New book:



Hard times, heartache, and glory along Blues Highway


By Carl Gustafson, singer, Blinddog Smokin’ and festival promoter, Snowy Range Music Festival.  314 pages, available from Amazon.








How do bluesmen pass time on the road?


They drive, mostly, plus eat, sleep, tell stories.


Bluesman Carl Gustafson does all that, and writes, too.  Very well.  Well enough to acquire a legion of fans around the world for what he once blogged as Tales Well Told, which have now come to find a compilation home as Ain't just blues it's SHOWTIME: Hard times, heartache, and glory along Blues Highway.


This 314-page volume contains offbeat and compelling human interest stories of some 20 years of travel on the road, around the world, in pursuit of the blues, and in pursuit of himself.


Carl Gustafson holds a unique status in the blues world. As a writer for many blues publications and a columnist for Elmore Magazine, his “Kickin’ In Your Stall” has appeared in every issue over the years.  Since 1992 he has been front man and singer for the eight-piece band “Blinddog Smokin”, performing coast to coast and internationally.


His latest recording project Up From the Tracks (2010) included a who’s who of blues stars from Chicago, Mississippi, California, and Texas. A compulsive writer, he records and ponders seemingly everything and everyone he has encountered in his years of adventuring. In his colorful blues stories he draws upon a diverse background that includes growing up working on cattle ranches, a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, a theological education, seven years in the ministry, ownership of a popular roadhouse, vice president of an oil company, president of a mining company, co-founder of Wayfarer’s Catalog Company, years of seminar speaking, and two decades on the road living the reckless, bohemian, lifestyle of a back roads blues man.


One absolutely unique individual, and the writer of an equally unique set of essays here.


Here’s how his publisher describes him and his writing:




Who is Carl Gustafson, you might ask? 


Carl, is quite simply, a poet.  And much more.


Carl Gustafson is a blues singer from Wyoming who says he doesn’t like music, in fact, he prefers silence.  (Calling to mind keyboard immortal and eccentric Glenn Gould who similarly said he didn’t like piano music.  Neither contention was exactly true, of course, but it opens the door to the paradoxical mind of genius, i.e. with Messrs Gustafson (and Gould) things are not what they seem, nor are they otherwise.) 


An iconoclast, a rebel, a provocateur.


A flag bearer for human dignity?


An Indiana Jones style adventurer, seeker of truth, justice and a better American Way?  Yes, yes, certainly. 


An outsider artist, a Henry Darger working in obscurity on his grand vision for his oversize fabric of life, and wishing to share it?  Oh, yes. 


And mix this in, too:  one part Edward Abbey for his meticulous power of observation (“I wish that mankind, rich or poor, could at least plant a single flower or sign their signature upon their life in some distinct way. If they do, I will observe it.”), one part Thoreau logging nature notes, one part Kerouac on the road, one part Dylan Thomas raging into the good night, and finally 19th century French composer Hector Berlioz writing his humorous and insightful Evenings in the Orchestra – only this time the orchestra is a blues band.


Another part anthropologist Margaret Mead living among the natives, another part Zen Master with his Buddhist acceptance, reluctant or otherwise, of all things around him on any given day -- like the Dalai Lama, he carefully observes and notates all the minutia around him on any given day, and decrees that day special, unique, an ichigo ichie, an unrepeatable miracle, all the while keeping up a conversation with himself, sometimes bemused, sometimes angry.


A roving and partisan reporter on the state of music in American society, and bigger issues of the battle of the sexes, making a living, race, style, life, loss, love, regret, remorse, and, always, tying it all together, pursuit of the blues, and those rare moments of transcendence he lives for. 


In so doing, like the novelist Murakami, he creates a full-field alternate consciousness, an alternate force field of humanness, that simply won’t let go of the reader. 


To finish our referential mélange of art and artifice, let’s call to mind gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, because he never shied away from the outrageous, nor does our man Carl.


I think we’re getting close now.  But still, after all this, this writing is quite something all its very own.


The writing here is paradoxical, maddening, frustrating by turns….and then all at once riveting.  You’ll see yourself in these pages – that’s the riveting – and then, I think you might just see the prospect of your better self, too.  That’s the magical.


Gustafson challenges you, gentle reader, to grow, stretch, become – and at the very least, be aware, if nothing else, and if you drink this elixir (he once owned a bar, watch out), this book will change you, maybe a little, maybe a lot.  Is this, then, poetry written out as prose?  Therapy for boomers?   Is it the meaning of life?   He would never say;  the writer only knows the meaning of his life, and  lays it all out on the table here, holding nothing back in a serial of unique observations.


Along the way, you read about this individual who has “traveled to dozens of countries; played music on the coast of the Red Sea; walked the streets of old Jerusalem with my bandmates; jammed in Turkey with esoteric musicians; sneaked past Kurdish terrorists to climb the ancient walls of their capital; performed for the Italian families of Lampedusa – a miniscule island in the Mediterranean; been to all continents but Asia, and opened myself to adventure everywhere I’ve ever been.”


Life’s nothing if not an adventure to CG, and there’s always an adventure around the next corner, an adventure like:


…encountering a malevolent clown who stalked him deep in the Arkansas woods


…arm wrestling a 350 lb. mountain man named Mr. Shag in the company of his dwarf friend and biker gang, on a train crossing the Aussie outback, in order to satisfy a special request…


…meeting and embracing his inner doppelganger….


These are just a few of the offbeat stories from our bluesman who doesn’t like music.  We dare you to read just one….







AIN’T JUST BLUES IT’S SHOWTIME:  Hard times, heartache, and glory along Blues Highway is published by Sarkett & Associates, Inc., and available on Amazon.  $16.95 paperbound.







Carl is my best friend.  He and I have a visible bond between us that shows the world we can and must live together.  As a writer, and as a stage performer, he is extremely perceptive. He can read an audience in the blink of an eye and is equipped and able to change them, whether as a singer or here, as an author.  Needless to say, artists who can change people are very few and far between.   Bobby Rush, international ambassador of the blues


Carl Gustafson's writing is entrenched in the rich and deep experience of the blues.  He obviously not only talks the talk, but he has walked the walk.  His poignant writing style invokes the entertainment and emotion of a Saturday night in a Mississippi  juke joint.  A true testament of his years of experience as a bluesman.  Billy Branch, Chicago blues harp player


Carl Gustafson brings to his readers what he brings to his audiences:  passion. Whether discussing his dear friend Bobby Rush or his friend Bobby Rush’s bus, Carl communicates his excitement at living life to its fullest.  Love and respect for a 230-pound, little-known old blueswoman balance perfectly with his utter disdain for the drunken bar owner bent on bedding the band. Blessed with a meticulous eye, an inexhaustible supply of similes and a firm aversion to the “Just the facts, Ma’am” school of writing, Carl can be reverential or scornful, but never, ever, indifferent.  A veteran of six decades, millions of miles and thousands of shows, clubs, drinks, friends and foes, he has relished life and survived death, which puts Carl in some pretty rare company.  He chooses to share his tales and his exuberance, and for that we should all be grateful.  Suzanne Cadgene, Publisher, Elmore Magazine


Carl is a master storyteller who completely captures the emotion, humor, and tragedy of a traveling musician trying desperately to make a living. His perspective is illuminating and his vast experience has become wisdom. What an amazing collection of stories!  Gino Matteo, West Coast Guitarist, singer, songwriter


If writing were like drinking, take a little Mark Twain, mix 1 part Hunter S. Thompson, 2 parts Muddy Waters, and you get a Carl Gustafson straight up with a twist.  Donny Markowitz, Academy Award winning song writer


Carl Gustafson writes grownup fables that last in your mind for years and alter the way you see life in ways that are the contemporary equivalent to religion when religion is doing what it’s supposed to. His prose grabs you with its glitter and then mesmerizes you by placing his glistening truisms in settings that differentiate his images from the fool’s gold so prevalent in what’s loosely defined as journalism today. I define his work in carats, and his self-contained, perfectly constructed little stories shine so brightly you almost have to look away not to be blinded by their brilliance. I try to channel Carl when I write, but I’m me and he’s he, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.  Don Wilcock, author, “Damn Right I Got the Blues,” biography of Buddy Guy


The music can take you on a journey, destination determined by the strumming and moaning of the musician. In AIN'T JUST BLUES IT'S SHOWTIME:  Hard times, heartache, and glory along Blues Highway, Carl also takes you on that journey by the graphic power of his written word. Whether traveling across the country in Bobby Rush’s bus or listening to Junior Kimborough upstairs on Cherry Street, Carl transports you there by the strength of his skills. I have followed Carl’s career for the last couple of decades, it is an amazing journey which Carl shares with us Highly recommended.  Jerry Pillow, entertainment director, King Biscuit Blues Festival


In the 25 years that I have been in the music industry, working with the likes of Barbara Streisand, Elton John, Faith Hill, and countless others, I can count on one hand the number of people who have been able to completely occupy your mind, body and soul with words alone.  Carl Gustafson is one of those people. He has an ability to take you from the depths of despair to lifting you up so high, you feel as if you can almost touch heaven.   I am honored to work with Carl. But the greater honor is to be able to call him a friend.  Tony Shepperd, producer, composer, sound engineer, music maven,


Rich…imaginative…passionate… The interior monologue of a highly observant blues musician.  “Mr. Gust” is not only a superior blues singer with whom I’ve shared the stage but also a teller of strange and unforgettable and very human stories.  Every single word rings true.  Dorothy Ellis, aka Miss Blues,


Carl Gustafson gets it! He deeply understands the heart and soul of what makes Blues music and the musicians who perform it so special. He has personally experienced the pain as well as the joy of the blues, which is the reason he can articulate it in words so vivid and accurate.   Reba Russell, Memphis music maven,


While the rest of us flit away our days in front of the television, computer, or video games, there is at least one among us who is not hiding from life.  With his subversively optimistic ethnographer’s eye, he is able to find evidence of humankind’s innate birthright to create - for better or for worse.  A modern day troubadour; he has the ability to poetically illuminate the color, humor and beauty in places where the rest of us are yawning – and even in places where angels fear to tread.    Desiree Rozen, MSW, suburban Denver high school counselor


Carl Gustafson is the kind of writer I aspire to be for he writes as he lives: courageous, daring, and bold.  Dr. Kimberly D. Miller, University of Wyoming


Carl Gustafson always communicates with panache.  He is sure to inspire those who are fortunate enough to come across his impeccable work, whether on the page or on the stage.  Katrina Broyles, Founder, Karma Yoga Center, Denver, CO



Carl Gustafson – in his own words

Carl usually handles vocals and harp when he’s onstage, but offstage, like here and now, he’s on the keyboard, as in a, s, d, f, j, k, l.  Here’s how he describes himself, in third person:

Carl considers himself a performer rather than a musician. He says: “My father is a true musician. He can read a Rachmaninoff piano concerto as though it is a grade school primer. I not only don’t read music, I don’t even like listening to it most of the time.”

Carl prefers silence. “I like quiet repose. Amplifiers have destroyed my hearing anyway. I have lost whole ranges of hearing awareness and my ears ring without mercy.” Strange talk indeed coming from a man who has made his living in music for the last seventeen years, and started his first band way back in 1964.

Carl lives the music life for the adventure, the creativity, and the thrill of those special nights. He explains, “Sometimes we make people forget all their troubles, forget they are human, forget that life is mortal, and they transcend mundane existence into a plane of exhilaration. At these times I want to live forever…”

In writing songs, Carl likes the poetry of music, defining an emotion in a minimum of words with a maximum of clarity and the beauty of melody. “If you give yourself to the lyrics of Miss Peggy’s After-hours Pic-a-Rib Café which I wrote about a special lady, a unique place, and a poignant time in my life, you can actually go there with me and share my fondness of that memory. To me, that’s what it’s all about, this music business—not money, not fame, not prestige, just  eloquent enlightenments."

Carl lists his musical highlights in snatches of memories that form a collage in his mind, “They’re like a fantastic kaleidoscope shifting and fading and reappearing. A hot summer night outside the roadhouse in Cherryvale, Kansas, when I hear the band playing inside without me while the fireflies dance outside and the crickets chirp in chorus—that’s as vital to me as being on the main stage at the King Biscuit Blues Festival."

Growing up in the vast emptiness of Wyoming made Carl a fiercely independent personality who has loved living outside the hierarchies of society. He reminisces about it:

“I was driving the bus over a high mountain pass in the midst of winter. The band was asleep in the back. The silence was absolute. A high full moon shone through the misting snow creating an eerie glow that filtered into the recesses of the thick growths of pine. A cliff fell away to my right and a frozen stream meandered at the base far below. Mountains framed the moonscape above me and no tracks appeared on the road ahead which lay covered in the softest snow. No one on the face of the earth knew where I was and my inner peace was profound and complete. That’s when the road life is worth every sacrifice.”





The Last Night on the Ghan


You may find the following tale far-fetched. That’s O.K. with me, as long as you enjoy it. However, the story is as true as I can remember it, given some passage of time. I have a few composite passages, and I’m not sure if some names are correct, but the essence of what happened is here. Carl


Mr. Shag’s elbow reminded me of the railroad couplings holding together the train that crossed the desert vastness of Australia that night. Framed in the window behind his beastly head was what remained of a red sun still boiling below the horizon. The elbow was planted heavy on the table supporting a forearm wrenched and twisted from a lifetime of bending iron. It looked like a swamp log. His dark eyes limned into view over the great fist. A voice crawled out from somewhere within his dense beard, “If I win mate, you know what you got to do?”

I nodded apprehensively, “If I win, will you keep your word?”

The dwarf beat him to the answer, “A course he be keepin’ ‘is word, arsehole, he can give it freely. Nobody ever beat ‘im. And you ain’t to be the first and I’ll wager you or any man.”

No one took the wager. I placed my arm on the table, measured it against his, then took it back. I placed a Gideon Bible beneath my elbow and still I came up short, but it would have to do. As we gripped each other’s hands and leaned in I could smell the Yukon Jack that sloshed in his tremendous belly. He grinned with clean, fine, teeth belying his ogreish appearance. I felt panic shiver through me as my hand felt the crush of his bulging knuckles. My God Almighty how I wanted to win!

The train jostled back and forth as only a glow remained of the sun, and silhouettes of shrub trees passed quietly by the moving windows. The interior of the lounge car became suddenly quiet. The eyes of all the onlookers focused intensely on the knotted hands. I took several rapid breaths and tensed every muscle I could consciously command. I could see the tattoo of a Harley chopper behind the strings of hair that covered his forehead. It glistened in sweat.

The dwarf stood on a chair and held our hands. The wee referee puffed a thick cigar and the smoke hung in my face. Then suddenly my fear was replaced with focus and I had never felt more ready in my life. The dwarf lifted his hands and the car erupted in shouts.

I leaned into my vibrating arm with my entire 225 lbs. and the vessels of my right eye seemed to burst. I could actually hear the torque of the straining biceps tendons. Blood shot from my nose and unto our grip and down the arm of the giant. I could see the veins of his neck gorge with pressure and his mouth turned down at the corners and a husky gasp broke from his lungs. The din was earsplitting now, and money began to pass and I knew I had a chance. Despite the flood of adrenaline I could feel pain wrack my arm and shoot into my chest and lungs. Even my calves began to cramp. I heard a macabre moan come out of my body, but I could not control it. I could smell the breath of a dozen men screaming in close quarters and flecks of spit landed everywhere.

It is a tale that would end in tragedy. As I look back on it now after two decades, the faces of that last night on the Ghan, have faded in my memory. Except for Mr. Shag and the lady with whom he would fall in love for one memorable evening.

The Ghan runs from Adelaide on the south coast of Australia, approximately 1500 kilometers to Alice Springs, which is the center of the continent, near the famous Ayers Rock, which serves the country as a hub of sorts. The Ghan was so named for the Afghans who brought their camels to the great interior desert and helped to build the railroad. It is a land of red dirt that sports a time zone on the half-hour contrary to the rest of the globe. A dwarf-tossing contest[1] was to be held in Alice Springs and Mr. Shag brought his own dwarf, Ebenezer Tittes, affectionately dubbed “Little Tits” by his fellows.

Little Tits was not a nice dwarf. He was mean as a badger and always cranky. He cursed in every sentence and was given to kicking people in the Achilles tendon. I didn’t like him then, and I’m sure I wouldn’t like him now. He was to be the best man at Mr. Shag’s wedding. The wedding was slated for Saturday in Alice Springs where his bride awaited him, the dwarf-throwing contest followed on Sunday.  He couldn’t have guessed that he would find a new love on the train. It was I who introduced them.

It began when a two-year old girl toddled by me in the dining car and stopped to stare. Having raised three such darlings myself, I immediately became nostalgic and set the petite cutie on my lap. Of course all such angels have guardian mothers and this one snatched the babe from my grasp and gave me a look of astonishment. “How did you get here,” she exclaimed to the child. “Mama has been looking everywhere. You’re to be the death of me…”

The mom was an attractive girl of twenty-two or so, wearing no ring, and with eyelashes that could dust a doily. I invited her and the little one to my table. Recovering her composure, she asked if the child’s grandmother could join us as well. “Of course” I replied, not wanting an elder’s interference, but knowing there was only one answer to the question.

The Grandma was a handsome woman about my age and showed up in arm with her own mother. The great-grandma was protesting that she was worried about her mother being left alone in the Pullman. “Five generations” I marveled out loud as I pulled out their chairs.

“No, six.”

“Doesn’t seem possible.” I frowned, doing division in my head.

“Grandma Rose was only seventeen when she had Grandma Jessie. It’s like that in our family. We come from ranch country. Lots of Wallabies and few men. You find a good one, have kids to help with the chores, then hope the old boy doesn’t die before you dry up and go to crocheting doilies.”

The first mother chipped in, “My great, great, great, grandma is going to be one hundred on Tuesday, and she’s taking all of us and her bridge club to Alice Springs for her birthday.”

“Why Alice Springs,” I asked.

“Because she wants to be buried there and she plans to die on Tuesday.”


“Because she set a goal as a young girl to live to be a hundred and she will be a hundred on Tuesday, and she’s made up her mind to die. She’s been riding the Ghan up to visit her husband’s gravesite for years and this will be her last night on the Ghan[2]. She intends for it to be a good one.”

I found the family to be delightful company, and afterwards was introduced to the queen grandmother. She and her daughter nestled in the sleeping compartment like kittens drawn by a Walt Disney cartoonist. To my astonishment, they still possessed marvelous hair, braided into pigtails, and tied with broad colorful ribbons.

They beamed up at me, delighted that a tall young man such as me would come to visit. I was immediately charmed by the eldest, named Millie, and determined to help make her last night on the Ghan a rewarding one.

“Ladies,” I announced with the boldness of a drill sergeant. “I want to invite you all to the lounge where I just recently was singing all by myself, accompanied by a piano player who can improvise anything.”

Millie was ever so happy with this invitation and immediately rounded up her bridge club, which consisted of five old ladies in various states of decrepitude. None was as vibrant and vivacious as Millie. Feeling full of self-congratulatory exuberance, I marched off through the railroad cars leading my troop of ancient ladies and Millie’s descendants.

Upon entering the lounge we endured smirks and derision from the small gang of bikers playing poker and drinking beer. The dwarf yelled at us, “Are you taking them to slaughter, mate?”

We ignored the gang and settled about the couches surrounding a man who had brought a small keyboard. The car was clean, quiet, and empty when we entered. The pianist was appropriately named “Skinny” and he grinned broadly at his new audience. We sang: “You are my sunshine, Merry Oldsmobile, She’ll be comin’ around the Mountain, Darlin’ Clementine, and some Aussie songs I wasn’t familiar with about Wallabies and Billibongs and the like. We all pretended like we were having great fun, but the ladies weren’t singing very loud and one of them was asleep.

Finally, Millie cried out, “What we need is some booze and some men.” After the shock wore off and much discussion had taken place, it was decided by unanimous vote that I should go invite the biker gang over for a party.

My proposal to the gang was met with such laughter that more than one man began to gag from it. They all wiped tears and when it would almost subside, somebody would burst out anew and the whole gang would be back in a state of hysteria. I shuffled and rubbed my hands together and felt my face flush a number of times. The dwarf, Little Tits, didn’t laugh. “I vote we should kick his arse,” he announced, and the laughter died out.

I was crestfallen and embarrassed, but I made one more appeal, “The guy can play blues,” I pointed out, appealing to their rough masculinity. “You wouldn’t have to sing old ladies songs.” Little Tits threw his cigar butt at me and ordered me to leave and threatened again to, “…kick my arse…”

The folly of his threat started the whole outfit laughing again, but this time it was mean: sniggers and chortles and such. I raised my eyes and looked at Mr. Shag who was studying me intensely. “How bad you want us to sing with the old lassies, mate?”

“She’s gonna be a hundred on Tuesday,” I explained. “She’s going to Alice Springs to be buried by her husband. It wouldn’t be so bad…” my voice trailed off into a silent shrug of the shoulders and I awaited my fate.

“Tell you what, laddie,” said Mr. Shag, who hailed from Scotland and Ireland, before coming to Australia to customize choppers in the outback. “We’ll all come a singin’ if you can beat me at arm wrestling.” A collective complaint went up from the gang, then the dwarf waved his arms and hushed the complainers, “You fuckin’ idiots,” he said, “You know nobody can beat Mr. Shag, what the hell ya’ thinkin’?” Then he looked at Mr. Shag and asked, “If he loses, the penalty is to hold him for me while I kick ‘is arse.”

Mr. Shag looked at me for agreement to terms. He had befriended Little Tits somewhere in Europe long before coming to Australia and enjoyed the mischief the dwarf liked to stir up. I focused on Mr. Shag, who I figured to be about six five and in the realm of 350 pounds and covered with hair. Although his hair was raven black, his beard was red like a brick. I had no doubt that he was brutish in his strength.

I was an experienced arm wrestler and knew several tricks. I was in the prime of life and in great shape, sober as a judge, and getting angry. Still the thought of having my “arse” kicked by a dwarf in front of this band of jacklegs had me seriously worried. Mr. Shag also added that after my whipping, I had to stay and play cards with them all night so they could win my money as well. But waiting down the hall were the sweetest little old ladies in Australia and I could sense serendipity hanging in the atmosphere like the smell of fresh baked apple pie. I agreed to terms.

I tasted the blood from my nose and felt his grip tighten as his eyes sparkled in the thrill of battle. He took a deep breath and roared into the smoky air. I surged against his massive arm and dove deep into black concentration. I no longer knew where my arm was. His roar broke of a sudden and he yanked his arm loose grimacing in pain and holding his elbow.

Again, the room went completely quiet. Everyone stared at Mr. Shag and waited. “You lost,” I quietly pointed out. Everyone looked at me, then back at Mr. Shag. “Shuddup you cheatin’ prick,” ordered the dwarf. “Mr. Shag tore something in ‘is arm, the bet is off.”

“I won fair and square, injury or not,” I asserted. “Mr. Shag, are you a man of your word?”

His gang didn’t seem to be taking my point of view and I received some threatening looks -- the way a cat looks at a bird that just shit in his food tray. Little Tits walked over and kicked me in the Achilles tendon. I can’t describe how badly that dwarf irritated me. I turned on him and the gang moved in and grabbed my shirt.

“Let ‘im go laddies,” said Mr. Shag. “He’s right ya’ know? We’ll be goin’ to sing with the old lassies. Get the beer and wine and whiskey and let’s be doin’ what we promised.” He rubbed his sore elbow and bit his lip. “A man ain’t for nothin’ if he goes back on ‘is word.”

Well, they didn’t like it, not one little bit, and Little Tits refused to go at all and started to march off the other way. Mr. Shag went over and snatched the dwarf with one great paw and hauled him off the way a man carries a bucket.

So there we sat: old ladies on one side of the piano player and bikers on the other, with Little Tits pouting in the corner. It was quiet. Mr. Shag sat in the middle next to Millie and it was a sight to see. She stared up at him like he was a mountain. He peered down at her like a dog discovering a bug. The air was tense.

“So let’s get her going mates,” Skinny blurted out. “With a few rounds of Row, row, row your boat.”

“Fuck off, dork,” ordered one of the gang.

“What about Mannish Boy?” I asked. “It’s an old Muddy Waters blues. We can make up verses. I’ll go first,” I suggested.

“Duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, dunt,” said the keys, and I started singing, “I once met a dwarf while riding a train, his head contained horseshit instead of a brain, ‘duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, dunt’, I met his mama and asked what ever did happen, he stuck his head up a horses arse when it was crappin’.

When the laughing stopped and Little Tits was calmed down, Mr. Shag enthusiastically joined in with a booming voice, not in key, but booming nonetheless: “When I was a young man, not yet twenty-one, I shoed wild horses for money and fun, I come to Australia to get a new start, I left behind Ireland, bullet in me heart.”

“It’s true,” said Little Tits from his corner. “Mr. Shag has a bullet in his heart. The doctors won’t operate for fear of killin’ ‘im, I say. If the bullet didn’t get ‘im, nothin’ will.”

We talked about the bullet awhile, then the song started back up, this time with Millie, who had been drinking from a bottle of white wine. “When I was a young girl, not yet twenty-one, I smiled at the boys but turned down my thumb, Now I’m an old gal, my breasts are all saggy, but I could go through these bikers and still do Mr. Shaggy.”

That’s all it took. The night leapt into the twilight zone. Within a couple of hours everyone was drunk and singing arm in arm. Old ladies sat on the laps of hardass bikers and then the dancing began. Mr. Shag did a very confined Shoddish with Millie and tenderly moved her about while waving off anyone who came near her. He was so aware of her fragile old bones. He took tiny steps to match hers and therein a 350-lb. man became cute as a child.

Somewhere in the early morning hours the grumpy dwarf mooned everyone from atop a table, hoping to scare the old ladies and ruin the party. Instead, they were absolutely delighted at his tiny derriere and tried to pat it and giggle, saying:  “Isn’t that just the cutest little butt you ever did see?”

Mr. Shag and Millie hit it off like the oddest version of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire that one could imagine. She repeatedly sat on his knee and fed him cookies that she had baked for her great, great, great, grandkids who lived in Alice Springs. He finally resorted to lifting her up when they danced and he waltzed with amazing agility amongst the tables. He wouldn’t let anyone else dance with her. He was afraid they’d accidentally hurt her. I heard him say, “Miss Millie, If you just wouldn’t die on Tuesday, I’d marry you instead of me betrothed.” She said, “If I’d known you was going to come a courting, I’d have waited eighty years to be born.”

When the sun shot a beam across the flat red earth and pierced the windows to the east, everything stopped inside our piano bar. It was an unspoken sign that the last night on the Ghan was at its denouement. The first mom and her little girl had long since retired. I looked around the room. Bottles and potato chips were strewn about the floor. An attendant, bright eyed from a fresh nights sleep, was picking things up. Most of the bridge club had fallen asleep, a couple of them in the laps of the biker gang members. Somewhere in the night, Mr. Shag had tossed Little Tits into a corner and he had passed out. He looked so tiny in the morning light.

Skinny had passed out around four a.m. and later recovered enough to go to his room. One of the bikers took over the keyboard and it was bad, but no one cared. Two of the gang joined in with harmonicas in two different keys. I had spent my time with the my-age mom who was a widow and quite fun. She promised to write.

Mr. Shag made Millie promise to come to his wedding. She made him promise to come to her funeral. They shook hands and kissed cheeks. He walked her to her bedroom and patted her head as he said good-bye. She put her head affectionately on his tummy and beamed up at him once again before waddling into her room. “You’re a good man, Mr. Shag,” she whispered. “I hope your wife will feed you the way I would if I was her.”

I stood at the next door with the my-age mother and watched Mr. Shag cry like a baby. Sure he was drunk, but he was a sentimental rascal as well. Everybody loved him that last night on the Ghan, but most of all Millie.

I was sitting at an outdoor restaurant in Alice Springs, writing in my journal the things you have just read, when Mr. Shag barged in with a grin, “Ah, there ya’ be, me laddie, I was meaning to find ya’ now.” We were alone but for one tourist and the waiter.

“I’ll miss you, Mr. Shag,” I said. “Why do they call you Mr. Shag, anyway?”

“Back when I just went by me nickname of Shaggy, (due to me hair and beard) I was introduced to a nose-in-the-air gentlemen who was announced to me as “Doctor Wellburton.” I looked about at those in attendance and stood up tall, lifted my nose, and said, “How do you do Doctor Wellburton, I’m Mister Shag” I got a good laugh and the name stuck.

We made some small talk and then he smiled at me and said, “Carl, me boy, I got me pride. We got something to settle.” Nervously, I began to shake my head. He pointed at my arm and said, “There’s no bet this time, it’s just between us.” I groaned at the thought. “Hell, Mr. Shag, I’ll just forfeit. The concept of tangling with that big arm of yours makes me want to throw up.”

There it was again: that swamp log of an arm, standing at attention on my table ready to rumble. I reached deep inside and mustered my competitive juices. He had pulled something before, maybe it would re-injure and I could get away without too much stress and pain. We spent a couple of minutes securing the grip we wanted and then with a nod we attacked with mutual fury. I could hear the awful sound of torqued tendons again, but to my amazement my arm was slammed to the table like it had broken off at the shoulder. The contest hadn’t lasted two seconds. Mr. Shag held my arm down for effect and stared into my eyes. “You’re a good man, Carl, you did a fine thing last night.”

Puzzled still, I looked down at my arm in dismay, then back up at Mr. Shag. As I stared at this crazy character I could feel the immense power in his body until he released my hand. I knew that there was never a chance that I could have beaten him. He knew what I was thinking. A slight smile formed on his mouth, and he winked at me, “I wanted to sing with the old lassies, but I had to find a way to save face with me laddies.” He patted my limp arm and said, “But like I said, I got me pride.”

Weeks later, back in the United States, I received a letter from the my-age mom. The letter, along with some other journal entries, was stolen from our Blinddog Van in 1995 in Oklahoma City. I will paraphrase its contents for you and I’m sure my memory won’t be too far off the mark.

Dear Carl,


My great, great grandmother, Millie, did attend the wedding of Mr. Shag. It was at a small lake and he took his bride and preacher out in a rowboat near sunset. The gang, Millie, and others stood on the shore and watched. It was very romantic as the sun glistened across the still water.


Mr. Shag was drunk as was his bride. They stood up in the boat to take their vows and lost their balance. Mr. Shags great weight tipped the boat over. His bride could not swim. Neither could the preacher, but he managed to dog-paddle back to shore. The wedding couple was wearing their riding leathers and Mr. Shag had a Harley chain around his waist as well. He struggled mightily in the water to save his bride. He did, but the effort on his bullet bearing heart was too much and it quit beating right there in the water. We could all see that something had gone very wrong. He collapsed and when they pulled him to shore he was dead.


Everyone was gathered about trying to revive him. Millie knew she could not get to him and she just turned and walked over to me and put her head on my breast and sobbed quietly. She didn’t die on her birthday, instead she attended the funeral of Mr. Shag who was buried on a ranch sitting on his motorcycle. I know it sounds fantastic, but it is true. The grave was enormous and was plowed out with a dozer. Everyone in attendance threw momentos and sentiments in the great hole. Millie wrote him a poem and threw in a bag of cookies. We humans can do silly things at funerals, but somehow it made a weird sort of sense, I guess.


Millie flew back to Adelaide. She is so very healthy. Who knows how long she will live. She vowed, however, never to take the railroad again. That was her last night on the Ghan………………..


I felt as though a great light had gone out or a grand tree had been uprooted -- such a life force was Mr. Shag. I learned that it doesn’t matter how old you are, or how healthy, you never know which ride will be your last night on the Ghan. We always think there are many days to live and to love and to fulfill our dreams, yet you just never know. It behooves us to make our days count and to give what we have to give to this world.

The matrix that allowed the whole episode to take place was music. Music drew the diverse souls with its call. It provided a common ground for the strangest of gatherings, and does every single day of our lives. It makes people share feelings and emotions and fantastic thoughts together. It crosses all boundaries and races and ages. There is quite simply nothing like it to quickly bond disparate mankind.

I think of the last night on the Ghan often in my life, especially when Blinddog Smokin’ comes to perform. Whether for a new audience of strangers, or old friends and fans whom we have come to love. “Play with your might,” I think to myself. “Give the people your energy, your talent, your affection. Take them somewhere above and beyond the mundane. Let them exhilarate. Let them feel it together. Make a memory. Do it tonight, because for someone in the band or the audience, it may be the final show.”

I think of Mr. Shag in his huge grave, a grinning skeleton riding his Harley, the mighty arm bones that pinned me to the table, still grasping the bike handles. I have always felt that I owed him something for what he did to help me and the old ones with that clever sacrificial move of his. So here is what I did. I resurrected his story which allows him to live through your minds, his last night on the Ghan.


[1] Dwarf tossing was an organized sport for a few years with competitions held with referees and rules. Most dwarfs wore a harness that allowed them to be hurled down a plastic slide along  the ground. The distance would be measured and a winner declared. Technique and strategy was developed.  It became controversial as some felt it abused the dwarfs, but most of them I talked to like it and were very competitive. I think the humanitarians won out and it died out as few city officials would sanction the meets and they had to be held clandestinely.


[2] Millie told me that her lifetime and the lifetime of the Ghan paralleled amazingly. She said she used to ride it as a girl when it was on a narrow gage track east of the track we rode and  said that until she was forty-two years, old, somewhere around 1929, the trip to Alice Springs had  to be completed by camel, which the Afghans had brought to Australia. Indeed, as I remember, the train had a large image of camel and rider on its nose.




A Face and Folded Chairs


If you gaze at a photograph of my wedding lineup, one face seems out of place, though hauntingly familiar. Upon a tilted head a derby tilts still further, while goatee and twinkle-eye suggest a rapscallion, bemused with moonshine.

Tis the ghost of Sonny Boy.

Indeed. The bust still sits upon its forlorn perch five years hence. The wedding hall is quiet, and without the revelry—dreary, like a beggared mausoleum. Folded chairs imply a long time betwixt dust and derriere. Walls erratically bedecked in yellowed posters of pomaded bluesmen, conjure a vision when yesternights froze time in mirth and music.

No one comes here anymore. Few care. For years it watered the good ‘ol boys of an evening under a dim light in the back, but they became old and tired like their stories, their wives, their lives. Spiders, unencumbered now, silently weave their reticulum, and light ventures down the ghostly tendrils through dusty panes of glass. Here on a corner, in a town replete with derelict buildings and the late eve suggestion of spooks and specters, sits the forlorn museum of Sonny Boy Williamson, Helena, Arkansas.

My marriage proposal was conditional upon a ceremony in this inelegant hall. I drove my puzzled fiancé 1300 miles in our band bus to stand before a judge with the bust of Sonny Boy held next to the best man. I often wondered what possessed me to do that.

It was as though I was called to this journey. By whom? My soul, I guess—who I am. And who then am I? The sum of my experiences spun into values, genetically guided, and tempered with habits. We are then, I suppose, drawn to intriguing areas within this matrix of values we have become. So why did I seek this forsaken Riverboat town and its abandoned museum as my Mecca?

The answer goes to the heart of the blues culture. It is why festivals are attended and pilgrimages are made. Life is simplified for us in this culture to its basic elements, like a Picasso drawing in his minimalist period. He would draw what appeared to be a triangle with a stick on the bottom and call it a tree.

Our national culture has become complicated and dishonest. We lie to each other in every way a lie can be told: never before offered…once in a lifetime sale…world’s largest drugstore…smoke cigarettes and be a macho cowboy…drink our beer and women will gather around you…take this pill and cure what ails you…wear these clothes…drive this car…take this vacation… Do these things and you’ll be rich and famous, attractive and happy, and better than the other poor dumb bastards. We function around cell phones, computers, video crap, and a thousand marvels of technology. Our vaunted women are decked out in fake eyelashes, botox, cosmetic surgery, implants, tummy tucks, sunless tanning, hair extensions, makeup, lasered hair removal, and more piercings than a cannibal in a Tarzan movie. The only thing real about them is their fur coat for which a few families of minks were electrocuted.

We can’t even talk to a real person on the telephone anymore when these complicated lives get fouled up and cause us extreme stress. That’s why the blues culture seems so rejuvenating. It breaks life down to simple truths and simple rhythms: Today, I lost the best friend I ever had…says the singer in a voice so devoid of contrivance that it brings tears of compassion, because losing a beloved mother or father torques your soul until existence becomes simplified to your love and the absence of its object.

I ain’t fattnin’ no more frogs for snakes…says Sonny Boy. In essence: I tell the truth and they sell it with lies and give me nothing in return. That pitiable museum stands in my eyes as a metaphor of the impotent blues culture. Rap and rock, pop and hip-hop, grunge and modern blow-dried country, take the money and the glory and hog the TV screen like whores in an upstairs window. The roots music heroes like Sonny Boy, whose history is more colorful and rich than tales from Olympus, languish in the dark background with a museum of one meager bust, a few posters, a volunteered wall painting, and a few pilgrims who have found their way through the maze of jangling, clanging, marketing cacophony seeking simple stories about life from the heart.


AIN'T JUST BLUES IT'S SHOWTIME:  Hard times, heartache, and glory along Blues Highway


1.       A few quotes from Carl Gustafson to get us started. iv
2.       And a few words about this book from others. v
4.       CONTENTS. xiii
5.       Publisher’s note 1: Carl xv
6.       Publisher’s note 2:  Everybody wants to be a bluesman. xix
7.       Carl Gustafson – in his own words. xxiii
8.       The Pic-a-Rib Cafe. 1
9.       Elephant in the room.. 9
10.     The Slaying of a Doppelganger. 13
11.     Follow-up to Doppelgangers. 21
12.     The Last Night on the Ghan. 25
13.     Don’t be That Guy. 38
14.     Winking at the World. 43
15.     I Can See by Your Outfit that You Are a Blues Man. 45
16.     I Can See by Your Outfit That You Are a Blues Man 2. 51
17.     Yondering. 56
18.     It’s a long climb up a Five Foot Stage. 62
19.     Hot Date for a Cold Mate. 67
20.     A Face and Folded Chairs. 72
21.     The Ghosts of Helena. 75
22.     Emotional Intelligence. 80
23.     The Trance Man. 83
24.     Never Picked No Cotton Blues. 87
25.     What makes a bad band?. 93
26.     Solo of the gods. 99
27.     The Plight and Pluck of the Unsigned Band. 103
28.     The Cherryvale Transcendence. 108
29.     The Shadowed Path to Glory. 113
30.     The Woods are Lovely, Dark, and Deep. 118
31.     Angels on the Lane. 126
32.     Silently Away. 131
33.     Desert Tales. 137
34.     The Thin Straight Line. 146
35.     Band Peeves. 150
36.     Encore:  More peeves. 162
37.     Generation Blues. 169
38.     Blues with Tabasco. 172
39.     A Moment in the Sun. 176
40.     Ear’s Lookin’ at You Kid. 187
41.     Tale of Two Pities. 194
42.     Strut yo’ Stuff 201
43.     Visions of Sugarplums (A day in the life of a traveling band) 210
44.     Opulence for a Bargain. 218
45.     California Dreamin’ 227
46.     More Pet Peeves. 234
47.     Jazz vs. Blues. 243
48.     State of the Blues. 245
49.     Famous Flames and What Remains, and a few words on Tab Benoit 249
50.     A word fitly spoken. 254
51.     Odd Love Story, isn’t it?. 260
52.     They just wouldn’t let him die. 264
53.     Blinddog today. 270
54.     Epilogue:  Death is a Life Changing Experience. 276


PDF copy of AIN’T JUST BLUES IT’S SHOWTIME:  Hard times, heartache, and glory along Blues Highway available to you on request.  Write me.  Put SHOWTIME in subject line, please.  Include link to your publication, blog, radio show, etc.  Sincere thanks, JS