Go back to other tales from the road
in a folk music trio called the Melancholy Ramblers. Weíve been
playing around central Texas for a couple of decades.
plays guitar and fiddle and occasionally yodels. Frances plays the
accordion. I play an ancient mountain instrument called the hummel which
defies description. I play it on my lap and it has a lot of strings and
drones like a bagpipe. (Or like a bat out of hell if you ask my fellow
Ramblers). We sing three part harmony on a bunch of old mountain
songs that were popular in the 1860ís.
get hired to play a gig at the Elgin Hogeye Fest. This exciting
affair features hog calling, sausage eating, beer drinking and
craft-booth browsing and causes several blocks of downtown Elgin, Texas
to be equipped with huge stages set up on the backs of flat-bed trucks
to accommodate bands, special effects and pyrotechnic displays.
some quirk of scheduling, our opening act is Kelly Willis.
is a durn good singer who once scored major publicity points by being
photographed coming out of a hotel room with Lyle Lovett. I think they
were just rehearsing but it was still scandalous. (Actually, make
that a hotel "suite". I notice that celebrities always
do things in a "suite" when the media writes it up.
Johnny Depp wrecks a suite; Courtney ODs in a suite; Brad cheats on
Jennifer in a suite. Never in a room. That would be beneath a
has somehow parlayed her notoriety into a plum gig at the Elgin Hogeye
Fest as a warm-up for the Melancholiacs. Her contemporary big band
country western sound dazzles the crowd. Unfortunately, as soon as she
is done everybody runs down to the other end of the street to watch Cow
turns out this is the main attraction at the whole Fest.
they do is mark out a grid on about half a block of asphalt and number
each square and sell it for five bucks. Then they release some
cows onto the grid and wherever the first cow defecates, that square
collects $1500. To make it more interesting each adjoining square
to the designated ground zero square collects $100.
Town Fathers have thoughtlessly scheduled the climax of this compelling
event at the same time the Melancholy Ramblers are to take the stage.
We decide to postpone our grand entrance and wander down to join the
crowd around the bingo grid.
a fever pitch of anticipation! The entire population of Elgin
surrounds the fenced in street grid as three terrified heifers are
prodded into the arena. Then everybody starts rooting for them to
poor cows are just a little bit intimidated. They huddle up around
the entrance gate and refuse to move an inch, let alone defecate on cue.
makes all the people who bought squares on the other side of the bingo
board very frustrated and they try to spook the cows over to their side
of the grid. All this cajoling further mesmerizes the cows
and their bowels freeze up tight. The resulting spectacle is
something less than riveting.
an attempt to churn up additional frenzy a couple of local Chamber of
Commerce-types work the microphones and provide commentary.
like we shoulda fed these girls some prunes, Clem."
that the decision of the judges is final, Russ."
you may want to try this game at home with your kids."
twenty minutes of this, the Ramblers decide that we can safely compete
with the raw excitement of Cow Patty Bingo and trek to the other end of
the street to begin our concert.
inherit Kelly Willis' PA system set up for her ten-piece electric
country-rock ensemble. The techs don't know quite how to deal with
the paucity of sound produced by our combination of hummel, fiddle and
accordion and decide to nuke us with feedback.
Brady stands in the middle they think this makes him important or
something so they point about eight monitors at him and let 'er rip.
Poor Brady has never really heard himself sing so it's a shock.
sounds like a one-woman polka convention with her accordion.
on the other hand, have always had a secret yen to be the Pete Townsend
of the electric hummel, so I'm slashing out bagpipey power chords
on Long Black Veil.
used to the muffled acoustics of Frances' living room where we rehearse.
Sometimes when we're in a dangerous mood we go sing in Brady's kitchen
where the hard surfaces reflect our harmonies in a positively sinful
resonance. We're not prepared for a stack of Marshall amps.
The sonic environment is too rich for a folk trio.
monitors make it sound like Frances is an inch away, screaming at me
from inside a stainless steel crock pot. This arouses my
competitive instincts and I wrap my lips around the mike and start
shrieking like a gibbon. When Brady plays his fiddle it sounds
like someone is lobbing bazooka shells into the audience. As we
play, we sneak panic-stricken looks at the sound person who tries to
help us by turning everything up to nine.
the end of our first song the Elgin farm folk have retreated in mass
except for a couple of black tee-shirted teenage metal heads who are
making the devil sign at us and moshing in front of Brady's amp.
turns to me in horror and says, "What do we do now?"
reply, "How about Purple Haze?"
our crisis is postponed when the festival honchos come scurrying to the
stage with the long awaited pronouncement that one of the bingo cows has
had a bowel movement. A fortunate woman from some other town is
since the magic square was on the extreme edge of the grid, over where
the cows cowered next to the gate, the town pays off on only five $100
adjoining squares instead of eight and there is a rumbling in the crowd.
city fathers encourage us to play something. Quickly.
Furtively they skitter off the stage with their $3000 profit leaving the
Ramblers to face the bilious townsfolk.
crank up a soothing gospel tune. It sounds a lot like Purple Haze.
does have the remedial effect of dispersing the post-bingo announcement
crowd. We are left with the metal heads and one bench full of
severely overweight tobacco chewers who are either crippled or simply
too drunk to get up and escape our onslaught. Just in case itís the
latter, we do a mini-set of country drinking songs.
songs are always sure-fire because it doesn't matter what you sound like
as long as you yell out the words "Jack Daniels!" or
"Wild Turkey Liquor!" occasionally.
enough, our benched whales start beating time on their massive thighs
and choking on their cuds. When I introduce "There Stands the
Glass" they start scanning the picnic tables hopefully.
a new problem develops:
Brady has noticed that our stage has been set up at the main
intersection of town where probably the only traffic light in Elgin is
still mindlessly doing its little traffic light job of turning green
then yellow then red every forty-five seconds. Brady refuses to
start a song until the light has turned green.
don't know if he's just superstitious or is in a snit because he dropped
twenty bucks on Cow Patty Bingo, but he maintains that these pauses are
absolutely necessary in the cosmic scheme of things. I maintain
that he took one too many hockey pucks in the head when he was a goalie
for Amherst back in the fifties.
after every song Brady turns his back to the audience (small though it
may be) and stares soberly at the overhanging traffic light.
leaves Frances to toy with her accordion strap and work on perfecting
her deer-caught-in-the-headlights smile and me to flap my lips together
aimlessly in an attempt to fill up the dead air.
is always a dangerous situation because I am addicted to stage patter
and sooner or later I'm going to say something politically incorrect.
With this much time to kill between songs I reach terminal velocity very
folks! That was 'Banks of the Ohio', a song about date murder in
the 1840's. Don't you just love the part where it goes, 'I pressed
my knife against her breastí? And speaking of breasts, let's get
Frances to sing another bosom-heaver! Take it away Frances!"
a good thing we got paid in advance.