Into The Great Beyond, Dan Fogelberg

I was just a kid. The only time I hated the term more than I do now was back then. It wasn't a justification, but a dismissal - and being dismissed was for folks dispatched without further thought. But I was a kid… and smart and savvy as I was, I looked about 14 years old.

Truth is that 19 or 20 isn't much older. Moxie and determination, as well as the matchplayer's notion of never cave in, gives you an edge. Dreams let you prevail where reason falters. After all, you never know until you ask.

And there I was on the fringe of the Diplomat Hotel's Ballroom, watching the waiters setting the table, the band twirling nobs, changing strings, generally killing time 'til it was time. The Diplomat Hotel - an old school Miami Beach hotel that actually sat in Broward County - was the kind of place people held conventions, and the National Association of Record Merchandisers liked the sun, the overstuffed faux rococo grandeur that gave the hotel a veneer of luxury that suited their hooker'n'cocaine away-from-the-wives excess.

NARM was a big deal. The time when various record companies trotted out their prestige and soon-to-be-best-selling projects, for the superstars to rub elbows with the people who did the tonnage of their latest records. It was that moment where the schleppers and the foot soldiers got their whiff of the rarified air of the people they sold in 12 inch increments of shiny black vinyl.

If they would never be the same, there was a moment where the sellers were made to believe they were part of the plan. And a good NARM appearance - even if it was just cocktails in the lost hours of some distribution group's suite - could get the folks who moved “the product” on board with a verve and a passion that made all the difference.

So it was that Dan Fogelberg, the Illinois-bred, Colorado-anchored singer/songwriter had made the trek to South Florida to flog an artistic indulgence: a heavily bluegrass-inflected album called High Country Snows.

The record, secured by the success of albums like Captured Angel, Netherlands, Souvenirs, Phoenix and The Innocent Age, was equal parts returning the sensitive singer/songwriter to an oeuvre that had sustained him as an evolving artist and offered the nature-grounded lyricist new terrain to explore musically.

If there were those who thought Fogelberg might be too wimpy to outright embrace, you couldn't prove it by the company he was keeping. On the record, the guests included Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Emory Gordy and David Briggs. On the stage, there was former Byrd/Flying Burrito Chris Hillman, wonder high tenor/harmony singer Herb Pederson, dobro revolutionary Jerry Douglas, mandolin man David Grisman and steel legend Al Perkins.

If sound check is the smoothing out the kinks of setting sound levels, they sounded damn fine. Fine enough I knew bagging my call-out research internship was the right thing; fine enough that I was almost too intimidated to start scratching for that potential opening. Still Mark Shands, the music director who oversaw my college credit, deserved more than a faint effort, and so summoning my courage, I moved closer, sussing and wondering.

I was sent to a woman named Roz Blanche, who made the special projects for CBS Records shine. She must've been amused by the ballsy girl with the decent pitch: freelancing for The Miami Herald, this is an artistic high watermark - or at the very least breakthrough. This is a record that should be talked about.

Whatever it was, she bought in. She sent me to Charlie Fernandez, who tour managed the superstars playing with the superstar. She told me to tell him she thought this was something that should happen. Evidently her should was law - and the black haired man with the coal eyes and solid body took it all in, nodding and listening.

Fernandez called a woman named Nina Avrimades over. She was a calm blond with the kind of grace, she seemed like the sort of post-hippie Madonna who might've inspired some of Fogelberg's work. But she was no muse, she was air traffic control for power-manager Irving Azoff. The tour manager explained to the management rep what Roz had said.

I stood there looking sheepish, Suddenly, the magnitude of the reach hit me.
Dan Fogelberg was never one of my favorites. I respected his writing. I loved the way his voice had enough muscle to arc up around the notes of the melody, but the suppleness to swirl almost effortlessly around the melody. But was it worth looking like some starstruck kid? Because until the rubber met the road, I knew what I looked like: a junior high schooler who'd snuck away from gym class.

The very polished woman looked at me, knitted her eye brows, cocked her head, considering. It wasn't an awkward pause, just a moment suspended. And as the soundcheck ended, she walked over to her client and conferred. I don't remember ever being looked over exactly, but a few moments later, I was hightailing to the valet stand so I could get my little red car so I could chase Dan Fogelberg's limo to some hotel in the lower part of Fort Lauderdale's beach front.

Nerve-wracking, really. Not wanting to tailgait, not wanting to get cut off or left behind the long stretch vehicle at a light that changed at just the wrong moment. My palms were sweating clutching the wheel as I watched the road and droned the song titles of all the albums my friends and I had owned like some talismanic mantra designed to take the edge off the moment.

After all being young wasn't something I could help. But seeming unprepared, unaware, unable to string together an informed line of questions, well, that was the highest personal treason I could imagine. I muttered “Illinois,” “Part of the Plan,” “Place In The World For A Gambler,” “Crow,” “Lessons Learned,” “Long Way Home (Live In The Country),” “Old Tennessee,” “Days Gone By,” “Changing Horses,” “Morning Sky,” “Someone's Been Telling You Stories,” anything but the dreadful singles that somehow seeped onto the radio. Those hits weren't the essence of the man… the essence of the man… the essence of…

My eyes had averted from the parking log jam at the next hotel, scanning the car for what I can't recall. I just knew there was someone standing outside my door, looking at me. I didn't want to hold the valet up, so I pulled on the handle and emerged… only to find myself looking straight into the face of a dark-headed man with a beard.

“I'm Dan,” he said, friendly as can be.
“I know,” I laughed. “I know who you are…”
“Yes, and you are…”

I'd assumed that he'd been briefed. After all, isn't that what they do? Warn them. Or suggest tolerance. The Miami Herald was one of America's Top 10 papers. I'd explained that I did a lot of their country music pieces. I suggested that the Knight Ridder chain was a good one to ship out on. The blonde lady got it; I could tell. But there was never any accounting for high strung sensitive types - especially not the swoon-inducing singer/songwriter stripe.

“Uhm, oh,” I said, laughing and stumbling over my own verbal misstep. “I'm Holly… Holly Gleason…”
I smiled. He was nice. Nice. Not just nice, warm and trying to be engaging.
“Do you mind if we do this while we eat?” he asked.

“No, no. Whatever works for you,” I offered congenially, thoroughly unhinged at the prospect of having dinner with… well… Dan Fogelberg. What would Tisha Floyd say? Joanne Parrino? Jayne Kundtz? Any number of the girls I'd gone to school with. This was surreal.

“Okay, great,” he responded as if it was no big deal. “Nina, we can do this in the restaurant.”
“Oh, you've worked it all out then,” she replied. “Perfect.”

And that was that. Trying to look unfazed, we headed for an off-white room with a lot of stucco and were seated in a booth. Him on one side, me and the manager on the other. Just like people get seated every day. Menus offered, scanned, surrendered with an order.

“Bluegrass…” I opened, wide-open.
He smiled now. “Yeah…”

And we were off. Tales high and low of how he'd heard it, what it meant, the fact that songs have their own tides and tempos. He was enthused. He was open to talking about the artists who inspired him, the paths that had crossed his, the songs that emerged from his life and his being. He told stories about people - about Emmylou as a waitress in Nashville before returning to Washington, DC with her little girl, about living in Colorado and the sentimental undertow that churned up the best songs.

He spoke of the courage of mining one's life to tell the truest truths, the will to be the most compelling - even if it took you to awkward places -- and the fun of playing bluegrass. He'd not “gone country” as Alan Jackson would sing two decades later, but merely reclaimed a potent strand of where he'd come from - and his joy was palpable.

We talked about records that were out. We talked about moments as a performer that mattered. Indeed, we talked about small things I can't remember. But we talked and talked, unrushed and connected over the notion of telling the story of this man, this record, this place and time.

It seemed like forever and it seemed like a moment. But I know time had passed for the 90 minute cassette had been turned, and a second started. He smiled at me some more - not in the brazen “here little girl…” so many rock stars embrace, but in the shared happiness of a departure well realized.

“Oh, I think I have to go upstairs,” he said, “I need to change for the show…”
“The show,” I echoed.
“Well, yeah, that's why we're here,” he teased. Somehow in the glimmer, I'd forgotten.

And then he was gone.

Nina Avrimedes got up as he left the table, then sat down across from me, waiting for the check.
“He never does that,” she offered.
“Does…,” I inquired in the shortest possible way.
“He never stays that long in these interviews,” she responded. “He really enjoyed himself.”

Wow, I thought, but didn't want to seem starstruck. “Well, good,” I volunteered. “I really try to stay in the moment, to ask good questions.”

“You did,” she returned, then repeated herself. “He really seemed to enjoy himself.”
We made small talk, the way people do when they're waiting on their check or their change. He was back quicker than you'd think a star would take to change.

“You coming to the show?” he inquired.
“Uhm, I'd love to,” I said truthfully. “But I'm not registered for NARM.”
“I see,” he said indulgently. “Well, I think Nina can get you in there… Can't you, Nina?”

She smiled. “Yes, I think we can. I can certainly see what we can do.”
NARM, after all, was for big shots, and people who sold the records to the rest of us. Writer or not, I was a kid - and I wasn't necessary. But I'd heard the fire pour off that stage when they'd played Flatt & Scruggs' “Down The Road,” and I knew this was going to be one of those shows you didn't want to miss.

Maybe I didn't know all there was to know about bluegrass. Okay, all I knew was what I'd learned (for the most part) from Emmylou Harris' Roses In The Snow and Nicolette Larson's take on the Louvin Brothers' “Angels Rejoiced,” plus Ricky Skaggs revved up modern country-bluegrass hybrid. But I knew enough to know that stage was going to be blazing, and I wanted to see it.
I smiled hopefully.

“Yes, we'll figure it out,” she assured me as their driver opened the door to that shiny black car.
“Thank you,” I said breathless, desperately hoping to have some modicum of cool, but completely okay if I didn't. These were the moments that didn't happen to kids like me: children of the Midwest raised to be housewives and tennis players and such.

And sure enough Roz Blanche was waiting to walk me in. asking how the interview was.
“Good,” I offered, back to being the consummate professional. “He's very articulate.”

Still, when the band took the stage and the picking pyrotechnics flew, my heart raced. Jerry Douglas sparking and flickering that dobro -- all kerosene and molten lava -- was like nothing I'd never heard. And as Fogelberg talked of the why and the how of this project, thanking the retailers and rack jobbers for supporting his vision, you could feel the room draw close and everyone embrace something akimbo to what they expected from him.

I knew about outrunning expectations. I was a kid in a striped tshirt, trying not to be noticed thereby jeopardizing my ability to be in the room. I just wanted to blend in and listen because it was the listening that mattered.

Still there was an after party in yet another suite. “You coming up?” someone asked me as the attendees filed out.

“Uhm, I don't know…,” I said, never considering it.
“Well, after that dinner, I'd think he'd want to see you.” It was Roz Blanche, bringing me back to the there and when. She had that look of someone who'd vouched for an unlikely person and been proven right. It wasn't elation, nor was it told you so, just genuine satisfaction in making something good happen.
“I guess I could, yeah,” I affirmed. “Of course.”

And in the elevator, the local CBS Rep was appalled to see me. He'd not had to deal with the country artists, so he had yet to have to deal with me. He just knew I was that college girl who seemed to be everywhere - and now everywhere was here, under his nose at a very special performance, one with a band that very likely wouldn't be convened except for the most special circumstances.

It was exactly the kind of scene the record business is so good at supporting: Open bar, too many people preening and talking too loud, posturing over who knew whom better or longer. It was shucking and jiving and jockeying for carnal pole position in the nocturnal sprint of “what goes on on the road stays on the road?”

In the din and the swirl, there was Dan Fogelberg, post-show and very much in the moment. He looked regal. It had been the kind of evening most artists hope for - and he'd pulled it off in front of the very people he needed to champion his digression into an archaic musical form on some counts.

“You,” he said when he saw me halfway across the room. I'd not wanted to interrupt. I'd only wanted to see what one of those whispered about parties looked like.

“You,” I said smiling back, crossing to him - very much aware of the eyes following me, judging me, thinking I was charging the guest of honor.

“What did you think?” he inquired, truly interested.
“It was… incredible,” I giggled. “Those guys plays like monsters: so fast and so hard and with sooo much feeling. I couldn't believe how good it was.”
“Really…,” he asked, not quite doubting, just making sure.
“Really,” I said. “It was amazing. Thank you for having me… It was fun.”
“Yes, it was,” he agreed. “It was a lot of fun. And it was nice talking to you this evening. It really was.”

I blushed. Someone said get a picture. I didn't know which way to look, the whole night rushing up at me. But I smiled and pulled away, knowing he had a room to work, a record to sell to the people who sell records.

I spoke to his manager a bit more, got her information, promised a tear sheet. I found Roz Blanch and thanked her profusely, knowing that without her endorsement, I'd've most likely been blown off. I took it all in, marveling at the empty freneticism and glad-handing that was the antithesis of what had happened on that stage.

Watching the room fade into a whirl of bodies and words run together, I laughed. So this is what it was… and I'd seen the songs and spoken to the man who wrote them… and now I was unobserved and more than happy. He had been engaged, had proven to be kind and thoughtful and willing to share what truths he'd found along this creative sojourn.

There was nothing else to do or say. Raising my hand to no one in particular, I moved backwards undetected and descended to the lobby below. Another valet stand, another tip, and then I was gone… window rolled down, sea air filling the car, I could think about how the most creative people seemed the most willing to share how they got there.

I never knew if it was the wish to truly be understood or merely the generosity of someone who touched people and recognized the power of that mainlined musical connection. It didn't matter. It was one of those nights. He was one of those people.

Sometimes you find a gentleman at the roughest places. Though the stakes were high, the soft-spoken musician was willing - and it came out in the way he gently sat and talked to a kid. It wasn't that it was farflung or fancy, but more that it was real… perhaps the rarest commodity of all.

A few weeks later, a picture arrived in the mail. It was a beaming Fogelberg, basking in the afterglow of a satisfying show and a girl beaming in the knowledge that she's just done an interview that could hang with anyone's.

There was a note included: “Figure you'd like to have this. It was the only picture where he was really smiling. It was quite a night.”

Indeed, it was. But then again, magic comes from the hearts of the ones who're willing to dream, willing to reach, willing to be. Even in the throes of the cancer, Dan Fogelberg never ceased being -- and that was the throughline of a life that touched so many lives.

I was trapped in a blizzard in an airport hotel when the news reached me. I didn't know who to tell or what to say. What can you say? Beyond the way a grown man gave a kid dignity and the respect of real answers. Its the kind of grace that makes the songs ring that much truer -- and in the case of the man who'd moved to Maine, it seemed like "The Sea & The Foam" he once sang of, some things never truly drift away.