It was March in Seattle, and I’d just had all four wisdom teeth removed while listening to Megadeth. I was lying in bed – – healing and reading Tom Wolfe’s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” – – when I got a text from a fellow singer/songwriter (we’ll call him Drew), asking if I’d like to join him for a road trip to Austin, Texas. We would leave in a few days. After arriving we’d stay with a traveling musician named DB Rouse who lived and worked on a horse ranch just outside of the city. DB had set up a makeshift recording studio in a shack on the property and had invited Drew to come down and record some songs.
My need for adventure greatly outweighed my need for rest, so I agreed to tag along.
Listen to “Come On Down (Campfire Tune)” while reading the text.
From Seattle to Austin
Drew and I left Seattle in the early morning – – strapping in for a thirteen-hour drive to Salt Lake City, where we planned to spend the night with Drew’s cousin.
Over the course of that drive I would periodically duck into McDonald’s bathrooms to squirt my healing wisdom-tooth wounds with saltwater (doctor’s orders). During one of these wound-sterilizing sessions, the sight of me at the sink – – a long-haired twenty-something with a syringe stuck in his mouth – – was too much for a father and son who were planning on washing their hands. Despite my best attempts to appear non-threatening, they decided to forego their cleaning and dart out of the restroom.
After a day of frightening unsuspecting fast-food patrons, Drew and I arrived in Salt Lake City and drank beer with his cousin until three in the morning.
The next thirty-six hours were spent running over bouncing tumbleweeds on dusty desert highways and fighting over who would control the stereo. Just when Drew and I were about to strangle each other – – debating Ryan Adams versus Iron Maiden – – we pulled into Austin and landed at the ranch.
South by Southwest
Our first night in Texas was spent around a campfire with DB, his girlfriend, Drew, another musician, and myself. The five of us passed the guitar around, playing songs and sipping whiskey under the stars until the fire in front of us, and the fires inside, dwindled to sleepy embers.
I’m aware that 99.9% of you are privy to the following fact, but I’m going to write it anyway because, despite what you think, the .1% are people too.
In mid-March, Austin is home to the South by Southwest music festival, where musical acts from all over the world – – representing every genre you can imagine, and some you can’t – – converge on the city to network and share their art.
On my first day in Austin, I met up with an old flame who lived in town. She and I explored the festival and its abundance of musical talent while drinking various fermented beverages and eating barbecue. This whirlwind of experience – – though fun – – cost much more than I’d anticipated. By the end of the day, I’d drained most of my funds.
I bought some cheap beer and returned to the ranch where the campfire fellowship held its nightly worship session:
Drink. Sing. Pass the guitar. Repeat.
The crowing of roosters woke me the following morning. I had slept on an old army cot in the tiny wooden shack where DB lived. My head was throbbing, my back was aching, and my wallet was alarmingly light.
It was time to make some money.
I grabbed my guitar and headed into the city.
Of Free Nipples and a Mascot
I made my way down to Sixth Street in Austin. This is the main drag in town where – – during the festival – – every bar, many of them two stories with rooftop decks, holds live music from ten AM until last call. The street was bustling with festival-goers, bouncing like tipsy pin-balls from bar to bar.
I opened up my guitar case on Sixth Street to do some busking. The spot I’d chosen was on the periphery of the madness, and it felt like a good place to catch some dollars from folks heading into the fray. Unfortunately, with the exception of a few bucks, my forty-five minutes playing at that spot was unprofitable. I am glad I set up there, though, because a musician friend and his mangy dog – – both traveling from New Orleans – – saw me playing and stopped to say “Hello.” After chatting with him for a bit, I packed up my storefront and pushed through the pandemonium toward the other end of Sixth.
At one point during my trek I came upon an intersection where two parades were about to converge. The first parade, called “Free the Nipple,” was celebrating Austin’s ordinance that allows women to be topless in public. The second parade celebrated Texas’ open-carry laws. Seeing these groups mingle was quite the experience. I distinctly remember a man carrying an assault rifle while his young son sat perched atop his shoulders. These two snapped a picture with a couple of college-aged girls who had flowers painted around their nipples. Another image burned into my brain (whether I like it or not) is that of a very large woman donning a green army helmet. She brandished a shotgun while posing for a photo, boobs swinging almost below her belt-line.
I think this woman should be Austin’s mascot.
The Freedom to Wander Austin
After that uniquely Texas experience, I made my way to Congress street and headed south. I crossed the bridge and opened up my guitar case in front of a very busy ice cream shop. Over the course of an hour, a few folks threw dollars my way, but the spot wasn’t worth the time and energy I was expending. I decided to pack up and meet a friend and his wife for tacos and music at a nearby courtyard.
After catching up with those two and eating tasty Mexican food to a rock-band backdrop, I trekked back toward downtown with some spicy fuel in my belly. Gazing to my left as I crossed the Congress Street bridge, I admired the Colorado river, which – – as a result of the setting sun – – looked like it had been pumped full of violet dye.
This breathtaking spectacle forced me into a state of contemplation. I thought about how I’d spent all the money I’d earned that day on tacos and drink, but I also concluded that my experiences had been well worth the price.
During that time in my life, when street-performing was my main source of income, I’d often have to view financially dismal days from less conventional angles in order to justify my way of life. I knew I could have been making twenty bucks an hour breaking concrete with a jackhammer, but the freedom to wander Austin – – and the country, for that matter – – playing music and catching up with the folks I loved… that freedom was worth occasionally living down to my last dollar; which is roughly the amount I had to my name in that moment.
The Magic Spot
Needing a magic spot – – the perfect combination of accessibility, acoustics, and plentiful foot-traffic – – I wandered toward the west side of Sixth street, scanning every doorway and section of the sidewalk for money-making potential. When I came upon a closed business with a small marble entryway, I felt my stomach jump. This place had a steady stream of potential customers walking past; and the marble would help project my sound into their music-seeking ears.
I set up excitedly and jumped into my first tune: Losing my Religion by REM. Many passerby either sang along, smiled, or gave thumbs-ups. Some people took pictures. Some danced. I couldn’t help but wonder how much of this attention was the product of all-day drinking; but whether their behavior was alcohol-induced or not, by the end of that first song I’d made more than I’d made in almost two hours at my previous spots combined.
Relieved and hopeful, I burned through my repertoire – – Johnny Cash, Michael Jackson (Billie Jean always gets ’em moving), Bob Marley. I also played a handful of original tunes.
The good people of South by Southwest continued to tip generously, buy CDs, and even purchase my T-shirts, which were adorned with a Seattle-themed rock-and-roll-hand design. These shirts were a rare but welcome sale; and at twenty bucks a pop, they were a quick transaction. On average, I sold a shirt every few performances. Strangely, at two hours into this particular street-performing session, I’d sold four. I was thrilled, but also curious about the quantity moved – – thinking there may have been a lot of folks in town from Seattle.
During the middle of one of my songs a man on his phone stopped in front of me and pointed at the shirts. I stopped playing. There was a fish on the line.
“How you doin’, sir?” I gestured toward my display. “The shirts are twenty. What size do you wear?”
He told the person on the phone to, “Hold on.” Then he said, “Let me get a large in the black.”
Easy sale. I felt the adrenaline of success as I dug through my backpack for his size. When I held the shirt to him, the man handed me the money and said, “Thanks. This’ll be perfect for the Soundgarden show.”
“Yeah?” I replied. “Where are they playing?”
“Seriously?” The man asked.
I thought this a strange reply, and I nodded.
The man pointed upward. “On the roof of this building in about an hour.”
Austin is a huge city. And South by Southwest is a city-wide festival.
That being said, I imagine the odds against this coincidence were astronomical. Think about it: a traveling performer from Seattle unknowingly sets up his Seattle-rock shirts at the very same building where one of Seattle’s most prominent rock bands is about to play…in Texas.
I was floored. And the man buying the shirt got a kick out of this.
“Thanks, buddy.” He said before putting the phone back up to his ear and walking on.
I had trouble focusing while playing my next song. The magnitude of that synchronicity couldn’t be ignored; thinking about it made me giddy. That feeling was intensified when, after three hours of performing, I counted my spoils and found that I’d made close to two hundred dollars.
I couldn’t believe it! And I happily shared the news when Drew and DB came downtown to give me a ride back to the ranch.
The Perfect Ride
That night, when the fellowship gathered around the campfire, I gazed up at the Texas night – – at a billion glittering stars – – and thanked the topless gun-enthusiast in the sky for her blessing. I had two hundred bucks to my name (less when you factor in the purchase of a few cases of Lone Star beer on the way back to the ranch), and I knew that over the next few days I’d find a way to blow the whole sum. I’d be broke again, clawing back to relative prosperity from nothing.
But that was my chosen reality. That was my ride.
And on that ride I had friends, a fire, healing wisdom-tooth wounds, and some songs.
I also had my freedom.
So with all of that – – in that moment – – I felt like the richest man on Earth.
Alex Rasmussen, Category: Artist, Albums: The Road, Singles: Hustlin’ Hearts, A Lovely Ruckus, Top Tracks: Hustlin’ Hearts, Waiting, Ball of Glass, To You, Come on Down (Campfire Tune), Biography: From the Pacific Northwest to New Orleans–Tennessee to the Texas hill country–singer, songwriter, novelist, and poet Alex Rasmussen has spent the majority of the last few years traveling the United States and sharing his music: a unique blend of folk and rock fueled by the adventures and heartaches of a nomadic spirit., Monthly Listeners: 16, Where People Listen: Seattle, Tacoma, Fullerton, West Jordan, Kirkland