I chose Henderson over Vegas because I don’t want to deal with the large party city on a Saturday night – the cost, the crowds, the loneliness. I also don’t like the idea of being there with a car. Though casinos do have parking, driving down the strip is anything but enjoyable.

I stay in a casino on the outskirts of everything and everywhere. The receptionist tells me how he is looking to get the hell out of there and move to Eugene; he even has a realtor helping him live out his dream. I was going to gamble and grab a bite to eat before heading out, but the whole scene was too depressing. When you take away the lights and the glitz and the superlatives, the purpose of casinos is all that remains and it makes me uncomfortable.

I get to the bar in Henderson early, as I was hoping to watch some college football and grab a bite to eat before singing. Instead there’s NASCAR on the couple of TVs and there’s no food served (odd for a place that’s open 24/7). I only had a granola bar and piece of cheese for a late lunch, so there won’t be a lot of drinking tonight, which is just as well.  I order a pint of Rolling Rock; it’s flat and the taps haven’t been cleaned in months, if ever. It’s also one of the smokiest places I’ve been – everyone has either a cig in hand or is vaping. It’s clearly a place of locals and regulars, a place where friends meet to shoot pool or the breeze. A place where the bartender says hello as you walk in, and pours your favorite drink as you sit down in your favorite seat. I grab a seat at the bar, purposefully not directly in front of a video crack machine (though I do debate on blowing five bucks in one, I never get around to it); I hope it’s not someone else’s.

A group of three next to me is chatting with the bartender; one of them asks what “suburb” means, and the bartender replies “it’s a fancy rich town with lawns.” I suppose that’s as close to the truth as any. Then the KJ wanders in and lets everyone know he got a new special effects light bulb to make the show more fun and it literally takes four of them to figure out how to screw it in. Once that’s accomplished all the patrons come over for an awe-struck inspection of this new marvelous addition to the place.

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Pretty lights with questionable placement.

The bartender asked a customer what a Bloody Mary is, to which the patron replied, “Vodka and juice;” I guess the specifics aren’t important. Other things I overheard:

  • “I’m tired. I work five days a week and have a yeast infection.”
  • “I was in her pussy when she woke me up.”
  • “What happened to Chris?”
    “He died”
    “At least he didn’t owe me money anymore.”

Then I spoke to a man who truly believes that Paul is dead. He also wants to get out of Henderson and now dreams of singing karaoke across the US just as I have, but first he needs to fix up his motor home and finish suing his dentist for not replacing his teeth.

A woman named Froggy starts off the singing with a country tune. She’s wearing an iron-on t-shirt with a frog on it, and green stripes down the sides of the sleeves (think 70s), coupled with a quilted vest of playing cards. At her table, there’s a pile of crafting supplies so she can make paper flowers. By the end of my evening I have two. When I say goodbye to Froggy and thank her for the flowers, she hugs me and says to come back next week.

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My bouquet on the bar

The basics:

  • Location: The Rustic Lounge, Henderson, NV
  • Miles traveled: 234
  • Songs sung: Hold on Loosely (38 Special), Dreams (Fleetwood Mac)
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A home away from home.

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?

Data analysis (Singing Massachusetts, #22)

I’m going to talk shop here for a minute. As I approach the halfway mark on my trip, I’m starting to think about what makes an ideal karaoke experience, at least for me. The Deuce was a lot of fun, and I would love to go back there again, but possible not for karaoke. The bar itself was originally established as a WWII Club (complete with functioning periscope!), but now leaned toward being a lesbian bar. When we arrived about an hour before the singing was to begin, we were the only ones in there, save for the staff. There was also a regular, Carl, in there. An older man who was there for the third time that day, drinking a ginger ale. A bachelorette party then came in, surprised by the lack of crowd; then Carl said something offensive to the woman  wearing an actual wedding dress, and they took off before the first song the group put into the jukebox was over. The slight bartender told Carl off for chasing customers away:

“They were customers?” He truly looked confused.

“All people who come into this bar are customers, Carl,” sighed the bartender. She told him never to do that again, but I personally have my doubts. Later she told us that he had had a stroke not too long ago, and his filter was more than a little off. She still needed him to stay in line, she said — especially after the last time when he told her and his partner to fuck off for no reason other than they were having a simple conversation.

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The bartender spent the next hour or so chatting us up and helping us order Chinese food for delivery, since her kitchen flooded in January and they hadn’t fixed it yet. We drank local beers and got sucked into watching You, Me, and Dupree. Not a typical evening for sure.

Between 10 and 10:30 the place went from dormant to packed. Another bachelorette party that stayed, some smaller groups, and a birthday where everyone wore tiny hats – chef’s, pink western, sombreros, and fez all worn at a slight angle high upon their heads. The pool tables filled up, as did all the tables. The wait for a drink was three deep. I had put in my first song choice when the place was empty and regretted the selection when the KJ called my name to get the place going; somehow old Chicago didn’t really fit the vibe, but some of the bachelorette group seemed to be listening actively and that was encouraging. However, this was the sort of place where people were more interested in socializing and occasionally singing.

The speaker system was so loud, blaring right behind the singers. I screamed my second song more than sang it. It was a better choice at least (who doesn’t go for 80s Pat Benatar?), and I saw people bobbing up and down to the music as they chatted with their friends. Supportive crowd, but not like Otters where there was high participation. I thought there would be more dancing. Maybe there was later.

My gut says there weren’t a lot of regulars there – just one wearing a white cowboy hat and a Hawaiian shirt. His slow song selections were well done, but completely drowned out by the din of people shooting pool, celebrating birthdays and love, and just generally doing their own thing. People were having a great time, and it was apparent that the karaoke was the big draw to a place like this, but at the same time the karaoke wasn’t the main event. Lots of singers waiting to sing, but no one seeming to want to be there to listen. The system too loud to have a conversation with a friend, but no one seemed to be into dancing – and some song selections were quite conducive to that. One of the highlights was a guy who did his own twisting dance moves as he sang a mean Kiss in true Prince falsetto.

I’ll continue to ponder the factors that create the ideal karaoke experience for me; the social scientist in me compels me to. It also gets amazing reviews on Yelp for its karaoke, crowd, and vibe, so I will also appreciate that my experience was a sample size of one. In the meantime, I’ll remember The Deuce as a bar with a friendly staff, strange history, and a man named Carl who may or may not learn to keep his thoughts to himself.

The basics:

  • Location: The Deuce WWII Club, Northampton, MA
  • Miles traveled: 256
  • Songs sung: Saturday in the Park (Chicago), Love is a Battlefield (Pat Benatar)

Characters (Singing Illinois in two places! #13)

Pitch is a very swanky bar — who would have thought such a place would exist in Peoria, IL? I order a Pale Ale (as opposed to one of the 100 shots listed on the ceiling or any of the Mason jar drinks) from the bartender who is 2 weeks due from her fourth child. A beefy guy sings “Let it Go” — in Japanese. He follows that up by singing Belle and having a different voice for all the characters. There is serious talent here. The bartender tells a customer they need to make a drinking game for every time someone chooses to sing a musical number – but then the whole bar would be wasted and she didn’t want to deal with that.

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Froofie drinks for a froofie crowd

A woman dressed in a fedora and black flowy, backless pantsuit with serious bell bottoms orders a caramel whiskey with butterscotch schnapps. One half of a cute couple who has spent the night taking selfies says to her, “You’re a strong woman,” which seems to please her quite a bit. I’m not sure drinking sweet flavored booze mixes makes one strong, but I’m old. The crowd here is too young and hip for me. I never would have fit into a group like this, and yet I find myself trying anyway. Song selections are impossible to figure out. Actually, that’s not entirely true; I was going to sing Mr. Brightside, but someone beat me to it. Oh well – at least I called that right.

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There is no way to tell who lurks behind this bar…

The next bar the next night in the next city was completely different. Here, a gangly young man in a baseball cap and basketball shorts sings a mean Josh Groban. A morbidly obese woman sings rock songs poorly, but with enthusiasm. A tiny white woman sings about “the good old days” when “daddy’s came home.” A large African-American man brings me to tears with his rendition of Purple Rain. Later he sings a song called “I Love You” (?) and during the instrumental asks the audience, “You know what I really love? This beer.” The bottle he picks up is Redd’s, that nasty shit.

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…or this one.

Then there is the short young man with the pencil mustache. I don’t really know how to capture him. He doesn’t sing into the mic at all, so from an audience perspective, all we’re hearing is the instrumental of Freebird, Jethro Tull, and other classic rock standards. He serenades his stuffed animals when he sings: Mau Mau and Mau Mau II are two black cats and then there is a cougar, Tucker. The man would walk up to various patrons (I assume he knew them as none of them looked phased when this happened) and rested the animals he brought on their shoulders. The critters hadn’t seen a washing machine in years; I wonder how long he’s had them. Though he did wander around the bar a little, his home base was always standing next to the KJ.

Strange to see a man clutching a stuffed kitten ordering Jack & Cokes from the bar. No stranger than a man who sings a beautiful Purple Rain dedicating his love to a Redd’s, or a beefy guy singing Disney in multiple languages, I suppose. This happens across the country every night.

The basics:

Bar #1

  • Location: Pitch, Peoria, IL
  • Miles traveled: 426
  • Songs sung: Metro (Berlin), You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Meatloaf)

Bar #2

  • Location: Blueberry Hill, Forest Park, IL
  • Miles traveled: 178
  • Songs sung: Go Your Own Way (Fleetwood Mac), Take My Breath Away (Berlin)