The Dirtiest Kid

I’d like to talk about one aspect of working the road and that is enduring inclement weather conditions. If somebody catches a cold or the flu before the road trip is over with, it goes through everybody on the bus because it goes through the heating and air-conditioning system.

I still to this day take mega-doses of vitamin C because there’s nothing more miserable than working with a 104 degree fever for three or four days in a row. It isn’t quite like being home and having mama fix you chicken soup.

I remember a time in the mid-seventies, we were working up in Canada in January. It was way below zero. In the middle of the night, one of the guys got up out of his bunk and smelled smoke. Had he not gotten up, all of us in the bunk area could have suffocated.

As it turned out, some electric wires underneath the bottom bunk had come together and caught fire and the bunk area was full of smoke. He immediately woke everyone up. We went up front and the bus driver pulled the bus over. We got the fire put out. It was just smoldering and hadn’t got up to a flame, but the wiring in the bus was shot.

It’s 3 AM in the morning at minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Fortunately, Conway Twitty’s bus was behind us. They pulled in behind us, we got out with just our necessities. Loretta and all of us piled on Conway’s bus. That was a bus load of people.

Our bus driver had to stay with our bus and wait until it got daylight out to take it to a shop to be repaired. The wiring was totally gone so he had no lights. We went ahead and worked the next two or three days with all of us piled on the one bus. Finally, our bus got repaired and our driver drove and met us.

I’ll never forget standing outside the bus in the middle of the night in that terrible cold weather until Conway’s bus caught up with us.

One thing that happens all the time is that shows get cancelled for pouring rain. Water and electricity don’t mix and fans just don’t understand that. The get upset because we can’t do the show.

One time, we played an outdoor show in Florida and it was in December. A cold front came in and it was 26 degrees. My fingers absolutely did not want to move when I tried to play.

I always hated to see hot summer weather to come because it would be two or three months of working in miserably hot weather playing dusty race tracks at county fairs. We also had to play the outdoor country music parks back then. Places like Ponderosa Park in Ohio, Bucklake Ranch in Indiana and Sunset Park in Pennsylvania.

There were so many of those outdoor parks back then. In fact, I think that is kind of a piece of country music history. I think most of them are pretty much a thing of the past.

At many of them, we had to do three shows a day. We had to wear band uniforms with rhinestones that were made out of gabardine. That stuff doesn’t breathe at all. We had patent leather western boots that would be so hot your feet would just burn like fire.

Everybody including myself would be out of tune because of the heat and wind messing with the instruments and you just had to grin and bear it. Obviously, there were no electronic tuners back then. Many stages were built facing the hot sun so the audience wouldn’t have to look at it, but we did. It was right in our faces.

We had our own PA system that we carried on the bus. It was a Shure Vocal-Master. We had four of these long columns we had to set up every day along with the PA head, microphones and cables. None of the amplifiers were miked. The vocal microphones were all run directly into a mixing board which we ran from the stage.

Since none of the amplifiers were miked, when you played outside you had to crank it up and play loud and watch and listen to what else was going on onstage. We didn’t have in ear monitors and custom mixes like the groups today have.

Many of the people in the audience would bring their children with them. If it had rained earlier that day, there would be kids running and sliding in the mud and playing. One particular time at Sunset Park in West Grove, Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia, it had rained earlier that day. The bus got stuck in the mud and we had to have a wrecker come pull the bus out of the mud.

We decided to have a dirtiest kid contest. The guys in the band pooled our money. It ended up coming to about $25 which was a lot of money back in those days. Don Ballinger, my dear friend whom we lost back in ’86 was fronting our band and playing rhythm guitar. He also sang some duets with Loretta.

Don announced to the crowd at the beginning of the show that at the end of the day we would hold a dirtiest kid contest and the kid that won would win $25. As the day progressed and we played all three shows, in the time between the shows, there were scores of kids sliding in the mud deliberately trying to get dirty.

Finally at the end of the day, we judged the contest and picked out the dirtiest kid and gave him the $25. It’s strange how people can really create their own amusement which we were forced to do much of the time.

Being on the road can be miserable, can be happy, can be trying, is inconvenient and is unforgettable. These young kids on the road with stars today don’t know how good they have it!

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