Flanked by a phalanx of speakers and amplifiers, Walston fingers the fretboard of his knuckle-worn Gibson, and, halfway through the first number, cautiously looks up. It is still daylight, and the crowd at Chastain Park Amphitheatre is milling freely along the concrete terraces, talking, laughing, honking and hooting over their Brie and Chablis.
Well, they’ve paid to see the Indigo Girls, not some curious little twang revival called The Vidalias. But deep down Walston is secure in his right to be there, at least by the accruement of dues: the road trips to nowhere to play for nobody: wrestling the wheel late at night, eyes propped open, hoping to spot a motel. Sometimes, says Walston, he’ll see a truck driving down the highway before sunup, pulling a boat, “And I’ll think. Man, they’re as crazy as we are. Getting up at 4 a.m. just to go fish.”
Walston, The Vidalias’ songwriter and front man, is also a veteran reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But he does not like to talk about the day job, doesn’t want to be considered a novelty band. Plus, he knows how much people hate the press.
Yet it is the press, if not the record-buying public, that has been especially kind to Walston. After the band’s 1995 debut album, Melodyland, publications like Men’s Journal, The Boston Globe, USA Today and even Rolling Stone called Walston’s musical moonlighting “sinewy,” “remarkable,” “superb.” and “the finest purveyors of contemporary country rock around.” Even though it is not really country rock, but rather a folksy, honky-tonk soul with some Texas swing, rockabilly and even a little surf boogie thrown in for fun. A kind of hick chic steeped from the grievous, wormwood classics of Haggard, Cash and Jones.
The February release of The Vidalias’ second album, Stayin’ in the Doghouse, has met equally rave reviews, but the struggle for this 40-something quintet sometimes seems as bittersweet as the famous Georgia onion with which it shares its name. An audience has been slow to gather. Walston’s own paper gave the band one of the least generous reviews. They lose money every time they tour, which is seldom.
When they are able to tour, it is mainly a hodgepodge junket of festivals, nightclubs, college towns and 10-minute radio spots played in the great Out There. “By the end of summer I’ll have used up all four weeks of my vacation to go out and play,” says Walston, who covers juvenile justice for the paper. “I’ll be down to volunteering to work weekends to get extra days off.”
Dinner on the road, and often lunch, too, is a stuffed potato from Wendy’s. Home is the floor of the next Motel 6, where Walston will roll his van in after dark so that Rat, The Vidalias’ female drummer, can slip into the office and book a room for two. The boys will pull around back and begin unloading amplifiers, instruments and sleeping bags. Sometimes, all five of them share the same room. Four men and one woman, flipping coins for beds. Walston, 45, shakes his head, “I mean, we’re all grown-ups, for crying out loud.”
AND THEN SOMEBODY will walk up after a show and want to shake Charles’ hand or beg an autograph. Once, a kid said to him, ”I started playing guitar after I heard your record,” and so although Walston’s music has not yet reaped commercial success, the effort, he knows, is still worthwhile.
Ironically, for a country singer, Walston’s story is a kind of country music cliche in reverse. Whereas many of the icons of his genre found their voices in a bottle, for more than 20 years the bottle stole his. “I’ve been playing since 1968. But I’d always sit down with my guitar and a bottle of liquor, and pretty soon the bottle would get more interesting than the music. So I hardly ever finished anything,” says Walston, who admits that alcoholism robbed him of everything from his first marriage to the courage to perform. “It became a choice between drinking and everything else I wanted to do with my life.” With the help of a 12-step program he got sober, and suddenly his muse spoke louder than the bottle.
Six years ago he recorded a few garage-quality songs with some buddies from the paper. He took them to a friend, Page Waldrop, at Clark Music on Ponce de Leon Avenue, then a well-known gathering place for local musicians. “Chuck came in and said, ‘It sucks. I suck. But why don’t you listen to it.’ And it was still that stumbling, fucked-up, out-of-tune voice of his, but it was real,” says Waldrop. “Most people don’t have a clue and I just tell ’em, ‘Don’t Quit your day job.’ But I said, ‘Hey, you really got something going on here. Straight up. You could do this for a living.’ ”
Five years and seven drummers later, the band has two critically-lauded albums, $750 in the bank, and $8,000 in “recoupable expenses” owed to its record label. Walston is in his 16th year at the paper. Kat the drummer is a jeweler. Waldrop works at an electronics store. “I should really have one of those flaky, who-cares jobs,” says Waldrop. “But every once in a while you have to modulate between that and some serious, dinero-making employment.”
“You can’t just say, ‘Okay kids, you don’t get those new shoes because daddy wants to play steel again tonight.’ ”
Sitting on the steps of his modest brick home in Candler Park, Walston lights a cigarette, pulls a worn guitar pick from his pocket and rubs it between his fingers like a worry stone. “All you can ask for is the opportunity to make another record. And then all you can do is make it,” he says, admitting to a bit of the wistful hindsight that informs many of his best songs.
”I have to say I wish I had started sooner. I never played with a band before, so the learning curve for me has been rather steep.” Walston says he used to get so nervous that his fret hand would clamp down over the guitar neck and refuse to move. “Plus, if we were all 23 again we probably could pile into a van and go out on the road for six months like we need to. When you’re young you can sleep on the floor of a motel for five nights in a row. At my age you wake up feeling like you took an ass whipping,”
KAT HAS CARPETED the walls of a small room in her basement from floor to ceiling. Fender amps and Yamaha speakers so crowd this room that when The Vidalias practice, Charles is virtually standing in Pace’s lap. Jimmy Johnson crouches into his bass lick next to Kat’s little red drum set. There is a Rolling Stones poster and a calendar on the wall, with Indigo Girls scrawled excitedly across the gig date in big black letters. But right now it’s 11:30 on a Wednesday night, and the band sounds blurry. Tired.
Everyone knows they need to play more together, but diverging commitments make it difficult. Johnson is in the midst of another job change. Waldrop is in danger of a promotion at the electronics store. Steel player Henry Bruns, who was absent for practice, has children. “You can’t just say, ‘Okay kids, you don’t get those new shoes because daddy wants to play steel again tonight.’ ” says Waldrop.
Outside on the back patio, lolling over cigarettes and the conundrum of scheduling. Charles brings up the subject of a tour. Paige says he may have to quit his job. “Oh well, it’ll be summer,” he says. “Good time to look for another one when we get back, l guess.”
“You know how to fix cars, don’t you?” Kat asks.
“I’m through with that.”
The night before opening for the lndigo Girls, The Vidalias had played the High Hat Music Club, in Athens. It was their fourth trip in three months, but they had made little headway in a town renowned for nurturing talented bands. On top of that frustration, Kat fell ill with a 103 degree fever at the last minute. Rather than cancel, however, Charles hired the club doorman to sit in on drums. The band made $20 in all. $15 if you subtract the five bucks they gave the doorman for beer money.
And now, less than 24 hours later, Walston is facing an anxious crowd of Gouda eaters. Heineken drinkers and legions of lovestruck lesbians who have come to see The Grrrls, not some knock-kneed balladeer. Walking to the mike in his jeans and checkered flannel shirt, Charles launches into a love-lost play on words called “All Over Me.” It is by far the biggest gig of the band’s life, the biggest song, the biggest moment. He pumps his knee and looks up to see a crowd lost in itself.
But then he notices her, a couple of tables back, nodding in time to the music, right next to a man who is tapping his foot… a whole section of folks up front who are, in fact, paying attention. And so for 45 minutes Charles Walston sings just to them, songs written from the “vantage point of despair,” tender ballads which for years he could not even sing to his wife; songs written alone in his room, in his car; little whiskey sips of music which finally flowed together in the sober years.
His voice opens, and moves forward into the Chastain twilight as the band begins to follow. Johnson thumps the bass line. Waldrop strokes theTelecaster. Pure honey flows from Bruns’ pedal steel guitar. And Kat, lost somewhere back there among the dormant stage set and props of a big world tour, is tapping her little red drums like a heartbeat. ✦
Author’s note: In July, one day after returning from a performance in Boston, guitarist Page Waldrop said he wouldn’t travel with the band anymore but still plays with the group in town. ‘The minute you think things are going smoothly, you go around the next curve and see there is a tree across the road. But I just have to carry on.” said Charles Walston. He planned to seek a replacement.