I don’t have a rider. All I ever ask for is water and some fruit or nuts or whatever. The whole concept of demanding something in a green room still feels weird to me after all these years of performing. Whatever’s there is there. Whatever isn’t, isn’t. I take what I need …then I go do my freaking job. And I don’t complain about anything. Because even on my WORST night, my job is easy and cushy and almost not a job at all.
Even when I was a “rock star” I didn’t have a rider. And I never bothered people too much back stage. One runner, at the House Of Blues in Chicago, once told me (in tears) that I was the nicest artist she’d ever met. This was only because I said “thank you” to her when she handed me a water bottle. I was appalled at how she said most artists treated her.
I say none of this to tout myself as any sort of a nice person. I’m actually not all that nice. But I come from a family so full of deep, spiritual characters, that I always see them watching me in any situation I’m in. And acting like some kinda hifalutin so-and-so would make them all want to stand in line and slap some sense into me. I feel their eyes on me everywhere I go …from high rises in New York City to sound stages in Los Angeles, California, my family will not allow me to act like something I’m not.
One of the most sharply drawn characters of my life was my Aunt Jewel Kelly. My earliest memory of her is rock-strong hands gripping ivory crutch handles. Somewhere in my childhood vault is a wood burning stove and the smell of hickory smoke. It’s cold outside but warm in a small house filled with gravy and biscuits and chicken and dumplings and green beans and sweet iced tea. And I can hear those braces squeak. She’s sitting down in her chair and hoisting her legs around and bending the braces into sitting position. She lays the crutches to the side. And she’s finally able to rest.
I always watched closely while she did this painstaking ritual. Everyone else at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner was sitting down and raising up in one fluid motion, at will. But I would watch, from the kids’ table, my Aunt Jewel work and toil and struggle to achieve this simple, human thing. And in my 6 or 7 or 8-year-old mind I would try to extrapolate how many times a day she might have to perform this act …just to live normally.
My Aunt Jewel was a super hero to me. Those hands – gripping those crutch handles – were burned into my memory at such a young age.
The stories of how it all started were spoken of in hushed tones around dinner tables. Polio at 4. In an iron lung for a year. Unable to go to school because of stairs and restrooms and such. And yet she volunteered at the VA where she fell in love with a wounded vet and married him. Then she bore two sons. And then she raised them …and she raised them well. My cousins, Ricky and Mark, were both valedictorian of each of their high school classes. The breakfasts, lunches and dinners they ate and the clothes they wore and the schedules they kept were always prepared by a woman on crutches.
Whenever I stayed with her, she was up before me and had a big, country breakfast on the table before I could get my eyes adjusted.
I remember, as a child, watching her drag herself across a hardwood floor on a rug, while she polished it. Again, I was transfixed. And I couldn’t comprehend her strength. I still can’t.
My Aunt Jewel was from a generation of people who wouldn’t understand “safe spaces” or time off for dealing with an election result they didn’t agree with. They were from a time when consequences were a little more dire than getting your feelings hurt. Those people didn’t have time to wring their hands over who they thought might be the next Hitler …because they were dealing with the REAL one.
They didn’t recycle because they were trying to save the planet. They did it because they realized it’s just stupid to waste something that still has use. They didn’t worry about climate change …they worried about weather. Because they weren’t sitting around a granite bar, sipping Merlot, pontificating over the ill effects of carbon emissions. They were actually GROWING beans and carrots and potatoes and corn. And they needed rainfall and sunlight.
My Aunt Jewel was one of the best of that generation. Whenever I’ve wanted to give up or feel sorry for myself, I hear those braces squeaking and I see those hands gripping those crutches. And I pick myself up and say to myself, “what’s wrong with you? Stand up. YOU can stand up.” And of all the family members in my memory who simply will not allow me to huddle in a corner and suck my thumb, Aunt Jewel stands at the front of them all.
I played an abstract version of Amazing Grace for my Aunt Jewel, once. She wanted to hear me play something. It was full of all the new, cool chords I knew. I thought it was awesome and avante guard. When I finished, she just looked at me and said, “baby …that’s not Amazing Grace.” In that moment I realized just how childish it is to try to be cool. Being cool only matters to people who care about cool. And anyone who cares about cool …isn’t actually cool at all. REAL people want to hear Amazing Grace. Just play it and sing it. It’s pretty great EXACTLY the way it is. My aunt Jewel taught me that.
There’s an old schoolhouse/church house on the property where my Aunt Jewel lived. I never really knew it as anything functional. For me, it was always that old, crumbling white building. But it represents a time when people sat in one room and learned how to read and write, together. Everything about that time wasn’t good. But the spirit of refusing to be a victim of something lives in little buildings like that. And that’s what I always saw in my aunt.
She had a special affection for my daughter with Angelman Syndrome. And I think she recognized in her, a fellow traveller who would have to overcome enormous challenges to fit into a normal life on earth. They liked to stare at each other. I prefer to think of it as my daughter gaining strength from her. One super hero transferring her power to another one.
Aunt Jewel asked me to smuggle Taco Bell in to her once, while she was in the hospital, in Nashville. And I did it gladly. I remember her telling me, “this is delicious.”
She only said that …BECAUSE. IT. IS!!! And people from her generation don’t lie about something as true and right as the perfection of Taco Bell. It’s now one of my fondest memories of her.
My aunt Jewel left this mortal plane and sailed into the great mystery last night. In my version of things, she is walking with fresh legs and listening to Chopin play Amazing Grace the way it’s supposed to be played …and having a taco or two. And there is no nonsense allowed in her sphere. And there are no braces squeaking, anywhere. And her hands aren’t gripping crutches.
Because where she is …nobody needs them.