By Charles McGuigan
I met Page Wilson 25 years ago when I was working as a reporter for a weekly newspaper out in Mechanicsville. I was doing a feature article—a quick interview, a few photos and then hammering out 1,200 words for a four p.m. deadline. I’d done the interview at eleven that morning and had to develop the film and print the photographs and turn in the copy because we went to press that evening. The editor was gruff and all about profit. He didn’t really care at all about quality; so it was quick work. I was already writing the article in my head as I interviewed Page. And somewhere in there I listened to a few cuts off an album of his called “Road-Tired, Wired And Ready”, and I liked what I heard.
After the article appeared Page and I went canoeing down the Chickahominy from Mechanicsville Turnpike to Cold Harbor Road. It’s not a long stretch of river—maybe three miles—but it’s clogged with beaver dams and we must have done 30 portages. I’d brought a case of Miller and we popped one after another. It was late summer, unbelievably hot, and the air thick with dragonflies and mosquitoes.
We hit it off and a few weeks later went fishing along the same stretch of river. There are some mighty deep spots in that part of the river, which is actually a wide swamp flanked on either side by vast plains covered with dead trees, hundreds of silver white spires that from a distance look like a fleet of sailboats permanent in their moorings.
Most all we caught were bream and crappie. The good-sized ones we would always take in the deep, still water just below a beaver dam. Toward the end of the day clouds moved in and the air pulsed with anticipation and rain. The rain fell warm, and prickled the river in a million places every second, and heat lightning, pink and orange, rolled up the sky as we finished off the last of the beers.
From then on I would catch Page at different gigs around town, ran into him one summer down in Ocracoke, saw him year after year at the Irish Festival on Church Hill, and became an immediate fan of Out of the Blue Radio Revue—simply the best locally produced radio show in Richmond for more than twenty years.
At this year’s Irish Festival Page Wilson’s absence was both conspicuous and palpable. The entire festival was dedicated to his memory and everyone there I spoke with, whether they had actually known him or not, missed him. He had been the heart and the soul of the festival, as he had been of so many other musical events in the city.
Back in 1997 I interviewed Page again, this time at his home in Mechanicsville, just above the flood plain of the Chickahominy River. His wife Jude was busy making art out in her studio, one of several outbuildings scattered across the Wilson family compound and Page and I retired to a garage that had been styled into a sound studio where there was library of some 3,500 CDs and LPs lining the walls. This was the Chickahominy Swamp, the equivalent of Lake Wobegon, where Page invented, week after week, what would air on Saturday nights on Richmond’s NPR affiliate. There were some photos and posters on one wall along with a fishing citation for a large mouth bass.
“When I was growing up in Highland Park,” Page told me. “I’d ride out Meadowbridge Road on my bike to the three bridges (just east of Ellerson Station) and I’d go fishing and hunting there. It was where I saw my first flying squirrel. It’s where I killed my first duck.”
He leaned back in a swivel chair and pushed himself away from his writing desk, closed his eyes, stroked his beard. “The Chickahominy is an urban, suburban, rural body of water, and ecosystem,” Page had said 14 years ago. “My daughter planted some Indian corn this past spring. And Chickahominy means people of the corn.” He smiled his wide smile and laughed.
“More than anything, the Chickahominy is a symbol,” he said. “It’s nature’s own septic system. It’s a water scrubber. It has a function between here and the Bay. It cleans what’s going down. It’s a mystical place. My address is Chickahominy watershed.”
Page swiveled back around in his chair and touched the key pad of his computer and printed out a sheet with the lyrics to a song he had written called “Chickahominy”. He had written it after the earth movers and back hoes came to scoop away part of the swamp to make way for I-295.
“I just pulled off the side of the road on Three Oh One and started writing,” he told me and then he read the words to the song, which include this line: “They’re digging, Chickahominy, down deep into your soul.”
Ever since he was a kid, lyrics and melodies had tickled Page’s soul. The words raced around in his head, chased by melodies, both looking for an outlet. Over the years Page wrote hundreds of songs, many of them never recorded or written down. “Melodies just swim around in my head,” he had told me. “I’m not a session studio guitarist.”
And many of the songs he created were made on stage while he was performing. “I always keep the tape rolling,” he had said. “I’ll frequently write a song on stage and the boys will just wait until they know where I’m going. It takes world-class players to do that.” Page was talking about Reckless Abandon, the three men who had given form to his act—Billy Lux on upright bass, Chris Fuller on mandolin and Jay Gillespie on lead guitar.
A couple weeks after Page died, I interviewed the members of Reckless Abandon and other local musicians in the studios of WRIR-LPFM, 97.3.
“We’re pretty abandoned without Page,” Chris Fuller said. “I was trying to figure that out when I started playing with Page. He and I were just a duo back then and that was well over 25 years ago. And he always amazed me. I can’t help but think of the Richmond Symphony shows that Page put together. That was the most amazing musical thing I’ve ever done. And Page always featured local musicians. He didn’t bring in a national act to play with the Richmond Symphony; he featured Richmond musicians.”
Chris also mentioned one thing inanimate and another thing animate when he talked about Page. “The first thing was the old blue van,” he said. “He used to call that van ‘the space shuttle’ and when he and I were doing just duo gigs I would ride with him in the van. It was amazing the smells that came out of that van. There was an inch layer of cigarette ash right below the gear shift. There were beer cans and tequila bottles and clothes and PA gear. And then there was Stella who travelled with Page wherever he went.”
Stella was an Australian shepherd who protected the space shuttle as if it were a genuine NASA spacecraft. “We played the Texas-Border Café one afternoon and Page went out while we were taking a break and he said, ‘Come on out here and meet Stella,’” Chris remembered. “So he opened the van door and Stella came out and she was just the friendliest little dog. She came bouncing all around us, wanting to be petted. And then Page said, ‘Watch this.’ He opened the door and Stella jumped immediately into the van and she was just sitting there and looking around at us out the windows. Then he told me to walk up to the truck and when I did Stella bared her teeth and started barking like I’d never heard a dog bark before. When he let her out she just went right back to her little calm stance.”
Just out of his teens in the early 1970s, Page hit the road hard with a knapsack, a six-string-acoustic guitar and a dog—a pit bull called Jenny. He and a friend thumbed out to Snake River Canyon to watch Evel Kinevel make an aborted jump. A year later, during the bicentennial, he hitched out to Austin with the intention of attending Willie Nelson’s picnic. “We camped out at Hippie Hollow but I didn’t get to go to the picnic,” Page told me. “They were charging one dollar for water. ONE DOLLAR! I only had a dollar to my name. I always kept a dollar in my pocked to avoid vagrancy charges.”
Once, while thumbing along a narrow road high up in the Alleghenies, where wide coal trucks rumbled, Page couldn’t get a ride. Finally he pulled out a piece of cardboard and wrote out in simple block letters the following legend: FREE WATER. The very next car that passed him hit the brakes. Page ran up to the car, knapsack, guitar and jug of water in hand, with Jenny running up behind him. “Where’s the water?” the driver asked and Page, wearing a grin as wide as a crescent moon, indicated the jug of water, and the driver, who was smiling now too, said, “Get in.”
Another time in New Mexico, the Interstate ramp was lined with hitchhikers and a state policeman made his way down the ramp, stopping at everyone who held out a thumb. “I started doing the hitchhiker’s jig,” Page said. “Waving my hands, jumping up and down, trying to get a ride before the law arrived.”
But before he could catch that ride, the policeman approached him. “He asked me my name, address and so on and then asked me my height, hair color, weight, color of eyes,” said Page, who assumed the cop was looking for a criminal. “I asked him why he was asking all these questions. And he said, ‘We just keep these records so we can identify the bodies.’”
For Page it was a freewheeling time with no responsibilities and not a care in the world, the entire country spread out before him like a patchwork quilt of many colors and fabrics. And Page wanted to sample every panel, touch it, feel its unique texture. “I was writing a lot of songs and just enjoying life,” he recalled. “I played for my dinner. Walked up to a truck stop for a roadhouse and asked if I could play. Usually they fed you, gave you a couple of beers, maybe even a place to stay. And in all the time I hitchhiked I never had a bad experience. You never get a bad ride hitchhiking with a dog, particularly if that dog happens to be a pit bull.”
He kicked around in this manner for a couple years and finally bought a step van—a home on wheels. “I lived in that thing for a couple more years,” he said. “I wintered in Key West for three years in a row. I used to play out on Mallory Pier before it became commercialized. The people would stand out there to watch the sunset every night from about five to nine. All up and down the pier were musicians, each one playing. People would throw you some change, a few dollars. It was bad when the bagpiper came out, though. He wore a kilt and his little thing swinging from his waist and he’d start that thing going. He walked a straight line back and forth, playing, and you couldn’t hear anyone else’s music. All you could hear was the bagpiper.”
In the early eighties Page returned to his native Richmond and recorded his first album—“Road Tired, Wired and Ready”. A few years later he made another album titled “The Best of the Situation”. Neither one was a commercial success.
During that time Page played regular gigs in Richmond and down on the Outer Banks, out in Lynchburg and up in Ocean City, Maryland and Rehoboth, Delaware. He made his living playing music and he was damned proud of that fact. And like other musicians of that era he sent a calendar of his performances, via snail-mail, to all his fans.
And then in 1984, Page decided to put his fanzine out in a tabloid format. It would contain a calendar along with photography and features and advertising. It became a medley of art work and poetry, a comical personals column and assorted prose. One of the most popular portions of this countertop giveaway was a series of anecdotes, groan-worthy puns and one liners attributed to the mythical Buck Tode. The name of the publication was Out Of The Blue Review, and it survived on a shoestring for five years.
It was during this period that Page turned his attention to radio. In the late eighties Page started a weekly show on the precursor of K95. “We did thirty-nine weeks there,” Page told me. “And then we moved to WTVR when they went country.” After that stint he moved his Out Of The Blue Radio Revue back to K95. “We did Sunday nights for forty-four weeks and then moved to WVGO for about a year and a half,” he said.
And then in March 1997 Page brought his theater of the mind to WCVE-FM where it was heard two hours every week from 8-10 p.m., first on Fridays and then on Saturdays, for the next 14 years. During most of that time Page’s show directly followed Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion”, perhaps the most popular time slot on public radio.
On a cold, cold March morning, at this year’s Irish Festival on Church Hill, I ran into Kevin McGranahan, who for many years produced Page’s show. “I’ve known Page for about thirty years,” he said, speaking as if his friend were still alive. “I did improv comedy with a comedy troupe and he came in and played a musical guest set and basically we’ve been friends ever since.”
In those early years, Page bestowed a nickname on Kevin that would stick for many years to come. “I saw him at Warehouse playing a solo like he did a lot and I walked in the door,” Kevin said. “And he saw me and couldn’t remember my first name and couldn’t pronounce my last name. So the only thing that came out was Mick, Mick, Mick. I was known for years as Mick Mick.”
Kevin had helped Page with his Out of the Blue Review. He’d even delivered it. And one weekend Page asked Kevin to give him a hand with his radio show. “I said no problem and that lasted for a good fifteen years,” Kevin explained. “Tonight, March 26, we’re going to be back on WCVE in tribute to Page. A whole group of us are getting together and doing that tonight. Janet Martin, Susan Greenbaum, and Terry Garland and we’ve got the boys from Reckless Abandon coming in.”
Kevin told me that Page had sung at his wedding and his mom’s funeral. “You know a man’s lucky if he can count the number of true friends on his hand and Page is definitely on that hand,” Kevin said, holding up an outstretched hand. “There’s an old Irish saying, ‘A man’s lucky if he has three families: one he’s born into, one he makes and one he creates.’ So Page was one of our brothers in the created family. And he was great for the music community in Richmond. He promoted it and he loved that And on Out of the Blue we promoted everything that was local around and tried to keep the music scene in Richmond alive and in the hearts and the minds and the ears of the people of the Richmond community.”
On May 8 at Canal Club, those local musicians and other friends of Page Wilson will host a concert to raise funds for the Page Memorial Fund, that helps struggling musicians survive. “And part of the proceeds will go to Positive Vibe Café, and another part of the proceeds will go to Virginia Blue’s, his daughter’s, college fund.”
Kevin grew quiet and his eyes moistened. “He was very gracious about things like helping people out,” he said. “You know my daughters called him Uncle Page and I remember him holding our daughters and singing a lullaby to them. There was an outgoing side and a gregarious side, a demonstrative side to him, but not many saw the soft side of Page. You know he was my brother and I just miss him greatly.”
On a Friday night in the late summer of 1997 I met Page and Kevin in the studios of WCVE at 23 Sesame Street. The console they worked at was like a partners’ desk. On one side, armed with a mic, Page sat; on the other side, with CD players, turntables and cart machines, was Kevin. They could see one another through a plexi-glass divider on which Page had been carefully placing index cards. “Smile,” read one. “All you got to do is act naturally.” Another read, “Slow down, Page. Take it easy.”
As the second hand of the clock reached 8:01 on the nose, Kevin hit a button on a cart machine that played and intro and over the music, with the mic open, Page Wilson went on air, live. He noted that on this date and over the week various musicians had died over the years—Gram Parsons, Hank Williams, Steve Goodman and other notable songwriters. He checked his index cards and told the listening audience that he doesn’t know what years these musicians had died, but of the dates he’s certain. He celebrated the dead with their music in a sort of Irish wake of the airwaves.
“Queen of the Road” by Steve Goodman played, followed by Taj Mahal, Riders in the Sky, and The Flying Burrito Brothers. That’s when things started to cook. The music faded from one cut to another, seamlessly, logically—attesting to Kevin’s skill as a producer.
Page opened the mic and gave the performers’ names and song titles and recording labels. And then it was back to the music. All the while Kevin was punching buttons, queuing CDs and vinyl LPs. When the mic was off the two would jaw back and forth.
“Music for the mind’s ear,” said Page when the mic was open again. “Pure-bred American mongrel music.”
When the mic goes off, they talk about the good food and drink at last week’s “Around the Kitchen Table” segment. It was a recurring theme in their conversation, like the good music that quenches impalpable thirst and sates intangible hunger. “Feed the staff and the artist,” boomed Page Wilson like a modern day Falstaff. “I’ve been on the road and I know what it’s like. Nothing like good home-cooking and a place to stay.”
When he opened the mic again he mentioned a sponsor and then said this, “Here at home in the Chickahominy. Sweet, sweet dreams Virginia Blue,” brushing the ears of his little red-haired daughter who was nestled with her mother right near the real Chickahominy Swamp. “I love this planet,” said Page when he closed the mic.
They rounded out the second hour with Steve Goodman’s “Don’t Know Where I’m Going, But I’m Going Nowhere In A Hurry”, more Gram Parsons, then “Honky Tonk Blues” by Hank Williams. A final announcement, an outro and the show was over, and then we all piled into his blue van, that space shuttle of his, and crossed the James on the Powhite. A full moon rose above the black water and the viaduct where the trains pass, and that bridge of concrete was silhouetted against the darkness like the inverted skeleton of a diplodocus. The rails flickered with moonlight as Page began singing “Sweet Revenge” by John Prine.
“There was two of everything but one of me,” he sang and Kevin joined and so did I.
We stopped by Lucy’s at the corner of Colonial and Cary where they featured live music every Friday night. Terry Garland was playing his six-string, belting out a blues number with the living bellows of his lungs. We sat out on the sidewalk café, under an awning in the balmy night. Page brought a long-necked Bud to his lips and tipped it back. Music spilled out of Lucy’s onto the sidewalk. Voices around us murmured.
“I love this city,” said Page. “Along with Austin and Nashville it’s one of the three best music cities in the country. And you know what they have in common? They’re all in hill country. They’re all state capitals. They have universities and the arts. And they’re all on rivers.”
He cocked his head to Lucy’s open door, listening to the music that poured out onto the streets. He lit a cigarette, inhaled and the glowing ember hung in the air. He smiled, his ears trained on the music that came from the bar and on the steady stream of traffic that flowed down Cary Street, sounding for all the world like a rain-swollen river heading east for the Chesapeake Bay.
Back at the studio at WRIR, a couple weeks after Page’s death, Billy Lux was telling a story about a rockfish and a memorable gig.
“All the boys had come down to my river house for the day before we rode up to Tappahannock because we were only twenty minutes from there and we started having cocktails probably right at breakfast that day,” said Billy. “Our gig didn’t start till nine that night and I’ll never forget I was walking down the hill toward the pier and Page was running up the hill yelling, ‘Billy, Billy, Billy the fishing pole’s bent all over, and I said, ‘Well go reel it in.’ And he caught about a 24 inch rockfish and it tickled him to death to be able to reel in that rockfish. Well then the Tequila comes out and before we get to the gig we’re falling out of the van and Charles Arthur shows up from Richmond. He was the only one that was sober and he had to suffer through that gig with the four of us. I remember Skelding laying on the floor playing the fiddle and poor Charles shaking his head saying, ‘What did I get myself into.’ But that was the fun of playing with Page. I don’t think we ever had a rehearsal as a band.”
“That’s right,” said Jay Gillespie. “Not even really for the symphony. It was just Page saying, ‘What y’all want to play.”
“We never had a rehearsal,” Billy said.
“Page used to say rehearsals are for amateurs,” Jay said.
“Yeah, and the drunker you got, the better we sounded.”
Mick Muller, and wife Janet, are sitting next to one another across the table from Billy Lux. Mick remembered the night he met Page, a Tuesday back in 1980. Mick was new to town, fresh out of New York, and his friend and compatriot Joe Giorello had wandered into Hard Times.
“They didn’t have a band that night, but they had a singer, a guitar player named Page Wilson,” Mick said. “He was so freaking loud, and he played two or three songs and would break a string like it was part of his act. He’d break a string and go on with his anecdotes. I remember at the end of his set we were just saying, “This guy is just freaking unbelievable,’ and we went up to him and introduced ourselves. And of course we went outside to that blue van and we had a couple of nips of whatever exotic Tequila he was drinking and by the end of the night we had given him his new name, Thunder Lungs. That’s the first time I met Page.”
Janet first met Page down at Moon Dance in the Bottom. “It would have been circa 1995 and I’d just come out with my first CD,” she said. “And he invited me to the Kitchen Table and he was just so helpful with that first CD and everything else we ever did.”
He even sang at the wedding of Janet and Mick. “He sang the Lord’s Prayer,” said Janet. “Without his guitar or anything. He just stood up in the little church we were married in and the walls shook. It was just thunderous. He also sang at my father’s funeral. He sang “Amazing Grace”. I was a little reluctant to ask him to do that. My father absolutely loved Page and his show. He listened to him religiously every Saturday night. He knew who Page Wilson was before I did. And so when my father passed I said, ‘Page I really hate to ask you to do this.’ And he said, ‘That’s what I do.’ He said, ‘Why would you hesitate, it’s what I do.’ He did that so much for so many people, and he gave.”
All his life he gave and he gave particularly to musicians whether he liked their act or not. That’s what Craig Evans of The Taters told me.
“I don’t think, for reasons that I’m not entirely sure of, we were ever one of Page’s favorite bands,” Craig said. “But even in spite of that, when he was working a show and we were playing one of the festival stages or when a new album would come out he would still always play our music. I mean a week before he died somebody came up to me as said, ‘I heard you on Page Wilson the other night.’ We were clearly not one of his favorite bands, but he was still happy to put us on his show and did what he could to help promote us. And I just think that speaks volumes about him.”
Amy Henderson also talked about Page’s tireless promotion of local artists. “I guess out of all y’all I met him most recently,” she said looking around the table. “I remember when my first CD came out he said, ‘Send me a CD.’ And I sent it and I’ll never forget coming home from band practice or something I turned on the radio and damned if one of my songs wasn’t playing and I’m like ‘Whooo’. Very exciting.”
Later I talked to Charles Arthur who spoke about Page as if he were an older brother. And like everyone else I’d spoken with, he said how much he was going to miss him. “You know, it just really finally sunk in,” said Charles. “Page is gone.” This from Charles Arthur who is modest about his talent and has a soul like spring water. And this too: he is a wizard on any instrument at all. He can make a melody like most people can talk out a sentence. He does it that effortlessly. Something he shared with Page.
The very last person I interviewed was Susan Greenbaum, who absolutely adored Page. She told me one story after another about Page Wilson’s endless generosity to her and other musicians. She told me how he was found dead, that he’d had a heart attack and then fell. And that he never got up again. That’s how they found him. In his home. Dead. Alone.
Susan then got out her guitar and began picking out Page’s own song, “Virginia”. Her voice was smooth and powerful and rich and I could feel it in my gut and words showered against me like a spring rain, that’s not icy but very cool. “So shed no tears as life is passing,” Susan sang. “And know the best is yet to come. Find the peace everlasting. Was peace of mind all along.”
He almost lost his home not long ago to the snapping jaws of mortgage. The last few times I saw him he didn’t look good. He had some health problems and an operation. I’m not sure what they’ll do with Page, where his final resting place will be. I haven’t heard anything on the subject so I assume he’s been cremated, compressed by fire into an urn of dusty kitty litter. But here’s what I think should happen. They should scatter those ashes, which is what they call them, from the Blue Ridge Mountains, to the Piedmont, over the fall line, and into the Tidewater, and then right out into the Chesapeake Bay. Just a little bit here and a little there until the entire state is seasoned with a little bit of a great voice that is no more.