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.
"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.
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."
"Better be careful," drummer Frank warns. He nods toward the red, white and blue crowds outside the tent. They start to move again after solemn viewing of Marine procession. "You're right," I say, busted.
Friday, 10-5-01. Second weekend. Arrive to see tent walls completely open, another half-dozen trucks on display. Their rich, liquid surfaces shine in klieg lights above. Dodge Gals busy fielding queries on torque and payload. Whole affair now much more impressive.
I walk through tent, looking at trucks closely for first time. In recent years Dodge has led design trend toward bigger, bulgier pickups. Menacing chrome grills with teeth thicker than thighs. Ram hood ornaments bigger than fists. Flexed, steroidal, pumped-up look. My Subaru puny in comparison. Imagine Dodge truck kicking sand on my Subaru at beach. Imagine Dodge truck eating Subaru and growing larger as result.
Another new attraction set up beside tent: "Dodge Truck Challenge." Essentially a vehicular tug-of-war. Two full-tons, Dodge and competitor, butt to butt, connected by short, taut chain. A barker with a microphone builds moment up, throws down flag, and each driver hits gas. Moment of trembling inertia. Smell of burnt rubber, huge cloud of blue smoke. Suspense near fatal. Dodge inches forward, begins to slowly drag competitor, even as loser's wheels continue to spin. It is obvious now, the barker proclaims, who is "the true Mayor of Truckville." Feat performed against new challenger several times daily.
One last change: gigantic American flag has been hung behind stage as backdrop. John Prine cover completely out of question now.
Saturday, 10-6-01. Smell of fry grease and grilling sausages in air. Appetite grows, so I peruse offerings at Food Pavilion. Decide on Frito pie. I eat it outside pavilion door, staring mindlessly at row of midway games: Flip-A-Chick, Frog Pond, Skee Ball. Begin to feel high from jalapeños. Become mesmerized by a man's repetitive attempts to lift a soda bottle by its neck, using porcelain ring on string.
Soon jalapeño high fades as Frito pie starts to have leadening effect on stomach lining. Dump leftovers into trashcan. Warn self against being huckstered by aroma of hot lard again.
Sunday, 10-7-01. I meet and compare notes with members of band from Chevy Truck Tent across way. I recognize them by the matching Chevy golf shirts they wear. Their stage is slicker, more colorful than ours, made to look as if hewn with chisels from red rock wall. Comfortable seating, too.
Later, going home in van, I point out other differences. Chevy stage plays every day--eight 15-minute sets, each with the same four songs, each sounding just like the last slick, bouncy Nashville country-pop song. Larger, more appreciative audience.
All in van reflect in silence for moment.
"Dodge spanked Chevy in the Challenge," Philip says.
Friday, 10-12-01. Families stop by today. Mothers encouraging children to dance. Mostly, people attending are very happy, full of cheer. Not wide-eyed yokel awe but delighting in simple, old-fashioned pleasures. Keep hearing people talk about fair traditions. They eat certain foods, ride certain rides, watch the nightly parade from certain locations. They love giant cowboy figure "Big Tex," giant Ferris wheel "Texas Star." It is easy to be snobbish about fair; yet people eager to reject this snobbishness. Fair is a place to eat bad food, waste much money, enjoy much kitsch. Why not?
Friends Carl and Gayle are perfect examples. They attend fair multiple times, always stop by Dodge Truck Tent to offer midway ride recommendations and rave about new snack items they've found. Ears perk up to latter especially. Frito pie fiasco now distant memory.
In strip of stalls outside midway, a man guesses ages and weights. Possesses usual carnie looks: steely-eyed, gaunt, leathery. Presumably named Tiny or Slim. Speaks nonstop into clip mike in destroyed voice with Cajun accent. Only about one-third intelligible.
Seems strange that people want to have their age/weight insecurities exposed, but there is always a line waiting to pay $2 for a turn. Most walk away pleased, because Slim is almost always wrong. As he directs winning customers to select prize of choice from stock displayed in stall, he invariably cites some reason for his error. The size of a person's feet, for example, is a typical excuse, though foot-weight-age correlation is left unexplained.
Yet opportunity costs guessee aforementioned $2, and the prizes--palm-sized stuffed animals, key chains, framed photos of Latin singing stars--may run a bulk rate of 40 cents apiece. Tiny can't lose. Inescapable truth of the carnie world, a truth people deliberately choose not to see.
I have urge to try luck. Age or weight? Can't decide. Wander back to tent.
Saturday, 10-13-01. Day of famous Texas-OU game, fairgrounds mobbed. Burnt orange groups strutting perceptibly: Texas favored to win by 3. Many milling around, greeting each other with ancient collegiate hand signs, with cries and gestures of impending triumph. Good to forget terrorists abroad for a while and concentrate on enemies across state line.
Between songs, we hear sound of huge crowd screaming in distance, billowing out from top of Cotton Bowl, the lip of which is just visible from stage. Amazing sound. As each song ends, it is amusing to fantasize they are roaring for us, despite almost total emptiness of tent.
Later, when fans trail out, burnt orange shoulders slump. Cocky strut evident earlier now nonexistent. OU now Mayor of Truckville, evidently.
During the last set of the day, we have our biggest crowd. Michele sings "Sweet Dreams," "Crazy." Amazing how Patsy Cline songs draw them in.
"It's no use trying to challenge people," Frank says afterward in a tone both disappointed and resigned. "They only want to hear what they've heard already."
We talk about playing family festivals, VFW halls. I suggest one of us learns to guess ages/weights between sets. Frank nods sagely.
Sunday, 10-14-01. A family wanders through tent: father, mother, youngsters. I recognize wife/mother. Briefly dated her in college. Face without expression as she watches band play. Unclear whether she recognizes me. Part of me hopes not.
Appearance brings unwelcome reevaluation of whole life. First started playing in local bands years ago, dreamed of making mark on world. Still dream from time to time, though potential size of said mark shrinks, as does personal corner of world. What delusion keeps me going: playing nightclubs and truck tents to paltry audiences? Riding around in vans with no seats in the back?
Smell of burnt rubber. Thick cloud of blue smoke. Dodge has "taken life by the horns," vanquished another competitor.
Later, a tornado watch is announced. The giant Dodge Ram head balloon is deflated. A wise precaution. Would be bad PR to allow Ram symbol to break free of moorings and roll away, crushing all in path.
Saturday, 10-20-01. Final weekend, first set. Man stands among back benches, listening intently. Later he takes Kim aside, tells him he is a caterer from L.A. and wants to fly the band out for parties. Celebrities involved. Money not issue. Writes down Kim's number.
Kim informs the band. Wry look exchanged. Philip suggests going immediately to "BMW convertible tent" to select van replacement.
Tiny's still guessing ages and weights. Today, every guess correct. Guesses young woman's weight--143--to exact pound. She walks away scowling, talking of "body density." Another woman angry when her over-40 age is precisely guessed. Blames it on "old-looking" husband standing alongside.
Tiny is unfazed by customer grousing. On penultimate fair day, generating return business obviously not a priority. He sticks $2 in apron with wad of other crumpled bills and continues patter.
Third set. Large family stops by, fills two whole benches. Mom departs with food order, returning shortly with a corndog bouquet. Each corndog has been dressed to order: mustards, ketchups, mustard and ketchups, dries. Mom carefully distributes the corndogs to offspring. The last to go is a "dry" for the middle son. Mom pauses, seeing it streaked with a bit of mustard, apparently rubbed off in transit from mate. Mom removes the offending streak with a lightning-fast lick.
The son, having witnessed mustard removal, accepts corndog without protest, but an odd look crosses his face: Resignation of existential nature. Acceptance of life as off-kilter, unjust, yet understanding of self as piece in a vast cosmic puzzle.
Look stays with me for the remainder of the evening.
Sunday, 10-21-01. Good-byes are said, wishes well. Security guards, Dodge Gals, Chevy band, etc. Turns out to be big day for dancing. It starts with two women, a mother and daughter, I suspect--one 85, the other, maybe 65. Others slowly join them. Married couple. Boyfriend, girlfriend. Father and, one by one, each of his three daughters. Dancing starts outside the tent on the walkway, too, and during a string of original songs, no less. Gratifying.
Afterward, with mates and families, we take last trip onto midway, share last portions of funnel cake, stuffed jalapeños. Air is crisp with autumn. Buy tickets for Texas Star, filling a car of our own. Perfect timing: sun sets behind the city skyline between orbits, and the lights on the wheel spokes blink on.
On the way back to van, everyone is silent, at ease. All seem to be thinking the same thing: the last ride, the last set. It doesn't take much, really, and you're content.
"Those golf shirts, though," someone finally says.
Right, right. They would have ruined it.
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