Traveling blues on tour: ‘Be the road,’ says Charles Baty
The Charles Baty Traveling Blues Wisdom collection. HI Travel Tales ran regular travel essays from our friend Charles Baty during his Golden State-Lone Star Revue tours in 2016. They were always a treat for us to read — his writing was as full of life as his music. Sadly, Charles passed away at the age of 66 on March 6, 2020. We will deeply miss seeing him at local gigs, but feel so grateful for the time we were able to share with him. We hope you enjoy his writing and observations of life on the road as much as we do.
Traveling blues guitarist Charles Baty (“Little Charlie and the Nightcats”) and his fellow musicians with the Golden State-Lone Star Revue are taking the blues on tour again – just finishing a Northern California and then heading to the Northwest and British Columbia. This round, he and band members Mark Hummel, R.W. Grigsby, Wes Starr and Anson Funderburgh will be watching the weather turn chillier too.
Aug. 31, 2016. Bluesdays at Squaw Valley has been going on for several years in the summer months. Bluesdays is a free all-ages concert and dance series in the Village at Squaw Valley most Tuesdays during the summer, and a crowd of 1,000 people can be expected. It’s always a walking down memory lane type of gig to me, because there are so many people that I have met over the years who come to this one annual gig that it feels like a bit of a reunion or a homecoming.
I never lived near Squaw Valley, but Little Charlie and the Nightcats played in Reno, South Lake Tahoe, Truckee, and places all around the area for over 30 years and along the way we made many converts and friends (Ed. Note: not right near Squaw but not all too far!). A lot of my high school friends live in the area, including a friend that I used to walk to school with all of the way back to the 5th grade. The people that live in the mountains tend to look very healthy, have the sun burnt into their faces, and most have a smile to boot. The two and a half hours zipped by, and most of the crowd stayed to the bitter end. Squaw Valley is a beautiful place, summer or winter, and it is certainly quite a treat to play music while looking up into the beautiful mountains and into the familiar faces smiling up at you from the crowd.
Sept. 3, 2016. Gig Number 3 on this short Northern California blues on tour had us in Sonora, Calif., at an Indian casino called Black Oak. Today’s drive offered many alternate routes and I decided to take a scenic option — fewer miles but more small towns with slower speed limits, windier roads with better views, and hopefully less chance of (Labor Day) holiday gridlock on the big highways. I dashed down farm roads after heading south from Sacramento on Highway 99. I took Peltier Road and saw the beauty of what looked similar to Nebraskan farmland. I turned onto Highway 12 East and saw scores of antique shops. I finally hit Highway 49 South at San Andreas and saw rows of businesses decorated with flags and bunting, with gorgeous flowers in hanging baskets soaking up the sun. Tourists meandering down the sleepy Gold Country streets. Drove through Calaveras County and towns like Angel’s Camp and noticed a placard promising Mark Twain’s cabin less than a mile away. I am somewhat of a cabin-ophile, having seen Thoreau’s cabin and Ted Kazinsky’s cabin, but today I had to pass. (Ed. note: Worth a stop next time, Charlie!)
The scenery of the California foothills is simple yet beautiful — dry grass and oak trees and occasional lakes or rivers. A huge music festival (the Strawberry Festival) was going on only a mile or so from our casino. We geared up and played our blues for the casino crowd, once again having to breathe second hand cigarette smoke (although thankfully it was heavily filtered). We noticed hundreds of people who were too engaged in their gambling to be bothered by music. But there was a small yet dedicated group of people who preferred to listen, dance and smile than lose their money. For that select group of people, we played our hearts out.
With this blues on tour gig over early, Anson and I headed over to Taco Bell for a late night snack. While waiting in line, we watched old Anson videos on Anson’s phone and talked about the Nightcat Taco Bell commercials and Anson being in the movie China Moon. We both had come a long way to get to this less traveled road. And we both have enjoyed the scenery. And both of us are part of the scenery and the heritage. As are all of the Golden State – Lone Star Revue. That’s what happens when you take the less traveled road. You become the road.
Sept. 4, 2016. Today was a real ordeal. I did not have a hotel or a motel (for whatever reason) and had the choice of driving 130 miles home and then driving 110 more miles to the next gig (San Jose) or trying to kill time and drive the 130 miles from Sonora to San Jose. I opted for the second choice and hoped to be able to find enough activities to keep me busy and alert enough to make the 2-hour plus drive home after the somewhat late gig. I started the day by checking out rustic downtown Sonora. I was in dire need of good coffee but the only coffee place that I initially found was closed on Saturdays…???…the busiest day of the week? Seemed strange. I parked and walked around the old town area and saw many interesting bars and antique stores. I saw this incredible candy store with a beautiful copper door and buildings with 100+ year old brick facades. On the way out of town I noticed another coffee shop that appeared to be open. I parked and decided not to bring my phone/camera — big mistake. Every time that I leave my camera, I regret it. (Ed. Note: Always pack the camera!)
I walked a half block and noticed a couple crossing the street, each carrying half of a partially dismembered mannequin — the man had the bottom half with legs, and the woman had the armless torso and the two of them were involved in a bit of frivolity. Then I walked into Sonora Joe’s coffee shop and couldn’t believe my eyes. There were at least 8 string instruments in stands spread around the coffee shop — guitars, a bass, maybe a mandolin — and decent instruments, too. There was a Washburn guitar that looked pretty hip. I asked the barista if the instruments belonged to a band and she replied that no, anyone who felt like it could use them. They did have occasional jam sessions and bands performing there, but often customers just pulled out a guitar and started playing. Pretty cool!
I headed out of a town fueled by an awfully good latte and noticed a plume of smoke in the distance. As I continued down Highway 108 towards Manteca, the plume got darker and closer. Suddenly I turned a corner and there was an active fire in the highway median, flames leaping into my side of the road and with no firefighters on site. I noticed a couple of Highway Patrol officers who appeared to be nervously assessing the situation and suddenly I felt a huge heat wave pierce the air-conditioned interior of my vehicle. It felt like I had been suddenly thrust into a broiler in an oven. Twenty minutes or so later (and 20 miles further west), I started to see the battalion of firefighters heading towards the fire that had undoubtedly grown by then. That’s all we need…one more fire in California.
I dropped into a taqueria in Manteca, Calif., and met my sister and we killed some more time noshing and yapping. Had a late breakfast and caught up in a busy place that was too busy to bus tables. Taqueria La Estrella is a great spot to grab a bite if you’re in the area, but expect to wait — there is always a huge line. I headed towards San Jose and then I got into the real meat of passing time without a hotel — I drove around looking for a place that seemed safe and dozed off a bit and caught a little nap without being robbed. We played at the Poor House Bistro in San Jose for blues on tour in their special indoor club, had a decent turnout, and Kid Andersen showed up and played on a couple of tunes. Half of the horn section from Yoshi’s showed up. Eventually we finished, and then I had the unpleasant task of driving home totally exhausted from this latest blues on tour. You learn tricks for driving while exhausted — don’t listen to music, don’t think about pleasant thoughts, just concentrate on short-term goals, and traverse your distance in a series of small segments. I made it home, and I’m alive. Why I am writing this now? Because driving while tired puts you into a weird wired state of trying to stay awake but desperately craving sleep. Now, story done, I’m ready for bed. Good night.
The Charles Baty Traveling Blues Wisdom collection
- April 12: My Traveling Blues: A life on the road
- April 19: My Traveling Blues: Diner tour and driving tips
- April 28: My Traveling Blues: Dirty blues and Italian ice
- June 24: Red Eye to hot blues: Off to Mishawaka and the Midwest
- June 29: Singing the blues: Charles Baty Lone Star Revue tour winds down
- July 5: No polka for Charles Baty and the traveling blues band
- August 10: ‘You don’t go to Tucson to eat pizza’ – Charles Baty blues wisdom
- September 5: Traveling blues on tour: ‘Be the road,’ says Charles Baty
- November 24: Feeling the blues: Thanksgiving tour and Charles Baty’s missing home
Don’t miss Little Charlie’s CD, “Little Charlie and the Organ Grinder Swing: Skronky Tonk”