A&E Columns

This must be the place: ‘Beg, steal or borrow two nickels or a dime to call me on the phone’

Africa, Indiana, is on the Ohio River. Garret K. Woodward photo Africa, Indiana, is on the Ohio River. Garret K. Woodward photo

Hello from Room 623 at the Hampton Inn & Suites in Owensboro, Kentucky. Just about six and a half hours from my humble abode in Waynesville. Russ Avenue to U.S. 276 to Interstate 40 and backroads through Southern Appalachia to get here. 

The reason is the opening of the new exhibit, “Jerry Garcia: A Bluegrass Journey,” at the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in Owensboro. As a lifelong Dead Head, a longtime bluegrass freak and someone hosting a couple of artist panels at the HOF this past weekend, it’s been quite a full circle kind of thing being here.

For starters, the Grateful Dead is the single biggest influence on my life. Nothing was ever the same for me once I heard the music and embraced the ethos of exploration, compassion and camaraderie when I was just a kid, nine years old to be exact. And lead singer/guitarist Jerry Garcia was at the heart of that.

The Dead has always been about personal freedom — to not only be yourself, but to also seek out the unknown beauty of people, places and things in this big ole world. Have adventures. Pursue wisdom. Radiate love. Be kind. Dammit, be kind. All of these things were placed in my emotional and spiritual toolbox while I began to wander the planet on my own following high school, college and impending adulthood. 

And yet, before all the Dead came to fruition, Garcia was (and remained) a bluegrass freak, pickin’-n-grinnin’ all through the late 1950s and early 1960s folk and roots scenes in his native California, only to later form the groundbreaking acoustic ensemble Old & In the Way. In a “pinch me” moment on Thursday afternoon, the first panel I hosted was titled, “Garcia: Legend & Lore of a Bluegrass Freak,” 

I moderated an hour-long conversation with Peter Rowan (Old & In the Way), David Nelson (New Riders of the Purple Sage), Eric Thompson (Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions), Pete Wernick (Hot Rize) and Sam Grisman. In front of a packed room of a couple hundred eager onlookers, the panel talked at-length about their respective interactions, collaborations and memories of Garcia.

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Even at an hour, we really truly only scratched the surface of this ongoing, eternal dialogue. For a Dead Head like myself, who discovered bluegrass through Old & In the Way, this moment in time was surreal and poignant. It meant so much. It really did.

Following that panel, I wandered out of the HOF and was in search of a quick meal before the next series of events and gatherings was to take place at the museum and surrounding local businesses. Tracking down the nearby Brew Bridge, I sauntered in and ordered a barbecue sandwich, domestic draft beer to boot.

Sitting at the bar counter, I asked the bartender if he could put on the NCAA basketball tournament. He said he couldn’t seeing as it was “Star Wars Trivia Night.” Folks were coming in soon to play and they needed all the TVs. A few minutes later, dozens of faces rolled in, each sporting Star Wars T shirts, light sabers and costumes. I smiled in appreciation for the enthusiasm shown.

And it was in that moment when my Aunt Chrissy texted me. It was a photo of my late cousin, Nate, and myself. I’d never seen it until that moment. By best guess, it looks like us at Dave Matthews Band at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) sometime when I was in college. I want to say 2006-ish. My arm around him, big smiles and young faces eager to explore the world.

Anyhow, Nate was the older brother I never had. And I still grieve his passing three years ago, deeply. Regardless, it is just so wild for me to be wandering around, immersed and involved in this Jerry Garcia exhibit at the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in Kentucky this weekend, all as I reflect on my lifelong love of the Grateful Dead.

The Dead were the one band Nate and I bonded over the most. More than anything else, he and I shared this eternal bond of being Dead Heads. There was simply nothing like cruising around in Nate’s car and blasting the Dead when I was teenager, windows rolled down along some backcountry road. Still isn’t, truth be told. I loved him so much and will always miss him. But, that photo, sent to me at this juncture of my life, put the biggest smile on my face.

The next morning, I awoke with the majestic Grover Cary Bridge just outside my hotel window overlooking the ancient Ohio River. At night, the bridge is lit up with an array of rotating lights and colors. During the day, several large barges float by, slowly transporting tons of grain up and down the river — to and from Owensboro, onward to wherever.

It was early morning and I decided I wanted to go for a run. Aside from live music and writing, running is my favorite thing to do in this universe. That said, when I travel, my “souvenir” from a place is to go for a jog in it. I feel you can’t really get to know a town, city or landscape without getting out of the car, moving at your own leisurely pace and doing the most important thing in life: listening.

Thus, while here in Owensboro, I was looking for a place to jog. I didn’t feel like trotting the sidewalks and pavement of downtown Owensboro, at least not then. So, I tracked down a dirt road across the river in the unincorporated township of Africa, Indiana. I could see this vast farmland right across the water from my hotel room in Owensboro. There must be something out there.

Using Google maps, I stumbled upon the River Road. A desolate dirt route along the river and a tree line bordering an enormous farm field. Drove over the bridge and crossed the state line into Indiana. Where the South transitions into the Midwest. Parked the truck and started my run. Old trees who have experienced numerous floods. Old stop signs covered in bullet holes. Wildflowers and the sounds of birds on nearby branches in the early spring air.

While in motion and finding the ideal pace, I thought of how Lewis & Clark traversed this area over 220 years ago. I thought of Owensboro and the legend and lore of Bill Monroe, the “Father of Bluegrass,” growing up in these parts. I thought of Nate, wondering where he was right now in the ether. And I thought of nothing and everything, which is what happens in the midst of a glorious run of sweat, dust, rhythm and sunshine. How wild and wondrous, eh?

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.

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1 comment

  • So jealous Garrett! I wish I could have attended the opening of this exhibit. Fortunately it will be there for 2 years. I wish everyone understand the love, music and community of the Dead. Our world would not be in such a state. “Without love in a dream it will never come true “. If ya ever want to start a Grateful Dead jam I am in!!

    posted by Kat

    Sunday, 04/07/2024

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