Coors, Chords, and Chicken Wire
It was a blast from the tuneful past. My friend Rich Dunseth set up a coffee shop/music studio/hangout on the Jacksonville square some years ago and every now and again he’ll brew a couple of brands of his exotic coffee and invite folks in for a what in the sixties we used to call a Coffee Klatsch, a gathering of kindred spirits who like their conversation and caffeine to go hand in hand.
It’s a cool little place tucked into a nook across from the Farmer Bank building and well suits Rich and wife Linda’s goal in making life a rich and rewarding place for all of us.
A few weeks ago I drove to town to attend the gathering and found the place pleasantly packed with an eclectic mix of folks. . . farmers, teachers, business people, and full-time entertainers. After grabbing a cup of something Rich described as bold and exotic (exciting for an old bachelor) I sauntered into the backroom where the musicians had gathered. Again, it was a diverse assortment of ages and musical styles. They each had their cup of coffee but instead of playing instruments they were doing what musicians do second best to playing: they were telling their stories of gigs they’d enjoyed, endured, or survived.
My friend Becker of the Tractor talked about playing gigs in Jacksonville that were interrupted by a customer who’d come in with a ball bat to clear the place out. He said, “It had something to do with his girlfriend, I think.”
Lynn Ruby spoke with both fondness and fear of playing at Ma Snyders out on the Old State Road. “She had a voice that could clear a place out in a minute.” He added, “She’d tell us to play quieter on the first set and we obeyed, then as the night went along we could get louder.”
Robert Sampson said that one of the best gigs he ever played was at a wedding in Yatesville. “They paid attention. You don’t always get that at a wedding.”
The conversation rolled happily around the circle as the pickers and pluckers regaled each other with stories of fearful and joyous nights spent in the surrounding music venues of Florence, Naples, Virginia, Meredosia, and Hillview. It was somewhere around Hillview when the subject of chicken wire came up. For any Presbyterians in the crowd I must explain that particularly raucous barrooms would put bands on a plank stage then surround the musicians in chicken wire. When the night got long and the liquor started flowing freely the band needed protection against flying bottles, chairs, and girlfriends. There’s nothing more disconcerting than finding a bottle of Bud Light sticking through the front of your $700 amplifier and a flying waitress can do serious damage to a Fender Stratocaster guitar.
I can remember a long-ago gig with the Dave Walden country band at the old bowling alley on Walnut Street. The area’s most notorious brawler was in attendance that night and for some reason he was particularly irritated at our drummer. I imagine it had something to do with a girlfriend since that was usually the cause of flying projectiles. The big lug would sit with his back to band, drink his beer, and then toss it over his shoulder in the direction of our drummer. I was a college kid acquainted more with John Deere tractors than prison records, and I had set my keyboard right next to the drummer. The drunk at the bar was already hindered by a night’s worth of drinking, but to achieve any sort of precision over his shoulder was more than he could manage. After spending our first set ducking flying glass I moved my piano to the far side of the stage for the second set. The police were finally called but only after we’d been thoroughly dosed with sticky beer.
The little crowd at Dunseth’s Dunk and Drink agreed that conditions for musicians had improved over the years even though the pay had not. It was a joy to listen to the stories from the mouths of guys who’d paid their dues by playing the various venues around the Jacksonville area. Most agreed that one of the sweetest gigs nowadays was Dr. Ugs, a totally quaint and comfy little bistro on the south side of the square in Virginia, and the Boatell in Naples was also mentioned as great place to display one’s musical chops as long as you bring plenty of bug spray.
I wish I’d brought a voice recorder that day but then I’d have had to put down the coffee. There are sacrifices one cannot make, even for art.