When I visited the Midwest a couple of weeks ago, me and the family took a little trip within a trip. My parents live in Illinois on the Indiana border. My father rented an SUV and me, him, Mom, Brother and his Gal, and a Dog all headed to Southern Indiana. We went to a couple of beautiful state parks, including Clifty Falls; visited the Thomas Family Winery in historic Madison along the Ohio River; and, stayed at a really cool, super dog friendly hotel in Columbus.
Down in Nashville, Indiana – a quaint and groovy little tourist town – we hung out at a Microbrewery. (There was an unfortunate incident with Bubby, our Boxer, but I won’t get into that). They had live music on the patio, a singer/guitarist was featured.
“Who’s he sound like?” Dad leaned over to play his Betcha Don’t Know Game.
“Neil Young.” Of course I knew. Who the hell else sounds like Neil Young?
When the musician went on break, I chatted with the lanky, around fifty, slightly built, nerdy redneck with a buzz cut, wearing old jeans and thick glasses. “That was great! Do you play here all the time?”
“Oh yeah,” he had one of those wonderful Southern Indiana accents that non-Midwesterners would mistake for Kentucky. “I play all over. In Columbus and all the bars.”
“And you work? You like it?”
“There’s work, sure, but it’s competitive. Guys pulling crazy shit…But I don’t do it for the money or the attention…”
“You do it because you have to.” I knew exactly how to end that sentence. I’d heard this all somewhere before.
My folks were getting ready to leave, so I said a quick farewell. As the family was heading back to the car, I lingered to look at the old timey buildings. From behind me, absent-mindedly uttered, “I need to smoke a bowl.” I turned. It was my Hillbilly Neil. “Oh man, what the hell am I saying?” he touched his hand to his forehead. He was right about that. It was still Indiana.
“Oh honey. I’m from Venice Beach. You don’t have to explain anything to me.”
A little bell dinged inside his head, “I grow it in mason jars and in with my potted plants.”
I smiled and considered following him. I think that is why he had uttered his intentions out loud. The happenstance tone was merely to make it seem accidental. You have to be careful with musicians. Very, very careful. They know all about striking chords.
“Gotta catch up with my Dad,” I waved and trotted to my family.
A couple days later, when we had returned from our trip within my trip, I had dinner in Terre Haute, Indiana at TGI Fridays with my childhood friend and her family. This is a very different part of Indiana. Not much tourist appeal to the stinky Wabash River, the Creosote plant and the place where they electrocuted Timothy McVeigh.
Regardless, dinner at the mall was wonderful. The company is all that counts. I had not seen my friend’s mother in twenty years. Her sister was so funny and delightful, I couldn’t get over it. I never remembered her that way, but then, I hadn’t seen her in three decades. What the hell had I known as a child?
My friend has two sons, one who is a wrestler and getting ready to enter college. I had been reading all about him on Facebook. The older one is a musician who plays nine instruments, including guitar, banjo and mandolin. I had not know this last fact, until that day.
I loved this young boy, a wonderful pale teddy bear, his shoulders thrust up to short red hair and sideburns, rolling his back into the accident baby’s “I’m sorry I’m here” posture – a held physicality I know all too well. He is married to his childhood sweetheart, the young woman he has been with since they were fourteen. He is an atheist, but not the angry kind. A gentle young man who pays close attention, he has to understand before he believes.
“So, do you play with a band?” I asked, wondering why someone like him would be in this part of the Midwest. As I had observed in Southern Indiana, around Brown County and IU, there is actually a decent music and art scene. But again, we were in Terre Haute…the “armpit of America” as Steve Martin once dubbed it.
“I had a band at school, in Florida. We recorded out in San Diego.”
“You don’t play with guys around here?”
“Well…” my new young friend lowered his eyes in genuine humility and softened his voice to match, “It’s hard to find guys around here who play at my level.”
“I bet.” Something about him made me trust, implicitly, his self assessment. I knew he was talented.
He went on to the second major issue, one not exclusive to geography, “And, then a lot of guys just want to sit around and smoke pot. So we don’t make any music.”
“I can see that.”
“Or…” and I should have seen this coming, but I forgot where I came from, “They just want to play Metal.” There was a little nausea in his throat.
“Of course they do.” I almost laughed, but the thought of this poor young man and his banjo and a Death Metal Cover Band in some forty year old guy’s mother’s garage…
I told him a few funny musician stories and quotes from guitarists I knew in San Francisco and LA. My young friend shared some secrets of the trade, confirming long held suspicions I had about his sort. So sweet, so open and so honest…I so enjoyed his youth.
“Get out West!” the last thing I said to anyone right before I left, my belly full of Jack Daniel’s salmon and fried cheese. Even if I am scared of how it will change him, I recognize a fish who was born into the wrong pond.
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