by Doug Hoekstra
Every morning, Gary called his parents back in Albany. It was the least he could do. The phone rang several times, and then there was silence, followed by a loud clacking noise, piercing feedback, a dull thud, and finally, his mother’s voice.
“Hello? Who is it?”
Gary held the phone away from his ear.
“Your son. Gary. How’s it going?”
“Terrible” his mother answered.
It was a beautiful February morning, one of those false spring days that made him glad to be living in Nashville, hundreds of miles away from hissing radiators, cascading snow drifts, and shattering icicles.
“I feel just terrible,” his mother continued. “Don’t ever get old.”
Gary contemplated the scene outside the window, a flock of birds congregating on a large oak tree. They crowded onto one precarious limb. If that branch breaks, he mused, it’ll land directly on my windshield. A flurry of beeping and buzzing shot through the earpiece. Then, his Dad was on the extension.
“How’s everything at the salt mine?” he said with a chuckle.
His Dad always asked him about his job. Gary wasn’t sure if his folks were fully aware what he was doing for a living, all it entailed, the detail work he put into the craftsmanship, arrangement, and marriage of words and melody. The last time he’d been to visit, his Dad asked him if he ever thought about composing music some day. He wondered if the question came from personality or generations.
“It’s fine,” Gary answered, as CNN blared in the background.
“Are you still writing?” his Dad asked.
“Of course, I’m writing, that’s what I do for a living, I write songs.”
“I was listening to that tape you sent us last week, and I thought it was good,” his Dad continued. “I could see Dolly Parton recording one of those songs.”
Dolly is a fine songwriter herself, but Gary didn’t want to get into it.
“Well, you never know.”
“Say,” his Dad continued, “who writes the music for your words?”
Gary had taken white paint and written the word patience on the side of his phone, just for times like these. Let it go.
“So, I think I’m going to do some volunteering for the election,” Gary said to change the subject, “helping register voters.”
“That’s nice,” his mom chimed in from the other line. Gary’s parents had been married nearly half a century, developing better timing than Martin and Lewis. His dad picked up the thread. “This economy is terrible. I’m glad I’m not a young man trying to make my way. All these jobs going overseas.”
“Well, it is what it is,” Gary responded.
Times were different, but for him, it wasn’t about jobs going overseas. Historically, people used to just play music for each other, on front porches and in parlors. Maybe, if they were really talented, the best of their town or county, they’d put a combo together, play in churches or roadhouses, and make a little extra change when they weren’t tending the fields or doing whatever else they did to put food on the table. Then, Edison invented the record player and suddenly music became commodified. The flip side of that was, as generations passed, each wave of new songwriters and artists had to measure up to all of recorded history, as opposed to the band in the next town.
While Gary wasn’t going to make excuses, his dad’s words only made him feel anxious and insecure. More birds clung to the tree as he paced the kitchen floor.
“Don’t worry Dad,” he said, making light of the situation, “ I don’t think anyone is going to be outsourcing songwriters to India.”
“Don’t be too sure,” his Mom said on the other line.
Gary sighed. “So how’s the Governor?” he said, desperate to end the conversation on a high note. The Governor’s daughter used to date his older brother and there was usually a wealth of funny stories that went with that one.
“Your brother has his ups and downs,” his Mom said.
Just then, the branch outside the window snapped, the birds flew away, and the broken limb crashed loudly to the ground. Luckily, it missed Gary’s car.
Gary walked hurriedly down a long marble hallway lined with gold records and faux palm trees. As he approached Miss Mary the receptionist, she recognized his gait and waved him past with a smile. Soon he was riding up to Floor 3, administrative offices. Gary eyed his reflection on the mirrored walls of the elevator, and saw four shaky and nervous individuals with dark circles under their eyes, a band of thieves. He’d had a dry spell lately or more accurately, he was putting more creative energy into his own independent record, rather than the tunes the company paid him to write. One was good for the soul, the other for the pocketbook.
As he left the elevator, he turned right and stopped at Scott Campbell’s desk. Scott’s dad was a Jordannaire, had some great Elvis stories, and like so many in Music Row, inherited a job on bloodlines. He was somewhere between 28 and 35, but looked Old Nashville, with his Buddy Holly glasses and vintage zebra striped shirt sleeve shirts. All he needed was an ashtray and a reel-to-reel player. Scott was a good man, he helped left-of-center writers, like Gary, navigate the shark-infested waters. But, he was still Don Weston’s right-hand man.
“Is Don in with anybody?”
“No,” said Scott. “He’s expecting you.”
“You know.” said Gary.
“Of course,” Scott replied with a grin, “I know everything that goes on in this place.” He was only half-joking.
“Well, then,” said Gary, “ what’s in store for me today?
“You’ll see.” Scott looked past him, punching computer keys and gazing intently into his spread sheets as if unlocking a secret code.
Gary sat down in a straight-back chair that he felt about two inches lower than normal. Across the desk, Don leaned back in his big leather padded throne and kicked his heels up. His desk was littered with demos, press kits, and copies of Mensa newsletters. He liked everyone to know he was in Mensa.
“How about them Titans?” he started. “I never thought they’d make the playoffs this year.”
Like many musicians, Gary didn’t care for sports, unless he was playing.
Don adorned his office with posters of Bob Dylan in his “hip sunglasses phase” and John Lennon in his “hip New York phase” on the wall. They hung behind the big man’s desk like a displaced Greek choir, and anytime Don kicked back to listen to demos looking for the latest piece of brilliance to mass-produce and farm out to Wal-Marts everywhere, Bob and John would look down at the proceedings. Someone like Dylan or Lennon couldn’t get arrested in this town, thought Gary, no matter how many execs had their posters on the wall.
Finally, Don cut to the chase. “You got any new stuff?”
“You, bet, I’m always writing,”Gary answered, with forced Top Ten energy. He couldn’t stop writing if he tried.
“You keep a writing journal, for hooks, song titles?”
“No.” When Gary had an idea, he just knocked it out. Then, he fine-tuned and revised, polishing it like a fine sculpture. That was the plan, anyway.
“How do you remember anything?” Don said. “You know, Harlan Howard has a writing journal. All the good writers do.”
“John Lennon never did,” Gary blurted, without thinking. He didn’t regret it though, not for a moment. “If I have an idea that’s worth remembering, I remember it. Or, I finish it.”
Don harrumphed. “You been co-writing?”
“Some,” Gary lied.
“You should do more.”
Gary hated co-writing, it was the surest way to take a good idea and dilute it so it lost all integrity. And yet, the solution to every woe on the Row was co-writing. Need a hit? Co-write. Parents in ill health? Co-write. Can’t keep a girlfriend? Co-write. It was something about the mob mentality, the idea that an idea was better if shared by many. It minimized the risk. It was also good from a business angle, too, the more writers, the more publishers could divvy up the dough.
“And, don’t tell me Dylan didn’t co-write,” Don said. “Dylan didn’t co-write, because he was Dylan. My dad played keyboards on Blonde on Blonde, did you know that?”
Gary knew that, Don mentioned it every time they talked. It was amazing that Blonde on Blonde was cut in Nashville in the 1960s. Dylan did co-write sometimes, though, but he didn’t point that out.
“You know Jack McMahon?” Don continued.
“A little bit, I run into him here and there. He’s pretty busy, isn’t he?” Gary said,
“You try to get in touch with him?” Don pushed around some Mensa newsletters on the desk, shuffling them like a magician. He tore off a page and started folding it into origami. Seconds later, he held up a fish. “I’m guessing not very hard, but you should, Pat’s pretty hot these days.
“It didn’t work last time, I know,” Don continued. “You’ve got other ideas … and they’re often good ones. But, I’ve heard all I need to hear, and … ” He stopped talking, distracted, as he populated his desktop with a sea of paper fish. It was so quiet Gary could hear Scott’s talk radio through the door. He shifted nervously in his seat.
“We’re going to have to part ways.” Don finally said.
“Pardon me?” said Gary, hating his weak reply the second it left his lips.
“Part ways, end the contract, I’m sorry, but I don’t think it’s working for either one of us.”
“Last I checked, I had two months to go, didn’t I?”
“That’s right, I looked it up,” Don said, pointing to the file cabinet in the corner. “But, we’re cutting it off a bit early, so it won’t affect anything from this point on, including that little indie deal you’ve got going –those songs are free and clear.” Emphasis fell on the word little, and Don spit “indie” out of his mouth like a sour piece of fruit.
“How nice of you.” Gary said.
“Don’t be a smart-ass,” Don answered, suddenly cold. “I like you, I always have, but after your first year, it seemed like you didn’t care. You were more interested in taking your little $15 k salary and working on those … ”
Gary knew what was coming, another reference to his own recording career. The suits on the row always looked down their noses at the indie market. It was a wilderness they rarely visited and never understood. It was a world full of artists who subverted the chain of command and when done right, eliminated the gate keepers and leveled the playing field. Sometimes Gary hated himself for hanging onto something he no longer cared about.
“You let Walter go, you know,” Gary pointed out. “He was the plugger who signed me, the one who believed in me the most.”
“It happens.” Don shrugged. “Other writers find a way.” He waved his hand, the breeze scattering the school of origami fish every which way. One lone fish fell to the floor. It was a long way down .
“We have to stay competitive,” Don said, extending his hand, “ Scott will take care of the paperwork.”
Gary strolled leisurely down 16th Avenue towards Hillsboro Village. Soon, the magnolias would be in bloom, which reminded him of all the times he visited Nashville before moving there. He thought about all that happened in the few years he’d been a resident, his first shows in town doing songwriter nights, the endless networking at seedy clubs full of cowboy hats and strong cologne, chasing that publishing deal something fierce.
Back then, Gary knew he’d have to jump through some hoops, but he figured that eventually, it would open doors and lead to freedom. But, it did the opposite, keeping him tied, bound, and removed from pursuing his strengths as a writer. Whether or not he got any holds or cuts, depended largely on the nature of his relationship with his plugger, if the plugger was in good graces with the head man at the company, how much he kept hustling his work to everyone who would listen. Plus, it was a bad business deal, giving up his songs in perpetituity for a poverty-level draw, in the random hope that one song might land on the desk of the right person for the right artist at the right time. Lots of songs are good, some aren’t, but there are other factors.
Ultimately, Gary had fought for the right to compromise his work and sign over his rights for a wage he couldn’t even live on. It reminded him of the days when robber barons like Pullman would set up a company town and keep their employees in debt by forcing them to shop at the company store. 16 Tons, indeed. He should thank Don, really. Cars honked at Gary as he sidled along the street – there was no sidewalk to walk on, but even that was improving with a new Mayor in office. Around the corner, Gary passed the post office. Gary spotted a familiar figure. It was McMahon walking outside with a plastic container full of mail, half of it royalty checks, no doubt. McMahon didn’t see him.
Soon he was at Fido’s, his favorite breakfast hang, where he ordered poached eggs and coffee and sat down to read a book. Seconds later, he heard a familiar voice.
Lloyd Wilson towered over his chair, big smile on his face. He looked much fatter than the last time he’d seen them.
“Oh, not much, just ordering some breakfast. How about you?
”Things are good, I just finished my record, and I go on the road with the Freedom Players next week. Good gig, we get to do lots of British Invasion covers, you know, and it pays, and of course, I’ve got the reunion shows with my old partner and I’m producing this act from Denmark that’s coming into town and did I tell you I did some recording with two of the guys who used to be in Squeeze? That was pretty cool and … ”
Lloyd was the Eddie Haskell of Nashville songwriters, he knew just about everybody in town and managed to get a hand into any sort of paying gig that could be had, was eager to impress both you and your mother, and always smiled in a way that he thought made you think he was your best friend. He was a solid guitar player, good singer, but he’d always toed the line himself, working for the Row companies as a country writer and sometimes A&R man and then going off to play his own “hip” music, which frankly, Gary didn’t find very hip at all. He felt the “hip” side of Lloyd carried residue from the purportedly “unhip” side of his career, which of course, like multiplying by zero, left an end result of zero. This is what he’d been fighting himself, and seeing Lloyd was indeed, a reminder that things were going to work out for the better.
But, he still respected Lloyd as one would a brother who shared the same circumstances growing up.
“I like your shirt,” the waitress said to Gary, setting down his plate. It was his red Dylanfragalistic tee. Gary thanked her, turned over a bottle of ketchup and hit it hard, right on the 57. “Sounds like you’re busy these days,” he said to Lloyd, who was still looming. The ketchup squirted forth onto his hash browns.
“Too busy! But, I can’t complain.” Lloyd looked around the coffee shop, scanning booths and tables to see who else he might know. He nervously flashed a smile to a couple entering the front door under the giant porcelain dog that stood watch over newcomers. “I gotta run, but say, how’s your deal going?”
“Which one?” Gary was thinking of the indie record deal, his stuff. He was quickly trying to forget about his lost publishing deal.
Lloyd laughed. “Which one would it be? You know, Don and Scotty – how are they, how’s it going?”
“They cut me loose this morning.” Gary answered, without inflection.
“Part of the outsourcing?”
“Yeah,” Gary laughed, “I guess they’ll get some guy in India to write my songs.”
Lloyd went all serious. “It’s a tough break. But, you got to hand it to those guys, they’re always thinking a step ahead.”
Gary was confused. It showed.
“Didn’t they tell you” Lloyd chuckled. “Now that’s rough. It’s in the Spin this week, check it out.” Lloyd dropped a copy of the Nashville Scene onto Gary’s table. His cell phone began ringing and he waved and disappeared into the back of the shop to take the call and undoubtedly round up a gig playing guitar on The Searchers reunion tour.
Gary speared some more poached eggs and flipped through the paper until he found the page with gossip and all-purpose music news column, “The Spin.” Sure enough, there was a headline on one of the sections, black bold letters – Nashville Meets Bombay, it said. One might think it was about some Bollywood singers coming to town to work with the city’s finest session men. But, no, it was about something else.
The article began with a quote from Don Weston. “Like any industry, we have to find new ways to be competitive in a global marketplace. So, with much regret, after much consternation, we have decided to outsource some of our work.”
The article went on to detail how Weston and the president of CGM, Helen Hurley, were insistent that only a small percentage of staff writers were being let go; that the bulk of the successful writers in Nashville would retain their positions. Mr. Weston’s assistant, Scott Campbell, would head the new Indian branch office, which would equipped and ready for writing training in three weeks. They expected the most difficult task would be making the “offsite” writers well versed in middle America culture. “Our scouting in India has revealed a bevy of talented writers we’re anxious and fortunate to work with,” Campbell said, “but we’ve got to make them Wal-Mart ready.”
Gary shook his head. It was so unbelievable it was believable.
The next morning Gary called his parents, dutifully. He dreaded the conversation because he knew the question about his job would come up and unable to lie, he’d have to tell the whole story, which they really wouldn’t grasp anyways. Everything would spiral from there, into a confluence of superlative worry and bad advice. His mom would ask him if he had a car to sleep in, if he lost his lease. His dad would ask him if he’d be interested in a career in health care. Gary took a deep breath
“So, how’s it going?” he asked, on yet another beautiful false spring morning.
“Not so good” his mother answered.
“Are you feeling okay?” Gary asked, suddenly concerned.
“Your brother came over last night. His television station might be sold.”
His older brother was an anchorman, sports mainly, but he also had a morning show that broadcast through most of upstate New York.
“Is that bad?” Gary asked.
“It’s too early to tell,” his Dad said, coming on the line. “But he’s worried.”
“And, that makes us worried, too,” his Mom said. “Your brother is awfully sensitive.”
Gary poured himself another cup of coffee, phone tucked under his ear. “I’m sure it’ll be okay,” he finally said. “And, we don’t know anything yet, anyways.”
“I’m glad I’m not a young man trying to make my way,” said his dad. “I’d move to Australia or Canada. It’s hard times.”
“It’s terrible,” his mother said.
Gary’s parents had been together over thirty years. If something happened to one of them, the other was there to watch his or her back. He wondered what that was like. It must be nice.
“It’s another beautiful day down here,“ Gary said after a long pause, as he paced in the kitchen. “Pretty soon everything will be blooming.” His mother was a gardener. Growing up, he always saw her digging or planting something, desperate to take advantage of the short spring and summer seasons.
“That’s nice,” she said. “You were smart to move down there,” his Dad added. “You’re much happier,” she continued, “and healthier.”
Maybe so, Gary thought, maybe so. He wondered what his life would be like if he was able to see that everything that happened to him, was the best possible thing that could happen. Maybe there was a song in that. He sat down at his piano and lightly voiced a chord or two with his right hand.
“Well, I have to get some writing done,” Gary said. “But I love you guys. And, say hey to the Governor for me,” he joked.
“Your brother has his ups and downs,” his Dad said.
I know he does, thought Gary, I know he does. He hung up the phone, placed both hands on the piano, and with his long slender fingers, followed the line he’d begun. Now, if he could only fit in a passing chord between the changes.
Doug Hoekstra is from Chicago but has lived in Nashville for over a decade. His first book, “Bothering the Coffee Drinkers,” appeared on the Canopic Publishing imprint in April 2006 and earned an Independent Publisher Award for Best Short Fiction. Several of the selections in the book have appeared in other publications, and one story, “The Blarney Stone,” was nominated for a 2006 Pushcart Prize. His story Play Date was published in Deep South last September. In his previous life, Hoekstra was a singer-songwriter who released seven albums and won a Nashville Music Award. He has a son named Jude.