AIN’T JUST BLUES
Hard times, heartache, and glory
along Blues Highway
By Carl Gustafson, singer,
Smokin’ and festival promoter,
Snowy Range Music Festival.
314 pages, available from
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.
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
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
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,
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
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
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:
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…
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
THE WORLD OF BLUES
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
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
Carl Gustafson brings to
his readers what he brings to his audiences:
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
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
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, www.tonysound.com
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
and unforgettable and very human stories. Every single word rings
true. Dorothy Ellis, aka Miss Blues, http://www.missblues.com
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, www.rebarussell.com
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
Carl Gustafson is the
kind of writer I aspire to be for he writes as he lives:
daring, and bold. Dr. Kimberly D. Miller, University of
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
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
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
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.
“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
“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.
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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.
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
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.
“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.
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
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.
A Face and
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
A few quotes from Carl Gustafson to get us started. iv
2. And a few words about this book from others. v
3. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS. viii
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
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
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
EDITORS, BLOGGERS, BLUES
PDF copy of AIN’T JUST BLUES IT’S SHOWTIME: Hard times, heartache,
and glory along Blues Highway available to you on request. Write
Put SHOWTIME in subject line, please. Include link to your
publication, blog, radio show, etc. Sincere thanks, JS