By Missoula Slim
The lights go down at Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos as another songwriter takes the stage. The occasion is a sad one: Thomas J. “Big Tom” McAleer — a Central Texas booking agent and lover of Texas music — has passed, and musicians, friends and associates gather to pay tribute to his generous spirit. As the first chords cut through the smoke, a whiskey-voiced singer paints a picture of the Texas Hill Country. Images of bluebonnets, road grit and dusty cracked boots echo off worn wooden walls, and a strange and magical thing happens: Smiles appear on saddened faces, toes begin to tap in time to familiar rhythms, and the mood lifts. Big Tom is here one last time — ensconced in his usual place at the wire-spool table near the back, quietly singing along. Nobody, other than the writer onstage herself, might know the words by heart; but Big Tom does. That’s just the way he was: Befriending musicians, absorbing their music, their lyrics — their dreams. Giving them encouragement and a gentle push down the road towards the next gig. Big Tom was, above all, a lover of songs.
I first met Big Tom about seven years ago while playing happy hour at Cheatham Street. He came up to me after the gig and said he thought I was a decent enough writer — but my voice needed work. Excuse me! And you are? …
As time wore on, Big Tom started booking gigs, for me and for many other performing writers, in and around San Marcos. Tres Hermanas, Clear Springs Restaurant, The Hitch and others became steady, paying gigs — non-traditional venues Big Tom discovered, nurtured and grew into accepted galleries for our art. Soon, he had a cadre of emerging, hungry songwriters playing the circuit he had created. New venues, new writers, new music. It all came together in his mind, and slowly another vein in an already vibrant music scene began pulsing with new songs and new songsters. Big Tom sat at the center — on his computer, on his cell phone, making connections for artists and club owners, posting gigs on Reverbnation and on other music websites, and dispensing his advice and wise counsel. But through it all, it was always the music. Night after night you’d find him at Cheatham Street, and elsewhere, listening. He told me once he’d seen Midnight River Choir more than 30 times. Yet, he never grew tired or bored. Music was his life — as much as it is central to every artist who creates.
Big Tom’s spirit continues to live in the hearts and minds of those who knew and loved him. But I believe there is something more. I believe, if the Hindus are right, that Big Tom will surface again in this life — as one of the songwriters he held in such high esteem. And if the Christians are right, then Big Tom is hanging out with Saint Peter, booking gigs for Jesus. But if the Muslims are right, well, let’s just say there are 12 lovely virgins listening with rapt attention as he tells them all about Texas music.
After all these years, I’ve played a few hundred gigs, written dozens of new songs, and … I’m still working on my voice. Damn it, Big Tom. You pushed me to do better, just like you did with so many other songwriters. I think that somehow, you’re still pushing. And somewhere, you’re still listening — and you know the words to every one of my songs by heart.
Rest in peace, dear friend.