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Travis Starnes



Country Roads III












Travis Starnes

Table of Contents


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

About The Author

Other Books





This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.




Country Roads III

Copyright © 2023 by Travis Starnes


All Rights Reserved


ISBN 978-1-960747-00-6




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Chapter 1

I was running late, as usual. 


Ever since I signed my music contract, my life seemed to be speeding up to the point where I couldn’t really control it anymore. There were times I almost missed being just a high school student who played music on the weekends.


Here it was, the beginning of summer, and I had spent the last two weeks either on phone calls with my new manager or someone from the label, working on new songs and practicing the ones we already had with the band, or sleeping.


It wasn’t all bad. I did get to spend every day working on music, which was my favorite thing in the world. Plus, my two best friends, Hanna Phillips and Kathrine Moore, were there with me every day, so it wasn’t like my life was on hold or anything. I just think I’d like to have a little time to sit on a porch with my friends and bullshit, instead of always having to constantly prepare for the next thing.


“Bye Mom,” I said as I rushed through the kitchen of our small trailer on my way out the door.


“Not so fast,” she said, her tone pulling me up sharp.


“I’m running late. I’m supposed to be at Mr. French’s in fifteen-minutes for rehearsals. You know we have to be in Raleigh to start recording in like ten days, and we’re not even close to being ready.”


“You still have time to eat breakfast. I called to check in yesterday and Hanna told me you had the band play through lunch yesterday and the day before, and she’s just as worried about you as I am. You need to eat something if you’re going to have the energy to keep up with this pace. Besides, we’ve barely said two words to each other all week, and I want to hear how things are going.”


I looked at the table, back to the door, then went and sat down. I was running late, but that’s because I liked to be there the whole time the band was setting up. Partly because I liked everyone and enjoyed spending time with them, but mostly because I felt it was my responsibility. Although I’d made sure we all got paid the same, the actual contract had been made in my name alone, with the stipulation that I could include them in any project. I didn’t want them to think just because my name was the one on the contract that I somehow thought I was above doing the work of setting things up or taking stuff down. I knew they didn’t think that, or at least I think they didn’t, but that didn’t keep my inner paranoia from worrying that I might give them any indication that I thought I was somehow better than the rest of them.


I could eat quickly and still make it there before they’d gotten very far in setting up. During the year we’d set up in the Blue Ridge, a restaurant and bar we’d been playing at since the beginning of spring, to practice in the afternoon between the lunch and dinner rushes, but we’d had to move once we decided to get more intensive. Chef, my mentor and the reason I’d been able to get my start in music in the first place, still had to serve lunch, which meant we’d had to find a new place to practice. The whole band had agreed that we needed as much time as we could get before we headed to Raleigh to record our first record. Thankfully, my high school choir teacher, Mr. French, who was also one of my other mentors, had a garage he didn’t mind us using as long as we took our instruments with us when we were done, so he could park his car in it again.


“It’s going okay. We’ve got enough songs to fill an album plus a few extras, just in case the studio says there are some they want to cut, but we’re not ready to do them for real yet. Mr. French keeps saying that’s what a producer will help us do, tighten up the songs and get them radio-ready, but I want them as tight as we can make them before we show up.”


“Just be careful you aren’t trying to overdo it. Your father used to say being a perfectionist was the main reason he never made it big.”


“Was this before or after he stabbed someone in a bar,” I said, my tone going flat the way it did anytime he came up in conversation.


“Don’t be like that Charlie. I know you’re mad at him, and you know I feel the same, but when it came to the music business, he did know what he was talking about. He was the one who taught you how to play the guitar.”


“In between bouts of drinking, sure. And then he went and stabbed a guy, went to jail, and left us drifting in the wind, with you having to hold down two full-time jobs just to keep our bills paid.”


“All of which is beside the point. I think he was right about trying to do too much or trying make the music too perfect. There’s a point you take the energy out of it. One of the things people love about your music is the way it makes them feel. You have to make sure you don’t lose that. Has Mr. French had anything to say about it?”


“Uhhh … no,” I said, lying.


She gave me a look and I said, “Okay, yes. He said something very similar. He thought we might be fine-tuning Country Roads a little too much.


“See. If you don’t want to listen to your dear old mother, listen to him. I know you’re excited. I just want to make sure you keep your head on straight and make good decisions.”


“I will,” I said, and saw an opportunity for something I’d been putting off for several days. “Thinking of making good decisions, I actually have something to ask you.”


Mom gave me one of her patented stares, clearly seeing through my charade. I was, however, already too far in to back out now.


“You remember how well spring break went? Where we got through the week meeting all of our obligations and made it back home, safe and sound with no one ending up in jail?”


“Yes, although I’d suggest that’s a pretty low bar for success.”


“Well, most of that trip Hanna was the only person over eighteen years old. I was thinking …”


“No. I told you someone would have to be there to chaperone everything, and I meant it.”


“I get it, and I understand why you’d insist on that, but we’ve tried everyone. You have to work and can’t disappear for two months, Mr. French has summer school, Chef has the restaurant, and Mrs. Phillips has to work … I could keep going, but you get the point. Two months is a long time and there’s no one that can take that much time off. This is my one big chance, and I don’t want to blow it. We can’t tell them ‘ohh, we need to postpone till we can find a chaperone.’ We agreed to all of this when we signed the contract, and it’s not like I will be constantly unsupervised. While we’re in the studio, I’ll be staying at Hanna’s aunt’s house with Hanna and Kat and once we’re on the road, we’re going to be so busy I won’t have time to get into trouble. Besides, we’ll have the manager the label is assigning to us, so there will be another adult present. I just need someone we trust to sign documents for me and check us into hotels and stuff. We don’t know this manager, but we do know Hanna and I trust her.”


“I don’t want it to sound like I don’t trust you, but you’re sixteen. I know what these clubs are like and what kind of things goes on backstage. You know your father …”


“Is nothing like me. Do I drink? No. Do I do drugs? No. I saw what that sh… uhh, stuff did to him, and I’m not going to become a drunk like him. I’m there for the music, and it’s all I want. You let us go to Raleigh and the beach for a week, and everything was fine. You didn’t get one call that something bad had happened. Sure, I sometimes make bad decisions, but not about this kind of thing. I need you to trust me.”


Mom looked at me hard, weighing the decision.


For a second, I thought she was going to still say no, which would basically end my chances to get my fledgling music career off the ground, until she finally sighed and said, “Okay.”




“Yes. But … I expect a check-in call every single day. I am trusting you here. Remember you still have two more years of being a minor and needing my permission to go off and do these things. School comes first, and anything you do that will get in the way of finishing school will get this all shut down. I know this is your dream, but you’re still very young and I won’t let you sacrifice your future. You can always make another go of it when you’re older.”


I put down my fork and hugged her hard, “Thank you. Thank you. I promise, I won’t let you down.”


She kissed me on the forehead and then held me out at arm’s length, a much less stern expression on her face.


“You’re a good kid, Charlie. Don’t let all of this stuff go to your head. Remember who you are and where you came from, and you’ll be okay.”


“I will. I also really have to go,” I said, looking at the door to the trailer.


Mom looked over at my plate, which apparently met with her approval, because she let go of me and said, “Go.”


I hugged her again and was out the door.


“Look who decided to join us,” Marco said as I walked into Mr. French’s garage.


I flipped him off, causing him to laugh. Although we’d been practicing nearly every weekend for months, this last week we’d spent almost every waking hour together practicing and writing music, and it had really started to bring us together.


“Sorry, my mom wanted to talk to me,” I said, putting my guitar on its stand and plugging it up to the amps they’d already set up.


“Did you ask her?” Hanna said, stopping her work setting up Seth’s drum kit.


“Yep. She said okay, although I have to check in with her every day.”


“Yes,” Hanna said, pumping her fist.


“Sweet,” Kat added. “This summer is going to be so great.”


“Just remember we’re there to work. I want this album to be really good and the number of shows we have scheduled is pretty intense.”


“We can play a little though, right?” Lyla asked.


Lyla was our bass player and a notorious hound dog. In the four months I’d known her, I’d counted six women who’d reached the level of girlfriend, plus mentions of numerous other one-night stands. She liked to party hard.


“Sure, as long as we keep our eye on the prize. If we’re going out until late every night, we won’t be able to do what we need to do in the studio. This is our one chance, guys.”


“She’s joking,” Marco said, and then paused, giving Lyla a side-eye. “Probably.”


Lyla followed my lead and flipped him off.


“Okay, so where were we,” Seth asked, sitting down behind his now assembled drum kit.


“I was thinking about what Mr. French said last night when we were packing up. I think we’ve made too many changes to Country Roads. Can we go through it a few times like it was, dropping the harder sound we tried to add?”


No one objected, so we went back to the way we’d been playing it on weekends at the Blue Ridge, the restaurant and bar where I got my start. Hearing the song as we had originally played it, I realized that Mr. French was right. I wasn’t sure how we’d actually ended up with the higher intensity, more poppy version of the song by the end of the day yesterday. Maybe it had been the incremental changes that made it hard to notice, but hearing it now versus what we were playing the night before, the difference was stark.


Country Roads was about finding yourself through adversity and finding the people to help you discover yourself, and it worked much better as a slower song. Too slow would have been just as bad, so a ballad wouldn’t have ever worked, but it was definitely more at home as pop-country rather than something harder.


“You’re right,” Hanna said. “I like that a lot better.”


“Really? I still like the new version more,” Marco said.


“I agree with Hanna,” Lyla said, giving Hanna a wink.


Lyla knew Hanna was straight, but she enjoyed teasing her, since she was guaranteed a reaction every time. As if on cue, Hanna frowned and gave Lyla a look telling her to knock it off.


“Seriously though, it fits the lyrics more this way. It just doesn’t work as well when we upped the tempo.”


“Shouldn’t we keep our eye on what we want the record to be, though? Right now, it’s all over the place. We’ve got pop sounds, country sounds, and rock sounds. People are going to be confused as hell by this thing.”


“We should,” I said. “But we shouldn’t choose marketing at the expense of the music. Besides, there are a lot of albums where the sound changes. Look at Sonic Generation. It’s mostly pop/dance stuff, but they have some slower ballads on there, and it works. They’ve even got that one song that has no synth in it at all, which for them is a miracle, and they’re still the second bestselling album right now. People like good music. As long as we get the songs in the right order, it’ll work.”


“I still think our stuff is all over the place,” Marco said, a little unhappy that no one was taking his side.


“My suggestion is to look at each song as it is, and get it to the place you’re happiest with,” Hanna said. “Worry about the rest of it next week when we get into the studio. Your producer will help put that together in a way that makes sense as a complete sound and will have suggestions for you. I mean, the studio’s taking more of each record than you guys get, so make them earn their pay.”


“I guess,” Marco said, but everyone else nodded their agreement, which meant he was outvoted.


We played for three hours, making sure we took the time to go back and look at the changes we’d made so far, just in case we’d gone too far on more than just Country Roads. Thankfully, most of the changes had been positive and aside from Country Roads, we only had to roll back one change to Hush


“So, are you guys all set for next week?” I asked as we took a break to eat lunch.


“Yep,” Seth said. “We found an apartment we can sublet for one month, since the owner was moving and still had a month left on their lease. It’s for longer than we actually need it, but it’s way cheaper than staying in a hotel.”


“All three of you are staying there?” Kat asked.


“Yep. It’s a one-bedroom, so it’ll be cramped, but I figure we’ll be at the studio most of the time, so it won’t matter.”


“Who gets the bedroom?” I asked.


“She does,” Marco said, jerking his thumb at Lyla. “They agreed to leave two couches behind if we throw them out when we were done, so we’ll both be sleeping on the couches.”


“Lucky her,” Kat said. “Why don’t the guys share the bedroom and Lyla sleep out on the couch?”


“Because I’m the only one likely to get lucky while we’re there,” Lyla said with a grin.


She wasn’t wrong. Lyla had just broken up with her latest conquest/girlfriend, so she’d be on the prowl again, and we’d all seen her success ratio, even in smaller towns like Wellsville.


I was about to make some kind of snide comment when Mr. French walked into the garage, pulling everyone’s attention.


“Hey,” I said. “I thought you were getting ready for summer school.”


“I was, but I have some really exciting news that I couldn’t wait to share,” he said.


I was about to ask what that was, when Rowan walked into the garage behind him.


Rowan was an up-and-coming producer who’d already worked on some big-name projects, including Hanna’s favorite singer Linda Chapman’s newest album. He and Mr. French were old friends, and he’d helped me a few times, giving me pointers when he was in town visiting. He’d also been instrumental in getting me my record contract. On top of all of that, he was a really great guy, so I was happy about the unexpected visit.


“Hey,” I said, hopping up and shaking his hand. “What are you doing here? Last I heard you were still in L.A. working on House of Grace’s newest release.”


“We finished up on Friday. I called Kevin to find out about your progress, and we got to talking about your upcoming recording session, and he pointed out that I was kind of at loose ends, since the gig I had coming up got rescheduled. He thought maybe I should think about coming out here and seeing if you wanted me to work on your record, since I was available.”


“That’d be awesome,” I said, and then stopped to think about the offer. “But would the studio pay your rates? I mean, from what I’ve read on the internet recently, you’re becoming the go-to guy for some really big names, and this is my first record. I’d hate for you to take a pay cut just to help me out.”


“I was thinking I’d tell them I’d be willing to take union minimums with a little more on the back end, as long as they gave us creative freedom and I didn’t get notes from the label execs.”


“I couldn’t ask you to do that. I read an article in Drumbeat last week that says you might be up for a Grammy this year, after your work on Linda’s album. That kind of buzz has to make you really sought after. Hell, you probably have groups offering to back dump trucks full of money at your front door to get you to come work for them.”


Although there were a lot of magazines that covered music, Drumbeat was the one that looked the most at the actual industry instead of just the music it produced. I’d started reading it around the time Mr. French told me about the possibility of getting a record label scout out to see us play, and I’d kept reading it after I got my contract.


While most of the stuff in it didn’t really apply to me, at least not yet, I wanted to keep up on what was happening in the industry. My current contract might have been small and the promised marketing only regional, but I want this to be just the start of my music career, and I wanted to be ready when I took that next leap.


“I’m not sure about dump trucks, but yeah, Afterlife is doing really well. But you’ll notice I offered to produce the record for you. You didn’t ask. If a record sells well, the back end is always worth a lot more than whatever upfront payments are made, and it also means less risk on the labels part, as long as the percentage isn’t too high. You’re a rare talent Charlie, and I’m willing to bet my money, or at least what I could otherwise be paid upfront, that one day you’re going to hit it big and people will be out there looking for your ‘old stuff.’ So, while I think you’re great and I’d love to work with you, this isn’t charity or a favor. I think, long term, this kind of thing will make me a mint.”


“Well, when you put it like that, how could I say no? What do you think guys?” I said, looking over at my bandmates.


Even though most of the deals were in my name, I really wanted to make sure the other three were included in every decision and got an equal share of everything. The record label might think of me as the frontman or whatever, but I knew how invaluable having my bandmates with me was, and that my music would suck if they didn’t help me shape it into what it finally became.


Seth and Marco kind of mumbled their agreement. Both of them had gone dead silent when Rowan had walked in the door, a little awed that a guy they’d seen on red carpets at the Grammys was standing in the garage we were using to practice. I’d had the luxury of meeting him informally and even spending time with him before I really knew who he was, so for me, he was just Mr. French’s friend who offered me pointers and tips. Even though they’d met him briefly once before, they’d both been too awed to really say much. It hadn’t helped that he’d been there with Linda Chapman and the two had arranged a music scout, who through a series of unexpected events we had missed playing an audition for, to come back out and hear us.


Lyla was, as always, the exception.


“That’d be bitchin’,” she said with a grin.


Rowan didn’t really know her, since they only ever met the one time, but he took her in stride. I was pretty sure he had no idea what he was in for.


“I guess that settles it. If the studio agrees, we’d love to have you. I haven’t really talked to our new manager they assigned us yet, so I don’t really know who I should call or talk to about setting that up, though.”


“Don’t worry about that part. Your rep and your manager are going to be two different people, and since they both are being assigned to you from the label, you probably won’t meet your manager until right before you head out to tour. Either way, neither of them has the ability to make any agreements. I know the people I need to actually talk to for anything to happen. I’ll take care of that part.”


“That’s great. I’m still a little lost in dealing with all this stuff. I really appreciate the offer to help and I promise we’ll try and live up to your expectations.”


“It’s no problem, and I have no doubt you will. You know, I was talking to Linda on the plane ride back, after we heard you all play, and she made a comment about a part of one of your songs she really liked. I realized that what she was talking about was one of the suggestions I’d given you early on, that you’d run with and made your own. The way you both took the suggestion and found a way to to it and still sound like yourselves instead blindly just doing what I said was one of the reasons I really want to work with you for real. It’s hard to find talent, but it’s even harder to find someone able to actually take advice and criticism and turn it into a workable project. As long as you keep doing that, I think everything will work out.”


“I will,” I said.


Chapter 2

Friday I was getting a late start again, but this time on purpose. We had our first meeting with our studio rep, who wanted to come out and see us before we met him at the studio next week.


Although we’d been working out of Mr. French’s garage, this kind of meeting needed something more formal as a setting, which is why we were doing it at the Blue Ridge. While not formal, it was several steps above a high school teacher’s garage, especially in summer in the south, when we all felt like we might melt even with the garage door wide open.


Since he’d scheduled it for the middle of the afternoon, so we could use the dining room without bothering, or being bothered, by the normal lunch crowd, and take the morning off because none of us felt like setting up our equipment for practice just to break it all down a few hours later to make it to the meeting.


I will admit, it was nice to get to sleep in for the first time since just after school got out, and we signed the contract. I didn’t get up until lunchtime, and only then because the phone was ringing. Mom had already left for work, and we’d given the label our home number, since anything official had to go through Mom, because I was a minor. With the meeting coming up, there was always a chance that it was something about that, so I couldn’t just roll over and ignore it.


“Hello?” I said after stumbling into the way too bright front room to answer the phone.


“Did I wake you up? It’s practically lunchtime?”


“Victor?” I asked, recognizing his voice.


“Yes. Everything okay? You’re not sick or anything, are you?”


“I’m fine. I just had a chance to sleep in for the first time since school got out, or at least I did until I was rudely woken up by the phone.”


“My heart bleeds for you,” he said, his voice sounding anything but sorry. “I heard through the grapevine that you were going to be out here next week.”


“This grapevine wouldn’t own a restaurant and practice martial arts, would it?”


“It does. It also said you shouldn’t slack-up on your training just because you’re going to be out of town all summer.”


I don’t know why I didn’t suspect this sooner. Chef had been really supportive of my success, to the point that I didn’t question it when he didn’t even bring up the fact that I was going to miss training all summer. He’d been teaching me self-defense, mixed martial arts, and kung fu since the end of last summer and, except for a few days off here or there for injuries or something school or family related, I hadn’t missed any training. Even when I did have to miss for something unavoidable, he’d made sure I did double the next time we worked out. Why I somehow thought he’d just let me go for three months with no training after all of that, was beyond me; but I hadn’t even questioned it.


“I’m going to be really busy,” I said.


It wasn’t that I didn’t want to train. I mean, I enjoyed it when I was doing it and it had saved my butt multiple times over the last year. But I also had my literal dreams on the line, and I didn’t want anything to get in the way of making this work. 


“I know, and I’m not asking for a major commitment. Chef put me in contact with one of your teachers, whose garage I think you’ve been practicing in, so I could get an idea of how much free time you’ll have. Apparently, while you will all be working very hard, you’re only allotted so much studio time each day, since there are other people also needing the space. Yesterday, he said he should be able to give me your producers’ number and would let him know to expect a call about working with your schedule.”


All I could do was shake my head. Victor was the hatchet man, but I could feel Chef’s fingers in this. If I had to bet, he’d be the one actually making the calls and working things out. Chef had a way of dealing with people that always ended up with him getting what he wanted.


“I’m not getting out of this, am I?” I asked.


I’d put enough surrender in my voice to try and make him feel guilty. Although it would have never worked on either Mom or Chef, Victor was in his twenties without a long track record of dealing with teenagers. From the long pause after my question, my ploy at teen angst seemed to be working.


“Look, we both know who’s the driving force behind this. When I get off the phone with you, I have to call Chef and report in. If you honestly tell me you don’t have time, I’ll cover for you, but stop and think about it first. You’ve made some serious progress and worked really hard at this all year. You’re going to be really surprised what almost three months off is going to do to your conditioning and form. Your dedication to this so far is why you’ve done so well.”


“I get that, and while I love it, I’m not sure this is something I want to dedicate my life to. Chef talked me into going to a competition a few months ago, and honestly, it was a huge mistake. Looking back on it, I could have been seriously hurt; or worse, seriously hurt my hand. I’m on the edge of something really amazing here, and I don’t want to jeopardize it following someone else’s dream.”


“Then don’t spar or compete. Chef will push you as far as he can because he wants you to be the best you can be, but he understands this isn’t going to be everyone’s life. Hell, he’s heard you play, so he knows it’s not going to be yours. Long run, though, even if you only train and do some light sparring just in training, it’ll still be worth it. I don’t mean for actual fighting, although with your track record I wouldn’t put that off as unimportant, but in just your mental and physical health. Honestly, how do you feel now, compared to how you felt a year ago?”


“Good,” I said.


That was an understatement. I felt the best I’d ever felt in my life, at least physically. It had been the most evident when I was playing baseball last semester. I’d always enjoyed playing ball, but I hadn’t been nearly as good as I was last semester. Part of that was having real coaching instead of just playing pickup games, but a big part of it was being in much better physical shape than I’d been in, before.


It was also a big help on the stage every Friday and Saturday night, since it could get pretty grueling playing guitar and singing at full energy for multiple hours. If these same opportunities had come up a year ago, I might not have been able to keep it up and perform at the same level the whole time.


“So don’t lose what you’ve built up. Let’s just try it and see how it goes, okay?”


He was right, but I still didn’t love that I was being manipulated. Chef was almost like a father, or at least a father figure, to me and one of the reasons I’d managed to get the opportunities I had right now, but I hated the way he’d sometimes manipulate people. I know a lot of that is from working with teens and young adults who had bad home lives or were resistant to doing things they should, but he knew me well enough to know he could have just sat me down and talked to me about this like Victor was.


Someday soon, we were going to have to sit down and have a discussion about his little games.


“Okay, fine. Let’s schedule times for me to come work out with you. If it starts getting in the way, though, I’m going to shut it down.”


“Which you should. I’m glad you’re giving it a chance. I know music is your thing, but you’ve got a natural talent for martial arts. It would be a shame to waste it.”


We said our goodbyes and hung up. I didn’t say anything to him, partly because his ego was already big enough and partly because I didn’t want Victor to think I approved in any way of his playing a part in Chef’s game, but I was looking forward to seeing him. Training with Chef was great, but I really enjoyed getting a different perspective on things. For one, Chef mostly sat on the sides and instructed, while Victor would get in and actually show me what I was doing wrong, which usually made it a whole lot easier to figure out what a given move should look like.


They also both had very different outlooks on life that made their training feel so much different. Besides, Victor was a lot closer to my age. Even if he was a decade older, I enjoyed hanging out with him.


I decided to go ahead and get my day started since I was already up. Now that I wasn’t groggy and was over my dealing with Chef and Victor, I was starting to get excited about today. We had the contract and had been practicing, but meeting the studio rep and going over the plan for next week was the first real step towards us recording our first album, which was still blowing my mind.


Kat had swim practice, so it was only Hanna and I riding over to the Blue Ridge. She must have been pretty excited too, because she was standing in her back yard, waiting for me as I came across the creek and small wooded area that separate the trailer park from her subdivision.


We were the first ones there, but the rest of the band arrived shortly after, although they were driving the hour back and forth between Wellsville and Ashville every day.


The studio rep, however, was almost an hour late, to the point I started wondering if I should call Rowan to find out what we should do. I couldn’t really call the label since we didn’t have a contact yet. We wouldn’t meet the manager they were assigning us until the tour and the guy who’d come here last month to negotiate my contract had just been a lawyer with the label and wasn’t involved in the day-to-day activities. The guy we were meeting today would be our actual point of contact if we needed something that our manager, when we finally met him, couldn’t take care of.


Right about the time I was starting to decide I really did need to call Rowan, a guy walked through the doors of the Blue Ridge looking enough out of place that he had to be from the label.


While I would have thought a music label out of Nashville would have been country-focused, or at least southern, everyone I had met so far seemed straight out of central casting in New York Cityor Los Angeles, and none seemed particularly comfortable with the way things were done in the south.


Here, even most of the rich people dressed mostly casual and it wasn’t uncommon to see boots with a suit. Guys wearing highly polished shoes and light blue, pin-striped suits with hair that looked to have a gallon of some kind of gel in it looked wildly out of place.


“Which one of you kids is Charlie,” He asked, coming up to us.


I did not love being called kids. Admittedly, Chef was in the kitchen so the oldest person in the empty dining area was twenty-four, but this guy couldn’t have been a year or two more than thirty and had a condescending tone that instantly set me the wrong way.


“I’m Charlie,” I said, trying, and failing, to keep the annoyance out of my voice.


Hanna, who knew me well enough to recognize my tone, made an expression at me from behind the guy’s back basically telling me to be on my best behavior.


“Hey, man, it’s good to meet you,” he said, grabbing my hand, which had been down by my side, and shaking it. “I’m Kent Graham and I’ll be your contact with the studio, which I know you’ve probably already figured out, but hey, better to say these things aloud. Am I right? I listened to some of the stuff Tony had recorded when he was out here, and I have to say, I loved it. I’ve listened to a lot of new groups, and you guys have some serious potential.”


Although I hadn’t really gotten a chance to meet him, I knew he was referring to the music scout who’d come to hear one of the regular shows we played here at the Blue Ridge. His recommendation was one of the big reasons we’d ended up getting signed for a contract.


“Thanks,” I said, thrown a little off balance.


He’d gone from condescending to genuine sounding praise and enthusiasm so fast that it was hard to get a handle on him. I’d been prepared to hate him as soon as he called us kids, but the attitude had dropped almost instantly.


“So,” he said, sitting down at the table we’d all been around and pulling a laptop out of the, I assume expensive, backpack he’d been carrying. “Are you guys excited for next week?”


“Yep,” I said, with everyone making sounds of agreement. “We’ve been working on our songs, trying to get them ready, every day since we signed the contract.”


“Good, good,” he said, clicking away at his laptop. “You wouldn’t believe the number of new bands we’ve signed that aren’t used to the level of work that’s going to be expected of them when they get in the studio, so I’m glad to hear you guys are on top of it. I do want to warn you not to get too fixated on what you’re doing now. Working in a garage and in a studio are very different things, and your producer will have definite ideas about where a song should go. This’ll work best if you’re prepared to be flexible.”


“We are,” I said. “I’ve actually worked with a producer before, although not formally. I haven’t heard yet if he’s going to be our producer on this, but I know he was calling the label about it.”


“If you mean Rowan Hughes, he is, and I am really excited about this. I don’t think I need to tell you how big of an opportunity this is, since you know him. Have you heard the new record he produced for House of Grace? Holy cow, it’s good. He’s already got two Grammy’s and I think he’s going to end up with another one this year. I swear, anything he touches turns to gold, which is good for us. Am I right? Especially since he’s coming in so cheap. When they told me he’d called about producing your record, I was like, no freaking way, ’cause not in a million years would anyone pay for a guy of his level for a brand-new band. That’s not a judgment on you guys, mind you, just how the business is. Hell, he’s actually making it easier on our budget, since he agreed to straight minimums, putting everything else on the backend. But that’s numbers stuff and I’m sure you guys aren’t interested in that.”


I was shocked at how fast and long this guy talked before he finally stopped to draw a breath.


“Uhh …” Was all I could manage, not quite sure how to respond to the flood of words.


“You were going to tell us about how things were going to work next week,” Hanna said, prodding him along.


“Right. Your first day in the studio is a week from tomorrow. We have twelve hours of studio time booked through Sunday. I know that may seem like a lot to you, but I want you to understand how compressed that is. Considering the tour schedule you have set up, which starts in the same area, we decided against flying you out somewhere with more workable studio facilities, which really limited the window we have available to us. Normally, it takes about sixty to a hundred hours of studio time for an album to really take shape, with groups who don’t have a lot of experience in the process taking closer to the hundred hours. You’re going to fall roughly in the middle of that time frame, which would normally really concern me, but I’m confident Rowan will be able to keep you focused.” 


“We already have all of the songs ready, though,” I said. “That should help.”


“It does, to a degree, but most of your studio time isn’t used writing songs. It’s figuring out the specifics. Things can sound good in front of a crowd and completely different when put on tape. Things you were able to brush over in person will become a lot more obvious when you start hearing it broken out. When it comes to the actual studio time, I’m not worried about that. Rowan knows how to run a room and I’m sure he’ll be able to keep you all on track. What I want to talk about is what you do outside of that time. It’ll be tempting after a long day in the studio to go out and blow off some steam. Everyone I’ve ever worked with has done it, even when they say ‘no, we’ll be good and stay focused,’ so I’m not going to delude myself by trying to talk you out of it. What I will say is this. You have a very limited time to get this right, and this is your one shot. Your dailies, that is everything you record every day, will end up back at the label and someone, often me, will be listening to it. If there is a consensus that it isn’t taking shape into something marketable by the halfway point, discussions will start about pulling out before we spend any more money on this. Coming in hung-over, still drunk, or otherwise messed up will make it hard to produce. I’ve seen a lot of guys getting their first shot crashing and burning because they didn’t take it seriously enough. Keep your eye on the prize, because it’s hard to get a second shot if you blow your first one.”


“We will,” Hanna said, before I could reply.


“Good. Once your studio time is done, it’ll be time to start your first tour. I understand all of you have been on some level of tour before, but mostly on a smaller level, right?”


“Yep,” I said.


I’d gone to several stops with Willie Johnson, an old-school blues musician who’d been the regular house band at the Blue Ridge until we started splitting time with them partway through last year. He’d been the one to convince Chef I should have a shot at music and asked me to sit in with his band when I first moved to town. He’d helped me learn a lot about music and the music business, and when he’d done his annual tour, he’d let me go with him on a few stops. The rest of the guys, being older, had been in groups before and had done small local tours. For all of us, this would be the largest thing we’d done, with actual money behind the tour instead of just a random booking of gigs. From the schedule I’d seen, we’d still be playing small clubs, but that was a step up from the bars we’d played in before.


“Good. That means you’ll at least be comfortable up on stage. You don’t have a big name yet, so most of the places you’ll be playing at, you’ll be the mid-week fill-in. We’ve managed to arrange for some radio time in most of the markets you’ll be in, which should help bring out a few people, and we’re going to try and get radio play in those markets, but that isn’t a sure thing, so expect the crowds to be mostly disinterested. They’ll be there to hear music but won’t know you or really care whose playing. Don’t let that get you discouraged. This is where a lot of bands start, and even if none of your songs breakthrough on a national level, you can make a good living doing regional tours and building a smaller, but dedicated fan base.”


“I saw the schedule yesterday, and it said they had fifteen stops,” Hanna said. “Is there marketing in all of those locations?”


This was the first I’d heard about our schedule, other than our first stop was July the first and our last was August seventh. Although it didn’t surprise me, I hadn’t realized Hanna had managed to get the full schedule yet. I was glad she was on top of it, but I did wish she’d shown it to me.


“No, we’re still working on it. Five of the performances will be opening for someone else who’s already done several shows. They’re fairly regional, but they’ve got a bit of a base already, and piggybacking you on their tour will help get yours off the ground. Since they’re also signed with us, it lets us combine the marketing. Since you’re the opener, you won’t have any marketing specific to you. They’ll be doing all the radio spots, although we do have a couple of DJs we work with from time to time that we’ll send your record to when it’s finished. They’ll at least listen to it and, if they like it, hopefully they’ll get you some playtime. This’ll also let you get a feel for how the tour is going to go without the pressure of having to carry it yourself. After those first five, you’ll be breaking off and doing your own gigs. Right now, all but two are solo gigs, meaning you won’t have any openers, which is good and bad. We do have a call out for local performers and we’ll try to get someone lined up for all of your stops before you get there. They’ll have a little local following that will come to see them, and hopefully stay to hear you, which’ll help pad your numbers. This is the key thing about your first tour. It’s all about building up your fan base, so that next time you come through, you’ll already have a pre-set number of people you might be able to expect, making each tour a little larger than the last.”


“Since they’ll be on their own there, you said they’ll have some interviews and radio time for those stops though, right?” Hanna asked.


“They should. We’ve booked a few spots already, most of them with the morning drive-time shows, so be prepared to get up very early. We’ll have more by the time the tour actually comes around. Most DJs want to have some idea of what you sound like, or who you are, before they agree to schedule an interview. So, a lot of that’ll have to wait until we finish in the studio and have something tangible to send them. That’s the other reason we wanted to start the first leg of the tour piggybacking off of a more established act. It gives us time to get your music into the hands of the DJs and their producers so we can finish setting up the back two-thirds of the tour. As you can imagine, a lot of new groups are competing for the same air time, because, for an unknown group, a mention on drive time radio can be the difference between having enough people come out to make the stop worthwhile or empty seats. If you get empty seats, it will be harder to book a venue the next time, since the venue makes most of their money on the door and concessions.”


“So, no late nights on tour, either,” Hanna said.


“That’ll be harder to manage and I’m not saying don’t have a good time. I’m not your parent and neither is your tour manager, so we’re not going to tell you what you can and can’t do. I will say this. Most of these venues don’t know who you are. They’re giving you stage time because we have deals with them. They want to keep us happy, and they need to keep the acts coming. If you get a reputation for being difficult, it will be harder to find places to play the next time through. These guys talk. If you’re so messed up, or so tired that you can’t finish your set; if you break or destroy stuff or cause other problems; you’ll find yourselves having a hard time getting stage time in that market again.”


“We’ll take it seriously,” I said.


I got why he was pointing all this out. Although I’d been more or less insulated from the wilder side of the industry, I knew it existed. Although I didn’t realize what I’d seen at the time, I’d watched people doing all kinds of drugs while I was traveling with my dad. They usually hid it when they realized I was around, but it was impossible to miss the aftereffects. That, of course, didn’t even touch my dad’s alcoholism, which I knew firsthand had cost him a lot of work over the years as he became less and less reliable.


“Good. The thing most people in my position never point out to artists until it’s too late, is that this is a numbers game. If you are making money for the label, you’ll have a lot of opportunities ahead of you. If you’re doing things that end up costing the label money instead, you’ll find yourself out of the business; and, second chances in this industry are hard to come by. Like I said, I’m not your parent, so I’m not going to tell you what you can and can’t do. But if you make it so I can’t get you airtime, can’t get your record finished without going into overages on the studio, or can’t book you into venues, we’ll have to find a different group to put our money behind. You guys have a great sound and a ton of potential, so let’s make this profitable for all of us.”


I had a suspicion he didn’t have this same conversation with every group he worked with. He wasn’t being patronizing, exactly, but I could tell a lot of this was because I was a lot younger than the normal people they worked with.


I wasn’t mad about it, though. Even though he might not say it to everyone, the math of ‘do we make the label money or not,’ was going to be true for everyone; and labels wouldn’t hesitate to cut people not making them money. Dad had probably never gotten this lecture, and I’d witnessed him burn his career down around himself, slowly making himself more and more unbookable.


I’d rather get a lecture now, than end up like that.

Chapter 3

The rest of the meeting was mostly Hanna peppering Kent with questions about procedure in the studio and what would happen with our album once we were finished with it. I had to hand it to Hanna, she was really prepared. While I had some of the same questions she asked, she had a lot that hadn’t even occurred to me. Things like release schedule and getting airtime on radio stations were questions I was going to ask if she hadn’t beaten me to them, but she had a lot of questions about what we could expect from marketing and specific areas of marketing beyond radio play that I hadn’t considered.


Most of the answers were that they wouldn’t put that much money into marketing, which wasn’t surprising but did mean people outside of about a four-state region wouldn’t know we existed, unless we just got lucky.


The reason so much music is regional is how labels market their product. On big-name acts, they would do national pushes which included marketing on TV and in national publications, pushing for both daytime and late-night talk shows, pushing for placement in movie soundtracks and popular TV shows, and setting up national tours. Only a handful of artists could get that kind of push, though.


The main way everyone else got pushed had been through local radio, and even with streaming music taking over, it was still the go-to method for letting the general public know you existed. They would send a song or two out to stations the label had a relationship with and try and get station managers, producers, or individual DJs to give it airtime. If a DJ liked it, they might put it in regular rotation, which meant an increase in sales in whatever market that DJ covered.


Surprisingly, that hadn’t changed much even though the internet was rapidly taking over how people listened to music. Streaming might be taking over how people listened to music, but that usually meant listening to artists they already knew, which meant radio was still the main way a label could actively market new artists. Unlike other industries, where the internet made it easier for people to break through, the internet was making it harder for musicians to get discovered.


While that was partly due to how people used the internet to listen to music, it wasn’t helped by labels being so slow to adapt to the new way people got their music. Social media and internet presence was still mostly left up to the individual artist, which meant getting a record deal didn’t automatically make a group more likely to break through than groups without a deal. Because everyone was doing it themselves, we were all left trying to figure out how to reach new people.


The answers Kent gave weren’t necessarily encouraging, since it all amounted to only getting us some airtime on radio, Hanna didn’t seem bothered by it. She took notes throughout and was nodding along with his answers.


I’m sure she’d have ideas on how we could get more exposure, but I was more of the mindset that we’d get what we could get. I’d seen enough of the industry to know the labels were all about the bottom line, and they weren’t about to take a risk on someone new, especially if money was involved. They’d put us in front of radio stations because that was essentially free marketing. They’d put some paid marketing in areas where we’d be performing, but that was because they were taking part of the house, since we were too small to carry tours on our own, but they wouldn’t do much there.


When we finished up, Hanna chased Kent outside, probably to hit him with more questions, and I decided to let her do her thing. I’d have been shocked if anything came from it, but if she was willing to try, I wasn’t going to stop her.


Instead, I wandered into the kitchen looking for Chef. Ever since the call from Victor, I’d been thinking things through. Over the last year, I’d kind of just gone with the flow, happy to let people like Chef, Willie, and Mr. French push me in directions they thought I should be going.


Mostly, I was happy to just follow their lead, since all of their advice so far had been pretty good. With the music contract though, things needed to change. If I was going to take this seriously, I needed to take charge of my life more. I still needed the advice, but I needed to get better at saying no, and that had to start with Chef.


“Hey, Charlie, how was the meeting?”


“Good. We’re all set up for next week and the tour after that. I know we’ll be gone for a while, sorry to leave you in the lurch like that.”


“It’s okay. I knew from the moment you played up there the first time, that it wouldn’t be long before the rest of the world discovered you and you went on to bigger and better things.”


“You still have Willie though?”


Chef paused. It wasn’t a long pause, but Chef didn’t normally hedge before something like that.


“What?” I asked.


“Neither of us wanted to say anything, because we didn’t want you to do something dumb like throwing away your big shot because you felt some kind of responsibility. Willie’s going to be backing off playing as often. He still wants to play once a month or so, but it’ll be short sets, and the rest of the guys were only playing here because Willie was. I’ve started making some calls down to Ashville to a few people I know to fill in music on weekends while you’re gone.”


“Is he okay?” I asked, suddenly worried.


It felt like my stomach had dropped out. Willie was the first guy to give me a shot and he’d taught me so much. We hadn’t known each other long, but we’d spent so much time together over the last year, he’d become almost a grandfather of sorts. It was almost impossible to think of the Blue Ridge without him.


“Mostly. His arthritis has been getting worse, and it’s just too much of a strain to play every weekend like he has been doing. He’ll still be around, and this will always be his home, but he just can’t keep up with it. Honestly, if you hadn’t taken over so much of the music time on weekends, he might have pulled back months ago.”


“Why didn’t he say anything? If it was that bad months ago, then it can’t just be about my music contract and not wanting me to make a bad decision.”


“It’s tough for an old warhorse like Willie to admit that he can’t keep playing anymore, especially to himself. He liked to just pretend it wasn’t happening, and he liked how playing with you made him feel younger. Getting old is hard to accept. You’ll understand it one day.”


“I guess,” I said, the news of Willie’s health suddenly taking the wind out of my sails.


“So, what did you want to see me about? Or were you just coming back here to socialize?”


“It’s nothing,” I said, starting to turn and head back into the dining area with the rest of the guys.


“Hey,” Chef said, reaching out and putting his hand on my shoulder, stopping me. “One of the reasons we didn’t say anything is because you have a bad habit of getting in your own head when something bad happens. You’ve sometimes got to compartmentalize things and keep moving forward. What did you need?”


I sighed and said, “I wanted to talk to you about Victor.”


“Did you two talk?”


“Yes, and that’s what I wanted you to talk to you about. I know you told him my schedule and pushed him to call me and set up training. I know you mean well, but I’d really like for you to stop pushing me into things and just talk to me about them.”


“I see,” Chef said, putting on his serious face. “I’m sorry if you felt like I was pushing you to do something you didn’t want to. I know you’re not going to be able to do any actual training while you’re on tour, so I thought you might like to at least keep it up while you’re in Raleigh. I can call Victor and tell him not to bother you.”


“That’s not what I meant, and I think you know it. I really do appreciate you trying to look out for me, but instead of arranging it, did you consider suggesting that I call Victor, and leave the choice up to me, instead of calling him yourself?”


“I didn’t, but you’re right. I probably should have done that. I knew how busy you were getting ready for this and how much it meant, so I was trying to keep it from being something else you had to deal with.”


“Again, I appreciate it, but I need you to let me make my own decisions. I did talk to Victor and I am going to train with him when I can, because you’re right, I don’t want to lose what I’ve gained here and I won’t have much chance while we’re on the road, but I really want you to hear me on this. I need to be able to make my own decisions.”


I could see I’d hurt him a little bit, and I was pretty sure he hadn’t been purposefully trying to manipulate me. It was one of those things where, if you do something one way for long enough, it becomes habit. Chef had been helping people in distress for so long, many of whom were part of the problem they needed to be pulled out of, that he’d become accustomed to directing people the way they needed to go instead of talking about it outright.


I could appreciate that, but it didn’t make it any less annoying.


“Okay, I hear you Charlie, and I’ll try and talk to you about these things ahead of time, okay?”


“Good. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, because I really do have you to thank for all this stuff that’s happened this year. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have gotten to do any of this.”


“You don’t sound ungrateful. I understand where you’re coming from. You’re not the first kid I’ve seen grow up and become their own person, you’re just doing it a lot faster than any of the others who’ve come through here.”


“Thanks. On the same point, there was something else I’d been thinking of. I appreciate you wanted me to compete in the martial arts competition last month, but I don’t want to do that again. It was a good experience, and I learned a lot, but if I hurt my hand or something, I might not be able to play guitar again, and this whole thing could go up in smoke.”


“Okay, no more competitions.”


“Good,” I said, a little off balance.


I don’t know what I’d expected, but this all seemed a lot easier than it had been. He’d basically agreed with everything I’d said, which was unlike Chef, at least when he was training me. It was strange to see someone who always had the answers so ready to just give up when challenged.


I guess he could see my confusion, because he chuckled and said, “I’m not as callous as I seem, Charlie. When we’re training, I do demand a certain level of excellence, because I know what you’re capable of. That doesn’t mean I don’t, or won’t, listen to you. I might be hard-headed, so you have to say it a few times, but I do listen. You’re right; it’s foolish to put your hands, or any of the rest of you, at risk now that you have this opportunity in front of you. I probably shouldn’t have had you do the last competition, but that had all started well before this opportunity had come up and I didn’t even think about it. For that, I do apologize. Even old men like me can sometimes get too focused on things and miss the bigger picture, especially when our pride is on the line. I didn’t want to give Sergei or the rest the satisfaction of backing out once we agreed.”


“Okay, I understand that and I never asked to not do it, so that’s as much on me as it is on you. Let’s call it even and agree to talk about this stuff first next time, okay?”


“Okay,” he said, putting out his hand for me to shake.


I was relieved as I left the kitchen so Chef could finish preparing for dinner. That had gone better than I’d expected, although I couldn’t really say what I thought could have happened that had me so anxious beforehand. 


In the dining room, the guys had everything set up on stage for our set that night, which meant I could go out and chill on the porch, hopefully getting to talk to Willie when he showed up.


I was halfway out the door when Hanna came running up, grabbing my arm and pulling me out of the doorway.


“I have an idea,” she said, excited about something.


Kent, the studio rep, had already left, but she’d been talking to him when I’d gone back to see Chef, so I assumed it had something to do with that.




“I was talking to Kent about the tour and what we could expect, as far as support from the label,” she said. “He said they’ll support us with some marketing, but that’s it. Because we’re so new, they won’t put anything into the tour other than setting up the bookings and doing some small-scale free marketing, which means all the merchandising beyond CDs is left up to us.”


“Everything you just said sounds bad, but you sound excited about it, so I think I’m missing something.”


“It’s an opportunity. I was reading over your contract yesterday and then I called Mr. French to make sure I understood it. So, you know how your contract is 360?”


“Uhh … no,” I said.


I’d read the contract when we’d signed it, but there was stuff in there I didn’t understand. Mom, Mr. Eaves, an attorney friend of Chef’s who’d helped us out several times, and Rowan had all been there when the contract was signed and all approved of the terms, so I’d gone with it. Probably a little naïve on my part, but there was some pretty dense language in the contract that would have taken several years of law school to work out. I was wracking my brain trying to remember if I’d ever seen the term three-sixty before, and I was drawing a blank.


“As Mr. French explained it to me, a three-sixty contract is one where the label takes a share of everything you do and not just music sales. Apparently, it used to be that the record label only took a cut of music sales and everything else went to the artists, but with the internet taking over everything and digital music, most are switching to this type of contract. Normally, they do this whether they are involved in it or not, but Rowan apparently pushed for a clause that the 360 deal only applied to areas where the studio had a hand in the deal. Anything you set up on your own you don’t have to pay out a percentage, which includes paying out to the tour manager if they were assigned from the studio, since they’re paid by the studio and not you. So, they only get a cut of concerts if they help arrange it or put money into its marketing, which is why they agreed to set this tour up for you. Same thing goes for merch, which they decided to not put money into, when they declined to have it produced or help pay the up-front costs.”


“So you’re saying if we make our own merch and sell it at the concerts, we can keep all of the money.”


“Exactly, which is why I’m excited. This is a good opportunity to get a little ahead, since you won’t start seeing royalties for a while.”


“But that’s going to take a bunch of money up front to pay for it, right? Which is why the label didn’t want to do it. I’m not sure how much it costs, but we didn’t get that large of an advance. I’m giving everything I make to Mom to help cover our living expenses and the guys are basically just living on our gigs here at the Blue Ridge, and not in style. I don’t think any of us have the cash to pay for the up-front costs. It’s definitely something we should look into for the next time we tour or even for when we’re playing here. We can use the money we make off of record sales and the tour to help pay for it.”


“That would be a bad idea. Once you start showing you’re worth investing in, the label will want to get involved in merch, and we can’t tell them they aren’t allowed to pay for it. Although you have the right to contest merch for bad quality, something else Rowan got added into the contract, we are required to allow them to contribute, and profit, from anything you do as an artist, whether it’s with the band or not, since the contract is specifically for you. They made sure to cover the band and anything associated with you in that, however, so you can’t have the ‘band’ do it separate from you. This is an opportunity, and if we wait, we’re going to miss out.”


“That makes sense, but it still doesn’t explain where we’d get the money from. It’s not like we have any money to put into something like this. Do we even know how much money we’re talking about?”


“Not exactly. I’ve looked into it a little bit, but I wanted to have this conversation with you first before I started calling around and getting quotes. To be able to offer a small variety, shirts in several sizes and styles and hoodies would probably cost a couple of thousand, which wouldn’t give us a ton of product but should last through the tour. That doesn’t count the costs of getting them designed. I mean, you don’t even really have a logo yet. We’d also have to coordinate that through the label’s marketing team, since we’d want any logos or anything to match what they might end up doing on your album art.”


“So we need, what? Like five grand? That’s a lot of money, Hanna.”


“I know. The thing is you know enough people that could fund at least part of that. I wanted your permission to put together a presentation for them to invest in your merch, in return for a cut of it on the back end. It’ll mean you don’t make as much as if you were paying out of pocket, but they’re not going to take sixty percent like the label will when they decide to start bankrolling your merch.”


“I don’t want to go begging for money from Chef,” I said.


Dad had a bad habit of coming up with wild schemes to get ‘back into the business,’ always trying to convince people he had a sure-fire money-making idea. It got to the point where most of the people he met who could have helped his career began avoiding his phone calls begging for another handout. I didn’t want to end up like that.


“I’m not talking about begging. I’m talking about a legitimate business proposal that, although it has risk, has a good upside for the investors if we can sell through all the merch. Also, the amount of money we’re talking about is a lot for us but wouldn’t be a stretch for people like Chef who, by the way, isn’t the only person I was thinking about.”


“I’m still not crazy about the idea.”


“Charlie, you have to stop thinking about this as people doing you favors. This is a legitimate investment. I wouldn’t even bring it up if I didn’t think this could work, and I think it can. I’ve spoken to Rowan, Mr. French, and the rest of the band about their experiences with merchandising, and they all agree that not only is this something that makes money, but the audience will be expecting it.”


“Willie never had merch,” I pointed out.


“No, but Willie was playing mostly bars. You’ve seen some of what was set up at other venues. Think back to the festival we played. Every other band had a merch table somewhere, even House of Grace, who’s too big to really need it. Let me make my pitch. If you don’t like it or if no one wants to put up the money, then we won’t do it. Hell, it’s not even going to take you any time, other than listening to the presentation with everyone else. I’ll do all the work.”


I knew Hanna had been getting into the idea of managing us when she finished college and she’d already been reading material she’d cover in school in the fall. It was a testament to how much she was finding she liked marketing and everything, since it had been all but impossible to get her to do her actual homework in high school. I also knew she was aware of how much I disliked taking charity and I trusted her to not put me in a position where it would end up being that. Besides, she could be right and we could be leaving a lot of money on the table.


“Okay,” I said.


When she did a little hop, clapping her hands, I added, “I’m not promising I’ll go along with it, just that I’m okay with you making the pitch. Who were you thinking of inviting?”


“I don’t have a full list yet, but I was thinking Chef, of course, plus Mr. Eaves, Rowan, Mom, and Mr. French. There’ll probably be a few others.”


“Several of those people are already involved. Rowan’s going to be producing and Mr. Eaves is officially our lawyer, so I’m not sure if there will be any conflicts of interest if they then back us on the upfront merch costs.”


“I know. Like I said, it’s not an exhaustive list. There’ll probably be more, and I’ll talk to at least Mr. Eaves, and maybe Chef, to make sure I’m not getting you into any trouble.”


“Okay. I trust you. Run with it,” I said.


She repeated the hop, this time ending it in a hug before she ran over to Kat, who was still sitting with the rest of the band. I just shook my head at her antics and walked out the front door.

Chapter 4

We still had a few hours until our set that night, so I made my way out to Willie’s shack, which wasn’t far from the Blue Ridge, within easy walking distance. I knew he’d be at the restaurant before long, but he’d been cutting his time there shorter and shorter over the last month, which made sense now that Chef had given me a little context.


Since Willie hadn’t brought anything up on his own, I decided it would be better to check in on him at home, rather than ask him about his plans where others could hear.


I called his house a shack mostly because that was what Willie called it. It wasn’t, however, run-down or low quality. I knew Chef had helped in building it years ago so that Willie didn’t have to keep living in apartments or travel very far to get to the Blue Ridge, since even back then all Willie seemed to want to do was play music or hang out on the restaurant’s front porch. I did know that Chef also owned this land and that he never made Willie pay to live on it, which was good of Chef.


I knocked on the door and waited, hearing the faint sounds of Willie shuffling around behind the door somewhere, getting steadily louder as he got closer.


“Charlie?” he asked when he opened his door. “Everythin’ alright?”


“Yep. We finished up a meeting with the label rep and the guys are going to take a break before we have to get ready. I was talking to Chef and I heard you weren’t going to be playing as much anymore, so I wanted to come down and check on you.”


“Ohh, you didn’t have to do that. I’m fine. Just decided that it was about time to start slowin’ down.”


“You don’t seem to be slowing down that much. It wasn’t that long ago you did your yearly circuit, playing three and four nights in a row, and you seemed fine.”


“I can still do it, don’t you doubt that, but no, I wasn’t just fine. I was hurtin’ something awful after I finished that up, which was why I was so glad you’d stepped up into my spot at the Blue Ridge. If I had to go right back into three nights a week here, playin’ the whole evenin’, I think I would have had to call it quits well before now.”


“Aren’t you going to miss it?” I asked.


I might have only known Willie for a year, but I couldn’t imagine him not playing music. The thought of him just hanging out here or sitting up on the porch at the Blue Ridge was a little depressing, actually.


“If I had to stop playin’ all together, sure. That’s why I want to start pullin’ back now, while I’m still able to play some. I figure if I slow down and just do a little bit every weekend, I can still get a few more years out of these fingers, before I can’t pluck a string no more. It seemed better to do that than just burn through what I got left, you know?”


“Yeah, I guess. I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t because I started taking up so much stage time. I know you all said it was okay, but now that I have the band, we’ve been taking up more and more time.”


“No, no, nothing like that. It’s a good thing you took off when you did, actually. If you hadn’t, I probably would have just kept goin’ like I was, without thinking about how I was feelin’ and be just about used up by now. No, this is the best thing for me. Besides, you’re not going to be playin’ here that much longer, so it wouldn’t matter none anyway.”


“I’m only gone for the middle of the summer. After that, I was planning on picking up and playing at the Blue Ridge again, since it’s the only way I can play every week and still go to school.”


“I mean it won’t be long before the rest of the world figures out how good you are, and you’re off to fame and fortune.”


“Nah, I …”


“Don’t go all modest on me. I know you know how good you are. Playin’ like you ain’t, only insults the other person. Have some confidence in yourself, boy.”


“Sorry,” I said. “I was hoping that when I did start having to travel more, it would open up things for you and the rest of the guys to start playing again.”


“They’re all almost as old as I am, and they’ve started makin’ noise about retiring. No, I’ve talked to Chef some and we both agree it’s time he started looking for other acts to rotate through here. Hell, I’m sure the people around here would like to have some more variety than me playin’ every night. I’ll still get some time on stage most weekends, and I’ll also be able to meet some more young people. I hadn’t realized, until you showed up, how much I missed being around other people like us. Sure, I’d see some when I did my circuit, but that wasn’t the same. I think this’ll be good for me.”


“Okay, as long as you’re okay with all of this. If you hadn’t asked me to play when Hanna brought me through looking for a job, none of this would have happened. I owe you more than I can ever repay.”


“I’m fine and you don’t owe me nothin’ but keepin’ on doin’ your best. You’re a good boy, Charlie. You just keep rememberin’ who you are and where you came from, and you’ll have repaid me all you need to. Now, since you’re down here, how about helpin’ me carry my things up to the Blue Ridge.”


“Sure,” I said, following him into his house.


Monday there was another slight change-up in the schedule. The week before, Kat’s psychologist, Dr. Rothstein, had asked me to come with her to her next appointment. He didn’t specify what it was about, but I guessed it might be some additional change to our unique understanding.


When we’d first met, Kat was dating Aaron, the school bully and an all-around terrible person. Although she hadn’t known it at the time, she was suffering from a condition known as Dependent Personality Disorder which essentially made her unable to disagree with or stand up to other people, at least not without ending up in a full-blown panic attack. Although some people with the condition manage to live more or less normal lives, she is on the far end of the spectrum thanks to more than a decade of abuse from her father.


We’d become friends and it had become evident how vulnerable she was, especially after getting her to speak to Dr. Rothstein and finding out about her condition. Because she was a minor and he needed permission from her father, the doctor hadn’t been able to actually treat her, however, which meant we had to find another way to help her. In the end, we’d figured out that, if we couldn’t fix her condition, we could at least use it to protect her, which is how I ended up being the person she could turn to when she was being faced with a decision she couldn’t make. I still felt uncomfortable with that level of power over another person, more so since we’d become such good friends since then, but that was better than letting her continue to be used by people like Aaron.


Thankfully, we’d finally managed to get Kat out of her father’s house and temporarily in the custody of Hanna’s mother, since she only had a year until she turned eighteen and no longer needed to be in anyone’s custody. That also meant we were able to start getting her treatment. Of course, the first thing we found out when she started seeing Dr. Rothstein was how dangerous our decision to use Kat’s condition to bring her out of the situation she’d been in, was. He’d pointed out that it did the opposite of the actual treatment for the condition, which was learning tools and skills to deal with the panic and fear when faced with confrontations or decisions. Well, that and medication for the inevitable panic attacks that came from facing those fears.


He’d given me specific instructions on how to slowly wean her off of needing me as a safety valve for her condition, which is why I assumed he needed to see me. It had been a month and a half or so since the last time I’d gone with her to an appointment and he’d walked me through how to start her on the path to making her own decisions. We were still doing small stuff at the moment, like asking her once or twice if she knew what she wanted to do in a situation, instead of just telling her what she should do, or not picking out what she wanted to eat if we got something to eat, even when she kept saying ‘whatever you think’ when asked what she wanted.


The last meeting had been just before the end of the school year, which meant there hadn’t been all that many times she’d been pressed with a decision she couldn’t make. She’d had a problem the week before with a confrontation with one of the other swimmers that trained at the same time she did, and that had been an hour-long phone call to talk her down, but other than that, it had been incredibly minor stuff, the most annoying one being forced to wait her out while she decided what to eat. There were times when it could be twenty minutes of her vacillating between options, unable to decide. The therapy was helping though, because only twice had she started to panic and I’d been forced to step in and calm her down. Before she’d started therapy, those panic attacks would have happened every time.


As with the last time I went with her, I spent the first thirty minutes out in the waiting room with Mrs. Phillips, who still went with Kat every time she had an appointment. After the first half of her session, she came out wiping away tears and told me I could go back and see the doctor. She’d done that the first time, and I was a little worried until Mrs. Phillips pointed out she almost always came out of a session crying. Except for the one other time, I hadn’t actually gone with her to other appointments, mostly because my schedule was so packed, so that was news to me.


Dr. Rothstein was in the same place he’d been the last time I’d come in to visit, sitting in one of the two padded chairs on the side of his desk closest to the door instead of behind his desk, leaving the other one for me to sit in. I remember thinking the first time that I’d expected to see the classic couch for the patient to sit or lay on while they talked and being surprised that it wasn’t there. I don’t know why I thought maybe it would be there this time, but he still didn’t have one.


“Hey,” I said, sitting down, feeling uncomfortable.


“I hear good things are happening for you,” he said.


I knew he was friends with Chef, so I didn’t know if Kat or Chef had told him, or if he’d just heard about it somewhere else, but I’d expected him to jump right in, talking about Kat. I know he was probably trying to be disarming, making me feel comfortable, but he just made me feel off-balance instead.


“Umm, yeah. We’re heading out next week for our recording time in Raleigh, and then we’re going to go on tour for about a month.”


“That’s very exciting. Chef Tang mentioned you were a musician the first time we met, but I had no idea you were at the level of getting a record contract. Congratulations.”


“Thanks,” I said, still unsure why he wanted me to come down here if this was what he wanted to talk about.


“Mrs. Phillips called me last week and asked about Katherine going with you, which would mean she’d miss several appointments here, since I understand some of your stops wouldn’t be convenient for her to come back here and then catch back up with you.”


“Ohh, yeah. Well, I asked Mrs. Phillips if she’d talk to you about it. Hanna’s going, since she’s going to help us keep things together on tour, so Kat really wanted to go. I said I didn’t mind, but I made it clear that if you thought her missing that many sessions would set her treatment back even a little bit, then she couldn’t go with us. I guess it’s kind of my fault, since we’ve all been so excited about it, that we probably talked it up too much around her. I imagine with me and Hanna gone, she’d feel left out if she had to stay here by herself.”


“Yes, and I believe this will be one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that she would enjoy. The good news is, I don’t have a problem with her going. I know we’re still early in our treatment, and normally I’d want a lot more sessions with a patient before I’d be okay with her missing so many, but there are some additional things to consider in Katherine’s case. I know she’s going to be a senior this year, which means she has one more year before she heads off to college, where she’d have to find a new therapist and probably lose what support structure she has here, which is always difficult for some young adults, let alone those with DPD.”


“Yeah, I’ve been worried about that too.”


“Good. That’s actually why I think this might be an opportunity to take some jumps forward in her treatment. We’ve been working on her ability to compartmentalize decisions, which will help keep multiple decisions from compounding on each other and pushing her into panic attacks. We’ve also been working on her ability to express her own opinions and how to deal with any negative feedback she might get from those. I know last time we talked, I told you I wanted you to let her start making decisions on small things on her own, and she’s said that has been going fairly well. Since we have such limited time, I think we can use this time touring with you to take that to the next level.”


“Okay,” I said.


“While you are gone, I don’t want you preemptively making any decisions for her, as you would have in the past. I’m not just speaking about the smaller decisions like you’ve been having her make recently, but all decisions. In the situations you will all be in while on tour, I imagine the variety of decisions she will be faced with will be wide and varied, which is why this is a good time to practice the skills she has been learning. I have told her it is okay for her to go to you if she is feeling pressured, but that you will only give her options, and not choose one for her. I have re-upped her anxiety medications, which should help, but I expect there to be some stress on her. It’s okay for you and the rest of your group to reassure her in these moments, but I want to reiterate how important it is for her to try and handle these on her own.”


That was a preview of Dissonance. To read the rest purchase the book.

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