For several years in the late 1980s, I sang at the Officers Club Dining Room at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky every week for a very nice event featuring prime rib, shrimp and so forth. Officers, retired officers, and their families and spouses came. I played three solo sets ending at the very reasonable hour of 9:00 p.m. and headed back to Nashville.
Once, one of the customers asked if I would be interested in playing his buddy’s place after I finished the “O” club for a few extra bucks. “Hey, forty dollars more is forty dollars more, right,” he said. Well, I couldn’t argue with that and, who knows, it might lead to something else. And it did, as you will read.
The difference in atmosphere between the elegant Officers Club dining room and that bar somewhere down the road was as dramatic as the quickness of a salute commanded by a general’s stars versus a private’s single stripe.
Dead Men Smoking
At this place whose name I can’t even remember, I followed another act. One singer who was on before me had a terrible night. He was using every trick in his bag pulling out different styles from country, pop, rock, folk, etc. trying to reach the crowd but it was as if he were singing to a painting of an audience. I dreaded going on after him. He obviously dreaded doing what he was doing right then. The audience, if they were thinking at all, seemed to dread being there.
Finally, the singer stopped in the middle of his last song and yelled, “Hey – I didn’t know dead people could smoke!” Luckily, nobody started throwing ashtrays and it did break the mood for a few minutes. He angrily packed up his guitar and stormed out. The dead people continued to smoke and I had an equally dismal set.
I continued to seek additional income after my Officers Club shows and handed cards out with my phone number to anyone who would take them. When a bar owner with a cigar-smoky sort of Southern-fried Edward G. Robinson voice called, I found his offer intriguing.
“Fifty bucks cash, no questions asked,” he coughed into the phone. Well, it was a raise from the Dead Man Club but the “no questions asked” part was new to me. I agreed, betting that I could invoke family history to the 101st Airborne Division that would probably get me out of whatever I might get into there. My step-father had fought with the “Screaming Eagles,” based at Ft. Campbell, during World War II’s Battle of the Bulge. Surely that would buy me some sympathy if I didn’t know a particular request. (FYI, I still don’t play Freebird, Stairway to Heaven or Sweet Home, Alabama).
It was a beer joint catering to ex-non-commissioned officers. As I recall, the double-wide trailer’s interior walls were removed to make room for a bar along the back wall and some tables and chairs. The “Miller Lite” light and huge glowing Budweiser Clydesdale clock mounted on the bad paneling provided illumination enough for the mostly male clientele manning barstools and chairs with splitting upholstery. I stood on a small square of linoleum on top of the worn, green indoor-outdoor carpet with my guitar, thankful that I always memorize my songs. I couldn’t have read any lyrics in such dim light.
Well, along about eleven o’clock, one of the few female customers and the female bartender had some words about something or someone. The two women began cussing at one another and throwing punches across the bar. Then the bartender came from behind the bar to “start the engines” in earnest. The old boys pickling themselves found this much more entertaining than my rendition of Bad, Bad Leroy Brown and began encouraging them. At this point, I put my Taylor guitar back in the case to keep one of these women from careening into it. I then witnessed the first and only event that I could ever officially classify as a “catfight.”
The bar owner guided the female barroom gladiators out to the parking lot. I joined him and every one of the customers in a circle as the two women went at it on the pavement. In no particular order, we saw hair-pulling, half-Nelsons, full-Nelsons, t-shirt tearing (imagine cheers from the spectators at that point), solid punching, smeared lipstick and cheap mascara combined with blood, sweat and tears. Real blood, sweat and tears – not music from the seventies rock group with that name. The volume increased as the cussing that started inside was now combined with cheers from the crowd. Finally, four men put their own safety at risk to break it up. They made it out with minimal injury.
How could I follow that? As I picked up my guitar case, the crusty old owner gave me a tall-boy beer with the fifty dollars cash he promised and told me I had done a good job. The women apologized to each other and hugged. I sat down in a shaky chair, opened the tall-boy, and considered the merits of Old Milwaukee. When the bartender got herself back together and generously reapplied her makeup, she approached me. With a voice as thick as the smoke that perpetually hung in the beer joint, she leaned toward me and said, “I sure liked your sangin’, Hon, and I hope you’ll come and play for us again.”
But I never did.
Text and photos copyright 2013 by Les Kerr. For tour dates, photos & More about Les, visit www.leskerr.com