Blurred Time Continues
The War Pipes
A Trip with Ralph
In a Birmingham Diner
With hindsight we often see the crucial moments. And sometimes right then and there. Surely many who rode in the LSTs on June 6th, 1944, knew they were on a precipice, a crown in the highway, and that they would look back (if they survived at all) and know exactly when everything changed. But most of these moments are hidden, I think.
January 1979 was the heart of my experience in the Blurs--the center--particularly as regards the time after Diamond Studs, when the band was a full-time working proposition. (Studs was the most obvious "crown in the road" for us: the point where we became professionals.) We both counted the months by the appearance of Tommy's mimeographed tour schedules and harbored no doubts about their timely appearance; time off meant rehearsals, Cradle gigs plus various other local projects, a little time at home. I achieved the realization that I could live anywhere, because that was where I worked.
In 1978, my then-wife, Annie, and I had decided to buy a piece of land in western Chatham County. We'd been renting this big rambling place in Green Level, and the idea of owning something was looking attractive---a place where, when you put money into something, you've really just transformed the dough into another form, like 2x4s, windows, etc., still in a kind of bank, in your name. So we bought the land. And then we got the hots for living on it, as it was 30 miles away and driving out there was a big project, and, well--you see, I think? We put out feelers for finding some sort of log structure we could move onto the place, that being the cheapest approach, and in the late fall of '78 we were given a 100+ year-old cabin situated up near Burlington, NC, if we would just move it and give it some TLC.
So, in early January, with the advice of a log builder, Robin Garrett, and the help of a friend, Jack "Mr. Barbecue" Brooks, Annie and I started tearing down the building bit by bit in order to get to the logs, number them, haul them to the land, and rebuild the cabin. Fortunately, the Blurs had very little booked in January. This was in fact a rarity, as we often did Midwest tours then. We might have run out to do the Chicago Folk Festival. I can't recall. At any rate, by the end of January we got the logs moved and there were tidy piles of plastic covered logs sitting around the house site. We had the help, on moving day, of the band and most of our local fans I think, but it happened. Then we did go on tour, and it snowed.
In February, towards the end of the month, we came back to Chapel Hill and the Cradle and recorded my favorite out-of-print record, Chuckin' the Frizz, live at the Cradle. Flying Fish Records was flush, and hired a great remote location engineer, Dale Ashby, who arrived with an Airstream chock full o’ good electronic gear, managed to maneuver the sucker back behind the Cradle, and then wired the joint to the gills. We did three nights of good shows--the Cradle was our most relaxed venue, our home turf--and in the daytime we'd listen to "rushes" and consider the next night's set list, and due to Dale's wonderful set up and expertise we were even able to do "punch-ins" in the Cradle during the off-hours and managed to fix a few takes where everything was great except maybe one little mistake someone or other couldn't stand--my fiddle break on "Hot Buttered Rum" comes to mind, for example. So, by the end of February, we had the makings of a live album. (And, gentle reader, if you'll just get on Rounder Records' case a little, maybe they might reissue same in CD format, together with the other record the Blurs did this same year, a compilation of Carter Family songs called Meeting in the Air, about which more later. Rounder has since bought Flying Fish, due to Bruce Kaplan's untimely death. I think there's a link to Rounder on this very web site.)
In March, Annie and I built stone piers to set the cabin on, first digging big holes for the footings for same, and a giant hole for the chimney footing that made the concrete truck guy laugh when he saw it. I was in and out, touring as well. One Saturday, Robin and I hand-hewed the two fresh oak logs we'd got for new sills. And on another Saturday, either in March or early April, we assembled another cast of thousands and raised the logs up to about halfway, at which point we found a rotten one we couldn't use and had to stop and regroup. Then I went off to tour some more, to among other places, the Winfield Festival (there's a pic here somewheres of that--we're all looking like raccoons with coffee cups), and while we were playing Winfield, Annie got another crew together, including one Libby Gill, and they finished up the raising. The Blurs had some amazin' friends.
I was absorbed in the cabin project, and was really praying that we wouldn't go to Europe this year, as we had the previous two years. My prayers were answered. Around July 4th though, we went to Chicago, and Tommy, Mike and Jim did the Meeting album. We fit this in, in the midst of a few other gigs, though the recording took about a week. Jack and I weren't included in the project and just cooled our heels. I made myself busy by doing everyone's laundry, and by going to six straight Cubs games, an experience I still recall with delight. Each morning about eleven I'd walk about 12 blocks down some railroad tracks and come out at Wrigley Field, to be one of the first fans on the scene. I'd kick back with an Old Style and a hotdog and watch the roly-poly groundskeepers in their blue jump-suits do their clown routines with the hose and rollers and rakes, perfecting that gorgeous field that was already perfect, giving it somehow a further shine and glow, the last touch damping down the base paths to a dark rust red that was the ultimate contrast to the green of the infield. Then there'd be team warm ups and such. Dave Kingman was playing for the Cubs then, and it was one of his great years, when he was whacking balls out of Wrigley and down the street that dead-ended into the Left Field wall. People would come out every afternoon on balconies of apartment houses across the street from Left, with a cooler of beer and a few gloves--and Dave could definitely oblige in theory though I think that week he missed the balconies and just whacked a few cars instead. Except for the 4th, the park was mainly empty--it was pretty much like watching the Durham Bulls in action in the days before the movie Bull Durham turned them into celebs. On the 4th, Wrigley was packed, and afterwards Bruce Kaplan threw a 4th of July party in the backyard of the Shubert St. bungalow where the offices of Flying Fish records was located, and where we were all crashing on mattresses strewn around the place. There were fireworks going off all over Chicago in the falling dusk, and probably some pistol shots as well, and plenty of beer and watermelon and hotdogs. By Saturday, when Houston came to play (the rest of the week it'd been the Expos, featuring the great Andre Dawson), the boys were finishing up Meeting right on schedule, and we packed up Sunday and heading back to North Carolina.
As soon as we got back, Annie, Robin, Pat Garner and I started on the roof of the cabin--that took up the whole week, and Friday, after the roof was on and the tin gleamed in the afternoon sun, I went in and did the Cradle. I was amazed at how slinging a hammer all week had actually strengthened my bow arm. And I was also relieved that I hadn't fallen off the building. I still avoid roof work as much as I possibly can. There's no arguing with gravity. After the roof came another big "party" (was I Tom Sawyer or what???), this time a process called "chinking," which means stuffing concrete into wire mesh nailed between each log. Then it was back on the road.
And so the rest of the summer went, a week put in here and there on this or that--wiring, sub-floors, joists, funky sash windows hung on hinges, insulation in the roof--a week on the road to some steamy bluegrass fester or something, Marshall Stevenson or Horse Pens 40. In September we had another several-week road trip to do. In September we rented a U-Haul, filled it with our stuff, and moved from Green Level to the cabin. There weren't even any doors on the building yet, only tarps, but we'd rented our Green Level house to Jack Herrick's ex-wife, and they had to move in. The day we were to leave on tour, the morning started with the U-Haul stuck to the axles in mud on a tractor path to a neighbor's barn where Annie and I had stashed the stuff that wouldn't fit in the cabin. I met my good neighbor Noble Hinshaw, who runs a fine garage and tow business at Crutchfield Crossroads, the closest "place" to the cabin, he hauled me out of the mud with a chuckle, and I was on the road again, and moved into an actual house for an outlay of about $4,000 cash, which is pretty darn good if you've priced houses.
The rest of '79 was the same-old same-old. But I was beginning to find that being gone from the cabin project was not as easy as being gone from our rented house. There was always something I was in the middle of, always some amazing new thing to discover about this little swatch of Piedmont North Carolina that was now under my stewardship--a new yowl in the night down by the creek, a deer-print in the path, the blazing yellow explosion of a crowning hickory in late October.
At the same time, the Blurs seemed to be less and less interested in this project of mine. They grumbled about swinging by the cabin to let me off after a tour, or picking me up at the start of one. Somewhere, sometime, it dawned on me that one way to look at the work of being a Blur was to calculate my "wages" from when I left home to when I returned. This was a corrosive bit of mathematics that I would recommend that no one in a traveling life ever succumb to. I figured out that I was, by these criteria, making about 25 cents an hour. As winter approached, no one in the band seemed particularly happy that we had produced not one, but two albums in this extremely productive year. And by the next winter, 1980, I would be playing a gig I still cherish as one of the pinnacles in my Blurred career--opening for Emmylou Harris in Wilmington, NC---and also preparing to leave the band forever in January of 1981.
But all this hindsight isn't the main thing about 1979. Not at all. That's the point. The main thing is this. On September 19, 1979, my adopted daughter, Anna, was born to my wife and musical partner of the last 17 years, Libby, in Siler City, just eight miles down the road from Crutchfield Crossroads. It took me a few more years to find out about this wonderful fact---but I did, when I met first Libby and then Anna, in 1981. So, as I was sitting by my old chunk heater in the endless February of '81, Annie and the Blurs having departed on their separate paths over the mountain, a warmer morning was coming even if I didn't know it. Now I've played with Libby twice as long as I was in the Ramblers, and Anna's about to turn 20. And being Anna's daddy has been the very best achievement of my life, whether they ever reissue Chuckin' the Frizz or not!
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