Blue Dreams

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Chapter 7: The Country Musician

The time between the end of classes and the beginning of the tour is normally a happy time for Dwayne. He typically spends this time turning in his students’ grades, saying good-bye to his guitar students, making arrangements for his mail, finalizing plans for the tour, and practicing a few times with the band. This is a period of unwinding; daydreaming which is part of his songwriting process. That is a typical summer, but it is not how this summer starts off. The first two rehearsal days turn into marathon sessions. At one point Dwayne actually thinks about just calling off the eight weeks and disbanding The Lonely Players. First, they have to agree on what songs in their current repertoire they are keeping. There are some songs Johnny sang which are simply not going to be in Dwayne’s vocal range. There are some songs that Alex felt they needed to let go of to make room for a different sound. More than once, while rehearsing a song which Dwayne knows well as a guitar player, he misses coming back in for the vocals. He is still the lead guitar player. The rehearsals help him to learn how to balance the two duties. It turns out once he made up his mind to sing “The First Time” it is not so hard to get up to speed on that song. The band likes his new arrangement and he enjoys hearing it the way he had imagined it when he first wrote it. If the audience can get used to a different version, then that song is easily ready to go. If only the rest will go so easily!

By the end of the first weekend, they agree on some basic song rotations. Hank’s “Honky Tonkin” will be a staple every night and, at Dwayne’s insistence, so will the classic “Sitting on Top of the World.” It had been one of Dani’s favorite songs. Dwayne wrote a paper on it as a graduate student. It always put a smile on his face when he could find his way to recall his happy, younger days with Dani. At the end of the second day, Dwayne is happy with what is actually a much more Western sound to the band. The band sounds like a real cowboy band. Dwayne knows the worse is still to come. During the week ahead Alex and he will decide on the songs to add; the songs which will increase the Americana sound of the band. Then, they will practice the new songs with the full band the following week-end.

Alex comes to Dwayne’s apartment each day that week. Dwayne’s neighbor, Eugene, comes in on Monday after their morning jog. He listens to Alex and Dwayne discuss the new material. Eugene suggests they add some Wilco to the mix and Dwayne threatens to kick him out of the apartment. The compromise between Dwayne and Alex on the new song choices are a little tense at times on Monday, but on Tuesday, the two old friends have the toughest day since they’ve known each other. Dwayne has never seen his friend so stubborn. They agree on the Dead’s “Tennessee Jed.” Dwayne gets why that song would fit in an Americana/ Western band. He refuses to play any Skynard, any Band, or Eagles. His band is not a Southern Rock band. If he is going to change the sound, it still needs to have some rhyme and reason. It still needs to represent him at some fundamental level. It is, Dwayne reminds Alex, his band. The struggle of wills results in a screaming match over adding a tune from a band called O’Death. Punk grass is how Alex describes their sound. Alex bargains hard on the fact that they are a modern band from the Appalachian region. Dwayne’s argument is that he doesn’t think that he can move his fingers quickly enough on the banjo piece. He just isn’t that proficient on this instrument. Besides Alex and him would so exhausted afterwards they might not be able to do anything else. He makes a joke that if they are going to play the Dead and O’Death maybe they should just rename themselves the Soon to be Dead Players. Alex doesn’t laugh. Dwayne finally agrees to put in an instrumental version of a song on a few nights-if the mood is right-maybe as an encore. Without missing a beat, Alex is on to the next crazy request. He starts talking about the Avett Brothers. Dwayne agrees to one song off their first album which Dwayne thinks is more purely Americana, but enough is enough. Why reinvent so much? There are plenty of classics they have never played. Why not add a little more of those songs to the performance? Alex agrees.

Alex feels like he is dancing a difficult dance, but he takes pride in the result. Hell, Alex never thought Dwayne would go for a Punk grass band cover. Ridiculous, really, but he had. Alex suggested that choice thinking it would make the Eagles “Take it Easy” more likely. They are doing a gig in Winslow. This would have been the song Alex would have gone for. Dwayne could be stubborn. Alex is surprised by what Dwayne agrees to and what he rejects. Interesting as Hell, but again, the song selection is less important than getting Dwayne’s mind thinking and his blood on fire. Sometimes a little strange in your life reawakens you! Alex delights in the screaming match over the O’Death tune. Dwayne thinks of himself as an Appalachian music scholar, such an intellectual about that regional music, but he has gotten lazy. He hasn’t kept up with how the newer sounds are evolving. Alex calls him a lazy old man pretending to be an expert on the music from that region. He knows how to push Dwayne’s buttons. Really, you never heard of this band? You think you are smart and this was once your area of expertise? How vain Dwayne is about that damn doctorate! It is playing the damn song that is going to be impossible. Alex is secretly happy when Dwayne agrees to play it on rare occasions only. Alex doesn’t want to work that hard every night. The reward comes when they practice the song. Dwayne isn’t skilled at the banjo and there are some hard fingering to figure out. Alex struggles even with the fiddle piece. They get it wrong more times than they get it right. Dwayne is not going to let any song beat him! Alex knows he is on the right path towards helping Dwayne improve his musical performance.

Dwayne isn’t so sure. Tuesday night, he keeps picking at that banjo long after Alex leaves. The guitar is second nature to Dwayne. Sometimes it feels odd not to be holding a guitar, but he isn’t so used to a banjo. This is shaping up to be an odd summer. Three ways this summer could be a failure- audience doesn’t like his singing, audience doesn’t like the new sound mixture, or he doesn’t end up writing at least three songs. Dwayne drinks a little more whiskey than he should or is used to. He finds it hard to jog on Wednesday morning, but he is a disciplined man. One of the few things Dwayne misses in the summer are his morning jogs with his neighbor and he is going to get everyone in he can.

Alex waits at Dwayne’s door on Wednesday morning. He has to admit to himself that he is feeling pretty energized about learning new songs. What are the stages of grief? The thought of death briefly passes through Alex’s mind. He remembers Dwayne joking about a name change to Soon to be Dead Players. Alex feels more alive- more awake somehow-than he ever has before.

He immediately starts to give Dwayne shit as soon as Dwayne and Eugene walks up. Think after all this time he would at least give him a spare key. Dwayne lets him in and silently hands him a spare key. Alex looks at the empty whiskey bottle on the counter and Dwayne’s paler than usual face. He suggests that today they come up with the older classics they are going to add. He realizes that, maybe, he has pushed a little hard for change.

By the time the two old timers finish their third run through of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (Kristofferson’s classic) any tension between them is gone. The song seems like an old friend itself and there is a gentleness between them as they play it. Alex thinks strange may make you feel alive, but it is love that makes you want to stay alive. The thought hits him hard. He is suddenly overwhelmed with love for Dwayne, love for music, love for the life he is leaving behind. He fakes a coughing fit to have an excuse for the tears in his eyes. Dwayne gets both of them a glass of water. He says he’s had a thought about an unusual encore. They spend the rest of the day on “Wabash Cannon Ball.” What could be more Americana than a train song?

At the end of the day, Alex makes a suggestion in a hesitant voice. He knows this is going to be the hardest sell yet. Alex tells Dwayne that he, Alex, needs to take over as lead guitarist on a couple of key songs. Dwayne’s face relays the strong message he intends it to. As much as he prides himself as a song-writer, he takes as much pride as a guitarist. He worked hard during his Nashville days to obtain his skill level as a lead guitarist. When the hit songs hadn’t come rolling along as quickly as the legend would have wanted, Dwayne earned his place in the band by being a genuine great musician. He could play with the best of them.

Alex: It’s too much for you to sing and play an instrument on every song.

Dwayne: You can play anything and I envy that, but you don’t play guitar as well as I do.

Alex: Agreed and that is why you will still be our main guitarist, but not on every song. I’m thinking I can play on songs like “Honky Tonkin” and maybe a couple of others.

Dwayne: Why? Just give me one good reason is all I’m asking.

Alex: Because there are certain songs where playing guitar might distract you from other things you need to concentrate on.

Dwayne: It’s called multi-tasking and there is no reason why I can’t sing and play the guitar. I struggled with it last week-end, but I will get used to it.

Alex: But you are forgetting about the third component. You, also, need to shake your ass.

Dwayne: Oh, my god, this again.

Alex: Part of the job description of front man is showmanship. You are the show.

Dwayne: It should be about the music.

Alex: It will be. Some songs will be more about the music and some songs about your ass. Some songs such as “The First Time” the showmanship will be your handsome puppy dog eyes. I’ve been talking with your interns about some lighting options.

Dwayne: Damn, Alex, I have never been a front man before. Don’t you think I’m too old for all of this?

Alex: I think it’s about time. You’re a great songwriter, but, except for one song, you have never found a voice for your songs. It’s because the voice is yours. Trust me-being a front man will fuel your songwriting. Writing great songs will make you a better front man. Trust me.

Dwayne: But you want to light up my face so people can see my eyes. Have me dance around.

Alex: Put on a show, yes. Of course, you want to play great music, but it is a show. You have never fully used your attributes.

Dwayne: My ass?

Alex: You have a great ass-et, there, my friend. You have that great curse of always being the handsomest man in the room. You’ll forgive me if I don’t feel sorry for you. You’ll use it to get laid. Why not use it to improve the show? You think your brain, or your guitar, or your sense of musical ethics means women are still not staring at your eyes, your arms, your crotch, your ass.

Dwayne: Stop, please, stop.

Alex: Isn’t it about getting people to enjoy the music? Do you think Elvis wasn’t great? Yeah, we liked when his hips moved, but we listened when he slowed it down as well. Come on, Dwayne, baby, be The Lonely Player’s Elvis.

Alex stands up and does the Elvis gyration until Dwayne finally starts to laugh.

Dwayne: Now you are going to give me lessons on how to move my ass?

Alex: I will trust that you can figure out how to move your ass on your own. We should add “Hound Dog” to the set list.

After Alex leaves, Dwayne takes a long shower and then spends some time naked in front of a mirror. Sing the damn song you hate to sing, learn to play the Banjo better, learn to play Punk grass music, and learn to shake your old damn ass. Dwayne thinks again it is going to be a hard, hard eight weeks and he might be a laughingstock at the end of it. Fine, he thinks, you thought about what songs you could realistically sing with your vocal range. You figured out how to play your hit song. You thought about how to change the sound of the band-what you can give up; what you are willing to add. Front man! That is part of your job! Give yourself the once over objectively. He stares at himself from toes to hair and turns around. Honestly, he is in pretty good shape for a man his age. As he rubs a three days beard’s growth, he thinks it is a good addition. He might want to let his hair grow on the tour. His eyes are handsome. He has heard that his whole life. Fine- light his face on slower ballads. He turns around and looks at his ass, bobs it up and down, shakes it side to side. He looks back at the mirror and realizes he is smiling from ear to ear.

On Thursday when Dwayne and Eugene comes in from their jog, Alex is already in the apartment. He is standing in front of the table as if hiding something.

Dwayne: Just couldn’t wait to use the key, could you? Just don’t go surprising me some evening by coming in and climbing into my bed. I know you’ve been staring at my ass.

Alex: I am glad you are in a good mood this morning, Handsome. I brought you a gift.

Alex moves away from the table to display the gift. Dwayne’s eyes looks at the gift and stays on it. It is unexpected. Dwayne picks up the dulcimer reverently. It is a tear shaped specimen, four strings, not made of one wood as they traditionally were, but, being a newer model, has Cedar wood for the sound board and Rosewood for the back and sides. It has been a while since Dwayne has held one. On closer inspection he notices his initials and Alex’s initials are carved in with a small 2 between. Dwayne raises his eyebrows at Alex.

Alex: Don’t go thinking I’m soft for you, Handsome. The engraving was free so what the hell, you know.

Dwayne: You’re not going to keep calling me Handsome are you?

Alex: Maybe just on special occasions.

Eugene: Don’t mean to break the moment, but what the hell is that?

Alex: It is an instrument that should have died a natural death decades ago, but these intellectual types decided it represented real folk music.

Dwayne: It’s a dulcimer. It’s an instrument of the hearth, of families gathering before they had radio and television to keep music and musical storytelling traditions alive.

Alex: (interrupting him). Be prepared for the professor to give you a day long lecture and a test afterwards.

Dwayne: I once saw one in an older man’s home that was hand made in the 1890′s. It really is fascinating the different theories of its origins.

Eugene: (interrupting him) I guess that’s my cue to go.

Alex: Tomorrow’s class is the evolution of the American washboard as an instrument.

Eugene: (laughing and patting Dwayne on the shoulder). See you tomorrow, Handsome.

Alex watches his friend hold the instrument as if it is a Stradivarius. He has spent years teasing Dwayne about his love of this instrument. Alex believes this instrument would have died long ago if it wasn’t for intellectual folk revivalists in the fifties. Dwayne sometimes agrees with that and says that it’s a good thing intellectuals like him are around. Sometimes he disagrees and says there would always be in dulcimers in Appalachian homes. What Alex might not have fully realized until this moment is how much Dwayne truly loves this instrument.

Alex: Why in the hell didn’t you ever just buy one- or had one made- and learn to play it?

Dwayne: Have you ever heard one played really well? I knew I couldn’t play it like that. I wrote about the instrument. My degrees are in music history; not music performance.

Alex: Insecure, much? How many mountain people you think went to college to learn to play this?

Dwayne: But it was their family’s instrument, their heritage, they grew up with this instrument the way some families grow up with a piano in their homes. I didn’t grow up with music. I came to it intellectually.

Alex: But you took up guitar. You write country songs. Tell me a story, Professor, of hearing this instrument.

The first time Dwayne heard this instrument was as an undergraduate through a guest lecturer and music series. The interesting thing was the history of the instrument itself. It was somewhat of a mystery with differing theories, but the known facts were related to how well it had endured in the Appalachian region and the economic and environmental realities which contributed to its popularity. The fact is that the very culture of the Appalachian people - their Irish and Scottish heritage- was tied up into their musical storytelling. Alex interrupts and thanks the Professor. Now he wants the songwriter to tell him about the instrument.

Dwayne retrieves a memory from what seems like a hundred years ago. “In another lifetime ago and in a land very different than LA,” he begins and laughs. He worked with an oral history professor on his dissertation committee to develop a research document. The survey tool was used to discuss generational memories. The goal was to find out on what occasions the dulcimer was played and if that might have changed over time. He was interviewing an eighty year old woman and her sixty year old daughter and when it was over he started to leave. “Stop,” they said, “didn’t you come to hear us play? How can you learn about us without hearing our songs?” They each pulled out their instruments, played, and harmonized their singing. It had just been the three of them during the interview, but, as they played, grandkids and great grandkids seemed to come from everywhere outside in the yard back into the house to hear. He was unfamiliar with the song. The older woman thought her grandfather might have written it. A seven year old boy came over and the eighty year old woman asked him if he could sing the song. Dwayne heard the 7 year old boy sing this song his great, great grandfather had written while the eighty year old woman played. He realized then that he was writing the wrong paper. He was still interested and would finish the paper, but the real story was that songs could communicate and pass along culture. He learned never to do an oral history without asking the person to play and every time the family members gathered together from wherever they had been. That’s when he not only started to write songs, but to write country songs. He imagined someday his children would play his songs to his grandchildren. Hell, that wasn’t going to happen now, but at least people knew and played one of his songs. Music created family and community. He had never seen that more so than with the people he met who played this instrument.

Dwayne told Alex about a wake he had been invited to once. The family was not well off, but he has always remembered the number of people who came to this wake which lasted for days. Everybody brought food, an instrument of some type and stories of the deceased. To see the generations gather and to honor this man with music! Alex hasn’t thought about his funeral. He hadn’t thought beyond his plans for this summer with Dwayne. He is moved by Dwayne’s memories-sentimental fool! He thinks of the Cajun old timers who had taught him to play when he was young.

Alex: It’s a musical story telling instrument that communicates culture across generations?

Dwayne: Yes. That is what I witnessed. What song will you play?

Alex: It’s your instrument. I will teach you to play. I will play the harmonica and the other guys will take a break. It will just be us.

Dwayne: It feels right as we move into introducing this Americana sound as part of our band that we include this instrument. (Quietly and as an aside). Thank you.

Alex: Do you want to play an Appalachian song?

Dwayne: It will have to be a great song, if it is just the two of us on these old instruments. We need to think about reaching the younger kids-we will need to try and bridge some generational stuff. I’ve been thinking about Dylan (Dwayne had not been able to forget the thought since he had it the previous week) Remember the Dylan/Cash version of North Country Girl?

Alex nods: That would be the perfect song for these two instruments.

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