All Them Roads

Originally published in Issue 2 of Pallet magazine:

At the Home Grown diner in East Atlanta, Georgia, a comfy chicken biscuit, served open-face and blanketed in gravy, will set you back ten dollars, and you can get a plate of potato chips and onion dip for $3.50. In the dining room out the back half the space has been refitted as a thrift store, and there’s an old man playing a xylophone to racks of second-hand dresses, while the throngs attack plates of pimento cheese and country steak. This is big helping country, an America of smoking indoors, easy xylophone listening, cheap eating and cheaper clothes — a place to make you feel comfortable, a place from which to run away. “Did you dream?” asks Michael Parks, Jnr.

He drags on his cigarette and lets half the smoke escape, slowly, out his mouth, while the other half snakes through the gates to his nostrils formed by a septum ring. I look at him with obvious confusion: We’re here to order food before we begin the drive to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where the band Parks fronts, All Them Witches, is due to play the second show on its month-long headline tour up the east coast — the first time they’ve headlined in their four years together. I met most of the band the night before, when they played the back room at The Earl, an invitingly battered Atlanta institution where ancient punk rockers with flip phones crowd the bar. But this is my first time meeting Parks.“Did you have any dreams last night?” he repeats.

Did I dream? It’s an irony-free question, and I give an irony-free answer: I did not dream. But what am I supposed to make of the question? Parks — no one calls him Michael; even to his best friends, he’s “Parks” — nods, then looks away. I’m eager to reassure him that I won’t be harassing the band with formal, set-piece questions over my three days on the road with them. “I’m never going to stick a phone in your face and record you, you should just act the way you are,” I say. “It’s not like you need to perform or anything.” “That’s good,” he answers, his eyes narrowing. “Because we’re not going to perform.” We’re ordering food, but he’s immersed in dreams. He’s here, but he’s not here. He’s a performer, but he’s not performing. What is real?

Things pick up on the I-85 out of Atlanta, where a smattering of early traffic subsides and we’re quickly eating into the five hours it will take to get to Winston-Salem. I’ve negotiated a spot in the All Them Witches van — a just-bought, all-white eight-seater — and from now on, I’ll be travelling with the band. There’s curated ephemera playing on the stereo — 70s rock from Saudi Arabia one moment, stoner jazz from Mexico the next — and a Waffle House to mark the passage of every new mile. We pass billboards saying “Dad’s Restaurant — 600 feet — 100% COW,” “JESUS — I LOVE YOU!” and “DIVORCE LAWYERS NOW,” the types of triptychs you can string together and make into their own small story of loss, and God, and fatherhood, and beef.

To my left sits James, merch guy, all-round nice person, the closest thing this band has to a groupie; sprawled on the seat behind me, wearing a beanie and reading a history of punk rock, is Allan the keyboard player, whose facial scruff, long coils of dark hair and slight frame give him the air of a merry archer from medieval times; Parks sits at the very back of the van, in silence, the makeshift sheet-curtains on either side of him pulled shut; in the front passenger seat is lead guitarist Ben, short-haired and stubble-free, who has a girlfriend and cats; and Robby, drummer, professional arborist and resident guy with dreads, commands the wheel, peppering the long stretches of highway and experimental Mexican jazz with bad puns and good jokes. None of these men will change their clothes over the three days that follow, but who cares? We’re on the fucking road, man! We’re on the road, trailer filled with music, van filled with Chex Mix, hearts filled with dreams… We’re children of the Eisenhower interstate, Bible-belting through Real America — anything can happen!

Anything can happen, which is just another way of saying: Nothing does. After a brief flurry of music and chatter, the van member-band members settle into a sedated silence. Their show the previous night — the first of the tour — “was shit,” announces Robby. “We fucked a bunch of shit up, though no one noticed.” Allan agrees, then adds: “We don’t usually do much talking in the van.” James, the merch guy next to me, puts on his headphones and turns the volume down low on some headbanger metal. He bobs tenderly in time with the music: Low-volume metal deserves low-volume headbanging. The others are silent. We have four hours to go until Winston-Salem…

Before flying from New York to Georgia to meet them, I decide not to do any research on All Them Witches. Sitting in the van as we motor along the I-85, I know nothing about these people, except for what everyone else has told me: that they’re an “up-and-coming” band about to headline at Rough Trade in Brooklyn, a traditional staging post for groups on the path to proper stardom. They’re “emerging artists,” as the saying goes — but emerging into what?

There are two versions of life on the road for rock bands in America today: the imagined version, and the truth. In “Almost Famous,” Cameron Crowe’s 1999 biopic of his early career as a rock journalist, a 15-year-old Rolling Stone reporter travels across America in the early ’70s with a rising rock band, witnessing sexual rivalries, intra-band feuds, drug binges, heavy drinking and moments of piercing self-discovery. What I saw on my three days with All Them Witches was slightly different: no sex, intra-band harmony, little drug use, drinking in moderation and moments of piercing small talk. Take everything from “Almost Famous” and remove it, and you will understand what life on the road for a band in America today is like. If popular music at the top — the level of big-stadium performances and ambassadorships for the UN — is still, to some degree, about sex, drugs and rock ’n roll, rock in the middle leagues is about nights sleeping on the floor fully clothed, meager marijuana budgets, and diner food.

A few hours of mature, adult highway silence later, we make a quick stop at Cookout, the popular Bible belt burger joint, which Ben tells me is “his favourite chain.” There are a lot of chains to choose from on the road; it’s important to discriminate. Inside, there’s Christian radio playing on the sound system, and the band members file forward to place their orders. “How you doin’, sir?” Parks asks, his words and courtesy accented with just enough of Dixie to tempt me into the cliche of drawing attention to his courtly southern charm. We talk through the different menu choices, and later, as we’re standing in the car park by the side of the van, sucking hard on straws in a vain attempt to consume the cement-dense milkshakes we’ve just purchased from the Cookout creamery, he volunteers some information about his life. He grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, and his dad was a musician and sound engineer who toured with covers bands playing “Creedence and shit to people up north,” he says. “Covers bands. The music of the south. The seventies.”

All singers should have good speaking voices, but few do. Parks is an exception. He’s the rare frontman who’s even better as a talker than a singer. On stage he ranges across the full hard rock vocal terrain, from shout to whimper, but off stage there’s a self-restrained quietness to his voice that hints at something beyond, a basso profondo of both the vocal cords and the mind. I ask Parks where he lives now. “I have no fixed abode,” he says, enjoying the formality of the words. “I grew up with the road.” He gets a faraway look in his eyes. Here is the rock star as we might construct him in our dreams — a man of few but weighty words, a shaman, an enigma. Just as soon as the moment is born, it’s over: Parks breaks frame, smiles, and adds, in a mock-hick accent: “I grew up with the road, man!” Was the Jim Morrison act a put-on, or was he like this all the time?

At The Garage, in Winston-Salem’s self-styled “Arts District,” later that night, the room is already full as the supporting act, a band called New Madrid from Athens, Georgia, gets under way. It’s the Sunday night after Thanksgiving but the crowd is impressively unhinged, perhaps helped by the venue itself, which could best be described as shabby chic minus the chic. I stand by the side of the stage, next to the green room, and take notes on my phone. A woman busts into the restricted area and shouts, “Put down your phone! Put down in your phone and BE IN THE MOMENT!” Sensing this is not a conversation I’m likely to profit from, I retreat to the green room, where Parks is silently sipping a PBR. “Evening, sir,” he says, with a nod.

How am I supposed to act around people like this? The first drama of journalism, for journalists, is knowing how to behave. Settle on a persona and the battle of reporting is 90% won. “Be yourself,” the banal wisdom commands us, but journalists can’t just be themselves — that’s not going to help get any journalism done. I’ve never written about music before, much less travelled with a band on the road. Am I supposed to “be with” the band, not wash, get wasted, tell dirty stories, and impress them with how relaxed and hard-living and traveled and real I am? Or should I adopt a more reporterly persona, iPhone notes at the ready, probing them on their musical style and influences and reaching for small pockets of illuminating music-scene gossip? I could be like William Miller in “Almost Famous,” charming my way into everyone’s affections with my 15-year-old, virginal innocence and pure, uncynical enthusiasm for music — only, not innocent, over twice that age, and way more cynical. I could be all these things, but I am none of them. Instead, I nod back in Parks’s direction and say, “Yessir.”

I wander outside; All Them Witches won’t be on for another hour. At an Irish pub round the corner, I run into Allan, the keyboard player, who’s at a high table, eating alone. “I need to get away from people,” he explains. His job away from music is building hiking trails; before the band’s last tour, in the early fall, he spent four weeks in the New Mexico desert, near the border with Colorado, building a trail for rafting parties. “I saw desert lion tracks,” he says. “Being back on tour makes me feel claustrophobic.” I ask him about the other band members, and he gives me potted summaries of their personalities: Robby is the joker, Ben is the organizer, and James is too nice for his own good, regularly contorting himself into a ball in the middle of the van because he’s just the merch guy and doesn’t want to be in the way. “And Parks?” I ask. “He seems like a mystery to me,” I say. “He’s a mystery to me too,” answers Allan.

Robby races past us — he’s been stuck in the bar’s bathroom the whole time, “taking advantage of a decent toilet while there’s one available,” he explains. We talk about the show that night, which is sold out. A sold out room in a 150-person venue on their first tour as a headline act: The groupies, I suggest, will surely be knocking down the doors to the van band before long. Robby laughs. “Dude, honestly — the conversations we have with most people after the shows are pretty… short,” he says. “Most people will just come up and say thanks and be on their way. Even the ones who want to talk about music don’t stick around for long. I’ll get a guy come up to me and he’ll say, ‘Dude, that was awesome!’ And I’ll say, ‘Thanks!’ And then he’ll say, ‘Whoah, is that the gear you use?’ And I’ll say, ‘Yeah!’ And he’ll say, ‘Awesome, dude!’ And I’ll say, ‘Awesome!’ And that’ll be it.”

In many parts of the world, pursuing a career in music is a race against diminishing returns. Streaming services have thinned the once-rich revenues guaranteed by album sales, forcing musicians out into the wilderness of the internet, in the hope of going viral, or into the arms of advertisers and jingle-hungry corporations, in the hope of selling out. But there’s another choice: the road. The size and population of America mean a career as a touring musician is still economically viable — just. This, Ben tells me when we’re back in the green room at The Garage, is the first year he and the others have tried to make the band their full-time jobs. “Getting four dudes in their late 20s to commit to being in a band full time is like rocket science,” he says. Through merchandise and ticket sales, he adds, the band can expect to make anywhere between $1,000 and $2,000 every night they perform. Beyond that, there’s always the option of doing work for advertisers — “but we don’t want to do too much of that.”

Life on the road — especially if you take the high road, as All Them Witches want to, and avoid selling yourself to the advertisers — only works if there’s a lot of it: The need to play one gig in one new venue a day means there’s a constant hustle to move from city to city, loading and unloading equipment, unpacking and packing merchandise, setting up mics then putting them away. This is physically taxing stuff. Bands without roadies — which is most bands — need to do all this themselves, then amp up the energy to a different level once they actually come to perform.

Drugs, alcohol, feelings, changes of clothing, other people: These are all distractions from the straightforward effort needed to sustain life as a road act. Being in a touring band in America today is as much about logistics as music. This feeds a certain rootlessness. All Them Witches formed in Nashville, but now each member of the band lives somewhere else. Allan just bought a house in New Mexico. Robby lives in Ohio. Ben is still in Nashville. Parks has no home. Ask each of them where the band is based, and they all reply the same way: They’re based on the road.

The performance that night is over in a blur: The band gets up on stage, they run through their set, everyone goes wild, everyone goes home. Park’s lyrics tend in the same direction as his speech: toward southern-gothic themes of death, and resurrection, and doomed love. I spend most of the hour the band’s up on stage fixed to the same spot, unmoving and undrinking. Later, as the room empties out, the band, three hours after unpacking everything, begins to pack everything up. Then the five of them are off to the house of a local friend, where they’ll each sleep, Allan tells me, on “whatever flat surface we can find.”

The following day the routine is the same: diner in the morning, travel in the afternoon, set-up in the early evening. The trip this time is shorter: just an hour up the interstate to Chapel Hill. Highways have dictated the course of American music in more ways than one: Shreveport, where Parks grew up, in northern Louisiana, was a booming music town in the ’50s and ’60s, much like Muscle Shoals in neighboring Alabama. But the construction of Eisenhower’s road network diverted much of the musical traffic that used to pass through Muscle Shoals and Shreveport up north, to Memphis and Nashville in Tennessee, which sit on the main interstate routes. More than anything else, it’s highways that made these places the “music capitals of America” they claim to be today. The history and economics of American music are inseparable from the history and economics of American transport.

I learn all this at Cat’s Cradle, a sparkling venue in Carrboro that still has the fresh chemical scent of a recent renovation, as I sit at the bar and drink with Parks and Robby before New Madrid go on. Parks talks, elliptically, about his childhood in Shreveport. “There was music everywhere,” he says. “Music and poverty.” I offer an unsolicited insight into my own childhood, which was nothing like that. Then New Madrid come on, blasting a wall of guitar noise at us, and the conversation ends.

In “Almost Famous,” there’s a scene in which the lead singer abandons the band after a fight and takes William Miller, the young Rolling Stone reporter, on a search for something “real.” “Let’s go find something real,” the singer says. “From here on out, I’m only interested in what is real. Real people, real feelings, that’s it, that’s all I’m interested in. You’re real.” The search for real always verges on parody, but it can consume us entirely. This is as true for the journalist as the musician. I know music journalists who have become so immersed in their music journalist personas, the personas have completely swallowed their non-work personalities as well: By acting and talking all, like, street and shit, their daily reality has itself become all, like, street and shit.

Parks bounds on to stage. Does the person make the job, or does the job make the person? Was Parks born a shamanistic Jim Morrison figure, or had he retrofitted his off-stage personality to fit what he became, in adulthood, as a musician? Was I being true to myself by standing off to the side in each of the band’s performances, or was the uncommitted, minimally conversational observer I had become over these three days a simple concoction for this story? It probably doesn’t matter: Journalism, like music, is a performance, and the cult of authenticity has nothing to offer the performing arts. For the band on the road, the only authenticity that counts is the need to keep moving.

The crowd at Cat’s Cradle that night is smaller, and quickly melts away once the show is over. The band members seem happier with their performance, but the improvement they’re most pleased with is in the quality of their post-gig packing job. Robby is leading the pack tonight and he’s nailed the Tetris-like arrangement of cases and trunks into the trailer in one go. “Nicely packed,” Allan says. “Thanks, man,” Robby replies. “There’s pride in a good pack.”

Parks passes round a joint. There’s talk of going to a diner for a late meal. Then All Them Witches get in the van and they’re back on the road, pursuing the original American exercise, pure logistics and locomotion, an experience more interesting for what it’s not than what it is.