It was October 24, a day I had circled on my calendar since I bought my Robbie Fulks ticket in August. An hour before the show started I sat in my seat, feeling guilty.
Two days earlier Fulks celebrated his 20th wedding anniversary...by, as he said, shipping off orders of his new album (Gone Away Backward, and I will repeat: get it if you don't have it!), loading CDs in his van, packing, and heading to Nashville to start more tour dates. Fulks posted on his blog that he and Donna would celebrate the anniversary "some non-travel week."
So there I sat, wristband on arm, feeling like a schmuck because Fulks was freezing his butt off in a northern Kentucky suburb of Cincinnati to sing for 75 people instead of being parked in Maui beach sand with his wife.
Perhaps that's a little overdramatized; however, this did get me thinking about what the artists endure while out on "the road." Sometimes we don't stop to think about such things on this side of the stage, but there's a toll endured to make us smile for a few hours. Dale Watson mentioned a couple of times at shows I attended that he's been married four times; and, as the story goes, he was once served his divorce papers at a club he was performing at. The Steve Goodman DVD Live From Austin City Limits...And More concludes with Steve, alone in a studio, singing "You're the Girl I Love," a song he wrote for his wife. The clip was recorded on the Goodmans' anniversary, while Steve was in New York City and Nancy was in Chicago. Anniversaries are missed, but so are birthdays, recitals, graduations, and even births and deaths (Charlie Louvin was on the road in West Virginia the day Ira was killed).
Tom T. Hall's "Homecoming" expresses in explicit detail the things performers endure for our sake. (The saddest line: "I'm sorry that I couldn't be here with you all when mama passed away, I was on the road, and when they came and told me, it was just too late.") In those days country acts toured in cars (as many bluegrass acts continue to do). Buses were luxuries, and planes were unheard of (Homer and Jethro were among the first acts to utilize flight extensively for their personal appearances -- which numbered between 250 and 300 a year), so time was spent cramped in the car ("we were stacked eight deep in a Packard limousine," Don Helms sang in "The Ballad of Hank Williams" with Hank Williams Jr.), fighting sleeplessness and occasionally one another. While Bill Anderson's story of the bass fiddle, normally on top of the car during the rides to shows, coming inside the car at the expense of everyone else's comfort once it started to rain is humorous now, that was reality in the 1950's -- for Anderson and just about every other performer. For those of you who think being a country music star is "glamorous," ask yourself where the "glamour" is in that!
Guilt isn't the proper emotion, therefore; rather, gratitude. Whether it's having fun at a Wayne "the Train" Hancock show where he outlasted most of the audience by playing for almost three hours, being mesmerized by the guitar skills of Deke Dickerson, or being literally moved to tears by the lyrics of "That's Where I'm From" (all of which I have experienced at concerts in the past four weeks) there is something about live music that feeds the soul of a music junkie like nothing else can.
Additionally, magic happens within the walls of a concert venue. I have seen that happen so many times. Last Saturday night in Chicago Joel Paterson joined Deke Dickerson onstage and burned the place to the ground with some amazing music. I have yet to witness anything more astonishing than Mac Wiseman and Doc Watson sitting on stools at MerleFest in 1995, swapping stories and songs in an impromptu performance. There's always the chance of a surprise, such as when Dale Watson joined Amber Digby onstage at the Station Inn in Nashville earlier this year.
If you have ever enjoyed a live show, whether up close and personal with two dozen other people in a small bar (the way I first saw Dickerson) or lost in a sea of 50,000 (my first rock concert -- the Eagles -- in 1978), you have to be grateful that these individuals who have sacrificed a whole lot more than ten bucks and being bleary-eyed at work in the morning (which is about all we give). So on a frigid October evening as I waited for the experience of that magic that can only be obtained at a concert, all I can say is thank you, Robbie and Donna, for postponing the celebration of your anniversary so Robbie could trudge down here and entertain me for a couple of hours.
Thank you, too, to all the people I've seen through the years (going all the way back to my first show at the Grand Ole Opry in 1968) who have had their hearts elsewhere but came to town so they could put the joy of their music into my heart.