Honky Tonkin' Time
Saturday, 10pm-2am, Robert’s Western World
Every person who walks through the door spreads a smile across their face to protect from the assault on their senses. The chemical cleaner used on the warped wooden floor, the pops and hisses come from the PA system, the heat and tension vibrating off the dancing couples at the front of the stage, the neon coloured beer signs flickering on the brick walls, it is loud, it is a lot, it is exactly what they wanted: to be confronted with distractions. They smile because there is too much going on outside of themselves to be able to think about their jobs in faraway cities, their responsibilities in ‘real life,’ and that is a relief.
The latest in the blonde tiara-ed bachelorette rotation get a round of vodka cranberries, settle around a tall table, and try to make sense of what sounds are coming from who. The oldest member of the band has a white mustache and a poker face and is sitting behind the drum kit. There is a wiry man with a freshly pressed peacock blue Nudie suit dancing with a microphone, his acoustic Martin dangling on his back, a weedy kid thrusting at an electric guitar with his hips, and a stand up bass being plucked with a flourish and a stuck on smile, and their brains organize this information until it is no longer just noise, it is a Hank Williams song. Are the band playing like they mean it? They are on hour three of their set, each song meant to keep the energy high, the drinks flowing, and if etiquette is followed, the tips dropping into their bucket.
A suit walks towards the door like he’s afraid of it and surreptitiously thrusts some bills in the container. The band don’t look too closely, they just nod in their general direction.
They launch into One More Last Chance by Vince Gill and the older couple with the shiny new belt buckle and candy floss pink cowboy boots two-step and twirl around the small dance floor for the third song in a row.
Billy looks up at the clock, hoping it has sped up since his last time check. He has been here too many times before. He will have to be here so many more times to come. He watches the bride-to-be spill her red dye number 3 coloured drink down her friend’s canary yellow dress as they cackle about something that is amusing only to them. Their mouths are open like they are trying to eat the joy in the room, their eyes are empty of cognition, their tip contribution is non existent. He can already hear their caterwauling and see their frantic arm waving for their Uber as they fall out of the bar in due time.
Sarge takes a half step back from the microphone, and Andrew steps into the solo, his face a contortion of the notes he’s bending and ripping through. The room shrinks around his sound, eyebrows go towards the ceiling, jaws to the floor, and Sarge watches the kid give the audience an earnest head nod. Yes, this is great playing, yes you’re impressed, yes you should give us your money. Youth keeps his hustle from being hostile. He’s as skinny as his Telecaster, but Sarge had seen the hunger in his twitching fingers, when he had asked if he could audition for them two years ago. Sarge had always been more of a singer than a guitar player, he could do that as he’d walked the highway to school, as he’d checked the car parts on the conveyor, he couldn’t practise guitar when Pepper and Bradley kept barging in and telling him Mom wasn’t in her bed, where was dinner, there was a man sleeping on the couch.
Billy holds the neck of his double bass tighter, wondering whether Lucie and the baby are going to be up when he gets back. He’s got to deal with the baby regardless, that’s the deal, Lucie had decided months ago. He hasn’t seen her boobs in weeks, they’re bigger than they’ve ever been and he’s not allowed to touch them, he can’t look at them at anything other than Daisy Mae’s. Lucie had tried feeding her in the bar during the day the other week, he’d almost punched a guy, and she hadn’t been back since. Probably best. He hasn’t punched anyone in two years, and he’d like to keep it that way.
Sarge makes eye contact with a girl sitting by herself against the wall. She’s bouncing her foot up and down and knows all the words, but looks like the kind of girl who wouldn’t know the difference between George Jones and Alan Jackson. She hasn’t got cowboy boots on, she’s wearing a white dress that covers her knees and her chest, and her hair is clean but not three times the size of her head. He sings to her for a moment, curling his lip around his large teeth which betrays the limit of his niceness, and he imagines just how hard he’d make her come, and then he’d take the last beer in her fridge before going back to his house, to ignore the empty spot in the bed that Rita has left.
The bucket comes to $150 each. Steve will be able to get the electric turned back on tomorrow.
Sunday, 11am-2pm, Nashville Palace
“She ain’t going nowhere.” Sarge kicks at the cord under his boot, watching it like a naughty kid in class, making sure it sits where he wants it to. The band launch into the song with a flicker of a polite head nod. Their audience of two pick up their Bud Lights and swig like they are following the rules. They are on vacation, so must wear their commemorative t-shirts from their trip to Six Flags, they must drink beer at 11am-because they can-and they must see live music on Broadway because they are in Nashville. Their blank stares betray that they are uncertain whether they enjoy it.
Sarge bats the air behind his back, Steve is going too fast, Steve wants to hit harder, but holds back to just the one and three, Sarge’s choice is not the lucrative one.
Sarge closes his eyes, and sees Rita lean in to kiss his cheek for the first and last time. She walked so quietly out the door, he couldn’t even get mad because it would insult the silence. He couldn’t remember what he’d say to her, but he knew the whisper when he’d opened the beer bottle had broken the spell and playing Guy Clark had replaced the air she’d taken with her, and today, he needs to fill that space in his chest.
Billy keeps him company on the chorus harmonies, closing his eyes too, and to the couple it looks like they’re both in it together, but Billy is thinking about the diapers, the juice, the crackers, and the fourth thing Lucie asked him to get from the grocery store, and whether today’s tips will cover it. He’s got another twenty in his pocket if need be, but he’s really hoping she’ll let him go to the Legion tonight, it’s his one night off this week, and he needs it to be out of the house, he’s been working in the house or working on Lower Broad all week and he just needs one night. She might want to go too, she needs a night out too, they could ask her sister to watch Daisy Mae. He’ll text Anna after they finish, he’ll do it, regardless of how much they make today.
Cruise worthy couples tread their white sneakers and socks into the bar, pausing for a song or two, some nursing a sweaty glass, some crunching on a red plastic basket of nachos, taking a moment to watch Sarge lay it all out. It’s not that different to their usual set, but the stage lights are burning him up, the longing is amplified through the speakers up above, and the quiver in his voice is cracking through the microphone. Steve and Billy widen their eyes at each other to confirm they’re both seeing this baptism by fire. They look out at the room, not directly at anyone, you never make eye contact with them for fear of seeing the vacancy. They don’t know what they’re watching. Sarge isn’t singing for them or for their money anymore. Good job too, because the bucket comes to a total of $50 each. Anna will agree to watch Daisy Mae, Lucie will put on a dress and do her hair for the first time in a week, but be pissed she still can’t drink and has to drive a snoring Billy home after Gary said he had to stay for that final round of drinks, but Billy will pay for it right, Gary’s broke as a joke right now.
Tuesday, 2-6pm, Layla’s
Devin is back in town, so they have a lap steel guitar player for the day. The guy looks shrunken inside his giant Willie Nelson t-shirt and workman’s jeans, but it might be the thirty years on the road that’s diminished him. Drinking and picking with George Jones for ten years would definitely edge you closer to the light, but his playing is still on point. Sarge feels vouched for by his presence, which makes up for the goateed biker demanding songs like the band are a jukebox, their skill diminished in his mind for not knowing some obscure Billy Joe Shaver song. The boss is in today, sitting at the bar talking with Kelly. She looks pissed, but Steve doesn’t know why, she’s just bought a house in The Gulch and started construction on a rooftop bar, playing catch up with next door, and over the road, and down the street, wanting a share of the profits the latest country singer turned businessman has shaved off of hers. Because live music is all about selling beer and sports right?
Kelly looks great, those tight jeans are something else on her. She’s wearing big sparkly earrings and Steve wonders just how much bigger her base rate is than theirs. She and her mom have been playing here for over five years, Saturday and Sunday afternoons, prime slots, and they handle the tip bucket with such grace, Kelly laughing with customers as she goes round the room, becoming their friend for a minute of small talk, so they understand she’s a real person, but the smile staying the same size regardless of the tip, it’s better that way. He remembers the first time he saw them play, the way her mother handled a bass, he realized Kelly wasn’t worth the risk of wrath from Donna. He knows the boss funded their new EP, they really need one too, Sarge has got enough songs for them now, but they never have time to rehearse them properly, unless you count when the bar is empty, but it’s the summer there are always a few wanderers and stragglers. They could fund it themselves if she raised their base rate, they’ve been here three years now, but that’s not the way it works down here, no need to go changing something that’s worked for so long. He thinks of the catalytic converter light that’s flashing in his car. Then Sarge calls for a Merle Haggard tune and he’s back in the tune, they haven’t played it in a while, he sure does love Merle. Sarge has been on a Hank the Third kick for a while, so it’s good to be mixing it up.
Some Jewish kids are too nervous to walk too far into the room so they stand against the wall at the corner of the stage. They gawp like guppies and Sarge can’t help but return an innocent smile. One puts his hands on his little kippah like he couldn’t believe he was hearing this music crawl across his flesh, and you could see the band get a little taller, Steve is back in the pocket, playing for their new attentive audience, rather than the previous atmosphere as hard as the limestone they’re trying to tunnel through up the street. Sarge reads them right and the band launch into Ring Of Fire, their one obvious song, and the kids lose it because they know it. But then they look away, into their pockets, and they’re not listening to them anymore, they’re seeing it all through their phones, eager to record the moment they’re no longer in. The band don’t miss a beat, turning their heads away from the black holes and back out into the desert lands of the rest of the room.
“Thank you ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, that was a Johnny Cash number for you there, and if you have any numbered bills in your pockets that you’d like to add to our here tip jar, we’d be mighty thankful, this is how we pay our bills and for our suppers, so we’ll keep singing while you enjoy yours.” The boy eagerly pulls out his wallet and shoves some bills in the bucket, like his wallet carries nothing of real consequence for him. The set is fuller for having Devin with them, but it splits the take down to $72 each. Devin will use this for his motel room, he’s still waiting on his sublet to run out at the end of the month before he can move back in with Denise and Chet. He’s not even sure he can call it his bed, he’s never there long enough to set his groove in the coils.
Wednesday, 10pm-2am, Layla’s
Sarge was late this afternoon. By 5 minutes, but he’s never late, none of the band are, it’s what keeps them playing in this band. He said he got caught in traffic finishing his Uber shift. Since when was he doing the Uber thing? Steve wonders, but doesn’t ask. Sarge moves quicker, apologizes, something else he never does. Mercy walks in behind him, with her fiddle, Billy guesses she must be playing with them today, she’d mentioned she’d like to the other day, Sarge must have confirmed it with her, Sarge is the one who confirms shit, Billy just turns up. This is Sarge’s thing after all. With a voice like Sarge’s he can be late. Steve can practise all he wants, Billy can pluck till his fingertips are thick with callouses, and Andrew can makes his Telecaster wail like it’s begging for mercy, but no one can sing as high and low as Sarge, no one can make grown men in full leathers cry as he holds a note. Son of a bitch knows it too, but most of the time he doesn’t take advantage of it. Steve remembers when they did an interview on WSM once and they asked where he grew up singing, and Sarge coughed into his fist, said, “Well m’aam, I’m from Kentucky and damn proud of it, but no I didn’t sing in no church or nothing, singing wasn’t exactly encouraged where I grew up.” They had asked about the rest of the band too and Sarge had been generous enough to say he was blessed to work with some of the best pickers and players on the street, but on the days when Steve was hungover and behind a count, or Billy forgot a Waylon Jennings song, they knew that there were plenty of other bests out there, just waiting for them to mess up one too many times.
Mercy was killer on fiddle though, and her bright red cowboy boots and sky blue dress made her even sweeter to look at too, she made them more likeable as a group to the older men and younger women. Sarge reckoned they could do with a fiddle player every time, but she was always on the road, playing with someone else, breaking up with some boyfriend. She was a butterfly flirting and fiddling her way through the city. God, to be a woman with that talent. Steve sniffed, his moustache wrinkling while the room stayed unmoved. There was a Keith Urban gig at Bridgestone that night, they raked in $85 each, above average for a Wednesday night.
Friday, 4pm, Bank of America
Andrew sits in the beige plastic bucket chair, his leg undecided about being up, down, up, down, his toes tapping to a rhythm that this room definitely doesn’t have. It is so grey in here. The walls are prison grey, the carpet is concrete grey, the people are robot grey, the vibe is like a sick person grey. He can’t believe the poster on the wall, that the two people with perfectly white teeth smiling on a perfectly white couch are happy because they got a 3.5% APR on their mortgage, whatever that means.
One of the suits, the youngest one, but still much older than him, calls him from behind her desk. He gets up, does the button up on his velvet blazer like his Dad taught him and thrusts out his hand as he walks over to the desk.
“That’s me!” He laughs, knowing he looks funny in this place. She doesn’t. Her mouth is so small he thinks even a joke wouldn’t fit in there. Her hand is soft like a baby bird as he shakes it as fast as he was shaking his leg.
“So I’ve been going over your application...”
His holds his leg with his hand this time. He mirrors her mouth, trying to tuck himself in, to make up for his inability to tuck in his paisley shirt, too short, but only $4 at Goodwill.
“...and I don’t really understand why you need a loan.”
Her rubs his sweaty palms up and down his pants. He never gets sweaty under the stage lights, but the strip lighting here is making him feel ill.
“Well,” He looks at the plaque on the desk, “Angela, it’s like this. I’ve been teaching kids to play guitar for a few years now, And I’ve gotten pretty good at it. I know how to explain things real simple, and I know how to play some pretty technical stuff. I’ve been playing downtown at Robert’s and Layla’s since I was sixteen. I graduate from high school next month, and I want to be a musician, but I also need a job. And I think my job could be guitar playing and guitar teaching. But to take it to the next level-where I can pay rent and taxes and all that grown up shhh...tuff...I need to expand my teaching. So I want to make instructional videos with a decent camera, pay for some production equipment, pay for some online advertising and then get in with the big guitar companies so they’ll pay me to use their guitars in these lessons. It’s all there on page five I think.”
“Yes, I know all that Mr McFadden, but why should we give you a loan? Why do you need three thousand dollars for all this?”
“I’m considering it like an advance on my pay check. I need time to make the videos, but I need to pay rent too. I can’t afford to save up for months to buy the equipment I need. Playing downtown won’t pay for everything in life, and I want a solid income so that I am a respectable member of society.” Her eyebrows flinch at the incongruence of his statement with his outfit.
He laughs again.
“I know I might look like your typical musician, but I’m trying to start out on the right foot here m’aam. Have you ever been downtown?”
She fidgets from side to side as though she’s got an itch running through her.
“Yes, of course, I was twenty-one once, I like live music.”
“So you know how those people earn their living for the most part right?”
Her eyes get wider, like she still can’t believe she saw that decadence, that desperation, that dedication.
“Yes, being a musician is a difficult career path.”
“Exactly, I don’t want to go down the old road, I want to make a new one.”
Her pen is poised over an anticipant blank box on a demanding sheet of paper.
“And why are you applying for a loan with us rather than say, borrowing from your parents?”
Andrew draws his shoulders back and down his spine and inhales.
“They can only emotionally support me in what I choose to do with my life.”
The crown of her head dips to one side.
“Do you use Instagram? Or YouTube? These are the viewing figures I have using crappy equipment.”
Andrew reaches onto her desk and opens up to page four.
“Those are real people watching these. And those are real people who will pay for my work. All I’m asking is for you help me get to work.”
He imagines her without the hair clip, her hair is at least shoulder length like his, he reckons she could have a good time, if she was encouraged in the right way.
“I can show you the videos now if you want, and I’m playing downtown tonight, why don’t you come watch?” He smiles, open, like he wants her check book to be.
Her shoulders give up, she smiles.
“That won’t be necessary Mr McFadden, I think I know what you mean. Your projected repayment date for the amount plus interest is in six months time. That’s not very long.”
“I’m fast Angela. You’d know that if you came and watched me play.”
A gasp escapes out of her mouth, he thinks that was her version of a laugh.
“I already have plans tonight Mr McFadden. But thank you for the offer. I think we can work something out her. Let me just go discuss this with my manager and I’ll be right back.” A blush comes to her cheeks, like she’s done something naughty, something reckless. Andrew is glad she feels that way. The guys downtown always talk about reckless like it’s good to be an outlaw, but he’s not entirely sold on it. He looks at the paperwork. Three thousand dollars. All for him.