Volume 12, Spring 2021

Buenos Dias, buckaroos and buckarettes!

I'm Bob - welcome to the bunker! You may know me from the band Big Medicine Head or daytime television.  This monthly missive from the land of tumbleweeds and the lonesome six string guitar features news from the frontier, music and prose. Each issue will have a downloadable track and lyrics, along with the backstory of the song. For the duration of the pandemic we'll also feature live songs from the bunker. Call me crazy, but I'm giving all this away for free

If you'd like to revisit past issues of Tales of the Western Hemisphere you can find them at bobgemmell.com

S O N G  o f  t h e  M O N T H
Sit back and relax as we explore the Bob Gemmell and Big Medicine Head song catalog. The download instructions are at the bottom of this newsletter.

I guess we can call this the Hank Williams edition of the Tales of the Western Hemisphere newsletter. Not only is this month's Song of the Month offering Big Medicine City one of several Big Medicine Head tracks in which the slender Lord of Twang is referenced, but he is the subject of this edition's Song From the Bunker Dashboard Radio, below. 

I had the pleasure of visiting the Hank Willams Museum in Montgomery, Alabama on the way to the AmericanaFest in Nashville not long ago. It was a highlight of the trip. Anything and everything Hank was on display: old posters for gigs, his guitar, finely crafted western outfits he wore at performances, and photographs that tracked his trajectory from joyous exuberance to sad decline.

As I soaked up the nostalgia and stood next to the Cadillac he had died in, I found myself thinking about my mom. She passed a few years ago. When I was a kid the sound of Hank Williams coming out of the dashboard on KRAK radio was a constant whenever we drove around in our Volkswagen bus.  

A thing about this track that I like: everyone played on it. In addition to the boys from Big Medicine Head, the great Laura Burian plays fiddle, the Honkin' Soul Blues Master Danny Weiss plays harmonica, and Santa Cruz rock legend Dave Murray plays percussion.

Hank Willams established a category for poetry in country music. If you stand up the lyrics to I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry on a blank page and take away the music, they will still rip your heart out. He showed us that country music and poetry are not anterior to one another.

Big Medicine City references Hank Williams, but any country song with lyrical ambitions is an homage to him.

Listen here, or follow the download instructions below.

I hope you dig it.

Big Medicine City

A country music station is humming
It’s a quarter past four in the morning
my cigarette stands at half mast
there’s some beer in my glass
and in Nashville the hits just keep coming
and all the stars in the sky shine like my baby’s eyes
in Big Medicine City tonight

Angel’s tears fall from heaven like payment
they glitter like diamonds out on the pavement
the guy on the radio said someone’s stolen the day
and nobody saw which way that he went
but my baby’s blowin’ a fuse on all of those blues
in Big Medicine City tonight

Sprinkle stardust over my eyelids
sweep all the devils off of my porch
listening to something Hank Williams wrote
has seared my soul with a radial scorch
but my baby knows she’s the best, it’s tattooed on my chest
in Big Medicine City tonight

I N D I V I D U A L S  o f  
G R E A T   D I S T I N C T I O N

Sal Tartamella

I had a reunion recently with my old pals Brian Roeder and Gregg Kirksey. The three of us worked at the same bar in Santa Cruz back in the day. Our escapades in that sun-drenched seaside burgh were legendary. Our activities were nefarious. Our behavior was sub-standard.  Our raison d'être was our quest for mirth, often fueled by mythic quantities of libation. We were reprobates then, and we didn't care who knew it. 

It was wonderful regaling each other with reminiscence of our revels, but the highlight was when we connected with our former boss, Sal Tartamella.  

Sal owned the Oak Room, a bar and restaurant in the Cooper House building, which had been the Santa Cruz Courthouse in a previous century. Sal stomped the social terra firma like a mastodon, and his path of devastation was as wide as anyone's. Sal realized that to be successful in a smooth jazz tourist environment he would need a differentiation strategy - a way to separate the Oak Room from the glut of foo-foo daiquiri restaurants in Santa Cruz. He developed a genius value proposition: go all in on outrageous behavior. It draws a crowd, much like a car crash but way more fun. He turned Gregg loose to turn the bar into an inebriated social experiment and incite patrons into a stuporific frenzy. Greg would start calmly enough, performing bar tricks and telling jokes. By the end of the night he would be drooling and slithering on the bar. 

Brian and I joined in. One night Brian rode his motorcycle from our joint to another establishment, with me on the back holding a cocktail tray. We delivered drinks to the bartender at another bar as a gesture of camaraderie. 

I played musical chairs with cocktails. At the sound of my bar spoon tapping a glass everyone would have to switch cocktails with the person on the stool to their left.

At my urging Sal purchased a dental chair, which I used to pour alcohol directly into the mouths of patrons. I would recruit someone at the bar to be my dental hygienist-assistant. I would tear off the corner of a napkin so that when unfolded there was a hole in the middle. This was then placed over the prostrate victim's face. I would then instruct my assistant to rim the patron's lips with lime and salt, and I would proceed to do a three bottle pour (tequila in my left hand, triple sec and Rose's lime juice in the right) directly into their gaping mouth. 

Brian and some of his pals came in one night and asked me for a round on the house. I said "Okay, but whatever I make you've got to drink." They agreed. I proceeded to fill a cocktail glass with tequila, milk, pocket lint and cigarette ashes. They all drank it, as an affirmation of their manhood. They asked me what it was called. "Indescribable Filth" I replied. Later, I convinced Sal to put it on the menu that was given to weekend tourists during the jazz performances on the patio.

The Oak Room was a human zoo and a drunken seance, infused with loud music and unapologetic affection

It was fun chatting with Sal and the boys, but afterward I realized that I never thanked Sal for everything he did for me. You see, before Big Medicine Head and before all the albums and touring, I was a struggling musician in Santa Cruz looking to get a foothold. I had a band, and Sal let us play at the restaurant, gave us the basement to practice in, and let me use the bar to run an open mic night. Without that experience and exposure I may never have been set on the path to create all of the music that you graciously allow me to deliver to your email inbox every month.

So, belatedly...thank you, Sal.

Dan Levinson

Every once and awhile someone crosses our path that elevates us. I've made such a connection with Appalachian native Dan Levinson, the King of Americana

Dan is an amazing fiddle and banjo player, or as Fiddler Magazine’s Bob Buckingham described him "...one of the best clawhammer banjo players in the country.” 

Over the years I've learned to play a number of instruments: guitar, mandolin, ukulele, banjo, dobro, some piano and a mean shaker. I've even recorded harmonica on a track from the Big Medicine Head album Queen of the Western Hemisphere.  The one instrument that has haunted me - my white whale, if you will - is the fiddle. I have one, and it's been hanging on my wall for years, challenging me, mocking me.

I met Dan in a banjo forum when I was shopping for a five-string. He gave me some good advice, and I noticed from his bio he played fiddle, as well. We got to chatting, and he said he gives lessons, and well...there you go.

The big breakthrough for me was in how I was holding the instrument. Dan taught be how to do that, and taught be how to approach the instrument as though it were an extension of my limbs. What I learned was that if it is painful, you're doing it wrong.

Dan is a world renowned teacher and interpreter of American rural music, and I'm glad he spent a little time on me. I'm still not a fiddle player, but Dan set me on a path to where I can be, and will be. 

Check out the music and wisdom of Dan Levinson at Clawdan.com


America, After the War was just released - it's blowing up the internet - the highest views and likes we've ever received on YouTube and Instagram - check it out here.

S O N G  f r o m  t h e  B U N K E R
Each month we spin up a new song from the foxhole we find ourselves in. 

I wrote Dashboard Radio this while recording the Parts and Labor album - check out that version at bobgemmell.com. 

I mentioned Hank Williams above - there really isn't a lot more to say. Maybe I'll throw in the lyrics - that will take up some space.

Dashboard Radio

I’m looking for a friend of mine 
he’ll pass this way from time to time 
a whisper on the dashboard radio 

Have you seen him? 
Was he here? 
a disturbance in the air 
a whisper on the dashboard radio 

You’d know him if you heard his song 
wailing ’til the break of dawn 
a whisper on the dashboard radio 

A voice from the southland 
fades ’til it’s gone 
a million miles from home 
the ghost of a Cadillac 
the bones of a song 
now we're peeling off the chrome  

A yodel in an alleyway 
a glimmer as night steals the day 
a whisper on the dashboard radio 

he used to keep us company 
heartache in the key of C 
a whisper on the dashboard radio 

A voice from the southland 
fades ’til it’s gone 
a million miles from home 
the ghost of a Cadillac 
the bones of a song 
now we're peeling off the chrome 

bonded whiskey on the seat 
forgotten lyrics at his feet 
a whisper on a dashboard radio

      (It echoes down the road that goes home....)

A voice from the southland 
fades ’til it’s gone 
a million miles from home 
the ghost of a Cadillac 
the bones of a song 
now we're peeling off the chrome 

Angels sing and church bells ring 
he’s said goodbye to all these things 
a whisper from the dashboard radio


Listen here, or click on the photo of me and Rex.

Me and Rex