It was as innocuous of a way to start a phone conversation as was possible, but that simple word, my name, set my heart racing so fast that I took almost ten seconds to answer the most basic of greetings.
“Yeah man, what’s going on?” I finally sputtered, trying to act calm. I could not imagine a more unexpected phone call. On the other end of the line was Cruz Contreras, lead singer for the popular Knoxville band The Black Lillies.
A little over a week ago I had had what I was almost certain was the last phone conversation I would ever have with Cruz. He had randomly contacted me for a last minute, emergency sub gig with the Black Lillies at Merlefest, with potentially more dates to follow. I recognized the call as my big opportunity to fulfill my dream of working with a nationally touring band, but unfortunately, the festival fell on one of the busiest weekends of my short free lance musician career. There was simply no way for me to make the gig. With a heavy heart I declined, knowing full well that he would find another drummer willing and able to take the opportunity. I was so certain that I had missed my chance that I had almost deleted Cruz’s number from my phone and was shocked to suddenly find him calling me once again.
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
Huh?! As unexpected as the phone call was, this was downright strange.
“No,um, my last girlfriend and I broke up a little while ago.”
“Good,” he said, sounding relieved. “How would you like to go out on tour with the Lillies?”
What?! I was dumbfounded, but in the distance heard a familiar voice respond. “When and for how long?”
“Van leaves in two days. We’ll be gone for three months and may need you for anywhere between two weeks and the full tour. Chyna will call you later with more details. Thanks man!”
I must have said something in response, but after Cruz hung up I sat in disbelieving silence with the phone still up to my ear. Did that really just happen?! It had, which was confirmed a few minutes later when I received a call from Chyna. Jamie’s family was going through a difficult period, and he needed time off from the road to be with them. Would I be able to commit to the entire tour if needed? Would I be able to meet an hour and a half before departure at the rehearsal space to talk over some tunes? Trisha Gene would love to meet me before leaving for the tour, am I available sometime tomorrow?
I was still so shocked with the sudden dream come true that I automatically answered “yes” to everything she asked me, never venturing any questions of my own. I hung up the phone,however, and the emotions suddenly flooded in. Air punches. High kicks. Insane, exuberant caterwauls that thankfully my roommates were not around to hear. I settled down for a moment and called my parents. They were overjoyed. More air punches. More (slightly closer to ground) high kicks. A few deep gulps of air. More strange, triumphant noises………..Then fear. Incredible, paralyzing fear.
I only just got their second and third records a few weeks ago! I barely know any of the songs! I don’t even have their first record! I’ve never even met two of the band members! What about my own bands? What about my students? My employers that are counting on me for gigs? What will I tell them? Will they understand? Will they ever want to hire me/see me again when I get back? Two days?!?!?! That’s not enough time!!!!!!!!
In a panic, I called Cruz back, but despite the sudden wave of terror and questions I was experiencing, once he answered the only thing that came to mind was probably the least of my current concerns.
“Hey Cruz, I’ve never really done much touring before……. what should I pack?”
“Well, you know man, that’s a tough one. I’ve never really thought too much about it before, but you know, I guess if I had to give you one specific thing to pack I guess it would be, um…….. a bathing suit.”
“A bathing suit?!”
“Yeah………..sometimes we like to go swimming…….”
It may seem like my whole life path changed with one short phone call, but like many major life changes, there were several smaller events along the way slowly building up to the main catalyst. I was a sophomore in college when I first met Chyna Brackeen. About half a year previously I had joined a male/female folk duo based out of nearby Maryville, TN called Valley Young. I was very committed to my school studies, but was already spending many long hours in a garage forty five minutes from campus rehearsing, and frequently skipping class to travel to exotic locales like Johnson City, TN and Durham, NC to play small bars and coffee shops for handfuls of people, sleeping on floors or in the van along the way.
One day after a rehearsal the main songwriter and de facto bandleader, Andrew, sat us down for a meeting. “I have very exciting news! I have secured a showcase for us with Chyna Brackeen!” He exclaimed. I had never heard of Chyna Brackeen, but I liked how official a “showcase” sounded and was immediately excited about the prospect. Andrew assured us that impressing Chyna would be our ticket to better gigs and better publicity. He said the showcase would happen in several weeks at the legendary Brackin’s Blues Club in downtown Maryville.
We rehearsed as hard as we ever had in the ensuing weeks, and on the day of the showcase I arrived at the club confident and prepared. The venue was a modest affair, not unlike many venues we had already played, and maybe even dumpier. The spare, understated furnishings and the patrons that occupied them looked like neither had ever been without the other, and the ever present cigarette fog gave the whole room the appearance of some ancient alcoholic mausoleum, untouched or changed by time. We solemnly set up our equiptment, not saying a word, looks voicing all concerns. Will she show up? Will she like our band? All of a sudden, a bright red beacon appeared in the doorway. It was Chyna, her signature fire-colored hair parting the cigarrette smoke like a lighthouse in a coastal haze.
Andrew and Annabelle (the other band member) excitedly rushed over to greet her, but I was frozen to my drum throne. In my nervous, overdramatic mind I thought, this is the woman who will determine whether or not I make it as a musician. As Andrew and Annabelle took their places for the first song, I was so terrified I could barely pick up my drumsticks. Chyna took a seat at an old table directly in my line of site, and stared cooly up at the stage. This is it, I thought to myself. She can see right through me and knows I am a nervous hack, not cut out for music. I might as well leave and save myself the embarrassment. However, just as Andrew was about to count off the first tune, a curious event occurred. A hound dog, as old and withered as many of the customers, slunk from an unseen corner of the bar and plopped himself on the floor by a table directly in front of Chyna. With cloudy brown eyes he gazed up at the stage expectantly and even gave a short bark as if to indicate that he was ready to hear some music. The whole situation struck me as so funny that I immediately forgot my nerves and launched into the first song. Throughout the entire show anytime I would look up to see Chyna I would first spot the hound, unperturbed by smoke nor noise, watching the show as if he had shown up exclusively to see it. The gig finished without a hitch, and Chyna seemed pleased. “Good show. We will be in touch,” she told us before taking her leave.
Fast forward to several years later. Things between Chyna and Valley Young never quite panned out, and I was forced to (amicably) leave the band when the purposed gig/recording schedule threatened to flunk me out of school. I met Cruz several months after the showcase with Chyna, and our interactions were always as brief as they were bizarre. Every few months he would appear suddenly by my side late at night in the Preservation Pub; a rock and roll genie summoned for reasons beyond my understanding. He would ask how I was doing and I would do the same, and then he would move quickly to my future plans. “What do you see yourself doing in the next several years?” He would ask. “I don’t know man. Just trying to get through school right now,” I’d usually reply. “Stay in Knoxville for a while. I think there are things for you to do here,” He would answer cryptically, before disappearing back into the crowd.
This happened intermittently for many months, until early one morning when I spotted him at a local breakfast joint. He was there with a friend, and I was asked to join their table. The friend had to excuse himself shortly after and I was left to catch up with Cruz, who, due to the Lillies’ typically insane touring schedule, I had not seen in some time. He said that he was in town working on the band’s third record, and asked if I would be interested in getting together to hear some of the potential songs.
I showed up at his house the following day and sat down at his haphazardly thrown together drum set. Cruz began to play and sing tunes rapid fire, encouraging me to jump in whenever I felt comfortable. As soon as I would get any kind of idea of the shape of the song he would abruptly switch to the next, occasionally peppering in questions. “What did you think of the bridge? How was the tempo?” I was way out of my element and pretty sure I was looking and playing like a fool, but after about an hour he asked if I had any time to come back and do the same thing later in the week. I did, and several days later we repeated the same process with even more new songs. I was still in way over my head, but there was one song in particular that I felt at least okay with. It was a piano song, an instrument that I had no idea Cruz even played, and from the very beginning we instantly locked into a loose, poppin’ groove. Same went for the other keyboard number, a frantic funk workout; James Brown meets southern soul. I felt way more stylistically at home than in the more acoustic driven country songs, and Cruz seemed to feel it too. He asked if I wanted to come lay down some drum tracks in the studio the following day, and both excited and surprised, I instantly agreed.
I showed up at the studio and the two of us recorded the tunes, just drums and keys, with Cruz making structural and musical changes after each take. “Yeah man, this next time let’s try making the bridge 8 bars, and swing the outtro.” It was a whirlwind, but the songs, “Baby Doe” and an as of now unreleased “Funky Ray of Sunshine”, seemed to go well. Cruz was pleased, but with the Black Lillies never ending tour schedule, was soon back out on the road. I did not hear from him again until several months later; the phone call that would so abruptly change everything.
With the words “bring a bathing suit” echoing in my ears, my final two days in Knoxville were a whirlwind of gigs, finding subs, clothes shopping (a mammoth, excruciating undertaking for me), and goodbyes. With all the activity involved in preparing for my departure, it was the night before we left when I finally sat down to learn repertoire. I listened and charted through the night, 40+ songs including covers, and arrived at the rehearsal the next morning nervous and sleep deprived. The rehearsal was very brief due to a recording session (Daytrotter) later that day, and I soon found myself stuffed into a van with both almost and complete strangers. I barely said a word, both terrified and exhausted, and the band, suddenly saddled with a substitute bandmate, did not quite seem to know what to think.
It was several hours into the trip when Tom decided to extend an olive branch. Except that it was a banana. I tried my last banana as a junior in high school, and the time before that when I was still in single digits. To this day I consider it to be the vilest thing I have ever tasted.
“Hey man, do you want a banana?”
I sat in silence for an uncomfortable moment, not wanting to decline this evil, yellow fruit of perceived friendship.
“No thanks Tom….. I don’t….. eat bananas.”
At this time the whole band, eager to learn something about this newcomer, was listening in attentively.
“Wait……… you don’t eat bananas?!”
Instantly the entire van erupted into conversation, each joke or mock outrage funnier than the last. Whatever ice was there shattered into a million banana shaped pieces, and as we rolled down the road to the first gig, I couldn’t help but think that things would be alright.
I wish I could say that the first show was amazing, that I knocked it out of the park, but truthfully it was probably a disaster. As were, in my mind, many gigs after. I still find many flaws in my playing in each performance, but it is slowly getting better. I am grateful to my bandmates for supporting and encouraging me then, now, and hopefully always. Gratitude…… I was reminded of the story written above on our most recent van ride home. It was a real slog, Austin to Knoxville, 20 hours straight. About half way through the journey I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Trisha Gene. “Bowman! I just realized that at the end of this April you will have been in the band for a whole year!” She exclaimed, with an exuberance few but her could ever muster in the middle of such a long, boring ride. My head was instantly filled with thoughts of that first van ride almost a year ago and of the many van rides since. Incredible gigs played. Beautiful places visited. Life long friends made. Gratitude. Gratitude for my family for supporting and encouraging me to do what I love. Gratitude for my bandmates, Tom, Robert, Trisha Gene, Cruz, and Chyna, for taking a chance on me and allowing me to live my dream of playing music in a touring band. For the fans, for enabling us to travel across the country singing and rocking. For coming out to shows. Buying CDs. Spreading and sharing the music. Letting us into your homes. Feeding us. Supporting us. Loving us. It is absolutely incredible and I promise to never take it for granted.
I know all this is incredibly sappy, and not typically my style, but I just wanted to make it publicly known how much everything that has happened to me in the past (almost) year means to me. If it all ended tomorrow, I’d still appreciate it all the same. Thanks for reading, listening, dancing, and loving, family.
****** It is important for me to say this. It applies to all my blogs, but especially this one, with so many stories that occurred in the distant past. I have a bad memory and a good imagination, and sometimes the later picks up where the former fails (usually without me even knowing); so please don’t be put out if certain details or facts in these accounts are off. I don’t mean any harm and the sentiments expressed are always true. I write stories, not histories. Blogs, not logs…… You get the idea.