Welcome to the jungle country

When I took a job with a country artist, I knew nothing about country music besides the odd tracks on my iPod by Lucinda Williams and Johnny Cash. The band I'm tour managing would talk about musicians and I'd smile blandly. The few times I tried to comment on songs, I got confused. Are we talking about Dirt Road Anthem or Dirt Road Prayer or Red Dirt Girl or Car Wheels on a Gravel Road? All the dirt and the roads, they got me turned around. At a gas station on the drive from California to Ohio, I bought a People Magazine, Country Edition and read it cover to cover, often out loud. Matthew looked at me sideways and I said, "It's RESEARCH."

At the American Country Awards in Vegas in December, I sat in the green room and watched the monitor of what was happening on stage, the badonkadonk jokes and the Red Solo Cup singalong. Some of the only people I recognized were the cast of Pawn Stars and the comedian Bill Engvall, who I've seen on Comedy Central. I lot of the women looked familiar but I couldn't name them. I saw my former boss from Idol and he said, "I remember when I started and I didn't know who anyone was." "When you were me, you mean?"

When I found out that we were going on tour as an opener for Jason Aldean, I thought, "Great, who's that?" Now that we've finished the first leg of the tour and am preparing for the next, I fully respect where we are. We play the first set of the night, to thousands of country fans in arenas who came to the My Kinda Party tour. Our schedule is close to what I did when I first toured on a crew: wake up on the bus every morning, stumble to the front lounge to make coffee, ask our driver where we are if we're still moving, go inside the loading dock to find the towels for a shower in a locker room if we've already arrived. Stay busy all day until I crawl into my bunk at night. I'm not making most of the rules, I'm asking other people what they are, I'm learning new things.

Now that I'm on the country circuit, I also get to vote in the awards shows. I get daily email updates from several country news outlets and when it's awards show time, labels send me CDs and promo materials to sway my vote. Hilarious! And informative. And just a lot of stuff. Many, many people have told me that Nashville and the country music world is small and that everyone knows everyone. So many that it started to feel vaguely like a warning more than a friendly reminder and maybe it was but I can attest to the fact that after six weeks of paying attention, the pieces of the country puzzle are starting to come together.

Last week I was talking to a producer who said he'd love us to a play a festival he's doing later this year. I asked him who else is on the bill and he rattled off a string of names. "Wow," I said without a trace of irony or bullshit, "That's a great lineup."


Laughing quietly to myself

About how I got on the bus this morning to find a bag from Cracker Barrel full of $80 worth of baby moccasins. Most incongruous thing ever found on a tour bus.



Yeah, I love this. Thanks, Leah


Lionel Richie morning

I knew it was going to be a good day when I pulled up to the hotel and Lionel Richie was smiling at me through the windshield. I sat there stunned and beamed right back. "He liked us!" Rita said.

Things strangers said to me in the last 24 hours

"I bought an Acura on Craigslist today."

"Don't stand out here too long, people will think you're selling drugs."

"You should try West Nashville, a lot of rich white people live there. Excuse my language."

"You're going to love it here."

"You're going to love it here."

"You're going to love it here."


Laughing quietly to myself

About how I overheard a cashier at Sally Beauty Supply tell someone to put the warranty for her new curling iron "in the same place you keep your birth certificate." Apparently I've been seriously underestimating the value of curly hair.


Nashville soundbite

I'd filled up the gas tank and was sitting in the front seat fiddling with the GPS and ripping open a Slim Jim with my teeth because many recent road trips have turned me into a straight-up gas station primate. I now have a favorite brand of beef stick because I'm eating so, so many of them in the car. Or is it a pepperoni stick? I don't know. I fear the ingredient list and refuse to read it but the brand is called SASQUATCH if you'd like to investigate. This is something that I don't do at home where I'm drawn more to things like avocados and green peppers. Seriously, though, eating an avocado while driving? I would have to ask that it be pitted, stuffed with beeferoni, and sheathed in plastic before I'd even consider it.

I heard a voice call out, "Miss, you forgot your fuel cap." I opened the door, leaned out to look back and sure enough, the cap was dangling. I got out and started to screw the cap back on but didn't see anyone around. "Who said that?" I asked. A man poked his out from behind a column and smiled. "Welcome to Tennessee," he added. I realized he was looking at the California plates on the car. "Thanks," I said. "I'm just moving here and like it so far."

"Everyone who comes here from California does," he drawled.


I've had something on my mind since Camp Mighty two months ago but the seeds of thought were planted much earlier, in 2008, when I wrote about my reaction to a man who smelled on the subway. That post was about my emotions and the overwhelming helplessness I feel when witnessing need in others. I wondered why I kept finding myself torn apart, just absolutely floored, by sadness because I wasn't always so wobbly-kneed. I then answered my own question by guessing (rightly so, I believe) that I'd been missing an important part of my life since I'd started working on music tours. Before touring, my work had a strong bent to social action with a few notable exceptions (Don Pablo's Mexican Kitchen! And all those pubs!) and without it I eventually I felt a void and I felt guilt. Guilt isn't my motivator nor my predominant sense, mainly because it's not useful long term and I'm finally getting inspired to brainstorm on ways to create more meaning for myself since I'm probably not going to quit my job to become an organic farmer or work in an orphanage any time soon.

One of the speakers at Camp Mighty was Kenna. I used to think about Kenna as just that guy on my iPod because Matthew had given me his music but I hadn't taken much time to listen. When I saw that he would be speaking at camp, I was intrigued and when he took the stage, I was rapt. Kenna spoke about the music industry and his place in it. He spoke of the ego involved, the publicists and stylists, and the pressure. But first we had to call his mom to sing her happy birthday. He put her on speaker but didn't tell her right away that there were a hundred people listening.

"Happy birthday, mom."
"Are you taking your vitamins?"
"Have you met a nice girl yet?"
"Mom, I've got a bunch of people here. They want to sing for you..."

It was very endearing. After we sang and laughed and listened to Kenna and his mom chat more and got our heartstrings all but manhandled, he hung up and continued his talk. He had reached a successful point in his music career and was living large, following the sparkly path of fame, when he had a conversation with his father. In the conversation his dad mentioned that as a child in Ethiopia he'd suffered for years with a waterborne illness and that his brother died. Kenna was struck. He didn't know that he'd had a uncle who died as a child and that his own dad had lived ten years with the physical pain that comes from drinking contaminated water: crippling diarrhea, nausea, cramps, dehydration, vomiting, fever and the looming threat of death. His dad told him that he had saved $10,000 and that he wanted to use it to help a community in Ethiopia build a well.

Kenna's parents immigrated to the United States due to persecution by the government in Ethiopia, his father a former Minister of Agriculture. After spending two years separated from his parents and living with his grandfather in Ethiopia, Kenna joined his parents in the US and grew up in Virginia. He was close to his parents and lived in a generous house that took people in and helped family still in Ethiopia. The Zemedkum family sounds like a big-hearted and open-armed clan that instilled deep values in Kenna which hurt him all the more to realize he'd been oblivious to a huge, formative fact about his father's life. To hear Kenna speak about this was powerful. It was a moment in which he questioned his choices and how he'd been living. I don't want to put words in his mouth but what this sounded like to me, when I compared it to my life was: I may not be doing anything wrong but am I doing enough right?

Kenna's response was to turn his attention to the matter of clean water worldwide and from that Summit on the Summit took shape. To draw attention to the fact that a billion people don't have clean water to drink, he got high profile people to hike to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro and got other high profile to donate money if they made it. Kenna proposed his idea to Justin Timberlake on a snowboarding trip and while J. Timbo wasn't able to do the climb, he introduced the documentary that was eventually made for MTV and Jessica Biel, Lupe Fiasco, Emile Hirsch, Isabel Lucas, and Santigold climbed with a number of experts, sherpas, documentarians, and, of course, Kenna. They made it to the top of the 19,340 foot peak on January 12, 2010 and Summit on the Summit's work is ongoing.

After Kenna's talk and Q & A session with Maggie, I approached him to say thanks. I told him that I'm a tour manager and that I struggle to keep my job from taking over my life at the expense of activism that's important to me so his story resonated big time. He laughed and told me to tell Randy Jackson what's up for him. I didn't get into the fact that while Randy and I have passed in the hall a few times, I have no interaction with the TV judges since I've taken over Idol only when the TV show ends and my link to the judges are more along the lines of "Yeah, I saw Paula Abdul on her phone out by the dumpster when I was on the way to the bus." Plus, I have since then left the Idol tour and am working for one of the Idols, Lauren Alaina, on her solo career. That's also beside the point. I'm just as busy as I ever was and still need to pay close attention to what's important to me.

Kenna was incredibly friendly and approachable and told me to get the contact info of one of the people he works with because collaboration is good. Regardless of what collaborations I forge or what issues I throw myself into, it was a good reminder how much is possible, at what scale, when you reach out to others and step out of your comfort zone whether that zone is calling someone you don't know or hiking at an elevation in which your eyeballs can freeze.

Something I've enjoyed while working with Lauren is the number of shows that we've done as benefit fundraisers. She's sung her heart out for cause after cause, one recurring topic being children's cancer. We've visited the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis once and are going back again soon. ST. JUDE BLOWS MY MIND as one of the most intense examples of positive energy coexisting with crushing sorrow I've ever beheld. I'm in awe of the supreme strength of the children and families at St. Jude, not to mention those who work there.

I've set a goal for myself to find an organization that I can volunteer for when I have down time in Nashville. The side note to this would be to create down time when I feel like I don't have any. On an ever deeper level, I am mercilessly drawn to the idea that I need to write about my brother and my family. My parents spent years advocating and fighting for disability rights when I was young and I appreciate this more and more all the time. I face a huge amount of resistance to actually writing our story and have finished a total of only two chapters in two years but I also have an idea of how resistance works and am pretty sure that this just means I find the weight and meaning of it all intimidating. I believe, however, that telling stories is a potent way to build and create community. On the way to the coffeeshop today, I had a text conversation with Kelly who'd written out of the blue to offer writing support. Do I need a reader? Can I send an outline of ideas? What about a summer retreat in Tennessee? Do I realize that a chapter a month is a whole book in a year? Kelly has a lot of energy, as we all do especially when we channel it in the direction we truly crave.


Laughing quietly to myself

About how I told Rob the two cassettes I bought at the same time in high school: Nine Inch Nails and James Taylor. He countered with his young double purchase of Helmet and C+C Music Factor. Fair play, Rob. You're just about as confused open-minded as me.