Man in a Van: It’s American Music

by Jim Washburn

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Like phone booths in the era of cell phones, it’s getting harder to find road atlases at gas station convenience stores, probably because so many people have GPS units now. It took several fill-ups before I found a road atlas of any kind—a shrugging, useless one—and a few more stops before Lindley found a slightly less shrugging one, though it was poorly designed for navigating the East Coast, where you’re constantly dashing through some little dog leg of a state or another faster than you can find the new page in the book. Then they’d made the bigger map of the US so colorful you could scarcely find the interstates veining it.

My wife had insisted I bring her dad’s old Tom Tom GPS with us, the one she had programmed with Yoda’s celebrity voice—“Right you must turn!” We eventually resorted to using it, and it was like having a third person along; a bossy, I-told-you-so person where, even with the volume down, you’d still hear Yoda backseat driving, scolding us whenever we’d deviate from the route to hit a Cracker Barrel. If Steinbeck had Yoda Tom along on his travels, he would have probably traded his pickup truck for Hemingway’s shotgun.

They don’t have Cracker Barrels in California, so I should tell you it’s a combination country cookin’ restaurant and country-themed gift shop, where they sell rocking chairs on the long front porch. You hear pitch-corrected country music all the livelong day, and the food is consistently damn good. They’ve got all the artery-clogging delights you could ask for, plus grilled fish and other semi-wholesome stuff, with pork-laden collard greens smack in the middle.

I learned from Lindley five years ago that it’s the best, most consistent road food you can get. It was that or truck-stop diners where the kitchen labored to make the food look even more awful than it did in the photos, and we’re talking photos of corpse-grey guacamole here.

Dick Boak, David Lindley
at the Martin Museum: Dick Boak of Martin Guitars, David Lindley

This time, I learned in Texas that you can’t pin your hopes on that Cracker Barrel down the road, since there is so much road in Texas that the odds of anything appearing on it are statistically nil. I’d voted against the sandblasted diner in Van Horn, and hours rolled by before we saw anything that bore even a vague resemblance to food. Then we ate it. You need to go into survival mode on the road, Lindley advised me: You don’t hope something better shows up; you kill the first thing you see and eat it.

We eventually discovered that Cracker Barrels have free maps; large, legible fold-out ones with no topological pretensions, no symbols for national parks or state capitols. But they do show you where every single damn Cracker Barrel in the nation is. Now, instead of wasting days in hopeful anticipation, or eating some slop just to find a Cracker Barrel at the next off-ramp, we were routing things so that we could have double-Barrel days.

Oh yeah, we saw New York City, too. I’m reminded of that by my openly bi-coastal friend Joe Ongie, who dropped into OC for a cheeseburger today, and to remind me that I hadn’t written about how he’d squired us around Manhattan, getting us out of the Iridium nightclub to buy guitar picks and see some fabulous Thomas Hart Benton murals on display in the foyer of the majestic No Photography of Any Kind Building.

The Iridium was an odd gig, a basement jazz club where Les Paul had held a Monday night residency for the last 11 years of his life (Paul died in August, 2009), and where his doughty trio continues without him.

Having checked the club’s website, we’d been bemused by how the booking was listed—“David Lindley with the Les Paul Trio ”—as if, ho ho, they expected to be backing David on “How High the Moon.”

Which, it turns out, was kind of what they were expecting. Most of the acts sharing the bill sit in with the trio on at least a song or two. It’s a tradition, evidently, but not one that had been communicated to Lindley, and not one easily accomplished on the fly, not when you play esoteric instruments in Middle Eastern tunings, audible only through an in-ear monitoring system, none of which was set up onstage because it had to move to make room for the Les Paul Trio.

Knuckleheads, Kansas City
Knuckleheads, Kansas City

The technical problems aside, I don’t doubt that Lindley could have jumped right in, this being a guy who’s comfortable sitting in with the local talent in Madagascar and Kazakhstan, in the latter after drinking their fermented mare’s milk. Four and a half decades ago, he was playing in 13/8 Bulgarian time signatures and such with the band Kaleidoscope; he’s recorded with everyone from the Five Blind Boys of Alabama to Iggy Pop to Springsteen; he even played at Mick and Bianca Jagger’s legendary 1971 St. Tropez wedding.

Which rather puts driving around in a cluttered van with me, covered in shoo-fly pie crumbs, in perspective.

A few days before the Iridium gig, Martin Guitars’ Dick Boak had shown us around the Martin factory and the museum he’s created at the company HQ in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. It’s a remarkable exhibit of the company’s nearly 200 years of guitar making, and of the history and cultural changes in which those guitars participated. It didn’t hurt that Dick has the key to the glass cases, allowing us to play an 1834 Martin, a Ditson dreadnaught and other iconic instruments that all shared the curious flaw of sounding better in Lindley’s hands than mine.

Then Dick led us to another local institution, Calandra’s Cheese, famed for its mozzarella and for its T-shirts bearing the logo “Cheeses of Nazareth.” Dick bought Lindley a mozzarella loaf that was the size of a small baby, and was consumed just as quickly. We also bought a couple of pieces of shoo-fly pie, a local confection of Amish origin, the ingredients of which are crumbs, then molasses-saturated crumbs and more crumbs.

David Lindley
David Lindley; note shoo-fly pie crumbs

Some of it got in our mouths but I’m not sure how, since it sure got everywhere else. Within minutes, Lindley, me, Yoda Tom and every surface in the van looked like we’d been camouflaged to blend in with a rack of crumb donuts. We looked like idiots.

There was a gig that night in Schenectady, New York, and it was expected that we would show up sometime before the audience did. The crumb-enhanced Yoda, however, seemed intent on taking a scenic tour of every godforsaken bog in the state. I’ve checked a map since, and there are interstates going the same direction, but he directed us onto buggy roads, through quaint hamlets and beside dank fens as the afternoon wore away.

We made it and it was a great gig; a great night for moving merchandise as well. I took the same approach I did when running the hippie record store Beggar’s Banquet in the ’70s, which meant profoundly not giving a damn if anyone bought anything. If people had questions or wanted my opinion, or just wanted to chat, it was forthcoming, but, as a customer, I’ve never liked salespeople who tried to sell me something, so I never push stuff.

With one exception: There in Schenectady I’d sold 19 copies of Lindley’s most recent album, Big Twang Theory (available on his website, not that I’m trying to sell you anything), and the sales sheet would have looked so much neater if it was an even 20. Two guys were standing near the table, in the queue to meet Lindley. I caught their eye, held up the CD and said, “You know, if I sell just one more of these, my Girl Scout troop wins a wood-burning kit.” They bought it.

He has a loyal fan base, mostly guys, and perhaps it typifies them to note that after we ran out of the double-XL size, T-shirt sales plummeted. But there was also the eleven-year-old girl who was so thrilled to meet him she was jumping up and down, and the young woman who had been inspired by him to take up steel guitar, and the punker kid who was raised on Lindley’s El Rayo X albums, and has his dad playing pedal steel in his band now.

My favorite fan was the young Native American man at the Phoenix show, who bought a pile of CDs and exclaimed, “All the Nations love Lindley. He should do a tour just of the reservations.“

He evidently does have a sizable Native American following, in part because he’s played benefits for tribes when the white man thought their sacred mountains would make better uranium slag heaps, and doubtlessly in part because people who’ve experienced hard times know a good time when they hear it.

El Rayo X was up there with the Neville Brothers as a dance party dance band that ran deep, pumping riotous amounts of musicianship and emotion into everything it assayed. I saw them probably a couple of dozen times, and loved each one.

He’s recorded with a ton of folks, from Rod Stewart to the Blind Boys of Alabama, but he’s best known for his long partnership with Jackson Browne, spanning ten albums. Their stuff from the 1970s is so much a part of the musical landscape now that it’s easy to forget what a revolution and revelation Lindley’s playing was then. His overdriven lap steel guitar stepped out in ways never before heard in popular music, or anywhere, with keening, sobbing lyrical solos that comprised some of the most expressive, real stuff ever to come out of a radio speaker.

Like many musicians of his time, Lindley’s ears took a beating, and it’s thanks to the volume-dampening in-ear monitors he uses now that he was able to perform with Jackson Browne’s band again last year. Lindley solo is necessarily a whole other game. When his strings are the only things knitting a song together, there’s little occasion to take off into the keening, sobbing reaches. That’s not to say he doesn’t take off, but it’s sort of like he has to drag the whole foundation along with him, which can be a whole other sort of special. A musical instrument is like a spaceship: Every so often you just have to venture into the unknown with it.

backstage bathroom

I was surprised to hear him doing most of the songs that filled his set list five years ago. I didn’t ask him a lot of questions about music, since I bored even myself silly being a rock critic, but I got the impression that to him many of these songs are like revisiting koans that had intrigued him for years. Some nights, the differences in his approach to them were subtle; other nights it was like his playing became the koan, posing grand and delicate unknowables to his audience.

To one side of that was a spellbinding oud instrumental in 7/8 time; on another side was a section of “Little Green Bottle,” his song about Excedrin, where his voice and Hawaiian guitar simulated the mental Leslie speaker throttle effect of alternating Excedrin Extra Strength with Excedrin PM. His helium voice and skittering slide dissonances would rotor down to a moronic burble, the mind swimming through “grey Jell-O, looking for the pineapple chunk.” It’s both comic and musically elegant, like Milhoud’s le boeuf sur le toit.

He’s written some heartbreakingly beautiful music, but chiefly does his funny songs live, leaving the serious stuff to the songs by others he covers. His own material is pulled from his life: “Cat Food Sandwiches” being about his experiences with backstage food; the John Lee Hooker-styled “When a Guy Gets Boobs” about male ageing; and the Excedrin tune about his own boundless affection for the stuff. He sings about his jiggling fat, and how spoiled backstage food had him “standing at the meat tray, when, Lord, I commenced to squirt, I’m sorry, darlin’, if I spoiled your tie-died skirt.” That’s a variety of honesty most other songwriters don’t assay.

As much as he’s promoted as an instrumental legend, these days he’s at least as much a troubadour, singing about hard times to people living them. His is not an American Idol voice. If you’ve ever wondered what Ira Louvin might sound like if he’d been reborn as a Martian insect, Lindley’s voice might give you some idea. It’s the patented Lindley voice, and I suspect he arrived at it by design, since a guy who can do as many imitations as he does, including a sonorous Sean Connery, probably has his pick of vocal ranges and tonalities.

backstage monkey

Whatever it is, it’s strangely effective. Several people have remarked to me that once they’d heard Lindley’s version of Springsteen’s song about homeless war vets, “Brothers Under the Bridge,” his is the version that stayed with them. He does Tracy Schwartz’s “The Poor Old Dirt Farmer,” and it’s one of those funny/sad/true songs about the typical small farmer’s plight of “not having the corn to pay for the loan to pay for the corn to pay for the loan,” not to mention getting run over by his tractor so “now his head is shaped like a tread.” Funny, yes, but it also has to be sad to a man who was friends with Merle Watson, who did indeed die under a tractor. You hear that in his voice.

It’s American music, and the America we drove through showed mammoth factories laying dead and gutted; lots of Jesusy billboards about not sinning, not aborting and just generally not; motorists stranded without gas money (until Lindley gave them some); and homeless people shuffling around in towns where a fifth of the homes are sitting vacant thanks to foreclosures.

We lucked out like crazy on the weather, always ahead or behind of the tornadoes, brushfires and blizzards. We caught some rain, and plenty of weather that was down in the 20s or 30s, but the snow was generally piled up on the sides of the roads.

We got a light sprinkling of it in Buffalo, and it was plenty cold out. Taking the van to get an oil change, I drove through a good chunk of the city, seeing stately old mansions, a mortuary that was called, no kidding, the Amigone funeral home, and several homeless folks.

One was sitting on a bus bench in the early morning cold and drizzle, in a torn quilted coat, sorting cans and plastic bottles with her ungloved hands. It did not look like warmth was part of God’s plan for her that day.

Downtown that night, it was colder still, yet there were all manner of young women barhopping in armless, bare-midriff or open-back blouses and negligible slacks. Maybe you don’t feel the cold as much when it’s an option. Party on, kids, Monsanto and Citibank own your future. Were these the Buffalo gals I’d heard about in song?: Well I danced with a gal with a vole in her stockin’ and her knees kept a lockin’ an’ she was listnin’ to Dokken ...

The most vibrant place I was saw Toronto, up there in socialist, free-health-care nanny-state Canada, where, I might mention, their dollar is now worth more than ours. Funny how that works out.

The morning after the Royal Conservatory of Music gig, I sat on an anvil case in the back of the van as Lindley drove me to the airport, my seat already usurped by my putative friend Marcus and his Yoda-free i-Phone GPS. As homesick as I’d been practically since leaving home, I envied them the adventures that awaited crossing Canada’s vast Canadaness. Then I remembered Canada has no Cracker Barrels.

I had five hours until my flight and spent some of it in an airport restaurant called the Swiss Chalet. Aside from the wait staff not wearing sombreros, there was nothing Swiss about it.

If you were waiting for a grand paragraph summing what this trip meant, I think you’ve just read it.

the road
Jim Washburn has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the OC Weekly, various MSN sites and just about anybody else willing to trade a paycheck for a pulse.


Good seeing you (and Lindley!) in Seattle, Jim. That was a swell show. I’ve been enjoying the chronicles.

For the record, there was a Cracker Barrel for years at the Orange Mall (or, more formally, the Mall of Orange). It was my mom’s favorite place. Though she had trouble saying “Cracker Barrel” with her Dutch accent.

2011-04-15 by Ek

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