Chapter 4: The Country Song Writer
The Lonely Players end their evening at their regular bar gig in the valley with Johnny, the Lead Singer, introducing the band members before singing the song everybody wants to hear: “The First Time”. The bar is full for the last night of the band before the summer tour. Tonight is a bittersweet moment for Johnny. The band plays the lead up to the song.
Johnny: I’m Johnny Agnew, it’s been my pleasure to sing for you tonight. On bass we have Tom Carson. On drums we have Henry Edwards. The old man of the group with more energy than any of us who currently is playing steel guitar, but who you have seen playing banjo, fiddle and a little bit of everything tonight, Alexander Francis Gregory. And our fearless lead guitarist, as well as leader of the band and songwriter extraordinaire who wrote the song you are about to hear: Dwayne Hucks.
The audience cheers when Dwayne comes forward and wails for a few minutes on the guitar, but as Dwayne backs away and plays the familiar three chord intro to his most famous song, the applause, as usual, is the loudest of the night. Then Johnny sings his final song with The Lonely Players.
The band has played together for six years. For the last five, they have spent eight weeks out of every summer on the road. , The band has a pretty strong following both in their local area and in the towns where they travel during the summer. They have a quality sound. Plus, there is Dwayne’s celebrity status. Dwayne wrote the song he is known for over twenty years ago. A country legend recorded it in the nineties and made it a hit. It has been covered by just about everyone and the band plays it nightly along with one or two other songs people might have heard of that Dwayne wrote in his Nashville days. They always incorporate some of Dwayne’s newer music and then they do crowd favorite country covers; new and old.
Dwayne is the band leader and the best known of the band. The heart and soul of the band, though, is Dwayne’s best friend, Alex. Alex is somewhere between sixty and seventy years old and sees no reason to be specific, but he has been between those milestones since the band formed six years ago. He grew up with music in his blood in New Orleans. He relocated to LA following Katrina. He doesn’t talk much about it except to say he just didn’t want to be in New Orleans any longer. He has never been legally married and, to the best of his knowledge, has no children. He has three loves: music, cooking and basketball in that order. Sometimes he adds a fourth love: giving Dwayne shit. Mostly he gives him shit about being an “intellectual”. Dwayne has a PH.D in music history with a specialty in Appalachian root music. He is originally a city boy from Louisville, Kentucky. He thought he would be a full time professor at one point, but minor success in Nashville led him astray. Dwayne wrote his doctorate dissertation on: The Evolution of the Dulcimer. Dwayne and Alex are constantly battling about the dulcimer. Dwayne wants Alex to play the dulcimer; just one or two songs. Alex says no, he doesn’t play the dulcimer, and teases Dwayne that only intellectuals like him think that the dulcimer is a real folk instrument. Dwayne argues that since Alex can play anything, there is no reason why he can’t play the dulcimer. The argument is one they have had many times in the back of the tour bus long after all the other guys have stretched out for naps.
The two men could talk for hours about music. Dwayne loves hearing about the Cajun music Alex grew up around. Dwayne opens up with stories about the Appalachian root music he grew to love while in graduate school. Dwayne has met many similar old timers during his years in Nashville, but, since moving to Los Angeles, Alex is the only person Dwayne has met who seems to love the music as much as Dwayne. Alex and Dwayne are kindred spirits on the road and both men look forward to their summers. The rest of the band members are in their twenties. They are LA born and bred. As Dwayne thinks and plans for the upcoming tour season, he thinks the rest of the guys are good guys, especially Henry, but are they serious about the music?
Dwayne and Alex often talk about the fact that being in a band is a little like being on a sports team: each player has their role and relies on their team members. Dwayne and Alex never argue about the best sports team in history. Both men are clear that there has never been a better team than the Showtime Lakers from the eighties. Alex likes to think of himself as Kareem, the old man on the team, and Dwayne as Magic. It is a ridiculous piece of conceit, but lately it has been on Alex’s mind a little more. Alex had read that in Kareem’s last two years he had pushed Magic to stretch himself more; become an even better player and not rely on past success. Alex believes that Dwayne could be a country star and, the rare thing in country music, a star on his own terms. He knows Dwayne had some bad years in Nashville, but thinks it is time for him to get back in the music game for real. What the Lonely Players have been doing is more of a hobby than anything else. Alex believes Dwayne can be as big of a star as anybody. In the last week, Alex has developed a plan that might motivate his friend to perform at the level of which he is capable. As the tour season approaches, Alex feels a great deal of investment in this plan. About a month ago, Alex had a routine checkup, followed by a bunch of tests, followed by the awkward conversation when his doctor informed him of his pending death. Alex has about four good months left. For those four months, he will feel good most days and no one will know he is ill, but after that he should expect a fast decline. There is a possible treatment, but it is experimental and he would need to begin immediately. Then the four good months would be lost as the treatment would likely make him feel sick enough to wish himself dead.
Alex doesn’t have to think before turning down the treatment. Perhaps, if he had been diagnosed at a different time of year? The timing of the thing has to mean something. Alex wants a last eight weeks on the road with his best friend’s band. He wants to see if he could improve his friend’s “game” enough to change his friend’s fate. He wants to see Dwayne back in the music game for real before Alex dies. Alex is determined to accomplish that without telling Dwayne his news. There will be time enough for that after the eight weeks. Why spoil these last eight weeks for himself or Dwayne? About a week ago, the lead singer, Johnny, took Alex into his confidence with his news on leaving the band. Johnny wanted advice on how to tell Dwayne. Alex heard Johnny’s news and thought to himself that sometimes destiny puts all the cards into play.
Alex has thought long and hard about his friend’s temperament and habits. He has concluded that Dwayne is complacent about playing the “game” in the same old way. The best way to engage Dwayne to improve his performance is to challenge him to change the sound of the band. Doesn’t even matter how the sound will change, Alex thinks, that isn’t the point. The sound they have now is fine, but Dwayne has played it much too long. It is the act of reinvention that Alex believes is needed to challenge Dwayne. Before Dwayne will be excited, he will need to be just a little afraid of failure. Nothing gets a person to succeed quite like the fear of failure. With Johnny’s news, Alex has a second challenge for Dwayne. Dwayne needs to build his confidence in his voice and confidence in his ability to be a front man.
Dwayne often thinks about the fact that he is a very minor celebrity in a town abundant with real celebrities, near celebrities and want to be celebrities. Everyone in LA seems to be only interested in moving up, down, running to stay in their spot. Dwayne hadn’t moved to LA for a celebrity status. A few weeks before he graduated with his doctorate and a teaching position already offered, a country music legend called to say he wanted to record “The First Time”. He offered Dwayne a spot in his band and an opportunity to write more songs. Dwayne’s Nashville years began. They ended ten years later when Dwayne, tired of the lifestyle he had created for himself, decided to move to LA, start an extensive exercise regime, and settle for a lifestyle that allowed him to make music and hit the road in the summer. He might be the only person to move to LA to get away from fame and a drug dependent life-style. Somehow Dwayne just knew he would live healthier in the sun. Most importantly, he would still to be able to play the music he wanted. Los Angeles has been good for Dwayne in accomplishing these goals.
From time to time Dwayne is contacted about joining up and coming bands. He is still well known enough to play an occasional concert with a star when one he knows from the past travels through LA, but Dwayne likes being the one in charge of his band. It is the music he loves. He doesn’t need the moving up and down. He has his royalty checks, his job at the college nine months a year, his guitar lessons, occasionally writes travel or music reviews for a local magazine, sometimes even gets a paycheck for a poem he writes. Dwayne understands he will never be wealthy, but life has its moments in this simple world of his.
Two weeks from now they will be on the road. Gigs are lined almost every night through California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. This is the route for this year. Some years they would travel more Oregon, Washington State, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. He likes to vary it so he can see different scenery. They play small venues; never more than 200 in the audience. Sometimes they play a festival in a bigger city; usually before the second stage headliner. Those are fun with larger crowds and a carnival atmosphere.
Whatever money Dwayne saves during the year is gone at the end of the eight weeks. Dwayne pays for the bus and the gas himself. He arranges college credit for a couple of interns to act as roadies. The gigs pay for rooms, expenses and minimal money to the band. He can’t pay what most of the band members earn in their day jobs and realizes most of the boys are losing money. They are taking vacation days or unpaid leave for the experience. At the end of the eight weeks, the business end of the band always has a loss, not a profit. Dwayne is the business owner of the band and takes the hit. Whatever, Dwayne thinks, for the business of being a band owner. This is his life- what he lives for- all that matters. His life could be summed up into the eight weeks of the year on the road performing and, hopefully, writing songs. These are the eight weeks that make the mediocrity of his life worth it. It is ok that he teaches community college after once being on his way to teach at a major university with a tenure track. It is ok giving guitar lessons instead of playing with great musicians. It is even ok that he writes music reviews and travel guides for LA magazines after having been published years ago in scholarly journals and with the dream of writing academic books. This is his life now and it is all ok as long as he has the eight weeks on the road.
Dwayne is 49 years old. He will turn 50 on the road. He is a little over six feet tall. His brown hair is still full and wavy. Women often remark about his dark brown eyes and long eyelashes. He is in the best shape he has been in since his early twenties. He jogs every morning, bikes as his primary means of transportation, lifts weights and boxes three times a week to keep his upper body strength maintained. He eats healthy, drinks alcohol, but not to excess, and hasn’t used any drugs in ten years. More recently he picked up a new hobby. A woman had taken him salsa dancing on a date. They had been out only a couple of times, but he found out that he liked dancing. Now he finds himself going to salsa bars or country bars for a little dancing once or twice a week. None of that line dancing for him. Dwayne likes dancing with a partner. He enjoys it when a woman could anticipate where he would lead her or swing her. He thinks of it a little like sex. Performance isn’t the goal, but a good performance always results in increased pleasure and sometimes one partnership would lead to another.
The crowd at the bar is heading home after last call. Several regulars come up and wish the band good luck on their tour. The next week will be about getting ready. Dwayne has arranged a vacant music room at the community college for weekend days of rehearsal. The week between typically allows the younger guys to put in overtime at their jobs and spend time with their girlfriends or wives.
Johnny asks Dwayne if they can step out back for a talk. Alex realizes Johnny is giving Dwayne the news. Outside in the back of the building, Johnny lights a cigarette.
Dwayne: Don’t know why a singer would ever smoke, Johnny. You sounded good tonight.
Johnny: There’s no easy way to say this. Stella’s pregnant.
Dwayne: Shit, man, congrats or I’m sorry?
Johnny: Been married for three years. Time, I guess. I think she decided it was time, but she said she just forgot. We wanted kids eventually.
Dwayne: Well, congrats.
Johnny: You know what it means.
Dwayne: It means all kinds of things. What specifically?
Johnny: I have to quit the band.
Dwayne: When is she due?
Johnny: Too soon for me to save up the money I will need. My employers have been good about giving me time for the road, but it’s eight weeks I’m losing out on money- and the vacation I do get- I will need that for the due date. I can’t be traveling eight weeks with you.
Dwayne: You’re quitting now? We already have gigs set up. I can’t find another singer and get them up to speed that quickly.
Johnny: You don’t have to. I already checked with the other guys. You should take over as lead singer. It would save that extra money and the sound would be better.
Dwayne: Except I’m not a singer; back-up, maybe.
Johnny: You are thinking old school. These days it’s the looks of the lead more than voice. You are handsome. You have an authentic style. You know your songs come across best when you sing them. The time I got laryngitis and you filled in- our crowd doubled the next night. Move those hips, shake that ass, that’s all you need.
Dwayne: Stop looking at my ass, you faggot.
Johnny: Stella is constantly telling me how she would do you.
Dwayne: Well, let me know if the kid looks like me…Seriously, I can’t sing well enough to be lead. This is about the music. I’m not trying out for any boy band.
Johnny: People like a singer who struggles a little. Your own songs have the right emotion when you sing them. “The First Time” -I can’t approach the original and neither can you, but when you sing it, people hear it anew even though they have heard it 100 times before.
Dwayne: I hate singing that damn song. Give me a month on the road. We can audition, hire before we go. He’ll learn from you on the road. I will fly you back.
Johnny: What do I tell Stella? What’s in it for me? You always say you don’t want to record. It’s not about fame.
Dwayne: Remember, I’ve been there.
Johnny: But then for the rest of us this is a hobby. It’s been great. I met Stella here at this very bar, but I have to grow up. Even for a month - leave her pregnant and lose four weeks of pay, hell, now?
Dwayne hears the voice of his ex-wife asking about starting a family. He doubts the decision he made every day and at least he made that decision for fame and fortune. What choice did Johnny have really? Dwayne shakes his hand and wishes him the best.
Inside the other band members are waiting to push an agenda with Dwayne. Alex has told them Johnny’s news and has already talked them into the fact that Dwayne should be the lead singer. More than that, he has persuaded them that they needed to change the sound. Alex hasn’t shared the true reasons with any of the band. Alex is just pretty good at convincing people that his ideas are actually their ideas. Alex has the two week-ends and week between before the band leaves to get Dwayne to raise his performance and then the eight weeks on the road to make Dwayne a star. Somehow this parting “gift” to his friend, if he could be successful, will give his death some meaning. The other band members are simply convinced that their sound has grown old. Dwayne walks back in and realizes that a mutiny of sorts is in the works. Dwayne tells them repeatedly that he simply cannot sing well enough to be a lead singer.
Alex: Willie Nelson can’t really sing.
Henry: Bob Dylan- Garth Brooks sang one of his songs and then Adele- neither do it as well as he does even though they are both better singers.
Tom- Hell, actors are writing their own songs, recording albums, going on the road. If they are famous and handsome and can shake their ass, then that’s what they need. You’re handsome. You have a good ass.
Dwayne - You all are way too impressed with my ass. I ain’t Willie, Dylan or any damn actor.
Alex- You are a song writer and audiences likes it when the singer is also the songwriter. We’ve been thinking that we would enjoy it more if we could vary it a bit. We want to make our shows mostly originals with less covers. The covers we do we want to do more Hank or Cash- and we want to add different sounds; maybe a little Working Man Dead. I’ve been working on my fiddle-maybe some heavier fiddle-do a couple of instrumentals.
Dwayne: Who exactly is in charge of this band?
Alex: Put it this way, we can do it your way- find a new singer- stick to the plan the way it has always been. We will do it that way one last time for old time sake, but we all agree then that it will be our last year together. You could find other members for next year, but as stubborn as you are about change, you will like new band members less than you might like being lead singer. Try it our way this time and whatever you want to do next year or the next, I’ll stick by you.
Tom: Me too.
Henry: Hell, I’m not married and I’m snipped. I could do this with you forever.
Alex wonders if this would be the lie that would tip the balance and send him to Hell. It is his last summer with the band anyway. It is his last summer of his life. He is determined that this summer they are going to do things his way.
In the six years Dwayne has known Alex he has never seen him set his chin that way, hold his mouth that way. Really? He wants to change the sound that much? The other band members all seem determined as well. Dwayne thinks, how do we change the sound and pull off having me sing with the tour about to start. These eight weeks are his life. What really are the options if they all want it this much? Dwayne nods. Guess he just became the front man. Better learn to shake his damn ass.