From the recording Cut from the Cloth
CUT FROM THE CLOTH
For the past 11 years I’ve travelled to Austin, Texas every March for the largest independent music festival in the world, South By Southwest. In 2006, a week before my scheduled flight to Austin, I received a phone call. My grandfather, whose health had been failing for some time, had slipped into a coma at my Aunt’s house and he wasn’t going to come out. “He can go any minute, you have to get here right away if you want to see him before he’s gone.” I hung up the phone and rescheduled my flight.
During my layover, I called my family in Oklahoma. They told me that grampa was barely holding on, and they believed he was only clinging to life to wait for me to come say goodbye. I remember thinking this was a nice sentiment, but it was most likely one of those things we say to comfort each other when nothing else makes sense. When I arrived, and walked in the room, it was filled with family, and one stranger…a nurse. She reiterated that he had waited for me to come, and now that I was here, it would just be a matter of moments before he passed. I am a pure skeptic. I was once told by someone very close to me, “You don’t know what you believe in. You only know what you don’t believe in”. In a spiritual sense, that is absolutely true. So I imagined my family waiting for me, telling my grandfather I was on the way, clinging to the hope that he’d stay with them for just a little bit longer. Telling themselves he would. For me. There was no longer much more to hold onto than that.
And now I was in the room with them all, and the moment was right in front of me. I had never watched someone die, let alone a family member. But here I was, staring at my grandfather, who for all intents and purposes seemed gone already. The slow rising and falling of his chest and a wheezing breath was the only indication that he was still with us. I’ve heard that people in a coma can still hear you. I don’t know if I believe that or not. Here’s what I do know. As the family gathered around, we all held hands with tears in our eyes. The nurse said, “He’s ready now, he’s almost there, if you want to say anything, now is the time.” One by one, the family took turns struggling to make their peace. I don’t know why I was last to speak. I just sat there with my mouth shut, unable to form words, until everyone had spoken their farewells. Finally the room filled with an awkward silence. The only sound was that of sobbing loved ones and the labored breath of our patriarch, lying there between us all. I gathered my courage and said simply, “Grampa, you were a fighter your whole life. You taught everyone in this room how to be a fighter. Your work is done. You don’t have to fight anymore. We love you. But you don’t have to fight anymore”. I had barely choked out the last word through my own tears, when he took a long, deep, labored breath and exhaled for the last time. And then he was gone.
I’ll never truly know if he heard me. But it seemed right. A few days later, I delivered his eulogy. It was the most difficult public address of my life. But with my family, and the strength and fight handed down to me from my grandfather, I got through it. We all got through it.
The next day, I got into a car with my cousin, and we drove to his home in Houston. I spent the night with his family, got up the next morning, played with his boys, then rented a car and drove to Austin. I’ve always loved to drive, and this three hours alone on the road was a much needed respite from the drama filled events of the previous days.
Arriving in Austin, I was met with an entirely different type of insanity. I spent the better part of the week in a drunken music-filled stupor. My friends in the band Transfer were already there, holed up in an apartment, drinking and playing and preparing for their first Austin experience. They had a series of gigs, and they’d brought along a photographer, whom I’d never met. I clicked with Danny De La Cruz from the moment we were introduced. I’ll always remember sitting in that apartment in South Austin, almost completely devoid of furniture, feeling as empty as every room, but soaking in the much needed community of the friends around me. This is what I needed most.
For me, the week reached its crescendo in the Austin Hill Country at a honky-tonk called Poodie’s Hilltop Roadhouse, located near the Austin home of Willie Nelson. Poodie Locke was Willie Nelson’s stage manager for 35 years. Considering Willie tours up to 275 days a year, you can bet these men were damn close. Transfer had a gig at Poodie’s, and they were gracious enough to share their stage with me for a couple of songs. It was my first time performing in Austin, but I’ve performed there every year since. This was exactly what I needed to take my mind off my mourning. Of course, we all hoped that Willie would show up, as we knew he was in town. He didn’t, but at the end of the night Poodie walked out back with us, pulled out a plastic baggie and rolled one up. In spite of what some folks may think, marijuana is not my drug of choice. Like my grandfather, who had just passed, Jim Beam is my favorite elixir. The idea of smoking in public with strangers usually makes me extra anxious, because pot can sometimes exaggerate my insecurities and make me weirdly body conscious. But when Willie Nelson’s manager rolls a joint of what he calls “Willie’s weed”, and passes it around the circle, you can bet your ass you smoke it. You smoke the SHIT out of it. Standing in that circle, we all laughed and traded stories, but mostly we listened as Poodie regaled us all.
Poodie is gone now too. He passed in 2009. But I have that moment, and it can never be taken away. Maybe it seems like a small event, but it meant the world to me. That circle of friends. That moment of community. Drunk and a little high, leaning on my friends to keep my feet beneath me. My arm wrapped tightly around Alison’s waist, staggering to make sense of it all. In terms of god and the heavens, perhaps I only know what I don’t believe in. But on this earth, I know exactly what I believe in. I had spent the better part of two weeks surrounded by it.Friends. Family. Music. Salvation.