Pianist Dave Manning considers himself perpetually on tour. He stores his belongings at a friend's place in California. He picks up his mail every few months from a cardboard box at the post office in Reno, Nev. And he spends his days driving a 1965 VW microbus named "Vincent" from Alaska (where he's from originally) through the Pacific Northwest and on down south—and back again—booking gigs along the way and staying in campgrounds or with friends.
When he returns a call from the Indy for an interview, he's finally found cell phone service and is contentedly sipping coffee in a campground outside of Yellowstone National Park.
"I have some old friends in Missoula so I'm coming through there," he says. "I'm kind of the embodiment of that joke: What do you call a musician who doesn't have a girlfriend?" After a pause he humors me. "I thought everyone knew this one. Homeless."
Manning, 35, aka "The Alaskan Piano Man" started playing piano in college after growing up playing the clarinet in his hometown of Anchorage. "When I got to college I started writing poetry and then I heard some old Bob Dylan stuff, some simple stuff, and I said, 'Geez, I can do that.' I took the poetry I was writing and would make up a song. For a long time it was easier for me to write my own songs than figure out other people's songs because I wasn't that good on the piano."
He is now. Manning plays festivals, gets radio play, and twice his songs were finalists for the "Alaska Song of the Year" contest. He describes his style as a "piano blues boogie-woogie revue," where he plays blues-based, country ditties and tells stories in between—if the audience seems open to it. His rough-edged voice sounds something in between Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits, all of whom he counts as influences.
Over the years, Manning's slowly shed his obligations to embrace his nomadic lifestyle. At first, in fact, music was merely a hobby. After majoring in television and video production, Manning worked as a videographer for "Heartbeat Alaska," a show about Alaskan natives, which has aired on PBS and the Discovery Channel. Summers meant re-runs for the program, and Manning spent those months traveling and playing music. He finally quit the job to move to Reno with his girlfriend and play music more steadily. But it wasn't until their subsequent breakup two years ago that he took his music on as a full-time affair.
In early 2005, Manning played Folsom Prison just shortly after the institution—famous for Johnny Cash's live show there—revived its music program. Unlike Cash's visit when he played to a whole room of prisoners, Manning played to a few rooms of about thirty inmates each in Ward A and Ward C, since the prison no longer lets so many assemble in one room together.
"When I was playing in the A ward I wasn't sure how long I was supposed to play. I played half an hour or 45 minutes. There was this guy named Jim who made sure we went through all the right gates and [oversaw] the room. So I looked up at Jim and I said, 'Hey Jim, how much more time we got?' And before he could answer, this guy in the corner went, 'Life.'"
Manning's stories and songs stem from such simple observations—poignant sometimes humorous, moments of truth about people and the road on which he travels.
"Cigarette Burns," for instance, is about his "whirlwind romance" with a dog musher from Germany who built her own cabin in the woods. "She had to take care of 120 dogs a day, which is a lot of carrying buckets of food and shoveling shit," he says. "And so the song is about hanging out with her, but it's kind of a collage. The point of the song was, there was a place up in Olympia National Park, a place a lot like where I'm camped now, so quiet that if you smoked a cigarette you could hear it burning."
Manning's most recent album, Vincent Rolls, is a tribute to his VW bus, which he first acquired when he was 17 years old and which, he says, at its 50-mph pace, has taught him a lot about how to approach life.
"It's a hell of a first car," he says. "I guess I kind of missed the memo where you're supposed to get a new one every few years."
Manning doesn't plan to retire Vincent anytime soon. Sometimes, he says, he dreams of making it big as a musician, enough to "beef up the retirement fund." But planes and agents aren't really his style. And he's not really ready to give up Vincent, especially since a friend of his recently built him a new motor with just 10,000 miles on it.
"There's a line in one of the songs about how Vincent has taught me lessons that I already had inside me. And when people are like, 'When are you going to be in town?' I'll be like, 'Well, tomorrow or the next day. It depends on how many garage sales there are.' I've learned to slow down. I've learned to not take the interstates."
Dave Manning plays Sean Kelly's Friday, Aug. 7, at 9:30 PM. Cover TBA. He plays Lolo Hot Springs Saturday, Aug. 8, at 8 PM. Free.