By Donna Howley & Lance Harrison
“And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”— “Once in a Lifetime” David Byrne
Ok… This is going to take a little while so, get a cup of coffee, sit back, relax, and this is our story!
It was in 1990 that Lance and I met, he had his kids living with him, my kids were grown and gone. We all had a great time together, Lance and I even started a small demo studio in my house overlooking Nashville’s famous Music Row. I had my own business working out of our home as a freelance bookkeeper.
In 1992, our/my past caught up with us! His kids had just decided to move back with Cookie, his ex. And shortly after, in just one day, our studio partner moved out, the bank called in a $30,000 loan that my ex had defaulted on and since I was paying alimony instead of payroll taxes on my employees in my business, the IRS lady was actually ringing the doorbell demanding another $30,000.
Due to bad and costly divorces we were made homeless long before it was in fashion!
We had to sell everything (my main residence and rental properties) to pay the debts and at that point we had one of two things we could do…
One… Move down the street, rent an apartment and try to start over or…
Lance asked me what my dream was… “It was always to travel around the world”, I told him thru streams of tears, “but we have no money!”
His response was… “I’ve got a guitar, let’s go!”
Our first trip out (the top of 1993) was to Mexico and Guatemala… we figured we could walk home if necessary and we did have some money left after all was settled but as inexperienced travelers, we went thru that quickly. While in Guatemala, we borrowed some money from back home, illegally bought a van, and invested in small items that could be wholesaled to small shops to continue our US travels. Donna was a bookkeeper before, therefore she could do the business side of all this.
We returned to the states and on the way, in the early hours of the morning Donna got head-on side-swiped by an 18 wheeler truck. Fortunately, she was not hurt badly and the settlement paid off all our debts.
We went on ‘Grateful Dead Tour’, selling out of our van on ‘Shakedown Street’, the marketing area of the parking lot and we wintered in Key West with a ‘Rainbow’ friend.
He suggested we go to Europe the following summer to a Rainbow Gathering there.
So off we went, the summer of 1994. We had $600 in pocket and no return flight to the USA, we flew standby to Luxembourg, hitch-hiked to Slovenia, played music on the street (busking) and returned 2 months later, buying our return ticket and still had $600 in our pocket! We did it!
Donna has always been good at finding money, so we raised some funds, and off we went again. This time to Israel for 3 months, again busking on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and traveling with the ‘Rainbow’ there. We camped on the Dead Sea, the Red Sea and were part of a Rainbow Circus with 35 International Rainbow travelers. We did one performance at the port in Haifa in front of the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior 2, before the French sunk it! Great memories!
From there we traveled on to India and Nepal, doing more purchasing for our depleted stock in the States. It was our way of making money in the states while traveling to see our families.
After another trip to Europe and many more adventures at Rainbow Gatherings in the Czech Republic and Hungary, in 1996 we decided to dedicate ourselves to Europe. We had many European friends by this time and had an idea of how to do it.
April Fools Day, 1996, we set off to follow the next dream! We bought a 6 meter/18’ long Mercedes Benz 508 van, completely outfitted with bed, kitchen, toilet and started our travels. We had already spent a lot of time in Belgium, Amsterdam and France, so we kind of knew our way around.
At this point we were buskers and in a community of such. Our friends gave us tips on what to do and how to do it and we survived and had a great time! But… only 3 months after purchasing our van, as we traveled to La Rochelle, France, Lance blew the engine in our ‘camping car’ and we were grounded!
Having spent all our funds on the van and insurance, we were too broke to afford a new old engine (it was a vintage 1970 Mercedes Benz 5 ton truck) so… what to do?
We had heard of a blues festival in Cognac, France, not far from La Rochelle, so we hitch-hiked over and became a Cinderella story!
We slept in the public park the night before the festival was to start and hit the streets early. By noon, we did not even have enough to buy a baguette! As Donna went off to find a better place to play, Lance continued on. “Big Boss Man” he sang as a short, portly man passed by. He stopped and asked what Lance was doing playing on the street. Lance told him our blown engine story and the man introduces himself as the director of one of the festival stages. He tells Lance to be at the festival at 2:00 and he would put us on the stage and pass the hat for us. Wow! What a surprise when Donna returned.
But it was just noon, so we busked a terrace’s lunch crowd. After the hat was passed and franc’s collected, a newspaper reporter approached us and wanted to know why we were playing on the street. Again we recounted the blown engine story and that we were invited to play at the festival at 2:00. Sophie, the reporter, would be there too!
So we played, they passed the hat and it was generous, we were interviewed by the press and then something very cosmic happened.
As we were being introduced on the stage, the director of the festival had the phone to his ear and heard our names in stereo as they introduced us on stage. Donna’s daughter knew that we were in France, maybe in Cognac and she called the Red Cross to locate her since her father had passed. They called the festival. This was in 1996, when the internet was ‘new’!
After we talked to Sophie, the Cognac journalist, the festival director pulled us aside. He told Donna to call her daughter, which she did and then she decided to return to the states after the festival. He asked about our story and then, where we were staying. The park would not do so he gave us a note to present at the 4 star Cognac Hotel, a majestic old hotel in the city center where all the ‘big’ stars where staying. That is where we would stay. Then he gave us food tickets to eat all our meals in the musicians food tent. And he gave us all access passes. Then he instructed his assistant to put us on the small stages around town to busk throughout the festival. Of course, with Sophie’s story the next day, we were a huge success!
We met Walter ‘Wolfman’ Washington and Candye Kane, Little Walter, Papa Chubby, and many more. At the private after-festival party, Lance jammed until early morning with Louisiana Red, honing his slide skills on a borrowed steel guitar. We met the French blues fans and press from all over the country. Many we would meet again over the years at other festivals and gigs. Many would help us on our way.
But it was not over yet for Dominque, the festival stage director who discovered us on the street, invited us to his hometown of Dunkerque in the north of France so he could help us book gigs and teach Lance some French.
As the festival came to a close, Lance had his first cognac in the city of Cognac and we left with our pockets full and our hopes high. We had enough to replace the engine and get Donna a plane ticket back to the states to take care of her late father’s concerns. We played the ‘Cognac Blues Passion’ 4 more years, but as professional artists. Donna returned 6 weeks later to a fixed van and with just enough money to purchase a small sound system and we were ready for the club gigs.
After that, while we always had the security of knowing that there was ‘gold on them there streets’, we had a helping hand onto the stages of France. We stayed in France for 5 years playing festivals, ‘cafe du musiques’, small and large pubs and bars. We played some in Belgium and Holland. We got agents and got screwed by agents. We fired agents. We got a 2 month winter job in the north of Chile one year.
A musician friend helped us get an agent in Germany and again our lives changed. Passing through Cologne, Lance turned left and the Strassenbahn (street train) went straight. We were not hurt but our van was totaled and life changed again in just a few seconds. So quite by accident we ended up in Cologne, Germany for almost ten more years, but always returning to France each summer to see our many friends and continue our career there.
Germany… another cosmic story…
After the accident, a kind police officer helped us to park up our van but the conditions were that we could only park there for 5 weeks. We had a 2 week tour planned in East Germany with one agent and a second 2 week tour in the Bavarian area with another agent. After that we had 3 days to get to Brussels to fly back to the states for a family visit and to met French friends there. Woe is us! Our van was to be our off day lodging, our kitchen… our profits were shot!
A friend in Cologne was brave and loaned us his car, we had to be across Germany and be on stage the next night. We made it and started a tradition that would change our life on these tours. At the end of each gig, we would tell the audience that we had an accident in Cologne and needed help there. And that we needed to find another 508 Mercedes. Then we would close each concert with ‘Oh Lord Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz…’.
All through East Germany, not one was found. So we went south to the next leg of the tour and at the first concert near the Austrian boarder in the tiny town of Obing, the pub owner told us to call her in three days to confirm that her Cologne friends would give us a hand. We did and they had agreed, so after the tour we took a train back to Cologne, freed our poor old van from the park up and with a special escort, limped across town to the given address. The frame was bent and it crawled a bit sideways as we slowly but safely made it to our destination. Now our dear old van had a one-eyed boo-boo on one fender (no headlight) and no windshield. We were a mess! On top of this, it was mid-February and cold!
When we pulled into the area of the address given, we were surprised to find ourselves in a country atmosphere altho we were still in the city of Cologne. There were horse pastures on each side of the tree lined narrow lane. Behind us was one of the two old city cemeteries in the city, heavily treed. The community was mostly small garden houses, made into permanent homes. As the lane was so narrow, we stopped at the head of it and Lance walked in to find the house number and our hostess, Inga. She was not home so he returned and we waited.
As we waited, people would approach us and as with any good ‘neighborhood watch’, they would ask us our business there. After all, we had this wrecked van without a windshield and American license plates! Each time, “Who are you and what are you doing here?”, we would answer, “We are waiting for Inge” “OK” they would reply and go on their way. This happened 4-5 times, each time the same blah- blah. Then one man approached, same question, same answer, but after which he looked carefully at us and said “You two are blues musicians” “Yes, but how do you know? We have never played in Cologne” His reply changed our lives! He said, “I saw you last summer in Longeville-sur-Mer, France on the Atlantic coast. I told you to come here and have a party with us and to play in my friends bar in Obing”! We had lost the contact, the agent had made the concert arrangement.
We always felt that the universe had sent us completely around Germany to get us to Dietrich and a community called the “Siedlung”, or the “settlement” in English.
They had a big party for us, parked up our van and sent us on our way to Brussels with the offer of getting us back on our feet when we returned to Europe 6 weeks later. They were all old travelers, many were musicians and they were the old hippies from the 70’s that had settled in this community after the communal house that they all lived in crashed. The pub owner in Obing was from this 70‘s era.
We ended up staying for almost 10 years. We never got back 100% on the road, (living in a van) for they found us a small neighborhood cottage, called the Hexan Haus, or Witches House, since it looked like the house from Hansel and Gretel. We traveled all over Germany, Austria, France, Holland, Belgium and Poland playing gigs and festivals. The largest festival we did was over 65,000 people. We played the VIP party before the opening and then were the first act on the main stage! Lance was involved in a week long ‘Magic Instrument’ project for that festival. He got sung ‘Happy Birthday’ by a festival audience in Poland one year! We slept in castles and got paid for it! We lived a dream come true.
In 2005, Donna’s ex-husband passed. We had kept a life insurance policy on the ‘old drunk’ and it paid off so we started to travel in Asia.
In November of 2006, we left Cologne for what we thought would be a 3 month trip through Thailand. After our first month, we needed a new visa and headed over to Mai Sot, near the Myanmar boarder. We landed in a colorful guesthouse full of old instruments hanging on the walls and a Bangkok family there on vacation, many of them old musicians! It did not take Lance long to join the party and play all the old instruments. Meanwhile, Donna had befriended the families daughter who was a Thai/Laos tour guide. Not only did she tell her of the history of Thailand and the King, but also told her a bit about Laos. At the same time, a farrang came in, Alicia, who was cutting up her big Asian Lonely Planet in to chapters she would not need and Donna took the Laos and Cambodian chapters, ‘just in case’!
We traveled up the Thai/Myanmar boarder, had a great time in many places, but not in Pai. There, it was unseasonably cold, the lodging was outrageously expensive based on our previous experiences and there seemed to be no Thai people, just Westerners which was not what we were interested in. We tried to leave town an hour after arrival but there were no more buses out! So we had to spend the night at least. So we went to more places looking for a place to sleep for the night and in doing so we had to cross a bamboo bridge. A broken bamboo bridge. Unfortunately, as we were crossing, Donna was attacked by the bridge and as she tripped a small piece of bamboo was driven under her toenail! Ouch, to say the least! A kind Thai man drove us to the hospital, which was very modern and efficient, and he also owned a guest house so afterwards he took us back to his very modest but very cheap lodgings. Basically bamboo shacks with a mat on the floor and no blankets so we froze our way through the 39/4o night. The next day we left for Chang Mai.
Donna was not doing well, couldn’t walk well so we hibernated in Chang Mai for a few days, still freezing! We had come here because we wanted to be warm! And then… we got an email from an old friends, Hap and Barbie, who were in the south of Thailand in a private resort, asking if we wanted to come visit them! And since it was a really expensive area, we could stay with them and they had arranged with the resort’s owner/manager, a Christmas eve/day gig! The directions our Barbie gave us were, “Go to Phuket and get on the ‘Golden Buddha Beach’ van that will bring you right here!” She was not aware that all those things had been arranged for her in advance by the private resort. We took trains and busses and in 24 hours we got to Phuket, looked around, there was no ‘Golden Buddha Beach’ van. Nobody even knew what ‘Golden Buddha Beach’ was! So we found a hotel, called our friends and found out that we were about 2 hours south of where they were. The ‘Golden Buddha Beach’ van was only pre-arranged for residents of the resort. The next day we took a local bus back up and made our way to the port town and caught a boat to the Andaman island of Koh Phra Thong. One of the last unspoiled coastal areas in Thailand, it boasts a deserted 12-km beach. Really lovely! Our friend’s house, just off the beach, was a self designed and constructed, very efficient bungalow/house. We were directed to the upstairs room high in the breezy trees.
The director liked the music we made so he offered us free eats at the buffet any day that we played a song for them. What a deal! I love to play anyway and that worked out great for us poor musicians! Plus, we entertained with magic shows and other games and such which endeared us to the other residents. It was an interesting mix of people; doctors, lawyers, hippies, gay people, the widow of the director of CARE SE Asia … he died in the tsunami. Yes, this happened to be the one year anniversary of the big tsunami that wiped out Phuket and this same shoreline. Most everyone that was here at GBB during that time was here now. Hearing their recollections of the tsunami were touching, scary and sad. But we all continue on in the face of diversity. One day the director asked if we had played a song yet, no we hadn’t. So he made a request, “I would like to hear ‘Alice’s Restaurant’, the full 30 minute version.”
“I don’t know ALL the words to it”, Lance replied. So he whipped out his laptop, googled the words, and set it up in front of him to read as he played… which he did, in its entirety! Good times. We played the Christmas shows and they asked us to stick around for the New Year’s shows. More good times. Lots of swimming and exploring and stories about the island.
We heard there was to be a Rainbow Gathering nearby and decided to make a trek see if any of our old friends were there. So off we went with some of our new found (and curious) friends. It was fun, and indeed we did find a few of our Rainbow brothers and sisters. The sunset that evening was amazing and full of color. We slept the night, packed up and returned to the island.
Soon it was time to move on and continue our travels. Our friends Hap and Barbie decided to travel with us. A friend of theirs had said that we must visit Laos, particularly some ‘magical’ place called Don Det. We happened to have the Laos section of the SE Asian Lonely Planet from Alicia, so off we went in search of this ‘magical’ destination!
When we arrived the island was full and rooms were at at premium. We finally found two rooms but at separate guesthouses. Hap and Barbie took the one further down the path, a waterfront room. We took a back bungalow at a place called Paradise since we were planning on staying a bit longer and we could move to the waterfront in a day or so. As we settled in and started meeting the guests, who do we meet but Alicia! She had been there for over 2 weeks and there was a whole group that had also been there for long stays. Needless to say, we blended in and stayed for a week also. During this time, we really fell in love with the island and the Paradise family.
We traveled north and after seeing much of northern Laos, we had two days left before having to leave the country and going on to Cambodia. So we decided to stop for those two nights back at Paradise. The family was very happy to see us and told us to come back the next year!
And we did!
Each year we would return for the winter months, since Germany is unreasonably cold. Each year we would return to Laos and our Paradise family. Each year we would stay a little longer too! Two months, then 5 months, then 5 1/2 months…
In 2010, with the European economy falling and the passage of no smoking laws in many countries, bar gigs were getting harder to book and festivals were losing sponsors so we had to make a choice.
We had money in savings and at that point we had one of two things we could do… (have I said this before?)
One… hold on by our fingertips and hope that things would improve or… ship our stuff back to the states and …. that is how we ended up in Laos!
We worked at Paradise Guesthouse on Don Det, 4000 Islands, for almost 4 years. We have retired now and built our own home on the island.
For photos you can visit our Facebook page, which is public, and see our albums. One is the actual building of the house, ‘Life at the Villa’ album shows a bit of our life, finishing our home and the blessing party. We also have albums of the island, medical cases (be warned, some of the pictures of the medical are a little hard) we helped the Lao islanders with and photos of us and our life!
Hope you had a fun read!
All the best, Lance & Donna