i grew up in the cornfields about halfway between chicago and the mississippi river…just a few miles south of the wisconsin border. as flat and as unobstructed as the view of the world was in that location…you could look across the land all the way to the line between the sky and the earth and see nothing but corn. one day when i was about five or six my folks informed my sister and brother and me that we were going to take a drive south from our place in northern illinois to visit some people in a place called Louisiana. this was my first big road trip and we took off winding down the Mississippi River toward shreveport. the friends had a house on the edge of town with open land out to the backside of the place and there was a set of railroad tracks that ran by about a half mile out in the fields.
one of the sweetest things I can recall happened one night while were staying down there in Louisiana. it was a couple of hours past midnight and everyone was asleep in the place but me. this was the summertime and the night lay still in the air. i was wide awake in my cot out on the upper porch looking at the stars when i thought i heard a sound. i couldn’t be sure at first…but it was moving my way and before long the sound had solidified…stood up and spread out…began to push into the air…taking up space and asking for more. I’d heard approaching locomotives plenty of times before but not like the this one. the closer it came the more demanding it got. but the heavier the demand…the more the night seemed to dig in and refuse to buckle…swelling up and swallowing whatever this train was hammering out. the stand-off between the night and the encroaching machine now seemed to be ballooning inside of me and it kept on self-stacking….filling me up with some new kind of war. mounting up between the pounding and the pounded i could see there was a fracture coming…sure it was about to take me and the whole world out in shards. and then this train did something chilling.
in an arc over the rhythm of its huge mechanical self it launched a long combination of soft giant whistle notes. the chord rolled through the wide open night like a question that comes with its own answer…and offered everything that i could have possibly wanted or needed at that moment. right then and there it set my life to music. when i write a song i try to make it do what that whistle did to me that night.
while one hand has been doing that…the other has always been drawing and painting pictures. as a little kid people often used to have to step over me on the floor because i would (and still do) set up for a picture where ever i can get away with it. i’ve been a bassplayer since i was fifteen and it turns out that I’ve been lucky enough to keep these things…music and painting…as my work. rs
Rowland Salley is a bass-player. He writes songs and also paints pictures. As a bass player, he has played or recorded with Bobby Gentry, the Traum Brothers, Ian and Sylvia, Joan Baez, John Prine, Shawn Colvin, Lucinda Williams, Maria Muldaur and others. He has been bassist with Chris Isaak & Silvertone since 1985. His songs have been recorded by various artists. His song “Killing the Blues” has been recorded by John Prine (Pink Cadillac and Anthology), and by Shawn Colvin (Cover Girl). One more recent cover of the song appears on the October, 2007 Rounder release, “Raising Sand”, a duet record by Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin, and Alison Krauss of Union Station. Their version of the song won a Grammy that year. This song also appears on Salley’s solo record “Killing the Blues”. His watercolor paintings have been displayed in the San Francisco Presidio, San Francisco, and a selection of them are reproduced for sale as postcards in the San Francisco area.