Rain water spewed from the tires of the eighteen wheelers. Flashing orange signs alternated between “Hands on Wheel” and “Eyes on Road.” The southbound lanes of I-65 slowed to a crawl, the result of a mini-van hydroplaning before landing on its side. Perhaps apropos for Good Friday.
Tammy and I were on our way to Nashville to visit our goddaughter Sierra. Well, that was the original plan. Two days earlier, in the midst of a chain of text messages about where to go for Easter dinner, Sierra disclosed that she had a gig in Kentucky on Saturday night. Tammy inquired as to where in Kentucky Sierra might be performing, “Maiden Alley,” she replied.
“Will check when I get home.”
Tammy took the initiative, Googling “Maiden Alley Paducah.” She found the Maiden Alley Cinema, a restored theatre located in downtown Paducah. The theatre’s web page listed upcoming shows, but there was no mention of Sierra. Tammy sent Sierra a screenshot of the theatre’s webpage, “I’ll have to call them,” she replied.
Twenty minutes later the webpage was updated with Sierra’s picture superimposed on the flier for Dylan LeBlanc. The 1960s fur cap caught the eye, and the pheasant feather guided the focus to Sierra’s green eyes: “Born from the dark, rich soil of West Virginia, raised in the clear, hop-scented country air, Sierra Ferrell cut her teeth on the rail lines, truck stops, street corners, and dingy, dimly lit listening rooms all across the land, belting out her old-time melodies.”
As a lawyer, I admired how the promoter spun Sierra’s story. The days when I relied on Facebook and Instagram to make sure Sierra was alive and well hadn’t seemed so romantic. I had, however, enjoyed standing along crowded sidewalks listening to Sierra sing, bursting with pride when overhearing strangers say, “You need to hear this girl — she’s got an incredible voice.” Or camping in my Jeep and standing in mud to watch her perform between thunderstorms at an outdoor music festival.
We reached Nashville shortly after eight o’clock on Friday evening and followed the GPS to the house on the north end where Sierra lets a room. When we saw her cargo van parked out front, we knew we’d found the right house. Sierra introduced us to Eric, whom she characterized as both friend and “merch” guy. Dressed in a black zip-up hoodie and a pork pie hat, Eric looked to be thirty years old at most. We invited him to join us for dinner and asked Sierra to pick a restaurant.
Five minutes later we pulled into the gravel parking lot at Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge. Having visited myriad dive bars to watch Sierra perform, the cursive neon lights advertising Miller Lite, Coors, and Budweiser didn’t bother me as much as they did Tammy. I was just glad to have a choice of food — tacos and Italian beef sandwiches. The sandwich turned out to be loaded with green peppers, so Tammy graciously offered me her taco. I sipped a Yazoo Pale Ale and interrogated Eric while Sierra danced and played pool.
On Saturday we met Sierra for lunch and then stopped at the house to pick up what she needed for the Maiden Alley show. She came out carrying her Gretcsh guitar — a Christmas present from years ago — followed by Eric carrying a cardboard box. Turns out he was managing the “merch” table. “Good thing I got the double-room,” Tammy whispered.
The Maiden Alley Cinema serves as a venue for both live music and a mix of current and classic movies. The stage sits in front of the movie screen, and upholstered seats rise at an angle with steps in the middle. Sierra came on stage just after eight o’clock. She’d swapped out the fur cap with a miniature hat attached to one side with half a dozen bobby pins. She opened with “Little Bird.” The melody showcases her voice and the lyrics capture Sierra — “I’m right where I wanna be.” She followed with “I’ll Come off the Mountain,” which she composed while riding across the country on a freight train. A video of a vast desert with mountains in the background appeared on the movie screen, in sync as she sang, “heather on the hillside, moss is in the tree.”
Within minutes I realized the theatre’s shtick is to show a classic film as a backdrop. The film selected for Sierra was a 1950s B-movie about invading martians. Sierra was oblivious until she was on her next to last song. She noticed the audience looking over her shoulder, and she turned around. As she reached the refrain — “her beautiful face” — the character’s face developed a rash as if taken over by a swarm of bees.
“That’s cool,” Sierra said.
Dylan LeBlanc rated Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
It was almost midnight by the time we left the theatre. Walking toward the car Sierra spotted a train locomotive sitting by the entrance to the flood wall. She went back to the theatre and returned with a photographer in tow. Wearing high-heeled boots and a full-length dress she climbed aboard for pictures. All I could do was smile at the irony. Sierra spent three summers hopping trains before moving up to the cargo van, traveling across the country as a street performer.
“The worst thing that can happen to a busker is to get too good at it,” her record producer once told me; “They don’t want to come inside and entertain people for ninety minutes rather than just three minutes on the street.” Sierra had recorded her first album, but eschewed gigs and touring, favoring busking on the streets of Nashville, New Orleans, and Seattle, later starting to play at outdoor festivals.
Two years ago, her producer arranged for a professional videographer to shoot a music video. “Rosemary” picked up 600,000 views and garnered over 7,000 “likes.” The comments run from “wow she has such a beautiful unique voice” to “I pretty much want to marry this woman.” When “Jeremiah” appeared on YouTube the following year, Eric confided in me that one of the private messages on Sierra’s Bandcamp account said, “When you look into the camera, I kiss the screen.”
One of the videos caught the eye of C.W. Stoneking, a singer-songwriter and guitarist from Australia.
For her thirtieth birthday Sierra asked for luggage, “The kind that fits down under.” She repeated this phrase four times before Tammy and I realized she meant checked baggage — under the plane, not under the seat. A few weeks later she checked her bag on its maiden voyage, down under for the “Out on the Weekend” music festival in Williamstown, Australia.
Sierra spent several days in Australia, performing at the festival, on the ferry, and for a local radio station. I stayed up on Friday night to listen to the Saturday morning radio interview, laughing at the sound of Sierra’s Appalachian twang and the DJ’s Aussie accent. Following the festival, she flew directly to Chicago for a Midwest tour. The fliers listed Sierra as opening for C.W. Stoneking, but I told my colleagues that Tammy and I were going to Chicago to watch Stoneking close for Sierra.
Martyr’s is located north of downtown Chicago on Lincoln Avenue. Before going in, I took pictures of Sierra’s name on the marquee and the poster in the window. Inside, the black walls brought back memories of accompanying Sierra to Hot Topic when she was sixteen. The main seating consisted of four rows of tables extending from the stage, sixteen seats on each side. Tammy and I found a table off to the side, midway back from the stage. Just before eight o’clock, a stage hand came out and set out a guitar and a bottle of water. Sierra followed and set out a bottle of wine. Wearing a pink dress with a floral pattern and black boots that almost touched her knees, she picked up the guitar, attached the strap, and adjusted her black beret. Her curls flowed from under the beret down below her shoulders.
Introducing herself simply as “Sierra,” she opened with “Little Bird” and then played a mix of her originals and country favorites. “This one’s called ‘Rosemary,’” she said, smiling sheepishly, “It’s a murder ballad, so that’s pretty sweet.”
Immediately after she finished her set, Sierra headed over to the “merch” table to autograph CDs. Both “Pretty Magic Spell” and “Washington By the Sea” were on sale for “just $10.” Sales appeared brisk, with as many as twenty people in line at one point. When C.W. took the stage, Sierra brought her bottle of wine over to our table and joined us, “You can have some wine, if you want,” she offered; “I don’t think I can drink the whole bottle.” I poured a plastic cup of Cabernet Sauvignon.
On Thursday Tammy and I ventured to the back streets of south Milwaukee. The Cactus Club sat on a corner, the door sitting at a diagonal between the two streets. The venue consisted of a bar lit by neon advertising Old Milwaukee and Grain Belt beer and a back room adorned with Christmas lights. Before the show, everyone sat around the bar, which formed a semi-circle around the room, watching the Brewers game. When the game ended, the curtains to the back room were opened and the crowd migrated over. Seeing that there were no seats, we leaned against the concrete wall across from the stage. The room was full by the time Sierra appeared. Wearing a short black skirt and a white bow in her hair, she could have passed for Minnie Mouse. Until she sang lyrics like “I wanna hit you in the head with a frying pan” and “when there’s a witch that’s on your back/makes it feel like the night will attack.”
Friday night’s show took us to Lee’s Liquor Lounge in Minneapolis. I invited my Minnesota cousins. Al told Tammy he’d have his wife bring hand sanitizer. Although I went to law school in the Twin Cities, I’d never made it to Lee’s. We found the lounge to be more spacious and well-lit than the other venues. An oval bar running twenty feet in length dominated the main room, which was decorated with neon signs advertising Hamm’s beer — “born in the land of sky-blue waters.” An elevated platform was located across from the bar, and most of the crowd remained at the bar when Sierra came on. Just as she had for the past two nights, Sierra commanded the stage. This time, however, she introduced herself as “Sierra Furrell,” adopting the pronunciation used by the Aussie disc jockey.
After the show, we met Sierra in the gravel parking lot across the street and picked up the back pack that she had taken to Australia but no longer needed. We bid farewell to the tour, heading back east while Sierra and C.W. left for the Triple Crown Whiskey Bar and Raccoon Motel in Davenport, Iowa.
Following the Midwest tour, Sierra joined C.W. for shows in Greece and Italy. Tammy called AT&T to activate international calling and I prepared invoices — in Euros — for her shows. Her Facebook feed featured a mix of posts written in Greek and Latin promoting her performances and pictures of Sierra standing outside the Coliseum and the Gardens of Bomarzo. One day I walked out of my office and told my secretary, “I went to college, I went to law school, all the things I was supposed to. And here I am on a conference call. Sierra hopped a train and went busking, and she’s touring Greece and Italy!”
Sierra now sends me artist contracts to review, and I keep her bank account and routing number on my iPhone, “So I can send to my bookers,” she tells me. The other day her tour schedule appeared on her website. She’s booked across the mid-Atlantic, followed by a return to Maiden Alley.
Thanksgiving in Paducah?
Ky Owen a lawyer with Goodwin & Goodwin, LLP, in Charleston, West Virginia. His adventures of parenting are detailed in “None Call Me Dad.” Other publications are, “This Liberal Cab Driver Is Also West Virginia’s Unlikeliest Politician,” “My Girl’s a Busker,” “The Odyssey of Kitty Kaity,” and ‘Standing Knee Deep in Yesterday’s Rain’ (Ravens Perch, November, 2018).