Completing the Circle: Music and Magic in Alabama
The First Waltz was the opening weekend at the Orion Amphitheater in Huntsville and it truly was a beautiful dance
Author’s Note: This contains very personal stories about me and my son, his diagnosis of being on the autism spectrum, and the life we have led since that time. He has given me permission to tell this story. If you have autistic folks in your life who can advocate for themselves then they should be listened to. Research #ActuallyAutistic on social media for more information and to find brilliant individuals on the autism spectrum who I am sure will be more than happy to discuss the subject with you.
When I told my 14 year old son, Connor, that The Drive-by Truckers would be playing a concert in Huntsville, Alabama he asked where it would be. Back in October of 2021 they had played Shoalsfest, a music festival in the Muscle Shoals, Alabama area, and had shared the stage with Jason Isbell on a couple of their older tunes. Connor was disappointed to hear there would likely be no repeat of that but he was intrigued to learn about this brand new venue we would be visiting.
My son is all about the biggest, the smallest, the oldest, the newest and anything that makes a place or experience special or unique. I pulled up some pictures on the internet of the new Orion Amphitheater and showed him that it was a new venue and that it was also an impressive one.
“Are we going to hear Decoration Day with Hood and Cooley (singer and guitarist for The Drive-by Truckers)?,” he asked. I explained they were playing on different days this time but I am sure we will get to experience something cool somewhere along the way. And while I was fairly sure of it, as it always happens with he and I, I didn’t know just how visiting the Orion Amphitheater would bring another story full circle with my son.
It seems that, for some reason, Connor and I are always experiencing amazing coincidences or meetings together and he is continually helping me see the world in a beautifully different way. I tell him he’s got some kind of magic to him and I’m starting to believe it myself. At Shoalsfest he somehow managed to get setlists for both of Jason Isbell’s shows, including the one with the version of Decoration Day he had asked me about.
When I said I wish I could bottle up that experience of being there with him so I could open it later and experience it again, he walked down to the edge of the Tennessee River and filled his water bottle from the edge of the bank. He then stood there beside me with the lid off of the bottle and said “I’m letting some of the music in.” He then asked me to feel the vibrations on the bottle as the sound of the music around me filled the air. He put the lid on it and handed it to me. “See? You have it bottled up now.”
Like I said. Magic.
We were only able to make the Saturday event of the three days planned for what was known as The First Waltz at the Orion Amphitheater, as we are far away in east Alabama. On the way up Highway 280 Connor reminded me that there was a thrift store we hadn’t visited and, since he knew just how long it was going to take us to get to Huntsville, he told me we had time to make a stop. If there is one thing he loves it’s thrift stores. I figured we could drop in for a second and agreed.
As we walked around the store he spotted what turned out to be a Greek fisherman’s hat. I asked if he wanted it and he held it for a moment. He appeared to be deep in thought. “It says it is from Greece. I don’t have a hat from Greece. I’ll get it.” As good a reason as any I reckon.
I checked it out to make sure it was clean, paid the 3 dollars they were asking for it, and we left. He put it on when we got to the car and said “I don’t know. What do you think?” I said it looked cool but his face appeared to have the doubt of a teenager who thinks his dad is a dork and in no way a good judge of what is cool. Something about it appealed to him, though.
We drove on to the venue and arrived a little before Mavis Staples was to perform. We pulled up to the Orion and it really is an imposing structure. As an Alabamian it made me happy to know this was ours and not somewhere far, far away that I would never see. It felt like something on the level of Red Rocks Amphitheater had come to the Southeastern US.
As we entered the venue Connor was so happy to see that Kulture City, an organization dedicated to creating inclusive spaces for people with sensory needs, had brought their Sensory Activation Vehicle, an enclosed trailer filled with a variety of things that provides a break for people with sensory needs. Connor had taken advantage of it at Shoalsfest and had stopped by to relax on the beanbags inside it and get some refuge from the crowd and noise. It allowed us to spend all weekend there at that music festival and that was a first for us. He said then that going in the vehicle was like inhaling so he could go out and exhale.
My son was delayed in a number of ways as a toddler but mostly with speech. It was music that brought it out of him. He would say a few words from time to time but not much more. I used to play the album “Sigh No More” by Mumford and Sons all the time back then. One day I was singing along to the track, “The Cave”, when I heard a sweet little sing song voice coming from the back seat.
“…so come out of your cave walking on your hands…”
Within a couple of months he was singing the whole song. I don’t know if it was the way Marcus Mumford sang the words or if he just liked the tune. For some reason, like his new hat from Greece, it appealed to him.
Before long Connor was singing along to every track on the album.
I realized Connor had put on a black t-shirt before we arrived at the Orion Amphitheater, and I knew it was going to be hot, so we stopped at the first merchandise table we came to and grabbed a light colored Swampers t-shirt. Connor is well versed in Alabama music history and likes throwback looking t-shirts so he knew it would be cool. He didn’t even ask me this time.
David Hood, legendary bassist from The Swampers in Muscle Shoals, had joined his son, Patterson, and the rest of The Drive-By Truckers for a song the previous October at Shoalsfest. As good as that was, Connor and I were just thrilled to see him playing an entire set with Mavis Staples when we arrived at our seats. I told Connor I think you’re a lucky kid to get to see these folks performing together. He said I KNOW I am and really we both are. I agreed that I was pretty lucky too. Everyone there was.
Connor likes to go on what I call his walkabouts to relieve anxiety so when that set was over he wanted to go for a stroll and explore the venue. I happily joined him and we walked from the lower levels outside to some food vendors, and back in and to a section far away from our seats. We then took the stairs upward and walked to the opposite side of where we first came up the stairs. It was at this point a friend of mine from high school tracked me down and I stopped to talk to him. Connor told me he wanted to have a seat and rest while I talked. There was magic afoot and I had no idea.
When I finished talking to my friend I walked over to Connor at the top row of the section where he had decided to take a seat. There was no one around him for a few seats so he asked me to sit there with him and watch St. Paul and The Broken Bones. I told him that would be ok but if the ticket holders came to get the seats we would have to move.
Connor had never seen St. Paul and the Broken Bones but he was smitten almost immediately. “Wow they are really good!” At that point I remember a couple of people showing up to stand in the row ahead of us. A few songs in and I looked down below and saw a man with a huge grin on his face bounding up the steps to join the people in front of us. It took a moment but it suddenly registered in my brain that it was Marcus Mumford from Mumford and Sons. I realized one of the people standing in front of me was Ben Lovett, another member of Mumford and Sons.
I don’t get too wound up about celebrities but everything I’ve written to this point about their music and Connor and so much else came flooding into my brain. It was such a surreal moment. When I used to ride around with Connor and sing their songs, and go to movies and sing their songs with him the way we did in Book of Life, or watch Ted Lasso and sing the intro with him, I never dreamed Connor and I would one day be sitting right next to them at a concert. In Alabama.
I leaned over and whispered to Connor “Dude that’s Marcus and Ben from Mumford and Sons”. Now Connor certainly doesn’t get star struck but I saw his eyes widen a bit and he whispered back, “Are you sure?”
I sat there trying to think of what to say. I wanted to thank them. I wanted to hug them. Their music had a real, tangible effect on my life and that of my son. I never dreamed I’d get the chance to do that. But I didn’t want to bother them. I knew that the band was tied to Orion Amphitheater but I wasn’t sure how. After learning his role in bringing the venue to Huntsville, I am betting Ben Lovett was feeling a lot of different emotions as he watched the event unfolding, happiness tinged stress I imagine.
I went back to watching the concert and watching Marcus and Ben enjoying St. Paul and the Broken Bones who were putting on a spectacular show. I love seeing others enjoy things and it was just unreal to watch a couple of my all time favorite musicians enjoying one of my favorite bands from Alabama.
When the set ended I stepped to the row below, leaned down to Marcus, and rambled as I tried to say “My son is sitting right behind y’all. He is on the autism spectrum and when he was having trouble speaking as a young kid he started singing y’all’s song The Cave and it was the start to his speech taking off- and he, like me, is a big fan. Would y’all mind if I get a picture?”
Marcus lit up and smiled and said absolutely. Ben happily joined them. As I stepped up to get above them to frame the venue behind the shot I heard them tell Connor they liked his hat.
I don’t get to see this smile often but I treasure it when I do. We should have never ended up anywhere near them in the venue but Connor walked us right up to where they would be. Like I said, the kid has some kind of magic about him.
I thanked them as they got up to go somewhere else for the next set. As Ben walked past I told him “this place is special. It’s going to be something really special here”. He smiled and nodded and I think he believes it will be too.
I walked back to the entryway to the section where we were sitting and I teared up a bit at what had occurred. I thought back to riding around rural Alabama and singing Mumford and Sons songs with Connor years before and how unlikely it was that we would meet like we did. Connor patted me on the shoulder and said “Don’t cry dad”. I assured him it was nothing but happiness and he said to me “They know Ted Lasso and you’re like Alabama’s Ted Lasso. If they knew who you were they’d have been excited to meet you too.”
No one compliments me like he does.
I gave him a big hug, wiped my eyes, and said it’s time for the rock show, buddy. We stayed where we were and enjoyed the set from The Drive-By Truckers. As the sun set the venue transformed into something even more striking, with lights bouncing off the walls of the structure and LEDs built into the handrails on the stairs.
During The Drive-By Truckers set I looked over during their song “A Ghost to Most” and Connor was singing along too. “Skeletons ain’t got nowhere to stick their money, nobody makes britches that size”.
He smiled at me as he sang the line. I remembered a time I didn’t know if we would ever share moments like that. I selfishly and stupidly thought something had been taken away from me with his diagnosis years earlier. I didn’t realize what a gift he would turn out to be.
We stayed for most of the amazing set by Brittany Howard to close the day but Connor was getting tired. I go at his speed so we decided to leave. We stopped by to thank the Kulture City folks at the Sensory Activation Vehicle. Connor told me he didn’t have to visit this time because he knew it would be there if he needed it and that helped him relax.
As we were going out the gate to the amphitheater he asked me, “Did you hear them tell me my hat was cool?”
“Yep! But didn’t *I* tell you that before we came in?” I grinned at him and threw my arm around him as we walked to the car.
“Yes you did, Dad. Yes you did.”
It was an amazing day with far more good memories than I can count with my friends from all over the state. The Orion Amphitheater is a world class venue with an incredible amount of potential when it comes to bringing major acts to Alabama for years. For a first weekend it could not have gone much better. It ran as well as some venues that have been in existence for years and better than most. It was a day for special memories with parents and children, from me and Connor to David and Patterson Hood. It was a monumental day (and weekend) for the state of Alabama. It is a day I will carry in my heart forever.
I’m looking forward to coming back and, Ben and Marcus if you’re reading this, I look forward to Connor and I singing along in person from the crowd at the Orion and hopefully with y’all on stage this time.
I have no doubt this story will continue.