January 15, Dallas. "Streets of Where I'm From."

I run around my Lake Highlands house grabbing clothes, video games, books, guitar stuff and assorted necessities for my first Old 97's tour in over two years. Since then, I've been a stay-at-home dad. I can't say I don't fear the prospect of dragging my tired 41-year-old ass onto the road, trading my secure home for squealing girls and envious boys, most of whom were born during the Reagan years. I'm worried about missing my wife and kids, in particular my 3-year-old Audie. He's been bargaining with me all week about how long I can go, how maybe he can go, too. This wouldn't be so far-fetched in a bus, but we're in our farty, littered, doughnut-crusty van. A horrible place for a child. What kind of father leaves his family to gallivant around the country with his friends?

While digging through my junk, I think about how the hell I got into this: Philip Peeples and I met in 1990 in Denton. We played in a freaky band called the Smeg Wentfields and had maybe six conversations. The only one I remember was about starting a band like Ministry and Public Enemy. Thank God we lost touch.

In the fall of 1992, I moved into Marquita Courts apartments on Lower Greenville. My neighbors, Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond, had been hacking around Dallas trying to make a go as musicians. I was learning accordion and banjo and owned a Fender Telecaster. I'd also lived in Austin. It must have impressed them, because they invited me to join their practice sessions in Murry's apartment. We started weekly gigs at Chumley's. We were having fun, but we needed a drummer. My friend Darin Lin Wood, who'd been filling in, suggested "this guy Philip" in Denton. Philip? My Philip!? Boom-shak-ah-lak-ah, we had a band!

Eleven years later, we're still grinding away. We're all married, and three of us are dads. Rhett and Murry live out of the state. We have mortgages, high cholesterol, and I swear I have arthritis in my fingers. Our sixth CD is due out this summer.

One by one the guys drive up. Everyone jokes about the long drive to Minnesota, how this is the way you travel when you lose your cushy major-label deal. The jokes aren't that funny. I kiss my wife goodbye. We jump in the van, and like atoms, we split.

Our guitar tech Noah Polk is driving. He's been on practically every tour with us. He's burly, tattooed and reminds me of a Jewish George Costanza. Right now he's asking where we want to eat. A chorus of negatives answer him. Not Burger King. Not Arby's. Not Denny's. Day one's menu is typical: Taco Bell, Steak 'n Shake and Subway. Noah also puts away a slice of pizza and some truck-stop Chinese food. He's an eater.

Every three hours we hit convenience stores like buzzards, circling the aisles for that one candy bar or piece of beef jerky that will make the next three hours tolerable. I've been trying to eat better. I've been on the modified South Beach Diet. Modified with the occasional cinnamon Pop-Tart and bowl of Lucky Charms. I figure if my guitar playing is rusty, I can make up for it with the illusion of youth.

January 16, Minneapolis. "Curtain Calls."

We roll out early. Cold and grumpy, we bitch about getting fat. Noah talks about his fear of crossing the 200-pound wall. In a convenience-store restroom, we find a scale and immediately start arguing about how much to subtract for our clothes. We settle on seven pounds. Noah steps on first, and the scale hits 212. "Something must be wrong! I CAN'T have gained 15 pounds in six months." Philip reminds him of the five meals he ate yesterday. Noah claims he ate only three--the pizza and Chinese food were snacks.

The club is packed. I wander into the audience for the opening act and immediately feel the stare of fans just outside my periphery. I turn, but they turn, too. Attention, Minneapolis: Settle down. You're in the presence of a Lake Highlands dad. Did you bring your soccer ball?

The show goes fine, and I have one kick-ass rock-and-roll moment: The Pete Townshend windmill is one of rock's staple moves, but I always felt it wasn't quite my style. But after two and a half years away, I'm caught in the moment. At the end of "Four Leaf Clover," I stand at the front of the stage. I windmill once, twice, thrice, then hold my hand high, letting the groaning sustain of my guitar hang in the air. I count on Philip to have my back. I slam my pick into the strings for the last time, and he's with me, crashing drums, cymbals and guitars in unison. What cacophony! Magnificent! We're on fire, baby.

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Ken Bethea
Contact: Ken Bethea