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Here’s the entire short story I’ve been writing for the past week or two. It’s based on a song I wrote called “If the Good Lord’s Willing (and the Creek Don’t Rise)”:
There wasn’t anything wrong with Red Hawthorn that a couple eggs couldn’t fix, or, at the very least, help. He got up Friday morning the same way he got up most mornings, which was stooped over and hurting. Coffee got his juices flowing, but thankfully, a blood-pressure pill, three times a day, kept them from flowing too much. He had one beer in the fridge, but it wasn’t worth the trouble. He loaded the coffee maker and fixed himself a bowl of raisin bran while it was brewing. The cereal went down standing up, partly because he was watching the coffee and partly because Red didn’t want to sit down until he had a cup of coffee for his patience and an ice pack for his back.
Once his back was good and iced, and the hot coffee had his mind warmed up, Red leaned forward and picked up his guitar for some song retrieval. He’d gone to the Mexican joint the night before, had a big margarita and some Shrimp Del Mar, and sat around playing some songs, just to clear out a few cobwebs. Red had written so damn many songs that sometimes he forgot all about one of them, and when it occurred to him at some place like Cantina Monterrey, him and some pickers sitting around in a circle, he’d try to play it and string the lyrics back together. A man didn’t want to try to do that at a paying gig, and Red had one tonight.
He had a song called “If the Good Lord’s Willing (and the Creek Don’t Rise),” a title apparently once used by both Hank Williams and Jerry Reed, but, hell, they owned the songs, not the title, and they got it from a cliché, anyway, or that’s how Red saw it. It was hard enough to write an original song without having to give it an original title.
… Ain’t got enough money to pay my bills / Factor in the cost of blood pressure pills …
Oh, what was it? Ah.
… Probably be better with a moonshine still / Either way you go it’s all uphill.
Did that song have another verse? Red couldn’t remember one. He pulled the rolling desk up to his chair, setting the guitar aside. He’d punched the power button on the laptop as soon as he’d gotten out of bed. He called up YouTube and found a video of him performing the song in St. Augustine three or four years back.
Apparently the verses he’d just sung were all there were. Good.
Next he called up his ex-wife, whom he rightly reckoned was already at work. His son, Andy, answered, sounding exactly like the phone had just awakened him, eleven o’clock though it may be. Either that or he was stoned. Flip a coin.
“Dad. How you doing?”
“Passing tolerable,” Red said. “You still playing with me tonight?”
“Yeah. Damn. It is Friday, ain’t it?”
“I’ll be by to pick you up at five. We’ll talk about it on the way.”
Red would be there a five-thirty. That way Andy might be ready, and he wouldn’t have to go through sitting in the living room listening to Eileen raise hell about whatever came to mind.
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Red’s relationship with his son was not the best, but his former wife was, quite possibly, the worst. She thankfully wasn’t home, which he knew because, after he pulled in the driveway, and waited five minutes or so, when Andy finally stumbled out, carrying his Telecaster and shoving the case rather imprecisely behind the seat, it was obvious he was stoned. His eyes were watery and bloodshot, and the cheeks had a pinkish hue, as well.
“Where we playing again?” Andy asked.
“Huey’s. Just the other side of Preston. I’ve played it before. I don’t believe you come with me. It’s about par for the course. Honky tonk. Rough, but I’ve seen a lot rougher.”
“They got sound?”
“Hell, no. We’ll have to set up. I got the speakers in the back.” Red had a rollback bed cover, air-tight, in his Silverado.
In other words, son, straighten up.
He didn’t say much for several miles once they pulled out on the highway. Finally, though, he felt the need to preach, even though it wouldn’t do any good. He just had to get it off his chest. He meant well.
“You know, Andy, I’m one to talk,” he said. “The hardest thing about being a father is that you feel like you gotta be a hypocrite, too, and I ain’t no good at that. You’re grown, what, nineteen years old, now?”
“When I was your age, it was legal to drink beer at eighteen. I think it’s right ridiculous an eighteen-year-old can’t drink now. I ain’t judging you. I don’t reckon you’ve done anything I didn’t when I was your age.”
Only I didn’t ever get busted for it.
“What I want to know is just for information purposes,” Red said. “When you got fucked up before I got to the house, did you do it just to let me know, and see if it pissed me off, or did you think it wouldn’t be obvious?”
He didn’t answer.
“It’s all right. I’m your daddy, but you ain’t my responsibility ‘cept when we together. I just wanted you to know because, goddamn it, you reek. I ain’t never got a contact high from the smell before.” Red reached in one of the slots in front of the truck’s console and tossed a pack of gum into Andy’s lap. “Chew some fucking gum, Andy.”
He laughed. That broke the tension a little. Andy smiled. He didn’t say anything yet, but he wasn’t sulling up. Red let the miles pass a while.
Performing with Andy wasn’t easy. The boy was talented. He’d had lessons on the piano first, then given it up when he became proficient at guitar on his own. Red had just picked up a guitar and started figuring out how to play it. His lessons had come from the boys down at the Elks Lodge – it wasn’t even around anymore – who used to sit around in a circle, playing old country songs and drinking beer after the mill let out on Thursdays. There wasn’t a mill anymore, either, and it’s closing had played a role in the lodge’s demise.
Andy’s music was store-bought. Red’s was natural. Flawed but natural. He did things differently because he didn’t know any other way. He and his son were equally in awe of each other, but they went about playing music, and living life, for that matter, by separate methods. Red was mainly a singer who used his simple guitar skills to write songs. Getting Andy to sing was harder than getting him in a dentist’s chair, not that Red had tried lately. Red liked a good drink of liquor every now and then. Andy was bad to smoke weed, and he’d been busted to prove it. That escapade had cost Red five hundred dollars he’d barely had at the time. He didn’t know how much it had cost Eileen. Andy not having a driver’s license didn’t help, and that was one of the reasons why Red brought him along and paid him to back him up. Red had smoked enough weed to know it wasn’t that big a deal. He wasn’t averse to splitting the occasional joint with some old boy out back of a club, but it wasn’t his thing. He’d have probably been better off, all things considered, if it was, and Andy would argue it, too, if Red pressed the issue. He didn’t want to press the issue. He just wanted his son to know he wasn’t fooling anybody when he came sashaying out in the fresh air thinking he was cool. A man could get away lots of times if he acted like he knew what he was doing, but this wasn’t one of them.
“Gotta be careful, Andy. Gotta be careful.”
Red hadn’t realized he’d said it out loud.
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Red frowned when he heard the sound of a country band, really, more like a rock band playing country songs, from outside. This was bad for two reasons. The first was that he and Andy couldn’t set up their own equipment till the opening act got through. Maybe he could get some help from one of the paying customers, and maybe they’d still be sober enough to do it without dropping something or tripping over the cords. The second reason he didn’t like it was because it wasn’t easy for two guys, one playing rhythm and the other playing lead, to follow a band, even though this particular one wasn’t much good.
Lord, ain’t they butchering that Dwight Yoakam song? If I was a bad feller, I’d go up there and open with “Guitars, Cadillacs” just to show ‘em how to do it right. Unfortunately, I ain’t a bad feller.
The band wasn’t bound for glory, but apparently its members knew who he was. As soon as they saw him, they made a point of introducing him to the modest crowd, one he hoped was going to get larger because he was playing for a percentage, not a flat rate.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the reason we’re here is that fellow right yonder’s here,” the lead singer, who didn’t play an instrument, intoned. “One of the greatest songwriters ever come out of these parts, Mr. Red Hawthorn. Stand up and take a bow, Red!”
Ah, it’s early. They’ll be a heap more once these boys get done. Red tipped his black cowboy hat. He figured they’d be playing about another hour. Out of appreciation, he watched one more song, then he and Andy walked with their guitars into the dressing room, where the boys onstage had a small cooler of beer they’d brought with them and Red had a big one that was part of the deal for him coming down. More evidence of the band’s respect was that its members apparently hadn’t helped himself to his beer. Andy sat on the couch. Red grabbed two Bud Lights and handed his son one.
“No big deal about me being underage?”
“Not back here,” Red answered, “and likely not onstage. Nobody’s gonna say nothing if somebody brings up beers for the two of us. And they will. Nothing folks love more than feeling like they’re getting drunk and the band is, too. They’re glad to help.”
Red sat down and took a swig.
“Uh, it helps, up to a point, to have a few drinks just to make you relax,” he said. “At least it does me. People think I’m relaxed as all get-out onstage. I ain’t, really. What I’m good at is hiding it. Nothing I hate worse than going onstage sober. I can do it, but, honestly, what I was thinking about was you. Andy, you’re at least five times better on a guitar than I am, but I have a lot easier time relaxing than you do. I’m all instinct. Shit, son, you actually know what you’re doing. What I do, essentially, is chase my voice with my guitar. That’s all songwriting is, at least for me. You can jam and riff and everything else I can’t, but you’re shy and uncertain when you’re trying to play along with me, and I think all you need is a little beer buzz to get you going.”
“I know what would help even more.”
“I know you do,” Red said, “but I want to play at this joint again sometime.”
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Red and Andy mapped out a few songs while the band was finishing up. Andy thought he heard someone onstage say they’d be doing one more.
“Just sit tight,” Red said. “They’ll have to tear down their stuff. Stay out of their way, and then we can set up ours. Just got two big amps, one monitor, and the guitar amp for you, and a mixing board. It won’t take long. We can do a quick test song, get the sound in the right neighborhood. It won’t take too long. Just relax, son. It’ll be fine.”
Red really wasn’t so sure. Andy’s confidence was lacking. The beers might help, but he needed to get off to an uneventful start and trust his instincts. He could do it, but would he? There wasn’t anything Red could do but keep on trying. Andy knew how to play, but it wasn’t natural enough. He was afraid to do what his skills told him.
The boys left the stage and ambled into the dressing room as someone cranked up some old Steve Earle on the sound system. “Guitar Town.”
“Need some help breaking your stuff down, boys?” Red asked, just being polite.
“No, thanks. It’s nice of you to offer, though,” the chunky lead singer said. “Me and the boys was talking among ourselves onstage. Would you like to use our equipment? We figured we’d hang around for your show.”
“That’s mighty nice of you.” Red thought about it. “Tell you what? What say, y’all play with us? I’m accustomed to keeping time myself with the guitar, but having a drummer always makes me feel like I’m singing about three times better. How about y’all go back out and do an encore, then tell ‘em you got a surprise. Don’t let on that it ain’t planned. Say you and the boys are going to sit in with me and my son. Then we’ll come out, do a few covers that I’m sure you know already. Y’all already played, what, ninety minutes? Each of you, just take a break whenever you feel like it. After three or four numbers, y’all can all walk off, and I’ll do a few numbers, just me and my boy Andy here, then y’all come back out when you’re good and ready. I’ll take a break and y’all can do some of your songs, I’ll come back out, after an hour, we’ll all take a ten-minute break. Then we’ll go back out and just mix and match, do what we feel like. How’s that sound?”
They all nodded enthusiastically in agreement. Excited and all.
It would make it easier on Andy. It was just what he needed.
“What’s your name?”
“Mr. Hawthorn, I’m Bobby. Bobby Willard.”
“Nice to meet you, Bobby. Call me Red. This here’s my boy, Andy.”
Red tried to memorize the names. The drummer was Wade. Joey was on bass. Todd played lead.
“Todd, you bring an acoustic with you?”
“Yes, sir. I got my Epiphone. I brung it with the Stratocaster.”
“You can play acoustic lead, and let Andy play alternate lead on his Telly. That work?”
“Shit, yeah, it does. I really kind of prefer acoustic.”
“Great. Most all songs got three verses. A few of mine got more, but no matter, I’ll let y’all jam after the second chorus every time. Just step up. Signal each other by lifting up the neck. You got something else you want to try, hell, step up a second time. It’ll be just like we was sitting around back here in a circle. Be fun.
“Now y’all get back out there and play your encore. Me and Andy’ll be waiting in the wings. Work for y’all?”
They looked at each other. “Shit, yeah, it does,” said Joey the bassist. They were obviously fond of the phrase.
“Well, better hurry,” Red said. “They’re getting restless.”
They hurriedly quaffed their beers and headed back to the stage.
Burp, boys. Don’t forget to burp, else you might have to right in the middle of a line.
Red and Andy listened. The crowd seemed a bit uneasy, like they were worried the band was back onstage because Red was passed-out drunk or something.
“We better mosey on back out there, edge of the stage,” Red said. “I don’t reckon you got an idea what them boys’ name is? I mean, the band.”
“Beats me,” Andy said. “I think they’re the Bassmasters or something.”
“By God, I hope not.” A few patrons recognized him, standing in the darkness. “Why don’t you wander out there, see if they got a souvenir table, find out what their name is. Come to think of it, I forgot all about my CDs and tee shirts. See if the boy at their table will sell our stuff, too. If he ain’t got no problem with it – and he won’t, being as how I’m giving them boys a hell of an opportunity – go get that first box you see when you open the tailgate, and the box of the new CDs – and see if you can put some of it out. That’s probably gonna take longer than they’re gonna play, so I’ll get started, and soon as you’re good and ready, just walk up and plug in.”
Andy started to walk away. Red tapped him on the shoulder.
“You’re good with all this, right?”
Red gave him a good long look as he walked away. He didn’t seem drunk. A little buzz would do him good. Everything was going to be fine. All in all, it felt like a night Red might have had twenty years ago.
On second thought, these boys weren’t half bad. Earlier, he reckoned, he’d been listening for their worst. Their best was a good bit better.
Red felt his mobile phone vibrating. It was a text from Andy.
Dude sez fuck you. Well, me, not you.
Red thought a minute. The band hadn’t sprung the surprise yet. They hadn’t been to their merchandise table.
Give it 5. He’ll be looking for you then.
“Y’all wondering why we still up here, ain’t you? This is really exciting for me and the boys,” Bobby said to the crowd, which was now quite respectable. “The great Red Hawthorn, and his son, Andy, are going to let us sit in with ‘em.”
A lusty roar arose. Red could see the boy at the merchandise table stand up and start looking for Andy.
Red walked out on the stage, waving and tipping his hat. He plugged in his Martin 000-1, circa 1994, and noticed he had another text from Andy.
Bobby Willard and the Unborn Calves. I shit you not.
Red walked up to the microphone. “I ain’t played with unborn calves since I was a young’un,” he said.
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A good time was had by all, Red amiably sharing the stage with Bobby Willard and the Unborn Calves, mixing and matching his songs with theirs, singing a little harmony when they ventured beyond his comfort level with some Skynyrd or Tom Petty.
Red could barely contain his pride where Andy was concerned. The atmosphere was perfect for him. He didn’t feel the pressure of living up to his father’s expectations. He blended into the band. It was seamless, where everything between Red and Andy had always seemed so convoluted. Red could never understand why what seemed so easy for him seemed so difficult for his son. Rather than being doomed by his insecurities and the pressure of satisfying his father, Andy thrived in the freewheeling ambience of the band. Where previously he had been obsessed with trying not to mess up, now he was able to use the creativity he had previously suppressed. Red could see it and did not hold himself blameless. Sometimes old men could still learn some lessons.
They ran late, yet still stopped prematurely. About half past eleven, a monstrous thunderstorm hit. Huey’s had a cathedral ceiling made up of tilting inclines that didn’t meet at the top. Between the two were a row of windows. When lightning flashed, it created a small strobe effect inside. Between songs, the drone of the rain pelting the roof could be easily heard. One of the bouncers walked up to the stage and said the place had to be cleared out by midnight. Red told him to let him do one more song, and he’d try to get the crowd headed to the exits.
“Start dimming the lights while the song’s playing,” Red said, leaning over to avoid the mic.
What to play? What’s a good song to send them home with? If it wasn’t raining so hard, they’d probably be heading out now. They’re pinned down. We are, too.
“Folks, ain’t no way y’all having as much fan as me and these boys are,” he said. “I can’t speak for them, but I ain’t had this much fun in, well, I really can’t remember when. We gotta get outta here, ‘less’n the po-lice put our asses under the jail. ‘Course, if we run out through there right now, we’ll be all right, y’know, because the cops don’t like to get wet no more than we do.
“We ain’t had no set list. We just been playing what we wanna, you know, and it seems like we done all right ‘cause y’all all seemed to enjoy it. So, naturally, I ain’t put no thought into what I’s gonna close with, and that there rain has kinda forced the issue. Let me ruminate here a few seconds.
“Okay, okay, I got it. I wrote this song about a gal I never spoke to. She was just standing with her boyfriend at the bar, and I was setting in a booth eating some chicken wings, and I started watching them standing there, drinking and talking, and I imagined what their relationship might be like. That old boy she was with might wind up curing cancer or bringing peace to the Middle East …
“… But that was not my impression. Song’s called ‘Stuck in a Rut.’”
He turned around. “Ah’ight, I’ll play the chord progression,” he said. “The chorus is a little different, but you’ll pick it up.”
She loves to roll socially / The sun comes up eventually / Watch it rise on the patio / Have a smoke and tumble off to sleep / A hardboiled egg / Piece of toast / NFL, coast to coast / Panthers lost / What the hell / Roll one up, don’t matter anyway.
She’s just stuck in a rut / Head in the sand / Refusing to deal with what she don’t understand / She’s just stuck in a rut without a plan / Trying to please her man.
He’s kind of cute / His life’s a mess / Sells his weed / Keeps the best / Hair bunched up in a ponytail / Stares at himself in the mirror / The rent’s too high / Apartment stinks / But they ain’t got time to think / Smoke some weed / Drink some beer / Order out again for some pizza.
Red introduced the band, letting each of them do a short solo. But, first, the chorus again, because he had to find something for Bobby Willard, who didn’t play an instrument, to do.
“I reckon all these boys are from somewheres around here,” Red said. “The lead singer of the Unborn, Mr. Bobby Willard! Bobby, sing this here chorus with me. Come on with me. … She’s just …”
Stuck in a rut / Head in the sand / Refusing to deal with what she don’t understand / She’s just stuck in a rut without a plan / Trying to please her man.
“Run us a little bass line, Joey, old boy …
“Now here’s Wade – I’m gon’ learn these boys’ last names here directly – on the drums …
“Now, here’s Todd to do some fine acoustic picking …
“Last but not least – least would be yours truly if you’re keeping a scorecard at home – here’s my brown-eyed, handsome boy, on the electric Fender Telecaster. Hit it, Andy!
“Ah’ight’en, boys, let’s bring her home.”
A job is all he really needs / To find a place / To sell his weed / His daddy’s rich / Knows some folks / To keep his youngest boy out of trouble / As long as they don’t go too far / They’re probably stuck just where they are / Making love / Getting high / Sure beats the hell out of working.
She’s just stuck in a rut / Head in the sand / Refusing to deal with what she don’t understand / She’s just stuck in a rut without a plan / Trying to please her man.
She’s just stuck in a rut without a plaannn / Trying to please her maannn.
“Thank you all right kindly!” Red yelled. “Be careful on the way home! Don’t bust your ass in the parking lot. Come back to see us real soon!”
Recorded music switched on with the lights. Perfect song, Red thought. Tom T. Hall’s “The Old Side of Town.”
They all went back to the dressing room except Bobby and Red, both of whom walked up to the souvenir table to pose for some photos and sign some CDs.
“We damn sure can’t load up till this rain lets up,” Bobby said. “Of course, y’all can get on out of here.”
“Nah,” Red said, “Least as far as tonight was concerned, it was all our equipment. We’ll hole up here till it quits and we’ll help you. You reckon ol’ Hubert’s gonna run us out?”
“Ol’ Hubert’s my uncle,” Bobby said. “I’ll get the keys from him and drop ‘em by his place tomorrow. He don’t mind letting me lock up.”
“Good,” Red said. “I think we need to talk some bidness.”
It rained solid for another hour. Bobby turned all the lights off except the spotlights in the roof, and everyone gathered in the green room, which, of course, wasn’t green. Or was it? Andy, Todd, Wade, Joey, and, yes, Andy, were all passing around a joint when Bobby and Red walked in.
They all looked at Red. “Ain’t nobody to say nothing,” Bobby said.
“There’s an old Tom T. Hall song,” Red said. “I can’t remember exactly how it goes. Something like ‘if you just want some strokin,’ keep right on smoking, if you don’t mind if we just hang in with our beer.’
Red reached into the big cooler where still there was ample beer. He pulled out a Bud Light and took a big swallow.
“Aw, hell,” he said. “Pass that sumbitch over here.”
Damned if I ain’t smokin’ weed with my boy.
He took a right good pull, chased it with another swallow of Bud Light, exhaled after the beer went down.
“Mr. Hawthorn, I don’t reckon that’s the first toke which you ever partook.”
“Nope,” Red said. “Just not lately.”
Andy looked so happy, he might have been eight years old on Christmas morning.
“I don’t suppose you boys want to do this again?” Red asked.
Bobby looked around. “Not no more than three or four times a week,” he said.
Red laughed and took another hit.
“Most times I exaggerate when I talk to the audience,” Red said, “but I wasn’t lying tonight. That was fun, boys. We oughtta play gigs. Maybe not all the time. I might play a coffeehouse here and there. Y’all might want to keep some fairly regular gigs you got, but I think we can make a go of this thing.
“Y’all got a place to get together and practice.”
“On Lake Murray,” Bobby said. “Todd’s family’s got a lake house. Ain’t nobody there but us during the week. It’s kind of a family place on weekends.”
“It’s kind of a pot-smoking place during the week,” Todd said.
“What you got for traveling?”
“We got a trailer.”
“That thing make it to Nashville?” Red asked.
“I’d say so if it was hooked up to a better pickup than the one we got,” Bobby said.
“My Silverado’ll fill that bill,” Red said. “Now, look, if you want to go with me, I gotta do some songwriting business up there. I can get us some gigs, but I’m gonna tell you right now, we’ll make more money around here. Nashville’s a shopper’s market, boys. You play in Nashville, it’s shifts around the clock, but most of ‘em’s just playing for tips. It might not be no more than gas money once we start dividing it up.
“But, it’s a place where you might be seen.”
“It can’t hurt to be playing behind you,” Wade said.
“No,” Red said, “but it might not help as much as you think.”
“Don’t matter,” Bobby said. “We’re there.”
“Ah’ight,” Red said. “When can you get loose? What say, Thursday week, early in the morning? You bring the trailer up to my house – I’ll give you the address, here’s a few of my cards – we’ll hook up my truck. When you boys got to be back? Sunday night?”
They all exchanged glances. “That’ll work,” Bobby said.
Red pulled a wad of bills out of his pocket. He counted out a hundred apiece for the four band members and Andy.
“That don’t leave you nothing,” Todd observed.
“Ah, don’t worry about me,” Red said. “I made a little money off the CDs and tee shirts.
“I got a booking agent in Columbia. I’ll put him to work on getting us gigs around these parts. In the meantime, when y’all wanna practice?”
“How ‘bout Wednesday, eight o’clock?”
“Me and Andy’ll be there,” Red said. He looked at his son. “That suit you?”
Andy hadn’t said a word, quite possibly because he was stoned.
“Cool,” he said. “Shit, yeah.”
The storm finally ran its course. Fortunately, the parking lot was paved, but there was standing water to tiptoe through. They got the Unborn Calves’ equipment loaded without much trouble. Working up a little sweat wasn’t a bad thing for any of them.
Red slipped behind the wheel of the Silverado, which is when it occurred to him that a trip to Nashville was going to require two vehicles. The boys in the band could follow him and Andy in his old Honda. Hal made a mental note to get it serviced and check the tires. He didn’t have much to say, just thought things through, till they got back to the Interstate.
Andy lit a cigarette and cracked the window.
“Mind if I bum one? I always did like a cigarette when I was a high.”
Andy handed him the pack and the lighter.
Red took a draw on the cigarette. “Andy, how many text messages you got from your mama?”
He looked at his cell. “Five.”
“I got three,” Red said. “I reckon me and you better start angling toward you staying at my place.”
“Cool,” he said. “I was just thinking. This was kind of a magic night.”
“Ah, sometimes it works. Sometimes it don’t. Last time I’s feeling this good about a band, I damn near got arrested ‘cause the steel player got busted in Mobile, Alabama, ‘cause he left a bunch of pain pills laying around in the dressing room. Hell, I didn’t know he was no pillhead. He got ‘em out while he and the rest of them was taking a break, me out onstage playing alone.
“There went that. They seem like some good boys, Bobby and them, but you don’t know. If the good Lord’s willing …”
“And the creek don’t rise,” Andy said.