The highs—and oh so many lows—of dating a musician 

Thanks to Audrey Watts and Dave from the Tits

In the Bad Ideas Hall of Fame, dating a musician ranks with having one more drink for the road, getting a credit card in college, or assuming that rash will clear up on its own. Despite the stereotypes about band dudes—that they're self-absorbed, financially capricious and eternally resistant to growing up—women still insist on hitching their starry-eyed wagons to the backs of tour buses.

Los Angeles drowns in actors and New York swells with writers, but Nashville's dating-pool albatross is distinctly guitar-shaped: You can't throw a dart here without hitting a gig bag. Of the 619,626 people who reside in Nashville, according to the 2008 census, all but five are musicians. At least that's how it feels when a girl walks into any bar, restaurant or grocery and takes a good hard look for potential suitors.

Maybe you date band dudes the way some people do bungee jumping—fun to try once while you're young and crazy. Or maybe you try them on like earrings, more accessory than romantic pursuit. Either way, you'll find the music life nothing like advertised in the brochures.

So before you saunter side-stage batting your eyelashes for that free band beer, read on: This road has curves ahead, and it's slippery when wet.

Just ask Kelli Craig. After nearly a decade of immersion in the band-dude grind, the 34-year-old now finds herself making headlines. It's not for authoring a collection of short stories or designing the Gilded Cage clothing line. She's better known as the plaintiff in a lawsuit against ex-boyfriend Jack Lawrence, The Raconteurs' bassist, over something decidedly less glamorous—the division of their personal assets.

Craig claims she supported Lawrence financially for the last eight years. He'd agreed to split future music income with her as repayment for investing in his career, she asserts. But when Lawrence started to make bank—enough to purchase a nearly $400,000 home—he put the house in his name only. The couple headed for Splitsville, and Craig headed to court.

Suddenly, the backstage passes, rock star meet-and-greets and surprise trips to New York vanished.

When news of the lawsuit spread in December, surely every woman dating a musician cringed. It may sound like an endless party with a house on Cribs at the end of the rainbow. But since nasty odds dictate that most bands are tickets to obscurity, think of it as more like putting your boyfriend through medical school—without promise of future payback.

From the cheap seats, it's tough to muster much sympathy. In Nashville, the image of the bum rocker is ubiquitous. A common joke: What do you call a musician without a girlfriend? Answer: Homeless. Anybody naive enough to play this game deserves the tinnitus as much as the credit card debt.

But Craig—who would only answer questions via email—says she didn't know any better when the relationship began in 1998. He's the only musician she's ever dated, the only boyfriend she's ever had.

"I grew accustomed to the relentless touring and him not having an income," she writes. "I wasn't opposed to supporting him, because I was well aware that if he had to work a 9 to 5 and do music, that he would never achieve his full potential. I encouraged him to focus on music 100 percent, because that was his talent and what made him happy. I strongly believe that if you do what you love, that the money will eventually surface."

Try telling that to women around town, and most will snicker. If you're looking for dinners at The Palm and vacations to Mexico, they say, you're barking up the wrong tree. Most musicians will reach their economic zenith serving caramel macchiatos at Starbucks.

Another joke: How do you get a drummer off your doorstep? Pay for the pizza.

"With a musician, any time you want to go to a nice dinner or take a weekend trip, you have to pay for it," says Emily, a 32-year-old lawyer who wishes to remain anonymous. She's dated her fair share of musicians—one for each instrument in a band lineup, including a keyboard player. But paying for the trip doesn't sound so bad compared to never being able to actually take one, as Craig found.

Lawrence is now known internationally for his work with The Raconteurs, but he's been touring extensively since the mid-'90s with his garage-rock band The Greenhornes, which formed in Cincinnati in 1996. He also plays banjo for the Detroit band Blanche. But he's one of the lucky few: It only took a decade for Lawrence to see a payoff. Broken Boy Soldiers, The Raconteurs' debut album, reached No. 7 on Billboard and has sold nearly a half-million copies.

Craig was there for every painstaking step up that ladder. And Lawrence's frequent absence was a fact of their relationship.

"Scheduling any sort of vacation or out-of-town trip was nearly impossible," she says. "Jack toured the world with three different bands, so when he was home, he liked to stay home. If there was some interest in going on a trip, we couldn't seem to work around the touring. As someone who enjoys pleasure travel, it was very annoying to me. On occasion, I went to out-of-town shows to see him. However, I do not consider hanging out in a hotel room in Minneapolis for two days to be a real vacation."

But they were in love. The pair met in 1998 when she was 22. Lawrence was playing with the Greenhornes; Craig was in college on a theater scholarship.

"I was led to believe that he was the person with whom I would spend the rest of my life," Craig writes. "I didn't foresee the personal or business relationship ever coming to an end. Some may say that was naive or unrealistic, but I disagree based on the information that was presented to me at the time."

Lawyers have advised her not to discuss details of the romance. But she admits the constant touring wasn't the worst aspect. "I am very independent, so there was an appeal to him being on tour," she writes. "I liked being able to miss him once in a while. It was healthy for the longevity of our relationship."

What was increasingly difficult, Craig writes, was defending the relationship to friends and family who could never grasp why a smart, sensible girl would sink so much time, energy and money into a losing investment.

"Jack and I are originally from Cincinnati, where successful musicians are rare, and my family didn't quite understand what I was doing," she writes. "It hurt them to see me struggle for years, working two, sometimes three jobs at a time, especially when my peers were progressing. To them I was supporting a dependent and jeopardizing my future. When Jack became successful—i.e. received a steady paycheck—I sort of felt vindicated, the ultimate payoff for years of hard work."

But in 2007, she got a surprise. Lawrence purchased a home in East Nashville in his name only. The lawsuit says he paid for it with "partnership money"; Craig insists there was a verbal agreement to reimburse her for her years of loyal support.

Then he ended the relationship and asked her to leave. She refused, so he left. Lawrence sued to take possession of the property and retrieve his personal belongings—some 300 vinyl records, a couple of guitars and six suits, among other items. When, according to the lawsuit, he was "unlawfully deprived of those possessions by the defendant," he sued her for $10,000, their estimated value. She filed a counter-claim for breach of contract.

Craig still resides in the home, shocked by a love gone ugly. The lawsuits have been indefinitely continued, and no court date has been set.

"I have difficulties coming to terms with the fact that the person I knew and loved was the same person who hired an attorney and filed lawsuits against me," she writes. "There was no precursor, no warning. I am astonished, actually, and I consider what he did to be abuse."

Love on a Budget
Most musicians will never see the payoff Lawrence enjoyed. Chances are they'll never rise beyond the 500-person-capacity club. So once it's clear success isn't around the corner, many women are off like a prom dress.

Take Sarah, a 28-year-old public service worker. She's had two long-term relationships with dudes in bands—even marrying one for a brief swirl. Neither romance kept the wolf from the door. When your partner's income amounts to a few hundred bucks a gig—and that's for a reasonably successful band—it's not surprising.

"It just seems like they will only work just enough to barely get by, so every month they're stressed out about getting the money together for rent," she says. "That's a problem that could easily be solved by working full-time."

But most musicians keep overhead low and working obligations minimal to free time to play. Niki Tyree, a 34-year-old who's worked at labels, radio stations and promotion companies, understands the dilemma. She's dated musicians nearly exclusively since age 19.

"There are very few jobs that will just let you take off and go on tour and come back, unless you're working at a place like a record store or some place that understands musicians and supports that," she says. "You're not going to be able to really get that good full-time job if you're serious about touring."

Even if they could, musicians find living close to the bone intensely romantic. There's a common belief that you have to stay hungry to make good art, which might explain why so many talented bands produce head-scratchingly bad records the second they get a label deal.

"I think the appeal for a lot of them is the whole starving-artist thing," says Michele Yarbrough, a 27-year-old Vanderbilt nursing student who dated a singer for a punk band. "They think they have to be poor and miserable to be an artist. It's not just the fact that they don't have solid income, but that they don't even seem to think that they need to have solid income. They could probably pay their bills if they just didn't spend so much money on booze out at bars."

But You're With the Band
It's worth noting that the very things that draw you to someone will also drive you insane. With musicians, there is a compelling minus for every plus.

It is exciting to be with someone creative, but that creativity tends to need lots of isolated time to create. It's comforting to be with someone sensitive, but that sensitivity may mean a fragile ego requiring constant massage. It's inspiring to be with someone so passionate and driven, but it often leaves them ambivalent to everything else.

"You date musicians for all these reasons, but if you took the fact that they were a musician out of the picture, you'd never date the guy," says Emily. "Think about it: a guy who works 15 hours a week, drinks a lot, smokes a lot and whenever you go out to dinner, you pay. He always has all these hot girls after him, he can't go on dates with you during normal hours, and you can only basically hook up after practice or shows. Who would want that?"

Turns out, many perfectly smart, interesting women want that, because the perks tend to outweigh those pitfalls—at least while times are good. Ask these same women what draws them to musicians, and they gush with wistful-eyed lust over attributes that range from the sweet to mundane.

"I sort of fell in love once I saw Dave onstage," recalls Alexis Bartley Paulson of her high school sweetheart and frontman for The Privates, whom she recently married. "At school, he was really quiet, and he didn't talk to anyone at all. And then to see him onstage acting all crazy and singing loudly and making jokes, it was just a whole different side of him."

Tyree got high watching others enjoy the music her man made. "It's definitely a buzz. I'm attracted to guys who are in touch with their emotions. They know how to write something that makes you angry or sad or sexy or dirty."

Yarbrough enjoyed the way that passion heightened the sexual tension. "The high they get when they come offstage and had a good show and that carrying over into the bedroom is kind of awesome," she says. "And for most girls, it's kind of cool to have something other people want. I got off a little bit at seeing other girls throw themselves at my boyfriend and know he was coming home with me."

And those late night hours mean unstructured days free to run errands. "A lot of time they're free during the day to do stuff for you that you can't do while you're at work," adds Sarah. "Especially the car. I've always had my car taken care of during the day by guys in bands."

And what they don't make in dollars they are granted in access. The more successful the band, the higher the value of that guest list spot, as Kelli Craig found out.

"There were many perks that came along with dating a musician in a well-known band, but one perk that will be sorely missed is the liberal use of the guest list," writes Craig. "I viewed the guest list as an opportunity to receive free goods and services, as opposed to getting my friends and family in to see a show. Over the years I traded passes for cartons of cigarettes, housewares, manicures, vitamins, you name it. I had trades going on all over the U.S., Canada and Europe. It was entertaining to me, a fun game."

Hurry Up and Wait
But that's when times are good. Typically, a musician's world rarely gets started before noon. It is a culture of late nights, smoky bars, studios, the constant temptation of drugs, alcohol and other women—and a lot of waiting. Waiting to load in. Waiting to sound check. Waiting to play. Waiting to load out. Waiting to settle up the door money. Any woman lacking patience will find herself in a perpetual state of disappointment and frustration.

A classic mistake: rolling up to the club with your boyfriend at 6 p.m. for load-in and sound check. You think it'll be cool to kick around pre-show. Bad idea, unless you're into sitting around empty bars listening to the drummer pound a kick drum for 10 minutes straight.

"I would go early to shows all the time," Emily says. "But it was really boring. They're just running around doing their thing like they have to do. So it's not like it's quality time. There were plenty of times I just went out to the car and went to sleep and woke up and it was 3:30 in the morning, and he still wasn't there."

While the burned-out rocker comes by his scraggle honestly, his girlfriend's biggest challenge is keeping up and staying awake. Rock o'clock means most shows won't start until 10 p.m. And any band that wants to uphold its street cred sticks around for the entire show—which may mean seven other bands. That translates to not getting home till 3 a.m., even on a school night, your hair and clothes so cigarette-stenched you might as well burn them.

"A lot of the problem is lifestyle," Sarah says. "When you go to venues for shows, people are smoking and drinking and it's late, and you have a day job. 'Oh, it's a Tuesday and your show is at 11? I have to be in bed by then.' "

For Paulson, nearly eight years on the clock as a band girlfriend means she feels perfectly entitled to bow out on shows. Husband Dave has played with Esposito, Character and now The Privates.

"When it comes to shows on weeknights, I have started going home early or not going at all," she says. "If I know they're playing last, or if it's a really late show, I'll just skip out because I'm lame and I have to get my sleep and go to work."

It's one thing if dating a musician just meant cheering for your boyfriend's set and ducking out. Instead, it often means getting immersed in band life—promotions, making records, internal drama, being enlisted to work the dreaded merch booth or load gear.

"I've helped Dave make fliers and put them up around," Paulson says. "I've worked the merch table, but I don't really enjoy it. I won't carry amps, because they're really heavy. Guitars are OK. But amps? Not OK."

And just because he's off the clock doesn't mean he's not still thinking about music, whether it's the chord progression or drum fill, how many hits the band is getting on MySpace, or which member is dangerously close to blowing the whole shebang.

"You always get involved in their band drama," says Sarah. "They're like, 'So and so gets sooo drunk that he almost falls off the stage. He's such a fucker.' And then they're cool again. And then, 'So and so isn't as serious as we are about the band and the band's gonna fall apart. If he doesn't get it together we're gonna replace him.' "

"For some reason, a lot of them complain about how hard it is to find a good drummer," recalls Emily. "We spent many hours talking about that."

"And they're always like, 'Hey, listen to this song I wrote,' " says Sarah. "And then they sit there and stare at you and watch for your reaction."

And being the sensitive artists they are, they're occasionally moved to tears while seeking your counsel. "Sometimes they cry when they play you songs they want you to hear," Emily says with an eye roll.

The Yoko Ono Syndrome
The line between supportive girlfriend and groupie cheerleader is blurry. Anyone who's seen This Is Spinal Tap knows how thrilled musicians get when girlfriends immerse themselves in band decisions. In fact, the only thing worse than a dude in a band might be his meddling girlfriend with an idea or two about the set list.

Classic mistake: thinking that anyone gives two shits about what you think of their stage presence.

"I was involved enough to know to not be directly involved with day-to-day band life," writes Craig. "I didn't want whatever I did or said to somehow negatively affect Jack's status in any of his bands. To me, this was his job and was to be taken very seriously. It is frowned upon in that world for significant others to be omnipresent. It's viewed as a distraction. Has anyone ever seen a physician's wife come into a delivery room to fraternize while a patient was giving birth? On that note, we all know what happened to The Beatles!"

Indeed. Hang around band dudes long enough, and you'll eventually hear the sentiment—or see the actual refrigerator magnet—"Still Pissed at Yoko." While most girlfriends are welcomed so long as they're delivering pizza, weed or beer, there's an invisible line you cross that instantly turns you into the Eve of the music world, that manipulative dragon woman responsible for the demise of the greatest band of all time.

"I've been called Yoko," says Paulson. "I was called Yoko because Esposito broke up a few months after we started dating. It was someone close to us and we didn't speak to that person for a few years. It was a ridiculous accusation, because I was like Esposito's biggest fan."

Which leads us to an important rule: Better to wear a cheerleader outfit and bust out the 'Go Team' chants.

"They have such fragile egos," says Emily. "I always had to say, 'Great show, you did great, that's amazing.' At first it was weird saying it, because I felt like it sounded fake. I just wanted to act like a normal person and say, 'Hey, good show,' and then move on to the next topic. It seems like every musician I dated, every time you go see them play, you have to go and give them praise. But I don't expect them to come to my job and see what I do and say 'You're awesome.' "

And that neediness is often accompanied by vanity—the sort that has them less likely to cheer you on than raid your closet.

"Some of them really care about how they look," says Sarah. "You know, like the tight pants guys. With the cool wristbands. I don't want them to look like an idiot, but I don't want them stealing my jeans. One guy took my fucking pants. I didn't get them back either. And a jacket that I really liked. The clothes you lose, that's something you don't think about. Like a really cool scarf."

Stand By Your Man—or Another Gal Will
It's advisable to guard your clothes well, because you'll need that extra scarf to keep warm when they're touring. Part and parcel of any hustle is hitting the road to win hearts and minds. But which adage about absence applies? A heart growing fonder? Or out of sight, out of mind?

"You support them and want them to reach their goal, but when they reach their goal they're going to be gone," says Emily. "Because they'll go on tour. It could be for years. And then what do you do? You're basically helping them go away from you."

Possibly into the arms of another. Though the standard groupie—bar circuit version—is less cartoonishly aggressive than her arena-rock predecessor, look around any mid-level show and you'll still see them: doe-eyed 20-somethings going ga-ga over any dude with a guitar slung aloofly around his neck. They line up for autographs, snap pictures, offer beers and smokes. And if the band is lucky, a place to crash for the night where the party will keep rolling.

For the lady waiting at home, wondering what happens after the show is the stuff of frantic late-night phone calls and worried deliberation.

"There can be a trust issue if they are the sort who are way into the whole rock star thing," Tyree says. "It's hard to find someone who's going to be faithful. But they are out there, and I've dated them. But if you see the talent, so will a lot of other girls as well."

Paulson's husband Dave hit the road for nearly two years of their relationship while playing second guitar for pop-punk outfit The Pink Spiders.

"I was in college and hating college, and coming home just making dinner and going to bed, and he was out hanging out with Snoop Dogg and Ric Ocasek and filming music videos and hanging out at MTV studios," Paulson recalls. "I heard some crazy stories about what Dave would see on tour—the environment, the alcohol, the partying, strippers. Even if your boyfriend is the hired part-time guitar player, he's going to get attention because he's up there onstage. So you have to be prepared for that and expect the guy to be honest about what's going on."

The Musician Husband: An Oxymoron?
There are, it seems, two types of dudes in bands: Those who only want to make music for the rest of their lives, and those with a backup plan in case the whole rock star thing doesn't pan out. The problem is, they all say they're the latter. The trick is figuring out which one you're with.

"It's always their first love," says Sarah. "It will always be number one."

But surely when they get a little older—say, closer to their 30s—they'll realize that the aging rock dude doesn't have the cultural cachet required to turn gatekeepers heads. Right?

Paulson is one of the lucky few who's managed to lock down a dude in a band with a healthy dose of reason. Rather than blow his salary from the Pink Spiders on booze and strippers, he saved up for an engagement ring. He also works as a music critic for The Tennessean.

"Dave is pretty special in that he's really motivated and really ambitious but he doesn't lose sight of real life," she says. "I've seen a lot of girls get caught up in guys where music is their one and only goal, and if they don't make that goal then the rest of their life is going to be shit. He's the perfect musician-husband. And that's really rare."

What's the difference between a musician and a mutual fund? The mutual fund will eventually mature and earn money.

When Musicians Mate -- Each Other
But take two musicians and toss them together, and instead of utter chaos, you might just get a harmonious union.

Take Nick Buda, a session drummer, and his wife Lauren Lucas, an aspiring country singer. Both have extensive touring and industry experience, so the typical perks and pitfalls don't faze them in the least.

"You want somebody that can understand the industry," says Buda, who's played on Taylor Swift and Mindy Smith records and toured for months with Smith. "But there are the challenges of being with someone who understands the ups and downs. So if you're up and they're down, there can be conflict. You have to figure out how to work with that."

Lucas had a deal with Warner Bros. that fell through, but it came right at the time that Buda was getting a foothold in the recording scene. They've never experience career highs or lows at the same time.

"It can be hard, but one of us is always there to pick the other person up," says Lucas. "We're always happy for each other when anything happens for the other that's cool. There are just long periods sometimes where one of us isn't getting work and the other one is getting tons of work."

The couple, who've been together over six years, treat music as a career, not just endless good times and partying.

"We love what we're doing, but at some point the bottom line comes into play and you have to meet your bills because we're a family now," Lucas says. "When he's doing well or I'm not or vice versa, we still have to realize what's best for our family. When he's rockin', that's awesome, because that's helping our family."

Buda and Lucas see themselves as exceptions to the rule. He doesn't consider himself to be the archetypal musician, because he actually wanted to grow up and eventually have kids, unlike others fixated on staying young.

"My theory is musicians are all Peter Pans," Tyree says. "They're just the boy that doesn't ever want to grow up. No matter how old they are. And that's great when you want excitement and fun and to take road trips and go on the road and see different cities. I just think you have to evaluate that as you get older."

Still Wanna Date a Musician?
But all the fun and games won't mean much if you find yourself as Craig did: eight years later, thousands of dollars poorer, suddenly single and, as she puts it, "given no choice but to defend my property, assets and the personal possessions that I worked for years to attain."

Her advice to girls dating musicians? "Save your receipts."

It takes a certain breed of girl to ride the rock 'n' roll roller coaster—a girl with near bulletproof independence and preferably a knack for accounting. All the women interviewed for this story agreed the shows, exposure to the creative process and potential for travel were immensely appealing, at least while they were younger. But be prepared, they say, for when the steady job never materializes.

"Do not lend him money," says Sarah. "And if you're going to, have a contract you can take to court that's signed, dated, witnessed. And make copies."

But the one cardinal rule these ladies stress isn't what you'd expect.

"Just don't ever go to their practices. There's no reason for you to be there," says Yarbrough. "You play no role there, and if you are there, you're just a groupie and you'll just get sick of the music. Don't go to every show. If you actually like the music and want to go to all the shows, for God's sake don't go to the practices. Don't let him move into your house unless he has a job. Don't be a pushover. And don't trust him any farther than you can throw his bass amp."

Email tmoore@nashvillescene.com, or call 615-744-3362.

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