by Marco Perella
I’m in a folk music trio called the Melancholy Ramblers. We’ve been playing around central Texas for a couple of decades.
Brady 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 1860’s.
We 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.
By some quirk of scheduling, our opening act is Kelly Willis.
Kelly 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 celebrity.)
Kelly 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 Patty Bingo.
It turns out this is the main attraction at the whole Fest.
What 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.
The 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.
What 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 poop.
The 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.
This 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.
In an attempt to churn up additional frenzy a couple of local Chamber of Commerce-types work the microphones and provide commentary.
“Looks like we shoulda fed these girls some prunes, Clem.”
“Remember that the decision of the judges is final, Russ.”
“Folks, you may want to try this game at home with your kids.”
After 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.
We 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.
Since 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.
Frances sounds like a one-woman polka convention with her accordion.
I, 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.
We’re 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.
The 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.
By 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.
Frances turns to me in horror and says, “What do we do now?”
I reply, “How about Purple Haze?”
Luckily 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 the winner.
However, 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. Lynch talk.
The 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.
We crank up a soothing gospel tune. It sounds a lot like Purple Haze.
It 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 it’s the latter, we do a mini-set of country drinking songs.
Drinking 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.
Sure 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.
Now a new problem develops:
Ever-observant 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.
I 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.
Anyway, after every song Brady turns his back to the audience (small though it may be) and stares soberly at the overhanging traffic light.
This 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.
This 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 quickly.
“Thanks 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 breast’? And speaking of breasts, let’s get Frances to sing another bosom-heaver! Take it away Frances!”
It’s a good thing we got paid in advance.