It isn’t something planned, usually. Hoped for, perhaps. It happens in music and in life. It can get lost and found in the most unlikely places and in the most unlikely of times. Mine was a little off. Muted.
Surrounded by the most beautiful people…loved well…work that matters…it was all there. But something in my core was left wanting. It was piqued one night while sitting in on a set at a quaint and homey wine bar. As the lyrics flowed and the chords were strummed and the melody and harmony found their place together, I felt it. My groove. In music and again in life.
Last Tuesday night as I sat on a stool and sang an old Loggins and Messina classic, I thought back to a day when I walked in with my Alvarez Blonde guitar to a little place just off the main drag in downtown Panama City, Florida. I wondered if I might play one night and offer a few stories in song. Then began a love affair with The Cheese Barn and the people who chose to make it their Friday or Saturday night destination.
I would set up my little PA system, plug in and work through a small but growing list of songs that meant something to me and I hoped would for others. Without fail, at some point during the night I would sing Billy Joel’s Piano Man. When I sang the line, “It’s a pretty good crowd for a Saturday and the manager gives me a smile,” the owner, Robert Wright would stop whatever he was doing and peek out from the kitchen and offer a smile big as a Montana sky. It became a tradition that I treasure to this day. This wonderful guy created what would become an iconic expression of homegrown groove and amazing food and drink.
They were the best of days. My beautiful Sharon would join now and then. My dear friends to this very day, Tony Namynanik or Greg Todd or Tom Lane would join on another night. We parked in a corner against the wine racks and sang to our faithful followers. I close my eyes and still see the tables with bowls of French Onion Soup, steins of European brews, salads, Muffalettas, and iced tea. Mom and Dad were always there first, followed by friends and family and other locals. I sang the same songs over and over and it didn’t seem to matter. It was about fellowship and love and fun, not just entertainment. The music was a just a rally point for nostalgia and friendly gathering for a few hours.
Today I host an open mic night on the south side of Charlotte, NC. It has become its own iconic expression of groove and good life. Long about 7:30 on a Tuesday night players and friends make their way through the Cru Wine Shop door and give me a nod and a smile as I offer the opening songs from my stool by the window. We are there to sing and play for others and for each other. We all began with similar stories. Today some play for a living and others just live to play.
The Cheese Barn has closed its doors after 3 decades of serving in Panama City. A treasure lost to the sea of economic uncertainty and a changing season. The place moved around a few times, but the booths and the wine racks moved with her. Our songs forever lingering in the wood slats and hollow places between bottles. Robert…thank you for leaving such an indelible memory…thousands of them.
Tonight I play. I join other dear friends and players in what is sure to be another night of rehearsed and improvisational joy. I will sit on a stool and sing “House at Pooh Corner” and “Piano Man” and toast my friend Robert. My pals will join in with their incredible vocals and guitars and violins and harmonicas and percussion and a tribute will be made.
Tonight I will pause an be thankful that this insignificant life was so defined by a groove that began in a little place along an alley in downtown Panama City and continues to this day in a little wine bar in south Charlotte.
Its hard to explain
How a few precious things
Seem to follow throughout all our lives
(kenny loggins, Return to Pooh Corner)