Chapter 12: The Cowboy Professor
A small portion of The Lonely Players’ outdoor concert (on a Friday night in late June in Tucson with a capacity crowd of 500 in attendance) is captured for all time by the local PBS station film crew. They capture some of three songs. They capture in its entirety “The First Time” with various focused shots on Dwayne’s face. He is wearing his cowboy hat. He has a one day beard growth- a mere stubble darkening his lower face which perfectly offsets the lights shining on his large brown eyes. In the profile view his nose appears more noble than large. They capture the end of “Cool Water” with a full camera shot of the band playing on a stage with the old movie set of the saloon on one side and an adobe church on the other. They catch the beginning of “North Country Girl” with just Alex on harmonica and Dwayne on the dulcimer. The camera pans back and forth between a full view of the two men and close ups of Dwayne’s hands playing the dulcimer. He takes off the cowboy hat for this song and the camera captures him putting the hat beside him, running his hands through his longish hair and scratching his beard as he pulls a chair up before the microphone. He sits and Alex stands slightly in back to the right with the harmonica. It reached 100 during the day and only cooled off slightly in the evening. Earlier in the evening, during an especially ass moving song, Dwayne stripped off his cowboy shirt. In all three songs Dwayne wears a sleeveless blue t-shirt with a picture of a bald eagle on the front. He hadn’t thought about what t-shirt he was wearing under his cowboy shirt. He doesn’t usually take off his longer sleeved shirt, but the lights were bright. Alex felt they needed more lighting for the larger crowd. With the heat, the lights, the dancing, Dwayne hadn’t thought twice about stripping down to his sleeveless shirt. As Dwayne strums the dulcimer, the camera captures the eagle on his chest and the muscles in his biceps as they flex.
The PBS station will show this as part of a broadcast on modern Cowboys in the Southwest, but someone will leak parts on social media by the following morning. Tom’s blog followers will grow to 200 by the end of the next day after he writes an inspired piece about playing at the movie set: “Illusion vs. the reality.” He will describe his boss as the authentic reality amidst the illusion; a man who understands the significance of the song selection and is the most humble and down to earth man. #cowboyprofessor will be trending through the upcoming week-end and continue through the Fourth of July.
During the moments of the concert, Dwayne is not worried about the future, the cameras or social media. He is living in the moment. It is magical to be in these surroundings with energy emanating from the crowd. The band sounds great. The four kids following the band are spinning and twirling. The pretty journalist, Jackie, from Tahoe is here. Dwayne’s excitement about the evening is heightened knowing she will be there after. She is wearing a pink sundress and ridiculous bright blue cowboy boots with pink roses on them. When they play “Tennessee Jed”, she joins the kids dancing. Dwayne plays “The First Time” and thinks of the woman in his dreams of a blue world. At this moment he believes completely that there is still a chance he will find a soulmate and, if not, he will at least experience some bliss. As he strums the shit out of the dulcimer he remembers all the times he heard it in homes and realizes that with the right energy you can certainly get some real sound out of it for a crowd this size in an outdoor venue on a summer night. Alex has never imagined the dulcimer could sound like that or be played quite so enthusiastically. He wonders if the punk grass could be influencing Dwayne as Dwayne is improvising a dulcimer rift in the middle of this slow folk song. Alex doesn’t think about any future. He thinks about how happy he is to be alive to experience this night.
Saturday morning feels almost like a happiness hang-over. The sweet little thing in Dwayne’s arms when he wakes up is nude except for the ridiculous boots. He smiles at the memory of her, at some point last night, wearing just his hat, over-sized for her head, those boots, and an adorable grin. That should be a song writing inspirational memory! He worries just a little about how to let her down easily. He knows his soul mate is not a woman in her twenties, but he does feel connected in some way to this woman who has so impacted his summer. As she hurriedly dresses to catch her flight and says good-bye, he decides he doesn’t need to have any relationship or definition conversation with this woman. She was here for the fun. He should just consider himself fortunate she decided to have fun with him.
He wanders onto the tour bus finding it just a little hard to focus. In a few short hours, they are at a festival in Las Cruces, New Mexico doing it all again. It is not quite as magical and seems mostly a blur before they get back on the bus to travel during the night the almost six hours to Taos. Sunday is another festival day at the ski valley. Monday, the band is in Santa Fe for an evening concert at a small venue near the Old Town Plaza. Dwayne figures they will deserve the two days off he has planned for them in the capital of New Mexico. Tuesday is the Fourth of July and Wednesday is his fiftieth birthday. Thursday, the end of their second week on the road, they will be at a small casino between Grants and Gallup. What a full two weeks!
Late Sunday morning, as the band eats breakfast before heading to the festival event at the Taos ski basin, Tom informs the band that they are “trending”. He shows them the video from Friday night of “The First Time.” The band members sit in silence while they watch it and, when it is over, they turn as one to look at Dwayne. He does like the new sound of that old song. Any regrets at writing it is gone. He is embarrassed somewhat about the lighting on his eyes and kind of shrugs and says “nice hat” and leaves it at that. What can he say? Then, Tom shows him the tweets with a few seconds of him playing the dulcimer. The band members laugh at the tweets about his arms and the Eagle on his chest. There are comments about patriotism and what a true American looks like. Dwayne tries to remember where he bought the shirt. He hopes it isn’t made in China. Tom and Henry get a little loud in their excitement about the sudden popularity. Alex sees Dwayne is getting nervous once again.
Alex quiets the other men. He tells them not to let it go to their heads. This is just a thing like anything else, a moment in life to enjoy while it lasts, but not to expect it to last. He tells them the real thing they can take away is that the 500 people that were in Tucson attended a show they will never forget. He reminds them that the point is the music and the audience. Henry says, “Shit, we are just along for the ride. Tucson is a concert I will never forget and an experience I never thought I would have. We are happy to be a part of it, but the star is the Cowboy Professor”.
Dwayne is embarrassed again and doesn’t know what to say. Alex says that there is one more thing the band needs to talk about. He then leads them into the discussion Dwayne has been hesitant to approach. Remembering the conversation on the bus, Alex has thought about how to relieve some of Dwayne’s concerns. It is, after all, his scheme to make Dwayne famous which has created Dwayne’s stress. If there is an area of stress they can talk through and resolve now, this is good timing to do so. Alex tells the other two band members that with this increased notoriety, the band could become a viable business. To be clear, he says, the increased fame is not affecting income because the gigs are set, but if, like in Tucson, there are venue changes to attract a larger crowd, Dwayne could negotiate a larger house draw. There might be some extra money at the end of the summer. Alex then goes to a place in the conversation, Dwayne has not yet gone in his mind. What happens after the summer? What does it mean if the band could really be viable as a full-time business? Dwayne’s been subsidizing the band for years, Alex reminds them, but truthfully the band members have been working for little wages and giving of their time. What do they want and expect going forward?
Tom: You know, I want to be a writer. If you are going to go much bigger, my musical skills won’t contribute anymore. You might need to get someone else. I understand. However, you will need a social media person. Hire me for whatever hours you can for that. I’m going to use this experience in my writing. I don’t want a career in music and I don’t expect to be paid more than what I would have normally been paid for this summer. The experience and having a little social media following now-it’s worth it to me.
Henry: I play in your band. It’s an honor to play with someone like you. I hope you want to keep me- especially if I can get paid enough to quit my day job, but I don’t think the structure needs to change.
Dwayne: You know I will give you guys whatever money is extra after expenses at the end of the summer. If I don’t have to subsidize, I’m ahead. After the summer if we can or want to go full time…I haven’t even thought about it. I will do right by both of you.
Dwayne waits for Alex to say what he wants and expects. When Alex is quiet, Dwayne prompts him. Alex doesn’t make eye contact with Dwayne. He regrets beginning this discussion. He had not thought through what he was going to say. He is not willing to tell people he is dying. Yet he is not willing to make verbal commitments to a future to which he does not belong.
Alex: I’m with Tom. I don’t need anything more this summer and I think you will need to replace me after the summer is over.
Dwayne: Hell, no. That wasn’t the deal. You said if I did it your way, you would stay with me. We have done it your way.
Alex: I just don’t think I can...
Dwayne: I will make you half partner. We will be in this together. That’s what I would want going forward. You have been right. You wanted to hear me say it, well, I need your help. You and me as band owners, half and half, making all decisions jointly.
Alex: I don’t want that.
Dwayne: Then I will pay you to just stay on with the band. You got me into this. You can’t bail on me now. I need you.
Alex: You will be able to get better musicians. You will need better people going forward anyway.
Dwayne: Damn, Alex, there’s no one better than you. Plus I need someone I can trust. I need you with me. (Alex is quiet. He still doesn’t make eye contact. A few minutes pause seems much longer) Hell, I will just quit after the summer. I don’t want this. I had it before. It almost destroyed me. I can’t trust myself. I need you. You got me into this.
Alex wonders how bad it had been in Nashville. Dwayne seems so together. Everybody envies him. Whoever he was then, he is not that person now. It just goes back to Dwayne’s lack of belief in himself. Tom and Henry have left quietly. It is just the two old friends. Alex makes eye contact with Dwayne. Dwayne’s brown expressive eyes cut through Alex with pain. From Dwayne’s perspective, Alex has lied and betrayed him. Alex knows he has to tell Dwayne something of the truth. How to begin? Does he simply tell him he’s dying or does he discuss the plan to make Dwayne a star? Does he tell Dwayne about Tony’s involvement? Alex suddenly realizes that he hasn’t even been completely truthful with himself. It hasn’t even been two weeks yet. Alex doesn’t want to disclose to Dwayne and then maybe have Dwayne stop the media. Alex wants this summer. Perhaps it hasn’t been all about Dwayne. Perhaps, he wants this summer for himself. How much to tell?
Alex: Dwayne, I have some health issues…
Alex: Nothing too serious, but I have to take care of myself. I guess that’s why this summer is so important to me.
Dwayne: But why didn’t you tell me earlier? What do you need me to do?
Alex: I’m fine. I will stick with you as long as I can, but you know I’m older. I’m sorry. I will need to slow it down just as you’re speeding it up.
Dwayne (in a shocked voice). Hell, I wish I had known. What can I do?
Alex: We really don’t talk about these types of things.
Dwayne thinks to himself, I am a cold, selfish bastard. He has never once asked why his friend was different the last few weeks. In retrospect it should have been pretty clear that Alex was different. All this talk about changing the sound, buying him gifts, and Dwayne, of course, is so damn self-absorbed he never thought to try and get behind the truth of the matter. Dwayne thinks to himself that he will never change and that he is just an ass.
Alex: Dwayne? Do me a favor?
Alex: Just give me this summer. I need a really great summer. I’m sorry if I’ve been selfish.
Dwayne: Get ready, old man. This summer has just begun.