a sensual treat. Right before we went to the bridge of the song, I held up my left hand with all five fingers to let the bass player know we were going to the five-chord. The drummer thought I meant for them to stop, so he did. I sang the bridge, gave Jesse the lead, turned back to Stefan and mouthed, "SORRY." He came back in on the downbeat.
They invited me to stay on stage and play the next couple of songs. I spoke the language. We all shuffled off for Rua and clog-dancer Hannah James. They set the stage on fire. Caroline Herring walked up from another stage and right back onstage for her songs. Maddy Prior was a secret we kept from the audience until I introduced her. She came on to sing harmony on my love song to a waitress. The audience laughed at every line of the first verse, thinking I was singing the song to Maddy. I almost started laughing at the whole chaotic brew. Jason absolutely killed the solo and the audience loved him for it.
We ended with everyone on stage in a We-Are-The-World pile-on, hammering a suped-up Chuck Berry-style version of The Hog-Eye Man, with this astounding lyric, "Sally's in the garden punching duff. The cheeks of her arse go chuff, chuff, chuff." Hannah James even danced a wood-splintering clogging solo. How would you market that band? Can you imagine being in the elevator when you get to pitch your idea to the Geffen A&R guy?
"We're an upbeat blues rock folk band with a clog dancer."
They'd be fools to pass on it. The audience lost their minds. I lost mine. Jim played his guitar like it was on fire and he was trying to put it out. I screamed some far-off harmony. I don't think anyone could hear me, not that it mattered. It was just madness, a thundering folk orgasm to burn the last fumes of the bank holiday weekend.
We encored with Maddy Prior leading Rolling Home. Two thousand people waved their arms back and forth in opposite rhythms, loosely guided by the tempo of the song, anemones in a coral reef of bright rain jackets.
I had a train to catch.
I hugged everyone I could find back stage. I hugged sound techs. I might have hugged some innocent bystanders, just to be sure. We all promised to be in touch.
When I got to the merch tent to check out my CDs, The Sweetback Sisters were there, signing autographs. People were still buying CDs, so I waited ten minutes and caught my breath. I'm so glad I did, because that's when Jason gave me a copy of "Peach Crate."
The manager of the store handed me a wad of pounds sterling and a big, empty suitcase. "You were the top seller of the festival." I couldn't believe it. Y'all are definitely getting a picture of the chicken coop.
The festival grounds were sodden with the rain. I squished across to artist reception and found my driver. Everyone was trying to leave the festival at once. The parking field was too wet to cross. All traffic was funneled onto the one paved road that left the campus, bottlenecked down to a single lane at the top of the hill. Steve swung the big shuttle out onto the road and joined the line. We sat in a long row of brake lights.
I said, "I think we have time for that long story now."