December 8th, 2018
We hammered down some drowning stretch of Alabama highway, trapped on each side by forests caught in the downpour. The rain came down lightly as we crossed the Tennessee state line. Now, an hour later, the windshield and the world around us are awash as we plow through a hydroplaning nightmare.
The drive from Nashville to Waverly, Alabama is five hours. The rain came down harder the longer we drove, making the trip take a little more than six. Jordan Igoe drove the first shift, while Justin Osborne sat in the front passenger seat answering emails about the upcoming album and gauging the reaction on social media of the newly released single, “Homeboy”. Hungover or not, the business aspect of the musician’s life is never ending.
The driving seemed endless as well, and nobody had all that much to say. Van the Good sat in the middle row, picking the music. I asked for one song and watched the semis fall behind us and out of sight while “Mississippi Kid” by Lynyrd Skynyrd played.
It was out of nowhere from behind these torrential curtains that The Standard Deluxe appeared as a haven hidden within the darkness of the forest. We did a quick unload and ran inside the building where the show would later be.
The building was cozy and warm. It felt like walking into an old church house. The rectangular building was over a hundred years old and had been a house before having a stage and seats installed. The first few rows on the floor level were old church pews, and the back wall behind the raising seats was painted with a setting sun. Every step echoed inside this little place as the four of us wandered around, drinking it in.
The clasps of guitar cases flicked and rattled while Justin, Igoe, and Van the Good set up for the show. Even the silence between words rode the acoustics, echoing a sweet, indefinable nothing.
“It’s gonna feel so good in here tonight,” Justin said. He surveyed the room from the stage, his words half buried by the hollow drone of his guitar being tuned.
After a minute or two of setting up, Justin and Igoe sang “Weather Balloons” for mic check. I sat in the second pew and listened as their voices danced through the empty building. Van was tasked with working the soundboard and he tinkered with it until the balance of everything came to a point of audible comfort.
“Man,” Justin said after soundcheck, “this place reminds me a lot of where I grew up.”
We ran through the rain, across the yard to the house where we’d spend the night just as Pete arrived and began his own setup.
The four of us were overwhelmed by the beauty of the main room in the guest house. The interior of the living room was covered with posters from the bands who had come through over the years. Once Pete had set up, he came in the house to have a look around with us.
We all grabbed a bite to eat from the buffet set up outside, which was stocked with pulled pork, homemade pecan pie, an homemade stew. The $10 charge was waived for each of us, but Justin paid as he went by the admissions bowl.
“That’s the thing about a place like this,” he said as we walked back inside, away from the noise of the rain, “you’ve gotta support it to keep it goin’.”
We spent the next hour or so sitting around the house, relaxing and drinking in the atmosphere while Justin and Igoe took long sips of tequila and whiskey.
“Look what I’ve got here, Mr. Van,” Justin said from the kitchen table. He raised a freshly rolled joint in the air. “I’m gonna start callin’ you Mr.Van.”
“The Vanimal,” Pete said as he looked over the many posters, his setlist in hand.
“Are we gonna smoke on the porch or in the van?” Justin asked.
“What in Vannation,” Pete hollered from across the room.
“What in Van Halen?” Justin added at last. “Do you wanna smoke in the Van Halen or on the porch?”
“Let’s smoke on the porch,” Van said. “Have a good set, Pete. We’ll come check it out.”
Pete stepped out the front while Justin, Igoe, Van the Good and I stepped onto the back porch. We gathered under the overhanging roof and did our best to coax a cat into coming toward us. The rain carried on mercilessly, and the cat stayed hidden away beyond our reach.
Once the joint had been smoked, and we gave up on petting the cat, we went back inside. No one said much once we were back in the warmth of the house. The room, the building, were caught in silence except for the soft squeak of a sharpie writing out the setlist and the continual drumming of the rain.
We had been inside 10 minutes when someone came around with a joint to offer as a token of appreciation for Justin and Igoe. Although we had just finished smoking, in the name of Southern hospitality Justin said, “We’d all love some.”
Back out the door we went, into the rain and into oblivion. I looked over at Justin once we came back in the second time.
“I’m pretty fucked up right now,” I said with glossy eyes and a worried tone.
“Me too, man,” he said with a shrug that said what can ya do?
One at a time we stumbled across the yard to the old house where Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster was a few songs into his set. Once I found a seat and began watching Pete perform, I took deep breaths and reminded myself not to freak out. I felt every note and word break the membrane of my mind while I watched him sing his heart out.
“When I die, do not mention grace,” Pete sang, eyes closed and head back, “don’t speak of a sweet bye-and-bye. We live alone in a quiet place; the dirt, the bells and I.”
Van the Good was sitting a few rows ahead of me. I saw Justin come in and duck over to where Van was. There were no chairs available, so he sat on the wide step next to Van, joined soon after by Jordan.
The owner of the venue, Scott, saw what was going on and went over to tell the duo to find proper chairs. Van responded by taking a seat next to the two of them on the step. Scott came back with two extra chairs and pointed an authoritative finger at the seats. His intentions were clear, the line in the sand had been drawn.
Justin stood partially for a moment before he shook his head and sat back down on the step, behind the seats that had been brought over. Scott took the move with a laugh and a shake of his head. The music, the rain, and the good vibes carried on in Waverly.
Before long, Justin and Igoe took to the stage to rock this rain beaten little house.
“I’m not gonna tell y’all the name of this next one. You’ll know it right away, anyway,” Justin said with a smile toward the end of their set.
“Feel free to sing along” Igoe added before the two of them began singing “I’ll Fly Away”.
The crowd sung along through every chorus. “I’ll fly away, oh Glory, I’ll fly away,” the room sang.Southern ancestry came alive in the room as they sang together. Those beautiful three minutes I was lucky enough to witness felt like a religious experience, greater than the words they sung, alive in the unity of music. The connection of these many strangers as their single voice drowned out the downpour.
Once the show ended, and Justin had met all the fans who wanted a picture or an autograph, we ran across the yard to hide in the big house. The rain carried on pouring, harder now than it had been thus far.
Justin, Jordan, Van the Good and I slipped outside, under the shelter of a large porch to smoke a joint and help Jordan carry her bags from the van.
“Just a guten tag,” Justin sang to the tune of Waylon Jennings’ “Just a Good Ol’ Boy”. “Never meanin’ no harm. Just-a-rootin’and a-tootin’ and-a-taggen and-a-guten since the day he was born.”
“I love that song,” I interjected. “It was played it at my grandfathers funeral. Not the Guten Tag version, though.”
“Really?” he said with surprise as he took a hit of the joint. “You Canadians are so Country-Western.”
The night in Waverly ended with the group of us watching a video of Pete performing some months ago. The Blu-ray was a gift from a friend of Justin’s who filmed the show. “We’ll keep the Canadian downstairs,” Justin said as we decided the sleeping arrangements for the night.
The building awoke the next morning one piece at a time. When my eyes opened, Pete was playing a bluesy run on his guitar while he sang softly to himself. Footsteps carried down the stairs and echoed through the mighty house.
Before we left the Standard Deluxe that morning, Justin bought his first article of baby clothing from the gift store. We smoked a joint and crossed the street to eat from a gourmet buffet complete with grits, collard greens, fried chicken, sausage patties, bacon, and fresh salad. We took our time with breakfast before we piled into the van and drove on through the sprinkling rain. Houses and forests soared by on each side of us as we made our way toward Mobile, Alabama.
“Stay healthy,” Igoe said. She handed me some vitamins over the seat.
As we drove deeper into Alabama, the rain picked up again, sending the wipers rolling as quick as they could manage. A half empty case of Budweiser jingled at my feet while the album 21, a Million by Bon Iver played. Van the Good was behind the wheel and full stereo control went along with the chore of driving.
It was three and a half hours until we hit the dry streets of Mobile. The rain stopped an hour before we got there, though the clouds still hung low and grey. We loaded into the hotel and came right back out to the van, giving Pete a wave as he pulled up next to us.
“There’s not enough weed for a joint,” Igoe said. She pulled out the one-hitter.
“We’ll have to get some tonight,” Justin said before flicking the lighter once his turn came around. “I wonder,” he said, passing the one-hitter back. “If we posted on Instagram that we need weed, do you think Jah would provide for us?”
“Let’s put it out there and see what happens,” Van said.
“Alright, everyone get in on this pic,” Justin said, pulling his phone out. “Put on your best we’re real bummed to be out of weed face.”
We drove over to Callaghan’s Irish Social Club, the venue for the night’s show, where the green room was decorated with setlists and posters of bands from years past. The walls throughout the bar are filled with band posters, some signed, all framed. One is of Robert Plant, two are of SUSTO. In the center of the green room is a poker table with a few chairs set up around it. Pete sat at the far end of the poker table, working out his setlist for the night in a rectangular metal book made for writing baseball lineups.
“Do you wanna get audio levels?” the owner, JT, asked as he leaned in the green room door.
“Should we go check or should we just do it before we go up?” Justin thought aloud. “Hmm,” he said, deep in thought, “I’m too stoned so I don’t know what to do.”
“We’ll go check it out,” Igoe and Van said at the same time.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Justin agreed through a laugh, as if that’s what he meant to say. “You seen my liquor?” he asked me as he walked by.
“Can’t say I have,” I answered, looking around.
Once the three of them left, it was just Pete and I in the green room, and we got to talking.
“I’ve been writing songs and playing them since I was 14, 15. So about 20 years,” he explained to me at some point. “It was just the thing that felt right, or was just my instinct, I guess. To have a guitar and try to make sense of things with songs. It’s been that way as long as I can remember.”
He thought for a minute before adding, “It’s more of a compulsion than anything.”
“And you use that compulsive behavior to your advantage?”
“Well,” he said with a laugh, tilting his head as he thought, “there have been many, many times where I felt that it’s not to my advantage. I’m glad and grateful that I am where I am and get to do what I get to do. But it certainly is not always to one’s advantage to choose to do this kinda thing for a living. I mean, I spent most of my 20’s working shit jobs and doing things like touring whenever I could take enough time off to do it. Then I decided to try pursuing music no matter what, however hard it is. I would not ever want to go back to those pointless jobs. I learned that however hard it is, this is what I wanna do. Nothing else is worth it. In terms of the short amount of time human beings are allowed on this earth, I’d rather do this, no matter what.”
“That’s beautiful, man,” I said after a moment.
“That’s one word for it,” he laughed. “It’s just like anything else. If it’s something that you work at there are days where it can be great and days where it’s not so great. And you have to take the not so great along with the great. If you had told me 6 or 7 years ago, when I quit everything to do this, that I’d actually get to do this for a living, I’d have said, you’re fuckin’ crazy, man. There’s no way it’ll ever happen. To me, getting to do this every day is all gravy.”
“Whenever it becomes hard or not fun is when most people who aren’t serious about it decide they don’t really wanna do it anymore. I’m sure there are a lot of people who’d love to be in a band or would love to be on tour. But when the realities, the parts of it that are not fun come around, a lot of people are just not interested in having that part of the deal.”
“You’ve got to take it all,” I said.
“You’ve just got to,” he said with a shrug.
Pete carried a beat with his pen on the baseball lineup sheets while he wrote up his setlist. The chatter of people outside, waiting for the show, grew steadily. Justin and Jordan came back in just as Pete stood up to go perform.
“What’s his name again?” a friend of Justin’s who met us at the venue asked after Pete left the room.
“JPKS: Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster” Justin said.
“Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster,” Justin interrupted. “Say it three times daily. Anytime you pass a church, say it and make the cross on your chest. Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster,” he said, faster every time. He drew a cross on his chest with his right hand as he said it the last time.
“Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster,” the friend answered, slowly.
“The gospel of the Constant Stranger,” Justin answered, nodding.
Through the walls, we could hear Pete singing “Brake Dust”. The volume grew, then faded as the waitress brought in four shots; two tequila, two whiskey. Pete’s voice grew then faded again as she walked back out.
“Well, we’re stacked up, dawg,” Justin said, looking at Igoe.
“Fuckin’ stacked, man,” she replied.
They laughed and eyeballed the two shots sitting in front of each of them. Pete’s gentle finger style picking echoed through Callaghan’s as Igoe’s laugh ran loose through the green room.
“Guten tag,” they each said, clinking glasses. Their faces each grew sour, twisted at the rotten taste of their shots. They’d each gone through a good bit of their personal bottles to this point and would carry on drinking through the rest of the night.
“I wish we could do another full band tour through here,” Justin said, looking around the green room. “I just love this place. I’m glad that we’ve outgrown it, but I love it still.”
Just then, there was a gentle knock at the door and a bearded man walked into the room.
“I got y’all covered,” the bearded man said. He tossed Justin a baggie full of weed. “I heard SUSTO was out of weed and I had some in the car. I got the third to last ticket on my way in.”
“You did?” Justin asked. “Well, we were gonna put you on the list either way.”
“Nooo shiiit,” Igoe said from her chair, swiveling back and forth.
“C’mere my man,” Justin said. He brought the guy in for a hug.
The weed came our way after someone in Birmingham saw on Instagram that the group needed weed. He sent a message to his buddy, who gave the weed to the guy who was in the room with us. The person who supplied this guy with weed was also at the show, meeting Justin afterward in the green room.
Once the bringer of weed left, and the room fell quiet again, Justin looked over at Jordan.
“We still gotta blast one of these,” he said. He pointed at the shot that remained in front of each of them.
It wasn’t long after those two shots that Pete’s time on stage ended, and Justin and Jordan’s time began.
“This next story’s gonna be a bit longer, so before I begin, I’m gonna take a little swig of tequila,” Justin said from the stage after a few songs.
A few ceiling fans rotated gently overheard, too slow to feel but just enough to hold the room at a comfortable temperature. These Alabama crowds drank their fill and sang along a little louder than people in other places. I stood in the back corner by the bar with the two folks who helped contribute to us getting good and stoned over the next few days while a painter stood in the other corner, painting Justin and Igoe.
“I was in this rocky relationship for three years or so. And uh, it was kind of on the way out and I found this place to live in an upstairs suite. The bottom was a different unit and she says, ‘it turns out the place right below you is available for rent.’ I was like oh, sweet. So, she moved in there and we broke up like, two months into a year long lease. We were tryna be friends and this was before I realized that’s a myth. A few months passed and Valentines Day rolled around. I wanted to do something that showed her I still care, and you’re my friend and whatever.”
“I bought her a Valentine’s Day card and inside it I wrote, ‘Friends or lovers, ex-lovers or whatever, I hope you know I’ll always care’. And I was like, okay, that’s a pretty clever Valentine’s Day card, but does she deserve it? I showed it to my buddy Nick Woodley and asked if he thought I should give it to her, or if it seemed pathetic.”
“He looked at it, he looked at me, he looked at it and then back at me and he said, ‘brother, I don’t give two shits whether or not you give her this card, but if we don’t write this into a song right now, we’re gonna regret it for the rest of our lives.’”
“I said ‘I’ve gotta be at work in 45 minutes’ and he said ‘that’s plenty of time.’ So, I was late for work and we wrote this song”
Regardless of how much either Igoe or Justin had drank or smoked, the shows went on without a hitch. His voice still carried strong and she still harmonized in beautiful patterns with him. The two of them put on a show you felt in your heart through one song, and they’d have you laughing through the next. They put on a show that would rattle around your mind for days to come, weeks even.
“JPKS’ Constant Stranger changed my life,” Justin said toward the end of the set. “Go buy his stuff and if you have any money left you can check out our shit.”
After the show, Justin and Igoe hung out in the green room and rolled around on computer chairs.
“We did a good job gettin’ drunk before the show,” Justin said. Igoe was spinning in her chair.
Van the Good and I loaded up the van while a few lingering fans threw back shots with Justin and Igoe. They glowed with excitement as they talked to Justin, laughing hard and loud at his jokes. Soon enough the van was packed, the party ended, and the crew carried on.
For the fans, tonight’s show might be a highlight of their week, their month. For this four-person crew, barreling across the country, it’s just another stop. Come tomorrow, we’ll be gone for New Orleans by midday, leaving nothing but a plume of dust and a shred of memories in our wake.
Van the Good drove us back to the hotel where we dropped off our bags and came right back out at the stroke of midnight. We stumbled across the parking lot back to the van, singing various songs: “Just a Guten Tag”, “The Boot Scoot Boogie”, “The Gut Tag Boogie”.
“Just chillin’ with your shithead friends, huh?” Justin said to me once we got back to the van.
“I feel like I’m home,” I admitted.
“Man, as if we met because of the Lumineers,” Justin said, referring to the first show I saw SUSTO perform, opening for the Lumineers two years prior. “Deeeead sea,” he sang, his face twisted with the words, “I told you I was like the deeeead sea. Man, you’ve gotta be in one of those arenas and hear them. Those boys mean that shit. They’re a couple of New Jersey Irish who didn’t make it in the city and got burned out by it. It’s very authentic. Nothing about it is fake or cookie cutter.”
He took a long drag of the joint before continuing.
“I’m ultimately on a mission to connect with as many people as possible. If I ever get to connect with 9000 of them at once in an arena? Goddamn,” he said, shaking his head at the thought.
“I’m just picky because a lot of people have worked and worked and worked and haven’t gotten anywhere,” Igoe said from the front passenger seat.
“That’s the name of the game though,” Justin replied. “The sad reality is there are a lot of people who work a long time. Even us, we could work a long time, but we’ll never be like Bruno Mars. I love this scene, though. Grassroots music is where my soul is.”
He passed me the joint and continued.
“I think if the world goes to shit, pop stars lose their job, but we don’t. If someone has a guitar, we’ll play it, and someone will feed us and put us up and we’re used to living like that.”
The joint continued its rotation while he talked.
“That’s rock and roll. Rock and roll needs to be about feeling the moment and letting loose, and gettin’ primal. Rock and roll is about lighters in the air and seeing the spit comin’ out of someone’s mouth as they sing.”
“It’s just so vicious,” Igoe said softly. She looked out the windshield into the night. “The music industry is so vicious.”
“It’s cutthroat. But it bothers me when people get angry at big bands, big rock groups, calling them sellouts and stuff like that just because they’re successful now and they’re working with Rick Rubin. It’s like, yeah, of course they are. They’re more famous now and that’s a part of it. It’s bullshit when people call that selling out.”
The lighter sparked, the tone changed, and the re-lit joint came around again.
“Man,” Justin said, turning to me, “you’re part of the fuckin’ SUSTO family. I don’t know how you got into it. I don’t know how you weaseled your way in, but you’re in it.”
“I’m a Harrison, man,” I said, laughing. “You don’t even really notice we’re there and then we grow on you.”
“I believe that. Because I didn’t know you and now you’re hanging out with me and my friends on the road. You got me, somehow. Good on you, dawg. Welcome to the family.”
“Glad to be here,” I said, and we bumped knuckles.
And I was glad. I came aboard a stranger and now I was just another buddy out on the road. These people were strangers to me only four days before this, and myself less known to them. I felt like I had come home to an extension of myself living in the hearts of these vagabond adventurers, these pushers of the all mighty envelope, running from one stage to the next in the name of creating authentic music.
“Do we have another joint or did we smoke ‘em all?” Justin asked the moonlight.
“We smoked ‘em all,” Van the Good replied.
“Well, maybe we’ll lock up and call it a night,” Justin said.