The trope of the Touring Musician appears in contemporary pop culture at least as often as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and the Magical Negro, but what’s unique about it is that even those of us who work in the music industry seem to buy into it. The gritty glamour, the semi-mythic tour bus, the chance encounters – even for struggling musicians, it’s still supposed to be sexy and raw and filled with wildly unexpected moments of adventure.
A little while back, traveling in Northern California, I had dinner at a spot called Aptos BBQ, where they have live blues most nights. The music chose my dinner for me – as someone who travels a lot, I tend to try regional specialties on the road, reserving BBQ for places like Dallas and Louisville, and cramming as much Mexican food into my face as I possibly can while in California. But I saw a listing for the music, and I figured I’d feed body and soul together.
It was a solo setup – a musician named Preacher Boy singing and playing a National Steel, his stomping foot as the rhythm section. And this guy was good. Great guitar chops, good presence, a solid voice, and some fun original tunes mixed in with a few retooled standards. I would’ve bought a disk if I’d had a chance.
I sat there, eating some remarkably tasty brisket and sausage, drinking beer and really enjoying his jam. He was in full-out gig duds, from the suit to the sunglasses to the ring-encrusted fingers. He’d showed up to work, and he was working his butt off.
And then I started to feel uncomfortable. Diners were coming and going, order names were being called out, some people were even taking their meals outside to the deck instead of sticking around to listen. There were two little girls dancing around, which I thought was fantastic until they started moving in on the stage and touching his second guitar. Suddenly, I started feeling really protective of this guy. Here’s this working artist with Rolling Stone reviews up on the restaurant wall putting his best out there, and he’s stuck in a suburban BBQ joint, getting bullied about his setlist by an 8-year old.
But then I stopped looking at him through my “Mythic Wandering Minstrel” lens and just watched his interaction with the little girls. I’m guessing now that one of them is either a good friend’s kid, or maybe even his daughter – that she was there, asking him to play songs she loves, because she loves him. And that maybe he was there because he loves her, loves playing music, and this gig allows him to do both things, while getting paid. And maybe the iconography he was invoking (from the Tom Waites / Django Reinhardt universe) was the costume, and the musician accommodating the little girl’s requests was the truth.
People who love making music, love making music, whether they’re at Aptos BBQ, Union Transfer or Madison Square Garden. Sure, the dream is to share your work with tens of thousands, rather than with tens, but that’s not actually why artists make art. That’s the fringe benefit. And we all know stadium pay is definitely better than restaurant pay. But restaurant pay, and a place to get your music out there? While still having a spot you can call your home? It’s a damnsight better than sitting in your basement, making something no one will ever hear.
At the end of the first set, Preacher Boy picked up that little girl, and swept out onto the deck before I could ask him for a CD – they were out there laughing and having a great time. And me? I had heard some great music, eaten really good BBQ in a spot I never would’ve tried, and maybe figured out another little piece of the puzzle. I left a $20 in the tip jar, and walked away happy.