Letter from Katie: Long Time Gone

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was touring.

As best as I can recall, it was the spring of 1979 when my band played a small women’s college near Cumberland Gap, in a tiny town called Pippa Passes. We’d been on the road for a couple of days, stringing together one-nighters in eastern Kentucky. Things were going just fine until, at one stoplight in Hazard where the road was so steep it seemed vertical, the van began to smoke. It billowed dramatically from under the hood, and my heart stopped somewhere in my throat.

The van had no air-conditioning and no heater to speak of, and parking it was like wrestling an alligator. But so far, we had managed. A few months before, returning to Cincinnati from a job in Cleveland on a winter night, we’d put cardboard in front of the radiator to keep it from freezing. This smoke pouring from under the hood seemed like a less surmountable problem.

Buddy Griffin, our fiddle player, was driving at the time. “Pull her over and shut ’er off,” someone yelled helpfully, and that’s exactly what Buddy did. He jumped out, released the hood, and bent down to study the matter. When he emerged, he held up the cardboard pieces we’d shoved in there during the winter and forgotten. Grinding up the steep hills on the first warm day of spring had overheated the engine. “Ta da!” he said, we cheered wildly, and we were back on the road, our renewed spirits carrying us on to Pippa Passes without any arguments or further car trouble.

I had started the Katie Laur Band in 1975 without much thought. Nobody had ever told me that I couldn’t do that, so I figured, What the heck. And from the first, the band took off—a little faster than I was prepared for. I had a shoestring budget, and we needed two things to make us self-sustaining: a sound system—which we had because my friend Becky Hudnall put up money for “starter” equipment—and a van, which we eventually purchased from a band in northeastern Ohio named the Hutchison Brothers.

It was a 1972 extra-long Ford Econoline, and on this trip I was riding in the back on a mattress, microphone stands clanking back and forth with each curve in the highway. Like Huck Finn on his raft, I watched the world go by under the clear Kentucky sky. Everything was green, and the newly leafed-out trees were punctuated by white dogwoods and flowering crabapples. As we rolled down the highway, we played Flatt & Scruggs on the cassette tape player at top volume. Earl Scruggs’s banjo was bearing down on “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” Lester Flatt kept time on the guitar, and it seemed to me it was a perfect day.

Pippa Passes was an old town, with a stone courthouse and a few wooden storefronts. Perched on a steep hill, the college campus was as beautiful as that part of the country can be, but so small we almost missed it. We parked and walked up, carrying our heavy instruments.

Someone met us at the door to the auditorium. They gave the guys box lunches but asked me if I would be good enough to eat with the women in their dormitory. They were hoping I might inspire them I suppose, though by then I was doubtful about what I might inspire them to do. Certainly not ride around the country in a van with no power brakes and no air-conditioning. A girl showed up at my elbow, took my guitar, and steered me to the dorm.

Inside I found about 25 young women doing laundry and reading movie magazines with their hair rolled up on orange juice cans. The school’s mission was to educate promising students from the surrounding mountains, regardless of their ability to pay. Some of the girls had babies, and all had an air of defeat that was tangible.

“You one of the band?” a girl asked, cautiously curious.

“Yes,” I said. “I am.”

“What do you play?” someone else asked.

“I play guitar and sing,” I said.

“Wow!” a woman said. “How’d you learn to do that?”

“I just always did it, ever since I was a kid.” They looked at me doubtfully, then went back to playing with their babies and complaining about their boyfriends.

I managed to fix my hair and put on a little make-up and change clothes in this small space (I’ve done miracles in worse places, frankly), and grabbed my guitar and headed for the auditorium.

On stage, the guys had set up the old Peavey sound system like a string of cheap Christmas lights strung straight across the stage. Jeff Terflinger was taking his mandolin out of the case, and Jeff Roberts had his pitch pipe. “Everybody ready to tune,” he said. We uncased our guitars and fiddles and banjos and tuned them to the standard A. That done, we sat the instruments on their stands and got ready to play. I’ll never know where audiences come from, but about 15 minutes before show time I looked out from behind the curtain and the little auditorium was full. The people were warm and welcoming. We finished the show with Buddy’s version of “Orange Blossom Special,” which involved the Gillette theme song, twirling the bow on his nose, and other entertaining sidetracks. We got a standing ovation and a couple of encores. I can’t imagine how little entertainment they got in that wee place, but they were glad to see us, I’m sure of that.

When we were done, the girls from the dormitory came backstage and insisted on carrying my guitar and my purse back to the van. It was a sweet gesture I’ll never forget. I remember lying on the mattress in the back of the van, crying softly. (I usually did cry after a performance. It was a quick way to unwind.) I thought that life was impossible and wonderful all at the same time.

“Put on Earl Scruggs, Buddy,” I said. “And turn it up.” The mic stands rolled around me again, and I sat up and waved good-bye to the girls. They stood there until I couldn’t see them anymore through my tears.

Because we were a bluegrass band, the Econoline was often headed south, back to the places where that music came from. For us in the late 1970s, a popular destination was the Carter Family Fold in southwest Virginia. It was here in the 1920s that the original Carter family—A.P., his wife Sara, and sister-in-law Maybelle—had their beginnings as the First Family of Country Music. A.P.’s daughter Janette had “kept the family business a-goin,” as she liked to say, just as she’d promised her father she would, running it as a music center and offering performances each Saturday.

The Carter Family Fold was located in a place called Poor Valley—“Poor” because there was no coal there. Consequently, the land was untouched—serene and beautiful rolling hills of green grass and cornfields. Janette’s modest house sat high on a rutted gravel road. We’d drive up, get out of the van, and smell the smell of open country. Janette always kept some little feist dog (“feist dog” is such a country expression) that would bark vigorously then promptly bite Buddy. The door would slam open and Janette would say, “Well, come on in. You’ve had a long trip, and I’ve cooked you a little supper. It’s not much…” 
The “little” meal would include biscuits with ham and gravy, fresh tomatoes, fried pies, homemade jams and jellies, and whatever else she had on hand. Going there was as rich and as comforting as Sunday dinner.

Janette’s father, A.P., had lived there once, and the place was like most country places—useless furniture side-by-side with antiques and prized musical instruments. The boys would always get to play A.P.’s old guitar. Once I slept in a bed made for Janette’s grandparents. The headboard, which was intricately carved, went clear to the ceiling, and I sunk into a feather mattress fortressed by down pillows and piles of quilts. I learned years later that Janette’s cousin June Carter and Johnny Cash had bought that old bed; I was glad it stayed in the family.

That particular weekend, during our Saturday night performance at the Carter auditorium, a huge snowstorm blew in and we couldn’t get the van out: We were trapped in Poor Valley. I could have stayed a week in that feather bed, but when I woke the next morning Buddy was playing the fiddle and I could smell coffee and red-eye gravy. One of the men in the valley pulled us out, and we were on the road again.

We went to Janette’s about once a month and to her festivals each summer to see genuine old-time musicians. But we also went north—stopping in Cleveland to perform, then heading for Princeton, New Jersey, to play at the Princeton University folk club. We performed in Meadowlands Stadium when it was new and met a very young Robin and Linda Williams and the fiddler Jay Ungar. Robin and Linda went on to be regulars on public radio, and Jay wrote a haunting tune called “Ashokan Farewell.” Years later, it became the theme music for Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary. We had a fan in Bucks County, Pennsylvania—Dodie Murphy—who could usually find us a gig when we were coming through that area. Sometimes we’d stay with Dodie, too. I’d take an afternoon nap in her pre-Revolutionary house, and a woman would slip in and give me a full massage, as a tribute. On the road, people could be kind and understanding.

Of course we went to Manhattan every trip we took to the East Coast, playing a respectable Irish pub named O’Lunney’s, which featured bluegrass on Sunday nights. That’s where we were in May of 1977, staying in a very nice condo in Midtown, when we heard the news that the Beverly Hills Supper Club had burned. We all stood frozen in front of the television screen, listening for the names of the dead, wishing we were back home.

When our third album was released in 1979, a guy named Garrison Keillor called Larry Nager, our bass player who also handled our bookings, and asked us to be on a little show he was doing in Minneapolis called A Prairie Home Companion. We had never heard of it. The show had been broadcast in Minnesota for years; now it was going big-time. We were scheduled for the second national broadcast. Prairie didn’t pay much in those days—just union scale plus travel—but they booked you in a coffeehouse on Friday and Saturday nights so you could make some money and sell records.

On the night of the show, when Garrison talked to me on the air, he asked where we were headed next to perform. I said, “The Sanctuary in Iowa City.” When we got there, the club was packed with fans of the show who looked like they might have camped out to get seats. Maybe nobody in Ohio knew about Garrison Keillor and his “little town that time forgot,” but he could sure fill a house west of the Mississippi.

Over the years we went back to St. Paul many times to do Prairie. The reception was always warm, but the drive never got easier. I can remember standing in a tourist stop in Wisconsin (next to Minnesota, the cleanest state in the Union). It was 4 a.m., and I wanted to see how far we had to go. Jeff, freshly coffeed-up and clear-eyed, put his hand over the map in front of me and said, “Don’t look, Katie. It will just depress you.”

Winters were hard in the van, though we brought quilts and covers with us, but summers could be unbearable. Air-conditioning? We didn’t have it. I can remember starting out for a festival near Knoxville, Tennessee, when the temperature was hovering around 100 degrees. The highway was so hot, the sun so unrelenting, that our tires started exploding. “Pop!” we’d hear and we’d have to pull off to the side and change the tire. We got back on the road, cross and sweaty, when we heard another “Pop!” and we knew we’d lost another one.

Buddy checked the last two tires and declared they were sturdy and we got back on the road again. Of course we hadn’t expected the radiator to overheat. “Pull her over and shut ’er off,” Buddy said, and the boys hoofed to a nearby farmhouse for water while I stayed to guard the instruments. Every 50 miles or so that day, we pulled over to put more water in the radiator. We got to the festival bedraggled, hot, and half-sick, already exhausted, and put on one of the best shows I think we ever did. We were young and healthy, and the heat relaxed our muscles so we could play better, looser.

A band is like a marriage in the way that time can reshape rough days into gentle memories. I recall fondly a birthday spent on the road in Ann Arbor in January, and I still laugh over the time Buddy’s fiddle bow came apart in a Cleveland club. All the hair simply came loose from the bow and hung, limp as Chinese noodles. He sat up all night restringing it with white thread and coating the thread with rosin. It didn’t sound as good as he usually did, but it was decent.

Then there were the nights that were out-and-out magic. We were popular in West Virginia; Buddy was a native, and when we were there all kinds of musicians would converge. Musical legend John Hartford’s tour crossed ours frequently in West Virginia, and John would stop whatever he was doing and come and play with us. He and Buddy would saw away on soaring melodies, fiddling “Old Joe Clark” so fast you couldn’t keep up, and we’d have so much fun that those nights flew by like mile markers on the highway. I wish I could have some of them back.

Of course, the road took its toll on each of us. Eventually one of the young men in the band wanted to move to Minnesota (he was later driven out by enormous black flies), one wanted to move to West Virginia, and I just wanted a good night’s sleep and some time to myself. The view along I-64 from Lexington to Ashland no longer captivated me the way it used to. The center wasn’t holding anymore.

But one doesn’t just quit like that. We had “honeymoon” times where we’d say, “Let’s throw some things in a gym bag and drive to Canada.” I flew a few places by myself for speaking engagements (my status as one of the first women to lead a bluegrass band earned me a spot in some feminist lecture series), and I sang with the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band at a jazz festival in New York state. In other words, I tried as hard as I could not to be over it. But it didn’t work. I knew the road would lead to emotional instability, drugs, drinking, who knows what, and those weren’t things I wanted in my life.

It wasn’t just us. Many of the bands we had passed on the road were hanging up their suitcases. The Hotmud Family, the Morris Brothers, a lot of them have
disbanded. And by the mid-1980s, we had too.

Looking back, it was one of life’s great adventures. We made lasting friendships, developed respectful associations with colleagues, and we saw a good part of the United States we wouldn’t have seen if we’d gone as tourists. We learned to read maps (in the days before the GPS), to take care of ourselves and each other in difficult situations, to cooperate when we felt like fighting, and we came out of the experience more mature, responsible adults than when we started.

Of course a lot of that had to do with age. But I prefer to think it was those nights in the van, listening to the cassette player, all of us in the dark as Earl Scruggs tore into “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” The beat he played was the same as ours, and we synchronized our heartbeats to him.

Photograph courtesy of Katie Laur
Originally published in the April 2012 issue.

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