Before "American Idol" or "The Voice," there was typically only one way to stardom, and it involved gigs wherever you could get them and dreaming in an empty bar. America voted if your neighbor didn’t call the police on your late night practices.
Night after night this summer, Jodi Lynn Cohee and Zac Sala unbuckled their guitar cases and plugged in their amp at bars and restaurants along the Coastal Highway in Delaware. A dozen or so locals never missed their shows, but often Cohee and Sala played to tourists who wandered in for shrimp and Dogfish ale and happened to catch them playing. Sometimes the bars were crowded, and sometimes they were empty. The neighbors never complained.
In spite of the hype of reality TV music competitions like "Pop Idol" (the British original), "American Idol" and spin-offs in more than 40 countries, including Armenia and Nigeria, this is still what it’s like to be a band in Anywhere America. It’s relentless practice without any promises, lousy pay and bad lighting.
Most of the time this summer, Cohee, 37, and Sala, 35, who call themselves The Dug, were exhausted, their voices scratchy and tired from singing and smoke breaks prompted whenever Sala’s guitar strings broke, which was often.
But this is also what it’s like to be a band in Anywhere America. They were happy -- and hopeful, even when one of the few songs to get the crowd to its feet and dancing most afternoons at Hammerheads Dockside at the Indian River Inlet marina was “Home” by Phillip Phillips, the 2012 winner of Fox’s American Idol.
“I’ve never felt better in my life,” Cohee said. “I work a whole lot. I work almost every day and even when I’m not working I’m practicing. It’s perfect.”
In a summer tourist destination like the Delaware shore, it can be particularly difficult to break into the music scene. Tourists prefer covers, songs they recognize and can dance to. It’s hard to be an original at a destination that sells recycled nostalgia.
The premier rock spot is the famed Bottle & Cork, a live music spot in Dewey Beach that is raging with college students during the summer. It’s hard to imagine that this could be the pinnacle for a musician on the Delaware shore -- the place is sticky, crowded and full of drunk people, but it is -- and even a couple of 30-something songwriters recognize it.
Sala tried unsuccessfully to get The Dug booked as an opener for Jimmie’s Chicken Shack. The Bottle & Cork wouldn’t bite, even with the consent of Jimmie’s manager.
“Dewey Beach has become a weird scene for us, “ Sala said. “As a musician I guess I don’t get it. I don’t get why people cram themselves in there and listen to a cover band playing the same songs over and over again for weeks and years. But that’s what they do. But we’re slowly breaking in. People are coming by and hearing our music and they like it. That’s the biggest compliment to me if they just stay. They don’t have to dance. “
No original bands have ever made it from the Delaware shore. Jimmie’s is an Annapolis band. Lower Case Blues, a guitar trio originally from Newark, has come closest. The band was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame for Delaware in 2012. During the slow winter months, Lower Case Blues hits the road, which is something that The Dug plans to do as well. It’s not easy, though, booking gigs from afar, without an agent or a press kit. The Dug just launched a website in August after agreeing to play a child’s birthday party in exchange for the design.
“I don’t think you’ll find too many original bands that have made it out of here because the market is 99 percent cover,” Sala said. “They don’t get hurt.”
Cohee grew up the road in Milford and attended the University of Delaware for a couple of years before returning south. She started as a dishwasher in the restaurant industry, ultimately working her way up to head chef positions. Unlike Sala, who started playing guitar when he was 12, Cohee didn’t play an instrument and was content belting Janis Joplin with her girlfriends in the car.
At 22, she was hanging out with musicians all the time and decided to buy a guitar on a whim -- and not just a second-hand number from Craigslist. She spent $2,450 on a Paul Reed Smith.
“I bought a crazy good guitar before I knew how to play a chord,” Cohee said, rationalizing that if she made that big of a financial commitment she’d learn to play, which she did.
Three years ago she joined her first band, Conjunction Function, with pianist Jesse Friend, who now sometimes join The Dug along with drummer, Anthony Baray.
When that fizzled, she started playing with Sala, who was recently divorced and living with his parents in Rehoboth Beach.
A bartender and waiter, Sala has a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Towson University. He always knew he wanted to be a full-time musician and probably never “got a real job” waiting for that to happen, he said.
Sala is the songwriter among the two of them, deferring to Cohee’s more polished vocals.
“Vocally we’ve come a long way in over a year,” he said. “I have. She’s always sounded awesome. It’s getting easier. Our voices just sound good together. We don’t really have to harmonize too much."
Cohee said she sings differently with Sala than she has with anyone else.
“Generally I try to sing a very specific harmony and with him and we can hit the same note and just the tone or our two individual voices it makes it slightly dissonant,” she said. “Someone always just slightly sharp or flat and you get what almost sounds like a harmony but it’s not really, which is unique.”
Their biggest song so far, at least the one in which they both connect to musically, is Starlit. Together they croon about standing on a starlit hill waiting for the one that makes them smile.
“Usually if I sit down and try to write a song it doesn’t happen,” Sala said. “A lot of them come from little riffs I’ll just be messing around with on the guitar, and all of a sudden something strikes me. I’ll progress that riff a little further and just play and spit out words. I usually develop some sort of hook and then I’ll take the song from there. My viewpoint on songwriting is to make it as simple as possible. I feel like more people are able to relate to what I say because it’s simple.”
The two are realistic about their chances of being something more than a jam band at the beach, even if they still continue to dream of “making it,” which, for now, mostly means financial solvency. They were booked almost all summer, sometimes with two gigs in a day.
Understandably, Cohee and Sala both said they are a bit jaded about reality TV music competitions.
“I did watch 'American Idol' when it first started, Cohee said. “It was an interesting concept to me. But unfortunately watching it I did realize that a lot of it seemed to be based on how you looked and what your whole person was on stage. Were you marketable to a young audience? That was highly disappointing to me.”
Jackie Spinner is a multimedia journalist based in Chicago. She was a staff writer for the Washington Post for 14 years and covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She most recently reported from Palestine and Oman for the Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of “Tell Them I Didn’t Cry: A Young Journalist’s Story of Joy, Loss, and Survival in Iraq.” Spinner is an assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago.