POINT CLEAR, Ala. (WIAT) – When Julie Nordmann walked into the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama, she was starstruck. There, sitting in the hotel’s Birdcage lounge with two pitchers of margaritas flanking her, was Joni Mitchell.
Julie had been told the singer-songwriter, one of her favorites, had checked into the Grand Hotel, a resort in Baldwin County where Julie worked off and on. The music legend had tried to stay anonymous, she’d been told.
“Joan Black,” she’d reportedly told the front desk.
“Whatever you say, Ms. Mitchell,” the attendant had replied.
When Julie had gotten the call that evening in 1976, she knew it wasn’t a prank. Her friend wouldn’t joke about Joni Mitchell: Joni, they knew, was sacred. So Julie had quickly changed clothes – into a “cool” pair of overalls with a Hot Lips Rolling Stones logo patch right up front – and headed to the Grand Hotel. And Julie had paid it forward, too. After she’d gotten the news, she’d called another friend, local musician Digi Morgan Revere. “Bring your guitar,” she’d told her. They’d both be glad she did.
The Birdcage Lounge
When Joni Mitchell came to Alabama in the spring of 1976, she was searching for refuge from the roads. In Baldwin County, she’d find it.
Mitchell’s tour with jazz ensemble L.A. Express had come to a close at the end of February. The tour had taken Mitchell across the eastern U.S., including a performance at Memorial Coliseum in Tuscaloosa. It would be the only time Joni Mitchell headlined a concert in the Yellowhammer State.
But Mitchell hadn’t had enough of Alabama. After her tour, Joni drove across the South in her two-door white Mercedes, occasionally stopping along the way to perform with Bob Dylan on his Rolling Thunder Revue.
In Alabama, Mitchell found herself at the Grand Hotel, a resort nestled on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, a pitcher of margaritas at both her sides. As soon as Julie Nordmann walked into the room, she waved at Mitchell. Mitchell motioned for her to come over.
“I was in a trance,” Nordmann said.
She said that Mitchell poured drinks for anyone who came in, fan or no.
Before the night was over, Mitchell and Nordmann sang together at the piano in the hotel’s Birdcage lounge.
Asked what song the two sang together, Nordmann chuckled.
“I have no idea, baby,” she said. The performance, she explained, was a pitcher of margaritas and nearly 50 years ago.
When Mitchell was ready for bed, Julie asked her about her plans for the next day. She was free, Mitchell explained. Not anymore, Julie told her.
The Ride Across the Bay
When Julie called Digi Revere, she’d been very clear.
“I have somebody who wants to meet you,” she told Digi. “It’s Joni Mitchell.”
Julie said her mother was planning to cook for Joni Mitchell the next day.
“Will you come?” Julie asked. “Bring your guitar.” Digi agreed.
“She made me promise her,” Digi recalled.
Digi Revere told her boyfriend, later husband, Jet Broughton, about the call. He was skeptical.
“Bullshit,” Broughton told Revere. “That’ll never happen.”
The next day, Digi and Jet headed across Mobile Bay to Baldwin County. As they traveled, Jet still openly questioned the trip.
“It was a long way,” Digi said of the ride across the bay. “And he kept telling me ‘She’s not going to come. This is ridiculous.’”
Jet was getting close to swimming his way home, Digi said.
Joni Sings for Her Supper
About an hour or so after Jet and Digi arrived at Julie’s home near Mullet Point, Joni Mitchell walked in the front door.
“She was wearing stylish bohemian attire, black beret, and a belted waist pouch to hold her cigarettes,” Jet would later write.
“When she walked in, I just went – wow,” Digi said.
For a while, Joni, Jet, Julie, Digi and the others who’d gathered just talked.
Digi remembers standing in front of a plate glass window, looking out at the beautiful view of the bay just on the other side.
“I’m an artist,” Digi remembers Mitchell telling her.
“I think I read that somewhere,” Digi replied.
Digi said her conversations with Joni felt natural.
“We talked about all of the wonderful lines looking out the window,” Digi said. “There were boats and piers – all of that.”
It would be a great place to paint, Joni told Digi.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of those around here,” Digi replied.
While Julie’s mother cooked gumbo and blackberry cobbler, the focus moved from visual art to music.
Joni had asked Digi if she played guitar. Digi, who’d played a gig the night before and would play another that night, said yes.
“I can’t play in standard tuning,” Joni said.
It was nothing Digi didn’t already know. For years she’d been playing Joni Mitchell covers – mainly from “Blue” and “For the Roses” – and had become accustomed to Joni’s “alien” tunings.
“Well play something for me,” Joni told Digi and Jet.
The pair of musicians tuned up and performed for Mitchell, playing a song in alternate tuning that Digi had written. Joni took notice. Her eyes, Jet said, “were positively glowing.” The song was in the same tuning as Mitchell’s “Woman of Heart and Mind.” The trio couldn’t resist.
And so they played. When they’d finished the song, Joni looked over at Digi and Jet.
“She just looked at us and smiled,” Digi said. “And I felt like I’d known her my whole life.”
“As that last oddly-angled chord died away,” Jet would later write, “Joni opened her eyes and looked at us as though she had inadvertently found family far from home. All the uncomfortable feelings disappeared. Suddenly, we were old friends.”
Soon, the newfound friends broke for gumbo. Joni told those gathered about her time in Gulf Shores, where she’d hung out with two “beach bums” until they’d realized who she was. There, she’d gone into a Winn-Dixie to buy cold cuts for them. She’d heard “Both Sides, Now” – a Muzak version – while she shopped. She hadn’t liked the Judy Collins version of her song that had been Mitchell’s first real commercial success. And this version wasn’t much better. Now, every time she’d hear the song, she said, she’d think of bologna.
Joni’s performances that night weren’t limited to the songs those in attendance already knew. Mitchell kept asking if she could play another new song. And another. And another. No one complained. They heard, for the first time, songs like “Coyote” that would appear on her upcoming album, Hejira, which was released later that year.
“When Coyote came out later that year, I already knew how to play it,” Digi said. “Just from hearing her play it that day.”
The biggest hit of the night was “Twisted,” during which Joni flipped her guitar over, thumping out what Jet called a “bebop rhythm” for the song. At one point, she asked Digi if she’d play a Mitchell tune.
“We were in the tuning for ‘Electricity,’” Digi said. “And like an idiot, I just started playing and singing. And she sang backup for me. That was amazing.”
“She turned out to be everything one might hope she’d be,” Jet said. “And yet just another sojourner like you and me.”
As Joni chain-smoked Marlboro Reds, things began to slow down for the night.
What had been an intimate moment, Jet would later write, had become somewhat of a spectacle. A gathering of a few had become a circus of many: “Young men with flowers, young women with expectant eyes, and a gawker or two,” Jet said.
He and Digi – still with a gig to make in Mobile – got up to leave. He felt bad, he said, for leaving Mitchell in what may have become an awkward situation. So as he and Digi packed their guitars in the trunk of his Toyota, he was relieved when he heard her voice.
“As we packed away the last guitar in the trunk of my old Toyota,” Jet wrote, “I heard the screen door at the top of the stairs slam, suddenly followed by the sound of rapid footsteps. ‘No, it’s okay,’ Mitchell said. ‘I’ll just ride with them.’”
Moments later, Jet was driving down Scenic Highway 98, Joni Mitchell and Digi sharing the passenger seat. They talked some more, making fun of the pop music on the radio “where appropriate.” And before they knew it, they’d dropped Joni off at the Grand Hotel. Their fever dream was over.
Brown Pinto, Green Eye Shadow
For Julie Nordmann, the fever dream continued. The next day, she’d pick up Joni in her brown Ford Pinto. Joni didn’t want to drive her Mercedes.
For hours, the two rode around and talked. It was never particularly heavy, Julie said, but they both enjoyed the company and conversation.
“She tells me this story about her mom hating makeup,” Digi said. “Joni liked to wear makeup, and she wore green eye shadow all the time.”
Mitchell told her where she’d gotten the green eye shadow, and the two laughed about the day’s happenings.
It was a day Julie won’t forget.
Newport and beyond
On July 24, just over 46 years since her time in Alabama, Joni Mitchell took to the stage once again. For the first time since the 1990s, Mitchell performed a full concert at the Newport Folk Festival alongside her “ambassador” and fellow musician Brandi Carlile.
For Julie, Joni couldn’t be more deserving of a musical resurgence.
“She stole the whole f****** show,” Digi said. “And God love Ms. Carlile. You could just see it radiating out of her face – that she sees Joni as a God.”
Digi Revere, now Broughton, said she’d been thrilled about Mitchell’s ability to strike a chord with an audience all these years later.
“She had to relearn guitar,” Broughton, a retired guitar teacher, explained. “That’s no easy feat.”
The day that Joni made
During those spring Alabama days in 1976, Julie, Jet, and Digi were bound together by a force few have experienced in the flesh – the presence of Joni Mitchell.
Joni, too, remembers Alabama. Just a few months after she’d previewed most of “Hejira” on the shores of Mobile Bay, Joni Mitchell released the album to critical acclaim.
On the last track, Mitchell tipped her hat to the Yellowhammer State, the place where she found the refuge of the roads.
I fell in with some drifters
Cast upon a beachtown
Winn Dixie cold cuts and highway hand me downs
And I wound up fixing dinner
For them and Boston Jim
I well up with affection
Thinking back down the roads to then
The nets were overflowing
In the Gulf of Mexico
They were overflowing in the refuge of the roads“Refuge of the Roads” by Joni Mitchell
For Julie Nordmann, though, it’s not the cold cuts she’ll remember. It’s not the gumbo or the blueberry cobbler that stands out in her mind. Nearly half a century after their meeting, it’s the little things that still remind Julie Nordmann of Joni Mitchell and of the freedom she represented.
“I wear green eye shadow now,” she said. “I still do.”