Quilt Box exterior

A shotgun house in Louisville, KY, doubles as pianist’s studio and musicians’ launchpad
Photo: Allen Bush

It was standing room only last Saturday night at the Quilt Box for the live recording of Tin Can Buddha’s second album. Outside, it was cold. The sparse, soon-to-be-winter landscape had gone into hiding until spring. A hawthorn with mottled silver-gray bark and red berries stood out front. A few lingering leaves held tight on a rambling rose at the front porch. But no one came for blossoms. They came for a different sort of flowering, the kind you can hear — and to rub shoulders with the smiling ghosts of Pee Wee King and Ken Kesey.

Marianne Welch

The Quilt Box is no ordinary music venue. Brainchild of musician Marianne Welch, it’s a shotgun house located in Louisville’s Crescent Hill neighborhood, decorated with hanging quilts that double for sound buffering. Welch uses the house as a teaching studio and occasionally holds small concert get-togethers here. Gifted pianist Harry Pickens of Brunswick, Georgia, is one of Marianne’s students. (He once said he’d learned more from her in 20 minutes than he had from anyone in the last twenty years.) Pickens has played the Quilt Box. He has also played the world with jazz musicians including Dizzy Gillespie and Milt Jackson. Last month he accompanied Louisville’s Voces Novae for a memorable concert interpretation of Wendell Berry’s poetry.

Marianne Welch: pianist, teacher, impresario
Photo: Allen Bush

Tonight featured a bunch of mainly rural-born musicians, from small towns in Kentucky and elsewhere. The Quilt Box was packed to the gills. About forty invited guests may have broken the attendance record.

Rodney Hatfield, artist, blues harmonica player and vocalist, welcomed the crowd. He’d had an art show opening at the Kentucky Center for the Arts the night before and asked the band to play.

Hatfield grew up on Blackberry Creek, in Pike County, in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, and has made a living as an artist under the name “Art Snake.” (When childhood friends would ask about his art, not quite sure what to make of it, Rodney explained that he was painting “for art’s sake” — soon translated to “Art Snake.”) Hatfield is the rare musician who had a paying day-job as an artist that supported his music. He and the Hatfield Clan, and later the Metropolitan Blues All Stars, toured the south until the wear and tear became too much.

He approaches music and art with unusual spontaneity. Hatfield once told a story of a young aspiring blues harmonica player who asked the legendary harp player Jerry Portnoy what it takes to be a great player. Portnoy took a drag on a cigarette and said, “You have to dress like a pimp.” This night, Hatfield was dressed casually, as he always is, in a dress shirt (shirt tail hung-out), cargo pants and running shoes – a sartorial style not in vogue with pimps.

Rodney Hatfield painting

“Tin Can Buddha”
Painting by Rodney Hatfield, “Art Snake

What Hatfield won’t say is that he has worked long and hard. He is self-taught and as disciplined as he is unrestrained. He visited Lexington’s defunct Hurricane Club in the late 1960s, tried his best to stay unnoticed, blowing on his harp, crouched behind a chair. The band heard the young college student accompanying them from the way back and asked him to come-up for a song. The crowd loved him. And when he returned to his seat, a club patron paid eternal praise, “Boy, you made my shoestrings come-off. “He didn’t need any more encouragement. He’s been playing since, but now only when the notion strikes.

Pianist Lee Carroll thanked Marianne for hosting the evening and said he’d never enjoyed a venue as wonderful in twenty six years as a professional. He played with Hatfield in the ’70s, in the early days of Lexington’s Hatfield Clan. Carroll later studied at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and then toured with Exile and the Judds before burning-out, giving-up the piano. He settled in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and opened some Papa John’s pizza stores. Years went by before Carroll met steelworker and guitarist Mitch (Big Mitch) Ivanoff who told him he was wasting a gift. Big Mitch has a deep blues voice better than any white man deserves. Before long, Carroll was on the phone and told Hatfield he wanted him to join them.

They played a few times and decided it was fun. Carroll was inducted into the Cave City (Kentucky) Hall of Fame in December 2007 and invited Tin Can Buddha to come and play. (Hatfield had stumbled upon the band’s name at artist Sam Scott’s Santa Fe studio. Hatfield noticed something in the garden resembling a Japanese tea house and asked Scott if he were a Buddhist. “Yeah,” Scott said, “a tin can Buddhist.” The band has been “slouching toward Nirvana” since.) For the Quilt Box show, Carroll, Hatfield and Ivanoff invited a couple of Nashville ringers – and old friends. Guitarist Mark Jones studied at Berklee with Carroll, and afterwards they formed the jazz band Fly by Night. Later they toured together with the country band, Exile. But Jones quit playing professionally and got into music management. The hot shot bassist, Chip Graham, a friend of Jones since their boyhood days in Hopkinsville, still does some Nashville session work.

Tin Can Buddha

Tin Can Buddha & Friends: “Big Mitch” Ivanoff, Mark Jones, Chip Graham, and Rodney Hatfield, play and record at the Quilt Box, December 2008
Photo: Allen Bush
Tin Can Buddha doesn’t rehearse and sees little point in a set list. Instead, Carroll, Hatfield or Ivanoff would cast familiar glances, play a few chords, nod to one another and take-off. These musicians have been around the block; at the Quilt Box they were transcendent, playing to a tiny crowd, in a groove thick with smiles half as wide as the shotgun house itself. A Nat King Cole inspired “Nature Boy” and Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” were part of the mix. Pee Wee King’s “Tennessee Waltz” was magnificent. But the Irish folksong, “A Parting Glass” said it all: “So fill me to the parting glass. Goodnight and joy be with you all.”

Hatfield had invited writer Ed McClanahan, the former Merry Prankster, and a native of Maysville, that night, too. Hatfield thought Ed would make a good addition for the Quilt Box and Marianne thought it sounded like a grand idea. McClanahan read a funny story from his new book, O The Clear Moment, about childhood friend Shoobie.

McClanahan and tin Can Buddha

Writer Ed McClanahan (right) joined Tin Can Buddha for an intimate performance in Louisville
Photo: Allen Bush

McClanahan also sang the last song, “Jack the Bear,” a song he wrote in 1986 with his nine-year-old daughter, Annie. They composed it in honor of fellow Prankster Ken Kesey, who was coming to Port Royal, Kentucky, for a visit.

Part of it went like this:

Jack the Bear is in cahoots
With big galoots in pinstriped suits.
Jack the Bear ain’t got no roots
Except the ones inside his boots.

The audience joined joyously on the refrain”¦
Hey, hey Jack the Bear
Hey, hey Jack the Bear
Hey, hey Jack the Bear
Hey, hey Jack the Bear

Kesey liked the song ““ simple as it was — and the Quilt Box loved it.

“Something like this might only happen once in your life,” Ry Cooder observed, having just accompanied some of the greatest Cuban musicians of all time as The Buena Vista Social Club.

“Once in your life….” We had been there for early-bird gig at the Quilt Box, till the music ended around 10:00. A handful of young folks were probably wondering where to go next; the large downtown clubs were starting to jump. The old folks were ready to go to bed.

Writer and horticulturist Allen Bush lives in Louisville.

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