On my phone, I have a contact that anyone would think, when scrolling past it, is a joke nickname that I’ve given to someone I know well..who kind of looks like that really famous guy. It’s a name I read on so many CD labels, and “written by” credits. On a live version of the song “Immortality”, sung with Celine Dion, his was the voice that rang out beyond the throng, leading the others: Barry Gibb.
Perhaps one of the best songwriters ever, I was excited when I heard that my boyfriend at the time, who was playing with Ricky Skaggs’s band and performing Ricky’s new album at the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville, would also be performing with a special guest—Barry, who had written a song with Skaggs for his latest project and was looking to make a comeback (which he did). For nothing more than a selfish desire to be in the same vicinity as the man, I begged my boyfriend to take me with him. I had hatched a plan. You can judge me all you want; I judge my 21-year-old self with all my desperate, ill-advised schemes harshly now as my ever-inching mine cart clacks on towards 30.
I wasn’t able to watch the soundcheck, but I was told after arriving just before the show that Barry had warmed up his voice for 45 minutes before singing his first note. I was inspired; I hope that when my career has spanned a similar amount of time, my work ethic and love for the craft will rival his. My boyfriend said his voice sounded perfect.
I was nearby, backstage at the Ryman, when I overheard Ricky tell the group that Barry was fragile right now and needed a ton of space owing to the recent loss of his remaining brother. I had heard it on the news, but it carried even more weight, now that I knew for sure that Barry was a real person. I wasn’t going to pry, and I wasn’t going to go straight up to him. I would give myself the best chance, and then wait and hope for a lucky break. From what I knew about being a performer, especially guest-starring on someone’s big show and only having to sing a few songs, there is nothing like coming off the stage and feeling like your job is done for the night. You also have the added bonus of not having to make a grand exit, because the end of the show is the main act’s responsibility.
The hallway was dim, and everyone was watching the show. There was one open stairwell next to a side entrance where the bands normally come in, with a bouncer/receptionist at a desk with a lamp, illuminating the spot in contrast with the surrounding area. This was where I would stand. I tried, in the least creepy way possible, to be in the light without looking like I was waiting to kill him. I decided to seem like an aide, or Ryman artist handler, waiting at attention without seeming too eager.
The crowd roared, and off the stage strode a man with a youthful gait, tight black pants, and a beaming smile. He handed his guitar to the waiting hands of the tech and thanked him for a great tune. His limited posse was there in a flash to congratulate him; I didn’t lose heart. As the minutes ticked by, like a magnet heaving him closer, inch by inch, I did my best to will him toward me, keeping very necessary attention towards my face and that it didn’t look like I was trying to force-choke him like Darth Vader. Like a moment frozen in time, his conversation abruptly ended, and he turned to face me, like an old friend. I smiled. He said hello. Thinking fast, I knew I had only one question to ask him before he was gone forever:
“You were fantastic tonight, and I’m such a huge fan of your songs. Can I ask you, where to you find the inspiration for your material? Do you ever feel stuck?”
A smile trickled across his lips, a knowing look acknowledging that he had just met another young songwriter.
“You know, love, I never run out of ideas. But sometimes, yes, it can be hard to come up with a line or two. That’s why you always need to keep a notebook by your bedside, in case it should come to you in your sleep. Have you written songs?”
“Yes! I have, but I hope to someday write songs as incredible as yours. I’ve just finished a 6-song EP here in Nashville.” I looked at him, as friendly and as vulnerably as I could. He didn’t have anything to worry about me, and I wasn’t asking. But he gave anyway.
To the amazement of everyone surrounding us, he strode over to the receptionist at the desk and asked her for a piece of paper and a pen. She shakily provided them, and just like he had never been wronged, never been disappointed by someone wanting too much from a celebrity, he wrote down his home address.
“Send me your EP, I would love to listen to it. I don’t have a cell phone or a computer, never bother with that kind of stuff. My grandkids give me a hard time.”
“And this will really reach you?”
“Yes, dear, of course.”
“Thank you..thank you so much, Barry. My name is Allie Farris. I so appreciate your advice.”
“Of course.” He smiled, turned, and walked to straight into his dressing room, the door closing like a vault behind him. Everyone around me was absolutely flabbergasted at what had just happened.
The following evening, I got to see my new friend Barry Gibb once more at the Grand Ole Opry, where he joined Ricky a second time. This time, however, we just shared a knowing glance as he strode towards the stage, and he said, as he broke stride with his wife and unlinked his arm with hers, “Hi, Allie!”.
His wife slowed and stopped next to me, watching as her man walked into the ocean of adoring whoops and hollers and quickly began singing, to even more elation, “How Deep Is Your Love”. We stood in silence next to one another at the stage door before the moment came when we had to acknowledge each other’s presence. She is a tall, Amazonian woman with a smoothed-out Scottish accent, a deep tan, and graceful, comparable aging similar to that of her husband. I mentioned I had briefly gotten to speak with Barry last night at The Ryman, and who my boyfriend was. She softened slightly at knowing I wasn’t just a backstage crasher, but still remained guarded yet friendly.
“He was so nervous to sing tonight,” she sighed.
“How is that possible?” I said, turning to her. “Hasn’t he played to millions and millions of people?”
“Yes hun, but he’s been so stage-fright for all the years I’ve known him, through it all. He gets so worried. Ever since we met when we were 17.”
I was now shocked to learn that Barry and she had been married for these nearly 50 years, with five children and seven grandchildren. The guy who wrote the songs I heard on Grease and the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack was also a guy who had been married longer than almost anyone I knew. And I could see so clearly that this man, struggling to find himself after the earth-shattering loss of his brothers; was not facing his immense stardom alone, but relying on this pillar of strength by his side all this time. Partners are pretty great. I felt more similar to Barry Gibb through this than through any of the songs I’d listened and related to.
The following day, I went to Fedex with a three-page letter and one of my EPs, carefully filled out the “Address To:” column, and overnighted it to Miami.
Three months later, I was driving back to Asheville, North Carolina through the mountains after arriving at the worst show I had ever been booked (at that time). It was in a college town about an hour’s drive through the mountains from Asheville, at a small coffee shop on the main drag of the university. It was an old, slightly dingy building, yet nothing too out of the ordinary on the outset. The spot that I would play in was a small corner in semi-shade, situated on a melted rug at ground level. Seeing this, I knew the show would be pretty rough, because as a pianist I’m seated the entire time I play. Most would probably not be able to see me and automatically (if not logically) assume that I was some indie folk radio station playing overhead.
I found a parking spot in the gravel lot and looked around. It was gray, a storm approaching. I was about 21 and weighing skin and bone, with about 120 lbs of gear to haul inside by myself. In a dress. I rounded the corner and approached the door, and was met by a group of four shifty-looking men, with sunken eyes and frizzled gray beards, smoking and forming a line barring the door. Something about it, even in the years of touring I had under my belt, felt wrong. I continued on, warily. Striding straight back to the kitchen area, I was taken aback by how gloomy everything looked. Maybe I’d just caught the place on a bad day. The manager on duty, a youngish, sullen looking woman with tattoo sleeves and a thick horseshoe-shaped nose ring, spied me from across the register.
“Uh, who are you?”
“I’m Allie, I’m here to play tonight.”
“Uuuuhh, oops, I didn’t think we had anyone playing here tonight.” It was true, on the WHO’S PLAYING board next to the stage, there was just a chalk smear.
“That’s fine, no problem. Do you have anyone to help me run sound?” I said.
She looked at me rather coldly and simply said,
I nodded and told her I would load in, and as I passed the small groups of studying people and coffee-sippers, I was called toward the table of two somewhat overdressed-looking people sitting near the opaque windows. They were professors at the University who had come to see me. I was touched. At least they remembered me, even if the venue did not. I decided to stride out to my car with my head held high. As I passed back through the doors however, I was met with twice as many men as before, all sitting surrounding the door. One blew smoke in my face as I passed. One stood up and played like he was blocking my way. The sun was sinking quickly. And at once, I felt very, very alone. A voice, deep inside my head, said You need to get out of here. I'd never walked out on a gig, but I'd also never heard that voice before.
I turned right back around and went to the manager, telling her I was sorry but I couldn’t perform tonight. She was unfazed. I returned to my couple of professors, and explained the situation. They seemed mortified.
“We’re so sorry. It gets like this when school is off for the summer. It may not be safe for you alone after dark, especially with the storm coming.”
Thanking them for their kind understanding and proceeding to keep my head down, I charged through the front door one last time, enduring whistles and Hey, come back here!s. I got to my driver’s side door, got in, locked it down, and got back on the highway in the other direction. The tears fell then.
On the phone with my grandmother for a few minutes, passing through a clearing of tall cliff sides and falling rain when our call fizzled out of reception. It took about 40 minutes of driving before I looked down and saw a bar again. Then two more. Then a buzz. It was a call from a number in Miami. I didn’t think about it any other way than “Wow, that’s one strange typo from Mimi’s landline.” I hit the “accept” button.
“H-hello love! I-It’s Barry, Barry Gibb calling you!” I almost dropped the phone.
“Hi Barry!” (Breathe..breathe.) “S-so good to hear from you!”
“So listen love, I got your recordings and I listened to them. I think they’re great.” (O.M.G.) “I would’ve treated a few a tad differently, you know, production wise, but I think it’s great overall. You’re a good writer.” This last compliment hit me low in the gut. There’s one thing off the bucket list. He continued:
“But what you always need to remember, love, is that the chorus is your most important thing. EVERYTHING leads to the chorus. Every line you write, like a magnet, must pull toward—“
And he cut out. But the phone call didn’t drop.
“Barry?! BARRY??!” I said. I let out a scream in my car. About 30 seconds went by, with my hand, shaking, holding my phone. Pleading with the fates as I tried to keep my eyes trained forward.
*fizzle*”—and you must remember, always keep your notebook by your bedside. You can get some good ideas from your dreams.”
He hadn’t heard anything. And better yet, he had continued to speak, unbroken, for the entire time the call had been interrupted. I felt like the luckiest person on the planet. We spoke for a few minutes more after that.
“Do you have any advice for me going forward?” I asked Barry Gibb.
“Just keep going, love.” He said. And then he thanked me for the kind letter I wrote to him, and signed off.
I entered a stretch of highway that sloped downward, out of the clouds and into the final, deep magenta moments of the day on the other side of the mountain. The rain ebbed, and I sat in silence as my car coasted forward, towards my next stop on a very long road.