For music lovers in Virginia’s Tidewater area, Lewis McGehee has been a source of entertainment and inspiration for over 30 years. An accomplished guitarist, vocalist, songwriter and arranger, Lewis can be found teaching lessons by day and performing live by night. I first saw him perform in July of 1991 at The Jewish Mother, a legendary venue in my hometown of Virginia Beach. I was with Cathy, Myke and Elizabeth. We were teenagers, classmates, and lovers of music. I remember the evening fondly. It took place during a particularly pivotal time in my life. On the one hand, I was loving my newfound freedom: for the first time in my life I had a car, a job, and even had the house to myself for a couple of weeks that Summer. I had lots of great friends and was regularly writing and performing with a band. At the same time, I was beginning to be faced with the need to make decisions I had never been faced with, namely choosing a college and a career. Relationally, I was also learning painful but necessary lessons about faith, hope, and love. It was in the midst of all of this that I sat around a table at The Jewish Mother with three friends on a hot July night and heard Lewis McGehee sing these words by Jackson Browne:
I’ve been out walking.
I don’t do that much talking these days.
These days. . .
These days I seem to think a lot
about the things that I forgot to do,
and all the times I had the chance to.
Well, I’ll keep on moving. . . moving on.
Things are bound to be improving these days.
These days. . .
These days I sit on cornerstones
and count the time in quarter tones to ten, my friend.
Don’t confront me with my failures;
I am aware of them.
As he sang that song- eyes closed, smiling slightly, strategically strumming his guitar while Mike McCarthy played percussion and sang harmony- I realized how powerfully music can describe our feelings, connect with our souls, and influence our lives in a way that nothing else can.
Fast forward 24 years to November of 2015. I live in Indiana with my wife and two daughters. I work full-time as an ordained minister in the oldest Protestant denomination in the United States. We have a great life at a great church in a great place to live. I have lived away from Virginia Beach ever since leaving for college in August of 1992. And yet, I still feel a strong connection to that quirky city on the Atlantic Ocean. Many of my family roots are there. My faith was formed there. I made lifelong friends there. And I fell in love with music there. That is why I was grateful to be able to spend a week there in November of 2015. In my vocation as a minister I am granted a week of study leave every year, for the purpose of professional development. As a new year in the life of my church was soon to begin, I had a lot of reading, writing, reflecting and planning I wanted to do, and my leadership board graciously enabled me to do so in the setting of my hometown.
And so, at 6 a.m. on November 18th, 2015, I boarded a plane for my hometown. That evening I met two of my lifelong friends, Myke and Neil, at a waterfront restaurant called Tradewinds. We hadn’t seen each other in years, so we were long overdue for an evening together. And we chose Tradewinds for a reason: Lewis McGehee was performing there that night.
Neil and his wife Sherry arrived early and secured a table. Myke and I arrived shortly thereafter. The four of us hugged, laughed, and ordered some various items to eat and drink. This was my first time meeting Sherry. She was pretty, friendly, and patient with us boys as we told and retold numerous stories of the excessive buffooneries of our youth. Shortly after we arrived I noticed Lewis sitting at a table tuning his guitar. I walked over to him and introduced myself and told him how a month earlier I had written a blog post about him entitled “The Jewish Mother.” He shook my hand firmly, smiled and said, “Oh, yeah. I loved it. Thank you for that.” His comments were quite endearing. I was struck by how down to earth he was, and how interested he was in getting to know people. This is probably why he has such a following in the area: he personally connects with his audiences.
It was now time for the show to begin. I sat down at the table with Myke, Neil and Sherry. Lewis stepped up to the mic, greeted the audience, and began playing. He sounded as amazing as ever. He performed several songs including “Paradise” by John Prine, “Reason to Believe” by Rod Stewart, and “Melissa” by The Allman Brothers.
Then he asked for requests. It occurred to me that another song I remember him singing in July of 1991 was Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman.” It’s a ballad about two lovers who would soon part ways. I remember finding it very moving, but I couldn’t remember any of the lyrics. So, I requested it. Lewis responded, “Sure thing, Dale.” He raised a glass and toasted our table, then set it down and began the song. As he sang, the lyrics quickly came back to me, and I felt as if I had been transported back to July of 1991:
Ain’t it clear that I just can’t fit?
Yes, I believe it’s time for us to quit.
But when we meet again,
Introduced by friends,
Please don’t let on that you knew me when
I was hungry for your world.
You. . . love just like a woman,
You ache just like a woman,
But you break just like a little girl.
Throughout the rest of the show, Myke, Neil, Sherry and I alternated between eating, talking, watching Lewis, sipping wine, and sharing stories. It felt so good to be together again.
After the show we talked with Lewis again. He told me that the guitar he was playing was the same guitar he played when I saw him at The Jewish Mother in 1991. Then he said, “You play guitar, don’t you?” I responded, “I do!” He extended his arm, handed me his guitar, and said, “Here, play it, man.” I strummed and picked for a couple of minutes. Then he asked if we could help him take down and pack up his sound equipment. We did, and then he drove us to our cars and thanked us for helping. It was a surreal experience I will never forget.
As I drove back to the place where I was staying, my mind travelled through the many memories I shared with Myke and Neil, from 1986 to the present. I thought about the trouble we got into in the Summer of 1988. I thought about the marching band competitions we endured together in 1989 and 1990, and how we weren’t very nice to our band director. I thought about the night Myke and Neil came to the engagement party my mother threw for Shelley and me a few months before our wedding and how happy I was that they came. I thought about the times Neil and I spent together when he and I both lived in Raleigh, North Carolina in the late 1990’s. I thought about the many years that had passed since we last saw each other, and I wondered where the time went. I thought about my wife, Shelley, and hoped we could travel to Virginia Beach together this Summer, and maybe even see Lewis perform again.
I woke the next morning filled with a peace that far surpassed my jet lag. I showered, dressed, grabbed some breakfast, and headed to Starbucks where I would spend time on my work. Over the course of the next several days I spent time studying, writing, planning, and praying. In my free time I visited my grandmother and reconnected with several old friends. It was wonderful.
The following Wednesday morning, Myke and his girlfriend Jenny took me to breakfast at Doc Taylor’s, a great little place at the beach. We ate waffles, drank coffee, and talked about faith, family, friends, and our favorite bands. Afterwards the three of us got into Myke’s car and went for a drive. It was a sunny day, about 60 degrees. Perfect. We lowered all of the windows. The wind blew Jenny’s long blonde hair in a thousand different directions as we made our way to Virginia Beach Boulevard, while at full volume we listened to and sang along with our favorite song by The Connells: “Stone Cold Yesterday.” For those few minutes, it was as if the three of us we were in another world, and we loved it. When the song was over I said, “Ya know… Lewis McGehee is playing at Tradewinds again tonight. You guys wanna go?”
And so, after we sang several more songs together at Myke’s house, I did some more work that afternoon, and that night we met at Tradewinds to see Lewis again. This time Kevin joined us, too. Kevin was another great friend and fellow Kempsville classmate from my youth. He resides in Arizona but was back in Virginia Beach for a visit. We had several dinners together during our coinciding week and it was incredible to be together again. And so, the four of us met at Tradewinds, got a table, ordered some drinks and appetizers, and talked and laughed while we waited for Lewis to begin his first set for the evening. This particular evening Lewis had his daughter with him, the talented Kayce Laine McGehee, an amazing musician and recording artist in her own right. He also had two other guitarists with him.
The show began promptly at 7 p.m. and did not disappoint. The music was full-bodied: three guitars, a keyboard, and incredible vocal harmonies. They opened with Lewis’s arrangement of Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” followed by Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” and George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.” They also performed several of Lewis’s original songs, such as “Brave New World,” “Katie Don’t Go,” and my personal favorite that has deeply resonated with me ever since I first heard it in 1991: “Mostly Me.” Kayce, while impressively pounding away at the keyboard, sang three of her originals as well, all of which were passionate, melodic, and lyrically rich.
The highlight of that evening, however, came towards the end, when Kayce strapped on her dad’s guitar and sang “Landslide” by Steve Nicks. She brought the audience to tears with this one. I even noticed Kayce herself shedding a few tears near the end. It was simply beautiful. But a few of the lines in particular struck me more profoundly than the many times I had heard that song over the years:
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
Time makes you bolder,
Even children get older,
And I’m getting older too.
In all of our lives, the tides often change. And like that ocean in my hometown, sometimes the tides are fierce, and sometimes they are calm. And yet, rather than sink, we somehow manage to continue to sail, all the while growing older, which is a good thing. Meanwhile, time keeps moving forward, like the “trade winds” that sailors depend upon in order to reach their desired destination. God only knows what the future will bring for any of us, but that’s what makes the journey worth taking. We look back at the past, celebrate with old friends and new friends in the present, and look forward to a future where great music will never stop playing.