Notes from the bar birds

I wasn’t really expecting this, but last week’s column about playing in bars prompted an unusual amount of emails and questions on the subject. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but having done my share of bar gigs in my life, I’ll do my best to answer a few of them.


Dear Chris,

I’m actually writing this from the back room of the club we’re working in Omaha tonight. I’m on my break between the second and third set, and I’m sitting on a beer keg, so this will be brief and to the point. I liked your column about bar gigs, but one thing you didn’t address was pay. What’s a reasonable amount to be paid to play in a bar? We play four sets in this place and get paid $60 for the band plus free popcorn (up to four baskets per band member) plus all the Blatz extra lite beer we can drink on tap. Do you think this is good? I won’t give out the name of this club or our band, in case someone else tries to get the same deal.

“Charlie”   Omaha, NE


Dear “Charlie”,

Well, the money is all relative, depending on the market you’re in. That money would be considered pretty scant in many places, however, in some places that have a high concentration of musicians who all want to get out and play (read: easy and desperate), pickers would be pretty happy for the $60. Nashville comes to mind, where passing the hat for pay is commonplace, and in Austin, Texas, the popcorn and beer deal alone would have musicians lining up for the gig. If the back room you sent your email from had actual chairs, that would be a pretty cushy gig.


Hey Chris,

We have a weekly bar gig in our town. Our bass player is a devout atheist, and the rest of us don’t believe it’s appropriate to play gospel music in bars, but we had a lot of gospel material worked up. On Sundays at bluegrass festivals we’ve heard bands adapting secular bluegrass songs to gospel songs because they were short of material, like changing “You Don’t Know My Mind” to “You Don’t Know the Lord”, and playing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and calling it “Calvary Mountain Breakdown.” What I’m wondering is, would it be appropriate to do the reverse and change gospel songs to secular songs, just for playing in clubs? Some ideas I have are “Life’s Railway to Cleveland,” and “This Van is Not My Home.” It would really help us fill out the set and still satisfy the various belief systems of our band.

Henry Wallerton   Athens, GA
Henry Wallerton & Drifting Freeway


Dear Henry,

You’re kidding, right? I would just take the time to learn some new songs. By the way, “devout atheist” isn’t a phrase I hear every day. Best of luck to you,


Dear Chris,

Our band’s guitar player fancies himself a sensitive songwriter, and wants to do his originals at our regular gig at Al’s Saloon Inn Bar and Grill. Most of his songs have more than eight verses, and are almost all about his recent breakup with his massage therapist girlfriend. He performed one recently called “Rubbing A Stranger’s Back” that’s nine minutes long. One regular customer threw a bottle at us. He doesn’t take hints very well, and I can’t fire him because he owns the PA system. Any thoughts?

Clarence Johnson
Lonesome Tractor Band
Bismarck, ND 


Dear Clarence,

Either convince the massage therapist to come back to him, or start saving for a new PA.


Hi Chris,

We recently played a club in Alabama and not a single person showed up. Later the club owner admitted that he hadn’t publicized the show at all because he said it was a small place, and he was worried “too many people would show up.” We had no guarantee; we were playing strictly for a percentage of the door, which in this case was exactly zero. Have you ever heard of this happening?

Sarah Fraser
Restless Watershed
Cookeville, TN



Dear Sarah,

We had very poor attendance at a house concert once because they thought it would be best not to tell anyone about it, fearing overcrowding (you’ve certainly read about the many incidents of trampling deaths at acoustic house concerts). It’s less common for a club owner who relies on drink sales to use this brilliant, counter-intuitive business strategy.  This is where a guarantee makes a big difference. If you’ve agreed to play there, and they’re potentially on the hook for hundreds of dollars, they’re usually less concerned about too many people crowding their little venue.


On a related note, I was in a band once that was in danger of losing a regular club gig because we were drawing too many people, but that was because it was also a restaurant, and they were relying on turnover to make the night profitable. We had started to draw a crowd of bluegrass enthusiasts, who, bless their hearts, would sit at a table for three hours nursing a Coke, then tip 5% on their $2.50 tab at the end of the night. The club’s position was understandable. They just wanted us to entertain the customers, but not encourage them to stick around. We worked up a medley of double-timed Barry Manilow songs, which we performed once a set, and that seemed to take care of the issue.

The only time the owner of a bar should ever deliberately not publicize a show is if they’ve booked Lady Gaga in a club with a capacity of 75.


Thanks for your mail and your comments. Next week, we’ll take up the topics of contraband hair product, removing coffee stains from white stage clothes in under a minute using a solution of moonshine and baking powder, and more.

  • Philip Shaner

    Hi Chris

    In addition to Manilow tunes, could some Osmond music suffice as a crowd quelcher? We have tried Ray Stevens, but that only brought cheers here in NE Texas!

    Seriously thou, there is one “bar” type arrangement where ehy do like folks sitting about all night – coffee houses, but that isn’t quite the “bar” setting where moods are affected by more than caffeine..

    I am also curious about this moonshine and baking powder stain remover – gives a fella a good use for questionable batches ;D

  • Chris Jones

    They don’t seem to care about turnover at coffee houses (maybe it’s the 800% markup on coffee products); that’s why they offer free wifi.

    About the moonshine baking soda stain remover: I was going to give out the formula next week, but it turns out that’s it’s highly flammable and is classified by the federal government as an “IED.” I also read that someone burned down an entire bluegrass festival stage trying it, so I think we’d better skip that. The stain was gone, though.

  • Mark Byrum

    I played some bar gigs when in Plymouth, England and Portsmouth, England back in the 1970’s when my fellow US Coast Guard Academy Cadets and I were on a cruise to Europe. These were mostly for fun, and the English folk wanted to hear “country music” and not necessarily Bluegrass. The biggest thing I learned there is to turn away from the boisterous audience when the beer bottles began to fly and get back to the nearest wall to protect your instruments. The banjo might make a formidable club, but I don’t think it would play very well with the neck broken off the pot.

  • Dave Mueller

    This is a good one. Bars and bluegrass…

    From my experience, it’s usually one of those things that sounds like a good idea until it’s actually happening and you are up there doing it. At which point, you find yourself regretting the whole situation because of the inability to hear well, feedback issues, a drunken heckler (or two, or three… no we will not play Freebird, or “that song George Clooney sings”), or even just the fact that you are trying to appeal to a group of people who often don’t really love bluegrass to begin with.

    Despite all of that and some other negatives, I will say that I have enjoyed some outdoor bar gigs rather well. Some places have a nice beer garden and can be a great time to play during the right times of year. Playing in the outdoor section usually solves a lot of the hearing issues, and playing in the earlier evening hours (instead of until 1am or later) weeds out the drunken heckling or having beer spilled in your Carlton case.

    But let’s face it, the right crowd can mean all the difference no matter where you play, and it can be fun to stir up a bar crowd with some banjo breakdowns. Sometimes bar gigs are great for landing better gigs too. People go out and see you play, like what they hear, then hire you for some good pay to play their annual house party or something.

    One thing is for sure, bar gigs can be full of surprises. I’ve done more than my fair share, and tend to avoid them when I can. But you never know, it could be a great time… (That last part is what you have to tell yourself, every time you book one.) Cheers, and a round for the band if you’ll play Rocky Top. -DM

  • Archie

    That regular club gig didn’t involve a piano-playing, balloon-animal making leprechaun and matzoh crust pizza with a meat-market singles bar on the other side of the club, did it? I seem to remember you playing more than once at a place like that.

  • Chris Jones

    Yeah, Archie, I didn’t even get into the bar gig with the surly leprechauns singing “Take Me Home Country Roads.” That’s worth a whole column in itself. I had my capo stolen there.

    • RJ Buckingham

      Oh dear. I remember that bar. Archie’s description brought back some memories of my mis-spent youth that I’d like to forget. The day-glo tempura paint mural of an “Irish” landscape in the women’s restroom is forever burnt on my retinas. And some of those balloon animals looked downright…lewd.