THE HONKY TONK LIFE
or, "Put a Flashing Neon Light on my Tombstone"
by RD FOSTER

Chapter 1
The Man in the Window

 

Red River County, Texas, 1991

“Turn it off got-dammit! Turn it off! You’re gonna burn the got-damned clutch out!” Willie Peters, red faced, with neck veins about to pop, yelled at his younger brother. With its metal joints and rivets squeaking, creaking and groaning, the rusty, ancient Ford wrecker strained hard against the taut, heavy-duty logging chain that connected its boom to the old bus. However, Big Walt, sitting there in the driver’s seat, heard nothing but the roaring of the engine. Humming loudly, enthralled in watching a red-tail hawk circling high overhead, his growling stomach longed mightily for a big, fat, heavy-on-the-mustard-pickles-and-onions hamburger down at Pearl’s Beer Joint.

The bus, a 1957 GMC motor coach, model number 4104, had not moved an inch in over twenty-five years, according to its 1965 Tennessee license plate. Sunk up to its undercarriage in the soft Northeast Texas sand, it had evidently sat peacefully all that time on the banks of a beautiful, serene and secluded small lake deep in the piney woods. Miles from any paved road, the overall question on everyone's mind remained; how the hell did it get here?

Big Walt, weighing in at well over 350 pounds, sat in the ragged driver’s seat of the old Ford with one well-worn cowboy boot on the clutch and the other revving the gas pedal. Now what’s the name of that danged ole song? Tapping his fingers to the beat of the old Web Pierce tune he was humming, try as he might, he just couldn’t remember, and the title, right there on the tip of his tongue, just wouldn’t come.

Wound up tighter ‘n a squirrel’s butt, the old Ford's engine roared, smoked, sputtered and backfired, its loose fan belts shrieking at an annoyingly high frequency. Willie yelled again when gray smoke began pouring from under the hood of the wrecker; however, Big Walt continued revving, humming and tapping his fingers on the steering wheel and gazing out the windshield. Dang it. What’s the name of that blamed ole song?

Willie, about to blow a gasket himself, grabbed a large Crescent wrench, reared back, and with all his might heaved the heavy piece of metal toward the cab. The wrench slammed against the back of the cab, making a large dent, though hardly noticeable among all the others, but with a sound that rattled the surrounding trees. Big Walt, thinking he’d been shot, or something worse, bailed out of the front seat and landed flat on the ground, face down on his big, round belly, and continued to lie there quivering like a humongous mound of Jell-O that had just been popped out of the mold.

Startled at what sounded like an eerie, screeching, electric guitar reverberating from inside the bus, and hearing his name called out, well, actually a nickname he hadn't heard in years, "Weasel!" Willie quickly turned around.

Behind the reflection of golden sun rays shimmering across the rippling lake water on the rear window of the coach, for just a second he could have sworn there was a man looking out that window, a man with long, stringy, black hair, scraggly beard, wearing a black cowboy hat and holding the strangest looking guitar one could ever imagine.

Willie, closing his eyes tightly, told himself, I don't hear nothin’; I don't see nothin’, and opened them again. It worked; the face was gone. Shaking like a cattail in a whirlwind, he hastily shook a Camel out of the pack, bit the filter off, spat it on the ground, and with trembling hands unsuccessfully tried to light the cigarette.

The sudden lurch of the truck, when Big Walt abandoned ship and popped the clutch, had caused the heavy-duty chain to snap, which came whizzing dangerously close by his brother’s head, and sent the bus right back down into the hole they had been trying so hard to get out of for the past two weeks.

Willie, cussing a blue streak, took off after the wrecker, which was running on its own down the trail they had cut through the woods. He didn’t have to chase it very far; it hit a huge pecan tree, dead center, sputtered a few times, and died. Big thumb-size pecans, falling from the tree, bounced off the roof, the sounds echoing throughout the sudden silence.

Trudging back down the trail, Willie cussed the wrecker, cussed his big, dumb brother, and even had a few choice words for his long-dead mother for ever having brought that worthless piece of crap into the world in the first place. But most of all, he saved the choicest words for that got-damned bus.

Big Walt, after picking himself up off the ground, brushed the dirt and leaves from his striped overalls. “Don’t be using the Lord’s name in vain now, Willie. You know what Momma said about that,” he scolded, straightening the thick, black glasses on his chubby face. “Shoot, I betchy I got chiggers all over me now. Lord-ee! Will you look at that, Willie? Broke that dadburn chain right in half. Lordy. You ever see anything like ‘at before?”

“Shut up, numskull. Just shut the mother-lovin’ hell up,” Willie growled, hands shaking as he attempted to light another unfiltered Camel clinched tightly between his gritted teeth and wishing he’d never even answered the phone three weeks earlier and accepted this sorry-ass job. It had not turned out to be the piece of cake he had said it would be; in fact, the entire job had been snake-bit right from the gitgo.

The Honky Tonk Life
Acknowledgments
 

I played my first professional gig in 1965 at seventeen, using a borrowed guitar, from Patty, a high-school cheerleader. My beat-up, five-dollar-garage-sale, a-little-bit-warped, Sears Silvertone hollow-body, arch-top guitar wasn’t anywhere near professional quality. Since then I have traveled over a million miles as a singer, songwriter, guitarist, harmonica player, bus driver, eighteen-wheeler jockey and a general jack-of-all trades in the music business. The songs included in the stories in this book came first and are the basis for where the stories take us. I began writing The Honky Tonk Life in late 1986, although I didn’t know it at the time. With a pencil and a spiral notebook I began jotting down stories that came from the songs that found their way into my mind, basically just passing time during the hundreds of hours I spent in hotel rooms or cruising down the road for days on end.

          The characters in this book are based on no one in particular, but are compilations of the dozens of people I have known, worked and traveled with for thirty-something years. The stories are fiction, but you can be certain there’s an element of truth on where they came from. Life on the road as a musician is different from any other profession that I know of. It can be glamorous and exciting, but it can also be tedious, boring, lonely and extremely hazardous to back-home family life.

          The popular advice for writers is, write about what you know. I hope you enjoy The Honky Tonk Life, or, Put a Flashing Neon Light on my Tombstone. 

Special thanks to Trina Foster, Rodney Williams, Richard Mayes, Kent Horn, Norman Caswell, Donnie McCutchen, Mike Sanchez, Linda Phillips and Victoria Freudiger, for their well-appreciated input, comments and encouragement.  

Dedication

The Honky Tonk Life is dedicated to the friends of mine who lived the “Honky Tonk Life”, who I feel greatly honored to have known and worked with over the years, and have since passed on. They all certainly left their each and individual mark, not only on my life, but on all who knew them and their work. I especially want to recognize Will Barnes and Donnie Mac, two of the greatest entertainers I have ever known, for believing in my songs and stories back in the early years.
To Maynard Ferguson, “world’s greatest” trumpet player, whose extraordinary road stories and exploits I got to listen to for hours on end as we crisscrossed this great country in his Eagle tour bus.
Jerry Biggs, home-town friend, actor, playwright and story teller; taught Donnie Mac how to yodel.
Charlie Wirtz, legendary guitar mechanic; built and gave me a camouflage Tele-hybrid to play at a special occasion, the first fund raiser for the Texas Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Fair Park in Dallas in 1982.
“Dirty” Bob Peterson, ruthless, but sometimes loveable owner of the Texas Tea House, the legendary Dallas home of the Texas Music Revolution. Carroll Eastham, guitar picker and teacher.
B. W. “Buckwheat” Stevenson, US Air Force veteran, and what being a true singer/songwriter is all about; died at 38 in a VA Hospital in Nashville, way too soon.
“Bugs” Henderson, one of the greatest guitar players ever. Phil York, producer and engineer, one of the best. Billy Honea, hometown guitar wrangler with a dream.
Johnny Winter, overcame so much to be so great.
Chris LeDoux, a real cowboy, on and off the stage.
Johnny Mac Cates, an outlaw long before outlaw was cool.
Dean McDonald, a true honky tonk hero. I dedicate not only the book but the two title songs, “The Honky Tonk Life” and “Put a Flashing Neon Light on my Tombstone”, to Deano.

RD FOSTER 

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