Mandan News

Brian L. Gray: Driving towards the music

Brian L. GrayI’m in the passenger seat next to Mike, heading west towards Dickinson on a Friday night. We’re staring directly at the sun as it makes its slow descent, letting the music on the radio fill our random silences as we speak to each other, moving from politics to the arts to the economy, contouring from one topic to the next as swiftly as the buttes that dot our sightlines.

We’re driving in his aged pickup that I used to worry could crash at any moment. The truck is something he inherited from his father when he passed away a couple years ago, and it’s stood the test of time by never failing in all the trips we’ve taken with it, so it’s proven without a doubt that in its old age it remains reliable.

Bouncing around in the back of the truck is roughly $5,000 worth of music equipment. We’re on our way to a gig at a bar, providing a few hours of music to a room full of oil workers and strangers for a free meal and a couple hundred bucks. The path we ride has become somewhat standard; it’s roughly our 15th time to Dickinson and we still have no idea what we’re about to face. Every night in the heart of oil country is a different crowd of people, whether it’s roughnecks, college students letting loose or middle aged friends looking to shake off the work week.

We arrive and carry our gear inside, quickly setting up and sitting down to eat the meals we ordered. Tonight the bar is filled with a predominantly young crowd, interspersed with a few older men drinking alone at the bar.

The momentum from our open talking on the road fuels our energy as we pick up our instruments and take the stage. Mike and I stand side-by-side as we start our first song, both of us relying on the speaker in between us to hear one another. It’s a strange but humbling feeling of power that surges through once you hear yourself take over the sound of a room. You immediately feel a sense of responsibility to do something with it.

We read off each other and let the music tell its story. I usually know right away if both of us will allow ourselves to commit to the music. The sound’s mood says it all – whether it’s a raw energy driving us or if we’re merely going through the motions of a song we’ve played innumerous times. Tonight we’re raw, playing every song as though we’d never played them before. That’s always the best attitude when doing a live show.

I begin to read the audience. Crowds here are unpredictable – sometimes people dance and sing along, sometimes they shout out requests, sometimes they sit in their seats and pretend we’re not there. As we continue we play every possible mix of songs we know, in the hopes that something will inspire a response from someone.

Nothing tonight works. No one here is in the mood to hear live music. Tables full of people prefer to talk to each other and leave us in the background. No one’s receptive, which is an entirely different scene the last time we were here, when we played to an energetic crowd that clapped and sang along to every song they recognized.

As musicians, we do our best to be consistent, and we build ourselves based on the positivity we get from our audiences. So we are in a constant state of shaping ourselves in response to how people react. If the crowds are non-responsive we blame them for being ill-mannered. Rarely do we allow ourselves to take the blame for not inspiring a reaction, because of the time we’ve spent studying ourselves and our craft, putting our heart and mind into our music, discerning what works and what doesn’t. If a crowd doesn’t enjoy it we stubbornly convince ourselves that they are simply unappreciative of what we bring to them. Because who in their right mind could ever respect a person who dismisses a thoughtful, heart-felt gift – especially when that gift is free?

I want to spite them for ignoring us, but tonight I choose not to be bitter. Tonight I decide to focus entirely on the music, and let it take me where it wants to go. I won’t allow them to get in my way of appreciating the music.

And it’s a good night to zone in on the music, because Mike is at the top of his game tonight. And I’m taking it all in, following along to Mike’s singing as we add as much passion and layers we can to each song we play. For the next few hours the two of us go on a roller coaster ride of music, played by us but originating from some place greater, a place or thing neither of us can clearly identify, no matter how much we play or how deep we dig.

Mike and I finish up our set and immediately start taking down our gear. If we hit the road right away we’ll be lucky to get back home by 2 a.m. So in the vein of those who make money in the oil business, Mike and I enter the town, we make our money, and we get out as swiftly as we came. This is us getting our share of the money coming in from the oil boom, the way we want to do it – on our own terms. Through music.

We receive our check, pack our gear into the truck and make our way back home. Some nights we look forward to the drive back more than the gig itself. Tonight’s one of those nights.

We drive through what seems like an endless fog dragging itself along the highway and the darkened fields as the radio escorts us home. Mike and I talk more music and discuss everything else we feel passionate about in the moment as we snack on the toxic load of food we picked up at a gas station. We feel enriched somewhat, despite the bad crowd, knowing we just were handed money for doing something we cared so much about.

I could say I take these trips because this editor job doesn’t pay very much. Or I use it as a scapegoat, like if anyone thinks I’m inept as an editor I’m able to say, “Well, it’s not the only thing I do.” That I need this because it helps pay bills. Because the very reason these people are in oil country is also the reason I can’t afford to buy a house right now, with the insane level of inflation happening lately.

But that’s not it. I do it because I love to play, and there’s nothing else I’d rather being doing right now. I was raised with music all around me since childhood, and it’s a part of me. To this day I remain haunted by a memory of playing a late night game of hide and seek with my three siblings nearly 30 years ago, and as I hid I first listened in to the music that came from the grand piano my mom was playing in our living room. Immediately I became overwhelmed by the emotion of the melody, and while I didn’t fully know how to handle it I also didn’t want the feeling to ever stop, as I prayed that my siblings wouldn’t find me in my hiding spot and interrupt what I was feeling inside that linen closet.

Song lyrics gave me confidence to better understand the world when I wasn’t sure how to cope with it, and music allowed me to connect emotionally with all that was around me. It’s been my therapy and my remedy.

And as Mike and I, both exhausted from the drive, from talking to each other, from playing music until our throats and fingers are sore, both go silent for a brief moment, together we listen to the music playing on the radio, as it guides us back home…