According to Google Maps, it’s a 2,800-mile drive along Interstate 40 from San Francisco to Chapel Hill, N.C. Cut the trip in half, and you’ll find yourself in the town of Goodnight, Texas, population 28.
That’s exactly how Avi Vinocur and Patrick Dyer Wolf named their musical collaboration in 2011. The pair began their partnership in San Francisco back in 2007, but when Wolf moved to Chapel Hill two years later, they didn’t let the distance stop them from trading words and songs. In between they found the town of Goodnight. “It’s a really good historic town and we just became really interested in it,” Vinocur said on the phone from California. “We love America as it was developing and heading west.”
Vinocur, whose family hails from western Maryland, became fascinated with American history at an early age. (His grandmother is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.) When he wasn’t watching Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War on repeat, he wrote music: “I just started writing songs and imagining things for the people that were in the pictures, what would’ve happened in their lives, or who they were.”
Yet, neither musician had ever been to the town of Goodnight, let alone the Texas panhandle. So, when Vinocur and drummer Alex Nash returned to California after a CD release party in South Carolina, they decided to stop along the way.
After staying overnight in Little Rock, Ark., the pair found the unincorporated town just south of I-40 off of U.S. Highway 287 on Oct. 1, 2012. The band’s first album, A Long Life of Living, was due out the next day, but Vinocur and Nash had a bunch of leftover copies from the show. So, they went door to door and gave everyone in Goodnight a free CD.
“If they answered, we gave it to them and explained who we were,” Vinocur explained. “If they didn’t, we left it in their mailbox.”
Wolf was back home in Chapel Hill at the time, but he spoke with Avi on the phone after the visit: “The way he described it was, ‘There are more dogs than people here.'”
Vinocur and Nash’s excursion into the Texas panhandle was the group’s only tangible connection to the small town that was their namesake. Little did they know that the residents of Goodnight would seek them out soon after.
“We started getting contacted by people there, on our [Facebook] page,” Vinocur said. “‘You know, you should come play a show here,’ and we thought, ‘Oh yeah, we should.'”
The band’s main point of reference were Cecil Miskin and Darlene Wright, the proprietors of Goodnight’s “Herdware Store” and the caretakers of the area’s famous bison herd. Miskin, a former trial lawyer from Dallas, left his legal practice to pursue bison ranching in the area, which houses herds that descend from the bison Charles Goodnight himself once raised. Why? “Much less danger in the pasture than there is in the courtroom,” he laughed. Miskin formed Buffalo Gold Premium Fibers almost 20 years ago and has been out in the Panhandle ever since.
Vinocur and Nash’s visit coincided with a customer’s post about the band on the store’s Facebook page. Wright immediately took notice and contacted the band. It soon became apparent that a return trip was necessary, and that the whole band would need to come to town, meet the people, and put on a concert for them.
“We were all a little bit nervous because we didn’t know how everybody there would react to us co-opting their name,” Wolf said.
Despite the mild trepidation, the band reunited in Goodnight just a few months later in February 2013. They rented out a small community center that reminded Wolf of the small “VFW-type of” buildings one might see along a cross-country drive. They even forked over the $25 for the rental fee, but their offer was politely ignored. It soon became apparent the band’s concern was totally unfounded.
“People came from far away to come see us,” Wolf explains. “They cooked food and everything. Cecil cooked some bison stew, bison burgers, and all kinds of vegetables. It was so different from any other show. You know, in a club in a city somewhere.”
Around 50 people came out to see Goodnight play in Goodnight. Residents and their families, interested parties from nearby Amarillo, and a few friends of the band. The moment right before the first song was, as Wolf describes it, a “minor moment of truth,” but everything turned out more beautifully than anyone could have expected.
So much so that the band has returned to Goodnight for additional visits. They played a second concert in one of the resident’s backyards, which played host to yet another communal cookout for everyone in attendance. But now that Vinocur, Wolf, Nash, and bassist Scott G. Padden have become the town’s unofficial representatives, they’ve also gone back just to be there — to soak in the area’s deep history and learn more about Charles Goodnight.
“I feel almost like a pride now that we’ve discovered this corner of the country that most people don’t know about,” Wolf said.
Vinocur agreed: “Going there and spending time in rural Texas has really given us a new perspective on America in its own way. It’s such a different place… like its own country.”
The band’s time in Goodnight definitely influenced the band’s sophomore album, Uncle John Farquhar, which was released on Aug. 3, 2014. Named for Wolf’s great, great, great grandfather (“Uncle” was written on the back of an old photograph), it continues their first album’s interests in history and storytelling. The songs, the liner notes, and the album’s design utilized old photos, letters, and family oral traditions for inspiration.
For example, “Dearest Sarah” was inspired by a letter from Sullivan Ballou to his wife, an artifact that features prominently in the Burns film. Vinocur spent eight years fine-tuning the song before Goodnight, Texas recorded it for the album. The official music video above was just released for the Memorial Day Weekend.
So, will the band return to play another show for the hometown crowd, even though it’s technically not their hometown? “There’s nothing on the books,” Vinocur said when we last chatted, but the band’s current touring schedule includes three dates in Texas in late July. Plus, there’s a solid day between their shows in Dallas and Phoenix, Ariz, and the town of Goodnight is along the way.
They have to go back, because all technicalities aside, Goodnight, Texas’s true home is in fact Goodnight, Texas. As Miskin put it, “They’ve adopted the town for absolutely no reason other than they came up with this goofy idea to name the band. And now… it’s pretty close to home base for them.”