1970. I was a somewhat naïve young would-be reporter taking journalism classes at a Tennessee college near Nashville. Word was that Bob Dylan would be recording the next day at one of its many studios so, hopeful of an interview with the great man—what was I thinking?—I hopped a bus then found a crappy motel room in that city of dreams. One long, scorching day later, after trudging around a dozen studios with predictable results, I ended up in front of one of those dark, smoky little bars that seemed fixtures in American cities back in the day. With just a couple of dollars in my jeans and not much of a head for alcohol I hesitated, thought, What the fuck, and went in.
Other than a bored-looking bartender, there was no one there except a tall figure dressed in black, sitting on a bar stool his whiskey in front of him; on the floor next to him a guitar case. “What’ll you have?” asked the barkeep. I hesitated just long enough for the man on the barstool to say “Give the kid a whiskey, Swearagin, my dime.” I thanked him and, pulled up a stool. He introduced himself as Buddy, and asked where I came from. When I told him Chicago he said he had “kinfolk” there, which triggered a sort of garbled account of his life. That first drink he bought me, then the second and the third have affected my memory, but I recall him describing in some detail his hardscrabble childhood in—I think—Alabama, his early love and mastery of music, and his leaving home at sixteen—or seventeen maybe—riding the rails and hitching lifts down to West Texas, playing in bars and honky-tonks to get just enough for a meal and a bed. Then came California and a lengthy spell in Alaska, all the time, he told me, writing, writing: poetry, lyrics, musical scores. What, I asked him, was he doing here, in Nashville. My memory’s vague—I was starting my fourth whiskey by then—but he definitely mentioned “passing through on my way home,” a “session” he’d just been in that day, and that he was meeting a “couple of guys” later for supper. “Just killin’ time ‘til then, son,” he said, as the barroom door swung open and a clutch of hip-looking people spilled in. “Buddy, Buddy, Buddy…” they crowed, and clustered around him. “Sing for us, Buddy” a tall blonde woman said, which the others echoed. “Hell, no, I’m just about to leave” he said with a grin, finishing his whiskey. “One song, just one song,” the blonde wheedled.
At this point, things grew really hazy. Four large whiskies on an empty stomach will do that; what happened next is a blur. I recall Buddy getting his guitar out, the crowd quieting down and that, standing right there by the bar, he played, and he sang—more than one song, I remember that. Those melodies, those lyrics, Christ! I wish I could bring them into focus in my mind now! His themes were pure country: love, betrayal, heartache, beauty, loneliness and death, and the like, but somehow he wove them into something ethereal, something transcendent, which seemed to hit every heart fiber, ease down every distant corridor of the soul. And what flowed from his guitar, those silver chords, appeared—as I think of them now—like a waterfall sparkling with starlight on a deep summer night. I was transported, entranced. Then, seemingly before I could register it, he was gone. Out of the door. Off for his damned “supper,” and that was that. After he left, the crowd ignored me as I stumbled out of the bar to find the motel.
In the folorn, hungover morning, groggily returning my key, I heard the motel clerk talking on the phone, “Yeah,” he was saying, “they was here recording, Dylan and Cash, then I saw them in a restaurant last night with another buddy of theirs, can you believe it? Mebbe it was Leonard Cohen, he’s livin’ here, just out of town. Yeah, they was all dressed in black.” I wondered then, and I wonder now, about the “session” Buddy had mentioned. And I wonder: perhaps it wasn’t Cohen who was eating his supper with Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash in that Nashville restaurant on a magical night, half a century ago.