How Fred Wickham’s quest for a Waylon Jennings T-shirt led him to ownership of the country legend’s mid-’70s tour bus
By CJ Janovy...
Fred Wickham has two types of friends: the ones who thought he was crazy around this time last year — and the ones who thought what he did was the coolest thing ever.
What Wickham did was rescue a large, diesel-fueled heap of Americana that weaved across the yellow line between country and rock, between heartbreaker and heartbroken, between mothers and their sons who grow up to be cowboys.
Until a few years ago, Wickham was the guitar player and singer for the alt-country band Hadacol, where he played with his brother Greg (rhythm guitar, Hammond B-3), bass player Richard Burgess and drummer Brian Baker. Hadacol toured hard, released two albums and then faded. Baker moved away, and Burgess went on to join Pendergast, the Expassionates and the Cass County Lamenters.
They all play music that descends from what, in the 1970s, became branded as outlaw country, when Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, channeling Hank Williams, hit their commercial peak. And because Willie and Waylon reveled in their craziness, let's just settle it: What Wickham did was the coolest thing ever.
Wickham and his son, a junior at Central Missouri State University who is also named Fred Wickham, were in Nashville for Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble concert at the Ryman Auditorium and had gone looking for souvenirs. "We're huge Waylon Jennings fans, and we were stopping at all the cheesy shops on the main drag looking for Waylon crap," the elder Wickham recalls. "It was weird because it was all Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. I don't know why there was no Waylon." (Jennings died in 2002 at age 64.) Back home, Wickham got on eBay and typed in "Waylon."
The first thing that came up was Jennings' tour bus. It had been listed for an hour.
A 1973 Silver Eagle, built in Belgium. In other words: classic.
Wickham didn't need a bus, but he was pretty sure no one else was going to buy it. A typical eBay listing for this sort of thing would have dozens of detailed photos, but there were just a couple of fuzzy snapshots. And the bus had been owned after Jennings by a Kentucky-based family gospel group — which just seemed wrong.
He wondered, though, whether it was the right bus. "Waylon was one of the biggest stars in the world — he had several buses," Wickham notes. A '73 Silver Eagle would have been after Jennings renegotiated his deal with RCA. "That was the big turning point in Waylon's career, where he held out, demanded that he be able to use his own musicians in sessions, do things his way."
The younger Wickham started doing research. That led him to a 1973 Penthouse article headlined "Country Buses." After reading it, Wickham knew this was the right bus.
For the article, a writer named Terry Guerin rode along on a trip from Nashville to Minneapolis. A couple of passages hint at the vehicle's glory:
"The eight-by-twelve galley is the first room behind the driver's cabin. It contains a mounted color television set and eight thousand dollars' worth of stereo equipment." The bathroom is a "pretty little john with the twenty-four-carat, gold-plated sink fixture, sculptured marble commode, champagne crushed-velvet headliner, and gold-plated star on the door." Jennings tells Guerin: "We have a ghost on board, y'know, and we been gittin' to thinking that son-of-a-bitch must be the ghost of Hank Williams, all the roaring we do. So we put that star on the door to keep Hank happy."
Jennings' private room at the back of the bus, Guerin writes, "has a big walk-in closet, two mounted ten-inch speakers, a reel-to-reel tape player, and an amplifier mounted in a vertical console finished in Shellrock. It has a bed covered in Indian-print cut velvet against one side wall. Opposite it is a small collapsible table fronted by a handmade, high-backed, swivel-wing, black velvet chair, in which Waylon sits tossing longish, oily chestnut hair he won't wash for another four days."
If Guerin witnesses any of Jennings' notorious behavior, he doesn't describe it; instead, he gives us bass player Duke Goff drinking beer and chatting with rhythm guitarist Larry "about the methodology or oral sex with diesel sniffers (C&W groupies)."
"We don't know exactly what went on in that bus," Wickham says, "but Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and all their friends were on that bus. If there's any country star's bus that might have stories to tell, you gotta believe it would be Waylon's."
So he bought it.
The day it arrived from Kentucky, Wickham and 15 friends were to meet the gospel family at a car-rental place in Independence.
"Someone said, 'There it is!' and I looked down Noland Road and thought, What have I done?" Wickham says. "It dwarfed everything. It was like Noland Road was a harbor full of little boats, and here comes an aircraft carrier. But everybody was cheering."
Now it sits in a pasture at his mother's home in Warrensburg, the bottom half glistening chrome, the top half a garish dark aqua, the gospel family's name still desecrating its rear end.
Inside, it smells musty. A couple of Jennings' signature, spread-eagle W's are carved in the fake woodwork; a neon-orange "Waylon" is etched into a mirrored control panel above the windshield. Velvety brown curtains date back to Jennings, Wickham thinks, but the turquoise carpet and upholstery don't. The toilet is now marble-patterned plastic. Wickham can't figure out why the gospel family would have left the "Dixie 45" bottle opener screwed into the fake-rock wall near the fridge, but there it is.
"This was filthy when we got it," he says. "As we were cleaning, we kept looking for guitar picks, but mostly what we found was McDonald's toys." Eventually, Wickham says, "We found some insurance papers made out to Waylon and a backstage pass with Waylon's logo. That backstage pass was like gold."
More online research led them to a photo of Johnny Cash on the bus. It was taken on the set of the 1986 Stagecoach remake starring Cash, Jennings, Nelson and Kristofferson. Another trip to eBay secured a Harman Kardon receiver like the one behind Cash's shoulder in the photo.
It might be the beginning of a slow restoration. "If it was restored right," Wickham says, "it's one of those things that should be somewhere for people to see in Nashville."
Meanwhile, he's just enjoying it. "It always feels good going on the bus. It's like there's a spirit."
Around the same time he bought the bus, Wickham began writing songs again after a few dry years. Now the Wickham brothers are thinking about getting Hadacol back together. "We'll probably go down to Springfield and cut some demos with [producer] Lou Whitney and see if it takes off like it did last time."
Thu Jun 26 2014 01:48:03 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)
Freiburger and Finnegan think this is the best episode so far! It's the longest, too. This show has it all: a Mad-Max-vibe 1968 Dodge Charger built with motor home parts, sideways Dukes-style action, lots of low-buck wrenching, hilarious snafus, and cameo appearances by the Macho Grande from episode 8, the '66 Buick Special convertible from a pre-Roadkill episode, the ramp truck from episode 20, and the Fury from episode 22. Enjoy the last Roadkill of 2013!
Wed Jan 08 2014 21:02:37 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)
Country Road, Lancaster, PA 1961 by George Tice.
George Tice is New Jersey's photo laureate. Or he would be, if states had photo laureates. New Jersey is celebrating his 75th birthday and his 60th year as a photographer with exhibitions at the Newark Museum and William Paterson University, two public institutions that he has long been involved with. The exhibition at the Newark Museum is unusual in that of the 31 pictures on display, Mr. Tice took only six of them. Nine pictures taken by others were printed by him, and demonstrate his proficiency in the darkroom; the rest are pictures that were taken by students, such as Sally Mann, or came from his private collection. It is a very heterogeneous exhibition.
George Tice was born in Newark on Oct. 13, 1938. The museum will celebrate Oct. 13 with a cake and the premiere showing of "George Tice: Seeing Beyond the Moment," a full-length documentary. Tices go way back in New Jersey; the first Tice in America landed in New Amsterdam in 1663, but in 1709 a Tice bought 500 acres in Morris County, N.J., and an area in the center of the state was once known as Ticetown. George had a troubled youth; his father left the family when he was a child, and his mother was a "Traveler," one of a subculture of itinerants, who made a meager living selling paper flowers in the Newark exurbs. When he was 14, at the suggestion of a high-school teacher, he joined the Carteret Camera Club, and a future opened up for him.
Mr. Tice left school at 16 to work as a darkroom assistant for a Newark portrait studio, and joined the Navy the following year. While serving as a photographer's mate he took a picture of an explosion aboard the USS Wasp that Edward Steichen bought for the Museum of Modern Art. After his release from service, Mr. Tice worked as a home portrait photographer, lugging a backdrop from house to house to make the pictures look professional.
By the 1970s he was able to devote time to personal projects, eventually having his photographs exhibited and collected by museums around the world, and publishing 17 photo books. Among the latter are essays on the Amish in Pennsylvania, the seacoast of Maine, and the moors of Yorkshire, England, but it is those connected to New Jersey—"Patterson," "Paterson II," "Ticetown," "George Tice: Urban Landscapes"—with which he is most identified. His latest book, "Seldom Seen," is being released in connection with the current exhibitions.
Since 1980, Mr. Tice has donated a total of 150 photographs to the Newark Museum, an important part of their collection. On display now are works by William Fox Talbot, Lewis Hine, John Paul Caponigro, Jerry Uelsmann and others, showing Mr. Tice's catholic interests. Of the six pictures in the exhibition that he took, five are of New Jersey, and include his classics "Petit's Mobil Station, Cherry Hill, NJ" (1974) and "White Castle, Route #1, Rahway, New Jersey " (1973). Prints of those two celebrated images are included in the exhibitions at William Paterson University and at New York's Nailya Alexander Gallery and San Francisco's Scott Nichols Gallery as well, and all three of those venues also have prints of "Telephone Booth, 3 A.M., Rahway, NJ" (1974). The gas station, the crenelated fast-food outlet and the isolated phone booth—each structure shot dramatically at night, and with no one about—are critical components of Mr. Tice's reputation.
"Most of my pictures are about place," Mr. Tice explained to Mr. Caponigro in a 1997 interview. The 36 prints at the University Galleries at William Paterson University in Wayne are all about places, New Jersey places, nine of them scenes of nature such as "Oak Tree, Holmdel, NJ" (1970) or "The Passaic Falls" (1971), and most of the rest scenes of urban decline. The neon used to illuminate "USED CARS" in the "Riverside Auto Sales" (1971) sign is missing. The paint is peeling from the "Cott Beverage Sign" (1969). There is trash on the sidewalk at the foot of the stairs in "Hamilton Avenue, Paterson, NJ" (1971). The boarded-up "Factory Windows" (1970) are emblematic of industrial collapse. These places are not slums, but they have lost their middle-class gentility and are shabby. Mr. Tice is not reproachful; he accepts things as they are.
If Mr. Tice has an agenda, it is existential, not political. "The great difficulty of what I attempt," he said in the preface to "Urban Landscapes" (2002), "is seeing beyond the moment; the everydayness of life gets in the way of the eternal." Most of his pictures are taken with an 8-by-10-inch view camera that captures tiny details, and his meticulous darkroom technique ensures they will be visible in the final print. Several of his pictures, including "Petit's Mobil," "White Castle" and "Telephone Booth," have been made into platinum/palladium prints with delicate gradations of tone even in the shadows. His carefully selected points of view seem straightforward, but always manage to put the elements of his pictures into significant juxtapositions. Nothing superfluous is included. People are rarely prominent in his cityscapes, so the scenes are like stage sets waiting for the cast to appear.
William Paterson University awarded Mr. Tice an honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, in 2003. In the 10 years since, Mr. Tice has had exhibitions there, has lectured there, and made donations to the library. Stephen Hahn, associate provost and professor of English at the university, wrote a perceptive paper in 2008 comparing Mr. Tice and William Carlos Williams, the author of an epic poem about Paterson; in his paper, Prof. Hahn quotes the photographer on Paterson's "sad beauty." That the city was sad was there for all to see; it took the photographer's eye to find the beauty.
Mr. Meyers writes on photography for the Journal. See his work at www.williammeyersphotography.com.
If all the billboards along Alaska's Seward Highway were laid end to end, they'd reach—nowhere. There are no billboards here, no tollbooths, few towns, and fewer gas stations. But if you're looking for whales and waterfalls, blue glaciers and sharp-toothed mountains, calm trout ponds and stormy ocean fjords, there's enough visual overload here to fill a hard drive with digital pictures.
Starting in Anchorage, the route meanders generally south 127 miles (204 kilometers) from sea to mountains to sea across the Kenai Peninsula, ending in the harbor town of Seward on Resurrection Bay. The U.S. government has named the Seward Highway an All-American Road, suggesting it's a destination unto itself. You could rush through the drive in under three hours, but don't. Devote at least a long weekend to the round-trip to give yourself ample time to explore some of the most appealing and accessible sites in south-central Alaska.
Begin in Anchorage
The old joke is that Anchorage, population 283,000, is just 15 minutes from Alaska. Sure enough, when the Seward Highway drops its busy commuter load, it shrinks to two lanes and glides alongside Potter Marsh (mile 117.4). This almost urban wilderness, tucked in a curve between the ocean and the Chugach foothills, is a favorite stop for migratory birds. Eagles soar overhead while waterfowl nest amid vividly green grasses. Two boardwalks (including an 1,100-foot/335-meter addition completed in July 2008) get you closer to the bird-life as well as spawning salmon and wandering moose.
Chugach State Park
Beyond the marsh, the road squeezes between cliffs and ocean. On one side, gray rock reaches up into Chugach State Park. On the other, silty Turnagain Arm stretches across to the sharp angles of the Kenai Mountains. Stop at the Turnagain House (mile 103.1; tel. 1 907 653 7500) to admire the view and sample fresh Kachemak Bay oysters.
Look down at Bird Creek below the road (mile 101). This fisherman's paradise, with good parking and observation platforms, is almost perfect for kibitzers and photographers as well. "Sightseers love it," says Anchorage sportsman Ralph Portell, showing off a bright silver salmon. "They lean over the railing and ask what you're catching and what you're using." If you're lucky, you might see a Steller sea lion chase a school of salmon into the mouth of the stream.
Just a bit farther, at Bird Point (mile 96), stop to see belugas, their white bodies easily visible in the dark waters. They frequent Turnagain Arm from early summer through September. Ashore, look for the beaver dam in the green boggy area. Across the highway, Dall sheep graze among the rocks on the slopes above. Bird Point also has views of the tidal bore, a two-to-six-foot (one-to-two-meter) surge that occurs when the tide pushes river water upstream.
The turnoff to Girdwood (mile 90), marked by a field of wildflowers in early summer, is a favorite subject of local artists. In tiny Girdwood itself, a mix of funky cabins and pricey ski chalets, flower gardeners make the most of Alaska's long summer daylight. At the Bake Shop (Olympic Mountain Loop, Olympic Circle boardwalk; tel. 1 907 783 2831; www.thebakeshop.com), saucer-size begonias, dahlias, and other blooms on display are nearly as big as the bakery's famous sweet rolls. The expansive gardens of the Hotel Alyeska (1000 Arlberg Ave.; tel. 1 907 754 2111 or 800 880 3880; www.alyeskaresort.com; from $289) fascinate visitors like Jeff Nueman of Fort Worth. "The colors, the variety, the patterns of the flowers—we just don't have this in Texas," he says.
Slopes of wildflowers greet visitors at Mount Alyeska. Ride a ski tram to a point 2,300 feet (700 meters) up the mountainside (Arlberg Ave.; tel. 1 907 754 2275; www.alyeskaresort.com) for a view that folks up here love to show off to lower-48ers. Hanging glaciers, snowy mountain peaks, and wildlife from tiny marmots to black bears are easy to spot.
A few miles farther down the road, the mountains pull back to reveal green wetlands. Eerie spears of dead, salt-soaked trees are all that's left of a forest destroyed when the 1964 earthquake permeated the soil with seawater. They form a stark foreground to the glaciers of Portage Valley. At mile 78.9, turn off to the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center (Portage Valley Rd.; tel. 1 907 783 2326) on the shores of Portage Lake for views of icebergs.
From there, the road arcs up over 900 feet (274 meters) from near sea level to the broad Turnagain Pass (mile 68.5), a major hot spot for snowmobilers and skiers in winter and for hikers and berry-pickers in summer. Green slopes on either side rise to stony mountaintops flecked with snow even on the hottest days.
Once you're through the pass, the mountains close in around you. Nearly any point along the way is cause to pull over for photos. At mile 54, pull off to look behind you. Mountains fold into one another like reflections in a fun-house mirror, while gold-bearing Canyon Creek foams at their feet. From mile 47 to 18, crystalline lakes pepper the route: Jerome Lake, Tern Lake, massive Kenai Lake, and their companions. The steel-blue waters draw kayakers and canoeists in search of quiet bird watching, fishing, picnicking, and camping. At Summit Lake Lodge (mile 45.5; tel. 1 907 244 2031; www.summitlakelodge.com), the lake view isn't complete without a slab of fresh-baked pie.
At Moose Pass, a sign on a homemade waterwheel with grindstone articulates the local sentiment: "Moose Pass is a peaceful little town. If you have an axe to grind, do it here." The mood of the road is gentler, too, as the mountains back off a bit to give you more breathing room. At mile 14, the Snow River broadens into a set of braided streamlets flowing among tall cottonwood trees. Eagles soar over the gravel beds, and Paradise Peak's ice fields look ready to drop into your lap.
At the end of the road lies Seward. This tidy town of about 3,000 has some 40 B&Bs. Lodgings range from forest cabins to the 1918 Odd Fellows Hall that is now A Swan Nest Inn (504 Adams St.; te. 1 907 224 3080 or 866 224 7461; www.aswannestinn.com; from $120). Several pleasant hotels include the historic Van Gilder downtown (308 Adams St.; tel. 800 204 6835; www.vangilderhotel.com; from $119) and secluded Seward Windsong Lodge (Exit Glacier/Herman Leirer Rd.; tel. 877 777 4079; www.sewardwindsong.com; from $139). Around here, fish is on every menu, from deep-fried halibut by the harbor to fragrant cedar-planked salmon at Ray's Waterfront (1316 Fourth Ave.; tel. 1 907 224 5606). You can catch your own, too, from a charter boat or along the town beach, where several blocks of prime downtown waterfront are available for camping. Fishermen and campers enjoy a view of the busy harbor, where hundreds of white masts and hulls stand out against the dark blue backdrop of the Resurrection Peninsula. Above, Marathon Mountain rears to 3,022 stony feet (921 meters), the steep and challenging site of one of Alaska's most popular foot races.
The crowning view on the Seward Highway is the final one, which, technically, lies at the official start of the road, mile 0. Here, the full glory of Resurrection Bay opens up. Fox Island wades across the mouth of this dramatic fjord. Fishing boats and kayaks ply waters frequented by sea lions, otters, humpback whales, harbor seals, porpoises, and orcas. And simply look up to see a bird-watcher's dream list of birdlife fluttering overhead.
Alaska SeaLife Center
Find a good vantage point at the Alaska SeaLife Center (301 Railway Ave.; tel. 1 907 224 6300 or 800 224 2525; www.alaskasealife.org), a research facility and aquarium devoted to North Pacific marine life. Watching silver salmon leaping in the bay, Mitch Manzo of Anchorage says, "This is the best view on the entire road." He was so taken with Seward that a few years ago he and his betrothed chose a spot just down the beach, near a waterfall, for their wedding. "We wanted everything to be beautiful," says his wife, Debra. "So, naturally, we came here."
Summer is the best time to drive the Seward Highway; see for local weather conditions. For more information on the Seward Highway, visit www.byways.org. Also check out The Milepost, a mile-by-mile travel guide to Alaska roads (www.themilepost.com). For details about the resort town of Girdwood, see www.girdwoodalaska.com; for more on Seward, see www.sewardak.org. The local area code is 907 unless otherwise noted. The attractions above begin in Anchorage, the state's largest city.
—Text by Carol M. Sturgulewski, adapted from National Geographic Traveler