The spring semester ended
at the beginning of May, and as soon as I had final grades turned in, I was headed west. It had been several months since I'd seen the Colorado daughter, and I would get to spend nearly a week with her.
Along the way, I stopped to visit my parents in Faribault, Minnesota. We hadn't seen them since January, when we celebrated my Mom's 80th birthday. They provided me with some old-fashioned comfort food for supper, a bed overnight, breakfast the next morning. And we had the chance to catch up on family news.
I headed west along I-90 into South Dakota and - my, my - there was snow piled up in the ditches along the way. I drove west, and south, down to Valentine, Nebraska, and west from there on Highway 20 to Chadron.
The best laid plan was to spend the rest of the afternoon and the next day poking about town and the area. I expected to visit Mari Sandoz's grave once again, for instance, somewhat east and south of Chadron. I did visit a store in Chadron, a combination music and archery store run by a fellow who collects old acoustic and electric guitars, which hang on the walls around three sides of the place. He makes a living selling archery equipment and musical instruments, teaching guitar, and playing banjo in a bluegrass band. Yeah, I bought a copy of their most recent CD, and I'm gonna play it as soon as I unpack it.
The news from Chadron: Pizza Ranch is closed, and the building is for sale. Darn. I like Pizza Ranch.
That night the Weather Channel couldn't stop talking about the blizzard that would blow through western Nebraska and South Dakota the next day, threatening to close highways. News the next morning was similar, yet a little more urgent. So instead of poking about, I decided to start for Gering, Nebraska, where I'd promised to take my friend Joe M. to supper. It was later morning when I poked my head into Joe's office. He said something like "It's a little early for supper" and I said something like "I'm trying to beat the winter storm and thought maybe we could do lunch instead." Well, Joe was busy over lunch, "but we could go down to the Coffee Cabin and have some breakfast right now." And I said, "I'm buying." And that's what we did: we had breakfast together, instead of supper.
And I got to Fort Collins, Colorado, before the storm got to me. In fact, the storm missed Fort Collins entirely. It did hit western Nebraska on schedule, and South Dakota, which got two to three feet of snow in places.
The reason I'd stopped at the music store in Chadron, and the reason I visited every pawnshop in Fort Collins in the days after I arrived was this: I had a notion that if ever I was to upgrade my electric bass, I should do so in time to record our album of trains songs. I looked around the Guitar Center in Fort Collins one day, and went back the next afternoon with serious intent. A nice young man patiently took down one Fender bass from the wall, then another, and another. I tried several.
The first one I played was one I liked the looks of; it had a natural wood body in the classic Fender shape, but it didn't have the sound I like.
"Try this one," the young fellow said. I didn't like it either.
"Let me get you the same model I play," he said. He plays in a rock band and uses a pick. So I tried the bass he plays. Finally he came back to see how I liked it.
"It's good and sharp on each end but I can't make it round in the middle, the way I like," I told him.
"Oh," he said, "this bass will never give you round in the middle. I know what you might like." And he got down a Fender Jazz Bass that has two Jazz pick-ups and five controls - volume, pick-up selection and mix, bass, treble, and intermediate tone.
I played it for a while, fiddled with it, played some more.
"I like the sound a lot," I told him. "It's sweet, and is round in the middle. But I don't like the action. Can you adjust the action?"
"Yes," he said. "Can I get that Fender Jaguar bass down for you while you wait?"
"No," I said, "I've got enough on my hands already, without trying to play a Jaguar."
He adjusted the action on the Jazz bass and brought it back. I played a 12-bar blues progress in E for awhile. Was it my imagination or was that employee with a guitar off behind a distant counter also playing 12-bar blues in E, in time with me? He sounded pretty good. He never looked at me, that I saw.
I broke off playing in E then, and played the progression in each other key, from G to F#. I played the F# in the high position on the second string, which is the point at which a bass will tell you what it's made of. This bass was made of good things. The F# sound as sweet and warm and as round in the middle as all the other positions. The bass sold itself.
I already had the world's best flat-top acoustic bass, my Guild B30, Miss Thunder 1-3-0; now I had in hand the only electric bass I should ever need. I gave the guy my Squirer II Precision bass and a pile of money, and he gave me my Fender. I walked out of the store a happy man. Indeed, the sun was shining.
I went back to my daughter's house and sent my bandmates in Trinity an e-mail telling them all about the purchase, and how sweet she sounded.
The next time I talked with my darling wife, she gigged me. "So, you bought a Fender Jazz bass, huh?" she said.
"Yeah," I said. "How in the world did you find out?"
"You sent us a copy of your e-mail to Doc and Dean," she said.
"Guilty as charged," I muttered to myself.
The back-end of my vacation was a long weekend in Kansas with Doc and Dean, to hammer out the train songs. I had already written the lyrics, and Dean had already put music to them, chord progressions and melodies. This first weekend of work on the tunes was meant to massage them into singable tunes, and to teach them to Doc, who sings lead for us and produces Trinity's albums. By Sunday Dean and I were able to record rough versions of all the songs, with Dean singing and playing keyboards in one version and singing and playing guitar in a second take, and me playing bass. Doc will use these as rough guides as he learns the songs and fashions them into finished pieces. He will lay down his guitar and vocal, and at some point I will return and add bass, and Dean will come back to do his harmonies and instrumentals.
The Fender Jazz Bass sounded terrific. Doc liked the way it sounded, and he noticed an improvement in my playing, too, I think: a couple of times when we were cookin' I caught him peeking around the music stand to see what I was doing with my fingers.
It isn't all sweetness and light, however, this business of creating music. Dean and I had orginally created words and music for 18 songs, and we had already reduced the list of "possibles" to 15 by the time we got together. The first hours in the studio further reduced the list to 12 songs and one possible, with Tom saying, "Let's sleep on it overnight before we eliminate it completely."
About 4 a.m. Johnny Cash came to me in a dream and sang the troublesome song. I remember I was lying on my side while he was singing, and was rocking back and forth to the beat, as "the box cars wildly swayed." Johnny finished singing and I found myself awake. I couldn't go back to sleep. Who could, thinking he'd been visited by Johnny Cash? I tossed and turned for a bit, then got up and took my shower, made myself some coffee, found my copy of the lyrics, and laid in a new chord progression, to match what I'd heard in my dream. I'd never written a chord progression before; it wasn't like writing music, I was just writing down the song as I'd heard it played.
When Dean got up and moving, we went downstairs to the studio and he adjusted the melody to fit the song's new chord progression. Some lines he sang in a Johnny Cash voice, and it gave me goosebumps.
I'm not sure the song is in its final iteration, nor even that it will make it onto the album, but at least we haven't thrown it away. Yet....
Our music is a group effort. We all have to be satisfied. And Doc - as producer - has to be the most satisfied of all. He'll work with that song some more, to make it worthy of the rest of the album.
But you can bet that I won't forget the night Johnny Cash sang one of our songs for me.
On Saturday night, taking a break for our hard work, we went to "a crawdad boil and Rocky Mountain oyster fry" in Manhattan, as guests of the band. Cuzster had played the wedding dance for the daughter of one of the couples hosting the party, and parents of the bride wanted the band back for the evening's entertainment. Rain and high winds had driven the festivities indoors. The band set up on a trailer in the arena of a big horse barn at a large stable in Manhattan.
One minute crawdads were wriggling in a tub, and the next minute they were food on the table. And the Rocky Mountain oysters - well, if you have to ask what they are, you probably shouldn't eat them. They were awfully tasty, however. There were potatoes and beans, too, and something cold to drink.
Our hosts graciously took care of us "guests of the band," and we enjoyed the first set of music. Cuz, who plays pedal steel and fiddle and saxophone, had helped Doc mix our Fairy Tales & Nonsense album; and Jed, the electric guitar player, is the fellow who mastered the CD for us.
There were two drum sets on the trailer, one for Russ, the drummer who also doubles as sound man; and one for 6-year-old Nathan, Jed's son, who sits in on some of the songs. Indeed, he played more than half the first set, then came down and sat with us for a bit. He was called back up for the last song of the first set. At one point during the song Russ hit his drum and then twirled the drum stick on the tips of his fingers. On the next beat Nathan hit the drum, then twirled his drumstick on the tips of his fingers. The crowd erupted in applause.
No doubt that Nathan is the best 6-year-old drummer I'll ever see; and I'll make book that someday he'll be the most accomplished musician I've ever seen. He's a kid with a lot of talent.
During the break between sets, the three of us from Trinity got our picture taken in front of the bandstand with Cuzster:
From left to right: Dean Schechinger, Russell Dockins (Cuzster's drummer), John Richard (Cuzster's bass player), Jed Wymore (Cuzster's guitar player), Nathan Wymore (6-year-old drummer extraordinare), Doc Abbick, Rick 'Cuz' Garver (behind Doc, Cuzster's pedal steel player, fiddle, saxophone), and Tom Montag. Photo courtesy of Cuz Garver.
Afterwards, the band played on. Trinity had to get back to the ranch and get some sleep. We had another day of work scheduled for Sunday, hammering our train songs into something lovely and loveable.
I'll keep you up to date on our progress.