Why The Rock and Roll Lifestyle Ain’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

The rock and roll lifestyle ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. There, I said it, and it’s 100 percent true, at least to this 52-year-old.

I was reminded of this recently when I was on a mini-tour with my band Atomic Junkshot. We were invited to play a showcase at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, then played gigs afterward in Fort Worth and Branson before returning home to St. Louis.

Before, during and after the trip, people kept texting me how cool it was that we were playing SXSW. But in each case, I responded, “It sounds a lot cooler than it really is.”

The trip started with a 13-hour-drive from St. Louis to Austin, towing a 5 x 8 U-Haul trailer with my exceptionally manly, yet somewhat unnecessary truck. The drive was filled with pouring rain, traffic accidents, gassy bandmates, Apple mapping errors as well as eating and bathroom breaks in a variety of medium-quality gas stations.

Once we arrived in Austin, we checked in to our hotel. It was one of the most ominous looking La Quinta Inn’s you’ve ever seen, right along I-35. After about an hour, I dubbed it “The Murder Hotel” as I found it was filled with a variety of swarmy vagrants doing deals in the shadows of every corner of the property. It’s rare that I don’t feel safe. I’m a meaty SOB and have lived in cities all my life. But such was life at The Murder Hotel.

Our rooms were located right next to the dumpsters that were delightfully decorated with gang symbols. The chamber maids, in fact, were none-too-happy when Clay and I took a picture in front of it and he flashed some of his prison gang symbols from his days in the pokey. One chamber maid yelled at us in Spanish. Had I been able to understand it, I’m fairly certain I would have felt like my grandmother had scolded me.

Inside our room, we found the phone was not connected to the wall and we had a shower with cold water on the hot side and hot water on the cold side—like a McDonald’s McDLT, but with bed bugs. I tried to call the front desk to figure out about the water, but of course, that didn’t work, so I walked down to the desk. Once the desk attendant walked out from the front office, I determined he must have been an actor on loan from central casting for “Dazed and Confused.”

But I already knew these things about touring. I’ve done it myself and speak with musicians all the time on The Load Out music podcast about it.

“It’s a joy to get on that stage,” my songwriting idol. Ray Wylie Hubbard recently told me, “But sometimes getting there and getting back and the stuff you have to deal with can be a little sketchy.” Sketchy might be an understatement.

Our lead guitarist, Joey Mack, was supposed to fly into Austin that first Thursday night at around midnight but weather in Austin was tornado-heavy so his flight got cancelled.

He ended up flying to Nashville and then to San Antonio the next morning after sleeping in the St. Louis airport. So, after the rest of us (Atomic’s drummer Brian McCary and bassist Clay Mudd) made it through the first night alive, I got up early and drove 90 minutes to the San Antonio airport. Then Joey and I drove 90 minutes back to the hotel.

By then, it was time to head to the venue. We were playing at the Oasis Texas Brewing Company which is set on beautiful Lake Travis in Austin’s hill country. I had been to Austin plenty of times for the douche-nozzle fest that is SXSW, but I’d never been outside the city. It was really nice to see the beautiful rolling hills around the lake. We arrived at Oasis, set up and played our gloriously long 30- minute set—albeit we started 45 minutes late.

Starting late, as any concert-goer knows, happens pretty frequently. It’s actually, in my mind, the least annoying aspect touring as the continuum of change and needing to roll with the punches are just table stakes.

“When I went on my first tour ever, I was with Keith Wyatt (noted blues guitarist with The Blasters) and we went to Japan,” said Coreen Sheehan, the longtime frontwoman of the all-female AC/DC tribute band Whole Lotta Rosies, and a decorated voice coach to some prolific rockers. “On the plane, I had an itinerary of what each day consisted of, where we were playing and the hotels. And Keith laughed at me and said, ‘Why are you studying this so intently? We’ll be playing those venues and everything else is subject to change.’ And he was right.”

The Austin gig, however, was a fun. A random group of friends came to see us—one of my high school buddies came up from Houston, a college friend who I had not seen in 30 years came out and one of my former co-people dragged her ass to the show. Seeing them was really special and meant a lot to me.

After our set was done, we stayed around and sold some shirts and metal guitar picks at the merch table because many SXSW shows don’t pay squat. That’s right. Driving 13 hours for the “exposure” of playing SXSW. Glory be to the mystical exposure gods. Once we packed up the shop, the band hit the road north to stay in Waco before our gig the next day in Fort Worth. In Waco, we grabbed dinner at a local Irish bar, then stayed in an Extended Stay America Suites that was exceptionally unexceptional. But at least there were no shadowy deals for black tar heroin being conducted—at least none we were aware of. The next morning, we got up, had some donuts and hit the road to Fort Worth for our show.

We arrived in Fort Worth around lunchtime and ducked into The Woodshed Smokehouse, an outdoor joint with great food where we’d played prior and really love. We dropped our gear and walked around a bit, stopping for some overpriced Mexican food in a mall filled with expensive shops for people who by $200 stretch pants. Then we walked back to the Woodshed to set up for the show.

The show was great, for the most part, minus lasting four hours. Yeah, that’s right—four hours. But it was worth it. We love playing the Woodshed, the crowd was into it and they paid us well. The only hiccup came when we were playing our song “Prayer Zone”—which pokes fun of the commercialization of religion with things like Jesus bongs—and some dude who’d been enjoying the
show walked up the stage in his bedazzled jeans and looked at me angrily.

He yelled out, “Jesus loves you,” before walking away in a huff.

The show ended at 10pm. Then we packed up quickly and hit the road, en-route to a Fairfield Inn in Norman, Oklahoma. Along the way we stopped in at a Buc-ee’s gas station, which if you haven’t been to one—you need to go. It’s the size of a small Wal-mart and sells just about anything. Ironically, however, they sold a “suns out, guns out” tee but not in tank-top. Epic fail.

We got into the hotel in Norman around 2am, brought our gear in the rooms and hit the hay. The next morning, we got up, caffeinated, grabbed some donuts and hit the road to Branson, Missouri. It was Sunday and Branson is pretty bible-belt-ish, but we’d been able to book a gig which had been really important to me since we didn’t get paid for Austin. We rolled into Mr. Glencho’s bar around 3pm for a 5pm show. We set up and opened up with our tune “Gene the Auctioneer” right at 5pm when
there was maybe 15 people in the room.

It reminded me of what the immensely talented Sam Morrow told me on The Load Out a few years ago.

“Yeah, there’s nothing quite like going to Oklahoma and playing for a room with only five people in it,” he said. It was not a knock on the Sooner State. He was merely making a point that musicians often travel far distances to play for minimal crowds as they build their brands.

Atomic played two hours, and while we played for minimal people, the crowd at Mr. Glencho’s was kind, supportive and remarkably generous in terms of tipping.

Once we wrapped up, we had a lot of interest in our new tees that we were selling—especially people who were working at the bar. So we sold a few tees, packed up and hit the road around 8:30pm to head back to St. Louis.

Looking back at the trip—we lost money, sat in traffic, stayed in a Murder Hotel, slept in airports, put 2,000 miles on my truck, got yelled at by hotel chamber maids, ate terrible gas station food, got scolded by a guy with bedazzled jeans for being a heretic and more.

But you know what? We’d do it again 100 times over—and we will.

Yes, the rock and roll lifestyle ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. But as Ray Wylie Hubbard noted, it is, without question, “a joy to get on that stage.”

Aaron Perlut is a writer, host of the Load Out Music Podcast, the front man for country-rock band Atomic Junkshot, and the founder of creative agency Elasticity.