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Country music legend Kenny Rogers teams up with Spur Award?winner Mike Blakely for a rousing tale set?in the heyday of Nashville
It?s 1975, and Ronnie Breed?s chart-topping rock band has just self-destructed.
He opts to return home to Texas and reinvent himself as a solo act. Enter Dan Campbell, Ronnie?s cousin. Dan wants to televise a Texas Hold ?Em tournament?and Ronnie could never say no to his cousin. As celebrity spokesman for the poker ...
Country music legend Kenny Rogers teams up with Spur Award–winner Mike Blakely for a rousing tale set in the heyday of Nashville
It’s 1975, and Ronnie Breed’s chart-topping rock band has just self-destructed.
He opts to return home to Texas and reinvent himself as a solo act. Enter Dan Campbell, Ronnie’s cousin. Dan wants to televise a Texas Hold ’Em tournament…and Ronnie could never say no to his cousin. As celebrity spokesman for the poker tournament, Ronnie is soon recruiting world-class gamblers in illegal card games and trying to put together a country band to win a Nashville recording contract. Then things start to get weird—hidden cameras, secret high-stakes side-bets, a visit from the FBI. Ronnie begins to wonder if he will end up with the girl of his dreams in the Country Music Hall of Fame…or broke and lonely in some prison cell. What are the chances?
I KNEW it was time to break up the band when that two-thousand-dollar Neumann microphone bounced off the side of my head, leaving a gash just behind my right ear. If you’re up on your Ronnie Breed trivia from my rock-and-roll years, you may be familiar with the incident.
The members of my band, Ronnie Breed and the Half Breeds, had gathered at my bungalow in L.A. to learn some new songs I had written, and to make some demos that we could use to land another recording contract with Walnut Records. I had a decent demo studio in my bungalow.
Unfortunately, there had been some bad blood between me and the Half Breeds for years. Musicians—especially the good ones—usually come equipped with egos slightly larger than their talents might warrant. I include myself and my ego in that analysis.
“I’m not making another damn record with you getting top billing!” shouted Joe McLeod, my bass player, even before we could get started on the demos. He was drunk, and I think a little high on something. Probably coke, and I don’t mean the cola.
“Well, Joe, I put this band together,” I explained. “I hired all y’all, remember? I write the songs and produce the records. I front the band and make the deals. I’m the lead singer. I play guitar, keyboards, banjo, and mandolin. I can even play bass for you, if you want me to.”
“You don’t know squat,” Joe replied, an angry sneer twisting his face. “You’d be nowhere without us.”
“Well, maybe so, but you know the label won’t let us change the band name. We’ve been through this. There’s no need to confuse our fans after six chart hits. We’re Ronnie Breed and the Half Breeds, and that’s just all there is to it.”
“So, you’re a whole Breed, and we’re just Half Breeds,” Joe said, seething. I vaguely noticed when he picked up the vintage Neumann U 47 microphone, which was about the size, shape, and weight of a full, sixteen-ounce, tallboy beer can.
“How do the rest of you feel?” I asked the other band members.
After a silence, my drummer spoke up. “We’re with Joe on this.”
“Well, I thought y’all came over to hear some new songs, but that’s obviously not going to happen today.” I turned to put my favorite vintage Gibson guitar back on the rack.
When I did, Joe threw that Neumann like a pitcher hurling a fastball and hit me just behind my right ear. It hurt, and it made my ears ring. Plus, it made me mad. We were in my home! Nobody throws my own stuff at me in my own house! I turned slowly, looking at the blood on my hand from where I had felt the impact to my head.
“Joe, you’ve got ten seconds to clear out of here before I start kicking your ass.”
Now Joe had to make a stand if he really wanted to try to take over my band. “Try it,” he said.
I counted to ten out loud, then put my fists up and stalked toward Joe. That rascal grabbed my brand-new Martin D-28 guitar from a floor rack and started swinging it like a baseball bat. But, being stoned, he swung wild, exposing himself to my jabs, which staggered him. He tried to collect himself to backhand me with the guitar, but I ducked when I saw the six strings and the sunburst coming. The D-28 slipped from his grip, sailed across the studio, and crashed into the cymbals on the drum kit. About then I got him in the jaw with a right cross that dropped him to his knees.
In those days, you didn’t want to mess with a Texas country boy from the Gulf Coast. We had all grown up fistfighting for fun, glory, and survival.
“Get him out of here,” I said, backing away from Joe so that I wouldn’t be tempted to kick him while he was down. I glanced at the Martin he had chunked across the room. The neck had broken, and the back was bashed in.
“You didn’t have to do that!” the drummer said.
“He drew first blood,” I replied, feeling the warm trickle down the right side of my neck. “If you guys want to start your own band with your own name, this is your chance. I’m done with the Half Breeds. Get out. All of you. I’m done!”
And I was done. This had been a long time coming. Years of jealousy and backstabbing had led to this. I felt a great relief as the Half Breeds left my bungalow, a groggy Joe McLeod waving good-bye by flashing half a peace sign at me. I took a deep breath and exhaled the tension brought on by years of ill feelings. It was like being on the bottom of a dog pile in a football game, and then everybody gets up off you, and you find yourself still holding the ball. I had been flirting with the notion of going solo for a long time. This moment had opportunity written all over it.
(As for that Martin guitar, I had it braced up and glued back together and I still own it. It looks pretty rough but it sounds great—not unlike me. And Joe? He would soon go to rehab, get straight, find Jesus, and start one of the most successful gospel bands in the country. I still see him and the other Half Breeds occasionally. They’re all still in the music business in one way or another. The bad blood has dried up and blown away. There’s even some talk of a Half Breeds reunion tour, though the name is not politically correct anymore.)
So, I was going solo! Along with the relief and the opportunity, however, came a measure of fear. Panic, actually. The Half Breeds contract had been a sure thing. A solo deal represented uncharted waters.
I held a paper towel to the back of my head to stop the blood and sat down to have a beer. What now? I needed to call my agent, my manager, and my record label. I realized they would all be in a tizzy over this. Any kind of change always shakes those people up. I didn’t care. I was free.
That day was among the most pivotal in my life. The timing was crucial. Had the Half Breeds heard the songs I wanted to demo, I think they would have suffered through another album. It was the best batch of songs I had ever written. If you’re a music fan, you probably know most of them. They all became mega hits later on. I might have never gotten clear of that unhappy band, had Joe not chunked that Neumann microphone at me.
The other thing about the timing was that I needed a break from the grind. The music machine had been pushing me way too hard, and I needed a dose of reality. And then there was my cousin Dan.
At this point, because of his military intelligence career, I had lost touch with my cousin, who was really more like a brother. Our mothers were sisters. Dan’s mother had married a soldier who had survived World War II only to die in a military plane crash shortly after Dan was conceived. Dan never even knew his own dad. My father was killed in an offshore oil rig accident before I was old enough to remember him.
So Dan and I, both born in 1946, were raised by our single moms. But we did have a male role model—our moms’ brother, whom we knew as Uncle Bubba. In those days, a firstborn son in Texas often acquired the nickname of Bubba, which was baby talk for “brother.” Our mothers called their brother Bubba, so we called him Uncle Bubba. A bachelor, and a bit of a rounder, Uncle Bubba took his responsibility of raising Dan and me very seriously. We spent hours with him almost every day after school at his little stock farm just outside of town.
Uncle Bubba was tough, kind, funny, and scary all rolled into one, which was just what Dan and I needed. He was the disciplinarian who took a belt to our hind ends if our mothers deemed it necessary. But he taught us everything we needed to know, from manners to boxing techniques, cowboying to horse-trading skills. (Once you learn to horse-trade, you can trade anything.) He could weld, hunt and fish, bust a bronc, plow a field, build a house or a barn, dance the two-step, fix trucks and tractors and outboard motors, act proper in church, and fight his way out of a honky-tonk. By the time we left home, Dan I had learned to do all of the above and more, thanks to our uncle Bubba.
Like I said, I had lost touch with Dan after he got back from Vietnam. Dan was a restless adventurer his whole life, and I never knew where he was half the time. But he was good about checking in whenever he could with a phone call, a postcard, or a surprise visit.
I had, in fact, received a call from him not long before Joe McLeod threw that Neumann mic at me. The conversation went something like this:
“Where the hell have you been?” I had demanded.
“Abroad,” he answered vaguely.
“I’d tell you, but I’d have to kill you,” he said.
The phone connection was so poor that I could barely hear him over the static at times. “Where are you calling from?”
“You don’t want to know. Listen, Cuz, I’ve cooked up this deal, and I want to let you in on it. In fact, it won’t work unless you’re in on it.”
“Uh-oh,” I replied. I had gotten this kind of offer from Dan before. Like the time he recruited me to steal that goat. Not just any goat, but the mascot of a rival football team we were about to play for the state title—the Battlin’ Billies, of Fredericksburg, Texas. He had to have me in on that deal because we used my band’s PA equipment trailer to hide the stolen goat, which we dyed pink and tied to the flagpole in front of Fredericksburg High School. We never got caught, because Dan had planned the whole enterprise with military precision, and this was before he even went to boot camp. He just had a knack for organized mayhem.
(The plan backfired, however. The Battlin’ Billies were so mad about the dye job to their mascot that they beat the snot out of us at the state championship.)
“Dan, what the hell have you cooked up now, and why do you need me in on it?” I said into the phone.
“It has to do with Uncle Bubba’s heart.”
This got my attention. I had heard from my mom that Uncle Bubba was staring death in the face because of some kind of heart disease I had never heard of before. His only hope was a heart transplant, and this was back in the day when the long-term survival rate of transplant recipients was only about fifty–fifty. Still, Dan and I loved Uncle Bubba and would do anything we could to give him a chance at a few more good years.
The problem was that transplants were expensive and Uncle Bubba would not take charity. He wouldn’t let his family members spend their savings on him. He wouldn’t sell his farm to pay for the procedure, either, for he had promised to will the land to Dan and me, and Uncle Bubba never, ever failed to keep a promise. Nor would he agree to burdening taxpayers with his health problems.
“You know I’ll do anything to get Uncle Bubba a new ticker,” I had said to Dan. “What’s your plan?”
Dan had then gone on for several minutes about this wild scheme he had concocted, involving the filming of a pilot show for broadcast television. This didn’t surprise me. Dan had an affinity for pipe dreams and high-risk ventures. After describing the television idea, he asked me if I’d help him.
“Dan, you don’t know diddly about showbiz. It’ll never work.”
“There’s more to it that I can’t talk about over the phone,” he replied. “I guarantee it will work, but I need your celebrity status.”
“Dan, I can’t get involved in something like that without more details,” I had admitted. Refusing Dan anything always racked me with guilt, but I knew the label wanted those demos, and a new album, and I did have bills to pay and people on the payroll. Generating a lot of record sales does not always make a guy rich—especially a guy who had not learned how to manage money yet.
“I tell you what, Cuz,” he had replied after a well-timed silence and a hurt sigh, “I’ll give you some time to think about it, then I’ll fly to L.A. and lay the whole plan out for you. I’ll call you in a couple of weeks.”
At that point, Dan had either hung up or gotten disconnected.
So, here I was, a couple of weeks later, with a paper towel blood-stuck to the side of my head, drinking a cold Corona with a slice of lime and enjoying my newfound feeling of creative freedom, when the phone rang.
“Cuz, you thought any more about that idea of mine?”
As Dan had always reminded me, I’m usually the smart, careful one. But over the years I have experienced lapses. “Count me in!” I sang.
“I thought you wanted to hear the details first.”
“It’s for Uncle Bubba’s heart, right?”
“Then I’ll do it, whatever it is. I just cleared my calendar for the summer.”
“I knew you’d come around! I’ll be there this weekend to lay the whole thing out for you in detail.”
Copyright © 2013 by Kenny Rogers and Mike Blakely