The distinctions between being “city” and being “country” have become so blurred that it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s upside down and what’s right side up. What once was country has gone city and vise-a-versa. Perhaps this reversal is a part of a pattern. There was a time, after all, when telephone service was delivered through a wire and television service was delivered over the air, not the other way around; a time before MTV, when people listened to music and created their own mental images instead of looking at other people’s images to a backing track, a time in fact when there was “M” in MTV. For real confusion, compare the values of the average inner city gangsta rapper and the average outer country redneck Klansman: Chances are they both think women are inferior, consider conspicuous, transportable wealth the measure of a man’s worth, and believe handguns are essential to the good life.
It’s easy to see why Flannery O’Conner, one of the more astute observers of Southern life, felt deeply ambivalent about the future, about the South becoming more like the rest of the country. Television, movies, and the internet have homogenized our codes of social interaction and shellacked our distinctive dialects: The voices of Valley Girls are about as common in Smithfield, North Carolina as Silicone, California. But there was a time in eastern North Carolina when “cot” meant something you slept on; now it may mean what you did to a fish. These days an Emerald Isle flounder can be hooked, filleted, and fried without the “aw” in “caught.”
As we adopt city voices, we adopt city ways of doing and being. Put yourself in the line of fire on I-285 near Atlanta. Could be Miami, could be Boston. City is city.
Not only has “city” invaded “country,” but things country have also gone city: Big trucks with big tires, NASCAR, wrestling. Country Music is the best example of the highly conflicted state of things. The themes may be Country, but the tones are Rock.
One irony of contemporary life is that while the internet gives each of us the option of recreating ourselves via Facebook, finding a context—a place to fit in the world—seems increasingly difficult.
In the late sixties, you could walk the sands outside the Pavilion at Atlantic Beach, North Carolina and identify at once the kids from Raleigh or Kinston or Salter Path. You only had to listen to the voices.
And if you were country, you listened most sincerely for the voices of Raleigh girls.
At the beach, city kids never, never traveled by pick-up truck, and if you knew the number of Richard Petty’s 426 Hemi-powered Plymouth or if the wrestlers Brute Bernard & Skull Murphy, Johnny Weaver, or the Bolos were familiar names around your house, you kept that information to yourself when trying to meet Raleigh girls at the Embers’ Club.
Finding the bridges that connected country to city was a serious endeavor to young country folk who aspired to enter the mysteries of city romance. The stock methods for crossing social borders were limited though well known. A homecoming queen from New Hope High School just might parlay that title into a steady relationship with a cool guy from Goldsboro High although she’d probably pay a price for turning her back on her classmates and run the risk of being labeled “too good” for the rest of us. Or if on a beach blanket a New Hope guy could boast of a football scholarship to N.C. State, U.N.C., or E.C.U., he might go a long way with a Raleigh girl. If a country guy bought a Corvette, he could drive around city girls every Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, but riding around does not a romance make. The traditional routes from the country to the city were few, and they could be as tortuous as the Blue Ridge Parkway at the height of leaf season: abrupt shifts in altitude, blind curves, sudden stops, and uncharted ravines.
The glamour girl in the white Thunderbird in the film American Graffiti, Suzanne Somers, represents the iconic version of a Raleigh girl.
What was needed was a universal common denominator, one that could bind teens in ways that superceded local differences, an intersection that both connected and extended beyond county lines and city limits, a revised map, a new portal, some new vehicle for social transcendence. That need was answered one Sunday night, February 9, 1964 on The Ed Sullivan Show. My brothers and I were among the 73 million watching as the Beatles performed live on American television.
For kids from Hood Swamp and Clyde and Little Washington and Winston-Salem and even Raleigh, it was a life altering few minutes. We would never be the same. Not socially or politically. What it meant to be an “insider,” to be “in the know,” to be cool required new coordinates, new sensibilities. And these parameters offered an identity not defined by city or county and provided new uncharted social opportunities. For country boys who had seen military service or the ministry as ways to reinvent themselves, a third option suddenly appeared.
Overnight, there were bands everywhere.
At the Saulston crossroads in an empty, dimly lit country store, the twins, Faye and Kaye Mewborn celebrated their 16th birthday, and because they were country, people of all ages were invited. At the party appeared a three-piece no-name band, two guitar players (no bass), and a drummer. The two singers had no microphones. The band’s play list consisted of a recognizable version of only two songs, “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” The kids’ parents, our neighbors, some in their bib overalls, sported open, amused smiles and tapped their brogans in the big circle that surrounded the band. A grinning Bud Teachy, who would take his own life the summer after Revolver was released, arrived with a Beatle wig, which was passed around and modeled by everyone. The trio clunked and hammered the two songs over and over, and still we begged to hear them again. The drummer slogged his snare until its head split.
Bands and rumors of bands surfaced and spread like war news. From Elroy came word of a band that included the Hinnant brothers, Wayne on guitar and Steve on organ, their cousin Delbert on bass, and a Daughtry boy on drums who could play The Venture’s “Wipe Out” and who sported a big nose—a resume item for drummers in those Ringo-inspired days. They performed at the LaGrange Community Center for parties, where, for the evening’s finale, Steve collapsed upon his black cape as Wayne escorted him like a trauma victim off stage at the end of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World.”
Soon, my older brother, Dennis, would become the singer for a semi-functional band, meaning they had a name and a twenty-minute repertoire but didn’t perform publicly, unless you count their rehearsals under our carport. What was important though was their guitar player, a guy named Freddie Ramsire. Freddie came from a world that was neither city nor country, Seymour Johnson Airforce Base, five miles away. And Freddie could play. He owned a blonde Fender Telecaster and knew the opening riff of the Byrds’ song, “8 Miles High.” And Freddie brought something frightening into our small country house: The Jimi Hendrix’s Album, Are You Experienced?
So now there were bands. And where there were bands there were girls. Where there were good bands there were girls from all over, country, city, Air Force–even bad girls.
The summer I was fourteen, I saved every dime of my tobacco-cropping money to buy a set of drums.
The next year, my brother Dennis and I joined up with the Hinnant boys to form The Looney Tunes. We were a seven-piece unit, including trumpet and sax. We played R&B, Soul, and Beach Music. We wore matching outfits that included Nauru jackets from New York City and purchased a blue roll-pleated Kustom P.A. system. We played birthday and Christmas parties and in the Sears parking lot. We played “Midnight Hour” and “Hold On, I’m Coming” and “My Girl.” We played for free. We performed before city girls.
The competition was fierce, and The Looney Tunes were by no means the biggest fish in our small bowl, partly because we were country, meaning our musical roots were gospel, blues, and country-western, not pop; partly because our songs divided neatly into two categories, songs with three chords and “four change” songs, which included a minor chord. The big fish at that time was a band called The Chosen Few, which also included two brothers, Bill Baisley, who played bass and was a man of few words but was, you know, deep, and his brother Bobby on drums. They and the other players were from the airforce base, and therefore tuned in and exotic in ways we couldn’t fathom. They represented the emerging present, the future. Their repertoire included songs by The Byrds and Tommy James and the Shondells.
The Chosen Few recorded a cover of The Byrds’ “Feel A Whole Lot Better” that the local radio station played over and over by popular demand as we dragged Center Street, then made for William Street, circling Hardees and The Chicken King before heading back to Center to repeat the course. The Chosen Few were the opening act for the hottest band to come to Goldsboro, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, when they appeared at the National Guard Armory.
The Looney Tunes, with the exception of Al, our trumpet player, who was African American, attended Chosen Few gigs. There were girls everywhere, country girls, city girls, airforce girls, real groupies. We sulked at the back of the crowd, feeling misunderstood and under appreciated. Sometimes out of bitter, surly envy we referred to their band as The Frozen Chew. Within months, Bill Baisley would die in a swimming accident and the war in Vietnam would scatter the other members of his band.
We auditioned for Bomar Productions, a booking agency in Wilson. With a small U-Haul hitched behind our parents’ black DeSoto, a car with a face and fins like the Batmobile, we became a traveling band. We played a teen club in Elizabeth City, a honky-tonk in Kinston, dances at our high school, even a frat party at Duke University–where there were sorority girls. We rode home that night in silent sexual angst–and with money in our pockets.
Soon what we all thought was the BIG thing, the final victory, the pinnacle of our lives, became a reality: We were booked for a week in Atlantic Beach. We were paid musicians, living life—for a week at least–at the beach, working at The Pavilion, where we had stood in the parking lot just a year earlier like refugees from the promised land, this in the year of the Beach Boys, at the height of the surfing craze.
The world would be ours. That week the seven of us—and only the seven of us—could say to any one of the hundreds of gorgeous girls in bikinis this line: “I’m in the band. We’re playing at the Pavilion.” On highway 70 headed for Morehead City, I would not have traded my station in life for Hugh Hefner’s.
Our engagement ran from Sunday through the following Saturday afternoon. The Sunday gig was an eight-hour one, from one to five in the afternoon and then from eight to twelve that night. Following the afternoon performance, Don, the sax player, and I did what any respectable, hip musician at the beach would do. We went surfing. The water was unusually rough, with whitecaps and waves that didn’t unfold so much as collapse. We paddled out, prepared to ride the wild surf.
If you’re a fan of Motown Soul, R&B, or Beach Music, I don’t have to tell you that the blending of a trumpet and a saxophone creates a beautiful sound. But omit the sax and what you have is ugly, really ugly.
Don’s surfboard didn’t take out any of his teeth, but it did a job on his lip, one that required stitches. We had six shows to do—without a sax. It rained all week. The nights were cold and wet—and lonely. The result was uglier than a one-legged man doing the Two-step.
At the end of that summer, Dennis and David, our bass player, left for college. Michael, my younger brother, bought David’s Domino guitar, a six-sting modeled after the one played by the Rolling Stone found at the bottom of the pool, but refashioned with a metal file into a bass. Through our trumpet player, we found a singer, a great singer, the one, the only–Timmy Love. We changed our name to The Brotherhood. We became a working band and played most weekends, though with mixed results. We were popular enough at the Castaways Club in Kinston to perform there New Year’s Eve, but at the Shang-ri-la in Lumberton we endured the ultimate humiliation when one of only a handful of patrons put money in the jukebox while we were in the middle of a song. So it was on a mixed note that the Brotherhood came to an end in the fall of 1970, when half of us left for college.
Dorm life put an end to my drumming, but not to the drummer in me. Here I should say something about the essence of drummers. They have contradictory natures, desiring to be the center of attention while remaining at the back of the stage. They want to be seen; they want to be invisible. Vanity and selflessness reside within them without collision. By birth or nature, each is a Gemini.
My younger brother Michael, who had given up the bass for lead guitar, moved to Charlotte to live with me in a hippie house. He had taught me guitar while I was a drummer. We played together and learned to sing. Then he joined a band and was off, and my love for music found its rival when I discovered literature. Songwriting, not performing, became my musical interest.
Michael went on to perform with bands in Los Angeles, London, and even the Middle East. He played beside Tom Scott and Chuck Finley, the cream of L .A’s horn players. He had dinner with George Harrison.
In 1980, Michael joined Kenny Soule, of Nantucket fame, and Pee Wee Watson to form PKM, a Raleigh-based kick-ass Rock band. They played original music, some even that I had written, and packed the Dorton Arena before they’d released a record. They ruled North Carolina. Even the most beautiful Raleigh girls were mad about them.
In the late 80’s the band split and Michael opened his own studio and developed his skills as a producer. For the first time, I worked in a recording studio with him, Kenny Soule and other topflight players, including Audley Freed and Robert Kerns. And for a time I lived a double life, teaching freshman composition in South Carolina, writing and recording in Raleigh. The incongruities spoke to the drummer in my nature, on stage but invisible. But the other players were seasoned performers. It was not enough to write and record. We must perform, they said. For a short time, The Gardners of Soule appeared at the oldest and most respected Rock clubs in North Carolina: The Attic in Greenville, The Mad Monk in Wilmington, The Brewery and The Switch in Raleigh. At Charlotte’s Reliable Music’s Battle of the Bands, we won first place and carried home over seven grand in music gear. We received top billing on a CD of North Carolina’s best unsigned bands. And then, the really BIG thing: We were invited to open for The Black Crowes at The Attic. The place was packed. We rocked the house.
Kenny Soule later moved to New York to work as a session player; Robert Kearns joined The Bottle Rockets, Chris Cagal, then Jack Ingram; Audley Freed the Black Crowes, the The Dixie Chicks, and Jacob Dylan. As I write they are in Sherryl Crow’s band.
At some point too far back to remember, music—though not unrelated to city girls—became something totally apart from them too. Greater than a means of social migration, music became a source of soulful pleasure, a responsibility, even a teacher. Music became the place that invited all to fit in, the place to go for giving and taking.
Every musician has a version of the following: It is Friday and your voice is shot, and the motel room smells like Lysol and baked scabies, and somebody’s just not pulling his weight, and the gig last night sucked, and the truck has to go into the shop, so nobody’s going to make any money this weekend, and the weatherman says it may sleet. You’ve made it through another feedback attack at sound check. You have three hours to eat bad food, shower, and get what rest you’re going to get. But somewhere in there you come to your senses and think, Tonight we are going to appear before people who have worked their sorry-ass jobs all week. It is their Friday night, and they have elected to spend some of their hard-earned money to hear us play. It ain’t about us; it’s about them. You go out there and do your job. You are the envy of them all. And you love it, this music. And although you know you’ll never make it “in the business,” you are happier than hell to have been up there, to be a part of creating something joyful, to have seen the looks on their happy faces. You’ve given them a place to be.
And so I return to my job in a poor, rural part of South Carolina and enter the literature and freshman composition classrooms where, paradoxically, I try to teach my students to value who they are and where they come from while at he same time try to teach enough country out of them in their writing and speaking to give them a chance in the world. I have a good life. The best life in America.
I even play in a band. Composed mostly of teachers or former teachers, we call ourselves The Woody’s. The bad pun is intentional. We are eight or nine pieces, including three horn players. My bother Michael sits in with us. We don’t take ourselves seriously. When I’m asked about the group, I often say we play music by dead guys, which is partly true: Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, The Beatles and Stones. We don’t play Beach Music. We don’t travel. But we have a following, no small part of which consists of middle-aged divorcees, some country, some city. Sometimes our fans turn out in the hundreds. We cover The Byrd’s song, “Feel A Whole Lot Better.”
Last summer, we played an awful gig, for the reunion of the class of ‘75, a gig that turned out so badly it threatened to end our band. Even before we started, you could smell how bad it was going to be. Our drummer, Eddie, is a veteran player. As we waited an extra hour to start, Eddie and I scoped out the scene. I asked him about the worst gig he’d ever played. I told him about the night The Brotherhood played the Shan-gri-la in Lumberton, when the guy put money in the jukebox while we were in the middle of “Stand By Me.” The next week, I asked Michael to name the best gig he’d ever played. He said, “Man, some of the best nights I’ve ever had were in front of only a handful of people, people who loved it.”
In an article on memoir, Sven Birkerts writes about something we all know is true: Those events that shape us, our most vivid and sustaining memories, often are not the Big Things. Do I recall much about my high school and college graduations? My sixteenth birthday? My father’s funeral? No. But I remember with photographic clarity my father working alone in our garden, his tanned, shirtless back to me, when I was four years old. And at fourteen rising up from cropping tobacco at a moment when the underside of the light green leaves folded back like an ocean wave and swept across the hillside as a cool breeze, one that promised summer rain, passed over me. And when I was ten the sway of my top bunk as my parents danced in our tiny living room to Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.”
And I remember this.
The Brotherhood, packed in the DeSoto, U-Haul hitched and trailing, merges into the traffic on Highway 70, this time heading west. It is Friday and we are playing a new club, a place called The Keg. Our directions say the club is on Hillsboro Street, within blocks of N.C. State. The fantasy of Raleigh girls is carried to the infinite degree: College Raleigh girls. I am seventeen.
We drive past Princeton, through Smithfield, and I look over at the cemetery where the actress Ava Gardner has come to rest. The car is religiously quiet as signs for Clayton and Garner appear and disappear. The Raleigh city limits are as thrilling and formidable as the gates to The Emerald City.
We pass the N. C. State campus. The nightclub is one block up on the right. I back the trailer and we climb out. Before you see anything you encounter the familiar smell of stale beer. The back door is unlocked and opens easily, not like the bullet-riddled one at The Shang-ri-la. The hallway is maybe eight feet deep and has a dressing room on the left that opens onto the stage. Not since the Pavilion at Atlantic Beach have we had a dressing room. Everything inside the club is bathed in black, ultraviolet light, and at first you can hardly see. There is an other-worldliness to it, something out of a Stanley Kubrick film. The room is small for a dance club.
The manager is a no-nonsense thick-necked yankee with a phony, deerskin looking tan, slick jet-black hair and enough starch in his white cuffs to slit your throat. The spacious stage is carpeted, which is ideal if you’re a drummer; your gear doesn’t slide around. The small dance floor consists of red, white, and blue two-foot Plexiglas squares, and standing upon it you get the feeling Star Trek Scotty is about to beam you up: The visual effect of the black lights above and the florescent lighted Plexiglas underneath is spooky, grotesque and titillating. We have entered a funhouse. Our eyes and teeth emit light and specks of lint on our matching pin-stripped jackets suggest we just walked in from light snow flurries. It looks and feels like something from Wonderland. And as you will see, it was.
We sit anxiously in the dressing room. Then it is time. The band takes the stage. Michael, who is fifteen, wears sunglasses to disguise his age. The audience is small—and old, late twenties or thirties, some are our parents’ age. Most are men. You can see the ultra-violent white bras through the thin blouses of the women. We begin then repeat our musical intro, the hook to James Brown’s “I Got The Feeling,” and after a few rounds, Steve shouts from behind his keyboard, “Ladies and Gentlemen, give a warm welcome to our singer—Timmy Love.” We all look over into the dressing room where Timmy is caressing his Afro, turning to check his smart profile in the mirror. We play the riff for another minute. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” Steve shouts with rising inflection, “won’t you give a hand to the one, the only, Timmy Love.” Timmy attempts to pick the illuminated lint from his hair; he buttons then unbuttons his jacket. We take the riff down; we build it up. Timmy stands at attention facing us, all teeth, loving every second. The riff goes on. “And noooow, ladies and gentlemen, the fabulous—Timmy Love!”
Timmy strides out and takes the mike. We play Edwin Star’s “Twenty Five Miles,” The Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain,” Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.” There is scattered applause. A few people dance. Near the end of the first set, a current of excitement unrelated to our music begins to build, undulate, and then whirl like an invisible eddy. The Brotherhood retires to the dressing room adjacent to the stage, and the club manager takes the mike. There is wild applause.
Then I see her standing there. She is taller than Annette Funicello, especially in the four-inch heels, but her hair is brown and flips at the ends like the former Mouseketeer’s. The dancer and the former teen idol share other distinctive similarities, two in particular. We are close enough to see the light brown powder that covers her body. We are close enough to see everything.
Her performance consists of three acts, each to a different song. In the first, she slowly removes the evening dress. Under the dress, she wears tassels on her nipples and something like an eye patch down there. Early in the third song, the tassels disappear.
She repeats a variation of this vision of rapture, this in-the-flesh centerfold, this wish-come-true during our next two breaks.
At the end of the night we get paid in cash and are told we can play The Keg every other Friday night.
As the city lights of Raleigh glittered and winked behind us that night, I could not have imagined that one day I would write a song, that I would perform with some of the best musicians in the state, that I would become a college teacher and writer or play music on into middle age. But even had I known those things as we drove east in hormone-overdosed meditative silence, destined for our beds in tiny houses in the country, that future would not have mattered, for at that moment in 1969 I was seventeen, a drummer, playing music that I truly loved, in Raleigh, for money, at The Keg—a titty bar.
— Phillip Gardner – Singer/Songwriter