When in Rome: “Buonasera, mi chiamo Louis Ledford”

by Louis Ledford

photo by Francesco Lucarelli

Sometime around 1995 or 96 I went to my post office box and found a letter stamped with international postage addressed to me c/o Used Carlotta. The letter was from a fellow in Rome named Francesco. He was writing to tell me that he liked my band and was about to publish a review in an Italian zine. Used Carlotta had recently released an album on an independent record label in Mississippi. The label’s owner had seen us play and offered a “Deal” that included international distribution. That’s how our little record found its way into the hands of my new Italian friend.

Over the years Francesco and I continued to correspond. Our letters became emails that covered subjects both personal and professional. He introduced me to his own music. We bonded over the deaths of parents. We even collaborated on an album project that raised money for animal welfare called Music Is Love. And for 20 years we discussed the prospect of my coming to Rome to play a show.

This year my sweetheart Julia got a sabbatical from work and we planned a trip to the Island of Crete to see the legendary city of Knossos, swim in the sea and get out of our country for a while. Before making arrangements I figured I’d see if Francesco wanted to put on a show. I’m pretty sure my first email’s subject line was I’M SERIOUS THIS TIME! Francesco responded enthusiastically and within a short time he had secured a nice venue and I agreed with his suggestion that he should put a band together to back me up.

After a smooth but grueling flight (I really hate flying) we landed at Leonardo Di Vinci Airport. We negotiated our way onto a train that took us to Trastevere Station in Rome. We learned how to secure a streetcar (tram) ticket from a neighborhood newsstand. We found the correct tram that went right to the B and B owned by a lovely woman who spoke no English and wasn’t gonna start with us. Using gestures and smiles she convinced us to hand over our passports and showed us a room that was neat and comfortable. She returned later with our paperwork and in exchange I handed over a fistful of Euros.

After our journey we were pretty wiped out so we lay down that afternoon and slept through much of the evening when Francesco phoned and invited us to meet him for a drink. I smiled as I heard my friend’s voice for the first time! We followed his directions to a little restaurant near by. On our walk we enjoyed seeing the streets busy at this relatively late hour with people of all ages. Upon arriving we found a nice table by a window. Our waiter Fabrizio was a good sport and did his best in broken English to help us understand the menu. In our defense I used a phrase that I repeated often on our trip. “I’m like a child. Please explain again!” We were enjoying our meal when Francesco arrived looking exactly like himself, as I must have as well, because he came directly up to us grinned and said “Ciao, Louis!” We had a very nice time catching up and before saying goodnight we made arrangements for the next evening to meet the band.

On the way to rehearsal we stopped to pick up Marco our bass player. Marco seemed to be in mid-sentence as we pulled up to greet him and continued to talk rapidly with Francesco as we sped through narrow Roman streets. Francesco broke off their conversation only occasionally to point out a bit of ancient Roman ruin or tell us about a section of 2000-year-old highway. Julia and I were enormously charmed!

We arrived at the practice space to find another Marco (percussionist) waiting outside. Soon we were joined by Michele (dobro) and Alex (mandolin and guitar). Rehearsal was a breeze. The guys knew the songs and were so solid that my jet-lagged ass was hard pressed to keep up. I had a laugh when I asked Francesco to explain to them some detail, which he repeated word for word in perfect English. These guys understood!  After practice we went to a pizzeria the band favored. Over dinner we learned that drummer Marco came from Sicily and he told us about the wonderful Italian wines to be had. Michele was a great fan of bluegrass and had been to the American South. Marco the bass player was also an accomplished guitarist and cellist. Alex was in the band of a very well known Italian singer songwriter. It was great fun getting to know these men who took their time to learn my songs.

The entrance into L’Asino Che Volais is an ancient tunnel that leads underground into a cozy dining room. Beyond this is a nightclub that might hold 300 people comfortably. The seating is casual with low chairs and tables. There is contemporary art on the walls and a mezzanine that looks upon the stage. The sound engineer Fabio carefully worked with us to make sure we were completely satisfied with the sound. Francesco arranged for singer songwriter Allessandro Lepore to open the show. Allessandro is from Venice but lived for a while in America. He sings his songs in perfect English with barely a trace of accent. He is really good! Before I went on I joined bassist Marco outside while he was having a smoke and he told me that he was soon to be married. I congratulated him on his happy news and sang the old Beatles love song “If I Fell.” He jumped right in and we nailed the harmonies pretty good! There were two girls in their early 20s smoking and listening. When we finished I said to them “You don’t want to listen to this old music, do you?” One of them replied, “We Love it! We don’t sing, or we’d sing along.”

After an introduction in Italian from Francesco I took the stage and said in my Southern drawl, “Buonasera, mi chiamo Louis Ledford.” I began with a short solo set. Then Alex and Michele joined me on mandolin and dobro for an acoustic set where we sat together in semi-circle. Then the entire band gathered for our final set. It moved me how well these musicians played my music after only a single rehearsal. We finished with Neil Young’s “Powderfinger.” Francesco, Allesandro and I each took a verse. We hadn’t had time to run the song as a band so it was anyone’s guess how it would turn out. There was no need to worry. The two Marco’s easily held down the rhythm while Alex and Michele traded solos beautifully. We finished up and the audience wanted an encore. We had nothing selected so after a little huddle I asked the guys to follow me on my song “I Never Said,” a raver with few changes. When the music was done I thanked the audience while arm in arm as a band we took a bow. I spent a very pleasant 30 minutes signing CDs and posing for pictures. I was honestly shocked to be handed long out of print copies of Used Carlotta discs for my autograph. After the room emptied the band and friends gathered to wish Alex a happy birthday over sparkling wine and freshly made tiramisu. We congratulated one another on a fine show and only half joked about taking it on the road next year. As we walked out into the very early Roman morning I thanked Francesco and expressed how glad I was that he had sent me that letter so many years ago. We parted with hugs and smiles then Julia and I headed back to our room for a couple of hours rest before a much too early flight to Chania, Crete.

For more about Louis Ledford, see his website at www.LouisLedford.com or follow his Facebook page.

Published in the August 2016 issue of What’s Up! Magazine