Chapter 9: The Country Star
In what is a five year tradition, the band begins their tour in Lakeside, California. They are the opening band in the city’s free Thursday Summer Music in the Park series. They have opened five years straight. It is a low-key and, generally, stress free event. There is something nice about playing for an audience that did not pay for their own admission. Five years ago when The Lonely Players first started touring, Dwayne had reached out to an attorney friend he knew from graduate school who was now living in Lakeside. Anthony (Tony) Whitman and his younger wife, Abby, were influential both in city politics and the art community. Tony arranged for The Lonely Players to play that first year and they have been invited back every year since. Dwayne thinks of it as easing into the summer tour. It is an eight hour drive, a two hour concert with familiar faces in the audience, and, afterwards, the band spends the night with the Whitman’s. Tony and his first wife were friends with Dwayne and Dani after Tony and Dwayne met at a university sponsored musical seminar. Tony and his second wife have a large, sprawling home, an excellent wine cellar and a generous nature when it comes to their love of musicians.
This year Dwayne is a little anxious about the new sound, but the crowd’s applause is a little louder than typical and Dwayne’s friends are appreciative that night. They love the way Dwayne is performing his hit. Tony had knew him when he wrote it. He is glad to hear it closer to the way Dwayne had originally wrote it. He teases Dwayne about him shaking his ass. Abby Whitman, an elementary school teacher, loves the part in the middle of the show when it is just Dwayne and Alex on dulcimer and harmonica. Tony Whitman says it is the best he has ever heard the band sound. He asks Dwayne if he has written anything new. Dwayne has not. He has been busy with the overhaul of the show. He is sure the creative juices will flow now that they are on the road. At least, Dwayne thinks to himself, he hopes so. Abby asks him, as she does every year, if he has found a girl yet. Is he going to settle down soon? No, he says, probably will never settle down.
After everyone else is in bed, Alex and Tony stay up and sit out on a bench in the Whitman’s garden. They have learned over the years that they share a special interest in tawny ports. It is an acquired taste that the two men have bonded over. They are the last ones awake with a very special port. Sitting outside with the sweet and selective wine, a cool early summer breeze and stars visible in a way that they are not in the light polluted city of Los Angeles, Alex feels his mind relaxing. He had been concerned about having pushed Dwayne. This first concert was a test. Dwayne passed. Alex feels his soul mellowing with the warmth of the wine and the knowledge that it is the beginning of the tour he so craved. He becomes aware for the first time that this is also the beginning of many last times. This is the last night beginning a tour, the last time in Lakeside, the last time sharing a port with a fellow aficionado of the wine. Alex shares with Tony the story of giving Dwayne the dulcimer. He encourages Tony to tell him stories of the younger Dwayne. Tony kept in touch with Dwayne during his Nashville years. Tony wishes he had been a better friend during those years, but he was going through his own divorce and Dwayne wasn’t a man who communicated easily about troubles. Tony was not a fan of Danielle. She seemed, he said, almost two dimensional, no depth, so dependent on Dwayne for her sense of identity. He cannot imagine that Dwayne would have been happy with her over time, but he knows Dwayne would never have left her. Danielle did Dwayne a favor, but Dwayne has never recognized that.
Graduation night, Tony tells Alex, Dwayne kept expecting Danielle to show. He was heart broken when she hadn't. He had convinced him to play with some other guys in a local bar; just a pick up jam session. Dwayne was so self-absorbed- maybe a little drunk. He hadn’t even realized that all the other guys had stopped playing just to concentrate on Dwayne. You felt, Tony says, chills thinking someday he will be considered one of the greats. When Dwayne went to LA, it just seemed like he had given up on being truly great. But tonight, Tony begins. He stops. He looks at Alex and asked “what’s changed?” Alex doesn’t know Tony well, but he knows he loves the music. He knows he loves Dwayne. Also, Alex just needs to tell someone. Damn-he needs to tell someone. Tony pours the last of the port into their glasses as Alex finishes telling Tony about his prognosis and his attempts to help Dwayne achieve greatness.
Tony asks what he can do. Would money help? Alex shakes his head. Alex doesn’t need help for himself. He needs a conspirator with Tony’s skills set. He can work on Dwayne and the sound, but the tour will be over before word of mouth will build their audience. Tom knows a little about social media and he has encouraged him, but- they need real media coverage and someone with the influence and connections to get that coverage. Tony nods. He has some influence. Alex tells him-without Dwayne knowing, you understand? Tony nods. He will start with connections he has in the Tahoe area. The make Dwayne a star conspiracy has begun in full force.
As Abby Whitman is preparing brunch the next morning, the phone starts ringing. Several couples from Lakeside are making arrangements to go to Nevada City to spend Friday night. Seems like it is a nice week-end road trip. Why not see the Lonely Players perform at the same time? Abby and Tony quickly agrees and by the time the band gets on the road, there are six couples planning on driving up for the show. Dwayne assures them it will be a slightly different show since they rotate some songs. He is happy to have some familiar faces in the audience again tonight. He is still nervous about the new sound; still afraid of failure.
In Nevada City the band plays at a large brewery with an outdoor stage that seats about 100. The area is full, standing only, and probably has more people than the Fire Marshall would allow. It is a wild night. There is something in the air teasing adventure. Dwayne notices women holding their shoes and dancing barefoot. The bartenders stay busy. There is a continuous line to the restrooms. Dwayne notices four kids standing outside the venue area listening; three guys and a girl looking to be about 19 or 20. This is why they are outside the adult only venue. He recognizes them from the concert the night before. Maybe they came up with their parents? They cheer loudly after “The First Time.”
Saturday is another short drive to Tahoe. Dwayne had been excited when he booked this gig, but now is a little nervous. They are playing at a casino with a 250 seating capacity on a Saturday night. It is like hitting the big time for their little touring band. When Dwayne booked it, Johnny was the lead singer and front man. Now Dwayne just hopes he can put on a show for that many people. The Whitman’s call to say they met a couple the night before who are going to Tahoe from Nevada City and invited them along. Three nights in a row? Weren’t they sick of him yet? Dwayne teases about Abby becoming his number one groupie. Tony says the band has never sounded better. He is excited to hear them for a third night. He later calls Alex and updates him on the media plan. When the band arrives at the casino, the event planner meets them. He is a short, slight man wearing a suit and talking very excitedly. The event has sold out. There was a sudden surge of tickets at the last minute being purchased by out of towners and the casino hotel is full as well. Also, the local television station wants to interview Dwayne.
It isn’t Dwayne’s first time on television. He was interviewed on a national morning show when the country legend he had played with died. “It’s the First Time” had been one of the legends later but most beloved songs. Dwayne had also been interviewed a few time for LA newscasts as a background expert for musical news events. He was, after all, a local professor with a doctorate in music history and a minor celebrity. Dwayne imagines that this interview will be similar to interviews he has had in the past. In fact, this interview is nothing like his other interviews.
He is surprised by many things about this interview. He is surprised by the length of the interview, but the journalist says it will be edited for a shorter piece. He is surprised by how in depth the piece seems to be. The journalist attended the concert last night in Nevada City in preparation. He is surprised the idea for the piece came from someone in Lakeside who knows her boss. Finally, he is surprised by the interviewer herself. Jackie is in her mid-twenties. She has prepared by seeing the concert last night, by interviewing a folk historian who specializes in the Western mystique and from gathering old footage of Dwayne from twenty years ago. She is a red-head with short hair, green eyes, about 5 ft. 5 inches and, Dwayne assesses, a c-cup; probably natural as is her hair. Dwayne realizes that he is attracted to her and might be distracted, so he compensates by providing full and complete, sometimes complex, answers.
Jackie’s initial questions are related to “The First Time.” She shows Dwayne a clip from twenty years ago with the legend. Why the change in the way the song is performed? Dwayne says he is performing it the way he had originally imagined it when he wrote it. It was an honor to have it recorded by such an icon. He would always be grateful, but he thought it would be good to revisit the song, try to find its roots, in some ways it is like trying to bridge the gap between who he had been when he wrote it and who he is now. The next questions are related to the evolution of country music. Could he compare Country Music today to where it had been when he played in Nashville? It is a good question and he answers as honestly and fairly as he could, but tells her he has been mostly teaching college for the last few years. She asks about the dulcimer and harmonica duet and he tells her that in some ways it goes back to this concept of bridging musical generations. Dylan’s song was inspired by the traditional song “Scarborough Faire”. Dylan took the traditional song, wrote contemporary lyrics, but kept the traditional refrain. As many times as it had been rerecorded, who plays it today? Yet, the folk tradition encourages reinvention of songs to make them timely for new generations. The way they are playing it today with two really basic instruments with important historic ties to American culture and music is a way to reintroduce it to anyone who comes to the show. He explains how the harmonica had arrived in the United States through German immigrants and was popular during the civil war. It was an instrument one could take into battle. He then talks about the dulcimer and its significance. He realizes the journalist is smiling at him and that he has talked at length. He tells her he wrote his doctorate thesis on the instrument and didn’t mean to lecture. The point being, he says, is that these Americans in the nineteenth century who had immigration or generational memories of strong traditions in musical storytelling found a way to keep those traditions alive even in battlefields and even in isolated landscapes. Today in the 21st century, there is the Internet and smart phones. No one is isolated, we can all share music, but we are listening more and more with our headphones; not communally. How often do generations listen to the same music together? At least in a concert there is a community listening to the music together in a shared experience. Also, did the songs today still tell relevant and meaningful stories? He just isn’t sure that they do in the same way. He hopes people who hear him play the dulcimer and Alex play the harmonica would understand the beauty in just two old guys playing a simple song. If the story in the song means something, then in today’s technological world, the simplicity of the instruments might be the best way for people to hear the story.
He again apologizes for getting long winded and boring. He says he has a couple of friends who have started calling him Professor. The journalist laughs and tells him he did great. She will film concert footage tonight, splice it all together, have it on the Sunday’s news/entertainment program the next morning. She says she is going to try and market the piece to other affiliates: especially in the towns he is going to play over the next few weeks. Her boss feels strongly, or his friend in Lakeside does, about helping to push it in other markets. For her, she is hoping this piece would help move her to the Sacramento market. It could be a big break for her. Dwayne thinks about the moving up and down and running to stay in the same place. She is looking to move up; as someone in her twenties in her industry should be. He tells her he is looking forward to seeing it the next morning. She asks if they couldn’t watch it together. It comes on really early, he says. He meant he would just turn it on and watch it while he is in bed. The young journalist smiles at him with great confidence. She is accustomed to getting exactly what she wants out of life. She tells him she is hoping they will be waking up together. Oh, he says, then he better give her his room number.
That night the venue is indeed sold out. He notices the four kids from the last two concerts right up front. When he introduces his hit with, “I think you know this but it might sound a little different,” there is loud applause before he even begins. After the dulcimer and harmonica duet, the crowd gives the two old friends a standing ovation. Dwayne thinks Alex is about as happy as he has ever seen the old man. When it comes time for an encore, Dwayne asks Alex if he is ready to play a little Punk grass. He notices the kids have their phones aimed at them to record video. He thinks about how they are indeed crossing the generational lines!
The next morning he wishes he could remember the sweetheart in his arms name, but thinks, when they turn on the television, her name would be announced as part of the piece. She came to his room about 2 a.m. He was already in bed. She had convinced one of the hotel clerks to give her a key. She said she had just finished integrating some of the concert footage into the piece for tomorrow. She is young, beautiful, with the energy of having just finished a deadline and he lets himself become lost in her. He is lying here this morning, holding her in his arms, trying to remember her name and thinking that this is about as good as it gets with someone you do not love. Funny how he was thinking about this just a couple of nights ago. Almost, but not quite, bliss, he thinks. She rolls over, looks at the time, turns on the television, jumps out of bed to make coffee and calls room service. She is all energy and bounce and youthfulness and he is an old man feeling the aches and pains of three nights dancing on stage.
She sits on a chair close to the television with a notebook in her hand. She is going to take notes on her performance in the piece that is coming on. Dwayne likes that she is a perfectionist. He pulls himself out of bed to wash his face, brushes his teeth and then lounges back on the bed. He is enjoying watching her watch the television.
“Today, I have the story of an uncommonly handsome, college professor and music historian, who twenty years ago wrote the hit song “The First Time.” This summer he is on a mission to bridge the generational gap of country music by recreating his own song and jumping effortlessly from a folk ballad on an antiquated instrument to a modern high energized bluegrass song that pumps up the audience. The lesson Professor Dwayne Hucks is teaching this summer is that music doesn’t need to divide the generations. It can bring young and old together and build an inter-generational community”.
The piece is impressive even if it does have a bit of hyperbole. There is footage of him with his back to the audience jumping across the stage to a musical interlude in “Hound Dog.” He doesn’t remember doing that move, but there is no doubt it shows off his ass as much as it possibly could. Alex will be happy. He is embarrassed. He gets out of bed to make himself another cup of coffee as the piece concludes with a scroll of tour dates.
The journalist is pleased. She runs at him and kisses him on the side of his mouth. He looks in her eyes. He does like that look in a woman’s eyes. He is her Prince who can do no wrong. He is a hero of song and stage and bed. He could swim in those eyes and kiss these lips for a day or two if he had the opportunity. He thanks her for the comment on being uncommonly handsome. She shrugs and says something about how for a country singer, his age, touring the West, his looks are exactly what is needed to make it big. He explores the comment a little more and she says that good looks are all in the moment, all dependent on culture and the norms for the moment. There really is not such a thing as universal good looks -just what plays in the moment- it is her job to keep her finger on the pulse of such things. His looks are definitely right for the right now in her audience market. She also thinks it plays well that he is reaching for a simpler sound and is a music historian. That kind of smart is sexy for today, she says, that is why she played up his intelligence. She tells him he is kind of like Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” That blend of educated and down to earth could really appeal to women right now, but a year ago she would never have done the story - a year ago dumb was handsome and now smart is. She kisses him again. Dwayne feels just a little bit dissected and analyzed. He also feels a little old fashion to go along with the old – Atticus Finch, indeed. Could she at least pick a movie in color? He decides to bury those feelings in her kisses, but she can’t stay. She has to go see where she could get the story picked up. He should expect to see cuts and versions wherever he is playing.
Sunday is an off day: a travel day. Dwayne likes to schedule it so they wouldn’t play on long travel days. Eight hours to Henderson and they would perform on Monday. Tuesday not even an hour away to Laughlin. Then four hours to Winslow for Wednesday night. A couple of hours to Phoenix on Thursday and they will have been on the road for one week. It had already been a very full three days.
Dwayne tries to write in the bus. Three great nights of concerts, that beautiful young thing in his arms this morning, long stretch of desert ahead of him. It is exactly the right conditions for a day of song writing. He has been looking forward to this! As the bus bounces along he goes back and forth between paper and guitar and damn, nothing seems to come. He thinks about the woman this morning telling him what was sexy and hot is all dependent on timing and location, culture and norms. Ridiculous! She would have found him sexy any time, any place, any culture. She invited herself to his room after all. Maybe she is trying to convince herself. He has seen that look in women’s eyes before. He likes it when women give him the set you high above all others look. The best thing about never being with a woman more than once or twice is that you get to leave them with that look in their eyes. Long term that look never stays. He thinks of the look in both Dani’s and Carolyn’s eyes at the end. He could live forever without seeing that look of disappointment and pain in another woman’s eyes. The thought crosses his mind that this probably means never falling in love again. If a woman got close to him, he would almost certainly disappoint her eventually. All these great thoughts rolling around his brain. Why can’t he seem to get any of them to form the words of a song? Hell, at this point he would even be ok with a poem. He tries to form the words. Damn, the words didn’t come. He wonders if he took a nap if he would dream about his woman in the blue world. Not long ago the him in his dreams had walked up behind the woman and held her in his arms. He might be getting closer to seeing her face. It is a mid-afternoon, hot Sunday day driving through the desert. He lies down and dreams his blue dreams of the unknown woman.