Music City Madness: Chapter 3

Melissa Hamilton left her keys inside her Mercedes coupe and tipped the country club valet with a folded five dollar bill from her Dolce & Gabbana clutch. Her mirrored glasses reflected the car’s glossy finish and the CASHVIL vanity plate. Dressed more for a red carpet stroll than a meeting with her talent agent, she wore her favorite pumps with her Donna Karan pants and sleeveless top to elevate her slender frame and her brown, shoulder-length hair with red highlights. Part Cherokee and part Irish, her facial symmetry and high cheek bones enhanced her almond-shaped eyes the color of burled walnut.

A morning workout with her personal trainer had segued to breakfast with friends, followed by shopping at Nordstrom’s for shoes and a quick mani-pedi before heading to the private country club. Confronted with a choice between a dental appointment or a meeting with her haughty agent—slash personal friend and business manager—she’d reluctantly chosen the latter and postponed the dentist to accommodate her busy social schedule.

Inside the club’s posh surroundings, she climbed the staircase to the casual dining area overlooking the clay tennis courts and scouted a familiar figure waving her toward a table for two. “Been here long?” she asked her agent.

Sidney Irving, Esquire wiped his mouth with a linen napkin and stood up from his chair to hug Melissa. He wore his thick silver hair combed back with a neatly trimmed goatee to match. “Since yesterday.”

“Shut up…”

Sid moved a chair for Melissa. A big orange “T” advertised his Tennessee Volunteers belt buckle at the front of his pleated wool slacks. “You want a drink?”

“It’s ten o’clock in the morning.”

Sid scooted Melissa’s chair forward, his pinstripe Polo neatly tucked inside his substantial girth. “You look chic.”

“I got my hair highlighted.”

“I thought you were traveling?” Sid asked.

Melissa unfolded a cloth napkin. “Change of plans.” She recognized a movie producer and the young tart captivated by his attention. “You look very, debonair.”

Sid patted his stomach. A gold Oyster Rolex rattled on his wrist inside his sleeve pinned with silver cufflinks. “I can’t complain.”

“I saw your name in the paper the other day.”

Sid lifted his drink. “Innocent until proven guilty.”

“We’re all guilty of something.” Melissa scanned the menu in front of her. “I had a late breakfast.”

“The eggs Benedict are divine.”

“I’m not hungry.”

Sid moved his hands when he talked. “You look like you’re starving. Every time I see you, you’ve lost another five pounds.”

“Hardly.”

“And you don’t have five pounds to spare.”

Melissa flagged a waitress and ordered a wet scotch and soda, neat. “You’re very sweet, but I didn’t drive all the way out here to flirt.”

Sid pushed his plate away with broken potato chips and a half eaten dill pickle on board. “Who’s flirting? I’ve been busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kickin’ contest. Ten percent’s getting hard to earn.”

“Spare me The Prince and the Pauper routine. If you don’t sign me to a new record label, I won’t have ten percent to give anymore.”

Sid nibbled on potato chip crumbs. “Swapping labels doesn’t happen overnight. You can’t change horses in mid race and expect to win the heat. It takes time to manage, promote, and network. It’s a relationship game. We have to build a broader fan base. Make new connections with the right people.”

“My fans are my business. Connections are yours. Speaking of which, did you reach out to everyone for Wednesday’s event?”

“I did, but honestly, I’m not sure I like the idea.”

Melissa accepted her drink from the waiter. “I haven’t played a concert in seven years. I want my career back. Not next week. Not tomorrow. I want it now. I’ve worked too hard and sacrificed too much to sit around and wait for the perfect opportunity to float along. You’re my business manager. Get out there and manage.”

Sid leaned back in his chair. “I’ll take another bourbon,” he said, raising his empty glass to the waiter. “And make it a double this time.” He stroked his goatee as if deep in thought. Melissa Hamilton always reminded him of his older sister: obstinate, impulsive, and not afraid to speak her mind.

Melissa sipped her scotch. “What is it you’re not telling me?”

“I’m not withholding anything you don’t already know.”

“I’ve been off the pills for months.”

“I wasn’t going there…”

Melissa clasped her hands together. “I heard you signed a new starlet.”

Sid relaxed his shoulders to soften his posture. “I can’t talk about other clients.”

“I’m not asking for her blood-type. I’m trying to weigh the competition.”

“Ariea signed her to a one-year deal.”

“Who’s writing for her?”

“She writes her own material.”

“Of course she does.”

Sid tapped his finger on his empty glass. “Forget about her. Let’s talk about you.”

“As long as the next words out of your mouth involve a new record deal.”

Sid cleared his throat and prepared for battle. “Do you trust me?”

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”

“Then I’ll be straight with you, Melissa. Hip-hop music has become the David to our Goliath. Gangsta Rap, Dirty South, Old School, West Coast, Latin Rap, Underground, Hard Core… You name it. They’re stealing our market share.”

“Don’t compare me to 50 Cent.”

“You’re missing the point. The music business is about business. Like it or not, it adapts to meet the strongest demand. The baby boomers are out. Generation X has moved in. Half the country music singles we cut never make it to the airwaves. The ones that do, all sound the same.”

Melissa turned around to catch a tennis match on the courts below. She could see the iceberg looming, but she couldn’t steer out of its path. “You’re trying to tell me country music is dead?”

“I’m saying things change. The younger singers are more in touch with the new demographic. Labels are circling the wagons around the most successful artists—the ones with the biggest audience.”

“And you think I’ve lost my audience?”

“Sometimes we’re victims of our own success. Your audience has matured. People change. Their tastes evolve. You’ve been off the grid for seven years. You haven’t cut a new album since the accident.”

“Now you’re blaming me,” Melissa’s voice escalated. “I thought it was the hip hop moguls. Or my geriatric fans.”

“I’m your business manager. I see the facts for what they are. I don’t allow my emotions to obscure the truth. And the truth is, your music isn’t selling the way it used to. Your royalties are way down, and your merchandise sales flatlined years ago.”

“Don’t talk to me like an accountant, Sid.”

Sid claimed his refill from the waiter. “That’s part of what you pay me for.”

“What I pay you for is helping me negotiate a new contract. My last album went platinum. I was nominated for female artist of the year. I’ve played across the fifty states. I’ve toured Europe four times.”

“And you had a great run. I’m not discounting your previous success, but Nashville is all about sales volume. Stockholders control the labels. Labels want big money. They won’t record what they can’t sell.”

“Should I be worried?”

“You need to cut expenses. With a cleaver. Your mortgage is a drain, and after taxes, maintenance, staff salaries, horses, private school tuition, and—clothes—you’re spending more than your waning investments can earn.”

“I have plenty of money.”

“You won’t for long.”

Melissa rubbed her hands together. Goose bumps covered her arms. “This place is always freezing.”

“You need to think about your future. And your boys…”

“I am. They start public school tomorrow.”

“The school year’s almost over.”

“I’m trying, Sid. This isn’t easy for any of us.”

“You need to cut back more.”

“I have.”

Sid finished his double bourbon. “A lot more.”

“How much more?”

“Until it hurts.”

“I’m not selling the horses.”

“You can’t ride them anymore.”

“The boys can. And my back feels stronger every day.”

“Melissa…”

“Forget it, Sid. End of story.”

“Lose the Benz and the Bentley.”

“I look nice in those cars.”

“Then you’ll look nice on your way to the poor house.”

Melissa fidgeted with the silverware settings. “I’ll think about it.”

“Have you spoken to Tomás?”

“He’s nonnegotiable.”

“He can collect social security. Your boys will be old enough to drive themselves in a few years. Chauffer expenses are the last thing you need right now. Between the outrageous salary and benefits you extend him—”

“Tomás is family. He’s been a godsend to my boys. The only father figure they’ve had since their dad bailed on them.”

“You’re letting emotions cloud your judgment. As your agent and your business manager—as your friend—you need to make some hard course corrections. Soon.”

“Jesus, Sid. You sound like a bad country song. This is my life we’re talking about. And my sons’. I’ve worked too hard for too many years to get to where I am.”

Sid gave an empathetic nod. “And where you are is dragging you down a path you can no longer afford to go. Trust me.”

“I’m not throwing Tomás under the bus.”

“I’m not suggesting you desert him. I’m saying, get him off the payroll. He can remain in your life. Just not as an employee.”

“How would the boys get to school?”

“On a bus like everyone else.”

Melissa pushed her chair back. “We’re not like everyone else. My boys deserve better. I’m a country music superstar!”

Sid rocked his empty glass back and forth on the table. “Not anymore.”

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