The night I first met James Robinson, I had been reading about nostalgia all day. As an aspiring music hack, I had recently embarked on the quest to understand why people listen to the music they do. And having observed the recent, meteoric rise of artists like Leon Bridges, Greta Van Fleet and Anderson Paak – I could not help but suspect that nostalgia was an integral part of the formula. So I decided to head to Smithville for a weekend to sober up, collect my thoughts and write about the subject at hand - nostalgia.
Yes - it seemed like a great idea. Leave the big city action of Austin and head to a small town - whose Main Street is littered with antique and thrift stores and population - to write about nostalgia. But the second night - as I watched the truckers charge away from the purple sunset towards some unknown capitalist destination - I knew another precious day had come and gone and I had yet to write a word. True – the room was littered with academic papers and I had learned a considerable amount - but nine months into a creative crisis, I knew the words would not come easily. I would have to go and find them. So in need of wine and inspiration - I set out to find nostalgia in the grey-haired ghost town.
For a Saturday night – the town of 3500 people – was remarkably desolate. It looked the set of a Western movie during the actors’ lunch break. You can imagine my surprise then, when I opened my car door and was greeted by an angelic falsetto. Lasting just fractions of a second, I felt as if I had stumbled upon God talking – and only caught the last syllable of the Ten Commandments. It was beautiful – nonetheless. But probably a voice in my head.
I walked over to the bar and when I opened the door to the Front Room – the voice hit me right in the chest. I grabbed a high table cattycorner to trio and scanned the room – it was an older crowd – and I was likely the only youth. The singer had acknowledged my presence with a head nod – as we would soon find out, due a case of mistaken identity.
Before the first glass of wine could make it from the bottle to my hands – the band had started and eased into a cover of “In A Sentimental Mood” – with guitar taking the place of Duke Ellington’s piano and the vocals filling in for Coltrane’s sax. It was raw and powerful – the way only jazz can be – and intimate and emotional – the way only the human voice can be. After cruising through a few more songs – a mix of covers and originals – James signaled to the bar to dim the lights and soon I found myself sitting next to the only lamp – an old, repurposed Kahlua bottle – slowly shifting my attention from my academic papers to the small town America playing out in front of me.
The rest of the night played out like jazz - a mix of known and unknown variables - with a strong emphasis on the latter. Midway through the second set, the vastly skilled bassist walked out - claiming that his brother had died of a drug overdose that same day and he couldn't play the sad songs. I stepped out and joined him for a smoke. In the discussion that ensued, the topics varied from "peace and love" to "vigilante justice" - we discussed the pendulum of society - or the lack thereof - and of the dire need for good to out-man-power evil.