Performing Arts

Dream ticket

Many men reaching their ‘middle youth’ fantasise about making a once-in-a-lifetime trip to see their music icon on stage. But the FT’s Peter Whitehead went ahead and did it – and his pilgrimage turned out better than he dared hope. Plus: video of his icon in the studio.

June 10 2011
Peter Whitehead

If you want something badly enough, there is usually a price to be paid. “No pain, no gain”; “If it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working” – that sort of nonsense. So when I decided that I just had to see my favourite singer-songwriter perform live, I had to be ready to accept the discomfort of transatlantic transportation, parting with a little cash, and the anxiety of knowing that it could all go wrong. But having weighed up the pain-gain, working-hurting ratios and committed to dates and places, the rewards flowed bountifully, transforming a dotty-sounding extravagance into the most wonderful adventure.

* * * * * *

“My life is pieces of paper.

That I’ll get back to later”

Some time in the middle of 2008 I promised myself that should I remain solvent amid the global economy’s wobble, I would buy myself a ticket to one of Lori McKenna’s December concerts.

I had fallen in love with her voice (it carries the resounding clang of a shovel hitting concrete), the tone of her acoustic guitar, the indelible imagery of her lyrics, and her sweet way of thinking, so perfectly in tune with how I would like to think.

I failed to deliver on my promise to myself that year, and indeed the next one. But with no hint of a McKenna UK tour materialising, a plan formed in 2010. I studied McKenna’s schedule and found that the first practical date for a 7,000-mile round trip from old England to New England was a few months into 2011.

So I bought it – a trip to see one concert at the Memorial Hall in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. I invested heavily in flights, accommodation and a car, then sat back and began fretting about what would happen if anyone fell ill or the show was cancelled.

But three months later, on the way home from one extraordinary night, I was sitting at Boston Logan airport carrying memories of the concert of a lifetime and cradling my new most treasured possession – one of Lori McKenna’s guitars.

So, who is this Lori McKenna? I have failed to meet anyone – and I mix in musically educated circles – who has heard of her. Yet to my mind, she is the finest singer-songwriter of all, ahead of Dylan, Lennon/McCartney and Joni Mitchell.

McKenna is 42, married with five children aged between six and 21, and lives quietly in Stoughton, south of Boston. Pouring out of her are heartbreaking, minutely observed songs. This is her description of the survivor’s suffering when a loved one dies: “I’m not a winner, I’m just brilliantly bitter. Sealed by my skin but broken inside.” Of coping with her son’s learning difficulties, she sings: “I should be yelling I love you, but I’m hardly speaking a word” – a devastating lament for every frustrated parent.

Three years ago I performed one of McKenna’s songs for 200 people at a party. Ruby’s Shoes touchingly tells the story of Ruby Bridges, the six-year-old African-American girl sent to an all-white school in New Orleans in 1960. Many asked who wrote it. I told them all to buy Paper Wings & Halo, McKenna’s first CD, released in 2000. My sister later messaged me: “Brilliant album – but it plays havoc with your mascara.”

Yes, I had placed McKenna on a pedestal, rewriting the imperfections to which she confesses in her songs as evidence of even greater virtues. How could anyone live up to such idolatry?

* * * * * *

“I don’t need any – until I need more”

One false move from a time-traveller meddling in the past might mean they are never born. Journalists have to be similarly wary of altering the proper course of events.

My original plan would have left history undisturbed: travel alone to Shelburne Falls, absorb the concert and return home, all private and personal.

But I did have one question for McKenna’s agent: what guitar does she play to achieve that distinctive sound? I would like to buy a similar one for myself.

Her reply nudged the space-time continuum from its true path, changing everything. McKenna was thinking of selling her Martin 000-15 guitar. Would I be interested in buying it? It could be mine for $500, about a third of the price of a new one.

I already own several guitars, including an Ibanez GB10, a Fender Stratocaster, a Takamine jumbo acoustic, a Cort cutaway that I play all the time, a Yamaha 12-string, a resonator, and others. But the correct size for any collection is as many as you already have – plus one.

The guitar was to be packed up immediately and sent by courier. Or would have been, but for a middling-sized catastrophe in Washington, where McKenna was playing at the Library of Congress before Christmas. “There were six of us and we left in two cars. My Collings guitar got in one cab and I got in another – and I never saw it again,” she says. So “my” guitar would be needed for a few more weeks. McKenna would be ready to part with it around the time of my trip – why not complete the purchase in person?

I mentioned it to colleagues. Arrangements escalated. Doors swung open. I would meet McKenna; a photographer was summoned to travel from New York to capture the encounter; a private adventure turned professional.

* * * * * *

“No strangers in this town. No one moves without making a sound”

Shelburne Falls is what passes for “pretty” in North America: a low-density, white weatherboard village of 2,000 people in the Deerfield river valley. In the centre, the buildings turn to redbrick rectangles, the grandest of which is the Memorial Hall, built in 1897 and incorporating an upstairs theatre of 430 now crinkled brown leather seats. McKenna has warned everyone that she is running late; my greater concern is to look more like a seasoned professional than a lovesick teenager – or a stalker.

Her eventual entrance is too busy to be grand but as she approaches, guitar case in hand, she reaches forward for a kiss in warm greeting.

Setting up the stage should be the priority but, unpacking a second guitar case, McKenna calls over: “Hey Peter – you wanna see this guitar?” She hands it to me, saying she will be playing it on stage tonight and afterwards, it will be mine. Please – no one wake me from this dream.

She finds time to sit and talk about the guitar, pointing to a small scratch and a patch where her fingers have worn away the decoration beneath the sound hole; she laughs at it having one black bridge pin among five white ones.

I quietly play a couple of her own songs as we talk. “Oh no – I’ve forgotten those,” she says. The guitar seems to know them better than either of us. We have reached new levels of idolatry.

* * * * * *

“If I could buy one night – I wouldn’t buy the one you’d think”

McKenna is picking at a small bowl of salad she has neatly chopped in the back room of the Memorial Hall as I ask about her brush with fame. It came in 2005 when country music star Faith Hill recorded four of her songs and lured her away from her folk roots towards Nashville, a stadium tour and a record deal with Warner Brothers. “That was a little moment of craziness – surreal the whole time,” McKenna recalls.

It wasn’t a comfortable fit: “I knew I didn’t really belong in that environment. I didn’t want to make a million dollars – I wanted to make enough so it wasn’t a hobby any more and take my little steps.”

I have come all this way because she seems not to travel. Has she ventured abroad to play?

“Sure.”

Where?

“Canada,” she replies proudly. “It was with Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. We toured for five weeks and I took the kids – three of them – two little ones and the oldest. The others are teenagers so they don’t care when I’m not there. But the little ones do – and I miss them.” So no UK tour because of the children? “That’s the only reason – but it’s a good one. It’s the time. I just can’t do it. I do so want to go… but…”

Many of those making up tonight’s audience are local family groups, as much supporting their village’s enterprise in organising a concert as coming to see McKenna in particular. She is no extrovert on stage and there are moments when she appears relieved to have the slick Mark Erelli (guitars) and Jamie Edwards (keyboards) beside her. She sings most of the tracks from Lorraine, her new CD named after both herself and her mother, who died when McKenna was small. Earlier songs complete the set. It is all blissfully poignant.

She announces between songs that this is the Martin guitar’s last performance with her and that it is moving to a new home in England. The show concludes with a standing ovation and afterwards she hands me the guitar. How she can bear to part with it?

“I don’t want it to seem like I throw everything away or trade everything off, because I am loyal to things. But I have this problem of needing to start over. I don’t do it with kids or husbands, but I do have a tendency to do it with instruments. I had been playing just the two guitars for years every night, and I thought I’m going to sell the Martin. At the same time, you sent that e-mail. I thought this is a sign. Then when the Collings went away, I thought maybe they’re both supposed to go. Because guitars are like homes – they mean different things to different people. I don’t know if I would want to have a guitar from the beginning all the way to the end of it. It seems like it’s supposed to be able to enjoy someone else for a while. Then I could tell you were so interested. I knew it wasn’t just like selling it at a yard sale: it seemed so much more special. With the Collings, I don’t know who has it. I don’t know if somebody loves it. But this one, I always know it’s gonna be happy.”

I hand over $500. “I feel I’m robbing you,” she says. “I feel I’m robbing you,” I reply. Now how do I get this precious object home?

* * * * * *

“She knows that she can always trust

Her paper wings and halo”

So far, the pain-gain ratio has been tipped seriously in my favour. But I now wake to find myself in a snowstorm in a remote village on the far side of the Atlantic from home with a delicate and irreplaceable guitar to carry.

I set off for Boston’s Logan airport mulling over my options as snow turns to rain. The internet is a depressing place to seek advice: everyone seems to have had their instrument smashed to smithereens by an airline. So I ask a young concert violinist – who is so fearful about security that she insists upon anonymity – how she protects her priceless luggage. “A friend of mine once put his cello in an aircraft hold to come back from America,” she says. “He couldn’t persuade the airline to allow it into the cabin and it was completely smashed – in about 30 pieces.

“If you have a larger instrument you have to buy another seat for it. I’m lucky I play a violin as it fits in overhead compartments. These instruments can’t go in the hold because it’s extremely cold and things are chucked about – they’re just too valuable for that.”

I decide that my purchase will not go in the hold. I consider careful packing and trusting it to a courier, but the best option is to take it into the cabin – even if it involves buying an extra seat.

* * * * * *

“If I… could buy one night”

“Glass of wine, sir?” Why not. The overnight flight to London will soon take off. The premium economy section is half full and McKenna’s guitar has an overhead locker to itself. Makan at the check-in desk was certain that I could carry it into the cabin. He checked with the gate supervisor twice – a second time to reassure me that if things went wrong, I could still buy a seat at the last minute.

But nothing is wrong at all. I have been to a Lori McKenna concert and her Martin guitar now lives with its new family in England. I take it to The Ram folk club, near home, and play two of McKenna’s songs. I e-mail her a picture of it sitting among my other guitars.

She responds: “Peter, let me know if you found a song in that Martin yet. He seems to have quite a few.”

I bought so much more than one night.

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