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The last third of June saw us in Bigfork, Montana, thanks to the hospitality of an old friend, Peggy Atchley, who let us camp in the field behind her house for about ten days or so. It was my first time back to Bigfork in 25 years, and it was truly an experience of time travel. Rufus and I went on some long wanders around the town, as I noted the changes. As one might expect, there were a good many after so many years. Some things had not changed all that much. Electric Avenue is the main street of Bigfork, and the newer, larger theater for the Bigfork Summer Playhouse had been built the year before I left. Rufus and I walked the trail that borders the Swan River, along with various other parts around and just outside of town. There are more houses to the north and west of town, but it has preserved its small town atmosphere, for all that. Pony now has some understanding for what inspired me to live here for a few years, back in the 80’s. It is still an incredibly beautiful corner of the Earth. Pony understands the attraction of living in such a place, but also observed how removed it is from….well, from just about everywhere else, as it were. The old grocery store is now called Harvest Foods , although the locals still refer to it as the IGA. A couple of doors down from the grocer is a relatively new place called the Grateful Bread Bakery. I had a chance to chat with the owners, Michael and Gabrielle. That chat, plus the fact that I had one of my guitars in the back seat of our car, resulted in my being hired to play 3 hours in the afternoon for three days in a row. I made some good money, sold some CD’s, and had a great time. There are some concert series and some other venues that make it possible to return to Bigfork sometime next summer. At the very least, I don’t look to wait nearly so long to come back for another visit.
I was watching “How To Train Your Dragon” with my wife, Pony, and my mother-in-law, Margaret. I was sitting in the bean bag chair in the RV, with a puddle of fur named Murphy sprawled across my lap, and a glass of fine, red wine near at hand. Earlier this afternoon, I did a show at the Horizon House Nursing Home, in Seattle. I had a great time sharing songs and stories with the 30 or so members of my audience. I sang songs that made them laugh. I sang songs that had them clapping their hands and tapping their toes. I told them the story about seeing Andres Segovia at Carnegie Hall, back in 1981. He was 86 years old, and he played the guitar beautifully. He lived to be 93 years old, and (I have been told) played guitar nearly to the day he died. More than once (several times, in fact) I have said that I should hope to live life that well. About 7 or 8 years ago, I looked upon my life and found it good. I lived in an apartment in Arvada at the time. I was teaching guitar, teaching music classes at a community college, and playing gigs around town and in the mountains. I had a good-sized group of friends who made life very pleasant. Between work that I thoroughly enjoyed, and good friends and family, I was more than content. And I remember thinking at the time: if this is as good as life gets, I am fine with that. It’s a good life. In fact (with a nod to Frank Capra) it was a wonderful life. Then I met Pony, and life expanded. I was more than content. I was, and am very happy. I have a wonderful, loving wife. I have three cats and a dog that, in their own manner, make me feel wanted every day. And for the last year, I have had the genuine pleasure of sharing songs and stories with wonderful people all over the country. I confess that I have not actually read any of Joseph Campbell’s books. But I have watched a couple of the interviews he did with Bill Moyers. I believe I have some understanding of his idea of “following your bliss”. I think I am doing something like that. I want to make it clear that I do not mean this in any way as some form of boasting, or bragging. And I know that I have made mention of this before, but I want to once again mention the musician, Steve Goodman. It is my understanding that, because of his leukemia, Steve Goodman treated every concert as if it could be his last. I don’t want to have to wait for cancer, or some other terminal illness, to understand that way of embracing life. So it is not boasting or bragging, but simply a statement of profound gratitude. I have had the great gift and pleasure of enjoying my life. Many times, I have been able to stop and think: this is good. I do not take this for granted. Quite the opposite: I am keenly aware that I have a very fortunate life. I enjoy good health, and I am able to share the gift of music, and I have the company and love of my wife, my friends, and my furry roommates. To Life. L’Chaim.
Last Fall, when we spent some time in New Jersey, we met a couple who had converted a school bus into an RV of sorts. They had three cats that they had trained to walk on a leash, so I took some time to chat with them about how they had managed such a thing. They said the trick was to put the harness on the cat and let them just sort of live with it for awhile, then they added the leash to the mix. So a week ago, we invested in a harness for Murphy, our fluffy, grey-and-white escape artist. For the last week, Murphy has been getting used to wearing the harness. A couple of days ago, Pony introduced him to the leash. Today, this afternoon, Murphy spent a pleasant afternoon with us in the clean, clear, outdoor air, on the end of his own blue, nylon leash. It’s been a good day. Tomorrow, we pack up and head north to Seattle. Today was a day of packing up and attending to a few details, here and there. I had the pure luxury of swimming some 42 laps in the Jantzen Beach swimming pool. I may have mentioned this before, but swimming is flat out one of my favorite forms of exercise. I have turned it into a form of meditation. Or sometimes I think about lyrics while swimming laps. Rufus and I had three good, long walks around various parts of Hayden Island, and, again, I mulled over some possibilities for lyrics while we perambulated. Walks with Rufus have turned into one of my best opportunities for writing new songs, and I have told audiences that I am grateful Rufus is satisfied with the occasional dog biscuit as a reward for serving as my muse. As the sun was setting I played guitar while Pony cooked up some chicken for dinner. It made for a fine end to the day. Pony and Margaret enjoyed some Long Island Ice Tea, which left me a bottle of Jacob’s Creek Merlot to sample for dinner. Dinner turned to dessert (Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream for each of us), while I continued to enjoy the merlot. Before I knew it, the bottle was drained, and Rufus and I took our late night walk while I have to admit that I staggered a bit. For what it’s worth, one of the advantages of the RV lifestyle is that I am often within walking distance of our home. For what it’s worth, I rarely kill a bottle of Merlot on my own. But summer is nigh upon us. The full moon is but a few days away. Tomorrow we leave Portland (a town that has been very kind and welcoming to us), and head to Seattle, and from there to various other parts of the West and the Rockies. We are watching the first season of the HBO series, “The Big C”. We started the first episode over dinner. The central theme is about grabbing life. I realize that anyone reading this can attribute my present philosophical meanderings to a bottle of merlot, but, in watching this series, I am struck with the thought that there is a sort of gift in knowing your mortality in a very visceral way. A friend of mine told me about watching the musician, Steve Goodman in concert. Steve Goodman was first diagnosed with Leukemia when he was an adolescent. My buddy, Ernie, told me that to see a Steve Goodman concert was a marvelous thing, because he lived with cancer for the majority of his life, and, as a consequence, he treated every concert as though it could be his last. Wouldn’t it be better if we could appreciate the precious quality of each moment without something like the specter of cancer hanging over us? Today is a day where I have enjoyed the knife-edge of Now from one moment to the next. It was a gloriously fine day.
“I hate you,” said the guy, with a wink and a smile, as he slapped a twenty dollar bill down on the small table next to me on the stage. I was playing the Yukon Tavern in Portland for the second time. Last week, I had been invited by Steve Rodin (who plays there two Saturdays each month) to come take a set. I ended up jamming with him at the end of the night, as well. It was then that Michelle (the bartender) offered me an evening to myself, which is what brought me back to the Yukon last night. Most folks caught on that my CD seller was doubling as a tip jar, but one or two just tossed money onto the table that occupied the stage with me. I felt no need to argue the point (especially with the twenty sitting there). And then there was Jack. To use an old phrase, Jack was a few sheets to the wind. Hell, Jack was damned near roaring drunk, to be fair. Somewhat at the request of some of the other patrons, I had played James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”. “That’s okay, as far as it goes,” said Jack, “but I think you’re chicken. You need to play something with some balls to it.” So I played “Move It On Over” (an old Hank Williams tune, revived by George Thorogood some years back). “Not too bad for a chicken shit,” says Jack, and struts about the room making chicken noises and giggling at his own wit. Then he got my wife up to dance with him. Pony shot me a look that said ‘you will pay for this, somehow’. I got another such look when Jack’s hands slid down over her butt. He complimented her on her nice butt. I don’t think I’m going to live this down for awhile. There was a bar in southeast Iowa I played some years ago, where the bartender complimented me, saying she had never seen any musician handle drunks as well as I do (I figure it’s the result of my years as a summer camp counselor, back in my high school days). I cherished that somewhat unusual compliment. But now, at this moment, I was wondering if I still had that knack. Eventually, Jack just quietly wandered out of the bar. A couple of the other patrons leaned in close to Pony. “Tell your husband we’re awful sorry for all that,” they said. “There’s no excuse for that behavior, and he’s a mighty fine musician. He shouldn’t have to put up with that. Neither should you.” [Pony recounted that exchange to me at the end of the evening, as we were driving back to the RV park] I thought of my sister, the kindergarten teacher, and the occasional challenge of trying to take care of all the kids in a class when there’s one kid in particular drawing attention. Yeah. Drunks are a bit like kindergarten, all over again.
Steve Rodin has been living in Portland for some twenty years or more. He does a regular gig twice a month at the Yukon Tavern (it is in no small part due to his generous nature that I came to know the folks there and have my own night at the Yukon coming up this weekend). Eric Two Rivers hosts a couple of open stages (at least?) in the Portland/Vancouver area. He has some seriously long cred as a musician and is a fantastic and host and all around gentleman (his wife, Vienna, is a frequent visitor to various open stages, supplying some fine vocals and occasional flute). His partner, Asher, plays guitar, saxophone, mandolin, and probably a few other instruments that I simply haven’t been made aware of as yet. He is a native Oregonian who tells me he has never lived more than a 100 miles from where he was born and raised. Bob Flendtke just turned 83 years old recently, and is a fixture at several of the venues in the Vancouver/Portland area. He plays the autoharp and sings traditional folk and bluegrass tunes. Tom Scharfe did a fair bit of hosting open stages around town over the years, and still makes the rounds, playing some solid guitar behind a strong and excellent voice. Wayne Hoffman is another singer/songwriter who now also directs a local folk festival in the Fall. He has a large email list where he frequently posts who is playing where around town. These are just some of the musicians I have had the great pleasure to meet here in Portland (and Vancouver) over the last couple of weeks (and I don’t want to forget my old buddy, Cody Weathers, who gave me many valuable tips about places to look up in the area). What I am trying to reveal here is just how welcoming and downright friendly the musicians are around here. What I have noticed is how much these guys are willing to go to each other’s gigs, back up each other on tunes (a lot of serious jamming goes on around here), listen to each other when someone brings in a new tune. And (as I think I alluded to in an earlier blog), while this can in some circumstances turn into a somewhat insular and closed scene, the musicians here seem to go out of their way to make new folks in town feel just as welcome. I was at a place called Maher’s Pub last night (an open stage hosted by Peter Duff, another fine musician, with a solid, soaring voice and an aggressive/energetic way with a guitar). They had a featured set with an Australian singer/songwriter/guitarist, named Amanda Kay (from Queensland). And really, the folks treated her like a long-lost member of the family. But then again, I have felt as if I, too, received that sort of welcome. I have about three or four more gigs in Portland before we make our way north to Seattle. Pony and I have agreed that we look forward to coming back here (and pretty soon, at that, we hope).
My first official gig in Portland was last Friday, at a wine bar called Shaker and Vine. It was a bit disconcerting to learn (the morning of the gig) that, due to some sort of issue with the Fire Marshall, the place was going to close down after the weekend. Still, you make the best of it. The real pleasure of the gig was opening for an old friend, Cody Weathers. Cody is a singer/songwriter who used to bump around Denver (some almost twenty years ago, now). He and I crossed paths many times in the early 90’s, especially as he used to come out to several of the Open Stages that I hosted at that time. I remembered Cody’s energy and unique style from those days and looked forward to catching up with him. I have to say it was even more of a pleasure than I had anticipated. Cody’s songwriting has grown and developed in a beautiful, organic way. He has a very charismatic stage presence, and his songs are energetic, with a lot of contrast in rhythm, tempo , chord changes and lovely lyrics. He has acquired a band: bass, drums and lead guitar that complement his sound in an excellent way. Part of what really made the evening was the chance to just sit and listen to Cody. And he has proved to be a very generous and valuable friend, in that he has given me many good tips on places to play, venues to check out, people to meet, and such. Last night (Tuesday night), I took his suggestion to go to Malibu’s in Vancouver, WA (just across the river and the border from Portland), and meet Eric TwoRivers, who hosts an open stage there on a weekly basis. Eric turned out to be a big guy with an equally big heart (and laugh), and a long, colorful history in the Music Biz (turns out he used to be part of the house band for Dick Clark’s Bandstand, and one of the other musicians told me that he was once a member of the Strawberry Alarm Clock, although I didn’t have a chance to run that one by Eric). There is a real camaraderie at the Tuesday Open Stage at Malibu’s. But while that can sometimes turn into an insular sort of scene, I have to say that the musicians there were an incredibly welcoming bunch. After my set, I was told of a couple of other places to play around the area, including an invitation by musician, Steve Rodin, to join him this Saturday at the Yukon Tavern. I have to say that Oregon, in general, has made me feel very welcome. And while I mourn my very brief connection with Shaker and Vine, I look forward to exploring a lot more of Portland over the next couple of weeks.
“I believe I have found my audience,” I said. “Oh, you mean hippies?!?” replied a guy in the crowd. I was playing Brewer’s Union Local 180, a pub in Oakridge, OR (about 40 miles south and east of Eugene). Pony and I drove the wet, rainy highway (it is Oregon) through beautiful, incredibly green forest, alongside the Willamette River (which is a right fine river at that; wide, fairly deep, and full and rushing with water from all the rain). On the drive to Oakridge, looking at the river and through the rain-spattered windshield, I couldn’t help think of some of the drought-stricken territory we had traveled through: California, Arizona, and even Colorado to a fair extent. You could say that nature has its own form of income inequality, exacerbated by recent climate change. The Brewers Local 180 is a wonderful, friendly pub, and Ted (the owner) and Patty and Judy and Steve and all the folks working there do a helluva job to make you feel welcome and at home. Ted apologized for what he described as something of a slow night (and blamed the weather for discouraging a lot of folks from coming out), but there were still a fair number of people there, and they were enjoying my show, every song and story of it. There was a family from Bend, OR, sort of passing through: Dad, Mom, and daughter, Ashley (somewhere in the 10-12 year age range, I am estimating). Ashley is one of my newest and best fans. She bought all five CD’s and had me sign one of them. I encouraged her to check out these blogs, to keep track of how our travels go. Ashley’s Mom told us that Ashley thought it was one of the most fun nights she’d ever known. I am flattered and pleased. At the end of the night, Ted treated me to a pint of porter (needless to say, he brews all his own beers). It was straight from the cask and as fine a porter as anything I’ve tasted anywhere. All in all, it was one of those really magical nights. My hands and voice were in fine shape, and I had a fantastic time. It’s one of those nights that just reminds me how lucky I am to do this thing that I love, and to share it with a welcoming audience. Pure. Gold. The next day (Saturday), I played a set for the Eugene Saturday Market. It is a farmers market, with much more besides; a large food court (with a very diverse offering of Asian, Afghani, Mexican, traditional American and more), and all manner of jewelry, games, gifts, and notions of all sorts. We had a fine time wandering about after my set, and I purchased a small bonsai to add to our household (the trick will be protecting it from curious kitties). “The West Coast is turning out to be a very welcoming place,” I remarked. Pony just smiled one of those “I-told-you-so” grins.
Monday, the 5th of May (Cinco de Mayo), and Rufus and I begin our day in the Sleepy Hollow RV Park, just north of Willits, California, hiking up a steep mountain road. About a mile or two up, Rufus turns and scales this bank cut out for the road. I would have put the bank at just about vertical, and I certainly didn’t expect my dog to just blithely scale it like it was any other part of the terrain. My dog seems to be part goat. I admit that I am often somewhat in awe of my puppy. There is, first of all, the fact that he is nearly three years old (will officially turn three next month) and he still shows the energy and excitement of a pup. He is one of the most naturally friendly critters I have ever known. He takes great pleasure in meeting people, other dogs, cats, squirrels, and all manner of life on this planet. More than once, I have referred to him as my Goodwill Ambassador. He is clever, a quick learner at many things, and incredibly fast. When he runs full out, I have only seen a few dogs faster than him. And his running is such an expression of pure joy. I search for dog parks, or other opportunities where I can let him off leash, and it gladdens my heart almost as much as his to watch him run. He is pure mutt. People are forever asking, or just speculating as to his breed. He is one of a kind (and is assured of being so, as we did neuter him early on), and a handsome mutt, at that. He has the health and vitality that is often associated with mutts. I have hopes that he will be around for a good, long time. Upon returning from our morning walk, Pony, Margaret and I had a short breakfast, then packed up Cecilia (our RV), hooked up Gypsy Rose (our tow car) and headed for our next stop: the Humboldt County Fairgrounds, in Ferndale, California. The Fairgrounds have a nice RV park that is about ten miles from the ocean shore. So after settling into our new berth, Pony, Margaret, Rufus and I drove over to the nearby beach. We spent a good hour there, and I was able to let Rufus off of his leash. I used the Chuckit to toss the ball for him, and we all walked a good stretch of the beach, while Rufus ran to his heart’s content. The waves were coming in strong and white-capped: something of a new experience for the puppy. It was coming on the end of a beautiful day, and we were all just enjoying the moment. Pony, Rufus, the kitties, and I have gone from one coast to the other in the last 8 months, with a good bit of meandering about in between. Despite the occasional challenge, here and there, the journey has been much of what we had hoped for. We have seen some beautiful country, caught up with good friends that are scattered all over this nation, and made a few new friends, as well. We are far from done with our adventure. Meanwhile, I try to learn a thing or two from my puppy, and eagerly look forward to what each day may bring.
“This is a John Denver song,” I say, “but it’s sort of before he became John Denver. John started out as Henry John Deuschendorf. His father was an officer in the Air Force, and John grew up an army brat, travelling all over the world. He changed his name to John Denver when he thought that would be easier for folks to remember. But early on, he wrote this song that Peter, Paul and Mary recorded and made into a hit,” and I launch into “Leaving On A Jet Plane.” I spend a little over an hour with the folks at Plum Tree Care Center. I play some folk songs, a couple of old country tunes, a couple of jazz standards, some J.S. Bach; my usual eclectic mix. Along the way, I tell stories: about the songs, about me, about our travels in the RV (with the three cats and the dog), and about my guitars. Folks are listening. Folks are smiling. Folks are clapping and moving when I launch into a rousing rendition of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya”. The hour passes easily, and I enjoy myself the whole time, sharing tunes and stories, and enjoying this time with an appreciative audience. I finish my set just at the onset of lunch, and proceed to pack up my gear as the staff begins to bring out meals for my audience. Teresa asks the residents to vote as to whether they want to hire me (I have been told that this is a standard procedure, but it makes me wonder all over if I am going to see the paycheck from this gig). It’s not that I am some total mercenary. Honestly, if money were my biggest concern, I could have sold insurance with my Dad years ago. All musicians are called to their profession. That’s what the word, ‘vocation’, means: a ‘calling’. But you still want to pay the rent, as it were. I have a chance to tell Teresa about the generator in the RV breaking down in Las Vegas, and the subsequent repair bill of nearly $3,000. I am hoping that it will persuade to make sure that check gets processed and mailed to my drop-box. Teresa suggests that I could come back onc a month, at which point I have to explain that, since I am touring all okver ther country, the best I could promise would be to come back next yiear. “Next year,” she nods. “You can come back for our UN Day and play some Swedish music.” I wish I could be sure that this is some sort of expression of her sense of humor, but honestly, I have no idea.
“This appearance is complimentary, right?” asked Teresa, the Activities Director for the Plum Tree Care Center, in San Jose, CA. “No,” I replied, calmly, diplomatically, as I handed her the invoice and the filled-out W9 form. “You’ll see there, on the invoice, that you’re getting nearly a 50% discount from my usual fee.” “I will not be able to process this until June,” she says. It is the first day of May, and I am wondering how long it will be until I see payment for this gig (if at all). I’m setting up my sound system and tuning up my guitars while Teresa looks over the invoice. “Engberg. What kind of name is that?” she asks. “It’s an old Swedish name,” I answer. “Oh, so you can do some Swedish music for us?” I am thinking that I really don’t know a single Swedish song. Ironically, just the night before, I was trying to make Pony feel better by playing the movie, “Mama Mia” for her (Pony has been wrestling with a cold that’s been hanging on for a few weeks now, and “Mama Mia” is a favorite movie of hers). For a brief moment, I wonder if I could possibly pull off an ABBA song of one sort or another. Nope. I don’t know either the words or the music well enough to make that attempt. I mentally file a note in my to do list to learn an ABBA song. Because….. well, because you never know when you’ll be playing in a nursing home where a five-foot-tall Filipino Activities Director is going to look at your name and ask if you can play and Swedish songs. It is the first day of May, and my performance coincides with Arts and Crafts time in the common room (which also doubles as the dining room), so a dozen or so of the residents are gathered at a few tables, making flowers with green and yellow construction paper, scissors and glue. I am finishing with tuning up my guitars when Teresa introduces me as coming from New York. Honestly, I have no idea where that notion comes from. “Actually,” I tell the residents, “ I am from Colorado.” I introduce my first tune, “The Star of the County Down”, and launch into it. When I finish, Teresa says, “So, if you are from Colorado, you can do some John Denver for us?” I can do some John Denver, of course; whether or not I’m from Colorado. I learned a handful of John Denver tunes years ago, while still growing up in Iowa. I suppress the impulse to sort of shake my head in wonder, and introduce the song.
[continued with part two: Still a plum of a gig]