Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Toll Road To Redemption - Mark Insley Ventures Out of the Desert

by Bill Glahn

There’s a road on the outskirts of Tucson in serious need of repair called Old Spanish Trail. To the east of the road is Saguaro National Park, home of America’s largest cacti - a beautiful, yet harsh landscape. To the west is a maze of sand and gravel roads that get narrower and ruttier the further in you dare to venture. This is where Mark Insley hangs his hat. He’s been hanging it there for the last 16 years. He hasn’t made any new music in the last 15 of those years.

Mark Insley might be the best-kept secret in Americana music. After three critically acclaimed CDs around the turn of the century, Insley seemed to vanish. In terms of musical output, he went mute.

Insley’s first release, Good Country Junk, was the result of his well-received stage act at the Palomino in Los Angeles. He enlisted members of Dwight Yoakam’s band (Scott Joss, Taras Prodaniuk, Pete Anderson), among others, and if there is one minor complaint about Good Country Junk, it’s that it was, stylistically, a bit too close to Yoakam. That’s not a bad thing as far as making a record, but it really didn’t offer anything fresh. That would change drastically with Insley’s sophomore album, Tucson.

Tucson featured another great support cast of players – Dave Alvin, Albert Lee, Tony Gilkyson, and some jaw-dropping organ contributions by Danny McGough. But the thing that makes Tucson a solid five-star record is not the players, it’s the songs. To borrow a phrase from Willie Nelson, these are the kind of songs that keep the jukeboxes playing - songs written by a man that feels things deeply, songs that cut to the bone and are delivered in a voice that reflects every note of that.

Insley’s third and final CD, Supermodel, carries that forward, including a remake of “The Devil’s Knocking” from Good Country Junk that is stunning in its transformation. These are the sounds of a man on the verge of breaking. And they are the last sounds the world has heard from Mark Insley.

So what happened? Insley’s pretty open about the last 15 years.

“Oh man, it’s not a pretty story. I had a couple of failed marriages. I had a good little run for a couple of years. I was hosting this thing downtown called ‘Arizona’s Most Wanted.’ I had bands coming in from all over the country – very few from Arizona. That didn’t really endear me to the local vox populi. That went away.

“You know, I fell in with a group of guys that were on the unsavory side. I was doing more drugs and alcohol than any man should live to tell about. I had this little run-in with the police for possession with intent to distribute and illegal possession of an automatic firearm. I ended up selling everything I had to hire the best criminal attorney in the state. And we beat all of that.

“You’d think I’d have learned my lesson but I just kept at it. So finally, a couple of years ago I got drunk and decided to go out for a motorcycle ride. I ended up in the hospital with a motorcycle handlebar puncture wound in my small intestine and third degree burns all over my legs.

“I kind of took stock of my life. Asked myself, ‘Do you want to die like this or live a little bit longer?’ I quit most of my bad habits and started working on my craft – my writing.

“I was doing a weekly gig at a BBQ joint and then that went away [a place on Old Spanish Road outside of the city, which went out of business]. I had another slow period and then in the last year I started sticking my toe in the water and seeing how it felt. And audiences seemed to respond. They like it. I like it.

“That’s what I do. So that’s what I want to do. I have enough songs to make an album. My plan is to go out to LA and record with some of my old cohorts. Some won’t talk to me anymore, but the ones that will – they seem interested.”

At 61 years of age, Insley has a different approach to his songwriting. Rather than in-the-moment songs of heartache, songs he refers to as “written under duress,” Insley is both reflective and forward-looking with some of his new material.

“About once a month I come into town and play this little joint called the Royal Sun. The gal that runs it is the one who actually coaxed me out of - I don’t know what you call it – semi-retirement? I went in there one time and she asked ‘You want to play here, don’t you?’ I thought, ‘Fuck no.’ But that started it. She just wouldn’t leave me alone until I said yes. And I’m glad she did. She’s a nice gal.

“Damon Barnaby – I’ve been playing with him for years. We like to do this duo thing there.”

It’s in these acoustic settings that Insley performs some of his recent tunes.

“My younger brother (Austin-based songwriter Dave Insley) has written songs about parents and family for years and I always thought, well, nobody really gives a shit about that stuff. But it’s just been within the last few years that I’ve begun to embrace these aspects of life. You realize you’re not immortal.”

But being reflective doesn’t have to mean losing your edge. Insley pulls a guitar out of its case and, in an interview setting, gives me an example of a new song from his days growing up in the farming community of Chapman, Kansas.

Called “My First Car,” it begins with a description of one of the ugliest and coolest (in a funky sort of way) cars Dodge has ever produced. Slant Six motor. Push-button automatic. By the time the song is over it’s a back-door murder ballad (the previous owner had murdered her husband and put the body pieces in the trunk).

And Insley describes the song as “absolutely true”. This is a new twist for Insley. It’s dark but it’s dark humor. It’s a great story delivered in a talking folk/blues style. It’s the kind of song that will go a long way in entertaining an audience, but not one that’s going to knock them off their bar stools.

“Now I’ll play you a song about the future.”

The future Insley is talking about is the same one we all face - death. And this one will knock you off your barstool. Lyrically it’s one of the most provocative songs Insley has ever written. Called “10-Cent Redemption”, Insley delivers with conviction. This isn’t just story telling. It’s confessional story telling with a vengeance. Pollyanna doesn’t live here.

I’m over-churched but I keep on sinnin’
I claim the good lord’s work but the devil’s winnin’ 

On June 20, Insley played his first gig in five years with an electric band. They didn’t play any new songs. “We’ve only rehearsed songs that the band knows from recordings.” When asked afterwards how it felt, Insley responded, “It felt great!” Insley hopes to enter the recording studio before the end of summer. The process will be a lot different this time. “I’ve never had to pay for recording a record.”

Insley still prefers the isolation of where he lives. “Nobody ever finds it. That’s why I live out there.” And there are tolls to be paid to travel out of those sand and gravel roads. Mark Isley is paying them a little at a time, but he’s paying them. And that gives fans of his old records something to hope for.

[This article appeared first in the BigO e-zine, Singapore's largest independent music publication.]

Monday, July 16, 2018

My People Come From The Dirt – Activism Shines Brightly at Woodyfest 2018

Prairie school class, north central Oklahoma, early 20th century. One of those kids is my Grandmother.
(story by Bill Glahn)

I can’t pinpoint exactly where my journey to the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival began. Perhaps it was during a family trip to Holland and the western border of Germany in the late ‘90s. I was already familiar with the territory, having made numerous business trips there over the years. I had friends in those countries – kind and gracious friends – friends who practiced the same level of tolerance that my dad had taught me. There was Eddie, a record shop owner from Zwolle (R.I.P). Eddie’s wife, Reah (R.I.P.), and daughter Joyce. I watched Joyce grow up. Often it was she who answered the phone on my Trans-Atlantic calls. “Eddie (she always called her dad by his first name), it’s Bill from America.” By pre-arranged agreement, Eddie would take his time getting to the phone, giving Joyce an opportunity to practice her English. Her English was fine – a little broken – but fine. But Joyce lacked confidence in her linguistic abilities. The last time I saw Joyce was in 2005. Her English was perfect and her confidence was top notch.

There was Dieter (whereabouts unkown), a junkie who supplied his habit by making “protection gap” bootlegs. Dieter, being aware of my tenuous sobriety at the time, always steered me away from that aspect of the German underworld. And always insisted on paying my hotel room when I came to visit. “The comings and goings at my apartment would not be suitable for you.” And no matter how bad the reviews of his CDs were in my magazine, he never expected favor.

Wolfgang was an unlikely friend, but a good friend nonetheless. Wolfgang specialized in selling American CDs that hadn’t been released in Germany. Wolfgang, was the son of the founder of a chain of German department stores – a member of a class that I did not frequent often. On one of his buying trips to Austin, he invited me out to see an Americana artist that I was not familiar with. I don’t remember the artist, but I remember that he was quite good. I was impressed with Wolfgang’s depth of musical knowledge.

I could give, probably, a dozen more examples. But all would share the same common thread – these friendships would evolve around music and tolerance.

Getting back to the story… While having lunch at some remote rail outpost in Germany, my family and I began playing Uno, an innocent card game involving no gambling. The waitress, an elderly woman, approached and began speaking, indignantly, in German. I know very little German, but the message was clear. “No card playing.” I don’t know if this was an actual policy or an affront to the moral values of this woman. I put the cards back in their box. “So sorry.” It was clear that tolerance didn’t exist everywhere. And that there was no music being piped through the speakers of this train depot. Nor musicians busking around the perimeter (a common occurrence outside of Central Station in Amsterdam).

Or maybe this journey began at my father’s deathbed. My dad was from Oklahoma – upstate in the north central part. He hadn’t seen his childhood homes of Enid and Ponca City in more than 5 decades. I made a trip to gather a photographic journal to take to him as he lay wasting away from some undiagnosed illness in a New Jersey hospital. The best of his final days were spent looking at those photos and reflecting on his childhood – stories I had never heard before. When my father died, I inherited a “secret stash” of news-clippings, letters, and childhood photos from the 1930s – an intimate picture of life during Dustbowl-era Oklahoma. I had never known my grandparents until I received this. My grandfather was a newspaper proofreader (a blue collar job at the time) and my grandmother was a portrait photographer with a knack of capturing the uncommon side of common people. They died much too early, but isn’t that often the case when subjected to a hardscrabble life? As Grant Peeples would sing at Woodyfest, “My People Come From The Dirt.”

Long ago, before I spent my remaining ten years in the work force as a warehouse laboror, I was a professional writer. One day in late 2003, while working in my office at Community Free Press, a freelance photographer/writer walked in with an aging Great Dane named Baby. The woman would become my girlfriend and the Dane would adopt me as her second human being. Baby would live for three more years to the ripe old age of 13 – ancient for a Great Dane. Baby became an almost constant companion and walking partner. She would often come to the office (she had free reign) and my love for the friendly and loving nature of the breed was sealed. Baby was an ambassador of good will and a peace-keeper. The romance with the photographer/writer didn’t survive long without her.

One day about 3 years ago, I came home from the warehouse job to be greeted by a bark from the next-door neighbor’s yard. It was a deep-throated and loud bark, not the usual growl that came from my neighbor’s other dog, a vicious pit bull named Leah (the kind that gives the breed an undeserved bad reputation.) “Maverick,” as Sally was named then, stood in the middle of my neighbor’s back yard and looked me square in the eye. To the untrained ear, it was a bark that could raise the hairs on the back of your neck. To me, however, it was a bark that said, “Pet me.” I took some pictures of Baby over to my neighbor, told her how much I loved Great Danes, and asked her if I could meet Maverick without Leah in the yard at the same time. She agreed and Maverick came immediately to the fence, jumped up, and started licking my face. Sally didn’t have real good manners, yet. She was still a puppy of about 8 months old. I told my neighbor, “These are great dogs, but they require attention.” My neighbor, a single mother working two jobs, didn’t have the time for that. Neither, I thought, did I. I was working 56 hours a week and had planned to put off having another dog until retiring.

As winter approached Maverick was confined to a tool shed in the back of my neighbor’s yard. On a particularly cold day, her water bowl froze. I had been giving Maverick some good dog food on the sly – an effort to supply some nutrition that she wasn’t getting from the Ol’ Roy crap my neighbor was feeding her. Maverick wasn’t even getting much of that – having to fight a pit bull with food aggression for every nugget. Her ribs were showing and she had bite wounds. That was more than I could endure. I went over to my neighbor’s house and told her, “My business stops at the fence line, but I’m not going to stand for this. Either you take this dog into the house and give her some shelter, or find her a proper home. The other option is I’m going to call Animal Control!”

An untrained and unattended dog will train itself. Maverick trained herself to rip the inside of my neighbor’s house to shreds. By early April my neighbor was knocking on my door. “I can’t find anyone to take Maverick. Will you take her?”

I told her I would pay for a visit to the vet and take her for a week to make sure she hadn’t lost her Great Dane nature. Then I would make a decision whether to keep her or find a Great Dane adoption society that could assist with a foster home. I started calling her “Sally” from day one. The vet appointment was on the third day but my ex-wife, who knows me better than anyone, told me, “I already know that whatever the vet says, you’re going to keep her.” She was right.

The past 2+ years are a love story between a human and a dog. There’re plenty of those to go around, and every one of them is worth hearing. Despite some early immune deficiency problems, Sally has grown into a fit (and smart!) adult.

Last year, I went to Woodyfest for the first time. It was more a rendezvous with friends I hadn’t seen in too long than a quest. I boarded Sally in the capable hands of Camp Bow Wow – a first for her. Her exuberance upon my return was almost too much to bear. Never again. I’ve been promising her that when I retire, we would go on some great adventures together – the kind that her “Great Aunt Baby” had embarked on. She seems to like those stories.

I had this plan to travel America – to check out what had changed in our country since John Steinbeck wrote Travels With Charley almost 60 years before.

"A dog, particularly an exotic like Charley, is a bond between strangers... A man who seeing his mother starving to death on a path kicks her in the stomach to clear the way, will cheerfully devote several hours of his time giving wrong directions to a total stranger who claims to be lost." (John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley)

Sally is a dog much like Charley. She's a lover, not a fighter, as well as a great conversation starter. She's the perfect dog to embark on this trip. This isn't the same America. Some changes are apparent. For starters, there are changes in law. In 1960, the Voters' Rights Act and The Fair Housing Act did not exist. The Environmental Superfund of 1980 did not exist. Nor the subsequent stripping of it's corporate funding. Infrastructure is different - there are far more interstate highways to get from place to place. There is modern technology (social networking) that both connects and divides. Political apathy is not so apparent - it's more a case of choosing sides - political awareness is in your face 24/7. Or is it? Overt racism has seen fluctuations, but is on the rise again. On the labor front, unions have taken a beating since 1960. The Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, 9/11, Citizens United, Iraq, Afghanistan and perpetual war, Cadillac Ranch, the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame - all these things have happened since Steinbeck wrote Travels With Charley. Sally and I have made a few exploratory journeys since I retired several months ago. The 2018 Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, however, was the first official stop on the Travels With Sally adventure/book project. It's a journey to find out where America has gone wrong, where it has gone right. All conclusions are yet to be discovered.

About a month ago I took Sally on a preliminary trip to Tucson to see how well she would adapt to long-distance travel. One of the stops along the way was to see what Okemah, OK was like when Woodyfest (officially called The Woody Guthrie Folk Festival) wasn’t in town. It was a particularly hot Sunday when I ran into Peggiann Combs and three other members of the Okemah Garden Club – doing the work that often falls on volunteers in small communities with an even smaller tax base. Peggiann has continued to correspond with me, informing me about the activities of her club - their hopes and dreams.

Sally proved to be well-suited for travel, so onward!

While music was a big part of the trip, the ultimate purpose was different. Mingling with the locals was equally, if not more, important as mingling with musicians. I already knew the reputation of many of the musicians that play Woodyfest – an independent group doing the hard work of spreading the socialist, inclusive politics of Woody Guthrie. But I also have heard old stories about Okemah not being particularly fond of their association as the birthplace of “that communist.”

Oklahoma is considered a deep “red” state these days. It’s rather ironic that the color used to reflect states with deeply conservative and anti-Socialist views was, in Guthrie’s time, the color used to describe Communists. Hell, in the McCarthy era, when anti-Communism was heating up, the Cincinnati Reds even changed their name to the Cincinnati Redlegs to avoid the association. Apparently it was safer to affiliate ones team to a band of Civil War terrorists posing as abolitionists than it was to be associated with Communists. They have since reverted to their original name, which is more applicable to present day terminology.

Rural Oklahoma, I’ve found, is too independent to be typecast. The Wobblies (IWW) had enjoyed a good amount of success in pre-WW1 Oklahoma. As a union, the Wobblies failed, ultimately, in Oklahoma with a strict adherence to ideology. Tenant farmers couldn’t join because they were, technically, “bosses.” It didn’t matter to the Chicago-based IWW that they were as dirt poor as the field hands. Or that they were not the land owners that reaped the profits without doing any of the work. The anti-union sentiment in Oklahoma can often be traced backed to those roots. But the desire to receive an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work remains alive and well.

There are realities in small town mid-America these days, not the least of which is they have been abandoned by the jobs and industries on which they once flourished, both agricultural and industrial. Okemah survives, in part, because it is located on the heavily traveled I-40. Tax revenues and jobs from a variety of restaurants (both chain and independent), truck stops, gas stations, and other businesses maintain a subsistence level of government funding. Volunteerism provides the rest.

Towns off the Interstate, however, don’t fair as well. Closer to home, Granby, MO is on life support. When the lead mines there ran out of lead after WW2, the locals were left holding the bag. With no tax base, the community is left to the uncertainties of government "entitlement" programs. Smelting remains dot the landscape. When land for a proposed Head Start School was chosen years ago, it was found to be over an old mine shaft and subject to sinkholes. There are reasons to hate irony.

Okemah has better chances for survival. The Okemah Garden Club, for example, maintains and waters the corner pots along Broadway Street. Their community garden produced over 3500 pounds of produce which was distributed through to the community through the Moscogee Creek Nation Nutrition Center, the Okemah Senior Nutrition Center and to home-bound disabled citizens. This year they also delivered fresh produce to the campers at Pastures of Plenty. They planted Redbud Row by the High School, a memorial to their late Superintendent of Schools (22 years of service). The dream of OGC to have their own property for the Community Garden and to include a bird and butterfly habitat garden. Also to include a Monarch station and weather station for area students to learn from.

The Okfuskee County History Museum is run entirely on donations and has an all-volunteer staff. At Woodyfest, the museum hosted such things as Tom Breiding’s combination of part labor songs, part history lesson. Also, Barry Ollman’s annual “Collecting Woody Guthrie” slide show. If you’ve never seen it, “Collecting Woody Guthrie” is as much about Guthrie’s activism as it is about collecting his artifacts. And Breiding, from Pittsburgh, PA can quote you chapter and verse about mining and labor.

Then there’s the Animal Rescue League of Okemah (ARLO). Volunteers for ARLO staffed the Brick Street Event Center as servers and bar tenders for tip money – money to fund their organization. During the busiest week of the year in Okemah, at one of the most frequented music establishments in town, this is sheer genius when it comes to local fundraising.

Without the independent nature of the locals, however, Sally would not have been able to witness any of this. The willingness to bend (or outright break) the rules, when the situation calls for it, comes with the territory in Okemah. Sally was a welcome guest at the Rocky Road Tavern for open mic sessions, the Brick Street Event Center for ticketed events by Chris Buhalis and Grant Peeples, St. Paul’s Methodist Church for a performance by the Guthrie Kids and Family Band, the History Museum for presentations by Barry and Tom, and grass seating (free of charge) outside the fence at the Pastures of Plenty concerts. Peggiann Combs even arranged a spot for Sally at a Mexican restaurant.

The musicians brought the passion and activism that attracts thousands of folks from around the country every year at Woodyfest. But the folks that live in Okemah year round have it as well.

My dad, a community volunteer and patriot in his own right, would be spinning in is grave over a Trump-led Republican Party. He would have approved of the goins’ on in Okemah this week. When Okemah native, John Fullbright, closed the Saturday night proceedings at Pastures of Plenty he did so to a backdrop of lightning and thunder. It all seemed so appropriate. “So sorry” is not a proper response to authoritarianism. Make some noise! My people, do indeed, come from the dirt. And I’m honored to call the people of Okemah, My People. Sally and I will return as often as we are able. But while we're away we'll be carrying this tune with us...

[Bill Glahn is a retired warehouse worker and an unretired writer from Springfield, MO]