In 2016, it’s easy to get your hands on anything you want. Well, almost anything. There is something that I can only get when we’re out on tour. On the day we signed for the album we just released, I brought it along to share with everyone at the record label, which they probably thought was really strange… “Oh, let’s have a drink to celebrate… and it’s ginger ale!” This stuff is my favorite drink in the world, but there’s a lot more to it than that.
Even though you’ve probably never heard of Blenheim, you probably have heard of Charles Kuralt, the guy who had that long-running feature on The CBS Evening News called “On the Road.” Kuralt traveled across the country in a motorhome interviewing strange people, and normal but interesting people that he met along the byways. I love it, and one lazy evening my best friend Jared brought over a collection of “On the Road” DVDs he’d borrowed from the public library. We hung out and binge watched the show for a couple of hours, and one of the episodes was a story about Blenheim.
Kuralt goes to the factory in South Carolina where they make it and it’s basically a barn out in the backwoods. There are only four or five guys working there—the batches are really small and to bottle it they’re using these really old, rickety, machines. As a result, the bottles are always falling over as they’re passing through the line, and the guys are always scrambling to set them right.
At one point Kuralt asks them why they don’t invest in newer machines, and it turns out they like the older, outdated ones. They know the place is a throwback but they want to keep it that way even though they spend more time picking up bottles than actually filling them. They take pride in its distinctiveness, and its history.
Sometimes when I proselytize about Blenheim people mistake me for a ginger ale connoisseur, but I’m not that hip. And when it comes my music, I also wouldn’t use cool words like “vintage” to describe my gear. It’s more like found and inherited, sometimes reconditioned. But I feel that one of my strengths is that I take what I have and make the best stuff I can with it. I make music for myself, and anyone else who might stumble on it and enjoy it, but it’s not slick, or watered down. It’s more like Blenheim than Canada Dry.
Jared and I knew Kuralt’s Blenheim story was from back in the 80s, and that made us really curious. Was this stuff still around? Thankfully for the Internet, we found out it was! We saw that we could order it online but it was expensive to get it that way, and where’s the fun in that?
Instead we hit the road, making a trip about an hour and a half away to the only place in Indiana that carried it; a pizza joint in Indianapolis. When we got there we discovered they didn’t have the super-hot version, but they did have the medium, and it was amazing—not only because of the attachment we had to the story and the mystery of whether or not it was actually any good—but also the adventure of tracking it down.
Since then we’ve been to a place in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that sells it. We’ve also found it in Columbus, Ohio, Lexington, Kentucky, and a whole bunch of other places we’ve been to on tour. Sometimes they even have the hot stuff! I usually buy a six-pack or two, which is often the entire stock. I always think I’ll bring it back home with me from touring, but we finish it off long before. The funny thing is even though Blenheim’s story has become a part of our story, Blenheim isn’t owned by the guys from the Kuralt story anymore. They never got major distribution and I guess it just wasn’t growing. Eventually it was on the edge of disappearing altogether, but…
Have you ever been to the Carolinas? There’s this place along I-95, right on the border of North and South Carolina, called “South of the Border.” It was on the tour route of a band I played with before, and I knew it as this really awful, cartoony Mexican-themed truck stop/roadside attraction. But it turns out the guy who owns South of the Border was the one who swooped in and “saved” Blenheim in ’93. To his credit, he has pretty much left it as it was, maintaining the original recipe and keeping the business low-profile.
These days when we tour we go out with as many as six people, and even when we can find Blenheim, figuring out where to eat is always a challenge. We often roll a twenty-sided die and let the fates decide, but we tend to go for anything that’s local, or unique, especially if we can’t get it back home.
The thing is we pass through these towns so quickly and then we’re back on the road again heading for another and another. Like Kuralt said on “On the Road,” the interstate highways have made it possible to cross the country from coast to coast without seeing anything. But as for me, I like surprises, an authentic twang, a taste you can remember.
Wanted/Needed/Loved: Musicians and the Stuff They Can’t Live Without is an illustrated column where musicians share the stories behind meaningful objects. As told to Allyson McCabe and illustrated by Esme Blegvad.
Bloomington, Indiana-based power-pop auteur Mike Adams releases music under the name “Mike Adams at His Honest Weight.” His third album, Casino Drone, was released in May on Joyful Noise. When he’s not making music, Mike Adams hosts his own live talk show on Indiana public access television and he chronicles his musical life on the road in his podcast Tan Van Tour Talk. He’s currently on tour, and he’s probably in search of Blenheim.