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.