All's Fair

Neither carnies, corn dogs nor karaoke can keep a good band down at the State Fair

In 2001, local country band The Lucky Pierres was hired to play weekends at the State Fair of Texas. Bassist Bart Chaney kept a diary, which he recently rediscovered and sent excerpts from to the Observer. Somehow, in spite of this tale, the band is still going strong at the Fair with three afternoon concerts on Thursday, October 6.

Tuesday, 9-25-01. Rehearsal night. Anxieties concerning upcoming State Fair gig flare up once again. We have been hired to play the Dodge Truck Tent for Fair's duration. Will music/venue be right match?

Band asks for umpteenth time how initial negotiations passed.

Don't expect the Lucky Pierres to cover "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore" with that backdrop.
Don't expect the Lucky Pierres to cover "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore" with that backdrop.
Missing from this Lucky Pierres photo: a man by the name of "Tiny."
Missing from this Lucky Pierres photo: a man by the name of "Tiny."

"We understand you play country and western," the Dodge rep had said.

I answered yes but then hesitated. How to explain the "alt-country" sub-genre? How to distinguish it from slick, shallow Nashville-produced country-pop?

"We play originals," I said, "and some traditional covers."

The rep perked up. "Like Garth, Billy Ray?"

"More like Hank and Patsy."

"Sounds great," he answered, showing no sign these names were recognized.

It is always better to be upfront and straightforward, though it can cost you some gigs. I hedged, however, and now all suffer visions of being fired after the first few songs.

Friday, 9-28-01. First day of Fair, first gig. Excited, nervous. I arrive at main entrance, only to realize I have forgotten both entrance pass and grounds map. No problem: I'm permitted to enter and driven directly to Dodge Truck Tent in a security golf cart.

Surprising, considering recent terrorist attacks, yet long, black guitar bag over my shoulder doesn't even draw a suspicious glance. Keep those thoughts to myself. Driver wearing straw cowboy hat, as am I. Explanation obvious.

The Dodge Truck Tent is large, white with gigantic inflated Dodge Ram head at entrance. Several rows of split-log benches in front. Otherwise, the tent is fairly empty, with only a handful of trucks and potted plants. Not very impressive, to tell the truth. Also present are "Dodge Gals" -- a half-dozen giggly high school girls dressed in jeans and Dodge golf shirts, passing out brochures.

Seeing golf shirts causes discomfort. One of the hiccups in finalizing the gig was a request that the band wear these very shirts. The band had reacted to the request with indignation; debate over taking the gig in first place reignited. We're artists, damn it. Aren't corporate shills! Might offend minuscule nightclub following! But Dodge gig was lucrative: would fund upcoming recording session. After nights of hand-wringing, we responded: Golf shirts a deal-breaker. Dodge actually caved.

But as we start the first set, "golf shirt incident" feels pompous. Who did we think we were, taking umbrage? This is the State Fair, cornball by definition, all about pitching and scamming, hucksters in candy-striped hats and jackets waving canes in air, selling bottles of elixir from a case.

Then again, point now moot; we aren't wearing cheesy golf shirts. We are wearing and playing what we damn well please. Still not fired.

Saturday, 9-29-01. Daily schedule: three hour-long sets, 45-minute breaks between. During breaks I walk to nearby karaoke courtyard. Popular spot. Long list of participants awaiting their turns at the mike.

Name is called and a pale, bespectacled teenager trots up. Bad clothes, bad haircut. Classic nerd. Yet he removes mike from stand with élan suggesting he is no stranger to microphone, thank you.

Song choice: "The Power of Love." Kid strikes every rock pose in book. Roger Daltrey. Robert Plant. Belts out song without hint of self-awareness. During lead break, plays air guitar. Les Paul weeping, Flying V waggling at crotch. Brings song to climax, face in profile, fist in air. The power of love! I expect some tuxedoed retainer to lay a velvet cape over spent, crumpled body and lead singer offstage.

Look at crowd. Why is no one laughing? Why no squirming in embarrassment? Instead, polite applause. Same question asked at open poetry readings: Is anybody really listening or are all merely waiting own turns? Maybe they aren't seeing anything except their own performance soon to come. Karaoke is like one of those rides over on the midway--a thrill, to be sure--though taking place entirely in one's own head.

Note strong similarity to our own musical project in nearby truck tent.

Sunday, 9-30-01. State Fair in full swing. American flags everywhere. Whole families arrive arrayed in red, white and blue. American flag patches, belts, bandannas. "Never Forget" slogans, too. Sight makes me slightly uneasy, slightly afraid--why? Am I not appreciating 9/11 patriotically enough? My formative years were late Vietnam era. Suspicion of conspicuous patriotism may be hardwired into brain.

Think of old John Prine tune from anti-war era: "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore." Have urge to work song up, put into set.

Twice a day, the Marine Band marches in dress whites, all spit and polish. When they pass our tent, they are so loud that we have to stop playing and wait for them to pass. Just as they do, I find myself making snide comments into mike.

"Man, those Marines are funky." "Gomer Pyle was never that funky."

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