and the Live Sex Show
Panama Red Plays Roosendaal
to Amsterdam, Buffy
Trip Reviewed: Panama Red Plays Muscle Shoals
....and the Kaffeeklatsch
Huntsville, AL February 22, 2002
After the Kaffeeklatsch (the hippest joint in Huntsville) I get
to sit down with my notebook.
Soulful trip, the flat
red dirt cotton bottoms flashing by so frequently under an immense
Confederate gray steel bowl of a sky that I still see them when
I close my eyes, still seeing winter in Northern Alabama. I get
into Huntsville on the dogbus, after listening to some dude muttering
rap lyrics for two hours, Ronnie Baker meets me. We go looking for
Lew. Don't find him and head out to Ronnies place on Cherokee Ridge.
Ronnie has a studio, and he and his friend Mike Ford on bass help
me begin to get my shit together.
Ronnie's got a great
wife in Marilyn, some kids mostly nearly grown, and an absolutely
shameless little licky-licky lapdog named Buckwheat...a complete
baby of a spoiled dog. My favorite kind. Buck and I bond immediately.
Two great wussies meet.
After my fingers begin to say duh, oh yeah, guitar, Ronnie and I
set out for Muscle Shoals so I can sing at the songwriters showcase
hosted by Jerry McGee and Mickey Buckins. Muscle Shoals is of course,
THE Muscle Shoals, long central to rocknroll music, and I get to
play with some famous guys I know of, like Pete and Spooner, and
probably also some that I don't know, my lame card being punched
in the process because I don't recognize them I'm sure.
It is a good set. I
do my songs solo and at the end of the night there is a finale with
Pete Carr, Spooner Oldham, Jerry and Mickey and their band and me.
Pete Carr has said he's feeling a little nonaggressive, perhaps,
and then he gets up and rips the shit out of it. After the gig,
hospitality suite coming with the invitation to pick and thereby
being assured of a place to fall over, I set out to drink Muscle
Shoals, Sheffield and Florence dry, or die trying, which damn near
turns out to be the case as far as the next day goes.
Short story: Years ago
our band Bethlehem Asylum made two records for Ampex via Capricorn...on
the same deal was Sundown, Cowboy, Wet Willie, I think, and a coupla
other bands. We each made two albums for Ampex. In Sundown was Chuck
Leavel and in Cowboy was Scott Boyer, whom Lew takes me to say hello
to at Somethin's Fishy after the songwriters thing. Great to be
among these other young faces grown older, and to be among these
other green players now seasoned (but still whiplike quick, if I
do say so myself). This has been my first ever foray into Muscle
Shoals as a player, though I know some of these guys from Nashville,
two hours away by geography.
I manage to score a
pint and Ronnie and I go back to the Holiday Inn, and drink moderately
until we pass out. Daniel Pearl is dead says CNN; another journalist
paying the supreme price. Consumed with this thought I fall over
into a strange sleep, lonely without Patty...I wake up prematurely
at 7:30 am, Ronnie is dressed watching TV, ready to head out because
he has a day ahead of him. "How you doing?" he asks.
"Wow, man I had
this weird dream. Wyker was supposed to be in it but he didn't show
After we fall out over
that Ronnie takes off and Lew Wear shows up. Lewie takes me on a
whirlwind tour of Muscle Shoals, which in my weakened, unfed, poorly
slept state soon takes on the character of a goddamned Fellini movie.
First Lew took me to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Here's a partial
list of people I didn't know were from Alabama: Nat "King"
Cole, Candi Staton, The Delmore Brothers, Sam Phillips, Country
Boy Eddie, W.C. Handy. Lewie introduces me to David Johnson, old-time
record producer and current director of the Hall of Fame. They talk
about Sun Records. I stare at death's face, feeling very nutrition-deprived.
The Inuits have a saying: "Food is sleep." By now my metabolic
processes are so slowed that I'm starting to run on ADP. I can feel
my muscles and bones giving up calcium and phosphorous, not to mention
magnesium...it is a very strange deal. I've progressed from Fellini
to William Burroughs.
The Hall of Fame is
an outward and visible sign of an inward and soulful cultural presence.
Whether you know it or not, a great deal of RocknRoll consciousness
has been shaped in this mecca which seems to my slightly queasy
reality to be now a cultural ghost town, the soul music business
now having been co-opted by New York and L.A., even the locals who
still produce go to other places to work.
Yesterday a little chick
at Ronnie's had said, "Where's Muscle Shoals?" We had
cracked up, she meaning geographically, we thinking in a cultural
sense, as if she'd said "Who's Elvis?"
There is a street here
where in a few blocks one encounters half a dozen little dumpy joints
where so much rocknroll was made, but most of the locals seem oblivious
to it. Lewie points out, this is where Cher recorded, the Stones
cut here, George Harrison there.
Lewie finally drags
me to the Smokehouse Pool Hall, as I am now beginning to hallucinate.
On the way we drive past Helen Keller's house, actually there are
two houses here: one that the family lived in and a smaller house
off to the side where Helen lived, back in the days when the shame
of an infirm family member was kept hidden. At the pool hall I finally
eat beef stew and, though I'm still half-dead from sleeping drunk,
I begin to think my body may stop consuming itself. The prices here
are right out of l970. Across the street is a parking lot where
used to stand Spar Studios, Spooner Oldham's place.
I had scheduled a rehearsal
with Ronnie and Owen Brown, but I now begin to think of the old
Inuit saying "Sleep is rehearsal". Lew takes me out to
his place, which looks like Frank Lloyd Wright Discovers Barnwood.
Inside is a staggering collection of recordings, all destined for
the Hall of Fame when the day comes that Lew stops walking around.
A long time ago I had
a band, a bunch of cool guys, Owen Brown, David Pace, Ladd Henderson
and Lee Roy Parnell. Owen now has a studio in Town Creek, halfway
between the Shoals and Decatur. The sweetest setup you could want,
poplar trees falling away to live oaks and a golf course, the studio
building being built in 1824. Owen is a solid bass player, brings
that tonic down on the one, and tonight we're going to get to play
together again after twenty years, at the Kaffeeklatsch in Huntsville.
Owen lets me crash on
the studio couch. I wake up ravenous, eat a can of salmon left over
from Will Thomas's sessions. My body has decided to come home. Owen
and I set out for the 'Klatsch.
Whenever Owen and I
get together we get giddy with player humor and tonight many of
the old Panama Red routines surface, Owen feeding me lines to say
to the audience, which tonight, as always in Huntsville, consists
of my friends from Mighty Field of Vision. I say, "damn. it's
amazing how many people came from Alabama: Nat "King"
Cole, W.C. Handy..." "Helen Keller," Owen feeds.
"Yeah. Helen Keller came from Alabama. Only she didn't know
it." And so we get through the night with this brand of insensitive,
dark, gentle humor.
I've noticed for the
first time this trip how close to the surface is the water table.
This area around Muscle Shoals and Huntsville and Decatur is of
course delta: cotton growing country. People who know about such
things have told me that they can go into a warehouse with thousands
of 800 pound bales of cotton from all over the world and easily
pick out the local variety, known as Belle Mina, by its light and
fluffy color and texture.
There are numerous confluences
of the Tennessee River where alluvial deposits result in superb
cotton-growing country. Did the preponderance of labor-intensive
cotton farming and the slaves so necessarily densely compacted result
in a cultural undercurrent that would a hundred years later produce
Donnie Fritts, Felton Jarvis, Eddie Hinton? Obviously yes.
Placing Muscle Shoals
at the epicenter of some hypothetical construct, at a hundred miles
east an echo of Piedmont blues begins to overlap and thirty miles
to the west the Mississippi River steamboat and cotton culture begins.
Look at a map: from the western slopes in Georgia and Carolina the
country falls in gentle slopes of riparian flatlands to the Mississippi
a third of the way across the continent. And cotton is still king.
The Civil War brought
a sense of defeat and resignation, the essence of the blues, to
a population of whites who found expression in the musical forms
of those they had oppressed, the Africans...it is a strange observation
but a true one that The Alabama Leaning Man, as Donnie Fritts was
known in Nashville, is a cultural descendent of australopithecus.
The black slaves have
been replaced by John Deere tractors, cotton gins on wheels, but
the blood in the red dirt remains. No wonder, then, that these small
studios which spawned The Letter, Breakfast in Bed, and a thousand
others, sprang up like cotton. There is a faded glory of thirty
years before. No R&B hits are happening here, currently at least,
and the protagonists have come home to settle into a more or less
comfortable retirement. But the real shit is still played here in
Muscle Shoals at the Holiday Inn.