What follows is documentation of one of the coolest things I've ever done. If you love music - specifically country music - then you'll get it. If you're not a "music person," you might think I've gone off my rocker to be so excited about this. But I don't judge folks for collecting stamps or watching MMA fighting or countless other weird obsessions, so leave your judgy-pants at home.
On the day of the high school state gymnastics meet, Trey and I were killing time in our hotel until we had to leave, and I was scrolling Facebook. I saw a post - one minute after it went up - that The Next Waltz was hosting an event called the Bunker Bonanza where fans could go visit the famous bunker, hang out with Bruce Robison, eat Lockhart barbecue, and basically just be in the presence of musical greatness for an evening. I immediately noticed that it was on Keaton's sixteenth birthday and bought tickets anyway, pleading with Trey to agree with me that Keaton would love it.
Then, because I am the Queen of Overthinking, I sent an email to make sure it was okay if my sixteen year old attended. What if it was age-restricted and I just missed the fine print? Then everything would be ruined!
(Not really, but, well, really. Ruined.)
They emailed back to say it was fine for him to come, and I asked if he wanted to go on his birthday, and he acted just as excited as I wanted him to because he is nice and adventurous and loves music and his momma.
And so yesterday we attended the Bunker Bonanza.
It all started with an email that contained an address, very detailed driving directions to a remote location near Lockhart, and a request to do our best to be on time. Keaton and I drove the winding roads, not sure what to expect and feeling as if we were headed to some secret meeting, anxious about getting lost, being late, or not knowing what to do when we got there. We meandered down the gravel drive and parked on the grass next to an unassuming building.
"You think this is it?" I asked.
"One way to find out," Keaton replied as he got out of the car.
We walked into the building, through a small kitchen, and there we were. The studio. The same one I'd seen hundreds of times when streaming their videos online. It was surreal.
About The Next Waltz. It's a production company that records mostly singles with country artists. I'll never get all the details right, but it's a mechanism for artists to record and release songs without having to front lots of costs. The business side of the music industry has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades, and artists have to do things differently now to make a living. This production company (under the direction of Bruce Robison) is a way to support and encourage those artists.
I think I first discovered The Next Waltz when Turnpike Troubadours recorded Come as You Are there. As content has been added over the years, I have more than once found myself whiling away an evening sitting on the back porch enjoying the music. There's something pure and nostalgic about The Next Waltz tracks. What they do feels like preservation in some way.
I follow them on social media, and I contribute $5 a month to their Patreon. It's not much, but it's a nod to the fact that I'm grateful the organization exists. You should, too, by the way.
Anyway, back to the event.
As we entered the studio, we were greeted by Bruce himself, a tall, kindly figure welcoming folks into the room with "Hi, I'm Bruce. Have a seat anywhere. We have plenty of chairs." And so we found some empty seats and began to take it all in.
Once everyone was settled - about 25 of us - he began to explain the concept behind the studio, his path to building it, and the various equipment used in the production process. We saw an old Wurlitzer, a large cabinet housing a piece of tin that creates reverb, a sound board and a tape recorder. In this studio, they record everything in analog on tape. Their aged equipment creates a sentimental sound that feels new and old at the same time. Keaton and I both commented later about Bruce's explanation that they can do everything there that a digital studio can do except autotune. That says a lot about the quality of the music they put out.
The group of us followed Bruce around the small space as he explained the equipment and instruments. When we entered the room with the sound board, he asked for a volunteer and commented that there was supposed to be a young kid in the group who was about 16 and maybe he wanted to be the volunteer.
The kid was Keaton, and he sure enough wanted to volunteer!
In that moment, Keaton sat down at the sound board and, under the direction of Bruce Robison, played with the mix on Charley Crockett's I Can Help. It. Was. Amazing.
Once we finished the tour (and Keaton's work on the board), we all took our seats back in the studio and listened as Bruce and his band of musicians played a few songs. The space was vacant but for the sound of the music and the light from the neon logo sign. Travelin' Soldier. Angry All the Time.
He played Guy Clark's Desperado's Waiting for a Train, and I saw the man sitting in front of me shed a few small tears while his wife gently patted his shoulder. I knew immediately that the song meant something very important to him, and I was happy that he got to experience it in this almost sacred place.
As they played Keaton and I sat silently. Every once in a while we exchanged wide-eyed looks that said, "I can't believe how awesome this is," and "This music is incredible." I had a distinctive thought: When he is old and I am dead, he will tell his grandkids about this.
After Bruce, Tony Kamel performed a few songs. He recently finished recording an entire solo album in the Bunker, the first complete album recorded there. We didn't know of him before this event, but we were immediate fans. The album comes out in September which feels so far away! He has several Texas tour dates coming up, so if you're looking for live music you should totally check him out. Hearing him tell the story behind the songs he wrote and then performing them for us felt kind of reverent. And he plays the banjo like a beast.
(Keaton declared him to be GOAT'd, which I think means really good, and also proclaimed that this guy should be and will be incredibly famous and how do we not already know about him.)
After a little more music, we ate barbecue and visited with the other attendees. Lockhart barbecue is apparently a big deal (which I also learned from Keaton), and ours came from Chisolm Trail. It was delicious as advertised, with the sausage being my favorite.
When dinner was over, we all found our seats back in the studio and Bruce and company did a few more songs - Wrapped, My Brother and Me. Then he ended the night with the London Homesick Blues. We took one more photo and made our way back up the gravel road, processing what we had just experienced.
Here's the thing (or, the things, as this post is quite long and I apparently have lots to say):
The musicians that played throughout the night were incredibly talented, and it was a joy to see them even though we didn't know their names before we arrived last night. One man in particular played guitar, piano, accordion, and maybe even the mandolin. There was so much talent in that room!
There's usually a line between the people who make the music and the people who love the music. Sometimes those are the same people, but sometimes they're not. I'm not a music-maker (although I think I can sing just about anything and my current rendition of Tyler Childers's Feathered Indians is, I'm sure, fantastic).
I am a music-lover. It feeds my soul. Live music, especially. And after a year and a half without live music, experiencing it in the way we did last night was downright holy.
I got the feeling that some of the guests last night were musicians who had bought their tickets just like we did. While I'm certain they enjoyed themselves, they probably didn't have the same experience we had. This is the part that makes me seem a little crazy - that I really loved the whole thing that much. But we, the music-lovers, got to sit behind the curtain with the music-makers. We got to feel it. And it was an experience of a lifetime.