I’ve been a touring solo singer-songwriter for over twenty years, playing in hundreds of venues, from women’s music festivals to tiny folk coffeehouses to the ’93 March on Washington for several hundred thousand people. I’ve roomed with a pig, taken my shirt off for Amy Ray, met Melissa Etheridge and shared the stage with exotic dancers. It was either get these stories down or take up heavy drinking.
Before all that, for a brief period I worked as a paralegal for a state attorney general’s office. The cases were confidential and it was really hard to keep my mouth shut for some of the more notorious lawbreakers. I found ways to get around it and still satisfy my need to vent. There was one case where a slimeball who owned several stores was sexually harassing his female employees. From the way he swaggered into the office, gold chains draped on his hairy puffed-out chest, dressed in sports shirt and shorts when everyone around him was in suits, I knew the guy did it. One day while driving past one of his stores with my girlfriend, I blurted out, “Don’t shop at that store! Don’t ask me why.”
This book is a little like those cases. Some of these stories probably should remain private since playing music is one of the ways I put bread on the table. Burn too many bridges and I’ll find myself back at a temp agency answering phones. However, I can’t help but blurt out a few facts. Some minor details, like names and locations, have been changed in several of the stories to protect the near-innocent. None of the major details have been altered. If I use a first and last name, it’s a real name.
Most of these stories take place over my performing career. I started touring in the late eighties before the advent of modern cell phones and the Internet. I continue to perform today and am grateful for the technology available to me—especially for Marcia, my GPS with the sexy voice—although the lack of a cell phone really made for some interesting times on those early tours. And I can’t imagine writing this book on a Smith-Corona. I’d surely suffer brain damage from the correction fluid fumes.
For the first forty-one years of my life I lived in Arizona. A move to North Carolina was next and now I reside in Ottawa, Canada. (I keep moving north. If I end up at the Arctic Circle, please slap me.) I mention all this just to put the stories in perspective. It makes the Alaska story more poignant when you know that I was living in Arizona at the time.
I owe thanks to the couple from Vermont that I met in 2003 at the Highlands Inn in New Hampshire. They commented, after hearing one of my road stories, “You should write a book.” They aren’t the first folks to urge me to write, but they had the best timing. I was between gigs and without a steady net connection or good cell phone service. It was a freezing November with icy roads and a chilly wind. I was snuggled under a warm afghan, with an even warmer computer sitting on my lap, and writing was my best option. More stories were written in the following years, whenever I had time and a place to plug in the laptop.
My apologies to anyone who thinks I’ve written about them here. I believe that almost everyone in this book acted with good intentions—sometimes their mamas just didn’t teach ’em about putting on a show or having guests. For most of the people I met on my journey, your mama taught you right. I mention some of you here, but for most, the cool happy things just didn’t make for as good a story. The carefully packed lunches, tirelessly promoted shows and comfortable beds were appreciated more than you know. As for the rest of you, please don’t bother suing me. I don’t own much and you’ll never be able to pry my guitar out of my cold, dead hands. Besides, you don’t want to piss off a songwriter. Ask my exes.
I like how the steering wheel is firm under my hand
I like how the headlights cut across the shadow land
I like how your voice is low and breathless in my ear
I like that it’s cold outside but warm in here
Surrounded by this highway, we’re at the speed of light
Baby, let’s drive all night
Let’s Pretend We’re Booking Agents!
My First Tour.
In 1987 I did my first tour. It wasn’t part of a grand plan—I just wanted to get to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. However, money from a part-time clerical job in Tucson, Arizona, wasn’t going to buy enough gas to get across the street. Fueled by the new women’s music network, my friend and fellow singer-songwriter Martie van der Voort and I decided we’d gig our way to the festival. No one told us we couldn’t do it.
We had booked local performances for ourselves, but we didn’t have the faintest idea how to book a tour that spanned hundreds of miles. We found a woman who wanted to learn to be a booking agent so we hired her to get us gigs in folk and women’s music venues. Martie and I set about working out harmonies and lead guitar parts on each other’s songs. Although my main instrument is the acoustic guitar, I think I even played banjo on one or two numbers. I hope someone got a picture of that, because I haven’t been seen in public with one since. Next thing ya know, I’ll be taking up the accordion and offending an even greater part of the population…you know I’m kidding, right? I love both instruments. I just happen to be a lousy banjo player. I’d have to go to a gym for a year to even lift an accordion. Besides, injured animal sounds aren’t in high demand at concerts.
I managed to save enough money for a festival ticket and it had already arrived in my mailbox. With the money from gigs we should be all right…if only we had some gigs. A few weeks before we were to leave, our esteemed booking agent called us and said she couldn’t get anything for us. We could only wonder: What did she do? Call her second cousin in Cat Litter, Wyoming, and then give up?
Martie, ever the positive one, happily exclaimed, “Let’s pretend we’re booking agents!” We needed shows so we started making phone calls to friends, friends of friends and strangers we randomly dialed who might be connected to a coffeehouse, bar, women’s center or church. This was before email, before cell phones and even before many people had answering machines. A lot of times the phone rang and rang…and rang. Sometimes I’d get an answering machine. If I was really lucky, I’d get a five-year-old telling me that Mommy was in the bathroom. I’m great with kids and sometimes I managed to get the little guy to give Mommy the phone.
If they didn’t answer or get back to me in a week, I called again. And again. I called until I got a yes or a no. Even a no was as good, because that meant I could cross them off my list. (Another musician once told me that “no” was his second favorite answer. I concur.)
Martie and I knew we could play at our local lesbian bar a few weeks before we left. While our friends generously showed up to cheer us on, my portion of the one-dollar bills in the tip jar left me $110 short. That was a couple of weeks’ salary for me. I had no money left after rent, food and school expenses. The out-of-town gigs, if we were able to get them, were a crapshoot—we could make $500 or $5. I told a few friends that I might have to cancel our trip and eat the money I’d spent on the ticket.
About three weeks before we were supposed to leave, an envelope arrived in the mail. My address was scrawled on the front and there was no return address. Inside was a postal money order for $110. The signature was unreadable. I did not intend to be a charity case. I angrily confronted Martie. Surely, she had convinced a friend to send me the money. She swore she had nothing to do with it. I talked to everyone I knew and they all shrugged. I went back to Martie, and she said in her oh-so-sage way, “Maybe you should just say thank you.”
We ended up booking a half-dozen gigs, all played to people who’d never heard us live. It helped that we were making use of the women’s music circuit. Only in existence a few years, there was still a lot of enthusiasm for any women performers, whether you’d just learned how to change from G to C without stopping or had recorded a few LPs. (Back before DIY recordings, albums were very expensive, so not many had produced them.)
We set off in Martie’s van. A few years old and a little beat up around the edges, it would only stop if I stood on the brake pedal with both feet. As long as no one pulled out in front of us, we were golden.
We had some wonderful shows, from a small theater in Albuquerque to a YMCA basement in Kansas City. We had some interesting gigs also, including one at a small bar where the van refused to start. A tow truck driver helped us by shoving a small twig in a hole in the carburetor, enabling us to continue on our way. There’s much more to that story, including a night’s stay in a kid’s bed with sandy sheets, a dog that peed on my foot and a drunk bar owner who didn’t want to pay us, but I’ll refrain from whining.
We had a great time at the festival. After hearing all those strong women who could most definitely change chords without stopping, we felt like Amazons. We played at open mike and at the jam tent. I dreamed of playing onstage there and finally did, in 2004.
With no gigs, the drive home took a lot less time. The brakes kept working, resulting in great new calf muscles, and the twig stayed in place. Plus, it started a dream of touring, something I ended up doing for twenty-plus years, thanks to someone who scrawled an illegible signature on a money order for $110. I hope they know now what a tremendous impact they had on my life.
Bunny Boots and Square Tires
I got a call from an Alaska producer who wanted me for a concert…in January.
“Uh,” I stammered, “you know you called Arizona?”
She explained that in the summer she couldn’t get anyone to come indoors for shows. I reluctantly agreed to the gig after she guaranteed they’d keep me warm. I didn’t ask for details and envisioned a steaming hot tub, peeled grapes and…oops, wrong fantasy.
I borrowed my girlfriend’s down jacket and headed toward the frozen north. My friendly producer met me at the Anchorage airport. It was below freezing, but with the sun shining there was the illusion that it was warm enough that my nostrils wouldn’t freeze shut if I took a big breath.
In the two days before my show a couple of different women showed me around the area. I saw a lot of beautiful snow-covered forestland and visited an ice-blue glacier frozen in a bay. It wasn’t until I got out to that huge chunk of ice that I saw the signs warning KEEP AWAY. Apparently those things are still moving, even in subzero temperatures. Still, I have a photo of me with a big ol’ goofy grin, standing in front of it. Jamie defies death!
We also went sledding not far from my housing. To the people in the neighborhood, this was an everyday thing, but to this folksinger who lived most of her life in the desert, it was like a really fun roller coaster inside a giant freezer. The adults stood around and talked about big, grown-up things while the kids and I screamed down the hills. Everyone politely ignored me, like New Yorkers overlooking that guy on the subway who’s arguing with the voices in his head.
My show was in a nice theater with a wonderful crowd in attendance. They’d made up a set just for me, with big plywood cactuses and a howling coyote against the backdrop of a beautiful orange and red desert sunset.
Next I flew north to Fairbanks. A wiry, weathered woman with an easy smile greeted me. After her enthusiastic welcome she helped me out to her pickup truck in the below zero weather. We hefted my guitar and suitcase into the back of the open truck. I wondered what effect the cold would have on my guitar, but there was no room in the cab. I winced as I plopped down on the unexpectedly hard seats.
“Cab’s not warmed up yet, the seats are frozen,” said my companion.
Frozen seats? I thought she was pulling my leg until she went on to explain that the weather was so cold that things like seats and tires froze. There was such a thing as “square tire” and that’s why the ride would be rough for a few minutes. She put the heater on its highest setting and we blazed away through streets with so much snow piled on the sides that I couldn’t read most of the street signs. It was like driving through a tunnel with a small opening on the top.
At my housing I was greeted by a barefoot woman in shorts and T-shirt. I joked that she must be a native to be dressed that way in winter. “No,” she cheerfully answered, “I’m from South Africa.”
The house was warm, due to triple-paned windows and a good furnace, but still, I’ll wear jeans, sweatshirt and heavy socks thank you very much.
Getting ready to go out for the gig I pulled out my beloved purple snow boots that were a gift from my girlfriend. A smile played around the corners of my host’s mouth as she cracked, “You’ll need something much sturdier for our weather. We’ve gotta find you some bunny boots.”
Bunny boots? Was this a joke played on naïve tourists?
No, there really was such a thing and fortunately, some were found that I could borrow. They were huge white rubber boots that looked like a cartoon character’s feet. The soles were a couple inches thick to keep out the cold underneath and they laced up to protect your ankles from frostbite. They were so heavy I felt like I had a Volkswagen tied to each leg. However, they kept my feet fairly warm with only one pair of socks.
I would definitely need snow pants, too. They were sure I could borrow some, but it seemed every woman I met was smaller than I was, so I opted for thick jeans over a pair of long johns.
My glasses wouldn’t be good either since they were metal and sat directly on my nose. “They’ll freeze to your face,” my host thoughtfully pointed out.
With my lousy eyesight and poorly insulated leg wear I wouldn’t survive a walk from a parking space to the front door of our destinations, so everywhere we went I was dropped off right in front. The princess arrives.
Almost everyone I met regaled me with stories of frostbite. One woman showed me some purplish spots on her leg where leaky snow pants had let in the cold and killed the tissue. After a few more tales, most involving body parts dropping off, I wanted to check my clothing for leaks. But how could I do that? Ask my hosts to blow air up my leg? I wondered would that line work in a crowded bar? “Hey honey, wanna check me for frostbite?”
My gig that night was in a tourist bar used mostly in the summer. In the winter, it was sort of a women’s bar open only on weekends. As women arrived, I noticed how adept they were at greeting buddies and removing protective clothing. Hug, remove snow boots. Wave hello to your friend across the room then hug someone else while removing scarf. Briefly wrap your arms around a friend while telling her about your new job, take off snow pants. If this were an Olympic event, Alaskan women would take all the gold. They came in looking like well-padded Michelin Tire guys and ended up looking like any audience, some even wore dresses.
Just before I was to go onstage my producer once again reminded me to perform not longer than forty-five minutes, then take a break and go on to do my second set. She’d seemed so easygoing about everything else that I wondered why she was so adamant about my set lengths. Until I finished my first set and saw half the women rush out the door.
At first I wondered if I sucked and they couldn’t wait to escape. It was then that it was explained to me that the bar didn’t have hookups. “What are hookups?” I innocently asked. Those are the electrical outlets you see outside most businesses, they told me. Before you go inside you plug in a special car heater to keep your engine warm. Because this was a bar used mostly in warmer weather there wasn’t such a convenience and they needed to start their cars. I joked that it was the butch women who rushed out there, but frankly, all the women in Alaska looked butch to me except for the few wearing dresses inside the bar. While I waited I could hear lots of cars starting up outside. They ran for a few minutes, then everyone came back in and I finished the show. There was a great dance afterward. Alaska women know how to party.
I got a couple of wonderful offers to go dog sledding and to go up in a bush plane, but unfortunately didn’t have time to do either. However, there was one day to go sightseeing. I visited a museum at the university. That only took an hour or two. My hosts talked about taking me to some hot springs, but decided that the short drive out of town was too dangerous. “Why?” I naïvely asked.
I was patiently told that there weren’t many cars on the road or any open gas stations. If the car broke down you can die, especially when you have a princess on board who can’t walk more than a few feet. Then they asked if I wanted to see the pipeline. Even though it was a bit out of town it wasn’t as far as the hot springs and should be safe. I have a photo of me in front of the huge snow-covered pipe. I know I’m smiling by the way my eyes crinkle, but the rest of my face is covered in a bulky scarf. The remainder of my body is thickly layered with down, wool and nylon, and ending with those ridiculously enormous boots. In town, later that day, I took a photo of the temperature sign outside a bank building. It said minus fifty-five.
The next day as I got ready to leave I heard the weather report on the radio. It was fifty-eight below! I commented to my hosts that my flight would surely be delayed. “Oh no,” they responded, “the airport is open, schools are open, everything is normal for Fairbanks.”
As I sat on the plane, the flight attendant spoke over the loudspeaker and apologized for the lack of coffee. “The water lines are frozen,” she explained.
They deiced the wings. I couldn’t get coffee, but the plane could fly—just another day at the Fairbanks airport. Takeoff was smooth. Over the next hour I was transfixed by the view outside the window, a vivid orange sun rising over blue-white snow-covered peaks. That same day I arrived in Tucson to seventy-degree weather and within a couple of days had one of the worst colds of my life.
It was all worth it, funny boots or no.
She’s Shorter in Person
I was a little nervous about this gig because it was in a fourteen-hundred seat theater in Los Angeles, a city that’s used to huge, slick touring acts, not folksingers from North Carolina. Fortunately, I was opening for the fabulous comic Kate Clinton. After sweating through my own set, I knew I’d get to relax and laugh my way through her portion of the show.
It was a hard gig to get, requiring many phone calls. The promoter booked me because a well-known booking agent for someone else recommended me. We decided on the details and signed a contract. I knew something was awry when she sent me a short email asking me about the kind of piano I needed.
I play guitar.
When I phoned her, she told me that the show was being taped for a documentary about funny lesbians.
“Great!” I exclaimed, “I’d love to have a good recording of one of my performances.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line, a sigh, and then she responded, “We’re only filming comics.”
Okay, so I don’t do comedy clubs, and I’ve never been on HBO. However, with songs like “Menstrual Tango” and “I Miss the Dog (More Than I Miss You)” it’s pretty clear I’m not a folksinger who warbles about unicorns.
It could be that the promoter had never heard my music. Ah well. A gig’s a gig and I was getting the chance to play for several hundred people. It couldn’t be bad.
I arrived at the venue dog-tired from that day’s plane ride from North Carolina. I did a quick sound check, and then wandered around the huge backstage area. I had my own dressing room that included a wall of mirrors ringed with bright lights. Beats the hell out of the dingy, smelly bathrooms I’ve been offered in other venues.
Kate and a few of her friends were hanging out as a woman with a camera filmed them. I introduced myself. Kate thanked me for opening the show. Hey, twist my arm.
Strolling out front, I saw rows and rows of chairs. I’d made plans to meet an old friend, Oshara, so I wandered out to the lobby. There she was, smiling and waving at me. We sat and caught up until I realized it was getting close to concert time. She followed me backstage.
Walking down the long hallway to my dressing room, I saw a large group of women. All I wanted was a quiet space and a little more conversation with my friend, not a mob of people I didn’t know. I was just working myself up to a good grumble when I realized that one of the women in the group was Melissa Etheridge.
Okay, she can stay.
The promoter had hinted in an earlier phone call that she’d be there. Oh sure, Melissa Etheridge…lives in LA…friend of Kate’s.
I told a few friends and they joked that I should do “Bring Me Melissa,” my parody of her “Bring Me Some Water.” I pooh-poohed that idea, but now I was thinking, hmmm, does she have a sense of humor? Evil lawyers? Will I have to hand over my house, my car and my cats before it’s all over?
I didn’t give myself too much time to think. I strolled up to her and the group like it was something I do every day. I thought I’d casually smile and say, “Oh, hi, Melissa.”
Not quite. Instead, I stood like a stone statue on the periphery of the group until the promoter extended her hand toward me, turned to Melissa and said, “Melissa, this is Jamie Anderson. She’s opening the show.”
Melissa grinned broadly, shook my hand and said, “Well hello, Jamie Anderson.”
I have no idea what I replied. It might have been something grown-up like, “Nice to meet you” or I might have babbled incoherently. Next, I think I was introduced to her girlfriend. I couldn’t tell you her name, because she was wearing a tight, low-cut T-shirt and I turned into Ed Bundy. I don’t even have a thing for breasts—hell, if I want to see them, I’ll just strip and stand in front of a mirror—but there were those breasts like a pulsing sign blinking look…look…look.
I’m five-nine in heels, and I towered over Melissa. I know it’s a cliché, but she was so short. With stage presence like hers, I expected her to be forty-seven feet tall.
I stood there for a while, trying to remember to blink. I couldn’t find a way to slip into their conversation about how to get Melissa and her girlfriend safely to their seats. I have no superhero alter ego who can save a Big Star from hundreds of adoring lesbians.
See, when a big-name performer wants to come to another entertainer’s show, they usually have their people call the entertainer’s people to get free tickets. They get seated in a VIP section in front where no one bothers them. Not only was there not a VIP section, but Melissa bought tickets to the show. My opinion of her immediately rose.
The discussion continued. The promoter thought she could put them in the fourth row instead of the seats they bought that were further back. They could be escorted in just before the show started.
Instead of standing there like a department store dummy, I elected to step into my dressing room, located immediately behind the group. Oshara followed me. I shut the door, turned to her and calmly asked, “Did I just meet Melissa Etheridge?”
She replied that I had.
“Oh my God!” I screamed, before I realized the group we’d just left was right on the other side of the flimsy door.
I willed myself to breathe, then carefully went over my set list. Before I knew it, I was alone onstage in front of several hundred people. The stage lights prevented me from seeing any farther than the first two rows, so fortunately I couldn’t see Melissa and consequently forget how to form a G chord. However, I was keenly aware of her presence, especially when I did my faux rock song “Potato Chips.” Between two verses, I leaned forward rock-star-like, whipped my hair around and quipped, “I look just like Melissa Etheridge, don’t I?”
The crowd roared with laughter.
Also in my set was one of my most popular songs, “Dark Chocolate,” a sensuous bluesy ballad about loving women.
The way to a woman’s heart is through her lips
Through the shudder of her sighs and the motion of her hips
Through the softness of her thighs to that place between her…shoulders
And if a woman wants her, do you want to hold her back?
I had fantasies of Melissa meeting me backstage and asking to cover the song or to open her shows. I was already planning the tour schedule when I stepped off the stage.
The audience loved me. Not that I was chopped liver, but they loved Kate even more and rightly so. She gave a wonderful performance.
I slipped in the stage door to congratulate Kate. I expected mobs of people doing the same, but I found her alone. As I shook her hand and opened my mouth, a woman with a movie camera came in the same door and pointed it at us. I paid my compliments. Kate grinned, hugged me and exclaimed, “We did it!”
“Yes we did…but let’s not tell our girlfriends.”
Well, I thought it was funny. Kate looked at me with a half grin and turned down the hall, trailing the camerawoman. Several smiling people waited for her at the end, so I held back to give her time with her friends.
Melissa never did come backstage.
I knew my performance wasn’t filmed. I hoped that a clip or two of me backstage would make it into the movie. Nope. All that exists is the movie in my head and the feeling of Melissa’s warm palm pressing into my right hand. Somebody bring me some water.
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