The Writin' a Story about Drivin' to a Todd Snider Concert Blues
Carl Cunningham - November 2013
Inside the heart of most every grown man, there exists a stoic pride and quiet dignity that comes from being what Merle Haggard famously sang about in that old song of his that goes, “Hey hey, working man, a working man like me.”
Sometimes it takes decades for a guy to grow up and “man up” and to knockoff the kid-like antics and general jack-ass behavior of our younger days, and to evolve into a hard working, decent Man – one who is capable of looking at himself in a mirror and respecting the inner man staring back at him.
It occurred to me late last night (or early this morning, as it was quite a ways after midnight) on the way back from a Todd Snider concert in Tomball, Texas, that my friend Randy and myself and Todd Snider (who we'd just driven 2 hours to see in concert) – we're all three grown up men who, in our own ways, are decent hard working men that overcame a lot in life to get to where we are today.
The words I'm writing here on my couch on October 29, 2013 – the day after our concert adventure last night – I'm hoping to somehow get these words into Todd Snider's talented musical hands, but to me, these words are really for Randy.
He's a few years older than me, yet Randy and I are culturally and musically cut from the same hard rock lovin', Outlaw Country lovin', acoustic guitar playin' singer/songwriter cloth.
I've known Randy for the better part of 30 years now. We first met at a tiny Baptist church here on the Texas Gulf Coast somewhere around 1981, it must have been. I was a wee little Baptist boy everybody back then called “Bubba”, and Randy was in my Dad's “Young Adult” Sunday School class at church. Even though Randy was nearly a grown man and I wasn't quite yet a teenager, I liked him like a cool older brother.
I was at Randy's wedding in that same church around that time – he landed himself a cutie-pie of a girl named Kim, and a short time later they started their life together. That life took them from our small town to the town of Lufkin nearly 90 miles away. Randy and Kim came down from Lufkin every now and then to visit friends and family and attend our old church. Somehow, like time and distance and making new lives miles away can tend to do, I never saw Randy or Kim again.
At about that same time, the family I grew up in had been destroyed in the Fall of 1988 by the landmine that was the brain injury that nearly took the life of my mother, Mary. Our family eventually kind of fell apart. We stopped going to that wonderful little church we'd all grown up in. The people we were and the family we were all ended that horrible afternoon.
Time moved on like time does. I got older and graduated from high school. I found a wife and started a family of my own. Another chunk of a decade went by, and through my own immaturity and stupid choices, I lost her and that first family of mine to divorce and another man that lived thousands of miles away. Those events set off a devastating chain reaction in my life that nearly, literally, claimed my life. My mind and the darkness in it became my own worst enemy. Depression crept up on me more than a few times in those years, and it was a miracle that I survived it all.
Before I knew it, nearly another decade had gone by, and part way through that second decade, I fortunately (somehow) found myself at 35 years old with a wonderful new wife, and with three stepkids who'd just lost their Dad. We all became a new family starting over together. I didn't know it at the time, but my life's path and Randy's life path, and even Todd Snider's “scenic route” life path were all converging to bring the three of us grown men together under the roof of Main Street Crossing, our gorgeous concert setting last night.
Randy and Kim popped up back in my life about three years ago through that ubiquitous new-fangled gadget old people like Betty White refer to as “The Facebook”. I'd wondered what had become of that cool, older brother-figure in Randy and his cutie-pie wife, Kim, for all those years, and I was so delighted to receive a friend request from the both of them. Now that we've all reconnected and spent time together over the last three years, I feel kinda guilty for not having that connection with them between so long ago and now. Surely I could have found Randy (or my Kentucky cousins that I've also reconnected with) without much effort.
Yeah, one or two phone calls probably could have bridged all of those gaps. That stuff I mentioned earlier in this story – time, and distance – they kind of get in the way of us humans as social creatures and can make us reluctant or fearful or maybe even a little embarrassed to track down some long lost person from the past that we should reconnect with.
I regret not being able to enjoy Randy's company as a grown man on a really personal level until just very recently, and especially on the drive to the Todd Snider show and back home last night.
Randy's “scenic route” in his young life more closely mirrored that of Todd Snider's than my relatively insulated upbringing. I never really did some of the more illicit things life has to offer a young guy who's too foolish to make better choices and too stubborn and proud to know when to stop taking a walk on the wild side, to stop drinking all that rocket fuel and finally become a Man.
Without sharing too much of Randy's background or Todd's, they were both a great deal more adventurous and risky than I ever was. They both spent the better part of their teenage years and some of their young adulthood consuming some of those things that the wild side of life has to offer a growing boy in rural Texas where both Randy and Todd, too, spent some or all of their formative years.
As I'm sitting here thinking about our three lives, it was Todd's place in the universe as a man and a husband that probably fell into place first among himself, Randy and myself. Todd has been married for quite a few years now and he's quit the harder drugs (the one's that can kill you if you do too much) ,and from what I've read in interviews and in Todd's own stream-of-consciousness blog ramblings he posts from time to time, he's quit hard drinking, too. Todd's place in the universe is that of a former Catholic-boy, freeloadin' party animal and later struggling folk singer who has carved out for himself not only a laid-back and music-filled life in East Nashville, he's cemented his place in music history as the most acclaimed, travelin', singin' guitar-playin', song-writin' poet of our time – in my heart and the hearts of countless others like me around the world, he's right up there with Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and John Prine and Jerry Jeff Walker and so many more visionary girls and guys who entertain and enlighten with their songs for a living.
My life was most likely the last of our trio last night who found their special place in the universe – that right spot on the planet at the right time in the right circumstances that said to me that THIS is where I belong.
I'm not a guitar-totin', harmonica-blowin' singer/songwriter genius like Todd. Nope. Not even close. Before my recently diagnosed rare muscle disorder forced me to sadly quit playing guitar, I'd managed to learn how to pick out a little bit of Neil Young's music on guitar, and I could play the heck out of a few Ramones songs with the amp cranked up real nice and loud! After 20 years of trying to learn how to play, I found out why my muscles and bones wouldn't let me play or practice for very long, and it broke my heart to stop.
I'm not a great poet like Todd is, either. I do think I'm an alright writer (to paraphrase one of Todd's song lyrics) – I've touched a few lives and melted a few hearts and caused quite a few chuckles over the years with my words.
I'm never going on tour and nobody's ever gonna pay $35 a pop to see me clunk away on a guitar or squawk my way through “Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues” or “Play a Train Song” or any of the other beloved songs of Todd's that mean so much to me, and that's OK by me. I'm happy right where I'm at. I'm happy to be... Happy.
My body's crumbling a little more from underneath me as the months go by, but I get by on gettin' by with what I have left. I can't get up and drive myself to work anymore like I could a few years ago. I've lost the range of motion in my neck to drive safely, not to mention the random and severe spasms and lightning bolts of nerve pain that like to zap their way down my body and out to my hands and feet, fingers and toes. When I came to the realization a few years ago that I wasn't safe as a driver any more, and that I was more of a liability as an employee working somewhere than a valued asset, I had to re-tool my interests and abilities to work on stuff here at home at my own pace, which is sometimes agonizingly slow. After the snail's pace that I can manage, I rest and I recuperate, which also seems excruciatingly slow, too. Heating pads and ice packs help, some. I modify and improvise in my creative woodworking and landscaping endeavors. I can't complain, because a lot of people on this little planet have it way worse than I do.
I can still bang away on my drums and I can create fun and funky stuff out of beautiful hunks of wood with my own two hands. I can still write and enjoy movies and my favorite shows and music, and best of all, I have an awesome patch of woods behind my house that I can sit and visit with the birds and deer and squirrels and lizards and the bright shining sun over my head.
Yup. I think I have an alright life. I really am happy to be here at all, as Todd sings.
It felt like I'd waited all my life to make it to one of his concerts. To be in such an intimate concert venue and just minutes away from Todd singing his songs was such a special moment for me as a long time fan of Todd Snider's music. Randy and I were so pleasantly surprised by the opening act, Amy LaVere. Her music was as funny and poignant as her voice was adorable and soulful. In between their time on stage, we went over to her merchandise table and I told Amy, “We came to see Todd, but Lord you were SOOO good, I can't NOT give you some money!”
Moments before Todd hit the stage, I had just enough battery power on my cellphone to send out a note to family and friends that read:
“Todd Snider's about to play. Phone's about to die. Having a great time with Randy! Beer and burger on my breath... Miss my wife. Love my life!”
As soon as I hit the “Post” button on my cell phone, a figure whooshed by me in a blur, and I looked up about .24 seconds too late to realize that Todd Snider had just brushed by me and had given me a polite “Look out, man” tap on my knee so he wouldn't jar me out of my bar stool. In that moment, and in all my moments of the last half-dozen years, I really have loved the life I have. A few songs in, when he strapped on that mandolin and started strumming, I knew instantly he was about to do “Play a Train Song,” one of my most treasured of his songs, and it was that moment where I smiled hardest and breathed deepest and truly appreciated all I have in life.
Somewhere around 1:30 this morning, we must have been around Livingston, Texas, maybe 30 minutes from Randy's house, when our conversation turned to work and our disabilities, and then to pain and lack of motivation, and trying to find a way to make ourselves get up and find something productive to do.
My heart was moved by Randy's exasperation with himself last night. I didn't feel sorry for him. No. It was empathy that I felt, because I was recently in that very same place in my head that Randy is now.
Within the span of a short few months a couple of years ago, Randy's life –a life that before then was the life of a proud and dignified Working Man with a wife and two girls and a good job – well, that job and that dignity of his was downsized due to the crappy economy. Then, Randy's father, Bill, passed away, and a short time later, Kim's mom, Mary, also passed away. Mary lived with Randy and Kim and their two girls for many years, and they all lived next door to Randy's Mom and Dad. In what I know was a breathtakingly short amount of time, Randy's perfect place in the universe was seemingly shot to Hell.
Losing a job for a working man can feel like a lifeline has been yanked out from under you and your entire family. I've been there a time or two in my days, but for Randy, that trying time was compounded exponentially with the loss of his Dad and his wife's cutie-pie of a Mom. Randy confided in me that he's having a bit of a rough time on the inside with it all. He's also had health problems and, like me and Todd too, he's got a jacked up spine that causes pain and misery from the inside out.
Randy's words to me in that dark stretch of highways 59 and 105 last night felt so close to home to me because I've been right where he's at now. I've lost more than I could bare to lose, and so has Todd in his own ways in his past with the loss of his Dad and his neighbor/tour manager/funky friend who drove that smokin' long black Cadillac, “Uncle Skip”.
As red-blooded workin' American men, we're a resilient and hardy bunch. Todd found his perfect place in life quite a while ago, and I found mine too. Randy had his, and then he got walloped by life, like life can do sometimes, but he'll get through it and he will heal and will once again find that stoic pride and quiet dignity of a working man.
Randy has an incredible talent for beautiful woodworking – my stuff tends to be of the functional, building-type of woodworking like my outdoor shower and my upcoming tree house. Randy's woodworking, on the other hand, is more reflective of the beauty found in nature and his inner faith. He crafts amazing little bird and animal carvings out of seemingly useless pieces of pine and oak and maple that he finds in the woods, and he can whip up a good looking Christian wooden cross, too. I asked Randy yesterday if there'd ever be a time when his Dad's old dusty workshop out back might ever come to be Randy's Workshop, and he hung his head kinda low and said probably not, that there's so much of his Dad within those old walls and in those old hand tools, that it's hard for him to be in there. I hope my Carl-words-of-encouragement to Randy will come true – I told Randy that I hoped he could find a way, soon, to be in his Dad's old workshop, and to use those old tools and make stuff out of the remaining cedar and oak stacked in the rafters.
Maybe, just maybe, for Randy, instead of finding sad little reminders that his Dad was there but now he's gone, perhaps Randy can find joy in the place where his Dad spent so much time and energy. It may never become Randy's Workshop, but when the time is right, I hope Randy can accept those memories and to commune with the memories of his father, and to once again put all those vintage and antique tools to work.
In creating beautiful wooden treasures, and in reconnecting with his Dad's beloved belongings, I think Randy may once again very well find his perfect place in life – that place where he's motivated and excited to get out of bed every morning and to be a productive and creative Man again.
Randy – like Todd Snider and a few really lucky guys before him – he didn't die young because he lived so fast so young. They made it through those 'youthful indiscretions' as they're called, and their mistakes of the past to become... Men. And just like me, Randy isn't physically able to be employed and working somewhere outside of creating stuff at home at his own pace and for his own enjoyment (and perhaps even a bit of selling his wooden creations some time down the road).
In a lot of the songs about peace and happiness and finding joy in life that Todd has created over the years, he played a few last night. Words like “Enjoy yourself” and “I'm just happy to be here at all” and “Still overall, I can't complain” and “I know I ain't perfect but God knows I try,” to me, they're more like words to live by than just lyrics sang by some long-haired, tree-huggin', peace-lovin' bare-footin' folk singer.
Todd found those words by making his path in life, and he wrote them down first as poetry and then magically combined them with some guitar chords and then shared them with the world. I discovered the sincerity and simplicity of those words and fell in love with Todd's “philosophy” about life at just the right time in my life when I needed something to reach down and help pick me up from the hole I'd found myself in.
Last night, just after Todd rocked out with some bluesy distortion on his cherry red Gibson SG to “Lost Highway” by the late and extremely great Hank Williams Sr., he walked past me on the way to his tour bus and was swarmed by a mini-mob of guys and girls from twenty-somethings in jeans and tee shirts all the way up to people pushing 70. They were all hoping for a photo or maybe an autograph. I already have Todd's autograph on the cover of a vinyl record of his I got from his website, and in that moment, I didn't need a photo.
All I wanted to do was to get the chance to look him in the eye and say “Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you Todd.”
(And Todd, if you ever get to read this, you may or may not remember the weird lookin' dude in Tomball in the embroidered vintage Western shirt wearing John Lennon glasses with more gray hairs on his head and face than brown hairs... I'm that guy that touched you on the shoulder and told you those words. My “thank you” to you was for sharing your gift with the world, and for writing those words and mixing them magically with those chords on your Epiphone acoustic, and for setting them free for people like me to use as the soundtrack to their lives. Your funny songs make me laugh when I need to laugh. Your love songs remind me to love deeper. Your political songs sometimes make me think a little... or a lot; and your sad songs, well, they're the best of all. When I'm feeling especially low, your saddest of sad songs have some kind of miraculous ability to speak to my soul and make me, somehow, feel better.)
I told Randy last night just as we were bidding each other good night that it would take me winning the lottery to ever come close to repaying him for bringing us to see Todd Snider. Randy said nuh-uh, that he should be thanking me for sharing Todd's songs with him for the last year or two, and for getting him out of the house and to experience something as fun and as cool as last night's show was for both of us.
So, I think me and Randy are gonna have to call it even. Then again on the other hand, maybe next time Randy and his wife and me and my wife can all go see Todd Snider together, and maybe, just maybe, I'll be inspired to write a story about that night, too.