We never rehearsed. That was kind of the point. We’d been putting the whole thing together via group text for almost a year. At one point we had a corporate sponsor who was going to secure our vehicle and travel expenses. But they backed out ten days before the tour was supposed to start. So we had a choice: press on or punt the whole project. As it turns out …none of us really know how to punt.
So, we did our first gig in Nashville, at the Listening Room. And between door money and merch (merchandise) money, we left with about $700. That would get us to Destin, Florida. Rooms were covered in Destin and we figured we’d sell enough merch to get us to Lafayette Louisiana, where we had a $1000.00 guarantee and no hotel expenses. We did an awkward gig in Destin, in less than perfect conditions (for what we do). My last song was cut off mid-chorus by the sound man, due to sound ordinances (lovely). But we did sell enough hats and t-shirts to gas up the Sprinter and get to the next show.
The night of Lafayette, we found our groove on stage and hit our stride as a pack (all bands of men are pack animals. Once you all figure out who does what, it works). But I blew out my voice yelling over the house DJ, after the show. I didn’t think about the fact that I had 8 more shows to do …almost back to back.
We got up early and drove to our gig at a country club in Houston, where we had another guarantee and no room expenses. I had to key everything down a full step just to get through my set. Travis was struggling as well. The sound was never completely right and we fought through feedback and imbalance all night to deliver the best product we could muster. But that’s what professionals do. Nobody ever pays to hear someone on a stage complain about the sound or say “I’m sorry folks. I’m not really in good voice tonight.” That’s what amateurs do on Sunday morning, when they’re singing for the offering.
Fortunately, the fine folks in Houston loved it regardless.
That night we stayed in an exclusive, boutique hotel (12 rooms) specifically designed for the country club grounds. We were officially sleeping someplace we would never be allowed into if we hadn’t been the “talent.” We smiled a little wider at the waiters and waitresses there. We all knew we were there to serve. These people were in oil and gas. And the sheer opulence in which they lived and breathed was ample evidence of what can be obtained and REtained when you work in an industry that can protect its spickett. At the moment …we in the songwriting business cannot.
We had to cancel the gig in Dallas, due to lack of sound at the venue and an inability to procure it on a Sunday. So we drove on to Abilene, where, as we were checking in our hotel (and I use the word “hotel” lightly), a hooker and a “John” were striking a deal in the lobby. Sometimes you’re just too tired to care.
The next night was a gig in an antique car garage, in Plainview, Texas. The people were so moved by our performance they paid us double what they had originally agreed to and they bought enough merch to catapult us on to California.
For the next two days, we drove west, through New Mexico and Arizona. As we were getting close to LA, we needed a place to stop for the night. Aaron called an old friend who had a winter home in Palm Springs. They were doing construction on it but opened it up for us anyway. By the time our heads hit the pillows, we didn’t really care how many scaffolds were in the living room or how expensive the bedding was. That was our last day off.
We pressed on to a show in Pasadena, where we picked up my life-long friend and genius photographer, Devin Pense. He was so inspired by our passion that he rode along with us and shot world-class stills (that normally cost 3k per day. You won’t get it free like we did. You didn’t nurse him through his divorce). Then we went to Las Vegas (where I think we did our best show of the tour), then we picked up a gig in Fresno, then down to an afternoon set at a winery in Paso Robles, over to Bakersfield (where we played for THREE people), back up to a club in San Joe …then finished up in LA …at You Tube headquarters.
We sat in the final “whiskey roundtable” and toasted ourselves for actually surviving. Then we hugged and went our separate ways.
I’ve been on the road since I was 5-years-old. I’ve toured with dozens of people and played more stages than I can remember. There weren’t a lot of good reasons for a 49-year-old father of two and primary care-giver to a Angelman child to do this. But I did …and I’m glad. And it might’ve been a fitting farewell to that life.
As is always the case with boys, the language and drinking descended into near dangerous depths. But we all emerged in different ways …
Aaron Benward turned out to be Captain America, the undaunted leader, who sang and spoke every word in absolute earnest. We couldn’t out-work him or outmatch his buoyant positivity about the whole project. His whiskey soaked tones and chiseled smile propelled us off the runway at every stop. And he never missed. THAT’S a guy you can count on.
Danny Myrick was the safety net on stage and diplomat on the bus. His unassuming genius was always coiled and ready to drop an absolute smash hit on the audience at just the right time. Just when we needed it. And his calm demeanor kept our fire and ice arguments about everything from global overpopulation to Hitler’s Laebensborn children, to the nature of group sex, to finding water in a desert, to the very existence of God …centered and relevant.
Travis Howard turned out to be the lovable cynic. He dripped with humor and music. The true soul of Jubal (look it up on your phone, Travis …you’ll like it). His abandon and surrender to the muse and his infectious love of life is what making music is all about. I never stopped laughing at him under my breath …and I never stopped marveling at him on the mic, every night.
Me? Well, I often felt like the reluctant road warrior, not really sure what I was doing there. After every show, people would come up and talk about which songs they loved the most. They would leave humming tunes. In my case, they would talk about which STORY they loved the most. And that subtle difference wasn’t lost on me. Every time I unzipped my keyboard bag, it felt more and more like my past …but maybe not my future. And I came to terms with it a little more at every show. I think it might be time for me to start writing books. More on that to come …
The Ghost Town Troubadours set out to find out what the hell can be done about the state of professional songwriting. We set out to discover the state of America. What we found was a country that, despite a foul mouth and a bit of a drinking problem (not gonna lie, America …you hit it pretty hard), is still the same country I fell in love with so many decades ago on my very first cross-country tour. It’s still full of people who innately understand fair play and free markets. They are optimists and risk takers. They believe the impossible can be achieved. And they’re not afraid to roll up their damn sleeves and get to it.
We found people who love their families fiercely and genuinely want good things for their neighbors and collegues. We found people who ADORE music and who are MORE than willing to pay for it. They want to see the American songwriter thrive and would love nothing more than to see us earn millions of dollars off our trade. But they don’t know any more than we do …how to get there.
We found a decent country. An honest country. If I may use a phrase …a GREAT country. But we also learned (in real time, as we travelled) that the way the songwriter has gotten paid for the last hundred years, might just be something passing into history right before our very eyes. Our rates have always been based on the “price per unit sold” model. And nobody buys one “unit” of anything anymore. And to be honest …why would you even ask them to?
So, where do the Ghost Town Troubadours go from here? The documentary will be forthcoming. Hopefully sooner than later. Shaun Silva knocked the shooting of it out of the park. He’s the real iron man behind all of it. And I can’t say enough great things about him. I can’t wait to see it …and I’m terrified at the same time. I’m pretty sure I came off as the snarky malcontent, constantly rolling his eyes. But inside that well-honed defense mechanism was a wide-eyed kid, amazed to be on an epic journey with three dudes I truly grew to love.
I’ve never gone into battle with fellow soldiers. I never took the field with a championship squad, forged in fire together. But when the story of THIS time in the life of the American songwriter (MY PROFESSION) is written, I’ll always be able to say that when it was threatened with injustice and unfairness and possible extinction, I didn’t just stand on the sidelines and let things unfold without a fight.
I can tell my grandchildren that I saddled up with three unlikely heroes and went to face it head on. With no money. With no promotion. With no guaranteed outcome. We rode into the wind together. And we did what we could to help our profession and our KIND survive.
Did we change anything? Who knows. The odds say …probably not. ALL songwriters might soon be Ghost Town Troubadours; shadows of their former selves, eeking out what they can, where they can.
But am I proud to be called an ORIGINAL Ghost Town Troubadour? You’re Goddamn right I am.