By Rita Ballou
(March/April 2013/vol. 6 – Issue 2)
Most little girls, I can only assume, dream of growing up to be princesses, teachers or nurses. But when I was a little girl all I wanted to be when I grew up was Sissy from the movie Urban Cowboy. I thought her brown felt cowboy hat with the feather, the belt with her name stamped on the back, her plain pocket Wrangers and her Ogilvie home perm were nothing short of glamorous. I wanted to two-step all night with charming, handsome cowboys and drink nothing but cold Lone Star beer out of the bottle.
Looking back on my childhood, I have no idea why Momma Ballou would let me watch this movie so often. Even though I still consider it a cinematic masterpiece, it does feature a threesome with Jerry Hall, vulgar language, alcohol abuse, adultery, domestic violence, and all the other evil things sin-scared Baptists frown upon, like dancing! I don’t think those subjects are normally so alluring to most 10-year-old girls, but I was nothing if not a weird kid. My childhood was spent lost in books, movies, television, and countless hours listening to my mom’s records, and the idea of “going outside to play” was absolutely repulsive to me. (Some things never change!)
I honestly don’t think my parents knew about, much less would have approved of this fantasy of mine, but they let it be known from the get-go that the most important thing to them was that before I chose a career path, I needed to get a college education. I wasn’t 18 when I graduated from high school, and because of my age and maturity — or rather, immaturity — level, Momma Ballou refused to send me off into the “real world” until I was officially an adult. So while all of my friends and classmates left town to attend the four-year universities of their choice, I spent an entire calendar year sacking groceries at the HEB during the day, taking boring basic courses at community college at night, and dreaming of a life without a curfew.
I can’t remember exactly why I chose Southwest Texas State University as the perfect place to further my education, but I do remember it being the only college I even applied to and was thankfully accepted. Before I knew it, I was officially an adult and my new home was a dreary little dorm room in Lantana Hall in the town of San Marcos, Texas. It took me several weeks to get adjusted to my new life, but I eventually made friends with the first girls I ran across that weren’t wearing the familiar plaid flannel that was so popular with the grunge music fans of the early ’90s, and we found ourselves “honky-tonking” as much as possible.
Now, let me digress here and state for the record that San Marcos has just about always been a happening little music town. And by “just about,” I mean I know it must have been pretty great all through the ’70s, when Cheatham Street Warehouse was hopping with the Ace in the Hole Band (featuring George Strait), and it was probably pretty cool in the ’80s, too, when Todd Snider was first getting started there. And in the ’00s Cheatham was where the Randy Rogers Band started taking off, and by then of course all sorts of other BIG names on the Texas/Red Dirt scene were all passing through town on a pretty regular basis — and they still do, playing both Cheatham and the Texas Music Theater. But you’ll notice I left the ’90s out there, because my college years just happened to fall right in the middle of just about the only time hardly anything was happening in San Marcos. Kent Finlay had sold Cheatham Street and wouldn’t take it over again until the end of the decade, so as best as I can remember it was either closed down the whole time I was in college or maybe it was some kind of Tejano bar. In fact, outside of Robert Earl Keen — who I wasn’t exactly hip to yet — the early ’90s offered pretty slim pickings as far as college-kid-friendly Texas country went. Y’all, we didn’t even have Pat Green yet! So when I say me and my fellow country-loving girlfriends went honk-tonking, it was usually to the stylings of nameless cover bands.
So anyway … Back in 1993, there was a dance hall in San Marcos called Yellow Rock. It was one of the only bars and THE only “country” bar in town that welcomed patrons under the age of 21. Wednesdays were college night at “the Rock” and the cover was only $1 if you had a student ID. Long before the invention of Spanxs, we would squeeze into our tight and usually colorful Rocky Mountain jeans, put on our lace-up Justin Ropers and all pile into my red two-door Chevy Cavalier and head out on Hunter Road to find us some boot-scootin’ cowboys. We were usually very successful in our mission.
The second semester of my freshman year, I was walking through the quad and signing up for any and every credit card I could just for a free t-shirt and not being the least bit concerned with the little things that might come back to haunt me after graduation, like credit reports or 29.5% interest rates, when I noticed some bright yellow fliers plastering an entire bulletin board and advertising drink specials for the Monday night “Texas Jamm Band” at a bar on the Square downtown called Nephews. I remember pulling it off the board and reading the smaller print that read, “featuring members of the Ace in the Hole Band.”
I might not have been a sophisticated, Kurt Cobain-loving alternative music snob, but I knew enough about country music to know that the Ace in the Hole Band was the band that played with George Strait. I didn’t know any of the band members names, much less what instruments they played, but I definitely knew that they knew George Strait and that was all I needed to know.
The only problem with Nephews, though, was that it was a 21-and-up venue and we are all 18. That wasn’t an issue for most of the girls I ran with because they all came to campus equipped with the one thing that a college freshman needed as much as quarters for the washing machines — fake IDs. Well, I didn’t look 18, much less 21, but after asking around the dorm I did manage to borrow a driver’s license that most likely belonged to someone’s sister’s brother’s cousin’s best friend. It was awful. Not only was it expired, it looked nothing like me. Either way, I was going to give it a try.
Yeah, it was a bad idea.
It was just my luck that the owner of the bar, Johnny Finch, happened to be working the door that night. He let in all of my friends, but he literally laughed at me when I handed him my fake ID. And as if watching all of my friends sashaying in and leaving me behind wasn’t punishment enough, Johnny not only confiscated my ID, he told me to “scram” in front of the entire line of people trying to get in the door. He literally used the word “scram.” I was mortified. I returned to my dorm humiliated and disappointed, but not defeated. When the girls came home that night with half-hearted apologies for leaving me behind and detailed stories of cute cowboys and George Strait songs, I knew I had to figure out another plan.
After exactly the same scenario happened the next week with yet another really bad ID I somehow managed to find, I decided to lay low and rethink my strategy. I gave it about a month before I tried again, but this time I was prepared and more than ready to enjoy a night out on the Square with my newly purchased “State of Florida Identification Card” that I had made at the flea market in South Austin.
When the 6’5”, blonde-haired, blue-eyed SWT football player/bouncer working the door for $20 a night (cash, because of the employment restrictions of his NCAA scholarship) looked closely at the ID — the one belonging to a “Cathy Caldwell” — he called over Johnny Finch to take a closer look. Johnny looked at me and I distinctly remember him asking me the question that changed my life.
“Why in the fuck do you keep trying to get into my bar when you know I am not going to let you in?”
I replied, “Because I want to hear George Strait’s band.”
He looked me dead in the eye and said, “Bullshit. If that’s true, then pick up a tray and get to work.”
I waitressed at Nephews every single Monday night for the next three years.
Brace yourselves now, because I’m about to get all coming-of-age gooey on y’all. I really don’t even care how stupid this sounds — and I’m snarky enough to know sentimental crap when I see it, let alone write it — but for a sheltered, weird little girl from a small town, there was just something about working in that environment that caused me to flourish. Johnny Finch was the meanest son-of-a-bitch I had ever met, but he taught me just about everything I know about the value of a hard work ethic. He taught me that praise isn’t something that should be given freely, because it only means something if it’s earned. And let me tell you, I worked my butt off — but I never once got tired of hearing that Texas Jamm Band. I’ll never forget how they always started their sets off with Bob Wills’ “Rolly Polly,” or how Ronnie Huckaby would always call me “Darlin’” when he’d come in at happy hour to set up his keyboards, or how Mike Daily (the pedal steel player) would only ever order two Crown and Cokes a night but he would always give me a $5 tip per drink. Some nights that would be the only money I made, but $10 back then would buy a broke college girl a lot of Taco Bell. I doubt very seriously those guys would remember me today, but they were a fixture in my life for a long time, and I absolutely loved them. Their shows admittedly didn’t have much of an impact on the “scene” in the way that Pat, Ragweed, and Randy all would a few years down the line, but those Monday nights at Nephews were MY introduction to “Texas music,” because it was music that I felt belonged to me.
It wasn’t until I watched the movie Urban Cowboy as an adult and really analyzed the plot of the infamous white-trash love story between Bud and Sissy that I realized that if I wanted to be anyone, I should have wanted to be Pam. Pam had that amazing Crystal Gayle hair, the fully loaded Cadillac, and all of her Daddy’s money from “Oil and all that that implies.” But best of all, Pam had her shit together. I graduated from SWT in 1997, “retired” from my career as a barmaid, moved to Georgetown, got married and started my life in public health. Later on I started a silly music blog and my life kind of took a different turn, but I have long since outgrown my fantasies of being Sissy. And I look back at my time as a citizen of San Marcos with nothing but fond memories and a content smile, knowing it has been more than 15 years since I gave up chasing cowboys for a guy that ain’t so bad on the dance floor himself — that very same 6’5”, blonde-haired, blue-eyed SWT football player that wouldn’t even let me in the bar. (Why does that remind me of a Ray Wylie Hubbard song?)