Have you ever played a gig that seemed to go on forever? I’m not talking about your typical three to four hour bar band performance that occasionally might drag a little in the middle, or some uninspired club gig full of “T n’ A” (tables and ashtrays). No, I’m talking about a gig that goes on for hours and hours, eight hours to be exact, by the end of which you felt like you aged 10 years. A few years back I did a few gigs like this, and lived to tell about it.
With thousands of singers and musicians trying to break into the Nashville nightclub scene and only so many potential gigs, the scene here can be quite competitive. And if you’ve been in Nashville for a while, you know all too well that these clubs are not known for their “great pay”. These two facts combined might cause some players to take on gigs that, in another part of the country, would be laughed out the door.
Don’t get me wrong; there are some club gigs around town that can be lucrative, a few even providing a guarantee of $100 or more per player. But most club gigs in Nashville are tips only, or provide a minimal base pay (usually $20-$50 per player), plus tips. So if you want to make some decent money, you really have to hustle.
Relying on tips causes many club bands to play a three to four hour shift without taking a break, and if a player needs to go to the bathroom the singer might do a few acoustic numbers to provide the band with at least one “pee break”. Relying so greatly on the tip jar for income also causes some singers and bands to exclusively cater to the tourists, choosing worn out dance floor classics like “Margaritaville”, “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Mustang Sally” to keep them happily bopping along.
Several years back I was working pretty steadily downtown, playing a lot of shifts at Tootsies, the Second Fiddle, and a few others on the strip. Around the same time there was another club just a few streets off of Broadway at which I also began performing (to save face, this club will remain anonymous, although its identity will be obvious to anyone who has ever worked this gig). For the purposes of this blog, I will refer to the club owner as “Harry” and the club as “Harry Houdini’s”.
I got to know Harry by hanging out at his club and sitting in on occasion. He liked my playing, and when the guitarist in his weekend house band quit, he offered me the spot. I was hungry for good paying work, and he offered to pay me $125 a night – straight pay with no tips. By Nashville standards, this was great pay for an in-town club gig. There was just one catch – the band was required to play from 7 PM to 3 AM. What?
“Don’t worry, I’ll give you plenty of breaks” Harry assured me. “You can even play sitting on a stool when you get tired”.
Like I said, good paying gigs are hard to find in Nashville, and at this point in time I really needed the dough. Besides, I had already experienced playing some “doubles” on Broadway (for those of you not in the know, this is two shifts back to back, with about a 30 minute break in between shows for change over). The doubles were hard work, but I had built up the necessary stamina, and the extra pay was helping. So what the hell, it can’t be much worse than a double, why not give it a shot?
The day of my first gig at this fine establishment I arrived about 20 minutes early, loaded in my gear, and anxiously awaited downbeat. The group consisted of drums, bass, me on guitar, and a singer who also played acoustic. The song list was typical of downtown cover music – classic and new country, pop and rock, and for the first couple of hours, it seemed like just another typical bar gig in Nashville. I even got to take a short break around nine.
Then the dynamic of the night began to change. Harry, the club owner, was also a musician, and he came up and sang a set with the band. Some of the songs we played were the previously mentioned classics of “Margaritaville”, “Sweet Home”, and “Mustang Sally”, but we also added to the mix other worn-out wonders like “Brown Eyed Girl”, “Family Tradition”, and the often dreaded “You Never Even Called Me by My Name”.
It was a warm Friday night and the crowd, which seemed to be mainly tourists, seemed happy with what we were doing, we even got a dance floor going. The singer/owner finished his set and went back to work behind the bar, and the other singer came back to take over for a while. Another 45 minutes or so and we got our next pee break while the singer sang a couple tunes solo with his acoustic.
It was now after 11 o’clock, about the average length of a typical bar gig, and Harry again returned to the stage. To my surprise, this next set contained several of the same songs that we played in his first set, most of them being the aforementioned “classics”, a couple of which had also been covered by the other singer.
On our next pee break, sometime around 12:30 AM, I mentioned to the drummer something like “Boy he really likes those oldies. Does he always repeat those songs so much?”
“You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, we’re just getting started. Typically, he wants us to play Margaritaville, Sweet Home, Mustang Sally and Family Tradition about once an hour.” he said to my amazement. “His theory is that the tourists love these songs, and that with the high turnover, it doesn’t really matter how many times we play them.”
Moments later I resumed my perch on the stage to continue my birds-eye view of this top 40 adventure, one that seemed to be entering some kind of classic-hit time warp. I remember looking up at the clock behind the bar a little while later and it reading something like 12:48. Except for the three or four 10 minute pee breaks, I had been playing this gig for about six hours, with two more hours to go, and it began to feel like I had been on the stage for days.
The crowd was now pretty thin, but we marched on. With Harry back on the mic, he asked the crowd “do we have any Lynyrds Skynyrd fans in the house?” With a couple of random cheers forthcoming, we launched into Sweet home Alabama again, now for the fifth time. The same thing happened with some of the other classics. I looked up at the clock a little while later and it was around 1:30. The more we kept repeating songs, the slower the clock seemed to move. At one point my mind flashed to the scene in the movie “Risky Business”, where the character played by Tom Cruise witnesses the clock going backwards right before the bell was supposed to ring.
By the end of the night, I was drenched in sweat and physically and mentally exhausted. My back was sore, my fingers shredded, and my mind numb. We had played Sweet Home Alabama, Mustang Sally, and Family Tradition seven times each throughout the night. Some of the other songs we played four to five times a piece. The funny thing was, the patrons never seemed to notice or care. Harry was right; there was a high turnover, and whatever crowd we had at any given moment seemed to enjoy the songs.
I collected my pay and went home, returning the next evening to do it all over again. As lucrative for an in-town gig as this was, I only lasted a few short weekends before moving onto something else. After a few years I was able to get over my “classic hits overdose”, but for the months following this episode, I suffered severe flashbacks every time somebody called out Sweet Home Alabama and Mustang Sally.
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