KASEY TUFFMAN wiped the sweat off his forehead with one of those ridiculous, pristine white towels they gave you at awards shows when you stepped offstage. Used to be he had a hat to soak up the sweat, but this damned haircut his new stylist had given him wouldn’t work with the old summer straw he preferred.
“Good job, Tuff,” said one of the lackeys from the label, a guy with a three-hundred-dollar pair of shoes, and jeans that came from Italy, for fuck’s sake.
“Thanks.” He was just glad it was over. He’d gone out there and sung his just-released sellout song as the last of the nominees for Best New Artist.
Best New fucking Artist. He might have been in Nashville less than two years, but Kasey “Tuff” Tuffman had been playing music in Texas since he was fourteen. Twenty freaking years ago.
His night was almost over. Alan Kingman was walking out on stage, boots clicking away, to announce the winner of the award Tuff was up for. The man would announce that Chase Ryan had won, and Tuff would make a suitably shocked face before walking offstage and out the back to his waiting limo.
Then he’d go to the house he’d been renting, grab a couple of beers, and get in the pool and soak.
He shifted from foot to foot, trying to look calm but hopeful like his coach had told him to. A media coach. Christ. Every little thing was arranged for you when you had a number one single and album.
“Good evening, ladies and gentleman,” Alan said into the microphone. “Lemme get out my reading glasses so I can see that TV they want me to read.”
All Tuff had to do was push through this shit, and then he could breathe for a few days, focus on making a new album over the winter, get off the road, out of the bus, into the studio.
He wanted to go home for a week or two. See his folks and his sisters. Tuff missed Texas like an amputated limb.
“Anyway, whether you’re an eighteen-year-old with a voice like warm honey or a thirtysomething Texan who’s in touch with a more traditional sound, getting your first number one hit is something to celebrate.”
Shit. That had to be him. In touch with a traditional sound? Well, fuck-a-doodle-do. That made him sound like a frickin’ elder statesman.
“Like they say in that old Alabama song about the fiddle,” Alan went on. “If you’re gonna play in Texas….” Alan squinted at the TV, then shook his head. “Whatever that says, screw it. And the winner is….” He ripped open the envelope, and the most comical look of shock crossed Alan’s face. “Kasey Tuffman!”
“What?” The word popped out of his mouth, the surprise immediate and real. Tuff’s heart fell right into his gut.
“Well, I’ll be damned.” The label guy gave him a little push. “Go get ’em, tiger.”
It was supposed to be Chase Ryan. Not him.
Not fucking him.
Someone gave him a shove, so Tuff stumbled out on the stage, his new boots too stiff, and a titter passed through the crowd.
Goddamn it. His label rep had told him the deal. This was just a tribute to someone who’d been around as long as him and had just had his first national number one. No stress. Perform and leave. He wasn’t supposed to win anything or have to make a speech and act grateful for a crumb.
Especially not this. Best New fucking Artist, for chrissake. Like he was some wet-behind-the-ears newbie with a shiny guitar or a boy band bro-country kid the studio had plucked from a vocal program at the University of Tennessee.
Alan stepped away from the microphone to hand him the envelope, blocking the little gal who held the huge paperweight he was getting for selling his Red Dirt soul out to Nashville.
“Congratulations, Tuff. Twenty years of touring and sweating for pennies and it only took a new haircut to get you a fancy award.”
He shot Alan a glare. They’d known each other for years, and he was humiliated this had to happen in front of someone he so admired. “You ain’t funny, old man.”
Alan shook his head. “Not meant to be. I let them kill the music, son. Don’t let them do it to you.”
“Never gonna happen.” Except that wasn’t true, was it? Not really. He already felt like a sellout.
The haircut, the sparkly ass skinny jeans, the four-hundred-dollar Lucchese boots—all of that was the trappings of the label. Jesus, he’d bet this award was too. They’d bought him another few weeks at the top of the fucking chart.
Rage spurted through his veins right along with the blood pounding in his temples as a headache kicked in.
He took the award from the blonde with the fake boobs and capped teeth. Wasn’t her fault, so he gave her a strained smile. Then Tuff stepped up to the microphone, his speech crystalizing in his mind in those few seconds.
“Good evenin’, ladies and gentlemen.” Tuff took a deep breath. “I got to say, I never thought any of y’all would ever vote for me. I imagine I’m not the best of anything, and I figure while I am an artist, I sure ain’t new.” He waited for the camera boom to swing around, the hard focus right on him. Then he smiled, a real Texas-sized smile, holding up the award. “So what do I got to say about this? How about I start with y’all can kiss my….”