Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Headed West on 20

           I kept my promise to myself, and on Sunday, March 30, as I guided The Monster on to Interstate 20, and as Knightsmama chatted on her telephone making last goodbyes to the Buckaroo’s Girlfriend, I poked the Ipod and Willie began singing:

On the road again
Just can't wait to get on the road again.
The life I love is making music with my friends

And I can't wait to get on the road again.
On the road again

Goin' places that I've never been.

Seein' things that I may never see again

And I can't wait to get on the road again.
On the road again -

Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway

We're the best of friends.

Insisting that the world keep turning our way

For awhile Knightsmama needed to inventory all the small and large tasks that we did and did not accomplish.  Beds made with clean linens.  Refrigerator relieved of possible stinky stuffs.  Floors vacuumed.  Keys placed in Spot A.  Important paperwork locked up on Place B.  Document D mailed to Government Office E.  So on and so on.   Since, I have 101 Willie songs from many albums on the Ipod, some from live albums and greatest hits collections, several songs repeat from various recordings.  Therefore, I did not need to catch Knightsmama’s attention during the litany.  “On the Road Again,” would roll up again on the player soon enough after “Whiskey River,” “Bloody Mary Morning,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Stardust,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” “Night Life,” Crazy,” and my all time favorite “Hello Walls.”  It was a little after noon. Our goal was Big Spring, Texas.  Traffic was a little heavy, even occasionally slowed to ten or twenty miles an hour getting through Fort Worth.  We settled in for the long haul.
At Balmorhea
            There’s a lot of West in West Texas.  The land just stretches out like an old man in a recliner drinking a beer and watching a baseball game. You better get used to it because things ain’t changing for a while.  Except, of course, they do, if you are paying attention, about every hundred miles or so.  For us, the most obvious shift has been trees.  Since the middle of August when we hit Southern Illinois going east, we have lived among trees.  We have experienced beautiful campsites among forests of various sizes:  Shawnee State Park in southern Ohio; Pinery Provincial Park in Ontario; Glimmerglass State Park outside Cooperstown, New York; the Tree Farm in Springfield, Vermont; MistyMountain Campground in Virginia. Sometimes the trees were so thick, I worried about backing The Monster into one or more, or scraping the awning off the side of the trailer.  You get to West Texas and trees evaporate.  Here at the tail end of March, we find wide expanses of ankle high brown grass and scrawny shrubs.  After another hundred miles or so it's cacti.
            After a night of sweet repose in the Wal-Mart parking lot in Big Spring—who would have thought that Sunday night between ten and midnight in the Wal-Mart parking lot would be the location for teens to gather and compete over who had the loudest muffler?—we made our way to Davis Mountains State Park, by way of Balmorhea State Park
Somewhere West
            Before we got there, however, we needed to pass one sector of the New American Oil Boom.  The main thought I had while driving from Big Spring to Monahans, or thereabouts, was “Why the hell are these people so damned angry with Obama?”  If one judges a President by how well one is doing economically (“It’s the economy, stupid!”), these people have nothing to complain about.  The traffic is high—so many pick-up trucks—the landscape is filled with oil rigs pumping, oil rigs being erected, huge trucks hauling pipes and cables.  All along the sides of Interstate 20, new buildings constructed of metal siding are rising two and three stories, with machinery of all sorts of monstrous shapes and sizes arranged about.  Pickup trucks, all belonging to employees, one guesses, line up in front and to the sides.  Midland and Odessa are two of the busiest towns I have seen in the past year.  But to listen to West Texas politicians  talk, you would think they were living amongst dire poverty imposed upon them by communist China.  By all outward appearances, this is a busy, manly culture out here.  But these manly creatures sure do whine a lot.  Still, at least they have their way—women cannot get health care out here anymore.  If a woman says “yes,” and even if she doesn’t, and she becomes pregnant, she’ll have his baby, by God. 
            But I have gotten distracted by all the “getting and spending," and what I view as moral hypocrisy.  But, let’s be honest, who am I to cast the first stone?  I filled up the tank in Odessa before heading out into the Chihuahuan Desert.  This topic will come up again—or if I am intellectually honest, it will—the Great American Road Trip, whether attempted by Lucy and Desi or by Kerouac and Cassidy, is fuel by the Great American Oil Industry.  A True Blue Hippie Environmentalist Liberal would never buy an RV and drive it at 12 miles per gallon around the nation.  I should remember that whenever I point a finger, there are four more pointing right back at me. 
Theo Taking a Plunge from the High Board
            Maybe there are three types of people out there:  those who want to have their cake and eat it too; those who want to have their cake and once they have it quit sharing with others; and those who want to have their cake and then blame the folks who baked it for putting too much sugar and butter in it.  Geez, it is a difficult path being morally superior and such. 

            As we made our way to Balmorhea State Park just for an afternoon visit and dip into the natural swimming pool fed by the San Solomon Springs, we crossed Interstate Highway 10.  At that moment, I began singing (singing again because I had been thinking of the song for some time) “I Love West Texas,” the opening track from Todd Hoke’s CD Headed West on 10.   Todd and his wife, Meg, are friends.  We met them at Trinity Methodist Church in Austin, I don’t know, maybe fifteen years ago.  Even while we moved to College Station for a couple of years, then out in the country, then changed churches, and they moved to Hendersonville, North Carolina, we have remained in touch all this time.  
Todd Hoke's First CD
             Back in December they put us up for a couple of nights, gave us the tour of local breweries in Hendersonville and Asheville, and talked about Thomas Wolfe.  Todd even invited me to read some poetry at his gig at the Appalachian Brewing Company.   The main thing I can say about Todd and Meg is that they just are pure and simple “Good Folks.”  They do “good work.”  Meg is a social worker and Todd is a hospice nurse.  In spite of, or maybe because of, the seriousness of their employment, they are people with light hearts and happy spirits.  They belong to a fourth type of personhood:  they have their cake and they share it.   In fact, the proceeds from Todd's CDs go to a non-profit organization called "Feeding America."  If life is a series of chances to be reborn and achieve higher and higher states of consciousness and goodness, then one day I hope I am reborn as either Todd or Meg Hoke.  If I am so lucking I will know I am on the right track.
            So I was singing Todd’s song “I Love West Texas.”  And that, of course, made me think about all his other tunes on this three CD’s.  So while I have been driving to Davis Mountain State Park, Fort Davis National Park, the University of Texas McDonald Observatory, and to Marfa, I have been indulging in a Todd Hoke marathon.  I recommend that you, too, find a way to discover and enjoy Todd’s music.  It will make you feel good about Texas and the South.  Since I have written about Todd a couple of times for publication, I will add those reviews of his second and third CD below.  I recommend all three:  Heading West on 10, The Turning of the Wheel, and Southland. Enjoy!

My review of The Turning of the Wheel, published at
Natalie Maines had it right the first time.  There are many of us who live in Texas who are ashamed that George Bush is Texas spawn.  But then Texas has fostered on the nation and the world all sorts of horror.  If it is any consolation to those who live outside the state—and I can’t suppose it is—we who live in the state suffer these horrors long before they cross state lines.  It’s a big state and it takes a long time to get out.  But there is more than shock and awe in this state.  Some of us survive by singing our own local kind of blues, a Texas version of the singer-songwriter tradition.  Famously, this tradition has produced a great number of artists.  Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, Iris DeMent, Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams, Townes Van Zandt and scores of others have somehow created something palliative and uplifting from whiskey, broken hearts, horses, beer, ancestors, highways, tomatoes, fishing, tequila, front porches, sunsets, and dogs.   Todd Hoke’s music grows from this rich tradition.
Todd Hoke's Second CD
In 2000 he released his first CD, Headed West on 10, produced by Ray Wylie Hubbard.  He has just released his second, The Turning of the Wheel, produced by Chris Gage.   The producers have certainly left their individual marks on the two disks.  Comparing them we can hear how Gage has relocated Hoke’s songs from Hubbard’s open-country campfires to jaunty, swagger-filled roadhouses.  Gage strips away the mandolins and dobros of Headed West on 10, and adds piano, steel and electric guitars, and drums.  Nor should I forget to mention Christine Albert’s witty background vocals.
The CD’s first notes from the first song, “Spring Days,” foretell the contents of the following eleven songs—a fiddle spritely leading a two-step, joined by bass, guitar, harmonica and a barroom piano.   Hoke rolls out a cast of characters—Maggie, Uncle Tyrone, Elsie the wonder cow—and adds the iconic images of spring—lemonade, crickets, fireflies, and owls.  In the chorus, he sings, “lordy them spring days / they drive my blues away / with honeysuckle mornings / and junebug afternoons.”  The best moments on the disk are those in which Hoke sings about the simple joys—cups of coffee, early morning walks, neighbors saying hello, the unadorned beauty of his wife.  I think he must be deep down a happy man.  He is also a bit of a mystic,  that odd, unexpected kind of Texan, of which there are a surprising number congregated in Austin, who takes volumes of William Blake, Walt Whitman, and Rainer Maria Rilke to the fishing hole.   Hoke isn’t telling us to “Shut up.  Be Happy.” Nor is he telling us to “Drink up and forget.”  He is telling us, instead, that if we look closely at that dragonfly and think about what we are looking at, we just might remember that there is more to life than our empty bank accounts.
When Hoke writes and sings the blues, I suspect and hope that they are more like exercises in sympathy and compassion than expressions of his own dark nights of the soul.  His portraits of down on their luck gamblers, drunks, abused women, the lonely and discarded are moving and sadly beautiful.  But they are portraits sketched by the confessional priest, not the penitent himself.  (So Hoke doesn’t quite take us to those places that Townes Van Zandt does.)  For this we should be happy and glad.  After all, we do not wish for there to be more sufferers, but we do wish that the fortunate hear the sorrow of those less fortunate.   This is not an example of Bush’s bizarre oxymoron, “compassionate conservatism,” but of that simple, old-fashioned and unmodified compassion.    As Hoke sings in “Mayberry,” his tribute to The Andy Griffin Show, “let’s all spread us a little kindness.  Unleash it upon the world and changes, changes shall be wrought.”   That’s a kind of liberation we can all live with.
My favorite song on the disk is the second to last, “My Own Day,” in which Hoke describes what the world would be like if he had a day made as he would wish:  “no nation would be at war / the guns would go dusty / we’d forget what they were for / the generals would go fishing / we’d close the Pentagon / if I had a day all my own.”  To my ear this is one of those classic songs that people will be singing for decades. I feel the same for the song “Short Time Here” from his previous CD.  In both, Hoke has sunk his roots deeper than the immediate influences of the Texas singer-songwriter tradition into the even richer traditions of classic folk music, at least into Woody Guthrie, perhaps as deep as the old Scotch Irish songs and ballads.  So if you wonder what some Texans do during those late nights after suffering the stupidity, greed, and hubris of the Bush’s and the Enron’s, we listen to singers like Todd Hoke:    “when the dark has finally passed / cling to the morning glory/ like the dew upon the grass.”
 (Note: was published by Rich Perin.)

My “Review” and Liner Notes for Southland.

I can cease being angry with Todd Hoke--now that he has recorded his third CD, Southland.   About a decade ago, I was one happy dude making semi-regular treks to Smithville, Texas, and the little restaurant at Rocky Hill Ranch to listen to Todd sing his unique renderings of Texas folk.  My wife and young boys would pile in the jeep and drive the 40 miles from Austin to Smithville and meet up with some like-minded friends.   At sundown we would order up some Shiners, fries, and two-fisted burgers (with a fresh Jalapeno tooth-picked on top), and let Todd serenade us to simpler times.  It was a treat and an honor to watch and listen to Todd as he followed his star, studied his craft, and astonished all with a series of songs anyone would be proud to have written.
Todd Hoke's Third CD
Then he and his wife Meg moved from Austin to Hendersonville, North Carolina, in some misguided and mature attempt to make a living and do good work.  I took it hard.  Selfishly, I wanted more songs.  But I also thought that Texas and the rest of the world was missing out on something important and vital.  We have a way of neglecting our treasures.  I understood the sensible decision Todd and Meg were making; yet I was more than a little miffed that talent like Todd’s could be stifled or shelved or merely frustrated.  Sure there are plenty of singer-songwriters, but the world was a little dimmer without the light of new music from Todd.  Although my wife and I would occasionally see Todd and Meg, I never asked how the music was going.  I assumed he had made a decision and that was that.
            And now a decade after The Turning of the Wheel, a cloud moved and the sky brightened, and Southland appeared in the mail.  From the very first song, which gives the title to the collection, Todd announces that he is back, better than ever and with a few surprises.  If his first CD headed west on Interstate Highway 10 and celebrated jackrabbits, roadrunners, and coyotes, on this one he heads East and discovers New Orleans ragtime, levies, kudzu, and gumbo.  Then singing about a red-headed Tennessee boy, he brings in a bluegrass banjo and fiddle.  And later he turns to the blues with a dirty electric guitar and an anguished background singer.  In fact, it seems that the blues colors this collection in new and deeper ways, and the song “Sinking Down” marks a leap in storytelling by this accomplished storyteller.  Todd, of course, is one of the funniest people you can know.  His Hoagy Carmichael-esque “Frittering” and gospel tinged “Chickenwashing” will not disappoint. 
But my favorite songs by Todd Hoke have always been his quiet numbers in which he finds inside the constant awareness of our mortality the candle light of grace.  It was “Another Summer Evening” and “Short Time Here” in the first CD.  In the second, I wore out “Come the Morning,” “Sunday Morning,” and “My Own Day.”  And now I find “Christmastime in Bethlehem,” and “Do Remember Me” to be sustaining.  These are my hymns, songs that return to me in memory when daily life gets a little dicey.  This man has a gift that goes beyond song craft. It’s wisdom, human understanding.  It’s the thing that Townes van Zandt, Guy Clark, Steve Earle and Leonard Cohen have: compassion and pity and awe.  How could I have ever been angry with a man who can write like that?

Soundtrack.  Todd Hoke:  "I Love West Texas."

1 comment:

  1. Hi Amigo,

    Very Happy Trails to you!