From the monthly archives: "October 2014"
holiday 2013

Thistle Farms staff hamming it up for the 2013 holiday season in their manufacturing area.  (Photo by Peggy Napier)

Fiona Prine knows a few things about turning the page.

It has been 21 years since she moved to the United States. Fiona Whelan met her future husband, Maywood, Ill.-born singer-songwriter-storyteller John Prine when she was working in a recording studio in Dublin, Ireland. They married and she moved to Nashville, Tn. where they have raised three boys.

Fiona has said she heard all the words in the old country then found her voice in this country. Her sense of discovery takes her to San Francisco this weekend to visit Chilelan novelist Isabelle Allende in support of the Nashville-based Thistle Farms charity for which she is a full-time volunteer.

Meanwhile, at 8 p.m. Nov. 1 her husband will be appearing at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. John’s good rockin’ brother Billy and his band will be opening for Heartsfield at 8:30 p.m. Nov. 1 at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn.

You will hear songs of hope, from here to there.

Thistle Farms manufactures and distributes natural bath and body products, available in more than 200 stores nationwide. It employs residents and graduates of Magdalene, a Nashville-based residential program for survivors of prostitution, human trafficking, addiction and streets with dead ends.

Thistle Farms is a timely topic for the Chicago area with this month’s discovery of the murders of several prostitutes in Northwest Indiana. A convicted sex offender is in custody.

“I make no secret of the fact I’m in recovery,” Fiona said earlier this week in a conversation from Nashville. “This appeals to me on many levels. These are women who are recovering from very many things. The fact that many of them came off the streets drug addicted is part of their story, but not the whole story. I have connected with them my own journey of recovery from childhood trauma, my own alcohol abuse and the rest of it. It was a no-brainer.

Fiona Prine

Fiona Prine

“And the fact it is all-woman focused was appealing to me. When I came here I had no family. Essentially it was John and the family we built together. Once John’s mother died there was nobody else here.”

Fiona became involved with the organization in 2004. She actually learned about it through her son Tommy, who became best buds with Caney Hummon, the son of Thistle Farms founder Becca Stevens. They were classmates at University School of Nashville (disclaimer alert–where my nephew Jude attends school). Stevens is an Episcopal priest who is married to Nashville singer-songwriter Marcus Hummon.

“The thistle is a perceived weed that will literally grow anywhere,” she said. “Then there’s derlict, dirty streets that the women walked when they were still out there. Thistles will grow between the cracks of the pavements. Becca noticed this. So now people all over the country send thistles to us. We use thistles to make our paper.” The paper is used for greeting cards, tee-shirst and very handsome bookmarks……

……..To remember where you have been.

Thistle Farms has an annual October fund-raiser and during her early years with the organization Fiona helped recruit artists. Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Jennifer Nettles and oh yes, John Prine have performed t the events. “Magadelen and Thistle Farms take no funding from any governmental source,” she said. “It is all private donations. John played the second or third year I was involved and things got amped up a little bit. Gretchen Peters did a beautiful concert for us. So has Marshall Chapman. Becca is a very compelling and visionary character. Her message is simple.

“Love is the most healing force on the planet.”

Thistle Farm holiday cards

Thistle Farm holiday cards

Sometimes the planet appears as a shattered childhood ornament. “The women come in and they are broken in every imaginable way,” Fiona explained. “Physcially, emotionaly, spiritually, psychologically. The very simple thing of a woman getting out of prison, typically at two in the morning. They are at the front door with their plastic bags. They’ve been in maybe a week, maybe three months. Unless there is someone there to pick them up, bring them somewhere safe to sleep that night, they’re going to go right back in the neighborhood.”

Becca’s idea was to secure a house as a safe place for women off the streets. No charge. No strings attached. A “Hello In There” kind of place. The place is called Magdalene and women reside there for two years.

“They are given a key to the house and it is a model that has worked,” Fiona said. “When she has been in the program for three weeks she starts earning a stipend. That money is given to her so she doesn’t have to turn a trick to buy a pack of cigarettes. We’ve never had any break-ins, we’ve never had a murder. More than eighty per cent of the women who stay for the two years are still clean and sober two years later. We have lots of resources in the community. We have relationships with doctors. Dentists. One woman just had all her tattoos removed from her face. It’s not just, ‘Come in here, get clean and sober and you’ll be great.’ They need more than that.”

So these beautiful women leave Magdalene and then what?

A below minimum-wage job? Where is your resume?

So the next step was to establish a work venue for the women, which is now centered around a 11,000 square foot manufacturing space at Thistle Farms.  “At first it was in the basement of a church making candles,” Fiona said. “It has grown from that to 2014 where we had our first million dollars in annual sales. More than 60 women are now employed at Thistle Farms (est. 2001). We have the candle making, the bath and body, sewing studios and the Thistle Stop Cafe coffee shop.”

Thistle Stop Cafe

Thistle Stop Cafe

The Thistle Stop Cafe and lunch room includes hundreds of tea cups and saucers donated by supporters from across the country. Program graduates staff the cafe.

“Terri, our barista won the opportunity last year to go to barista school,” Fiona said. “She told me, ‘I’ve never won anything in my life. I left school when I was 14.’ It’s heartlifting. It makes looking at CNN like all that is happening on another planet.”

The cafe is located next door to the Thistle Farms manufacturing facility, a former warehouse at 5122 Charlotte Pike a few miles west of downtown Nashville. Earlier this year John Prine and Pat McLaughlin played a cafe party to celebrate Fiona’s 21 years in America. When you stop by the cafe be sure to ask for some of Terri’s thistle-made brew.

Mary Baker is CEO of Monroe Harding, Inc., a residential program facility for boys and one of the oldest non-profits in Nashville. “Coming out of addiction is not easy,” she said in a Thursday phone interview. “The community that surrounds these women and that they’ve become a part of helps them grow into a whole human being and recognize that there are behaviors and choices they have made that will continue to trip them up unless they change those behaviors.

“Think of the community as a scrum if you think of Australian football. You are in the middle of a pack and it carries you along. When you first get off the street and you are clean and sober you don’t know what the heck is going on. Thistle Farms has created that community not only among the women but among the people who volunteer for the organization, the people who buy products, the people who come in to have coffee and get to know each other as well as the women who work there.” The cafe is a relatively new coffee and lunch destination in Nashville and Baker has found it as a valuable meeting place.

Just last month Thistle Farms expanded its operation to the Shared Trade Alliance (A Fair Share for Women). “We’ve partnered with 14 individual like-minded organizations,” Fiona explained. “The criteria is simple but specific. They have to be a woman-focused organization. A lot of them are run by women who have left America after their post-grad work and have gone to India, Cambodia and Africa to see if they can make a difference in the world. And they are.”

Organizations that are part of the alliance will put a Shared Trade sticker on their products to tell the consumer they are buyng something that moves women forward from poverty to independent living. Groups from Ecuador, Ghana, Kenya and Nashville already have signed up for the alliance.

Fiona and Becca are visiting Allende in San Francisco because the Chilean author has pledged $80,000 to the shared trade initiative. “I’m  helping put on a market place in San Francisco,” she said. “As a matter of fact John was helping me load boxes for the UPS today.” At the same time Magadelene’s Thistle Farms integrated model has been replicated in St. Louis, Houston and New Orleans, according to Fiona.

holiday soaps 2013

“One of the big reasons this model works is that you have to have the community behind you,” Fiona said. “There’s no way this could happen without the help of the Nashville community. Becca will say, ‘It took a community to send a woman out on the streets. It will take that same community to bring her home.

“This is timely because we have been making contacts in Chicago. We had a Shared Trade MarketPlace on Oct. 12 in Nashville which was part of our second annual Thistle Farms Conference. We sold $28,000 worth of products in two days. That workshop and marketplace is what I want to take to Chicago.

“Ours is a big story. We were brainstorming about using social media to get more help. ALS had a simple message; dunk yourself with water and send ten dollars or whatever. The story is so big at Thistle Farms sometimes it can be difficult to narrow down.”

What has Fiona learned in her decade with Thistle Farms?

“I’ve learned that, without exception, all of these women coming in off the streets were sexually abused as children,” she answered. “They were raised in addictive homes. A lot of them suffered physical and emotional abuse. That’s a very typical story. My story doesn’t cleanly dovetail into that, but my father died when I was 13 leaving my mother and six girls. I was the oldest. I understand the poverty that came out of that. My mother had no resources. And then I understand displacement. Even though it was by choice that I came here, I was propelled.”

After Fiona met Prine she was gung-ho about coming to America. “But we had no idea the isolation I would feel and the difficulty it would be to keep in touch with my family in Ireland,” she explained. “I’m a late bloomer. I have a wonderful family, I used to work in the music business in Ireland, I have a son who came with me here that John subsequently adopted. I became connected to who I was in America. I’ve uncovered myself more than recovered. John and I talked about moving to Ireland because he loves it there and we would have had the children finish their education when they were in middle school. But I couldn’t fo it. Home was here.”

Their sons are 19, 20 and 33. The oldest son  is about to be a father. “We’re going to be grandparents for the first time,” she declared. “John Prine is just besides himself. He says, ‘Great! I can go to Toys R Us again.”

Gifts are everywhere when you take time to let love into your heart.


Steve Liacopoulos of Rite Liquors helps launch Isaac’s art.

When you show your art on the outside border of the Renegade Craft Fair in Chicago, you must really be a renegade.

That is where I found Isaac G. Abarca last month. He was propping up his oil on canvas paintings on a sidewalk near the entrance to the popular arts and crafts fair. He also hung his paintings like Christmas ornaments in a large honeylocust shade tree in front of Rite Liquors, 1649 W. Division.

“Hanging paintings in a tree is a beautiful thing,” Abarca said during a Sunday alcohol free conversation at Rite Liquors. “People had a lot of questions. The next day we released a painting on a (500 helium) balloons, which is even better. But no one has called me to tell me where it landed. It’s become like an urban legend. Someone said it is in a potato field in Ohio.” The lost painting was Abarca’s portrait of a half woman and half violin. Abarca attached three one dollar lottery tickets to the painting. “Next year we will release one painting an hour,” he continued. “If you have inspiration you have to use it.  It is a good thing I have friends like (owner) Mike Liacopoulos at Rite Liquors. When I have ideas they say, ‘Go with it.’ I need people like that.”

The sky is the limit.

In June Isaac had permission from the city to hang his art from a bridge.

In June Isaac had permission from the city to hang his art from a bridge.

In fact, I bought Abarca’s painting of a firey Malyasian jet liner flying into the mouth of a shark. It is a sure conversation starter for quiet nights in my living room.

“I did that painting five days after the plane went missing,” he said. “Every channel on television was talking about the plane in Spanish, in English. I don’t want to hurt people in my paintings. But it is easy to me because it is happening.”


Abarca is self-taught, although he did study the brilliant colors of Dutch impressionist Vincent van Gogh. “I love oils so I looked at his techniques and his strokes,” he said. “His message is right to the point.”

Abarca is 37 years old. He is from the state of Guerrero, Mexico where his grandparents were farmers. He moved to the U.S. when he was 12. Abarca grew up in Gurnee and Highwood, north of Chicago. His mother Maria Isabel and father Isaac have been married 38 years.

When Abarca isn’t painting, he is a bartender who has worked at Wishbone in Chicago and at Chicago catering companies. “Everything brought me to America,” he said. “The way that art is required. Art is a statement of why we are here.”

Abarca moved to Chicago in 2001 and lives in Wicker Park. He used to ride his bicycle around Rite Liquors, a bar and package liquor store on the ground floor of a 117-year-old building. Regulars are lined up like weary checkpoint travelers along the maple bar that seats about 78 people. North to south, the original bar is one of the longest bars in Chicago. The bar back is at least 110 years old. “I always found this place interesting,” Abarca said. “It is like candy for adults. Look at all this liquor. You can meet interesting people here. Engineers. Police officers. Gangsters. Alcoholics.”

He found it so interesting, he once lived upstairs.


Mike Liacopoulos is a fan of Abarca’s work and shows his art in the bar. His sons Steve and Ted help run the bar and Steve was helping Abarca decorate the Division Street tree with paintings. No other Chicago artist has his work on display at Rite Liquors.

The tavern’s art history includes painter Robert Guinan, who in the early 1960s would pay customers $20 an hour to be subjects for his work. Guinan loved the once lonesome grit of Wicker Park and Maxwell Street. Unknown in Chicago, Guinan’s work has sold for as much as $30,000 a piece in France. He is included in Alex Kotlowitz’s fine book “Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago.”

“Photography students ask me if they can come in and take pictures,” said Liacopoulous, a down rite friendly gentleman who opened the original Loop Tavern at 518 S. State (now at Chicago and Ashland).  “We have a colorful crowd. When I came in here I used to sell about six barrels of draught beer a weeks. Now the house drink is Jameson’s and I have at least 62 different microbrews. When the condos came in 15, 20 years ago everything just changed.”

Abarca said, “Rite Liquors is where everything happened for me. Even if the Renegade Fair had invited me I would have said no. In the winter I hang three paintings a week here. We sell them starting at $91. I send  some of the money of my sales to Children’s Memorial Hospital.  (I paid $150 for the Malyasian jet painting) If I dedicate myself to it, I can do 11 paintings a day. ”

But Abarca’s crowning achievement is his El Dorado Project.

This piece of art is not on display at Rite Liquors. It is in a safe deposit box at a Chicago area bank.

“It is a real human skull, based on the way the Aztecs decorated skulls in gemstones,” he said. “It is the shell of one of the most beautiful things ever created: the human brain. I decorate that in respect of it.”

Abarca has been decorating the skull with gold nuggets since 2001. He said El Dorado is currently adorned with anywhere between 50 and 70 ounces of gold.

This thing has a lot of bling.

El Dorado (Courtesy of Isaac Abarca)

El Dorado (Courtesy of Isaac Abarca)

He purchases the gold from miners in Arizona and California. “It is not done,” he said. “I’ve spent $350,000 and I still need $150,000 of gold. I sent a photo of El Dorado to the miner in California. He doesn’t want to work with me any more. He’s a very religious person and I understand that. I have a key to the safe deposit box. I take it our, work with it and put it back. When I’m done I will present it in Chicago. A human skull decorated in gold nuggets? No one has done that.”

Abacra said he purchased the male skull from the University of California. “He died in a hit and run accident in the 1970s,” he explained.  “They used the body for medical purposes because no one claimed it. I was very curious what happened. I said, ‘Nobody claimed you when you were dead on the floor, but when I am done with you everyone is going to want you because you are covered in gold.’ I’m not  dealing with a spirit. That’s a different thing. Energy is energy and I don’t want to mess with that. A human skull is a beautiful masterpiece  itself. It is another reason I live in America. Religion is so powerful in Mexico they don’t allow you to work with human remains.”

Liacopoulous has owned Rite Liquors since 1984. “Isaac used to be my tenant,” he said in a separate interview while distributing biscuits to the tavern’s dogs. “I like the guy. He’s always happy, you never see him sad. He is fearless. You don’t meet people like him very often. And he has dreams. I came here 45 years ago from a farm in the south part of Greece. I know what is is not to have money and to have money. Isaac dreams of one day being successful. I try to cooperate with that.”

Dreams are made from this: Isaac  (left), Mike and Steve Liacopoulos

Dreams are made from this: Isaac (left), Mike and Steve Liacopoulos (Dave Hoekstra photo)

Lou. Enough said.

Lou. Enough said.

CUBA, Mo.—-Lou Whitney was proud to tell tourists and visiting musicians that the Carter Family lived in a two story Victorian brick house in 1949-50 when they appeared with Red Foley on the radio version of the Ozark Jubilee in Springfield, Mo.

That was Lou; talking about Springfield history before he would talk about himself.

In July we took Lou to the empty lot off of old Route 66 where Mother Maybellle, Anita, Helen and June Carter once lived. Lou stood tall, like a mountain in a meadow. His eyes squinted into the Ozark evening sun. He had his hands tucked in the front pockets of his blue jeans and he looked around the calm landscape. His feet were firmly planted on the ground. As always.

There were no airs about Lou Whitney.

I talked my friend and award winning CBS-TV cameraman Tom Vlodek into driving from Chicago to the Ozarks for the July weekend. Lou’s rock n’ roll band the Morells were reuniting to play a high school reunion in Springfield. We wanted to film the concert and interview band members for a possible prose-documentary that uses the acclaimed Morells/Skeletons as a window into the lost history of Springfield music. I’m glad we made that trip.

Lou died Oct. 7 at his Springfield home from complications of cancer and a fall he took in his home in late September. He was 71 years old. Lou never stopped playing and recording other voices.

He never stopped honoring the power of music.

Dave Alvin, Eric Ambel, the Del Lords, Robbie Fulks, Jonathan Richman, Syd Straw, the Bottle Rockets and Wilco are among those who made the pilgrimage to record with Lou and emplloy the Morells/Skeletons at Lou’s studio in downtown Springfield.

I hear Lou just about every day.

The lineage of his own best known recordings dates back to 1979 when the pop-rock Skeletons were created as a back up band for singer-songwriter Steve Forbert. Lou had been bassist-vocalist for the Symptoms (think Ramones meets rockabilly cat Billy Lee Riley) who had been playing six nights a week in the Pub Mobile bar in Rolla, Mo., halfway between Springfield and St. Louis. Lou would remind you the bar was part of an automobile museum on a plot of land owned by a guy who dated “Elly Mae Clampett” of the Beverly Hillbillies.

Donna Douglas, upper left. The Beverly Hillbillies jalopy is on display at the Ralph Foster Museum, south of Springfield.

Donna Douglas (Ellie May Clampett) , upper left. The Beverly Hillbillies jalopy is on display at the Ralph Foster Museum, south of Springfield.

The Morells followed around 1981, the Skeletons returned in 1992 when the San Francisco Chronicle named “Waiting” one of the top 10 albums of the year. In May, 2004 the Morells were the band playing behind Bo Diddley at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn. Back and forth, restless hearts. The Skeletons 1991 track “Outta My Way” got major airplay on WXRT-FM in Chicago and porn star Seka used it as a dance number when she appeared at the Admiral Theater in Chicago.

Lou had vaudeville gumption.

He fought hard in his battle against cancer. He was given six months to live in February, 2013. Lou and his beloved wife Kay drove countless eight-hour round trips between Springfield and St. Louis for experimental therapies. He had a cancerous kidney removed on May 21, 2013. Lou bought extra time to be with his family and friends and  to continue to work with regional Springfield music in his studio.

In July we spent a Saturday afternoon with Lou. On Sunday we treated him at his favorite cashew chicken joint on the south side of town. Lou was sharing stories and they were good and some were spicy. Lou was an avatar of Springfield music history.

Country Music Hall of Famers Porter Wagoner and Brenda Lee got their starts on the Ozark Jubilee radio and television show. Chet Atkins was a studio guitarist for the Ozark Jubilee. Wayne Carson, who wrote the Box Top hits wrote the Box Top hits “The Letter” and “Soul Deep” in Springfield as well as the smash co-write “Always On My Mind,” recorded by Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson. His father Shorty Thompson appeared on the Jubilee radio and television shows. Actor Brad Pitt is from Springfield. Lou always had something new to drop on you. In July he told us the Birdman of Alcatraz, a.k.a. Robert Stroud,  died in (a federal prison) in Springfield.

They all left.

Lou stayed.

Lou was rugged Americana before Americana got gussied up. Next fall’s Americana awards in Nashville needs to find a way to honor Lou. Like thousands of others who encountered Lou, I never grew tired of hearing his stories. Even the same story several times. Lou was the only guy I know who liked to borrow from Lil’ Abner when he talked about his adopted home town: “Springfield is more like it was the last time you were here than it is now.”

Scott Kempner of the Dictators and the Del-Lords wrote on Facebook, “Lou was a constant guide, friend, inspiration, hero and musical companion. Truly one of a kind, high-end, top shelf human being. I don’t think I could have worked with anyone else than Lou and the Skeletons, the best band in America you might not know…Taking a minute to remember them all at this time and a special salute to Lou, the greatest man I have ever known.”

The Skeletons sign a fancy pants record contract (L to R), Bobby Lloyd Hicks, Joe Terry, Lou, D. Clinton Thompson, Kelly Brown

The Skeletons sign and fax a fancy pants record contract (L to R), Bobby Lloyd Hicks, Joe Terry, Lou Whitney, D. Clinton Thompson, Kelly Brown

In 2001 Springfield attorney and former music writer Dale Wiley started the Slewfoot Records label with Lou. They even went full tilt Alan Lomax and ventured into the field to record congregations singing hymns at rural churches around the Ozarks. In late September Wiley created “The Best Facebook Thread Ever” for favorite Lou quotes. Here’s some:

I’ve been around the world twice and talked to everyone once”—Trent Wilson

Did I ever tell you how to butcher a hog?”–Cecelia Ellis Havens

Americana radio’s like Spanish fly and a nymphomaniac: everybody says they exist, but you or I sure as hell ain’t seen one”–Dale Wiley

“Lou Whitney loudly at the restaurant at the Silver Saddle: ‘I’d like some ice cream. They got no ice cream in prison.”–Eric Ambel.

Cars are the art form of the working class”–Dave Hoekstra

My bad. One more time,” on about my 10th take he always acts like it is him who messed up, not me…even when we all knew it was really me. And theres the time he said of my southern gospel singing mama, ‘Man, she sang the hell out of that song!”–Robin Bilyeu Rees

I once had a felafel–I feltawful”–Rick Wood

Give me a little George of the Jungle on the rack tom”—Trent Wilson.

Lou was reticent about playing bass with his band at the July reunion show. He was weak and he didn’t want the attention. “If I felt better I’d play with them again,” he told me. “It’s an emotional thing. I didn’t want to be ‘That Guy,’ you know the guy you see on the television special, and you go, ‘Oh my God, he hasn’t retired yet.’ I was playing when I was 70 (see my January, 2013 birthday post).

My friend Lou Whitney (Dave Hoekstra photo)

My friend Lou Whitney (Dave Hoekstra photo)

Lou did not want a funeral. “And NO band jam memorial,” his long time friend and drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks wrote in an Oct. 2 e-mail. Lou did request that his body be donated to science. Transportation costs for a Springfield funeral home to take Lou’s remains to Washington University in St. Louis were $1,200. A “Send Lou to Camp” GoFundMe campaign raised $2,525 in one day. The extra money goes to Lou’s wife and family.

Doing some quick math, Lou figured he had been playing with some core of the Morells-Skeletons (Hicks, keyboardist Joe Terry, guitarist Donnie Thompson) for 46 years.

What did he learn about himself after all that time?

“A lot of it is confidence,” he answered in satisfied tones. “When you set yourself in the middle of those guys you look good. I don’t care who you are. You know that you’re knocking it out of the park. People dance. If you’re good enough to have that day in and out you can put up with a crappy day easy. A band is like a family. Even if we didn’t see each other for two or three years, we could just pick  up and go.

“That’s comforting to me.”

*                                                                *

Lou Whitney III was born in 1943 and raised in Phoenix, Az. Singing cowboy Gene Autry was in the Army Air Corps at Luke Field in Phoenix and visited the hospital where Lou was born. “Gene Autry got my attention,” he quipped in July.

Lou was the grandson of Louis B. Whitney, the former mayor of Phoenix and unsuccessful candidate for Congress on the Democratic ticket. His son Harold Lou Whitney was a successful Phoenix attorney.

In a tender Oct. 2 Facebook tribute, New York singer-songwriter Mary McBride wrote, “Lou was a tried and true Democrat, one of the best, who infused common sense and utter hilarity into every argument and who could actually separate the good Republicans from the bad. A skill many of us sitting out in the political left field have still not developed. I know Lou will always somehow be watching the polls and trying to steer the vote to the right side of the aisle. I know he will always editing gratuitious lines from songs that think too much of themselves. And I hope he feels great satisfaction in knowing he made an enormous impact on so many people. I am just one of them. How lucky we all are.”

Singer-songwriter-producer Ben Vaughn made it big scoring music for film and television in projects like “That ’70s Show,” “3rd Rock from the Sun” and “Psycho Beach Party.” On his Facebook page Vaughn said it it wasn’t for Lou, he wouldn’t have a career in the music business. “He was the first guy to deem my songs worthy of public consumption,” Vaughn wrote. “In 1982 the Morells recorded a tune of mine for their album ‘Shake & Push’. Without knowing it, I had touched the hem of the garment. Everything changed for me after that. I had no idea how much respect he commanded in the music world.”  The Morells amped up Vaughn’s “The Man Who Has Everything” and the Skeletons later did double keyboard justice to Vaughn’s “I Did Your Wig.”

The Morells had a hit with "Red's," a pre-Guy Fieri hamburger stand on Route 66 in Springfield.

The Morells had a hit with “Red’s,” a pre-Guy Fieri hamburger stand on Route 66 in Springfield.

Lou III left Phoenix by the time he was 16 to live with relatives in the mountains near Bristol, Tn. He was already following the path of the Carter Family. Lou obtained a degree in real estate at Eastern Tennessee University. “It’s a language, actually,” he said in our 2013 conversation. He started playing in tuxedo drenched show bands that were popular in the soul-driven Beach Music scene of the Carolinas, Georgia and Eastern Tennessee. Lou was also a sideman with Arthur Conley of “Sweet Soul Music” fame.

“The World War II and Korea party guys came home with G.I. benefits,”  Lou explained in July. “They went to school at the University of South Carolina. Partying every night. And going out to see these bands. Shag dancing got real big. If you wanted to play a fraternity party at the University of Alabama, you better know some Bill Deal and The Rhondells. Music trends didn’t happen all over the United States. You could go to Denver and never hear of Chairmen of the Board or the Tams. It didn’t get played. But down south it did.”

One of the Skeletons most endearing covers was the Swinging Medallions 1966 Beach Music classic “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love).”

 In 1970 Lou moved to Springfield to sell mail order real estate to  folks in Illinois and Wisconsin who were dreaming of the wide open spaces of the Ozarks. “It was a dying art,” he said in July. “In fact I saw my first fax machine in a real estate office in Springfield. But I really came here to play in bands.”

More than once Lou told me that he and his “Wrecking Crew” Morells-Skeletons musicians were defenders of the song. That’s why songwriters loved working with Lou and it is why his bands did such pure justice with the hundreds of cover songs they did over the years. With Lou on my mind I read Ken Sharp’s Sept. 27 Q & A with former Rolling Stones manager and XM-Sirius host Andrew Loog Oldham in the Sept. 27 issue of Goldmine magazine. “The world is so noisy,” Oldham said. “Music has been wounded by Steve Jobs’ technology; greed and ego is fighting for survival. The main role of the artist is to serve the song, as opposed to him or herself. That is difficult to understand in a world where all technology supports the dangerous charade. Give me John Prine any day over what Simon Cowell barfs up. What’s the result? You’ve got Adele, who is great at receiving awards, but could no more put a set together than a politician could tell the truth.”

Lou was like a good editor. He was an advocate for his talent. He never got in the way. He maintained a dignified work ethic. Here’s Lou setting the table in 1991 on L.A. hipster’s “Art Fein’s Poker Party.”


In July Lou reflected, “We played together in this tight realistic, no nonsense combo. Playing a bass part all the way through a song, the guitar rhythm and the drum pattern and singing the song. Playing the solos as they existed and getting the breaks rights. We drifted into that. We became popular. Roscoe (Eric Ambel) used to say, ‘When you play a Ramones song it sounds so perfect.’ Well, we couldn’t help it. We’re the best band in the world and we opened for this and we opened for that? I don’t know.

“We’re the band next door. Four guys you would never believe were in a band. We set up and play and if we’re having a good day you go, ‘Yow!’  Even we’re going ‘Yow!’ That’s a good thing. Being in a band is a job like anything else. We practice our songs, learn them and we get better on the job.”

Lou never stopped learning, teaching and sharing. During the rest of my visits to Springfield, I will tell tourists and visiting musicians about the benevolent magic of Lou Whitney. His humble glory roars across America.

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Ilse in Albuquerque on her Route 66 road trip. (Used with permission.)

I wonder what my roadie friend Ilse would say about  Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel’s piece in Atlantic magazine where he wrote that he only wanted to live 75 years.

Ilse is 86 years old and just finished her solo Route 66 trip from Chicago to a photo conference in Albuquerque, N.M. Ilse is too busy to mope around and think about dying young.

Dr. Emanuel wrote, “The fact is that by 75, creativity, originality and producitivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us….People can continue to be productive past 75–to write and publish, to draw, carve and sculpt and compose. But there is not getting around the definition, few of us can be exceptions.”

Dr. Emanuel is the brother and health adviser to Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel.

A few months before Rahm was elected mayor I had a beer with him at the Matchbox in Chicago. He was no sunburst of energy himself and he’s way younger than 75.

Here’s an edited version of Ilse’s last two installments from the Mother Road. Look! She know how to type, construct sentences and crack  jokes. I’d say she should  take Dr. Emanuel along on her next road trip. “Ilse and Ezeikel“–it has a ring to it. He should just leave his Smiths playlist at home.

RT 66 9/27/14:

“Good morning, it’s five o’clock, but I was too tired last night to go on. I almost cannot absorb what I all seem experience, remember and feel…and it goes on for 8 days!

“Along the way were many ghost towns, picturesque stations, abandoned motels, mom and pop diners with broken neon signs. Then I took on a hitchhiker! He must have slipped in, when I was photographing. There was a big grasshopper and I wanted a picture of him, but he hopped away before I could. When I was driving on, I felt him crawling along my pants–he was faster out, then in!

“There is a town named Pampa (Tx.) and Pampa it is (in German there is a saying that if you find yourself in Pampa, you are in the middle of nowhere.) There is nothing but red earth as far as you can see, twice the wind was blowing the sand over the streets and I had to turn on the lights. I could just imagine the dust storms of the past and understood ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ even better…

“So I went on and off and on interstate travel with thoughts of the German Autobahn with its unlimited speed limit (75 MPH allowed here), I opened the window, let the wind blow through my hair and imagined the Corvette of once upon a time. Not for long though, because all my papers and maps were blowing too!

The Big Texan Steak Ranch

The Big Texan Steak Ranch

“I stopped at the information station near Amarillo. A very nice girl gave me good advice, suggestion and help. I asked, “What about the cowboy who is inviting for the 72 ounce steak? All along the highways, like Wall Drug in the Dakotas.”

There apparently was a former ranch, who was side tracked when the interstate was built, so they made this honky tonk place with (in my opinion) tourists in mind (The Big Texan Ranch.) There is a long story about the guy who ‘ate the steak and all the trimmings in just one hour.’ Well, after she told me, ‘They even pick you up and bring you home,’ I had to see this for myself! First she gave me a coupon for the motel and then showed me the downtown area where the Route 66 history still lives and gave me a map of places I wanted to go.

“Is this Texas style? Room rate $36, plus tax with a King-size bed!

“At 7 p.m. I was picked up by a cowboy in a long, black limousine and driven to a place of really good food. They give you the tingling, lighting up thing (restaurant pager),  you wait and they get you to your table. I was told my waiting time would be about 20 minutes, so I walked around, listened to the one man band (he had all kinds of instruments including a washboard, guitar, harmonica and more) and watched kids in the shooting gallery. When I leaned on a saddle, a boy said to me, ‘You don’t do it right, see you have to swing over!’ I laughed and told him, ‘I cannot do it anymore kid, now I have to sit like the ladies of the long gone times,” and that gave some laughs.

“My food was excellent! I ordered 2 appetizers: smoked ribs and mountain oysters and a glass of Texas Red Amber Ale. At 9:30 p.m. the limousine brought me back to the hotel, and that’s the end of the story.”

RT 66 9/29/14:

“Last day on the road! My $29 bed was so good that I did not wake up until 8:10 a.m. After breakfast, drove and stopped and photographed slowly through Tucumcari (N.M.). Then I took the frontage road, following the Route 66 signs. There were many cattle guards and the landscape  has changed from the endless grass pampas of Texas to more mesas in New Mexico. The road had many dips and sometimes just gravel, but many flowers and even cactus alongside. On my right a railroad track with the longest line of freight trains and four engines waiting. Then I changed again to a long stretch of  interstate. Isabella (her car) liked it–she was like a racehorse and we made some time.

“Along the way I took some pictures, but I feel maybe I never took the time to MAKE the pictures. Soon I arrived in Santa Rosa, where the marker tells you that the explorer Espejo passed through here in 1583.”

Ilse's last portrait of her Route 66 trip (Used by permission)

Ilse’s last portrait of her Route 66 trip (Used by permission)

“I did make a stop at the famous stop for scuba diving in the desert, the Blue Hole. It is in the middle of town and I watched some swimmers jump in and some divers going down in the clear, wonderful blue water. A diver explained to me that it is fed by an underground river and that it is 80 feet deep, has a diameter of 60 feet, an outflow of about 3,000 gallons of water per minute and the water temp is 61 degrees at the top and bottom! The Blue Hole is such an amazing color blue, and I thought, sometimes the skies have the same color of this–almost turquoise blue, especially here in New Mexico.

“I drove until I could take the old 66 again near a once-upon-a-time Longhorn Ranch and drove on into my end station: Albuquerque  at Moriarty. My last stop before was  Clines Corner Cafe. Even though it said ‘Here since 1923’ it is nowadays a Subway, with a big souvenir store, where everything calls ‘Please buy me,’  I played deaf.

“Black clouds were hanging over the mesas and hills, soon the first drops came, but only for a short time a hefty rain shower just so that I had a fresh washed car to drive into a sunny town again. I followed the sign here and it must still be like the old times at night. Many neon signs, the old somehow revived, small hotels and inviting diners, looks a big funky, thought, here I would not like to be going alone at night….

The old, somehow revived. Beautiful.

Ilse at the Blue Whale roadside landmark in Caloosa, Oklahoma

Ilse at the Blue Whale roadside landmark in Catoosa, Oklahoma

She wrote, “To find the hotel, would have been easier to come in on the I-40, even at rush hour. After asking twice I found the Marriott and was greeted by photo friends right in the hall. I cannot believe, that only a week ago, I followed the blue and red foot steps in Pontiac (Il.)–and soon much lies in between!

“I had a great, sometimes a bit emotional, very rewarding trip, and thanked Isabella, too, that she was leading me safely to my destination. I will write the last letter when I am home in 14-20 days from now. (She is not driving home on Route 66) I had two great slide shows tonight, especially the Nature International, but I skipped the reception because I wanted to end the trip with you (her notes went out to other people besides me.)

 “Anyway, America’s ‘Main Street’ was a history book with many pictures and chapters for me and I am thankful I could still do it as the ‘Grandmother of the Mother Road’ as Dave calls me.

“Many greetings!”