“There won’t be any pay but it’s for a good cause.”
Now those are words that strike fear into the heart of any musician, lol.
No professional really likes to work for free, but in this case it was my own brother, Jimmy, on the phone asking if I would fill in on lead guitar at a benefit gig in Atlanta, Georgia with a country band he’d been working with.
They had just self-released their first CD of originals. He said that since their guitarist, James Quill Smith (Dobie Gray, Three Dog Night, Dr. John, Billy Joel) had curtailed his performances for health reasons, they had been using a handful of guitarists, none of which Jimmy was willing to play a concert with.
As we talked I punched up the website about the little girl the show would benefit. She was four years old, her name was Gracyn, and she was stricken with Cerebral Palsy. There was a video showing her trying to run and play with her friends but getting left behind because she had some problems with her leg muscles.
My own healthy 4-year-old daughter came to mind and I thought, “But for the grace of God… ” I made my decision long before Jimmy ended his pitch. I said, “Keep looking but if you can’t find anyone else and you feel you need me for some reason I got your back, bro. Consider it covered.”
Three days later my brother lit up the caller ID on my cell. I smiled thinking, “They didn’t look too darn hard.” He said a list of songs, in the order they’d be played, would be on the way via e-mail and they had booked a bar gig the night before the concert to cover my expenses.
I hadn’t played with my brother since the days AC/DC and Ozzie Osborne were the oldies rock covers fueling our set lists so that was something to look forward to. And I was truly moved by Gracyn’s plight and wanted to help. “After all,” I said, “You just don’t get offered this kind of compensation every day. ” We both laughed.
The American Tavern gig on Friday night was packed from the get go with not only FWD on the bill but also family friend, local singer-songwriter, Tyler Hubbard, who had been making a name for himself around the Atlanta area. Tyler was also an opening act at the concert the next day and impressed me as having the tools- looks, songs and stage presence- to get a songwriting or recording deal.
We made enough money in bar pay to cover my trip expenses and FWD donated over $400 collected in the in tip jar to the Gracyn fund, so all was good and I was really looking forward to doing the bigger show.
I arrived at Meridian Park the next day in a pouring rain- expecting sunshine, a bit of a letdown- and asked my brother ( he was playing bass), if Gracyn, the little girl the benefit was for, was definitely coming. He had never met her any more than I had but said, “She’ll be here.”
As time passed I was far from convinced, having previously played a few ‘benefits’ in Pittsburgh that later were revealed to be not really on the up & up. The first opening band was tuning up and I’m looking over the crowd huddled under tents, umbrellas and inside the pavilion, for this 4 year old Gracyn. “Is that her? No.. can’t be, not quite old enough… Is that her? No, she doesn’t quite look like the girl in the picture.”
With the unrelenting rain and the family the event was for apparently not even bothering to show up, I was feeling the whole thing was a waste of time… thinking maybe it was a scam or something. I was definitely discouraged.
When she arrived there was no mistaking Gracyn. She was very tiny, frail looking and just the cutest little thing. Accompanied by her mother she was moving slowly across the lawn area in front of the stage with a huge smile on her face. On her head was the same type of purple cardboard princess tiara she wears in one of the pics on her website with “Gracyn” written on it in black magic marker.
But I wouldn’t have needed any of that to know it was her. She was walking completely on her toes, legs bowed in at the knees, the crippling disease preventing the backs of her feet from touching the ground. It was heartbreaking. The empathy I felt for Gracyn, along with the instant realization that the event was the furthest thing from a waste of time as anything could possibly be, brought a tear to my eye.
Okay, I’ll admit to at least two. And I knew one thing for sure: On this day I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
We played and it went great. The many sincere compliments from audience members regarding the band’s sound were icing on the cake.
It was a good time. More important, on a day of unrelenting, sometimes pouring rain, when anyone in their right mind would have simply cancelled, we used skills allowed by the healthy muscles we were blessed with to help raise a few thousand dollars for a family with a simple dream: to see their child whose muscles aren’t working so well get an operation to help her walk well enough to keep up with her friends a little better. They have no illusions it will be a cure.
Toward the end of the set we played a Van Zandt tune Fishing with Dynamite wanted to do especially for the concert, a song called “Help Somebody” that the band had never tried before. My brother Jimmy sang it and it came off surprisingly well. I launched into the final go-round of the song’s signature repeating lead guitar lick with the hook line of the final chorus echoing in my head: “Help somebody if you can… and get right with The Man.”
It’s a song about altruism, God, family… what goes around comes around. I think I’m gonna remember and savor that moment for a long, long time.
The concert over, I watched little Gracyn playing and imagined her in the future, walking a little better, getting stronger. But that might take another concert or two and I’ve already decided if I happen to get the call I’m gonna take it.
After all, you just don’t get offered that kind of compensation every day.