As showtime approaches, the band members speak less. Even though this is the tenth show they have played this tour, and the 67th this year, out of more than a thousand in their career, the nervousness before a show doesn't go away. (Henry Fonda, even at age 85, still threw up before performances.) But there's an extra tension. Everyone is coughing, and Ty has a head cold that threatens to turn their three-part harmonies into two-and-a-half-part mush. Her eyes, which already have a slightly sleepy look, are nearly shut. She's standing at the microwave waiting for her water to heat. She'll add salt, gargle, and repeat as many times as she can before taking the stage.
It's going to be hard to put on the sparkly dinner party for fans. But that's only part of the tension. The house isn't full—there are only 100 or so in the audience early in the night, even though the venue can hold 500—and this makes them anxious. This is like getting a lousy performance review the minute before a huge presentation.
They know, in theory, that attendance at any particular show means nothing. One night in Opelika, Ala., there were only 35 people in a venue that could hold many more, and the audience requested songs by other bands. But the next night, just an hour down the road, it was standing room only at a 150-person venue. The club ran out of food and liquor. But while the band knows about the ups and downs in theory, being faced with middling attendance can quickly lead to a downward spiral. "I start to think, 'What does this mean?' " says Doris. "I start to think 'oh shit, we're sliding downhill.' "
The spiral can get out of control quickly when you have an artist's imagination. Maybe they'll have to get part-time jobs. They might have to go back to playing campus cafeterias, where the crowds can be loud, distracted, and just passing through. All of this doubt makes it harder to take risks, the thing you rely on for your art.
Ty, Nate, and Doris all say they would keep doing what they do even if no one was listening. It is not just a job. They need to write and play and sing. But they also need to tour for reasons that go beyond just making money to survive. It gives shape to their lives. "I can relax into a tour," says Ty. "It helps me remember who I am. I know what to do." If that went away, they would have to entirely rewire themselves.
On the wall at the Birchmere hang black-and-white calendars showing the acts who have played there before—including John Prine, Lyle Lovett, and Lucinda Williams. "I hate these calendars," says Nate quietly. "I keep thinking, 'Maybe we got more than they did' or 'they got more people here than we did.' "
One calendar from March 2005 shows Girlyman opening for Dar Williams. Now they're the main act, but it's hard to focus on that progress. The venue is one of the larger ones they play. The audience will be intense and go wild but the band needs numbers . If they don't bring in a decent audience, they won't make as much money, and the Birchmere might not invite them back.
By showtime the house is full enough, and everyone makes their money. They'll be invited back.
Working With a Net
If Girlyman were to suddenly become famous and rich, Nate might expand his home recording studio or he might put the money into his kitchen. He was making shrimp grits the day I arrived at his bungalow in downtown Atlanta, where he moved three years ago, and the other band members followed shortly thereafter. A loaf of bread was cooking in the oven and another was on deck.
Doris was hosting a potluck birthday party for herself that night, and Nate was preparing his offering. At Doris' party, they baked Christmas cookies at one end of her railroad apartment while Ty mixed whiskey sours at the other end (in the middle is the bedroom). Friends came and went, but by the end of the evening, it was just the band. They were the last to leave even though the next night they were planning to do it all over again in Ty and Genevieve's newly renovated kitchen. For that, Nate would cook a fried-food-themed meal of Thai fried chicken and French fries.
Bands don't always get along this well. Often there's either open antagonism or everyone lives separate lives once they're off the tour. "We come off tour and call each other and say, "What are you doing tomorrow night?" says Doris.
This friendship mitigates the various risks the band faces. If it's necessary to keep making leaps to produce good art, then it helps to have a net beneath you. For Girlyman, the friendship is the net. The stronger the friendship has become, the more comfortable they have become taking risks—making their songs more personal, stretching their vocal range, and trying new song arrangements.
When Ty, Nate, and Doris talk about their work, they use words like raw, exposed, and naked. When a small business wants to grow, it risks investment in new equipment. A singer-songwriter goes to the emotional bank. "You think you're being honest and then you're just not," says Ty about songwriting. "You have to strip down another layer … the stuff that I want to give is the really scary stuff."