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I love my country

Reflections on 32 out of 50 years of twang

50 Honky Tonk Orig Web
Photo credit: JAMES KELLY ARCHIVES

In or around 1990, my pal Jon Byrd and I coerced then-Creative Loafing music editor Tony Paris into letting us write about country music. There was one person contributing to the paper on the genre at that time, focusing on the crappy mainstream Nashville drivel that we hated. After submitting a few album reviews, we got the job. Jon didn’t stick around too long, but for me, well, I’m still here. My first few stories were about artists such as Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams, the Mavericks, etc.. My interests lay in what was shaping up to become what is now referred to as “Americana”.

With places like the Star Bar, Blind Willie’s, Eddie’s Attic, and Variety Playhouse consistently booking these alternative country type acts, it was a busy and fun time to be involved with the Loaf. Never at a loss for material, the opportunity to do record reviews, Music Menus, and occasional features was a musical playground where I thrived, not only having the privilege of talking to and seeing some of my personal favorite artists, but making some real friends along the way. With one exception, the Texas singer-songwriters were the coolest, as down to earth as your favorite neighbor, and our conversations rarely felt like interviews. To this day, when I cross paths with folks like Joe Ely, Dale Watson, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, it is like a reunion with an old pal.

It was often a challenge, for example during one of her darker periods, Lucinda Williams bailed on me four times in a two week period, and when I finally got her to talk it turned into a very enlightened and soul baring story. Getting anything useful from Iris DeMent was a nightmare. Not sure if she didn’t have the skills yet or just didn’t want to talk to me. Her subsequent interviews seem to reflect a much more poised and open person these days. Shelby Lynne could be a bit resistant at times, but once I mentioned I was a big Elvis fan, she warmed right up.

Given space to branch out, I was honored to contribute CL cover stories on topics such as NASCAR, pro wrestling, local boy made good Travis Tritt, and the legacy of Lynyrd Skynyrd. My most recent cover story addressed the impact of the pandemic on local Redneck Underground musicians, and tackled the place of a culturally questionable paradigm called the “Redneck Underground” in our contemporary environment. I will always have a deep appreciation for the various music editors who gave me the green light on these sorts of topics, it was a gift that means a lot to me.

Sometimes I got myself and CL in trouble. My snarky comments on the spoken word fad earned me some hate mail that led off with “Hey fuckface!” A joke about reggae music resulted in a vague bomb threat called into the CL office. And be careful what you say about Skynyrd, the band’s  disciples are serious, with zero sense of humor. And I love Skynyrd.

But the article I have chosen to reprint here was a landmark in my career. I had prepared part of a semi-puff piece about the Crystal Chandelier night club in Kennesaw before I went to the pre-grand opening, however the events and observations resulted in trashing that piece and redoing the whole thing. It’s also the only CL story I ever wrote under my stage name “Slim Chance”, and that may have saved my life. It went to press, and within hours the management at Crystal Chandelier went nuts, cancelling a $50k-plus advertising contract with CL. I wandered into the CL office a few days later, and Tony quickly escorted me out the side door. He suggested I “stay away” for a while, as the advertising department was out for blood. In addition, there was a rumor that the guy running the Crystal Chandelier at the time (who had an apocryphal reputation of “dealing with” people in Texas) had made some comments about “dealing with” me. Fortunately, they didn’t know my real name, or what I looked like. Needless to say, I stayed away from CL for a month or so, and the Crystal Chandelier for a couple of years. I had to go when they booked George Jones and then Waylon Jennings, but I was still a bit vigilant. Oh, and the place still sucked. When George Jones threatens to kill the sound man in the middle of a song, you know it’s bad. I nailed it.

The overwhelmingly positive feedback I got from readers regarding the piece was a huge motivator for me. Whenever the opportunity arises, I still pick up the pen. I will always have the greatest appreciation for folks like Tony Paris, Gina Webb, Roni Sarig, Heather Kuldell, and the plethora of other music editors over the years who let me do my thing. Happy 50th Anniversary, Creative Loafing!  —CL— 

Honky Tonk Hell


BY Slim Chance

I didn’t drink enough to prepare myself for the Crystal Chandelier — it’s a long way to Kennesaw, and the Cobb County P.D. are notorious for their temperance. This seemed like an easy story, to cover the opening of the biggest country music night club this side of the Mississippi River. Little did I know I was about to enter an alternate universe, one that I thought only existed on corny TNN shows and in the minds of video producers.

Keeping my wits about me, I made the trek to Kennesaw. I knew I had to behave myself, because there’s a law in Kennesaw that everyone must own a gun. Being unarmed, it was in my best interest to go and return without incident. The first sign that things were strange was the parking lot. The Crystal Chandelier is in a remodeled department store, and the place was packed. The assumption that tonight was for “VIPs” went out the window, as it seemed that everyone in Kennesaw was there… already. I parked about a half mile away, and as I walked to the club I noticed that the other people going in were dressed in a plethora of styles, from Urban Cowboy chic to the finest in Wal-Mart polyester regalia. It got weirder as I walked in the door.

The place is humongous. With 48,000 square feet to work with, the developers have constructed a four tiered barn-like auditorium, with a dance floor as big as a basketball court. I half expected to see the Hawks and the Lakers go at it, but instead there were hundreds of couples, groups, and individuals performing a ritualistic pattern of movements that I later realized was a “Line Dance”. There were at least three packs of about 60 people doing the same thing in three different directions. Over the next 30 minutes the DJ played a variety of Top 40 country tunes, and the floor stayed pretty full. The line dancers came and went, opening the floor to both the skilled and the inexperienced. On some occasions, it was not a pretty sight. For a while, chaos reigned as couples twirled their way around the dance floor, with no regard for life or limb. Inexplicably, a massive line dance formed to the dance mix of a Michael Jackson song. Wait a minute, isn’t this a country bar?

Now it was getting really strange. The most bizarre occurrence was the appearance of five line dancers in the geographic center of the dance floor, all wearing matching western shirts and doing the exact same dance in every single song. Wait a minute, there’s six of them! And they’re terrible! As I continued my trek around the dance floor, I began to notice the astute fashion sense of this country club’s elite, and began to give awards to the best outfits in the crowd. For the females, it was a tie between the 50 year old woman in the “Frederick’s of Hollywood” style teddy, and the lady with the very popular black sequined ball cap and jacket. No doubt, black sequins are “in” this year in Kennesaw. For the males, the uncontested title goes to the three Garth Brooks Brothers, in matching boots, jeans, belts, black cowboy hats, and — surprise — different multi-colored western shirts. In a stunning upset, one of the Garth Brooks Brothers also won the title of “Ugliest Shirt”, sporting an atrocious lime green and black combination, with paint splattered on the black part. I have seen better looking roadkill!

The obvious lack of communication between the stage and the DJ booth resulted in several embarrassing moments. One was when announcer, Atlanta attorney and club investor Joel Katz was ready to make a speech but the music kept playing over the P.A.. When it finally stopped, Katz thanked about 300 people, then acknowledged the club’s other investors. Names like Irving Azoff, Tim DuBois of Arista Records,

the vice president of Sony Records, the chief executive of Giant Records … a pattern was becoming obvious. The place was owned by the top executives of almost every major record label in Nashville! How is this going to affect the bookings at other country music clubs in the Atlanta area? Is this legal?

As my suspicions rose, the “Crystal Chandelier Orchestra” took the stage for the first time, and my biggest fears were confirmed. The 11 piece band was a prefabricated collection of hired guns, each tailored to fit into one of the archetypal country looks — the Cowboy, the Girl Singer, the Handsome Leader, the Cosmopolitan Male, etc.. One by one a stream of singers came out and did a few songs, with special appearances by real live Nashville artists. The first, whose name was distorted by the frequent feedback of the P.A., (it sounded like Miss Tally Ho, or something like that), was dressed in a white polyester outfit, and had a mid-79’s Charlie’s Angels hairdo. It was hard to tell if she was a wanna-be, a has-been, or a never-was.

Next up was Connie Cato, who I remembered from many years ago in Nashville. She hit the stage in a manic frenzy, sort of a bleached blond Patti Smith. After her first song, she told us how much she loved us, then proceeded to destroy my current favorite Elvis song, “Hurt”. It did.

The orchestra played a couple more songs, then the deejay took over for about 20 minutes. The music drifted further away from country and more toward disco, even rap. When the band came back they had a new lead singer, a real looking cowboy. He did the obvious tunes, and demonstrated how well he had memorized the moves on the Garth Brooks home video. He stopped before he smashed the guitar, which was good — it was a Martin. The band did a cover of “Orange Blossom Special” and all the goobers in the crowd that couldn’t dance did the hambone and laughed at each other.

For some reason, Leslie Guest, who was there with her friend Melanie Childress, gave me an unsolicited but detailed recipe for Ox Tail stew. Assuming this was a Kennesaw greeting ritual, I was preparing to return the favor by giving her my secret recipe for Chicken Talladega, when she wandered away, leaving me with her observation of the band that “it ain’t country”. She was right. By this time Ms. Kelly Lang had taken the stage. Listed as the opening act, she emoted her way through about five songs, none of which even remotely resembled any type of country music I have ever heard. At one point the steel guitar player was playing a flute, which should be illegal in county music unless it’s a Marshall Tucker song. By this point, I had had enough. I left before Doug Stone played.

Reflecting on the experience as I re-entered the inside of the perimeter, it was obvious what was happening. Last year’s Billy Ray success taught the industry bigwigs a lesson — clubs are fertile ground for making or breaking a fad. Why not open their own club and dictate who or what gets played? By monopolizing the primary outlet, music execs can have more control over the industry. Next, they will begin buying radio stations. This is what people want, to be told what is hip rather than get out and search for it. It’s McCountry. It’s a Chuck E. Cheese for grownups. And it will make millions.

Hank is crying in his grave.