By Brian M. Howle
(Note: My very first band – The Trio Conspiracy – had been practicing and playing for about four or five years, and now the big “payoff” was upon us. Gigs were booked with regularity around our little town. We may not have been the greatest band assembled, but we were doing pretty darn good for a bunch of kids in a small Southern town in the late 1960’s. I had begun writing songs, so our repertoire included original tunes. As I recounted in the previous issue, we had just finished recording those songs over at radio station WKYB in Hemingway, and they were played for all the world to enjoy. Getting airplay was unheard of for little bands from small towns like ours – even if it was on a little, 5,000 watt AM station in yet another small town.)
Up to this point, we had just played school assemblies, sock hops, and beauty pageants. But now, we understood the importance of self-promotion. If we were ever going to cash in on our fleeting radio fame, now was the time.
An electric co-op over in Williamsburg County held a big shindig every year at one of the huge tobacco warehouses in Kingstree, and one of their events was a talent contest. We quickly called up and got ourselves booked, ready to begin our mission of world domination – one county at a time.
I had recently bought my first “real” amplifier, with separate amp and speaker cabinet.”T” had a similar rig for his keyboard/guitar, and Van had his Heathkit behemoth pounding out the bass. As I said earlier, none of this mattered much to Ronnie; drummers can out-decibel any amplifier known to man with ease. And if they can’t, they’ll just get a big-ass monitor to feed their kit back to them at an even louder level.
As the big day drew near, we began our plan of attack. “T”’s dad had agreed to drive us over to Kingstree for the show, so we met up at his house with our gear packed and ready to go. I don’t remember the reason, but his dad got tied up somewhere and was late picking us up.
Talk about fun. Mr. Gamble now had four teenage boys – already pumped up on natural hormonal surges without the added stress of a talent competition, mixed in with the stress of being late for a gig – to contend with for the 25-mile trek to Kingstree. Why he didn’t pull a U-turn and take our whining little butts back home about halfway there – well, it just amazed me back then. But after growing up and taking on two sons to raise of my own, I’ve grown to understand.
“T” has a step-sister, but is the only child from his dad and mother’s marriage. That was the technical situation, anyway. For all of us in the band, and for a dozen or so other friends, Mr. Gamble was a second father. And in his eyes, we were all “his boys.” No matter how much we grumbled, he just smiled and drove along at a snail’s pace all the way to Kingstree, picking on each of us about “being sure to bellow like a stud bull for those leetle gals” when we made our appearance onstage.
Better late than never, and with our rantings completed, we rolled up to the big warehouse amid a sea of folks meandering around the various booths and shows. We scurried over to the event office and verified our presence with the talent coordinator. She told us to check in with the M.C. for the show, and pointed over in his direction. Following her finger, we looked – and then freaked.
The M.C. was non other than Charlie Walker, of radio station WKSP in Kingstree. And this was not good news for us.
Charlie was known locally as the “Mouth of the South.” He was country as they come, and loved to push the limits on suggestive radio chat (amazing, considering the Bible-belt mindset for the overwhelmingly rural, agricultural audience). He told the stupidest jokes over and over; he chided folks from all communities; and he had a voice that grated the nerves like fingers on a chalkboard.
He would visit the surrounding towns regularly when not on-air, and I remember him standing in my dad’s Piggly Wiggly, harassing kids like me and anyone else who cared to engage him in debate. And, Charlie was about 150 years old back then. On my way to Columbia a few months back, I began searching for a Braves game on the AM dial. I almost ran off the road when I tuned in only to hear Charlie’s voice; still alive, still on the radio; and still just as arrogant and stupid as ever.
Well, having to deal with Charlie was a wildcard that we hadn’t anticipated. For some reason, “T” quickly pulled me back and implored me not to “tick him off” when we introduced ourselves.
“Just sign us up, Brian, don’t get into anything with that old coot,” he pleaded. “If you make him mad, he’ll ruin our chances at winning, you know he will.”
“Bubba, don’t you worry,” I reassured my buddy. “I can handle this guy.” I looked over at Van and Ronnie and said, “Watch, and be amazed.”
We walked up behind Charlie while he was rambling on about boll weevils or some other hot-button topic with a local farmer, and tapped him on the back.
“Excuse me, Mr. Walker. My name is Brian Howle, and we’re The Trio Conspiracy from Andrews. That lady over there said to check in with you for the talent show and go over the performance procedures.”
He turned from his farming story and gave me a discerning glare. I handed him a piece of paper with a phonetic pronunciation of our band’s name written out. “Now, remember, when you introduce us, it’s pronounced ‘TRY-O’, not ‘TREE-O’, alright, Mr. Walker? We’re a quartet, not a trio.”
He pushed his glasses back on his leathery face, a Marlboro with a full-length ash dangling from his lips, as he squinted at the typed words on the paper.
“Boy, why the hell are you giving me this? I’ve been on the radio for thirty years. I was reading copy before you were a glint in your daddy’s eye.” He shot a wink at the farmer as he got cranked up.
“You only gotta tell me one time who you are,” he drawled. “I don’t need no damn paper to remember a bunch of peckerheads from Andrews.”
I looked at the guys, and took a deep breath before I spoke. “I’m sorry, Mr. Walker, I just wanted to make sure you don’t read the name wrong …”
Charlie cut me off.
“Make sure that I don’t read the name wrong? Boy, lemme tell you; don’t you worry about me screwing up, ya heah?” The farmer was almost in tears from laughter at this point, and Charlie kept pouring it on. “Now, you mean to tell me, you boys are from Andrews, and you’re gonna get up on that stage and try to play music?”
A small crowd began to gather; for Charlie, fuel on the fire.
“I didn’t know Yeller Jackets (Yellow Jackets are the Andrews high school mascot) could play a damn geetar. In fact, I’ve never seen a damn geetar-playing Yeller Jacket in my en-tire life …”
That was it. Insulting us was one thing; insulting our school was over the line.
“Well, you will tonight, bud,” I snapped. “And if you don’t like it, you can kiss my en-tire, lily-white …”
I didn’t get a chance to finish my rebuttal, as the guys grabbed me and hauled me off to the band staging area, where there was equipment to be unloaded from the trunk of Mr. Gamble’s Fairlane.
As darkness fell, the crowd swelled to overflowing in the humongous warehouse, and the show began. Sponsored by the electric co-op, the stage was bathed in dozens of floodlights and spotlights. Countless groups and soloists – mostly Country or Gospel acts – performed their acts, all with acoustic instruments. We were the only “electric” band in the show.
Nervously waiting in the wings, I surveyed the masses, trying to ascertain their reaction. As I did, I caught the eye of a pretty little blonde gal sitting up front, who was smiling in my direction. I looked around to see if there was someone behind us, but no; she was looking at me.
See, girls from home were like sisters, more or less. We grew up with them. We knew everything about them, and their families. And, we knew their daddies. More importantly, their daddies knew us.
Much like a slightly altered American Express commercial, there are seminal moments in a musician’s life. Getting your first guitar or piano is one. Getting your song on the radio is another.
But your first groupie rates above them all.
Before I could start thinking up my opening line of bull, the guys called me to huddle up. We were next, and we had five minutes to set up our gear and start our set. We had never had done this before, and we were a little edgy with nervousness.
The singer onstage finished her song, the crowd applauded, and the officials waved us to begin. We scampered up the stairs, lugging our big amps and helping Ronnie with his drum kit, as we frantically prepared for our set. The din of the crowd grew louder with each passing minute.
A stage hand placed the microphones in front of us, and we checked off in order among ourselves. Just before we were to nod at Charlie for the intro, we reached over and flipped on the power to our amps.
The warehouse went black.
And it became eerily silent.
Heck, the whole side of the street went dark. No one moved. We immediately switched off our powerless amps, frozen in place, scared to death of being lynched on the spot for sabotaging the good name of the electric co-op. Flickering beams of flashlights danced around the stage, as crewmen figured out which circuit had blown.
Oh, this was just great. Like we needed to make sure that we would be good and terrified before we played in front of 2,000 strangers for the first time.
To their credit, it only took them about three or four minutes to find the problem. Then again, with 300 or so electrical workers in attendance – at an event sponsored by the local electric co-op – I guess that sorta helped.
They increased the stage box to a 50-amp breaker – a sufficient level to power our equipment – and gave us the thumbs-up. We took the big, collective breath and flipped the switches again. This time, the little red pilot lights glowed happily in response, and the spotlights stayed on. We warily nodded at Charlie.
“Well, folks,” Charlie squawked, “they’ve blown our power – now, they’re gonna blow our minds! Would you please put your hands together and …”
We were stunned. Ol’ Charlie was actually doing us right.
“…welcome, from Andrews, The TREE-O Conspiracy!”
We didn’t have time to react to Charlie’s intentional mangling of our name. Ronnie immediately counted off, and we began playing. I don’t remember which songs we played, or for how long. And I don’t know what the rest of the guys were thinking during our set.
I just remember singing each song directly to that pretty little blonde on the front row.
Well, we didn’t win the contest, but I went home with an address and a phone number.
And Charlie, unbeknownst to him at the time, went home with a Yeller Jacket bumper sticker covering the license plate on his truck.
– Next Issue –
Band Lighting Courtesy Of Myrtle Beach Motels
The previous series of articles originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, 2000.