It was already pitch black outside last Friday evening. My girlfriend and I took longer than expected to get out of work and on the road for the hour and a half trek from Waynesville to the campground, just down the road from Johnson City, on the edge of the Cherokee National Forest.
Popping down the haggard tailgate, we unrolled the sleeping bags, pillows and blankets. Get the flames going in the fire pit. Open up the camping chairs. Unwrap our burritos quickly picked up from down the road in Mars Hill. Crack a couple cold Pabst Blue Ribbons. Sit down and commence in the sacred act of doing nothing and everything around a campfire, alone in the solitude of Mother Nature, up on a quiet, starry ridge atop the campground, the sounds of midnight truckers blasting down I-26 in the distance.
The early morning sunshine woke us up in the back of the truck come Saturday morning. The dew on the grass felt nice as I looked around for my sandals and toothbrush. The crisp mountain air reminded me that fall is just around the corner. But, the midday sunshine and warmth made me realize how strongly the fading summer doesn’t want to be forgotten.
By the time I was on my second cup of coffee, we’d arrived at the Speedway Inn, a few miles outside of downtown Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia. The hotel room was $50 a night. The saying “you get what you pay for” really came to the forefront, stepping into the room where none of the furniture matched, the towels were like sandpaper, the lamps looked like they lost a fight, and you finally got the answer to “where do all those old TVs go when folks upgrade?”
But, none of this mattered. The room was only needed for sleeping, not hanging out in. There was a full day of live music ahead at the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. Entering the chaos of State Street (the middle of the road is the state line), it was a mad dash to find the small side-stage that Charlie Parr was to take shortly. The Minnesota singer-songwriter radiates the immense hardships, emotional turmoil and flawed beauty of John & Jane Q. Public in 21st century America.
When you’re watching and listening to Parr, time slows down, where you start noticing more of your surroundings, the wrinkles and eyes and hands of faces, near and far, familiar or unknown. He speaks hard-earned truths how nothing is the same, everything is the same, where what you love and/or fear about daily life is that same as what your ancestors experienced and what your grandchildren will, too: “Tuesday afternoons are the hardest / When time seems to stand still / They’ve piled up quite a few of them now / 20 years’ worth of not quite three o’clocks / But time moves as fast as it ever did / And you can’t just slow it down / The Red Cedar flows / The Red Cedar grows / And long after you’re gone / It’s outlasting you …” (“Over the Red Cedar”).
My eyes creaked open Sunday morning in the midst of the Speedway Inn. I pulled open the curtains and looked out onto the silent parking lot, a sole housekeeper scurrying between rooms, a hot late summer sun overhead, ready to kiss your skin upon entry into the impending day. It was one of those moments where the notion of how much distance — physical and emotional — is between your current position and where you started out years ago in that hometown you only see in twilight dreams and the depths of an undisturbed slumber.
By that night, I’d taken a seat at the Graham Nash show at the Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee. The melodies of the iconic singer-songwriter (Crosby, Still & Nash, and CSN with Neil Young) conjured memories of being a young kid in the front seat of my mother’s old Toyota, her beloved CSN songs echoing out of the stereo as we went somewhere, anywhere, in search of adventure and kindred spirits, “You who are on the road / Must have a code that you can live by / And so become yourself / Because the past is just a good-bye…” (“Teach Your Children Well”). At 75, Nash’s message to the world has never wavered — love will defeat hate, peace and not war, and you’re only as old as you think you are.
When Monday afternoon rolled around, I laced up my running shoes and hit the Appalachian Trail on the state line in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Although the Newfound Gap Road parking lot was packed to the gills with tourists, I took to the dirt trail and ran as fast as I could from the noise and distraction. A few hundred yards into the trek, everything faded into the background, where all I could hear was my breathing, my running shoes shuffling along, nearby critters and a slight breeze swirling around the high peaks.
I thought of the night camping, of Charlie Parr’s words, of Graham Nash’s voice, and of my constant yearnings for musical connections, and also that of a direct relationship with Mother Nature. With sweat dripping off my forehead, I pushed further up the rugged trail, a grin never once leaving my face, nor the songs in my heart and soul.
Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.
1 The Friends of the Arts will host an afternoon of bluegrass with Balsam Range and the WCU Wind Ensemble at 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 24, at the Bardo Arts Center in Cullowhee.
2 Award-winning American banjo player Béla Fleck and his wife Abigail Washburn, a clawhammer banjo player and singer, will take the stage at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 30, at the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin.
3 Soul Infusion Tea House & Bistro (Sylva) will host Ol’ Dirty Bathtub (bluegrass/Americana) 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 30.
4 Frog Level Brewing (Waynesville) will host Darren Nicholson & Caleb Burress (Americana/folk) at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 22.
5 No Name Sports Pub (Sylva) will host Outlaw Ritual w/Skunk Ruckus (country/folk) at 9:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 22.