Return of the Grievous Angel
“Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels, and a good saloon in every single town” — Gram Parsons
“If you’ve got time, there’s a diner just a couple of miles from here. We could get breakfast.”. We were just pulling into Kevin Maul’s driveway after playing a four-day run of gigs across upstate New York. The last gig in that run had been the night before in Ithaca.
After the gig, neither of us had felt like driving back…….so we had decided to stay over. We had left Ithaca pretty early that morning and gave up stopping for breakfast in favor of getting back early.
I had been thinking about how early I needed to get out of Albany that afternoon to make it to my next gig in Spartanburg in two days, but when Kevin mentioned breakfast my stomach started growling. I checked the clock on my phone. It was almost noon and I was going to need to eat soon anyway. If I could get out of Albany by 2pm, I could still get in five hours of driving and a good jump on the next leg of my trip. Breakfast sounded good. Coffee sounded better. My car was already loaded so I had plenty of time to eat and still be on the road in the next couple of hours.
Kevin plays the pedal steel guitar and dobro. His musical background is diverse, and he’s played with some very good bands and songwriters. I had first met him some years ago when I was playing a songwriters’ event in Ithaca. After that event we had kept in touch; and a few months later, we played our first real gigs together on a couple of club dates in Albany. After those first gigs, Kevin said that he would be open to playing some road gigs. All the gigs were road gigs for me, but I rarely traveled with a band anymore. It was easier and much more economical to get some players from whatever area the current gig was in. Besides making more logistical and economical sense, using local players also gave me the opportunity to play with some really top-drawer musicians from all over the country. I let the comment about roadwork slide. I knew he did some out of town gigs with some other bands, but I had no idea what kind of pay he was getting on those gigs. I didn’t want to risk offending him by offering him low-ball money and I also didn’t want to risk alienating him by telling him that there was almost zero chance that I’d ever have a good enough run of gigs to interest him in any roadwork.
I’ve always thought of myself as a songwriter. A storyteller who can play the guitar but whose primary goal was to write songs that can tell a story. I write songs and then I go play those songs for people. I’m not a businessman. I also don’t think of myself as an entertainer. I’m a songwriter and a musician. The business part of the music business isn’t anything that I’ve ever been very interested in or good at. The purpose of business is to make money and show a profit and the purpose of storytelling is to tell a good story. Coming from a culture that very often measures success by the amount of dollars one earns had often left me feeling more than a little conflicted. Early in my career I would often confuse artistic value with money. This is something that a lot of artists do, and it can be destructive as hell. It took me years to figure out that those are two entirely different enterprises. I wanted to be a good songwriter. The ability to write a good song has nothing to do with the ability to turn that song into a monetary windfall. Or as a friend of mine told me, “You can be a successful artist and still not make any money.”
The diner wasn’t very busy, so we were finished with breakfast in about thirty minutes. The waitress had just cleared our table and topped off our coffee when Kevin said, “So, tell me your thinking on the music business as it is today.”. I asked him if he meant my philosophy or if he was asking about a business plan. He said he wanted to know about my philosophy since he was pretty sure I didn’t have a business plan. I told him that I considered myself a songwriter and told him what that meant to me. I also told him that I was still absolutely in love with the life.
There’s a mythology that I’ve always connected to being a road musician. I always think of Hank Williams (in his early days) and his band crisscrossing Alabama. Playing any crossroads honky tonk dive where they could set up and play. Doing the thing was what mattered. Going out and playing their dates. Of course, Hank achieved not only stardom but super stardom. In my estimation, he was the first rock star and among the pantheon of musical greats, Hank Williams sits atop Mt Olympus.
If Hank Williams is the mythology, then the legend is Gram Parsons. Gram, much like Hank, made it up as he went along. He never had the success that Hank had but then Gram worked in a much narrower niche than Hank had. Gram told stories that resonated with me. Songs that described traveling around the country. Seeing different kinds of people from places that are different from where I came from. I love being out there with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels. I want to see it all and not miss a thing.
I was finishing my explanation of how I viewed being a road musician when it occurred to me that I had not answered the question that Kevin had asked. He had asked, what were my thoughts on the music business today. Instead of answering that, I had described to him why I still went out on the road in the face of dwindling gigs, dwindling money, and audiences that were increasingly elusive. In the end all I could think of to say was, “I’m still in love with the life.”
For probably a half minute he didn’t say anything. I had no idea what he might say, given that I had just finished a rambling monologue that was at best vague about my relationship with music. Then Kevin said, “You know, the kind of music we play was at the peak of its popularity back in the 1970s; there probably were never more than a hundred thousand fans nationwide. We play Country Rock. There are a few bands that really broke big in this genre. Most of the bands, even the ones that we consider very successful, didn’t have much success until long after they had broken up, and in some cases died.” He said that he was still in love with the idea of all of it too, so if I had road gigs, I should grant him the right of first refusal.
As it turned out, Kevin believed in the same mythology and legends that I did. He was a pedal steel player the way that I was a songwriter. Instead of striking moods and images with words, he struck moods and images with sound. The songs of mine that he played on became as much his as mine. Simply put, we use different voices to tell the same story.
Not very long after that day in the diner, I asked Kevin if he would be interested in officially becoming a member of our band (the other members being Jim Hemphill, Neal Robinson, and Ric Furley). I knew that even if he accepted, he couldn’t make a lot of the gigs. That was alright with me, though. Even the official members aren’t able to make a lot of the road gigs. I told him that being an official band member meant simply that he always got the right of first refusal and that he got to be as creative as he wanted to be on recording sessions. He said that sounded perfect to him. He was in.
Over the next few years, Kevin played on a couple of our records. Whenever I was anywhere near the Northeast, he was on the gig. The last couple of years have been especially slow. We’ve managed to play a few shows a year (we even played some far-off road gigs) but everybody in the band, myself included, has had pressing issues from the non-musical quarters of our lives. I had booked a residency gig in Western Massachusetts that was to start in May of 2020. Then the Covid-19 pandemic happened, and everybody everywhere lost every gig that they had booked.
It was during the Covid-19 lockdown that I wrote some new songs, my first ones in about five years. I recorded the rough demos on my phone and sent them to my bandmates. Jim suggested that we remotely record demos of them. Before long, we were all recording our parts from wherever we happened to be locked down. It was during the lockdown that we collectively came to the decision to start playing more live gigs as a group.
I sent Kevin a text asking him if he would be up for some gigs as soon as the lockdown was over. I was still holding the phone in my hand when I got a text from him. All it said was “YES. The Return of the Grievous Angel.”