Companion to CATCHING JORDAN.
Practice Makes Perfect.
Everyone at Hundred Oaks High knows that career mentoring day is a joke. So when Maya Henry said she wanted to be a rock star, she never imagined she’d get to shadow *the* Jesse Scott, Nashville’s teen idol.
But spending the day with Jesse is far from a dream come true. He’s as gorgeous as his music, but seeing all that he’s accomplished is just a reminder of everything Maya’s lost: her trust, her boyfriend, their band, and any chance to play the music she craves. Not to mention that Jesse’s pushy and opinionated. He made it on his own, and he thinks Maya’s playing back up to other people’s dreams. Does she have what it takes to follow her heart—and go solo?
The Space Between
Backstage, there’s so much security, you’d think it was the White House.
I’ve been to plenty of concerts, but I’ve never had a backstage pass, so I follow Dr. Salter’s lead and keep flashing my all-access badge over and over. My principal squeezes between two beefy men in security jackets and knocks on a door stamped with a red star.
A man in a tailored black suit and shimmering blue tie opens the door. He’s got better skin than any girl I know, and I bet his haircut cost a small fortune. “Oh good. It’s you,” he says to Dr. Salter, giving him a bright smile. The man takes my hand. “You must be Maya.”
“Come on in.”
Inside the dark dressing room I spot a vintage Gibson guitar, three flat screen TVs all showing the Braves game, and a table piled high with burgers and corn on the cob. I thought nothing could smell more delicious than my mom’s cooking, but I was wrong.
“Maya, this is Jesse’s manager, Mark Logan,” Dr. Salter says.
Mr. Logan pats my back like I’m one of the good ole boys. “Jesse will be out in a minute to meet you. Why don’t you get yourself a drink?” He gestures at the bar, which appears to be booze-free. Seems like a good move considering Jesse got drunk and fell off that yacht a few months ago. The press had a field day with that because it was totally out of character for Jesse Scott. Yeah, he’s a famous country star, but everyone thinks of him as this sweet, quiet boy from down on the farm.
“Could I have a word next door in private?” Mr. Logan says to my principal. “Jesse’s telling the crowd tonight.”
Dr. Salter’s face goes from happy to anxious, and they step back into the hallway where the security guys are buzzing around in their yellow jackets.
All alone now, I gaze over at Jesse’s guitar. I’m itching to try it out. What I wouldn’t give to throw the strap around my neck, charge out of the dressing room onto the stage, and rock out to Queen. But would I do “Somebody to Love”? Or “Another One Bites the Dust”? It’s a silly idea—I wouldn’t make it three feet before the beefcake security guys tackle me. I’d bite the dust. Literally. And if I sang, it’s a one hundred percent possibility my voice would crack. Playing onstage at the Opry…wouldn’t it be great, though?
I love playing guitar and performing more than anything. Before I started The Fringe, which was originally an eighties tribute band but has since become heavy metal-only, I even went to church on Sundays just to sing with the youth choir. All the crotchety old people would whisper and point their walking canes at my bright red lipstick, but I doubted God cares about that or the diamond stud in my nose. God only cares that I sang “I’ll Fly Away” at the top of my lungs.
That was before I gave it up to focus on my band. I also used to be a proud member of my school’s show choir, which isn’t anything like the cool groups in Pitch Perfect. You know, that a cappella movie? We sang songs like “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and wore billowing green dresses, like you’d see on the cover of a historical bodice ripper romance novel. If that doesn’t tell you how much I love music, I don’t know what will. If the choice had been mine, we would’ve worn leather pants and tight tanks, but my director said that isn’t proper attire for our school’s most distinguished arts program.
However, as much as I love music, I am generally not a fan of country. I don’t like banjos. I don’t like sappy lyrics about trucks and hauling hay. Dolly Parton is my mortal enemy—my mom plays “Jolene” over and over and over and over and it makes me want to chop my ears off like Van Gogh. Yeah, yeah, I’m from Tennessee, where it’s a crime if you don’t love country, but I like deep, rumbling beats and singing loud and fast and hard. I do not like closing my eyes and crooning to a cow in the pasture.
Yet here I am at a Jesse Scott concert, getting ready to meet him and to see if he’ll let me shadow him next Friday. My school requires every senior to “shadow” a professional for a day. It’s their way of helping us figure out what kind of career we want. Like, if you want to be president when you grow up, you might get to shadow the mayor. Want to be a chef? Have fun kneading dough at the Donut Palace.
When I said “I want to be a musician,” I figured they’d send me to work in the electronics section at Walmart.
I certainly never expected to shadow the king of country music.
It turns out that Jesse Scott is my principal’s nephew. Jesse won TV’s Wannabe Rocker when he was ten and has gone on to become very successful. In sixth grade, every girl in class—myself included—took the Teen Beat quiz: Would Jesse Scott Like Your Kissing Style? (Obviously the answer was yes.) In middle school, I had a Jesse Scott poster on my ceiling. It’s hard to believe he’s only eighteen because he’s already won three Grammys. When he was younger his songs were about fishing and playing baseball, but lately they’re about love and making love and all things sexy.
I wouldn’t say I’m a fan anymore, but I would never give up an opportunity to learn from a professional with such a gorgeous, pure voice. I want to learn what it’s like to perform day in and day out. Despite what everyone and their mom says—that I’ll struggle as a musician—all I want is to play guitar in front of a crowd and hear people cheer for me.
I can’t believe I’m backstage at the Grand Ole Opry! I bounce on my toes. Jesus, is that an Archtop Super 4, the model Elvis played? I’ve never seen one in real life. It probably cost more than my house.
I’m ogling the guitar when Jesse Scott comes out of the bathroom, drying his hair with a towel. He pads across the room to the couch, wearing nothing but a pair of rugged jeans with more holes than Swiss cheese.
The lighting is dim, and he doesn’t seem to notice I’m here, which is good because I’ve moved from ogling the guitar to ogling him. Who wouldn’t? He was one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People, and it is a truth universally acknowledged that you should stare at people who’ve made that list.
The guy’s gorgeous. Like in the boy-next-door way. His wet, wavy, brown hair curls around his ears and nearly hits his shoulders, and while he doesn’t have a six-pack or anything, his body is fit. I wish he’d look my way so I can see his famous brown eyes. They always remind me of those caramel chews Poppy gives me when I visit. Jesse has some sort of Gaelic symbol tattooed on his left shoulder blade. I want to reach out and trace the design.
God, get a hold of yourself, Maya. Don’t be a horndog. Besides, he’s so not my type. I don’t do pretty boys.
Jesse grabs a black T-shirt from his bag and pulls it on over his head, then heads to his personal buffet. Humming to himself, he piles a bun and a burger onto a plate, and scrunches his nose at a plateful of pickles, which is just crazy because pickles are what make the burger. Instead he grabs a bottle of ketchup, unscrews the lid and tries to shake some onto his burger. It’s not budging. Must be a new bottle.
“Try hitting the little fifty-seven on the side—”
He startles. “What are you doing here?”
“Did the Opry arrange for a ketchup expert to be at my beck and call?” he snaps.
“Clearly you need one.” I stride over, grab the bottle out of his hand, and tap the little 57 with the heel of my hand. Ketchup pours out.
“Thanks,” he says calmly. Then he yells, “Security! Another girl snuck in,” as he strides to the door in his bare feet. Jesse yanks open the door, revealing Dr. Salter and Mr. Logan. “I’m beginning to think you guys are letting them in just to torture me.”
The manager claps once. “Oh good. So you’ve met Maya? Have you discussed the possibility of her shadowing you next—”
“I’m sick of these groupie meet and greets,” Jesse says as if I’m not here. “Can’t I eat my damned dinner in peace?”
“You can now that you’ve got your damned ketchup,” I reply. “If you’ll excuse me.”
Mr. Logan and Dr. Salter gape at me. Throwing Jesse a look, I squeeze past Beefcake 1 and 2 into the hall.
I can’t believe how rude he was! Dr. Salter invited me to the concert so I could meet Jesse, and since I’ve already had the pleasure, I see no point in staying. I don’t want to shadow a spoiled pretty boy who sings about making love on tractors anyway. It’s still early. If I drive back to Franklin now, maybe I could meet up with Nate, and my Friday night won’t be a complete bust.
As I charge down the hall, pulling the all-access badge off from around my neck, a bunch of screaming girls rush my way. What in the world? A hand grabs my elbow. I go to shake it off and find Jesse still holding the ketchup.
“I’m sorry—can you come back inside?”
Before I can answer, the horde descends on him. It’s scarier than a zombie apocalypse.
“Shit,” he mutters.
“Oh my God, I love ketchup too!” a girl squeals at the bottle in his hand. “We have so much in common!”
“Want to come to my house, Jesse? My parents are out of town.”
A girl screeches and grabs his wrist. Another gets up on tiptoes to kiss his cheek and he jerks back.
“Jesse, Jesse! Can I sing a song for you?”
“Jesse! I want you!” This one yanks her shirt open.
I snort at her hot pink bra. Jesse smirks at my reaction as security breaks the group apart.
Jesse pulls me through security back into his dressing room, where he drops my arm and scans me. I’m wearing a great outfit—black ankle booties, skinny jeans, the belt I made out of duct tape, bleached blond hair, black tank top, the silly glittery bracelets I wear ironically, and a bronze military star medal from World War I that hangs from my necklace. Kids at school often make fun of my clothes, but I don’t care. I feel so Madonna right now.
Jesse shakes his head at me, then goes to give Dr. Salter a side hug. “Hey, Uncle Bob.”
Dr. Salter pats Jesse’s floppy hair and takes in his freckled face. “I’m looking forward to the show, son.”
“Thanks for coming,” Jesse says quietly.
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Dr. Salter says. “Where’re your mom and dad? Will they be here soon?”
“They blew me off again. What else is new?”
Until a couple years ago, my dad was a truck driver and often missed my performances because he was on the road, so I understand how Jesse feels. But my parents have always been supportive. It shocks me that his parents aren’t at every show. I mean, the guy’s a three-time Grammy winner. It sounds as if Jesse’s fans attend more concerts than his parents do. And he’s their son.
While Jesse speaks in a low voice only Dr. Salter can hear, I decide to check my phone. My best guy friend, Dave, texted: I need a play-by-play of how hot Jesse is. Do we think he’s bi?
I also received a text from my bandmate, Nate. His reads: Hannah told me where you are. Did you really sell out and go to a Jesse Scott show?
Groan. I love hooking up with Nate, but geez. Why are guys so dramatic?
“What’s the girl doing here?” Jesse asks.
“Remember I told you about Shadow Day?” his manager says.
“Remind me,” Jesse replies through a big bite of burger.
“You agreed to meet with Maya. She’s pretty talented on guitar,” Dr. Salter says.
Jesse stares at me, chewing. “So you play, huh?”
I ignore him. When he realizes I’m giving him the cold shoulder, he turns to Dr. Salter. “Seriously? I’m missing the Braves for this?”
My principal gives me the glare he reserves for kids who cut class. “I’d like you to consider letting her shadow you, Jess.”
Jesse just shrugs.
I should’ve known this would be a bust. Shadow Day assignments always are. Students never get paired with professionals who can actually teach them something. Last year, Rory Whitfield said he wanted to be a movie director and ended up at the infant portrait area at Sears.
Dr. Salter says, “You should’ve seen her play guitar in the school talent show last spring.”
“Did you win?” Jesse asks me.
I shake my head, cringing at the memory. Why did Dr. Salter have to bring that up? After my band declared the school talent show “lame,” I decided to perform on my own, adding a hard edge to one of my favorite songs, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and had a great time rocking out. That is, until I started to sing, and my voice cracked under the pressure. Kids at school called me the siren for weeks. People have always said I have a great voice, but when all eyes are on me, something usually goes wrong—like the time I fainted during a solo.
I wish their eyes had somewhere else to focus. That’s why I prefer being part of a band.
Jesse takes another bite of his burger and gives me a bored stare, and I feel like the pickle he turned his nose up at. What a letdown. I figured People took personality into account when developing their beautiful people list. Apparently not.
You’d think Jesse would be as sweet as his songs.
Okay, okay. I’ll admit it—even though my musical tastes have evolved, Jesse wrote this one song, “Second Chance,” which I’ve loved since middle school. When Dave, my first crush and now best friend, wasn’t interested in dating me because he was too busy liking other boys (I didn’t know that at the time), “Second Chance” helped heal my broken heart.
So it kind of sucks meeting the real Jesse. I’ve seen more life out of mannequins. Granted, I haven’t smiled at him, but he was incredibly rude after I helped with his ketchup. I had really been looking forward to this opportunity, but he’s nothing more than a beautiful voice and a hot body with a cool tattoo.
Dr. Salter must sense our meeting is going downhill real fast. “Jess, you really should see Maya on guitar.”
Spoiled ass. Two can play. “My Martin’s much cooler than your Gibson,” I say, even though it’s a total lie.
Instead of taking another bite, Jesse turns his head toward me, wide-eyed. “Shut up. My Archtop is the best guitar there is.”
I gesture at it. “What year is it? A ‘67?”
I can’t help but ask, “A Super 4? Like Elvis had?”
“Right…” A smile forms on his face, but a second later he winces.
“So is it okay, Jess?” Dr. Salter asks. “Can Maya shadow you?”
Jesse studies me. “Mom and Dad’ll love that I’m hanging out with a sexy punk girl. So whatever you need, Uncle Bob.”
“Jesse!” Dr. Salter and Mr. Logan blurt simultaneously.
What a jerk.
Wait. Did he say sexy?
Mr. Logan claps his hands together again. “Well I think Maya seems fabulous. I’m okay with her shadowing Jesse next week as long as it’s okay with him.”
Silence engulfs the dressing room.
Jesse takes a long look at his uncle, then bites into his burger and talks with his mouth full. “Fine, she can shadow me.”
“I’ll see if I can work it into my schedule,” I say, then turn and walk out.
Against my better judgment, I decide to stick around for the concert because I’ve never been to the Grand Ole Opry.
Performing here is every country music singer’s dream, and while I’m not into yodeling, I still respect the Opry. When I looked at Jesse Scott’s website, it said he’s already done ten concerts here. I guess that means he’s really somebody. Which I could’ve told you considering his face is on every tweeny bopper magazine down at the Quick Pick and he’s at the top of the iTunes charts.
I stand in line for what seems like hours to buy myself a puffy pink cotton candy, then head inside the main concert hall. Heat from the crowd presses against my skin as I squeeze past shrieking girls and make my way down to the stage, which looks like an old red barn.
“Maya!” Dr. Salter calls out. “Over here.” He gestures for me to join him in the center of the first row. The best seat in the house.
I edge around another pack of squealing girls to meet my principal. “I was wondering where you went,” he says.
I hold up my cotton candy, offering him a piece. He pinches some off and pops it in his mouth. The other reason I didn’t leave early is because I’ve always liked Dr. Salter and I don’t want to let him down. He tells funny jokes during the morning announcements and always takes a turn in the dunking booth during Homecoming. It’s odd, though, seeing him in a Van Halen leather jacket and not his usual sweater vest and bowtie.
I point at the stage with my cotton candy. “We’ve got better seats than God, huh? From this close, Jesse oughta be able to see me not clapping for him.”
Dr. Salter gives me a stern look. “I’m sorry about my nephew… He’s not used to… He doesn’t meet a lot of new people.”
“I figured he meets people all the time.”
“There’s a difference between meeting people and actually speaking with them.”
The banshee convention I met backstage was something else, all right. I can’t imagine being surrounded by that, and not having my family, friends, and band to talk to.
“I thought,” Dr. Salter starts, then pauses. “I thought that Shadow Day might be good for both of you. You can get some music advice from Jesse…and he needs a break, and needs to spend time with somebody his age… It’s hard when everybody scrutinizes every single thing you do.”
As the lights go down, the band takes the stage and the screaming crowd crescendos to just about the loudest noise I’ve ever heard. A spotlight bathes the stage in blinding white light. Smoke billows in the wings. Dr. Salter puts two fingers in his mouth and whistles.
Then the most beautiful guitar lick rings out, echoing in the concert hall.
The screaming stops, because everyone wants to hear that sound.
Jesse Scott steps into the spotlight with his cedar-colored vintage Gibson strapped around his neck. He plays a riff and brings his mouth to the microphone.
“How you doin’ Nashville?” Jesse yells into the microphone in a deep Southern drawl, tipping his beige cowboy hat before starting to play “Campfires,” this country pop song about hiking and fishing with his grandfather. “Gimme fireflies, gimme trout, gimme burning logs, hell—gimme a mosquito, but keep your damned electricity.”
The bass ripples through the concert hall and makes the floor vibrate, and my heart beats in time with the drums.
During the chorus, Jesse flips the guitar around to his back, grabs the mike with both hands, and gives the audience a full view of his great body. He’s wearing the tight black T-shirt that hugs his biceps and chest, bright red cowboy boots, and a belt buckle shaped like a skull. Hey, it matches the skull pajamas I wore to bed last night! I feel silly for a beat, because my inner monologue sounds just like that girl backstage: “I like ketchup too!”
I’ve never seen anyone play guitar like him. Jesse blisters through the solo, and he’s so into his music, it’s like the crowd isn’t even here. Meanwhile, the girl next to me is bawling like her face is a busted fire hydrant.
When the song is over, Jesse grabs the mike with one hand and says, “Thanks for coming out tonight, Nashville. I may travel all over the place, but I want all my fans to know this is my one true home.”
Everyone screams as Jesse looks down and tips his cowboy hat at Dr. Salter. Jesse’s face seems sad as he scans the rest of the front row. He gives me a fleeting look before starting to rock out on guitar again. The next song is “Agape.” It’s about how he lives for music.
After his third song (“Ain’t No City Boy”), Jesse wipes the sweat off his face with his T-shirt sleeve and says into the mike, “Damn that popcorn smells good. Can I get some up here?” Ten seconds later, a stagehand rushes out with a bucket. Jesse eats a few pieces. “Perfect,” he says, licking his fingers. “Y’all want some?” The crowd roars, so he throws the bucket out into the crowd, sprinkling us with popcorn.
About halfway through the concert, Jesse makes everyone sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with him, but instead of singing “Root, root, root for the home team,” we sing “Root, root, root for the Braves!” And then with his eyes shut, he does this insane acoustic rendition of “Amazing Grace,” set to the tune of The Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”
Jesse performs all of his hits, but the encore, “Second Chance,” is the highlight. He sings, “She may have been Paris, but I needed the soft sun, so I let her fly.”
I actually clap when the song’s over and he looks down at me again. The crowd roars. He may not have a great presence offstage, but when he’s onstage, he’s on.
He yanks off his cowboy hat. “Thanks everybody.” A pause. “As many of you probably know, in November I’ll begin a six-week tour of North America and Europe.” The crowd roars again. He speaks over the noise, “And, after that, in December—” His voice breaks. He takes a deep breath. “I’ll be leaving the industry.”
Boos and cries—mostly cries—rattle the auditorium.
The king of country music is quitting? Is this the announcement Mr. Logan mentioned to Dr. Salter? I turn to my principal. His eyes are watering.
“I just wanted to say—wanted to make sure y’all know, my fans mean everything to me.” His voice cracks again.
And my heart breaks for him, because whatever is going on must be pretty serious. I can’t imagine giving up music for any reason whatsoever.
“Thank you, Nashville!” he yells into the mike and jogs offstage, carrying his guitar.
I find Dr. Salter’s eyes. “He’s really doing this, huh?”
“I guess so… The thing is, Maya, I don’t think he truly wants to.”