VOL. 7 | NO. 39 | Saturday, September 20, 2014
Singing Mechanic’s Life Much Like the Songs He Sings
TIM GHIANNI | The Ledger
The Singing Mechanic – “I’ve got that name. Nobody else can use it,” says Billy Devereaux – sits by his worn, 1,200-square-foot, two-room cottage and looks down at Boots, his Dutch Shepherd.
“He’s a possum killer and he runs security,” says Billy, 55, gazing across the swath of remote land separated by a long gravel trail from Smith Springs Road in Antioch.
“He’s scared off people from my place and he’s killed 10 possums this year. He always puts them by my wife’s car. Last one must’ve been 30 pounds.”
The passive (unless you’re a possum, apparently) large brown dog trots into the yard filled with broken vehicles and busted dreams to retrieve a muddy, plush hedgehog.
Boots chases the toy after Billy cocks back his arm and passes it, Manning style (except for the accuracy), past his company HQ: The truck with “Singing Mechanic” website and contact info on the sides and back.
Billy Devereaux, the Singing Mechanic, with Boots, his possum-slaying friend and security system, pose next to the mobile mechanic’s shop.
“Everything I’d ever need is in here,” says Billy, unlocking the back door of the makeshift, mostly plywood camper shell and tool garage that fills the bed of his ’98 F-150.
“My artist manager doesn’t want me to go by ‘The Singing Mechanic’ anymore,” says Billy, noting the “singingmechanic.com” signage on his old Ford. “Just wants me to be ‘Billy Devereaux.’ Not even my real name.
“I’m Billy Devereaux Robbins. I just started using Devereaux as my singing name because I didn’t want people to know that it was mechanic Billy Robbins up there singing.
“Truth: I’ve had a better reception at gigs after I told people I was The Singing Mechanic,” he says, fingering a generic cigarette from a red pack. “If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die cheap,” he says of his choice in smokes.
Billy Devereaux Robbins has had a few sober (and some not-so-much) sidetracks since chasing the musical dream to Nashville a quarter-century ago.
“I was singing there at the Commodore (the lounge at the Holiday Inn near Vanderbilt). I realized everyone was talking while I was singing.
“That’s when I figured out that everyone else was there not to hear me, but to sing their own songs. So I decided to try something else. I was a professional kick boxer for 18 years until one night when I got four ribs broken in a fight.”
So he went back to focusing on music, part of his family heritage ever since his guitar-slinging dad hosted the local country music radio show in Pontotoc, Mississippi, 25 miles west of Tupelo. An air-traffic controller by profession, the elder Billy served as performer and emcee on the live barn dance-style showcase.
“My dad had Elvis there, but after Elvis wiggled his hips,” Billy says as he does a facsimile of the pelvic movement as he sits on his worn bench. “My dad went to his bass player and said ‘We can’t have him doing that on our show.’
“He also turned down Johnny Cash, because he sang flat.”
Billy explains that his pop just wanted to make sure the studio audience was neither offended nor subjected to sub-par singing from those then-rising stars. “He did manage to get ol’ Bill Monroe on there.”
Billy strokes Boots, who stretches and ambles over to rub against the leg of the journalist who sits, separated by a table holding a 2-foot-tall pounded-tin palm tree, from The Singing Mechanic.
“My mother gave me that palm,” says Billy. “She’s 84 and still works at the hospital in Florence, Alabama. She’s given me a lot of things that are around here.”
Christmas lights hang from the gutters of the small home he shares with his sixth wife, Tamara Robbins, a hair stylist. “When I first told her I’d been married five times, she just grinned and said she’d been married six times.”
He nods toward the home of concrete blocks and siding.
“I moved here after my last divorce. I sat here one time thinking about how far I’d come down. I’d been living in a four-bedroom house, a nice house, down in LaVergne. But I lost it trying to save that relationship. That was stupid.
“Then I sat right here and realized how lucky I am. I’m a lot better off living here, renting this place. I don’t have to pay taxes, and no one’s trying to take my home away from me. It’s comfortable.”
He scans the landscape punctuated by gutted cars (and car guts), a beached pontoon boat and a jet ski. He works on these when he’s not rattling across Nashville in the well-worn F-150 with the workshop on the rear.
Billy points to a broken-down, full-sized RV bus he was given by a woman who decided it wasn’t worth her while to keep getting it fixed.
“It’s really nice inside,” says Billy. “Want to live in it. I want to be traveling and playing gigs. I love performing in front of 1,000 people. Nothing like it.”
While his dad, the Memphis-based air-traffic controller and Pontotoc radio host, taught his son to enjoy playing music, he also insisted the boy have a trade, a backup plan.
“I was a master mechanic from the time I was 17,” Billy says. “I completely overhauled an old Plymouth Satellite when I was 13.
“You tell me another 13-year-old boy you’d trust to pull apart an engine and put it all back together again. It was a 383.”
Being a mechanic has afforded him a comfortable living while still waiting for the big break of Music City fairy tales.
“I’d love to have a No. 1 that made me rich, but it’s probably not going to happen. But I do want to do live shows, live events.”
Like the combination go kart race and concert spectacular he’s planning for October in Pontotoc. “They’ll do 250 laps around the courthouse square,” he says. The music will come later.
“And things like barbecue and jelly competition. Each entrant will have to make 10 pounds of barbecue, but we only taste it to judge it. The rest goes to the local Meals on Wheels.”
He points to his meat smoker sharing the narrow space by his doorstep with a gas grill.
“I had three sisters, and I didn’t want them to be able to cook better than me, so I learned. The other day I smoked a chuck roast and a pork butt for the grand opening of Salon Image, where my wife is working.
“We wanted people to come in and we’d give them food.” Billy says. “I had this wireless microphone and wireless guitar, so I was just stepping right out into traffic, singing and playing, directing folks to the salon. They had a traffic jam on Old Murfreesboro Road that day.”
Even the memory of that very small-scale performance raises a smile.
“I can make it just fine as a mechanic. I stay plenty busy. Word-of-mouth referrals.
“The only thing is that I can’t see myself at 65, out in the cold, working with tools. I realize I’m getting old, and I’m not going to be able to cut it out here in the weather the rest of my life. But I ain’t got no retirement plan.”
Truth is, he’s tried to make a living other ways, licensed plumber and electrician, carpenter, bricklayer and cotton gin repairman.
The profession of his dreams is making music, writing songs – he’s written plenty, sitting right here by the tin palm tree “my writing oasis” – and performing in public.
That’s what brought him to Nashville 25 years and six marriages ago.
A good country song’s melancholy flavors his voice when he talks about wife No. 4, who succumbed to ovarian cancer.
“For awhile, I cleaned up all my nasty habits. I was going to church. I was a deacon, choir director, youth director and I cooked on Wednesday nights. And I married the pastor’s daughter.”
He thought he’d retired from relationships when she died, but before long he was married again.
“By the time I got done with her I was pretty messed up. I was a wild child. Stayed that way, running on my Harley with the biker crowd.
“I was drinking and getting in fights. I’m well known down at Bikini Beach, a real nice biker bar with good scenery, for actually knocking a guy out right in front, outside the bar.”
The guy had asked for it, he recollects, looking at his hands on which silver rings line the knuckles of most fingers and one thumb. “They aren’t for decoration,” Billy says. “Do a lot of my mechanic work down in the projects.”
It was when he finally calmed down, met Tamara and got married for the sixth time that he found peace.
“She can’t ride a bike, and I figured that after all I’d been through and hadn’t been killed, that it was time for me to give up, too.”
What he hasn’t given up is his songwriting and dreaming. Even has a CD demo floating around of him singing the venerable “In the Pines.”
The Appalachian folk song’s melody goes way back into the 1800s, he says, adding “someone put lyrics to it in 1917. In 1942, Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie recorded it. And then Dolly did her own lyrics…. Nirvana and Kurt Cobain did their version and Kurt killed himself.”
The second cut on the demo is as cheerful as Cobain. “I sing Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Waiting Around to Die.’ Man, that’s a depressing song. You knew Townes?” He shakes his head.
“I paid for the recording sessions with the money I got for fixing the old baggage wagon Taylor Swift uses to have her Lear jet pulled in and out of her private hangar at the airport. I had this 12,000-pound airplane-moving machine right here.”
So why’s he been advised by his new artist manager to drop “The Singing Mechanic” nickname?
“They say it’s too gimmicky. They want me to be Billy Devereaux. … But I realize more people call me to work on their cars than call me for gigs.”
Boots, the possum-killing dog, pushes his head against The Singing Mechanic’s right leg.