On a Friday night in Kerrville, Texas, I was at my momma’s house getting ready to go to the honky tonk, just as I have hundreds of other times. Going through my normal “going to the tonk” process, I pulled on my blue jeans and cowboy boots and made my hair bigger than usual, extra hair spray. I was looking forward to hearing some live music by south Texas local musicians. Except there was one major difference this Friday night—this time, I was one of the musicians performing, at my first solo open mic.
Texas honky tonk? On a packed Friday night? Performing in front of country music loving two-steppers, by myself? Holy frackin’ shit.
Texas Cowboy Culture
My folks and I moved to Texas when I was 5 years old. Born and raised in Nebraska, my mom and dad had no experience at all with cowboy culture and country music. I was born in Reno, Nevada, where my parents went to live shows like James Brown and danced at nightclubs. Two-steppin’ and cowboy boots were nowhere in sight.
Just about the instant we moved to Cuero, Texas, we became close, lifelong friends with another family, the Wilkes. Patsy and Walter Wilke had two kids, Shawn and Shana, who were right around my age. The Wilkes introduced us to the authentic Lone Star culture of horses, trail rides, playdays (timed horse and rider events like barrel racing), and two-stepping to live music in Texas dance halls.
Riding horses and going to dance halls went hand-in-hand when I was growing up. We rarely went on a trail ride or to a playday without also going to a dance hall the same day. Growing up in Texas cowboy culture was a family event. I’ve been listening to live country music and dancing my whole life.
My Musical Roots
Music is in my blood from my dad’s side of the family. My dad, uncles, and cousin were (are) all musicians and performers. I’ve always wanted to play guitar and sing. My biggest dream has always been performing on a stage, just like those honky tonk bands when I was growing up.
I bought a guitar in 1991 and lugged it around for many years, intending to learn how to play but never getting serious about it. When I finally landed in Denver, I took a beginning guitar class at Swallow Hill Music. Swallow Hill is a non-profit music school and concert venue and a major contributor to the music community in Denver. I loved the guitar class, but for whatever reason, didn’t stick with playing and taking classes.
When my marriage went south in 2016, the first thing I did was sign up for guitar classes and voice lessons at Swallow Hill. Time to pursue that dream! The community and people at Swallow Hill are such a big part of my life now, I can’t imagine moving away from Denver. I can actually play guitar now! And my voice has gotten so much stronger. Some of my best friends are people I’ve met at Swallow Hill. Every day, I marvel that I get to play music with awesome people.
Swallow Hill holds a “graduation” for the group classes at the end of each 8-week session. Group classes perform a song or two at a recital, on stage, in front of an audience. That gave me a taste of performing—and I loved it. After about 6 months, I began to think about my next step—performing at open mics.
Honky Tonk and Open Mics in Denver
There are a lot of guitar instructors at Swallow Hill and I don’t remember how I picked Jeff Rady. He’s a great instructor and teaches all kinds of genres. One night, I saw his band, the 5 and Dimers, perform. And was astonished to hear a true sawdust-on-the-dance-floor honky tonk band that could easily play a Texas dance hall!
Not long after I saw the 5 and Dimers play, Jeff started a Honky Tonk ensemble class at Swallow Hill. I couldn’t sign up fast enough. Ensemble in Swallow Hill-speak means playing with a group of people in a band setting. You get to experience being in a band without the work of going out and creating your own.
I really enjoy my Honky Tonk class, both the songs we play and the people. Here’s where my performing opportunities opened up. I started doing open mics with Richard (Dick) Mruz, who has been performing solo at open mics for several years. We like singing harmonies.
Despite having performed at a bunch of Swallow Hill recitals, I was so nervous the first time Dick and I played an open mic. I’ve gotten way more comfortable over the dozen or so times we’ve performed. My next urge was to perform solo. I got the perfect opportunity in my home state, at the Wild Ass Hey Barn in Kerrville, Texas.
Going Solo at a Texas Honky Tonk
I’ve heard a few other open mic performers in Denver play country, but not a lot. Dick and I are usually the rare honky tonk duo on stage, singing Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Tammy Wynette. But all of the performers at Wild Ass were country. And they were all really good. I felt like a little kid in a room of musical giants at the Wild Ass open mic. It sure as hell didn’t help my nerves when I ended up following a performer named Bob Stewart, who is so good, he performs entire solo concerts at the Wild Ass. He’s the whole package—great stage presence, awesome guitar player, and a helluva singer.
My mom and her boyfriend were there with about 20 of their closest friends, at a table right next to the stage which simultaneously helped and hurt my nerves. When it was my turn to perform, I swear, I’ve never been so nervous in all my life. The place was packed. I played three songs, the ones I knew inside and out and felt most comfortable playing—”Tonight the Bottle” and “Longer You Wait” by Merle Haggard and “Satin Sheets” by Tammy Wynette.
People said that I did just fine. My nerves showed in the first two songs. There was a weird feedback noise in the amp during my second song, and I stopped mid-song and looked at my guitar like it was a strange caterwauling cat. I got into a more comfortable groove by the last song, “Longer You Wait.”
Keep Pursuing That Dream!
By the time I finished, I was so glad to get off the stage and drink a beer! It was an awesome first-time experience as a solo performer. Everybody was so friendly, supportive, and gracious. Many of the other performers introduced themselves to me and shook my hand. Bob Stewart told my mom, “She did great! Tell her to keep going and it’ll get easier!”
That’s exactly what I plan to do, keep on going. You can take the girl out of the honky tonk but you can’t take the honky tonk out of the girl.
What dreams are you longing to pursue?