Sympathy for the Devil

Billy Eli
10 min readSep 4, 2020


“Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name. But what’s puzzling you is, the nature of my game.” — The Rolling Stones

“Hi. I’m Billy. I’m Griffin’s dad.” I took a sweeping glance at the faces of the people in the group. They were sitting in folding metal chairs that were arranged in a semi-circle. “Hi Billy.” I already knew most of the people in the group. We had been regulars at Support Night since Griffin’s autism diagnosis. That had been about a year before and in that year a lot of things had radically changed. I had dropped out of the band I was playing in and enrolled in some vocational classes at the local community college. I had slowly fallen out of touch with most of the people in my social circle and they had been replaced by new people. The old people had mostly been musicians or people affiliated with musicians in some way or another. The new people were mostly parents of special needs kids. Rehearsals and gigs had been replaced with support group meetings, doctor’s appointments, and night classes.

The support group meetings always started with each parent standing up and introducing themselves. After the introductions, it was mostly a rap group. Some people talked about the day to day ups and downs of parenting a special needs kid, while the others listened and offered suggestions or in lieu of suggestions, support. I sat back down and looked at the fellow sitting next to me. A tall guy dressed in dockers and a button-down shirt. He seemed attentive but also a bit reserved. He stood up and introduced himself, “I’m Jim Hemphill. I’m Meredith’s dad.”. When he sat back down, the woman sitting next to him stood up, “Hi. I’m Sarah. I’m married to Jim……Oh, and he plays guitar.”. I wondered at the time why he didn’t tell the group that he was a guitar player. I figured that it was because he wasn’t very good, and he knew he wasn’t very good, but he had Sarah fooled and he didn’t want to do anything that might blow his cover. When the meeting broke up, I walked over to where he was talking to some other parents. I re-introduced myself, “I’m Billy. You play guitar. Are you any good? Tell the truth because I’ll know.” He shook my hand, “Hi Billy. I’m not bad. Do you play?” We chatted a bit more and discovered that we both liked The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, and The Byrds. Before he left, we traded email addresses and I told him I’d email him later in the week.

A day or so later I sent him an email asking if he and Sarah would like to come over to our place that Saturday night. We were having a little impromptu gathering. Kids were welcome, in fact most of the guests were people from the group. He said that sounded great. When he asked if he needed to bring anything, I told him to bring his guitar.

Saturday night arrived and there were maybe a dozen people at the house. As soon as Jim and Sarah arrived, I got my guitar and staked out a space on the living room floor. Jim got a beer, then sat down on the floor across from me (everybody still smoked then, so we sat facing each other with an ashtray in between us). I don’t remember what songs we played. I do remember thinking that he had lied when he told me that he wasn’t bad. Either that or he didn’t know what was bad and what was not bad. We had a good time, drank some beers, and made a joyous racket with our guitars. When the party broke up and the guests were leaving, I gave Jim a copy of “Something’s Going On” (my first record). I told him that I’d email him the next time we were having a get together. In those days we frequently had last minute, potluck, impromptu gatherings. Our social circle was mostly people from the support group. The gatherings were good for everybody. In their daily lives, the parents spent most of their time working or dealing with all things that accompany being the parent of a special needs kid. In that situation, it’s easy to lose yourself to all the things you’re responsible for. These throw-together events gave everybody a few hours respite in the company of other adults.

The next week I got an email from Jim. He invited me to come by his place on Saturday afternoon. We could get a pizza and have a few beers, “And bring your guitar.” That worked for me. Tonie was taking the kids to San Antonio to visit her family so I was free all weekend. Having already heard him play, I wasn’t expecting very much. But Jim was an interesting and genuinely cool guy, and sometimes a joyous racket is its own reward. I told him that I’d see him on Saturday.

The second time we played together was night & day from the first time. We set up on his patio and when I asked what he wanted to play, he said we should play some of the songs from my album, “How about ‘Ghost of a Memory’?”. Great. I counted it off. He hit every note. He even got the intro right, which almost nobody ever does, because the middle part is slightly different from the other parts. He nailed it. When we finished, he called another song from the record. He nailed that one as well. Forty minutes later we had played most of the songs on the record. I was having a hard time believing that this was the same guy from a week ago. I just had to ask, “You know, after we played together last week, I didn’t think you could really play. But you killed these today. How exactly did that happen?”. He told me that before we played together at my house, he hadn’t even touched a guitar in about a year. He hadn’t practiced before the party because he didn’t think I’d be any good. I asked if he would like to hear a couple of new songs that I had written but hadn’t recorded yet. He said he liked all of my originals that he had heard so far, so yes, we should work on a new one. We spent another hour playing everything that both of us could play, or at least play at. I asked him if he would be up for getting together once or twice a month. He said that he would be.

On the drive home I felt lighter than I had in the last year. I hadn’t stopped playing like Jim had, but I hadn’t played in any serious way since Griffin’s diagnosis. Plunking on my guitar while I sat on the patio wasn’t the same as playing with other players who knew how to play in an ensemble.

Over the next several months I got together with Jim a half dozen times. We weren’t sounding like a rehearsed, tight group, but we sounded pretty good. We had probably fifteen tunes that we could pull off. We stepped up the number of impromptu parties. It wasn’t the same as being in a working band, but it wasn’t bad, and it certainly beat the nothing that I had been doing.

A few months went by. We were still playing a few times a month. Out of the blue, I got a telephone call from Mickey, an old bandmate who played the drums. Mickey had called to see how things were going and if it might be possible to put a band together. I told him yes it was possible, but only on a couple of conditions. I could only rehearse one night a week and I couldn’t play any out of town gigs. Mickey said that would be fine. He also said that his brother Kenny was available to play the keyboards. Kenny had been in the previous band with me and Mickey. He had been the guitar player in that group, but he had spent the last year teaching himself to play piano. I knew a bass player we could call, so all we needed now was a lead guitar player. I told Mickey that I might know somebody that could cut the gig. I told him that I’d check it out and then call him back. As soon as I rang off the call with Mickey, I sent Jim an email. I told him that my old band was getting back together and that we had a gig, but we needed a lead player. The part about having a gig wasn’t strictly true, however, I knew a couple of dives that we could play. The next day I got an email from Jim. He was in. Later that same day, I called one of those dives and booked our first gig.

That was how it started. That one gig led to a second gig. The second gig turned into a monthly residency that we kept for three years. Right before I started playing with Jim, I had recorded a track for a compilation record that was being released by an Indie label in Sweden. That track led to an offer to record a full album for that same label. I ask Jim if he would produce the record. He agreed to give producing a shot. Trailer Park Angel, the record that he made, got a little publicity buzz in Europe.

The first six or seven years that we worked together; we frequently didn’t have a full band. Mickey had moved to somewhere in East Texas. Kenny had dropped out of sight (I’m not sure where he is now). Our bass player had moved to Houston and gotten married. Since we weren’t really ever going to be a working band, we had a difficult time finding and keeping quality players. Jim and I just kept on going. We made a deal between ourselves. We would always play the best set possible, given whatever we had on hand to work with at the time. We turned in some good sets. We also turned in some not so good sets. We did eventually start playing some out of town gigs and we made a few more records.

About eight or nine years into our collaboration, I decided that I wanted to go back on the road. It had always been my intention to start touring again whenever the kids were older, and I was no longer needed at home every day. If I were going to go back to playing a lot of road gigs, then I was going to need some players who were available for road work. But I knew Jim couldn’t travel. One night after a rehearsal, I brought it up. Jim told me that I should go back on the road. He also told me that, if I were playing in Austin and needed a guitar player, to call him. If I didn’t need a guitar player, call him anyway and he’d come to the gig.

Finding players who could travel turned out to be a non-issue. The economics of the music business had changed significantly since the early 1990s. There were still gigs available, but the standard pay wasn’t enough to support more than one or two people. I ended up traveling solo and getting pickup players from whatever town I happen to be playing in. I kept working with Jim in the studio and we kept playing together whenever I had a gig that he could get to.

About six years ago we talked it over and decided that we wanted to put an “official” band together for studio work. Technology had made it possible to record with players from anywhere in the world without anybody having to travel very far — or even leave their bedroom. Jim knew a bass player. I knew a pedal steel guitar player. We already had a drummer. Jim knew a harmonica player. Jim was at a place with his career and his family where he could travel some. We put the band together and recorded a new album. We also played a few far away road gigs.

Over the years I’ve heard Jim’s role in our musical partnership described as band leader and general calming influence. That makes a good sound bite, and while there is an element of truth in there, it’s also a gross oversimplification. I can be chaotic {I like a little bit of chaos) and Jim doesn’t have a chaotic fiber in his body. However, we’re not polar opposites. It’s not like I’m bouncing off the furniture and Jim is this locked down, rigid, and by-the numbers guy. Our personal styles complement each other the same way our musical styles do. There was a time, that like a lot of other musicians, I viewed music as a competition between myself and every other songwriter/musician in the world. After the first few years of working with Jim, I adopted his philosophy on music. Our thing is our thing. It’s either good enough for us or it’s not. We’re either happy with it or we’re not. What anybody else is doing or has done doesn’t enter this equation. His attitude toward music became my attitude toward music. Eventually those became my attitude about life in general: Everything is connected but everything is also its own thing.

If I had to sum all of this up in one sentence, that sentence would be, I trust Jim Hemphill. Musically, I trust his ears and his vision. I also trust his skill as a producer and a guitar player. Personally, I trust that his intentions are always good. I also trust him to be thoughtful, logical, and reasonable.

We’ve now been playing together for twenty-two years. I’ve written some good songs. Jim’s made some good records. We’ve played a lot of gigs and we’ve managed to hold it all together. We met at Support Night. Now, twenty-two years farther on, that name has turned out to be prophetic and we’re still not done.