Nancy McCallion

Songs for Sinners

Author: nancymccallion

Ten Great Sad Songs

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a club owner about adding some dates for the spring and we were discussing possible schemes to bring in more people. She informed me that her employees loved the band, and she had great respect for our musicianship, but one of her regulars complained, “Nancy does too many slow sad songs.” Aside from the fact that this isn’t true, (we do fast sad songs too,) I can’t understand not liking sad songs. Does hearing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” make you stop worrying and be happy? I actually become more worried and very unhappy every time I hear that song.

Sad songs make me happy. Here is a list of some of my favorites. All these songs are slow, and therefore not the best choice for bar gigs, although you might be able to get away with one per set. Especially if the song is a waltz or “belt buckle polisher” as slow dances are referred to on the VFW circuit.

1. Ruby’s Arms – Tom Waits
A great sad song has a beautiful melody that can almost stand alone. Tom Waits is the voice of heartache in this one. The final line of the last verse kills me, “I’ll never kiss your lips again/or break your heart/as I say goodbye, I’ll say goodbye/say goodbye to Ruby’s arms.” Writing “I’ll never kiss your lips again” followed by “or break you heart” is terribly poignant; we know the singer’s heart is also breaking although he never actually says so.

2. Eleanor Rigby – Lennon and McCartney
This is one of the saddest of all The Beatles songs. Sad, tragic, but never maudlin. “She’s Leaving Home” is another and also Paul McCartney’s “For No One.”

3. Fairytale of New York – Shane MacGowan
You know a song that starts with “It was Christmas Eve babe, in the drunk tank” is going to be sad. But the refrain, “The boys from the NYPD choir were singing ‘Galway Bay,’ and the bells were ringing out for Christmas day” is genius. MacGowan takes us from the first Christmas of a young immigrant couple, through their self-destructive battles, and finally, the bitter end with the singer in the drunk tank, while throughout the narrative, the NYPD choir continues to sing a beloved song of their homeland.

4. Sam Stone – John Prine
“There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes, and Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose.” These lines speak for themselves. If you don’t know this song, give it a listen, and have your hankie ready.

5. The Way it Goes – Gillian Welch This is a fine example of showing, not telling, just what your English teacher always told you to do and something we don’t get enough of in popular music.

6. I Think its Going to Rain Today – Randy Newman
This may be the most sarcastic sad song every written, a great combination of melody and irony.

7. Waltzing’s for Dreamers – Richard Thompson
Just putting a song in 3/4 time lends it poignancy, combine that with a beautiful melody and a loser in love and the melancholy tears start to flowing. Another sad and lovely Richard Thompson song is “Dimming of the Day.”

8. Sweet Old World – Lucinda Williams
Suicide is not an easy topic for a song, but Lucinda pulls it off, listing the things that make life worth living and asking “didn’t you think anyone loved you?”

9. I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry – Hank Williams
If your going to write about sad songs, you’ve got to yank a Hank. This song is a standard, a beautiful combination of melody and lyrics. There’s no pretention here: “I’ve never seen a night so long/when time goes crawling by/the moon just went behind the clouds/to hide his face and cry.”

So, I’ve come to my tenth song and I have a page of titles left that I’ve jotted down, and many more I’m sure to think of tomorrow. So I’ll end here with a song from my repertoire and save my ever expanding list of favorite sad songs for future posts. Please feel free to post your own favorites in the comments.

10. My Old Friend the Blues – Steve Earl
This seems a fitting song to end on. Embrace the sorrow; it’s one thing you can always count on in this sweet old world.

Magic of a Melancholy Tear

Tell me is it the crack of the pool balls, neon buzzin’?
Telephone’s ringin’, it’s your second cousin
Is it the barmaid that’s smilin’ from the corner of her eye?
Magic of the melancholy tear in your eye
Tom Waits

I’ve always been able to relate to Victor Hugo’s definition of melancholy as “the pleasure of being sad.” Tom Waits is the master of melancholy and captures it achingly in “Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night” from his 1974 record of the same title. The mournful melody combined with the image of this guy combing his hair, gassing up his car, “trying to wipe out every trace of all the other days in the week” imparts a nostalgia for youthful optimism that makes me tear up every time. But it isn’t just nostalgia, it’s the sense that the singer isn’t really going to find the “heart of Saturday night” that invokes the melancholy, because who hasn’t felt that hope, that sense that something is going to happen, and how many of us are still waiting?

So what makes this pleasurable? The guy is going to dress up, comb his hair, search for the heart of Saturday night, and find himself hung over the next day and back at work the day after that.

My fourteen year old daughter suggests that seeking “pleasurable sadness” is a form of defiance against the pressure to be happy; we are told that we’re supposed to be happy when, in fact, frequently we’re not. And of course, there’s the element of catharsis, the purging of our fear and pity at the expense of some poor sot who stumbles into a temporary respite from the working week.

But it’s more than that, I think. Aside from defiance against happy, happy life affirming drivel and the cleansing purge of our emotions, there’s the sympathy, the connection we feel towards the character. I know this guy. I love this guy. He’s me at 19, paying my cover charge and strutting into a bar in my new black boots that cost me half a paycheck. He’s me and my best bud Catherine back when she was Cathy, cruising Speedway, bar hopping, looking for live bands and gigs, throwing down money from our tip jar and dreaming of fame and fortune. Just the thought of it brings a melancholy tear to my eye.

Catherine and me, 1982

Catherine and me, 1982

A Sonnet for a Squirrel

The Kaibab Squirrel


The Kaibab squirrel, lacking in all shame

poses for pictures, grasps for commissions,

French fries, sugar cones, other concessions.

A squirrel, yes, perhaps, only in name

He would peel your pocket to find spare change.

No blinks at click or flash, his impression

posture perfect, in high definition

foregrounded in a rectangle, and framed.

What brings you here, for surely you are lost?

Sciurus, scurrying salesman confined

to posing for self-same selfies. It pays,

He says, now conversational. The cost

is minimal, the memories divine

da Vinci didn’t work for free. No way


Written after a trip to the Grand Canyon where I watched this guy in action.

Snake Love: A Trip to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ

I never liked snakes. I would see them in their enclosures, look at them the way one looks at violence or blood, horrified and yet compelled, staring, just a moment longer before I looked away. There is talk of reptilian brains; we all have one we’re told. I imagine a snake head somewhere behind my eyes, a jealous viper who would swallow my enemies rather than forgive. What did the snake do to be so maligned? He wields a forked tongue. He tempted Eve to eat the apple. And now he is lodged inside my mammalian brain, willing me to return to the jungle: fight or flight.

But I have seen the snake make love. Yes, make love. I stood on a path not five feet away and watched: the female, supine, arched, her pale belly exposed, the male’s head moving, stroking her from head to tail. “The female must be aroused,” the docent tells us, “in order to copulate. He can’t enter her until she’s aroused. It’s physically impossible.” And so the snake makes love, not panting doggie love, but seduction, oblivious to the voyeurs on the path. The male twines around the female as the snake catcher arrives with bag and pole. “He’ll take the female first,” the docent says, and the catcher disengages the female, loops her, and stuffs her in the bag. Choosing neither fight nor flight, the male springs into the bag behind her. What went through his reptilian brain? What drove his passion that he would risk entrapment to be with his love?

Some would say the art of seduction evolved with the proliferation of the species; female snakes cannot be raped. Clumsy lovers died out long ago. But I will not see my reptilian Romeo demystified. I imagine the lovers in Eden, two vertebrates entwined.  I stare, just a moment longer, before I look away.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Modest Travel

Travel makes one modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world. – Gustave Flaubert

 I can’t profess to be a great world traveler, but the travel I have done, albeit much of the time spent in a van on an interstate or Italy’s Autostrade, has taught me a lesson or two on human nature. Not unlike those early travelers discussed by Joan Pau Rubies in Travel Writing and Ethnography, I find myself looking for what intellectuals after the Renaissance sought as “universal human truths,” characteristics which appear to transcend culture, ethnicity and nationality.

Which leads me to the subject of this blog, travelers as “agents of change.”  In the words of John Lennon, “We all wanna change the world.” But how does a traveler effect change?  Through our stories, perhaps, stories of universal truths,  stories of what we have in common with others rather than the differences that divide us, stories of how others adapt to the world in ways that might prove more effective than our own.  Through these stories we can begin to break down the barriers of fear and in the words of Jacqueline Novogratz, “extend the fundamental assumption that all men are created equal, to every woman and child on the planet,” because it is fear and ignorance that separate us, ultimately.

Our van in Italy

An interesting phenomenon occurred on our first tour of Italy when I was pregnant with my daughter.  I wasn’t showing at the time, and I didn’t feel inclined  to tell people we met that I was pregnant.  But one evening, after turning down many glasses of wine and cups of espresso, I decided to spill my secret. Up to this point, everyone had been very kind; but upon learning of my pregnancy, they became incredibly protective. I was treated like a delicate prize, cautioned about my lively dancing on stage, and I could no longer lift a guitar without people rushing to my assistance. They wanted to know my plans for after our tour when my child was born.  Our tour manager, Carlo, boasted about Italy’s maternity leave law which offers 5 months of leave at 80% of the woman’s salary. The salary is paid through the social security system rather than the woman’s employer, so even a self-employed musician like myself would be eligible.

As a self-employed United States citizen, however, footing my own healthcare bills and maternity leave, I was compelled to continue working as long as the doctor and I saw fit, which was right up until the last two weeks of my pregnancy. After our return from Italy we were scheduled to travel to Texas. On this tour there was no question as to my condition, unless you follow Dave Barry’s advice and don’t ask a woman if she’s pregnant until you see the baby’s head coming out.  Most of the people I met didn’t follow Dave Barry’s advice.  Men were chivalrous, women mothered me, and children gazed in awe at the round protrusion that would one day be a baby.


Our accordion player, Kevin, a New Jersey native who kept the van running in terms of mechanics and wheels on the road, was notorious for wanting to put a certain amount of miles behind us between stops.  He could become quite impatient when unscheduled stops were requested and grudgingly waited in the van as various biological or personal errands were run, twitching until the wheels of the van were rolling once again.  My pregnancy evoked a change in him, and a new found patience was born to accommodate my ever shrinking bladder.  He would even check in periodically, calling out, “last exit for 20 miles, anyone need a rest stop?”  Our Jersey friend wasn’t the only one on the lookout for me.  In travel plazas on I-10 and I-20, lines at the restroom would part to let me pass with sympathetic, “You need it more than I do,” remarks as I made my way to the toilet.  Women would smile maternally when I wobbled by and men would fall over themselves to help me move my gear.

on the road at 30 weeks

This protective behavior on both sides of the Atlantic struck me as one of those “universal truths” about humanity that some early travel writers were searching for.  Granted, I only tested my theory in two countries, four if you count New Jersey and Texas.  But survival of the species depends on the protection of expecting mothers.  It seems they weren’t just adopting me, they were adopting the creation of life itself. Just as Rick Steves in Travel as a Political Act explains how at fourteen he felt a sense of common humanity when he stood among Gustav Vigeland’s statues in Frogner Park,  realizing that the world was full of parents who love their kids just as much as his parents loved him, I came to understand that a pregnant woman tugs at the maternal and paternal heart strings of human beings the world over.  It was a humbling experience to be looked after in this manner.  And while at times I found the attention a bit stifling, I realized that it wasn’t really about me; it was human nature looking after its young.

Which leads me to the subject of this blog, travelers as “agents of change.”  In the words of John Lennon, “We all wanna change the world.” But how does a traveler effect change?  Through our stories, perhaps, stories of universal truths,  stories of what we have in common with others rather than the differences that divide us, stories of how others adapt to the world in ways that might prove more effective than our own.  Through these stories we can begin to break down the barriers of fear and in the words of Jacqueline Novogratz, “extend the fundamental assumption that all men are created equal, to every woman and child on the planet,” because it is fear and ignorance that separate us, ultimately.

Mark Twain said, “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” And so, for those who would vegetate in this little U. S. of A, let me say that not only do Italians make a fine cappuccino and have beautiful fruits and veggies for sale in open air markets, they love pregnant women as much as folks in Texas and New Jersey, and they provide a maternity leave of five weeks at 80% of their salary to nurture and protect them

fruits and veggies for the expectant mum

Another Story


The first time I went on the road to perform music, I went with my singing partner, Catherine and her girlfriend, Karen in a 1979 Ford Econoline Van that she’d recently bought from a friend. Catherine is a Mexican American woman, with a thick rope of shiny black hair and a complete lack of self-consciousness that makes her both a wonderful performer on stage and a heart breaker to susceptible members of either gender. She is a great lover of travel and in 1995 when she offered to take me across the country in her new old van, I couldn’t say no. We only had a couple of dates booked,  The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in New York, a coffee shop in Waltham, Massachusetts, and a sprinkling of open mics along the way. It was, more than anything else, a chance to get away and explore.

We were excited to see some of the country and were particularly interested in music towns: Austin, Memphis, New Orleans, and oh yes, Lubbock, Texas, hometown of Buddy Holly.  Our itinerary would take us through the South, and we had what Chimamanda Adichie refers to as a “single story” of the South, its history of racism, oppression and Jim Crow. On second thought, we had another story as well, the story of the music; and that was the story that drove our excitement and curiosity.

I can’t say that I was overly nervous about our trip, but I was aware that we might be reduced to a “single story” as well, based on our late model “hippie” van with a rainbow sticker on the back, and my two rather androgynous traveling companions of color, Catherine, who’s Hispanic, and Karen, a Korean American who had recently shaved her head.

Our first encounter with the “other” occurred on I-30 close to Dallas, Texas. We were stopped by a policeman and waited anxiously while he chatted with Catherine outside the van. Our anxiety was unfounded. He informed Catherine that she needed to slow down a little bit, but more importantly, “You gals need to fix that tail light first chance you get now, you hear?”

The rest of our journey through Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee produced no story of racism or intolerance. It was a story of Southern hospitality on city streets, in small town diners, on the freeways and on the back roads, and while I know that racism exists and persists in America in both the North and the South, it did not rear its ugly head on that trip. That trip was another story.

Catherine and limell’

After Catherine stopped touring with our band, The Mollys, she didn’t lose her love of the road and her passion for exploration. She and her wife limell’ have traveled to Prague, Vienna, Poland, Budapest, Spain, Morocco, Belize, Turkey, Greece, and most recently South Africa. I decided to have a chat with them on the notion of single and multiple stories.  I sent them a link to Chamamanda Adichie’s TED talk and they arrived at my house two days later, presented me with a gift of digestive biscuits (a weakness of mine and hard to find in Tucson), and proceeded to tell me their “stories” of South Africa.

“We thought we’d talk about Africa because of all the places we went it has the most common single story, which would be poverty, war torn, dangerous and then nothing but wild animals,” Catherine told me.  “Our travels started in Johannesburg, and as we were doing our research, we got a pretty consistent message about Johannesburg, and that is, ‘Don’t go there. It’s a hub for travelers, and yes, you have to fly in, but get out of there as soon as possible for the reason that it’s dangerous and there’s nothing there anyway.'”

“And it’s dirty,” added limell’ “It’s a big, dirty, dangerous African city, nothing to recommend it.”

“So we said, ‘Okay, were going!’ ” laughed Catherine.  “And we found it to be lovely.  It’s a big city, a dirty big city like any other dirty big city.”

“Pockets were dirty” added limell.

“And pockets were very nice, very cozy. You could walk around at night, neighborly, a lot of music, a lot of cafes,” said Catherine, “The inner city downtown area wasn’t nearly as overtly dirty or had a sense of danger like we were led to believe.  I’m sure that late at night walking alone would not be a wise thing to do, but not so much that you should just avoid it altogether.”

“There are parts of Tucson where I wouldn’t do that either, parts of New York, Brooklyn,” said limell.

Catherine getting her hair braided

They went on to tell me about the people they met, of all races, who were “absolutely welcoming, energetic, and generous, consistently.”

“A lot of the people there are aware of the single story about South Africa.  We were told over and over again to please tell people it is safe here, we want them to come here, we need them to come here and we will make sure they stay safe.  We know the story about our country is not a good one.” limell explained.

This brings me to the role of the traveler and the travel writer as storytellers.  Limell and Catherine were anxious to add to the lexicon of stories of South Africa, delighted to share their memories and create a diverse picture of a country that we in the United States tend to think of only in terms of racism, danger, violence and cool exotic animals.  Chamamanda Adichie says, “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” There is not just one story of any human or human endeavor, or country or region or culture. There are a number of stories.  As individuals, we may be limited by our lone perspective, yet our perspective can add to a larger view of the world and humanity. David Spurr in The Rhetoric of Empire tells us that “Culture” is “an ongoing phenomenon in human relations.”  Travel may serve to end our cultural isolation, but only if we, as travelers, can look beyond the limited “single story,”  and bring that story home.  In the end,  cultural stereotypes separate us every bit as much as geography.

Can I get Fries with that Cappuccino?

A German businessman went to Ireland to look into investment property for his company. He went into a shop to buy a paper and stood waiting at the counter for service. After waiting for several minutes, he leaned over the counter and called to the young man behind it, “Is there a word for “mañana” in the Irish language?” Whereupon the Irishman replied, “Sure there is, but it doesn’t carry the same sort of urgency.”

This joke and others like it can be a humorous way of expressing a clash of cultures. Being an American of Irish and German descent, I can get a chuckle out of it and no hurt feelings are involved. But clashes of culture are not always humorous. Feelings can be hurt, lands can be conquered, and ways of life can be destroyed when one culture, due to its differences, is viewed as inferior by another. In the 1600’s, stereotypes of the wisecracking Irishman with his lack of urgency gave the English a sense of cultural superiority and allowed them to justify the colonization of Ireland with a landowning aristocracy.

RF Forrester, in The History of Modern Ireland tells us, “The English saw the world of cattle-raids, Brehons and poets as arrogantly archaic and deliberately mystifying: a world at once bogus and perverse, which would only be civilized by means of plantation.” One traveler quoted in Forrester’s history wrote that staying with the Irish was like “venturing into a wild beast’s cave.”

I can’t imagine today’s travel writers writing anything as blatantly ethnocentric as the words of that 17th century English traveler.  Colonialists practiced what David Spurr in The Rhetoric of Empire calls “rhetorical strategies of debasement,” which could either negate the value of the ‘other’ or idealize him.  And yet, to quote Spurr again, how does one “construct a coherent representation out of the strange…?” Well, that is the goal of this blog, and I’ve just spent two paragraphs avoiding it, so here goes…

A New Yorker once explained to me that you can tell a non-New Yorker by the way he is always looking up. Perhaps this is true. Being from Tucson, Arizona, a Western town spread low across the valley like so many Western towns, I’m not used to many tall buildings; heat rises after all, and this is a desert. Emerging from the Holland Tunnel to the island of skyscrapers was a bit of a shock to me, and perhaps that explains the crick in my neck.   The first specimen of New York culture I met was a man behind a counter in a small deli. I wasn’t sure at all what I wanted to eat or what anything cost, and I was examining the menu above the counter where he stood. (I was looking up again.) He began to sigh impatiently, “Yeah?” he said, “Do you know what you want?” I thought it was obvious that I didn’t, seeing how I was still looking at the menu. He then began to tisk and sigh, wipe the counter, and shift his weight from one foot to the other. Feeling vaguely intimidated, I ordered a turkey sandwich without taking the time to consider other options.

Catherine, Nancy and Karen on my first trip to NYC

“Whaddaya want on it?”

“Uh,” looking at the menu again.

More tisking and sighing and wiping of counter .

“Lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo,” I panted.

The interesting thing about this exchange was that I was the only person in the shop. He had no reason to hurry and yet he was in a hurry. This was quite a contrast to the way I was used to being treated in sandwich shops in Tucson. Not to say that I’ve never had what I consider rude service at home, but I began to notice a pattern of franticness in the New York way of life. Drivers behind us at stoplights would honk before the light turned green as if in anticipation of its changing. Drivers merging into a lane would turn on their blinker and cut right in front of another car. There was no waiting for permission. But the thing was, that’s how most people drove. It wasn’t a matter of rudeness; it was the rules of the road, and if everyone followed those rules the traffic moved efficiently.   All it took was one van load of Arizonans lollygagging at a stoplight,  and everyone was late for dinner. It wasn’t long before we were cutting into lanes with the best of them.

Our experience in New York City stands in stark contrast to our experience in Italy. In Italy we were the ones in a hurry, watching the clock tick away as we were  served one delicious course followed by another, the meal often lasting well beyond when we were scheduled to be on stage to begin our performance.

We had booked our tour through Carlo, a self employed promoter of American music who knew more about bands from Tucson and the Southwest than most people from Tucson and the Southwest.  He was our agent and road manager during our time in Italy.  He pulled up to greet us at the airport in a white van with a cigarette dangling from his lips that was soon to be replaced by another cigarette and then another in rapid succession.  Upon seeing our drummer, Marx, who’d recently shaved his head, he took Marx’s  face between his hands, peered at him sadly over his glasses and said, “cancer?”  It took us a moment to figure out that he was teasing.  Carlo was a great fan of the music and also, I think, of feeding us.  He loved his food and wine, and when he wasn’t enjoying a full out sit down meal, he subsisted on espresso and cigarettes. The trouble was, we were always eating or getting ready to eat at show time.  We had never been one of those bands that starts an hour after they’re scheduled to perform, at least not if we could help it, and most times we could, but not on Carlo’s watch.


One night, during the first week of our tour, we were sitting at a restaurant waiting for our meal.  It was about fifteen minutes after we were supposed to start our show.  Our accordion player, Kevin, who just so happens to be from the East coast, was twitching restlessly, checking his watch and becoming more and more agitated.  Finally he said something about needing to eat soon and Carlo looked at him sadly over his glasses and said, “Do you ever not eat?  Do you ever go hungry?”  I explained to Carlo that we were worried about starting late and he said, “Why worry?  The audience is eating also.”  And sure enough, when we finished our meal and got to the gig, the audience was just beginning to arrive.  I wondered why they didn’t list the time of the performance an hour later, but it didn’t seem to matter because no one expected us to start on time.  Once we figured that out, we were able to relax and enjoy the leisurely pace of the meals.  The food and wine, needless to say, were exceptional.

The pace of life varies greatly between New York and Italy.  It’s interesting to think that my reaction to impatient New Yorkers may have been similar to Carlo’s reaction to us.  Folks from Tucson and the Western United States identiry themselves as being “laid back.”  Our visit to Italy was a lesson in relativity.  Travel writers, in looking at other cultures, must find a way to reflect their findings back upon themselves.  My first trip to New York did seem a bit like “venturing into a wild beasts cave.”  But then, I can be a bit of a beast myself at times, and after all, it’s nothing that a leisurely lunch with red wine followed by a nap wouldn’t cure.

Moon Over the Interstate

White trash in a wagon on a Texas four lane

A Suitcase and a past my only load

Cover art by Gary Mackender

Oh take me, take me, take me you fool road

I wrote those lyrics, or part of them, on an interstate highway somewhere between Tucson, Arizona and the East Coast in the summer of 1998.  That was a year of constant travel for my band, The Mollys. The US Interstate system was our home. A beat up Rand McNally Atlas that automatically opened to the state of Texas was our guide, its pages folded on the states and cities where we frequently performed; the occasional stain of taco sauce from a Taco Bell burrito, purchased at a drive-in-window, and consumed, minus the drippings, by the “navigator” decorated its pages.

In time, the interstate system became etched in our minds.  In the same way that a person from New Jersey says “Which exit?” when they meet a fellow Garden Stater, referring to where you would get off I-95 to find their hometown,  I might find myself saying to someone from Zanesville, Ohio, “Isn’t that on I-70 between Columbus and I-77?”

I have seen the United States Interstate System from the window of a rolling Ford Econoline van in winter, summer, spring and fall, by night, by day, and in every mood imaginable. I remember driving along I-70 watching an ominous line of clouds in the distance and listening to the radio for tornado warnings.  If I were a cartographer like Olaus Magnus, whose Carta Marina, or Map of the Sea, shows the North Atlantic filled with pictures of sea monsters, I would map I-70 from Missouri through the plains of Kansas with drawings of tornadoes, farm houses and cows.

One winter we drove across Texas on Interstate 10 and into Arkansas during a record breaking ice and snow storm.  We had to drive under twenty miles an hour, because, as we learned, there is a shortage of snowplows in the South.  Our view from the window was one of snow and sleet, and the occasional eighteen wheeler, jack-knifed and overturned in a ditch.  We lost so much time on that trip that we had to drive with only short stops for gas and restroom breaks.  We didn’t even have the luxury of a sit down meal in a diner; all the while we were watching the clock and mentally calculating the time it would take to get to our gig.  I haven’t been able to stomach a Whopper Jr. since.  We did make it to our show on time, but with less than an hour to spare.  After three days in a van and no shower, we performed two fifty-five minute sets to a sit down crowd in a performing arts center in upstate New York.  There’s the romantic life of a touring musician for you.

We didn’t always take the interstate highways by choice.  It was a necessity.  We had somewhere to go, and we needed to get there quickly.  Extra time was extra money, and we wanted to save our precious dollars to take home.  As time passed, we got to know which routes were the quickest.  If our task, as it frequently was, was to get to the East Coast in record time, we started on I-10 to El Paso, switched to I-20 near Toyah, Texas, continued until we hit I-30 in Dallas, and then it was on to I-40 in Little Rock, Arkansas and east to Greensboro, North Carolina, where we’d catch the I-85 to the I-95 to the DC Beltway and, eventually, our first night’s sleep in a bed in a wonderful old farmhouse near Gaithersburg, Maryland, free lodging with our friend, Randy, the brother-in-law of our bass player.  We usually drove the whole route nonstop, taking turns driving, sleeping and navigating.  Any money spent on hotels would come out of our meager pay. If we couldn’t get a promoter to spring for our rooms, we slept in the van – which was almost always rolling.

Joni Seager tells us that a map “reflects the priorities, sensibilities, fears, and the state of knowledge of the mapmaker and his or her cultural context.” Aside from lines of interstate netting the country, the tornadoes and the cows, what else might I add to my map to reflect my sensibilities during my time as a traveling musician: the oil refineries in Odessa (how might one map a smell?), the Admiral Benbow, a hotel in Memphis  where I spent one of the most frightening nights of my life and wrote, “I’m Not as Willing,” the now abandoned Blue Moon, a roadhouse in Kasota, Minnesota where Joyce always requested “the yellow dress song“?

The interstate system is only a bunch of lines on a map, a series of numbers without character, like the identical travel plazas at the end of the off ramps, offering the same knock off tee-shirts, fast food and tire gauges as the store fifty miles back; but layered on top of these highways is a chunk of my life.  The roadside attractions are the funky bars and the characters like Joyce.  Waiting at the end of a long drive were small town nightclubs where the Saturday night dance was the only game in town.  To our fans, we were the kids who ran away to join the circus, rolling into town in our late model Ford van to put on a show.  Our audience saw us at our best, sweating out our frustrations and spilling our guts on stage.  Under their surveillance we lived a carefree existence, unburdened by the nine to five.  But like the character in my song, “Moon Over the Interstate,” we carried our own baggage, the baggage of our pasts, our desires and our fears, as we struggled to find intimacy and fulfillment in our vagabond existence.

I remember driving with my family from my mother’s home town, Muenster, Texas to Tucson to “settle down” after my father’s retirement from twenty years in the air force.  I was nine years old.  My parents had never been to Tucson, but my mother had romantic notions of the West and they were both fans of the television series, High Chaparral which was filmed in Tucson.   As we drove west along I-10 at night, I remember how many of the towns seemed to be nestled in valleys.  When we reached the crest of a hill, we were able to see the lights of the towns scattered below us.  Each town seemed to hold some sort of promise of a new life.  I always had that feeling when I was on the road.  Something new and better was always waiting, in the next town, at the next off ramp.

photo by Gary Mackender

The Mollys 1998, photo by Gary Mackender

For every brand new town there are a thousand brand new lights
a thousand hopes and dreams that lie and wait for you tonight
There ain’t no call to shed a tear or linger on what’s past
The cure ain’t in a bottle, it’s a foot upon the gas… *

© 2019 Nancy McCallion

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑