ME AND JIM
As the van pulled into the parking lot next at the Church Key, I realized we weren’t the only band there at one o’clock in the afternoon. We had driven from Chicago to Madison to play a weekend at a happening bar and we thought we’d unload our equipment and set up before settling in at the Motel 6.
The other band was loading out from the night before; it must have been some night. Three scruffy, bleary eyed guys carried drums, amps and instruments out to a Chevy Suburban. They looked like your average over-cooked, over-served, under-loved players that inhabited the college bar circuit that we were trying our damnedest to break into. It was the last guy standing on the steps who was cut a little different. He had to be the leader. He was definitely the star.
The first thing I noticed about him was his elegantly rumpled cowboy hat, mirrored shades and big shit-eating grin. I then noticed that he had a strawberry milk shake in one hand and beer in the other; he was drinking a road frosty at one in the afternoon. Cool. But what really grabbed my attention was the picture of a beautiful naked woman laminated on his belt buckle. No wonder the man was grinning. This was my introduction to Jim Schwall, stellar blues guitarist, electric mandolin player, singer, songwriter and true American original.
We didn’t get a chance to do more than exchange “howdy’s” that afternoon, but we ran into each other a couple times over the next year. We were all paying dues for the same fraternity; “road dogs” trying to make ends meet, chasing a record deal and playing the funky college towns throughout the Midwest. My band, Cactus Jack, playing one-nighters on the way to and from weekend stands made leaving town for a couple of a weeks at a time pay off. For the Jim Schwall Band, being on the road was life, and they had been doing it for years.
In 1977, when our first meeting took place, Jim and his band were the top of that heap. They drew packed houses and had that rare knack for getting the party started wherever they went. Part of their secret was also part of the trap that being on the road sets for those who follow that life: they partied at least as hard as the people they were playing for. This earns you a lot of friends, but can wreck the hell out of your relationships, ravage your liver, and decidedly dull your edge. Jim had been a Chicago kid, and had built his reputation as a Chicago blues-man recording with the Siegel-Schwall Band, but I found out from talking to the guys in the band that they now maintained their home base in Madison. Jim had an actual residence there; the other guys proved the truth in the old joke: what do you call a bass player who doesn’t have a girlfriend? Homeless.
We all finally got to spend some time together in Spring of 1979, at the Florida State Fair. Cactus Jack had played the Illinois State Fair, and we knew that these gigs could be, well, peculiar. Bands like ours were there to entertain beer drinkers, in the designated (and often fenced-in) beer drinking areas. The beer tents in Tampa were giant geodesic domes, with the stages on top of the beer coolers, behind the bar, a good fifteen to twenty feet above the audience. Once you hauled your pedal steel guitars and amps up there, you were set for ten days, so it was no big deal. Bands played three hour shifts and we were on from noon until three. This gave us plenty of time to get some sun, check out the other acts, and generally make mischief.
Jim was booked at an actual “musical venue”, which meant he didn’t have to climb the ladder to reach his stage. He was playing with a singer-guitarist named Al Jolly. When I asked him what happened to his band, he told me that he had stayed sober one night and realized they weren’t as good as he thought they were. He had broken up the band and joined the Jolly Brothers Band, out of Kansas City, who had lost their guitar player after releasing their first album (that always seemed to be the way things happened). Jim being available seemed like Kismet. Our manager, Al Curtis, who booked the fair, had booked them there right before the Jollys had broken up, so Jim and Al agreed to cover the dates. Jim and Al were great together; very musical and very entertaining. Al Jolly is one of the most soulful singers I have ever heard. He writes great songs and his style complimented Jim’s exceptionally well. We spent a lot of time together, hanging out, playing guitars, and talking music over the run of the fair.
The crowning night of the fair came when the young guy who ran the live oyster bar outside our beer dome asked Jim for a guitar lesson in exchange for some oysters. It seemed his father owned one of the best oyster bars in Tampa, and he had the run of the place. He invited us over, after the restaurant closed, for oysters, beer, wine and music. So Cactus Jack, Jim Schwall, Al Jolly, wives, girlfriends and guitars headed out for what we expected would be a couple dozen oysters and few beers. We got to the restaurant and found the young owner and two other shuckers ready to work. The oysters were fresh and cold and kept on coming. We washed them down with pitchers of beer and wine, ate and played long into the night.
When we got back to the hotel, I was pretty much ready to fall out, but Jim had another idea. He had a bottle of Jim Beam and a couple songs we hadn’t played yet. The last thing I remembered was an empty bottle, some Hank Williams and the vow that we would play in a band together someday. I had no idea at the time that by the following Spring we’d be rehearsing the band that would become Cahoots. Oh yeah, the woman on Jim’s belt buckle? It was his ex-wife.