Tales from the Road: Finding Meaning in the Distance

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By ALEX ASHLEY

The drive from one side of Washington to the other is so familiar I could do it with my eyes closed: the busy, salt-swept highways hugging the edge of the ocean slowly transform into forsaken roads winding through dusty, brown plains and prairies that seem to be in a perpetual state of dying.  

It’s a journey I always make alone.  

This, April of 2017, was no exception.  As I watched each mile pass beneath me and recalled some stray lyrics to an old song I had started but never finished:

“And the road is a lover who, right from the start, gives you nothing in return but a
lonely, broken heart.”

I had booked a string of shows in Eastern Washington earlier in the year, clumsily scheduled two days after I returned from six weeks in the U.K. Two days before, 4,500 miles away, I had been sitting, strumming a guitar in a bustling Dublin pub.  Now, to say the least, the thought of sitting in a car for seven hours was less than ideal, and the jet lag was almost crippling.  I hadn’t even gone home; I’d stepped off the plane at Sea-Tac, Lyfted to my car, picked up my gear and headed East.  Stop one: Bonners Ferry, Idaho.  Then Kettle Falls, Spokane, Newport and Yakima, Washington.  

“How’s it going, brother?” came the baritone of Bradford Loomis.  

He greeted me with a big hug as I stepped into the green room of an old, converted church called The Pearl Theater in Bonners Ferry -- a town sandwiched between the Colville and Kootenai National Forests in Northern Idaho.  This was one of two occasions that month where our separate tours would converge.  That night, Brad would open for me.  A couple weeks later, in Yakima, Washington, I would open for him at his album release show.   Bradford Loomis, it should be noted, is one of the most adept independent musicians I have ever seen when it comes to touring.  He and his wife, Kimberly, have a way of making the numbers work.  For them, it’s a way of life; not just the pursuit of a passion where you may or may not break even.

“How on earth do you find these venues?” he asked.  

Small theaters off the beaten path are my bread and butter.  I have always held to the belief that we are entering, if not in the midst of, a golden era for independent artists I call “The New 1960’s” -- a time where indie artists are enjoying a validation that used to be perceived as off limits without the help of a major label.  If you bring good music to people, I believe, they will listen.  This is especially true of communities more deprived of the arts than major hubs.  The venues treat you better, the audiences listen closer.  I’d rather play to a 100-seat theater full of listening ears than 200 people in a bar collectively tying one on.  

That night felt the way it should: rich with storytelling, and the feeling that we shared something with the audience, something special they could take with them that they didn’t have when they came through the door.  A young, exceptionally talented girl named Karli Leonardo, opened at the request of the venue.  Brad and I stood in the doorway between the green room and the side of the stage as she played a short opening set, completely awestruck.  

As Brad Facebook Live’d the whole thing, I leaned in.  “Something tells me someday we’re not going to be able to afford tickets to her shows,” I whispered.  

***

Being on the road has this way of making you look back on your past and reflect; your windshield becomes a TV screen replaying moments in your past with a clarity you don’t experience at any other time.  Like the night a woman told me that after hearing one of my songs, her husband was motivated to dig up their estranged daughter’s phone number.  The times women, confidently motivated by poor judgment, had tried to lure me back to their apartments for sloppy, drunken one night stands.  Or playing for a room that was nearly empty, except for four old ladies that looked like the Golden Girls on meth, loudly complaining “I suppose they won’t let us turn the TV up since there’s a guitar player in here!”

The road has a way of exalting you and humbling you, sometimes all in the same night.  But sometimes you find meaning in the distance.    

The next week found me headed for Newport, Washington for a night at the Pend Oreille Playhouse with my friend, Ruthie Henrickson -- a woman who is as beautiful as she is talented, and whose presence always makes me feel privileged.  

“Why do I do this?” I asked myself, maybe even out loud, and it occurred to me how weary I had become from the road.  Tired, alone, detached.  

I thought back to a couple months earlier, walking through Bellingham with a few friends who were in town for a night at the Mount Baker Theater with The Time Jumpers, including the legendary Vince Gill, and arguably the best pedal steel player in the world, Paul Franklin.  

“Where’d you play last night?” I asked.  

“Oh, some theater somewhere,” Vince replied.  “They all blend together after you’ve been on that damn bus as long as I have.”

As we walked through downtown Bellingham, a few people flagging us down for pictures, we compared notes.  

“We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t love the music, would we?” he said.

“That’s right,” Paul nodded.  

This exchange replayed in my mind as I closed in on Newport.  

“Oh,” I thought, “That’s why I do this.”

So as I made the drive I’d made so many times before, each mile marker like a familiar wave from a friend I hadn’t seen in some time; as I gripped the steering wheel, mentalling jotting down my set list for that night’s show; as I propelled myself forward to the sounds of Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen, the Allman Brothers’ At Fillmore East or The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, I bathed myself in a solitary thought: home.

(This story appeared in What's Up Magazine, March 2018 issue