Amy Trail knows she shouldn’t be doing this. It’s midnight at Pat O’Brien’s, and the line to get in the piano bar grows steadily once capacity has been met. Inside, a mosaic of hurricanes clutter the tables as sloshy couples continue to order more. Tourists flood inside with their necks adorned with Mardi Gras beads toasting the bachelorettes of Sylvia’s bachelorette party on one end of the room. Nearby, a slurring Ole Miss fan berates a dismissive LSU Tiger fan over SEC domination, all while Amy Trail belts out the greatest hits behind her piano.
“We get to celebrate not only our brown-eyed girls, but also our green-eyed girls,” Trail says. “I’m a green eyed girl myself.” Trail begins to play Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” and the classic is greeted with uproarious claps and chants by the audience as they sing every slurring syllable. Trail continues for another hour, cuing the audience for their requests, but Trail has greater talent than singing the top 100. She’s just completed her fifth album, Lonesome Man, and she wants to advance her art and career, but playing the favorites pays the bills.
“Bourbon Street is one of the few places in the city where musicians can actually make a decent living; it’s a steady gig,” Trail says. “Once you’re in it, you’re really tied to it, and it’s hard for you to do outside performances.” Trail’s Wednesday through Saturday night gig at Pat O’Brien’s offers a convenient schedule week to week plus financial security that many musicians struggle with—at least those who don’t balance more than one job. The financial stability of her lucrative weekly gig offers a dilemma that Trail has been mulling over—stay on Bourbon Street hoping to be discovered, or pursue a solo career with far less financial stability? In a business built on the notions of cool, Trail faces the challenge of establishing herself as a songwriter and artist while her principal gig is playing the top 100 at Pat O’Brien’s, where she’s been since 2004.
“It’s something I really struggle with,” Trail admits. “Do I want to give up the financial security and everything that goes along with having the Pat O’ gig, or going out and playing other gigs that could introduce me to a different market and expand my personal music?”
The rural Idaho native came to New Orleans in 2001 hoping to find the culture and diversity that her hometown lacked. Trail enrolled at UNO to pursue a degree in Jazz Studies. “I didn’t really fit in that box so well because I mainly studied jazz to learn about the intricacies of harmony and improvisation.”
As she worked to make a place for herself in New Orleans, Trail was introduced to another challenge.
“There’s definitely a ‘Who the hell are you?’ type of vibe when you first come down here and get into the scene,” Trail says. “Once people hear you and you prove yourself, people are very accepting.” But Trail admits she’s uncertain if she’s received that nod of approval from the music scene of the city.
Trail was given word of the gig at Pat O’s through a friend. She endured a three-month auditioning process during which she was instructed to learn 100 songs, the most-requested songs by customers at the piano bar. Trail described the musical homework as learning “the basic tourist songs” ranging from “Piano Man” to “Margaritaville.” “Pat O’s is one of the weirdest gigs in that you play from any genre of the decade, every artist,” Trail says. “I’ve played everything from standards, to country, to heavy metal, to Lady Gaga.”
Trail admits that her time spent performing the classics at Pat O’s has influenced her personal songwriting by incorporating more experimental sounds into her soulful, R&B beat.
“I’ve explored country sounds and traditional pop sounds,” she says. “So I guess my music has shifted from that original (R&B) album (2005’s Amy Trail), but my original tenets still remain soulful.”
Trail’s immediate goal is to book more festivals, play a gig in the early evening and still make it to work at Pat O’Brien’s at night.
“I’m trying to put my feet in both worlds, keeping that steady gig, but also do records on the side and continue to be a songwriter,” Trail says. “Maybe do something that I don’t know if anyone has done: Do a Bourbon Street gig and continue pursuing my personal gig.” She’ll have a CD-release party for Lonesome Man at The Maison on July 25.
“Eventually, I hope that my music will be able to connect with somebody somewhere and I’ll have that as a possible career path,” she says. “Maybe I’ll eventually get off Bourbon Street, maybe not. Who knows?”