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James R. Stout

In Hot Pursuit

            I graduated from high school in May of 1974. I was about in the middle of my class rankings in a class of 726 graduating seniors. To be honest, I didn’t do my best throughout high school. I didn’t have to study much to “get by” with a B. I remember in my sophomore year being asked about my plans for college. I fended off the question with answers that basically avoided the issue. I already had it in my mind that I was going to be a successful singer/songwriter. Music was my passion then. I took the SAT test in the beginning of my junior year and again made an average grade. I didn’t prepare for the test at all. I only took it to please my parents. I was convinced that I was going to be rich and famous making music and that it would all happen by the time I was 22.

            By the time my senior year rolled around I dropped all pretentions of seeking a college education. Well, I suppose that I did still leave room for my mother to hope. I spent my senior year playing in “nice” clubs and restaurants making a decent amount of money. I took the bare minimum of required classes at school and managed to graduate as previously mentioned. When I graduated, I figured it was going to be easy-peasy to make it in music. I was writing songs, recording demos at home, and believed that somehow someway a big shot record executive was going to happen to be walking down my street one day, hear me playing my guitar and singing while sitting on my parent’s front porch, and immediately sign me to a record contract. Reality didn’t take long to make an appearance.

            So, by the summer of 1975 I decided that maybe I should go ahead and get a college degree just to hedge my bets. I enrolled in several classes at the University of Houston. But by the time the end of October came around I was bored, and the call of music was still too strong. I dropped out. Being young and dumb I didn’t bother to officially withdraw from my classes. I just quit going. That little mistake would come back and haunt me later.

            I started working up a “single” to play in clubs again. That simply meant that I would play in small clubs by myself. Just me and my guitar. I secured a multi-week gig at a nice place in Southwest Houston by April of 1976. I did pretty well there, but after 8 weeks the management decided to put in a dance floor and capitalize on the burgeoning disco craze. I started making plans to form a trio. I would play bass and sing, my sister Barbara would play keyboards and sing, and we would find a guitar player who could double on percussion on the piano songs. That plan lasted about two weeks. I suddenly found myself in turmoil. My girlfriend and I were having quite a problem with her parents. They hated me. They had no real reason to hate me. Mainly the problem was that nobody was good enough for their daughter. Well, how many ways can you be a fool? She turned 18 in September and I turned 21 three days later. We got married two weeks after that. No money saved up. I had taken a “day” job that I hated, but it would pay rent for a little apartment and buy us some groceries. But we were “in-luv” and that was the important thing. It was our plan for me to still make it in music. But the responsibility of a wife and all that goes with being married made it very difficult to have time to work a regular job all day and then play music at night.

            Fast-forward two years. Now it’s the spring of 1978. I had not played live in many months. I was working in a job that I hated. I felt bogged down in a rut and I guess that I truly was. So, I started thinking about college again. I enrolled in classes at the University of Houston Downtown campus for the summer. I had to overcome the “F’s” that I had from the fall of 1975 when I just quit going. So, I was allowed to take those same classes again and erase the “F’s”. I ended the summer with 9 hours credit. I enrolled for the fall, but then conflicts at my job made me have to drop the classes (the right way this time). I started thinking about music again. It was like being addicted to drugs. This time I decided to concentrate on my songwriting rather than playing in clubs. In early 1979 I recorded some demos at a studio in Houston and then in June we took off for Nashville where I had several appointments with publishers to show them my songs. Armed with a bunch of demo copies, I met with several publishing companies. I got some tepid responses from a few publishers, some encouragement from others, and one bonified job offer. MCA had a publishing house and the guy that I met with liked my songs. He offered me a job as a staff songwriter. I won’t go into all the ins and outs of what that entails, but it was a good offer. A foot in the door, so to speak. There was just one itsy-bitsy-teeny-weenie little problem. Well, it wasn’t a problem for me, but it was a really huge problem for my marriage and my wife. The job required me to move to Nashville. Hey, I was already packed in my mind. But my wife didn’t want to move from the comfort zone of Houston where she was near to her parents (yes, the same parents who still hated me). There was quite a tense “discussion” on the drive back to Texas. The result? I called MCA and declined their offer with much thanks. That was that. I found myself adrift. I hated my job and even though I was only 23, I felt time slipping by faster and faster.

            We ended up moving to Dallas later that year with the hopes of putting together a band with an old friend. That turned out to be a great big dud. The old friend and I couldn’t seem to get along very well. The friendship had been a lot stronger with 250 miles between us. So, I had a new job, a job that I didn’t like any better than the one before it, and I made home demos. I formed a duet with a friend of my sister’s and that lasted about 5 months. We were struggling financially and nothing good seemed to be on the horizon. I turned 25 and was no nearer to success in music than I had been at 18.

            By May of 1981 I took another job back down in Houston. So long Dallas! The job was OK, but not what I really wanted to do. I was still writing and recording and hoping for something to happen. But things don’t just happen. For the next two years I worked my job, wrote new songs, recorded in my modest home studio, and hoped. In the summer of 1983, I decided to make one more big push. I started working up my set lists and I secured a couple of really decent long-term gigs. I had spoken to a local agent and he was interested in helping me form a band and to start playing the kind of gigs that would feature me as a songwriter and performer. Not just cover material anymore. I had enough bookings to last about 3 months and after much discussion with my wife we decided that I would leave my job, a job that was probably going to go away on its own due to a huge downturn in new construction in the Houston area, and put 100% into my music career. But the week I started my first gig we found out we were expecting our first child. We didn’t have insurance and in those days most health insurance policies didn’t cover pregnancy and childbirth anyway. My wife started to have a difficult time and had to quit her job. Let me lay it out for you. We were down 40% of our income. My music gigs were sporadic. We had expected that to begin with, but we thought we would have my wife’s income to fill in the gaps until I got set up firmly. We were informed we would need an additional $3,500 cash up front to pay for the doctor’s and hospital bills. That was a fortune in those days. I decided to take a temporary job making deliveries on a contract basis with the belief that I would still be able to play music at night. Except the delivery job soon required me to work 12 hours a day. Well, it was a mess is what it was.

            Our son was born in April of 1984 and I thought that maybe I could get back on track with the music. Except my wife couldn’t work because we couldn’t afford day care, nor did we really want to use day care for our new precious son. Still, I worked up new sets and made new demos and was getting prepared to get back out there and get things going finally. And then we were expecting again. Second verse, same as the first. My incredible little girl was born in August of 1985. I now had a wife and two precious babies to care for. I was 30 years old. Music was going to have take its rightful place in the back of the bus. But I soon realized that I couldn’t provide for my little family the way that I should on the meager salary of what amounted to a dead-end job. Something major needed changing.

            That’s when I decided that the only way that I could provide for my family properly was to have that college education that I should have gotten years before. By May of 1986 we had a plan. We sold our little house and moved into a much cheaper lease house. We didn’t want our babies raised in day care if at all possible. We worked out a plan that was going to be very difficult, but with determination it was doable. I started back to college at the age of 31 in September of 1986. The truth is I was only allowed to keep 6 hours from those 9 hours that I took back in 1978. So, for all intents and purposes, I was starting college from scratch. I worked delivering pizzas 4 nights a week, my wife worked a regular job, I stayed home with the kids during the day (I became Mr. Mom) and went to school three nights a week. That was just the first semester. Over the next 3 and a half years it was one semester at a time. I worked delivering pizza, doing inventory work from midnight to 7, had newspaper routes 7 days a week, worked part-time as a youth director at two different churches, and basically did whatever it took to work around my school schedule and to continue to make sure our kids were raised by either me or my wife and not some day care. For a goodly part of this time we only had one car. An old beat-up 1975 Toyota. There were two semesters where I would be waiting at the door for my wife to get home from her job so that I could either rush off to classes or to one of my many jobs. I even took classes on a Saturday one semester.

            I had accumulated 57 hours by August of 1988. A chance meeting with a great guy who was an administrator at Houston Baptist University lead to me being awarded a full-scholarship for my final two years of college. I transferred to HBU, changed my majors, and set about getting that degree. I had been managing to pay my way as I went at the University of Houston. Now I only had to pay for my books at HBU. What a deal! I had worked hard at getting my G.P.A. to a very respectable 3.5 which I maintained through my graduation in August of 1990. Within a month shy of 4 years the goal was reached. I graduated Cum Laude with a dual major in History and Christianity. I was even awarded a full scholarship to go to any of the then 6 Southern Baptist seminaries. Sadly, I had to decline that gift. Oh, I wanted to go, but my family had suffered enough getting me through college. It was time I got down to making that better life for my family that had inspired me to seek the college degree. Within two years while working a decent, but not well-paying job, I finally got a job that could turn into a career. At the age of 37 I started to work for a major insurance company. I would work in that field for the next 25 years and then I took early retirement at 62. But that’s another story. The main thing is I was able to provide a decent living for my family along the way and to also be able to afford to retire at 62.

            I would be remiss not to mention a couple of things now. First, music has never left me. Over the years I have continued to write hundreds of songs and I have recorded many of them. I even released a CD in 2010 called “Sojourn of Love”. Go to YouTube and search that title or my name and you can hear most of the songs from that CD. Hey, if you like them enough, then buy it at Amazon or iTunes etc. I am still recording and writing. I just had to get my priorities straight. No, I never “made it” in the music business. But I do have two wonderful children and 5 beautiful granddaughters. I earned an education that is priceless. Sadly, the marriage ended in 2003 after 27 years. I can only wish her well and hope that she is happy. I have remained single all these years and I am happy. Except for the rain. I’m not happy about the rain. Way too much rain lately!

            Finally, I want to point something out to anyone out there who thinks that a higher education isn’t attainable. It is. It may not be easy. It won’t be for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of work, sacrifice, dedication, a little luck, and lots of prayer to accomplish any goal worth having. That most definitely includes getting an education. If there is any piece of advice that I would give to a young person who is about to finish high school or just recently graduated, then it would be get that education NOW. Don’t do it the hard way like I did. Do it while you’re young, have the energy, have the freedom, and before the responsibilities start to pile up on you.

            Someone once asked me if I would do it all again the same way. The answer is no. I would be smarter if I could go back in time and do it again. I would have gotten that degree by the time I turned 21. I would have then had plenty of time to try my hand at music or any other dream (writing, photography, art) and I would already have that education to fall back on if needed. But the main take away here should be to never give up. The old rhythm and blues hit from 1974 said it best. “Keep on truckin’.”

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