The Hour of Hill Country Rambles
In the early hours of an October Saturday, after months of obsessed planning and brimming anticipation, my girlfriend Alison and I made a swift departure from our apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts, toward the promise of natural highs and scenic grandeur 900 miles south in the Great Smoky Mountains. Faces gaunt and lungs weak after a year of living the urban life, we longed for the cleansing influence of a simple outdoor existence and crisp Appalachian air. Pulling onto the eerily desolate Massachusetts Turnpike in my green Mercury Sable, which threatened to burst forth from the insides with assorted camping equipment and non-perishable foodstuffs, our thoughts and words were alive with a sprinkling of the naturalistic idealism that drove men like John Muir and Thoreau to drop all the trappings of modern civilization and strike off into the wilderness. I was dually ecstatic about the great many miles that stretched out before us. For years I had dreamed of setting off on such a trip deep into the American unknown. My mind was wallpapered with beloved images culled from the road writings of Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, and William Least Heat Moon, and I set off with the hope that I could grasp for myself just a small piece of the colorful, wandering spirit that flowed through the hearts and minds of those men.
Once we neared the gateway to the National Park in Townsend, Tennessee, we made a pit stop at a filling station, stepping out of the car and into the fragrant, balmy air of the True South. We both had laid eyes upon the South of cartoonish tourist traps and resort paradises on the Gulf of Mexico but never on this wonderful land of hoedowns, hog-tying and hootenannies. As we rolled along toward the edge of the park on a winding road enveloped by ivy-covered trees, I tugged on Alison's ear with this clear vision of a mid-week respite from hiking the foothills and ridges of Appalachia, or "App-uh-latch-ah" as a West Virginian river guide we would later meet proudly annunciated with a low slung drawl:
With quadriceps flaming, the weary wanderers sit down to a gargantuan feast of ribs, cornbread and collared greens at a table with a red and white checker pattern tablecloth. While engaging in boisterous conversations with locals who fit every Southern stereotype imaginable, they begin to feel right at home inside the bustling roadside shack. After quaffing much local hooch, which loosens up knotted muscles and stiff joints, the travelers rejoice as the frenzied fingerpickin' and high lonesome sounds of an authentic hill country string band transports the room back a half-century to a time when things were a little less complicated.
A personal connection with Southern music was solidified one summer Saturday in the mid-'90s, when a group of high school buddies and I loaded our cars with junk food and 30-packs of beer, and caravanned down Interstate 95 to watch the The Allman Brothers Band jam for hours at the now unfortunately renamed Great Woods in Mansfield, Massachusetts. An electronics company bought the entertainment complex a few years back and gave it the dippy, highfalutin' name: the Tweeter Center for the Performing Arts. I watched and listened in admiration from the upper lawn area as Warren Haynes paid homage to the late, great Duane Allman with endless slide licks that sliced through the air like hot knives through ice cream, and Dickey Betts coaxed irresistibly bright tones from his Paul Reed Smith. I could feel my easily swayed, 17-year-old mind shift gears temporarily from the gritty realm of grunge and metal to this attractive world of blue skies, midnight riders and crazy love. Although the sound was warm -- nothing like the forbidding darkness of what I usually listened to -- and the mood was celebratory, I could still identify with this band. These guys looked just as tough and fearless as the musicians I idolized, but the music they created belied their image. Their tattooed forearms, weathered skin and grizzly beards pointed to the same kind of rambunctious off-stage lives as any rock star worthy of the title, but these Georgia peaches expelled their demons quite differently on-stage. This was music that spoke to a different side of my personality and I welcomed it like a long lost friend.
On Wednesday, after a night of hard-fought sleep on a wooden platform inside an open-air stone shelter on top of a 6,600-foot mountain, Alison and I hit the road again, this time heading north, to track down that roadside shack and find out if my vision had any basis in reality. The closest we came to hearing the authentic tones of live, hill country music was during an open mic night at a Caribbean restaurant in Boone, North Carolina. A meal of jerk shrimp and fried plantains wasn't quite ribs and cornbread, but the place made for a worthwhile evening of entertainment nonetheless. A hodge-podge of young musicians, many who were students at nearby Appalachian State University, collected in front of the stage, all waiting a chance to display their unique musical talents or lack thereof. For starters, we were treated to the "forged in the barn" hillbilly stomp of a group of thin-bearded hicks who played Johnny Cash tunes exclusively. Their harmonies weren't the least bit tight and their guitars weren't necessarily in tune, but the group's utter devotion to The Man In Black was well informed and the simple brilliance of the songs shone through the ragged performance. Next, a plain, flaxen-haired girl, who had, while studying at an oversized laptop, questioned Alison about the premise of Othello, sang melancholy Appalachian folk songs without the crutch of an accompanying instrument to guide her difficult passage. The drunken din inside the restaurant challenged her plaintive falsetto, but the young scholar pressed on without wavering.
Perhaps the most talented performer of the night was an unassuming guitar player with a goshdarnit grin, who picked some gorgeous, flowing lines from an open-tuned acoustic. After his performance, he sat down at a table behind us and eagerly chatted away about playing until all hours of the night with his burgeoning band in the recently bought farmhouse he owned, which, if his plan worked, would soon be run completely by sustainable forms of energy. If Alison and I could have stayed in town for another night, our new friend and his band may have helped me better realize my earlier vision of the musical South. Still, getting a glimpse of the tuneful spirit that ran through the veins of ordinary and some rather extraordinary Southerners in Boone that night was something to behold.
The importance of the American South in the development of rock 'n' roll can never be overestimated. The form's thickest roots stretch and branch out through this land of hovering turkey vultures, cement thick sausage gravy and maddeningly crooked backcountry roads. The musical icons are colorful and countless: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Big Bill Broonzy, T-Bone Walker, The Singing Brakeman, Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys and, of course, The Man In Black. It is well documented that such rock luminaries as the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton started out by simply trying to mimic the soulful blues and reckless rockabilly from across the pond that bled out of their radios and phonographs when they were children. Today a movement of bands loosely gathered under the terms "insurgent country" and "alt-country" bolster the Southern connection, serving up songs with a heavy dose of twang and not even a whisper of techno. No matter what path rock 'n' roll may take in the future, we'll always be able to backtrack and pick up the sweet tones of music birthed on the back porches of Montgomery, Alabama, and in the smoky bars of Memphis; at barn raisings in Kentucky, and at medicine shows in small Appalachian towns. The intensely musical soul of the South can be heard in every corner of the rock world. Since the days when Sun Records loomed large and bright, musicians have been interpreting inextricable Southern forms like blues, rockabilly, country and bluegrass, forging their own unique sounds that will always have a foot planted firmly in the past.
The Hour of Hill Country Rambles
"Mighty Dark To Travel" Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys
"Praying Arm Lane" 16 Horsepower
"Call It Stormy Monday" T-Bone Walker
"Mr. Soul" Buffalo Springfield
"Lookin' Out My Backdoor" Creedence Clearwater Revival
"Jackson" Johnny Cash and June Carter
"Life By The Drop" Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble
"The Hobo Song" Old and In The Way
"King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" The Band
"Flatpicker Blues" The Benders
"Jessica" The Allman Brothers Band
"Big Brown Eyes" Old 97s
"Steve's Last Ramble" Steve Earle
"Powderfinger" Neil Young and Crazy Horse
"Hill Country Rain" Jerry Jeff Walker
"The Ballad of Curtis Loew" Lynyrd Skynyrd
"Your Cheatin' Heart" Hank Williams