I have been playing the local bars for a couple of years, Texas Country, me and another guy. At first people thought we were homeless when we walked into a bar to play. But then I started changing out of my farm clothes and cleaning up before gigs, and the other guy had to shave his beard and cut his hair for a court appearance, and then when we walked into a bar for sound check, they thought we were there to hang drywall.
The other guy would drink twelve or eighteen beers in a show, and on top that five or six Jaeger bombs, and other assorted shots people brought up to him through the night, and still he never missed a note, standing in the microphone and wailing, playing most nights past two. I never said a word to him in all that time about drinking, and he never said a word to me about coffee.
It is not easy to entertain a crowd four straight hours with nothing but acoustic guitar, bass, and a voice, but we did it. We filled the dance floor every night, the upright slapping a train beat, the guitar strumming the rhythm, the voice pushing from one song to the next, the crowd singing along. The other guy is not the best singer or guitar player, but he is the truest artist I ever met, and together we played better than ten guys. His songs are as good as any of the paintings I see hanging in the shop windows downtown, and we painted them anew from scratch each night in a different bar, and split $400 plus tips for doing it. Some months, those songs covered my bills when farming didn’t.
When it was time for my bass solo, he would put down his guitar and take a seat in front of the stage. Sometimes the crowd of local drinkers would pull up chairs and join him, mostly machinists and pipe-fitters and welders who came straight to the bar after work in their blue Nomex coveralls, and then stayed all night drinking. But usually the bar would go on as normal, the shouting and coarse jokes and pool games setting the background for the music. I would play the Suites for Cello by Bach, composed as prayer, tapped out on the fret board of the electric bass, the long flowing phrases unwinding endlessly and perfectly through the cigarette smoke, and every single note was beautiful.
My friend would sit without moving and listen, and sometimes he was the only one who listened, his elbows on his knees, his head down, a bottle in his hand. Occasionally he would take a long drink from the bottle. After a year of this, every night, listening, he said he finally figured it out. He said, “This is how you sing.”
He was sent to prison last week, a fifteen month stretch, assault with a deadly weapon. Now there are only convicts and prison guards to listen to his songs, and the cold prison walls, but it doesn’t matter, because they don’t have music in jail, and we are both out of work.
My nights are suddenly free for the first time since I can remember. I get restless around ten o’clock, kinetic, cagey, and my wife does not say anything as I put on my work gloves and go outside. The last few nights have been a full moon, cloudless and brilliant, and I have been working past midnight, quietly repairing the henhouse around the sleeping chickens, building new pens as the pigs snore in the brush, walking the long rows of the gardens, and finally down on my hands and knees in the shadows, pulling weeds, leveling mulch, caressing the soft green leaves of plants like feathers in the silvery dark.
The music swells around me on the breeze, it comes now without me helping it, the vibration in the black soil gaining strength in my hands and knees, the flowing chords moving up and along the crops, the sonata rising above the lake, above the forest, all of it in bass notes, rising into the moonlight.