THE SCHLANSKY FILES: Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?

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This isn’t about songwriting so much, per se, but it is about songs. A few months ago I drove from New York to San Francisco in a rented car. It was a culmination of a childhood dream, and a much needed shot of adrenalin for my soul.
This isn’t about songwriting so much, per se, but it is about songs. A few months ago I drove from New York to San Francisco in a rented car. It was a culmination of a childhood dream, and a much needed shot of adrenalin for my soul.

For this trip, I deliberately planned very little, but I did make arrangements for the opening chords-I wanted to blast Arcade Fire’s second album and peel out gracefully to the strains of “Keep the Car Running.” What happened instead was I drove around

Queens looking for the BQE detour; wasted the whole record that way. An emotional tug of war was playing out in my head, and I drove through the claustrophobic Holland Tunnel feeling tearful as Bruce Springsteen moaned the lyrics to “Downtown Train.” But “Working on the Highway” was playing as I hit my first highway, and “No Surrender” helped me get my priorities straight. My soul began to open up, and by the time I hit my first Waffle House, I had the feeling things were going to be alright. By the third day, I knew I never wanted to go back home.

When I got to Nashville, it was too much soldiers’ joy, as Gillian Welch put it.  I drove to the American Songwriter offices where I met the editors Matt, Rachel, Robert and Doug, and we had ourselves a little New York/Nashville summit. Not to embarrass anyone, but sweeter people you could not hope to meet. Later, I played my one sanctioned gig at the Basement, as part of their New Faces night.

It was great to play a gig here-all the other acts had their game faces on and clearly had their eyes on the prize. At first I talked to nobody, but by the end of the night, I felt I’d met everyone, and everyone was extra friendly. Raucous roots outfit The Felice Brothers, also up from New York City, charmed me into trading time slots with them-they were being scouted by Lost Highway and wanted to strike while the iron was hot. I was happy to help, despite the fact that when they were done playing half the bar rushed out of the venue in a sort of euphoric mob, missing most of my set. A few weeks later I got an e-mail that the band was going to be opening shows for Bright Eyes, and figured that was good company to be in.

Decided not to busk in Nashville, but did so in New Orleans. I had no idea what it would be like in this ravaged city, but it turned out to be an unexpected delight. They say it’s a musician’s town, and that’s no lie. On my last day there, I walked into a bar on Bourbon Street called the Sing Sing, seduced by the sound of fantastic live blues. On stage a female vocalist led a weathered gang of blues vets. They took a break as I talked with the bartender. That’s Fats Domino’s son playing drums, she told me. He approached the bar. “You play that thing?” Fats’ son asked me about the guitar I had with me. He said I could do a song if I wanted. “With you guys?” I asked. “Sure.” But the band was still on break, so I got up by myself and, after racking my brain about what to play, launched into my own “Educated Woman Blues.”  By the time I finished, they had all filed on stage, one by one behind me, picking up the tune and making it their own.  Even though the bar was mainly empty, it was one of the most thrilling musical experiences of my life. Got no love from the bartender, but on the way out as I put five dollars in the tip bucket, the band cried out, “Goodbye, we love you.”  And I loved New Orleans.

On a desert road in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a single flash of lightning lit the sky at the same moment Bob Dylan came on my stereo singing “Santa Fe,” like God’s seal of approval. In El Paso, the gloominess of Uncle Tupelo’s March 16-20 1992 combined with an overcast sky persuaded me not to visit Juarez, Mexico. In Mississippi, Casey Holford sang “summer storm, you don’t have to work so hard to get my attention” as I drove through what began as a drizzle and, by now, was a downpour.  In Decatur, Ala., I drove along a commercial two-lane blasting Bright Eye’s Cassadaga from my open windows, feeling giddy and exposed.

On the way to the coast I had many more adventures. Those days are done, but in the immortal words of Willie Nelson, I can’t wait to get on the road again.

To hear the song “Educated Woman Blues,” visit myspace.com/evansschlanskymusic


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