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.
Nell Thomas - June 25, 2022 7:10 am
You made a good investment with that 100 dollar bill. . God bless you. Great story.
Bonnie Lea Stanfield - June 25, 2022 7:48 am
I was trying to remember where I found you, and then I remembered…the Uvalde shooting. You wrote about it. Your writing inspires me, and brings all kinds of feelings to the surface. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with the rest of us. For being raw and honest. I look forward to the emails.
Debbie g - June 25, 2022 8:06 am
That dad would have been happy to know you helped another’s son
Love you heart and soul 🙂
Do something good for someone today
Love to all
Steve McCaleb - June 25, 2022 8:40 am
Son can you play a memory? I’m not really sure how it goes, but it’s sad and it’s sweet and knew it complete when I wore a younger man’s clothes. And so it goes….
stephenpe - June 25, 2022 10:01 am
Nice story, Sean. My grandmother was the first woman to own a beer joint in Gainesville Fla. Early 50s. My parents met there, Then when I turned 18 my dad bought a marina/beer joint on the intercoastal water way on Casey Key, Fla. That year Fla dropped the drinking age to 18 so I got finger printed and worked behind his bar. That was an education. Construction work during the day and bar tending at nite. You see some stuff in a bar that opens your eyes. I learned to drink only occasionaly from that and the fact mom and her mom were alcoholics. Thanks again , Sean.
Sandi. - June 25, 2022 10:29 am
What a perfect ending to this musical post!
Ann Thompson - June 25, 2022 10:46 am
Made me smile reading this.
I hope you play on your guitar today and your typewriter (lap top)….☀️
Dolores Parkinson - June 25, 2022 11:04 am
Ahh, Classic Country. Good to know some younger folks still relish it. May a revival of sorts be on the horizon.
Beth Wannamaker - June 25, 2022 11:08 am
Love your column here this morning!
Nancy - June 25, 2022 11:13 am
You are a bright spot in my day. Lately, you are the only voice I read that sounds a little like the country I used to love. I used to fool myself and believe most of us were good and wanted the best for others, too. You give me hope that it’s not all about buying power for a political agenda.
Duane Shelley - June 25, 2022 9:19 pm
I still believe the majority of us are good and want the best for others. The problem is evil is louder. It is time for good to speak up.
Kathy Beers - June 26, 2022 12:47 pm
Enjoy your columns and this one inspired me to comment since I play piano in the Atlanta Airport. For 16 years I have met people from around the world and most days the audience listens to me as if I’m a rock star; but sometimes It seems they don’t even hear me. Passengers have said that they’re listening but just don’t show it. The first time I went through the Atlanta Airport was in the 70’s when flew for the first time to California from Alabama where I grew up in a little town called Carrollton. This was the one of the biggest adventures of my life and the airport was intimidating and I had to ask for directions. Now I laugh because little did I know back then that I would be entertaining people in this big place and sharing my love of music with strangers from around the world.
Paul McCutchen - June 25, 2022 11:20 am
When you “pay it forward” make sure it is the right time and the right place. I asked for a song in Memphis one night and the young man played it with his heart. I gave him what I could 2 twenties and a 10.
Kelly - June 25, 2022 11:26 am
We need more people like you in this world! God Bless
Bud McLaughlin - June 25, 2022 11:36 am
Sam - June 25, 2022 11:36 am
My wife and I went to hear Ricky Skaggs last night in Montgomery, AL. Old bluegrass and spirituals. He was accompanied by Kentucky Thunder. A wonderful night of mandolin, banjo, guitar and base. He sang and played many of his greatest hits including “Hwy 40 Blues” and “I Wouldn’t Change You if I Could”. In between songs he spoke of Jesus, salvation and Bill Monroe. The instrumentals were as amazing. At one point a band member gave his testimony and celebrated his 6th anniversary of sobriety. They have played all over the world, but Ricky explained they don’t get many church gigs, most of them are in beer joints and the like, where pain and grace are sometimes mixed. After a standing ovation they concluded with an a cappella of Brother Where art Thou.
Catherine - June 25, 2022 11:56 am
This beautifully executed article reminds me so much of a song written by songwriter Marc Alan Barnett titled Tables and Chairs…a song written from a singer’s view of playing to audiences who are giving no mind to the performer, who sometimes feels like he’s just playing to tables and chairs. Look it up sometime~am sure you will appreciate and relate to it.
Rhonda - June 25, 2022 12:04 pm
Jonathon and his Dad are smiling. And feeling loved. Sometimes blessings simmer a while. In a way it seems like your Dad has been a hundred dollar bill in your pocket. You have passed him on to many over the years to folks whose tip jar was empty.
Linda Lewis - June 25, 2022 12:44 pm
This is a powerful story. Thank you for sharing it with us. It made my day. May God bless and keep you. You are one of a kind.
Anne Arthur - June 25, 2022 1:25 pm
That’s like reading about open-heart surgery, a lot of pain to endure and then comes healing. Your life and how you use your God-given talents are a blessing for anyone reading you.
Deborah Baggett - June 25, 2022 1:27 pm
Loved this!! My minister introduced me to your work. It often-times appears in our “Words of Encouragement” emails that are sent to our congregation twice each week. Please know you and your dedication to “encouraging” others, are greatly appreciated.
Lander - June 25, 2022 1:29 pm
Money well spent. Graciousness can happen in some surprising and amazing ways.
Sean of the South: Beer Joints | The Trussville Tribune - June 25, 2022 1:33 pm
[…] By Sean Dietrich, Sean of the South […]
Patricia Gibson - June 25, 2022 1:37 pm
What a wonderful story. Music speaks to our soul!! And so do you, Sean❤️
Babs - June 25, 2022 1:44 pm
Maggie Priestaf - June 25, 2022 2:21 pm
Good for you, Sean! I’m proud of you…
Michele Tiller - June 25, 2022 2:31 pm
Kay - June 25, 2022 2:34 pm
Sean, thank you for another one! I begin my days by reading your daily post! After reading them, I instantly think of someone I can share them with! ❤️❤️
Nancy D Robertson - June 25, 2022 3:55 pm
In the movie Steel Magnolias, Dolly Parton’s character has a line “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion”. I’m reminded of that sometimes when I read your columns. How do you have people laughing one paragraph, and sobbing the next?
I look forward to your post every day. Thank you for what you do!
suzfrew - June 25, 2022 4:12 pm
Thank you, Sean.
sjhl7 - June 25, 2022 4:33 pm
Love, Love, Love this!
Nancy Buckler - June 25, 2022 4:57 pm
PMc - June 25, 2022 5:56 pm
I am glad that hundred had a happy ending and you made that guy’s dream come true too.
Peace and Love from Birmingham 🙏
Christina - June 25, 2022 6:09 pm
Good job Jonathan!
pattymack43 - June 25, 2022 6:10 pm
Clint - June 25, 2022 6:11 pm
You never cease to “bring it on home”!
MAM - June 25, 2022 6:18 pm
I, too, have a $100 bill unspent. It was a donation to my digital news”paper,” and it reminds me often of how people rely on my factual reporting. I think you made a great decision on that expenditure. God blesses us every day with your God-given writing talent. Thanks, Sean!
Ronda - June 25, 2022 7:22 pm
And THAT, my friend, is playing it forward. Feels Great, huh??
Rhonda - June 25, 2022 7:41 pm
Good one. Like this
Linda Moon - June 25, 2022 7:43 pm
M y Guy and I know who Spade Cooley is and the others you mentioned, too. And we’ve waltzed in Texas. We’re not so pretty anymore, but, Lord, we still love music! Set out a jar, Sean….your music and storytelling are worth some good tips!
Becky Souders - June 25, 2022 8:20 pm
Great story, Sean Dietrich…. good on you !
BBW - June 25, 2022 11:25 pm
I loved your story because I’m one of those people who loves dive bars……. Never go anymore… but would I love just one more time,… looking cute & making eyes at that gruffy , bearded sweet singin’ guitar picking young musician…my gal friends & I acting silly after beer & shots……
You’re the best, Sean…… painted a picture that brought back fun memories ….. & as always you end your stories with a gesture that makes us feel there’s still goodness in the world .. thank you❤️
Sandi Krym - June 25, 2022 11:43 pm
You saved that money for a special occasion. All those years later you found the perfect place to “spend” it. I hope it’s as special to the young man you tipped it to as it was to you.
franfluker - June 26, 2022 12:15 am
thanks. what a sweet story
Terry V Robbins - June 26, 2022 2:58 am
Loved this! I’ve played to unpacked houses more than once!
Richard - June 26, 2022 12:36 pm
Nice job. ….. writing, but even more, living what you write
Debbie - June 26, 2022 3:28 pm
LOVE this one, Sean.
CHARALEEN WRIGHT - June 27, 2022 12:56 am
Sara Discenza - June 27, 2022 4:29 pm
Sean, this is to sending an over the net “hug.” The scathing letter you received and shared with your faithful today. We are still faithful to your blog. You share so much warmth, hope, faith in dark times that it has made these times more “doable.” Do a hounddog and shake, shake it off. We need you and your stories.
Dan Martin - June 27, 2022 4:44 pm
Tex Avery? Wasn’t he a director of Looney Tunes cartoons?
Fred Frederick - June 28, 2022 2:41 am
Love this story.
Yes. The world does need more pretty things in it.
Thank you Sean.
Joan Mitchell - June 28, 2022 10:46 pm
Bless your heart for giving him your $100, and for sharing your amazing insights for the benefit of so many.❤️