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Had the Rainbow Stew with Merle Haggard
In the spring of 1983, I was living in Nashville and touring with a country music artist named Tommy Overstreet. I had met Tommy and his band at a gig in Maryland in 1981 at the Liberty Road Volunteer Fire Department carnival, when my band, The Paradise Pickers, opened for Tommy. At that gig, I met Tommy’s drummer, Roger Cox, and we exchanged numbers. When I moved to Nashville in April, 1982, I called Roger and left him a phone message. He called me six months later. He told me that Tommy would be doing auditions in December and that I should give it a go. I did and got the gig. I rehearsed with the band in January and February and played a few gigs in March and April and then headed out on a two-month tour of the West in May.
We moved from town to town in a tour bus. Tommy’s was a Silver Eagle. There was only one door, on the passenger side, at the front of the bus. Take a few steps up, and you were in the driver’s space. This was a magical space that came alive during the late night and early morning hours, while the band and crew were hopefully sleeping. Our bus driver’s name was also Tommy. He was from Barstow, California. Thankfully, he was a good driver. Sometimes I would sit in the passenger seat during those late night, early morning hours when I couldn’t sleep. I learned the meaning of “white line fever.” Moving further along on the bus, just behind the driver’s space, was the lounge. This was where the band and crew would hang out during the day and have a poker game in the evening. There was also a TV where you could watch movies, a microwave to heat up a burrito and windows where you could watch the highway as it goes on forever. Behind the lounge was the bunk area. It had at least five bunks considering Tommy’s band, that featured Roger Cox on drums, Kenny J. on bass, Dennis P. on guitar, Jerry K. on keyboards and yours truly on guitar. There may have been six bunks because Tommy’s son, Tommy Overstreet III, traveled often with us as crew. We called him Tee-Three, or T3. We called his Dad Tee-Oh, or TO. Our bus driver was just called Tommy.
The bunk area also had a privy. Each bunk was about six feet long by three feet wide by three feet tall, a bit coffin like. They had a light for reading and an air vent, like you find on an airplane, for fresh air, fresh from the highway. I remember thinking that this was one of the ways you could catch “rambling fever.” TO’s bunk was in the very back behind a door, making it private. I can’t remember a time when I visited that private bunk area. My time was spent either in my bunk, which was the top bunk on the driver’s side, the lounge or the driver’s space. I remember reading loads of classic novels in my bunk. On that first longer tour, I read Jack Kerouac’s, On the Road.
We left Nashville one cool, spring evening, crossed the Mississippi River (my first time) and headed for our first stop, College Station, Texas. The venue was called, The Texas Hall of Fame. I remember it being a massive Texas dance hall, where the saw dust covered a hard wood floor that accommodated what seemed like a thousand dancers. There was a song popular at the time called, The Curly Shuffle, and I remember the dance floor being packed with folks dancing the two-step like I’ve never seen before. Each duo of dancers would be side by side, arms crossed and holding each other’s hands or forearm. There were hundreds of couples going around the dance floor clockwise. That evening was just magic. I was playing guitar in a country music band performing in Texas at a dance hall bigger than the moon. I was getting paid a living wage and a per diem to do something that I loved to do. I kept pinching myself that night after the gig as we headed down some Texas highway going to the next town, every turn of the wheel taking me to new ground.
On that tour we performed at a couple of Texas dance halls, a used car lot opening, two rodeos, an engagement party on an Arizona ranch so expansive that they used twenty-seven cowboys and two helicopters to keep watch and run the ranch, a few music clubs, a horse racing track, a few resort area entertainment complexes and a Native American Navajo reservation . It was my first rodeo.
We worked our way west through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and finally into California. When we entered through the checkpoint in Needles, California, the thermometer inside the hut where the border station was said 126 degrees. This was on Interstate 40 in the late spring. It was my first visit to the Mojave Desert. The border agent did a walk through, and after a short visual, they let us pass into California. We played in San Diego, Santa Ana and Bakersfield. We worked our way up to Northern California where we were booked to perform for four nights at a resort on Lake Shasta called Silver Thorn near the town of Redding. It was mid-May. The air was crisp, and the lake was ripe for a clear water revival. Our accommodations were on house boats. One day we took the house boat out on the lake and went swimming, jumping off of the roof into the clean, cold water of Lake Shasta fed by the winter snow melts of Mt. Shasta.
The first night at the club at Silver Thorn was one of the most memorable gigs of the tour. We had a guest sit in with us for our second set, the owner of the resort. His name was Merle Haggard. Tommy had told us that he got the gig there because he was friends with Merle. Merle played a few of our songs, sitting in on guitar, and then sang a few of his songs. We did Workingman’s Blues, Today I Started Loving You Again and Swinging Doors. That was the first of four nights that Merle would sit in with the band. We were fortunate that Merle wasn’t on the road at the time. It felt like I was in a dream, California Dreaming.
One morning, I woke early to go out for a run. The one way out of Silver Thorn was a winding, ascending climb, and it had me working hard at 5:30 am. I made it out of the resort and into the wilderness of those hills. In those days I could run for ten miles if I had the time, and I did that morning. I was planning on at least an hour of running. I was about ten minutes into the run when I heard a strange sound. Something in the woods was letting me know that this was not my territory. I reversed track. I believe I had crossed into a mountain lion’s space, and he or she was not happy about it. I headed back to Silver Thorn pronto, looking over my shoulder every few seconds.
Though I was ten minutes into my run, it only took me five to get back. Needless to say, my pace had jumped considerably on my escape from the wild kingdom. I was grateful having all of my limbs and fingers still attached. Can you tell I’m a bit of a city person?
Back at Silver Thorn, it wasn’t quite 6 am, and the restaurant had just opened. I decided to have a coffee and some breakfast. The place was empty except for one customer. At a table sitting there alone, having coffee was Merle Haggard. Since I had met him the night before, I was able to say hello and asked if I could sit and join him. He said, sure, and we talked about music and fishing, mostly fishing. The menu at his restaurant had some entrees named after some of his songs, one being the Rainbow Stew.
And that is the story of the morning I had the Rainbow Stew with Merle Haggard.