NYC to KC 2015 – (Part Four)

New York City to Kansas City (2015)

Jess Morgan’s Travel Journal – part 4 (the end.)

Do you have any drugs?” Rachel asks after a couple of seconds’ pause. Of course, I don’t and a laughing “…but thanks for asking” is my reply, as we slow down to 45 at the drugs checkpoint signs. After all, she and I only know about each other what we’ve been able to gather up from what would have been at this stage about six hours of road tripping. It was worthwhile to check. Safe to say my journal entries are a long long way from Keith Richards’ autobiography. We are, however, getting ever closer to Kansas.

The ice-storm has hit Tennessee as it had promised and I wake up to see branches, leaves and even berries on trees perfectly frozen looking as deliciously glazed as a big league American doughnut but as crisp as cut glass. Out of the kitchen window the sprawling backyard sparkles and I can only think of Christmas. Out front, the stillness in the sleepy South Nashville neighbourhood simmers like the seltzer on the bedside. Few cars move. I see nobody out on the street. Skimming along Thompson Lane in icy conditions doesn’t appeal, even though it’s the only way to get to places on foot. I stay inside writing songs all day except for a brief outing to the supermarket with Jon who is from Connecticut and isn’t afraid of a little snow and ice.

The weather doesn’t improve the following day. Travel reports and advice seem to separate people into two camps – those who are panicking and those who aren’t. Most of those in the latter camp seem to be expats from other more weather-worldly states. Between the storm that we were all told would shut down New York City (but in reality delivered not much more than a brief telling off) and this now – I feel I’m beginning to get the measure of how the news operates in America. Sensationalism for the advertising buck – coming through loud and clear. I wonder if I should venture to look at the news back home with a similar filter from now.

I’m supposed to be on a bus by now in the direction of Kansas City via St. Louis. I stay put in Nashville and instead accept an offer of a lift to Folk Alliance in a day’s time. I’m getting cabin fever so I hitch a ride with Craig (a second category, non-Tennessean snow supporter) across town. Canadian Craig drops me off at Adam’s place. A friend of a friend, Adam has offered to help me record a couple of demos of songs I’ve been working on so far on the trip. He has a living room set up which works like a dream and we spend all of about 20 minutes recording the songs. The rest of the afternoon we spend at a diner in a booth dedicated heartily to the magic of Lionel Ritchie. On this particular February Tuesday I cling for the first time stubbornly to my roots, compelled to honour one of my favourite traditions – pancake day. Admittedly, these pancakes are a little harder on the arteries than their British cousins.

And pancake day feels today like a very easy day. I feel humbled to have another opportunity to meet and simply click with somebody new. These will undoubtedly be the memories of Nashville that shout the loudest. An LP cover posing Lionel Ritchie looks up at me from under the Perspex table top, reclining seductively yet vulnerably in golf-inspired attire with a look in his eye as if to say “you nailed it a kid.” In the wee small hours and my last ones left on Tennessee time, Jon and I knock up a sweet song for Ukelele, as branches and leaves outdoors crinkle like old bones in the freeze.

Next morning I am loading my stuff into Rachel’s car. It’s a treat for my guitar, it’s probably never met a Wurlitzer before. I expect they have a lot of catching up to do there in the boot… you know, if instruments could talk. Behind the wheel is Rachel – sing-songwriter, Folk Alliance veteran and bona fide friend of a friend. Heading fearlessly for Kansas City, I try to provide in car entertainment by experimenting with incandescent gas-station snacks with road-trip-television aspirations. Pitch: ‘woman vs. E- numbers.’ Episode one: Moon Pie, banana flavour. I also get my first US driving lesson, so actually it’s me at the helm as we pass the drug checkpoint, whilst undoubtedly high on the yellow colouring and whatever other mind altering capabilities the Moon Pie conceals inside the wrapper.

We arrive at the conference that evening. The hotel lobby is already crawling and this place is alive like an ant farm with a good work ethic. My enormous hotel room, with its functional luxury and sharply made beds, stands in complete contrast to the tin box busses and hippie bed and breakfasts where I have been sleeping so far, almost startlingly so. I need a minute to take it in. Next job on the list is a pint in the bar with three lads from Hartlepool who will later go on to take Folk Alliance by storm.

The next couple of days are intense. The hotel is chock-a-block full of folk musicians and songwriters all trying, it seems, to get noticed, make connections and to network. There are opportunities laid on to get out there and exercise the hustle muscle, and scenarios in which only the strong survive. And for these first two days it really does feel like that.

At night, three floors of rooms of this huge hotel come alive as individual speakeasies – plying visitors with free booze (sometimes on the proviso that the consumer is not allergic to shellfish…) and presenting some of the finest Folk and Americana music around. Some rooms are noisy, some are silent, some are full and some are empty. Regardless, up until something like 3am schedules are back to back with people playing their knackered hearts out. Some of these guys are my heroes too.

On Saturday and thankfully, the second wind kicks in – the real conversations resonate longer and louder than the forced ones, the amazing music cures the appalling hangover, the atmosphere trumps the feeling of insecurity, and coming out fighting pisses over feeling beaten into a corner.

Sitting at Kansas City Airport, I feel truly terrible. A wreck. My eyes are bloodshot, my hair is an unsolvable mop and my German boots feel like limos of lead that have been stuck to me for a month. Let’s face it, today, if someone gave me a cheque for a thousand quid I’d probably find that irritating. I’m leaving the US – and it’s sad. It’s three flights home, kicking off with a little plane ride from Kansas City to Detroit. I see guitars piling in the plane and true enough, I’m sitting in a row with other people who are post-conference and whom I suspect are similarly the walking ghosts of their former brighter selves. Alarmingly, the four of us are seated in the emergency exit row which means we must agree to assist in the event of an aeroplane emergency. Lucky for the other passengers, the flight went smoothly – as I cannot think of four worse equipped people to help in an emergency that particular morning than present company and me.

As I exchange paraphernalia for the last time on this trip, I do wonder to myself when the next opportunity to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger will be and it be a-ok. Where am I going to hear the next heart-destroying song? Where will I find pastrami on rye – or co-write – or drive on the right – or be asked for ID so often I temporarily forget the impending doom of the next milestone? Will my evenings be complete without the hope of catching the tail of a song from Rod Picott or Nels Andrews or Rachel Ries, and what is life without the comic asides of David Eagle?

Despite having no answers to the big questions, I do know now without doubt – that Zippo lighters are by popular attest – off when shut.

NYC to KC 2015 – (Part Three)

New York to Kansas City (2015)

Jess Morgan’s Travel Journal – part 3

It’s laundry day today. I’m heading into my last week away so I want to wash everything possible, while comfortably commando in jeans and my favourite rag-tag purple jumper. It’s the one that ought to have been thrown away years ago, but hasn’t. It makes me feel like Carole King. There’s no piano here but I have my guitar over my shoulder trying to push a few starts of songs a little further down the line while making oatmeal and a pot of coffee – which boasts to be Seattle’s Best. It’s a respectable hour in the morning in Nashville for songwriting to begin. Needless to say, I feel pretty at home here now.

It’s wheels-down for a whole week here in Music City. I’ve actually seen the bottom of my holdall and chosen the clothes I’ve wanted to wear, as opposed to the ones that I can get to without upsetting the tetris block packing and starting off a new frustrating all-consuming game. Not that it matters much – temperatures here are dropping and people are talking about snow, storms, snow storms, winter storms and – a new one on me – ice storms. All jumpers on deck.

Skipping back a few days; it’s night time when I arrive, skipping down the hydraulic steps of my last Greyhound chariot. The cold air smacks sharply and serves as an acute reminder that it is still winter here in the northern hemisphere. A cab gets me to South Nashville, faithfully delivering me the customary electric shock that I’ve learned to cautiously expect when getting in and out of cars on this side of the Atlantic, at this time of year. The air is dry and my hands are starting to feel like sandpaper. Static electricity sparks between fingers and thumbs at a fraction’s notice. It’s pretty at night.

I’m the last to join the party, but I’m welcomed in from the cold at Jon’s house. It’s a whistle stop tour of the house while the kettle dances. Someone suggests that maybe we play a few songs and before I know it, we’re doing an impromptu ‘in the rounds’ night except with an open fire and tea. If I didn’t know I was in Nashville, I do now. Barb puts in a call and sets me up with a gig for the next night. I can’t believe my good luck.

On my way to Joseph’s house in Little Mexico I’m doing a bit of a head shuffle of all the separate motivations for my being here in Nashville. I’m here – and in truth, I’m not really sure what I’m going to make of the famous Nashville. Infamous Nashville, so legendary that it inspired its own TV phenomenon in fact. I know so far that I’m here in the industry HQ for country music and subsequently the place where the rising stars, particularly in the genre of Country, would come to seek their fortune. They say there are more songwriters here per square metre than anywhere else in the world. That’s even today; in a day in an age where most people can write and record a song and a demo from anywhere and then send it onward to anywhere with just a few mouse-clicks. I can guess at the things that draw musical people to a place like this – I do get a taste of it for myself as I get out and see the sights.

But take away the history and the heritage and filling your boots, and what are you left with? It’s got to be the writers – right? Like minded people… even I know, that’s gold dust. I’m on the right foot it seems because I’m headed for a co-writing session, my first one actually. I’ve been hooked up by a friend from London and it’s my assumption that you’re always pretty safe with a friend of a friend. Temperatures are above zero so we’re out on the deck, in coats, but outside. We have a full pot of coffee to begin and by the time the dregs are decanted we have the measure of each other – upbringing, politics and God. We are ready to write.

I was warned with regard to co-writing that it’s very rarely a 50/50 situation. Somebody usually takes the alpha position and it’s accepted and cool to run with it as long as the ideas are flowing, apparently. I’m not sure how this compares but Joseph is leading with a chord progression and I seem to be at the helm with the lyrics. We’re treading lightly and sporadically on each other’s turf but there’s an informal understanding of who has the final say on what. No one’s going all Patrick Swayze about the dance-space. I’m truly surprised at how much I’m enjoying co-writing.

We break for Mexican food in a sweet place just a few minutes away and then Joseph drops me off at a guitar shop on 8th. The next day we push to finish the song. It’s with a sudden and unexpected bout of red-light jitters that I go into the ceremonious cutting of the first demo. Between Christmas and now I must have forgotten what performance nerves can do to a person. I feel like a completely different person. I hesitate to entertain the idea of out of body experience, yet I’m aware that something has come over me. I’m dearly hoping the atmosphere shift is only internal, whilst supposing that if I use up all my nervous energy right now… just maybe it’ll be plain sailing for the gig tonight.

Browns Diner is famous for its cheeseburgers, grilled onions and its very humble beginnings. It stands as an institution now on an unassuming corner of Blair Boulevard, Hillsboro way, and decked out in bright lights outside, bright lights inside, tall stools around the bar and plenty of drunk strangers to talk to with more units consumed than teeth. I have the opening slot at 7.30pm and the crowd is small but appreciative. The nerves haven’t gone but they’re making like understanding parents at the school disco and they aren’t showing me up too badly. It’s my first gig in town. If it were the disco we’d want the cool kids to like us and to not stuff up the moves to Saturday Night. I have the offer of a gig for next time, and I’ve made a friend out of the bartender. Well nee-dee-dah-dee-dah… that’s a result for me.

On Friday I’m elated to spot a mahogany travel-sized-guitar for a steal of a price but brought back down to earth when I find out that my airline would charge me £100 to take it home with me. I settle for six packs of guitar strings (at gloriously American prices) and a copy of Fretboard Journal which I reckon is nerdy guitar-magazine meets Wallpaper or other aesthetically yummy rag. The aeroplane luggage situation is forcing me to keep my souvenir buying on the conservative side. I’m sticking to paper keepsakes and feeding my laughably vanilla addiction to postcards. At The Country Music Hall of Fame I opt to take the tour of RCA’s Studio B. They have an incredible photo of a young, skinny Elvis Presley hanging in their first room – in a shirt and tie with his hair up but maybe a little bed-sprung. They don’t have it in the gift shop – but I do find a nice black and white of Willie Nelson for a buck.

In the live room at Studio B, we sit in chairs along the length of the room while the tour guide dims the lights and changes the colours as they might have done during Elvis’s favoured 10pm recording slot. Reds for rock and roll, blues for gospel and pitch black for that wonderful one-take (bar one splice) of Are You Lonesome Tonight. It’s hard to believe that the little cross marked out on the floor in blue electrical tape is where so many great men and women stood… and sang their guts out. No time or money back then for red-light jitters.

The tail end of a busy weekend brings me to Nashville’s answer to Hoxton Bar and Grill, though there are enough micro beanies and beards in here for me to better twin it with The Cereal Cafe… in a way, it’s comforting to know that no matter where you go, the hipsters look the same. Anyway, it’s a great turn out tonight to see the man The Nashville Scene once called ‘The Duke’.

It’s been seven years since I saw Chris. The first time he was up on stage with the late (great) Don Helms who was at that time possibly the last surviving member of Hank Williams’ original band. It was in downtown, in a bar on Broadway, though I don’t member which. We’re in The Stone Fox in East Nashville for a healthy dose of classic country from Chris Scruggs and The Stone Fox Five and it certainly is most excellent medicine. It’s a lovely thing to be back in touch with old friends – bizarrely sharing our table with the editor of The Newyorker.

Between night and next morning the snow falls and lays turning the neighbourhood immediately to me into something like a bobsled course except with Chevys on it. My co-write is cancelled due to the tricky weather and I have an at-home day working on songs, chain-tea-drinking and thanks to marvellous technology I’m able to listen with a tap of a touch screen to more of the musicians I’ve met and become fast friends with this week. Streaming is keeping me in good ears and helping me to cement some excellent memories made, but somehow my two-step with Spotify feels rather like a candle-lit slow dance with a stranger that’s not quite a friend of a friend…

When evening comes we pass a bottle of port and light a real fire, just to be safely old fashioned.

NYC to KC 2015 – (Part Two)

New York to Kansas City (2015)

Jess Morgan’s Travel Journal – part 2

Can someone just confirm for me that Zippo lighters cease being alight when the lid is flicked shut?

It’s obviously much too late to be asking that now. It was too late when I heaved my guitar case into the dark and ominous hulls of the four o’clock for Knoxville and climbing aboard and turning it over and over in my head – they do switch off when they’re closed, don’t they? If not then I’ve just put something of a molatov cocktail into a man’s jacket pocket and conveniently boarded a Greyhound bus bound for the state line…

I’ve just passed my half hour wait at the bus terminal outside of Asheville, North Carolina lighting cigarettes for a man with hooks for hands who wants to “chain smoke and talk to pretty girls”, because he’s riding all the way to Memphis. At first I wonder if this is a scam, involving lighter stowed down deep in his jeans pocket and a good deal of heavy breathing. But no, the Zippo is respectfully kept in the breast pocket of his jean jacket. Sure, he has blotchy green tattoos on his face – but there’s nothing unreasonable about him. I’ve had sleazier experiences in Newport Pagnell. I watch him from the corner of my eye as the Greyhound carries us through the last stretches of Carolina. He’s quite incredible really – talking on his mobile phone, eating a sandwich – heading out for a new posting as a truck driver in Tennessee.

I meet a lot of truck drivers during this bus travel heavy quarter of my trip. Just the other day I’m there chatting with Herman who’s heading for Charlotte and had come out of retirement because he misses the road. Herman’s CB radio name is Easy Lover. I make no comment, except a secret solemn vow that I’ll shoe-horn that into a song before I retire.

So let me go back a few days… I leave Norfolk, Virginia early on Friday morning. The Greyhound terminal is a small one and it’s a dark stagnant cave inside. The ticket teller is easily wasted but friendly enough. I look carefully for a place to sit because it’s clear that people have been sleeping here – maybe even all night. Sitting too close would be like walking into someone’s bedroom when they’re not ready to get up – noisily yanking back the curtains and shouting ‘wakey wakey rise and shine!!”

I catch the eye of a guy sitting across the way from me. He’s travelling with a lot of kit – the green duffels with black initials on them suggest the military. He’s looking at my guitar and asks me if I play. I tell him I do and ask the same question back. He says yeah, he’s a uniformed musician – French Horn. Jeff is twenty years old, just through basic training and heading for his first post as a French Horn player . He tells me he used to play guitar in a heavy rock band back home in New York. I asked him if he’d given it up to join the military. He said “nah… Our drummer started taking heroin.” Well, I think, at least it’s more original than ‘Jimmy quit, Jody got married.’

As I scroll through pictures I’ve taken of road signs, beaten up cars and misassembled restaurant-strip typography and I replay the discourses of these one off exchanges with complete strangers, I wonder whether the novelty of being surrounded by so much real life Americana is going to wear off. With no sign of the wonder dwindling, I drift into something of a lee. I’m staying in the Warehouse district of Durham in an apartment that used to be a part of a tobacco factory. I have a clear view over the street toward the campus of Duke University and what will be my route for a run the following morning. The weather is spring-like and I pass (and admittedly I am over taken by) a number of preppy looking joggers in their Duke gear on a wide sandy path that circles the grand campus under huge oak trees.

The Nasher Art Museum is accessible by a short cut through the campus grounds and I treat myself to a ticket for the Juan Miro exhibition. Miro lived a long and eventful life and painted almost right up to the end it seemed. I am particularly struck by a set of huge great canvasses that he painted in the eighties. Of the pieces in the room these are probably the simplest in composition and the typed words on the small white plaque adjacent tell me that the artist’s aim was to paint movements that are infinite… by allowing the imagination to do half the work. I’m paraphrasing of course. I admire his bravery – in keeping it so simple – and I wonder whether the same is achievable in songwriting. I wonder if I have had my head buried in the sand a little, trying to write songs that are like photorealistic pictures… when there has always been and will always be a place for simplicity too.

It’s just one straight bus leg from Durham to Asheville and it’s pretty uneventful. We get a rest stop in Hickory and I join a long line for one restroom. I’m busting, so I wait the good wait watching the minutes tick away and the other passengers climb back on board outside. The engine is roaring by the time I step on, the zig-zag doors snap behind me so fast they would have caught my coat tails and we’re moving before I sit down. Close call.

Outside of Asheville the drop off is again on the outer city limits in sight of the usual strip of chain eateries and motels. I dial in my first Uber ride to take me downtown. I’m staying this time in a beautiful turn of the century house the kind with a porch in the front and a deck at the back and would be an incredible place to spend a Spring season. The rain really does hammer down over the next couple of days, but the real attraction this time for me is the house. I’m getting a lot of writing done and it feels terrific.

On the last night I go out for a bite to eat with Elaine, another guest in the house and when we get home I play her a couple of songs across the kitchen table. It’s off the cuff and not rehearsed or over-thought and there’s something either in my songs as I’m singing them or maybe it’s in my voice or both, that feels newer and somehow refreshed. Besides the end game of the Folk Alliance conference in ten days time, I’ve come to America with very little agenda except to regain some of the spirit that had seemed for a long time, so very lost. And I think it’s working.

Last bus for a while now. We cross over into new time zone in the dark as the woman in the seat behind me continues in a soliloquy in which she has recently got out of prison, there was definitely something about being abducted by aliens and ultimately losing her “noodle.” I can believe that. Her doctor, it seems, took a piece of her skull, kept it for three years (until she she got out of prison) then put it back in. Our bus driver is winning the award so far for best announcements. She’s entertaining and her intonation could easily get score her a tidy sideline in making self-empowerment hypnosis tapes. Rest stops are snappy and there’s “time to git it… and git it to go… if you wanna git it.” This woman takes no shit – off-a anybody.

NYC to KC 2015 – (Part One)

New York to Kansas City (2015)

Jess Morgan’s Travel Journal – part 1

You know what it’s like when you have to be up early for something important, waking up at half-hourly intervals in the night thinking each time “oh crumbs* I’ve slept through my alarm.” Even though ‘time-sensitive’ makes for a more self-settling descriptor than ‘fraught’, flying a day later than planned and to a different airport, with that double edged sword of a tourist visa and a guitar case – I just want to finally be up in the air and be done with all the wiggly bits in the middle.

* – insert your own choice of early morning expletive. My swearing lacks any sailor-ish gusto on an empty stomach.

First leg of ground transportation kicks off in New Jersey and with a chance to soak up some excellent accents. It’s evening time and there’s a bitter wind down on the platforms. Arriving at Penn Station in New York, I’m reminded of the last time I took a similar journey – in and out of Penn to get a glimpse of Asbury Park – boardwalk and Stone Pony, as any self respecting Springsteen fan would. That was five years ago. Crumbs.*

Despite having been here before, I get my first chance to utterly balls up the subway system. Getting the L to Morgan Avenue should be as quietly familiar in its silveryness as the Jubilee line from Central to Stratford. After a fair bit of zig-zagging underground I catch the L train to Brooklyn. The snow in Williamsburg is piled up high on the roadsides. Pavements have been cleared here and there, but you could still find yourself following a path cut through the snow only to find it suddenly stop and you need to dig yourself a way out. The keys to my borrowed apartment have been padlocked to a post somewhere down McKibben Street.

The Rockwood Music Hall is back in Manhattan. I find food down the street at a diner which must be either rite of passage for Rockwood musicians or predictable New York Newbie behaviour because my friend Annie, who is both seasoned New Yorker and wonderful singer-songwriter, could pinpoint my location just by the salt and pepper shakers.

I have the midnight slot at Rockwood. Watching the bustle of the room swell as the acts took to the stage over the course of the evening I hold out little hope that I’ll get away with playing any quiet songs tonight. I’m not too proud to admit that some of my stuff just doesn’t cut it in a bar room now. It catches me by surprise when suddenly things get very quiet in the room. I’m touring with my Blueridge BR43 – which I call The Workhorse. It’s kind of an unwritten law that guitar players with any slight leaning toward Americana have one guitar they must call the workhorse. Anyway I picked that guitar up 2nd hand from Northern Guitars in Leeds on a day when I had I think a bad mood and a student loan pay-out. It’s been a pal to me ever since. The spruce top means it’s a little harsh and bright for my stuff ordinarily but it’s lovely and immediate which is perfect for a songwriting session. The Workhorse however, is tired and upset and remains to be, despite my best efforts, pitifully out of tune throughout my set at Rockwood tonight. Nevertheless, I enjoy playing and being heckled by the audience. Little sparks fly across and back as I if I’m in a room full of my loveliest friends.

Next day I have a terrific view over the city and the Chelsea area from the restaurant on the 5th floor of Soho House. My name is on the door which makes me straighten up my posture and maybe my tie too if I were wearing one, and I make my way up to the bar to meet a friend. Every inch of this place is shining spotlessly and stands in complete contrast to the shabbiness of the bread-and-butter-for-backpackers loft with its makeshift quarters from stud-wall and cheerful coloured sheets, where I woke up today. I’m being treated to lunch by Michael Park who I only know so far through e-mail although I know the Scots twang from podcast episodes of The international Americana Music Show. As well as very kindly including and talking up my music on his radio programme, Michael was the first person to plant the seed of the Folk Alliance conference in my head – my final destination and the reason really for the entire trip. We talk about New York and about what to expect at Folk Alliance, about Michael’s experience as a journalist based here in the US and how like in music the idea of gaining not just simply success but momentum is the easiest thing to expect but the hardest thing to realise. After lunch we take a cab through to Brooklyn Proper and Michael fills me in on some of the neighbourhoods he’s known and seen change over that last ten years he’s been based in the city.

I’m heading now to meet a friend who lives in Brooklyn and we’re taking her kids who are both pre-schoolers to their music class. We meet another Brooklyn Mom and her kids and we all walk like a parade alongside Prospect Park, snaking piles of snow and icy puddles. Music class is an absolute hoot. The couple running the class have a great ‘set’ of songs and activities which they perform with such energy while at the same time being attentive to each child so that everyone feels included and positively praised. It felt great to come in off the cold street to somewhere warm and buzzing. It’ll take a long time before I lose the voice in the back of my head saying “whaddaya mean Lima beans?!”

Later on I take the subway north as far as Bedford Avenue and walk back through Bushwick / Williamsburg (I’m never sure which counts as which). I’ve heard that this a good street for some decorated hipster-spotting but it’s pointedly cold now and the streets are eerily quiet, so much so that I stop for a hot beverage and a snack and as it turns out Eddie the sandwich guy’s phone number written in marker on a tear off of wax paper.

The next few days I get to spend on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, couch surfing with some very dear friends from back home who have been based out here for a while. I spend a whole afternoon in Greenwich Village seeing if I can get my hands on one of the records I’ve made it something of an obsession to get a good vinyl copy of and at a fair price – that’s Tupelo Honey – Van Morrison and I’m Just A Prisoner – Candi Staton if anyone’s counting. I don’t have much luck with the records but I do take pictures of birds in the La Guardia corner gardens and have coffee in the Cornelia Street cafe.

Free from the guitar and my duffel bag, I start to enjoy the subway again. The six train is ground to a halt just after 68th street and an old man with bow legs and his grey hair mashed into a baseball cap yells out “come on jackasses!” It’s a minute or two’s delay says the announcer. “Jackasses,” again. A stop down the line one of New York’s many subway beggars enters the train and he’s singing ‘Under the boardwalk’ most curiously in two voices – one smooth and soulful, one low down and shudderingly croaky. He taps out the rhythm with his stick on the dirty car floor. Musically it’s a treat – and I actually do want to give him a couple of bucks, but everyone is stony faced and wind braced with the hatches firmly down. I’m not brave enough to start a trend. Unphased by the cold reception, the singing beggar leaves the train, his voice saying with a distinct up note “don’t forget to smile, it won’t mess up your hair.” The sourpuss in the cap says “this is fucking shit, don’t give him any money… Jackass.”

The days in New York pass much too quickly. I’ve eaten and drunk like a trooper, heard some great music and had my mind blown by street art, modern art and Egyptian paintings.

More snow fell on Monday morning making the pavements slushy and slippery with more frozen rain hurling down from above. It was probably a good day to be spending on a bus. The Sprinter coach to Virginia Beach went from Times Square and I was met by the nicest bus driver of all time who let me take my guitar on board and even helped me find a good place to stash it. He showed me an ad hoc mobile phone slideshow of his own guitars and said he’d played all over the US and Europe too. The driver’s microphone on the other hand seemed like it was still something of a novelty instrument. Our coach party were to endure a flurry of announcements and digressions sprinkled like yet more snow over the course of the 7 hour trip in the style one might expect from James Joyce and incorporating as many obscure tangents.

The wind buffets the bus as we heroically cross the Chesapeake bridge safe into the arms of a supermarket carpark which doubles as the drop-off point for Virginia Beach. It’s a few degrees warmer here and I’m relieved to be able to take off my big coat for a while. I have enough time to gawk at the tidal wave of peanut butter based confectionery before meeting my cousin Ben and trying to wedge a hiscox case into the back of a particularly slimline Pontiac.

Up ahead are a few days of family time, during which I conquer my fear of spiral staircases and sharks at the aquarium, realise I am beyond terrible at line-dancing, and try hush puppies for the first time, by which I mean deep fried cornbread style doughnuts – not shoes from Clarks – served in a basket… with extra butter. Crumbs.*