|Cold Hamburgers, Warm Beer and Hot Licks|
We’re in a Texas honky tonk, a pretty cool place to be. Lone Star beer signs shine dimly from the walls, and at the far end of the building a row of cowboys lean against the bar, barely visible through the thick haze of cigarette smoke. The big ol’ honkin’ dance floor is jammed to the edges with a churning sea of two-steppers softly swooshing as they glide past the bandstand. The crowd in composed of redneck truck drivers, mechanics, oil-field workers, honest-to-goodness cowboys, and a large turnout of those foxy Texas ladies with those long, long legs that come all the way up to to their asses.
“One more, guys,” he hollers. The drummer clicks his sticks and I kick off the next tune, a thumping 4/4 shuffle guaranteed to fill up any dance floor in Texas. Being a steel guitar player, I really get into the charm of the moment, hitting all the hot licks I think I know as the singer does his best Ray Price imitation.
We always have a good time when we play Austin – or is this Amarillo? Hell, I don’t remember, but I do know that last night we played Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth, the biggest night club in the world. Anyway, we’re somewhere in Texas in the middle of a two-week tour, and the motels and bars can get confusing after a while. Last night after the gig, for instance, I went to room 216 at the Holiday Inn, but the key wouldn’t fit. I finally realized that I was supposed to be in room 301 – 216 had been last night. And the other key in my pocket, 365, from two nights ago, didn’t help much.
By the end of the song our boss has appeared at the bar and the front man introduces him to the anxious crowd. He prances across the dance floor, waving at the audience, and hops up on the stage. Tottering just a little, he growls in to the microphone, “If I can get these SOBs to turn down I’ll sing y’all a song.” He fixes us with a baleful Jack Daniel’s stare and we kick off one of his big hits, the one we always start the show with.
“Hold it!” he hollers into the mike. “I don’t wanna do that one.”
We stop the music, one at a time, and sit there looking dumb. The guitar player lights a cigarette and we all grab a sip from our drink. We’re not really supposed to drink or smoke on stage, but he probably won’t notice tonight.
We finally get the music started and stumble through the set, starting and stopping his hit songs in mid-chorus (or even worse, mid-hot lick), changing keys in strange places, and just generally being creative. Sometimes a few people will ask for their money back, and sometimes someone will take umbrage at one of his wisecracks and want to fight, but a lot of them seem to enjoy seeing a big star act goofy in the spotlight. They’re probably thinking, “Hell, that’s just the way I get on Saturday night.”
Finally the set is over and the star mingles with his fans, shaking hands and insulting them on his way back to the bus. We drag out the T-shirts and records and do a brisk little business for a few minutes (the band gets 20% of the revenue), signing autographs and answering questions. “Do you know Johnny Cash” “Where y’all go from here?” “Do you really live on that bus?” “Remember me? I met you at Gilley’s in 1985.” “What’s your room number, honey?”
The house band gets ready to start their set, so we go to the bar for a cold one or two. Drinks are on the house tonight, which is a nice change from the penurious club owners we’ve had to put up with on the first part of this tour. Actually, this is a pretty good night, what with the house band to share the night’s work, and their P.A. to use. Our sound equipment sits out on the bus, a place we like to keep it as much as possible.
The piano player (“No, hon. I’m not married.”) sneaks off to the bus with a leggy friend and the rest of us retire to the game room for some pool and Foosball. And some more beers.
When the house band finishes their set it’s our turn again, and we manage to get through most of our second show before the boss gets too ridiculous. Once we get the guitars loaded it’ll be Miller time. Actually, it’s been Miller time, or maybe 4:20pm, depending on your preferences, all night.
Once we get the boss hustled off to bed we cook up some nachos (with the hot jalapeno peppers) and ask the piano player for details of his evening’s activities, knowing he would never lie to his pickin’ buddies.
Later, after everyone has gone to bed. I’m nursing one more beer, watching the dark Texas plains slip by our speeding bus. Occasionally a cluster of lights relieves the inky blackness on either side of the seemingly endless ribbon of concrete. There’s not much traffic out, and the CB crackles only sporadically as our driver exchanges Smokey reports with oncoming 18-wheelers. It almost feels like this is my bus, like I can tell him where to take me . . . Well, we’ve got to stop to pick and grin a couple more times and then we can go to the house.
People are always asking me where I’m from and how I attained my present illustrious position, playing for famous Opry acts and riding around the country on a big fancy bus. Well, let me tell you, when I was a mere child I walked two miles through the snow to take guitar lessons from an old black guitar player with one eye . . . not. Here’s the deal with the typical road musician working out of Nashville, Tennessee. He’s been back home in Indiana or Texas or somewhere practicing the instrument of his choice assiduously. All the local players say he’s great, so he packs his axe and his favorite CD’s and comes to Nashville to seek his fortune. All right, mighty fine. Nashville can always use a few more musicians. The way New York can use more concrete. The way Nevada can use more sand.
Upon arrival in Nashville grandiose misconceptions disappear quickly when the reality of actually looking for a picking job in Music City is contemplated from a cheap motel room. Here is the lonely would-be Nashville cat, far away from home, watching awesome musicians working for drinks and tips in Tootsie’s and Robert’s. He starts wondering what aberration of judgment allowed him to even think about coming here. If he’s an adequate player with no glaring personality faults he might find some kind of picking job if he hangs around long enough. (Hey, can you drive a bus and fit into this uniform? You got the job, Hoss!) It’s just a matter of sitting in everywhere you can, trying to impress someone (if only a foxy waitress: like I said, this guy’s lonely), getting to know people, and having a phone. Sometimes, though, he’ll run out of money or momentum and go back home, braving the smug looks of his family and friends. Maybe someday he’ll give it another shot.
Once he gets his first job he’s all gung-ho, wanting to play all the time, and dreaming of the ultimate jam session. Some of the best players in Nashville honed their talent to a razor edge at these fabled jams – musical cutting sessions – each trying to outplay the other, sometimes picking for days until the adrenaline and licks ran out.
So the musician today doesn’t have quite the same atmosphere in which to grow that was available to some of the older pickers. He must turn elsewhere for inspiration and guidance; the search for the elusive perfect solo.
Once our typical musician has put in a few years traversing the highways, he reaches a sort of point of departure. If he’s still avidly interested in playing music, he may be able to break into recording sessions. Only a small percentage of musicians ever make it to the recording studio on a permanent basis, though. Or he can pursue a career as an artist, instrumentally or vocally, again a risky venture.
The commercialism and rigors of being a professional musician all too often burn a musician out, and sometimes he doesn’t care if he ever picks up another guitar. So he may pick up a pen instead, and write a hit song. Or get involved in publishing and sell someone else’s song. Or begin booking shows. Or become involved in any of myriad of other music-related opportunities available in Nashville. And then he may get sick and tired of the whole scene and learn a trade or fall back on a college education, if present. That may be the only Way To Survive.
We get into town about 1:00. The bus driver checks us into the motel and we head for the restaurant. Eating can be a great diversion when you’re on the road; it helps relieve the boredom and can be something to really look forward to. It’s also a lot of fun calculating the odds of getting an edible meal when the only place open is Elmo’s Machine Shop and Grill.
After breakfast we’re faced with the prospect of a long afternoon with nothing in particular to do. This is where motel evaluation comes in. Motels can be rated on two points: facilities and location. Price is irrelevant, since rooms are usually included in the job while food usually isn’t.
Facilities include, among other things, a pool, sauna, game room, tennis court, cable TV (very important for late-night viewing), lounge (with a band), restaurant, Wi-Fi and a comfortable room. Most places have at least three or four of the above, but sometimes we get stuck in one with black and white TV (with two channels), no phones, flat pillows, a restaurant that’s closed half the day and all night, and killer maids that want to clean the rooms at 7:00 in the morning.
The problem of location is directly correlated to the price of transportation. (Cabs are expensive.) When the road manager is sitting in Nashville making the room reservations he tries to get a motel close to the place we’re playing. Sometimes this happens to be in the middle of nowhere, especially when we play a small town. Then we’re stuck in the motel all day unless someone in the band has a friend in that town with a car. (Road musicians have a lot of friends all over the country, believe me.)
As it happens, this time we end up with three items from Group A (facilities) and two items from Group B (location), so we spend a reasonably felicitous afternoon. Then it’s down to the auditorium a couple of hours before show time to set up what equipment we’ll need and do a sound check. Two other acts are on the show. I used to work with one and our fiddle player used to work with the other (he quit on account of illness – they got sick of him) and we know most of the pickers. Funny about that sometimes – you have friends whom you’ve know for years and who live in Nashville just like you do, but the only time you see them is at a gig hundreds of miles away from home.
One of the groups is staying at the same motel we are, so after the show we all descend on the lounge and roar a little. Have you ever seen anyone cut eye holes in an empty Bud case and wear it as a mask? Or run naked around the hotel wearing a towel on his head like a turban? And then fall asleep later in his room in the middle of a long distance phone call and run up bill larger than the national debt of Biafra?
Damn irresponsible, drunken, women-chasing, running-around-naked, pot-smoking, coke-sniffing musicians – they give the rest of us a bad name. No wonder we can’t get Nashville Electric Service to turn on the juice for us unless we pay the special “musician deposit”. Hint – don’t say you’re a musician when you apply.
Fans want to know if I’m tired of the road. Ha! Tired of this exciting show business life? Tired of the adulation? Tired of playing a steel guitar and actually getting paid for it? Well…
Our aforementioned tyro is real glad to be here, boy. He’s got the whole country to see, girls to meet, celebrities to hang out with, jam sessions to go to. What could be more fun than to rape and pillage a night club in Billings, Montana and jam with the house band til next Thursday?
But, alas, some of us do get tired of this fun life. Gone are the days when you ask the driver to wake you up at 5:00 A.M. so you could gawk at New York City. Cold hot dogs, greasy truck stop hamburgers, warm beer, and sometimes no food at all (where do you eat in Tie Plant, Mississippi at 2:00 A.M.?) can get to be a real drag after a few years.
Putting up with drunks can get old. Odd things happen. A drunk stumbles up to the bandstand and, in all seriousness, requests the song the band just played. Another drunk pukes on your guitar. A guitar player was killed in a shoot-out on Broadway in Nashville in an altercation resulting from the band’s failure to play a request.
Unloading equipment in the snow isn’t all that glamorous, and stuffing it back into the bus when it rains at a fair can ruin a pair of new cowboy boots.
I was in New Orleans with Jimmy Dickens and the bus broke down so we borrowed an old bus to make the next gig in Chicago. The bus was old. There were no bunks, just seats. There were holes in the floor. It started to snow halfway there. We were freezing our asses off and we arrived barely in time to schlep our equipment into the venue and pick. No time for showers, and I had to warm my steel guitar up with a hair dryer so I could tune it.
It never made sense to me that anyone would seriously expect a musician to execute intricate musical passages with delicately trained fingers after unloading and setting up a bus load of sound equipment. Some groups have roadies, of course, but not everyone can have a number one record. Most country groups set up their own stuff.
But the worst thing about the road is the sitting. Sitting around motels, sitting in airports, sitting in restaurants, sitting on the bus, sitting backstage. Shows never go on as scheduled. There was a report of a show that did go on exactly as planned out in the hinterlands somewhere, but to date this remains unsubstantiated.
It’s boring. Say a group leaves Nashville for five days to work four gigs – two clubs and two auditorium shows. This usually means that they spend about six to eight hours actually playing music, about 3 hours setting up and tearing down equipment, 35 hours sleeping, 7 hours eating, and 66 hours sitting around, although some musicians pace a lot. And some run around.
Technological advancements in the last few years have made the road more bearable, though. Hell, we used to call home from pay phones in motel lobbies rather than from the room, where you had to pay a surcharge imposed by the motel, and your old Walkman was cumbersome and awkward to use. You couldn’t find out if the Cubs won until you got to a motel or a truck stop. So you don’t want to go on a 3-week jaunt around the country without your cell phone, iPod and laptop. You can Tweet your adventures to the whole world as you go.
Many a musician’s grip on sanity is tenuous at best. All this sitting around, if it doesn’t bore them to death, makes them crazier than they already are, and they end up doing bizarre things to pass the time. A well-known singer, when he was the front man for another well-known singer, was driving the bus and happened to glance down at the floor. The drummer was staring up at him from underneath the seat, scaring him so badly that he bit right through the pipe he was smoking. (A lot of musicians are very hyper, for some reason – could it be the caffeine… or the speed? – making it easy and fun to scare them.) “Paybacks are hell,” as some wise man once said, and later in the tour he spent two hours in the drummer’s motel closet waiting to scare him when he opened the door.
Somebody once put Nair in the shampoo. What a mess that was. The malefactor was never discovered.
A guitar player once tried to hitchhike home to Hendersonville from somewhere in Germany. Even a musician ought to know that that would never work.
If you ever see someone in their underwear running around a motel late at night in the snow banging on doors (and being laughed at through the windows for his efforts) it’s probably a musician who got locked out of his room.
But there are plenty of musicians who love the road; they never get tired of it. When you’re on the road playing one-nighters, every day is different. New people, new towns, new situations. It can still be fun to go somewhere you’ve never been, and when you do go to a familiar place there are old friends to see. It can be a lot more fun than working in a house band in the same club every night. And it’s really great to be booked in Daytona Beach in January.
“Are you married?” I’m asked. “What does your wife think about all this traveling?” Well, a road musician’s marriage is obviously a different kind of romance, and problems can arise, but I know one picker who got along great with his wife for years until he quit the road to go to work for a record company in town. They got sick of each other and split up.
Well, all things must end and finally we’ve worked our way to the last day of the tour. One more dance to work, in Houston, and we can go home. We’ve been gone for two weeks but it’s really hard to tell. Time seems to hang suspended when you’re on the road The days run together and it’s hard to tell what day it is, and whether we’ve been gone four days or four weeks. I’ve been on some tours that seemed like they haven’t ended yet.
When we get back to Nashville we’ll hear how someone hired a new bass player, how someone else signed a recording contract (now if he can just get the record company to sign it), how a friend just got his 5th (sic) divorce from the same woman. Maybe I’ve missed out on a great job while I was gone. Musicians are always on the lockout for a better job – there’s not much security in this business. Employee insurance? Overtime? Christmas bonus? Cost-of-living raises? WTF? Or maybe we missed a snow storm. Maybe somebody’s phone has been cut off, or maybe someone will find a girl friend from New York camped on his doorstep. Maybe someone’s wife will be gone.
I think you get my drift by now. To love this life you have to sometimes be less musically inclined than adventurous (or masochistic). As you can see, it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. Someone has to be responsible enough to bring the excitement of live country music to even the most remote outposts of civilization. There’s a lot of unfortunate people out there who’ve never had the opportunity to see George Jones or Ray Price in person. Without the efforts and talents of the lowly unsung heroes of the music business, the road musicians, these and other giants of the recording industry would have no show to bring to your town.
So the next time you go to a country music show, have a little sympathy for the guys in the band. Be amazed at their prodigious talent – let them dazzle you with their musical mastery. Buy a musician a drink; be nice to him, but don’t germ him to death. And please don’t request “Steel Guitar Rag.”
The Tip Jug
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I wrote some books all by myself that you might be interested in if you like country music, steel guitar, the 60's and/or mysteries.
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