Saturday, August 2, 2008

Fellow pirate sailing under a friendly flag

I saw Jason Hutto early this afternoon at the airport in St. Louis. He was on his way to Newport, Rhode Island to stage-manage a Son Volt performance at a folk festival.

As he was picking through freeze-dried-looking sandwiches and asking himself aloud, “What am I doing here?” (at the airport eatery, I think he meant, but the existential edge was probably intentional), Jason confided that he had been doing road-support work for Jay Farrar and company for the past year and a half.

“There’s like an eight-page itinerary for a fifty-minute set,” he said, shaking his head in wonder.

I liked the notion of this extraordinarily talented songwriter, bandleader, producer, and guitar player providing technical support for another locally based band that had broken out of St. Louis. It’s an ancient working musician’s code, no different from the days when a momentarily unemployed pirate would be asked aboard a vessel sailing under a friendly flag as it set to sea.

I told Jason I was bound for the Fort Bragg area to visit with family, but did have a musical side trip scheduled that might interest him and would surely intrigue Jay. I will borrow my brother’s car and drive to the Asheville area to comb through the Bascom Lamar Lunsford archive, to select some images to illustrate an archival reissue of his work.

Bascom didn’t seem to be in Jason’s musical lexicon (yet), but Jay and Jeff Tweedy used to cover one of Bascom’s few original compositions, “Old Mountain Dew,” back in the earliest Uncle Tupelo days. More importantly, Bascom was among the very earliest collectors of the Appalachian folk traditions that appear so magnificently on John Cohen’s High Atmosphere, which was Jay and Jeff’s primary source for the acoustic record they did with Peter Buck of REM at the controls.

Jason and I were harried travelers passing in the airport foodline, so I didn’t get the chance to muse with him about all of the precedents to his current gig that instantly flooded my mind. Since he was working for Jay Farrar, I first remembered the days when Brian Hennemann was Uncle Tupelo’s guitar tech, after Brian had disbanded Chicken Truck and before he and Mark Ortmann would form The Bottle Rockets.

As my little family and I waited for our bird to Raleigh/Durham, many more rock-and-roll ghosts flitted past my mind’s eye. For every successful traveling band I can remember from my years on the road, there was a buddy from another band who made some side coin keeping their show on the road. The savviest among these guys (like Brian Hennemann) also accumulated industry contacts that would help out their own band further on down the road. It is, basically, an informal apprentice system in what remains something of a mystical guild: the working musician.

Whether the side money was worth the hassle or the schmooze opportunity ever paid off, the musician in Jason’s shoes hardly had a choice. When you are stranded on shore, and a friendly ship is setting forth to sea, if a pirate on deck catches your eye and gives you the nod, there is nothing to do but clench your knife between your teeth and climb aboard.

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