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Cameron Knowler and I rang in Christmas next to a trailer in the Christmas Mountains. It was 2018, and we had just done a show at Terlingua’s Starlight Theatre. For breakfast we’d eaten cowboy omelets with Catfish, a legendary river guide who punctuated slow bites with a groan—“Oh, merciful days!”
Later that night, toward the end of an 11-hour drive to Austin, we sat in an empty Kerrville IHOP for 45 minutes without being served and wolfed down fast food in a parking lot late at night.
That’s how touring goes sometimes: No matter the crowd size, guarantee or delusions of grandeur, whether you play bars, basements or arenas, you spend a lot of time driving. Especially in far West Texas.
We were just 21 and 22 but already seasoned touring musicians. My music revolves around instrumentals for six-string, 12-string and Weissenborn acoustic guitars. Cameron’s guitar and banjo playing draws influence from old-time and bluegrass musicians of the rural South.
This tour marked the first time we had performed together regularly, reinterpreting traditional folk songs and devising our own, and our Christmas Eve concert marked a halfway point, for which we’d traveled from Houston to the desert and back—a route we had looked forward to.
Growing up in Houston, I thought of far West Texas as a region of stark beauty and mystery. I listened to StarDate on the radio and gave a presentation on Fort Davis in fourth grade. It seemed impossibly far.
We were surprised to have made it.
On the way out of Lubbock, we stopped by Buddy Holly’s grave. Holly toured similarly, and his plane use began from a desire to avoid freezing on a tour bus between shows in the rural Midwest. Our concerts, perhaps like his, were small—a nonprofit record store in Dallas, a backyard barn in Austin and a hotel bar in Marfa—but they didn’t need to be big. Cameron thought of it like Hollywood, less charmed by the $10 cacao nibs we attempted to snack on during long drives or the person who asked him before a gig if we were together, then asked, “Are you any good?”
Each day we made enough money for the next, aware of the luck that permeated our travels: playing to a packed house in a repopulated ghost town the night before Christmas, the night after playing for an attentive handful on the outskirts of Austin.
At the homecoming show in Houston, we cracked jokes about our travels, and I thought back to Catfish, as I often do. These days had been merciful indeed.
Eli Winter is a guitarist and writer based in Chicago. As a musician he has been featured in The Guardian, Vice and Aquarium Drunkard, and he has written for The Economist, Texas Highways, Chicago and the Houston Chronicle. American Dreams Records will release in March an album of guitar duets inspired by this trip. Winter remains, in spite of himself, a diehard Astros fan. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and at eliwinter.com.