"May your dreams have mercy on you" - Bow Thayer, "Parallel Lives"
My sister once told me she used to believe Pink Floyd wasn’t an actual group of actual people–nothing earthly could conjure what they did, they must actually be from space, or be space itself. Similarly, Bow Thayer started out as a myth to me, except he couldn’t be differentiated from the earth. My first encounter with Bow Thayer was at the end of high school while digging around Jan Høiberg’s The Band fansite, which was how I spent most of my time and found most of my music. Perfect Trainwreck was listed as a guest of Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble and I thought, That’s the best band name ever. The only other things I could find out about Bow was that Levon had also played on his new album, 2007’s Spend It All, and that he lived in Vermont. All my Soulseek searches for his music were fruitless.
I forgot about it until I got to college a few months later. In an inspired scheme, I bought iTunes gift cards for myself on parent-sponsored trips to Target, thinking they would be less suspicious that bill than one from the iTunes store. The first records I downloaded were Bow’s. To get away from my roommate, I burned them to a CD and sat in my car listening and chewing ice. In the Gainesville swamp-heat, the Vermont mountain music cooled me more than the ice. The Trainwreck’s music at the time was wild and spare and superlime, like Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece played on banjo. Listening to “Jewel” and “Equinox Waltz” and “You and Everybody Else,” I drew my version Bow Thayer–sometimes sitting in the valley of a green mountain, sometimes at the cloudy summit, always in a rocking chair with his eyes closed and a big beard. He became a medicine man, somebody who would never come to Florida, another reason to leave Florida. I don’t know why, but I used to think the only shot I’d ever have of meeting him was by chance in an airport.
Five years later, I’d just moved to Somerville Massachusetts, and Bow Thayer’s name appears on the marquee of the nightclub across the street from me. One street. I sat myself in a booth on the side of the stage and tried to reconcile the fact that after tonight, the myth would be gone. I would learn in what context his music was meant to be received. There’s no way it was meant for a teenager in Florida. The audience was middle-aged, either fans of Bow’s from his days in early 90’s Boston rock bands, or of The Trainwreck’s trippier run of recent albums. I feared he would turn out to be a jam-band. Then Bow started tuning an electric banjo. I didn’t know everything. He played stunning songs I’d never heard like “Suicide Kings,” and “Parallel Lives,” and he talked about a long-time-coming concept album he’d written on electric banjo. The image I’d cradled of Bow Thayer unavoidably crashed, but seeing him work out something so ambitious in front of my face was fucking awesome. There was also a lot of jamming.
The album he talked about was Eden. Since I first started listening, The Trainwreck’s sound has stretched from a deep rain puddle into a prog-roots reflecting pool. Still somehow rippling between Tom Petty’s rock and Happy & Artie Traum’s folk, Eden also reaches some of that Pink Floyd ether. It’s is not an album many musicians outside of Jim James would be willing to try. It’s what might’ve happened if Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Cosmic Cowboy” character had landed in New England instead of Texas. It’s what might’ve happened if The Basement Tapes were made after a huge Vonnegut binge. It’s meteors and mud-clods, loam and stardust.