We wore shoulder pads back then, in public no less, and posed for stock photos with weapons that didn’t work and everyday cowboy boots that did—with nary a thought of how funny-turned that would look a decade on or ten. The cool thing about throwback Thursdays now is that I get to drag out the old photos and stories just for fun. It didn’t feel fun at the time; it felt like work.
Alone in a town a long way from home, with my children abducted and me needing money to bring them back, I played honkytonk piano with a band called South Pass in those days, just four guys and me, each of us pulling down a couple hundred a gig when it was good, and big-shouldered western clothes were de rigueur for those smoky old saloons. We donned black leather every Friday and that raised the roof.
In towns like Jackson, at the Virginian or Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, we could play eclectic from the get-go, but in little one-horse towns out in the sticks of Wyoming or Montana, we knew better than that and went easy on the locals’ ears till they’d grown used to the sight of us sidling alongside their conversations and celebrations and flirtations and leave-takings and libations.
In their stomping grounds, we’d start out every night dead-center of country-western, but by midnight it was safe to go rockabilly and by the last set we were burnin’ down the walls with blues and hard down rock ‘n roll that all the patrons were too drunk to object to by then or care about (or possibly hear) anymore. Last call would go down in a sad Van Zandt tune like “Pancho and Lefty” (‘And all the federales say, they could’ve had him any day, they only let him slip away, out of kindness I suppose’) and then a signature original, then we’d pull on Sorel packs and down overcoats and go striding down streets flanked by snow piled to rooftops and beyond in the deep frozen winter (or eerily empty and silent on the two days that pass for summer in those parts), easing down to the closest greasy spoon for huevos rancheros and two pots of black coffee and a run-through of the night’s line-ups and the next until the sun came up and it was time for me to head on to work. If we were at an out-of-town run, the guys would make sure I was safe to my room and no groupies were hanging about, and then they’d retire for the alcohol and kickups they craved and I avoided and whatever else four guys do when not accompanied by a woman who’s never had a nickel’s use for parties. I was young then, and it was a fine job. I didn’t know the world was broken for good for me and would never go back together, no matter how much money I made or how many nights I gave over to the task.
We live forward, too fast sometimes to register the songs of our lives. It’s only a long time hence, when the reckonings have all come back home to roost, that we begin to listen for what we were missing on the way through. I can still sometimes hear the old licks when the lights go out on any small rural town in the west. I can still tickle a keyboard and bring myself to tears with four-part harmony and a stout bass. I can break out of steely-woman piano mode and land on the dance floor for Slap Leather or the Montana Slide and remember bringing down the house with that move on some of those Friday nights. (Who knew a piano player could stir up a crowd to do more dancing and less drinking just by deserting her post for a spell and dancing out the helplessness within?) South Pass, indeed. It was a kind time for me among strangers, and the music still lives—within me and far beyond. I like that it’ll still be knocking about here when I’m gone.