"Retrieve Bessie Blue"
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“Retrieve Bessie Blue”

In September 2016 I took off on a 10 week tour of the US of A in my beloved 1983 Dodge camper van, Bessie Blue. My man and I drove from Vancouver down the coast to LA, cut across the desert along Route 66 to Oklahoma, headed South to New Orleans and then drove to Nashville, TN. I made fast friends with an amazing couple from Vancouver who now own a publishing company in Nashville called Grin Like A Dog Songs. The two were conveniently in a dispute with their neighbours over some property at the time, and they happily offered to let Bessie claim half of their driveway for three months while I flew to NYC to finish my tour. And there she sat, in a way marketing me as every songwriter that came through Steve and Leslie’s door asked “um, whose van is that?” I quickly started planning my return to Nashville for March, mapping out a route and scheduling as many co-writing sessions as possible. We left March 8th and operation “retrieve Bessie Blue” began.

We landed in Nashville on a Wednesday evening and headed straight downtown to catch some music at Acme Feed & Seed. First night sleeping in the van was cozy and familiar and we were stoked to be on the road again. Waking up to some sunshine and warmth was too good to be true after the horrendously long winter we were having in Vancouver. I had my first co-write with Cody Parks and then we took to the town, indulging in the honky-tonk tourism that is Broadway Street. After hearing the same country tunes by about 30 different bands we finally made our way to one of my favourite places in Nashville, Printers Alley. Here lies Alley Taps and Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar which both consistently host non-country, soulful music. Hey, I’m all for a little country, but perhaps not the walking bachelorette party that was Broadway street during the NCAA March Madness tournament. There were buses of University of Kentucky fans in blue T-shirts with gigantic alcoholic beverages in their hands requesting Journey. We finished the night watching some sweet soul music and headed home to Steve and Leslie’s driveway. We woke up the next day to the shock of SNOW and an incredible hangover (less shocking). On top of the sudden change in the weather, Bessie started making a new noise (among all the old ones). We pulled over and B told me to pop the hood and turn her on, followed by him yelling “turn it off turn it off!” as coolant sprayed at his face out of the radiator hose – sh*t. Turns out when she got a new radiator in Burns Lake last summer, the mechanic installed the hose too low and it was rubbing against the fan belt. Luckily our dear friends Steve and Leslie (to the rescue, again) had a cheap reliable mechanic who could fix it for us. AAA and quite possibly the most interesting man I’ve met, Rick the tow truck driver, to the rescue. Bessie is huge, so she needs to be towed on a flat bed. Leslie failed to mention that this mechanic worked out of his home, so here we were in the middle of a quaint residential neighbourhood with this huge blue van on top of a huge flat bed looking extremely confused as to where we were. But all ended well; a $60 fix and we were back on the road! That afternoon I had my second co-write with Marty Dodson and Vancouverite Elias Edlund (hangover quickly cured).  In the evening we hit up Belcourt Taps to watch a songwriter round and made some new friends. Saturday was a nooner co-write with an incredible piano player named Erksine J Ford followed by some tourist activities including thrift shopping, Third Man Records, and a nap. On Sunday we drove the Natchez Trace Parkway to Franklin, TN. It looked different than it did in the fall, but still beautiful. That night we went to Sunday Soul Sessions at the 5 Spot in East Nashville to see Casey Wasner and Nicole Boggs throw down. There is an awesome soul scene in this city – check it. Monday B and I walked around the State Capitol Building and I had my last co-write in Nashville with an old Berklee friend Zarni, who now works with SNG Publishing. We didn’t have time for hot chicken, but that was quickly forgotten when we saw the Time Jumpers that evening at 3rd and Lindsley. If you are in town, do this. An early rise on Tuesday to start the 8 hour drive to New Orleans!

NOLA has a piece of my heart. The incredible amount of music and inspiration we encountered in 5 days here reminded us of the magic it holds. We drove straight to the Maple Leaf to catch the infamous brass band Rebirth. We met a fellow at the bar who invited us to his house across the street for a drink and then told us to rent bikes from his bike shop around the corner tomorrow – the people in this city are really one of a kind. We slept around the corner from the show and woke up to sunshine, made a quick breakfast in the van and rented said bikes! Biking around this city is awesome; it is entirely flat. We caught Grammy award winning Irma Thomas at Lafayette Square in the afternoon for FREE and met up with some friends. That night we went to Preservation Hall to see the Preservation Hall Jazz Band perform and say hello to their drummer Walter whom B had taken a lesson with in the fall. We lucked out and they added an extra “party set”, so we got to see two shows in a row. We hung out backstage meeting the legends and talking music for as long as we could until riding the high home to bed, where ever she was parked. Thursday we walked around the Bywater, looking at all of the colourful houses. That night we watched our friend Mikayla Braun perform at Mag’s 940 (check her band the Crooked Vines). After that we jetted to Vaughan’s Lounge to see Corey Henry & the Treme Funktet – holy smokes. This is not the Corey Henry you are thinking of, but you will be equally delighted with him. Friday we had craw fish for the first time (so good). We got a pound of craw fish ($3.45/lb) a pound of shrimp ($9.99/pound) a side of corn and potatoes and french fries (when in New Orleans…). The corn and potatoes are cooked in the same pot as the fish, so everything is so flavourful and spicy. No cutlery required. We kept the music streak going that night with Kermit Ruffins at The Blue Nile. Saturday we did the same seeing John Boutte at DBA. We were going to have an “early night”, but walking home we passed Snug Harbour, a famous venue which we were seeing drummer Herlin Riley at the next night -“oh wait what? Herlin Riley is playing here tonight? It’s tonight!?” B got his days mixed up, so time to rally. Thank god we peeked in the window when we did because we had advance tickets and it was sold out. We would have missed it and that show was incredible. By Sunday we were exhausted, but there is no time to be exhausted when you have only five days in one of the best cities in the world. It was SUPER SUNDAY and there was so much going on. Super Sunday is bigger than Mardi Gras for some locals; the people of NOLA celebrate the Mardis Gras Indian culture with dancing, parades and crazy ass costumes. We went to the realest street party I’ve ever been to, with huge speakers carted down blaring music, everybody selling beer and mixed drinks out of the back of their trucks, and more BBQ than you can imagine. I had a writing session with guitarist John Rankin that afternoon, so I dropped B off at Congo Square where there was a high school marching band competition going on, followed by performances from some of the hottest brass bands in the city. We met up later and our friend James took us to a poetry slam on the rooftop of the Catahoula Hotel where I met the incredibly talented JeMarcus Akeem Welch. We said goodbye to James and mustered the energy to end the trip back where we started at the Maple Leaf watching guitar legend Walter Wolfman Washington sing the blues. We figure we spent just over $100 USD on cover to see all of that music – if you love music, art, food and culture, go to New Orleans. Austin bound in the morning.

We drove into Austin the Monday after SXSW ended (this was intentional). It was kind of a ghost town. That first night we went out for dinner and saw some jazz at the Elephant Room then quickly hit the bed. Tuesday we walked around town and did some thrift shopping, where I found an amazing one piece denim jumper that I am now obsessed with. Then we headed to Barton Springs Pool, a natural pool in Zilker Park. It is so beautiful here. We soaked up as much sun as we could, remembering what vitamin D feels like, and then headed to the Congress Avenue Bridge to watch the bats! There are over 1.5 million bats living underneath this bridge and they all come out to feed when the sun goes down. This is more of a spectacle in the summer months, but it was still pretty cool and kind of gross – it made me itchy… That night we did up 6th street, wandering from bar to bar seeing local musicians do their thing. Wednesday morning we “hiked” Mount Bonnell, which was really more of a ten minute walk than a hike (is that a BC thing?) and saw some glorious views of the city. I had back to back songwriting sessions that day, first with the lovely Grace Pettis and then the talented Jason Robert Blum. We topped off an inspirational day by catching Nakia and the Blues Grifters happy hour set at C-Boys followed by Uncle Lucius at the Continental Club. It is pretty rad having so many music venues to see original music in. Austin is a beautiful city.

Now it was time to hightail it back to Vancouver, but not without some adventures. The next night we drove to Littlefield, Texas to stay at the Waylon Jennings RV Park. This is not exactly a destination, but we had to be in Albuquerque the next day and it was a good, free halfway point. The wind was incredible during that drive, getting up to 70 mph. Bessie is a bit top heavy (being 8’8 tall) and she sometimes just shifts on the highway – needless to say it was pretty intense. As we pulled into the RV park, a huge lightening storm started up. We were the only ones there. It was raining so hard we found a spot where the van leveled itself so we didn’t need to get out of the car. We poured some wine and listened to Waylon Jennings as we watched to storm. “I’ve always been crazy, it’s kept me from going insane…”

Friday we hit Albuquerque to visit Margot and Tom, B’s family. We ate Thai food, had a much needed shower and slept in a real bed. Tom showed us a scenic route to take to Portland and Saturday morning we headed for Arches National Park. We got there just before sun down and drove through listening to Ray Lamontagne’s latest album Ouroboros. It was cloudy and the park looked surreal. Something about desert landscapes and canyons really mellow me out. We did not take into account that it was a Saturday during spring break and there wasn’t a campsite to be had. After much debating and driving around, we decided to push on to the next town. We made it to Green River and I looked for campsites. It was close to 11pm and everything was $30 or more, so we decided we would just chance it on the side of the road. When I typed “Green River” into google the first thing that came up was “the Green River Killer”, so this put a bit of hesitation in my gut. We drove around until we finally agreed on a spot, only to crack a beer and hear the bark of a dog across the street who just wouldn’t quit it. Then a man came out with a flashlight and we were out of there. We ended up spending the night just outside of the over priced campground onlooking a golf course, for free. It was actually pretty lovely in the morning.

We headed out early the next day to Salt Lake. Driving through Utah was absolutely beautiful. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the landscape was incredible. We checked out the Great Salt Lake, had some lunch and pushed onward to Idaho. We were driving along this lush prairie grassland when all the sudden we crossed a bridge over Snake River. It looked like a crack in the Earth that went down a million miles. We did a bit of off-roading (to the best of Bessie’s ability) in the fields and stumbled upon a herd of hundreds of sheep. Two sheep dogs watched us in the distance as we went to take a closer look, and then we saw a cowboy and ran back to the van… this is still the United States… We found this sweet picnic area along a river dipped down in a canyon just passed Twin Falls in a town called Buhl. We had it all to ourselves. We cooked a steak dinner, had a fire and played music and sang with the canyon acting like a natural amphitheater. This spot was definitely worth the not-so-awesome night we had before.

From Idaho to Portland! Highway 84 along the Columbia River is also a drive worth seeing. We went to visit our friends Adam and Julia and did what one does in Portland, get day drunk. We walked all around the city, had a great visit and were ready to head home. After three weeks on the road, we passed through the border on March 29th with ease (very thankful for this) and arrived back home in Vancouver safe and sound, Bessie included. From Vancouver to Nashville and back, both by way of New Orleans, this van has been worth every penny. So where to next?

For more photos follow me @em_chambers


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