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Silk Eggs: Abilenian assists Japan earthquake, tsunami victims

Category: By News Updater
Sometimes, a first-time singer just needs a bit of self-confidence to conquer the stage.

But then there was amateur entertainer Jeremy Love: lacking not just self-confidence, but musical competency to boot. Love was the sort of misfit performer who only could have found an audience at Abilene’s curiously named Tony Barker & Meatball Acoustic Jam.

Founded 10 years ago by local musicians Barker and Benny “Meatball” Bartek, the weekly Thursday night jam started as an informal way to get Abilene’s fledgling singers and songwriters up on stage and in front of an audience. No snobbery, no judgment, no stress — just a bunch of players banging out material in a friendly atmosphere.

Love hopped aboard soon after the event’s birth, and immediately put Barker and Bartek’s altruistic principles to the test. Every time he took the stage, the audience would collectively brace itself for an onslaught of flubbed guitar notes, off-key singing and forgotten lyrics.

“Every week for five years, I sucked it up,” Love said, in his typically self-effacing manner. “There were some people who would rather listen to endless karaoke than me.”

So while it pained Bartek to bring down the hammer on such a fragile ego, he pulled Love aside to deliver an ultimatum: either he would shape up within a month or he was barred from the stage. For a musical event founded on a laid-back, “live and let live” philosophy, this was unprecedented.

But a funny thing happened after Bartek deployed the nuclear option: Love finally started taking his playing seriously. It wasn’t just enough to want to entertain, he realized. He had to work to make people want to listen.

So Love got down to rehearsal — serious rehearsal, playing through songs again and again until his fingers were sore. Unexpectedly, he started coming up with his own material for the first time during these sessions, some five or six songs that burst out of him one after the next. Two or three of those songs actually turned out to be pretty good.

Bit by bit, he gained confidence on the stage and off. Normally a strict wallflower, Love began to mix and mingle with the crowds at each of the shows. In so doing, he wound up meeting his future wife. With the help and encouragement of his fellow musicians, he became a solid member of the weekly stage show.

Of course, Love is still just a chubby guy with a guitar. Barker and Bartek’s jams haven’t transformed him into Bruce Springsteen or anything. But still, they’ve given him an artistic outlet and a new bounce to his stride — and he’s not the only one.

Over those 10 years, an entire generation of Abilene musicians has come up through the weekly jam sessions. And last Thursday, that generation reconvened to celebrate.


The Barker & Meatball Acoustic Jam currently calls Strawberry’s Bar on South 7th Street its home. The building’s pale, unadorned brick exterior suggests some sort of hidden dive bar seediness, but the room inside has the air of a casual sports bar.

Last Thursday, the jam took over for its semiofficial 10th anniversary party. The packed bar felt like a high school reunion, with gray-haired guys grabbing each other every few paces for hugs and handshakes. Balloons drifted through the air while bands and solo performers took the stage.

Darting around the room were Barker and Bartek, who collectively serve as the night’s talent bookers, technical crew, emcees, guest musicians and hype men. Several times throughout the night, it was Bartek’s hands that sparked the crowd into collective, rhythmic clapping to accompany performances.

Bartek, much like his nickname, brings an unconventional approach to music promotion. On the jam’s first night 10 years back, Bartek focused on recruiting a big crowd but barely bothered with tracking down actual musicians to provide entertainment. Barker, who was already wary about associating himself with a man named “Meatball,” questioned that approach.

“I told him, ‘Hey! Let’s use our brains, let’s do it differently,’ ” Bartek said. “Musicians have got to have a reason to play. They’ve got to have a crowd first, and then they’ll come.”

From there, the event grew and blossomed due to Abilene’s unique musical culture, Barker says.

“What distinguishes us, and what towns like Austin should be envious of, is that we have a very supportive group of local bands,” Barker said. “People borrow things from each other and support each other. I’ve never been part of a scene like the one in this community, and believe me, I’ve seen a lot of communities.”

The night’s performers include mail carriers, cops, oil field workers and more. Then there are out-and-out characters like Jackie Johnson, a white-bearded country singer who always arrives dressed in full cowboy get-up. An active part of the Nashville music scene in the 1970s, the Anson native is now semiretired, but continues to sling his guitar to supplement his Social Security checks.

His business card has the word “WANTED” written across the top in an Old West typescript.

“A gypsy once told me that I was going to lead an interesting life,” the 67-year-old Johnson said with a wily smile. “Well, it’s been more interesting than you can imagine.”

Sharing the spotlight

Nearly every musician in the room got his or her start via the Thursday night jam sessions, gaining their first performance time and forming bands through connections made in the audience. Since most of these performers play competing bar shows on the weekends, Thursday is their designated hangout time.

Ric Rogers and his band Three Shades Blue arrived in Abilene in 2003 as outsiders from Fort Worth, but soon found themselves embraced by the Barker and Meatball crowd.

“The only reason we’re known in the Abilene music scene is hanging out at these acoustic jams,” Rogers said. “And most of the musicians here will tell you the same.”

Clyde-based performer Eric Logan credits the jam’s founding duo with creating an incubator for Abilene talent and then having the foresight to step aside. While Barker and Bartek’s and names and fingerprints are all over the event, they act more as facilitators than the stars of the show. Bartek will always play the first set of the night, but only to kill time until someone else is ready to go.

The actual onstage performances can be a bit rough, but the night’s importance goes beyond mere entertainment.

“It might not be the most stellar performance ever, but it’s a place to gain confidence,” Logan said. “For (Barker and Bartek), it wasn’t about the money or the sheer numbers. It was about harnessing the musical talent that Abilene has. ... It wasn’t their time to shine. The thought was, ‘Let’s put the spotlight on other people.’ Abilene owes them for putting up with us all for a decade.”

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