Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Mike Gentry
We weren't really sure where we were this one night last September and it had nothing to do with beer or whiskey. We'd hopped out of a cab, on a corner that looked like the right one, though we could base that decision on nothing. Our hosts said that it was close enough. Christopher Paul Stelling took our phones out of our hands and insisted on snapping the photograph. So, we stood with our backpacks, toothbrushes and a change of socks and underwear in front of the Ol' Dirty Bastard mural that had been painted on the side of an all-night corner store. We picked up a 12-pack of something that escapes us all now and we talked a little ways into the night before checking in so that we could get to the rental car place when it opened bright and early the next morning to drive a few too many hours to get out of New York, through New Jersey and mostly across Pennsylvania, to just north of Pittsburgh, right out there in Amish country. We snagged coffees and multi-berry muffins and we were humping it through gnarly traffic in no time. We got going too quickly at some point, with the back half of the van concentrating on that day's Will Shortz crossword in the Arts section of the New York Times.
After much riding, we pulled into New Wilmington, Pa., and stopped off at the only place we could find for some brews for the evening, then drove the final few miles over a blacktop road that had been melted into a perfectly uneven, smooth surface. Later that night, the moon proved that it cool reflect nicely - with a matte finish - off that particular blacktop, as the crickets and cicadas chirped. We traveled all that way for a Barnstormer tour stop and it was the only one that Stelling was set to play, after Hurricane Irene turned New York City into a panic zone, prematurely evacuated like never before and forced the cancellation of the other show he was set to play.
So, this night was it and before we'd even been there a half an hour, a carriage pulled by a stunningly beautiful horse came clomping past the barn, with a bearded (probably disapproving dairy farmer) man breaking his neck to see what was going to be happening inside the barn that night. Stelling played last this night because he was sort of a local on the bill, or at the very least with some familiar people there to see him. It was a long night and the liquor cabinet down by the pool house had been a free-for-all for some time. No one can be sure how much was being taken and downed by anyone else, but it's fair to say that everyone had had enough. The air temperature had dipped considerably by the time that Stelling took his guitar and placed himself behind the microphone. There was multi-tiered hay bale seating to his right and an ominous collection of heavy junk hanging perilously above his head - both literally and figuratively.
He stomped his boots HARD upon the hundred and fifty-or-so-odd years old wooden floor planks and this barn, which held a rapt group of people and was surrounded on all sides by heavenly hills, was the site of a revival that night. It was the place where people - through his painful and spirited words - got closer to themselves than they'd ever been. Despite being late and in spite of whatever may have been imbibed, everyone sobered up upon listening. It became clear that this was special, that this little guy was very special. He would could sing things like, "Feeling weary like a high lonesome melody/Yeah, be careful/Aw, be gentle with me/Swear I'm not a bad person, no, just got a strange darkness living in me," and some white breath would flutter like escaped conviction from his mouth. It would rise to the top parts of the rafters to sleep with the swallows. We felt weary too and we slept so great that night in a place that was our castle for a single evening.