Leaving Nashville on Oct 9th, we head west to California via Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Two weeks in and our departure seem like six months ago. Out here time speeds up and slows down all at the same time. Routine forces movement, while spare, quiet moments are savored. I love the opportunities that come with the changing landscapes, and traveling west provides them in spades. This trip is a venue mix of aging movie theaters, a couple of casinos, a famous rock club, and a county fair.
Let me say this about aging movie theaters… they are a treasure. The civic groups and art councils that bring them back from the brink are to be applauded. Support them, wherever you are.
Below is the exterior and interior of the Fox Theater at our last stop in Bakersfield
But let’s start at the beginning…
Greenville Texas – Our first stop finds us at the Municipal Auditorium, built in 1939 with money from the Roosevelt public works project. This stage has seen acts from Elvis Presley to Duke Ellington. Thanks to the Kenneth Threadgill Performance Series, we played here a few years ago with Leslie Satcher and Jim Lauderdale.
I must point out that the food here was unbelievable!! (this is usually not the case) Thanks, ladies!
The gig doubles, however, as a jumping off place to meet up with my old friend Ken Fitzgerald and his wife Judy, to do some train spotting. Ken is a published photographer in train magazines, a self-published book author, and is hired frequently by the Union Pacific Railroad to document special events. He is a great teacher to me in honing my evolving photography skills. We head out in his Ford SUV checking the scanner, and find three train events going on. First, we sight a Blacklands Railroad engine, down for the count, being checked over by two crewmen,
Then the old historic Greenville depot where passenger trains used to pull out three times daily.
Just out on the other side of town is an LTEX (Larry’s Truck and Electric) engine waiting for gas pipe to be unloaded from its flatcars.
This is a wonderful opportunity to witness railroading at work, and not just whizzing by.
Nearby we find our last sight, a beautiful Kansas City Southern freight waiting its turn on a mainline siding.
I return to a spirited crowd at the auditorium, and after loading up, we head off into a lightning storm.
Early the next morning, I stumble into the front lounge as we pass through Roswell NM. I snap this picture through the window and can’t help but to ponder the alien question.
Before 1947 and the “incident,” Roswell was just a sleepy desert town. These days Roswell embraces its celebrity and shoves it on your face, as many businesses here sport alien themes. I smile as Roswell slides by our bus window. Out in the middle of nowhere you gotta work with what you have.
Our next gig is the Cowboy Symposium in Ruidoso NM. This is probably the biggest cowboy gathering in the country hosting storytellers, poets, chuck wagon cooks, western artists and craftsmen. We are welcome here, but a little out of our element as the best western swing bands in the country surround us. It’s a subtle intuitive feeling. The best way to describe it is like a “New Grasser” playing a traditional bluegrass festival back in the mid-70’. You’re tolerated, but not really accepted. Byron Berline finds me to say hello however, and Little Roy Lewis visits our bus and entertains us with his Georgia Blues pickin.’ We break out the rhinestones for this gig as most of the attendees are sporting their best western duds. When we get onstage, that “intuitive” feeling I had earlier is completely and immediately disarmed when Connie Smith joins us. She brings an unaffected, calming, dignified, classy presence to the audience. I LOVE playing with Connie.
Continuing on, our diesel stagecoach parks us downtown in Tucson at the Rialto Theater.
Right across the street is the Congress Hotel where in 1934, members of John Dillinger’s gang were cooling their heels on the top floor. Waiting for Dillinger to join them, an early morning fire broke out in the basement, and when asked to evacuate, the firemen were tipped handsomely by the gang to help with their rather heavy loot filled luggage, (close to $24,000 and some heavy artillery). One of the firemen recognized some of the gangs’ faces from a True Detective Magazine, and Dillinger was captured a couple of days later just down the street without the police having to fire a single shot. Dillinger was extradited back East and later escaped using a wooden pistol. Cuz and I had a wonderful lunch on the back patio of the Hotel Congress.
After playing a casino near San Diego, our bus heads towards Los Angeles and The Roxy.
Thanks to March Martin for this marquee shot
Originally a grocery store, then a strip club, the Roxy was established as a home for the Rocky Horror Stage Show in the ‘70s. When I lived in LA, I saw some amazing shows here like Earl King, The Meters, The Wild Tchoupitoulas, and Ry Cooder. I played there myself with Silver, Jay Ferguson, and Al Stewart. With Al I recorded his “Indian Summer” album live at the Roxy over two nights back in 1981.
When we arrive, the set up begins in earnest for our show and a TV taping for Marty and Dan Rather.Before sound check, Dan arrives and the interview begins.
Dan Rather is a class act. I miss the professionalism he brought to the small screen in todays newscasters. He is so subtly in the moment. Afterwards, he graces me with a pose.
After a short rest we suit up and play for a star-studded crowd that includes actor Fred Willard, and Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers. I missed seeing Rodney Bingemheimer though…used to see him all the time there in the 80’s…
Leaving tinsel town behind we enter a total polar opposite environment, Ridgecrest CA. It may be home to the China Lake Naval Testing Center, but for us, it is better known as the home of The Porthole, and Lewis Talley and the “Whackers.”
The Porthole was one of the circuit bars that helped evolve the Bakersfield Sound. Merle Haggard is seen here playing a Fender Jaguar with Lewis just after his release from prison.
Buck Owens played here, Bonnie Owens lived here and so on and so on. Our gig at the fair brought out songwriter Red Simpson.
Red is credited with writing, “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go,” and is invited on stage to play it with us.
Merle and Buck might have been kings of the Bakersfield Sound, but in this place I can truly feel I’m down in the engine room of it all. The people of the Imperial Valley are hard working, blue-collar folks, and I drink up all the stories I can while hanging out with Red and his cronies. Thank you, Mike Leming, for promoting the show, my Rolling Stone Altamont poster and keeping vinyl alive in the old Porthole location.
Fresno is next and another fabulous old movie theater, the Tower.
Be sure to check out Spinners Records if you ever get to Fresno. They have some great vinyl. I found a wonderful Porter Wagoner “live” album that I bought just for the cover, an old Glaser Brothers “folk” rarity, and a British re-release of Jimi Hendrix’s first mono “Are You Experienced.” Back at the Tower, Marty snaps a couple of impromptu pics of me backstage in the deco dressing room and opener Sam Lewis becomes my 1000th “liker” on Facebook. Big day in Fresno.
After a night at an Indian casino up near Eureka, we start heading south to Red Bluff and the State Theater.
Red Bluff is home to Tom Hank’s mother and brother. According to Wikipedia, Mrs. Hanks and Tom’s brother moved there after a divorce. The point is, the State Theater is undergoing restoration, and is struggling with hardly any corporate sponsorship for help. Tom Hanks donated some money to help purchase the property to get them started. The arts council for the State is the “little engine that could.” They are passionate, dedicated and patient. Red Bluff is an old community, but its hay-day is long past. Go say hi if you’re in town.
After Red Bluff we get a day off… sort of…We drive to Redding to spend most of the day with Merle Haggard.
Merle welcomes us to his ranch, and was in top spirits. He brings out Lefty Frizzell’s J200 for us all to play, and we trade stories, laughs and share some pretty special musical fellowship.
He and Marty had written a song, and we proceed to record it in the studio.
Merle is a real fan of the Superlatives, and after many years of crossing paths, I can say that we have a true connection now. What a memorable day, one for the ages.
The next day, in Folsom California, our bus gets a wash, and we get a tour of Folsom Prison.
I was interested to go in, and relieved to be able to walk out. Folsom is an old prison, opening in 1880. Its location was secured by some savvy mine owners who made a deal with the state. If they gave the land, (from their mined out land), the state would build a dam with inmate labor which provided a moneymaking hydroelectric utility for the mining company. This gave Folsom the distinction of the first AC electrified prison in the state, while most of the electricity was shipped off to Sacramento. Smart guys.
We’ve all seen pictures of Folsom’s’ Gothic ominism.
The 30-foot walls go down beneath the ground surface another 8 to 10 feet to solid bedrock. Upon entering and a shout out from the guards from above in the East gate tower, our first sight is China Hill, where Chinese prisoners were segregated to in the early years at the prison. Back then they weren’t considered human. They provided garden vegetables for the warden and the prisoners though. Without our cameras, our memories are all we have to document the Warden’s office and Greystone Chapel. We are then escorted unprotected through the medium security yard (at this point my unnerved feeling came from Folsoms “no hostage” policy), and into two of the cellblocks. Finally, we’re ushered into the old execution room. Built as a hanging gallows, the room was small, with ten cells on two levels. If you were sentenced to hang, you started out on the bottom floor, and moved across and to the top until you were next. Ninety-three men died in this room. I simply can’t imagine. Today it’s used for storage and a prison band rehearsal hall.
Allow me this commentary…Spiritual evolution is mandatory for us all. Love is the answer… period.
Just across the hall from the execution room is what we really came for. We are ushered into the cafeteria where in January of 1968, Johnny Cash recorded his historic “At Folsom Prison” album. We are shown the spot where a narrow stage was constructed at one end of the hall. Along with the Tennessee Three, Carl Perkins, June Carter and the Statler Brothers, Cash uttered, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” to a primed prison audience. I imagine seeing JR shaking hands with inmate Glen Shirley from the stage after performing Shirley’s song, “Greystone Chapel.”
Outside the prison at the East Gate, like Abbey Road, thousands have had their pictures snapped where Cash once posed, and we’re no different.
After Folsom, we wind down the tour with Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage,
Modesto’s State Theater,
and the Fox in Bakersfield, where Red Simpson joins us again onstage.
Finally, it’s LAX and a non-stop flight back to Nashville. I settle back and give thanks to Maddox Bros & Rose for blazing that Golden State rhinestone trail for us all,… way back in the 1940’s.
“So long, California… can’t wait to get back.”