It Takes a Village
When charity begins at home
At the end of 2003, local performer Christine Albert approached the Chronicle about publishing a farewell she'd written to the five-year residency at Donn's Depot she and partner Chris Gage were concluding. In January 2004's "Train of Love," Albert wrote a candid, revealing essay about an Austin reality: life on a weekly basis at a live music venue. When she returned to our e-mail inbox this January with the desire to chronicle another local rite of passage benefits once again from a personal vantage point, it too rang authentic. And sobering. Raoul Hernandez
At the age of 19, I called my parents from a pay phone in the lobby of La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, N.M. I told them I'd quit my day job at the local music store and was diving into my own music full time.
Since our band was booked at biker bars and honky-tonks six nights a week, the choice seemed like a no-brainer. Concerned about my future and financial stability, they asked, "But what about benefits?" Hmmm. I was pretty sure I'd continue playing for the local food co-op benefits, so I wondered why they thought that might change. Obviously, their concept of "benefits" and mine weren't quite the same.
After all, my mentors were songwriters, silversmiths, artists, and a Navajo rug trader named Wolf. The majority of the waiters in Santa Fe had a master's degree or Ph.D. Self expression and freedom were the driving forces, not security. And so began a lifetime of playing gigs and stuffing cash in my pocket at closing time.
Take This Job ...
My pure and impulsive career choice has grown up into a real adult business, complete with LLCs, sales tax, 1099s, inventory, databases, and debit cards. It has sustained me for 30 years, though I never did get the benefits package my parents wanted me to have.
Two days after Christmas 2004, the full impact of the decision I made that day in Santa Fe hit home. My husband and partner in everything musical, professional, and domestic, Chris Gage, suffered a back injury. Chris has always been a hard-working musician. He's toured 250 dates a year with Roy Clark, punched a time clock six days a week at Fiesta Texas as music director, played corporate parties with classic rock cover bands, been a session player, produced albums, played songwriter shows, and paid his union dues. Unfortunately, in our business, there's no paid sick leave or disability, so for him to miss a show meant he was truly unable to function.
On the morning of Dec. 31, after five days of relentless pain, it was apparent Chris was still in no shape to perform, and we experienced the first day of what was to become two months of winging it and trusting in grace and friends to cover our bases. Our New Year's show was sold out and needed to be special. Our good friend Jimmie Dale Gilmore agreed to come and share the night with me, and the surprised audience was thrilled. 2005 was off to a shaky but hopeful start.
In the following weeks, Chris continued getting worse and panic set in. I was scrambling to cover performances with other players, but we watched Chris' share of our income walk away and we were forced to cancel lucrative studio work. Meanwhile, we discovered the extent of his injury and he was now facing back surgery, which would keep him out even longer. One dreary dawn we lay in bed, Chris awakened by pain, me by anxiety.
"I should have finished college and gotten a real job! How are we going to make it?" he said, reading my overwhelmed mind.
Our situation is somewhat unique in that our livelihoods go hand in hand. I played music for 22 years without Chris, but after eight years as a team, we've become intertwined on all levels. It's a great thing, creatively, personally, spiritually, and we know we're fortunate beyond belief.
But that early morning it seemed like we had made a huge error in life planning. Our income was dwindling while our medical bills were growing. We have health insurance, but the deductible is high and we keep it mostly for "catastrophes." We now had one on our hands.
Austin is a big city in the middle of a big state, but our music community is like a small town at the heart of it all. We rally around each other in times of need. Food started pouring in, e-mails from fans we didn't know with offers to help showed up in our inbox, checks from fellow struggling musicians arrived in the mail, friends came by to clean the house while I managed our business and took Chris to doctor appointments. The concept of "it takes a village" took on a whole new meaning.
When we first realized the seriousness of Chris' injury Eliza Gilkyson asked, "When's the benefit?" At the time I was sure it wouldn't come to that, and weeks later our friends announced they were going to make it happen. I knew it was going to be our saving grace. We made a list of musicians who might be inclined to help, and Eliza was the first to jump on board. We've been like sisters for 34 years and now here she was, a busy Grammy nominee, agreeing to play for free, to be there for me one more time.
Together and separately, Chris and I have probably played 100 benefits over the years. We've never had a lot of extra cash, so we've always been thankful we could lend our voices to a cause and help fundraising efforts in that way. We have sung for a child with cancer, a woman in need of a liver, and victims of sexual assault, always happy to help. In this instance, we discovered sometimes it's easier to give than it is to receive assistance gracefully.
The wheel of karma had turned and an army of people were coming together for us. As we dealt with Chris' surgery and recovery, the event picked up steam. The benefit team kicked into high gear. Standing on the periphery we could see what a huge undertaking this was and knew that every person involved was squeezing it in around very demanding real jobs. We were simultaneously humbled, grateful, and embarrassed. At one point we wanted to stop it; it made us uncomfortable to have all that energy being expended on our behalf. But this was a time for surrender. We needed help, and help was appearing.
By the time Feb. 20 rolled around, Chris was on the mend, so we were both able to attend the benefit. Like most people who live in one place for a long time, our roots in Austin run deep and spread far and wide. At Scholz Garten that day our life was reflected back to us in a very public and dramatic way. We were stunned by the turnout and overwhelmed to see so many people from the many corners of our world all in one place, generously giving their time, talent, love, and money.
What's So Funny About Peace, Love, & Understanding?
The music was the heart of it all. Even though the genesis of this event was a health crisis, I wouldn't trade that day for anything.
How cool was it to have Chris' 26-year-old son Sam ask us during Ray Wylie Hubbard's set, "Who is this guy again? Ray Wylie what?" You could tell by his beaming face that he was digging what he heard, and we were damn proud to introduce him to such soulful music.
Bruce Robison cracked us up when he reflected on three nights he and Chris had played together at a Dallas disco a decade ago. The venue manager couldn't decide which room he wanted them in, so he had them set up in the hallway. Chris had been there for Bruce during the lean years, and he was returning the favor.
I maintained my composure all day until Sara Hickman had the entire audience turn to us to sing in unison, "I wish you love, I wish you peace." It reminded me of the moment during our wedding when my heart opened. Here I was again, surrounded by many of the same people, weeping through another rite of passage with Chris Gage by my side.
Eliza had scheduled a flight in from Chicago early enough to make her 9pm set. Airline delays and rerouting foiled her plans, but she was determined to be there and took a cab straight from the airport to the stage. The crowd stayed late, and at 10:30pm she closed the night with a gorgeous set of the finest songwriting around.
As news of Chris' injury spread, he began receiving hundreds of e-mails offering support. One in particular expressed something we have learned this last couple of months.
"We've met on occasion and you'd probably recognize my face, but we don't know each other typical of a normal performer/fan relationship I guess. I was surprised at the feelings I experienced upon hearing you had been in pain and undergone surgery. Those feelings of concern were deeper than I would have expected. I guess it speaks to the power of your music to establish bonds between people and how you as a performer can influence people you don't really know.
"Anyway, I'm glad it went well and that your recovery is proceeding. I've always admired your level of musicianship and your personality on stage. I'm sure others like me have had these feelings but have not expressed them. So, I wanted to say something just so you would know that we're out here. I look forward to seeing you play and sing again. Be well." Mike Allen
The afternoon of the benefit this sentiment was a tangible presence. There were fans and friends from all over the state, eager to take this opportunity to let us both know that they're on our side. Silent auction donations came in from as far away as New Mexico and South Dakota. People who couldn't attend the show drove up to drop off a cover charge anyway, and we discovered a wide river of support that runs deeper than we knew.
As artists, "success" is hard to measure and sometimes you wonder if all those miles in the van are paying off. Chris and I have no doubt now that what we do is valued and appreciated. Discovering that is just one of many "silver linings" hidden in those dark winter days of his discomfort.
Band of the Hand
The benefit was an unqualified success. The money raised not only lifted our financial burden, it went way beyond us. Every musician that played expressed pride at being a part of a community that rallies behind its own. Local radio, TV, and press went above and beyond to spread the word. The volunteers were pros (Slaid Cleaves said it was the most organized benefit he's ever played), and the audience was typical Austin: respectful, loose, enthusiastic. I know that any one of the musicians on the bill would generate the same kind of response if they were in need. As the world changes and despair gets harder to resist, that warm Sunday afternoon glimpsed old-fashioned love and kindness at work.
I watched my 16-year-old son, Troupe Gammage, fill in for Jon Emery's ailing drummer, and I got thinking about the next generation of musicians. I don't think Troupe should forfeit a career in music in order to have more security when he hits 50. But I hope he can learn from my mistakes and start thinking about the future a little earlier. Unlike his mom at his age, he knows the difference between "benefits" and a "benefit." I encourage him to stash some cash away when he's young so he can be more prepared for the unexpected and make a living with his talent. If he ever finds himself in trouble, my wish is that he'll live in a town like Austin that knows how to throw one heck of a benefit to help its own out.
A good friend gave Chris a tiny, three-inch carved hand, an open palm that's reaching out to give or receive. He has it on his desk as a reminder that life is about learning to do a little of both.