Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A long time ago

"They built their fences high but they couldn't hold me in." Waylon Jennings
Ohio country music legend Johnny Paycheck provided one of my more memorable moments as a country music DJ back in 1978. I was working for WMNI and was given the assignment of emceeing his concert at the Ohio State Fair.
At the time the big shows were held at the racetrack on the fairgrounds and this one drew what became the largest crowd for a concert in the state fair history. (At that time) more than 80,000.
It broke a record previously held by Bob Hope. Emceeing a concert is not that big of a deal, walk out on stage for a previously agreed amount of time, welcome the crowd, introduce yourself and spend a few minutes doing what you hope will be an entertaining monologue. Then introduce the act and walk off to thunderous applause. Easy work for fifty bucks a pop, good money then.
So there I was on perhaps the hottest afternoon of the summer wearing my best Waylon Jennings leather cowboy hat, a white long sleeved shirt and a leather vest and sweating bullets.
I was doing what I was supposed to be doing out there when I noticed a stagehand off to the side holding a blackboard telling me to stretch; Paycheck was going to be late. I was done with my prepared material and all I could see was the 80 grand stomping their feet all pumped for some country twangin'.
I really don’t remember much of what I said after telling them there was a slight delay but whatever I continued to babble about made the foot stomping more intense.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity I could tell by the crowd’s reaction that the star had made his way onto the stage behind me. And as I turned around to welcome him again he tripped over a guitar cord or something else on the stage and stumbled right into me and either spit or threw up. This pleased the record crowd even more.
I had a little puke on the front of my white shirt, and try as I might I could not find the crack in the stage to fall into. It was very humbling. And as I left the stage I could hear the first shout of his signature song, "Take this job and shove it!" I thought, "Amen brother."
The year after that memorable Paycheck show I was sent to introduce Waylon Jennings on the same stage. I experienced a day I will be forever thankful for a number of reasons. Not least among them I got to not only see the greatest country singer ever up close and personal, I got to spend time with him. More special even now that he has passed away.
Meeting Waylon ranks right up there just ahead of meeting Johnny Cash the following day. Two super-stars who make today's country giants look very, very small, at least to me.
When Waylon stepped out front to perform he had his tremendous rock band, ”The Waylors" behind him and as an added bonus, members of Buddy Holly's original "Crickets" sitting in for an unbelievable Holly-medley.
I stated that his group was a rock band because that is exactly what they were.
Even though Waylon was in his prime on the country charts in the late 70s-his live performances rivaled those of any rock group of the era. They were loud, fast and driven hard just like their front man.
Waylon was labeled an outlaw by the power structure in Nashville because of his unwillingness to have his brand of music tampered with to conform with the more traditional country "twang" and because he insisted on making it his way. Something he may have picked up from his old friend Holly.
He didn't buy into the glitz of the Country Music Association and their silly awards programs. He stopped greasing his hair and slicking it back, opting instead to wear it long and unkempt, he grew a beard, dressed like Jesse James and took his act back to Texas to develop what today's country artists are still trying to play.
His "Outlaws" album with Willie, Tompall Glazer and Jesse Coulter is still regarded by many as the greatest country album of all time. Like the “Rubber Soul” of country music.
Emceeing his show was probably among the brightest high-lights of my own venture into country music. A time when I didn’t always understand why I was in it, but in retrospect was a time when it was probably in its purest form as I think I might have been.
His song "A long time ago" reminds me of that era and was one that I could most identify with as a country music DJ and as a man just trying to find my own way through some pretty good times, a few bad ones and a lot of living.
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1 comment:

  1. I just want to say that your short stories and memories of this poignant period of your life are earth shaking in their validity. These are real stories ( I think ), that truly tug at the heart stings. I stumbled across your blog purely by accident, but feel blessed by the chance to read your stuff. What can I say, other than that I am moved by your reflections.

    Thanks Chris Walsh
    Perth, Western Australia

    ps- listening to Waylon as I write this.