I don’t know what I’m gonna tell ‘em / Don’t know what I’m gonna do / I might walk out that door and never come back / Open the window, jump off the roof / But it ain’t gon’ be bad health that’s gonna kill me / Won’t be red meat and pecan pie / Won’t be smoking cigarettes / Drinkin’ hard liquor / Ain’t nothing killing me like living / The way I do.
Abel Mondell loved to drive through the mountains, not via the curvy roads and switchbacks, but on the interstates, where a man could enjoy the scenery without driving into a ravine. On a lark, he could exit at the scenic overlook and maybe even pull the guitar out and entertain himself, the squirrels, or even humans who sometimes stopped by so that they could witness something original, eccentric, and quaint. Abel had recently gotten old enough to be quaint. Occasionally, folks even said he was “a treasure,” to which he thought, Well, I sure wish I had some of it.
For some reason, his favorite part of the drive was crossing Mont Eagle, and he always made sure he had some music that would make him think, something by Guy Clark or Townes Van Zandt. He thought about how, unbeknownst to anyone of significance, he was writing the best songs of his life, and what he concluded was that he was regaining his all-important anonymity. Writing was a solitary life, and he tried to make the best of it on those increasingly rare occasions when he got out. Back in the nineties, when he’d been slightly recognizable, it had been aggravating. He couldn’t just stand around in some country store, the kind that had a drink box, lean on it, and observe people. He wasn’t anonymous. Someone would recognize him, and if he didn’t, the kid behind the counter would whisper under his breath, “You know who that is, don’t you?” Now he could sit at a picnic table, outside a rest area, play a few tunes, and make sure none of them were ones that anyone would recognize. They’d ask about them, and he’d say, “Well, no, it’s just something I do in my spare time. I’m strictly an amateur,” and when a man, standing there with his wife, holding her two-year-old, would say, “Well, you ought to take that song to Nashville,” it would make him feel better than his first Grammy.
When he got to the outskirts of Nashville, Abel checked in at the cheapest motel he could find because he wasn’t going to do anything but sleep there. Ah, that smell of curry in the lobby! Ah, that nice, little, rapidly-talking woman with the ruby in the middle of her forehead, and her attractive, teenaged daughter who is undoubtedly getting alarmingly Americanized. On the road, these were his people, and he didn’t mean that in a condescending way. They were just dreaming their own version of the American one, and if he thought there was a market for Immigrant Country, he’d surely have written songs about them.
Abel didn’t even take his guitar in the room. He turned up the air conditioner and unpacked his suitcase, then he called up Mud Galvin, one of his old running buddies. They called him Mud because there’d been a ballplayer named Pud Galvin around the turn of the century – the previous century – and Justin Tubb, who’d been a big baseball fan, had decreed that Horace Galvin’s name would henceforth be Mud. Mud had come along a generation before Abel. He and Willie Nelson were alike in that they both smoked weed regularly and were in their eighties, but they differed in that Mud was legendary on a considerably lesser scale. It took an hour to get through hellish Nashville traffic to Mud’s place, and the first thing the old man said to him when he walked through the screen door was that he’d finally given up drinking. He was sitting on the back porch, and the aroma revealed that it was all he’d given up.
Lord, that man could still play a guitar. Every time he sat in with Mud, Abel felt like he was back in the fifth grade, struggling with the chords of “Down in the Valley.” He hadn’t sat in with Mud in a year, though they talked on the phone fairly often. Mud knew the way Abel played, and he just picked up everything on contact, chasing Abel’s voice with his fingers until, every single time, they finished in a dead heat. At about eight, with daylight expiring, Mud excused himself to go feed his chickens, and while he was moseying his way down to his pen, Abel turned on his fancy iPhone, which was within two models of being state of the art, and found that Lanny Mercer had texted him.
Get over here. I’m swapping songs with Cain Caldwell, and he wants to hear some of yours.
Uh, Lord. Cain Caldwell wasn’t his real name. There wasn’t much real about him except his bank account.
Where’s ‘here’? Abel texted back.
Lanny must have been watching for his reply. Franklin. About a mile past George Jones’ old house. Can’t miss it.
Abel bet not. Cain Caldwell, the former Keith Klige of Hazelwood, Minnesota, was a mega-star. He might’ve been one of the male models who recorded Abel’s embarrassing pickup-truck song. Abel couldn’t remember, and the checks didn’t come divided by artist.
When Mud got back, Abel told him something had come up and he had to go.
“Well, bidness is bidness,” Mud said.
“I ain’t gonna enjoy this, but if I ain’t gonna meet up with nobody, then I reckon I drove up here for nothing but a wedding.”
“Don’t worry none. I’ll see you at the ceremonies Sat’dy night,” Mud said. “You don’t want to hit on this reefer before you leave?”
“Shit, yeah,” Abel said. “The last thing I want to do is play a song for Cain Caldwell sober.”
“Aw, hell. You better let me give you some to take with you.”
TO BE CONTINUED