I hadn’t done a concert for months. Most of my recent guitar playing consisted of plucking out “Skip to My Lou” with ten year olds. Walking into the spacious venue in Pensacola, Florida and seeing the TV cameras, I felt a flutter in my chest. I knew it was being broadcast live on the radio but TV too? My hands flew up to my hair, frizzy in the beach climate, and I frowned at my plain baggy blue jeans.
Feigning confidence I headed toward backstage. I met with the friendly stage manager and two 20-something kids (when you’re my age, you can call anyone under 30 “kid”). The guy had one of those blender hairdos. The woman, Jen, had tri colored hair that stuck up like a surprise. These are the kind of coifs that would look ridiculous on a woman my age but adorable on them.
The duo was Martha’s Trouble, one of the other acts on the bill. The stage manager said cheerfully that all the performers would do a number together at the end of the show. The three of us smiled politely ‘cause no one wants to be the temperamental diva. Inwardly, I’m frantically running through the rolodex of songs I know and wondered if Martha’s Trouble knew the same ones. It’s hard when you’re all songwriters and mostly you do songs you’ve written.
I continued back stage and met Columbo … no … Malcolm Holcombe. In rumpled clothes, ball cap and a strong scent of cigarette smoke, he stuck out his hand and in a honeyed but gruff Southern voice, introduced himself and then ambled off to look for coffee.
I tried not to think about the 200 chairs and TV cameras out there as I put on my make-up. They didn’t have any make-up people so I did my best. I applied my eye liner and mascara a little heavy and tried to remember an article by Janis Ian that I’d read a few years back about make-up for TV. All I could remember was that red shows up darker than it is. All I had was red lipstick.
I wet down my hair in the bathroom and willed it to lay flat for the next couple of hours.
Meanwhile, one of the other artists, Ed Gerhard, was playing some ethereal lap steel guitar for his sound check. I’d long admired his work. I knew he’d recently won a Grammy and wondered if he’d be the star who always looked like there was something more important for him to do when you talked with him. My fears were soon dispelled though, when he offered his meaty hand and warmly introduced himself.
During the next hour, between bites of tuna salad and crackers, I queried the other performers about that last song. I suggested a zipper song, a kind of folk song where every verse is the same except for a new line or two. That was greeted with blank stares from Martha’s Trouble. Jen suggested Madonna’s “Material Girl.” I dunno, I replied, I just can’t see Malcolm singing that one. His wife made suggestions like “Blowin’ in the Wind” but no one knew all the words.
I mumbled that the only cover I knew all the way through was “Angel From Montgomery,” the John Prine tune I learned from a Bonnie Raitt album. Malcomb brightened and said, Yeah! I know that one. The duo didn’t but I suspected Ed did since it’s practically a standard, at least for performers our age. I started singing the song. Jen found a nice harmony. Malcomb sang one of the verses. Ed commented that if we did it in C instead of D that he could play slide. Perfect. Right about the second verse the stage manager came in and said, “Two minutes, Jamie.” I dashed off, not completely tuned up, for my set. I was on first and this was live radio. It’s like catching a plane. If you’re late, it leaves without you.
The place was standing room only. The sound board and technicians were behind the relaxed audience, cameras on stands were scattered through out, each with an operator behind them, bright lights stood on either side, and a row of mikes and monitors were just in front of me. Just before we went live the emcee told me there was even a camera in back of me so I stuck out my butt and slapped it, getting a laugh from the audience. Quickly, I checked my tuning and before I knew it the emcee was welcoming everyone. He warmly introduced me as a music instructor at Duke and from Asheville. Actually, I was from Durham and I’ve only taught a few non-credit courses at Duke but hey, I’ll take that intro.
I started right into “Drive All Night,” a song I can play even with shaking hands. Yeah, I’ve played for bigger crowds but this was being broadcast to thousands RIGHT THAT VERY SECOND. I made it through that song and the next one without playing any chords unknown to humankind. Then it was time to retune. Why did I have all these blasted songs in different tunings? Got it as fast as I could then plunged into “Grace.” I felt a catch in my throat about halfway through. I turned my head from the mike and coughed, hoping that was it but that catch chased me down and finally, won. I ended in a blaze of hacking.
Panicked about “Angels from Montgomery,” I ran through it in the green room while Martha’s Trouble was on stage. Pulling the words from some long ago memorization I’d made while in high school, I tried out the new key and found it worked well for my voice. I went back into the house and caught Martha’s Trouble in their last song. I enjoyed their great energy. Jen’s voice really shines, like a clear voiced Janis Joplin. Malcolm was up next. With his world weary voice and great stories he was like an old blues guy you’d see at some road house. Ed was on next. Closing my eyes, I put my head in my lap and let his beautiful music carry me someplace else. I was quickly dropped into reality when I realized the time and rushed back stage to grab my guitar.
I’d forgotten to retune after my first set and just as I reached for the tuning pegs the stage manager tapped my shoulder. There you are, she exclaimed, you’re on now! I walked briskly on stage, furiously turning the pegs on the strings so that in the end, I didn’t make a sound that would make dogs howl.
After the emcee re-introduced me, I launched into my song with the reoccurring line “Ain’t nothing wrong with me a little chocolate won’t cure.”
I introduced the next song by saying it was one they’d probably connect with. It starts, “Better than chocolate …” perfect for following the first song. The chorus begins with “I think you should know, I’m talking ’bout public radio.” Well, how could I go wrong with a bunch of public radio fans? The song got laughs in the places I expected. I wasn’t even through the whole number before they started applauding. All right! The catch in my throat was gone and my knees finally stopped knocking so I thought I was in the clear for the next song. An alien took over my vocal chords though and the clever song intro was turned into a confusing short speech about whether or not it was true. Oh shut up Jamie and just do the next damn song. I think I may have even said that out loud before I sang “Your Mama Scares Me.”
The rest of the performers took another turn. Backstage I ran through “Angels from Montgomery” with Martha’s Trouble while two teenagers, the sons of one of the crew, were discussing music. I heard one of them explaining to his friend what an LP was. “It’s like a CD only bigger and you put it on this big flat disc that spins around.” I grinned and interjected, “My first album was an LP.” They looked at me with the same slack jawed expression that kids use when you try to explain a dial phone.
All too soon, the emcee was saying the credits and we were walking on stage for the final number. I prayed to the goddess of remembering words and started the song. One by one the other musicians joined in. We were a little hesitant at first but as the song went on, a harmony was added, then a drum, then Ed played this mournful slide guitar. Malcolm did a verse in his gravely voice, perfect for this song with the aching lyrics. Ed conjured up another beautiful solo. Then we broke it down, with only the voices and percussion, quietly singing the chorus before blasting back in with guitars and full voices. The audience leapt to their feet and clapped along. We ended on a bluesy wail, the audience roaring their approval. The musicians gathered together, our hands around each other’s waist and took a big bow.
The audience lined up four deep around the CD table. There were many smiles, lots of compliments and requests for the last number on CD. “No, we’ve never sung that together before.” Eyebrows flew up and mouths formed big O’s.
I should send Prine and Raitt a thank you note.
“Public Radio,” done at WUWF’s Radio live, the venue in the story. Not the same year, though and no, I don’t have a video of Angels From Montgomery.
I’ll be appearing again on Radio Live in Pensacola on April 7, 2011.