My My Morning Jacket: Four Snapshots From a Stint in the South by DJ Dolack
Weeks after I graduated from Emerson College in Boston, I packed my shitty thrift store furniture into a Uhaul and delicately wrestled the steering wheel through the twisted streets of Jamaica Plain and onto the Mass Pike, no rearview mirror and only a factory Econoline radio for the fourteen-hour drive south. My first real girlfriend and I were headed to Asheville, NC — dead set on escaping the afflictive, prolonged winters of New England, with the added bonus of tripling the physical distance from my New Jersey roots. Along the drive, top 40 and “alternative” radio stations depreciated even further to modern country and stations that seemed to play Skynyrd’s “That Smell” on a 24/7 loop. As the printed MapQuest directions finally, mercifully lead me from the Virginia-length Route 81 to 26 South, just north of Johnson City, Tennessee, Baptist preachers from every corner of the state fought for space on the dial, each one detailing my impending doom. We didn’t know exactly how or why we had chosen the flimsy folk-art community of Asheville, but we tucked away our Yankee accents as best we could, found a sprawling, sunny, ridiculously cheap two-bedroom apartment on South French Broad Avenue not far from downtown, and began to search for some kind of life.
We weren’t settled in for long before I convinced six of my bored, disoriented friends to move down and join us. James was the first to arrive very late one humid night after driving ten hours from Kalamazoo, MI, where he had just ended his own first real relationship of six years. As his cat, Snickers, lay dazed and medicated in her crate, we smoked and drank and talked for hours, the next two years still open before us. A Louisville, Kentucky native, James already had My Morning Jacket on his radar, and that night he put The Tennessee Fire into my hands for the first time.
At 24, less than a year into my stint in Asheville, I found myself waiting tables and managing the floor at a Mellow Mushroom pizza franchise downtown five nights a week, getting through each long shift on three or four 20oz bottles of Mountain Dew, half a pack of Camel Red Lights, and time-release Adderall I bought by the palm-full from the nineteen-year-old hostess. Most nights the staff would wind down after-hours with multiple shift beers and whatever weed was making its way through town. On particularly lucrative nights when the owner was in a good mood, we’d use an old Beamish beer tap handle for a kitschy bowl. Grab the Beamish, he’d yell from behind the bar, and we’d inevitably stay slumped in the booths for another couple hours, our jeans and tee shirts stinking of cornmeal and sweat and cheese grease, bits of raw dough visible beneath the kitchen staff’s fingernails. The soundtrack to many of those nights included The Tennessee Fire on repeat. I’d gauge how long we’d been there by how many times I’d hear the opening of ‘Heartbreakin Man’ come down from the rafters and bounce off the tiled floor of the main dining room. But all the while through the post-shift glow, I’d ask myself how long I could hide out in a tourist town of equal parts misfits and lost kids and genuinely kind, good people to whom, in some way or another, I was always lying.
Like so many who say they’ve seen this or that band in front of twenty people at some shit-bag bar in Providence, a now defunct rock club in Boston or Chicago, or in a loft space in Bushwick (for there are so many lofts in Bushwick, aren’t there?), I drove the lead-car in a small caravan from Asheville to Louisville to catch the final show of the It Still Moves tour, the band’s homecoming after months on the road supporting their third album. It was a beautiful late September in the south, and the cramped five-hour drive took us from our nest high in the Blue Ridge Mountains down through Knoxville, across the kudzu-gagged Daniel Boone National Forrest, past the “Horse Capital of the World,” Lexington, and finally into downtown Louisville. The three-hour show took place a mile from where the Ohio River skates beneath the Dr. Martin Luther King Expressway, dividing Kentucky from southern Indiana. Sure, there were more than twenty people at the show— maybe a thousand, I don’t know. But our short pilgrimage made it seem as though the whole thing was in our honor, too. That night, as Jim James completed his solo set and the band skulked out from the wings for a second encore, Solo-cupped beers in hand, steeped in sweat and exhaustion, they might as well have waved to us and called us by name, asked us for requests, huddled with us around a candle-lit, tattered parchment and mapped our return route to Asheville. That night, before they were big enough to headline the nightmare of Bonnaroo, or sell out Madison Square Garden, before you could hear James’s falsetto croon from every Volvo SUV in Hoboken, that night in Louisville, Kentucky, through the heat and stink of the music hall, they were ours.
The next day on our drive home I felt safer and more confident in my decision to relocate than I had since I left the north. Like I might have made a real life down there for a while. In five hours we were back in our majestic little town, enclosed on all sides by the mountain range and the thick, humid air that settled in the valley and soaked everything in a prolonged summer.
Some nights at work there would be no after-hours with the Beamish, so I’d drive around from one bar to the next to avoid going home and engaging my own fatally tattered relationship. I’d drive past familiar parking lots with my friends’ cars dotting each one. I’d drive up Tunnel Road and emerge from the darkness over a sea of unfamiliar fast-food chain logos and cheap motels that don’t take guests past 11pm, only to turn the car around in the Winn Discount lot, drive back through the tunnel and over the glistening, decaying downtown. I’d drive up Merrimon Avenue past Beaver Lake, come back down 26 along the French Broad River, flicking cigarette ash out the cracked window and I’d drive past my house and I’d keep going, and I’d swear to God The Tennessee Fire was playing for every minute of every drive, each night of the two years I lasted down there. It was playing in every bar, at every house, and overhead at every gas station. I don’t remember much of it all, but when that first high hat sizzles on the opening track and the voices and guitars fall in, my stomach drops with them because what happens next is limbic and immediate and I’m back on the porch with James, or in the car driving lead down from the mountains or turning on to Cornelia Street, drunk and helpless. When I hear this album, everything is moving, and quickly. I am sitting still and I am hurling through space. The sound is gauzy and four-track hiss, like a demo. Years later, I understand that, thankfully, that’s exactly what my two years in Asheville was.
Two Stops From Your Stop, You’ve Got To Start Paying Attention
Low clouds in a blood blue sky are no signal.
They emit shades and shapes just to see
if they can pull a little something
from behind your face. Their songs are familiar
because you do the humming.
Remember your training. It’s that
30-odd years slung over your shoulder
like a plastic grocery bag of smooth river stones. It’s that comely
white noise for which you’ve built a home
high on the mountainside of your own silence.
Trek to it; check on it.
Two stops from your stop,
you’ve got to sit up a bit,
put your ass all the way back in the seat
and get your feet flat.
Do a little stretch and pin back
your shoulders like you’ve just been convicted
of living your life and the judge clears his throat,
pulls his wire frames to his face and wets his lips
for the sentence that holds your sentence.
The press says you’re facing
a good deal of time, but you don’t know what that means.
Patience, Adeline. Shoulders.
DJ Dolack is the author of Whittling a New Face in the Dark (Black Ocean). His video reviews and Tourist Trap, NYC series can be found at Coldfront Magazine, where he is the video editor. He is also a founder an editor at Eye For An Iris Press. He teaches writing at Baruch College and lives in Jackson Heights, Queens.
Questions, compliments, (hopefully not) complaints?
Contact Jackie Clark: jackie [at] coldfrontmag [dot] com.
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