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Playing For Tips

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Playing For Tips

The last time I played Fort Worth, the bartender showed me a naked picture of himself. He stood in front of a run-down venue, his large pale body intermingled with falling snow in a Rorschach blot that wasn’t blotted enough.

“That was in Burlington,” he said. “I always take shots in front of my old jobs. It’s my performance art.”

I nodded and didn’t say a word, figuring to keep it noncommittal and ride this wave on out. His dark eyes were intense behind the black Buddy Holly glasses.I’d played as part of a trio that night to a crowd of two people. It’s never a good sign when the band outnumbers the house. The venue was located in a nondescript brick building next to a virtual driving range on the far eastern edge of town. Even people wanting to see the show would have had a hard time finding the place. The bartender had shut the doors early and produced a mammoth bag of El Niño from behind the counter. We were passing the smoke and a guitar around when the naked picture surfaced.

That was last time I played Fort Worth. This go-round, I was in the Stockyards.

Fort Worth’s stockyards are “Texan” like an Outback Steakhouse is “Australian.” The rusted pens and brick streets served as the railroad hub for area cattle commerce from the 19th century until the 1960s. Whatever lingering authenticity remains of the stockyards is buried behind western façade storefronts offering mountains of cowboy-hat-and-key-chain kitsch and neon-colored frozen drink specials.

The bars are crammed together like condo units. I saw a performer in a large, white cowboy hat and Hawaiian shirt singing Robert Earl Keen’s “The Road Goes On Forever” to an empty patio. Margarita machines churned their viscous slush in the distance.

I checked out the room. Wood was everywhere: floors, walls, ceiling. Drunken, middle-aged sentries sat at tables smoking Marlboro Reds and nursing honey-colored glasses of draft. A group of college-age guys played pool, their eyes hidden by low-slung baseball caps.

I was the night’s opening act and was required to provide the PA. The manager had promised a local radio DJ and good promotion. Station banners hung from a couple of plastic benches, but nobody sat behind them.

A pimply faced kid in a greasy apron helped me load the gear. I plugged in my guitar and performed a sound check.

“How does this sound?” I asked from the microphone. The manager glanced over his shoulder.

“Yeah, fine,” he said before moving on.

After the sound check, I sat at the bar. The girl told me I could have a couple beers. I drank a Lone Star and tried not to look at anybody. A skinny guy in a white, button-down shirt sat next to me. He was clean-cut, his eyes dull as a shark’s. Between shots of Southern Comfort, he began talking.

“So, you’re from East Texas, originally?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Lots of niggers there,” he said with resignation, as if he’d just forecast rain.

I stared at my reflection in the bar window, pretending I hadn’t heard him.

“That’s why I like coming here,” he slurred. “Ain’t no niggers in the stockyards.”

“Did you find any turkey calls?” I asked, trying to get him to shut up. The guy had mentioned he was in town for some type of turkey hunter convention.

“Shit yeah,” he replied. “That’s why I had to leave early. My wife would kill me if she saw how much I spent. I left the other guys there and said I’d meet them later in the hotel. Man, we got tore up last night.”

There was a crashing noise by the stage. I swiveled around in the barstool and saw two guys in black cowboy hats laying guitars down. One had gray hair and a face like a prune. The other one was breathing heavily, his pearl-snap shirt soaked with sweat. He had crashed into one of the microphones. After laying their guitar cases down, the pair stumbled over and sat next to me. Hoping to escape the turkey caller, I turned and introduced myself.

“You opening for us, huh?” the younger one asked. “Where you played before?” His darting eyes were bloodshot and lean. The gray-haired one stared at the floral patterns on my shirt.

They ordered shots of Jack Daniel’s.

Suddenly the young one was grabbed from behind. A glass busted on the floor. His assailant wore a white cowboy hat. He was tall and clean shaven, with crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes.

“Son of a bitch!” the young one flustered before seeing who it was. He laughed loudly and mock-wrestled White Hat to the ground. The old man sat at the bar, grinned, and lit a cigarette. He looked as if he was waiting to punch someone’s shoulder. Both of the night’s main acts had arrived.

The manager walked over. I thought he might ask them to keep it down.

“How you old boys doing?” the manager asked. “You want some food?”

“Let’s do a sound check first,” White Hat said.

They walked onstage and proceeded to move around all the PA knobs, microphones, and my gear. Maybe they didn’t realize I’d already set everything up for my set.

“Hi,” I said, walking over. “I’m the opening act. Did you mark my levels? I had them just right.”

The manager and the black hats glared at me. White Hat gave a sympathetic smile and wink.

“Sorry ’bout that, pardner,” he said. While shaking my hand, he looked across the room and winked at a leather-skinned blonde smoking alone at a table. White Hat smelled as if he’d just stepped out of an Old Spice and Jagermeister shower. “How ’bout we set up our sound and then put them back on your levels?”

A couple guys had come early to see me play. They walked over after White Hat returned to the stage.

“You going to let them do that to you?” one asked. He wore a blue button-down shirt with his tie stuffed in the front pocket.

“That’s bullshit, man,” his friend added. They were drunk and wanted me to start a fight or something.

I explained that it was alright, that it wasn’t worth making a big deal about. I told them how I was getting good publicity for the gig, although it wasn’t true. Interns at the radio station booth by the door were handing out free stickers and pens, but no DJ would be touting my record.

“I’ll go up there and get them to move their stuff,” one of my would-be fans said, moving toward the stage. I put my hand up.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said.

He looked dubious. They walked away, disappointed.

I played a 40-minute set. During a waltz, an elderly couple two-stepped around the dance floor with their eyes closed. At some point, the drunken turkey caller crawled on stage and grabbed a microphone.

“Sing ‘Amarillo by Morning’!” he yelled, then proceeded to sing it himself. A bouncer in a tight, black shirt appeared and yanked him off the stage.

While performing, my mind drifted.

I once played a private party in Austin with a community college math professor backing me on mandolin. The old man had been a player since the ’60s. As with many would-be artists who haven’t received their perceived dues, a melancholy and skeptical air permeated his clothes. The party was a school benefit in the backyard of a Tarrytown McMansion. Nobody was listening. We might as well have been a pair of stone lion statues flanking the turquoise pool.

“Just lose yourself in the song,” the math professor said while we were on break. “There’s an inherent dignity in playing music for music’s sake that nobody can take away.”

After my set in Forth Worth, I sat at the table with the guys who’d come out for my show. They seemed embarrassed for me and didn’t talk much. The headliners stumbled around the stage. At one point, halfway through a song, White Hat stood and walked offstage to make out with the chain-smoking blonde.

At the night’s end, I asked to speak to the manager.

“He’s not here, sweetheart,” the barmaid answered.

“Well, who’s going to pay me?” I asked.

“You were playing for tips, honey,” she answered.

I ordered one more beer and then packed up my gear. I carried out the large speakers one at a time through the venue’s smoky fog. They’re heavy and clumsy as anvils, so you have to bow your back to move them. Through the neon din, White Hat gave me a nod and a wink.

Stayton Bonner is a writer and musician living in Austin.