Over the last 8 years I've been fortunate enough to have visited the USA five times, (most recently experiencing the delights of transatlantic air travel with two kids, one of them a 6-month old bundle of irregularly-sleeping, painfully-teething, "why can't I crawl over there and grab that???" energy. Still, as long as you try to be seen to be doing something about your children's obvious [ie. highly vocal] dislike of being cooped-up in a somewhat cramped, occasionally too bouncy, recycled-atmosphered flying metallic tube, then no-one'll hate you too much. And anyway, you're almost certain never to see any of your fellow passengers again, so who cares? ), spending a total of about 4 months in parts of the country that most Americans would never consider visiting, let alone your genuine international tourists (we were always doing the "go see the extended family" thing, so don't count).
Anyway, what with my current domestic situation meaning I'll quite probably not be making that particular trip again, I thought I'd do a bit of free advertising for some of the great music shops that gave me some brief respite and refuge from the worst tedious banalities of the middle-American suburban lifestyle - not to mention the incredible personal stress suffered when staying with my Mother-in-Law (oops, looks like I did just mention it after all...nae mind, eh? ).
This week, I have to offer up many heartfelt thanks to the kind people at Willis Music in Florence, Northern Kentucky. So let's begin with a quick public information broadcast for anyone who might not be entirely sure of where, what, or indeed, why, Florence, KY is...
Sitting south of the Ohio river, about 15 miles from downtown Cincinnati, Florence is a magnificent example of modern America's commonly-appalling town planning (or lack thereof?). A low-rise, sprawling, concrete nightmare that could, in places, double as a film set for that original "how to mess up a nice location" city, Los Angeles. The far nicer, older, centre has become completely swamped by seemingly-random large-scale developments, at least half of which are the worryingly-low-price, get-what-you-pay-for, homogenised franchise-chain diners that Americans seem inordinately fond of, and whose graceless plastic signs-on-stilts jockey for position along the sides of every road in the place. And there are lots of roads, all of them seeming to bear hordes of SUV's, desperately heading somewhere else - anywhere else - rather than Florence...unless you're on Mall Road, that is, but that's pretty much self explanatory. Every time we've gone back, Florence has pushed further and further out into the surrounding area, erecting subdivisions ("housing estates" in the UK) with names like "Oakbrook", and "The Glens", suggesting a pleasing local natural environment - lots of fresh air and space for the kids, but tearing-down acres of woodland and replacing them with (for the most part), expensive, large, "family" (i.e. big double-garage and plenty of driveway to park on besides) houses in the process. Then people complain when they find snakes and raccoons in their back yards...
The only buildings that appear to be able to compete with the diners are the plethora of churches of every conceivable denomination (and a few more who are opposed to any "conceiving", whatever form it might take ). There is, I have been reliably informed, no shortage of money available for religious institutions in the area when it comes to purchasing sites, and erecting their almost entirely architecturally-uninspired "houses of the holy" - alongside, naturally, the inevitable car parks required to service the automotive needs of the righteous. Indeed, the Sunday rituals of worship in Florence occur in two distinct phases - firstly, the good folk drive forth to the chapel / temple / "Church of God" / "First Church of God" (they're just along the street from each other, which might be a touch confusing) / "Church of Christ" (slightly younger and 'hipper' than "God" ?) / "Christian Church" (as opposed to the, er, other sort) / etc,etc, then, after completing their devotions, return to their cars, and travel on to the aforementioned diners, where they proceed to revere their bellies.
Some have even been known, when esconsed in the inner sanctum of a "Red Lobster", to forget the lessons of their absolutistic (it's a real word, honest) Pastors, and stuff their faces with the abomination otherwise known as crabcakes. (I find "cherry-picking" creationists - "we only apply the rules we want to, and only when it suits us" - are tremendous fun - can you tell? )
Of course, I am being a tiny bit unfair to the area - I don't drive, which makes me a 'deviant freak weirdo' in the Mid-West (sorry guys, but yes, you are in the Mid-West. Eastern fringe, I'll grant you, but still...), and I have no truck with the kind of people who loudly proclaim their "moral authority" to tell other people how to live, while resolutely ignoring any/all evidence that might undermine that claim to some degree. (As I said, 'deviant freak weirdo' ). Quick last point - in terms of population, the city is officially 92.4% "white" (similar to where I grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, interestingly), which is 17% above the US national average - but much of suburban Florence would be practically 100%, which I must confess I find a little too "Stepford" for my liking. Not that I'm implying anything, but who'd a thunk the county would have voted 3 to 1 in favour of Bush/Cheney in '04, huh ?
Right, enough of that. There are many wonderful things in Northern Kentucky, and one of them is most definitely Willis Music. Located in a medium-sized building at the end of a "strip mall" (sadly not as exciting as it sounds), the shop (part of a local 'mini-chain'), may appear distinctly unprepossessing at first glance for the serious "gear-head". For a start, they stock a wide range of orchestral instruments, and pianos, which is usually a bad sign - less room for the Marshall stacks, man! - but fear not! Walk past these to the rear of the shop and a wealth of delights will reveal themselves! Seriously, they have an excellent range, from beginners' guitars up to custom-shop $7,000 Les Pauls - which tend to be bought by lawyers and dentists, apparently. Not that there's anything wrong with that, since every time a musically-inept-but-considerably-wealthy customer snaps up one of those babies at full price, the shop gets a little more profit-margin-leeway with which they can offer the average punter a cool deal on their more modest, but practical, instrument. And I can personally attest to this, having bought a truly fine, plain mahogany Les Paul Junior Special (before they suspended production for a while, so, in other words, a really good one!) at half the US retail price. Well, they are stuck in an area where the vast majority of their customers are either nu-metal-angsty teenagers, or country-and-western twang merchants, so no-one wanted the perfect "heavy blues" guitar, until I came along, and took advantage of our (inflated) exchange rate.
Thanks to the excellent staff (who have a surprising number of prog rock fans in their midst), I've accumulated several hours' worth of vital relaxation in the company of assorted guitars (especially one Godin that had been there for 4 years last time I checked - same story as the Les Paul Junior. If I'd had the cash spare, it could have been mine for $300 [£147] !), basses, and amps - including some of the more recent Kustom models, which were a revelation - they sounded much better than a twice-the-price, all-valve, Fender equivalent, which I found a bit surprising. Of course, if I'd had my brain engaged, I could have taken a short trip up the road to Kustom's HQ at Hebron, KY, but that would have required actual conscious thought, which I'm finding myself less and less capable of as the years of childcare accumulate.
So, if you ever find yourself stuck in Florence, Northern Kentucky, do yourself a favour - head over to Willis Music, check out the gear, and indulge in a convivial chat about "Discipline"-era King Crimson, then stop off for a bite to eat at Bob Evans (or try the local Cincinnati speciality Skyline Chili - chili that doesn't have any, er, chilis in it. Tastes great, though!), before getting the hell out of the place.
There are enough roads to choose from, almost any one of 'em will do! Personally, I'd suggest the "Double-A" highway heading east towards Ashland...but I'll leave that for the next instalment.