A Honky Tonker Staring Down Sixty

Billy Eli
3 min readAug 5, 2020

In his wistful song “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” Jimmy Buffet describes in vivid detail the life and attitude of an aging smuggler. The subject of that song laments that he was born too late to practice his true calling of being a pirate. He misses things that he’d never experienced, like the canons and the plunder. The thrust of the song is that his life would have been much better had he lived two hundred years earlier.

Having spent the last thirty-plus years as a working musician, I’ve often heard a similar lament from some of the musicians I’ve encountered along the way. Many of the working players that I’ve met recall, or at least claim to recall, a time when gigs were more plentiful, or paid better, or provided audiences that were more appreciative. Maybe I’m of a suspicious nature, but I harbor doubts that most of the musicians who wax so poetically about days gone by would be in a different situation regardless of what time period they found themselves in.

Since 1985, the year I recorded my first real demo, I’ve seen videos unseat radio as the place to hear music on the airwaves. Then came satellite radio, and then internet radio became the new medium. Vinyl was replaced by cassette tapes which were then replaced by CDs which were replaced by digital downloads. Nostalgia has now caused a resurgence in pressing records on vinyl. Lower costs for having product manufactured means that everybody can get a record out. Recording, which was once mind-numbingly expensive, is now so cheap that most of the small demo studios have closed. You can record a quality demo on your phone now. Back in the good old days that so many musicians reminisce about the only way to break into the music scene was to go there. Thanks to the internet and platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, every band is a national band and every band be can be a local band in whatever locale embraces them.

At the onset of the Covid-19 Apocalypse every musician and songwriter I know lost every gig they had on the book for the foreseeable future. I had a run of gigs in Texas and a return trip to California booked as well as some local gigs here in Whoville . . . . POOF all gone. Like nickel candy. A lot of bands are streaming live shows via Facebook or some other social media platform. Some of the songwriters I know are remotely recording new material while they wait to see what venues will still be open when it’s safe to come out. While I certainly hope my favorite venues survive, I’ve been around long enough to know that everything changes, and that events like the apocalypse only speed those changes up. I wonder if in ten years musicians and songwriters will sentimentally pine for the pre-apocalypse musical landscape . . . I don’t really wonder that. Of course they will.