ST. PETERSBURG — The little brown-haired girl crouched on her bedroom floor, twisting the box radio's knob through the static. Only at night did the waves from the New York stations reach her home in single-stoplight Pendleton, S.C. When the dial was turned just so, and the sounds of Gladys Knight and Otis Redding crackled through, the girl crawled into bed and shut her eyes tight. Through her window, she smelled the summertime honeysuckle as all that soul sang her to sleep. At 14, her mother bought her a spruce Sears Silvertone guitar. She plucked the nylon strings until her fingers throbbed. She numbed the tips in glasses of ice so she didn't have to stop. The music never made Sandy Atkinson forget, but sometimes, if only while she shut her eyes, it took her somewhere else.
Sandy's father was a used-car salesman with a round belly and a sharp temper. He beat her and her mother. If he had been different, maybe Sandy would have been, too. She had a gift — a soul for sound and a voice that wailed — but she had no dream. She wished only to escape, so at 18, instead of joining a band, she married an Army man and had a son. Her husband was much like her father. They divorced after five years. She soon fell into a second unhappy marriage. It lasted 14.
In October 1993, Sandy packed up clothes, a guitar and a notebook with a song she'd written, Tired of the Crying. She drove to Sunset Beach. She had heard that Tampa Bay was a place for blues musicians. Sandy, at 41, tried for the life she never had. She played in dimly lit bars, a Mexican restaurant and a biker shack named "The Nowhere." She also played for thousands at festivals from Miami to Tallahassee. She fronted four bands and released seven CDs, though they cost more to make than they ever made. She got a job at a software company to pay for what the music could not. She still wrote and sang, but time passed and the big break didn't come.
Then, this past September, something happened. The Suncoast Blues Society was hosting its annual contest. The winner would go to Memphis and play at the International Blues Challenge, a place where careers are made. Sandy had never entered, always doubted her chances. But this year, she thought, going might at least earn her a new gig. She signed up.
Sandy always wondered what might have been if that brown-haired girl in South Carolina had sought a new life a little sooner. But maybe, too, it was meant to be this way. Maybe she was meant to win that contest in Bradenton. Maybe now, at 60, with more gray in her hair and more smoke in her voice, she was meant to walk on a stage in Memphis and shut her eyes tight and see that new life come to be.