Posted by: jgurner | May 17, 2010

Ruby’s House of Rock ‘n’ Roll

Editor’s Note: The story below is a true story, more or less. Some of it may or may not have happened the way I remember it. Some events may be exaggerated, omitted or I may have just imagined they happened they way I remember and that worked itself into the reality I remember more than 20 years later. In short, the following is as true as I can remember it. Even the parts I made up.

It was called Ruby’s House of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which turned out to be somewhat of a misnomer.

The establishment, located deep in the woods off Old Highway 7, just south of Holly Springs, was, indeed, owned and operated by a woman named Ruby. She was a small woman, as country as her business’ location, but with big plans. By renaming her back-woods juke joint with the words “rock ‘n’ roll” in the name, she was sure to catch some of that lucrative Ole Miss crowd looking for somewhere else to go for music and booze besides the, then, fairly scant offerings of Oxford circa 1989.

But, it was not just a name change she had in mind. No. Much to the chagrin of her regular clientele, which seemed to consist of about a dozen or so, mostly very blue-collar, very rural men who lived in the area, she was going to shed the country image and start getting real rock ‘n’ roll bands playing real rock ‘n’ roll music at her venue on the weekends to pack in the young, affluent college crowd. But first, in order to do this, she had to acquire the services of one of these elusive beasts as they weren’t that plentiful in rural Marshall County.

That’s when, lets call him “Dan” because I can’t remember if that actually was his name or not, enters the picture.

Dan managed a fairly successful band that, for a number of years, had been playing across the Southeast. They’d cut an album. They got radio play in college towns where they played. It was a good gig. But they always came home to play to their hometown Oxford crowd and to support new and upcoming local bands struggling to get a toe into the Oxford music scene. That’s how we met Dan.

I think.

Honestly, I’m not sure how we met Dan, but at some point he stumbled upon this new, very much struggling band with the unlikely moniker of Psychic Pilgrimage. At the time, the four of us, myself on bass, Matt on drums, Jay on lead guitar, and Paul on rhythm guitar and vocals, had only the occasional gig. Mostly playing parties for friends for free. But, we played the Gin (RIP) and the Hoka (RIP) and had a turn or two opening for other bands for little more than free beer, and life was good.

Our set list consisted of a rather uneven mix of classic rock – Clapton, Beatles – 80s rock – INXS, R.E.M. – and a few originals that Matt and Jay had written. I was brought in late in the game to replace the original bass player and in the first months spent my time just catching up with the playlist. But by the time we played our first complete gig, we had two to three hours worth of tunes and were belting them out with something akin to confidence and competence.

As I said, somewhere in these months Dan ran across us and took a liking to us, and while he was never  officially our manager, he did help us out every chance he could. He’d get us a slot opening for another band in town, with little or no pay of course. Or, when his band was in town, we’d come in and play for 15 or 20 minutes during the band’s breaks, which was really great, because they always drew a big crowd.

So, people heard us. And, as far as I could tell at the time, they didn’t hate us.

At some point, in late winter 1989, Ruby crossed paths with Dan and, armed with her plans to give her establishment a rock ‘n’ roll makeover, she attempted to hire his band for a three-night stand in order to bring in those lucrative college students whose money she desired so much. Unfortunately for Ruby, the economic forces involved with booking a band of that caliber were against her. They were well beyond playing for a share of the door in a back woods country bar trying to shed its juke joint image.

But, Dan had an idea. He knew of an up and coming young band that was still hungry enough to want such a gig. A gig where they would be the main attraction. A gig where they were guaranteed three nights of rocking the house. A gig they could where they could really show themselves off.

So, a couple of weeks before this grand re-imagining was to be kicked off, probably sometime after 2 a.m. – that’s when Dan always called – the phone rang and he filled me in on the details. After a hasty band meeting the next evening, we were ready to accept the gig.

The original Psychic Pilgrimage line-up, from left, Jay, Matt, Paul and me

Except for the fact that Paul announced that he was quitting the band.

And, did I mention that Paul owned the P.A. system we used?

So, after another hastily assembled band meeting with the new three-piece Psychic Pilgrimage, we’d come up with a game plan. We’d keep Paul’s equipment, whether he was cool with it or not, and flesh it out for a much larger venue than we usually played. One with no sound system of its own.

As for replacing Paul, we shifted the vocal responsibilities and I, for the first time, became the lead singer of a band

Did I mention my fear of singing in front of people?

So, after stalling for a day or two, I contacted Dan and told him we were ready to take on Ruby’s House of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

We spent almost all of our free time for the next week and a half in The Shack, which is where we practiced. We retooled old songs for a trio. We added new tunes. We dropped tunes – Paul specials such as “Summertime Blues” and “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.” We polished. We learned lyrics and harmonies. It was intense and exhausting, but the three of us loved it.

The actual gig consisted of a three-night stand, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, beginning at 8 p.m. and ending at just before midnight. This was back in the days when bands actually started playing by 8 or 9 o’clock and played for three hours, rather than how it is today – the band starts at 10:30 or 11 and plays for an hour. So we had our work cut out for us. We had  four sets, roughly an hour each, and planned breaks of about 15 minutes between each. By the time the big weekend came around we were tired. Our finger, hands and arms ached from playing our instruments so much. Our voices were getting hoarse from singing so much. Our minds were crammed with song lyrics, chord changes, guitar, bass and drum lick. Oh, and there was also the little fact that all three of us were full-time students and had part-time jobs. I had two jobs at the time.

But, the pressure, oddly enough, just made it more fun. It seemed to make what we were doing more rewarding. We were having to power through all this adversity in order to do something we loved. It was the most important thing at the time for us and we went at it full tilt. By the time Friday rolled around, we were ready. We were psyched. We were going to rock Ruby’s House of Rock ‘n’ Roll and all of rural, backwoods Marshall County!

So, before the sun began to set on a chilly Friday afternoon, we began loading up equipment. We were fortunate enough that another high school buddy of Matt and Jay’s had the extra sound equipment we needed and the ability to run it and make us sound pretty decent. He’d helped us out before and was good enough to do it again.

Equipment and instruments loaded, our caravan took off up Highway 7 toward Holly Springs and our date with our first major, major gig. Not only did we have our own vehicles packed full of equipment, we were also leading vehicles with a number of our friends who were always good enough to support us whenever we had a gig. Altogether, there was probably about a dozen of us that first night. It was exciting stuff.

Now, neither Matt, Jay or I had actually been to Ruby’s House of Rock ‘n’ Roll beforehand. Even though it was off in the woods, it wouldn’t be that hard to find because it literally was the only thing out there. There were a few houses and trailers scattered along the road at the time, but, if you turned off the highway onto Old Highway 7 just before you hit Holly Springs, drove a couple of mile, you’d come across a dirt road, at the end of which, was our destination.

For those of you who may have never actually been to a country juke joint, just think about it and form a picture in your mind.

Got it? Good.

You’re probably not too far off from what Ruby’s House of Rock ‘n’ Roll looked like. It was a big building, not in the greatest of shape, but it was obvious that work had recently been done on it. Parts of it didn’t seem to fit together just exactly right, but it still managed to give off a sense that, somehow, all of the mismatched pieces and possibly shoddy workmanship worked together adequately enough to fulfill their function. Inside, on one side of the main room, was a nice wide, low stage, one or two steps above the main floor. In the back of the room was the bar and, I assume, the kitchen. Scattered around the floor were a number of mismatched, decrepit tables and chairs that looked as though they had just randomly gathered over the years. And in some of those chairs and gathered around the bar when we arrived was a collection of a dozen or so folks who pretty well matched the description of the building and its furnishings.

While, under normal circumstances, we might have had some misgivings about the situation, we were running on adrenaline and ready to take on the challenge. As we unloaded and set up the equipment, the regulars eyed us much in the way that animals must eye visitors to the zoo – a kind of curious, dispassionate detachment that tends to swim around the area of the eyes and front brain. At least until feeding time, which in Ruby’s House of Rock ‘n’ Roll was when the next round of Budweisers showed up.

Once the equipment was set up and after a quick sound check, we were ready. After a few guitar strums and licks on the drum and bass during the tune-up and sound check, a few of the alcohol-dulled eyes began focusing up in the general direction of the stage. The room was divided into two groups, the natives and the interlopers who had followed us into the Heart of Darkness. Fortunately, we were too psyched to even think about the scene from The Blues Brothers where Jake and Elmo played at the country bar. If so, it might have given us pause. After all, we hadn’t rehearsed the theme to Rawhide.

From left, Jay, Matt and me at Ruby's House of Rock 'n' Roll.

Some Beatles, a little Clapton, Jay wailing on the guitar on some Hendrix, none of it seemed to really sink in with the local crowd there at Ruby’s. They stayed in their territory in the back of the bar, jawing with one another, pausing from time to time to take a swig from their bottles of liquid bread. Little attention was paid to the small knot of people in the front of the building, except for the odd glaring glance from one or two of the natives with a definite suggestion that they wished one of us were elsewhere, and, since they had just ordered another beer, it shouldn’t be them.

Set one was done and we headed out to the parking lot for a little air. So far so good. The crowd was sparse and virtually non-attentive, with the exception of our friends who clapped and cheered and shouted at the stage at appropriate moments. We discussed the set, a few technical issues and, once rested, we went back and started up again.

This time around, one of the natives peeled off from the crowd and wound his way (though there were no chairs or tables in his path) across the floor to stand in front of the stage. He was a small man, a thin, white coating of hair covered his head. And with beer in hand he began to do  a little staggering dance which, more of less, was completely out of kilter with whatever we were playing at the time. In fact, it was out of kilter just enough to suggest that, beer or no beer, it probably would have made little difference.

The little man continued to sway and stumble to the music through the next song. Once it was finished, he looked at the stage, eyes closed (a tough feat) and said simply : “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain!”

Jay

We took it as a request rather than a statement of fact, unfortunately it was not a song we had in our arsenal. In fact, the only think even close to country was a tongue-in-cheek original tune we did from time to time, but wasn’t on our set list this time around.

We apologized profusely to the little man that we weren’t able to fulfill his request., He responded simply by asking if we knew the song “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain.” We still didn’t.

So, we cranked up again. By this time we were probably into our 80s music portion of the show. While we had smoothed out our play list somewhat, we still had a few holdovers that weren’t quite in keeping with the direction we were trying to go. An argument could be made for keeping the R.E.M., but not so much the INXS or Modern English and the like, which, honestly, were added at my behest. And, of course, the Van Halen was completely out of place. While Jay may have had the chops, I was definitely no David Lee Roth. I wasn’t even a Sammy Hagar. (I was, however, at least a Gary Cherone, not that that’s anything to really brag about.)

The little man did his jig for a bit. He’d return to the bar in the back of the room every so often to grab another beer, but, before too terribly long, he’d be back up front, doing what one can only figure what he considered dancing.

Set number two was done and it was time for another break. As we began to leave the stage, the little man came up to the three of us with another request.

“Y’all need to play some belly rubbin’ music,” he slurred.

We each looked at one another, not really sure what he was asking for. Somehow, though his beer soaked eyes, he must have seen the confusion on our faces, so he elected to elaborate.

“You know, belly rubbin’ music,” he said again, as if that cleared the whole thing up.

It didn’t. So he tried again. He began swaying slowly. At first, we thought he might be finally succumbing to the large amounts of alcohol he’d obviously been imbibing, but we quickly realized he was demonstrating what he was talking about.

“Sumpin’ you can get close to you woman with,” and with that, he started mauling the poor, invisible, non-existent woman he’d been “rubbin’ bellies” with.

The little man did have a point. We weren’t big on slow tunes. In fact, there wasn’t a single slow tune in our repertoire. Probably the closest we came was a couple of Crosby, Stills and Nash tunes. In general, we really didn’t consider ourselves a band people would necessarily dance to, fast or slow. We were for listening to. For drinking to. We were for our own entertainment as much as for the entertainment of those who came to listen to us.

Me and Jay at Ruby's

But, as the little man continued his almost carnal gyrations against the air, we stepped outside to consider the possibilities. On the one hand, he was right. Maybe a slow song or two, maybe slightly romantic, would be a welcome addition. It would give us a little bit of a change-up stylistically. On the other hand, we thought about the possibilities if we did add some “belly rubbin'” music, especially with this crowd.

When you looked at the makeup of the crowd on that particular Friday night, it consisted of about 20 to 25 people – the three of us plus our sound guy and about half a dozen of our friends made on segment. The remaining crowd was made up of the indigenous population. Of the total population, there were only about four candidates for any possible “belly rubbin'” that the little man might want to engage in. The only candidate from the local crowd was Ruby herself, and she didn’t seem the type to take a drunken grope around the dance floor with Mr. Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain. And we weren’t really sure how our female friends would react to an invitation to dance from him. Bar fights were not in our contract.

Ultimately, we decided to err on the side of artistic necessity. After a quick discussion in the parking lot, Jay and I grabbed our instruments and stepped back outside to learn the only slow tune we could come up with on such a short notice – Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight.” Jay knew the tune already, so we extended our break a bit and the three of us hashed it out right there in the parking lot. After a quick run through, we decided where to place it in the next set and went back in and fired up again.

About halfway through the set, Matt announced that we were changing the pace a bit and adding a little “belly rubbin'” music, by request, to our line up. Fortunately for everyone involved, the little man had retreated back to the bar and apparently declined to seek out anyone to rub his belly, or anything else, against.

Eventually, last call came around and it was time to pack up and leave for the night. Breaking down and loading the equipment and driving back to Oxford meant bed was still a few hours away, but, eventually, we all made it back and managed to get some sleep.

Saturday went much like Friday. We reversed the sets and mixed things up a bit. We had more requests for Blue Eyes Cryin’ in  the Rain, which prompted Matt to stick the title of the song into other songs every now and again. That seemed to satisfy the little man. As a whole, however, the night was somewhat lackluster. The initial excitement had faded and the reality that we still had another night began to sink in. As the final set begin to unwind, we started feeling tired. We’d gone through almost eight hours of music over two nights. We’d loaded and unloaded the equipment and were about to load up again.

The wind was definitely leaving our sails, but we were determined to make it through, so we soldiered on.

The crowd on that Saturday night was roughly the same as the night before. maybe one or two fewer friends accompanied us and one or two more locals came out, but still, it was about the same 20 to 25 people.

Now, it’s not uncommon for a band just starting out to be willing to play for next to nothing. At least it was in those days around Oxford. In that day and age, half the door was kind of standard for bands like ours. Sometimes there might even be a free round or two of beer, which, often, had about the same monetary value as the take at the door.

It was, and probably still is, common practice for each establishment to have a list of people who don’t have to worry about paying the cover charge. Staff who aren’t working that night. Friends of owners or employees. Girlfriends. Friends of the band. Sometimes the list gets pretty long. And I can’t complain too much. Throughout most of my time at Ole Miss, I was one of those who never had to pay a cover at any of the bars in town.

As it turned out, Ruby’s was one of those places where just about everyone is on the guest list. Especially the “regulars.” As they walked in the door, they’d glance over at Ruby and she’d wave to the person we had at the door to let them come on in, free of charge.

By the end of Saturday night, financially, things weren’t looking too good. At least for us. But, we really didn’t dwell on it too much. Sunday night was still ahead of us and, while the bars in Oxford were closed on Sunday, it was generally a big night for the places across the county line. Hopefully, things would turn around a bit on our final night.

Too few hours passed between the wee hours of Sunday morning when head finally hit pillow and the time rolled around again to pack up the equipment and make the drive north for the last night of our stand at Ruby’s House of Rock ‘n’ Roll. There was little enthusiasm as we unloaded the gear and got ready to play. Our following had dwindled even further to three . Even the natives’ numbers were sparse, though our biggest fan, the little man, was there with bells on. Possibly literally. Who knows.

To say our hearts weren’t in it would be an understatement. We went through our sets as if we were on autopilot. For the indigenous crowd, we weren’t even background music anymore. They’d managed to tune us out completely. Our friends stayed for a while, but then headed back to Oxford. And who could blame them. Monday meant the return of classes, band practice and real jobs.

Finally, after what seemed to be an eternity and with a mostly empty room, we crept up on midnight. We shaved a few tunes off our sets which allowed us to wrap a few minutes early.

No one seemed to care. Least of all us.

As we were packing our stuff for the final time, Ruby approached me. She seemed fairly happy with the debut of her new rock ‘n’ roll establishment. She had, indeed, drawn a few new faces – those of some college kids whose money she so desperately wanted to attract. Of course, little did she realize that the entire college crowd was brought by us.

Ruby was so pleased that she indicated she would love to have us back again at some nebulous point in the future. I was non-committal. Fatigue and frustration had set in. All I could really think about was bed. I told we could talk. She had my number, and Dan’s number, and she could contact either one of us at some point in the future by which I would have, hopefully, slept for a long, long time.

As if to add some incentive to lure us back, Ruby handed me our take for the three-night stand – a wad of slightly damp one dollar bills. She walked back into her establishment and I walked out and met Jay, Matt and our sound guy in the parking lot and we started counting the take.

Two weeks of rehearsal. Three carloads of equipment. Three round trip, half hours drives to the middle of nowhere. Three nights of performing, four hours each night. After all was said and done, the final take for the endeavour – $27.

Mind you, we weren’t in this for the money. Sure, we wanted the money, but it wasn’t the driving force behind everything we’d done. But, by the time you factored in gas and extra guitar strings, not to mention time, the money Jay and I spent on beer and time taken off various jobs so we could do this, $27 didn’t even come close.

Without a word, we handed over the $27 to our sound guy. He’d never asked for a penny in all the times he’d helped us out, but we felt it was the least we could do. Plus, dividing the $27 between the three of us would have been just too depressing.

So, with the equipment packed, we headed south once again toward Oxford – exhausted, and more than a little disappointed. Not just about the money, but about the fact that, even though it had been an ordeal and had pushed us almost to the breaking point, it was over.

Our stint at Ruby’s House of Rock ‘n’ Roll may not have been perfect, but it was all ours. It was the beginning of something more than just the three of us getting on stage and playing music. After that weekend, the three of us continued to play together off and on for the next four or so years. Eventually marriage, graduation and other factors moved us, each in our own time, away from Oxford, but in those intervening years Jay, Matt and I became as close as friends can become. Eventually, music became secondary. Often just an excuse to hang around as a group for an evening. And, after a while, we didn’t even bother with the music most of the time.

After that weekend there were plenty of other gigs, some of which we even made money on. But, whenever I think back to the history of Psychic Pilgrimage and reflect on my friendship with Matt and Jay, I always go back to the back woods of Marshall County and those three nights at Ruby’s House of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

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