Notes from the Road

When Bruce Cockburn introduced the final song of his show Friday night in Charlotte, he mentioned that he’d written the tune in 1968 but only got around to recording it for his recent album, “Small Source of Comfort,” which was released earlier this year. The song is a beautiful little one-verse ballad called “Gifts” that served as Cockburn’s closing number during shows in the early 1970s.

Cockburn’s story got me thinking about the life of a troubadour, the singer/songwriters who spend a large portion of their adult lives on the road. Their dedication to performing is rewarded by meeting people around the world and discovering the beauty of new places. These pleasures are offset, however, by long stretches of lonely highway, uncomfortable hotel beds, and quick, non-nutritional meals at Interstate exits.

Cockburn, 66, has been living this kind of migratory life for almost four decades. He’s a consummate artist, amazing guitar player, and a writer of rich, provocative songs. Although not widely known in the Southern U.S., he enjoys international respect and recognition. He’s recorded 31 albums, received five honorary degrees, and been the subject of a tribute record.

Three friends and I traveled to the gorgeous 700-seat McGlohon Theater Friday night and sat enraptured by songs such as “Last Night of the World,” “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” and “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” The McGlohon is one of the best-sounding rooms I’ve ever experienced, and the memory of Cockburn’s guitar wizardry on “If a Tree Falls,” spiced with echo, tape loops and dynamic soloing, will stay with me for a long time.

Hitting the road for shows by artists such as Bruce Cockburn, Gillian Welch, Richard Thompson, Lucinda Williams, and James McMurtry, has become a habit for many Columbia music fans. We’ve become familiar with venues such as The Handlebar in Greenville, the Orange Peel and Grey Eagle in Asheville, Neighborhood Theater and Evening Music in Charlotte, and the Music Farm in Charleston. If there’s a bright spot, it’s that Columbia is centrally located to all these cities, and we can truck off in various directions and catch a show without too much effort.

Which is why I was on the road again Sunday to catch Todd Snider at The Windjammer on the Isle of Palms. Snider could be considered an artistic opposite of Cockburn. While Cockburn is classically trained, Snider admits he only knows a few guitar chords. Cockburn writes songs that resonate with political and emotional power. Snider writes songs called “Beer Run ,” “Easy Money,” and “Keep Off the Grass.”

But Snider puts on one of the most entertaining shows in the business, interspersing his tunes of everyday turmoil with hilarious stories and witty anecdotes. Sunday’s show at The Windjammer (the second of Snider’s two nights at the club) was especially fun because drivin’ ’n cryin’ frontman Kevn Kinney opened the festivities then pulled up a chair and stayed onstage with Snider for his entire set. The two tunesmiths had a great time bantering back and forth onstage, and Kinney’s nifty fretwork filled out Snider’s tunes.

Barefoot and with his trademark floppy hat pulled down almost over his eyes, Snider played a few opening numbers and then just turned it over to the crowd, who in their Deadhead-like devotion, began to shout requests. Snider would say, “OK, let’s do that one,” and he and Kinney would tear off into tunes such as “Play a Train Song,” “Ballad of the Kingsmen,” and “Doublewide Blues.” It was rollicking good fun, and you could tell that Snider and Kinney were having more fun than anybody.

After last night’s gig, Snider is taking a few weeks off the road before trekking through Ohio, Kentucky, and Arkansas. (He’ll be at the Orange Peel Nov. 5). Cockburn didn’t have far to go after Friday night’s show for a gig at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, N.C. (Cockburn will visit the Orange Peel on Oct. 1.)

As for me, I’m sure I’ll be on the road again, too. I’ve got my eyes on upcoming shows by The Jayhawks, John Hiatt, and cool double bill by James McMurtry and Jason Isbell.

-- Mike Miller


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