Solo (Singing Wyoming, #44)

I wear my jacket to go out to sing; it’s the first time I’ve needed it since I was in the Dakotas. I had looked up the laws in Rock Springs, WY, and it seemed as though smoking was illegal in bars, but one step inside, and I knew that wasn’t the case. Before getting there, I texted a friend to express fear of going out on my own again, of being harassed, of not being physically safe. I went anyway, but took note to honor those feelings should they have any evidence behind them.

I took a seat at the bar, where the owner, a female, was running the show; there were a fair number of people inside, but they were all shooting pool so I had the long bar to myself. I already felt better. Technically, this place calls itself a “nightclub,” with its black velour-backed bar stools and red velvety chairs on wheels by the tables. It’s clearly a pool hall first, though, with all four tables in use. It was too dark outside to get a good picture of the establishment; I should have taken one of the inside but didn’t want to stick out. This was clearly a place full of regulars.

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Nightclub in Rock Springs, WY

The karaoke set up here is strange – you can either stand on a huge stage (probably set up more for bands than hack singers) or face a monitor on the dance floor such that your back is to the rest of the bar. Neither seems like a good option since being on the stage would feel awkward to me, especially since no one was paying much attention, instead more focused on their pool games.

While others sing, the bartender and I talk about the hunting season (the reason why the place is relatively empty), cold weather, and the kitchen that’s opening up next week while I sip a gin and tonic. She asked me if I wanted one or two limes, and I opted for two to mask the well liquor taste. One of the aforementioned regulars was singing I Wanna Be Like You from the Jungle Book while simultaneously shooting pool; he ends up doing both ineffectively.

I sing my first song to a quiet audience – they are more concerned with practicing for the big tournament this weekend. When I get back to my seat and drink (bartender said she’d watch the drink, I took my purse up – gotta remember these new habits now that I’m on my own again), two women had taken up residence just next to me. One was making goo-goo noises and rubbing the belly of the other, who was just starting to show the signs of pregnancy. The pregnant lady laughed about being 50 when the kid would be born, then lit a cigarette and ordered a Sprite. A young man walks over and the conversation quickly jumps to a debate over oral sex; the young man claims he prefers dick because pussies smell like fish and look like cottage cheese. The older women let him know that if it does look like cottage cheese down there, then something is seriously wrong. He isn’t buying it. My company leaves for a bit, but their phones and keys remain on the bar. I guess this place is safe after all.

As the evening goes on, the KJ calls out the names of patrons and asks if they are ready to sing. Some ask for more time, and others wander over and choose a tune, interrupting their games. Everyone chooses a slow song. Not what I would have expected here – was thinking upbeat modern country, one of the first times I wasn’t able to peg the song style to the crowd. The guy who likes dick (who turns out to be the pregnant lady’s step son), takes a turn and sings Stand By Me – not bad, but nothing inspiring — unless you’re his step-mom: “He has a beautiful voice. He’s just not competent (sic instead of “confident;” I thought I misheard her at first, but she repeated the mistake often enough that I’m sure that’s what she said). Such a lovely tone; I wish he’d sing louder. Dammit all to hell shit.” Step-mom is clearly an avid supporter, and refers to his “beautiful tone” about twenty times during our conversations; I try to avoid the smoke she blows in my face.

After she’s heard both me and her step-son sing, it becomes her mission to figure out a duet for the us to perform. He says he can harmonize “real good,” but we can’t find a song we both know, even though he only sings oldies. I threw out a few ideas and so did step-mom from the earlier eras to no avail; he kept going to the modern stuff where I’m useless. One of his suggestions was Concrete Blonde by “Martin McBride” (instead of “Martina”), sounding out the words slowly off his phone. I gave up finding a song for us after a while, so no duet; step-mom was clearly disappointed, but he didn’t seem to care much.

Later, her husband came up and asked “Why does Wyoming have wind? Because Utah blows and Nebraska sucks.” He also referred to Wyoming as “God’s perfect square” then a “shit hole” soon after. The bartender asks him how his granddaughter is doing, as she’s in a cast after a mishap on the jungle gym. He would rather talk about how he dislocated his ankle several years ago and, after he had it in a cast for eight weeks, had to scrape the dead skin off his heel with a butter knife. His wife wailed Lita Ford in the background.

I said goodbye to the bartender, and tipped her a buck for the club soda she gave me on the house; I don’t say anything to the strange family next to me and they don’t seem to notice me leave. A police car pulled over some folks across the street and arrests were being made as I headed back to the hotel.

The next morning, my jacket still smells like smoke, but I put it on anyway. There’s a Starbucks across the street; I think about treating myself to a pumpkin latte and accept the fact that fall has come.

The basics:

  • Location: Killpepper’s Nightclub, Rock Springs, WY
  • Miles traveled: 476 ( I took the scenic route; see below for amazing evidence)
  • Songs sung: Free Fallin’ (Tom Petty), Faithfully (Journey)
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Wyoming is beautiful!
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See?

Lazy Sunday (Singing Colorado, #43)

We went on an urban hike to get to the karaoke venue, making sure to stop at a different watering hole every mile to break up the exercise with decadence — not a bad way to get a 4.5-mile stroll in on a Sunday. I need to figure out how to incorporate these sorts of outings when I return to Portland (who’s in?).

By the time we arrived in downtown Denver, the lines to the clubs were long and the roof-top bars were packed. But as luck would have it, our destination was the emptiest place around. Apparently karaoke isn’t a huge draw around these parts.

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It’s hopping in here!

The lack of crowd suits us just fine, and we continue our conversations and laid-back evening in the comfort of a cheesy faux-leather banquette. The karaoke set-up, however, implied that there are nights when things get a little crazy here. First, when I got on stage to sing my first song, I found the microphone firmly taped to the stand. Therefore, I sung with a fixed mic for the first time ever. It wasn’t as hard as I imagined; in fact I liked it quite a bit. I’ll probably give it a go again if I can figure out how to raise and lower the thing; it just happened to be at a great height here :-).

Second, there was a a commercially printed sign listing all the rules of karaoke here, including: (1) Don’t drop the mic (pretty damn difficult to do now); (2) Only put in one song at a time (the KJ said this quite a bit while we were there); (3) Duets count as a solo, and; (4) No line cuts for anyone for any reason (among those listed: showing body parts, having a great personality, a birthday, and, my personal favorite, going through a divorce). I’ve seen rule signs before, and have heard KJs run through their rules before, but this was the most extensive list I’ve witnessed.

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Dig the artwork in this place!

Then one guy complained about his place in the rotation and the KJ basically called him out on it and threatened to get him tossed if he didn’t shut it; it didn’t seem like this was the first time she needed to give that lecture (He stayed). After a couple of hours the crowd grew, which was our cue to leave. Maybe the rule sheet would need to be busted out more as the night continued into a true “scene”. No matter — an evening with a childhood friend and her husband is the perfect way to experience a state; karaoke was just a bonus.

The basics:

  • Location: El Charrito, Denver, CO
  • Miles traveled: 523 (including the walk!)
  • Songs sung: Heaven Knows (Donna Summer), Wonder (Natalie Merchant), Edge of Seventeen (Stevie Nicks)
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Seriously, the artwork in here is amazing.

 

The in crowd (Singing New Mexico, #42)

We get to the venue and the parking lot is pretty damn full; there are people already signing up to sing – who knows how many before me, but I know enough to get in line as soon as I walk in the door. I stand behind a woman who can’t spell “Bayou” and therefore can’t find her song. The KJ and I help; then she signs in her girlfriend. Behind me is a man with a long braid ready to queue up his choice. Dave and I had gotten the last seats in front of the KJ and a few who trickle in afterwards sit behind her.

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The place may not look like much, but it’s hopping inside.

This is a place where it’s clear that regulars rule the roost. Names like Caveman, Disco Nanny, Ciro, Abe, Diva, Big Mike, and Cate Bell all scroll by. My name doesn’t appear. After the woman who stood in front of me and her girlfriend sing, I wander over and ask where I am in the list; I’m not only pretty far down, but my name is misspelled as “Krista;” given that the “I” and “A” are nowhere near each other on the keyboard, I doubt this is my typographical error; the KJ placed me further down the list, behind her regulars. I expressed naive confusion, using the misspelling as a reason to ask if my sign up was successful. When we figured out the name mix-up, the KJ gave an excuse of people getting ahead of me by signing up on their phones. Normally I’d buy that, but five singers – including the guy who signed up after me – between me and the couple at the kiosk — shows that she plays favorites. I keep quiet on the matter, because I’m going to eventually get a turn, and that’s the point of being here. As the names scroll by again, I see a “Kristine” but not a “Kristi” and get a bit anxious, but resist the urge to ask again about my place in line. I wait until Kristine is called, and yes, it is my turn. I let explained my confused look to her as I hesitantly approached the mic  was because she got my name wrong again. She said, “Take it out on the song.” I did.

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The drive through New Mexico was beautiful.

The basics:

  • Location: Fiesta’s Restaurant, Albuquerque, New Mexico
  • Miles Traveled: 762
  • Songs Sung: Jungle Love (The Steve Miller Band)

Note: I reread this and want to say that I wasn’t nearly as cranky as I sound in this post. The venue was pretty neat and the singers were quite good and very supportive. This just happened to be one of the few times that the KJ showed clear bias toward some over others. I’ve read about this happening in a lot of negative reviews of karaoke places, but always chalked it up to whining on the part of the patron. Now I see some complaints are probably legit. I’m not sure where I stand on playing favorites/treating regulars better than the random person who walks in; I can see both sides, but still think I fall in the camp of fairness to everyone.

Celebration (Singing Texas, #41)

August 30th. My dear friend Roman died 21 years ago today. One friend posts Dead Flowers by the Stones on his Facebook wall in memory, and I give it a listen as I sit in my hotel room in Mineral Wells, Texas. Twenty-one years ago, we buried the CD that bears the tune at the base of a young olive tree at Stanford as a tribute to our lost friend. A friend reports that it’s now bearing fruit. When I saw it five years ago, I was surprised it was not only still alive, but thriving as it stands in anonymity; I’m not sure if we intentionally left the tree unmarked since we never asked permission to plant it on campus, or a plaque was simply an oversight on our part. Dave and I throw our stuff into the car, and make our way to see others who loved Roman, which seems only fitting, though entirely coincidental. Their uncle died unexpectedly the day before, so they warn it will be “chaos.”

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Welcome to Texas!

We have dinner together, but previous obligations and the late night prevent them from going out to sing. We make it to another friend’s place through the horrible Austin construction traffic; an accident is slowing things down further, and I see a bloodied man being propped up by an emergency crew, a stretcher on its way. Arriving safe and sound, we cut through the wet grass of his apartment complex to get to the bar. On our way, Dave gets a text that says his mother in the hospital. I get a little panicky about what the hell is going on.

Canary Roost is large, divey, friendly, and cool; it’s great to be back where there’s no smoking inside. I’ve been tired all day, fighting allergies and/or a cold and the fresh air on the walk and the clean AC inside feel good. The KJ is flocked by regulars who hug her as they walk in as she’s setting up; she kicks off the show by announcing the drink specials, then launches into Major Tom. Throughout the night, she wanders around from table to table during songs, doing bright green shots and socializing with the patrons. People sit next to her at the controls to find a song, even giving some a pre-listen before committing to a choice. I bet I’m the only unknown person here, but that doesn’t seem to matter all that much. I’m called when it’s my turn, and kept in the rotation even when I didn’t put in a song in advance.

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Smokers need to stay outside. The logo looks like a not-quite-right Peep.

It only seems fitting that I sing the song I haven’t been able to even listen to yet without crying — I still miss Molly too much. It’s not a good song, but that’s not the point. It’s not really a grieving song either, but its young melodramatics allow me to belt it out with fear. This song was her song to sing when she still could, and now it’s my turn. I smile as others sing along from their tables; apparently it’s not such a bad choice for the general public after all. When I’m done, people clap as they have been for everyone, but tells me I “Nailed it” and I overhear another say it was “Haunting.” I may or may not add it to my occasional rotation. I choke up as I sit back down, but feel a bit more cleansed and whole after my emotional release. Dave’s mom texts him to say she’s OK.

I thought I was going to be able to stick around for a karaoke game where you put your name into a jar and pull out someone else’s. Then, for that person, you choose a song by a “K” artist and give it to the KJ and it will be a surprise to them until they get up on stage. However, the third round of singers grew long and I was too sleepy and drained to continue. At quarter to one, I went up to the KJ and apologized for not being able to make it for the final rotation of the night; she apologized back for all the new singers. I told her about my quest and that her show marked off state #41, and she said she was “honored” I chose her bar. A few other KJs have said something like this before; I wonder if they think I end up in a location for reasons other than convenience. As I wave goodbye, she lets me know that I would have sung Celebration by Kool and the Gang.

The basics:

  • Location: Canary Roost, Austin, TX
  • Miles traveled: 456
  • Songs sung: Spinning Wheel (Blood, Sweat, and Tears), Wrecking Ball (Miley Cyrus), Heart of Glass (Blondie)

Symbolic Passage (Singing Oklahoma, #40)

There was nothing special about the bar or the singing in Oklahoma, but my time there brought me two milestones. Though I have eight more states to sing in on this trip, I have now officially sung in the 48 continental states in my lifetime. I have also spent at least one night in 49 of the 50 states since I’ve been an adult (You’re in my sights, Alaska!).

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I sang here.

So, here’s to Oklahoma! A rather unremarkable state in my eyes, but one that brings me to semi-completion of my goals.

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Sexist humor abounds in these parts (this is the sign to the restrooms).

The basics:

  • Location: Nancy’s 57th Street Lighthouse, Oklahoma City, OK
  • Miles traveled: 780!
  • Songs sung: Too Much Time on My Hands (Styx), Please Mister, Please (Olivia Newton-John)

 

Not a creature was stirring… (Singing Tennessee, #39)

It’s pretty darn smoky in the double-wide trailer that serves as a bar off the beaten path of Nashville. Cans and bottles of beer are the only drinking options, and the food menu is a few microwavable items scrawled on a piece of paper stapled to the wall. Cash only. Karaoke started an hour ago, but the only patron here is a trucker with a beautiful, deep voice singing country music ballads. It’s unclear how long he’s been there, but his presence seems natural as if he’s been there for a while. He sits next to the stringy KJ with long hair, and the two of them lean over the computer monitor, debating on what song to choose next. The trucker sings a couple more as we’re getting our beers and settling in, and asks if it’s OK to do one more before he has to hit the road again; he’s got 15 more minutes on his break and “singing is a good way to keep this trucker happy and sane.” Unlike him, we have all the time in the world, so he entertains us with some Waylon Jennings. Then the bartender sings something from a lesser-known country artist and the trucker asks him about the artist. They discuss him and other good country options to try in the future.

It’s clear the trucker isn’t in a hurry to hit the road again, and so he goes back to the stage and asks us if we knew Wildfire; two of us do. He lets us know somewhat apologetically that he’s never sung it before, and it shows a little, but he chose it because the song “makes me weep like a baby when I’m alone in my cab.” As I listen along, I realize the tune is also more unfamiliar to me as I would have thought.

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The lonely trailer

I decide I’m ready to sing, and the trucker sticks around to listen, then shakes our hands, and leaves. His hand is at least twice as big as mine, but his grip still gentle. The only ones left are the three of us and the people who work there. I mention to the KJ that he should sing more, but he said that last night was slow as well, and he had to sing a lot, so tonight he’ll be taking it easy. This leaves me and the bartender as the only ones singing. I put in another song, and follow up with another while I’m up there – songs that aren’t a usual part of my rotation. I fumble through parts of them out of unfamiliarity but it doesn’t matter at all. Slow nights lend themselves to slow songs and experimentation.

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Keeping up with the theme of the place.

An hour later and still no one else is here. A group of three women did come in while I was singing and exchanged words with the bartender – no idea what it was about, but Dave heard him say “That’ll be a thirty-five hundred dollar fine if you do that,” as they walked out the door.

I promised a friend I would sing Barry Manilow while I was on this trip, and tonight seemed like the only time I would actually live up to my word. I sat on the stool, and then apologized into the mic for what I was about to do. I sang, and laughed as both Dave and Steve filmed me for proof and probably later blackmailing purposes. A couple of others walked in during that song, of course. While it wasn’t pretty, it was good fun, and I always feel better when I follow through on what I say, no matter how small or silly. As we get up to leave a bit later, one of the patrons is standing out on the balcony. He waves goodbye and compliments my “bold song choice” for the evening without knowing the back story. I thought about explaining myself; instead I thanked him as we drove away.

The basics:

  • Location: Santa’s Pub, Nashville, TN
  • Miles traveled: 424
  • Songs sung: Desperado (The Eagles), The Theme From Mahogany (Diana Ross), The Name of the Game (ABBA), Weekend in New England (Barry Manilow).

Why we sing (Singing Arkansas, #38)

Before starting this trip, I knew there were karaoke contests because I’ve seen signs advertising them on bar marquees: “Karaoke Competition Tonight: Win $50!” or “Sing and win $100 every month. See inside for details.” But I didn’t know that there were serious competitions – such as the Karaoke World Championship – yet here I was, in Arkansas, meeting the Champion from 2014, Anthony Montius Magee.

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Coach Scott and Anthony, sporting his WKC medal.

We had been in touch online for a couple of months, and the flow of conversation always seemed natural. Then, when we finally met face to face, Anthony’s hug was warm and genuine, like one from a long-lost friend. The night at Little Rock was another time that someone has gone out of their way to set up a party for me – a huge act of kindness that I simply wasn’t expecting when I started this journey.

I met the rest of Team Arkansas as they came in – these were the rest of the folks that were going to be in Seattle next month for the World Finals. One of the members came in second last year.  It’s clear that Anthony is proud of this group; they are his family.

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Team Arkansas!

Conversations that night are primarily about karaoke competitions, and how the judging works. I learn about the four criteria upon which contestants are judged –voice (being on key), technique (breathing, etc), stage presence (connecting to the audience and making it a performance), and artistry (making a song your own). I’m more than a bit curious about this because most of the contests I’ve heard about base their winners on crowd noise – clearly not a criterion for something as organized as this. As they discuss the different merits a karaoke singer needs to excel, I’m aware I do OK in the first two (the actual singing stuff), but know I lack stage presence. As far as artistry goes…I’m not sure. I think I sing to the song itself, try to conform to the original. The idea of making a song my own takes karaoke to a level I really don’t consider.

But the most important thing to consider when choosing a song for competition, Anthony says, is to choose a song you care about. Don’t try to choose based on what you think the judges would like: that is a mistake. If you choose a song for anyone other than yourself, then the song “won’t have passion, won’t have your stamp on it.” I break this rule so often (including my first song choice of the night), but it’s something I’m beginning to realize myself over this trip – karaoke is about singing what you want. I still think that mantra still needs to be within reason, however. No sense bringing a crowd down or totally changing styles. But maybe that’s part of why I choose what I do: because I want to please the crowd (I realize this is a sort of warped way of saying I choose songs for others, but I’m leaving it this way for now).

Anthony next asks what I like to sing best, and I’m somewhat hesitant to answer. People ask me that question all the time, and I still struggle with how to respond. I think it’s coming down to Stevie Nicks and Olivia Newton-John, though Donna Summer is still a hell of a lot of fun, and so is Billy Joel.  I mention those to him, leaving off the one-offs of What’s Up and It’s Raining Men; I still don’t think my Somebody to Love will ever be polished enough. Anthony wants to hear Magic, Roberto, another judge, prefers Xanadu (something I sing often) – I “practice” each for a couple of seconds in the bathroom to figure which one I want to sing. I think about “getting a chance” to sing Magic which is back to the point: sing what you want when you want. I go up to the KJ and commit to the slower song I rarely do but enjoy instead of one that I consider one of my standards (though I do remember singing it poorly once at Scott’s goodbye party. At least it didn’t feel right that night). I’ve sung Magic one other time, at Amy’s bachelorette party at her request. So, in a way, this song I love I’ve never sung for me. Some other time and place, this may happen.

For now, though, I will continue to thrive in karaoke community as opposed to performance. Team Arkansas clearly has both, but if I were to chose one over the other, I will stick with the former.

The basics: