To me, these past two months feel similar to a buffet after a funeral: you’re doing normal things like pigging out and laughing, but death is in the air.
I live in a neighborhood in East Nashville known as “Little Hollywood.” Or as I think of it, Nashville’s Greenwich Village. Cozy coffee shops, artists, people who read. My wife and kids are like an island but with hardcore touring artists surrounding us instead of water.
We never see them more than a few times a year. Their homes are more like rest stops between long tours, until about two months ago when the quarantine kicked in and the circus tent was packed up and put away.
You know those little airplanes that carry messages at the beach? There are several of those in my head flying round and round with messages like:
Would they ever have taken time off the road if not for the quarantine?
Are they bored out of their minds or are they thinking “Oh my god, I love this!”?
Like any good neighbor, I had to know. Mostly because I did plenty of time on the road between 1995 and 2011, and, honestly, I can’t understand how anybody can do it for any length of time, unless you’re The Rolling Stones where you have a masseuse, personal sushi chef and 45,000 die-hard fans wherever you play.
All I knew about touring before I went on my first one with Wanderlust (RCA) opening for Collective Soul in 1995 was:
1. John, Paul, George and Ringo quit touring so they could record a masterpiece or two.
2. Bob Dylan tours under the appropriate name “The Neverending Tour”
3. Gilligan and crew were on a three-hour tour before they shipwrecked.
I called Steve Poltz first. Steve co-wrote the mega-hit ”You Were Meant For Me” with Jewel. His fans can tell you that he is simply the most dynamic, seat-of-your-pants live performer in the world. Steve told me that after “Meant For You” came out, he hit the road as a solo artist and as part of the band The Rugburns. He knew the odds of another hit that big were slim and that gigging was the only way he could make money as a musician.
This was by far the longest time he’d been off the road since he started touring in the early ‘90s. “Man,” I said, “Your life has been like 90% on the road, right? Reflecting for a moment Steve says, half laughing, “I felt like I had to do it.”
Instead of “chomping at the bit” to get back on the road Poltz says he’s prepared to take the whole year off. “I’m really into learning”. He’d been wanting to learn to play “Steeple Chase Lane” by Jerry Reed for the last two years but “when do you fucking have time to do that?”
This theme of time to do things came up a lot. And not time to learn how to fly a plane or get a degree in something. Most of the things were very simple. Like Pro Tools.
I was shocked to learn that neither Steve Poltz nor Oliver Wood, the lead singer/songwriter of the mega Americana band The Wood Brothers, could break out a laptop and record something on a program that’s been around since the late ’90s. That tells you just how busy touring and gigging these cats have been. Wood also mentioned exercising.
“To not play feels unhealthy. If I don’t get my hands on a guitar for a few days my wife can tell,”
said Wood. His brother Chris, also a member of The Wood Brothers, moved in seven houses away from me a little before the Shawshank Redemption-like existence kicked in.
“I can’t quite wrap my head around that (playing to live audiences) might not happen for a while. I feel like I’m coming out of a dazed shock.” His house sits right at a huge golf course, now a temporary walking park for the neighborhood.
“Thank god for the porch.” he softly says.
A few weeks ago, the air outside was as perfect as could be. I was hanging out with my wife on our screened porch out back. It sounded like somebody was playing a Robben Ford live album or something. Crystal clear guitar notes floating our way, soothing what’s left of our nervous systems. I wanted to find out what kind of speakers they had.
The next day I found out it was actually Robben himself. Right. He just moved into the neighborhood. I tracked him down and was surprised to find we had something in common. For years, I thought I was the only musician in the world who simply didn’t like touring. I was wrong. Robben Ford absolutely abhors it.
“I moved to Nashville to get off the road. I’d been doing it so long and to be honest I haven’t enjoyed it so much. It’s a hard life. Imprisoning. I wish I’d gotten off the road 15 years ago. I would like to never do it again as long as I live.
I liked touring with Joni Mitchell in 1974. First class, wonderful band, she was just a goddess. That was the only time I liked touring. I was 22.”
Next I called Nicki Bluhm, who also lives a few houses away. Nicki and her former band, The Gramblers, video-recorded themselves singing and playing guilty-pleasure cover songs in their van to pass the time on the road. The videos went viral (this was way before Carpool Karaoke) and Nicki found herself with a ton of fans around the world. Since then, she set out on her own, signed with Compass Records, and learned how to tour all by herself.
“I would have a hard time staying home if there was opportunity, but this is a forced break and I don’t think it’s the worst thing,” she told me.
Next up was Aaron Lee Tasjan. The David Cassidy of Americana, you could say. Aaron gigged right up to the last second before the big Q came down like a hammer. He flew home on March 16 from LA and was supposed to sing that Sunday at The Grand Ole Opry with Willie Nelson and Buddy Miller. It never happened.
“I don’t know where my optimism comes from,” Tasjan said, “but my first thought was maybe people will start buying records again.” In his typical upbeat fashion, he described the quarantine as a “dream scenario: don’t go anywhere -just sit around the house all day, just find things to do to keep yourself occupied.”
While I was talking to Poltz, Bluhm, Ford and both Wood brothers, Grant Lee Phillips (originally known as the band name Grant Lee Buffalo) was home oil painting. He told me it’s a good time to put brush to canvas. Though he shared his artwork while on the road from time to time, he now shares more of it and the paintings are the detailed kind that only more time could make possible. He hasn’t been playing much online. “I just put out a new song last week, I wanted to remain on track. It’s not a good time for me to disappear.”
If you think about it, making a home on the road is quite stabilizing in many ways. You have a schedule, people who love you, places to be, a meal. It doesn’t take long to learn the game. Now countless musicians are being forced to abandon their former “homes” and stay home, the kind you get your mail sent to. They’re discovering new parts of themselves. Whether they love it or hate it, you can’t deny it’s gonna change them. What will happen when the quarantine ends and it’s time to get back to ‘real life?’ Only time will tell.