SECTION NINE

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COLUMN NINETY-SIX, SEPTEMBER 1, 2003
(Copyright 2003 The Blacklisted Journalist)

LETTER FROM NASHVILLE:
A SOULFUL TRIP---PANAMA TOURS NEW ENGLAND

I.

Nashville, TN, July 8, 2002 - - I got an invitation a couple of months ago from my old friend Rick Norcross, who owned the first coffeehouse I ever played in for actual money down in Tampa in the waybackwhen.  Rick now produces the ChewChew FoodFest in Burlington, VT, an event that attracts thousands of eaters one weekend every summer.  He is also the chief dude of Vermont's premier (and only, they joke) Western Swing band, Rick and the Ramblers.

Rick's invitation led to a flurry of emails, telephone calls and CD mailings that ultimately resulted in a couple of companion gigs that would help pay the freight: Middle Earth in Bradford, VT and The Buttonwood Tree in Middletown, CT, which turned out to be fine venues both.  More about them later.  I also wanted to visit my old friend Sebastian Houseman in Sunapee, New Hampshire.

So that Wednesday June 18 found me cruising up I65, alone in the gathering darkness.

I like driving at night---nobody out there but me and the truckers, "these Captains of the Highways," as Reader's Digest once referred to them.  Unless, of course, it's raining, in which case the Captains' trailers, lately rendered mudflap-less to improve fuel economy, leave roostertails of water two hundred feet long and thirty feet high for the Volvo to blindly plunge through.  Which is why I pulled over to wait for the downpour's end, just short of my first highway change near Louisville.  High on Gatorade, I had to pee anyway.

The rest of the night Ohio floated silently by in the gloom, as the Volvo and I made our way north toward Cleveland, where we joined Interstate 90, crossing the small dab of Pennsylvania that abuts Lake Erie and into New York State a little after daybreak.

I had cause for reflection along the way, for Interstate 90, also known as the New York Throughway, cuts a swath across upper New York State, through the territory occupied by the Dutch during their sojourn in America. There is a certain flatness to some sections of I90 in New York State that is strongly reminiscent of the countryside of Holland.  Canals, including the Erie, rolling veldts, even a certain light in the air.  I could see why the place had held such an attraction to the Dutch, what with all its potential for waterworks.

I came to an original lock of the Erie Canal by the road and pulled over and walked back to get a better look.  The Erie is probably the most famous of all the original canals here in North America, though before the railroads came, there were hundreds.  Standing on the lock looking at this vestige of an America long outmoded, I was struck by how small---tiny in fact---the original canal had been, judging by the width of the lock, about 16 feet across.  I could even see remnants of the canal itself, and the towpath beside it, where countless draft horses and mules had patiently pulled their barges, lifting them up toward Lake Erie.  The canal was dug in the early part of the nineteenth century, before mechanical aids to digging had been invented, so each foot of canal had been hand-shoveled.  A lot of new immigrants shoveling...

So haggard was I rendered by the Throughway that I got off at the first opportunity, a little town called---charmingly for me---Amsterdam.  I headed through rolling hills and picturesque surroundings until I came to another Interstate route north, this one blessedly short, and made my final turn east into Vermont.

I had been in touch with Rick via cellphone during the day, and he assured me that there was a room waiting for me at the Radisson in Burlington.  I checked in, after a small tiff with the babe behind the desk.  I was scheduled to be the opening act at the ChewChew, at six pm the next day, and after 24 hours behind the wheel, I gratefully crashed.

II.

Burlington is difficult to describe.  It's a smallish city, politically replete with a whole bunch of Birkenstock-wearing Greens and tie-dyed Deadheads and Howard Dean and godnose whatall else, and it sits on several hills overlooking Lake Champlain.  Lotsa ancient streets and hundred-year-old buildings.  Why is it that Liberals are more in favor of conservation than Conservatives?

I had also seen a few---but only a few---billboards along the way urging Vermonters to take the train to get around, for the railroads here in Vermont are much more vibrant and alive than in other parts of America.  Thus the name ChewChew, I suppose.  I walked down the hill on which the Radisson sits to the ChewChew grounds on the Lake and stumbled around looking for my old friend Rick Norcross.

Back in the heady days of my very misspent youth, Rick operated the Eighteenth String Coffeehouse.  Located in a strip mall in Tampa, it was a beacon in the cultural shoals of Florida in those days, importing all manner of big-name folksingers to whom suncoasters would otherwise not have gained exposure.  And he was always and ever a soft touch for a gig at a time and place where local songwriters like me were starving pariahs.

A few pounds heavier, the affable and slyly humorous Norcross retains pretty much the same


Rick said
he paid way too much
for the Starliner


selfless kindness of speech and manner that typified him back then.  I found him tactfully directing the placement of yet another vendor's apparatus on the ChewChew site.  There were immense hugs and much jocularity all around.

And then we visited his pride and joy: his green and white (Vermont's state colors, I'm sure) 1957 Flxible Starliner bus, that "I paid way too much for", used now to classily haul Rick and The Ramblers around to their various gigs in New England.  The Starliner---for those bus buffs, all both of you, out there---is the one that looks like a miniature Greyhound Scenicruiser. Rick and I share a kind of prideful insanity having to do with old buses: I once toured in a '47 GMC Silversides.

"Do you still have that old bus?" he asks.

"No.  We have a new one now," I reply.

He is crestfallen.

"What year?" he asks with trepidation.

"It's a '58 4104," I reply.

"Oh.  Well, that's not too bad, then, I guess," he says, relieved that I haven't completely sold us out and bought something new from, oh, the sixties or worse.

Rick has to get back to work, and after giving me the final word on when I will go on, 6 p.m., he returns to his shepherding duties.  I hike back to the Radisson to get limbered up.  I've found that a wee drop of Islay helps, and the Radisson's bar is superbly stocked.  After running scales in my room for two hours, I sit in the cool dimness of the bar and organize my thoughts.  Or something.

An hour before showtime I'm back at the ChewChew Performance Tent.  As I am a solo performer it makes sense for me to start things off...more comfortable for me, too: nothing harder than trying to gain an audience's attention when you're following an eight-piece band and you are armed with only a Stratocaster.

The show goes well. I tell my little stories, do my tunes, sign off with Poor Boy, and after, at the table by the side of the stage, I sell a few HomeGrown CDs and a Disco Still Sucks T-shirt.  It is time for the Ramblers.

III.

I believe that there are few things quite as magnificent as a well-oiled, professional Western Swing band.  Maybe a Boeing 747.  Or a Silver Eagle cruising a straight stretch of highway in the middle of a moonlit night.  But aside from those, and maybe some trains I've seen in Europe, Western Swing as played by Rick and The Ramblers is enormous, seamless perfection.

The Ramblers launch into their set, replete with tunes from established writers and a few of their own.  There is not a player here who could not hold his own in Nashville, all things being equal...in fact several of them have lived and worked in Music City before settling down in Vermont.  Leo Roy on lead and Jim Pitman on steel are seasoned vets of the biz as are Tom Buckley and Roy Cutler on bass and drums, respectively.  Chris Peterman's saxophones lend authenticity.

Sadly, the band's requisite girl singer for the last six years, Shauna Antoniuc, has recently married a carpetbagger from California and moved away.

But happily, she has been succeeded by Poppy Loney, who on this, her first official gig as a Rambler, brings to the stage a gorgeous voice and the wholesome beauty of the cowgirl from the next ranch over.  I swim deliriously in vocal thirds harmonies and 6th-plus-9 chords from the band.  The Ramblers do many of the tunes from their CD I Heard The Highway...and Other Swing Tunes from Western Vermont".  Some of it maybe tongue-in-cheek, but it would play just as well in Tulsa.  All of this gleefully guided by that incomparable wagonmaster and trailboss, mi amigo Rick Norcross.

Rick has this year invited some other musical friends up for ChewChewers to savor: the Women's Blues Revue from Tampa, led by guitarist Patty Sanphy.  They play a jump blues style and old R&B chestnuts magnificently, to appreciative whoops and hollers from the crowd.  All too soon it is over, and we gather back in the Flexible to schmooze and ultimately say goodnight.

Because Rick has much work to do still throughout the coming week, we say goodbye and I return to the Radisson bar. Next morning, the Volvo and I set out for Bradford and Middle Earth.  ##

NEXT: What New Hampshiremen REALLY think of Vermonters, and the slow tragic end of The Old Man of the Mountain

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