The Phenomenal Conundrum: Life on the road, one day at a time

18

February

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The truck belongs to Alexinder Gunn, and that makes the driver’s seat his.

“That’s my room, right over there,” says his partner, Raymond Husmann, nodding to the passenger seat. It’s not much bigger.

Squished paperbacks and heavy metal CDs are stacked and wedged in every crevice of the cab. Toothbrushes sprout from the side storage pockets. Jutting from an A/C duct is a smoking stick of incense, which keeps the place from smelling like an ashtray. The back bed is stuffed with guitars, djembes, a banjo, a violin, and the rest of Gunn and Husmann’s worldly possessions.

Husmann and Gunn are a two-man acoustic folk band from Fredericksburg, Va., called The Phenomenal Conundrum. They are not well known there, or here, or anywhere, for that matter.

But they have an optimistic plan to change that. Instead of performing around their hometown, or embarking on a one-time tour, Husmann and Gunn have decided to live on the road, encamping like gypsies in cities around the southeast. They spend a few weeks here, a fortnight there, sleeping in their truck and booking shows as they go. They arrived in Tampa in January; it’s their fifth stop in six months, following stays in Daytona Beach, Fort Lauderdale and two stints in Orlando.

They are homeless, but they don’t panhandle. They work the angles, but they refuse to be pushy. They make fast friends, crash on couches, work odd jobs for food and sell CDs wrapped in brown paper bags. They wash in public bathrooms, brush in public parking lots, smoke hand-rolled cigarettes packed with cheap tobacco and sleep side-by-side in Gunn’s Ranger.

“We’re looked at as bums, as hobos, in the eyes of a lot of people,” says Husmann, 35. “But it’s a wonderful existence if your mind can gear itself that way.”

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Gunn, 23, was born in Aberdeen, Wash., where Kurt Cobain lived beneath a bridge as a teenager. He started a metal band at age 16, but was kicked out, he says, “because I wasn’t very good at it.” He found his calling in the folk music of Bob Dylan and Woodie Guthrie, and made pilgrimages to folk festivals around the country.

When Gunn met Husmann, he was already a character of some repute in Fredericksburg. Born on a farm in Iowa, Husmann moved around the country in adulthood, working a series of odd jobs — cello making, metal building construction, a stint in Blockbuster’s corporate headquarters. In Virginia, he played in an “improv metal band,” booked concerts at bars and lived in his car, a ’93 Buick Regal, which he kept parked behind a used bookstore.

Gunn and Husmann had been playing together only a month when they agreed to hit the road.

“Once I decided I wanted to do music, that’s all I put my focus on,” Gunn says. “The only way to do it in this day and age, and make money, is to go out on the road.”

“If it ends up failing miserably,” Husmann says, “you’re living in your car, so ... how do you fail?”

Living without a schedule has its privileges. Wherever each day takes them, they can afford to take the scenic route, stopping to chat with artists, the homeless and other interesting characters along the way.  They park their truck in Walmart parking lots and other public sites, but some nights, they get lucky. They’ve slept at the beach in Daytona, a nightclub in Sanford and a frat house in Orlando.

To make ends meet, they pick up work when it comes. The owner of a sub shop in Ybor City gave them food in exchange for cleaning his restaurant. A man in West Tampa let them crash at his home recording studio; in return, they’re spreading the word about his fledgling music business.

And at night, they’re doing what they set out to do: Play music.

Gunn has a folksy warble that’s soulful beyond his years, in the vein of Ray LaMontagne. Husmann sings and plays guitar, too, calling his sound “soul grunge.” When one plays, the other taps his fingers on the djembe, or rattles a tambourine, or steps outside for a smoke break. Between them, they have more than six hours of original music in their repertoire, enough to perform until closing time at many bars.

In each city, they research bars with friendly open-mic nights, such as Sacred Grounds Coffee House or The Pegasus Lounge in Tampa. They cold-call bars, asking for stage time on their slowest night — that led to a weekly spot on Thursdays at Gaspar’s Grotto in Ybor City. At every stop, local musicians offer suggestions for where to go next.

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Why do people take a chance on them?

It doesn’t hurt that, in spite of their scruffy appearances, Gunn and Husmann act nothing like prima donna musicians. They say they rarely drink and don’t do drugs. Husmann reads the Bible almost every day, and says he’s been celibate for eight years. For fun, they listen to a shortwave radio in Gunn’s pickup.

“We’re articulate,” Husmann says. “We’re kind. We’re not swearing and spitting, and we try to look somewhat presentable. People are pretty quickly willing to take a chance on that.”

Sacred Grounds owner Karen Lowman said her shop exists to host artists like The Phenomenal Conundrum, who are happy to tour with no money, as long as they can do what they love. “They want to make music, and they have faith that whatever they need is going to come their way.”

Lowman sees a lot of artists who live this way. One singer-songwriter she’s booked sleeps in a trailer she hauls from town to town. Someday, Lowman said she’d like to get a building where traveling musicians can stay when they’re in Tampa.

"This is how people used to go from town to town,” she said. “This is what happened before there were hotels. This is what happened before there were paid venues to go to. This is where we all came from. The practice of their existence reminds us of where we all came from.”

It is a valuable skill, Husmann says, knowing how to live on the road — befriending strangers, hustling for jobs, learning to survive without a permanent home. And it is a skill that he says could matter more in years to come.

“The more we travel, we’re meeting people who are either being forced into this type of lifestyle, or who are being more open to bartering or working for food,” he says. “ We’re learning how to do it in each town.”

Tampa has been fair to the Phenomenal Conundrum, they say. Not as productive as Orlando, but fair. They’ve met friends, made contacts, even laid down some studio tracks. But money is tight. The most frustrating thing is not being able to afford a $6 cover to see another local band.

They’ll stick around through February, and after that, it’s off to Nashville. But first, they’ll swing through Chapel Hill, where a college student they met in Orlando has promised to help them record their first studio album at the University of North Carolina. It’s an exciting opportunity — one they wouldn’t have found if not for this road experiment — and who knows where it might lead?

Exactly.

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You can catch The Phenomenal Conundrum at one of these Tampa venues:

Friday: Pegasus Lounge

Tuesday: Sacred Grounds Coffee House, 8 p.m. to midnight.

Feb. 24: Gaspar’s Grotto, 8 p.m. to close

Feb. 25: Sacred Grounds

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Photos: Luis Santana, tbt*

[Last modified: Thursday, February 17, 2011 6:03pm]

    

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