Dirty Country

Nothing says party like a birthday bash, unless it's a birthday gig for Truckstop Coffee's frontman, Pete Stein. The Bamboo Room in Lake Worth hosted the shindig, and it not only sounded like more fun than most (thanks to the band and a kickin' sound system) but probably looked like it too (thanks to alcohol-induced double vision).

What better reason to wreck a Thursday than to toss back a mess of shots on a Wednesday night in honor of the man who penned the song "Whiskey Shivers"? Evidently, much of Palm Beach County's indie-rocker scene agreed. Not only were fans, friends, and other musicians in attendance but Summer Blanket's Keith Michaud even canceled his regular Wednesday-night acoustic gig at the Cottage down the street. This way, the shows wouldn't have to split the crossover audience and everyone could celebrate together.

While the birthday boy drank with Palm Beach Post local music columnist Bill Meredith and his crew, I downed one with off-duty bartender Chelcey Michaud (Keith's wife), who always gives it to me straight — whether it's the whiskey or the truth I'm after. Tonight, however, my friend wasn't at her regular outpost, Brogues, just a couple of blocks away, and I had no secrets to confess.

And Pete? Well, all the tall drink of water would give up is that he was "older than the band in dog years." Aided by genuine humility, the guy is a bit of a mystery. I had always suspected the Western shirts and cowboy lyrics were just stage shtick for his alt-country rock band. Sure, he's got a lyrical Southern flair and the manners of a country gentleman. But he lacks some authentic, rural flavor that I've never been able to quite put my finger on (though I haven't laid a hand on him!).

"Make mine a Jack," I told the bartender. "Jameson tastes like someone danced a jig in it."

"You just have to get used to it," Chelcey said with the assurance of both professional and personal experience.

"Fifty cents more for something that tastes like feet?" I said.

We did our shots and then let the whiskey do the talking.

Though the Lake Worth music hall is a traditional blues room, tonight everyone was in the pink, infused with the rosy glow of good times and booze shine. Night Rider likes to plunge into the middle of the action, so the party was in full swing when she arrived. Meredith, on the other hand, evidently liked to arrive early. And now that everyone was toasty, the band was taking the stage. So why was our friend the music reporter on his way out?

Off like a shot Meredith was; I followed like a beer chaser.

"Leaving? That's a bad review if I ever saw one," I said, intercepting him.

"My work is done," Meredith shrugged. "I got Pete drunk."

In the years that I'd known and worked with the dude, he'd always been wily and deft — something he picked up somewhere between the drama career that never quite took off and his drumming career that never quit. Even when the bouncer intercepted him trying to leave with half a beer, he played the good citizen; he bent down, picked up the empty pen that he'd seen me chuck down the stairs when it failed me, and stuck it in the open container.

"Just throwing this out," he assured, though litter patrol ain't his usual beat.

Smooth. His wife, Ginny: not so much. Normally, a talented violinist (who'd played on John Ralston's Needlebed tour) who just brightens a room, tonight she was completely lit, Exhibit A in the case for the group's departure.

"Off the record!" she said, pointing at the records decorating the bamboo-lined walls of the stairwell as I interviewed her husband.

Meredith shifted the focus off his drunken wife by introducing me to a similarly soused music producer. At the moment, however, Jeff Millar had just completed his own extemporaneous, booze-inspired performance: a rhythmic composition he created, for humorous effect, as he slid down the leopard-print stairs on his ass.

"Didn't you like the band?" I queried from above.

Millar got to his feet, dusted himself off, and called up his band review: "Best dirty country band around."

Personally, I'm not a fan of country. But dirty? I suppose that's why the band appeals to me.

"You look like Sheryl Crow," interjected Millar's sotted girlfriend, Suzanne, whom Bill had introduced as a singer/songwriter.

Was the compliment a distraction ploy? Nice try.

Night Rider: So what's your day job?

Suzanne: I can't tell you. I might have to go to jail. They have me in the post office in five states.

NR: Just five? You'll never reach the top without more aggressive P.R. goals.

S: Actually, I own a liquidation business.

NR: A bar then?

S: That's funny. No. I get rid of people's stuff when they die. Wait, don't say that... I... dispose of personal property.

"Don't say anything. She'll use it against you," advised Scott Schaefer, the former Lake Worth City Commission candidate who seemed to have done much of his campaigning in the downtown bars.

In a flash, Meredith and company became the dearly departed. As a Johnny Cash cover song floated down the stairs, I turned my attention to Schaefer, who was accompanied by a silent dude who lurked around corners and a short girl who was long on attitude and hair — enough to wrap around her neck several times. After introducing herself as Sable Tiger, she pushed the door open to hurry things along.

"Anyone tell you you look like Avril Lavigne?" I asked.

"I always thought I looked more like Michael Jackson," she said, shooting me a dirty look. Signaling she was ready to beat it, the girl pushed herself against the open door and defiantly announced, "And I'm an astronaut... and I did not like the band."

Holy shit! A band review by an intergalactic Wacko Jacko look-alike — I'm pretty sure that was a first. At least for Truckstop Coffee.

Seemed like the ideal time for another whiskey. Chelcey was up for more too.

"Dance with me to this," she ordered, so I began a half-hearted torso twist in time to the music. "Shake it! On one foot! Now clap!"

The thing about pretty, confident women: It's hard not to do what they say. Like a fool, I was shaking, hopping, and clapping as instructed. Truth is, this wasn't the most professional showing the band had ever made either (you don't get asked to open for Jimmy Van Zant or the Georgia Satellites without some decent chops, you know?), but sloppy sure was more fun.

Like this garbled public announcement made by Pete: "I can't do any more songs. I won't be able sing any more shots."

"We need to go sexualize Pete," Chelcey suggested, pointing toward the stage. "Down in front."

She sure had a way with words. Good thing I understood that in translation that meant we needed to take our enthusiasm to the dance floor and give the birthday boy the attention he deserves. A dozen or so women were, in fact, "sexualizing" the dreamboat in cowboy boots. They were cutting a rug (on hardwood floors) while he sang "I'm getting ready 16 ounces at a time." By the looks of the seven empty shot glasses on their sides at his feet, he was just about ready to drop anchor. Good thing his girlfriend, Melissa, was there in the sea of women.

Then I saw a vision of the future: If Pete started hormone therapy tonight, there was the woman he would be in 20 years. No mistaking the similarly tall, lithe woman with wavy blond hair as anyone but his mother. Sorry, Pete, but me, your mom — it was a juicy story waiting to happen. I eased in slowly. A poised woman with no trace of hick heritage, Abbe Stein recounted the first time she was introduced to the band's story — in a newspaper article.

"I read it, and then I started to laugh. But then I realized, oh, he really did grow up on a farm. He really did come by this honestly," she assured me.

The fact that he seemed a little too well-spoken to be a hayseed? Both of his parents (married now 33 years) were from (now say this with me in a salsa-commercial Texas twang) New York City!? But the fam moved to Virginia to raise the kids, then to South Florida to escape blizzards and floods.

I'd just gotten started when Pete caught me with his mom. I hadn't even gotten to the obvious subjects of birthmarks or baby stories. I teased him about the juicy details I'd gotten just to rile him up. Then, I tried working the two against each other (like in TV's cop dramas), but the only confession I could get was after Pete let a curse word slip out of sheer frustration.

"Now I've dropped two f-bombs in front of my mother," he said, struggling to remain a gentleman. "I was raised better than cursing in front of my mother at the Bamboo Room."

I asked how he'd used the f-word previously.

"Perfectly!" he retorted, pointing at the notepad. "That's an adverb. Write that down."

Then he escorted his mother to safety. Would you believe me if I told you I was invited back to the house for cake? Me either. But it's true. The rest, however, is completely off the record.

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Marya Summers