People ask me all the time if I get nervous when I play in front of crowds. It's become kind of a joke, actually, to ask just before a show, "Are you nervous?" I can honestly say I've never had stage fright. Not once. Not when playing festivals of thousands of people who've never heard of me, not when I played unrehearsed with Elvis Costello for a screaming crowd at the Palace Theatre, and not when I sang live on A Prairie Home Companion knowing that millions of people were listening, including Patty Loveless watching me from backstage. Stage performance is not a problem for me.
But this weekend I was in a hotel room with several friends, just hanging out after a wedding, when a few people asked me to sing for them. I flat out refused.
I'd brought a guitar, but that's because I almost always bring a guitar to hotel rooms -- it's one of my favorite places to write. The guitar had been useful for when the drunks wanted to sing "Manic Monday" but couldn't find a karaoke bar anywhere in Small Town, USA. I definitely had not brought it with the intention of giving a concert, and it's not because I was "off-work" or snooty about performances.
I would just so much rather play to an audience of four million than for four people in a hotel room. That is when I get nervous. It's not because I'm afraid of sounding bad or forgetting the words. It's because I don't know what to do with my eyes while I'm singing.
Do I look at the people? Won't they be freaked out that I'm staring? I normally smile and have fun when I'm singing, and that comes naturally. But for some reason when it's one-on-one, it all feels forced, and I don't know what I should look like. Then I notice that for the last thirty seconds or whatnot, I've been playing and singing, but I have no idea where I am in the song. You know, it's like when you're driving, and your mind wanders. Suddenly, you don't know where the last few miles went and maybe your car took a few turns you hadn't intended on making. And then I'm nervous. I don't like to be nervous.
I didn't sing anything for the wedding party. I played the three chords in "Manic Monday" and "The Tide is High" while jubilant celebrants sang loudly and smiled and laughed and had no problem deciding what to do with their eyes.