In a former life, I must have been a hard drinking, road worn country musician. I wrote the following short story for Writing Magazine‘s opening line competition last year. Their prompt was ‘The view from the hotel window was breathtaking.’
That Old Road’s A Friend Of Mine
The view from the hotel window was breathtaking. Staring out across the Nashville skyline, Clayton Burgess couldn’t believe he would leave the bright lights behind after that night. The place where he’d made his name seemed as good a place as any to host his final performance. When he thought about it, he couldn’t quite work out why, until he remembered his father Logan’s words: ‘You’ll do it as long as you can, son…and when it’s time to step back, you’ll know.’
Although he didn’t want to believe it, Clayton was sure that time had come. He couldn’t play for as long as he liked to now, and the fans weren’t getting what they paid for. He half-walked, half shuffled over to the desk where he’d left his Stetson after checking in the previous evening. The music still called him, but that never stopped – he just wasn’t sure he could answer quite so strongly now.
The hat went on, and he tuned his battered Gibson, whom he’d christened Rosalita after she got him through a few too many dark nights and empty bottles to count. The first chord rang clear, and he began to sing an old Hank Williams song to get into the groove. Then it was time to play one of his songs. He cast his mind back to 1965, and retrieved the right mind set for ‘Song for Julie Far Away’, a particular crowd pleaser whenever he brought it out at concerts. “Well, you’re my sweetheart and you’re my honey/Always be mine, darlin’ Julie…’ It was simple, but he felt it just the same, nearly 50 years later.
He finished the song and glanced at the clock – just before six…too early, some might say, but not for him. Shuffling over to his suitcase, he retrieved a small bottle, and poured a little whiskey into last night’s glass. Truth be told, he loved the road, but hated what it had done to him over the years. Others he’d known had been able to settle down, resist the way it kept winking at you, calling you back…
He’d always been weak to that, but then, so was his father. Clayton had been in the audience for more Logan Burgess ‘farewell’ shows than he could count, until the one that took everybody by surprise. Not just his farewell to the scene…Clayton shuddered at the memory, as he recalled an usher taking him backstage. There had been a crowd of concerned onlookers, and after that his memory missed a few spots. It picked up again a few days later, as his grandmother handed him his father’s guitar.
The ghost of that experience lingered at every performance. As often as he’d wondered why in the past, as he aged, the question had become ‘what if?’, or on the darker days more explicit: ‘am I next?’
He shook the thought from his head, and began to play again. On a musician’s salary, his material inheritance hadn’t been much, but he was a millionaire in terms of the songs and knowledge his father had passed down.
He ran through a few open chord drills, and some scales. Gone were the days of lightning fast soloing. Now he liked to give the music, and himself, space to breathe. He’d leave the super-fast soloing to his lead guitar player, and work the crowd into frenzy that way. The star of the night song-wise was a bar blues called ‘Two Fingers’ – in spite of how it sounded, it was an ode to various local whiskies, and Clayton loved to snarl the chorus into the mic just before handing the reins to Freddie, who brought it home with a blistering country solo.
Two taps on the door. “Thanks, Harry.” Clayton smiled – he’d known the guy for twenty years, and the routine was always the same. Twenty minutes before seven, the knock on the door which told him he’d better go and meet Keith, who’d take him on to the Ryman. Harry always stayed on his six these days, and Clayton appreciated that. The thing about getting older was, he could never be quite sure whether he’d make it out to the car OK. He handed the guitar case to his friend, who helped him carry it to the elevator, and then pressed the button. The doors opened, and Harry passed the case to Clayton.
“Have a good show – shame we won’t meet again like this…” There was a trace of sadness in Harry’s voice. Clayton put his arm around Harry’s shoulder.
“Thanks for all you’ve done for me…the Clayton Burgess Show will keep rolling on, it just won’t come to Nashville quite so often.” Then he turned and entered the elevator.
When he reached the ground floor, Carl on reception was ready by the main door to open it for Clayton and his guitar.
“No problem – enjoy the gig.” His reputation preceded him now…he was sure that Carl hadn’t been working there the last time, although his memory wasn’t so good now.
He paused outside the Ryman entrance, knowing that he wouldn’t take that view in again. A few minutes passed while he composed himself, then pushed the door and stepped onto the hallowed ground of the Ryman Auditorium. They’d phoned a few days before and given him details about his dressing room and the lineup for the evening. He would take the stage after some up-and-coming group, who he hoped had respect for where their music came from. He doubted that most of them knew who he was, but thanks to one or two recent collaborations with famous names, he might provoke a faint lightbulb moment.
He heard the crowd settling down, with the usual hum. Time to retune, and make sure his voice was ‘in whiskey drinking order’ as his dad used to say. A few chords were all it took, and he drifted into an old road song or two…not that he’d ever been one for that kind of life. Woody Guthrie and the others had that covered. Then a few scales, and it was time to watch the young guns play their final song.
With the authority of a man who’d known the rules all his life, he walked into the wings and watched as bluegrass solos flew from Gibson guitar necks and branded mandolins. Seeing that the line would continue brought him to a place of peace with what he would soon announce. Although it was a full house, with over 2000 in the audience, none of them knew that this would be his last Ryman performance. He’d asked that it be kept under wraps, as he wanted people to enjoy the show like they usually would.
The final drumbeat and chords faded, and the emcee returned to the stage. Thunderous applause ensued…the crowd had obviously been sufficiently energised for Clayton’s show.
“Thanks very much for showing your appreciation for these guys. You’ll find them online in the usual places. Our next act doesn’t get on with computers, but he’s probably been in your record collections for years. Please welcome Clayton Burgess!”
Clayton walked onstage and looked around, trying to make everyone in the audience feel included in this magical moment. No matter how many times he took that walk, there was something about it which was better than anything he’d ever experienced.
He strummed a few chords, and whilst he did so, addressed the audience.
“Folks, it’s been a pleasure to sing for you over the past 40 or so years. I know you’re looking forward to tonight as much as I am, so in a way, it’s even harder for me to say what I’m about to now. I know more than most what life onstage, and life on the road, can do to a man, so I’ve decided that this will be my last public performance.” He paused, and swallowed. There were a few gasps, and some scattered applause, from those who could really appreciate what he meant.
Then he moved into ‘Two Fingers’ ahead of time, keen to build the crowd up again after the collective disappointment. He traded a look with his lead guitar player, and Freddie laid down an impressive solo. The lights were down, but he thought he could make out a couple of familiar figures in the front row. He wondered, but couldn’t let himself think about it for too long. He had other songs to sing, and a crowd to please.
The last few notes of ‘Two Fingers’ disappeared in a torrent of applause. In his younger days, he’d lived for that thrill, and tried to replicate it too. Now, the act of being onstage was more than enough.
The rest of the set was stellar, and Clayton knew it. The rapt expressions all around told him he was bringing the house down.
He was one song from the end, and about to go into his only hit when the emcee interrupted him. “Sorry, Clayton…we forgot to introduce your special guest. Folks, please welcome Julie Burgess!”
Clayton couldn’t believe his eyes, but there she was, standing beside him with her Martin guitar. Music had brought them together, and the road had lured him away, but he wouldn’t let that happen again. He strummed the first chord, and hummed the starting note, the way they used to do to make sure they were in tune. He knew, in some ways, they always had been.
The crowd were on their feet, and the handclapping had started with the first few notes. Two voices that hadn’t been together for such a long time were again, for one night, and would be forever more. Deep down, Clayton knew he’d made the right choice. Family ties were more important than tour buses and asphalt highways.
“Thanks for coming out tonight, folks. I’m Clayton Burgess, and I guess I’ll see you around.”
Thanks for taking the time to read this piece. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the source of the title, taken from a Townes Van Zandt song called ‘Snowin’ On Raton’
Mother thinks the road
Is long and lonely
Little brother thinks
The road is straight and fine
Little darling thinks
The road is soft and lovely
I’m thankful that old road
Is a friend of mine