I now live with my partner Ian, in a tiny house, in the woods, by a lake.
We still have some work to do, but it is an inspiring place to be!
Back in April, we bought four concrete slabs and that was the beginning of a wonderful, challenging adventure full of hard work and growth. But it brought us to today. I am sitting here, writing, warmed by the wood stove, occasionally watching the yellow poplar leaves flutter or fall outside.
This website, that showcases my music will also become the forum for a tiny house blog on Saturdays once the cedar is on the gables and the artwork and instruments are hung. I can’t wait to show you pictures!
In the meantime, here is a rough, sneak excerpt from the chapter on Alabama in the memoir I’m writing about the solo pilgrimage I took last year from Newfoundland to New Orleans. I will be recording an album here in the tiny house to go along with this book.
Let me know what you think!!!
It was a sweltering July in 2011, and I could feel my pilgrimage turning closer to it’s end than it’s beginning. I was travelling around Alabama, randomly visiting little towns amidst other scheduled activities like co-writing and meeting up with the documentarian from Manitoba who was filming footage of me there. I went to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, the WC Handy Festival was on for two weeks, and the Civil Wars had sold out a theatre in Florence. My friend Charlie Peacock had produced their album that would later go on to win two Grammy’s.
I had made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t rent a hotel room until my last night in New Orleans, so if I wasn’t staying with people, I stayed in my car. It was so hot and humid during my time in Alabama, that even when it rained the air didn’t clear, it just got more dense. I went swimming everyday to cool off but it was at night, in my car, somewhere by a a river or parked near RV travelers in a Walmart parking lot, I would have to concentrate on not concentrating to try and sleep.
I would sit in cafes sipping iced coffee and no one knew I was essentially a vagabond on a quest to heal my wounds and discover great music along the way. I didn’t have the same look about me as a typical girl living out of her car. I smelled like chlorine, peppermint soap and Honeysuckle Toms Of Maine deodorant. Not your usual run of the mill, patchouli and ancient armpit hair musk. I wore nice clothes, lip gloss and shaved my legs. So I got to walk around with a secret like the Mona Lisa. I live out of my car and you don’t know it, I would think. I have a kettle, a coffee grinder, and a french press in my 1995 Passat Wagon. And I make classy mugs of coffee and drink them watching the sun rise in a sweater, on the hood of my car. And I’ve been living like this for over 3 months. You might look at my license plate that says MANITOBA and think, “she’s a lawng way from home”, but I’m not a long way from home, because I live in my car right now. How d’you like that?
But no one knew. If they knew, they might have been inclined to avoid me. Or worse, pity me.
In certain parts of Northern Alabama, you hear people on their cell phones talking music business. It is a juxtaposed thing compared to Nashville, because the ambiance and work ethic of the region is the opposite of Nashville. It might be one of the few places left in the world where you feel like you’re in a time warp and the essence of people’s attitudes are still so relaxed you’d swear they were wheeling and dealing vinyl spin deals to old-school radio stations from a rotary phone.
Fair trade coffee and wifi can’t take that away. It just adds to the surrealism. And I love it.
If you’ve never been to the South, you may have a general assumption about what it is like. But your imagination can’t compete with the real thing. The tastes. The smells. The leftover mansions standing awkwardly under the ghostly shadows of gone-by plantations. The hearts as big as the hair.
A few cliche word combinations come to mind when I think of Alabama. Tight jeans. High heels. Cigarette smoke. Deep-fried vegetables. Pride and politics.
But then you go deeper.
Layer after layer of social disconnect, planted deep in the heart of a strange and beautiful simplicity. Music heritage, playing host to a world of foreigners eager to immerse themselves in true, rich sounds. The Rolling Stones. Led Zeppelin. To name a few. Cross-over, depth and surface surrounded by a terrain of historical horror and beauty. A strange allegiance to the Union that manifests in an ironic underdog heritage that is carried in the very geography of the place.
Sure there are college kids wearing loafers, softly carrying their university degrees like their leather laptop satchels, but when it comes to music, the academy is no match for the sheer pride and passion carried into a night of genuine “getting down”. The roadhouses are as full on a Saturday night as the chavvy bars anywhere in the Midlands of England or what we might call “meat-market” dance clubs in any North American city. But the overall feel of an Alabama roadhouse is more like a local pub or legion. The gathering of a community. And more often than not, with great live music.
Outside of the dance floor itself, in their jeans, push-up bras, self-tanners and hoop earrings, girls bustle around the mirror in the women’s washroom. It truly is the place to experience the essence of southern female culture. Mascara and perfume. The combination of competition and admiration. The hope that how you think you look will translate onto the dance floor, or onto the bar stool, for the handsome devil you came here with.
The conversations in the washroom begin with ecstatic greetings “hey there girl! Haven’t seen you since Cindy’s wedding!!! How are you? You’re looking gorgeous girl!” and slowly evolve into the sweet man they’re currently with and the ex who’s anything but sweet. “I swear the sunbitch is crazy. He’s on his fifth wife and I think he’s sexually molestin’ her daughter or somethin’ That little girl’s smokin’ pot now and that just ain’t a good sign. You know, he’s always preying on smart women and somehow we fall for it. How is that? But you know what? Somethin’ I’ve realized through this whole thing is that God’s just so much bigger than all that. Anyway, what am I givin’ him all the airtime for? That ex o’mine don’t compare at all to the sweet fella I’m with now! How ’bout you girl?”
Divorce flows steady like the Tallapoosa, and you can see, that the women particularly, seem to walk around with pieces of themselves left behind, in half-built ghost towns. The men do too. But they cover their wounds up as best they can with Wranglers and sex. Yes, even the Born-Agains. Imagine that.
In 2011, a new policy had been settled state-wide. The punishment for aiding an illegal alien had gotten scary. Legally, if you were caught giving an apple to an illegal immigrant who was hungry, or shelter, or heavens to Betsy, a job no one else wants, you’d be incarcerated and the penalty had now been set too high for most average people to take the risk.
I happened to meet a few folk who weren’t average, during my travels further south into Alabama. Folk who harboured, fed and clothed those homeless, jobless people who used to be the backbone of the Alabama vegetable industry. I would call these abetters “imperfect, faith-filled, subversives”. I met people who had been working the Alabama vegetable fields for years, who had come up out of the ocean or followed the working line through Texas. The irony of the whole mess was that as I drove through the state, I passed field after field, full of vegetables, untouched, left there to rot. The farmers couldn’t afford to hire a real American for the job and they didn’t have enough personal manpower to harvest it themselves, so the food that could have at least fed the hungry people who used to work those fields, went rotten instead.
Just in case any of you want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, the only aiders and abetters to the hungry that I met were church-going folk, albeit “liberal”. They came from a proud lineage of people who had done things like pack their car full of kids, as an informal school bus so that black children (particularly girls) could have safe transportation to schools. This was at a time when doing such a thing was life-threatening.
I met one old white woman who was very blunt and very religious. She told me in disgust, “I thought all this was going to be over by the time I got to be this age. I thought by now, people would just be allowed to be people.” She told me she had stood up in her church the week before, angry with the moderate, quietness of her congregation who’d had almost no response to the new law, and said: “I never thought I’d live to see the day, when a Mexican became the new Nigger!” And she walked out, slowly, with her rickety old bones creaking loudly in the silence (and hopefully shame) of her “brothers and sisters in Christ”.
America is one of the most intriguing political landscapes. At first glance, the fireworks and the mega billboards, mega churches and mega consumption is all you see. Then you take a road trip into the heart of it. You dig deeper. You eat barbeque with folks in a rundown tin shack, and you meet characters who surprise you with their hospitality, their bigheartedness or even a political view that isn’t either/or. And just when you thought you had it all worked out, someone you’d never expect, confuses you with an act of kindness.
I know some of the best songwriters in the state of Alabama. They are my friends, and they’ve generously connected me to the heart of the place every time I’ve visited.
I’ve also seen some of the dumbest southern boys sing about Jesus with such pride, that if you could glimpse the thought-bubble above their heads, I swear all you’d see is the American flag flying.
Jesus is a part of the culture. More often than not, and largely without conscious intention, the bobble-headed Arian one. The one who’s on the mainline so you can tell him what you want. The Santa-Christ who won’t delay your gratification.
On the other hand, in the South, a different kind of Jesus shows up in rehab, when a foolhardy man is at his lowest. That Jesus might even appear to have brown skin in the sweats and hallucinations of withdrawal.
Its an interesting Mystery.
I like to stand in paradox. It is uncomfortable and sometimes mortifying, but I believe that is where Truth spends most of her time. She licks her coat till it glistens, in between those two rights (or two wrongs). Lately, I’ve been getting so close, sometimes I can feel her rough tongue lick the salt off my brow.
Alabama. A slow-as-molasses, beautiful, musical culture full of generosity, hospitality and authenticity. Just like with people, the most interesting places are a mixed bag of imperfection and glory. Sometimes I feel homesick for this incredible state.