ALBANY -- The sometimes well-meaning -- and just as often meddling -- questions don't so much frustrate Evan Barber as they annoy him.
Every now and then they'll come from a stranger, but usually someone who's watched Barber work at his craft and become one of the most prolific singer/songwriters in Southwest Georgia is the one who'll work one of the questions into a conversation.
So, dude, you're like 26 now. When are you going to get a real job and start making some real money?
"Man, I've got tons of friends who've finished college and started careers who get up every morning and go to work and they're absolutely miserable," said Barber, the lead singer and gifted writer who heads Evan Barber & the Dead Gamblers, an Albany-based quartet that recently released its first full-length album. "People want to know when I'm going to 'make it,' but I have a different definition for making it.
"I'm making a living doing something I love, playing my music. I could have stayed with the job I had in real estate and be making more money right now, but I'd be another one of those people who hated to get up every morning."
While tunes from Barber and the Gamblers' self-titled debut have made their way onto progressive radio stations across the region ("Birmingham," "Stiletto," "Perfume and Whiskey"), the traditional route to a musical career is not the one the band has chosen.
It's through playing 235 shows or more a year that Barber and the Gamblers -- guitarist Zack Gamble, drummer Wynn Hyatt and bassist Blane Johnson -- have carved out a niche for themselves in a region that's become increasingly more influential in the music industry.
"I can't explain how much fun this is for us right now," Barber, a Westover High School graduate, said. "We may play a show and make little to no money and then play another a few nights later and make good money. That's part of it, but the bottom line is we're doing what we've always wanted.
"Sometimes we'll drive 500 miles and play a show for 10 people who don't like us, then we'll go just down the road the next night and it explodes. To be able to do that, to play our music without sacrificing our integrity, makes it worth it."
Barber, whose parents introduced him to the music of many of the artists (Neil Young, The Band, Tom Petty) whose influence can be heard on "Gamblers," played in his first band when he was a 17-year-old high school student. That group's claim to fame came with an opening gig for the Albany-based Lost Trailers at the Cab Stand, but Barber soon left the band and played as a duet with Chase Nichols for the next two years.
Barber gave college a try (communications and PolySci at Gainesville College) and lived in Athens for three years. When he returned to Albany, he landed a job with a real estate company and played solo acoustic gigs as often as he could.
"It dawned on me after a little while that I was making more money playing music than I was at my 'real job'," Barber said. "So I quit the real estate job and just started playing music. A lot of people told me I'd never catch a break in Albany, and a man I respect a lot -- 'Uncle' Ed Washburn at Stallion Music -- told me 'you always love playing music and hate your job, so why would you make playing music your job?'
"But what people didn't understand is that my primary goal has never been to make millions of dollars or be on MTV or CMT. My goal has always been to make enough money to allow me to do the thing I love."
Barber started playing music full-time three years ago, and for the past 2 1/2 years he's been traveling with the Dead Gamblers. They recorded the 12 songs on their debut album in the down time between gigs.
"We were touring the whole time, but we managed to work 10-15 sessions in between shows," Barber said. "It took us 16 to 20 hours of studio time over a period of three months or so.
"We recorded 16 songs, and everyone in the band had input into which ones stayed on the album. I felt it was imprortant that this be a band effort, not just what I wanted."
Barber wrote the lyrics and music to "Gamblers," drawing from his experiences to bring the tunes to life.
"I try to write honestly, to be straightforward," he said. "And it's important for me to write what I'm feeling when I'm feeling it. I don't want to try and remember how I felt when I'm writing about something that happened to me.
"I wrote 'Drip/Time' coming home from a show in Enterprise, Ala., where maybe two tables of folks showed up and none of them dug it except one girl who was there. I'm sure it wasn't really that bad, but it felt that way to me and I had to document it. And then there's the song 'Ramblin'' that I wrote in three minutes. I went in the bathroom to brush my teeth, and came out with the whole song.
"I've found when I try to force it, it never works."
Despite efforts to steadily build their fan base through constant touring, through their website and through direct contact with fans whose names are added to their mailing list each show, Barber and the Dead Gamblers still get those pesky questions about "making it."
"I'd rather make pretty good money playing for 100 people who love our music than make a lot of money playing for 1,000 people who couldn't care less about us," Barber said. "People say 'why don't you go to Nashville and see if you can make it there?' And I guess we could do that, could get cute haircuts and dance around on the stage.
"But that's not who we are. I don't want to be part of the 'pretty faces' that seem to get the record deals nowadays. I find it's more enjoyable to be creative, to meet new people and to build artistic integrity. That's what this is about for us."