Carson Mack

I’ve just spent the last few hours back in Seattle, at a show that never happened at the Tractor Tavern. It’s a scene from what I hope will be the second novel in my Seattle series, the sequel to Emerald City. Come along and have a listen…

He had the old Martin guitar in one hand, limping, but no stick. A clean shirt, a newer pair of jeans and a shine on his cowboy boots. He’d combed his hair, but whatever he did, Carson would always look grizzled, as though he’d look life square in the face. He took one of the two chairs on the stage, plugged in his instrument and gazed out at us for a moment.

“So this is what people do on a Tuesday evening in Seattle.” He smiled and the ice was broken. Without another word he began to pick out chords and the rusty, ragged voice started on ‘Idaho Sweetheart.’

I could see a few people begin to smile as they recognized the song, dredging it up from long-ago memories. Stripped-back, unsweetened by strings and backing singers, it had real depth. It ached. He didn’t try anything fancy, just let it speak for itself and it worked. Carson might look like a hick but he was a professional musician. It was easy to forget that he’d been doing this for more years than most of the audience had been alive.

He followed it up with something newer and unfamiliar, daring the crowd to follow him. And they did. Then he started on “As The Heart Falls.” He write it, but the hit had been someone else’s. This eclipsed that version, coming from some well deep inside him that held his world of pain.

For the first half of the set he alternated new and old, throwing in covers of Hank Williams’s “Mansion On The Hill” and Michael Nesmith’s “Propinquity.” After that he turned to the side and tilted his head, smiling as Jim Clark shuffled onto the stage. The poor guy looked petrified, clutching the Gibson close to his chest, eyes darting around the room.

“This is my grandson, Jim Clark,” Carson said, letting that country twang flow like warm honey. “He’s kind of bashful. I know he’s kin and all, but I reckon he’s got something. Want to show them?”

Jim Clark sang his heart out. He was better than when I’d heard him down by the water, but he was nowhere near Carson’s league. He knew, everyone in the room knew it, but he tried anyway, and we all applauded him. The silence built again. Carson licked his lips.

“I never knew Jim’s daddy. Hell, I’ve only known my grandson for a few weeks. But my son died four years ago, right downtown. Someone shot him and they never found out who did it.” He paused. Everyone was focused on him, rapt. “I don’t have much I can give him, ‘cept some justice if I ever find out who did it. But this is about him.”

He started the song he’d played me. Jim added a little guitar, but this was all Carson. His voice was quiet, almost meditative, ragged and torn over the fingerpicking lines. It was a memorial, a lament. So beautiful it hurt with its rawness. When he finished and the final note died to silence, there was a pause before the place erupted, the sound of clapping so loud it was painful. Carson looked at Jim in surprise, then sighed and embraced his grandson.

There was nothing he could do to top that, but the rest of the set was no letdown. He tore through “Call You Sunshine” and “Maybe Darlin’,” turning them into upbeat pleasures. A couple of songs tore at the fabric of broken hearts, ripping them wider. Toward the end he was simply having fun, running through some Buck Owens, Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Tubb, telling little tales of Nashville and life on the road way back when.

Then, with a goodnight and thank you, it was over. He bowed and vanished backstage. But no one was going to let him leave that easily. We were all standing, demanding more. Finally he came back, almost speechless.

“I…I don’t know what to say. You’re very kind.” He sat for a moment, hands poised over the guitar. We all knew there was only one thing that would satisfy, and he began to play the song he’d written for his son once more.

It seemed as if everyone held their breath for three minutes. Like time stood still, suspended by his words. When he finished there were no more farewells. Just a quick shake of his head and he was gone. The house lights came up and people looked around as if they were surprised to find themselves here.

Leaned against the edge of the stage, finishing my beer and smoking a cigarette. I knew exactly what I’d witnessed. It had been one of those perfect evenings. Something to remain in the memory and light it up for years to come. Something every artist wants but rarely achieves.

I was still there fifteen minutes later. The mics had been put away, the stands folded and the cords all wound. The chairs had been taken away and Dan the owner was sweeping the butts and debris off the floor. I could hear voices backstage.

It was ten thirty. Past my bedtime but I was still flying on the performance. I’d wanted him to do well but I’d never imagined anything as wonderful as this. Finally he came out, leaning on his cane, bought a bottle of Pabst at the bar then stood beside me. He looked stunned and drained.

“You did it,” I told him. “That was pretty amazing, Carson.”

He fished in his shirt pocket, took out a pack of Marlboros and lit one.

“Yeah,” he said after a long time. But the way he spoke the word held it all. “You know, I waited all my life for a night like this. I just had some guy come up to me and says he wants to write about me for a magazine called No Depression. You figure that?”

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