Forty-three years ago, a seven-year-old girl stood in line at the Sam Houston Coliseum. She was wearing a dress her mother had made — blue velvet with white lace — and clutching a concert program in her hand, stretching her arm and waving over the woven cord barrier in the widest possible arc. Willie Nelson was signing autographs on the other side of the cord when he saw the lace frills whipping in the air, and he decided to recruit the girl. He put out his hand and helped her under the rope.
"You hand these things to me and I'll sign them," he directed her. She obliged, naturally.
"Are you sure you know where you're sitting?" Willie asked. Once he'd finished scrawling his moniker, he scooped up the girl and returned her to her seat, and waiting mother, near the catwalk.
"When we got there, the spotlight abandoned the current performer and was on me and my mama and Willie," says Bitsy, that seven-year-old girl who now — after 31 years of bartending — holds down the fort at Heights icehouse Jimmie's Place (2803 White Oak). "The guy onstage was not very happy about that."
The concert was one of many staged to raise money for the Houston firefighters' benevolent fund. Bitsy's father, himself a Houston firefighter, rigged the lighting for the shows, so Bitsy got to see them all for free.
"This is a good one, too," Bitsy says, sliding a fresh beer toward me as Hugh Masekela's "Grazin' in the Grass" gets its turn in my current jukebox set. "I approve of yo' picks."
She continues the story. The year after Willie's show, Bill Anderson, who wrote hits for Ray Price and Roy Clark and scored a few of his own in the 1960s, came to play. Anderson and his band, the Po' Boys, had a Q&A session with the kids, where he was surely run through the usual gamut of kiddie questions. Precocious Bitsy, though, had other designs.
"Mr. Anderson," she said, "you sure do play some trash. Why don't you play a good song?"
Anderson was perplexed. He chuckled, grinned amicably and said, "Well, I don't know, little girl. What'd be a good song to play?"
"'They're Not Teardrops,'" replied Bitsy.
Anderson furrowed his brow and turned to the band. "Boys," he said, "We're changin' the set."
Bitsy takes off to serve up a bucket of beer for some regulars. I work on the bottle and listen to "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother," then remember being nine or ten years old and sitting on my bed listening to the same tune on my dad's 8-track player. He mumbled something like, "That's probably how you're going to turn out," or more likely, "I hope that's how you turn out." He was probably joking, but it's difficult to surmise, at that age, and it sets me to thinking about the ways music shapes our personalities, whether we want it to or not.
Eight-year-old Bitsy's putting the screws to Bill Anderson in many ways foreshadowed the development of a personality that has allowed her to spend more than three decades slinging booze and babysitting drunks. And though I've heard "Up Against the Wall" maybe three times in 14 years, I do not drive a GMC pickup truck, am not entirely a redneck, and have not — yet — married or even met any women named Betty Lou Thelma Liz. I do, however, have a severe patchouli allergy and an almost religious affinity for Wild Turkey.
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Jimmie's is a fine place to explore the dark depths of your musical pedigree, as the jukebox could be made to sing by a tone-deaf primate. Jef, a.k.a. Shaggy, one of Jimmie's barkeeps, claims responsibility for its gem of a juke, which has been assembled with the kind of care and personality you just can't get from a soulless Internet jukebox. Iggy and the Stooges, David Byrne, Loretta Lynn, the Cars, Bob Marley, GN'R and a smattering of truly golden oldies don't lie.
Shaggy has just clocked in, and Bitsy repairs to a table for a post-shift beer with some regulars. Soon Curt, a neighborhood journeyman who travels between the White Oak district and Cadillac Bar charging seven bucks for a superior shoeshine, enters the bar. I haven't seen him in over three weeks, yet he comes straight for me.
"I know you're ready for me today," he says.
I hand him my boots, grab a beer and we sit on the patio watching the sun droop behind the trees. Jimi Hendrix's "Red House" dances in our ears, and a subtle prelude to autumn rolls in on back of the breeze.