Road Report: Tornadoes, Blue Bonnets and all that lies beyond the comfort zone

The band left Nashville late on Tuesday, in between the raindrops and wind gusts.  Two of Mother Nature’s powers trending gentle in comparison to their western fury, just twenty-four hours earlier. That fury laid out communities in Oklahoma, Arkansas and surrounding states with usual extreme and an all too familiar lack of mercy.  But Interstate 40 ticked west, unremarkable in the daylight. Dinner brought its usual fun and flair, this time at the world Famous Rendezvous Ribs in Memphis (just a day or two before “the other” Royal Family).  To walk off the ribs we made a quick one block jaunt to the Peabody Hotel. Runaway Home- style traveling for sure.

Later, the lights of Little Rock mixed with starlight on the dash, giving no hint of the previous day’s devastation. The first and not so subtle suggestion of destruction came as we arrived at our hotel on the southwestern side of the city. Our hotel parking lot was nearly devoid of parking spaces for all of the dozen or more ambulances and Red Cross disaster trucks. Some of them stood eerily silent and some shook with the unsettled drone of idling engines. Sad reminders that all was not well on the midnight highway tonight.

The next morning would bring the promise of blue skies and Oklahoma, the land of my birth and the birth of many a menacing wind. But first, West Little Rock would indeed reveal to the eye what it had forebode in our gut. The twisting of wood, metal, and lives bore out in a terribly typical, mile long slash, followed by an equally haunting neighbor of no destruction…like nothing had ever happened.  Within hours, the Ozarks rose and fell into the plains of my Sooner home. This night we would play Oklahoma City’s premier listening room, The Blue Door, or the first time.  The venue and its owner Gary Johnson, are both what we refer to as “Oases in the desert” (to be explained later.)  My Oklahoma family turned out in droves to this gig, making it a special night.   Later we would spend midnight at the Oklahoma City Memorial, the site of the Murrah Federal Building bombed in 1995. A second reminder in as many days of what is truly important and that we are only passing through. Two gates marked innocence held and innocence lost; 9:01 and 9:03.

Thursday would find the band passing through the red clay hills of my hometown of Chickasha, the old western landscape of the Arbuckles, then ever southward trek to Dallas. Hey, not to mention a stop in Paul’s Valley at the Toy and Action Figure Museum. What? We could even dress up as our favorite action hero……all over that!   This day was finished off by a short 45 minute set at the Opening Bell Coffeehouse, late night dinner at The Buzz-Brew and a midnight walk though Dealey Plaza. Though, at times, our postings from sites of tragedy may seem a bit macabre, visiting the joy and heartbreak of a community is our way of honoring every place we go.

Friday we slept in for the first time in 1,500 miles followed by a short 3 hour ride north of Houston to open for Milk Drive at Dosey Doe. Not to be outdone by the previous day’s side trips and antics, we got in our usual local eats, this time at Roy’s Cafe in Corsicana. We threw down a wonderful homemade breakfast inside and then struck up a conversation with a man named Elias outside the cafe. He spoke of his years past playing guitar for George Jones, Tammy Wynette and Johnny Paycheck…gotta’ love Texas for that kind of serendipity.  In one last road sign genuflect to the bizarre but fun, we got in a quick tour of the Texas Prison Museum.  A mix of fun and laughs as we locked each other up in the mock jail cells, but ever aware of the true nature of sadness and violence represented in that history.   After our opening set at Dosey Doe in Conroe we were once again loading the van!

Now, for a moment of honesty or maybe just plain obviousness; there is no limit to the role friends and family play in keeping an indie band going.  Neither is there a limit to the intrusion that said band is willing to propagate.  So, a quick call to Aunt Sandra and Richard in Port Lavaca, TX got us off the hook for Friday night’s hotel expense and in a few short midnight hours – the band van pulled into the south coast Texas town of my mother’s birth.

Saturday brought another chance to sleep in a bit, catch a great walk around the mile long bird walk, toes in the sand at the beach and a great seafood lunch by the water.  A fried food-induced nap should well have been in order, but we were due for load-in 30 minutes away in Ganado, at the Rear Window Listening Room.  The last show of the tour was due to be a special unplugged concert.  We had been looking forward to the change of pace, the intimate atmosphere and the “easy sound-check” (as in no sound check)!  We sat around a small table, with a small lamp, surrounded by the audience and had a blast singing songs, talking about music and just sharing the space with folks eager to connect with us.  We call those venues and those particular nights, “Oases in the desert” – a chance to refill and revive in a place of incredible support and kindness before heading out into harsher environs. We seem to go farther and farther out beyond home base with every tour, leaving ourselves only the narrowest of openings to slip back into Nashville for what the next week may require.

Sunday would be no different.  We measured this particular turnaround as a “hop and a skip,” not quite the “hop, skip and jump” reserved for 20 plus hours at a time.  After a short Saturday night sleep we piled back into the band van for what was supposed to be a 14 hour, 900 mile race back to Nashville.  Of course time is always adjusted by the “stomach and bladder” formula, which I assume needs no further explanation.  However, today would bring a 10 mile back-up east of Little Rock that would leave us idle for just shy of 2 straight hours.  Tempting as it is to complain about the hassle of schedules thrown off, heat and boredom ramped-up and the ever troubling “parking lot” metaphor for the music business – we all knew better.  A traffic jam of this magnitude only means one thing; someone’s or some family’s life has been altered greatly just up the highway where the exhaust fumes sit in clouds broken by red , blue and yellow lights of the emergency vehicles.  Yet another reminder of the fleeting nature of it all.

We made it home late but safe, worn but exulted and ever more motivated to strike out again, first chance we get.  It seems a fitting postlude to this trip ( if not all others) just to say this; a band broad with belief, vision and more than a little chutzpah can easily be made small among the larger shadows of life’s cruelty but also somewhat less painfully by life’s  bright shining beauty.  We saw plenty of both on and off the highway this week.

Mark Elliott – Runaway Home
“It’s The Music That Makes Us Smile”

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