Everything Is Free with Greg Parker
March 2006

Being a guy alone on the road with just his guitar and his songs has never been an easy job. In many ways, it’s more difficult now than it ever has been. Ask anyone who does it, and they’ll probably tell you the same thing. Drawing a sizable crowd, getting a positive reception, and making decent money are all very difficult. On a given night, I typically settle for one or two out of three. Three out of three is a rare and beautiful thing.

I don’t mind admitting this. My days of PR gloss are behind me. “Greg Parker is tearing up the Southeastern U.S., playing to hordes of adoring fans at every venue. His collection of female undergarments, thrown onstage after every crowd-pleasing number, is growing exponentially. His collection of Victoria’s Secret D-cup brassieres might be the largest known to man.” It was always kind of a slightly overstated, half-hearted effort anyway, that PR gloss.

This past fall I played about 15-20 dates both at home and on the road. My most taxing evening was the night of Nov. 11 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Chapel Hill is a small but very active college town in the middle of the state for those of you from other parts of the world. It is the home of the University of North Carolina, and is a town very much like Athens, Georgia, only it's an even smaller town with an equally large land-grant institution.

I was coming to North Carolina to play two dates - one at a club in Chapel Hill that shall remain nameless, and another the next night at Puckett's Farm Equipment in Charlotte, which at one time was actually an old tractor store, and is now a bar and live music venue.

This was during the height of the gas price surge, when gas hovered around $3 a gallon. Nashville, my home base, is about nine hours away from Chapel Hill, so I drove into Knoxville (my home town) the previous night and stayed with my folks, then left at eight the following morning. From there, I went on to Boiling Springs, NC for a radio appearance at a little college station about 40 miles west of Charlotte, and finally onto Chapel Hill.

The fun begins when I arrive at my motel room in Durham, home of Duke University, and about 15 miles from Chapel Hill, at about 6 p.m. The traffic once I get off the interstate is ungodly. Even though the motel is maybe a quarter-mile from the exit, it’s hidden from the main road, and it takes me about 30 minutes of driving back and forth and waiting in traffic to find it and pull in. It’s a seedy establishment, too; not the kind that puts your mind at ease.

My set begins at 7:30. So much for eating dinner. I quickly change into my usual stage wear (a shirt and tie, black pants, shiny black shoes), grab my stuff, and head out. It only takes 10 minutes to get back on the interstate this time, but about an hour to

get to a town 15 miles away. Once I’m in Chapel Hill, the Mapquest directions I have are, as always, wrong. I call the club on my cell phone after ending up on a gravel road (?!) to ask them where the hell they’re at.

No one is answering the phone.

Chapel Hill, though filled with busy people enjoying their Friday night, is tiny, I think to myself, and this club should not be so difficult to find. I find the main drag, and after 10 or 15 more minutes of fighting through traffic and asking someone at a red light where the club is, I find it on my right.

What I don’t find, however, is a place to park. I ride around on that main drag, criss-crossing side streets, driving through a couple of parking lots. I do this for another 20 minutes, and finally a spot opens on the street just a block from the club. Alas. It is now about 7:25 and I’m supposed to go on in five minutes. I don’t expect there to be an anxious throng to see my first Chapel Hill performance, so it shouldn’t be any big problem.

Well, I was right on the first part – no anxious throng, not many people around at all actually. I wait by the bar for someone from the venue to either help me set up, say hello, look at me, something. The only guy I see manning the place is the bartender, and he seems more interested in moving bottles around and pondering his existential malaise than acknowledging my inconsequential presence. I don’t figure him to be the guy who booked me to play here. Instead, I figure him to be about 30, probably a former grad school student, possibly a current one, with a complicated and at times surly disposition. With me he chose to be surly, and as unhelpful as possible.

Patiently, I let him acknowledge me first, per my custom. This takes several minutes. Again, there are maybe six people in the room, no one particularly eager to talk to him other than myself.

“So you’re Greg Lewis…Greg…something?” He says this like he couldn’t be less concerned with what my name is.

“Greg Parker.” I didn’t think this was a very endearing introduction.

“OK, whatever, I knew it was something like that. Go ahead and fill this out, club dues are a dollar, we’ll give you a card, and you show the card when you come in and you can order drinks.” He walks away.

The likelihood of me coming back to this club at some point in the future and ordering drinks with this card, which I must actually pay for with scarce American currency, seemed rather remote. Unfazed, I go ahead and fill out the little membership form (apparently the club owner took the word “club” a little too literally) and pay my dollar. The barkeep shows greater quickness in taking my completed application, and went on his way again, telling me that I can go over to the stage and get set up.

At this point the smoke is wreaking havoc with my eyes, as is typical when I’m exhausted and in a smoky bar. I go over to the stage, find a mic, but no cable. I go back to the bar, stand there for a bit, and am again ignored for some time as the bartender shuffles bottles around, looking busier than he actually is.

“Excuse me, if you can tear yourself away from those bottles for a minute…”

“Bear will be with you shortly,” he says in a very curt, final tone. Bear was the guy who booked me.

Our lives would have both been easier if the bartender had told me at the beginning that Bear was there and would help me get set up, but some of us prefer to do things the hard way.

I go and sit down at the piano bench on the stage. I wish I knew how to play the piano, I think to myself. I would just do my whole set sitting right here; I wouldn’t need any damn slacker bartender or Bear or anybody else. I’d just belt out all these songs just like I was at an old broken-down lounge with no PA, only a fun-loving audience who came to be entertained. Ah, to be born 50 or 70 years earlier.

Finally, Bear makes his appearance and I snap back into my unfortunate reality. He gives me a mic cable; the minimal amount of assistance I need to do my thing. Thanks Bear, I appreciate it. With that I am ready to sing my song for six people.

I need a glass of water. Bad. But I’d be damned if I was going to ask that bartender for it. During my third song, it seems that all the water that is supposed to be in my throat is coming out of my sandpaper eyes. I am literally crying tears like I am singing the saddest George Jones song in history, a song that makes “He Stopped Loving Her Today” sound like a nursery rhyme. At this point I think there is maybe one patron, kind of in the back, listening. He got up and walked away, looking embarrassed for me.

I manage to get through the song and wipe my eyes. Now I am playing for the bartender and the bartender only. The natural thing for me to do at this point would have been to stop, get a glass of water, maybe wait and see if a crowd shows up. But I keep playing. Maybe this guy hates ballads, I thought. So I play a bunch of sad, slow ballads. Then I see a sign on the wall that says “NO COVER SONGS.” So I start singing cover songs.

After about 20 minutes of this a new crowd began to form. About 20 or 30 new faces wandered in. And a new bartender. Apparently my old pal has a foot spa treatment at nine o’clock. Among these new faces is a youngish couple who immediately shows a strong interest in what I’m doing. Go figure. The new bartender passes a hat around a couple of times. I finally finish my set at about 9:30. I count up the change; 40 bucks. Not bad, considering the circumstances. I’ve had painless shows where I only made 20. I sell a couple of CDs, and now I’ve paid for my motel room. At least I’ll be able to pay for one expenditure from this.

So the youngish couple comes up and talks to me. The lady is the real dynamo of the two. Lots of personality, lots to say, very strong vocal chords that can be heard a good distance away. She tells me she’s a Ph.D. student at UNC. Hopefully she’ll pass out earplugs before her dissertation.

At one point fairly early in the conversation, I mention that I’m also a writer and I’m looking to pursue that a bit more proactively. She says, “Well, you know, you should just start a tour diary, and when you have time during the day, just smoke some pot and write about your shows.” (Oh, the irony.)

I guess I gave her a strange look. “You don’t smoke pot, do you?”

“No, I don’t actually.” Big deal, I don’t smoke pot. It doesn’t mean that I’m a bad person. I still do all the things that normal people do. I just do them without hallucinating.

I’m not sure she really believed me, or thought this was open to some kind of negotiation, because she and her husband decided they wanted to hang out with me that evening, and pot kept coming up.

“We can go back to our place. We just live down the street, and we can order a pizza, and smoke this really good weed that I’ve got…”

“I am really hungry, and thirsty, but I still don’t smoke pot. That hasn’t changed in the last 10 minutes.”

“Let’s order drinks.”

So they order drinks, they order me a shot of whiskey, I drink it. This is quickly followed by beer. I haven’t eaten since one in the afternoon. I have the tolerance of a Chihuahua. If I drink this beer, making it back to my motel room any time soon will become very difficult. I must have an exit strategy. This, like the war in Iraq, is a dire circumstance. I nurse the beer like it’s a newborn baby.

Things are starting to get ugly. The lady is getting surly. Her husband is placating her. I’m talking to the guy who got embarrassed for me when I had tears running out of my eyes in the first part of my set. He’s a nice kid, and not immensely difficult like others in this narrative. She’s getting mad that I’m talking to this kid instead of to them. She’s getting mad that I won’t smoke pot and calling me a square. This is probably true.

I’m still talking to this perfectly well-adjusted gentleman when the lady comes back with this very fancy looking beer. She takes a couple of sips of it and says, “You’ve got to try this.” Maybe it’s a peace offering. Against my better judgment, I take a sip. It is the best beer I’ve ever tasted, smooth as velvet. “It’s from France.”

I want to go to France. Or Mars.

The lady’s behavior is getting more erratic, but I feel stuck. And I am. Thanks to the beer I still manage to drink too quickly, I cannot operate a motor vehicle in this condition. I am, however, hungry, and they are leaving to get something to eat. So out of kindness, obligation, or both, I come along.

As we’re walking out of the bar, my head spinning, the lady turns around with the fancy French beer still in her hand. “Here, hold this.” She gives me the beer.

Why I chose this day to be the most acquiescent pushover in Chapel Hill, NC is beyond me, but I did, and I held the beer, putting it in the pocket of my coat. In my defense, I was caught off guard by this, but shouldn’t I have been on guard by now? Meanwhile, the lady is digging in her purse, seemingly looking for the proverbial tunnel route to China. I get impatient and give her beer back to her. She gives it back to her husband. He gets impatient and gives it back to her. She sets it down in a bush. I thought she was going to throw it in a parking lot. This is good, she’s maintaining some semblance of self-control, or so I thought.

A few blocks later, she finds her lost treasure, a joint, and lights up as we’re walking down the street, telling us that it looks enough like a cigarette for us not to get our asses hauled to the clink.

“C’mon, take a hit, it’s really good.”

“No thanks.”

“You are such a square.”

“No shit.”

Luckily this is not a main thoroughfare, with only a few other souls passing by on foot, so the square feels safe given the circumstances. We finally get to a busy intersection, and she thinks for a minute about keeping the joint lit, but thinks better of it and puts it out. Meanwhile, she is getting EVEN LOUDER.

We walk all the way to another town, Carrboro, and eat at one of the last eateries open at 10:30. We take a seat at the bar and we all order water. Apparently the square is winning. Not to be outdone, the lady is talking very loudly and saying “fuck” about every fourth word. This is getting no small amount of attention. Luckily, we gentlemen are behaving ourselves; otherwise we’d be history, and history without dinner. We finally get that dinner, mine a warm chicken sandwich, and the lady wants to order drinks.

“Can we get a drink menu?”

“I think you’ve had quite enough tonight,” says the lady bartender, quite put out with the prodigious mouth of her patron.

I thought that this was going to be the climax of my evening, the moment where all the little misadventures that led up to this would culminate in some defining catastrophe. Maybe it would come in the form of livid insults, tossed chairs, broken glass – whatever it was, I was ready.

But so, too, was the bartender, an old pro. Again, our lady, though obviously unhappy, kept control, and even lowered her voice to talk about what a fucking bitch this fucking bartender was. We finished our fucking dinner, and the couple left before me. As I walked out the door, I looked at the bartender with a sense of camaraderie and shared triumph, and we just shook our heads, both thankful that, by some force of grace, we could both end our evenings in peace.

I played a writer’s night here in Nashville recently with a guy who has played a lot more road dates than I have. He said that he read about his heroes growing up and what they did on the road, and thought his touring career would be one long party, with lots of adoring fans, free liquor, free drugs, and eager women. Needless to say, this hasn’t worked out quite the way he had envisioned.

I know where he can score some weed in Chapel Hill though…