River Roads

posted September 23, 2023

River Roads loomed on the horizon, a gorgeous theoretical, or an ominous thundercloud of potential misery. Here’s the strange thing about me: I can completely forget I’m a musician until I arrive at the gig. It’s as though that part of me is a set of clothes for another season, kept in a moth-proof box in the attic, out of mind until the weather changes. Lately, I’ve spent my days immersed in my novels-in-progress, gearing up for my Fall Writing workshops and retreats, helping my kids adjust to the new school year, being a wife, sister, daughter, etc. Oh, and the weeding of the gardens! Oh, and the painting of the flaking porch steps! Oh, and of course, Scrabble needs to be played after dinner, and there’s Only Murders in the Building and Dopesick to watch, plus The Road and The Vaster Wilds to read.

Still, having had a good taste this summer of what it’s like to do what I was born to do––perform on stage as a duo with my sister Katryna or as part of a five-piece band, sing the songs I’ve written, celebrate the community of musicians and music listeners we’ve been a part of for 32 years––I knew at the very least I’d be happy to play with my bandmates, Katryna, Dave Chalfant, Dave Hower and Max Germer.

My dear friend Dar Williams conjured an entire festival whose purpose was to raise awareness of the importance of waterways, clean up rivers, and she asked all her best musical buddies if they would perform. Her musical buddies turned out to be the very artists I’ve admired all my career––Amy Ray of Indigo Girls, Shawn Colvin, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Lisa Loeb––as well as some of the most talented up-and-comers in the field today: Heather Maloney, Aisha Burns, and Kalliope Jones (whose members include Katryna’s child and my nibbling). I was very gratified to be a part of this exceptional lineup, but literal rain clouds were on the horizon: Dave Hayes was predicting an epic thunderstorm. No matter how good the music, it was would be a long weekend, with arrival at noon on Saturday and the finale not till 10pm. Plus the day after, on Sunday, we’d agreed to lead a team of volunteers to pick up litter around Mill Pond. And did I mention I had a lot of deadlines in my non-music life?

Still, I did what I always do the day of a festival. I got on my knees and prayed for an attitude of humility and gratitude. The moment my husband Tom and I pulled into the parking lot reserved for artists and staff, I felt my spirit lift. The handwriting on the signs made me feel right at home–it was Nan’s from Ashfield MA who pens signs for beloved institutions from Elmer’s to the Newport Folk Festival. On a scorching, muggy day, the atmosphere in the tent was cool––literally. Patty Romanoff, our intrepid manager (and Dar’s! And Heather Maloney’s!) had seen to it that the food and drink backstage were excellent; there were comfortable places to sit, and even electric fans to blow away the humidity. Lovely Dar greeted each of us with so much warmth, even though she had recently broken her foot and was sporting a boot. The high spirits and good cheer of those dear Kalliope Jones players, plus Isaac from High Tea, all contributed to making me feel right at home. And as soon as the music began, I was on my feet by the side of the shell, hypnotized. The dormant part of me awoke, and I was back, present with my calling and purpose.

Kalliope Jones gets better every time I see them perform, and though I’m biased, my nibbling Wheelzie’s song “Kitchenette” was a total joy. Aisha Burns, who’s recently relocated to the Valley, was ethereal. And then we were on. We’d practiced the night before, our band of five. Having played together quite a bit this summer, we were well-rehearsed and fully focused, as if the band, too, had been there all the time. I felt return the old power, not my own but from the deep forge of our connection to each other and to our listeners.

(And Dar jumped onstage to sing “Easy People” with us!)

Those intrepid souls braving the sun in the center of the field all got up and danced, and I recognized faces we’ve known for over thirty years. But there were new faces, children twirling in the toddler mosh pit, tweens and teens gathered toward the front, their heads cocked, experiencing something new. Then they too began dancing at the apron of the stage. It was so hot I sweated the way I did in the 90s when we’d play summer street festivals in Nashville and Birmingham, the way I did as a child playing tennis tournaments in the Virginia heat. But after our set, I was both drained and elated.


-watching Heather Maloney harmonizing with High Tea, and then doing “Woodstock” with Dar Williams. The two of them managed to stay true to Joni Mitchell’s vibe and frequency while adding to it, reinventing it to make it theirs.

-Tom just being there with me, enjoying every moment of the music.

-Katea Stitt who works with Sweet Honey taking artists to the air conditioned hair salon at EastWorks where I got to lie on my back on a rug for ten minutes and recover from our set. She is so interesting and kind, and I felt like I’d made a friend.

-Emily Neill, also backstage showing me how to get my hair into one of those fab buns.

And then Amy Ray and her band. She/they was/were my festival discovery. I’m ashamed to say I had no idea Amy had a solo career outside of the Indigo Girls. Her band, mind-glowingly excellent musicians from all over the country, has been together for over a decade, and they were so great, it was so my kind of music, that I was on my feet for their entire set. I cried during “I Didn’t Know a Damn Thing” and “Subway.” And her guitar player Jeff Fielder is as good as our own Dave Chalfant. Every single player in the band brought their best. I’m guessing they always do. I would follow them anywhere. I will buy all their albums and listen to them slowly, savoring each one.

Shawn Colvin followed, one of my all time favorites, and I couldn’t believe I was standing just feet from her from the side of the stage. Her guitar playing, to me, is the gold standard, and if I can learn how to play “Polaroids” before I die, I will be a happy girl.

But it was during her set that the actual clouds rolled in. The thunder and lightning arrived, and the festival went still for over two hours, during which an impromptu sing-along was staged under the artists’ tent.

Then Sweet Honey and the Rock, a group I’ve idolized since the 1980s, hit the stage and brought down the house with their innovative harmonies and messages of justice. Chills. Goosebumps. Gratitude.

Dar took the brunt of the time crunch due to the storm hiatus, which was sad for me and all her fans. Nevertheless, she closed out the festival in good cheer, singing her most famous and beloved songs: “Christians and the Pagans,” “As Cool As I Am,” and “Iowa.” She invited some of us onstage to sing with her, which is always a complete honor, joy and delight. What she has created with her life is beyond her immense and formidable body of songs and books. It is akin to a movement of souls united in love and purpose and beauty and respect.

But then came the scariest moment yet. Dar had asked me in advance if I’d play a role in the finale, which involved me playing “Closer to Fine” with her on guitar. I joked with Amy Ray that it was going to be extremely intimidating to attempt this in front of her, but she just said, “Nah. Emily wrote that one. I won’t be judging you.”

Anyway, Dar started riffing about the Barbie movie, its message of self-esteem and “Kenough-ness.” In her inimitable and hilarious Dar way, she said, “Suppose you’re a young girl, and you’re looking to find yourself. You see some musicians out there who aren’t that different, really, from you, and they give you the courage to decide, ‘I’m going to learn to play guitar too!’ So you get a guitar and you learn to play a G chord.” Here she plays a beginning guitar player’s version of a G. “Then you get to know a friend who plays guitar too, so you decide to play together.” At this point, I get up on stage, plug in my guitar and together we mime playing the riff of “Closer to Fine” very badly. “And she has a sister who sings!” Katryna gets up on stage, and the three of us vocalize over the guitar riff. Dar suggests we get a teacher, and up comes Heather Maloney who says, “It’s all about the pinky, guys.” Suddenly, we master the riff. “And then all your friends come over and join in,” and up comes Sweet Honey, Kalliope Jones, Aisha Burns. “But wouldn’t it be amazing if you could get someone who really knows the song?”

At this point, the audience goes crazy because Amy Ray herself hits the stage. Standing on the other side of Katryna, I found myself singing the Amy Ray part on “Closer to Fine” staring straight into the eyes of Amy Ray! Who, by the way is the most real, kind, awesome person, ever. (Seriously. Listen to this podcast which is an interview of her and Emily with Glennon Doyle and Abby Wambach, and you will be happy and glad you listened to me). (Also, during the rainstorm, she thought it might be wise to get her band’s van with attached trailer, a blue version of Moby, the one we drove around in the 90s–out of the emerging mud of the field behind the stage since her band had something like a 14 hour trip that night to get to their next gig. Tom and many others tried to help push the van out, and eventually a tow truck had to be summoned. Anyway, it was bad-ass Amy behind the wheel).

Video of Finale by Molly Stoner

After “Closer to Fine,” Amy hugged me and assured me I did great on my guitar playing. I told her that hearing her band was one of the best musical experiences of my life, that they were both loose and tight in the very best ways. She said, “Aww, that means a lot coming from you. I’ve loved y’all’s music for years.”

Which. I mean. Oh my God. I’m done.

It turned out that returning to the site the next morning to pick up litter was what I wanted to do most, what I was yearning to do. What better way to let the memories of the previous night sink into my consciousness than to meditatively gather bits of trash? My team, which included Tom and Katryna, was assigned the bike path from Easthampton towards Northampton. The job was to find any trash and pick it up, separating recyclables from garbage. In order to do this, one must go slowly, develop an eye for where it tends to hide. I found an inordinate number of bits of white Styrofoam, those awful tiny nip bottles, bottle caps, crushed cigarette butts. There’s no better feeling than this, to rid a natural landscape of human debris. Runners and bikers kept thanking us for our service, but really, I felt so grateful to be there, doing something useful that also allowed me to carefully mull over the memories of the day before, wrap them up tenderly, and put them into a safe place, free from moth or rot.

The Comments

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  1. What a gorgeous accounting of what is surely one of the best days I’ve ever spent. Dancing during your set was an absolute joy! Thank you, thank you, for what you do!!

  2. Beautiful! You made me feel like I was there, and I’m extra doubly glad I scored tickets to so Dar and Amy Ray here in Sesttle in January. I miss those sweet days of dancing even though you feel like you’re melting. Dancing BECAUSE you feel like you’re melting. This sounds like a truly magical event, from backstage, to the stage, to the muddy parking lot. Thank you for sharing your words and making it feel so real to me. <3

  3. Such a magnificent experience, for us in the audience as well as for you on stage. And so sweet to re-live and augment it from your point of view, eloquent friend.

  4. Thank you for this, Nerissa. I’m sorry I missed the Festival. By the way, you write beautifully. Hope you and yours are well and happy.

  5. I fell in love with your music while there! And, yes, Amy Ray Band blew it out with Didnt Know a Damn Thing! Chills all around! Thank you!

  6. What a fabulous accounting that definitely made me feel like I was there. The cleanup afterward was definitely appreciated by the youth from my co-housing community here in Berlin who now live out there & bike those trails. They love it when it smells like nature instead of refuse.

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