What happens when a Metalhead joins a Country Band?

Everyone knows life is full of difficult decisions and desperation can cause you to do things that you never thought you would be capable of doing. Sometimes you regret those decisions and question why you ever thought you were making the right choice. Other times you look back and laugh, accepting the lesson you learned and filing away the story for another time; perhaps to help someone else learn from your mistake or simply to entertain. The following is a tale of a moderately bad decision that ultimately led to personal growth and one of my personal favorite things, a funny story to tell. Enjoy another glimpse into my past and join me as I simultaneously laugh at and with myself.

As many readers of this blog and listeners of the weekly podcast already know, I've played heavy, aggressive music for most of my life. However, there was a time when I was so desperate to draw income from a creative outlet as opposed to a mind-numbing, soul-crushing occupation that I perused the local classified ads and found my way into what I thought was a professional band. I was accepted into the band as a guitarist almost immediately due to my ability to play by ear; at our initial meeting, I learned three of their set's staples in just a couple attempts each. Being that I was in a small, southern town, I expected having to play the standard “honky tonk” songs from bands like ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd, etc. so I knew at least some pride-swallowing was in order. What I didn't expect was learning 50 songs in roughly 2 weeks by artists that I mostly could not stand hearing. I was not expected to nail the band's entire catalog in such a short period of time, but I wanted to show these people that I was serious about getting paid to play music.

Admittedly, part of my dedication to mastering the band's repertoire as quickly as possible was showing them that a young Metalhead such as myself could dive right into their genre with ease. That was the so-called “Metal Elitist” side of me poking it's over-inflated head out to passively gloat about the “musical superiority” of my genre of choice. The other part of my obsession with dominating the band's massive set-list was that as a musician, I love a challenge. I dove headfirst into the much lighter side of my parents' music collection. There would be no Led Zeppelin and Uriah Heep this time, I was going right for the Dwight Yoakam and Van Morrison CDs while keeping my urges to cringe under control. Huey Lewis and the News? Kenny Chesney? “Bring it, I will school every single one of these crap-tacular songs!”

Any time my ego would swell after learning a new song in it's entirety in under 10 minutes, I'd run into a song that was surprisingly tricky. While Heavy Metal, for the most part, is undoubtedly a more technically demanding genre of music, Country music works by an almost entirely different set of rules that I had yet to learn. The sheer simplicity of some the songs confused me at first, but once I figured out that most of the songs worked entirely within the confines of a particular scale, it started making more sense. I had never bothered memorizing scales when I first started playing guitar, I learned a handful of chords and jumped right into learning Nirvana and Black Sabbath songs. Picking out the guitar riff when it's in the forefront of a song is one thing, but finding a guitar riff buried in the mix under pedal steel guitar and violin (or “fiddle” in Country vernacular) was a whole new beast to be slain.

After a half dozen or so practices with this band, I began further sharpening my approach to this new material. Instead of going the standard cover band route of playing just any solo during the song, I would learn every note of the actual recorded solo and sometimes add my own flourishes to them. I thought I was kicking ass at this Country thing and the band as a whole was ready for the stage, but the rest of the band kept insisting we practice more. After being in this band for what had to have been at least 4 months, but felt like years, we were scheduled to play at a small town festival complete with gospel acts and clog dancers. Truthfully, I was more anxious to get it over with than nervous to perform, but it would have been nice to have known beforehand that I would be playing in a “dry county” completely unable to indulge in what I like to call “performance juice.” It was a long, sweaty, boring day, but I walked away with about one hundred dollars; pretty stellar compensation for 30 minutes of guitar playing.

Enamored with the potential for more money, I slowly began accepting these songs and actually having a bit of fun during the rare times I was able to crank the distortion during the set. Months passed and a second guitarist and keyboard player were added, filling the sound with all the “ear candy” that any drunk redneck could ever ask for in a smoky bar, but the paying gigs were still mostly out of reach. Sure, “practice makes perfect”, but the same songs being played two times a week for several months is more than enough practice for one show. There was never any actual songwriting, just dreams of becoming a bar's “house band” at the beach. This band incorporated obscure Southern Rock songs into their set in lieu of actually writing any of their own material. This was in spite of the singer's desire to be the next “Country Heartthrob” on the cover of whatever magazines those people read. My guess is that either these people never got the memo that cover bands remain cover bands until they write something of their own or they thought that some professional songwriter would jump in to help once we became a “house band” somewhere. I really couldn't say one way or another since 4 out of 5 of the other members never attempted to get to know me.

Month after month rolled by and we continued practicing, by this point I was approaching the rest of the band with more songs by artists we already covered; lyric sheets and all. “Why just play Creedence Clearwater Revival's 'Green River' when we could play one of these other 6 CCR songs I learned in the past week?” was my thought process, but the majority of them were not interested in what I had to bring to the table. The other guitarist was an old hippie who would perk up a bit when I started playing Doors riffs at practice when everyone else was setting up. We were mostly on the same page in spite of our 30+ year age difference, but the rest of the band were set in their ways and led by a 70 year old bassist with a passion for beach music and apparently, practicing 10 times more often than actually playing shows.

We played that same “dry county” festival the following year, it was our second paying gig and I was growing increasingly tired of having little to show for my efforts other than constantly having Country songs stuck in my head. This time around our pay increased by 50 dollars per member and I suddenly became willing to tough it out for a bit longer; imagine my delight when talks of an actual bar gig came up at the next practice. I thought playing with these strangers in this generic band was finally about to pay off and started trying to get used to the idea of changing my stage wardrobe to fit in a little better, but then we actually played the show. That's when reality hit me with all the force and aggression that the music I had been playing for the last year and a half lacked.

That night we were scheduled to play three sets at 30 minutes each at the local motorcycle bar. I knew every song inside and out, but was still generally uncomfortable in such a setting. I started loosening up a bit when a few friends walked in to show support and actually started feeling like a part of the band when the singer offered me a shot. “You know, this might actually start being fun” I thought after our first “high energy” set consisting mostly of Southern Rock and Bluesy numbers and the accompanying shots with the singer afterward. The thought barely crossed my mind that maybe the singer was attempting some light “hazing” ritual to solidify my place in the band. Perhaps he was trying to see if he could get me drunk enough to make a mistake, but I ignored my thoughts and kept gladly accepting free shots. Before our second set, I noticed my Uncle (who's also a musician) at the bar and briefly spoke to him before I took the stage again. He sat a shot on stage in front of me toward the end of our set, I quickly signaled a “cheers” to him and slammed it before going into more of the Country hits filling this part of the night's set-list.

It was at this point I really felt the singer was trying to get me drunk; he almost immediately called me over to the bar for several more rounds before our final set. He was clearly starting to feel it and was perhaps struggling with the realization that you should never try to out-drink a large Metalhead, especially yours truly; I've watched many people fall trying to keep up with my tolerance. Our final set was filled with rowdy, redneck standards from Charlie Daniels and the like and I was feeling right at home trading guitar solos with our other guitarist, “Birdman”. It was around this time that our singer started getting really sloppy on the microphone as well as on the dance floor. He tried convincing my girlfriend to dance with him to “show support” for the band and she was having no part of it. Our set was cut a couple songs short after he disappeared into the bathroom to begin the process of ruing the day he tried to go shot-for-shot with the one they call, “Hideous”, but we stretched the solos out in the last song to make up for time. At this point in the evening, everyone in the bar was too drunk to notice or care.

After the show, I collected 60 dollars from one of the “band leaders” (HA!) and cold shoulders from everyone except “Birdman” who appeared to have more-or-less as much fun as I did. Perhaps the most important thing you can have in a band is chemistry with the other members and for the most part, none of us ever “clicked” with each other. After taking an introspective look at the previous year and a half with that band, I decided that somewhere around 300 dollars for three shows was great money, but having to deal with those people for such extended periods of time was simply not worth it. I determined that I was never and would never truly be a part of that band and I never returned to practice. Truthfully, I don't regret the experience at all because I learned two valuable lessons from that band; learning different styles of music is a great way to improve your own art and compromising your passion for a payday just isn't worth the effort.

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