Sunday, April 20, 2014

That was fun

I gave my wife a rose, once.

That was about 35 years ago. We'd just met and this was our first date, and I wanted to impress her.

So I brought her a rose. A single, red, long-stemmed rose. And I knew the moment when I gave it to her that I had indeed impressed her.

"I really thought it was sweet," said Kim as we reminisced. "I thought, 'At last, I found a man who brings me flowers. If I could have kept it forever, I would have.'"

We went on to get married, happily, despite the fact that I haven't given her a rose in the 34 years since then. It was never my intention to withhold roses from her through the passage of time, it's just the way things shaked out. We ended up buying cars and houses and cats instead.

In fact, we do a lot of things together, and our most recent passion has been the music of Underhill Rose, a trio of talented singers from Asheville (Eleanor Underhill on banjo, Molly Rose Reed on guitar and Salley Williamson on upright bass) who return semi-regularly to perform their brand of Americana at High Rock Outfitters in Uptown Lexington. They were in town for a show Friday night, in fact, and Kim and I wanted to do something nice for them just to show our joy and appreciation for what they do. This was about the 10th time we've seen them perform and we consider them to be our friends.

Where'd those (Underhill) roses come from? (Photo by Donnie Roberts)
"We ought to get them each a rose, since they're Underhill Rose," said Kim, with more than a little irrefutable logic. Yes, truth be told, it was her idea. I thought it was great. So we went to the florist that morning, bought three long-stemmed red roses, and waited for evening to fall.

As the crowd formed before showtime, I was pleased to see a couple of new faces in the seats. Both were there, they said, because of previous blogs I'd written about Underhill Rose and they wanted to see what all the fuss was about. That was nice.

Then the girls came on stage — we were sitting on the front row — and started singing through their playlist. They pretty much had the undivided attention of the HRO audience of about 70 or so folks, who answered each heartfelt song with heartfelt applause. It was great. We've seen them perform in several venues the past two years, and HRO is by far the best listening room and with the most artist-respectful audiences that we've seen. The girls deserve that, and it's no wonder why they keep returning to Lexington. (See here for a blog about HRO)

But Kim and I still weren't sure when to give them the roses. During the set break? How about when they sing "Love is a Rose," which is usually their finale? How about after the show was over?

During the set break, I peered with squinted eyes at their playlist on the stage floor. "Love is a Rose" was not on the list. That settled it.

"We'll give them the roses when they return from their break," I told Kim.

When the girls reassembled on the stage and stepped up to the mics, I got up from my seat. Kim handed me a rose, one by one. I gave the first one to Salley, and wished her a happy birthday, which is on Monday. Then I gave one to Molly. I wanted to tell her "A rose for a Rose," but my mouth wouldn't work. I hope I smiled, at least. At this point, the audience was going "Awwww" as the flowers were offered. Then I gave one to Eleanor, and I think I said "Thank you," meaning thanks for all you do. She somehow attached the rose to her mic stand for all to see. Sweet.

I returned to my seat as people clapped. Maybe they were just glad I was finally out of the way, I guess, and the show continued.

The shows, by the way, are lots of fun. The girls have great stage presence and they sometimes offer humorous off-the-cuff banter. Some songs, like "Unused to You," give us amazing harmonies. At the end of "Bare Little Rooms," Salley comes off the stage to do some impressive flat-foot dancing as Molly and Eleanor play on. It's ear-pleasing, eye-pleasing entertainment at its very best.

Then came the finale. Instead of "Love is a Rose," Salley, well-booted herself, sang the 1966 Nancy Sinatra tune "These Boots Are Made for Walking" as a solo. It was the perfect finishing touch that had everybody smiling. Kim and I flicked Bic lighters above our heads in salute to a wonderful evening. Again.

(Below is a sample from a different venue):

The next time Kim wants some roses, I think I have the answer. It's easy. It's Underhill roses.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Just our luck

In the world of why-does-this-happen-to-me, this one ranks right up there.

I mean, I know there's stuff out there that people deal with that's much more important, much more intrusive, maybe even much more life changing than this petty concern I'm about to air.

So please bear with me.

It seems like whenever Kim and I decided to take an extended weekend at the beach — Cherry Grove, to be exact — we try to plan to avoid crowds.

Already, there's two problems here. First, we don't really plan. We guess. We assume. And we should know better. But that's how we roll.

The second is that there are always crowds at the beach, no matter how much you plan. I've been told there's maybe a three-month window from January to Easter where the traffic is manageable, when there's no waiting at restaurants — and that might be true — but I haven't seen it yet. Or if I did, it happened 30 years ago before the area underwent a commercial development boom.

Anyway, we left this past Friday for a brief three-day weekend. In the past, we've usually taken our beach vacations in May, because that's when the weather usually changes for the better. But you have to work around Bike Week. If you go the first week in May, the motorcyclists are arriving. If you go the third week, the bikers are leaving.

Then it's Memorial Day and the start-of-the-summer crowds. It's never just Bike Week. It's Bike Month.

On a side note, we sometimes took/take a beach vacation the first week in October, because that's our anniversary week. It's also the week of the Fall Rally. Are you kidding me? Really, as far as we're concerned, it's Bike Year.

Anyway, we decided we'd head to the beach this past weekend. No Bike Week yet. But when we arrived, there were people everywhere — and especially at neighboring Ocean Drive, where favorite eateries like Golden Griddle and Hoskins are located. The canyon of beach-side hotels were fairly bursting. What the heck?

"Oh," we were told. "It's SOS weekend."

That thudding sound you're hearing is me banging my head against the wall. It actually feels good.

Shaggers were everywhere, including some leakage into Cherry Grove. Loafers. Gold chains. Cigarettes. Adult beverages. It's a lifestyle.

And it wasn't just shaggers. There were students taking over beach houses. Oh-oh. Spring break. Flip-flops. Cigarettes. Adult beverages. These are the folks who think they're bullet-proof. Remember those days? It's another lifestyle.

We thought we'd make a quick getaway to quiet, unassuming Southport and do a little antiquing and maybe eat lunch at the Provision Company. Except, of course, it was Spring Festival. People everywhere. Artists, shoppers, tourists. Sigh.

By Sunday morning, we were headed back home. To quiet, unbusy, restful Lexington. No complaints.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

How many trips?

By my count, my latest excursion to Gettysburg was about my 35th.

I made this trip this past weekend when about 16 of us from the Davidson County Civil War Round Table, starting on different days and in different cars, and some of us from as far away as Wilmington and Blowing Rock, converged on the battlefield on Friday in a manner similar to Robert E. Lee's army 150 years ago.

I've attended 23 Civil War Institutes (the CWI being an annual week-long collection of field trips, lectures and seminars), so that takes care of 23 visits right there. My wife and I once made a winter excursion with another couple. Plus, I was on the field 41 years ago with a friend during a cross-country trip, and at least once before that when I was child.

Throw in a few trips I've made with my wife when we used Gettysburg as a stopover on some of our New England vacations and, well, there you have it — at least 35 visits to Gettysburg.

I should have the battle figured out by now, right?

Looking north from the cupola of the Lutheran Theological Seminary.
Actually, the face, the culture and the scholarship of the battle are in constant change. The battlefield, for example, is undergoing a remarkable facelift in which a decade-long tree-clearing project is bringing the field back to its 1863 appearance. Telephone lines and electric wires are now underground. Fence lines are popping up in their proper historical locations (now it's easier to understand the difficulty of Pickett's Charge when you see how the Confederate troops had to scale a post-and-five-rail fence in front of the Union guns). Buildings that were not on the field then (like the old Cyclorama building and the old visitors' center on Cemetery Ridge) have been razed to the ground, all evidence of their intruding existence swept away, and thus opening new and revealing vistas of what I think is one of America's truly seminal moments.

It's wonderful. It's illuminating.

One of the few things I hadn't done in all those years visiting Gettysburg was to climb the cupola on the Lutheran Theological Seminary. (See here for museum slide show and other information). For the longest time, you simply couldn't get to the cupola unless it was through special invitation. Later, there was a restrictive $150 to $200 fee. Now, in its current manifestation, you can climb the cupola for about $30. Done. No-brainer.

A view of Herbst Woods from the Lutheran Theological Seminary cupola
The cupola is an iconic structure on the field. It was used as an observation platform by Union cavalry general John Buford during the opening phase of the three-day battle. It is said that Lee himself may have climbed the tower for a look-see later in the struggle after Seminary Ridge fell to the Confederates.

So despite the fact that the April weather was unseasonably cold, wet and blustery, our club trooped to the top and was treated to a spectacular view of the first day of the battle. It was, perhaps, as close to a time machine as you can get.

The day wasn't over. Another highlight was a two-hour afternoon tour of the battlefield — and specifically, by request, the Sickles-Meade controversy —by Licensed Battlefield Guide Charlie Fennell.

I've talked about Charlie before. He's an exceptional guide, as guides go, and there was no letdown this time around, either. He peppered us with tidbits of history, humor and cold, hard history. We came away, I think, more than satisfied.

I feel myself slowing down as I get older. The seven-hour trip from Lexington to Gettysburg can be taxing, at times, and I wonder how long I want to keep doing this.

Right now, at least, I'm still up for the next call for a road trip.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Opening Day and whatnot

My Sports Illustrated arrived Thursday, bringing with it its annual baseball preview.

So, like I've done for the past 46 years (that's how long I've been a subscriber — since my junior year in high school), I immediately turned to the scouting report for the Philadelphia Phillies — my favorite team.

I knew right off it wasn't going to be good.

I didn't expect it to be abysmal.

The Phillies are old and they haven't done much to improve themselves. They still have a decent pitching staff with the likes of Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and A.J. Burnett, but aging swatters like Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley more closely resemble tributes to Throwback Thursday than legitimate contenders who won the World Series in 2008.

In fact, SI ranked the Phillies No. 13 out of the 15 National League teams, better only than the Marlins and the Cubs. The Phils are expected to finish 29 games out of first place, meaning they'll be out of the pennant race sometime in late August. The reality is that they'll never be in the pennant race at all this year.

I know I'm in Braves' country, but SI has the Braves finishing in second place behind the Nationals, 12 games out.

Methinks it's going to be a long, hot summer for a lot of us.

The good news about all this bad news is that a slew of good baseball movies is on television right now. One of my all-time favorites is Bull Durham, which has been showing up regularly on one of my premium stations.

For all you lollygaggers, this is one of my favorite scenes from the flick:

This should be one of my favorite times of the year, come to think of it.

However, I've been looking at my NCAA brackets and, well, they're starting to look like scouting reports for the Phillies.

I filled out three brackets this year and picked Florida to win in two of them. But picking the winner isn't the key — picking the upsets along the way is what keeps brackets alive

I thought I was doing well early on when I picked Dayton over Ohio State in one bracket and Mercer over Duke in another, but I couldn't maintain that kind of momentum. So right now, heading into today's games, only Florida is in the Final Four. One of my finalists — Louisville — is gone.

Sigh. The only hope I have left to salvage my spring is The Masters. At least the azaleas never let me down.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Help Kickstart my friends

Most of my friends know that I'm borderline OCD for Underhill Rose, a trio of wonderfully talented women from Asheville who are gradually making a name in and around the Americana music genre.

Eleanor Underhill is an accomplished banjo player and songwriter; her college classmate, Molly Rose Reed, is a talented guitarist (and songwriter) with a voice as pure as a love poem; and upright bassist Salley Williamson brings a decidedly subtle depth and balance to the group.

Together, they combine for some uniquely "heartfelt country soul" (their own words) that is often highlighted by incredible three-part harmonies and musicianship. Music videos on YouTube don't do them the justice of seeing them in a live performance.

I tell potential fans that Underhill Rose brings melodies from the mountains and harmonies from heaven.

Why do I bring all of this up?

The group is in the midst of a fan-based Kickstarter campaign to produce, record and distribute their third album. Their last CD, "Something Real" (which was also funded by Kickstarter), was named to the top 100 of the Americana Music Association's year-end chart for 2013, so they've definitely got the chops for this kind of thing. They are clearly Something Real.

Their last campaign requested $15,000 and fans delivered with more than $18,000. This time around, the stakes are more ambitious — $25,000, which must be raised by April 27th or else nothing happens.

Watch this Kickstarter appeal from the girls themselves, and check out the various levels of contribution — here.

What you see in that video is Underhill Rose at its heart. If you sense their sincerity, believe it. If you feel their confidence, trust it. If you feel their art, embrace it. If you feel their joy, go with it. They are all three the real deal.

I have a number of friends who tell me how much they enjoy Underhill Rose's music, but now is the time to ante up. As I write this blog, the band has raised $3,150 with 32 days left in the campaign. That means they have to average about $680 a day in pledges the rest of the way to meet their goal.

Underhill Rose does not have the luxury of a record label to subsidize a new album. They drive from gig to weekend gig, using their own money for gas, food and lodging while bringing their music to our ears — and to our hearts. It's an incredible dedication to their craft for not much more than a pat on the back. The budget does not include recording new CDs.

Now, as fans, we have an opportunity to help them bring us more of the music we enjoy, to bring us the art that we feel enhances our own quality of life, even if just for a little bit. Kickstarter allows us, literally, to become part of their music.

Now is the time.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

HRO — A special place

There once was a time when you could go to High Rock Outfitters and buy a kayak, some outdoor gear, perhaps a T-shirt or two, and maybe get some friendly advice from the owners about where to use this stuff while indulging in a calm cup of coffee.

But the unlikely business on the southwest quadrant of the square in Uptown Lexington has quietly — and efficiently — transformed itself into a miniature artist colony since it first opened at its present location at the White Star building in 2010 (see here for an early history of HRO).

Instead of backpacks and kayaks, original art by Chip Holton now hangs on the walls. There is a performance stage dotted by microphones and bordered by sound monitors and overhead lighting.  A corrugated metal wall serves as a curiously eye-pleasing backdrop. A hearty bar serves up craft beers and wine while huge display windows peer out onto Main Street and the Old Davidson County Courthouse across the way.

Welcome to Lexington's most unique gathering place where on any given weekend you can go to listen to high quality live music. Other evenings might feature open mic nights with local performers, or vinyl parties spinning old rock 'n roll records. There is ambiance here like nowhere else.

"Originally, when we laid it out, we were going to do music with a bar upstairs," said owner Chris Phelps. "But because of expense, we just merged it into one thing. It's definitely been an evolution. It's evolved completely differently than what we anticipated."

Owner Chris Phelps likes what he sees at High Rock Outfitters.
 Music came to HRO almost from the start. Bob Crawford, David Childers and the Over Mountain Men performed in December 2010 and things have rolled from there, slowly but happily for Lexington mutating the DNA of the place. "It went over well," said Phelps. "We had 80 or 90 people here and it made the front page of the paper the next day.

"That's kind of when people said, 'Whoa, what the hell are they doing up there?'"

While the focus is clearly on the music these days (and nights), Phelps still wants to keep the outfitter part of the business alive, too.

"We're trying to get back to an equal balance," said Phelps, a graduate of North Davidson. "Somehow, we're working through that right now.

"This whole place is a result of putting together all the things we like to do," said Phelps. "But you had to travel to do things like kayaking, backpacking or drinking good beer and listening to good music. And I had a really good job (in motorsports manufacturing) that I couldn't leave to do those things.

"So I thought I'd bring it here, and if it worked, fine, and if it didn't, that was OK, too."

Fortunately, it's worked out while bringing something completely different to Lexington.

 "That was part of the decision to do it, too," said Phelps, contemplatively stroking his lush, outdoorsman-inspired beard. "We wanted to move to a culture that we enjoy — loud music, good beer, outdoor activities. But we lived here, so why not just try to bring it here? And that's where all this came from."
Perhaps one of the most satisfying aspects of all this is the response he hears from the artists themselves. Almost every performer who comes through here respects what Phelps has done. The stage was constructed in August 2012 to put the performers on a pedestal as part of the Songcraft series.

Even moreso, the artists love the acoustics. Brick walls, a relatively low tin ceiling, the corrugated backdrop. It all adds up.

"The acoustics were a happy accident," said Phelps. "It's just a good room. But I think it's also a psychological thing. If the room is comfortable, then it's enjoyable for the people and the performers. I think, just by default, that adds to the acoustics. Audio engineers will tell me that I'm full of it, but I think the comfort of a room adds to everything."

He may be right. Many acts, like Dark Water Rising, Wild Ponies and Underhill Rose, keep coming back. On one night, Wild Ponies may be singing at Nashville's Loveless Cafe, and a week later show up at HRO. Underhill Rose does a gig at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village, and a month later shows up at HRO. That says a lot.

Everybody who enjoys HRO seems to have found a comfort zone there. Not the least of which is Lexington itself.

Here's HRO's Facebook page:

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Mysterious air

I know what happened to the mysteriously missing Malaysian Flight 370.

Space aliens.

No, really. And my theory is not based on evidence, but rather on the lack of evidence, which apparently — and ironically — is the strongest evidence we have.

From what I understand, there is absolutely no trace of this 220-foot, 660 thousand pound aircraft. No debris fields. No oil slicks. No cell phone calls from any of the 239 passengers and crew. Nothing.

Soooo, it has to be space aliens.

I'm not a conspiracy theorist in any sense of those words, and when I first heard "space aliens" suggested several days ago as a possible answer to the mystery, I chuckled to myself, just as you are now.

But as the days of newscasts lumbered by, with more and more speculation (with each new tidbit seemingly cancelling out a previous tidbit) as to what might have happened (A politically daft pilot? A random meteor strike? A cargo of lithium batteries burning through the hull of the aircraft?), space aliens began to sound no less absurd an explanation as anything else I've heard.

Besides, a conspiracy doesn't explain the disappearance of the plane. A conspiracy, rather, would suggest that the government(s) involved already know where the plane is and simply aren't telling us as in some kind of Edward Snowden scenario.

As humans, we search for answers to things we don't know. It's no doubt a deep-seated genetic trait of ours. It's why we invented news services and it goes a long way to explain why this story is getting the coverage that it is, including all the speculation from "experts."

So think of the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" not as a science fiction epic but rather as a documentary. It'll help explain a lot.

In my theory, extra terrestrials come to earth to abduct human samples for study (or, in a more optimistic vein, to solicit humans as intergalactic voyagers). They arrive in space ships made invisible through Klingon-like cloaking devices. They traditionally abduct/solicit us in hot spots like Area 51, the Bermuda Triangle and Philadelphia.

And now, with USS Enterprise-like tractor beams, they can carry off entire airplanes without a trace and take them to the mothership.

Hmmm, not so crazy now after all, is it?