It's in Spartanburg, South Carolina, that things get as bad as they're going to get.
After two days of small weeknight crowds and negligible pay, the three members of Tampa rock band The Beauvilles were starting to show signs of frustration. Leaving Atlanta, the banter in the van was already down several notches from the nonstop jokes and anecdotes of Tuesday and Wednesday; it waned further as we exited the business loop of I-85 North, and negotiated several narrow old two-lane roads to find a heavy metal club called Ground Zero, sitting on a bald hill out in the sticks next to a decrepit aluminum-walled machine shop.
There was no one at the club. The guys stood in the first real, gray cold of the tour, inspecting the skulls and evil logos painted on the building's exterior and making fun of the goateed metal dudes on the flyers taped near the door.
"Let's get the hell out of here," said Shawn Kyle, the group's singer and guitarist.
We passed at least half a dozen small churches, some in converted homes, on the way to Spartanburg's tiny downtown.
"You tried to prepare me," drummer Jesse Pullen told me, gazing out a window as Kyle looked for a parking space. (I'd been to Spartanburg, and Ground Zero, several years before.) "You tried to prepare me, but there was just. No. Way."
Then came the wind. And the rain. And the Cold War-era air-raid siren, which meant, the young waitress at the Noodle House courteously informed us in her lilting drawl, that a tornado had touched down and was heading this way.
It's about 9 p.m. now, and Ground Zero is open, though there might be 12 more people here than there was when we first arrived. Most sport long dark hair and black T-shirts, and nurse Pabst Blue Ribbon at the club's small, horseshoe-shaped bar, where there's still plenty of room left to belly up. The most hilariously bad local band any of us could possibly conceive, much less actually witness, has just finished its regular Thursday-night set of tuneless, sequencer-assisted pop.
A pretty good punk-bluegrass act called Bitterman is tearing through a bunch of songs about how much Spartanburg sucks (their version of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" seems to imply that the town is Hell itself) when Randy McMillan, The Beauvilles' six-foot, two-inch, half-Irish, half-Native American stand-up bass player, suddenly loses it.
He belts out a lengthy, inarticulate scream. Then he strides meaningfully across the worn, empty floor to a closed fire exit, and steps out into the storm. Minutes later, he's back at the bar, speaking loudly and directly down into Kyle's face. Minutes after that, all three of The Beauvilles disappear.
They stay gone for what seems like a very long time. I start to head outside; Jesse Martin, drummer for St Pete-based Beauvilles tourmates The Mercy Seat, stops me.
"Give 'em some space," he advises as he passes by, carrying his kick drum.
Eventually, the trio returns. McMillan shrugs off questions about what happened, saying simply that he "got mad," but later, just before The Beauvilles follow The Mercy Seat with a subdued but satisfactory performance, he elaborates a bit.
"I was focusing on the negative," McMillan says. "I should've been feeling gratitude."
"Yeah. I should've been feeling grateful that I get to leave here when we're done."
The widespread perception of touring rock acts generally includes thousands of screaming fans, trashed hotel rooms, and massive, customized buses and/or airplanes. This is what we've all seen in countless music videos, rendered in black-and-white and intercut with footage of band members talking on payphones, looking exhausted and lonely.But for every recognizable group that hits the road in comfort and plays to packed houses, there are dozens of basically unknown outfits regularly scouring the country in search of experience, exposure, and new fans. Not every local band in the nation does it, but many more than you might think do - particularly the ones who've committed themselves to making a living in music or dying in the effort.
These are men and women who largely work high-turnover labor and service-industry jobs they can quit if they have to, who have never actually bought a piece of furniture, who see nothing strange about the fact that their lives are built around a permanent sort of temporariness. Everything is geared toward being able to go when the time comes.
Some acts have booking agents to help land out-of-town shows, and a guaranteed payday for those shows. Most, like The Beauvilles and The Mercy Seat, do not. There's a vicious circle at work: It's hard to attract a booking agent without establishing yourselves as a touring band, and it's hard to do the kind of touring that establishes you without the help of a booking agent.