Fayette State Historic Park, Michigan.
A music hall in the north woods?
What is this page doing on The North Woods Call website? You'll have to visit once-in-a-while to find out.
Let's just say that every community needs an auditorium -- a place where residents can gather for entertainment, topical lectures and general relief from the stresses of daily life.
Likewise, we thought we needed an out-of-the-way place to chronicle the rhythms of life -- to feature those stories that may be of interest to readers, but don't necessarily fit within our overall editorial focus.
We can't really say what these stories will be -- only that they'll be about the people, places and musical connections that add color and joy to our lives.
If they interest us, chances are they'll strike a chord with you.
So why not stop by when you're in the area and enjoy our Music Hall, wherever the spotlight shines.
By Mike VanBuren (2001)
The world outside is dark and I’m sitting in the brightly lit dining car of Amtrak’s Twilight Limited, rolling east along steel rails that stretch from Union Station in Chicago to the small, red-stone depot in Kalamazoo -- and beyond.
I lean forward and place my elbows on the small table in front of me. I can hear the powerful rumble of the diesel locomotive that is pulling me through the cold southwestern Michigan night. Its mournful whistle shouts loud warnings at rural crossings, and I feel the heavy coach rock back-and-forth in a gentle rhythm that soothes my worn and tired spirit.
I’m alone in the dining car, save for an exuberant young porter who is singing and dancing with imaginary partners behind the stainless steel service counter. He’s in a place of his own tonight and the same is true for me. I ignore his happy performance and squint hard to see through the wide observation window into the blackness beyond. Large mercury vapor lights illuminate occasional barnyards and the yellow glow of incandescent bulbs make the passing farmhouses seem warm and inviting against the frosty winter landscape. But the idyllic scenes appear for just a moment, then slide away as quickly as they arrive, leaving only the gleaming interior of the diner reflected in the smooth, clear window glass.
I’m not altogether familiar with the middle-aged man whose mirrored image stares back at me from the window. He reminds me of a boy I once knew, who sometimes rode the old Michigan Central rails along this same route during the late 1950s and early 1960s. But his uneven beard is streaked with gray and his face is etched with unwelcome lines that testify to the many years and miles he’s left behind. He seems eerie and out of place, like a ghostly visitor from some far-off future who has come to remind me of my own mortality. I try to look beyond him, but he mimics my movements and blocks the view. The image fades slightly whenever we pass the fleeting lights of another barnyard or farmhouse, but the stubborn apparition always returns, leaning forward with his elbows on the table and looking me straight in the eyes.
“What happened to the boy who used to ride these trains?” I ask softly, careful not to draw the scrutiny of the dancing porter. “And where’s the young family that always traveled with him -- father, mother and sister?”
I used to see the boy whenever I looked into a window such as this. I remember his many hopes and dreams, and the thrill he got watching the world flash by outside. He was the son of a railroad engineer and a trainmaster’s clerk, and railroads were a big part of his young life. Many times the family traveled west from Kalamazoo to Chicago, or east to Detroit. They would skirt the back sides and underbellies of small towns and large cities, and roll through dense woodlots and across broad cornfields to destinations that seemed exotic and far away.
One Christmas season, they rode the New York Central System’s Wolverine through Windsor, Buffalo, Syracuse, Utica, Schenectady, and Albany, then south along the Hudson River to Grand Central Station in New York City. They stayed for two days at the Piccadilly Hotel, bought hot pretzels from street vendors and attended an off-Broadway play --“Cactus Flower” -- that starred Betsy Palmer and Lloyd Bridges.
It was a memorable journey for the then 15-year-old daydreamer. He loved the thick steel platforms and heavy doors that separated the rail coaches, and enjoyed walking the long, narrow aisles to study the faces of other passengers. He was intrigued by the built-in water coolers that were located near the ends of the coaches and he liked to drink from their conical paper cups. He particularly liked to watch the uniformed conductor, who came by after each stop to punch tickets and push them into narrow slots on the backs of the seats. And he pretended to travel in his own private Pullman car, imagining that the strangers he saw standing on platforms at local railroad stations had come to see him pass through their towns.
Over the years, the boy had a fair number of rail adventures. Sometimes on weekend nights, he accompanied his father to work in the Grand Rapids switchyards. He would ride in the warm locomotive, sip hot chocolate from a thermal jug and sleep on the floor of the cab when he could no longer stay awake to help with the work. Other times, he circled slowly on the revolving turntable at the aging brick roundhouse in Kalamazoo, or listened to his father swap stories with boisterous engineers, brakemen, and switchmen. It was good work, being a railroad man, and one brief and glorious summer the boy tried it for himself when he hired out on the Penn Central Railroad as an 18-year-old locomotive fireman.
Tonight, I’m re-living those early days. They were resurrected unexpectedly by the familiar odor of diesel fuel, the clicking of steel wheels on rails, and the romance of going someplace -- anyplace -- on a train. But the aging passenger in the window continues to watch me as I peer into the darkness outside, reminding me that more than 30 years have passed since the boy of my memory last rode these rails. His parents have long since retired from their railroad jobs and the boy now has a growing family of his own. Yet the life he lived will always be a part of who I am.
The Twilight Limited is slowing now as it approaches Kalamazoo. I hear several more lonesome blasts from the whistle and the conductor announces the train’s imminent arrival at the picturesque depot that stands between Burdick and Rose streets. I think about the boy arriving at this same station many years ago, jumping off the train and running ahead of his family to inspect the weathered baggage carts that lined the east end of the platform. But the narrow carts are gone now -- sold to antique collectors -- and the depot has been converted into a modern transportation center with a shrunken waiting room that fills with colorful vagrants on cold winter nights. As the train rolls past Western Michigan University, the bright city lights cause the apparition to fade from the window.
My thoughts broken, I stand to collect my bags and move toward the end of the coach, where the conductor is preparing the exit for passengers disembarking in what was once known as the Celery City. I bend forward to look out the window one last time as the train hisses and jerks to a stop. Outside, I see another fresh-faced boy with bright eyes and rosy cheeks who strongly resembles the one I knew so many years ago. He is standing on the snow-covered platform with his sister and mother, smiling and waving to a weary middle-aged man who is returning from Chicago.
One day, perhaps, many years from now, that boy will see his own reflection in the window of a train. And he’ll remember what it was like to be a child on this night when the Twilight Limited brought his father home from some distant place and time.
By Mike VanBuren (1999)
It’s early Sunday and I’m feeling a bit uneasy here in the so-called “Big Easy.”
This is my first visit to New Orleans on the south shore of Louisiana’s sprawling Lake Pontchartrain and I’m out for a morning run through the famous French Quarter.
“You’ll love N’Awlins,” the hotel desk clerk promises as I go out the door. But I’m not sure I do. At least not this part of the city.
“Laissez les bon temps rouler,” the Cajun folks say. “Let the good times roll.”
They must have rolled pretty well on Saturday night, because Bourbon Street looks like the aftermath of a sanitation workers’ strike. I’m nearly ankle deep in paper cups, beer bottles, swizzle sticks and broken glass. And the stench is downright repugnant. The collective odor of sour garbage, stale beer, vomit and, in some cases urine, wafts from the sticky pavement as I make my way down the narrow thoroughfare.
There are few people out at this hour, save for a handful of delivery truck drivers, trash collectors, and young black men with stiff brooms and garden hoses spraying the filth away. I sidestep a spray of water and hurdle a large whiskey bottle that is lying on the pavement, trying not to inhale the foul-smelling air any deeper into my lungs than necessary. The street cleaners are a determined lot, scrubbing and scraping the sidewalks. They pay little attention to me weaving in and out of the discarded debris.
Most of the businesses appear to be idle, but a few clubs are still hopping with the lively sounds of zydeco, Cajun, and Dixieland jazz music. A long, black, sinister-looking Cadillac motors slowly down the street beside me and I hear a loud popping noise as its right rear tire crushes a wayward glass bottle.
“Hey, man, you ran over some glass,” hollers an unshaven man with bloodshot eyes and dirty hair who is sitting on the step of an old building. As if the driver didn’t know. The man laughs loudly and shakes his head. “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” he says to no one in particular, then gets up and wanders southwest toward Canal Street.
My uneasiness grows as a small group of leftover revelers stagger toward me in the morning light, still under the influence of drugs or alcohol. I cross the street to avoid them and look up at a man and woman relaxing on the wrought-iron balcony of a small hotel. They are sipping hot coffee from white mugs – perhaps an antidote to powerful hangovers from the night before.
The travel literature in my hotel room suggests that local leaders are trying to promote New Orleans as the “Belle of the South.” But Bourbon Street seems to me to be the antithesis of that image. It is, rather, the underbelly of modern life, filled with the mind- and spirit-numbing temptations that we all seem to fall victim to at one time or another.
The signs tell it all. “Topless.” “Bottomless.” “Orgies.” “Love Acts.” “Live on Stage.” “The Lust is Life Condom Company.” And many other vulgar come-ons. I don’t know what kind of anti-obscenity laws may be in place here, but this is what I imagine the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah looked like before Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt.
There are voodoo shops that later today will be staffed by strange-looking women with purple hair and pierced faces. There are daiquiri bars, beer joints, and karaoke saloons. There are souvenir stores crammed with T-shirts that feature a host of colorful designs -- ranging from the typical tourist fare to offensive sexual images of a White House intern and the president of the United States. And there are “Gentlemen’s Clubs,” where bored, glassy-eyed young women spin themselves around brass poles in a display of high-priced exhibitionism aimed at separating traveling businessmen from their money. These clubs are easy to spot, because most of them have pictures of naked dancers posted on sidewalk displays. Men, women and children alike can enjoy the photos as they walk past.
Maybe that’s why they call New Orleans “The Big Easy.” Most anything that you want can be found -- for a price -- on Bourbon Street.
I don’t have a single cent on me, so I turn around and run back to St. Peter Street, which stretches northwest to Louis Armstrong Park. I turn the opposite direction from the park, however, and pass Preservation Hall in search of the Mighty Mississippi. I find the river a few blocks later and run along the waterfront through Woldenberg Park. I’m relieved to see that redevelopment efforts have made things look a bit more family-friendly here on the banks of the big river that Mark Twain immortalized in his popular stories. At Poydras Street I turn right and run past Tulane University Hospital and the Louisiana Superdome on my way back to the hotel.
A few hours later, as the afternoon sun begins to cast long shadows on city streets, curiosity gets the better of me. I decide to give Bourbon Street another chance. Maybe I’ll better understand its allure if I see the street filled with people, energy and live music.
When I arrive at the corner of Bourbon and Canal streets, I’m greeted by what appears to be a Cecil B. DeMille epic production with a cast of thousands. The street is jammed. I like crowds about as much as I like to wrestle alligators in the bayou, but I decide to elbow my way down the sidewalks, anyway.
It’s a carnival-like atmosphere, with constant motion, festive music and loud-mouthed hucksters competing for my attention.
“Come right in, buddy,” says one barker, who apparently wants to be my friend. “Yeah you. It’s happy hour, my man. Two drinks for the price of one. Best deal on Bourbon Street.”
I ignore his invitation and walk on by, watching an assortment of people criss-cross the street in search of better drinks, cheaper souvenirs, and more titillating entertainment. Blacks, whites, Asians, Cajuns, rebels, and Yankees. Foreigners speaking in mysterious languages with strange accents. Youths with green hair, blue hair, purple hair. People with pierced noses, eyebrows, tongues, and belly buttons. Others with ornate tattoos and long beards. Men in torn shirts and faded jeans. Women in tight pants and revealing blouses that some occasionally lift to expose their ample breasts. It appears to be an energetic melting pot of modern fashion, drunkenness and gluttony. People are hugging, kissing, dancing in the street and swilling alcoholic beverages like parched farm workers gulping cool water on a hot summer day.
I stop for a few minutes to watch three young black boys tap dancing for tips on square wooden boxes. I wonder if they enjoy performing this way – stereotypes of a politically incorrect age – or if they have simply run out of financial options in our prosperous bull market economy. Elsewhere on the street, I pass a white-faced mime, a clarinet player, and various other street performers, all trading their talents for the handful of dimes, quarters and dollar bills thrown their way. My favorite is the combination Cajun/zydeco/bluegrass band that looks like the Charles Manson Family and does a credible job on the classic Bill Monroe tune, “New River Train.” I toss some coins into their open instrument cases and lose myself in the thickening crowd.
The chronic stench has not been totally erased, despite the efforts of the street cleaners and garbage collectors I saw earlier in the day. I’m amazed to see people sitting in open-air restaurants eating gumbo and jambalaya, apparently oblivious to the decidedly unpleasant odor in the air.
And I’m still stumbling over trash and litter, which again has risen curb-high along the gutter on both sides of the street. The mounds of debris must represent a vibrant local economy -- one that is welcomed with open arms by local entrepreneurs and tax collectors.
And it’s not only the so-called “party hounds” hanging out here. There are many average-looking people, as well, taking in the sights and sounds as if they are on some great pilgrimage to a holy shrine of self-indulgence.
I stand on a crowded corner and watch a middle-aged man walk by with a half-amused, half-puzzled look on his face. His pretty wife and two young daughters follow close behind. I guess the girls to be in their early- to mid-teens. They seem to be fascinated by all the activity. Maybe they’re witnessing forbidden pleasures for the first time in their young lives. The man points his finger at one of the strip clubs and the whole family smiles. I continue my walk – not at all sure I’d bring my wife and children here on a vacation. But some do and apparently believe they are better for the gritty experience. Just a Sunday stroll on Bourbon Street. No different than a family visit to Sea World or the U.S. Capitol. Just a little more colorful.
I wonder what this says about us as a people -- our beliefs, our values and our future. Your guess, I suppose, is as good as mine.
Laissez les bon temps rouler! Let the good times roll.
By Mike VanBuren (1972)
It’s a cool September night and I’m traveling across the northern Arizona desert with two friends in a black-and-white Rambler Rebel. We’re somewhere near Tuba City on Highway 160 in Navajo Country, hoping to make it to Gunnison, Colorado, by dawn.
The sky is solid black and the high-beam headlamps have trouble slicing through the thick darkness. We’ve been driving for several days in a giant sweep through the West. We’re anxious now to get back to the Rocky Mountains and rest a few days before returning to Michigan. Nothing short of flat tires and police roadblocks will impede our progress as we zoom through the rural countryside toward the Four Corners region. Nothing, that is, except pretty young maidens in need of rescue by three itinerant wranglers in wrinkled T-shirts and faded jeans.
The two women look nervous and forlorn standing against the sandy landscape as we whiz by at 60 miles per hour. We barely see them in the blackness. We screech to the side of the road for a U-turn and race back to see if our eyes are playing tricks on us. No tricks. They’re here, leaning against a light blue Chevy Impala, buried to its axles in the loose, granular soil of the Indian reservation.
At first, the women seem suspicious of our motives, but look us over carefully and decide that we’re probably harmless.
“I fell asleep at the wheel,” one of the women says sheepishly, climbing back into the driver’s seat. She spins the tires while the rest of us push and shove with all our might, trying to rock the vehicle into motion and return it to the hard pavement a few feet away. But the wheels just sink deeper into the sand and we fall exhausted to the ground.
We learn that the women are returning home to Denver after a vacation in California and that they’ve been stranded beside this rural road for the past two hours. They’re happy to have company, they say, but they’d like it better if we could get their car back onto the two-lane blacktop. We try several more times, but fail to move the car more than a few inches. Occasionally another vehicle passes by, but few even slow down to acknowledge our predicament.
A drunken man with dark, leathery skin eventually arrives in a dull and battered pickup truck to survey the situation. He doesn’t offer any help, but mumbles that he’ll send someone from town and drives off in a cloud of dust. We wait for another hour-and-a-half before deciding that the man didn’t keep his promise.
“It’s nice of you to stay with us,” the women say. “It was scary out here by ourselves.”
We raise our eyebrows and smile about the heroic service we’re providing, then try a few more times to push the car from the sand. We’re about to give up and go in search of a tow truck when an antique Oldsmobile approaches from the distance. It swerves off the road and shines its bright lights into our eyes.
Three dark shadows emerge from the car -- two Navajo men and a large elderly woman dressed in a colorful skirt, and adorned with silver and turquoise jewelry. They confer for a moment in their own language, then go about their work. We watch as they wade into the desert sand and uproot dry sagebrush from the parched ground.
The ancient woman seems to be in charge of the operation, yanking out brown plants and carrying them by the armload to the immobile car. She drops to her knees and packs the sagebrush as tightly as she can under the drive wheels and lays it along an imaginary track where the car will need to travel. Then one of the men climbs behind the wheel, starts the car and drives it easily onto the roadway. They’ve done in minutes what we couldn’t do in hours.
The old woman offers a satisfied nod and brushes her hands together to remove the sand that clings to her rough skin. The mysterious rescuers still haven’t spoken directly to us, but we thank them profusely and offer to pay them for their trouble. All three just shake their heads from side-to-side and wave us away. They climb back into the Oldsmobile and disappear into the dark night as quickly as they arrived. We stand staring at each other for a few moments, uncertain about what we have witnessed and clearly ignorant about the ways of the desert.
There’s not much to do now, except bid the young ladies farewell and continue on to Colorado. They thank us for what little help we provided and we tell them that we might look them up in Denver.
“That would be nice,” they say, waving and driving off to the northeast.
Later, my traveling companions have fallen asleep and I’m behind the wheel, listening to a distant country music station on the radio. The world seems empty and I see no other cars for miles in either direction. A lone coyote crosses the highway at the far edge of the headlight beams and I press lightly on the brakes. Millions of bright stars are suspended high in the heavens, so I lean closer to the windshield and gaze into the sparkling sky.
I think about the anonymous Indian woman and the two weathered men who helped her reach into the lives of five young travelers with uncommon kindness and generosity. They came and went like humble apparitions, speaking only to each other and not revealing their identities. I’m beginning to wonder if they were truly flesh and blood.
The thought brings a cool chill to my spine, but the shiver is quickly replaced by a peaceful calm that floods into my soul. I breathe deeply and tap my fingers on the plastic-coated steering wheel. Life can be good. Especially when you encounter unexpected angels in the dark Navajo night.
By Mike VanBuren (1996)
Traveling is romantic. And about as fun as winter camping.
I learned this one strange February night on Interstate 40 in middle Tennessee. My American Airlines flight had landed at Nashville’s International Airport around 8:30 p.m. Temperatures were dropping fast and a drizzly rain began to fall as the big jet touched down and taxied to the gate.
No big deal. I’m from Michigan. I’m used to slick pavement and winter driving. My biggest concern was finding the Holiday Inn and getting a good night’s sleep. The next day would bring long hours in the edit suite at Elite Post on Music Row, putting the finishing touches on the Kellogg Foundation’s sustainable agriculture video.
I stopped by the Avis desk and picked up a small rental car. Then I threw my luggage into the trunk and headed out for the 20-minute drive into Music City, and a warm bed at the Holiday Inn.
Traffic was light as I left the airport. I was pleased to be keeping such a tight schedule. At this rate, I’d have plenty of time to go over the edit script before turning in for the night.
That’s when I saw it – up ahead in the westbound lanes of I-40. The prettiest display of colored lights I’d seen since Christmas. Flashing yellows. Blinking reds. Sparkling whites. All accented by an icy glare on the road. By the time I realized what I was getting into, I was far past the last exit ramp, rolling down a long incline toward a huge, six-lane parking lot.
At least it looked like a parking lot. There were cars, trucks, buses and vans everywhere – lined up like summer tourists at nearby Opryland. I lifted my foot from the accelerator and pressed hard on the brake pedal, sliding to a not-so-graceful stop behind a pickup truck carrying two middle-aged men armed with open beer bottles. I was relieved to stop before I rammed the vehicle, because it was one of those legendary trucks with a gun rack bolted over the rear window.
At any rate, all three westbound lanes were clogged as far as I could see. In a matter of seconds, I was imprisoned in the middle lane of a busy interstate highway, boxed in tighter than Shania Twain’s blue jeans by several other vehicles that came sliding in behind me.
“Must be an accident,” I told myself, reaching to shut off the ignition. “They’ll probably have it cleared in a few minutes.”
I opened the car door and stepped outside. It’s a good thing I had a tight grip on the metal doorframe, or I would have been stretched out on the cold, hard pavement with my feet wiggling in the air. Several other people were also dancing around on the slippery blacktop, like clumsy Olympic figure skaters going for the gold in street shoes.
I climbed back inside and started the engine. The heat felt good on my chilled bones, so I let the motor run for 15 minutes or so. Not being particularly interested in dying of carbon monoxide poisoning on a Tennessee highway, I eventually turned the motor off and waited until I started to shiver before switching it on again.
After the first hour, I was getting a bit antsy.
“What’s going on up there?” I asked the driver of the car parked next to mine, who seemed rather unconcerned with the delay.
“Probably just the weather.”
“A little ice on the road? C’mon. You’ve got to be kidding.”
He wasn’t. We sat for another hour. Then another. Then another.
None of the other drivers seemed to think it was unusual to be sitting still on Interstate 40 in the middle of the night with no indication that the traffic would ever start moving again. They just sat patiently in their cars and trucks and buses and vans – a typical winter night on the Nashville freeway.
After the fifth hour of starting and stopping and re-starting the car – too tired to stay awake and not wanting to fall asleep – I was sure I was either on Candid Camera or lost in the Twilight Zone. It was surrealistic. I had been spinning the radio dial, listening to various news broadcasts and generally searching for a credible report about the huge traffic jam that had the city tied in knots. Nothing. Not a single mention of it on the airwaves. And nobody but me seemed to think there was anything unusual about the information blackout.
“Does this happen often?” I asked a young woman standing by the car behind me.
“No. It’s just the ice. We’re not used to that down here, you know.”
Oh, really? As if they’re used to spending the night on blocked freeways in sub-freezing temperatures.
Along about 4:30 a.m., I leaned my seat back and was drifting in and out of a fitful slumber. I don’t know how long I slept, but I was awakened with a start. Bright lights were shining in my rear-view mirror and a loud air horn was rattling my car windows. A huge salt truck had come weaving through the traffic behind me and the driver wanted us to move our cars out of the way so he could get through.
Saved at last by a tardy truck driver and the blessed chloride that eats jagged holes in our automobiles.
As the other cars edged off the road, I loitered between the middle and right lanes until the truck passed. Then I moved in quickly behind the huge salt spreader and followed the yellow monster through the maze of stalled vehicles. I nuzzled the back of the truck for about a mile-and-a-half – determined to hold my place – until we came to the first cars, parked smack in the middle of an open road. No accident. No barriers. No pulling to the side of the road. “Let’s just stop here, Mildred, until spring.”
I still don’t understand what happened that night. I passed the salt truck on the three-lane stretch ahead and had no trouble moving about 35 miles-per-hour over the ice. Within about 15 minutes, I was rolling into the Holiday Inn parking lot on West End Avenue, exhausted and bewildered. It had been more than eight hours since I entered the traffic jam and I still had heard nothing on the radio indicating that there was a problem on the highway.
I stumbled into the empty lobby and rang the bell to summon the desk clerk. Within a few minutes, I was on the elevator to the seventh floor. At the end of a long hallway, I slipped the key card into the slot and pushed open the door. I was surprised when the door caught on the end of the security chain with a loud crash.
“What the #%!?” I heard a sleepy, but startled man say from inside the darkened room.
“Oops. Sorry, “ I said, as I closed the door and made a hasty retreat to the elevator. “Wrong room.”
Back in the lobby, the desk clerk apologized repeatedly and set me up in a vacant suite on the fourth floor. I climbed into the elevator and shuffled down another long hall to the replacement accommodations. Inside, I threw my luggage on the floor and flopped onto the bed. It was nearly 5:30 a.m. and I was scheduled to be at Elite Post in less than three hours. I turned out the light and quickly fell into a hard sleep.
It was going to be a rough day.
By Mike VanBuren (1994)
I’ve never been much of a basketball player, but to the kids of Chila I might as well have been Michael Jordan.
I was relatively tall and, more importantly, was Norte Americano. That’s all that mattered. They just had to challenge me to a game of hoops.
I had come to the small village in the poverty-stricken Mixteca region of southern Mexico with Luis Ernesto Ramirez. Luis was coordinator of the Comprehensive Educational Project in the Communities of the Mixteca. My mission was to research a story about how funding from my former employer -- the W.K. Kellogg Foundation -- was helping to improve the lives of rural children and their families. I didn’t know I was going to have to demonstrate my athletic prowess, too.
“They’ve never met anyone from the United States before,” Luis said of the enthusiastic children, who were dressed in colorful native garb. “They think you’re all very tall. They’ve been talking for a month about playing basketball with you.”
Not only that, their parents had walked through the dusty streets to see me go one-on-30 with their offspring. In some cases, they brought along uncles, aunts, and grandparents. I was suddenly a celebrity sports figure and didn’t even realize it. I knew I’d lose some of my luster, though, when the game began.
But first I had to give a speech. That’s the other thing that’s expected of visitors from major U.S. foundations – even if you’re not the guy with the checkbook. So I stood behind a low table next to the modest schoolhouse while an interpreter translated my words into Spanish. I said something about the community’s generous hospitality, how happy I was to be in Chila, and how impressed I was by the important work they were doing. The parents and children seemed entranced by every golden word I uttered. When I finished, they smiled broadly, nodded their heads and gave me a round of applause. I hadn’t felt so special since I answered the winning question in a history competition at the National 4-H Center in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Formalities aside, it was time to take to the court – an outdoor expanse of concrete that local residents had built themselves as a gift to the children. There was a backboard on each end and a mob of four- and five-foot youngsters surrounded me for the tip-off. I grabbed the ball and dribbled toward the basket. Whatever height advantage I had, it was quickly offset by the sheer number of my opponents. The kids mugged me repeatedly and stole the ball. They passed, they shot, and they giggled. The spectators laughed and pointed at the awkward antics of the tall North American with the scruffy beard.
I don’t know who won the game. We were too busy having fun to keep score. But I think I learned a lot that day – about friendship, innocence, and the beauty of our neighbors south of the border.
And Luis was obviously impressed by my on-court performance. To celebrate, he drove me to the 125-year-old village of San Sebastian. That’s where he gave me a tour of several “environmentally sensitive” latrines being built in the shadows of the Sierra Madre del Sur.
Michael Jordan never had it so good.
By Mike VanBuren (2007)
NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE – Cowboy Jack Clement is sitting behind his cluttered wooden desk – multi-tasking.
He greets a pair of visitors to his spacious office, answers a ringing phone, scrawls some information in his appointment book and throws open a large window overlooking a park-like back yard.
“When you’re done there, can you get that van, too?” he hollers to a man outside who is pressure-spraying a variety of objects to remove cobwebs, dirt and grime.
Cowboy Jack is preparing his property for a party he will throw in a few days to celebrate the release of Guess Things Happen That Way, his new music CD.
“Sorry about the mess,” he says. “We’re trying to get things painted and cleaned.”
Clement is the legendary proprietor of the Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa, a large wired-for-sound house on Nashville’s Belmont Boulevard. He is one of the most important record producers of the past half-century, having worked with some of the biggest names in music history, many of whom have recorded in a state-of-the art studio that the 73-year-old Clement maintains on the second floor of his Tudor-style home.
The list of artists produced by Cowboy Jack reads like an eclectic Who’s Who of 20th Century Music. Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Louis Armstrong, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Roy Acuff, Bono and U2, Don Williams, Allison Krauss, John Hartford, Iris Dement, Marty Stuart, Lester Flatt, Townes Van Zandt, Doc and Merle Watson, and a sparkling host of others far too numerous to mention here.
As a protégé of the late Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records in Memphis, Clement was what has been called “a midwife of rock ‘n’ roll,” capturing on tape the hits of some of the genre’s earliest stars. His ear for music is as good as Tiger Woods’ golf swing. Over the years, he produced 52 top-ten hits with Charley Pride – making them one of the most successful artist/producer teams in Nashville history. He also produced Waylon Jennings’ 1975 album, Dreaming My Dreams, which is regarded by some as the finest album of country music’s so-called “Outlaw” era.
Clement is a member of the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame – thanks to self-penned gems like Guess Things Happen That Way and Ballad of a Teenage Queen (the longest-charting Number 1 hits of Cash’s career), Just Between You and Me (a hit for Pride), I Know One (for Jim Reeves) and some cornball novelty songs like The One On the Right Is On The Left, Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog and Flushed From the Bathroom of My Heart. Others who have recorded his songs range from Hank Snow, George Jones, Garth Brooks and Ray Charles to Tom Jones, Gram Parsons, Gerry and the Pacemakers and Foghat.
“I’ve got a bunch of people who say I’m a genius,” Clement has said. “That doesn’t make me a genius, but you’ve got to be pretty smart to get all them people to say that on cue.”
Testaments to Clement’s musical prowess can be found throughout his home and studio in the numerous gold records and photos hanging on the walls. “That one was taken on the balcony upstairs,” he says, pointing to a picture of himself and Cash cutting up while wearing a couple of improbable top hats. Clement has been described as “the greatest combination of musician, producer, songwriter, publisher, performer, engineer, executive entrepreneur, cock-eyed visionary and certified raconteur in modern music history.” But, as his new CD jacket points out, the Cowboy sees it in far simpler terms.
“I’m a professional fool,” he explains. “I’ve got a vast amount of ignorance at your disposal, especially the musical kind, but sometimes it all works.”
I’m visiting Clement’s office on a lark – solely because a friend of mine happens to be an acquaintance and sometime business associate of the Cowboy and generously agreed to introduce us. It’s a bit intimidating for a musical wannabe from Michigan who has read about this man and his notorious exploits for the past 40-plus years, but I try not to let my timidity show.
Fortunately, Clement is a comforting host who welcomes me warmly. I tell him I’ve seen the picture of his house that appears on the cover of John Hartford’s Gumtree Canoe album, but he seems to not readily recall it – one of probably thousands of recording projects with which he has been involved.
After a few minutes of introductory pleasantries, Clement leads us up a set of narrow stairs painted joyfully with a cartoon-like rendition of blue skies and white clouds. At the top of the stairs is an attic-like area containing a control room and recording studio. He invites us to wander around the space where Marty Stuart and Allison Krauss both recorded their inaugural albums, and where Johnny Cash laid down numerous familiar tracks.
Clement, who bought the house and began customizing it in 1970, is not content to merely let us gawk in wonderment and fantasize about the musical history that has occurred on these premises. He tells us about recent updates to his control panel, demonstrates the lighting system and shows off a tall cupboard filled with a range of quality microphones.
“Do you think digital recordings sound any different than analog recordings?” I ask during a lull in the conversation, trying to sound like an industry insider.
“Not really,” Clement says, unimpressed by my knowledge. “It depends on how you play it. I’ve heard people say that there’s a difference, but engineers sometimes hear things that aren’t really there.”
We talk briefly about my involvement with the Cooper’s Glen Bluegrass Festival at the Kalamazoo Nature Center and Clement seems genuinely interested in the event. Bluegrass, of course, is another of his many musical passions – a style he played many years ago in bands around Washington, D.C., and Wheeling, West Virginia.
Back downstairs, we sit in Clement’s office and listen to cuts off his new CD – his first in 25 years and only his second as a solo artist – which is to be released the following week. He plays the music loud – through speakers the size of small refrigerators – and watches us closely to gauge our reactions. The music, featuring a superb group of Clement cronies and ace players known as Cowboy’s Ragtime Band, is good and soothing. We are soon tapping our feet and singing along with Cowboy Jack.
As writer Gary Hertz states in the CD liner notes, members of Cowboy’s Ragtime Band “color in Clement’s outside-the-lines arrangements where accordions and ukulele can live and swing alongside steel guitar and horns.” For Clement, Hertz says, it’s an ongoing defiance of genre expectations that has been his signature even before he put the mariachi horns on Cash’s Ring of Fire.
“I’ve never paid attention to trends,” Clement says. “I just think about what the song needs and how it ought to be done. Most every successful record I’ve ever produced was successful because it didn’t sound like anything else at the time.”
I ask Clement if the CD is yet available for sale and he says it will not be in stores until the following week. So I ask if there is any way to purchase an advance copy. He again says no then reaches for a stack of CDs on the counter behind his desk. “Here, you can take this one,” he says.
It is an unexpected act of kindness from a near-stranger and I’m almost speechless, but manage to thank him for the gift and ask him to sign the CD jacket, which he does: “To Mike. From Cowboy Jack Clement.”
I immediately know that this is going to be one of my favorite CDs – not only because it is a personal gift and contains Clement’s autograph, but because I truly enjoy the music, especially Ballad of a Teenage Queen, on which Cash sings a haunting backup vocal.
I tell Clement that Ballad of a Teenage Queen is one of the first songs I remember hearing as a child. I have vivid memories of Cash singing it when we saw him live on package shows that played Kalamazoo Central Auditorium during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
We talk a bit about the Man in Black and how hard it is to believe that he’s gone.
Clement – a close Cash friend for more than 50 years – tells us that Johnny also sings on the CD’s cut of Guess Things Happen That Way.
“He was sitting right where you are,” Clement says, pointing to the chair in which I am reclined.
That was just a few months before Cash died on September 12, 2003, Clement says, and was their last session together.
“We set up a microphone in my office, because he couldn’t get up the stairs,” Clement explains in the CD liner notes. “He sat down and sang it until he and I thought it was how it ought to be. I remember that he really enjoyed himself.
“He was a wonderful, wonderful man. I think about him every day.”
We sit in silence for a few moments before Clement punches up the song on the stereo so we can hear the two friends in the twilight of their longtime relationship.
It’s fabulous, of course.
In addition to a top-notch sound system and huge video monitor that is wired to the studio upstairs, Clement’s office is adorned with guitars, a dobro and a couple of ukuleles – one of which he played last year at Cash’s memorial service – all dangling neatly from the wall behind his desk. There are also two platinum discs on display from his work on U2’s Rattle and Hum album, as well as a tiny figurine of Porter Wagoner standing guard on Clement’s desk.
I’m most curious, though, about a photo showing Clement holding a guitar and surrounded by five guys with accordions. I’m surprised to learn that Clement is a connoisseur of polka music and the men in the photo are “polka kings” from Canada and various parts of the United States.
His eyes clearly light up when the conversation turns to polka – an evident influence on some cuts from his new CD – and he talks about his ongoing relationship with neighbor Joey Miskulin, an accordion player with Grand Ole Opry stars Riders in the Sky.
“He’s the Marty Stuart of polka music,” Clement says of Miskulin’s prodigious childhood. “He was playing with Frank Yankovich and other polka kings when he was just 12 or 13 years old.”
We’ve been at the Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa for about an hour when we decide we’d better move along and let Clement get back to multi-tasking. I have more questions, of course, and would like to hear more stories. But we don’t want to overstay our welcome.
“Now that you know where we’re at, come back and see us,” Cowboy Jack says as he walks us to the door.
In the living room, which is more of an office area for Clement’s staff, I stop to pet a short-haired orange and white cat that is lounging on top of some stacked boxes.
“That’s the world’s smartest cat,” my friend says and Clement agrees.
“Really?” I say. “Why is he so smart.”
“Watch this,” Clement says with a smile.
He turns to the cat and calls it by name.
“Eugene,” he says and the cat cocks its head and looks Clement directly in the eyes in a listening posture.
“Give me five,” Clement says, and the cat reaches out and smacks the Cowboy’s hand with its paw.
“Sit down,” he says and the cat obeys.
“Touch me.” The cat reaches out and gently touches him on the chest.
“Dang, you’re right,” I say. “It’s the world’s smartest cat. I’ve never seen a cat do that before.”
We shake hands with Cowboy and exit through a heavy wooden door.
“That was incredible,” I say to my friend, as we walk along the asphalt driveway past Clement’s white Cadillac. “What an interesting character.”
“He’s definitely a character,” my friend says knowingly, “and a great guy.”
As Clement’s old friend, songwriter Jim Rooney once wrote of him: “To imagine the world of country music for the past 30 years without Jack Clement would be to imagine the world without flowers or birds.”
“I’ve been a music bum all my adult life,” Clement admits in the CD liner notes. “Making music has always been my hobby and it still is. I’ve always said that we’re all in the fun business. And if we’re not having fun we’re not doing our job.”
(Since this story was written, Eugene the Cat passed away and the Cowboy Arms Hotel & Recording Spa was destroyed by fire. Cowboy has rebuilt, however, and promises many more more musical adventures).