A scorching August afternoon at Joshua Tree National Park, California. The year was 2016 and I was celebrating a landmark birthday with a road trip to the West coast, with my girlfriend. Gazing up through the haze toward Cap Rock I was about to say goodbye to a loyal traveling companion and pay my respects to one of my all-time musical heroes ( Gram Parsons ). (You can check out my cover version of Gram Parsons’s – A Song for You)
The last two-and-a-half weeks had been spent on the road; kicking off from LA and gliding up the meandering Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco, then on to Yosemite, Bakersfield, Las Vegas, Monument Valley and back through to Joshua Tree.
As soon as I arrived I was on the lookout for a guitar; something cheap I could put a pickup in and amplify. I had a couple of shows teed up before I arrived; The International Pop Overthrow Festival and …..I also knew that there was an open mic in Joshua Tree at the end of our trip.
We picked up the campervan (from Escape Campervans) and drove down Sunset Boulevard; LA was a pretty stressful place to get used to driving a big vehicle on the left. I checked out Sam Ash and then on to Guitar Centre. We spent a good thirty minutes in the doorway just looking at the handprints of so many music legends, including James Burton; whom I had just supported a few weeks earlier.
I knew pretty much what I was looking for, so although I could have spent all afternoon looking at and playing on the jaw-dropping array of guitars, I located the cheapest guitar in the shop. I was pleasantly surprised when I picked it up for a strum. The price was just over fifty bucks. It was a Rogue RA-090 Dreadnought Acoustic Guitar and it played and sounded great! The frets were a little round and seemed to scratch against the strings. It would need some ‘playing-in’ before you could noodle further up the neck but, for open chords, it was perfect.
I’d brought a Dean Markely Promag with me on the trip so I could amplify the guitar through an amp or PA system. The gig at the Hotel Utah went off fine got a good sound from the guitar and it held its tuning throughout the 3o-minute performance. The International Pop Overthrow Festival IPO is run by its founder David Bash and is held in Chicago, New York, Boston, San Francisco, Phoenix, Detroit, Atlanta, Portland, Nashville, Austin, Vancouver, and Toronto, as well as in Liverpool (at the world famous Cavern Club), and London. I had played the Liverpool Festival only a month earlier. David and his colleagues work extremely hard all year round to put on quality live shows all over and what’s more…it’s free for music lovers to attend. At the time of writing the festival has been running for 21 years! For more information check out the website
We paid our respects to Merle Haggard, who had just passed away in April 2016. I played a version of Sing Me Back Home outside his childhood, boxcar home , which had just been installed at the Kern County Museum.
A shout out to Elmer Long who kindly let us shoot some video at his amazing Bottle Tree Ranch. An interesting guy who has no interest in technology whatsoever and lives a simple life. Californian-based photographer and travel enthusiast, Josh, has done a nice feature on the ranch check it out here.
While we were in Bakersfield, we also dropped into Trouts; an iconic honky-tonk in Oildale, where Merle Haggard used to perform. When we pulled up the parking lot was more or less empty, yet, when we stepped inside, a band was playing and a few old-timers waltzed around the floor. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming. We talked with the bar manager and some of the musicians who were all very friendly. Before long, I was invited up on the stage to sing with the band. We did Sing Me Back Home. One of the musicians was local legend Pat (Banny) Bannister. I recently heard that Trouts is now for sale, but the famous sign, and the original owner, have disappeared.
Later on the trip, we took the guitar to meet, what John Wayne affectionately referred to as “the Teapot, Coffee pot and the Sugar Bowl”, Monument Valley.
The last stop before heading back was Joshua Tree. As part of my Birthday treat we were booked into the Gram Parsons legendary Room 8 in the Joshua Tree Inn. I wasn’t sure how we’d feel about being in the room where Gram Parsons spent his final hours, but it was quite an amazing experience, very homely, spiritual, difficult to describe. We spent a long while singing Gram Parsons songs and soaking up the peaceful vibe that was everywhere.
The day before we’d been back to the Guitar Centre to see how much it would cost to ship the guitar back home to the UK. The guy at the desk looked puzzled and laughingly told us that it would cost much more than the guitar was worth. So on the final day, I decided to leave the guitar at Cap Rock for someone to find along with a Mark One CD. For anyone who doesn’t know, the story goes that Gram made a pact with his road manager, Phil Kaufman, whoever died first, the survior woul take the other’s body to Joshua Tree and burn it out in the desert. Well, Gram went first and Phil honored the promise. He borrowed a hearse, intercepted the body at the airport, stole it and set fire to the body near Cap Rock. There’s plenty of articles on this and one film, starring Johnny Knoxville, called Grand Theft Parsons . I left a note inside the guitar with email/web address. As yet no one has been in touch. Maybe Gram decided to keep it for a while.