The kid was playing guitar in a beer joint. He was pretty good, too. He was mid-20s, he had a ponytail, tattoos, and his face looked like someone dipped it in a bucket of hair. He was a big guy, nice-looking. Maybe six-one. His voice had experience in it.
I was in the seating area, watching him work. Nobody else was paying attention. Everyone else was at the bar, lost in their own world. The male patrons were flirting with anything that moved. The female patrons were trying not to move.
The kid was providing background music. He was playing Merle Haggard, and he wasn’t just playing hits. This kid was playing B-side stuff. Such as, “This Time I Really Do,” “The Longer You Wait,” and “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.”
Then he started playing Willie, Lefty Frizell, Tex Avery, Bob Wills, and Spade Cooley.
Most folks don’t even know who Spade Cooley is.
This kid deserved someone to pay him attention. Might as well be me.
I used to play music for a living. Just like him. I played music in rooms where people smoked fistfuls of Marlboros and laughed too much.
On my plywood stage was a repurposed Sam’s Club mayonnaise jar labeled: TIPS.
My highest aspiration was to play a song that would inspire someone to leave a $100 bill in my jar.
That only happened one time. I have played thousands of gigs in my lifetime, from Atlanta to Chiefland. But I have only played one gig where a man tipped a hundred bucks.
I was playing “Amazing Grace” in Pensacola, Florida. The man in the audience was weeping. His son had just died in a car wreck on I-10. The man said his son loved “Amazing Grace.”
The man tried to give me a hundred bucks, and I refused. Namely, because he had been overserved. His breath was potent, and you wouldn’t have wanted to light a match within 12 feet of him.
But the man insisted I take the cash, and he kept calling me Jonathan.
Before he left the bar, escorted by a cab driver, the man hugged me so hard he nearly ruptured my spleen. “I love you, Jonathan,” he said into my ear. “I love you so much.”
I could never bring myself to spend that hundred dollars. It stayed in my wallet for decades.
My musical life all started when I was 2 years old, when I got my first guitar, which was much bigger than me.
By age 9, I learned how to play “Waltz Across Texas.” By age 11, I was picking “Faded Love” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
After my father died, I stayed holed up in my room and alternated between playing music and playing a typewriter. I did anything to avoid human contact.
By my teenage years, I was playing five nights per week in dim-lit rooms with unlevel pool tables and bathrooms that required a tetanus booster before entering.
I played through cheap, electrified sound systems that made my music sound like a guy playing ukelele through a bullhorn.
And I enjoyed my work. I got free beer. Free supper. I was expected to wash my own dishes.
The pay was crummy, but 50 bucks was 50 bucks. And I didn’t have anything else to do with my life. I had few friends. And young women didn’t want much to do with an orphan whose truck featured a front bumper made from a two-by-four.
In the daytime, I worked construction gigs and got splinters in my fingertips. At night, I played “Walkin’ The Floor” until 1 a.m.
I was godawful. But I learned things behind a microphone. On a beer-joint stage, you see the world from a different angle. You see your fellow humans, sitting in the audience, at their most vulnerable moments.
You see under-confident young women who just want to be noticed. You see guys who don’t know where else to go, so they come to a bar. You see happy people. Sad people. Grief stricken people. Fighters. Sinners. Pranksters. Lovers. Fathers. Mothers. Dancers.
You meet elderly people who just want someone to play “Misty.” You meet couples whose only goal for the night is to dance to “Mustang Sally,” “Rolling On a River” or—God help us all—“Brown Eyed Girl.” Which are songs you used to actually like, until you played them a million-and-one times.
And even though nobody pays attention to you, you love playing music. You do not do it because people are paying attention. You play music because life is hard and ruthless and harsh. And the world needs more pretty things in it.
When the kid stopped playing I approached his tip jar. It’s been 20-odd years, but I finally figured out how to spend that money.