In front of me was the fading sunset of a crisp early evening in the Texas Hill Country, some 30 miles southwest of Austin. Cracking open a beer, I saluted the explosion of color in the endless sky, bursting with red, orange and yellow.
For several years now, it has been a mission of mine to wander these wide-open spaces. It’s a landscape that offers as much as it takes away, where one finds themselves in survival mode through scorching summers and unpredictable winters. There is something so beautifully haunting about this state — it really speaks to such deep pockets of the curious nature within my soul.
And with the oddly mild temperatures these past couple of weeks, I find myself meandering endlessly down back roads, simply turning off the main drag and drifting out into this vast ocean of dirt, rock and cedar trees surrounding the old pickup truck hauling down the road, the pedal pushed closer to the floorboard with each empty stretch of pavement.
They say you can do a lot of thinking when you’re on the open road. And that’s why I continually chase those opportunities to merge onto the highways and dirt routes that cover America like a circulatory system exposed for all to see and wander atop.
Earlier that morning, news broke about Butch Trucks, the legendary drummer for the Allman Brothers Band — an American icon — who tragically passed away last Tuesday. Word of his death spread like wildfire, while all I felt was sick to my stomach amid images ricocheting around my head of us hanging out together last year when he played Asheville.
When I started out as a music journalist some 11 years ago, my goal was to track down these rock-n-roll legends and write their stories. I didn’t want to ask them dumb questions or be a fan boy. I truly wanted to have a real and honest conversation with these musicians I have such admiration for.
And Butch was — through and through — a kind and beautiful soul, gracious enough to give me some of his time to chat and ponder (www.smokymountainnews.com/ archives/item/17494). I’ve been lucky enough to spend countless hours conversing with artists I had years before only thought would be a dream just to be in their presence. I love what I do, and I love being able to interact with our melodic heroes, sharing with y'all the true depths and glorious lives of melodic adventure that resides below their road-dog skin.
I’ve been listening to the Allmans nonstop since I got word on Butch’s passing. The music is just about a half-century old, and just as sonically glorious and politically relevant today as it was back then. Their music is the human condition, for good or ill. And Butch always promoted the good. You’ll be missed, Butch, but “the road goes on forever.”
When I posed my final question of our interview together, I asked Butch about being an atheist and if he was optimistic about the future. He said he was, even if he’d become more cynical with age.
Then he told me: “What I’m really enjoying is that my youngest daughter just had a child, and I’m sitting here [in Florida] with my blood pressure as low as its been in decades because I get to rock him to sleep every night. You know, sometime when he grows up he’s going to wonder why the second movement of Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony resonates so much, and that’s because I sing it to him every night. He goes immediately to sleep and I’ll rock him for an hour — it’s wonderful. I do have so much hope for him, and for my other grandchildren. It’s like Kurt Vonnegut said, ‘There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’And I really try to remind myself of that before I get angry about the world today.”
Sitting on that tailgate, watching the Texas sun say goodnight until tomorrow, I thought of Butch, his immortal music, his devastated family, and the wise words he bestowed upon me. I continued to stare at the western horizon for several minutes after the sun disappeared.
The road is long, and bountiful for those with passion and thirst for what lies ahead. These past two months have been quite the physical and emotional crossroads for the face I see in the mirror. There is an awakening within my being, and I’m trying to make sense of it — these thoughts, ideas and dreams — far away from my small apartment with the big porch in downtown Waynesville.
The beauty of venturing into the unknown — of yourself and of the open road — is that at some point you’ll start seeing the signs that you’re going in the right direction, of your intent and your ultimate purpose on this massive rock hurtling through outer space.
We’re headlong into a transitional phase of not only this nation, but also humanity in general. I remain optimistic, even with all the sadness and darkness enveloping what I see, hear and read nowadays. But, if you take your place in life — your town, job and everyday presence in society — and use it as a vehicle for positive change and progress, then we as a people will someday reach a plateau of compassion and understanding that will echo into the impending generations and centuries.
Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.
1 Popular blues/folk singer Heidi Holton will perform at 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 4, at Frog Level Brewing in Waynesville.
2 The “Songwriters in the Round” series will continue with a “Valentine’s Songwriter” evening featuring Henry Hipkens at 6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 11, at the Balsam Mountain Inn.
3 No Name Sports Pub (Sylva) will host Ol’ Dirty Bathtub (Americana/bluegrass) at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 11.
4 The Women of Waynesville (WOW) will host a wine-tasting fundraiser for member Becca Swanger, who is running for the 2017 Mardi Gras Ball queen to raise money for the Haywood County Schools Foundation, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10, at the Cork & Cleaver (Waynesville Inn).
5 First Baptist Church (Waynesville) will host acclaimed youth pianist Timothy Noble at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 5.