Photo: Illustration by Jack Browning
We were somewhere on the outskirts of Nashville when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like, “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive....” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the night sky was full of what looked like huge fireflies, all swooping and screeching and diving around our vehicle, which was going about a hundred miles an hour towards downtown Nashville. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn bugs?”
Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest. “What the hell are you yelling about?” he muttered. “Never mind,” I said. “It’s your turn to drive.” I hit the brakes and aimed our old Chevy van toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning those fireflies, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.
When we arrived at our fancy hotel, I began to understand our assignment more clearly. Saddle Mountain Post had sent me to cover AmericanaFest, a five-day celebration of American roots music, but with clear instructions to focus less on the festivities and more on this question: does the heart of this music community beat with the current zeitgeist of America?
In the interest of journalism, I did what any true professional would do. I rousted my attorney, secured a cache of dangerous drugs, and drove like a bat out of hell for Nashville—a city famous for squeezing the life out of upstart music rebellions, and located in a state, Tennessee, whose political leaders are trying to put expression itself in the same vise grip.
After driving nonstop from California, and navigating the last-minute firefly situation, we eased our dusty van into the hotel entryway. We left it alongside a line of black Suburbans and gleaming Teslas and tried to cut through the army of hotel attendants and bachelorette parties.
We were peaking, barely functional, but intent on making it to the party being thrown by Concord Records, where Logan Ledger, Bella While and some of the genre’s other great artists were performing. Being there would accelerate our immersion into the scene. First though, a quick stop at the hotel to check-in and pick up our festival credentials.
My attorney, a burly 6-foot 4-inch Chinook Indian from the Oregon coast, his skin tone just olive-tinted enough to strike fear into certain white Americans, immediately began shouting as we hurried to the hotel’s front door. “Excuse us, excuse us! We are in a hurry and we need everyone’s cooperation! We’ve come to Nashville to find the American Dream.” He was panting now, practically foaming at the mouth. “If you cooperate, no one will get hurt. We must be at the Concord Party by 7:00 or we will risk missing it!”
Good Christ, I thought, feeling panic rise. We weren’t on assignment two minutes and it was all about to be derailed by this drug-addled lunatic. “I’m sorry, so sorry,” I say to the confused onlookers, and hurry to catch up to my associate. “Everything is fine. Everything is a-ok. My friend here is not used to this heat. We’re cold weather people, so sorry. He’s a little dehydrated, that’s all.”
I grabbed him by the arm and whispered sharply in his ear. “You fool! They’ll get the pitchforks out for us. Remember, they don’t care for Californians here. Stick to the plan. And let me do the talking.”
“Well,” said my attorney calmly. “You better talk to that guy.” He gestured towards a hotel security officer who seemed to be casing our van.
Shit. I raised my hand in the air. “Hi! Hello there!”
“This your vehicle?” the man asked in a gruff voice.
“Yessir it is,” I said. “But I’m told it once belonged to Melissa Carper.” I laughed nervously. “Old Chevy Van?” The security officer cocked his head quizzically. “Or maybe Willi Carlisle?” My mind was fracturing now, but I couldn’t stop myself. “You know his song ‘Vanlife?’ You see, we’re here for AmericanaFest and Melissa and Willi are two of the artists—”
Just then I felt the presence of my traveling companion hovering behind me. He leaned in, his breath reeking of Coors and psilocybin, and said softly: “As your attorney, I advise you to drop this hippy shit and speak this man’s language. If he searches that van we’ll spend the rest of our lives on a Tennessee chain gang.”
I turned my attention back to the officer as he shined his flashlight at the van’s license plate. “You boys from California?”
I’m not sure how long I stood there speechless. I remember feeling my lips plastered to my gums. “Oh, isn’t it a shame what’s happening there?” I finally said, shifting tactics. “The crime. The riffraff. We don’t trust that awful Governor. Socialist. We won’t stand for it. We’re good Christians, sir. Just here to listen to some music.”
He responded without expression. “You can’t park it here. Move it.”
I felt the blood return to my face and extremities. “Move it? Oh, yes sir, that’s exactly what we were doing,” I said cheerfully. “On our way now, thank you so much.”
“Make America Great Again!” my attorney shouted.
We somehow navigated the streets of Nashville and made it to the establishment hosting the Concord party. This time we parked in a side alley where our van would blend right in.
“You sure had that guy going. That was some quick-thinking.” My attorney was now rifling through the medicine kit. “Where’d you put the Nitrous?”
“That was a close call. You almost blew it for us,” I said.
“Aw, relax homie. That guy wasn’t a threat. Did you hear his accent? He wasn’t even an American.”
“You’re not an American,” I reminded him.
“I’m Coyote. No nation owns me,” he said. “Mischief is my home. I make mischief. And as your attorney, I advise you to help me find the Nitrous so we can get this night going.”
“No thanks. I’m good, cousin. I need to get my head right and prepare for some interviews. I have to find Nat Myers, this cat from Northern Kentucky making folk and blues music. He’s doing a set here at this party.” Myers was one of the reasons I took this assignment. A Korean American who grew up in rural Kentucky, he released the revelatory album Yellow Peril earlier this year. Like a lot of the music in this revival, it had the feel of something very old and familiar, yet it was intensely, provocatively, of the moment.
“Here you go,” my attorney said, handing me a whippet, evidently not hearing anything I’d said, and grinning like a wild dog at moonrise.
“Alright,” I said. “Maybe just one. But then we have to find Nat Myers.”
“I’m sorry sir, I don’t have your name on any lists.” The woman responsible for keeping party crashers out of the Concord event was excelling at her task. We had wasted an hour inside the van emptying the Nitrous cannisters and laughing our fool heads off. Now the event was almost over. “And I’ve never heard of Saddle Mountain Post. Are you sure you’re at the right location?”
At this my attorney brushed past me. “Ma’am, will you kindly check your lists for my name? It’s Don Coyote. I’m an attorney representing Rolling Stone magazine.”
“Pay him no mind,” I intervened and led him away from the entrance. “Thank you for your time!” I hollered over my shoulder while my attorney kept shouting, “My name is Don Coyote!”
A slender man with dark complexion and a fedora hat was standing off to the side holding a guitar case and smoking a cigarette, not hiding his amusement at the scene. “Your name is Don Quixote?” the stranger asked, laughing.
“Don Coyote,” said my attorney. “The trickster god.”
“Oh man, that is some outlaw shit,” he said. “And here I thought you were tiltin’ at windmills. Where y’all from?”
“Out West,” my attorney and I shouted in unison. After the encounter at the hotel, we agreed on a safer way to describe our point of origin.
“What brings you to Tennessee?” the man asked.
“We’re studying it,” I said. “We’re looking for America. Why are you here?”
“Well hell, maybe the same damn reason. While I ply my trade, you know?” He raised his guitar to make sure we understood.
“You’re a musician?” I asked.
“Nah, I’m a poet. But it’s hard times in these parts. As my friend Logan says, ‘A man’s gotta eat.’ You boys want to know the truth about Tennessee, or the rural south, like where I’m from in Kentucky? Folks are hurting. Plain and simple. But they ain’t givin’ up. And most of ‘em have a lot of compassion still in them.”
The stranger then lit a match, touched it to his cigarette and took a drag. “You be sure to tell the people out West that.” He handed me the book of matches and said, “Hope you find what you’re looking for,” before disappearing into the darkness.
Sleeplessness is eventually fatal. Studies have shown that rats can be kept awake for about 11 days before they drop dead in their tracks. The Guinness Book of World Records stopped honoring the human feat in the 1990s because of the “inherent dangers associated with sleep deprivation.”
My attorney and I lasted about 72 drug-infused hours before succumbing to a deep rest. After our failure to get into the Concord party, we managed to get back to the hotel where we slept for nearly two days, missing most of AmericanaFest, including the Awards show the week is built around.
When we awoke, we found an envelope that had been pushed under the door, and in it were our festival wristbands. “Hot damn,” said my attorney. “No one can stop us now.” He plucked one out and threw the envelope at me. “You know what this means, right? We have status now. And status is power. We can walk amongst the in-crowd now. Recognition is an acorn, friend. Can you feel the spark of life? We should go now while our spirits are stirring.” He lurched toward the door.
“What day is it?” I asked.
“Friday. Come on. It’s time to make mischief.”
“You go. I’ll catch up with you. Don’t dose the town’s water supply. That wristband won’t get you out of jail. And find Nat Myers.”
With that, my attorney bounded out of the room and into the unknown. My phone had 72 text messages, most of them from the Saddle Mountain Post editor. How’s the reporting going? The Award show looked amazing. How were the seats? I set my phone back down without replying. Needing to get my head right, I searched around for a joint. My eyes landed on the book of matches the stranger gave us the night we arrived. I noticed an inscription printed on it, and picked it up to have a closer look.
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” Rabindranath Tagore
I lit my California pre-roll and stepped out onto the balcony. The Nashville skyline was decidedly different than the one Dylan gazed upon in 1969. It has been transformed with glittering glass buildings and professional sports venues. Construction cranes now dot the horizon. The State Capitol building, visible from my balcony, though partially obscured by the smoke from my joint, is unchanged from back then, although the same cannot be said for the politics practiced inside.
The Governor in 1969 was Buford Ellington, a Democrat who evolved with the times, changed his stance on segregation and appointed Hosea T. Lockard to his Cabinet, the first Black Cabinet member in Tennessee history. Earlier this year, Republicans in that same building expelled two Black State Representatives from office for the unholy conduct of acknowledging the tragic effects of gun violence. The current Governor, Bill Lee, has also changed with the times, and like his party’s Man Child leader, now targets society’s marginalized and vulnerable with scornful policies.
That got me thinking about what the stranger outside the Concord party told us. Folks are hurting. Plain and simple. But they ain’t givin’ up. And most of ‘em have a lot of compassion still in them.
The narrative we are subjected to, day in and day out, rarely focuses on the people he was talking about. It’s usually on the politicians who are so adept at exploiting those people’s fears. Experiencing fear seems perfectly normal in a society absorbing unrelenting change, but maybe examining real folks’ emotional turmoil is too much for a media and information ecosystem that only wears red/blue-colored glasses. If those glasses were taken off, they’d see a different America. Maybe that’s what that annoying Saddle Mountain Post editor is trying to get at.
My phone lights up with a text message from Ellie Newman. Ellie manages several artists from this music community, including the brilliant songcrafters Melissa Carper and Brennen Leigh. She is one of the array of managers, publicists, tour managers, and independent label or record store owners who support this music revival through their hard work and commitment. They are not in it for the money; instead, they’re living proof of the wisdom on the matchbook. Service is joy.
Ellie was checking to see if I was coming to Willi Carlisle’s set that evening. I sure am, I reply. It was the end of the week and I still hadn’t seen any music yet—nor did I have a story to write, so what did I have to lose? Plus, what I knew of Carlisle’s music I liked.
The show was still a couple hours away, so I had time to wash off the stench of the past few days and taste some of the local offerings. As I was pulling up to the venue, I got another message from Ellie. Are you here yet? There’s a guy here who says he’s your attorney. Should we let him in?
I pull the van over and type: What happened to his wristband?
Hmmm. Says he gave it to Thunderbird? After a beat she texts again. Wait. Nat Myers is with him?
I hop out of the van and hustle to the venue entrance. My attorney is laughing with the thin stranger from the Concord party. “I hope this man isn’t bothering you,” I say as I approach.
The stranger, Myers, laughs his charming, Kentucky laugh. “It’s all good. We’ve been having us a time.” I turn to my attorney and raise my eyebrow. He shrugged. “Coyote works in mysterious ways.”
I was able to ask Nat some questions about this revival. The main thing he wanted me to understand was that there was a lot of joy and celebration and positivity to the music. “Sometimes you gotta turn Medusa into stone, you know?” And then he was off again. “Alright, I gotta keep moving. You guys will love ol’ Willi. And stick around for Nick Shoulders. Those boys go good together. Couple of happy warriors.”
Nat was right about Willi and Nick Shoulders being a good pairing. They spring up from similar kinds of dirt. Carlisle grew up in Kansas and Illinois; Shoulders is from Arkansas. Both evince a blend of Midwestern and Southern sensibilities, both speak to the rural experience, and both embody a trait long associated with old-time country and folk music: resilience.
Many of Shoulders’ songs feel like they could be anthems, rallying cries, for working class folks tired of being exploited, tired of suicide capitalism, tired of no one noticing what they’re going through. In one, he reinvents the iconic country song, “Don’t Fence Me In.” In Shoulders’ version, resignation is the animating emotion. “There once was land in this land under starry skies above, but they fenced it in//Now its interstates and interchanges, monocrops and truck stops, because they fenced it in.”
But there was no detectable anger or bitterness. More of a cheery determination, sense of gratitude, and a warm embrace of the moment. At one point he asked people to raise their hands if they were not a millionaire. Every hand went up. “See, its true we’re divided as a country, but it’s not 50-50. There’s a lot more of us than them.”
Carlisle shares the outlook. Before playing the song “Vanlife,” he told the crowd that he spent a period of his life homeless, and another in his van. If he was sour about it, or tempted to blame others for his plight, he never let on. Indeed, in the song he recounts the many challenges of living in a van, and sings, “And he’s worse than the guy who put a brick through my glass//Robbed me blind and siphoned the gas//At least I know that guy needed it bad, Oh I wish that old boy well.”
Perhaps his signature song, for now, is “Your Heart’s a Big Tent.” He egged the crowd on to sing the song’s chorus together, and moreover, implored us to believe it: “The heart’s a big tent, gotta let everybody in//Doesn’t matter who they are, if they do right or where they’ve been//Everybody gets in.”
He closed his set by saying he chooses to believe in goodness and love and hope. Nowadays, there’s something inherently courageous about that stance. Virtually every bit of manufactured information we get is designed to make us feel doubt, mistrust, outrage—stimuli meant to trigger a release of cortisol, the fight or flight hormone, into our central nervous systems. The safe space of our time is cynicism.
When the shows were over, I conveyed this thinking to my attorney. “Maybe that’s the lesson here after all. The vast majority of this country is feeling deeply uncertain and powerless right now, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, race, zip code. And worse, they feel invisible, unrecognized. This music appeals to them, it lifts them up, it honors them. Hell, it is them. And it would probably unite them if given a chance.”
“Ooh, the powerful won’t want to hear that. Sounds dangerous. As your attorney, I advise you to find a different angle for your story.”
“Or,” I responded, “we help make the mischief.”