The handful of regulars barely look beyond their beers and cocktails when Austin Counts settles into a far corner of the Flycatcher bar.
It is a Monday night in February, not exactly a party night. Counts strums on his guitar then fiddles with the tuning pegs while Tom Walbank blows into his harmonica, emitting what sounds like a quiet cough.
The pair light into a cover of the Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee blistering blues rocker “Walk On,” with Counts singing the bluesy refrain — “I’m gonna keep on walkin’, till I find my way back home.”
When they finish, a few of the patrons politely applaud. One lets out a roaring “Yeah!” then returns to his beer and conversation.
Background noise for a Monday night neighborhood happy hour.
Once upon a rock-’n’-roll fantasy, Counts would have wanted to be the center of the audience’s attention.
Today, he’s happy to be their distraction.
“For me it’s not even about them listening. It’s about me going out and playing,” he says.
Living the fantasy
There was a time in Austin Counts’ life when he wanted the spotlight, the glamour and all the bling that went with being bigger than life.
He thought that would come with his first band, a hip-hop/funk group he formed when he was 15 and a sophomore at Catalina Foothills High School. The Union 5 went from playing parties and teen clubs to being the house band at Marana’s New West and Gotham club.
“We were making $500 a show, two and three nights a week,” Counts recalled, which — back in 1999, when the band members were 18, 19 and 20 years old — was a lot of money.
It didn’t take long before the money and minor celebrity went to their heads and members clashed over creative differences.
Counts went out on his own, taking the stage name Dolemite Jones — a nod to the Blaxploitation film genre that he loved — and started doing solo rap shows using a PlayStation and prerecorded CDs. His star moment came when he opened for the rapper Nelly.
Not long afterwards, Counts found himself in jail on a DUI charge. He was 20 years old.
Six months later, at 21, he was arrested for his second DUI.
“I remember thinking ‘What the hell am I doing with my life?’” he said, adding that his legal woes were all of his own doing. “It was deserved.”
He served his jail time, lost his license and accumulated thousands of dollars in fines, which he settled after signing a record deal with a small indie label.
Not much came of the deal, and Counts moved on to form Dolemite Jones as a band in 2001. They mostly played rap with funk influences along the lines of George Clinton and P-Funk. They played local clubs, toured the region and recorded an album.
The run lasted a few years before the group disbanded in 2004, when several members started down questionable paths. They were drinking heavily and getting involved in drugs, and Counts said he wanted nothing to do with it.
He had spent too much of his life witnessing the devastation of drugs.
Austin Counts was born in Alabama and raised by his mother after she and his father divorced. He grew up in the South, partly in South Carolina and then Houston, Texas. The family was poor, he said, bouncing from one bad neighborhood to another due largely to his mother’s heroin addiction.
He and his brother drifted between relatives before coming to Tucson to live with their father when Counts was 13.
“It was difficult growing up until we moved to Tucson,” he recalled.
Coming to Tucson, and living in the foothills, was a culture shock.
“I had a Southern accent and the kids here were upper-middle class,” Counts said. “They had stuff I didn’t have. For a while it was so, so different, and a bit surreal. Suddenly we had a house and we were getting what we wanted.”
Counts found his soul in music after the move. His father, Nimbus Brewery owner James Counts, bought him a guitar and he taught himself to play when he was 13.
“I was more of an auditory learner,” he said. “I would listen to something and then play it.”
By the time he was 15, he had fully bought into the idea of becoming a rock star.
A decade later, the idea gave way to reality and Counts started writing his second chapter.
Counts was older than most of his classmates when he enrolled in the University of Arizona School of Journalism in 2008. He had always had an interest in writing and wanted to become a broadcast journalist.
In his junior year, Counts and two classmates, including Arizona Daily Star reporter Curt Prendergast, teamed up to produce “Another Side of the Border,” a 30-minute documentary that examined life along the Arizona-Sonora border. The project went beyond the issues of immigration and drug smuggling to look more closely at the relationship between Arizona and Sonora.
Counts graduated in 2011 and continued his journalism career, taking a job at the Nogales International newspaper in Nogales, Arizona. He commuted between Tucson and Nogales for three months.
When his editors insisted that he move to Nogales at the end of his probation period, he resigned. He was married and his wife, Leila, was expecting their first child. The couple, who now have two children, didn’t want to leave Tucson.
Counts said he tried to get journalism jobs in Tucson but the industry was reeling from the downsizing that started with the economic crash in 2008. The Tucson Citizen had shuttered and other outlets were dramatically cutting staff.
So Counts, 36, returned to a job he had done as a teen: cooking. He went to work for a retirement home, where he stayed for a year before becoming kitchen manager at The B-Line diner on North Fourth Avenue.
He imagined going into the restaurant business for himself one day, maybe start out with a food truck. And then he saw the “For Rent” sign go up in late spring 2013 on the hole-in-the-wall space at 425 N. Fourth Ave. that was briefly home to Buddha’s Dog House. With the help of his father-in-law — his “angel donor” — Counts signed the lease and launched the 4th Avenue Delicatessen in fall 2013.
Entrepreneur and family man
Austin Counts arrives at the deli a few minutes before 11 a.m. on a Monday, just as a few regulars start streaming in. He knows his customers by name and knows what they like. David from United Fire orders the T-Town on wheat — turkey and bacon with pepper jack cheese and a special T-Town mayo. A woman who works at an office around the corner picks up a variety bag of sandwiches for her boss.
Four girls who look like they’ve stepped right out of a sorority house order as a man maneuvers the long narrow path from the door to the counter. His hair is disheveled and his baggy jeans crumpled as if he slept in them. He plops three dollars on the counter.
“The usual?” Counts inquires.
The man nods his head.
“Help yourself to a soda and bag of chips,” Counts says. The man grabs a Coke from the refrigerator and a bag of chips from the shelf before taking a seat at a table close to the door.
“These are all people from the neighborhood,” Counts explains. “They come in here and they need to get their food quickly, but we talk about their lives and their jobs. It makes them want to come back. It’s like ‘Cheers,’ where everybody knows your name.”
Counts at home
When he is not working, you will find Counts at home with his wife Leila and two young kids, Alex, 4, and Josephine, 2.
“He’s a great dad. He’s very involved. He cares a lot about his kids,” said Leila Counts, assistant director of her family’s 35-year-old Sandbox Early Childhood learning center.
The couple has known one another since high school — “He said he had a crush on me, I kind of had a little crush on him” — but didn’t start dating until 2010 after reconnecting through social media. Within six months, they were married.
In many ways, Leila Counts, who has a master’s degree in counseling psychology, is her husband’s anchor, offering an optimistic alternative to his tumultuous childhood.
“With all his family issues, he’s totally redefining what it means to be in a family and redefining for himself what that means,” she says. “His commitment to being a part of our family and being a husband and great father is really important to him. He’s done a lot of the really hard work to put the past in the past and be kind and be patient and be a good father. And be present.”
Walking back to music
Tucson musician Tom Walbank started coming into the restaurant soon after Counts opened. The two had known each other from Counts’ early music days and it didn’t take long before they were engaging in deep musical conversations.
“We would be talking about great blues guys like Lightnin’ Hopkins. It’s not often … as a blues player that you meet people who are into the old style,” Walbank said.
The conversations continued for six months, until one day last July when Walbank came to Counts with a proposal: Take over Walbank’s gig at Sky Bar Tucson just up the street on North Fourth Avenue. It would be no big deal, Walbank assured him. Two 45-minutes sets. Just come up with enough music to fill 45 minutes then repeat it.
Counts had a week.
He mined his original songs, plucked a few solid covers and put together two completely different 45-minute sets.
“It was more of a challenge of, ‘Could I pull it off?” he said. “It was a good way of proving to myself I could get into it again.”
Walbank knew Counts had untapped potential and boundless talent. It would be a shame to waste all that.
“He played me some of his stuff that he’d been recording and … they were really good, soulful songs mixed with blues,” Walbank said. “I was impressed and I wanted to get him back out there.”
His deli conversations with Walbank also reignited Counts’ musical passions. For months — maybe even years, if he was completely honest with himself — he had fantasized about playing music again.
“It’s always been in me, wanting to get back out there and play in front of people,” Counts said. “I didn’t take it as seriously … until Tom kind of showed me that I could do this again. I might just (have remained) the guy who runs the deli and have my music. But being thrown under the bus and showing me that I could do it showed me that I would be a fool not to continue on with something I loved.”
“I knew that music was something that was always important to him and I didn’t understand why he had stopped,” said Leila Counts, who said that with the exception of a few times in high school she had never seen her husband perform until recently. “I think when he was younger, like many young musicians, he just wanted to chase the fame. Now he does it for the love of music. I think it’s a lot healthier and lot more fulfilling.”
love of playing
Since last summer, Austin Counts has found a weekly home at Flycatcher, playing the Monday happy hour with Walbank. He picks up gigs around town, many of them with Walbank.
In February, Walbank produced Counts’ indie EP “Pima County Jail.” The title song takes Counts back to jail and the time he spent in solitary confinement. He said it was his fault; he ditched his work release to hang out with friends, going so far as to arrange for a car to meet him at the work release location.
Walbank described the project as a mirror into Counts’ musical soul.
“You can be a good player but have miserable songs. Austin was telling interesting stories and he was open to learn,” Walbank said. “He understood that it was journey. If you understand that, you’ve got a future ahead of you.”
Counts, who earlier this month launched a side business selling handmade trucker hats with repurposed patches he picks up at garage sales and thrift stores, isn’t really looking for a future so much as a creative outlet.
“Music isn’t about trying to make a career off of it and trying to be famous,” he said between sets at The Flycatcher on that Monday night last month. “It’s about the love of playing music, being able to develop your soul and develop your playing and put it out. Someone is going to listen at some point and time.”