Scrolling Facebook the other day, I came across the above quote on the Traces of Texas Facebook page. The quote was from rock and roll legend, ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons. ZZ Top has sold over 50 million records worldwide, putting them in elite company among American artists. They are widely considered one of the top three Southern rock bands of all time.
For Gibbons, success did not come overnight. Before he formed ZZ Top with Dusty Hill and Frank Beard, he was in four other bands as a teen and young adult, the only one of note being The Moving Sidewalks, who caught the eye of Jimi Hendricks and opened for him on tour. Gibbons was 20 years old in 1969 when he, Hill, and Beard formed ZZ Top.
ZZ Top, but not straight to the top!
ZZ Top’s breakthrough tour, which they dubbed the Worldwide Texas Tour lasted nearly a year and a half and included 97 stops across the United States. Guitar World’s Alan di Perna called it “one of the most ambitious and bizarre tours in all of rock history.” The band took a Longhorn steer, a black buffalo, two vultures, and two rattlesnakes on the tour with them. More than 1.2 million people saw them live on that tour.
Gibbons, however, remembered when they went on stage to perform for one paying customer. Just one. Talk about humble beginnings!
ZZ Top did not shortchange that customer. They played the full set for him and then had a Coke with him. At that point in their lives, they had no way of knowing how they would fare as a band. Maybe they would be just another in an endless line of musical acts laboring in obscurity, singing to small crowds in smoke-filled bars, in out-of-the-way places in rural Texas. Or, maybe they would become ZZ Top, one of the greatest and most significant rock bands in history.
Billy Gibbons, Destiny, and Me
In 1984, I knew about ZZ Top. Who didn’t? I didn’t know much about them, really. I knew they had a catchy tune about a southeast Texas town by the name of Le Grange. I did not know the tune was about a brothel, well-known in those parts, the same brothel that would inspire the movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which would feature Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton. I did not know the story about the one-man crowd early in their career.
What I did know was that I was as destined to preach as Billy Gibbons was to sing. He got his first electric guitar at the age of 13. I “preached” my first sermon before I was nine years old, while standing on a chair behind a pulpit, and looking out on a few faces dotting the pews in a tiny church in Sansom Park, Texas, where my father was the pastor. I had prepared for that momentous occasion by preaching to my little sister and her collection of dolls as often as she would sit still for it.
What I did know in 1984 was that a small congregation of 20 or so people asked me to be their pastor. I was only 23 years old. I have often joked that I built that little congregation of 20 down to 10 or 12 so I could handle it. Half of them got mad and left, either for the same reason or for different ones. I don’t know. It was devastating to me then. I was not yet ready to see the good in getting them gone or to say good riddance to them. I did not know they had to go so we could grow.
Somewhere in October of 1984, five months into my tenuous tenure, my wife, two small daughters, and I arrived at the church on a Wednesday night for midweek bible study. We got there early to make sure everything was clean and ready for the congregation. Services started at 7 PM and I was a stickler for starting on time. I was of the opinion that if you wanted to be big, you had to do things the right way, do the little things big. Start with starting on time.
At 7 o’clock, we were still alone in the sanctuary. My wife looked concerned. My daughters looked confused. I was crestfallen…but I started on time. We opened our hymnals, my wife, daughters, and me, and sang a verse of Victory in Jesus. Then we sang another, and then a third. During that third verse, I heard the door to the sanctuary open and footsteps in the foyer. My family in unison turned to see what was up. Into the small sanctuary walked a woman who had clearly come directly from work to church. She walked down the aisle, scooted into the pew next to my family, put her hand on my youngest’s shoulder, and sang the rest of Victory in Jesus with us.
Her name was Arnola Earnest. She had come to church for bible study. I had come prepared to preach. So, I did. I preached the same way I would have if she had been a houseful.
Little beginnings are just beginnings; keep going!
A year later, when the house was full and there was hardly room to stick another soul in that same sanctuary, during a Sunday morning service, I asked Arnola to stand. I thanked her for being the reason I was there to see the church filled with worshipers. If she had not shown up that Wednesday night, I very likely would have packed it in, admitted defeat, and moved my family back to Texas.
You might say that the gospel and rock and roll are at odds and have little in common. In many ways, you would be right. But whether you are preaching Jesus or singing Le Grange, you are bound to face that one-face crowd. You are bound to meet with adversity or to feel that no one knows and no one cares about the gallons of blood, sweat, and tears you have poured into your craft or your ministry. People tend to look at the successful among us as though that is all they ever were. But then when they tell their stories about how they got where they were, they are all unique, and all the same. They got there the hard way.
When you get to that moment where you are singing, or preaching, or teaching, or writing, or whatever it is your heart and your calling demands and it seems no one is listening, no one is watching, and no one cares, do it anyway. Do it because that is what you came to do. Be what you have become because that is what you were born to be.
And when a lone honky-tonker or a sweet-hearted single mom shows up to support you, buy them a Coke, give them a hug, stand them up and acknowledge them to others, and let them know they played a significant role in your life and they will not be forgotten.