Arriving home a little more than five weeks ago, at the end of a 10-day, 4,900-mile driving tour of the Deep South, I was planning to write a day-by-day account of the journey. Two days later, I jumped off a curb, tripped on a snare-like wire band and fell hard onto my right shoulder in the middle of South 27th Street. It was several days before I could use my right arm at all, and by the time I could type, awkwardly and somewhat painfully, the trip seemed too distant to attempt creating a connected account of it.
I tried a few more times, still wanting to tell the story, but with no better luck. I finally gave up. Then, two days away from having surgery for my busted-up shoulder and the prospect of being one-handed for at least the next six weeks after that, I decided to write something anyway, but instead of a chronological account I thought I’d just compose an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink compendium and get it posted before going off to see the doc.
(I realized a bit later, after reading the above, that there was a simpler explanation for my halting attempts, followed by a frenzy of writing: after 40 years in the newspaper biz, I needed a deadline, a reporter’s daily enemy and best friend.) And please remember my haste and my bum shoulder if you encounter any odd mistakes or typographical errors.
This trip, like my two other major adventures since shutting down Last Best News last July, started with an electronic teaser. My unforgettable trip to Galax, Virginia, last August was set in motion by an email from Jim Hagengruber. A few months later his brother, Matt Hagengruber, introduced the possibility of an Eastern European jaunt with a Facebook message that said, “Want to come to Bulgaria? Check your email.” That trip is what inspired me to start this blog.
My Southern Rambles were sparked last summer, too. I had said, in an email to my old friend, Tom Mischke, that he and I ought to take another trip together one day soon. In September, Tom wrote back and said: “As far as that road trip is concerned, we should look at heading to the Deep South sometime in February, I think. I can make some inquiries and see if we can find some old backroad forgotten towns where old-time music can be found. I have connections down there.”
That was all I needed to hear. Tom later sent me a proposed itinerary, starting on March 3, when he would fly into Denver. I would drive down from Billings to pick him up, after which we would motor on to Memphis, Vicksburg, New Orleans and Austin, then back to Denver. And somehow I conceived the notion that Tom had set up the whole trip explicitly because he knew of my love for roots music and my interest in the Civil War, and that he was also aware that I had never been to the Deep South. But as we talked on the first long leg of our journey, from Denver to Fayetteville, Arkansas, I discovered that Tom, a former talk radio host now making his living doing podcasts, hadn’t had any such thoughts. He had simply come up with a trip that would last about 10 days and would allow him to bag enough interviews for two or three of his monthly podcasts. Though he was delighted to hear it, he had no idea that I had never been to any of the cities on our itinerary.
And so off we went.
OK, Some More Background
I had had more than a few adventures with Tom, but this would be our first real expedition in years. In 1987, we took our last freight train trip together, from Havre to the Twin Cities. A little earlier in the ’80s, we made a couple of trips to Chicago, for long weekends of blues, booze and debauchery. There was a crazy St. Patrick’s Day in Butte, and then there was the time Tom suffered an inland shark bite (it’s a long story) on a boat on the St. Croix River in Minnesota.
On this Southern trip, I soon realized that those days were dead and gone, that we were both a lot older, and that the chances of one or both of us being jailed, or bitten by a shark, were quite slim. This realization was driven home by a taxi driver in New Orleans, who was taking us back to our motel one night at 9:30. “Oh,” she said, “your mothers would be so proud of you.”
Laissez le bon temp rouler.
When we first started talking about this trip, I said to myself, “Early March. Great. It’ll be spring by then.” Fat chance. February was miserably cold and snowy, and when I left Billings early on March 1 (I wanted to get to Denver a day early, to do some exploring), it had stopped snowing only a few hours earlier and it was 8 or 9 degrees out.
So yes, I was more than ready to head south. And so, apparently, was my guitar. I had put strings on my Martin the day before my departure, and as I was putting it back in its case, I noticed a big crack running from just under the bridge almost all the way to the bottom of the guitar. I called Hansen Music and talked to guitar maestro Art Eichele. He told me that this dry (in terms of humidity) Montana winter had been hell on guitars, but that I was probably safe to take my Martin on my travels. Given that I was going south, into the land of high humidity, he said, the crack might even seal up on its own. Funny thing is, I had visited an ear, nose and throat doc earlier the same day, and he said a trip to the high-humidity south might be just what my allergies needed, too.
It snowed heavily in Denver on March 2, and after I picked Tom up early on the 3rd, the roads were pretty nasty almost all the way to Arkansas. The highway in Colorado had also been sprayed with some kind of molasses-like de-icer, which sheathed my Subaru Forester in a heavy coat of rippled brown goo. It looked like a prehistoric sea creature.
The good news is that once we made it to Arkansas, the weather was better than we had any right to expect. In fact, a recurring feature of this trip was that almost every morning, as we consulted our phones, we were advised that colder, wetter conditions lay ahead of us, and almost every day the forecasts were wrong. Except for a few short, light showers in New Orleans, we had beautiful conditions almost all the way.
At the very end of our trip, though, as if to admonish us for our complacent belief in our good fortune, Tom and I drove into the eye of a “bomb cyclone” in Colorado Springs. I don’t think I had ever heard that term before, but there we were in the middle of one, in all its incredible, savage fury. Earlier that day, driving through the Texas Panhandle, we had encountered winds so powerful that more than once I thought I was going to lose my windshield to the huge tumbleweeds that kept crashing into it. What a day: unprecedented winds and then a blizzard so intense that a city of half a million people virtually locked all the doors and rolled up the sidewalks.
In Colorado Springs, beyond which the interstate to Denver was closed, we found a motel and then, though Tom thought I was crazy, I set off through the storm to find a grocery store. The streets were covered with ice and snow, traffic lights were not working or were invisible behind packed snow, cars were in ditches and wedged into drifts everywhere we looked, and some streets were blocked by enormous evergreen trees that had been toppled by high winds. But we found an open Sprouts grocery store, by God, and next to it an open liquor store. They might have been the last open stores in the whole city.
That was on March 13, the day Tom was scheduled to fly out of Denver back to St. Paul. We heard that every runway at the Denver International Airport had been closed, for only the third time in the airport’s history. We also heard that the storm had officially been declared the worst one in the history of Colorado. That was actually a hell of a consolation. If you’re going to be inconvenienced, it’s nice to experience something historic.
But look at me, going on and on about the goddamned weather. Let me just add this: The next day, we heard that the interstate would probably open sometime in the afternoon, and with thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of cars and trucks backed up, who knew if we’d get to Denver in time for Tom’s new flight. But then we looked at a map of Colorado on our phones and saw that every highway east of Denver was closed, but every highway west of it was open. So, about mid-morning, we made a dash for it, taking a scenic highway through the Pike National Forest. Incredibly, it appeared that only a few other motorists had made the same discovery, with the result that we cruised along on nearly empty roads that weren’t even carrying much snow. We found out that little new snow had fallen. It’s just that very high winds (gusts of 97 mph were recorded at the airport in Colorado Springs) made it seem like there was heavy snow.
And so we got into Denver in plenty of time, and I had plenty of time to get to Casper before crashing for the night. The next morning, Friday the 15th, was incredibly beautiful, with blue skies, fresh snow and perfectly clear highways all the way to Billings. Of course, here we are five weeks later, still waiting for spring.
As I said earlier, I was mostly covering new ground on this trip. Basically, everything east of Denver was new to me. The Ozarks were as beautiful as advertised, with endless rolling hills, thick stands of trees, slow-moving rivers and widely spaced houses. I really knew I had arrived in the Ozarks when I saw a sign for the Jethro Baptist Church.
We spent our first evening in Memphis on famous Beale Street, a two-block-long string of bars, restaurants and stores that is lively and attractive — but also a tad too precious for my blood, what with all the neon and the self-conscious signs touting the street’s distinctions. But that in a nutshell is modern America, which finds it hard to preserve something without giving it a Disneyland sheen and monetizing its history. On Beale Street, I tried to overlook the sheen and the money, glad to see it preserved in any case.
Tom had several interviews set up for the next day in Memphis, so I had the day to myself. After breakfast, I went straight to the National Civil Rights Museum, which I hadn’t even known about a few days earlier. The museum is built around the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was staying when he was assassinated in 1968. Before going into the museum, I stopped at a plaque in front of the balcony on which King was standing when he was killed. To be there, and then to go into the museum and look from that balcony to James Earl Ray’s sniper’s roost in a boarding house across the street, and then to go to that boarding house (also part of the museum) and look through the roost to the balcony, is a powerful series of experiences. The whole museum is a model for remembering history, for putting a visitor into direct and uncomfortable proximity to tragedy. The museum itself tells the story of the Civil Rights movement memorably and well, but to be at the site where King was killed brought on a flood of thoughts, regrets and what-ifs that will stay with me forever.
I also visited the Blues Hall of Fame at the Blues Foundation, which is across the street from the second half of the Civil Rights Museum. It was small but had some cool artifacts, including a dress worn by Koko Taylor, Otis Spann’s piano and one of Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonicas.
I kept thinking of what Tom had told me on the drive out of Denver — that on earlier trips to Memphis he had learned that the assassination of King threw a heavy pall over Memphis for years afterward, a pall that was not lifted until after the death of Elvis in 1977. The almost immediate and unceasing flow of tourists to Memphis, and to Graceland in particular, opened the city’s eyes to its important place in the evolution of American music, Tom said, and that realization led to a music-centric renaissance that continues today. That explains the preservation of Beale Street, and also its unfortunate glitz. It’s definitely a city I need to visit again.
Next up after Memphis was Vicksburg, Mississippi. We had been planning to skip that town and head straight for Meridian, Mississippi, the birthplace of my musical hero, Jimmie Rodgers, and home of the Jimmie Rodgers Museum. Tom thought he could do a podcast based on interviews at the museum and talking to me, a Yankee from the other end of the Father of Waters, about his fascination with Southern music in general and Jimmie Rodgers in particular.
But Tom isn’t much better at planning than I am, and it wasn’t until we were in Memphis that we learned the Jimmie Rodgers Museum was closed for the summer while it moved into a new location in Meridian. So, back to Plan A, which was a visit to Vicksburg.
Once again, Tom had work to do, so I spent the late morning and early afternoon at the Vicksburg National Military Park. Despite my abiding interest in the Civil War, here I was at the age of 63 finally visiting my first Civil War battlefield. Better late than never, though, and Vicksburg was a fine place to start, because it was not the site of a single battle, but of a protracted siege with operations on land and water. The driving tour stretches out for 16 miles, and if you were to stop and read every historical marker, and take a gander at every historical monument, it would take many days.
The highlight for me was finally finding the spot overlooking the Mississippi River where the Union Army and Navy made a dash under the city’s heavy guns, previously thought impossible, leading to the long siege that ended with the surrender of Confederate forces in Vicksburg. That surrender effectively cut the Confederacy in half and sealed its fate, though it would take nearly two more years of fighting for the inevitable end to come. Standing on that point was anticlimactic. I referred above to the Mississippi River, but the river changed its course a few years after the war, and the waterway visible from the overlook now is actually the Yazoo River Diversion Canal, which doesn’t sound quite so stirring. Adding to the confusion was that this had been a very wet spring, and looking west from the military park there was standing water almost as far as the eye could see.
We headed for New Orleans the next day, leaving early enough to spend a good part of the day in Clarksdale, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. McKinley Morganfield, whom the world would know as Muddy Waters, was born in nearby Rolling Fork but spent his early days in a sharecropper’s cabin just outside Clarksdale, on the Stovall Farm (or, as Muddy always called it, the “Stovall Plan’ation”). It was at that cabin in 1941 where Alan Lomax first recorded Muddy. When Lomax played back the recording for Muddy, he said, speaking of himself, “Damn, that boy can play the blues!” I like to think that it was at that moment that Muddy decided to leave the farm and head North, where he would revolutionize the blues, and by extension American popular music.
Unlike Beale Street, Clarksdale is still quite sleepy and almost untouched by glitz. Even the Ground Zero Blues Club, co-owned by Morgan Freeman, and which we visited only during the day, looks just seedy and haphazard enough to be authentic. We had breakfast at a tiny little joint with 1950s kitchen tables and mismatched chairs, then visited a few other establishments.
The highlight was a visit to Deak’s Mississippi Saxophones & Blues Emporium, owned by Deak Harp, a New Jersey transplant and wonderful character. The store was closed when we first saw it, but after spying a massive collection of defunct harmonicas in a window display, we knew we had to stick around. Tom and I both play the harmonica, and if the club down the street is ground zero for the blues, Deak’s joint is ground zero for the blues harmonica. Deak sells, among other things, customized harmonicas, which come with a lifetime warranty. If the reeds go bad, he’ll repair or replace them. They’re pricey, at $250 a pop, but I am going to own one someday soon.
Deak also gave us an ear-shattering demonstration of his skills, simultaneously banging out one-chord hillcountry blues on an electric guitar while playing Chicago-style blues harp on a harmonica rack attached to a microphone. At one point, Deak went to move a wooden sculpture of a harmonica player from inside the shop to the sidewalk out front. Tom asked about it and Deak said it was made by a friend and was supposed to represent him. “But I asked him,” Deak said, “where’s the fucking air bag?” As we looked on quizzically, as the sculptor must have done, Deak patted his ample belly and added, “You can’t playing the fucking harmonica without a fucking air bag.”
My brother and his wife, John and Pam, visited Clarksdale a few years back and heard some great music, which we, alas, did not have time to do, but for Deak’s brief performance. But we heard that Clarksdale, like Memphis, has gone all in on music. The small, sleepy town now has live music somewhere every night of the year. I’ll be back.
What can I say about New Orleans? I feel like everybody else I know has already been there, and I have some friends, including Tom, who’ve been there many times. So I’ll keep it short.
Bourbon Street, a week after Mardi Gras, was so crowded and crazy that I can’t imagine what it would have been like a week earlier. As it was, it was like a mile-long spring break, with legions of mostly young partiers roaming up and down the avenue clutching wastebasket-size glasses of cheap beer and long green plastic containers of highly sweetened but potent liquor mixes. We poked our heads in a few establishments, absorbing as much ear-bleeding music as we could stand before plunging back into the crowd of revelers.
At one point we finally found the kind of place that New Orleans used to be famous for: small, ornate, full of quiet people listening to a jazz band jammed onto a tiny stage. The band featured a phenomenal clarinetist, a remarkably large drummer and a blind pianist/singer. They ran through all kinds of standards, occasionally joined by other musicians, including a couple of brass players from Germany, who fit in seamlessly.
The next morning we had breakfast coffee in Jackson Square, where I listened to a large group of horns and percussionists playing for tips. Everywhere we went that day we saw crowds of people in green, festooned with shamrocks and leprechaun hats and all the rest. There was even a St. Patrick’s Day parade, a week early, and a bus that had been converted into a rolling Hibernian party, complete with seven or eight beer taps on one side. That night, a few blocks off Bourbon Street, we saw the same clarinetist, at a much larger bar, leading a whole new group of musicians. What a town.
After New Orleans we high-tailed it for our last stop, Austin. We got in pretty late on the 10th, to stay with one of Tom’s sons, Mac. The next morning, after dropping Tom off for another interview, I got stuck in downtown Austin for about an hour and half, thanks to road construction and South by Southwest, the giant hipster convention where people talk about the future of the future, or something like that. Later, having given up on cars, I rented a bicycle and rode all around Lady Bird Lake. Billings is always talking about “aspirational” cities: I’d recommend Austin, or at least its trail system.
On our second night there, Tom opted to hang with Mac and his girlfriend on their deck, so I set off alone again. First stop was the Congress Avenue Bridge, where enormous numbers of bats have taken up residence. In the right conditions, more than a million bats come flying out from under the bridge at dusk, a spectacle I had wanted to witness almost as much as I wanted to see “Austin City Limits” live. Well, it was a bust, mostly. I can’t remember now why it was a bad night for bats, but it was, and only a few thousand of them flew out — on the other side of the river from where I was.
Though the bats barely showed, I was entertained by a squadron of pigeons that made an appearance just before sundown and kept flying in formation over the bridge, going back and forth from one side of the river to the other again and again. At first I thought the pigeons just wanted to watch the bats themselves, but as time went on, I got the impression that they were friends and associates of the bats and were doing all they could to entertain us in lieu of the normal show. But no one seemed the least bit interested and the pigeons, increasingly frantic, as if sensing the futility of it all, eventually veered off and disappeared. As did I.
I made my way to Radio Coffee and Beer, which had been recommended to me by Matt Fockler, a great singer-songwriter who had spent some time in Billings and used to live in Austin. He told me some friends of his would be playing that night. It turned out to be a bluegrass jam, more or less, with members of three or four different bands playing in different configurations on an outdoor patio. The music was great and I met a few of Matt’s friends, including Bob Sokol, who recorded some of Matt’s songs. (Note to Matt: Release that album!) I also had an amazing drink — an Old-Fashioned mixed with cold-brewed coffee. I know, it sounds almost toxically hip, but damn it was good.
And that was that. We left the next morning for Denver, into the howling maw of the bomb cyclone.
I wouldn’t normally even write about this, but we stayed in such a variety of places that I have to say something. For my two solo nights in Denver, I stayed in an Airbnb a couple of miles north of Mile High Stadium. My host was Tony Achilles, who said that was his real name. It made me wish my name was Ed Agamemnon. Mr. Achilles had a beautiful little house, full of his fine paintings, and I ended up spending a lot of time talking to him.
In Fayetteville and Memphis, Tom and I stayed in Airbnbs, with less pleasant results. Both our hosts were hilariously anal, asking us to read pages and pages of rules, expectations and prohibitions. In Memphis our host was somewhere in the house, we knew not where, so we crept about like mice in slippers, desperately trying not to annoy her. By the time we left Memphis I told Tom I just wanted to get a motel where I could be loud and messy.
We found that in New Orleans. Our motel there was almost comically lacking in basic amenities. I mean basic: two beds but not a table or a single chair. One overhead light, over near the door instead of centered on the ceiling, and the worst breakfast spread I’ve ever seen. Motels competing with Airbnbs remind me strongly of newspapers confronting the web: cut costs, eliminate traditional services and downgrade the ambience, then hope you can, by some miracle, draw people away from the competition.
Hanging with Tom
Given that we drove almost 4,000 miles in 10 days (I did 1,100 miles by myself, from Billings to Denver and back), we spent nearly as much time in the car as out of it. Mostly the miles flew by. Tom and I had seen each other only sporadically and for short spells in recent years, so we had no end of things to talk about, music in particular. Both our lives revolve around music, playing it, listening to it, learning more about the people who make it. My “study” of roots music has been haphazard at best, derived from a few books, magazine articles, lots of liner notes and listening to radio stations with informed, talkative DJs. Tom has delved into it much more deeply in the course of his career, especially since taking up podcasting. Most of the interviews he set up for this trip were music-related, including one with a longtime associate of Jerry Lee Lewis, in Memphis, and another with a young musician from Uganda, flown to Austin to do some recordings on the strength of one viral YouTube video. (The Jerry Lee Lewis podcast is already up at The Mischke Roadshow, and well worth your time.)
Tom and I also share a love for the past, not so much for specific previous historical eras as for a milieu that predates the modern era of strip malls, chain restaurants and homogenization. We both love what Tom called, in that early email, “old backroad forgotten towns.” But my passion for earlier times, I found, is considerably less intense than Tom’s. With me it’s a bit vague and general, exemplified by the cartoonist R. Crumb’s “A Short History of America.”
With Tom, it is a ruling obsession. He told me that when he can’t get to sleep at night, he lies in bed and imagines himself in a particular scenario, usually rolling down a two-lane road in a 1940s or ’50s car, visiting towns and meeting people from an earlier time. I don’t think it helps him fall asleep; it’s just that if he can’t sleep, he rather live in his imagination for a while rather than in the modern world. I’m sure that’s why we both loved Clarksdale, which is just too small to have changed much over the years.
I also realized on this trip that I seemed to have reached the age where it is enough just to sit back spongelike and absorb impressions and images, without having to engage any more than is necessary. It’s easy to sit back when you’re traveling with Tom. He was already an accomplished raconteur before he decided to take up raconteurship as a career, first in talk radio and then as a podcaster. Tom can talk to anyone and generally does. His technique, or M.O., is to overwhelm a stranger with questions or a stream of talk, so that before a person has had time to wonder whether he should be talking to a stranger at all, he and Tom are interacting like old friends. I found it fascinating to hear all those conversations without going to the trouble of having instigated them.
It also helps that Tom is, to a greater extent than anyone else I have ever known, oblivious to superficialities like race, age, gender or economic status. Most of us can strive to ignore, or at least to minimize consideration of such distinctions, but with Tom it’s as if the distinctions don’t exist. He is simply fascinated, deeply, incurably fascinated, with people, and he approaches everyone with the same degree of openness.
One more thing I realized, shortly after our trip. I had bought the latest issue of Harper’s magazine, which contained a tribute to the late Philip Roth by his friend Benjamin Taylor. In it, Taylor asks, “Is the quick of friendship here, in finding the same things lastingly funny?” My answer would be yes, as evidenced by the number of times Tom and I found ourselves laughing uncontrollably on this outing, as we have so many times over the years.
— I wish I had a recording of our conversation with the ancient owner of an ancient gas station in Memphis. The place looked almost deserted, the gas pumps did not have digital displays and the old gent’s “office” looked like a museum of mid-century artifacts thickly coated with dust. I couldn’t get a pump to work, and when the old boy came out to help, Tom explained that I was from Montana. “It figures,” was all he said.
— In New Orleans, I was sitting on a wall in a park when a big, fat rat came scampering past. He didn’t see me until he was right in front of me, a foot or two away, and when he did he paused, raised his two little front legs and sniffed in my direction before dashing under an electrical box. He poked his head out from under it, evidently planning his immediate future and still sniffing. I moved slightly and he withdrew his head and vanished. I had almost hoped we’d get to know each other better. He looked as playful as a dog. It might have been the gin.
— In Memphis, we heard a great harmonica player, who was fronting a band of much younger players, including a female lead guitarist who might have been in her early 30s. She would take a town like Billings by storm.
— At the Blues Hall of Fame, I couldn’t help noticing that Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica was a Seydel, a brand I had never seen before. I thought maybe it was some kind of high-end alternative to the Hohner, the standard and nearly universal brand. Deak Harp, in Clarksdale, told me no, and don’t bother buying a Seydel. But why did Charlie Musselwhite use a Seydel? I asked. “Simple,” Deak answered. “Seydel gave him free harps.”
— At a brief stop in Natchez, Mississippi, we learned about something called the American Music Triangle, bound by a “Gold Record Road” that runs from Nashville to Memphis, then down through Clarksdale, Vicksburg, Natchez, Lafayette and New Orleans, then back up to Nashville by way of Jackson, West Point, Tupelo and Muscle Shoals, among other places. We saw a map listing all the great bluesmen, jazz artists, country musicians, Cajun fiddlers and others born in the Triangle. Damn. I’ve already got the Crooked Road in Virginia on my must-do list, and now here’s another.
It’s a good thing I’m retired. I just wish I wasn’t so old.