Last night we played the Bloomsburg Fair in Pennsylvania, between Lauren Alaina and Kellie Pickler… Sweethearts, both. It was a standard late summer show, outdoors and chilly, a few thousand folks seated in chairs on the horse track up front and the bleachers beyond, ferris wheels and funnel cakes off in the distance. One of my exes was there, a middlewoman who works between a record label and all the country format radio stations in the Northeast, one of those people who sends new songs up the charts by seeming witty, cool, and agreeable to radio program directors. Interacting with people I used to date mortifies me, and I was not thrilled to see her. I’d been content with forgetting her existence. When it becomes clear to me that a person is not the right person, it’s hard not to discard that person emotionally. But when the tables are turned and I’m the one who gets discarded, it’s doubly hard for me to feel anything for that person beyond standard empathy. So after my ex and I hugged and wished each other well, I disengaged from all the people and the noise to think about my work, which is playing. To be observed without emotion. And that’s just what I needed last night, a respite from awkward feelings, and for me there’s no better comfort than pure cogitation.
The Randy Houser tour recently parked the bus at Little Whitefish Lake in Michigan to take a couple days off away from home. Our pedal steel player’s in-laws have a vacation home there, and they were kind enough to accommodate no less than eleven grown men with dirty underwear and drinking habits. We spent both days in and out of the water: tubes, darts, jet skis, Cornhole, pontoons, and handguns. We filled our tanks with Coors Light, coleslaw, and ice cream pops shaped like puppy paws. We smoked cigarettes and tanned our hides. We listened to the blues as the sun went down. It was two full days of asking and answering questions like, “This doesn’t suck, does it?” or, “It’s hard working for a living, huh?”
Raleigh, NC’s City Limits Saloon is typical for the kinds of places I’ve been playing for the last five years: a honky-tonk that looks like a steakhouse inside, smells like disinfected vomit, and is full of the feeling that Johnny Cash doesn’t like you thanks to the giant, stained-glass image of him flipping you the bird—the icon of such cathedrals. But before the flock gathers in the evening to listen to me and my band sing the gospels according to Hank, Waylon, Willie, and Merle, this church offers very little in the way of diversion. Luckily, the place is only a couple miles from some nice bookstores, so after soundcheck I strapped on my walking dunks and headed out into the heat, 104°. Years ago, I shed my anxiety to impress strangers with a clean-shaven look and a pleasant body odor; these days I get by on a sweet smile and gym shorts, and this apparent lack of give-a-shit normally wards off unwanted interactions while I enjoy the solitude of hiding in plain sight. But every now and then someone sees through my pretensions and decides I’m a man who needs an education.
It was a long run: four consecutive days of ninety-minute sets bookended by two twenty-four-hour drives, the most miles I’ve yet logged in a single outing with my new boss, country singer Randy Houser. This sounds like a light load when compared to how other genres tour: rock acts, for instance, go out for weeks at a time, hitting all their fan bases at once before coming home to hibernate. Country music, not so. Country touring has the regularity of a day job but in photo-negative: the shifts start when the sun goes down and the weekends start on Mondays. You’d think this kind of scheduling would mitigate the chaos of travel, but consider the context: when you’re gone for six weeks or more, you have the time to assimilate into the rhythm of your moving environment; when you’re gone for four to six days at a time you must negotiate a compromise between your home routine and the way of the wheels. Country touring is clock-in culture at its most nomadic. Each night begins the long commute to the next office, and each morning begins the day-long smoke break until the cards are punched at the downbeat of the show. You’re neither here nor there, home nor away—only on or off. Mostly off.
Hesiod James is lying on a couch of burgundy leather in the office of psychiatrist Dr. Phthaustus [fthou'sto?s], the two engaged in a lofty discourse on aesthetics with specific regards to the responsibilities of the reader versus those of the writer in works of fantasy. One is a man of faith.
HESIOD JAMES: I’m not saying a cat can eat endless portions of lasagna—that’s impossible. They just made it seem that way for a gag, you know? Suspension of disbelief.
(The other is a man of science.)
DOCTOR PHTHAUSTUS: But it’s already a cartoon. Obviously they couldn’t afford to train a real animal, so why heap impossibilities upon impossibilities? It’s absurd.
It’s a new day, another one. I have another gig, another three-month relationship has ended, and I’m growing another bushy beard. But it’s a new beard, which means it’s gonna be sexier and more spontaneous than the old one. Indeed, it’s an exciting time for old Hesiod, trapped inside the house, cowering under great heights of classic texts, music scores, CDs and LPs, and DVDs of The Great Courses. I’m gonna clear-cut my way out of this jungle though. I’m gonna be reborn in the world of other people, people with friends, people with promise.
I went out on a date last night. She’s a singer from Spokane, and she’s in town to meet a mutual friend of ours to co-write. We’re in Vegas—ugh. I’m there to fake-play on the ACAs, one of several different country music award ceremonies, perhaps the last one to round out all the obligatory congratulations for the artists, labels, and agencies requiring high-profile flattery to stay relevant. But that’s them.