1989, Summer. My first headline tour, through the Southern United States. I had a hit album (“Blind To Reason” on RCA), I had a seven piece band, a band opening for me, two songs on the radio and a brand new tour bus. The tour bus, a newly renovated Silver Eagle, was from Nashville. All tour buses come from Nashville, as do all tour bus drivers.
My traveling musical circus departed from the Upper East Side of Manhattan on June 3rd, 1989. Assembled in a remarkably orderly fashion at 0700 hours were my band members, Tony the Nashville bus driver, Dave the Road Manager and the road crew (one sound man and two roadies). It is desirable to have roadies who are retired or still-active professional bowlers. They have good aim and are good at hoisting objects, both solid and liquid. I was lucky enough to have two such individuals on my road crew. And they always have interesting hair.
With a goodbye to tearful relatives, girlfriends, managers and parole officers, we piled into the bus and headed to the first show at The Jukebox in Augusta, Georgia. Alas, this venue is no longer. Many of the venues on this tour are no longer. They have crumbled and vanished under the weight of too many memories, too many crazy nights.
Other cities on the tour were Savannah, Atlanta GA, Winston-Salem, Raleigh, Charlotte, Monroe NC, Columbia, Florence, Hilton Head SC, Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville TN, Louisville, Jacksonville KY, Orlando, Panama City FL, New Orleans LA, Richmond, Roanoke VA, Baltimore MD and Washington DC. With a stop in Fly Jump, Wisconsin, just outside of Milwaukee. It is standard operating procedure for all booking agents to plan tours that wander off suddenly, in unexplainable directions, with giant leaps over state lines, lakes and all common sense.
I called this string of concerts The Waffle House Tour 1989. Not because we were sponsored by The Waffle House, but because in every city we played, there were Waffle Houses. Lots of them. Usually there was one right next door to The Red Roof Inn we were staying in. It could have been called The Red Roof Inn Tour, or The Broke Down Again Have To Get A New Bus Tour, or The I Haven’t Slept For Four Nights Now Tour, but I liked the word waffles.
And I liked the waffles themselves.
Let me tell you something about Waffle Houses. They are a Southern phenomenon, and as ubiquitous as kudzu. They are not so much restaurants as gathering places for weary travelers, most of them long haul truckers, whose coffee-soaked and often amphetamine-addled heads are full of too much talk radio and hundreds of hours of delusional life plans. Other frequent visitors to these venerable establishments are impoverished students, tired motel workers, disgruntled salesmen of kitchen appliances and, invariably, people who mumble, grimace and gesticulate to themselves. And of course us touring musicians.
“We come not for the food – but for the atmosphere and camaraderie!”
– John Spencer, Bass Player for The Defendables, on his STRIDENT DREAMS TOUR 1985.
Along with the fascinating clientele and copious tan-and-white booths crafted from the finest linoleum and plastic, Waffle Houses are staffed with waitresses who can, with uncanny skill, impersonate at least one of your elderly aunts. With an unsentimental sarcastic wit to rival Bette Davis in a WWII movie, they call you names and serve your food with well-polished phrases like “Hey, you better stop eating like that or we’ll have to call the authorities!” I still remember the chuckles, and the soft gurgling noises.
Waffle House waitresses have friendly, sturdy names like Betty, Joan or June and Janey. I knew one called Annette who inhabited a Waffle House in Duluth, Georgia. Since, it seems, all music tour roads lead to Atlanta, is was inevitable that my tour would be making many stops at this place. It sat on a hill at the end of a long road that led to a huge Mall. I got to know Annette well during that tour. She would even dispense earnest advice on the choice of songs I was performing, on girlfriend issues, and of course told me if I kept eating like that they’d have to call the authorities. Just like an elderly aunt.
The food itself was greasy, heavy, devoid of nutrition and oddly delicious. Most of all it was just there. It had a way of satisfying your hunger and making you feel sad at the same time. The sight of people weeping quietly into their plates was not uncommon. The cheeseburgers were best when eaten rapidly, without too much eye contact with it. The hash browns could be OK if you thought of them as salty pancakes. The coffee was terrible, weak, tepid, transparent brown-colored water, but I always had my own French Roast coffee with me on the bus. The one reliably good thing there was, of course, the waffles. Hot and fluffy they were, floating in a sweet lake of Aunt Jemima syrup and melted butter, the carb and calorie counts soaring up there in the high hundreds! Mmm! You felt really really happy for five minutes after eating those things, then you had to retreat to your bus and lie down in a bout of low blood sugar-crashing despondency.
When The Waffle House Tour ended, I went back home to my little run-down rented farmhouse out on the eastern tip of Long Island. I found myself craving hot chili with Tabasco sauce, greasy Western omelets and BLTs on cold toast. I had no appetite for gourmet pasta, designer pizza, or the suave sushi bars and fancy steak restaurants of The Hamptons. I felt out of place. I couldn’t write. I found myself standing for hours at the window, looking out onto the snow in the back yard, thinking about the long boring highways that were interrupted only by the oases of road meal stops.I didn’t miss the crazy adrenalin-fueled concerts, the attention, the applause and the roar of the audience.
But I did miss those Waffle Houses, especially one off the highway near the red clay and pine tree woods of northern Georgia.
I missed my Waffle House Aunt. I missed Annette.
To hear a live performance from that tour of my song “Finally Found A Friend” click HERE.
It was recorded at The Ace Of Clubs in Nashville, Tennessee on October 2, 1989. Alas, this venue is no more, but the music remains.
© 2014 by Grayson Hugh