A Texas Band In Europe
Traveling in Europe has always been a spiritual experience for me. Maybe it's a cellular memory thing. My mother was born in Lausanne, Switzerland to a German Swiss father and a French Swiss mother. She was raised in those mystical mountains, and I feel the connection whenever I am in that part of the world. I come alive; I write more; I am at peace; my energy is stronger and better. It's hard not to be inspired by the beauty and history of Europe, but for me it goes beyond inspiration.
I have toured Europe with my band four times in the last two years, but our tour last August (1995) was the "piece de resistance" (the coolest). The band was Art Kidd on drums (world's best massage therapist, resident consistent exerciser to keep us all at least considering staying in shape), Dave Heath on bass (nicest guy in showbiz, driver extraordinaire, Commander Caffeine), Ron Knuth on fiddle (power shopper, most enthusiastic about being in Europe, just enough of a party dude to keep us all loose), and Chris Gage on guitar (will jam with any band, any style, anytime; smooth as silk dealing with stage crews who don't understand English, can maneuver a nine passenger diesel van into or out of any tight spot on the planet). Then there's yours truly (band accountant, interpreter if they speak French and general den mother). We were blessed with five personalities who could spend endless hours in a van together and still be speaking upon arriving at our destination. After one particularly grueling trip Art spoke for all of us as we were unloading when he said "let the magic end". Burning up the kilometers between gigs in Europe is not exactly like driving from Lubbock to El Paso. Let's face it, there are castles, churches, Alps, pristine villages and Rhein waterfalls. Still, you're ready to see the hotel after eleven hours of autobahn.
Our journey took us to Holland, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Austria and France. We were playing country festivals with a couple of club dates during the week and enough time off to experience more than backstage and hotels. When a Texas band tours in Europe, you are befriended by the local promoter, club owner, agent, distributor...whoever is participating in the business of the tour. They are generous, outgoing and hospitable way beyond what I usually do when out of town guests come to visit. My cousins in Switzerland have been known to put us up and put on an incredible meal with fondue and rosti (killer hash brown potatoes). Our agent and his wife, Karl-Heinz and Anneli, stuffed us full of German sausage, salad, bread, beer and cake as we celebrated Chris' birthday in their home near Stuttgart. Food is a very important expression of affection in Europe, and I always come home with the five extra pounds to prove it.
The festivals we played all had the same basic personality, with unique characteristics depending on the country. The core audience at a European country festival is made up of Euro professional or working class folks by day, turned Billy The Kid and Pancho Villa by night. The typical dress is a long duster, a straw hat with a furry tail adorned with beads and silver tokens, chaps, a holster and a gun with blanks (I hope they were blanks), fringe wherever possible and an excessive amount of silver jewelry. There is also an occasional Confederate uniform and a Mexican bandito. The old west lives. Texas flags are everywhere, line dancing is flourishing (the new west), and Harley-Davidson paraphernalia runs a close second to cowboy couture. As a band, we look pretty urban compared to our audience. The stage is usually set up in the woods somewhere, with camping close by. It's a Kerrville Folk Festival scene, without the hippies or hugs. In Switzerland we loaded ourselves and all our gear on a cable car to reach the festival site. On the way up the mountain the view of the valley below was spectacular. On the way back down after the show, we were jammed in with 60 drunken festival party animals. We started above a thick bank of clouds at the top of the mountain, which we fell into as we descended. As we said good-bye to the moon even the drunks were finally speechless, awed by the feeling of being silently suspended inside a cloud in the Alps. The next morning a double rainbow arched over those same mountains outside our hotel window. Not a bad gig.
Germany got me this time. I have always been partial to France and Switzerland, probably because of my heritage, but we spent enough time in Germany this tour for me to fall in love with it too. The images of World War II are deeply imbedded in my psyche and I am usually flooded with them when I am there. the sound of the sirens, the German accent, the streets of the cities, a sign for Dachau on the autobahn, have always caused a chill to run through my heart. This trip I connected with World War II in a more intimate and personal way and I came to respect and have compassion for what they went through as a nation, and as individuals.
We spent four days in Berghaupton, Germany after playing a Sunday night gig there in the restaurant/bar area of Gerhard Volk's hotel. Gerhard is a diehard country music fan with a heart as big as (yeah, Texas) and is a third generation chef. They rented a gasthaus for us, which won the award for the coolest band house any of us have ever stayed in. Frau Brauderli and her family lived upstairs and we had the whole bottom floor, complete with rooms and private baths for everyone and a back porch for sleeping, writing, drinking and singing. Our meals were prepared by Gerhard back at the hotel three times a day. We were definitely being spoiled and catching up on some much needed rest.
The second day, a large group of elderly Germans arrived and took over the hotel. It was obviously some kind of reunion and we watched as they made speeches, sang German folk songs, recited poetry, cried, hugged, ate, danced and toasted life. We wondered what their memories of the war were and commented on how different than ours their lives had surely been. Little did we know. As small German children, this entire group had been raised in the Georgian state in Russia in a German community. They spoke German and attended German schools and churches. During the war, as young adults and teenagers, they and their families were rounded up and sent to Siberia to live in camps. For twenty years the men and women were kept separate. After twenty years, they were allowed to mix some, but continued living in this situation until 1986, when Gorbachev released them and they returned to their homeland. Every year they have a reunion at Gerhard's little hotel, to celebrate their freedom and their lifelong bond. Gerhard generously invited us to come along on a barbecue in the Black Forest with the whole group. One of the most moving sights of my life was an elderly German man playing a sad song on trumpet, standing at the edge of the Black Forest, overlooking the valley below. Two of his friends stood by his side, hats in hand and heads bowed. Their gratitude and reverence for their country was humbling.
The next day the five of us drove over to Strassbourg, France, which was only thirty miles away. It felt great to be in a country where I could finally read the menu and understand the road signs. It's amazing how even minimal knowledge of a language empowers you when you're overseas. Every single word you know makes a huge difference. We went our separate ways once we arrived in Strasbourg and made arrangements to rendezvous later that afternoon. Chris and I wandered the streets of France, drinking wine, looking in shops and lighting candles in churches. On one street corner there was a little gypsy girl playing beautiful accordion. Chris was envious of her accordion, because the instrument itself was beautiful. She had her case open, and being fellow professionals, we threw in some change. Later when we met for coffee, Ron told us he had seen the same little girl literally being thrown onto the street by a cafe owner. I guess he didn't see or hear the beauty in that brave, sad child.
Our favorite refuge from the road is in Obing, Germany, in Bavaria. John and Rita Gonzalvez met in India twenty five years ago. John is a diehard hippy from California who was at Altamont for "the" concert, and Rita is a beautiful German woman who personifies the term "earth mother" in the highest sense. They run a restaurant, beer hall and hotel in "Zur Post", the 300 year old post office building on main street in this small community. We usually play one night in the hall upstairs and then spend three days killing time until our next gig. Our rooms come with a wood stove for heat, a bathroom down the hall, 20 foot ceilings and plenty of down comforters. The local "weissbier" is to die for and the place is infused with soul, character, charisma...all that stuff that's hard to find at the average American hotel. Chris and I started writing four songs between us during our stay there.
Other images from our trip are picture postcards in my mind... the band eating dinner in a restaurant in the Austrian Alps and talking the owner into letting us play the instruments on the walls, singing "Edelweiss" with their guitar and accordion...getting on the metro in Paris and hearing the melody of my favorite Piaf song "La Vie En Rose" being played on accordion by a busker at the other end of the car...crawling into bed between Chris and Art after a twelve hour van ride across Europe with two hours to sleep before the gig and not enough rooms booked (it was not as exciting as it sounds; more like a mandatory slumber party without the adolescent joy)...talking with a couple of young Austrians who summed up the difference between Austin and Nashville. "In Nashville they celebrate country music, in Austin they live it". It may or may not be true, but it would make a great bumper sticker.
Each time I travel to Europe, I experience less culture shock. I guess that means that the culture has become a part of my nature and perspective. I never would have made seven trips overseas in a ten year period if I was not a professional musician, and especially a Texas musician. Europeans love and respect the honest, soulful, roots quality in Texas music. The slicker it is, the less they like it. That's good news for our band, and for the hundreds of other Texas artists who have found a lucrative and satisfying touring base in Europe and Scandinavia. I feel blessed to have a career that takes me around the world and has broadened my horizons, literally and figuratively, and I look forward someday soon to taking my son Troupe along with me, opening his eyes as well.
As much as I love Europe, I am always ready to return to Austin for chips and salsa and an iced tea with lots of ice. Sure it's cool to sleep in a bed where Brahms slept (my cousins have that one) and eat at a cafe where Mozart hung out (in Innsbruck), but, for culture, you can't beat waiting for the bats to emerge from under the Congress Avenue bridge while drinking martinis on the patio of the Shoreline, or two stepping to Ted Roddy and The Tear Joint Troubadors at Ego's on a Monday night.
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