As my first summer in Nashville was drawing to a close, I was basically jobless, running out of savings, and fast realizing that I had a long way to go to become proficient at playing country music, a style that was quite new to me. For many newcomers to Nashville, sitting in, gigging, and networking around town can make you feel like you are under a microscope, as was also the case for me. I had converted the basement of my rented home in Gallatin into a studio where my daily ritual consisted of learning country standards and practicing my chicken pickin’ technique (I was also conducting an eBay campaign and gradually selling off everything I could stand parting with). But all this practicing alone wasn’t enough. I needed some practical live experience but, after my recent debacle on Broadway, needed to accomplish this outside of the microscope for a bit. So when I got a phone call from Gordon, a keyboard player I had recently met, about playing in a house band for a country music talent show in Kentucky, I jumped at the offer.
Libby Knight, owner of Libby’s Steakhouse in Daysville, Kentucky, had been a longtime supporter of country music, hosting his talent show “Live at Libby’s” since 1984. During the show’s heyday there was a live radio broadcast, and it was from this venue that many singers like Garth Brooks, Tracy Lawrence, JoDee Messina, Trisha Yearwood, and others once performed in obscurity, some, arguably getting their start there (it is rumored that at one time record deals for some artists began to take shape in the front lobby). The boom days of this once would-be Opry style country music house now long gone, this was the perfect low-pressure opportunity I needed to hone my country chops.
During my phone call with Gordon, he explained to me that the Friday night show was an audition night for singers. Libby would pick the best vocalists to come back and rehearse with the band Saturday afternoon from 1 to 4, after which the band would be provided a dinner followed by the Saturday night concert from 8 to 11. For our services, each band member would receive $100 total for both nights. While this was not the greatest pay, I didn’t mind as I greatly needed the experience. Not to mention that a hundred dollars was a lot more than I was earning on most weekends at this point in time, which was typically nothing. Of course my first weekend at Libby’s was an audition for me as well. I had already done a gig with Gordon and he liked my playing, but the band leader had yet to hear my playing and I would have to win him over to be offered a regular spot.
I left Gallatin late in the afternoon on a Friday to make the hour and a half drive north into Kentucky. The scenic drive was mesmerizing at times as I found my way through a maze of picturesque back roads laced with cornfields, cattle grazing across rolling pastures, and the occasional small town. I arrived to the rural community of Daysville and pulled into Libby’s, a long barnlike structure that sat adjacent to a large field and reeked of another era. After loading in my gear and meeting Libby and the other musicians, I went over to a long row of tables at which several of the players had gathered, organizing their charts. “We’ve got charts for pretty much everything we’ll be playing.” said Gordon “Here’s a set list that shows the order of the singers, and the songs they’ll be doing.” I grabbed my charts, put them in order, and got ready to play.
Libby was a colorful character, upbeat and generally excited about these events, and this enthusiasm was evident a little while later when the show began with his announcements. Well dressed in a white shirt, Wrangler jeans, cowboy boots, and 10 gallon hat, he spoke from side stage with a deep resonant voice infested with a thick southern drawl and introduced the show as if it were the Grand Ole’ Opry. He disappeared behind the curtain while the audience was still applauding and we were off and running. After the first two songs, which featured the house band, he returned to announce the first vocalist to audition. We began playing the intro to ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’ as he walked off and an attractive young lady dressed for success walked onto the stage and saddled up to the mic. The band, which was comprised of some great players, was instantly cookin’, the young lady sang well, and the song was well received. Libby returned to the stage to rally some more support from the crowd and announced the next singer.
The material we played throughout the night was a mix of classic and new country, and the Nashville style number charts were of immense help. Some of these songs I knew, many I had heard but never played, and some were completely foreign to my ears. For the songs that required a lead guitar intro that I didn’t know, the bass player helped me out by humming the phrase right before the count off. All in all, I played well, enjoyed playing with the other musicians and singers (maybe not all of the singers), and everyone seemed to like my playing. We played two long sets with this format which had a surprisingly smooth flow, largely due to Libby and the band leader’s organization, and the night came to an end.
I returned the next afternoon for the rehearsal and ran through tunes with the best singers chosen from the night before. Each singer was allotted two songs for Saturday night’s show, so we spent much of this time learning songs we hadn’t played the night before. The rehearsal was kind of long, but the atmosphere was relaxed. We broke for dinner, a feast which consisted of your choice of one of Libby’s famous steaks or fried catfish with sides of baked potato, hush puppies, coleslaw, and sweet tea – a Southern delight. Making the mistake of over-eating, or perhaps just underestimating the fat content of this meal, I felt a bit “heavy” after dinner so I attempted to walk some of it off in the parking lot before the show.
A little while later I was back at the “chart table” with the other players organizing my stack of charts for the night. At eight o’clock sharp we were off and running after another excited send-off from Libby. Similarly to the night before, everything went real smooth. Vocalist after vocalist took the stage – young ladies sporting big hairdo’s and dressed in evening gowns, men clad in jeans, plaid shirts and cowboy hats, a couple of teenage prodigy’s – even an elderly gentleman in his 60’s sang country classics giving it their all. The crowd was attentive and even sang and clapped along at times. Adding an element of showbiz to the night, Libby would walk out from behind the curtain every once in a while and raise his arms in the air to incite additional applause after modulations and solos.
Just as we did the night before, the band played great, and most of the singers were excellent. The afternoon rehearsal allowed the band and singers to become comfortable with the material and really dig in during the show. Nothing like the helter-skelter nature of the in-town Nashville club scene, this gig was relaxed and outside of the microscope, but still had a professional edge.
I left the gig in good spirits and made the long drive home. It would be a little while before I was asked to return as I was subbing and the other lead player had not yet made a permanent exit, but a few weeks later I was asked to become a permanent member of the house band. I had passed the audition and landed what turned out to be the perfect gig for me to hone my country chops. Live at Libby’s – country music basic training!
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