Kimmie Rhodes : Blog

I’m Gonna Fly

 

Townes & Kimmie at Cowboy Arms Hotel & Recording Spa 1995

Push play to hear “Im Gonna Fly” duet recording

One afternoon in 1995 I came home and found a message from Waylon Jennings on my telephone answering machine. Life had been a lot like an Easter egg hunt of late with good things showing up around just about every corner, so I can’t say the call surprised me so much as delighted me.

With no budget we had begun piecing together an album (which later would be titled “West Texas Heaven” but I’d not yet written the song) and had a couple of tracks recorded with Willie Nelson at his Pedernales Studio west of Austin in the hill country. Joe Gracey was recording an artist who had purchased a block of time so once they were finished for the day we could sneak in and utilize the left over night hours at no cost. Having no money for a band, we were cutting tracks with just the vocals and acoustic guitar, jesting that we could “always overdub the band later.” Gracey had nicknamed me “battleship Kimmie” because of my unconscious faith to keep sailing in the right direction, knowing things would all work out, which they always did. However backwards, from my point of view I figured if I had Willie readily accessible and happy to record with me then I already owned something more rare than money and a band so didn’t question much of anything. When you’re flying blind, life is a bit like a game where you wait to see what falls into the picture next and have no choice but to trust that things are landing in the right order. I’ve seen this happen time after time after year after year and decade after decade now and it’s the fun of it, really. After a while you realize you’ve wandered too far out to turn back anyway so you just keep walking the road you’ve taken as it unravels.

So, once I had played the message from Waylon multiple times (and for the amusement of all the other house members) it began to dawn on me that what he was saying was he liked my song “I Just Drove By,” wanted me to call him back and had given me his number, which I eventually screwed up the nerve to dial, so was soon speaking with the deep rich voice of the hero I’d never met. It’s another story, which I’ll get to sometime later, but after some demo mailing and a little more phone calling one thing led to another and we decided to record a couple of songs I’d written, “Be Mine” and “Maybe We’ll Just Disappear.”

Waylon & Kimmie Nashville 1996 (Alan Messer)

Looking back I marvel now that it never truly occurred to me that we had no more funds with which to produce a recording session with Waylon than we’d had with Willie. I guess I had learned by that point that all you really needed was the studio and the song. Willie had enjoyed recording that way with me pointing out that no matter what we added later it would be impossible to ever “remove the heart from it.” I picked up the phone and called our infamous buddy and mentor Jack “Cowboy” Clement, who had a very trippy fantastic place in Nashville, “The Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa” and told him the news, explaining that we needed to use his studio and would find the money to pay the engineer but would have to swap him something for the time. Besides having been for a short era Waylon’s brother-in-law the ingenious Cowboy had produced earth-moving records on him (my favorite, “Dreaming My Dreams”) Once I’d made Jack understand that we would also, due to lack of funds, be recording with no band he agreed to let us in under the non-negotiable condition that I hire a bass player to keep us in line. Knowing he was right, I acquiesced to finding the money to pay the legendary Johnny Cash sideman, Joe Allen, whom Cowboy suggested, knowing he was a fan of my singing so might agree to nail down the rhythm for my drummerless session.

A couple of weeks later on the eve of the event we were hanging in a Nashville bar when in walked Townes Van Zandt. With Gracey voicelessly writing to him on the child’s toy “magic slate” explaining that we were in from Austin to record with Waylon at Cowboy’s next day I interjected, “Hey, why don’t you come sing a song with me?” He agreed and it wasn’t until later that I realized I’d just enlisted the Shakespeare of Americana songwriters to record one of my own songs with me the next day without actually having the song. (So much for all you needed was a studio and a song!)

By morning when we arrived at Cowboy’s I’d mused over it and remembered a song I’d written recently titled, “I’m Gonna Fly.” Unlike all the others I’d ever written, I had finished this one without ever really knowing what it was about. When I had reached the end of writing it I did feel that familiar “tone” that assures me I’ve said what I meant to communicate but this time it had been more like when you wake from sleep and can’t remember exactly what you dreamt but know how it made you feel. If that makes any sense, that’s why I decided this song, which was really more of a poem, might be the perfect one to record with Townes. Besides, it was the one I had.

The recordings with Waylon went great (still another story) and my friend, Beth Nielsen Chapman, an incredible songwriter (who as it turned out had been the one who had generously pitched Waylon my song in the first place) was at the session and having mistakenly taken her for an extremely accomplished pianist, I invited her to play on the track with Townes. True to her indomitable spirit and adaptability she excused herself and went into the piano room to practice and invent a part, which became a stunningly simple and beautifully childlike solo bit. By then Townes had arrived in a very drunken and fragile state, though still way cool and quietly sweet and we went into the studio where I timidly began to show him the song. The idea was that Townes and I would play acoustic guitar, Joe Allen bass and Beth piano. All the songs were being recorded all together “live” and in one or two takes. It became immediately apparent that Townes wasn’t going to be able to keep up so Joe Allen graciously offered that we might record the track and then overdub his vocal. Townes was shuffled off into the control room to further imbibe whilst we laid down the track and then Beth and Joe Allen went away and Townes returned.

Townes was seated about two feet away from me and I had placed the lyric sheet on a music stand beside him. He motioned for me to move closer and said, “OK… here’s what I’m gonna need you to do. Put your knees on mine.” I guessed this was to steady him in some way and complied. Once we were settled with both knees touching he instructed, “Now, when it’s time for me to sing a word I want you to point to it.” Hearing all of this from the control room, the engineer, David “Fergie” Ferguson started the playback and as the track began I waited through my first verse for the second verse, which Townes was to sing and then one by one touched each word of the phrase… The sunbirds song’s for what he longs for… Other loves may shine as bright but not in my eyes… which Townes sang, but then he stopped and began to cry. Fingering away tears he said, “This is a beautiful song.” In that moment I understood what the song was about, except through his eyes, or ears as it were. Forging on with a few more stops and a little more crying and still pointing at each word I sang dumbfoundedly to myself, “Ooohhh dear, this is sooo aaamaaazing but I’m afraid weeee aren’t geeeetting anything weeee will beeee aaaable to uuuse.” Finally we settled in and made two uninterrupted passes and went into the control room to listen back. Not only were both takes usable but every note Townes sang was calloused with a show stopping grace coming from somewhere deep inside his ironic and soulful heart.

dancing-with-townes-cowboys-kr-crop

Townes Kimmie & Cowboy

We spent the rest of the night laughing and smoking, dancing and drinking, listening to the days work, swapping lies and singing songs down in Cowboy’s office, which was unchallenged as the best hangout in town. Townes sang his famous rendition of the Lawton Williams lament “Fraulein” and at one point Cowboy got mad at Townes because he said he’d “made him too intimidated to even play a C chord by badgering him about everything he played” (which was true.) Lucinda Williams showed up for her duet 4 hours late so that didn’t happen but she hung out with us anyway as did David Conrad, the gifted songman who was about to become my publisher for the next ten years.

I have no way of knowing but I’ve been told that was the last recording Townes ever did. He died a few months later leaving me with the memory of a timeless moment where when filtered through the guy that was Townes Van Zandt I sat there fully understanding how a “heart can only make one sound like a whippoorwill in the midnight.”

Link to sample or purchase songs West Texas Heaven :

https://kimmierhodes.com/album/west-texas-heaven/

West Texas Heaven

 

Listen to Kimmie’s audio version of this blog post which emanates from the car radio of Terry Allen’s “Road Angel” sculpture at Laguna Gloria Art Museum in Austin, TX

 

westtexasheaven-photo1I first heard about heaven attending worship services at 23rd and Grace, the Church of Christ, where my babysitter took me as a child. If you were “good” during your lifetime on some undisclosed day a shout would unexpectedly come from the sky and angels would begin playing harp music to awaken yours and others spirits which could then rise up from their graves and drift to “The Promised Land,” where heaven was located. Once you had arrived at “The Pearly Gates ” you were screened by a saint named Peter who checked “The Book of Life” to be sure you were where you belonged. If indeed you were on the list and gained clearance, greatly relieved, you were welcomed through the gates onto streets that were “paved with gold” into “the most beautiful place you could imagine” where you could then spend eternity in a blissful garden setting amongst departed loved ones and docile beasts. Once I had gotten my head as best I could around a time continuum with no end… ever… my small mind moved forward delighted and amused by trying to picture paradise.

My father was an abandoned child, an orphan, a self-made boy with a second grade education who became a mathematics whiz on the sidewalks of Wichita Falls, Texas. westtexasheaven-photo2At the tender age of seven years he bravely set up shop across the street from the window of the drugstore where his much older sister, Gladys, who was a small town Marilyn Monroe, worked behind the counter. He bragged that he made more money during the Great Depression than most adults by selling Gladys’ phone number to passing men after making sure they also purchased a newspaper whilst he was “spit shining” their shoes. He claimed to be able to sell an Eskimo a refrigerator or a man “his own hat.” He taught himself to read and write but was awful at spelling.

By the time I was five years old, Daddy, because he had curtailed his drinking somewhat, had managed to work his way up from the shoeshine business to owning a brand new used car lot. He took great pride in the row of “slick one owners” and “cherries” with prices and sales slogans cleverly sponged onto the windshields in white shoe polish. Our glistening “spotless” “previously owned” “low mileage” automobiles lined the front of the lot which was covered by a grand open air tent made of colorful plastic flags that flapped crisply against the backdrop of the blue sky. Then one day that sky turned a toxic shade of green and a twister spun down from a darkly looming Cumulonimbus and blew the lovely hard earned cars away rendering our family penniless in the short space of one afternoon.

I’ve never really understood why such a good-hearted and generous man was dealt such a cruel hand. Ever the prince of reinvention, lured by the opportunities of the nearest boomtown, Daddy Ray made a decision to pack up the family and move farther up tornado alley to Lubbock, Texas where my Uncle Les owned a pool hall named “The Golden Cue.” Aunt Gladys and a few other ragtag friends followed, settling in the area and soon we had another new world of our own. Daddy sold advertising by presenting samples from a leather case, hustled pool, flipped the occasional used car, took illegal football bets in backrooms and bars and studied in the evenings for a real estate license. My Mom worked at the telephone company and I began my longed for first year of school at Dupre Elementary.

Our religious denomination changed to The Southern Baptist Church, Mama’s preference. Now the sacred hymns we sang could be accompanied by Hammond organ but the tone of the sermons became threatening and grim. One Sunday morning the preacher chose “The Judgment Day” as his topic. Repeatedly slamming The Holy Bible on the pulpit in dramatically timed intervals and screaming in rehearsed vocals that rose and fell like Beethoven’s 5th symphony the scary man spoke not of a land of hope and wonder but of a hell where there was “weeping and gnashing of teeth” and a “brimstone fire” that mysteriously never quite consumed your melting flesh completely so as to wrench you with pain for (again)… eternity… meaning forever. To make matters worse The Devil, a clever mean guy who tricked you into going to hell stoked the furnace. The day when this hell was to begin was apparently the same day as the shout and harp music one that was to send the good souls drifting off to heaven, but now it had a name… judgment.

Having been uprooted less than a year before, I was immersed in fearful contemplation as we left the church that day. During the two hour drive to Aunt Gladys’ house in Odessa where we were to dine I vowed to myself to never do one bad thing ever again that might anger the God and his son Jesus whom I’d always thought loved me.

While the meal was being prepared I wandered outside onto the covered back porch of the house, which faced a vast expanse of plowed flatland that would have stretched all the way to the horizon had it not been interrupted by a roiling black cloud peculiar to arid regions known as an Haboob. Driven by cold fronts from the easterly winds these dreaded monsters overtake a sunny day like a freight train gathering every grain of stray dirt that has been kicked up by cultivation for the springtime planting of cotton, which is the mainstay of The Great Plains economy.

Staring in quizzical amazement at the rapidly approaching phenomenon it began to dawn on me that I was standing directly in the pathway of something biblical that was about to happen. The fact that I’d been deeply pensive for the past several hours was not lost on my big brother, Michael, who was a professional opportunist when it came to torturing me. Lounging on the porch swing, too stupid to be alarmed, he nonchalantly remarked, “Oops! Looks like the judgment day is about to be here!” Mobilized by the shocking realization that I wouldn’t after all be having the time I’d counted on all afternoon to repent for my sins I hit the screen door to the kitchen and began circling the table which had been set for lunch crying in horror, “The end is here! The end is here! It’s the end of time! It’s the Judgment Day! We are all going to hell!!! Run!!!!!

My parents, unaware of the approaching calamity, tried to calm me but by then the storm had begun hitting the house. Cracking lightening bolts rattled the windows as gigantic mud globs mixed with golf ball sized hail pummeled Gladys’ vulnerable rent house smacking the roof with a vengeance only God could rain down on us wicked trapped inside. Hiding beneath the table, eyes closed in prayer and shaking uncontrollably, visions of ghosts rising from nearby graveyards underscored by haunting harp melodies rendered me inconsolable as I waited for the earth to open and receive us all, especially my dad and brother, into the fiery depths of hell.

Mercifully, and most probably because my repentant shrieks were heard on high, we were spared and soon the sun was shining again and the few trees that existed in “The Panhandle” area glistened with raindrops as we headed home leaving the past stretching safely behind us. Monday morning, the first day of the rest of our lives, was just a short night’s sleep away and there would be all the time in the world to try to be better people.

In the days following my divine forgiveness, as we drove down Broadway Street in downtown Lubbock, I imagined a magnificent “West Texas Heaven” because that was the only landscape I had ever known. The bricks that paved the street (which I had been told were laid by prisoners) were solid gold and the park at Buffalo Lakes was lush with flowers, like in the Garden of Eden. My favorite place in the city, Prairie Dog Town, was running with lions that would gladly and peacefully lie down with the tiny mound dwelling creatures as well as any lambs that might come along.

westtexasheaven-photo3This became the inspiration in later years for a love song I wrote about leaving those innocent days behind. It became the title track of an album that featured duets with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt, recorded at Willie’s Pedernales Recording Studio in Austin, Texas and Jack Clements’ Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa in Nashville, Tennessee. It was the first recording session my son and producer Gabriel Rhodes ever played with me and the signature guitar part he created for the intro set the tone for the entire track and I think made the song a success. One day out of the blue my publicist received a call from David Letterman requesting I play “West Texas Heaven” on his show. I requested that Gabriel come with me to play with the stellar house band.

As I stood singing my song on the stage of the famous theatre in New York City where the Beatles played their American debut on the Ed Sullivan Show I remembered the night I sat cross-legged on the floor in our little house on 27th Street in Lubbock watching. I realized I was standing in roughly the same spot John Lennon had been when he was crooning “she loves you yeah… yeah… yeah…” Thank Heaven that now “the most beautiful place I can imagine” looks more like somewhere along the French Riviera!

 

Hear samples or purchase songs from the album West Texas Heaven. 

Note: USA Today chose “West Texas Heaven” for their “Best Bets” section and later named the album among their Top Ten Country Records of 1996.

This and future blog posts include excerpts from “Radio Dreams” the combined memoirs of Kimmie Rhodes and Joe Gracey scheduled for release Spring 2018. For more information or to pre-order a signed first addition copy please visit the book page of this website.