I’ll admit that my first measure of the place was unfavorable. Coming from a land where building costs can top $1000 a square foot, the Zebra Ranch seemed to my eyes a mistake of sorts – a tar-paper and tin-roof sugar shack wrapped in chain link and topped by razor wire – not promising as a refuge for creativity, to say the least. The second story was set up on mortar blocks, and it was …. shit, was it really a single wide? Yes, I do believe it was.
But that isn’t accounting for the setting. As I described in my last Memphis post, just about everything resting on that North Mississippi farmland felt as it belonged there – somehow it made sense that this building – as improbable as it looked – would be there as well. Kudzu, wasps, and grasshoppers multiplied in the glory of a rusting sun. Why not this impossible building?
The chain link gate was open and presented Dallas and I with a choice – to the left of the studio, the path was clear but uncertain, one couldn’t see around the corner. To the right a boardwalk of sorts promised continuance, but the headway was clogged with wisteria vines. I chose left, and I chose wrong – a dead end. But as we came closer to the building we could hear music; honest, familiar, unpretentious music, and we knew at least we were in the right place.
Doubling back to the wisteria-laden boardwalk we came to a door, then a brief hallway heavy with Southern humidity and a stronger pulse from the music inside. Now a second door. Through that door we found friends ….
The music dominated the space, so much so that words were unnecessary. Martin leapt up and grinned his salutations, we were in a common room, dominated by a soundboard to the right, a central living room of sorts in the middle, a steep set of stairs leading up to an unknown loft above. Past Martin to the left, the pounding of drums – where Cody was playing; this was no typical studio – Cody had a drum room!
Leading off the back of the commons was a hallway, and to the right of it lay darkness (I later learned that led to Jim’s keyboard room), and to the left was Luther’s guitar room, but as the music gathered, both doors were closed and the family focused on the jam.
In the center of the commons, to the right, the sound board man nodded in time. On a couch to my left, Allenby, the band manager, focused on the progression, but he looked up to smile and hail me. The music was working toward something, the product of a conversation Dallas and I had just missed, but we were learning as we listened. And everyone, including the musicians, was anticipating its arrival.
This was not the time to raise one’s voice. It was time to drop in, to listen, to join. And as Martin passed me a social, I realized that beyond the time I spent with my children, or the moments I steal with my wife, I had found a place where the incessant question we all seem driven by was answered. What else might I be doing? Nothing else but this, my friend, nothing else at all.
For the next 72 hours, I was – happily – on Bonnaroo time.