Playing The Artist Card

Maybe suffering and self-flagellation are the default settings for anyone who grew up Catholic. Sometimes I think I’ve put enough distance between myself and those heady, sore-knee days: “Forgive me Father for I have sinned, it has been at this point about fifty years since my last confession”? But it all runs so deep I suppose it takes a lifetime to undo the damage. Just thinking about that sentence (Forgive me etc)- for those who never went to Catholic confession, it went like this: You enter the dark confessional, hit that kneeler, the little door slides back and you tell the invisible stranger on the other side of the partition what a loser you are. Not even a “Hello Father” or “Good Day!” Just get right to the “I fucked up” bit. FORGIVE ME…FOR LIVING.

All as a way to say, I had a really good time last weekend at 30A Songwriters Festival in beautiful Rosemary Beach and environs. Not one thing went wrong! And – I learned something.

I flew from the new LaGuardia terminal and immediately felt like I’d entered a weird alternate reality where being at LaGuardia didn’t suck. There was the usual mess of roads and traffic getting into the airport via parking shuttle but once I entered Terminal B I just kept wondering “Am I in Europe?” There were soaring ceilings, artwork, there were Dancing Fountains with colored lights, a sight so amazing weary travelers stood in awe before them. The stalls in the restrooms were the size of NY studio apartments. Food choices abounded.

And my Southwest flight left on time. Not only that, as we were boarding, the flight attendants said “Folks, we have a half-empty plane going down to Nashville so we need you to just spread out. Take two seats, hell take three! Traveling with a guitar? We have overheads galore. Welcome aboard!”

Once settled in to my three seats, just after takeoff, a flight attendant came by and asked what I’d like to drink. And it was all free! Passengers were looking at each other warily, expecting something awful to happen to let us know we’d been punk’d but – nope. On time arrival.

The next flight to Panama City airport was much shorter – no drink service. My rental car was waiting for me even though it was well past eleven pm. A nice young man called Jason said he was keeping the Enterprise counter open until the very last traveler arrived. My car was nice but the road was really dark and I got worried when I looked behind as I headed out onto the unlit road and saw a line of cars following me, imagining I’d lead all of us into a drainage ditch. Eventually the other cars turned off and I carried on to the beach house the festival was putting me up in for the weekend.

The guard at the gate threw me a little when he asked for the name of my beach house. I had the hosts’ names, and the address, but not a name for the house. The guard and I went back and forth through a list of possibilities:

“Is it called “You Found It”?

Dun Roamin’?

Mama’s Pride!

Just Chillin?

Daddy’s Home!

and on and on until we both got tired. It was nearly one am. Eventually he let me in and I found the place and crawled around in the dark looking for a lockbox to let myself into a very nice house I hoped wasn’t occupied by someone armed.

Next day dawned bright and sunny and COLD but it was beautiful and I found a charming diner serving biscuits and gravy and saw Will Sexton and Amy LaVere perform in the local record store. 30A is nonstop songwriters and artists playing from morning til night in venues spread out over about twenty miles of beautiful beachside bars and restaurants. By the time I played that night it was close to freezing but the tent was heated and I really enjoyed trading songs with Jeff Black who I hadn’t seen since Nashville days and Hannah Miller who was super-sweet. The audience were great and so supportive. After our set I saw Will Kimbrough, Kim Richey, Mary Gauthier and Jaime Harris all on the same stage together with Gretchen Peters and her partner Barry Walsh and they were sublime. I got that old feeling I used to have in Nashville when I’d see my fellow singer songwriters play – there are never too many great songs, or too many good people to play them.

But the thing that dawned on me that day that maybe I knew already but had forgotten—there’s a real upside to being an artist. See, I was waiting to get into the record store to see Will & Amy (wow, that’s weird) and it was freezing cold and I probably hadn’t really brought warm enough clothes. I was in line with all these festival-goers and everyone was wrapped in blankets and making the best of things and hoping to get into the packed show. And then the line moved and we were on these stairs and it occurred to me that I had an artist badge. And suddenly I thought “Wait I don’t have to wait in this line! I mean, I’m with them all in spirit and I would wait my turn but I’m really cold and I’m supposed to play three times this weekend and – why don’t I just play the artist card – flash my badge and get in NOW.” And I did. Like magic.

So the next day I played at eleven AM with an interesting character called Jonathan Byrd and it was really fun. And I thought if I really hurried I could drive out to the big stage to catch Rickie Lee Jones cause I love her. But the parking was packed and I could hear Rickie Lee as I drove further and further from the stage to find parking. Still, it was cool to be there and I got some ice cream and found my way into the field where the audience was and I moved around until I found a good spot by the mixing desk and was talking to some nice folks there and then a volunteer came along to tell us to move on, we couldn’t stand there. Most of the audience had folding chairs and were all settled in for Lyle Lovett who was up next and I wondered what to do and where to go and then I saw a sign that said: ARTIST GUESTS. I asked a nice lady did that mean Artists could be guests or did you have to be specifically a Guest of The Artist (ie Lyle Lovett) and she smiled when I showed her my artist badge and said “This is all for you – you’re an artist!” And there were free drinks and couches and a tent blocking out the glare of the sun and a perfect view of the stage. It just struck me that I could’ve been standing a few feet away wishing I had somewhere to sit and wouldn’t it be great to find a drink I could buy and here it was all laid on for me. For free. Duh.

Not that into Lyle so I didn’t hang out too long and I had some other shows I wanted to catch so I moved on. That evening I saw Marti Jones and Don Dixon and then Peter Holsapple & Chris Stamey – these are folks I’ve known most of my life and I guess you could say I should have sought out new talent but it was wonderful to hear them. Same with Chuck Prophet Trio after.

So the weekend continued on like that, me flashing my badge and getting right up front to see Steve Poltz who always puts the biggest smile on my face; and finally getting to play a fun show with The Kennedys and afterwards the venue giving us menus with THE SAME FOOD AS THE PAYING CUSTOMERS including steak frites. I remembered me and Eric playing a French gig where the venue in Limoges made us sit behind a partition away from the actual customers and served us some slop that wasn’t on the menu for humans because that’s how you feel like an artist sometimes, sub-human, from standing in basements where there’s nowhere to put your stuff that isn’t wet, and being subjected to band flats where middle-aged musicians are expected to heave their aging weary bodies up ladders into bunk beds and spend the night praying for morning to come while crude drawings of penises glare down at them from the ceiling. Blend all of that with a Catholic upbringing and you can see why when someone offers me a free cocktail in a clean GLASS and serves it to me with a smile and a THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR BEING HERE, I want to start weeping and laughing and thanking the gods I threw my lot in with the troubadors and the artist fools cause some days you’re a clown but other times you really are treated like a king or queen. The hosts of my lovely beach house came to hear me play and said they wished I was staying longer. “Stay as long as you want!” they said. After the hard time I had at the festival three years ago, I felt like I was receiving all the blessings from a god who can be benevolent sometimes, if only I remember to ask.

Band flat in Hamburg/2014

I got a parking ticket in Florida but I sent them a pic of my artist badge and they forgave it. I flew home through Nashville airport but the flights were crowded, the drinks cost and the luggage took a long time to come out. It seemed like the ole artist magic was wearing off. But when I got in my car at the long-term parking it started right up so I felt I was still on a roll. And when Gordon Lightfoot came on, singing Early Morning Rain, I felt like I was living under some kind of magic cloak I wanted to hold onto forever.