People have been saying a lot of stuff lately, most because of Pete death, and Hawk going out to Hollywood, and everything that happened after Leadbelly Rising and Rose Caboose. Those albums put us on the road for most of the seventies. Anyone who says it broke us up might want to look at our concert schedule in ’72 alone. We played more concerts than we’d played our entire careers (and I’m going back as far as ’62 when we backed Roaring James).
Sure, we had artistic differences, but things were good—especially for Hawk. He’d d barely start playing “Breaking My Last Stone” on his ’59 Stratocaster, and women would be four deep in front of the stage. Critics called him “dark and thoughtful,” and me “woodsy.” Now, “woodsy” ain’t a bad thing. Not that it got me much attention until I sang “Georgia Peach.” Then girls were climbing over me like I was a two-for-one sale.
Smokey and Pete both sang on “Alvarado Surprise” and “Time Testament,” playing bass and piano respectively. Smokey can throw a tremble in his voice like no other singer I know—including Roaring James.
Now, Smokey and Pete are of the shaggy variety, which might play a part in this somehow. They’re what we used to refer to as “swampy.” Women obviously liked their voices ’cause those two never had to drag anybody home.
We had a custom Airstream decked out with built-in couches and a bedroom at the rear. It’s been back and forth across the country dozens of times. In our heyday, we’d get on after a show with a couple of girls and there’d be drinking and Hawk curled up with a book of poetry.
This one time, Smokey had a girl who asked Hawk what he was reading, and he said, “Rimbaud.” He made it sound like she should know. Hell, I didn’t know Rimbaud from the corner grocer, but I’ve been playing drums on the road since I was fifteen. I didn’t get much education. As my old man used to say, “Stick to one thing and you’ll go over like sweet potato pie.”
I took him at his word, but Hawk — well, he wanted to know everything. Church, our organist, he’s the same way. He’s a genuine musicologist with a beard that’s been growing prodigiously since we started calling ourselves The Leadbellies. That’s ’cause we all loved listening to Leadbelly back in those shotgun saloons. We’d still be playing the blues if Hawk hadn’t moved us away from it. We developed our own rustic style, as they say, what Rolling Stone once called “echoes of southern sharecroppers.”
Hawk’s got all kinds of influences, some stranger than others. By the release of our second album, Rose Caboose, his lyrics were getting pretty ethereal. That’s not always a bad thing, either, as long as the people listening don’t mind. Smokey and Pete never cared what the words meant as long as they rolled off their tongues up there on the stage.
Rose Caboose put us way up on the charts, too, which required a follow-up in short order. Normally we’d leave it to Hawk, with Smokey and Church filling in the holes. Those holes were a big part of who we were. As Smokey used to say, “I’m not really a bass player. I fill holes and our kind of music has thousands of them.”
Hawk was always writing something on the bus. Every time one of Smokey’s or Pete’s girls came out of the washroom, sure enough, they’d look at his notebook and say, “Whatcha writing?” and Smokey’d tell them it didn’t matter, ’cause in many respects, it didn’t as long as people bought our records.
Anyway, going back to this one girl. Smokey picked her up in Memphis. She comes out of the back bedroom, looking around for her purse. Her hair’s pulled back with barrettes, a cute dirty blonde, all big-eyed. She sees Hawk sitting there with one of his books and she asks, “Whatcha reading?” Hawk tells her it’s Rimbaud and she asks if he’s any good. “I suppose,” he says, and she says, “Read him to me.” Hawk tells her he’s no reciter, but she gives him those big baby blues, and he finally starts reading aloud.
“It’s so beautiful,” she kept saying.
Well, Smokey comes out of the bedroom, stripped to the waist, telling Hawk he can have her if he wants. Then he goes up and sits with Carl our driver. Carl’s been with us for years, a hellraiser drunk. Him and Smokey share that affinity. They started passing a bottle back and forth. Meanwhile, this girl’s looking at Smokey like he’s the worst kinda thing. All-of-a-sudden, she jumps up, grabbing her purse and sandals.
“Let me out at the next bus stop,” she says, not knowing — as few people do — that a bus stop in certain parts of Louisiana don’t necessarily mean there’s a bus. I told her she’d be crazy getting off at this time of night. We were still two hours from Baton Rouge with nothing around us but swamp.
“Stop at a telephone, then,” she says. “I wanna call a friend.”
“What friend’s gonna pick you up way out here?” Smokey says.
“I got lots of friends,” she says. “They’re all over New Orleans.”
Now, back then, you could find a phone booth just about anywhere. Hawk wrote a song about it called “Lilly’s Got a Dime.” That’s what it cost back then. The song never charted, but you get the idea telephone booths weren’t exactly rare.
Anyway, this girl spots an old gas station. We pull in and she makes a few calls. “Why don’t we just leave her?” Smokey says, which seemed kind of mean- spirited since we were all going the same way.
Then she hangs up the phone.
“Nobody answering?” Smokey says.
“No,” she says, snarky like.
“That’s a pretty uppity response for someone needing a ride.”
“Can I go with you as far as Baton Rouge?”
“Not the way you’re actin’,” Smokey says.
“Fuck you,” she says.
Next thing we know, she’s off to the washroom, coming out a few minutes later in the tightest dress we’d ever seen. Even Smokey couldn’t believe his eyes. He starts rubbing his beard, saying, “Maybe I was a bit hasty.”
So she goes right to the road, sticking her thumb out. This big ten-wheeler pulls right over. He probably thought he was seeing a mirage.
As she’s climbing up in the cab, she gives us the finger.
We get back on the bus and start heading towards Baton Rouge again.
“That was some dress,” Pete says.
“She’s some trucker’s field day now,” Smokey says.
“Still feel bad, though,” I say.
“Ain’t the worst thing we ever done,” Smokey says.
Anyway, we’re going along fifty-five when we see these two girls hitchhiking. Pete thought one of them looked like our girl. They turned out to be locals, coming home from a movie. We took them as far as Metairie, them talking the whole way about girls getting robbed and raped. It didn’t exactly make us feel any better. Not that Smokey seemed particularly concerned.
“Our girl’s probably snuggled up nice and warm,” Smokey says. “Ain’t our problem, anyway. Besides, she knows how to handle herself.”
Somehow, I still got the sense it was a bad omen. I’m an Arkansas boy, a sharecropper’s son, with that kind of mindset. Leaving a girl to the elements just strikes me as a surefire way to put the fates against you. That’s exactly what happened. Circumstances being what they were, I can’t imagine things going any other way.
So we went back in the studio later that month, recording Savannah Suite. None of the songs got past #72 on the charts, a far cry from “Suzie’s Dress” on Rose Caboose. It sat at #2 on the rock ‘n roll charts for six weeks.
As far as the critics were concerned, Hawk was revisiting old themes instead of exploring new ones. “His beautifully portrayed southern landscapes feel now like fresh asphalt laid on a new parking lot,” the Rolling Stone reviewer said.
The only song he liked was Pete’s “Forlorn Hope.” Pete was drinking so heavily at the time. His voice came out in a scratchy falsetto. It was the real deal, in any event, unlike what they thought of Hawk’s stuff. As Melody Maker said in their review, “There’s still genius in the playing and delicate backwoods harmonies, but it’s little respite when the songs themselves seem to come from a preacher’s pulpit.”
We made one last attempt with Bride In a Gingham Dress. It barely charted. That left Hawk in one of his longest funks. He told us he was done. We could continue using the name, but he was heading to Hollywood to do soundtracks.
We hit the road that spring, playing our songs in smaller venues. Pete’s drinking got worse. One night in a motel room outside Chattanooga, he hung himself.
I remember, at the funeral, Church playing Pete’s “Known Shame,” one of Pete’s saddest songs. Hawk didn’t make it to the service. He was still in Hollywood with some strep infection. Being together twenty years, though, you have that synchronicity of thought, each of us wondering what we’d done — or hadn’t done — that broke the spokes on the wheel, so to speak.
The following spring, I was back in Bethel, building my own studio. I had Carl bring the Airstream to my place. It’s still sitting out behind the barn. I don’t know if we’ll ever get it back on the road. Smokey still calls every now and then. He’s back up in Canada, thinking of recording an album of his own. Church is building pipe organs not far from me. We keep threatening to record, but nothing materializes.
Carl’s been living in an old cabin behind my place. He came in my kitchen one day holding this fringed vest with sewn flowers. He found it in the bedroom of the bus. “Remember that girl we left near Jackson?” he said. “You think it might be hers?” He was standing there looking scruffy. I didn’t know if the vest was hers or not, but, being of country stock, I was brought up with the notion of deeds. They come back in one form or another. I’m not saying that girl put a hex on us, but her finger out the window sure didn’t help. We were on the slow decline after that.
We had a song called “Gabriel’s Gone.” It’s about a man meeting the Devil at the crossroads. A lot of good musicians disappeared at the crossroads, Pete being one of them. The rest of us will probably go the same way eventually, being high and dry, as they say. Hawk did a solo album which topped at #86 and Smokey’s got something he thinks will come out next year.
Anyway, the studio’s here, and I’m thinking I should get some tracks down. As Carl says, my time’s surely come considering my years out on the road. He also says I got more muscle in his playing than my skinny frame would suggest. That’s some motivation, I guess.
Now it’s a matter of keeping the kettle full, which is a long way from the bad ol’ days when Leadbelly’s songs made a big change in our lives. As Hawk wrote in “Last Blues, “We’ll be back there in the cottonwoods, a bottle sliding up and down, singing songs of a primrose south, out on the crossroads of town.”
Just hearing that again on my 24-track machines, looking out at the farm and the hills, I surely do miss the band. I said the same thing to Smokey the last time he called. He sang “Last Blues.” He remembers all the words, but without Pete, and a few of the others who’ve passed—and Hawk still in Hollywood—it’s hard to imagine we’ll ever get together again. Not in this life, anyway.
Maybe the next. As Hawk wrote in Bride in a Gingham Dress, “There are only so many tomorrows for a girl in a gingham dress.” I think that’s true for everyone. I think we’ve truly run out of tomorrows.
Robert Cormack is a novelist, blogger and freelance copywriter. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. Check out Skyhorse Press or Simon & Schuster for more details.