There is a saying up here in the Appalachians, ‘If you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes!’ Usually, like now, it will turn to something worse.
It had been the wettest autumn in southwest Virginia that anyone could remember. We’d had rain virtually non-stop for the last two weeks up here in the Blue Ridge Highlands and the nearby Appalachian Plateau just to our west. My boss back at the knowledge house was getting reports of mudslides and track washouts faster than my maintenance team could even conduct inspections, let alone start making repairs. Now, it was raining even harder! The last failed would-be hurricane of the season, a mass of low-pressure rain clouds, had just passed over us, flooding these already supersaturated mountains with water that had nowhere else to go except straight downhill.
Already there were reports of entire sections of our mainline becoming submerged under water and up here in the mountains bridges and creek trestles were already under visible strain and some were in clear danger of being washed away.
Worse still, that northern-heading moisture-loaded low pressure front was now colliding directly with a massive Canadian cold front moving southeast over West Virginia, barely a hundred miles from here. A perfect Christmas winter storm that was going to turn this flooding into impassible ice in just a few more hours. If it was possible for things to get worse, this front would dump at least eight feet of snow over all of Appalachia and western Virginia throughout the next three days in a holiday blizzard that would rival anything seen down here in decades!
My boss was already describing this approaching legendary conflagration of rival weather fronts as ‘the first great storm of this century’, and he was probably right. Ryan could predict the weather by his arthritic knees and shoulders and he was bitching to me that he’d never felt worse in his entire lifetime!
I’m Clive Jackson, by the way. Senior Track Maintenance Supervisor for the Norfolk Southern railroad. Thirty-one years on the job as of last April and shooting for fifty! I’ve been a gandy dancer my whole career, first as a snipe repairing rails and digging ballast, and then I became the King Snipe (crew boss), and I like what I do and want to keep doing it! My boss likes me and so does his boss, and they give my crew some of the tougher nastier jobs up here in the mountains of southwest Virginia because they know that we’ll do it right.
More importantly, our most senior union boss likes me ... and not just because I’m an offshoot of the Wilder railroad family, but that doesn’t hurt either. The Wilder extended family originates from Missouri and they and their kin can be found in positions of management and authority on all six U.S. remaining Class-A railroads. Seven, if you count Canadian National. Steam, and now diesel, seems to run in their blood! Mine included.
My RIP boss Ryan had sent me out from our field depot in Christiansburg to priority inspect, and then probably repair an old length of rarely used siding up in the mountains near Bristol, spitting distance from Tennessee. NS owned those tracks but we allowed CSX to use them for siding on regular occasions. I wouldn’t classify the arrangement as a partnership, but the few remaining Class-A’s work together more in these days than they ever used to and everyone tends to have comprehensive rail sharing agreements. Tonight, CSX wanted to park at least one long northbound intermodal freight in this hole, but they first wanted to make sure the mountain pass northward from Bristol was clear ... and it wasn’t.
I’d been out here on that stretch of precariously perched mountain track since first light and it had looked ugly right from the start! The heavy noontime down-pouring of near frozen rain didn’t help at all, either.
Out in front, my inspection train, an old EMD SD38-2, a reflagged Union Pacific #899(we kept the road number) was pulling our usual two car Research and Inspection consist with a Track Geometry car (my #23) and a crew car. That’s where I do most of my work. ‘23-Skidoo’ started life as an SD35 (high hood model) around late 1964. In the 1970’s, it was converted into a road slug. Another couple of decades later, it was turned into geometry car Research #23 used for testing and analyzing railroad track. While it was built on the original locomotive frame, there is no engine under the hood and it needs a tow now to go anywhere. Inside, everything has been gutted and in place of traction motors, it carries different rail sensors mounted on the trucks, lasers for tracking the profile of the rail, and even cameras for visual inspection of the rail and ties. With roof mounted antennas recording GPS data, we can exactly match the collected data and the physical location it corresponds to and transmit it all in real-time back to our track maintenance depot, or even straight to corporate, in Norfolk. My ‘23-Skidoo’ also has a small generator to power all of the computer equipment in the geometry train that my crew of two fairly junior technicians use, and a good working heater for winter work!
Our usual EMD ‘Dash-Two’ motive power that pulled along our test unit was built in the 1970’s and will probably still be running in the 2070’s as well. Virtually every Dash-2 ever built still remains in service even now due to their ease of maintenance and exceptional reliability. Ours was no exception. Today we had our usual crew hauling us about, Miles was our Big-C and an old head of a conductor, now past his fortieth year on the road, and a mileage hog of the old school, who liked the quiet of taking us out on RIP runs and used his seniority to ensure that he got the job the most often. Jaime was also our usual Big-E diesel driver as well, and he has his whiskers too, having more than twenty years’ experience, but he was no Casey Jones or rapper. Alone of any engineer I’ve ever worked with, he supposedly had zero brownies on his record for speeding! If the orders for a track block were to keep to thirty, then Jaime would do twenty-seven. Their job was to take me and ‘23-Skidoo’ anywhere I needed to be.
Behind us about two miles, tucked into a siding on the other side of Little Raccoon Creek (every county in every state seems to have a Raccoon Creek), I had my track repair consist of another engine pulling about twenty track repair cars, with all of the usual crew and automated track removal and replacement, ballasting and tie replacement equipment, complete with a few odd Cat’s for moving a mountainside of earth ... and right from the start, we needed them!
All along this particular hillside, several mountain slides of fresh mud had blocked the track in at least three places and water discharge had washed out still more sections of track in between. We were running a losing battle against the weather and after replacing yet a third complete sections of ancient railroad tracks before noontime, I discovered that beyond the next block of tracks, which slowly descended to Abington and then the Virginia side of Bristol, were also half buried in mud and that many of the ancient wood ties had broken in the stress, shifting the rails hopelessly apart. We had the stuff to tear up this entire length of track and relay it, smooth as a baby’s bottom, new and neat ... but it would take a lot of time to clear and then rip out the old ties and track and create some fresh clearance to the mountainside. Time we really didn’t have now.
To make things worse, the air was getting colder by the minute and the downpour of rain was turning to sleet. The snow was on its way! Working outside, you learn if you have half of a brain, not to argue with Mother Nature ... she’ll always win in the end.
“Twenty-Three Skidoo to base, can you read me?” I spoke loudly into our radio, inside my track geometry car. With the storm, even our satellite based radio was getting a bit staticy.
“Ryan here, go ahead Twenty-Three. You’re a bit broken up but it’s snowing like a bitch over here already and we’ve got a foot of ice already hanging off of our main dishes.” That was my boss and he sounded worried already.
“No go!” I told him, “No go for the CSX. Blockages and damaged tracks on blocks DH264-87 and 88 for sure. Probably also 89 and 90 too, but I can’t get there. Too many washed out sections of old, old track. Looks like old original Virginian track or vintage Norfolk & Western stuff. Ties are all rotted out and half of the spikes are rusted out or just loose. It was dicey just taking two-three over it ... anything bigger like a heavy freight would just derail or worse. Also with this storm, it’s all going to be under feet of snow in a few hours. No chance of getting a plow up here, I don’t think.”
“No plows available anyway. They’re going to run all night up the mainlines so that the last priority trains can get through, but corporate is already sidelining or shutting down most other traffic. Mansky’s calling for a complete shutdown of the entire road as of midnight tonight, and probably the next forty-eight hours until that slow arctic front pushes through the tropical storm mass where we are. So ... stop what’s you’re doing and get back to the barn and out of the storm, as soon as you can.”
Damn good advice ... and I should have taken it!
I immediately sent off our long work consist, consisting of our heavy equipment, to go pack up and head back home to the depot at Christiansburg ... and if I’d had any sense, I’d have told Jaime, my Dash-2 engineer, to start backing us up and get us back over Little Raccoon Creek, too, before that old small bridge washed away or iced to the point of impassibility. Instead, I told myself that an extra hour’s delay wouldn’t matter that much and we slowly finished running the tracking sensors all over the lower five blocks of track that we’d cleared and refurbished this morning. My thinking was that I’d otherwise need to return here soon to test and verify this new track anyway, so I might as well do it now while I was already here, to save myself making a fresh trip here later.
Good intentions ... the road to you know where! Sigh...
Instead we dithered, dallied and delayed about three hours longer than we really should have. I wasn’t getting good readings on some of the more ice covered sections of track and we needed to roll back and restart our measurements over and over again. Keith, who is my main tech and assistant supervisor, knew we were pushing our welcome on this remote mountain slope but bless his heart he didn’t complain once or even say ‘I told you so’ when we eventually found ourselves trapped.
Stressed already by flood level water surges in the creek, it only took about another hour for the growing piles of ice on that ancient small railroad bridge to push it askew from the tracks at each end of the riverbank and then we watched as it slowly toppled over into Little Raccoon Creek. If we’d been even ten minutes earlier, we’d have gotten across and been on our way home too!
If I hadn’t sent the repair consist back home, we could have rigged up a shoo-fly, or some temporary track to get us across the creek, but they were long gone now and I sure wasn’t going to call them back.
We were now trapped on the hillside, with no functional bridge behind us and nothing but miles of washed-out and now snow covered track in front of us! With ‘23-Skidoo’ essentially imprisoned here until the winter storm was over, I took a long look at my watch and realized that since today was December 23rd, that it would be extremely unlikely that I’d be getting home for Christmas. Since I had no one there waiting for me anyway, I supposed that it didn’t matter.
I’m twice divorced and I’ve been fairly happily single for the last twelve years. Admittedly, I’m on the wrong side of fifty, but I’ve kept my hair and my health and have nothing to complain about. My height and weight are still reasonably proportional and I don’t do too badly for myself in the local bars or when I meet a nice single lady. A little regular fun is nice, but I just have no urge to re-nest for a third time. My house is messy and I like it that way. I don’t want or need a keeper and like now, I’m away from home far more than I’m ever there!
My first marriage, as I’m fond of saying, was ‘Romantic, but not successful’. We constantly fought over everything, but we screwed like wild weasels the rest of the time! She also couldn’t keep her knees together and screwed most of my (and her) friends. After a spectacular affair that broke up two other marriages, she divorced me and married the husband of her best friend of nearly twenty years ... and divorced him then in turn a few years later.
The second marriage was the opposite, ‘Very unromantic, but reasonably successful’. We could have kept it going, the second one, as two people that just lived together in the same house, but it was getting increasingly loveless ... and almost completely sexless. We were both in our thirties and only having sex about once a month. Once she turned forty, her sexual clock set itself for ‘Off’. Completely and entirely. I started a bedroom calendar notation of how often we didn’t have sex, and her excuses. When it reached a full year without a single incident of bedroom romance I filed for divorce. We tried a few weeks of marriage counseling, but when the lady therapist started to take my side, she quit going and signed the papers.
Sorry ... being forty is not too old to be having sex!
So ... all I have is my work, and fortunately I love it!
By mid-late afternoon, the sleet had mostly stopped and now it was just snowing. A pre-Christmas winter blizzard that just put down more and more wet snow. Already it was freezing outside and the weeks’ worth of accumulated rain and soggy ground were starting to turn to ice. Even if the bridge behind us wasn’t washed out, there would soon be too much ice on the mountain rails for safe travel ... assuming that we could go anywhere!
A local horse rancher, out checking his fences before the full fury of the storm hit, soon provided me with some welcome news.
“You’re not quite trapped, you know.” He shouted out across the fence, bundling up his coat from the storm as he waved his big flashlight at us to attract our attention. “About a hundred yards up the rise from the creek there is an old spur from the Random Valley Railroad, goes up through those hills there to your right, then down into the valley. Most of the track around here was theirs, built in the 1910’s I think, to connect up to the Virginian mainlines near Blackford, Cedar Bluff and Bristol. There’s a small town still there, maybe fifty people, and there’s a big lodge there and they can put you up for the duration of the storm. Lots of old train stuff there too ... my eldest kid still loves to ride around in their old train yard where my grandfather used to work. They used to be a pretty big coal mining town and rail depot there, way back in the steam age, but that all shut down pretty much for good after the Second World War. Company closed for good in the 1950’s but some folks stayed on anyway. Go try and get there!”
With a tip of his hat, he was off; to finishing riding his fences and get his cold freezing ass back safe home. We’d be warm and safe enough inside ‘23-Skidoo’ for the duration, but it wouldn’t be particularly comfortable camping, even inside the crew car. It had a refrigerator, seated benches and tables, and a few emergency blankets, but no real bunks for sleeping out this long storm.
I talked it over with Jaime and Miles and we decided to give Random Valley a try ... and we’d have to make it there fast before the hills became too iced up to climb!
Jaime throttled up the Dash-2 to a crawling pace, as Miles and I walked along each side of the track, lanterns in hand, carrying the banner, to find the elusive old switch to send us up the northern hillside and across, into the valley beyond. Already it was almost obscured by snow and I think Miles only found it by accident, when he tripped over its frog. Off to the side, we found the switch throw and found it so rusted that it took both of us bashing it with sledgehammer to get it to loosen up enough to shift into position. Now that’s really bending the old iron! The frog shifted into place, we walked our Dash-2 with our consist up that grade 3+ hillside and into the saddle between the hills. We found three other old switches rusted in place, but our current path seemed correct and we didn’t need to bend or shift any of them.
Undoubtedly we were really short-flagging her as we escorted our engine, but the storm was already getting bad and visibility was already barely twenty yards. Besides, nothing was likely to come up behind us, with large sections of track and a bridge being washed out behind us. From the rust on these old tracks going into the valley, nothing had run out of here in years, probably decades.
Into the very teeth of the winter storm and increasing darkness we rag-weaved and lead our train as flagmen down the far hillside and into the mountain valley. Jaime had to goose her, reversing the throttle nearly entirely as she slid on the icy rails downhill, brakes locked but still sliding downwards slowly nearly every foot of the way. It was like going down a rail classification yard, gravity doing all of the work for us, and if anything had blocked the tracks as we skidded slowly but uncontrollably down into the small town bellow us, we’d have had struck them for sure, but the alley had been kept clear for us.
It was now nearly too dark to see, with our visibility limited to perhaps just twenty feet or even less, we realized we’d entered the town proper. Jaime let out one long horn blast, the ‘=’ stop signal that he was setting the brakes. Miles went out behind us to make sure that the red EOT (end of train) light was set. Screwing up on Rule 99 will get you a big brownie and a trip to a kangaroo court every time – being a failure to flag or protect your train! Almost immediately we started to attract attention as the locals came pouring out of their houses and even more rather surprised folks exited the large modern hillside lodge to see what the fuss and commotion was about.
It had been a very long time since a train pulled into Random Valley Junction, but one older gentleman that had at least two decades on me, seemed to know exactly what to do with us! I had him pegged at a glance as the resident ringmaster.
“Well ... you’re a sight!” He chuckled, as he adjusted his old yardman’s cap on his ancient thinning scalp. “You’ll want to get your old diesel smoker out of the snow, so keep inching up for another hundred yards down the ladder here and I’ll throw the switches to take you to the alley heading to the old station, just a bit off to the right. It’s covered, at least long enough to shield your three cars, and a bit more.”
Well ... that seemed like a decent and friendly idea, so I made the circular lantern motions for Jaime to creep on forwards, and like magic the old-timer ran to the old switch house and threw the levers adjusting the two pairs of frogs ahead of us. This switched us right towards the old station and ten minutes later our Dash-2 was signaled to park itself, and for the duration of the storm nicely sheltered and safe.
I radioed back home to base that we had parked ourselves in some comfort in Random Valley Junction for the duration, and Ryan joking told me later that he’d had to find an old legacy N&W map from the pre-merger 1950’s that listed Random Valley, and noted it as being then an old-time, but still functional minor depot for the Virginian Railroad before the great merger of 1959.
The name Virginian is still legendary in railroad and railfan circles as being one of the more famous ‘fallen flags’ of American railroad history. It was the ‘rich little railroad’ that hauled the coal from southwestern Virginia and West Virginia to the coast at Norfolk, for use by the U.S. Navy during both world wars and Korea. It spared no expenses when surveying and building quality track, buying the latest and best locomotives and hiring the top-notch people ... all at a premium. They were merged into the Norfolk & Western, which in turn was later merged into today’s Norfolk and Southern. I was gazing upon history, as far as my snow-blinded eyes could squint.
As the conductor of our Dash-2 engine, Miles parked himself inside of the old station office, the buzzard’s roost, to start filling out his endless reports for corporate. Jaime and I could warm our heels there in the old station master’s office and we downed a full pot of coffee between us before we started to thaw out.
The local old-timer was called just ‘Boone’, he told us with a semi-toothless grin, and he was the unofficial and largely unpaid caretaker of everything that the old Random Valley Railroad, The Virginian and the Norfolk & Western had left behind here to rust for over fifty years. It turns out that they’d both left quite a lot!
“The coal mines here were really all worked out,” he sighed, nursing a big cup of joe of his own, “even before the Second World War. The Navy still had a few coal burning ships in use though, so we worked the mines anyway, those last few good years. Random Valley Railroad would then haul the coal out and send it usually to Roanoke, where Virginian would then ship onwards to Newport News, or else Norfolk & Western would take it to Norfolk, or even north into Ohio for the steel mills in Cincinnati or even further north or west. The original management here back in the 1920’s and 30’s even shipped our coal as far north as Massachusetts and Maine, mostly on the Arkham & Bangor road ... now that’s an old road and fallen flag that almost no one knows about these days!”
Nope, I’d never heard of it, nor had my runner Jaime.
“Anyway, when the war was over, so were we. Fewer and fewer coal cars going out each month and year and even before Korea kicked off, we’d closed the last mine. For a few years we just became a remote repair depot, mostly for Virginian, but also N&W and few smaller regional roads as well. When the merger came along, frankly all that we had left here was the old, worn-out broken crap, mostly dilapidated steamers that N&W didn’t give a shit about anymore in the diesel age. They, N&W didn’t even want to pay to haul the stuff away to scrap it! The last RVR boss here then bought everything that was left, for a bargain scrap price pennies on the dollar, a giveaway price even for then, but then he let it all just sit. He and his son both just let it all rust! They didn’t want to scrap it all - but didn’t have the bucks to actually fix anything either! By the eighties my father, who was the last station and yardmaster here, was more or less responsible for the mess, but he just didn’t want to sell it all either! There was a recession, he said, and he kept telling the town that the scrap-metal prices still weren’t quite right yet ... and so everything sat some more ... and it’s all just the same today as it was left then.”
“Everything ... steamers, you said?” I inquired, quite entirely awake now. Most of the old steam engines did get scrapped for iron and there are damned few remaining that are operable. Give Union Pacific a lot of credit that they maintain a very expensive steam shop where they restore and keep at least some of the old ladies of their heritage fleet running for historical purposes.
“Steamers,” he confirmed, “a dozen more or less intact in the main depot shed and stacks of another dozen or so, most in dismantled pieces in the yard behind it, covered with tarps. All rusted to shit, but in theory either restorable or just good decent parts to keep an already running old teakettle smoking.”
He wasn’t kidding. It was nearly impossible to see anything outside in the blizzard now, but as we walked over to the enormous old depot shed and with just our flashlights we could see two acres of rusting vintage steel inside. Long cold, but more or less intact and out of the elements, waiting patiently for new life to burn inside them once more.
Damn ... there weren’t this many steamers in the Virginia Historical Railroad Museum! I didn’t think that even Steamtown in Pennsylvania had a few of these rusting models, especially the pair of duplex Mallet’s at the back of the shed. Fuck ... was that rear center heap a 2-8-8-2 Berkshire? It was ... and there was an USRA 2-6-6-2 on the left hand tracks behind it. Compared to those rare ducks, the ‘usual’ Atlantic’s, Pacific’s, Mikado’s and the 4-6-0 Casey Jones were mundane. Not to mention the several very common USRA 0-6-0 and 0-8-0 ‘Yard Goat’ switchers I saw.
A greedy sort of man would have begged God to also find either of the great N&W 4-8-4’s, like the Class J Passenger Loco or a Niagara ‘Northern’ steam loco, but those rare lost trains were still relatively modern by the late steam era and were never used in this region for hauling coal. Most had also been scrapped by N&W long before the merger.
I made a mental note to myself that it was about time that Norfolk Southern started its own heritage fleet program for old steamers. Steamtown would offer a small fortune for the chance to own and restore these beauties ... or not. The National Park Service has a tendency to ruin many of the things they’re supposed to preserve, usually by letting accountants run their operations and skipping on necessary maintenance.
With the blizzard raging even harder, it was time to move indoors to some more comfortable cover for the night, so we all trooped over to the great lodge, with its bright welcoming lights just visible to us in the growing storm.
As mountain lodges go, I’d grade this one pretty highly. It was big and modern, well-lit and cheerful, outside and inside. It needed to be, tourism was frankly the only functional industry left in the valley, or so Boone told us.
In the parking lot, there were half-a-dozen tour buses, all dimly lit but idling empty and showing ‘Charter’ for their destination. It was the evening before Christmas Eve and there was some sort of show for the tourists being put on inside. As we started to climb the long wooden snow-covered steps up to the lodge entrance, I could start to hear music. Once inside the grand entryway, I could hear the singing more clearly, a woman’s voice, but too muffled still to even recognize the holiday song being sung. To each side, was a covered glass walkway that went to various guest cabins, about twenty each on either side. Ahead of us was the main hall, where the show was going on, so that’s where we headed.
There was the usual sort of supper theater going on in the main hall, with fifty or so small round tables that seated about two hundred total, if full. On the far stage, a small house band was playing, adequately, but far from note perfect, while an older lady singer sang up front some old-time carol that I could barely distinguish. The house looked about half-full, but appreciative, with lots of empty tables towards the back, so the four of us, Boone included, found ourselves a rear table where we could sit and not bother anyone. A long row of buffet tables covered dishes, mostly already well-plundered, awaited us and there was just enough hot food left to satisfy us.
With a hot meal in me, joining all of that good hot coffee to perk me back up again, I began to start paying attention to the singer. Something about her was familiar, like she was some B-grade Nashville country royalty ... a voice I must have heard on the radio a hundred times before, but couldn’t quite now identify.
She must have been someone ... there was a small cable TV crew up in front, recording the show with two cameras. Probably for broadcasting this Christmas show later on some minor cable network, like tomorrow night, Christmas Eve or even Christmas Day itself. Their producer, a chunky short middle-aged gal looked vaguely familiar too, but I couldn’t place her either. Someone from the production side of the Grand Ole Opry or the Nashville Network, I guessed.
The formal Christmas show ended and the recording cameras and stage lights turned off and most of the band then left the stage, leaving the older lady to sing alone, aided by only her guitar. As coffee and dessert was served to her guests, she began singing old-time country gospel songs, and the moment she began the Carter Family’s ‘Coal Miners Blues’, I remembered exactly who she was!
I had taught her that song, over thirty years ago in my garage in Daly City, near San Francisco, California in 1981, played from the original vintage Decca Starburst label 78-rpm record. She was my old girlfriend from school, Bonnie White, who had dumped me long, long ago in Nashville for solo career success, to later fall into scandal and exile ... here in Random Valley Junction, Virginia!
I knew each of the next five songs she played by heart and she at last finished up her private solo encore and bid her audience a good-night. I had decided that I wouldn’t approach or try to talk to her. What did we really have to say to each other, over thirty years later? She gave our table a slight sideways glance as she walked left, off stage, and I thought that would be that ... until she reappeared amongst the dinner tables to greet each of her guests personally and have her picture taken with anyone who wished it.
It took her about half an hour to reach ours, by which time the supper theater was nearly empty and we were left virtually alone. With little preamble, she just started to pull up a fifth chair to add to our table, but Boone arose to greet her, call her ‘Boss’ and kissed her cheek before leaving, to let her speak to me privately.
“Hello, Clyde.” She smiled, even managing to keep eye contact with me. Like me, she was just over fifty now too, but except for the worry lines around her eyes she could have passed for mid-late thirties. Damn good cheekbones, just like her mother. She’d aged well.
“It’s Clive ... you renamed me Clyde, remember, so that our stage name would be ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, back in those days. Still going by Alice?” She nodded, “I thought so.” Her real name was really Alicia Bonnie Bonham, but she changed it for Nashville to Alice White (her mother’s maiden name) once we parted.
Jaime and Miles soon figured out that this gal was an old friend of mine, and they quickly made their own excuses after the introductions were made, to leave the two of us entirely alone.
It had been a very long time since we’d seen each other, being nearly thirty-two years, as I now reckon it, and our separation had not been a friendly one. Even now, neither of us was quite sure what to say to the other. I told her about my railroad career to some moderate extent and she told me about how she had semi-retired here, to operate this mountain inn and supper club. It was hard work ... but she was making ends meet.
Then I had one final last shock. The TV producer from the cable country music station joined us at the table, and I realized that she, Sara, was an old high school and college friend too, and the original third member of our retro-country quartet!
Suddenly, it was like old times, all over again!
In retrospect, we’d given it a damned good try and we had fleeting moments where we almost had a minimal amount of success, but the early 1980’s were not ready for an old-school vintage depression-era country revival. A decade later, other Nashville bands like BR5-49 followed almost exactly our roots and had better success. For us, starting as a garage band in college, we never sold a single record or rose above the lower levels of honky-tonk bars and clubs.
But it was a hell of a lot of fun, mostly, those eighteen months while it lasted.
I had vaguely known both Alicia ‘Alice’ and Sara since middle school band and then in high school band. Now the three of us were taking music classes together at San Francisco City College. But it was a small classified card that I put up in the music department common room that brought us all together. It read something like:
Wanted: Musicians for a casual but performing retro-country acoustic band. Tastes strictly pre-1940, Depression era country blues, hillbilly and rural gospel.
And so they came. Two or three other curious musicians came and went over the next six months to join us and then leave, but the core group of the three of us, remained. Each week I’d play a different old 78-rpm record and we’d learn the two tunes by ear. Sometimes, usually Alicia, would bring an old LP with vintage songs, like her favorite, the Carter Family, and in the next year we’d learned them all. We’d never had any paying gigs but we’d perform at least once a month at some free show or student function or just in some San Francisco park on a nice afternoon. There was fuck-all money, but we were having fun.
Briefly, I think I can remember a note I once wrote myself, when weighing up the faults and qualities of our threesome, just before we decided to try the fortune of the road.
· Alicia – Our centerpiece; beautiful tall and blonde with an angel’s voice. Has years of professional voice lessons but without the knack or ear for pop-songs or classics. Interests – strictly church music (daddy is a Lutheran preacher). Negatives – she’s our centerpiece, for good or bad she’ll eventually run the band. Adequate with guitar, weak on piano, amateur with anything else.
· Sara – Violin, and can play a hot one when she’s feeling the music, tepid otherwise. Interests - ‘Fiddlin’ Bootleggers’ stuff and some Okeh 45000 series ‘hot’ country dance. Negatives – hates anything slow or soulful and only just tolerates gospel songs and doesn’t understand the blues at all. Pretty awful on the bass but thinks she’s ‘ok’. Doesn’t like being on stage really as she’s not pretty like Alicia. Tied to her at the hip, they’ve been friends since grade school together. Only sort of tolerates me and will always out-vote me, every time.
· Clive (me) – Better on guitar than Alicia, but since that’s her best instrument I’ll mostly play banjo, mandolin or sometimes upright bass. Can play piano too, adequately, but not good enough to be professional. Story of my life ... just barely good enough. I’m slightly more organized than either girl and can handle our bookings. Negatives – I started the band ... but I’ll be the first one voted or pushed out, eventually. Anything I can or will do can be done by someone else better, sooner or later.
Sigh ... yeah, those private notes were dead on accurate!
So, we left early before graduation. None of us were Julliard material anyway. We all saved up money for a year, which still wasn’t much, and I had an old early 70’s small cargo van that we could pile everything into, and we decided to hit the road to see if we could make our fortune. The plan, and there sort of was one, was to head east as fast as possible to get to Texas, where possibly someone might enjoy the weird crap we were playing. It wasn’t a totally crazy idea ... and we could find a little regular work in bars in Austin and Dallas, but no one in either Houston or San Antonio could understand what our act was, or much cared.
Even in clubs where we could get regular billings we were more of a curiosity than a band to be taken seriously. Our best ever gig was a night on Sixth Street in Austin, near UT, where a semi-famous country musician wandered in late one night and waved a wad of bills in front us, offering us $100 each for every Hank Williams song we could play. Well, I knew them all, and the lyrics too, so I took lead, while poor Alicia and Sara tried to follow along by ear. Alicia didn’t even know the melody to ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, but we muddled through and ended up about 2k richer at the end of the night. Our poor van needed a new engine and transmission by then, so that was very welcome money.
We tarried about between Austin and Dallas, with the odd rural sideshow, for a full six months before deciding that nothing was happening. No permanent steady gigs and no record contract, even from labels no one had ever heard of. We turned the van east again and headed straight to Memphis, to try again there.
I supposed I ought to discuss the sleeping arrangements of our touring trio at this point. Some parts are salient for later. In short, I slept in the van nearly every single night or upright sitting in a coffee shop booth in the wee hours of the morning. The two girls usually shared a small economy motel room at the cheapest roadside dump with the lowest rates that we could find. They’d share the small single bed and let me in sometime in the late morning before lunch to at least shower (and maybe) change clothes. Sometimes I could even get in a proper nap before our evening show.
Alicia and Sara had been long-time girlfriends since school, and it look me longer than it probably should have to realize that they were also the other sort of girlfriends, and doing more than just sleeping in their shared bed. They were never kissy-kissy in public ... girls (or gay guys) mostly couldn’t do that sort of PDA in the early 1980’s. As far as I was aware of, they were just old friends very comfortable with each other, and that together in tandem, the pair of them pretty much decided our every move.
I’d never slept (or done anything else) with either of the girls. Not even a kiss. Alicia’s limit for me was a sort of brotherly hug, if she was bothered about something. No hand holding ... nothing else. As for Sara, I’d pretty much figured out by then that she wasn’t much into boys at all, and only barely tolerated having me around, but I hadn’t made the final other connection. Yeah ... it was a simpler less complicated era, in many ways and even Elton John was living deep back in the closet in those years. People were just ... people, and there weren’t dozens of sexual labels for your private lifestyle yet. Girls kissing girls was still very edgy stuff back then!